[Marxism] Latin America's left at the crossroads

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 21 10:26:21 MDT 2011


Latin America's left at the crossroads
Leftist governments in Latin America are facing resistance not 
only from the right, but from their own bases, as well.

by William I. Robinson

The triumph of left-leaning former army officer Ollanta Humala in 
Peru's presidential elections this past June has observers 
wondering if Peru could be the latest "Pink Tide" country in Latin 
America. The so-called Pink Tide refers to the ambiguous turn to 
the left in recent years in several Latin American countries. The 
neo-liberal model that has changed the face of the continent's 
political economy and devastated the poor and working classes over 
the past two decades has come under challenge by these nominally 
left governments, whose populist and redistributional policies, 
however, may now be reaching a crossroads.

At his victory rally after winning the presidency, Humala has 
promised to tax mining profits and generate social programmes for 
the poor. "We've been waiting a long time for a government that 
really cares about the poor," he said. International investors 
have previously pledged more than $40bn over the next decade to 
develop gold, silver, copper and other mining operations in rich 
Andean and Amazonian lodes. No longer will the government cater to 
a Lima elite that sells transnationals these mineral riches that 
comprise 65 per cent of Peru's export earnings, said Humala. "This 
has got to change, and it's for this change that I am here. That 
is why I got into politics."

Humala faces pressure from below to carry through on these 
commitments. For several weeks during the Peruvian electoral 
campaign thousands of indigenous people blocked an international 
border between Peru and Bolivia in protest over a planned mining 
project on the shores of Lake Titicaca, which straddles both 
countries. The outgoing Peruvian government granted a Canadian 
mining company rights to build a silver mine near the lake that 
local communities say will poison the lake, their principal source 
of water. The indigenous have promised to sustain and expand their 

Pink Tide governments

Pink Tide governments have faced increasing popular protests as 
well as challenges from a resurgent right. The most serious of 
these challenges took place in Ecuador last year, in an abortive 
coup d'état against President Rafael Correa. In Venezuela, just 
days before the putsch in Ecuador, the anti-Chavez right made 
major gains in mid-term elections. And in Bolivia, workers and 
indigenous communities have launched several mass strikes over the 
past year in protest over the policies of President Evo Morales. 
These events underscore the conundrums of the projects of popular 
social change proposed by the Pink Tide governments and the social 
movements that brought them to power. These governments are now 
coming up against the limits of redistributive reform within the 
logic of global capitalism, especially in the wake of the global 
crisis that exploded in 2008.

The Ecuadoran Right and the US would certainly like to see Correa 
removed from power. He has closed the US military's Mantra air 
base in Ecuador - declaring that "We can negotiate with the US 
about a base in Mantra if they let us put a military base in 
Miami" - successfully defaulted on $3.2bn of foreign debt that had 
been found to be illegitimately contracted, joined the 
Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for Our America (ALBA), and 
declared his allegiance to "21st-century socialism".

However, Correa has also moved steadily away from the mass social 
base of indigenous, trade union, and popular organisations that 
brought him to power. The powerful Confederation of Indigenous 
Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) publicly stated its opposition 
to the coup and to the right-wing and imperialist forces behind 
it. But it also declared that "a process of change, as weak as it 
may be, runs the risk of being overturned or overtaken by the 
right, old or new, if it [the government] does not establish and 
progressively deepen alliances with organised social and popular 
sectors". The statement charged the government with attacking 
popular sectors such as the indigenous and workers' unions who 
have mobilised against transnational mining, oil, and 
agro-industrial companies, while "not weakening in the least the 
structures of power of the right, or those within the state 
apparatus". Correa's policies in favour of "the most reactionary 
sectors and emerging business interests" emboldened the right to 
attempt a coup.

Foreign influences increase

In Venezuela, the right-wing opposition to President Hugo Chavez 
made major inroads in last year's mid-term elections. The 
opposition participated in the election through a Coalition for 
Democratic Unity, which took nearly 50 per cent of the total 
national popular vote. The governing United Socialist Party of 
Venezuela retained a majority in the National Assembly but fell 
short of a two-thirds majority.

The inroads by the right reflect in part the success of a 
relentless US-led destabilisation campaign against Venezuela that 
has included US economic and political support for the right-wing 
opposition (US brokers and sinecures they dished out finally 
brought the opposition into a unity coalition after ten years of 
divisions and fractious competition for leadership), military 
threats, economic sabotage and a unrelenting propaganda campaign 
waged by the right-wing and international media. However, they 
also reflect disaffection among the revolution's social base in 
the face of economic difficulties, including falling oil revenues, 
widespread corruption and opportunism among state and party 
officials, and the slow pace of radical transformation demanded by 
the grassroots.

Bolivian President Evo Morales won election as a leftist, but the 
country's economic structure has remained much the same under his 
presidency [Reuters]

In Bolivia, the Morales government has confronted a spate of 
strikes and mobilisations by labour unions, indigenous, and 
popular organisations over wages, austerity measures, and a lack 
of local input into government policies or consultation with local 
communities over natural resource exploitation, among other 
things. "What has changed in the last few years?," asked Roberto 
Laserna, a well known neo-liberal Bolivian intellectual. "A lot, 
if one observes the process in terms of its discourse and symbols 
and maintains a short-term perspective. But very little if one is 
attentive to structural conditions and observes the economic and 
social tendencies with a longer-term view."

Backdrop to Pink Tide: Capitalist globalisation

The year 2010 marked the 200th anniversary of independence for 
many Latin American nations. While the region may have achieved 
its political independence it still remains, 200 years later, 
deeply tied - and subordinated - to the larger world capitalist 
system that has shaped its economic and political development from 
the conquest in 1492 right up to the present period of globalisation.

The new global capitalism swept Latin America by storm in the 
1980s and 1990s. Neo-liberal programmes were imposed by 
international financial institutions, western governments, and 
local elites. The region experienced a sweeping transformation of 
its political economy and social structure. By the early 21st 
century the "commanding heights" of accumulation were no longer 
the old traditional agro-exports or national industry. New 
industries and business practices took their place: maquiladoras, 
transnational agribusiness complexes, global banking, tourism, the 
"retail revolution", Walmart and other super-stores (which now 
control some 70 per cent of the region's commerce, up from just 
10-20 per cent in 1990), and trans-national labour markets, which 
have made Latin America a major exporter of workers to the global 

Transnational capital poured into the region in the form of 
productive investment in these dynamic new circuits of 
accumulation. Portfolio managers and speculative financial 
ventures took advantage of the bonanza opened up by privatisation, 
deregulation, and issues of government bonds, which attracted 
investors from the money markets that dominate the global 
financial system.

A new breed of transnationally-oriented elites and capitalists 
forged a neo-liberal bloc and led the region into the global age 
of hothouse accumulation, financial speculation, credit ratings, 
the internet, malls, fast-food chains, and gated communities. 
Neo-liberalism forged a social base among emerging middle classes 
and professional strata for which globalisation opened up new 
opportunities for upward mobility and participation in the global 
bazaar. But neo-liberalism also brought about unprecedented social 
inequalities, mass unemployment, and the immiseration and 
displacement of tens if not hundreds of millions from the popular 
classes, which triggered a wave of transnational migration and new 
rounds of mass mobilisation among those who stayed behind.

The world recession of 2000-01 hit Latin America hard, undermining 
growth and reversing gains of previous years. By the early 21st 
century neo-liberalism appeared to be reaching its ideological and 
political limits. The turning point came with the collapse of the 
Argentine economy - previously the poster child of neo-liberalism 
- and the subsequent mass uprising in 2001. A wave of popular 
rebellion brought to power governments through elections that 
opposed neo-liberalism, at least initially, among them: Chavez in 
Venezuela (1998); Lula in Brazil (2002); Nestor Kirchner in 
Argentina (2003); Morales in Bolivia (2005); the Broad Front in 
Uruguay (2004; 2010); Correa in Ecuador (2006); and the 
Sandinistas in Nicaragua (2006).

These governments challenged and even reversed major components of 
the neo-liberal programme. Many of them halted privatisations, 
nationalised natural resources and other economic sectors, 
restored public health and education, expanded social spending, 
introduced social welfare programmes, renegotiated foreign debts 
on discounted terms, broke with the IMF, and staked out foreign 
policies independent of Washington's dictates. All of this has 
been highly popular with poor majorities and helps explain why 
most Pink Tide governments enjoy broad support. Chavez still 
retains a 60 per cent approval rating and Correa a 65 per cent 
approval rating. In Uruguay, Tabare Vasquez left office in 2010 
with a 61 per cent approval rating, and Lula proved to be the most 
popular president in Brazilian history, leaving office in January 
of this year with an 80 per cent approval rating. But it is not 
clear now that these gains can be sustained in the face of the 
global crisis and the right-wing backlash, or that they are enough 
to satisfy the demands and expectations of the popular classes.

Post-neo-liberal governments or revolutionary transformation?

The Pink Tide governments have been "leftist" insofar as they have 
introduced limited wealth redistribution, restored a minimal role 
for the state in regulating accumulation, and administered 
government expansion in more inclusionary ways. When we cut 
through the rhetoric, however, a number of these governments - 
such as the Socialists in Chile, Kirchner in Argentina, and Lula 
in Brazil - were able to push forward capitalist globalisation 
with greater credibility than their orthodox neo-liberal 
predecessors, and, in doing so, to deradicalise dissent and 
demobilise social movements. What emerged was an elected 
progressive bloc in the region committed to mild redistributive 
programmes respectful of prevailing property relations and 
unwilling or simply unable to challenge the global capitalist 
order - a new, post-neo-liberal form of the national state tied to 
the larger institutional networks of global capitalism.

In many Pink Tide countries there has been no significant change 
in the unequal distribution of income or wealth, and indeed, 
inequality may actually be increasing.  Nor has there been any 
shift in basic property and class relations despite changes in 
political blocs, despite discourse favouring the popular classes, 
and despite mildly reformist or social welfare measures. In 
Argentina, for instance, the percentage of national income going 
to labour (through wages) and to the unemployed and pensioners 
(through social welfare subsidies and pensions) dropped from 32.5 
per cent in 2001, before the crisis exploded, to 26.7 per cent in 
2005. In Kirchner's own words, the aim of his policies was to 
reconstruct capitalism in the country, "a capitalism in which the 
state plays an intelligent role, regulating, controlling, and 
mitigating where necessary problems that the market does not 
solve". Despite its social programmes, the Kirchner administration 
worked to demobilise and divide Argentina's social movements.

In Brazil, the wealthy grew in number by 11.3 per cent in 2005 
alone as inequality deepened. "Far from doing any harm to the 
propertied, this [Lula] was a government that greatly benefitted 
them," historian Perry Anderson observed in a recent essay in the 
London Review of Books. "Never has capital so prospered as under 
Lula ... Brazilian financiers and industrialists have been warm 
supporters of Lula's government." The Brazilian stock market 
outperformed every other bourse in the world. However, Anderson 
noted that outlays to the Bolsa Familia, a popular social welfare 
program, totalled a mere 0.5 per cent of GDP, while rentier 
incomes from the public debt comprised 6 to 7 per cent of GDP and 
taxes remained staggeringly regressive.

Lula also gave powerful support to agribusiness instead of to 
small farms and the landless. In the countryside, land ownership 
was more concentrated at the end of Lula's term than it was 50 
years ago. Because there have been no structural transformations 
that have addressed the causes of poverty and inequality in 
Brazil, the improvement in living standards is based on government 
social programmes that could be reversed or eliminated should a 
right-wing government come to power or should an economic downturn 
force austerity.

On the other hand, Venezuela has attempted to organise a radical 
anti-neo-liberal bloc, seeking what Chavez has termed 
"21st-century socialism" that, at least in discourse, included 
Bolivia under Morales and Ecuador under Correa. Redistributive 
reforms have been much deeper in Venezuela than in other Pink Tide 
countries, and have attemped to transform state structure and 
property relations, and empower the popular classes.

In all three countries, constitutional assemblies have convened by 
popular referendum to redraft the constitution in favour of the 
popular classes, the most egregious neo-liberal policies have been 
reversed, and natural resources have been renationalised. There 
are ongoing land redistributions in Venezuela and promises of such 
programmes in Bolivia and Ecuador.

The Venezuelan government has nationalised a significant number of 
large companies in the power, telecommunications, steel, food, 
cement and banking sectors, encouraged the formation of hundreds 
of thousands of small business cooperatives, and distributed 
several million hectares of land to farmers.

However, it must be remembered that these more radical governments 
were brought to power through electoral processes that placed them 
at the reins of corrupt, clientalist, bureaucratic, and oligarchic 
states of the ancient regimes. In Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, 
prevailing state institutions have tried to constrain, dilute, and 
coopt mass struggles from below. In Venezuela, the biggest threat 
to the revolution is not the right-wing opposition, but what has 
been called the "endogenous" or "Chavista" right, whose penchant 
for state sinecures, local power fiefdoms, and acquiring business 
contracts through state or party privilege make them more 
interested in preventing a break with global capitalism than in 
socialist transformation from below.

Chavez himself has called for a radicalisation of the Revolution, 
and for a campaign against the inefficiency and bureaucracy of 
state structures inherited from the ancient regime. "We have to 
finish off demolishing the old structures of the bourgeois state 
and create the new structures of the proletarian state," he 
declared in 2010. To achieve this, the government has encouraged 
the creation of some 30,000 communal councils that are grouped 
into some 200 communes across Venezuela. The communal council 
groups 200-400 families in urban areas and 20-50 in rural areas to 
solve the problems of local communities. Chavez has referred to 
the communes as the "building blocks" of a new, revolutionary state.

'Neither capital nor bureaucrats'

As the global economic crisis intensifies, so too do the 
challenges that Pink Tide governments will face. The structural 
power held by transnational capital, and especially of global 
financial markets, over the attempts of states and social 
movements to undertake transformations is enormous. This power 
pushes states to accommodate these markets.

Ecuador has been particularly hard-hit by the world economic 
crisis that exploded in 2008. In a bid to generate state revenue 
by attracting transnational capital, Correa approved a mining law 
in 2009 in violation of agreements with the International Labour 
Organisation. The law allows for the exploitation of mineral 
resources by transnational corporations without consulting with 
the communities that would be affected. He also introduced a Fresh 
Water Resources Act that allows preferential access to water 
resources by mining, oil, and agro-industrial interests and 
favours the privatisation of water distribution. Correa has called 
in the armed forces and the police to violently repress indigenous 
communities who have resisted these policies.

In Bolivia, indigenous people have protested the construction of a 
highway, supported by Morales, that would cross a natural reserve 
and indigenous land [EPA]

Correa may epitomise part of the Pink Tide equation: 
nationally-oriented elites who seek better terms in dealing with 
global capital, and who entered into conjunctural alliances in the 
first years of the 21st century with popular forces mobilising 
from below for more radical change. The same movements that 
brought the Pink Tide governments to power are now seen as 
threats, to the extent that they stand in the way of resource 
extraction and the generation of state revenues through granting 
concessions to transnational capital.

The latest developments suggest a certain unravelling of those 
alliances, and bring the Pink Tide experiments to a crossroads: 
either a more substantial radicalisation or a re-subordination to 
the money mandarins of global capitalism who in Europe, North 
America, and elsewhere are using the global crisis to impose 
brutal austerity and attempting to dismantle what is left of 
welfare systems and social states. How long can low levels of 
wealth redistribution hold back the tide of rebellion? The 
mobilisation of new collective subjects and mass social movements 
in Latin America that are not easily cowed by the transnational 
elite will likely intensify if the crisis is prolonged.

The grassroots seem poised to undertake a new round of struggle 
from below. Carrying banners that read, "Neither Capital nor 
Bureaucrats - More Socialism and More Revolution," thousands of 
trade unionists, members of leftist political parties and popular 
organisations took to the streets in Venezuelan cities in late 
2010 and early this year to demand the immediate passage of a new 
and radical labour law, further nationalisations of key 
industries, and the empowerment of workers within their unions, 
especially at worksites that now belong to the network of recently 
nationalised industries.

And in its press release in the midst of last year's abortive coup 
in Ecuador, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of 
Ecuador stated that it would "deepen our mobilisation against the 
extractive model and the imposition of large-scale mining, the 
privatisation and concentration of water, and the expansion of the 
oil frontier". It concluded: "The best way to defend democracy is 
to begin a true revolution that resolves the most urgent and 
structural questions to the benefit of the majority."

The US and the right wing in Latin America have launched a 
counteroffensive to reverse the turn to the left. The Venezuelan 
revolution has earned the wrath of Latin American and 
transnational elites, but Bolivia and Ecuador, and more generally, 
the region's social movements and leftist political forces are as 
much targets of this counteroffensive as is Venezuela. In Chile, a 
right-wing neo-liberal defeated the socialists in last year's 
elections; in Honduras, the army deposed the progressive 
government of Manuel Zelaya in a 2009 coup d'etat with the tacit 
support of Washington; and the US has expanded its military 
presence throughout the continent, including the installation of 
new military bases in Colombia, Panama, and Honduras.

The Pink Tide governments will not be able to stave off this 
counteroffensive without mass support. And it may be that the only 
way to assure that support is by advancing a more fundamentally 
transformative project.

William I. Robinson is professor of sociology, global studies, and 
Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa 
Barbara. His latest book is Latin America and Global Capitalism: A 
Critical Globalization Perspective.

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