Latin America: A Conservative Restoration?
— Marc Becker
AS MUCH AS some of us would like to deny the reality, over the course of the last year or so the Latin American left has suffered irrefutable reversals of fortune. After a decade of the left’s near-hegemonic control over government structures throughout Latin America, previously discredited conservative politicians who favor a return to the capitalist neoliberal polices of privatization and austerity are staging a comeback.
The strong resurgence of a neoliberal and oligarchical right dedicated to an upward redistribution of resources now has become a depressing reality. The rapidity with which conservatives are able to undo a decade of progressive reform is stunning.
How this occurred, how the left could have avoided this development, and the lessons that we should extract from it are by no means obvious. Observers will offer various interpretations, and what follows are my own reflections on the dangers of collaborating with those who do not share a similar ideological agenda.
Rise and Fall of the New Left
The emergence of new-left governments in the 20st century began with the election of Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela in 1998.
At the end of the 20th century, Venezuela was a highly polarized society. Eighty percent of the population, overwhelmingly those of African and Indigenous descent, lived in poverty despite the fact that Venezuela had one of the largest petroleum reserves in the world. Wealth and power were concentrated in the hands of the 20% of population who were primarily of European heritage and worked in professional jobs related to the petroleum economy.
Before Chávez’s election, conservative governments held power in all of Latin America with the sole exception of Cuba. They implemented neoliberal economic policies that privatized public resources to the benefit of the ruling class, with a resulting increase in inequality and poverty for the working class.
Chávez won election on the promise of policies that would shift resources toward the most disadvantaged sectors of society. His victory in Venezuela was quickly followed at the dawn of the 21st century with the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, both of whom implemented similar progressive policies.
Less radical leftist governments were also elected in other South American countries (notably Argentina, Brazil and Chile) as well as in Nicaragua and El Salvador in Central America. Latin America had moved significantly from the 1970s when the military governed most of the region.
As a visual representation of this dramatic political shift, Brazilian sociologist Emir Sader’s book The New Mole featured a cover with a map that showed, with the notable exception of Colombia, the South American continent awash in a sea of red.(1) Chávez had introduced a wave of revolutionary fervor that swept across the hemisphere.
The apparent collapse in 2015 and 2016 of what some had termed the “pink tide” appeared to come quickly and with a vengeance fitting the actions of a political class that believed that control over social, economic and political decisions was their birthright. After 12 years of leftist rule in Argentina (2003-2015), first under Néstor Kirchner and then his spouse Cristina Fernández, the conservative Mauricio Macri won the presidency in November 2015 on an openly neoliberal economic platform.
Several weeks later, voters flipped control of Venezuela’s national assembly to a strident anti-Chávez, but politically incoherent, opposition that demanded the recall of current president Nicolás Maduro.
In the midst of a trumped-up sex scandal, in February 2016 Bolivia’s first Indigenous president Evo Morales lost a referendum that would have allowed him to run for re-election in 2019. Similarly, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa faced a constitutional ban on his reelection in 2017. In both cases, conservatives believed that they had the best opportunity of regaining power since the popular politicians had won election a decade earlier.
After a successful first term in office, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet faced very low poll numbers during her second term. Former rightwing president Sebastián Piñera appears positioned to return to office in 2018.
Most significantly, in Brazil, after two terms under the popular president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Dilma Rousseff faced a politically motivated impeachment from a conservative legislature that removed her from office in August 2016 on questionable charges. Her vice president Michel Temer, moved quickly to undo 13 years of progressive Workers Party (PT) policies.
With these conservative victories, pontificating pundits promptly proclaimed an end to Latin America’s left turn. They contended, with little basis in factual data, that during a period of economic downturn leftist presidents preferred to sit out a term of office rather than see their popularity compromised, with plans to return once the economy returned to its previous growth patterns.
The pundits also declared, with a certain amount of glee, that the populace had “tired” of the socialist policies of redistribution and voted for a return to “democracy.” Others argued that a resurgent right was part of typical political swings. After two terms of socialist rule in Chile under Ricardo Lagos and Bachelet (2000–2010), the conservative billionaire Piñera won a term (2010-2014), only to have Bachelet return to office four years later. Perhaps Lagos or another leftist candidate would return to office after a second Piñera administration.
Aside from broad hemispheric patterns, specific objective conditions that are local to each situation provide quite compelling explanations for each leftist defeat.
The conservative victory in Argentina in November 2015 can be understood as a result of the weakness of the nominally leftist candidacy of Daniel Scioli, the failures of his previous administration as governor of the province of Buenos Aires, divisions on the left with many supporting instead the insurgent candidacy of the more radical Sergio Massa, the personalist nature and campaign style of Macri, an antagonistic media campaign against the Kirchner governments, not to mention objective conditions of rising inflation that undermined economic growth. In an electoral system, an effective campaign and the personal appeal of a candidate can play a larger role in determining an outcome than a political ideology or specific economic programs.
Similarly in Venezuela, high crime rates, low oil prices, bad government economic policies, corruption, and the fact that Maduro was significantly less charismatic than Chávez all augmented the left’s legislative defeat in December 2015 and contributed to a growing movement for his recall.
Many voted against the government not because they favored a return to the old regime but because they wanted officials to pay more attention to a rapidly declining economic situation. In Brazil, Rousseff’s impeachment also emerged in the context of an economic recession resulting from the collapse of a commodity boom that had sustained high government expenditure rates. As with Maduro, Rousseff lacked the charismatic appeal of her predecessor Lula da Silva.
A good deal of sexism and racism also played into her removal. Rousseff was Brazil’s first woman president. And she had shifted resources to Brazil’s northeast that is heavily populated by those of African descent, thereby alienating the traditional power brokers who demanded her removal. When her vice president Temer took office he implemented an all-male, all-white cabinet, even though three of the ministers had to resign almost immediately due to corruption charges.
Even though these specific explanations can be quite convincing to provide a logical understanding of political shifts on a local level, still we cannot entirely shake the sense that we are experiencing a seismic shift. This reverses the one we felt 15 years ago when progressives began to win office throughout Latin America. What explains these dramatic reversals in fortunes for the electoral left in Latin America?
I have long been fascinated by what I call the “communist/anarchist debate” over the proper path to political power that can be observed across the 20th century, especially as it relates to the role of the state. While both anarchists and communists were committed to a socialist transformation of society, a deep divide separated the two over how that goal should be achieved.
Communists argued that governments could be used to implement positive programs and that on occasion it might be necessary to assume authoritarian methods as a transitory phase in a struggle against the entrenched opposition of those who benefited from the previous system.
Anarchists, on the other hand, argued that governments are inherently authoritarian and prevent the realization of a more equal society. Rather than gaining control over governments, anarchists believed that these structures should be destroyed.
In the current context, this divide has been channeled into debates over vertical versus horizontal forms of social and political organization.(2) In the 1990s, powerful grassroots social movements repeatedly challenged neoliberal economic policies, while the tactics of the anarchist-influenced neo-Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico gained broad applause.
Under Zapatista influence, for example, sociologist John Holloway wrote a renowned polemical book Change the World Without Taking Power. Holloway claims that the world cannot be transformed through state structures. He argues that the revolutionary challenge at the beginning of the 21st century was to change the world without taking power.(3)
Holloway published his book shortly after the World Social Forum (WSF) first met in January 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.(4) Although Hugo Chávez was already in office, his election seemed to be an aberration and the possibilities of broader leftist electoral victories across Latin America appeared remote. In contrast, social movements were in ascendency in their battles against neoliberal capitalism.
In this environment, the WSF embraced civil society as the best path forward toward a transformation of society and excluded political parties and armed groups from the meeting. Grassroots mobilizations quickly remade Latin America’s political landscape. Ironically, their successes provided an impetus for a wave of leftist electoral victories across the region. With the notable exceptions of Colombia and Mexico, almost every country in quick succession elected a leftist government.
This development introduced a complicated dance between social movements and progressive governments, and one that has persisted ever since with both sides throwing ever-sharper barbs back and forth across a yawning divide.
Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) initially had high expectations when Lula da Silva was elected in 2003, but vocally complained about the president’s compromises once he was in office. Political parties cautioned these “ultra-leftists” against making unrealistic demands of their new governments.
For grassroots social movements, winning a presidential election was simply one more step in a centuries-long struggle against oligarchical domination of their country. But with conservatives out of power and their neoliberal economic policies largely discredited for contributing to poverty and inequality, 21st-century socialist presidents often worried that those to their left presented more of a threat to the stability of their governments than their traditional enemies in the oligarchy.
Supporters of progressive governments in Latin America have become highly critical of the social movements that opened the political spaces that paved a path forward for their election. For these defenders, it becomes incomprehensible why the MST would not come to Rousseff’s defense when she faced impeachment, or rally around Correa in Ecuador when he faced a police mutiny on September 30, 2010.
Their only explanation is that while these social movements previously may have staked out a center-left position, now they must be part of a conservative opposition to a popular progressive politician. Their simplistic criticisms fail to take into account the reality that social movements and political parties respond to different logics and rationales, somewhat along the lines of what I see as a historic communist/anarchist divide on the socialist left over the role of the state in social transformations.
But it’s really a divide that historically has played out within the Marxist left, and not between communists and anarchists, that concerns us here. Rather than the inherent tension between progressive governments and their social movement base, the urgent question in the current environment is not whether the left should take power from above or below, but rather how the left should take power, and how to act once it holds the reins of government.
These new political realities for the Latin American left highlight important and longstanding disputes that I will schematically and somewhat simplistically label a “Stalinist/Trotskyist” split. Similar to the communist/anarchist debates, this discord has also divided the left across the 20th century.
Those whom I label Stalinists would take umbrage at the characterization, but I am not using the term here in a derogatory sense but as a simple (admittedly simplistic) label for those who favor governmental solutions to societal problems, and who have derogatorily discounted those to their left as “ultra-leftists” or Trotskyists.
When viewed through a Stalinist/Trotskyist divide, the emphasis on the importance of holding state power acquires other and seemingly shortsighted or opportunistic characteristics that we must take into account. Historically, pro-Soviet communist parties have incorporated elements of the left most willing to collaborate with governments in power. These can include authoritarian and ill-defined populist governments that seemingly exploit the goodwill (and some would say the naïve understandings) of leftists to their own nefarious purposes.
The implementation of the Communist International’s popular front strategy in 1935 is a well-known history on the left as a reversal of the “Third Period” or “class-against-class” strategy that the Comintern had followed since its 1928 Sixth Congress. In following the previous position, communists threatened to isolate themselves into irrelevance.
On the other hand, in collaborating with a sympathetic nationalist bourgeoisie, socialism was taken off the agenda until some unspecified point, probably decades if not centuries or millennia in the future. Rather than challenge power directly and forcefully, communists sought to work peacefully within the existing institutional frameworks. A result was that communist parties often staked out what could appear to be quite conservative positions on the left, with other progressive parties sometimes forwarding more radical agendas.
Here we also see a parallel with the communist/anarchist divide: the communist or (quasi-) Stalinist position is that of a “realist,” whereas the anarchist or Trotskyist assumes an allegedly “idealist” line.
This leads leftist scholars such as Emir Sader and Marta Harnecker in the current political context to criticize Trotskyists (though of course they do not use this language) for ultra-left positions that threaten to collapse all of the progressive reforms that the Stalinists (again, without using that language) working in collaboration with moderately progressive governments have been able to implement.
Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, as with the rest of the new left governments in the 21st century, moved quickly to implement social programs designed to attack the endemic poverty that plagued the country. Under leftist administrations, public spending on health care, education, housing and infrastructure rose dramatically.
These governments held office during a period of rising petroleum and other commodity prices. Together with a renegotiation of contracts with multinational corporations, the leftist administrations were flush with funds to pay for these social programs. This spending resulted in impressive gains in socio-economic indicators, particularly in drops in poverty and extreme poverty rates and, more importantly, declines in economic inequality. It also contributed to unprecedented high approval ratings.
Conservative opponents criticized the progressive governments for acting in an irresponsible manner in their failure to save money during the boom times for the fallow period that was sure to follow. Others complained that the leftists engaged in nationalist, clientelist and statist practices designed to shore up their electoral prospects.
Supporters, on the other hand, defended the handouts as central to the social programs on which the governments had been elected. They were part of concrete policies to shift wealth and power away from the ruling class, and naturally those who had unfairly benefited from previous neoliberal governments would take exception to the attempts to level society. From a Keynesian perspective, the policies also made economic sense because of how the government spending would fuel economic growth.
Those loosely labeled “Trotskyists,” however, had an entirely different set of critiques of these pink tide governments, whose policies were in fact quite mainstream from a broader historical perspective. All of these progressive governments were willing to work within the confines of existing market economies.
None of the governments approached the radical policies of the twentieth-century revolutions that led to the expropriation of Standard Oil in Mexico, United Fruit Company land in Guatemala, tin mines in Bolivia, sugar mills in Cuba, or copper mines in Chile. Even the Jacobo Arbenz administration in Guatemala and Bolivia’s Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) government in the 1950s, which historians had come to question whether they were truly revolutionary, in retrospect appeared surprisingly radical in comparison to contemporary progressive administrations.
On Taking Power
Although 21st-century leftist administrations used revolutionary rhetoric, their policies were more moderate than any of those progressive governments from the 20th century. They rarely spoke of nationalizing industries or changing the mode of production.
A common debate in the 20th century was whether to reform existing systems, or replace them with much more radical solutions. In the 21st century, socialist governments opted for social evolution rather than violent revolution that might disrupt the smooth running of society. Their relative moderation and failure to deliver on more radical promises led some on the left to conclude that the current governments represented a continuation rather than a radical break from previous capitalist policies.
Leftist political parties argued that winning an election was not the same as taking power. A presidency is only one of many political offices, and an antagonistic legislature and judiciary could significantly curtail their actions. This limitation became readily apparent in Paraguay under the administration of Fernando Lugo, a bishop who had been influenced by liberation theology.
In 2008, Lugo campaigned for the presidency and won election based on the support of Paraguay’s poor farmers to whom he had ministered as a priest. A lack of support in congress continually frustrated his goal of implementing his promised policies.
In 2012, the legislature engaged in an express impeachment without giving the president time to prepare a defense. His removal essentially took the form of a constitutional coup.
Several years earlier, Manuel Zelaya faced a similar fate in Honduras. In 2006, Zelaya had won election to president with the liberal party. Once in office, he moved significantly to the left and implemented policies to benefit the country’s impoverished majority. His proposals threatened the traditional oligarchy that had initially supported his presidency.
Three years into his term of office, the Honduran military — with the enthusiastic backing of the U.S. Obama administration — removed Zelaya from power under the questionable charge that he attempted to revise the constitution to extend his term.
Particularly in countries with an entrenched and conservative oligarchy, it was apparent that winning the presidency only meant a tenuous hold on one office. Such a victory was distant from actually gaining power over the country and altering political and economic structures. In Venezuela, for example, it took Hugo Chávez a decade to consolidate control over government structures and move forward with socialist reforms.
Apologists for the 21st-century socialist governments pointed to these limitations of power to justify their slow pace toward much more radical reforms. The “Trotskyists,” however, questioned whether socialism was ever the intended goal.
In a reflection of similar debates over Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies in the United States, dissidents wondered whether the moderate reforms were merely designed to save capitalism from its most ferocious characteristics. A refusal of any of these governments to nationalize industries or move toward socializing production reinforced those impressions.
The speed and depth of the rapid reversals of policies in Argentina and Brazil when the right wing regained control (despite the left having been in office more than a decade) raised questions of whether the left ever had actually taken power.
What exactly had leftist politicians been doing during their time in office if they had not been engaged in profound and irreversible transformations of society? How could leftists claim that they could not take a faster pace toward revolution if the conservatives could turn things back so quickly?
While progressive South American governments had engaged in important political reforms, they did not fundamentally change an extractivist and neoliberal economic model. Renegotiating contracts with multinational corporations provides governments with more revenue for social programs, but the means of production still lay in the hands of foreign interests that subjugated the countries to imperial control.
Furthermore, with the decline of commodity prices, a country had to export twice as much to maintain the same level of social program spending. A result was that these “socialist” countries were now more dependent on extractivist industries than previous “capitalist” administrations.
[For the author’s discussion of the policies of Bolivian vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera and the debate on “extractivism,” see http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/4811 — ed.]
A central question that emerges in the context of the apparent turning of the pink tide is whether it had been a mistake to collaborate with moderate forces just to gain political office if that did not result in any fundamental shifts in power.
This problem is most apparent in Brazil. Unlike Macri’s electoral defeat of an uninspiring leftist candidate in Argentina, Temer served as Rousseff’s vice president as part of the compromises and opportunistic alliances that the Workers Party (PT) had made with moderate forces simply to gain election. Why was the “left” working so closely with moderates who were, in retrospect, simply biding their time until they had an opportunity to return to a previous capitalist system?
The negative consequences of compromising ideological principles to gain political office are even more readily discernible in Nicaragua. In 1979, the leftist Sandinista guerrillas overthrew the pro-United States Somoza family dynasty. After eleven years in power, they lost an election to the United States supported conservative candidate Violeta Barrios de Chomorro.
Despite valiant efforts, the Sandinistas failed to return to office in the following two presidential contests. Finally, in 2006 Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega won election after making extensive compromises with the conservative Catholic church hierarchy and the United States government. Those concessions provided him with a high level of approval and assured his continuance as president.
Unlike elsewhere in the Americas, Ortega won reelection in November 2016 by a wide margin. But that victory came at the cost of significantly limiting his ability to implement socialist policies.
One can argue that to move left we must move left, and in that regard a Hillary Clinton victory would have been demonstrably better over a Trump White House. It is a complete fiction that electing a fascist to power will somehow result in a radical socialist reaction that will fundamentally transform society. Although sometimes dramatic breaks appear to come spontaneously out of nowhere, careful analysis reveals that years of difficult grassroots organizing, political education, and alliance building led to these successes.
But to engage in opportunistic alliances with moderate forces only hamstrings steps toward more radical transformations and ends up providing socialism with a bad name when those partial efforts inevitably fail. Not only have we made no progress toward our eventual goal of socialism, we are arguably worse off than when we first started.
Recent leftist defeats in Latin America highlight the limitations of institutional paths to power that prohibit a complete dismantling of the structures of the old regime. These are the limitations of working within the confines of a constitutional framework rather than gaining power through an armed struggle that destroyed the ancien régime, as happened in Cuba.
Cuba, of course, has its own set of problems and limitations that underscores contentions that it is not possible to build socialism in isolation in one country and that we have not met the basic objective conditions necessary for such a transformation. But one thing that can be said about the Cuban Revolution is that it is still firmly in power, which at the moment is more than what we can say about any of the current pink tide governments.
In retrospect, we are in danger of having future historians write off the current progressive administrations as failed experiments similar to how current scholars disregard the Arbenz and MNR attempts in Guatemala and Bolivia in the 1950s, or the efforts of many other leftists who thought they could improve society by collaborating with their class enemies in power.
What is to Be Done?
Given that taking power through an armed struggle that would completely dismantle existing power structures and pave the way forward toward profound social and economic changes is not a realistic option, what can be done in the current environment to address pressing problems of economic oppression and social exclusion?
Increasing awareness of economic structures, including the roles that agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have played in underdeveloping peripheral economies, is key. Their loans did not benefit the general population, who should not be held responsible for their repayment. In an electoral system, voters need to understand the policy proposals of politicians who advocate a return to those structures and to campaign against them.
Leftist governments have made gestures toward investing resources into infrastructure, renewable energy and other projects that will open up avenues for a sustainable economy. Resources should be dedicated toward building alternative economies that benefit marginalized sectors of society.
Much of the agricultural production in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina has been redirected toward the export of soy. The result is a continuation of extractive economies that damage the environment while enhancing dependency on agro-industrial giants like Cargill, Monsanto, and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).
Instead, policies should encourage local food production. Food sovereignty is a pressing issue, both for its global economic implications as well as its ability to enhance the health of the general public.
New left governments proposed favoring the sumak kawsay or “good life” that privileges human development over corporate profit, but too often those statements remained on the level of empty rhetoric instead of a serious engagement with what a concrete application of those proposals would mean.
Studies demonstrate that once basic human necessities are met, happiness emerges more from non-material factors rather than capitalist consumerism that is destroying the planet. An option may be to encourage the development of free public education, culture, sports, and other social activities as non-market mechanisms to improve society.
The way forward is by no means clear, and we may be in for some difficult times. But we cannot give up. The need for creative and critical thinking in order to arrive at innovative solutions is more urgent than ever in the current political environment.
- Emir Sader, The New Mole: Paths of the Latin American Left (London: Verso Books, 2011).
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- See, for example, Richard Stahler-Sholk, Harry E. Vanden, and Marc Becker, ed., Rethinking Latin American Social Movements: Radical Action from Below (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014).
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- John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power (London, Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2002).
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- Jackie Smith, Marina Karides, Marc Becker, Dorval Brunelle, Christopher Chase-Dunn, Donatella della Porta, Rosalba Icaza Garza, et al., Global Democracy and the World Social Forums (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008).
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May-June 2017, ATC 188