The Latin America Left: Neoliberalism, Populism and International Solidarity

In this panel we will explore the structural constraints facing leftist and progressive governments in Latin America, and how these constraints shape possibilities for the organized left and socialist transformation in the region.

Leftist and progressive governments during Latin America’s Pink Tide generally rose to power rapidly in response to economic and social crises caused by neoliberal policies during the 1990s. Their social mobilization was often impressive, but organized social movements and unions tended to be at historic lows following frontal assaults from neoliberal governments during the 1980s and 1990s. Rather than highly organized, democratic mass leftist parties, these governments tended to be headed by charismatic leaders and were highly centralized.

Further, the modest progressive reforms these governments pursued were dramatically limited by the strictures of global capitalism, forcing them to choose between fiscal discipline and economic ruin. Electoral imperatives also led to corruption and often short-sighted, poorly implemented redistributive measures. So these governments had little capacity to utilize increased revenues from the mid-2000s commodity boom to implement structural economic changes that could have decreased their vulnerability to shocks in global commodity prices.

In the face of these pressures, and in the absence of powerful and autonomous leftwing mass movements, trade unions and political parties, most Pink Tide governments ultimately moved in a rightwing, and sometimes authoritarian direction. Several have been replaced by far-right parties that threaten not only to roll back the limited social gains of the Pink Tide but also to attack basic political and civil rights. In some countries this has led to massive emigration.

These issues raise a host of tactical and strategic questions for the Latin American Left: How should it relate to progressive and leftist governments given the inevitable austerity programs most of these governments are forced to impose? Could the trajectories of these governments have been altered if the left had related to them differently? Are there any conditions in which the Latin American Left can intervene constructively in broader populist insurgencies under conditions of austerity to help move Leftist and progressive governments in a more radical, socialist direction?

If not, what, if any, are the opportunities for building more powerful leftwing opposition movements and parties in these contexts? Are there any broader structural trends that might point in the direction of new opportunities for more democratic and principled mass leftwing parties to rise to power? How does the rightwing backlash of the past several years change the Left’s medium-term strategy in Latin America?

We explore these questions with panelists discussing experiences in several Latin American nations. The panel will be followed by a group discussion of what international solidarity should look like under conditions where we have an obligation to support grassroots, bottom up movements fighting against nominally progressive or socialist governments.