Assessing the Latin American Left (part 1)

One of the great punchlines in politics I was fortunate to hear first-hand, was during a 1989 interview for Pacifica Radio with Brazilian presidential candidate Lula. ?You?ve just been in New York, meeting the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce. What did you tell them?,? I enquired. Replied Lula, ?If they don?t give us their rings, I said, we?ll chop off their fingers.?

It was brave talk then, and unthinkable from Lula today. The main chill factor was a series of high-profile military coups dating back four decades: Brazil (1964), Bolivia (1971), Uruguay (1972), Chile (1973), Argentina (1976) and Peru (1993), not to mention the dictatorships and counterrevolutionaries promoted by Washington across Central America and the Caribbean.

Between book-end insurgencies in Cuba (1959) and Chiapas (1994), the Left?s attempts to take up arms were generally dismal. Likewise, for most of the 1980s-90s, ?IMF Riots? – mass protests of the urban poor and workers, catalysed by International Monetary Fund austerity dictates – periodically wracked the continent. But, in Latin America and all Third World countries, they were rarely converted into concrete gains by the organised Left, at least until the recent Argentine meltdown generated a grassroots ?autonomist? current on the Left.

Instead, human rights movements and community-based struggles achieved the end of military rule in much of Latin America during the 1980s. Without a more explicit economic programme and working-class leadership, the outcome was ?low-intensity democracy? in which choices associated with macroeconomic policy and state management were reduced to a single formula, the neoliberal ?Washington Consensus.?

Under these circumstances, US capital drew an average of $60 billion a year in profits from Latin America, even in the midst of periodic currency crashes that wiped out living standards in the three largest economies: Mexico (1994-95), Brazil (1999) and Argentina (2000-02).

Yet unlike other regions, the Latin American Left was not defeated by these reversals. On March 24, General James T. Hill, head of the US Southern Command, warned the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee of ?an emerging threat best described as radical populism, in which the democratic process is undermined to decrease rather than protect individual rights. Some leaders in the region are tapping into deep seated frustrations of the failure of democratic reforms to deliver expected goods and services.?

The ?leaders? are in fact the rising social and community movements, trade unions, students and intellectuals, women?s groups and environmentalists, along with some of the region?s genuinely Left political parties. Their stories were told and debated in early May at the University of Wisconsin?s Havens Center, which joined Amsterdam?s Transnational Institute to host a review of ten countries? experience with ?The New Latin American Left.?

Some highlights follow, and will continue in my next ZNet Commentary.

In Mexico, hope for a centre-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) government in 2006 may have been dashed last month when at a party congress, long-time leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas resigned from his official positions in an apparent gambit to displace popular Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as the next presidential candidate.

In turn, former PRD leader and Mexico mayor Rosario Robles is mired in scandal because of videotaped bribery and gambling incidents that also implicate Lopez Obrador?s key aides. These have caused an unprecedented Mexican-Cuban rift, as Fidel Castro deports Lopez Obrador?s corrupt associates, amidst Havana?s vocal critique of the Mexican elite?s Machiavellian tendencies.

Even if Lopez Obrador recovers, there are more profound problems than personality squabbles amongst politicians, such as the fate of nearly 400 young women maqiladore workers in the border city of Ciudad Juarez who have been murdered with only negligible official investigation.

More generally, according to Armando Batra of the Instituto de Estudios del Pueblo Maya, the social movements have not reacted well to the replacement of neoliberal, authoritarian populism with current president Vicente Fox?s neoliberal low-intensity democracy. ?Today?s problem is partly one of nostalgia; in 1994 [when the Zapatistas captured the national and global Left?s imagination], the government was genuinely illegitimate. Democracy has delivered a neoliberal president, and his plans are not working. What with the corruption, three out of four Mexicans do not trust political parties. There has been too much populism, accompanied by favours, clientelism and authoritarian temptations.?

Batra partly faults the Zapatistas? recent quiet period: ?Less connection to peasants, workers, students. The initial strategy was to ?reform the state?, but the reform effort was too weak and hence was rejected by president Ernesto Zedillo. The Zapatistas turned to municipal/regional self-government, in the good government juntas.?

And Batra?s line on the potential PRD president? ?Why do so many people think Mexico City is governed well? There are many critiques of Lopez Obrador. Mine is that he leaves *no* space for participatory democracy.? Yet Batra does offer this concession: the main recent success of the Left was the defeat of a new Value Added Tax on food and medicines, which was only possible because of 100 PRD politicians in the national assembly.

Moving to Argentina, we find the 1990s? model student of the IMF, one which subsequently suffered the worst economic crisis of any in memory. The seminal moment for the New Left, according to Axel Castellano of the Movement of the Unemployed, may have been the first blockade of roads in 2000 by the picatero movement. Within a year, activists were winning support from a middle-class suffering acute economic pain. Popular assemblies emerged, with the distinctive cacerolazo (pot-banging) protest.

Presidents were tossed out one after another in late 2001. Finally, the institutional crisis was resolved with the 2003 presidential election. President Nestor Kirchner?s government began implementing public works projects, along with reforms of the armed forces. Reports Castellano, ?He incorporated both anti-military struggles of the 1970s and the anti-corruption sentiment. He redirected foreign policy away from the US towards a regional trade and political bloc.?

But, says Castellano, that does not satisfy autonomist activists. ?We represent the emergence of masses, not parties and vanguard organisations. For us, autonomy is action, carried out every day, it is horizontalism. Our only leader is the mass assembly, but we do have some spokespersons and reference points. Hence, we go beyond a grassrootsism which focuses only on the local. The state?s response: cooptation on the one hand, repression on the other. We react with our own counterpower: affection, solidarity, comradeship, networking with rural and international autonomists.?

Bolivia is another country with strong autonomist – and increasingly indigenous-led – movements, which came to the world?s attention with the April 2000 water war in the city of Cochabamba. The struggle was not merely about kicking out a nasty multinational corporation (Bechtel) which privatised even rainwater collected by poor people. It was also about advancing popular demands against the municipal water company, in the words of Cochabamba union/community leader Oscar Olivera: ?transparency, efficiency, participation of the people, and social justice in service provision.?

Desperation, especially of indigenous people, may generate far more revolutionary processes. One marker was the forced resignation of the neoliberal president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado, last October, after mass indigenous-led street protests. But the bourgeoisie gradually recovered confidence, and the Left within the parliament — the Movement to Socialism (MAS) led by Evo Morales — has been caught up pursuing reforms that, in Olivera?s words, are ?slow and small-scale, based on a municipal strategy similar to Brazil?s Workers Party. But this means that the MAS put off idea of a constituent assembly, which we need to bring coherence to the movement.?

As a result, warned Olivera, ?The highlands people are arming themselves. Some Cochabamba people are also forming groups for armed civil resistance. The country will tear apart. We will be facing a civil war, and we will be needing your solidarity.?

The Central American country which suffered most terribly through prolonged civil war was El Salvador. Lorena Martínez came to Wisconsin from the Association of Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador; she is also regional coordinator for the excellent network known as Convergence of Movements of the Peoples of the Americas.

That war continues, but through other means, says Martínez. ?Leading up to March 21, we had hope that ordinary Salvadorans could take power through the vote but we suffered the dirtiest electoral campaign ever. The right had 1.3 million votes, the FMLN got 800,000. The US hinted that if the FMLN won, there would be no more remittances from US-based Salvadorans. It was said so often, so much, that people began to believe it.?

But Martínez also looked inward for blame: ?One of the weaknesses of FMLN was to just focus on elections. They made no alliances with other sectors. This was the closed-mindedness of the party leadership, who refused to accept a candidate from the social movements.?

Says Martínez, ?The former strength of the FMLN was in young people, women, peasants – these forces are now with the social movements.? They are joined by the urban workers who are fighting privatisation, including last week?s vigorous protests in the capital of San Salvador, which left dozens wounded. ?The downside is that ARENA will rule for five years, and that the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) will be signed.?

Central America?s 1980s generation of Left parties has not fared well. In Nicaragua, the analysis offered by José Luis Rocha from Universidad Centroamericana de Managua was uncompromosing: ?First, let?s get rid of this myth, that the FSLN is a leftist organisation.? Rocha accuses the FSLN of using the state as a pinata, ?auctioning off its ethical capital,? in the process adopted dogmatism and ?verticalism.?

Daniel Ortega in particular emits party-line decrees, is intolerant of dissent, and believes in the leadership?s infallibility. His pact with the corrupt liberal Aleman was ?the fatal shot? to Sandinismo, writes Rocha. At that point, ?The FSLN focused most attention on small battles for power, not the fight against neoliberalism.?

A paper by former Sandinista foreign minister Alejandro Bendaña was just as brutal: ?The FSLN failed to reconstitute Nicaraguan society in the 1980s in revolutionary fashion, and it is failing again to help contain neoliberalism?s own social and ideological transformation of that same society and state. In fact, the Sandinista Revolution might just prove to have been the social instrument that allowed liberalism to attain hegemony in Nicaragua.?

Very different contradictions confront the Colombian Left. César Rodríguez of the University of the Andes and National University of Colombia remarked on three outcomes of the 40-year long civil war. First, the atomisation of political parties, their polarisation, and lack of party discipline contributed to the rise of both leftwing and rightwing parties, with the national government held by the hard right, while the capital city Bogata has a leftist mayor. Second, the relative weakness of Colombian social movements reqires urgent attention. Third, says Rodríguez, the fact that the FARC guerrillas push a leftist agenda ?makes it hard for democratic left. The sound of machine guns drowns out the sound of opposition.?

One opening, according to Rodríguez, was the onset of strutural adjustment in 1999, after a long period during which narco trafficing fuelled Colombia?s economy. Now, he continues, ?With the huge increase in poverty and inequality, social policy discourses are finally feasible. That gives the Left the upper hand.?

Evidence is found in the person of senator Carlos Gaviria Díaz, president of the Frente Social y Político. A former Constitutional Court Justice and university professor, he is a spitting image of Karl Marx, and stands for what he calls ?anti-dogmatic, anti-authoritarian, profoundly democratic politics. We are against armed struggle, against the authoritarian bewitching of the people.

People are sick and tired of violence. President Uribe?s proposal for militarisation includes dismantling the 1991 constitution and destruction of the rule of law, public order, public safety, and legislation protecting pensions and labour. Not only cannot defeat the FARC, the conservative state is separating itself from the few responsibilities it had.?


(Patrick Bond?s new book, *Talk Left, Walk Right,* is available from University of KwaZulu-Natal Press: http://www.unpress.co.za)

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