Assessing the Latin American Left (part 2)

Early last month, at the University of Wisconsin’s Havens Center – supported by Amsterdam’s Transnational Institute – radicals from ten countries came to discuss the “The New Latin American Left.” In my last ZNet commentary, I reported on six of those sites of struggle (Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia). Four countries represented in Madison that were recently captured by leftists (Venezuela, Brazil and Ecuador), or are about to be (Uruguay), provide sobering lessons.

In the worst case of dashed expectations, the current Ecuadoran political mess follows the betrayal by colonel Lucio Gutiérrez of the Sociedad Patriotica, who initially took power in the famous January 2000 insurrection and then by election in early 2003, pretending to be a leftleaning populist sympathetic to indigenous people.

The problems, of course, go back much further. As Socialist Party coordinator German Rodas Chaves explained, there was an insufficient base in society to maintain social progress. That stemmed in part from the Left’s historic “failure to bring in the indigenous perspective,” dating to the 1940s-50s when there was an opportunity in Congress. Although the cooptation and degeneration the Left suffered during that period reversed somewhat thanks to inspiration from the Cuban revolution, it took until the 1990s for the grassroots to make a “rupture with old paradigm, especially with indigenous groups who had mainly focused on social not political arenas.”

Hostility between formal leftists and indigenous movements — the Pachakutik party and the National Confederation of Indian Nationalities (CONAIE) – momentarily diminished when marginalised urban workers and unemployed people united around Gutiérrez, who also won middle class support during the country’s early 2000s financial crisis. However, enjoying the support of 80% of the populace in 2003, Gutiérrez was then sufficiently confident to make an amazing U-turn, privatising the state oil and power parastatals, continuing with dollarisation, smashing worker opposition, and endorsing US military expansion, Plan Colombia and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. On drugs and terrorism, he pledged to be George Bush’s “best ally and best friend”.

In mid-2003, relations with the president ruptured, as CONAIE made a series of tough democratic and anti-neoliberal demands: a new Constitutional Convention, electoral reform, an end to corruption, immediate cancellation of the IMF programme, suspension of foreign debt repayments until a full debt audit was complete, roll back of privatisation, rescinding of gasoline price hikes, restoration of worker protections, agrarian support, generous social policies, and a break with imperialism. Now, with Gutiérrez suffering just 20% support in polls, tensions have become so high that CONAIE fears assassinations by Sociedad Patriotica thugs, having identified a hit list and witnessed one attempt on the movement’s leader, Leonidas Iza, in February.

Uruguayan cadres are better prepared to resist betrayal, when the Left takes state power in the October election, according to Daniel Chávez of the Transnational Institute. In the wake of the 1973-84 military junta, it took five years of organising until the Left’s first municipal victory. Today, the anti-neoliberal parties and movements are relatively united on how to resurrect what had been the only welfare state in Latin America.

Under the leadership of cancer medic Tabaré Vásquez, a former Montevideo mayor, the Encuentro Progresista Frente Amplio coalition should defeat the National and Colorado parties, which split the vote nearly equally in recent years. Chávez cites “the Broad Front’s good leadership and rising popularity in Montevideo. The weight of the Left in the capital continues to grow, partly due to demographics, as the youth increases in size. Everyone is angry at the economic crisis and wants to punish establishment.”

Conceded Mónica Xavier, a Broad Front senator, “It will be a tenacious struggle to change things, but we think we’ll have room for maneuver. We seek unity in diversity, because a pure traditional left is simply not an option. Half of Uruguay’s children are poor and undernourished. The government’s excuse is the foreign debt, and while we won’t overlook it, we can’t pay it on the backs of hungry people. The solution depends upon permanent links to other countries, especially Argentina and Brazil.” Depending on the margin of victory, the Broad Front may try some reversals of privatisation and unpopular taxes, and also promote 100% literacy and a national health service.

The experience of Hugo Chávez’s rule was discussed by sociologist Edgardo Lander of the Venezuelan Central University. The president’s ascent was “extraordinarily dynamic and interesting, with the potential for political/cultural transformation at a deep level.” But the challenges are vast: “The process is permeated by danger. An authentic alternative to neoliberalism is not guaranteed. The consolidation of a more democratic society is needed. The leadership lacks clear definition and there is severe pressure by a very aggressive Empire.”

One reason for the fragility, says Lander, is that the Bolivaran activists “lacked the accumulated process of alternative. With the Venezuelan state on the verge of collapse, the country suffering a severe economic crisis, and the society isolated from the rest of continent, Chávez had many difficulties. Aside from surviving the 2002 coup attempt, the biggest challenge was getting hold of the oil company, which only happened after the management went on strike in late 2002. In the meantime, an orthodox macroeonomic policy was imposed, and foreign debt was repaid, although with no specific conditions by the IMF.”

The rightwing opposition continues to organise, using paranoia, anti-communism and what Lander termed “deep racism by the middle-sectors.” The referendum they have managed to schedule, on whether Chávez can continue to rule, is planned for August.

Notwithstanding embarrassment over the Bush regime’s endorsement of the April 2002 failed coup, Washington’s misnamed National Endowment for Democracy will play an active role. Even Bill Clinton’s opportunistic ex-marxist pollster Stanley Greenberg — who also worked for Nelson Mandela’ s African National Congress — has contracted to help the opposition. US-backed paramilitary maneuvres on the Colombian border suggest that the referendum vote is not the only threat to Chávez’s rule.

If Chávez survives again, he may yet have an opportunity to confront neoliberalism directly. According to Lander, he initially embraced the “two classical premises of the old economic model: a patriotic business class protected and supported by state; and sufficient state capacity. Both premises proved incorrect. In addition to political democratisation, Chávez has stressed the construction of a social economy, and within two years maybe a different development model can be applied.”

Bolivaran Circles of local activists and a slim majority in the Congress might be the basis for a way forward. But the rejuvination and medium/long-term success of the democratic struggle probably requires a much more serious confrontation with international capital, especially the financiers who insist on austerity, and that means also with the White House and State Department. A dramatic increase in US activist solidarity with democracy in Venezuela is, perhaps, a necessary prerequisite. Just as in the bad old days, the AFL-CIO is one of the barriers to generating that solidarity.

Finally, Brazil presents possibly the most tragic situation, given how much is at stake and how far Lula has diverged from the socialist traditions of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). PT member and academic Maria Helena Moreira Alves described the party’s stance: “This is an ongoing problem — us being accused of selling out — from 1982 on. Lula also goes to conventions of social movements.

Recently there was an Movement of Landless Workers meeting in Brasilia, which became very polemical. The critique of the agrarian reform was that it wasn’t fast enough. What happened? Lula went to the convention. It was a surprise for the bourgeoisie and the press: ‘Here I am again.’ So there’s a very close relationship, and also respect in the party that social movements are autonomous, not just transmission belts.”

Against complaints that several vocal leftist PT legislators were purged a few months earlier as internal dissent over state pension cuts emerged, she rebutted, “In 1984 still during the dictatorship, the eternal question of party discipline was discussed. We’d never want internal party Stalinism. But if we never had discipline it would be anarchic. The precedent for firing undisciplined members was the first woman elected as mayor of Sao Paolo, who was invited to be a minister in the national government. The party opposed it, and she did it anyway, so was suspended.”

Wisconsin law/sociology professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos objected: “I know the IMF was the force behind the pension cuts, because they stated clearly that they wanted privatisation, and I’m afraid to inform you that the PT leadership was willing to accept that.”

Also on the defensive, the chief of staff for Brasilia’s Ministry of Human Rights, Julio Marín, insisted that the 2002 compromises that gave PT leader 61% of the presidential vote were necessary: “In the PT, we have one million members, and still we never got more than 34% of the votes. We didn’t want to throw pebbles at windows, we wanted to be that window itself. When we hear the critiques, it really makes us angry. We’re not playing around in Brazil.”

On that point, says veteran marxist James Petras and three colleagues (Luciano Vasapollo, Henry Veltmeyer and Mauro Casadio) in a forthcoming book entitled Empire with Imperialism, “The Lula regime has been completely converted into a satellite of the empire – indiscriminately embracing the financial and agroexport elites that play an integral role in promoting free trade and recolonisation.”

But Brazilian neoliberalism is not that durable, and moreover, Petras et al continue, Washington must juggle at least seven severe vulnerabilities in order to maintain the roughly $60 billion in annual net surplus extraction from the region:

1) “clients and collaborators in Latin America are still in place, but their power is tenuous at best;

2) “mass resistance is building up throughout the region;

3) “the mercantilist, liberal-protectionist model of empire is provoking opposition among sectors of the Latin American export elites;

4) “the US seeks to monopolise the takeover of the remaining major public enterprises as they are privatised – avoiding the losses to Europe, especially Spain, during the previous wave in the 1990s;

5) “the military clients are still in place but they are not present everywhere and to the same degree particularly in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia;

6) “the US has the momentum of its military-political conquests to pressure and blackmail conformity on Latin America political elites; and

7) “the surprise conversion of two regimes – Lula’s in Brazil, Gutiérrez’s in Ecuador – to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and their vulnerability to mass opposition causes the empire builders to move with haste.”

Hence the region’s leftist forces continue setting inspiring examples in pro-democratic, anti-neoliberal (and indigenous-rights) mobilisations, but lessons for my comrades in Africa can also be drawn from the US empire’s agenda. Washington’s grip on Latin America parallels the African experience, as we have seen in the past few weeks, especially at Sea Island. I’ll come back to the comparisons in the next column.

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