Chile protests 2019, photo Carlos Figueroa/CC,

Chile protests 2019, photo Carlos Figueroa/CC,   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Tony Saunois, secretary, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

Latin America continues to be ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, with no end in sight. The horrific death toll of 1,303,000 officially recorded in Latin America and the Caribbean is likely the worst experienced on the continent since the arrival of the conquistadors from Spain and Portugal.

By far the worst case is Brazil, with over 531,000 ‘massacred’ by the far-right populist government of Jair Bolsonaro. Peru, with 193,000 deaths, has the unenviable claim of the highest number of deaths per head of population of any country in the world.

The health crisis has had a devastating effect on the economy, driving millions more into destitution and poverty. As the regional GDP (total economic output) plummeted by 7% in 2020, millions more people fell into poverty, taking the estimated total to nearly 250 million. In Brazil alone, an estimated 18 million crashed into poverty during 2020.

2020 also saw a resurgence of a revolutionary wave sweeping the continent: mass mobilisations and a political radicalisation to the left in many countries. Although at the same time, there were elements of counterrevolution.

In April this year, a revolutionary movement began in Colombia and lasted for over a month. This involved a general strike and mass protests mobilising millions of workers, indigenous peoples, youth and others, threatening the murderous government of President Iván Duque with overthrow.

Forced into offering a concession on its proposed increase in VAT, the government responded with brutal repression, gunning down more than 40 protesters and leaving more than 100 people ‘missing’.

In the same month in Chile, mass protests and a general strike call, which demanded that workers be allowed to withdraw a further 10% from their pension funds in order to survive, defeated the Piñera government. This was then followed in May by a crushing defeat of the right and traditional parties in elections to the Constitutional Convention (to rewrite the Pinochet-era dictatorship constitution). Of the 155 convention members elected, the right-wing ‘Vamos Chile’ secured just 37 and the ‘centre-right’ Concertácion a mere 25.

The elections to this body were the by-product of the mass revolutionary wave which swept the country in 2019. The winners in the election were the left, including a block of ‘independents’ which won seats along with the Communist Party. The other big ‘winner’ was abstentions, given that the turnout was only 44%.

Then in June this year, the capitalist class in Peru suffered a big defeat when the left candidate, Pedro Castillo, narrowly won the presidential elections, defeating Keiko Fujimori – daughter of the former dictator Alberto Fujimori.

Protests have also rocked Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and many other countries, including Haiti, where – prior to the recent assassination of President Jovenel Moïse – a mass upsurge in struggle threatened the overthrow of the government.

As these events have unfolded throughout the continent, Brazil has plunged into political turmoil and upheaval as Bolsonaro faces his biggest crisis since coming to power. The horrific health, economic and political crises have delivered a hammer blow to Bolsonaro’s murderous regime.

The decision by the judiciary to release from prison Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, ‘left’ president of Brazil from 2003-2010, is a potentially devastating blow to Bolsonaro’s regime.

Opinion polls point to Lula, from the Workers’ Party (PT), beating Bolsonaro by a crushing majority in elections scheduled for 2022. Big protests have taken place throughout Brazil against Bolsonaro. These are fuelled by the latest revelations of corruption charges against him.

The coming to power of the right in a number of countries did not represent a powerful ideological swing to the right. Much of the electoral support these forces won was a reaction against the failures of the previous ‘left’ governments – the so-called ‘pink wave’ which had swept the continent but failed to break with capitalism through revolutionary democratic socialist measures. These governments, often involved in corruption scandals, became identified as the ‘political establishment’ as far as big sections of society were concerned.

The massive protests that brought millions to the streets in Brazil in 2013, ignited by transport fare increases, showed the anger which existed in Brazil at the time. It was, however, not directed against one political party but against all the parties and political institutions.

Bolsonaro regime

The resulting political vacuum allowed Bolsonaro to step in to ‘save the country’ and ‘restore order’. He is like Trump – but on steroids! Openly supporting the military dictatorship which ruled from 1964-85, Bolsonaro’s only criticism of it is that it ‘did not kill enough people’ and failed to ‘exterminate the left’!

The Bolsonaro regime has stumbled from crisis to crisis but is determined to cling to power. Despite collapsing support in the polls, it is not excluded that Bolsonaro may try to use the military, or a section of it, and attempt a coup should he lose, or be threatened with losing, next year’s election.

Although the commanders-in-chief of the army, navy and air force resigned in protest at his actions, he still retains a base of support within the armed forces. Should a coup be attempted, it is certain to provoke an explosion of opposition and wave of struggle.

Fear of such a development will mean the main sections of the ruling class will strive to avoid such a development. However, the deranged regime of Bolsonaro is not under their control, as events have already demonstrated.

Explosive developments of this character in Latin America’s largest and most powerful country will have repercussions throughout the continent and internationally. Latin America was in the midst of a serious economic crisis even prior to the onset of Covid-19. This has been compounded by the pandemic.

Argentina has been devastated. The economy officially shrank by 10% in 2020 – the third straight year of recession. Four out of ten Argentinians are living in poverty. Gripped by stagflation, the Peronist government of Alberto Fernández is divided and in turmoil over how to deal with the crisis. This includes a massive foreign debt – US$45 billion to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) alone.

Brutal austerity conditions were imposed by the IMF on the former right-wing government of Mauricio Macri which negotiated the deal. The austerity measures he introduced provoked a series of general strikes and opened the way for the Peronists to return to power. But they also now face a deepening political and social crisis.

The IMF and Paris Club (capitalist world powers’ ‘debt collectors’) are now adopting a more ‘lenient’ approach to debt repayment for fear of triggering a social explosion and the possibility of a debt default, which would have serious international repercussions.

Argentina is the IMF’s largest debtor at this stage. The demand for non-payment of the crippling foreign debt, together with nationalisation of the banks under democratic workers’ control and management, is one of the key demands for revolutionary socialists in Latin America.

The crucial question for the working class and youth is how these struggles can be advanced to victory; how the corrupt regimes in power and the capitalist system can be defeated.

While a new revolutionary wave is sweeping much of the continent, a big political vacuum also exists, with the absence of mass parties of the working class. The absence of combative democratic organisations to spearhead the struggles which have taken place, with a programme and strategy to take the movement forward, has resulted in the movements becoming dispersed or entering a downturn for a period.

This is graphically reflected in Chile. In 2019, the Piñera government was left hanging in mid-air and could have been overthrown, but for the lack of organisation of the movement and a programme to take it forward.

The government was saved in November 2019 by the ‘agreement for peace and the new constitution’, which was supported by the big majority of the political blocs in the congress.

However, the social movement was not defeated, it merely entered a low ebb. The recent elections to the Constitutional Convention are a product of the mass movement in a distorted form. But the political vacuum still remains in the convention itself. Failure to satisfy the demands of the mass movement will see its revival in the coming months, posing in an even sharper manner the need for organisation and a political voice of the working class with revolutionary socialist policies.

In Colombia, the movement did assume a more organised form through the national strike committee (CNP), comprised of trade unions and some students unions. Unfortunately, this was held back by the trade union leaders.

Local strike and defence committees which were formed needed to come together in a national assembly of elected delegates to agree a plan to overthrow the government and replace it with one of workers, peasants, indigenous peoples, and the poor. Rather than launch a struggle to overthrow the capitalist government, which was hanging by a thread, the CNP called off the protests.

The need for an independent organisation and programme of the working class is central to the success of the new wave of political radicalisation. The pressure to seek agreement with ‘progressive’ or ‘democratic’ sections of the capitalist class is re-emerging in these movements, resulting in parties and leaders on the left compromising on programme to form alliances with them.

Progressive capitalism

Unity of the masses – of workers, youth and all those exploited by capitalism – is necessary. Yet this is not the same as reaching a compromise with ‘liberal’ capitalists, which is the road to defeat of the movement.

In Brazil, one of the leaders of PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party), Marcelo Freixo, has left the party which he helped to establish in 2005. He has joined the capitalist misnamed Brazilian Socialist Party, claiming the next election would not be about “left versus right, but civilisation against barbarism”.

He argued that leaving the party was necessary to attract right-wing figures who oppose Bolsonaro, adding that PSOL would eventually join a coalition with the right anti-Bolsonaro forces.

The Committee for a Workers’ International is in favour of PSOL standing in any presidential election and fighting for an independent class position to prepare the forces to fight for a socialist alternative. In the second round of the election, most likely Bolsonaro against Lula, a vote against Bolsonaro would be necessary.

The victory of Castillo in Peru, and growth of the party that supported him – Peru Libre, which adheres to ‘Marxism and Leninism’ – has terrified the ruling class. The crucial question now is what measures Castillo will take to break with capitalism.

While his election represented a big step forward, during the campaign he moderated his programme. Since his election, his economic advisors have argued that his government will respect the market and honour Peru’s foreign debt repayments.

Castillo’s victory will open a new chapter in the struggles of the masses in Peru, and the prospect of a mass movement could force him in a more radical direction. However, if a programme to break with capitalism is not implemented, it will give the reactionary right-wing forces time to regroup and strike back.

In Bolivia, former left-leaning president Evo Morales failed to break with capitalism and was removed by an effective coup in 2019, following which his government resigned.

This is a warning to Castillo. Although elections in 2020 saw Morales’ party MAS (Movement for Socialism) returned to power in Bolivia, it remains imprisoned in capitalism, without the economic benefit which Morales had for much of his terms in office, based on the boom in commodity prices.

During this new wave of upheaval and struggle, it is crucial that the lessons of the ‘pink wave’ are learnt. The revolutionary upheavals went furthest in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Yet the failure to break with capitalism, and the top-down, bureaucratic, corrupt methods used by most of the leadership in those countries, acted as a break on the movement and resulted in social and economic catastrophe, especially in Venezuela and Ecuador.

In Ecuador, this has allowed the right wing to make a comeback for a period. Venezuela, like some other countries, including parts of Mexico, faces social disintegration and a humanitarian disaster as millions have fled the country.

The US embargo on Venezuela and Cuba, continued by Biden, has undoubtedly worsened the situation. However, with a rupture with capitalism and a real system of democratic workers’ control and management this could have been overcome, and an appeal made to the working class of the rest of Latin America.

The need for a politically conscious movement of the working class with workers’ democracy and control is crucial. Bureaucratic, top-down methods are not the road to achieve the socialist revolution.

The situation in Nicaragua underlines the disaster such methods can lead to. There, the Sandinista revolution in 1979 overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. However, the revolution did not conclusively break with capitalism and used bureaucratic administrative methods. Sections of the leadership, especially Daniel Ortega, swung to right.

Defeated by the US-backed Violeta Chamorro in the elections in 1990, Ortega was returned to power in 2006, having agreed a pact with the Roman Catholic Church. He now rules a corrupt dynasty with his wife as vice-president.

An uprising in 2018 was brutally repressed. Arresting opponents, including former Sandinistas in this election, the Ortega regime has morphed back into Somoza 2.0. The same process has gripped Venezuela under Maduro.

The new wave of struggle and political radicalisation sharply poses the need to build mass parties of the working class with a revolutionary socialist programme. The absence of these forces opens the prospect of a more protracted series of struggles and upheavals – of struggle between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution – until this issue of the crisis of leadership is resolved.