Tony Saunois, Committee for a Workers’ International
Latin America is convulsed in political turmoil and crisis. Throughout the continent the effects of the Covid pandemic, which compounded the economic and social crisis, have not been overcome. Economic growth and employment have failed to return to the levels which existed pre-pandemic. 30 million workers with jobs officially live below the poverty line – millions higher than before Covid.
The continent was rocked in 2019-20 by mass uprisings and social revolt. Millions took to the streets in Chile following a national uprising, and a general strike took place in Ecuador. Colombia followed with an historic general strike and mass movement of the poor. Peru was shaken by a series of strikes and mobilisations. In Chile, Colombia and Ecuador the power of the mass movements had the potential to overthrow the right-wing reactionary regimes there. In Ecuador, the government was forced to flee the capital, Quito, in 2019. But, the lack of organisation and clear political objectives at the time allowed the regimes to cling to power by a thread, despite a collapse in approval ratings and social support.
However, much of the continent has now experienced a second ‘pink wave’ with the election of a series of ‘left’ governments. Gabriel Boric in Chile won the presidency, followed by Gustavo Petro in Colombia. Petro’s election victory represents an historic turn, as it is the first time the ‘left’ has won an election to the presidency in Colombia. It represents a blow to the ruling class and oligarchs which rule Colombia, and also to US imperialism, which has rested on Colombia as one of its closest allies in the region.
The first ‘pink wave’ saw the coming to power of a series of left regimes like those of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1999, Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2006 and Rafael Correa in Ecuador in 2007. These regimes were driven by powerful revolutionary processes among the masses. Motivated by a revolutionary upsurge, they encroached upon the interests of capitalism and imperialism. At the same time, other far less radical governments came to power, like in Brazil under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva or the Peronist national governments of the Kirchners in Argentina.
However, these governments failed to break with capitalism, and the reforms they introduced were reversed step by step by the ruling class. Corruption, bureaucratic methods and lack of workers’ democratic control stifled the regimes, which increasingly saw their support eroded.
At subsequent elections, a series of right-wing neoliberal governments and parties were elected. Sebastián Piñera in Chile, Mauricio Macri in Argentina, later the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and, most recently, Guillermo Lasso in Ecuador. In Venezuela, although the right-wing opposition has not been able to oust Nicolás Maduro, who became president after the death of Chávez, the economic collapse, compounded by US sanctions, corruption and bureaucratic methods has resulted in the regime morphing back into the pre-Chávez capitalist governments.
The protracted swing to the right by Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua bears no resemblance to the initial Sandinista regimes and revolutions of the 1980s. Ortega, despite being opposed by US imperialism, is ruling in the same despotic manner the former Samoza dictatorship, which the Sandinistas overthrew in the 1980s.
The right-wing governments came to power more as a consequence of protest, resulting from disillusionment with the failure of the ‘left’ governments which were imprisoned within the straitjacket of capitalism. The social explosions which rapidly erupted against them illustrate that they lacked a consolidated social base of ideological support for right-wing neoliberal policies. Although, as Brazil illustrates, Bolsonaro does maintain a core of solid supporters.
Ecuador, which elected the right-wing government of Lasso in May 2021, was less than a year later faced with another mass uprising. On 13 June, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, CONAIE, began staging protests across the country demanding economic reforms. The movement demanded increased fuel subsidies, price control of agricultural goods, and the ending of government decrees that eased mining and oil drilling.
The movement intensified much more rapidly than in 2019. From day one, police patrol cars were burned, police were detained by the mass protests and private companies were threatened. Within two weeks of the movement oil production – its main export – was down 50%. The driving force was the increase in petrol prices and food inflation. Despite initially trying to repress the movement, the Ecuadorian government has been forced to make concessions, which have resulted in the movement being suspended, although it could erupt at any time.
Central banks in Latin America have implemented interest rate increases which have fueled both poverty and anger. Fearful of confronting mass social explosions, the newly elected governments of the second ‘pink wave’ have so far not adopted such policies as radical as those introduced during the first ‘pink wave’ in Venezuela, Bolivia or Ecuador.
In Chile, Boric has seen his approval rating plunge within a few months of taking office. He has formed a government with many of the former parties that were in power, and which were totally discredited. All the corrupted ‘centre’ parties, apart from the Christian Democrats, are now back in government.
The promise Boric made to allow the release of pension funds has been weakened. A state of ‘exception’ has been declared, allowing the use of the military against the Mapuche people in their territories in the south. Strikes by miners, in opposition to closures of copper mines on environmental grounds with no guarantee of alternative work or no loss of pay, have seen the police deployed against them.
The mass movement in 2019 compelled the Chilean ruling elite to agree a process to consider rewriting the constitution bequeathed by former dictator Augusto Pinochet. The Constitutional Convention has drafted a very mild replacement which, while speaking of rights to housing, education and a decent life, makes no provision of how to achieve them. Demands for the nationalisation of the copper industry, raised during the mass movement, are not mentioned. Even the mild reform of the constitution is too much for the far right, which has launched a ferocious campaign against it. It remains uncertain if it will be accepted or rejected in a national plebiscite in September.
In Peru, the government of president Pedro Castillo plunged into crisis only weeks after being elected. Moving rapidly to the right, he was ejected from the party Peru Libre which he stood for when he won the election. He has been through four prime ministers since winning in 2021. Inflation, and especially the rise in food and fuel costs, is a crucial factor in the crisis.
Despite the historic victory of Petro in Colombia, he has unfortunately also taken the route of trying to manage capitalism and appease the ruling class and its political representatives. He has formed alliances with the ‘centre’ and ‘centre-right’ – the same parties that he has spent years opposing when he adopted a more radical left agenda.
Petro promised a land reform programme, a crucial issue in Colombia, that will prove a crucial test. Yet compromising with representatives of Colombian capitalism and landlordism will not result in serious land reform being carried through. Every attempt by previous governments has been thwarted and, in reality, abandoned in a serious form.
The depth of the crisis shaking Latin America is reflected in the crisis of the left parties and their leaders which have won recent elections. Rather than draw lessons from the first ‘pink wave’ which attempted to remain with the framework of capitalism, they have compounded the mistakes and repeated them on a higher level in a deeper world crisis.
It cannot be excluded that, faced with renewed massive social explosions, which are certain in the coming months and years, they could be pushed in a more radical direction, but this is not the trajectory they are on at this stage.
Every country in Latin America is now facing political or social convulsions. There is no stability. A growing source of social conflict is the worsening environmental crisis. In Chile, from the Atacama desert to Patagonia, a 13-year mega-drought has strained fresh water resources to breaking point. By the end of 2021, 50% of Chileans were living in areas suffering from “severe water scarcity”.
By April, an unprecedented water rationing plan was announced for the capital Santiago. During the mass movement in 2019, the cry was often heard: “It’s not drought, its theft”, as Chile has one of the most privatised water systems in the world – a product of Pinochet’s constitution which guaranteed “water rights to be treated as private property”.
Capitalism is the cause of the water crisis. 59% of water resources go to forestry – to the big companies to cut and sell wood. 37% goes to agriculture – to grow and export fruit and avocados. Just 2% is set aside for human consumption! Drought and water shortages were also a significant part of the struggle in Ecuador. The struggle over natural resources and the environment are increasingly becoming class issues which conflict with capitalism and private ownership.
The crisis in Argentina is explosive. The Peronist government is split and weakened over how to manage the ongoing debt crisis. The public debt stands at 67% of GDP, and has been reduced from over 80% – paid for by the working class. With inflation ravaging the economy at over 80%, big battles are poised to erupt. Politically, the socialist left alliance FIT made important gains at the last election – in the working-class city of San Salvador de Jujuy it took 25% of the vote. In the working-class areas of Buenos Aires it managed to score up to 10% in previously solid Peronist strongholds.
The mass demonstration of nearly 500,000 throughout the country against poverty in 2022 is an anticipation of struggles to come. The crucial task confronting the FIT is whether it can now take further steps forward to reach out to Peronist workers and develop beyond an electoral alliance of various Trotskyist organisations into a party, with a federal character, rooted in the struggles of the working class and local communities. The protests against the International Monetary Fund and the demand for non-payment of the foreign debt are crucial demands for the working class in Argentina and Latin America as a whole.
The convulsions taking place throughout the continent can be crystallised in the clash that is pending in Brazil in the October elections. Bolsonaro is trailing badly in the polls, which point to a victory for Lula who is standing again for the Workers’ Party (PT). However, Lula is reassuring the ruling class that he is a safe pair of hands for them and can be relied on to defend capitalism. He has selected as his running mate for the vice presidency Geraldo Alckmin, a member of the capitalist PMDP, who Lula and the PT have fought against in the past.
The left socialist party PSOL has mistakenly taken the decision not to stand in the presidential election, which it could do in the first round without threatening the possibility of Bolsonaro winning. Standing in the first round would help prepare the ground for future struggles, which are certain to erupt under a pro-capitalist Lula presidency. The elections in Brazil can become even more convulsive should, as seems possible, Bolsonaro attempt some sort of coup, involving sections of the army, and attempts to cling to power.
This would open the prospect of a massive polarisation and conflict in Brazil, with an element of a civil war. This, the ruling class would hope to avoid at all costs. However, they are not in control of Bolsonaro and his supporters. Lula, coming to power during such a situation would open the way for a massive upsurge in struggle and demands for a change.
The waves of struggle and political convulsions sweeping the continent pose sharply the need for the lessons of the past to be learnt, especially the need to build mass workers’ parties with a programme to break with capitalism and introduce a socialist programme. Latin America has entered a renewed cycle of struggle and upheaval. New parties of the working class need to be urgently built, which can pose the idea of fighting for a voluntary democratic socialist federation of the continent. This is the only way to end the cycle of crisis and upheaval which capitalism guarantees.