By Vijay Prashad
Elections in the past month in Latin America have brought the Left back to power, while protests on the streets have shifted the balance of forces in countries where elections are not due. The focus of attention in the region is not merely on the largely incompetent right-leaning governments, but the policies dictated by the U.S. and the IMF.
In September and October, an uprising swept through Ecuador and Chile, while elections in Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia resulted in the Left coming to power. These events signalled the return of the Left to the forefront of the history of the Caribbean and Latin America. At the end of this process, Havana (Cuba) hosted the Anti-Imperialist Solidarity Conference for Democracy and Against Neoliberalism. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro laid out the three fronts for the revival of the Left in the continent. First, there is the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), with Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua at the centre. These are countries that withstood the adverse current of the past decade. Second, in two major Latin American countries (Mexico and Argentina), Left-leaning governments have returned to power, while in two smaller countries (Bolivia and Uruguay), the Left has maintained its electoral advantage. Third, a new front has opened up on the streets of Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Haiti and Chile with people’s mobilisation and people’s movement in full display.
Maduro said while the United States blamed Cuba and Venezuela for these uprisings, “it is the International Monetary Fund [IMF] that is the only one to be blamed, together with its neoliberal allies. The ones being blamed—those on the streets—are searching for alternatives against the wild neoliberal policies that create hunger and misery.”
Maduro stood beside Cuba’s Raul Castro and Miguel Díaz-Canel at the conference. His body language suggested confidence. Intense U.S. pressure to overthrow the Venezuelan government has now dissipated. Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua have thus far defeated attempts to overthrow their governments. In fact, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, the architect of President Donald Trump’s policy to overthrow the “troika of tyranny”, has himself been fired. Surrounded by a revived Left, it is not Maduro who has lost power; it is the U.S. and its bloc that appear to be on the back foot.
A week after the Havana conference, Brazil’s judiciary was forced to release its imprisoned former President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who had spent 580 days in jail. His release sparked enthusiasm in the region, a sign that the champion of Brazil’s Left was back on the streets. Lula immediately took to the streets, lifted on the heads of his supporters in Sao Paulo. The Free Lula campaign had become a key part of the political world of Latin America’s Left and his release has given it immense buoyancy.
A few days after Lula’s release on November 8, a near coup was averted in Bolivia. The re-election of Evo Morales in the October 20 presidential election was challenged by the country’s oligarchy, which had seeded protests in the main cities against the election. The police joined these protests, and the threat of a coup hung heavy over the country. Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous President who came to power in 2006 and won two successive elections, seemed to have survived because the military initially declined to intervene in the political clash. But on November 10 Morales resigned and agreed to a fresh election and the setting up of a new election-monitoring board by Congress. On November 12, Morales, facing threats to his life, sought asylum and arrived in Mexico City. The sheer violence that the oligarchy visited upon indigenous leaders in the days when the coup seemed imminent suggests what they are capable of if Morales is removed from power. The memory of this violence will likely mobilise more people to the election, whenever it takes place, to re-elect Morales’ Movement for Socialism.
When Hugo Chavez won a landmark election in Venezuela in 1999, his victory was followed by election victories for the Left in one country after another. The phrase used to describe this phenomenon was the “pink tide”, or Marea Rosa. The alternative phrase used to describe the electoral wave was the “turn to the left”, or giro a la izquierda. This is a less elegant name but is far more accurate. The “turn to the left” went deeper as each of these Left governments hastily took advantage of high commodity prices to fight against deep problems of poverty. The governments did not all share the same kind of radicalism, but they nonetheless followed similar policies when it came to poverty alleviation. Venezuela’s government devolved power to the poor through about 30 “missions” to tackle hunger, illiteracy, health, housing, indigenous rights, and so on. Lula started a series of redistribution schemes such as Fome Zero (zero hunger) to provide the much-needed food to the hungry. In both Venezuela and Brazil, despite the differences, poverty and hunger rates declined significantly.
By 2015, for various reasons, the “turn to the left” saw the defeat of several progressive governments, and a return to the right. It appeared as if the pink tide had receded fully and now the right would take back power. But this was a faulty diagnosis, looking only at the election results and not at the resilience of the political and social movements, which continued their work in preparation for a return of the Left.
The energy levels in the encampments of the landless workers movement (MST) in Brazil did not abate after the inauguration of neo-fascist Jair Bolsonaro as the President of the country on January 1, 2019. “We will keep fighting,” said one MST activist after another. None seemed gloomy. “We emerged during the time of the dictatorship,” MST leader Joao Pedro Stedile told this writer early this year. “This situation is difficult, but our task is clear: defeat the right wing and build our own strength.” These were brave words. Bolsonaro had just called the MST “terrorists” and said, chillingly, that they should be “treated with bullets”. In the Amazon, where mining and agrobusiness conglomerates are eager to be dominant, violence picked up speedily. Leaders of the landless and anti-dam activists felt the hard edge of steel; murders and intimidation became a daily reality. Nonetheless, the mood in the encampments and settlements remained defiant. “We will keep fighting,” was their motto.
Further south, earlier this year, massive protests took place in Argentina both to fight for legal abortion and to battle the IMF deal struck by the right-wing President Mauricio Macri. Carrying the trademark green kerchief, feminists took to the squares of Argentina to argue against the cruel conservatism represented by Macri. On other days, the same people held signs against austerity, bitter about what they called the “Macrisis” that devastated the livelihoods of ordinary people. Hunger had risen in Argentina, which is what provoked protests for an emergency Bill to provide food to people. Members of the Left front, Patria Grande, smiled when I asked them about their resilience. “We are fighting daily,” said Manuel Bertoldi of Patria Grande as we walked along the streets of Buenos Aires.
At the top of South America, the political situation in Colombia appeared fraught. The left-wing guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), had come to the government with the offer of a truce in 2016. Complex negotiations took place in Havana, which ended with a way forward for peace. But, in a contentious election in which the right wing fought against the peace process, the agreement was not accepted by the majority of the Colombian population. The right wing, pushed by President Ivan Duque’s camp, began to intimidate and kill former FARC fighters who entered the above-ground political domain. By the summer of 2019, between 289 (government figures) and 738 (Indepaz numbers) ex-fighters were killed by right-wing militias. Kelly Martinez, who lives in the Tierra Grata reintegration camp, told Reuters: “Our only weapons now are our words and that’s how we are going to continue.”
From one end of Latin America and the Caribbean to another, despite defeats at the ballot box and despite what appeared to be the erosion of the left-wing process that began with the election victory of Chavez in 1999, the struggles continued undaunted. And it is these struggles that have now borne fruit. Elections in the past month have brought the Left back to power, while protests on the streets have shifted the balance of forces in countries where elections are not due. In all these countries, the focus of attention is not merely on the largely incompetent right-leaning governments, but the policies that are made in Washington by the U.S. government and the various multilateral organisations, whose agenda is dictated by the U.S. Treasury Department. For good reason, the protests in Ecuador and Chile could be called IMF riots, while the elections in Argentina and Colombia could be called IMF elections.
In 2017, as the right-wing wave swept across the American hemisphere, representatives of 12 countries met in Lima (Peru) to form a bloc. The purpose of the Lima Group was to overthrow the Maduro government in Venezuela. The U.S. had tried to end the Bolivarian Revolution almost as soon as it had begun in 1999. A coup d’etat failed in 2002, but this did not deter Washington. However, the chaos caused by the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq deflected attention elsewhere, and the pink tide in the Caribbean and Latin America prevented a full-scale attack on Venezuela.
By 2017, almost 20 years into the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela seemed an easier target. Reduced commodity prices produced economic problems for the country, and a series of right-wing governments were now present around the region. The coup in Honduras in 2009 began a process that brought right-leaning governments to power in most of the countries that went to Lima, including Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico—the largest and most important countries in that group. Canada, with significant mining interests in Venezuela, led the group on behalf of the U.S. Diplomatic isolation came first, followed rapidly by economic isolation, led by harsh U.S. sanctions. Venezuela, already struggling from low commodity prices, saw its economy go into a tailspin.
The point of the Lima Group and the U.S. intervention was to create a social disaster in Venezuela. U.S. officials openly talked about using the full range of hybrid war techniques to create chaos in Venezuela. In 2018, the former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, said that the U.S., multilateral organisations and the Lima Group should “accelerate the collapse” of Venezuela. “We should do it,” he said, “understanding that it’s going to have an impact on millions and millions of people who are already having great difficulty finding enough to eat.” On the basis of this cruel judgment, the various right-wing governments in the region hardened their blockade on Venezuela. It was clear to the U.S. that if it could overthrow the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, it could weaken Cuba and force the collapse of the Cuban Revolution.
In January 2019, the U.S. attempted an open coup against the Maduro government. It set up a pretender government led by Juan Guaido, a minor legislator, and used every means, including sabotage, to weaken the government, create social disorder, fracture the Bolivarian support base and erode the government’s authority. This hybrid war struck hard, with Venezuela finding its gold reserves in the United Kingdom stolen, its ability to use international financial channels closed, and its facilities to sell oil sealed. An almost total embargo of the country and its 32 million people went into place.
A report by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research found that from August 2017, Trump’s sanctions had killed at least 40,000 people and reduced the availability of food and medicines. These sanctions, which remain in effect, prevent 80,000 people with HIV from obtaining anti-retroviral drugs, 16,000 people from getting regular dialysis, 16,000 with cancer from getting treatment and four million people with diabetes and hypertension from getting insulin and cardiovascular medicines. The social impact of these sanctions has been catastrophic.
Yet, the government did not fall. In fact, rally upon rally of the people on the streets of the main cities suggested that popular support from the working class, the peasantry and the urban poor seemed to be with the government. Frustration led the U.S. and its asset, Guaido, to attempt a military coup in April 2019. This failed. Maduro remained in power. Venezuela’s economy remains fragile and its social life has been deeply impacted by sanctions. Yet, the political commitment of a large part of the population to remain with the government is clear.
The hybrid war against Venezuela did not succeed. The determination of the Bolivarian Revolution to stand its ground provided an inspiration on the continent. It is important to recognise that from Mexico to Chile, there has been a clear-sighted understanding that the U.S.’ hybrid war on Venezuela was not for “human rights” or “democracy” but to expand its imperial interests. The defeat of the U.S.’ in Venezuela provided the confidence across the region to deepen the struggle not only against the tentacles of the U.S. and the IMF, but also against local oligarchies.
Even if it looked like the pink tide, or the turn to the left, had abated, protests and mobilisations against the policies of the IMF and the far right never stopped. Whether it was students of Chile who fought against the rise of university fees from 2015 or the indigenous communities of Ecuador, who fought against environmental devastation, protests shaped the political world of South America. When these small protests manifested themselves in much larger forms in Chile and Ecuador, the pace of history speeded up. The situation seemed almost revolutionary. In Chile, it began following a hike in metro fares; in Ecuador, the scrapping of fuel subsidy by the Lenin Morena government sparked protests. But in both cases, it was actually a much broader rebellion against the austerity budgets of the IMF and against the corrupt political class that seemed more beholden to the U.S. Treasury Department than to their own citizens.
Young people took the lead in both countries, although in both Ecuador and Chile the question of the indigenous communities framed the uprisings. In Ecuador, matters are simpler, since the spine of the Left is formed around the indigenous communities and their political organisations. They, along with student organisations and trade unions, took the lead in the fight. In Chile, at a major manifestation in Plaza Italia in Santiago, protesters flew a flag of the Mapuche on top of a statue. For generations, organisations of the Mapuche have fought for dignity and for their rights as workers. Recently, the Chilean state used anti-terror ordinances to go after Mapuche leaders (such as Machi Francisca Lincona). The centrality of the indigenous communities in these uprisings is not surprising. Indigenous communities played an important role in the pink tide, not only in Bolivia, which is a majority indigenous society, but also in Venezuela.
The uprisings disoriented the governments of Lenin Moreno (Ecuador) and Sebastian Pinera (Chile), and so these right-wing governments, which were called upon to resign by protesters, were forced to concede the demands from the streets. What impact this will have on Washington is to be seen. The U.S. Treasury Department and the IMF set certain parameters so that they are followed to the letter; there is no room for negotiation with the streets. Already, the governments in Ecuador and Chile sent out their well-armed police and paramilitary forces. Tear gas came alongside saccharine concessions. It is the tear gas that will likely have the greater impact. But Moreno and Pinera know that it is not going to be easy to keep their streets clear. The cascading protests have created an expectation in both countries. It will be hard to entirely ignore the energetic population.
Washington did not want Evo Morales to be re-elected. He has been a symbol for the underdog in Latin America. Both Morales and Maduro are working-class men who have governed under immense pressure from Washington. This has earned Morales respect. But more than that, during his three terms in office from 2006, Morales managed to tackle historical inequalities that go back to 1542, when the Spanish conquistadors overthrew the Inca Empire. Pressure on the streets to deny Morales the electoral mandate he got in the October election forced him to resign on November 10.
At one level, there is confusion. Why are protests in Chile and Ecuador not the same as protests in Bolivia? People are on the streets; people are making demands. Yet, the politics of the situation is utterly different. In Chile and Ecuador, the working class, the urban poor, students and the indigenous are on the streets to expand the mandate of democracy.
In Bolivia, it is the middle class that is on the streets to curtail the democratisation process inaugurated by the people in 2006. This class difference produces a variety of reactions to the protests: Washington backs the people on the streets in Bolivia but not those in Chile and Ecuador. The Left backs the people in Chile and Ecuador but not the middle-class protesters in Bolivia. It is this that defines the attitude towards these countries and not a simple support of protest for protest’s sake.
Argentina’s voters roundly rejected their incumbent President Mauricio Macri. His return to the IMF for a massive $57-billion loan was his downfall. This has put Argentina against the ropes. Even the winners, Alberto Fernandez and Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, concede that they will face serious challenges in the years ahead. But nonetheless, they benefited from a massive anti-IMF surge. The victory of their slate, Front for Everyone, has turned the eyes from across the region towards Buenos Aires. Their creativity in government will further embolden others in the region to recover hope in the possibility of a new pink tide. It is improbable to imagine that in Colombia shudders of the new pink tide might find a place. Colombia’s right-wing government had pushed aside the 2016 peace deal with the FARC, and it had played a leading, even volatile, role in the hybrid war against Venezuela. Nonetheless, in the local and regional elections on October 29, elements of the Left broke through to win key mayoralties.
A former FARC commander, Guillermo Torres (known as Julian Conrado in the FARC), won the seat in the town of Turbaco, not far from Cartagena. But even more dramatically, Claudia Lopez of the Alianza Verde (Green Party) is the new mayor of Bogota, Colombia’s capital. Claudia Lopez is the first woman to hold this post, and the first openly gay mayor as well.
In the country’s second largest city, Medellin, the new feminist political movement, Estamos Listas (We’re Ready), won its first city council seat with the victory of Dora Saldarriaga, a lawyer and professor. In the town of Silvia (Cauca), Mercedes Tunubala Velasco won the mayor’s post. She comes from the Misak indigenous community and is not only the first woman in this post but also the first person from an indigenous community.
Whether in Argentina or in Colombia, the fight against machismo and the machistas has played a major role in consolidating the pole of the Left. This is so even in Venezuela and Brazil, where thousands of women form the most important pillars of the progressive and Left movements. Whether it be the mayor of Caracas (Venezuela), Erika Farias Pena, or the youngest legislator to ever be elected in Argentina, Ofelia Fernandez, powerful women form an important part of the Left, and they have put the question of machismo at the centre of discussions. Leaders such as Mercedes Tunubala Velasco of Colombia and Milagro Sala of Argentina have made it impossible to set aside the indigenous question from the politics of this resurgent Left. These women do not see feminist or indigenous concerns as identity issues, fissures of discontent that should be met in a fragmentary way.
Ofelia Fernandez of Patria Grande and the Front for Everyone does not want to define her politics narrowly. She wanted to make it clear to me when I interviewed her in Buenos Aires that feminism must take up all the social issues from a feminist perspective, not allow itself to be restricted to “women’s issues”, which are themselves, she pointed out, everyone’s issues.
In the poorer parts of Argentina, organisations have emerged to fight against the outcome of the crisis. Hunger is a serious issue, with special emphasis on the hunger of children. Most of the leaders of these popular organisations, Ofelia Fernandez said, were women. Their fight around the economy of care and against austerity must also be seen as a feminist fight. The fight against hunger, she said, was also feminism. That is the stance of this newly resurgent pink tide, this new turn to the left.
Featured image: Cuban Communist Party leader and former President Raul Castro, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel at the solidarity conference in Havana on November 3. | Photo Credit: MIRAFLORES PALACE