Latin America after the Neoliberal Debacle: Another Region is Possible

Ximena de la Barra and Richard A. Dello Buono, Latin America after the Neoliberal Debacle: Another Region is Possible (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).

The 2008 economic crash and subsequent election of Barack Obama ended the neoconservative stranglehold over policy discourse in the United States. Earlier and more dramatically, substantial parts of Latin America began rejecting the neoconservatives’ development policy prescriptions as left and center-left governments came to power in South and Central America.

From the 1960s to the 1980s most Latin American countries attempted to build their own industries using protective tariffs and import substitution. Initially this strategy produced high growth rates, but then they began to slow in the 1970s. This coincided with the beginning of the neoconservative ascendancy in the United States – eventually embodied in the Reagan administration, which would export its economic remedies to Latin America, where they are referred to as neoliberalism.

Neoconservatism and neoliberalism are seemingly opposite words that refer to the same set of free market policies. The embrace of market fundamentalism in the centers of world power had clear repercussions in Latin America, as country after country shifted course to stay consistent with policy coming from the United States, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Inter-American Development Bank. Neoliberal prescription mandated free markets and trimming state industries, services, and expenses.

In many countries dictatorships ushered in the economic shift, a crucial point made by Ximena de la Barra and Richard A. Dello Buono in the present study. This is consistent with Naomi Klein’s thesis in The Shock Doctrine that followers of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School took advantage of national crises to put through neoliberal reforms which would have been rejected had people had the democratic possibility to do so. Chile is the classic example where fundamentalist neoliberal policy was implemented during the Pinochet dictatorship.

In Mexico, it took the rigged election of 1988 to put in power Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the architect of that country’s final abandonment of endogenous development. Referred to in the US press as the Mexican Gorbachev, Salinas de Gortari skillfully administered the entrenched authoritarian machinery of the long-ruling Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI) to implant neoliberal reforms, culminating with entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.

If the transition to neoliberal hegemony often required military dictatorships and authoritarianism, its proponents later sought to legitimate it with calls for a return to democracy. Not every country was marching in step, however, with the neoliberal model. In 1989, impoverished Venezuelans rioted against IMF restructuring policies, beginning the meltdown of the country’s traditional, seemingly democratic and stable, political establishment, a process that would culminate in the 1998 electoral victory of Hugo Chávez. Neoliberal hegemony, it turned out, was hegemonic in the dominant classes but not necessarily in the rest of civil society.

De la Barra and Dello Buono’s book is essentially about why neoliberal hegemony began to unravel and the challenges facing those who seek to replace it with a left-wing alternative. The authors thus begin with a double critique: of neoliberal economic policy and of the limitations of representative democracy – to which the left-wing alternatives are, respectively, “socialism for the 21st century” and participatory democracy. The commitment to democratization is fed by a recognition of what brought down “actually existing” socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Marta Harnecker, a key Chávez adviser, argues that the earlier socialisms had been achieved in the juridical sense of public ownership of the major means of production, but that this was not sufficient to give people the sense that the economy belonged to them. For that reason they did not defend the systems when they ran into crisis.

De la Barra and Dello Buono begin their exploration of the rapidly changing reality in Venezuela and other Latin American countries by showing how the liberal democracy celebrated by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History failed to improve the lives of most Latin Americans. Unemployment, low wages, and inequality continued unabated and often increased. Meanwhile social services, which had somewhat ameliorated those conditions, were cut back. That set the stage for the move to the left.

In Part II of the book they attempt a synthesis of what the new left social movements and governments are trying to accomplish. What they call the “reemergence of an emancipatory agenda” starts with a discussion of the original goals of the Cuban revolution and the adaptations that had to be made after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba remains an inspiration for much of the Latin American left if for no other reason than the sheer tenacity of its commitment to socialist ideals in the face of fifty years of hostility from the United States. From the 1960s to the 1980s Cuba’s most prominent link to the rest of Latin America was through its support of revolutionary movements and the revolutionary governments of Nicaragua and Grenada. Today its most visible link is the healthcare and education workers that it sends. Cuban doctors go to poor areas that local doctors refuse to enter out of fear or because patients are too poor to pay them.

The “emancipatory agenda” was evident in the Nicaragua’s 1979 Sandinista revolution, which, under a strong presidentialist system, was able to deliver impressive health and educational improvements during the 1980s. The United States, however, wore down that revolution by sponsoring the Contra war. Washington made it clear before the 1990 election that the war would go on if the Sandinistas were reelected. The Sandinistas lost narrowly to an opposition coalition. They then suffered serious internal divisions with many prominent leaders leaving the organization. De la Barra and Dello Buono argue that the presidentialist system that had served the FSLN well when it was in power was then turned against it to dismantle revolutionary and install neoliberal programs. In 2006 a less ambitious FSLN won a narrow electoral victory; they cautiously hold onto power while allying themselves with Venezuela, where a much more ambitious revolutionary project is underway.

In Mexico, the Zapatista armed uprising was intentionally launched on the day that NAFTA went into effect, January 1, 1994. The Zapatistas quickly bowed to the inevitability of military defeat and stopped fighting. Since then, there has been an uneasy truce as the Zapatistas and their leader, Subcomandante Marcos, have attempted to lead a civil society movement in the name of Mexico’s indigenous population—a movement that has succeeded more in capturing the imaginations of international sympathizers than in exercising actual power. The authors mention but do not delve deeply into the bitterness that others on the Mexican left have toward the Zapatistas from the 2006 national election. The Zapatistas, who embrace an anti-electoral strategy, told their followers not to vote, and this may have cost Andrés López Obrador of the center-left Partido de la Revolución Democrática the election. Mexico’s conservative Partido Acción Nacional government headed by President Felipe Calderón is out of step with the main movement to the left in the region.

Particularly important is the authors’ analysis of the need to rewrite constitutions to allow revolutionary transformations to go forward. This was critically important in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador where old constitutions were blocking substantive change. In their campaigns, Chávez, Morales, and Correa indentified the need for new constitutions and, once elected, followed through.

The last part of the book takes up the enduring problems of Latin America: foreign debt, US military invasions, and cultural domination from the north. It ends with a discussion of Simon Bolivar’s dream of creating one united country out of Latin America’s twenty republics with a combined population of 558 million as a counterweight to the hemispheric power of the United States. In that context they discuss the development of the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR), the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), the Bank of the South, and Chávez’s radically ambitious Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (ALBA), to replace the US-promoted Free Trade Agreement for the Americas (FTAA) — “NAFTA on steroids” in the eyes of its critics.

These are exciting days for the left in Latin America. Electoral victories have been replacing armed challenges, with the notable exception of Colombia. Just after this book came out, the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) won the presidential election in El Salvador, a particularly satisfying triumph given the viciousness of the counterinsurgency campaign that the United States sponsored against it in the 1980s. US domination thus appears to be waning along with neoliberal hegemony. De la Barra (who participated in the Allende socialist government in Chile) and Dello Buono are both seasoned observers of the wrenching, often unexpected, changes that Latin America has experienced from the 1960s to now. They bring their considerable skills to keeping us abreast of this fast-changing reality.

James W. Russell
Sociology Department
Eastern Connecticut State University

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