Latin America Today: The Revolt Against Neoliberalism
Today the specter haunting capitalism journeys through Latin America. The region’s ongoing social and political upheaval—be it through the ballot box or direct mass action—threatens the hegemony of global capital and neoliberal ideology. In an unprecedented cycle of strikes, mass mobilizations and popular insurrections extending from the early 1990s to the present, the marginalized, exploited and despised subaltern classes have drawn on deeply rooted traditions of struggle to bring down corrupt and authoritarian regimes closely identified with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and Washington. Important electoral victories have been achieved in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and Uruguay. Mass direct action has toppled governments in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Argentina. Government proposals to privatize public services have been soundly defeated in Uruguay, Peru, and Bolivia. In Mexico, the peasants of San Salvador Atenco blocked plans to build a new airport on their agricultural lands, and in Peru the peasants and provincial authorities in Tambo Grande kept agricultural land from being taken over by a multinational mining company.
Confronted by the retrenchment of the state from its most basic social duties, many popular movements and organizations mobilize to address such aspects of everyday life as housing, nutrition, childcare, education, and productive work. One thinks here of the communal kitchens in Peru, squatter organizations in Uruguay, cooperatives of unemployed workers in Argentina, landless peasants in Brazil, and the autonomous municipalities and Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Councils) in the territories in Mexico controlled by the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army). Driven by principles of solidarity, self-respect, collective participation and communal interest, these popular institutions constitute a powerful challenge to the individualism, self-interest and exclusion that are the core values of neoliberalism. They also constitute a frontal assault on post-Cold War triumphalism and on the neoliberal celebration of unrestricted markets, free trade and electoral regimes as the only possible path to a modern, democratic and civilized existence.
In opposition to this agenda, the new subaltern movements offer a politics of hope, which is the focus of this special issue of Socialism and Democracy. Analysis of Latin America’s anti-systemic rebellions and social movements becomes all the more imperative as the U.S. hastily regroups forces to restore the neoliberal order which has been under attack since the early 1990s. The recent visit of Condoleezza Rice to Latin America, the White House's aggressive campaign to force the approval of CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement), Bush’s threats to interfere with the transmissions of Telesur (the news and TV network established between Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina and Uruguay), and, more ominous, the expansion of Washington’s geo-strategic reach with the Paraguayan government's recent authorization of a military base in the Triple Border region with Brazil and Argentina, are telling expressions of the U.S. effort to reassert its imperial presence and to restore the confidence of its chastised local elites.
The neoliberal offensive had its foundational moment in that other September 11 in 1973, when General Augusto Pinochet, with the support of the United States, led a bloody coup d’état against the government of Salvador Allende—the first elected Marxist president in Latin America. For the most reactionary sectors of global ruling elites, the establishment of the Pinochet regime offered an unsurpassed opportunity to voice openly and aggressively an ultraliberalism1 which had previously been constrained both by Keynesian strictures of the welfare state and by political compromise with social-democratic forces and organized labor. The Chilean junta’s free market policies, uncompromising anti-communist discourse, and hostility toward any state welfare functions, galvanized an ideological and political offensive, guided by economist Milton Friedman and his “Chicago Boys,” against the regulatory and social policies which they viewed as fetters to the “invisible hand” of the market. Today their multinational cadre of followers educated in mainly U.S. universities hold key executive posts both in multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, and in Latin American central banks and ministries of economy and finance. Not only did Pinochet enjoy the personal admiration of Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher and their ilk, but many of his measures, such as the privatization of social security, were swiftly incorporated into the emerging neoliberal orthodoxy. Operación Cóndor—a secret multinational effort aimed at eliminating left-wing and popular opposition—marked the beginnings of a regional reactionary offensive that had managed, by the 1980s, to defeat other left-wing and popular movements and to largely isolate the Cuban regime.
Neoliberalism, dubbed capitalismo salvaje (savage capitalism), reached its peak during the so-called “lost decade” of the 1980s, when the privatization of public services and national resources devastated the already highly polarized societies and economies of Latin America. The post-World War II Latin American developmentalist state had broadly acknowledged—though not always honored—demands for labor rights, basic social services, free education, land reform, and national control of strategic resources. Informed by a wide range of ideological orientations and political traditions encompassing the anarcho-syndicalism of the early labor movement, elite republican liberalism, the communitarianism of peasant and indigenous communities, revolutionary socialism and communism, social doctrines of the Catholic Church, revolutionary nationalism, and the counterinsurgent reformism of the Alliance for Progress, the promises of the developmentalist state provided a framework for subaltern expectations and demands that were voiced in reformist or revolutionary modes.
On the heels of the Chilean coup, however, Latin America's developmentalist states were swiftly and thoroughly dismantled through the combined efforts of the World Bank and IMF. The result was an extraordinary deterioration of the material conditions of existence, with 225 million—44% of the total Latin American population—reduced to poverty. In response to this onslaught, however, new social actors emerged who, together with older activists, have created new social movements and revitalized older class-based organizations to defend popular interests. By the 1990s these movements had managed not only to erode the legitimacy of neoliberalism, but also to realign social and political forces in the region. Strikes and mass mobilizations in Peru (2000), a popular insurrection in Argentina (2001) and most notably rebellions with prominent indigenous participation in Ecuador (1997, 2000, 2005) and Bolivia (2003, 2005) have overthrown corrupt, repressive and pro-U.S. regimes. It is this popular mobilization of what can be described as a “social left” that has made possible the election of progressive or left-wing governments in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and Uruguay. Tellingly, discontent with neoliberalism has even reached Colombia, where president Alvaro Uribe—Washington’s most loyal vassal in the region—lost control of the capital city of Bogotá (in the October 2004 mayoral election) to Luis Eduardo Garzón, a former communist union leader. Recently, Uruguay not only elected its first ever left-wing president (the socialist Tabaré Vázquez), but in the ensuing regional elections the Frente Amplio-Encuentro Progresista (Broad Front-Progressive Encounter) managed to win in seven of the country's nineteen states including the capital city of Montevideo. Despite their ideological differences and differing degrees of commitment to improve the well-being of the masses, these new progressive regimes are all characterized by an independent foreign policy that represents a serious challenge to U.S. unilateralism.
The Latin American reestablishment of diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba, led by the recently elected progressive governments, constitutes a dramatic reversal of Washington’s decades-old attempt to isolate and strangle the Cuban revolution. Other signs of such newly found independence include: the defeat of U.S. efforts to amend the Inter-American charter to isolate the Venezuela's elected but revolutionary government; rejection by the region’s defense ministries of U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s proposal—supported by Colombia—to form a Latin American multinational force; defeat of a U.S-backed candidate for Secretary General of the Organization of American States; and the explicit rejection of unilateralism in the foundational charter of the newly created South American Community of Nations. The rejection of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA)—slated to go into effect in January 2005—by the ten South American countries of MERCOSUR(Common Market of the South) represents a severe setback to future U.S.-led trade agreements, which are apprehensively regarded in the region as no less than a strategy for neo-colonization.
Brazil not only has played a prominent role in the region’s opposition to the FTAA but has also acted as an important deterrent to U.S. interventionism in both Cuba and Venezuela, while prioritizing the expansion of relations with India, China, the Middle East and the Southern African nations—including technological and military aspects. Venezuela likewise has privileged economic ties with Southern Hemisphere nations as well as with Russia, India, and China. Venezuela’s close cooperation with Cuba and president Hugo Chávez's plan to use oil—Venezuela’s most important resource—as a tool for the economic and political integration of the Caribbean Basin also represents a challenge to U.S. domination. Even the IMF, the most powerful instrument of the neoliberal offensive, has suffered defeats in the ongoing Latin American upheaval. Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, who was elected in the aftermath of the tumultuous rebellions that brought down Fernando de la Rúa, stood up to the IMF by declaring a moratorium on private debt. His call for a boycott of the transnational oil corporations Esso and Shell (for increasing oil prices) was enthusiastically embraced by thousands of demonstrators who occupied gas stations.
In contrast to their independent foreign policies, on the domestic front these left-wing and progressive regimes have in most cases fallen short on their commitments to the marginalized non-white masses. Perhaps the most tragic example of such disappointment is the case of Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose concessions to the Brazilian right as well as to global financial elites have come at the cost of postponing an urgently needed land reform and other basic social and democratic measures. Through such reversals, Lula has managed not only to bolster the confidence and demands of the propertied classes, but also—the greater tragedy—to spread a debilitating apathy and uncertainty among the same social movements whose organization, mobilization and electoral participation were central to the political ascendance of his Workers Party (PT). While recent disclosures of the PT’s bribes to representatives of its political ally the Brazilian Labor Party (PTB) and of its legally dubious bank loans (obtained through the publicist with the largest government contracts) have forced the resignation of the PT’s president, the crisis plaguing the PT is not recent. It goes back to the party’s decision during its 2002 electoral campaign to leave untouched the interests of financial capital.
The centrist reconversion of Latin America's institutionalized left—described by Subcomandante Marcos in the recent EZLN Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle as “left-handed neoliberal administrations”—resembles the “molecular transformation” that Gramsci saw as affecting leftist political formations in times of crisis, blurring whatever distinguished them from those of the right. This seems to be the case of Manuel López Obrador, the popular leftist PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) mayor of Mexico City who has ridden an unprecedented wave of protests against the right-wing government’s attempts to derail his candidacy in the upcoming 2006 presidential election. In response, López Obrador has simply taken this massive support for granted. Declaring himself to be a “centrist,” he has betrayed the massive popular movement that stood in his defense, by appointing former political advisers of the neoliberal Salinas government to his electoral campaign. As with Brazil’s PT, the immediacy of a possible electoral victory has pushed the PRD’s leadership to sacrifice their founding project of a sovereign, democratic, and more just nation for an expedient and shortsighted moment of power.
The institutional left’s manipulative and disrespectful relationship to the masses stands in marked contrast to the relation of mutual dependence that links Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez with his country’s popular classes. Massive mobilizations defeated both the U.S.-sponsored coup against Chávez (2002) and the oil strike aimed at his overthrow. In turn Chávez’s organizational efforts and social and economic policies are mainly geared to the benefit and empowerment of the most marginalized sectors of society. Despite its limits and shortcomings—discussed by Gregory Wilpert in S&D #37 -- Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution, grounded on a mixed economy, welfare programs, popular participation, independent foreign policy, and popular nationalism, constitutes Latin America’s most radical break from the Washington consensus. His March 2005 declaration on the ineptitude of capitalism and on the need for a new 21st-century socialism represents a hopeful departure from the embarrassing opportunism of the more established left parties.
Another important case illustrating the centrality of the popular organizations and mass mobilization in overcoming neoliberalism are the 2003 and 2005 popular uprisings that overthrew the last two Bolivian presidents. Unlike Venezuela, where popular mobilization was promoted by the state, the Bolivian mobilization emerged from below and was led by autonomous indigenous organizations. The 2003 uprising against the ultra-liberal Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada came in the aftermath of a “water war” (against privatization) and a “gas war” (against foreign ownership) that left more than 80 dead and hundreds wounded. Acknowledging popular anti-imperialist feelings and pressure from the Indian-based MAS (Movement to Socialism—the country’s second-ranking party, led by former coca-grower Evo Morales), President Carlos Mesa—successor to the ousted Sánchez de Losada—organized a referendum in which the majority voted for the Bolivian government to retake the gas and oil industry, and in the meantime to impose a 50% tax on transnational corporations exploiting those resources. Under pressure from multinational corporations and multilateral institutions, and after 10 months of intense debates and demonstrations, Mesa announced that he would be unable to enforce the 50% tax. Led by indigenous people organized by the MAS, the Pachakutik Indigenous Movement (MIP), and the Confederación Obrera Boliviana(COB, Bolivia’s Labor Confederation), regional and ethnic organizations mobilized around four demands: 1) a constitutional assembly to draw up a pluri-ethnic constitution, 2) rejection of the FTAA, 3) expulsion of the French water company Aguas del Illimani, and 4) the 50% tax.
Demonstrations, marches, roadblocks, and occupation of oil and gas fields paralyzed the country for several days. Unable to govern, Mesa finally resigned. Polarized along regional, class and ethnic lines the country witnessed the emergence of a separatist movement in the rich provinces of Cochabamba and Tarija where right-wing non-indigenous elites demanded a form of territorial autonomy amounting to secession and called for the appointment of one of their ranks as the president to replace the outgoing Mesa. Popular mobilization and parliamentary action led by Evo Morales finally managed to defeat the separatist movement and to secure an acting president committed to fulfillment of the four-point platform.
As in Bolivia, indigenous peoples in Ecuador led by the Pachakutic Movement (the political arm of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadoran Andes—CONAIE) have also played a crucial role in the popular mobilizations that have forced the resignations of two of the last three presidents. Chile during the last decade has likewise witnessed the emergence of a strong and militant movement among the marginalized Mapuche Indians, defending natural resources threatened by multinational mining and lumber corporations and also demanding cultural autonomy. Having displaced the more established parties, these new movements act as a pole of attraction for anti-systemic forces including parties and organizations of the “old left” and the “old labor movement.” Unlike the old left, these new movements—as discussed by Raúl Zibechi in this issue—tend to privilege unity of action over political homogeneity, and diversity over uniformity. As such they do not constitute—nor do they aspire to be—a unified and centralized movement, and they are frequently subjected to tensions and contradictions bred by ideological and tactical differences, caudillismo,2 and opportunism. Such problems for instance undermined the role of the indigenous movement in the most recent uprising in Ecuador, when a group of parliamentary and cabinet members of the Pachakutik movement sided with President Lucio Gutiérrez in opposition to the majority members of CONAIE who favored his ouster. The ensuing crisis in the indigenous movement was solved with the expulsion of the dissidents and a renewed commitment to strengthen grassroots oversight and control of leaders and elected officials. By contrast, during the Bolivian rebellion that ousted president Mesa, despite serious political differences (including tensions between movements represented in parliament and those in the extra-parliamentary opposition), the different popular social and political forces managed to create unity of action against both the state and the right-wing opposition.
But it is the EZLN—analyzed below by Pablo González Casanova—that expresses most fully the potentialities of indigenous organization and mobilization, both for the formulation of a new socialist vision and for the establishment of democratic and participatory mechanisms that assure close oversight of political leaders and elected officials. Since its emergence, symbolically staged on the day marked to launch the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada (January 1, 1994), the EZLN became, in the words of Immanuel Wallerstein, the "barometer and trigger" for anti-systemic movements worldwide (La Jornada, July 19, 2005). Born at the peak of the neoliberal ideological offensive, when uncertainty and disillusionment with both socialism and collective action were radically transforming the oppositional stance of the left, the EZLN uprising represented the turning point in the articulation and configuration of a new anti-systemic movement. Voicing the demands of the most oppressed and marginalized sectors of society, the EZLN's claims for Indian peoples' autonomy and right to well-being generated an unprecedented movement of support both local and international. The EZLN's anti-neoliberal and anti-colonial stance and its strategy of building local democratic power without taking over the state galvanized actions and political debate within the emerging anti-globalization movement.
The political encounters called by the EZLN attracted social and political organizations, indigenous leaders and representatives, social movements, and intellectuals from all over the world. An important outcome of these activities was the formation of the Consejo Nacional Indígena (CNI)—the first independent national indigenous organization in Mexican history. The “intergalactic encounters against neoliberalism” staged in the Chiapas jungle were forerunners of the World Social Forum. The recent EZLN 6th Lacandón Jungle Declaration calling for a global left-wing extra-parliamentary alliance of social and political forces coincides with widespread disillusionment with the failures of social-democratic, progressive and left-wing regimes to act decisively against neoliberalism.
The EZLN uprising and indigenous insurgency elsewhere in the region have also brought to the surface the legacy of colonial oppression and racism that lay at the heart of the current Latin American nation-states. The dead weight of this cultural and ideological legacy has rendered invisible subaltern (in particular, indigenous) agency in the historical formation of modern Latin America. Political independence from Spain led by Creole elites was achieved in the aftermath of widespread popular insurrections in both Mexico and the Andes. The apprehension generated by the violent and sweeping radicalism of Indian action hardened the law-and-order mindset of the "enlightened" founders of the Latin American republics. Their racialized fear of the masses together with liberal emphasis on individual rights have stood as the most important obstacles to the creation of truly democratic nation-states, particularly in countries with non-white (Indian or Black) majorities. This has even had an effect within the left, often impeding collaboration between its institutional and its social sectors. Hence the importance of understanding contemporary subaltern and indigenous mobilizations, their articulation with new and old political traditions, their amalgamation of democracy and collective interests, and their simultaneous deployment of reform, insurgency and rebellion. An understanding of this dynamic will be crucial for developing the revolutionary strategy prophetically envisioned in the 1920s by Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui as the fruit of confluence between socialist objectives and indigenous communitarian political traditions and struggles.
Contributors to this issue, reflecting the innovative modes of thinking and acting of Latin America’s new poor and marginal subjects, stress subaltern historical agency and challenge the state-centered and linear understandings that have long dominated both the social sciences and left-wing analyses. The centrality of the excluded sectors in the political scenario and their reconfiguration as new subjects on the margins of the neoliberal state and economy are examined by Raúl Zibechi. Unlike the traditional working class, whose political subjectivity was determined by its subordination to capital, the new poor of the neoliberal age, Zibechi argues, have some control over the production and reproduction of their living conditions, and this becomes a key factor informing their anti-systemic disposition and militancy. The organization of militant and unemployed workers is also examined by Peter Ranis in his study of worker-occupied factories and cooperatives in Argentina. He discusses how the experience of self-management has helped generate a new level of awareness and an anti-capitalist stance. The consciousness and actions of the mostly indigenous popular classes are likewise the focus in Adolfo Gilly’s analysis of the 2003 Bolivian insurrection, in which he eschews the more traditional Marxist emphasis on state and party. Drawing on a comparative analysis with other revolutionary situations and considering the historical trajectory of the Bolivian popular classes, Gilly concludes that this uprising constituted in fact the first revolution of the 21st century.
Peasant/Indian intervention in politics has long been manifested through everyday acts of resistance. These remained fragmented and localized, however, until the second half of the 20th century. Landlord and state responses to subaltern defiance rested on the systematic use of violence and the deepening of colonial forms of domination and exploitation—what Aníbal Quijano calls the coloniality of power. In his essay, Quijano examines the political trajectory of Indian resistance in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, describing the current power crisis in terms of the crisis of coloniality. He suggests that the achievement of autonomy and of a pluri-ethnic state will not only mark the end of the Eurocentric nation-state but will also force the redefinition of both the national question and the problem of political democracy. González Casanova argues similarly, in his essay on the EZLN, that the Zapatista forms of autonomous self-government express what he describes as a “culture of power” forged, with the deliberateness of caracoles (snails), in 500 years of resistance to colonialism and to the Eurocentric logic of state power. In place of the latter, Zapatista forms of people’s power offer an idiosyncratic form of direct rule aimed on the one hand at strengthening democracy, dignity, and autonomy, and, on the other, at building an alternative way of life, thereby helping to revitalize the universal struggle for democracy, liberation and socialism.
The importance of direct democracy is also explored by José De Echave in his examination of Peru’s popular resistance to large multinational mining corporations. Both in his article and in Hugo Blanco's assessment of recent popular organization and social movements in Peru, direct democracy is counterposed, in terms of its practical workings, to the democratic centralism of the old left and to the vanguardism of political-military organizations.
Chile's attempt at a democratic road to socialism remains, after the Cuban Revolution, the most important socialist experiment to date in Latin America. Its implementation by president Salvador Allende remains a highly controversial—if not mythologized—issue. In his time, Allende was vilified by the extreme left as defeatist and reformist, while being cited by the reformist left as validating their strategy of national capitalist development as a prelude to socialism. Today, Allende's successors conveniently stress the democratic aspect of his strategy while obliterating its commitment to socialism. In a timely discussion, Peter Winn explores the inseparable relationship between democracy and socialism in Allende’s strategy. His stubborn and principled commitment to both socialism and democracy, Winn asserts, was the product of Allende’s political pragmatism informed by his radical intellectual formation, family history of oppositional politics, and a long political trajectory of social justice struggles, and not by theoretical concerns or ideological motivations.
Thirty years later, through the lens of neoliberal capitalism and the demands and aspirations of the new social movements, Allende’s democratic road to socialism takes on another dimension. As the EZLN 6th Lacandón Jungle Declaration implies, an alternative to neoliberalism/neocolonialism is not conceivable without considering democracy and socialism as equal members of the same equation. Although Allende's parliamentary democracy clashed with the type of direct democracy embraced by the popular movements, the challenge of achieving a degree of collaboration between the two approaches is one of the important practical issues emerging from the present essays.
All the articles below except those of Ranis and Winn are translated from the Spanish. Those translated by Elizabeth Kilburn were revised, corrected and edited by Victor Wallis. Adolfo Gilly’s contribution was translated by Victor Wallis. Footnotes in brackets are those of the editors. Helpful suggestions were also made by Emelio Betances and Hobart A. Spalding.
1. Liberalism in the Latin American context refers to the original economic meaning of the term, which was synonymous with free markets and free trade.
2. Movement or political leadership based on the predominance of a single charismatic leader