Latin America’s Leftist Shift: Hopes and Challenges

Latin America’s Leftist Shift: Hopes and Challenges

By Benjamin Dangl

Monday, 13 March 2006

Within the last six years in Latin America numerous social movements have gained momentum in the fight for human rights, better living and working conditions and an end to corporate exploitation and military violence. Recently, left of center leaders have been elected in Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile and Venezuela.

These political leaders, whose victory in office is due largely to these social movements in the streets, have pledged to fight poverty and prioritize the needs of the people over the interests of Washington and international corporations. This resistance is connected to centuries of organizing among indigenous groups and unions in Latin America. I’d like to discuss some reasons why this leftist shift is happening right now and about a few key moments and events in this movement’s recent history.

Latin America is currently waking up from a decades-long nightmare brought on by military dictatorships which came to power throughout Latin America in the 1970s and 80s, including Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Jorge Videla in Argentina and General Rios Montt in Guatemala among others.

Under such dictators, hundreds of thousands of innocent people, labeled as “leftist insurgents” by the military, were kidnapped, tortured and murdered. Much of this nightmare was funded by the US government and some of the architects of the repression were trained by US teachers in such places as the School of the Americas in Georgia.

Besides implementing this terror, dictators worked with Washington and multinational corporations to introduce neoliberal economic policies to the region. This economic model, often referred to as the Washington Consensus opened up markets for investment, put public works in the hands of private corporations, rejected government intervention in the economy, worked to dissolve unions and involved impoverished nations borrowing millions through the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The debts accrued by military dictators are crippling Latin American countries to this day.

For decades this economic model has ravaged Latin America while IMF officials and free market enthusiasts continue to say, “just wait a little longer, the market will fix everything.” Of course, the market hasn’t fixed everything.  In many ways the current leftist shift in Latin America is a reaction to the failures of these policies.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez emerged as a major political leader in 1989, when then President Carlos Perez borrowed billions of dollars from the World Bank, breaking the country with debt and raising income taxes. Riots filled the streets and many were killed. Chavez tried to lead a coup against Perez and failed. It’s the momentum from this conflict and discontent which Chavez rode into office in 1998, in a groundswell of support. People were tired of business as usual and the Bolivarian revolution led by Chavez, offered a change.

In 2000, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a people’s revolt against Bechtel’s water privatization was sucesseful. The Bechtel corporation (which has since been contracted to deal with reconstruction efforts in New Orleans and Iraq) pushed this privatization deal with Cochabamba which increased the cost of water by up to 300%. People were billed for using rain water and drinking from wells they had created themselves. Cochabamba residents organized protests, road blockades and city-wide strikes against the privatization. Eventually Bechtel packed up and left town and water was again made a public work.

The house of cards of corporate globalization came crashing down in Argentina in December 2001. The neoliberal policies supported by the IMF and implemented by President Carlos Menem in the 1990s were widely seen as responsible for the collapse. An economic depression which could be likened to the Depression of the 1930s in the US, hit Argentina like a landslide. In one day, Argentina went from being one of the wealthiest countries in the region, to one of the poorest. The government was bankrupt with debt, the banks closed down and factories laid off workers by the thousands. People could no longer get money out of the bank.

As a result, citizens from diverse classes protested, kicking out the president, and demanding the resignation of everyone else in the government and the corporations that were to blame for the mess. “Que se vayan todos,” was the cry – “throw them all out” would be the English version of this phrase. At this time, people in Argentina didn’t just kick out their corrupt leaders, they organized neighborhood assemblies, barter fairs, urban gardens and alternative currency – all to survive. The country had been broken and in this time of crisis people looked to each other for support, solidarity and created a new world out of the wreckage – without the help of the government. Some workers who were fired took over their places of work – hotels, factories and businesses were occupied and run by worker cooperatives. In fact, this is one of the lasting successes of this 2002 movement; hundreds of factories and businesses are still in the hands of the workers across Argentina.

I have visited a number of these factories and talked with the workers. Many of them weren’t anarchists, communists or leftists of any kind when they took over the factories. Some of them were even members of right wing parties. They took over the factories and businesses not for ideological reasons, but because they had no food to eat, because some of them didn’t even have enough money to take the bus home when the boss threw them out; so they stayed at the factory. They did this to feed their kids, because there was no other choice.

This kind of crisis is in part what is fueling the revolt in Latin America right now. People are saying, “I can’t pay for the water, the food, the gas. I can’t afford the hospital fees and want a better future for my children.” The neoliberal system doesn’t work. People want to try something else. Many hope this “something else” is represented in the political processes led by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina and others.

Such rebellions in the streets in Argentina to throw the bums out and start another world, in Bolivia to end gas privatization, in Brazil where farmers are taking over unused land – these groups paved the way for the current political leaders in the government, they opened up spaces for people like Chavez and Morales to come to power.

So what does it mean that this leftist movement has come into the political palace?

In the case of Argentina, President Nestor Kirchner has negotiated deals with the IMF to bring his country out of debt and economic depression by not doing everything the IMF says. Since the 2001 crash, Argentina with Kirchner at the helm has set an example by breaking with the IMF and setting the tone at negotiating tables with international lenders. In 2003, Argentina threatened to default on its payments to the IMF, something unheard of for countries of its size. The IMF responded by backing away from some of the policies and interest rates it was demanding. Kirchner’s hard line negotiating was an example for other countries and helped Argentina climb out of its crisis.

Tabare Vasquez in Uruguay has made gains in human rights and ending impunity for military officials involved in past dictatorships. Morales in Bolivia has pledged to reverse the negative impact of the war on drugs in Bolivia, nationalize the country’s gas (in some form or another), organize an assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution and reject US -backed trade agreements. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has utilized massive oil wealth to fund a social revolution.

However, these leftist governments are far from perfect: Uruguay’s Vazquez has gone down a neoliberal path which some argue has gone further to the right than the previous government. Instead of enacting the radical changes his base demands, President Lula in Brazil has strictly followed IMF prescriptions, and instead of using government funds to spur on social projects in education and health care, he has continued making payments on the $230 Billion debt.

Venezuela’s political process is largely powered by oil money, meaning the revolution may last only as long as the oil does, and the revolution is not that exportable to countries without such natural resources. Evo Morales in Bolivia has already been accused of working toward gas nationalization deals which are far from what social movements demand. And though the “water war” against Bechtel in Cochabamba in 2000 was successful in kicking the company out, the public water system that was developed in its place has problems with corruption and mismanagement. The momentum and solidarity that exploded in Argentina during their 2001-2002 crisis has all but disappeared. Class divisions, apathy and a lack of civic participation mark the country’s social movements.

Other challenges to this leftist shift are posed by the US government and multinational corporations. The US military has set up a base in Paraguay, 200 kilometers from the border with Bolivia. Hundreds of troops are reportedly stationed there. Analysts in Bolivia and Paraguay who I’ve spoken with believe the troops are there to monitor the Morales administration, leftist groups in the region and to keep an eye on Bolivia’s gas reserves (which are the second largest in Latin America) and the Guarani Aquifer which is one of the biggest water reserves in the hemisphere.

As US hegemony is threatened in the region, military and other forms of intervention are not out of the question. As documented by Eva Golinger in her book, “The Chavez Code,” the US government supported and helped fund the short lived coup against Hugo Chavez in April, 2002. Washington has worked hard to push free trade deals in Central America, Colombia and continues, along with many corporate media outlets, to demonize the hopeful political processes in Latin America.

Things can’t be expected to change overnight. (I heard this phrase a lot while I was in Bolivia recently.) There is reason to be hopeful about what is going on in Latin America.  A new space for democracy and a different kind of politics and economics has been opened up; a new era where at best the needs of the people are favored over the interests of Washington and corporate investors.

There also may be safety in numbers. Many left of center presidents are expected to win in Latin American elections in the coming months. On April 9th, Ollanta Humala a leftist social movement leader, is expected to be elected the president of Peru. Left-leaning former Mayor of Mexico City, Andrez Lopez Obrador leads the polls in the Mexican president race. The election there will take place on July 2nd. Elections in Ecuador will take place in October, and socialist Leon Roldos is expected to win.

A progressive trade, political and economic bloc – spurred on by leftist election victories – is also an enormous possibility. This trade bloc would be an alternative to US hegemony and neoliberalism in the region. Chavez is leading the way toward making this a reality. Within such a bloc, instead of bowing to Washington and corporate interests, progressive Latin American nations will unify to create an alternative to exploitative US backed trade agreements. Such regional cooperation and integration offers a long term, sustainable solution to corporate exploitation.

[This article is from a talk given at “The Winds of Change in the Americas Conference” in Burlington, Vermont on March 5, organized by Toward Freedom]

Benjamin Dangl is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia”, (forthcoming from AK Press in Jan. 2007). He edits, uncovering activism and politics in Latin America and, a progressive perspective on world events. Email Ben(at)