Across Latin America right wing forces are organising to roll back the left’s gains of the last 20 years. The Pink Tide of left wing governments came to office off the back of mass movements and revolts in the 1990s and 2000s.
Their talk of “socialism in the 21st century” and resistance to free market shock therapy terrified the rich and inspired the left across the world.
The right now senses an opportunity to take back control.
Far right Jair Bolsonaro is president of Brazil, the largest and politically most important country in Latin America. His victory was a litmus test for the direction the continent is moving in.
Venezuela could be next if Juan Guaido manages to oust left wing president Nicolas Maduro. It could herald a return to the dark days of US-sponsored dictators and rampant neoliberalism.
Elsewhere the right is on the march.
And there are also serious problems with the left wing governments. The three countries most associated with the Pink Tide—Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador—have made very conscious turns away from their programmes of reform.
In Ecuador president Lenin Moreno is pursuing a policy of balancing between the interests of big business and “the people”. And he is closing the borders to refugees fleeing the social crisis in neighbouring Venezuela.
Meanwhile, Bolivian president Evo Morales has invited Western imperialist powers to exploit the country’s natural resources. That’s particularly ironic given Morales was brought to office by a mass movement of indigenous people fighting against gas multinationals.
Most recently, Morales gave German firm ACI Systems the rights to mine the salt lake Uyuni in Potosi for the 21 million tonnes of lithium.
This is all a far cry from the late 20th century when ordinary people across Latin American waged huge struggles that challenged imperialism.
The election of left wing governments in Latin America throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s was a result of these huge political shifts. Mass movements against US imperialism and neoliberalism provided the impetus to sweep them to office.
These movements were partly a response to the broken promises by the politicians who replaced US-backed dictators.
When Chilean general Augusto Pinochet was forced out in 1989, it was supposed to be the beginning of a new democratic era in Latin America. But the neoliberal assault on ordinary people continued.
People rose up in disgust at how they were treated—but also at the false promises of a new hope.
In Venezuela Carlos Andres Perez won the presidential election in 1989. Perez claimed during the election campaign he would dismiss the neoliberal dictats of the International Monetary Fund. He re-imposed them after he won.
The price of fuel and transport shot up.
So hundreds of thousands of people rose up in the capital Caracas and its satellite towns in a mass revolt known as the Caracazo.
“Do the social movements capture the state, or are they instead captured by it, limiting the radical force and possibility they carried initially?”Professor John Beverley
Mass revolts followed in Ecuador from 1990 and in Mexico with the Zapatista uprising in 1994. These movements formed the backdrop for the victory of the Pink Tide governments, which would have not taken office without them.
Another period of resistance came in the early 2000s. A US-backed faction within the Venezuelan military tried to initiate a coup against left president Hugo Chavez in 2002. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Venezuelans marched from the barrio slums to the presidential palace in Caracas to demand his release.
The military was forced to back down.
In 2000 in Bolivia there were significant mobilisations against the privatisation of the municipal water supply.
The so-called “gas war” from 2003 saw people demand the nationalisation of natural gas. This grew into a huge movement—people erected road blocks across the country, bringing it to a standstill.
Eventually president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was forced to resign. He was succeeded by his vice president Carlos Meza—who was also forced to step down. This cleared the way for socialist Evo Morales to win the 2005 election on a platform of opposition to multinationals exploiting natural resources.
There was always a difficult relationship between the Pink Tide governments and the mass movements that brought them to office. Often they demobilised the popular movements once elected.
Professor John Beverley pointed out the contradiction at the heart of the relationship. “What should be the relation of formal or informal social movements to the new governments of the Pink Tide that they have helped bring to power?” he asked.
“Do the social movements capture the state, or are they instead captured by it, limiting the radical force and possibility they carried initially?”
There is still time to resist the rise of the right. But there has to be a return of the mass movements—acting independently of left wing reformist politicians who seek to tame the capitalist state.
Only such a fight by the Latin American working class could turn the tables on the right and take the fight to the bosses.
What went wrong with the Pink Tide project?
Forces that looked to the Pink Tide governments as the alternative are now scrambling around to find explanations for their failures.
Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell argued that Venezuela’s problems stemmed from its inability to diversify the economy from oil.
Yet while diversification would have had an effect, it would not have helped Venezuela escape the consequences of global economic crisis.
The social reforms of the Pink Tide governments were underpinned by the commodities boom of the early 21st century. They ploughed some revenues from oil, gas, soya and other exports into alleviating poverty.
In Venezuela policies reduced unemployment from 14.5 percent in 1998 when Chavez took office to 7.8 percent in 2011.
Similarly in Brazil large-scale redistributive programmes were introduced.
All of these reforms should be celebrated as real gains for ordinary people.
But Chavez and the other leaders did all this while leaving capitalist social relations intact.
Instead of an outright assault on the rich, Chavez sought social peace with the ruling class. He used oil profits to fund progressive social programmes while privatising state assets and handing control of the state oil company to the military.
The commodity boom was fuelled by the needs of the rapidly growing Chinese economy. When this began to slow down following the economic crisis of 2007, Latin America was particularly vulnerable.
The crisis bit hard across the continent around 2015. The material basis for the reforms introduced by the Pink Tide governments was coming undone.
Each country reacted in different ways. In Brazil—which was more loosely associated with the Pink Tide, Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party government hammered the poor. She introduced laws favouring big landowners over indigenous farmers and raised the threshold for unemployment insurance, among many other measures.
The contradictions have come undone in catastrophic ways.
Maduro has opened up the Venezuelan economy, inviting 159 international firms to apply for concessions to extract minerals, oil and gas in cahoots with a military corporation.
This is in the Arco Minero region, where he has also suspended constitutional rights to smooth the way for bosses.
Caracas Capital Markets managing partner Russ Dallen is one of the vultures lining up to take advantage. “Even if the vault was empty, the oil, gold and natural gas reserves remain underground,” he said.
“That’s what bondholders and the IMF are counting on for the future.”
Even with the ruling class out for his blood, Maduro is trying to negotiate with them.
He has repeatedly called for a dialogue with both the US and Juan Guaido. He has even asked for talks between his ruling PSUV party and the right in Venezuela, which Mexico and Uruguay have agreed to mediate.
In 2014 to 2015 a similar conference was held. The right shunned it with just one day to go—in a period when Maduro’s grip on power was significantly tighter than it is now.
The solution to coups and imperialist intervention is try and break the power of the ruling classes and their imperialist backers.
Venezuela shows what happens when left wingers try to compromise with capitalism.
‘Revolution in the 21st century’
The Pink Tide governments were touted as an alternative to both reformist social democracy and revolutionary Marxism.
Chavez described them as a new way for the left to take power, describing it as “socialism in the 21st century” and “revolution in the 21st century”.
In reality, he pursued a reformist strategy of trying to implement changes from above through the capitalist state.
There are many factions in the ruling PSUV party—from the left to the right—and some of the party’s leaders have been photographed meeting with Juan Guaido.
Temir Porras, who served in the Chavez government, said, “Chavismo is a very peculiar movement. It has a massive civilian component but it also has a very deeply rooted military component.”
Chavez’s great talent was to maintain a balance between these two forces in Venezuelan society.
Porras also calls for negotiation between the PSUV and the right in Venezuela. This is a continuation of the Chavismo strategy.
Maduro argues that the Venezuelan economic crisis is all down to US sanctions.
It’s true that the sanctions are having a brutal effect—a UN rapporteur branding them an “economic crime” against the people. But Maduro must also take responsibility for political mistakes that led to the situation.
Crucially, he did not pursue more combative policies such as nationalisation of industries and of the financial sector, along with the expropriation of the bosses’ assets.
These and similar policies would have meant confronting the capitalist state and bosses and looking to the millions of ordinary Venezuelans. That is still possible but it is increasingly clear that Chavismo’s reformist strategy is incapable of delivering such a challenge to the system.