The long drawn out crisis in the Andean countries of Latin America developed rapidly in the early months of 2005, producing extraordinary popular mobilisations.
An increasingly politicised population has shown its continuing capacity to topple unpopular governments. In Ecuador, the short lived regime of Colonel Lúcio Gutiérrez, who had abandoned his earlier populist programme and lost all support, was overthrown in April.
He was replaced by Alfredo Palacios, the colourless vice-president who is unlikely to survive for long. In Bolivia, hardly a week has gone by without some fresh protest demonstration, usually against the privatisation of water, oil or gas, threatening the weak government of Carlos Mesa — himself the beneficiary of the defenestration of an earlier president.
In January Colonel Antauro Humala led a rebellion in Andahuaylas, Peru, with the expressed hope of restoring the Inca empire. It failed to spark a wider uprising against the unpopular regime of Alejandro Toledo, but it put down a marker for the future.
This widespread crisis along the ridge of the Andes has two immediate causes. The failure of the neo-liberal economic programme imposed on Latin America by the US over the last 20 years, and willingly accepted and endorsed by the continent’s corrupt white elites, has left the great mass of the people in an ever more desperate state of poverty.
Many have been driven out of the countryside and established themselves in precarious conditions in urban shanty towns.
At the same time, the political eruption of the indigenous peoples for the first time since the 18th century has brought new players onto the political stage.
They serve as a reminder that Latin America is essentially a white settler continent, dominated traditionally by the heirs to the Spanish conquistadores. The region is similar in many ways to the old settler societies in Africa — countries such as Algeria, Angola and South Africa.
The racial and ethnic divisions in Latin America have proved to be as significant and durable as those of class, often with explosive consequences. The heirs to the Incas and the Mayas, and those of the myriad other Indian nations that peopled the continent in the pre-Columbus era, have a long tradition of resistance.
They opposed the 16th century Spanish conquest and remained in a state of mute resistance over the years, exploding in rebellion at the end of the 18th century.
Indians were subjected to a yet more vicious programme of annihilation when independence in the 19th century brought in fresh waves of racist white settlers from Europe.
Only towards the end of the 20th century, notably after the quincentennial celebrations in 1992 of the first Columbus voyage, were the indigenous peoples able to begin to organise themselves.
Now they are flexing their muscles, increasingly conscious of their strength and ever more radical in their demands.
In the current situation of economic degradation and growing political awareness, mass popular movements of Indians have challenged the hegemony of the old white elites, threatening to torpedo their neo-liberal economic programmes and their military alliances with the US.
In Ecuador, the Indian movements have demanded an end to the dollarisation of the economy, the closure of the large US military base at Manta in the headwaters of the Amazon, and a programme to divert debt repayments into social funds to be spent at home.
Bolivia has seen an escalating series of popular Indian protests against the de-nationalisation of the economy. Evo Morales, a charismatic Indian leader, is waiting in the wings with a radical socialist programme.
In both countries the “ancien regime” is under serious threat. It will eventually be swept away, and only the timing is in doubt.
In the background to these Andean developments stands the exemplary regime of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela — now firmly established in power and offering a coherent and attractive alternative. Chavez has fought off the local opposition, defeated an attempted coup, resisted a series of subversive work stoppages and challenged the US.
His Bolivarian revolution proceeds apace, in close alliance with Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and it speaks to the concerns of the Indian movements in the Andes.
Chavez has become the most popular figure in Latin America, and he enjoys the support of the majority of its governments, many of which have been moving to the left.
While the US government would still like to see the Chavez government overthrown, it has not found the appropriate weapon with which to try to achieve this aim.
Richard Gott’s book Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution is out next month. He will speak on Chavez at Marxism 2005 in July. Phone 020 7538 2707 or go to www.marxism2005.net