Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2213

Which way now in Latin America?

This article is over 13 years, 9 months old
Once the US treated Latin America as its ‘backyard’. Then, as Oliver Stone’s new film South of the Border shows, a series of revolts put ‘21st century socialism’ on the agenda. Mike Gonzalez looks at the fate of the Bolivarian revolutions
Issue 2213
Chavez supporter in Venezuela (Pic: Hurd/ )
Chavez supporter in Venezuela (Pic: Jess Hurd/

The film director Oliver Stone’s latest documentary, South of the Border, sets out to counter the lies and myths about the revolutions in Latin America over the last decade.

The film, which was co-written with Tariq Ali, has received widespread criticism from the press, which claims it is “biased”. And it is – Stone defends the various left wing regimes on the continent and exposes US imperialism’s terrible role in the region.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is at the centre of the film. He epitomises the resistance to neoliberalism in the region with his continued defiance of the US and his championing of alternatives to capitalism.

His announcement at the World Social Forum in 2005 that Venezuela was moving towards “21st century socialism” met with rapturous applause.

But the situation in Venezuela, and the countries which have gone through similar revolutions, is contradictory. The revolutions stand at a crossroads as the gap between the movements’ aspirations and their leaderships widens.

Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998. The mass movement that has been built around him captured the imagination of everyone opposed to neoliberal capitalism.

Over the following decade a number of states followed suit and by 2005 the era of unrivalled neoliberalism was over. Resistance to imperialism and globalisation developed in Latin America, the Middle East and internationally with the movement against war.

The mass movements in Latin America took shape after the devastation wreaked on people’s lives by the imposition of neoliberalism in the 1990s.

The anger of ordinary people boiled over and between 2000 and 2005 nearly a dozen corrupt regimes were overthrown.

Popular uprisings overthrew two presidents in Ecuador. In Argentina movements ousted three presidents.

In Bolivia revolts got rid of two presidents – although they attempted to remove four – leading to the election of coca farmer and indigenous leader Evo Morales in 2005.

The movement started in the city of Cochabamba in 2000 when the poor rose up against the then government’s decision to privatise the water supply by selling it to the infamous Bechtel Corporation.

Three weeks of struggle forced the government to reverse its decision and return water to public control. The battle and the victory were repeated two years later in the indigenous city of El Alto. Across the country new forms of democratic control – the “cabildos abiertos” or open town meetings – began to emerge.


But it was Venezuela that became the standard bearer for the new movements.

Its Bolivarian Revolution represented the moment in which the mass of the poor rose up and become the key actors in the making of history.

They took to the world stage on 11 April 2002 when the bosses’ organisations, the army and the church carried out a coup against Chavez.

Within 48 hours of the coup the people had come down from the hillside shanty towns and occupied the centre of Caracas, the capital, refusing to move until their president returned – and they won.

The right’s attacks continued. In

2002-3 the bosses attempted to shut down the oil industry with a bosses’ strike. It was defeated by the mass mobilisation of workers and their communities.

And with these mass acts of resistance came creative, new and exciting ways of organising.

The gains achieved by the new regimes have been momentous.

In 2003, Chavez set up the “Missions” – national programmes for health, education and housing, and the defence of indigenous rights.

They were an attempt to sidestep the reluctance of the state bureaucracy, still staffed by many of the appointees of the old regime, to accept change.

The hope was that a new kind of power would emerge from the grassroots in the Missions to drive the revolution forward.

In Bolivia, oil and gas were nationalised and a tax applied on foreign companies. The state claimed unused land and handed it to local communities.In Ecuador too, a radical constitution was adopted.

All of these developments represented important challenges to imperialism and the global market, echoing the demands of the movements that had carried the new regimes to power.

Now, however, the discourse of people’s power does not reflect the reality on the ground.

In Bolivia the bitter racist assault by the Media Luna, the wealthy (and predominantly white) eastern provinces, has certainly threatened the programme of change.

At the same time, however, the “Bolivarian” states are forging new commercial relationships with China, Iran and Russia, which have very little to do with driving forward the march towards socialism.

While the new states still claim to represent the resistance of the early years of the decade, they seem to be moving in a very different direction.

Briefing: Imperialism and the right wing

US rulers have systematically intervened in Latin America for profit and military influence since the early 20th century.

Many saw Barack Obama’s election as a chance for change. They have been disappointed.

Since Obama’s inauguration, the US has helped the brutal coup in Honduras and has made agreements with the Colombian government to build new military bases.

The global ruling class welcomed the election of right wing president Juan Manuel Santos earlier this year. Colombia is a key US ally with an atrocious human rights record.

The coup in Honduras in June last year showed clearly the hand of imperial interests.

President Manuel Zelaya had been playing a role in Alba – the Latin American economic alliance set up by Hugo Chavez – and had angered the bosses by raising the minimum wage.

The excuse for moving against him was his decision to call a referendum on creating a democratic constitution.

Zelaya was arrested and expelled from the country.

Former US ambassador John Negroponte and George Bush’s sinister Latin American adviser, Otto Reich, were involved in the coup. Despite condemning it, the Obama administration invited the new government to Washington.

The murder of trade unionists and the left continues daily – most recently the head of the teachers’ union was murdered.

Along with the election of right wing presidents in Peru and Chile, it’s a sign of a resurgent right looking for ways to destroy the advances that have been won.

For details of film screenings around the country go to

Divisions open between movement and leaders

Despite massive gains, contradictions and conflicts are emerging in Latin America.

In Ecuador, the president has signed an agreement to allow multinational corporations to exploit oil, gas, water and copper reserves.

This has brought him into direct confrontation with the local communities, whose land and water will be polluted and economy destroyed.

In Bolivia the government has redistributed land – but has not taken on the big landowners.

In July there were big demonstrations against the government’s imposition of maximum wage increases. Workers demanded the right to ensure that their wages rise in relation to the cost of living.

The relationship between the left wing governments and their supporters is showing signs of deepening tension. In recent months in Venezuela, workers pressing for wage increases in the face of growing inflation were denounced by Chavez as “counter-revolutionary”.

Meanwhile the Missions have more or less collapsed and their leaders have been integrated into the state machine.

The scale of corruption is a sign of the increasing separation between the Chavista bureaucracy and the communal, grassroots movements it still claims to speak for.

The political process seems to rely entirely on Chavez’s individual decisions, which are rarely explained. In February the popular and effective Eduardo Saman was appointed head of the consumer rights department, but he was then dismissed within weeks.

The culture minister Jesse Chacon, by contrast, resigned when his brother was implicated in corrupt bank dealings.

Inflation is rampant and the cost of living rising at speed – yet little has been done to control the speculators in the food distribution industry.

In 2006, Chavez announced the formation of a new mass political party, the United Socialist Party, which was supposed to embody the principles of democracy from below.


Six million people immediately joined – an expression of their faith in Chavez. But control is firmly in the hands of its appointed leadership, and critical voices are quickly silenced.

In Bolivia, the task of writing a new constitution was given to an elected Constituent Assembly.

Significantly, however, delegates were restricted to political parties rather than social movements. That guaranteed Morales’s own MAS party was the dominant voice.

In recent weeks a number of radical MAS MPs and leaders have broken with the ruling party and criticised Morales’s top-down method of rule.

Both Chavez and Morales speak of socialism and solidarity.

Yet their strategy is to build a strong economic block together with the emerging capitalisms of China and Iran, neither of whom could claim to be in the business of building people’s power.

Socialism means appropriating the resources of the economy for the benefit of the majority and under their control.

It’s true that the nationalisation of Venezuelan oil diverted much of its profits into social programmes. But the key sectors of the economy remain in private hands.

A state committed to rebuilding the public sector is a great advance that benefits the majority of society.

And the new democratic forms and resistance movements frightened the US administration at the beginning of the 21st century.

But their only guarantee of survival is if the radical movement from below controls the state and makes sure that it acts in the interests of the majority.

The purpose is not a new and better relationship with the global market, but its defeat and disappearance.

If the new left governments have reached the limit of their aspirations then the movements that produced them now need to rediscover their revolutionary impulse and drive the process forward.

They have shown their courage and their enormous creativity in the battles of the last few years – it is urgent that they rediscover them to forge a different future.

Slum housing in a favela on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil
 (Pic: Hurd/ )
Slum housing in a favela on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil
(Pic: Jess Hurd/

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