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Popular revolt against market

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Issue 1696

Latin America

Popular revolt against market

By Paul Mcgarr

MASS PROTESTS and strikes hit Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, two weeks ago. Further north in Latin America the capital of Guatemala was swept by riots and street protests. In both countries police shot at protesters, killing one person in each. These eruptions are just the latest in a wave of struggles that has swept the region in the last year.

They have sent panic waves through the pro-market politicians and the US government which dominates much of the region. Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia have also all seen sudden flare-ups of mass protests. In every case there is a common theme-the revolt against what commentators call “neo-liberal” policies.

These were adopted across much of Latin America throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and have also been dubbed the “Washington consensus”. In most cases the local rulers in Latin America willingly embraced these pro-market policies. If they proved reluctant, US dominated bodies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank were on hand to impose them. The “neo-liberal” recipe consisted of privatisation, opening the economy to multinationals, deregulation and the dismantling of welfare provision. Across the continent the results were riches for a few, and misery for the majority.

The number of billionaires in Latin America has gone up five-fold in the last ten years. Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s there were few of the mass struggles which had marked Latin America in the 1970s. The left across the continent dubbed the 1980s the “lost decade”. But now the conditions produced by the neo-liberal disaster have fostered first anger and bitterness, and now signs of a rebirth of resistance across much of the continent.

In Colombia a one million strong general strike of public sector workers last year was directed against the effects of neo-liberal policies. In Ecuador an uprising of the impoverished native Indian rural population meshed with discontent among urban workers to topple the government in January. A new government is, though, continuing with a deal with the IMF. This includes adopting the US dollar as the country’s currency, which is hitting the poor harder still.

That saw renewed protest last week, with some 10,000 people marching through the capital, Quito, and unions threatening strikes. In Peru protests erupted before the recent presidential election. In Bolivia a wave of militant protest erupted last month against the privatisation of water. The Financial Times dubbed the Bolivian protests a “popular revolt”. It forced multinationals, who wanted to get their hands on the water supply, to withdraw from the country’s third largest city.

In Guatemala the government withdrew subsidies to bus fares in the capital, saying it was necessary to remove obstacles to the free market. The move pushed prices up massively and hit the poor who depend on the buses. This sparked off a bitter explosion which saw students and the urban poor clash with riot police, forcing the government to order bus companies to withdraw some of the price rises.

In Brazil a series of important protests have swept the country in the last week. The president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, used to be a well known economist and fierce critic of market policies.

In office, especially over the last year, he has embraced neo-liberalism. The result has been to hit the majority of people in what is already one of the world’s most grossly unequal societies. May Day saw 600,000 people attend a protest in the country’s key industrial city of Sao Paulo, calling for higher wages and trade union rights. Then Brazil’s half a million truck drivers went on strike. And tens of thousands of landless rural workers launched a new wave of militant land seizures and occupations of government buildings across the country.

The land protests are led by the MST, the Movement of Landless Rural Workers, one of whose leaders says, “Brazil is living in an explosive moment that could get worse if we don’t get answers.” The renewal of struggle in parts of Latin America is starting to concern pro-marketeers. The Financial Times talks of Peru being “on the edge of a social explosion” and says US policy makers now dub the region from Venezuela through Colombia and Ecuador to Peru “the arc of crisis”.

What is clear is that the anti-market, anti-capitalist mood seen in protests like those in Seattle, in Washington and across the world is also fuelling a new mood of revolt in Latin America.

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