By Mike Gonzalez
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Latin America and the struggles to come

This article is over 13 years, 7 months old
For a decade global capitalism has suffered setbacks and defeats in the continent where it had been at its most aggressive. Mike Gonzalez argues it is the new forces that have led the resistance which are central to continuing the struggle for a new society.
Issue 332

Since the new century began, Latin America has been at the centre of resistance to capitalism. The first sounds of battle came in 1994, in Chiapas, Mexico. It was a rebellion that set in motion a chain reaction of struggles. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 1999, an extraordinary coalition of forces came together to fight successfully against the privatisation of water. It was the first chapter in a story of resistance, grassroots organisation and a challenge for power by the mass movements that eventually carried Evo Morales to the presidency in 2006.

Over the past decade the political picture across the continent has changed dramatically. Today Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua are run by governments claiming to be committed to change and social justice. Many of their leaders come from the left – Brazil’s president Lula was a leading trade union activist and a co-founder of the once extremely progressive Workers Party. Michelle Bachelet, the Chilean president, came from a socialist background. Fernando Lugo, the recently elected president of Paraguay, is a bishop in the mould of liberation theology. In Uruguay, Tabaré Vázquez heads the Broad Front, a left coalition originally formed to confront the country’s military governments in the early 1970s. His election to the presidency was celebrated as a political leap forward.

Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have inherited the impetus of the mass movements that led the resistance to neoliberalism from below. Evo Morales, a leader of a peasant farmers organisation as well as of the MAS (the Movement Towards Socialism), was carried to La Paz’s presidential palace by a movement dominated by organisations of indigenous peoples, youth, neighbourhood groups, and trade unions. The struggle saw the emergence of radical forms of control from below. Uprisings removed three presidents who attempted to impose the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank plans. In Ecuador the coordinated activities of trade unions and indigenous groups challenged similar measures repeatedly from 1999 onwards. The country’s new constitution includes radical proposals in cultural policy and recognition of indigenous peoples, and it strictly limits the actions of foreign capital in the country.

Mexico too was recently witness to unprecedented levels of mass activity. In Oaxaca a coalition of trade unions and mass organisations effectively seized control of the city for weeks. At the same time López Obrador’s radical presidential campaign won huge support from the working class, the poor and indigenous communities. After a militant campaign lasting six months, however, the conservative Fernando Calderón eventually stole the presidency.

If the organs of mass struggle created by the movements, particularly in Bolivia and Ecuador, are at the leading edge of resistance, the point of political reference has been and remains the Venezuelan government led by Hugo Chavez. It was his speech at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2005 which defined, in general terms, the path to follow for the social movements – what he called “21st century socialism”. The timing of the speech was particularly significant too, since his words closed the event which had been opened by Brazil’s new president Lula to a chorus of heckling. The two presidents seemed to symbolise the choice facing the movement at that time. Lula, whose election had been heralded with the same passionate optimism as Chavez’s, had immediately turned against his working class supporters, repressed the Landless Workers Movement, and given enthusastic support to Brazilian capitalists.

Assault from the north

From the 1970s, international capital, particularly in the US, set its sights on integrating Latin America into its strategies. In the previous two decades there had been a series of attempts to break free from this dependence by building strong and economically independent states. The attempts failed and the governments that came to power in the 1970s acted as agents for foreign capital. Where there was resistance the strategy was forced through at the point of a gun – in Brazil and Argentina from 1968, in Chile and Uruguay after 1973, and in Central America particularly after 1980 with Ronald Reagan’s “low intensity war”.

The late 1980s gave way to “austerity programmes”. This led to the impoverishment of the majority of the population, the destruction of agriculture and a growing indebtedness. The “Caracazo”, the mass protests of the poor in Venezuela’s capital in January 1989 and its repression, were a sign of things to come.

What followed was a neoliberal offensive that wreaked havoc across the continent. The state had been progressively weakened in the preceding period, except, that is, for the apparatus of repression. In these years export agriculture took complete control of the countryside. The great cities exploded as the rural population moved to their peripheral slums or, in the case of Mexico and Central America, made for the border and the misery of the undocumented labour market of the US. And the index of poverty began to increase.

The battle to control the oil and gas reserves of the region was waged through compliant and corrupt state machines. In Venezuela a supposedly nationalised oil company operated in partnership with the multinationals. In Mexico, where oil nationalisation in the 1930s had symbolised the strong protectionist state, a slow process of privatisation of parts of the economy began, culminating in a proposal to privatise oil production in 2007. In Bolivia a similar process unfolded. When enormous gas reserves were discovered in the mid-1990s, it was originally proposed to pipe it straight to California.

In the late 1990s the bargain basement sale of most of Argentina’s public assets turned several leading politicians into billionaires.

Such attacks had an immediate and dramatic effect. The Chiapas rebellion, the beginning of resistance, was a direct response to the new assaults by global capital. The communities of Chiapas had nowhere to go as their food producing lands were absorbed by the expanding cattle industry and subsidies on maize were removed by order of the IMF in order to flood the market with cheap US imports. In Brazil the economic policies pursued by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso produced dramatic growth but only once the economy had been opened completely to global capital. It was no accident that this was the decade in which the Landless Workers Movement fought extraordinary battles for land rights.

Set in this context Plan Colombia, signed into effect by Bill Clinton in 1998, takes its logical place in the strategy of global capitalism. The “war on drugs”, later transformed into the Latin America version of the “war on terror”, was a continuation of economic war by other means. Colombia, whose state machine was already highly militarised, took its place as the bridgehead for direct intervention and the military guardian of the new order.

The water war in Cochabamba in 1999-2000 took up the challenge laid down by the Zapatista rising in Chiapas. And it marked the beginning of the fightback. In the course of the next nine years global capitalism would confront defeats and setbacks in the continent where for decades it had operated at its most aggressive. It would see its obedient servants fall and its strategies challenged. And in the course of the struggle new forms of organisation and resistance would emerge.

A broad coalition of forces occupied Cochabamba’s central square in protest to oppose the government’s plan to privatise water. After three weeks the government reversed its proposal. It would be forced to do so again when a similar plan was broken by the mass organisations of El Alto, the mainly indigenous city above the capital, La Paz. The anti-capitalist movement, at that moment, spanned the full length of the Americas – from Seattle to Cochabamba.

In Ecuador a combined national mobilisation by the national trade union federation and Conaie, the confederation of indigenous organisations, defeated the proposal to “dollarise” the national economy, claiming their first presidential scalp on the way. A year later they would repeat the exercise with the same result. In Argentina the IMF’s attempt to punish one of Latin America’s largest economies brought society to the brink of disaster. This led to the popular uprising of December 2001. The fury of the population changed rapidly from forms of defence into creative and combative expressions of a new grassroots democracy.

The responses to the attempted overthrow of Hugo Chavez in April 2002 and the bosses’ strike that began at the end of that year were also a definitive response to neoliberalism.

In the course of four years the political tide had turned. New forces had taken the centre of the historical stage – social movements, indigenous people and even schoolkids.

The World Social Forum became a platform for these new heterogeneous movements. But there was a curious paradox at the heart of the forum – its deliberate exclusion of politics. Because while each of these movements had arisen in response to specific local conditions and attacks, there was clearly a common enemy, neoliberalism, and a set of shared demands: control over national resources, a redistribution of wealth, a dramatic and immediate improvement in the living standards of the majority of the population, and resistance to the role of US imperialism and its agents in the region. The debate about strategy and coordination was a pressing and immediate necessity – especially since global capital and the forces of the right were obviously preparing their own reply.

Dream of integration

Hugo Chavez’s Porto Alegre speech was clearly a response to that political moment. His vision of Latin America’s future, then and subsequently, seems to combine two very different visions under the banner of 21st century socialism. Alba, the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America, is a long-term strategy for regional economic integration based on the exchange of products. The aim is to break definitively with US hegemony, and create a strong and independent regional economy. It envisages a single bank, trading arrangements without tariff barriers, and a common response to the wider market – in other words, the creation of a trading block that can negotiate from a position of strength in a world market and which has a diversity of trading partners – the “multipolar world” that Chavez often refers to.

While Alba has not yet moved beyond six members, other regional structures, such as Mercosur and Unasur (a gathering of regional heads of government), are functioning. There are also a whole series of bilateral trading arrangements, particularly those sponsored by Venezuela.

At the same time, the drive to create an alternative economic bloc has exposed profound contradictions at the heart of the region. At the time of the 2005 Porto Alegre forum, it was already clear that the strategy pursued by Lula was designed to win Brazil a place among the major players in a neoliberal universe. His decision to send Brazilian troops to Haiti, to participate in what was essentially an exercise in repression of local movements, left no doubt as to where he located Brazil’s important strategic alliances. His refusal to address trade union demands while at the same time favouring and supporting the major landowners made his priorities absolutely clear.

Such moves brought Lula into conflict with the demands of the movement in, for example, Bolivia. The central demand of the mass movement in Bolivia was the nationalisation of oil and gas. Brazil, as one of Bolivia’s most important customers, used its considerable clout to hold down prices in its own favour. And Brazilian interests in Paraguay, particularly in soya production, act in exactly the same way.

Chile’s new government under Bachelet, like Tabaré’s in Uruguay, has enthuasistically taken up the human rights agenda and the battle against impunity for those responsible for torture and murder under previous military regimes. At the same time, however, both governments have been careful to distance themselves from the more radical programmes for integration advocated by Chavez and have entered into bilateral negotiations with the US.

Bachelet’s political intimacy with the European Union is part of an effort to diversify trade but within the framework of a friendly working relationship with global capital. Peru’s Alan Garcia, an economic conservative, has no enthusiasm for radical regional proposals. And Ecuador, while in many ways taking the most radical stand on many issues, has cautiously steered clear of Alba and kept the door open to negotiation with multinational capital.

In recent weeks the Russian navy has appeared in the Caribbean at Chavez’s invitation, and new contracts and agreements with the Russians, as well as the Chinese, have been signed in Argentina and elsewhere. In this sense the rejection by Latin America of the US’s plan for integration – the Free Trade Area of the Americas – has been interpreted by some of the new “left” governments as an invitation to diversify its trade.

But there is a very different way of interpreting that rejection – and the meaning of the term “integration” in the context of Latin America. The struggle of these first years of the new century have made two things very clear. First, it was not a specific set of arrangements that were being rejected but capitalism itself. Second, the popular assemblies of Argentina, Bolivia, Oaxaca in Mexico, and Ecuador, and the grassroots organisations established in Venezuela, all point to a different kind of popular democracy, a government from below of the kind suggested by the idea of “popular power”.

The second strand in the thinking of Hugo Chavez takes this experience as its starting point. He regularly refers to “popular power”. Yet there is an unresolved ambiguity there too, as the new Venezuelan state seems increasingly keen to separate itself from the organs of popular power from below that have emerged in recent years.

Enemies and friends

Colombia remains the bridgehead for an assault from the right. This takes many forms – the penetration of neighbouring Ecuador and Venezuela by paramilitaries interlocked with the drugs trade is one; the Colombian government’s resolute defence of imperialist interests in the region, both economic and strategic, is another. The threat of a direct assault from the north seems unlikely but is always present. On the other hand, the so-called “wars” on terror and drugs provide the cover for an indirect but permanent military presence – and it seems clear that Barack Obama’s administration will not essentially change that relationship.

As Bachelet and others pursue direct bilateral agreements, those who have benefited from neoliberal strategies in the past are fighting their own very dirty war. The five “media luna” provinces of Bolivia have fought to separate from the Bolivian state. Their claims for autonomy have little to do with regionalism and much to do with separating the oil and gas rich regions from the project for social change. It is a strategy already being argued by the bourgeoisie of Guayaquil against Correa’s government in Ecuador. And in Venezuela the recent right wing election victories in the elections for state governors have given them control of the critical border region with Colombia.

The current recession has, so far, hit the countries most tied to US trade the hardest – Mexico and Central America. Argentina has been hit hard too. The oil exporters, Venezuela in particular, have reserves from the peak prices seen in 2008. But the oil price is plummeting and the cost of imports is rising. Inflation is accelerating and the impact is likely to hit in the coming months. Where the impact hits will not be determined by economics but politics – by the level of organisation of the poorest rather than by the action of governments or states.

A strategy for socialism in Latin America, as opposed to the creation of a stronger Latin American capitalism, must take its lead and its forms from the new forces that have emerged and organised in this decade of resistance. Whether it is called “Bolivarianism from below” or 21st century socialism is a secondary concern. The struggle is multiple and diverse, involving indigenous people, trade unions, grassroots groups and political organisations. The development of a strategy for a conquest of power, and the forms that power should take are the priority now. The enemy will not wait; neither can the forces that have made a new society, a new and different world, a possibility for the 21st century.

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