Zig Zag Politics in Latin America

Peru Presidential candidate - Pedro Castillo

By Vijay Prashad

The graphs are painful to look at, the surge of cases in Brazil extraordinary, but the surge in other countries (Colombia, Argentina, Mexico) not lagging behind. The focus of attention in Latin America is Covid-19, with many states floundering to manage the spread of the virus, but more so to manage the social chaos it has created. When news first came from China in late 2019 and early 2020 about the virus, only two governments – that of Cuba and Venezuela – took the news seriously and went about putting in place sanitary measures; but both Cuba and Venezuela are being attacked by a US-imposed hybrid war, which has prevented them from raising resources and importing precious supplies. Nonetheless, Cuba continues to develop its own pharmaceutical arsenal and it continues to send its doctors to assist people across the world, while Venezuela has managed in relative terms to contain the virus despite the influx of migrant Venezuelans from Covid-19 ravaged Brazil and Colombia. The lesson from Latin America is clear: countries with governments that put people before profit can handle a pandemic with much more certainty than countries with governments that are committed to profit over people.

In January, the United Nations released its World Economic Situation and Prospects report, which showed that the region’s GDP declined by 8 per cent in 2020, and that it is not expected to pick up substantially in the years to come (UN expects 2021 growth to be at 3.8 per cent); this decline came because of prolonged national lockdowns (which are still ongoing), weak merchandise exports, and a collapse of tourism. Deeper declines were offset by export of key commodities, driven by strong industrial growth in China. Stimulus spending has held things together, but this has in turn increased external borrowing that will lead to high levels of government debt. Vaccine provision is uneven, with some countries vaccinating their populations briskly while others struggle to procure vaccines and to find personnel to vaccinate the public. The lack of vaccines and of personnel indicates the demise of national and regional pharmaceutical industrial capacity and the evisceration or weakening of public health systems. Cuba is the main exception here, with its own indigenous vaccine and its rich history of public health.

It is in this context that a number of Latin American countries went into elections, notably elections in Ecuador and Peru on April 11 (with elections in Chile postponed to later in the year). Campaigning in these countries has been hampered by the virus and by the rolling lockdowns. It is for this reason that Chile set aside any hope of holding its elections for local self-government and for the constituent assembly till later in the year; later yet is Chile’s presidential election.


Hopes were high that in Ecuador (population 17.3 million) the candidate of the Left – economist Andrés Arauz – would lead the Citizens Revolution to victory in the presidential election. Ecuador was the first Latin American country to be hit by Covid-19, with the city of Guayaquil paralysed by the disease; last month, a new wave struck Guayaquil and other parts of Ecuador, threatening to shut down the country. Guayaquil’s mayor Cynthia Viteri feared that the city would be plunged into a situation such as it experienced last year, when patients lay on the streets as hospitals overflowed. Fear- mongering held people back from the campaign, and then eventually from voting.

The catastrophe of the pandemic came alongside economic chaos, as the government of President Lenin Moreno welcomed an IMF package that included deep austerity and a general subordination to US based corporations (particularly oil companies). Low oil prices combined with Moreno’s desire to please the United States, including authorising the removal of journalist Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, led to rolling protests in October 2019. Moreno, feeling beleaguered, exited the capital in Quito and took shelter in the city of Guayaquil. The protests drew together a range of social forces, including the indigenous community; their target was Moreno, who – they said – had sold out the country to the IMF and to the United States for a stiff price: the development of a permanent austerity regime for the country.

Greatly unpopular for revelations of great personal corruption, Moreno tried to make virtue of the fact that he would not seek re-election. If he had put his name forward, he would have been decimated. Moreno’s party, Alianza Pais, put forward Ximena Peña, who could only win 1.54 per cent of the vote in the first round of ten candidates. It was a clear statement that Moreno’s policies of austerity and incompetence as well as personal corruption and subordination to the United States, had been rejected at the ballot box.

Andrés Arauz, heir to Left-wing project led by former President Rafael Correa (2007-2017), won the first round with 32.72 per cent of the vote against the second-place finisher Guillermo Lasso, a former Coca Cola executive and banker who leads the centre-right CREO party. In the period between the first and second rounds, a vicious campaign in the various forms of media accused Arauz of links to the Colombian Left-wing group, the FARC, and to the Venezuelan government. Disorientation in the social movements – including in the indigenous camp – led to fragmentation of the support for Arauz, who was projected in the opinion polls to defeat Lasso. But, in the end, as third of the voters either did not show up or spoiled their ballots, Lasso prevailed by 52 per cent to Arauz’ 47 per cent. Lasso will take office on May 24.

In the 116 seat National Assembly, whose elections took place alongside the presidential elections, the coalition that backed Arauz prevailed with 48 seats. Dominance in the National Assembly and with almost half the population voting for Arauz, as well as the immense energy produced by the 2019 protests and the unrest due to the Covid-19 crisis, affords the Left in Ecuador to build a wide coalition to prevent the implementation of Lasso’s economic promises. A preliminary condition for this coalition would be for Arauz to build the frayed and broken ties with the indigenous bloc. Pachakutik, the party of the indigenous, has the second largest bloc in the Assembly with 27 seats. Great distrust between the Citizens Revolution and Pachakutik meant that the indigenous social movement platform CONAIE did not support Arauz (even though its president – Jamie Vargas – personally endorsed him). The wide coalition can only be built through reconciliation between the two flanks of the Left and by the rebuilding of trust through sustained struggles; there is a majority here, although it is muffled.


It is impossible to understand Peru (population 32.5 million) without understanding the long-standing political and economic crisis that continues to paralyse the country. Last year, a month-long protest movement developed in response to political shenanigans by the establishment to ensure that the corruption investigations launched by President Martín Vizcarra be blocked; Vizcarra was impeached by the Congress for being ‘morally incompetent’. This was the spur for the protests, which picked up steam since they were less a defence of Vizcarra and more a general upsurge against the State’s incompetence regarding Covid-19 and the ruling elite’s addiction to austerity policies that have sent a generation of Peruvians into everyday distress. Poverty rates rose from 2018, the first time since 2012, as commodity prices declined and as government after government put more and more of the country at the mercy of the market. It was the terrible situation of the people – particularly in rural Peru – that put the stamp on the political instability.

Corruption and instability mark the House of Pizarro, the building where the presidents live and work. Many of Peru’s former presidents either spent time in prison or await prison sentences: Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), Alejandro Toledo (2001- 2006), Ollanta Humala (2011-2016, and a candidate for the presidency in 2021), and Pedro Pablo Kucynski (2016-2018); Alan Garcia (2006-2011) killed himself before he could be arrested, while Manuel Merino (five days in 2020) is under investigation for the deaths of two people during the protests of November 2020. As a consequence, faith in the political process is minimal.

The November protests began to assemble a coalition of various forces, including working class sections (such as miners) and marginalised social groups in the cities. Firmer evidence of working-class militancy was clear in December 2020, when hundreds of agricultural workers went on strike and blocked the highways that connect coastal Peru’s cities. This protest was met with intense police violence, which shaped the nature of the conflict through the end of the year. These agricultural workers followed earlier protests by construction workers and teachers, a general mood developing toward the elections of 2021. As the Covid-19 pandemic struck Peru with intensity, health care workers led by the Peruvian Medical Federation and ten other health worker unions went on indefinite strike in mid-January 2021.

Eighteen candidates went into the first round of the presidential election on April 11. The result shocked the country, as Pedro Castillo of the Left-wing Free Peru party came first with over 19 per cent of the vote (followed by right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori with 13 per cent of the vote). Castillo and Fujimori will meet in the second round on June 6. The other major Left force – Together for Peru led by Verónika Mendoza slipped to 7.8 per cent. If the right and centre-right coalesce behind Fujimori, then the second round could be a landslide. However, Castillo is used to being taken for granted. Not one poll showed him in the lead, despite the fact that he both led the 2017 nation-wide teachers’ strike and rooted himself in much neglected rural Peru. After the results came out, Castillo told his followers in the northern highland city of Cajamarca, ‘The blindfold has just been taken off the eyes of the Peruvian people. We’re often told that only political scientists, constitutionalist, erudite politicians, those with grand degrees can govern the country. They’ve had time enough’.

Castillo’s Free Peru party – fundamentally against US imperialism – calls for the nationalisation of the country’s natural resources to pay for major investments in education and health care. Castillo will work toward a new constitution (to revise the largely neoliberal constitution of 1993) and to construct a Plurinational State with social movements at the heart of his government. Importantly, Castillo’s Free Peru is not a novelty party, since it emerged as the largest party in the Congress (with 14.54 per cent of the vote, the largest bloc in a highly fractured assembly). Peru’s complex and divided political world will not make it possible for Free Peru to move an agenda by itself in the Congress, although if Castillo is able to take the presidency by some miraculous feat of unity by the social movements then Peru will see the kind of changes that have only been seen thus far in Bolivia and Venezuela – the only two countries in Latin America that have genuinely Left governments elected in the neoliberal period, both closely linked to the long-term revolutionary project of the Cuban Revolution.

This is not a pink tide

It would be premature to call these developments a ‘pink tide’, a reference to the wave of progressive governments that emerged in the 2000s. The Left is certainly finding a way to regroup in Latin America, but it remains weakened by the overwhelming power of money in politics and by the destructive capacity of the corporate media (as well as the tentacles of social media networks); despite the catastrophe of Covid in Brazil, for instance, media and money power ensure that President Jair Bolsonaro remains popular. For every Left resurgence, the right manifests itself alongside a renewed US confidence in its regional cold war against China.

Protest is the common form of politics, although organisations continue to emerge and to strengthen themselves in various forms of united action. Working-class struggles are increasingly assembling into working- class organisations and political parties, but a working-class perspective has not fully exerted itself where ‘populist’ platforms predominate in the broad Left. This is a phenomenon that will return in Chile, where the leading candidate – Daniel Jadue – comes from the Communist Party of Chile but will run in the presidential election of November 21 on behalf of the entire Left and centre Left with an agenda shaped by that width rather than the depth of working-class power. If Castillo prevails in Peru and Jadue wins in Chile, the needle of power – thanks to Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Venezuela – would tilt towards the working-class of Latin America.

The above article was originally published here by People’s Democracy.