By Bridget Anderson
US-aligned right wing forces have been advancing in Latin America over the past three years. They have capitalised on the political instability created by an economic crisis which has engulfed the region following the crash in commodity prices in 2014. Their agenda is to reverse the huge social gains delivered by socialist and left wing governments throughout Latin America since the turn of the century and subordinate the region’s governments to US policy.
Since 2015 right wing governments have replaced left wing governments in several Latin American countries including Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador – and Chile from March of this year. The left continues to defend its governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua in the face of aggressive interventions from the US, which is also stepping up its campaign against Cuba.
The US offensive is particularly focused on Venezuela where it hopes to achieve its long-held foreign policy objective of overthrowing the socialist revolution and replacing it with a neo-liberal government. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has raised the spectre of a military coup in Venezuela as a way to ‘resolve’ the situation facing the country in addition to threats of intensifying the economic sanctions which are already damaging the Venezuelan economy.
Despite significant blows to the Latin American left, being removed from office in a number of countries, it is not the case that it has been smashed. It is still in government in a number of countries and is waging enormous defensive battles where it has been removed from office – providing serious opposition to the right wing governments now implementing neo-liberal attacks on the working classes and oppressed across the region. The left continues to be a significant force on the continent – commanding huge, mass, popular support. Where the right wing is in government, it is resorting to various authoritarian, anti-democratic manoeuvres to hold back left forces, notably in Brazil and Honduras.
Presently the overall dynamic in the region is of a right wing advance – putting the issues of solidarity with the region’s left wing forces firmly on the agenda for socialists internationally.
Trump’s administration is sharping the US offensive on the Latin American left. In his recent tour of Latin America (early February 2018), the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson summarised the US administration’s overall approach of being a return to ‘the Monroe doctrine’. Written in 1823 this doctrine conceives South America as the Washington’s ‘backyard’ and presupposes an interventionist foreign policy with the US seeking to control and manipulate the region through direct and indirect interventions in order to extract the huge resources and wealth from the continent.
In the coming months there will be important battles in Venezuela and Brazil – where Presidential elections are scheduled for April and October respectively. The outcome of both of these contests is important for the left across the region given the political and economic weight of these countries within Latin America. Economic and political instability across the region means the fights between left and right will also continue in other parts of Latin America.
This article surveys the balance of forces between left and right forces throughout the region.
The empire strikes back and the right wing advances
Hugo Chavez’s election in Venezuela in 1998 ushered a new era in Latin America – with a series of left wing governments elected across the region which, to varying degrees, broke with decades of neo-liberalism and acquiescence to the demands of US imperialism. Instead of foreign corporations profiting from the export of Latin America’s raw materials whilst the majority of the populations languished in poverty, the left governments to varying degrees pursued policies that delivered a ‘revolution in distribution’. A portion of the revenues of exported raw materials was used to improve the living standards of the population, resulting in huge reductions in poverty and improved social conditions.
Whilst this ‘revolution in distribution’ was an important advance, the structure of these economies continues to be largely tied to low-value-added exports – various commodities including raw materials. This model subjects these economics to the volatility of commodity prices – so when these fell in 2014 a number of Latin American governments faced a destabilising crisis. The collapse in export prices slashed growth, cut the population’s living standards and dented the governments’ popular support.
As this article argues, China’s economic model with its ‘revolution in production’ has some lessons for the whole left, including in Latin America. State investment has been used to develop production in China resulting in one of the world’s highest levels of economic growth which has succeeded in bringing more than 700 million people out of poverty and built an economy which has continued to grow at a fast rate, even after the 2008 financial crash and through the crash in commodity prices after 2014.
The US has exploited the political destabilisation in Latin America, assisting right wing, neo-liberal forces in wresting support away from the left.
The right wing offensive had its first breakthrough in Argentina where Mauricio Macri won the Presidential election in 2015 with 51 per cent of the vote in the final round, assuming office from President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and ending a period of 12 years of left wing government.
Following his election, Macri proceeded to introduce neo-liberal economic policies – including cuts to social spending, wage reductions, eliminating public sector jobs and privatising the national airline, oil company and pension fund as well as cutting taxes for the wealthy. According to a study by the Catholic University of Argentina, in just one year, Marci’s policies increased the poverty rate in the country from 29 per cent to 34.9 per cent.
Macri has also re-orientated Argentina’s foreign policy towards the US and is playing a leading role in attacking Venezuela, including calling for economic sanctions from the outset of his Presidency.
Argentina’s midterm elections took place in October 2017 and the right wing forces aligned with President Macri won with a convincing 41.7 per cent of the vote. Kirchner’s ‘Citizen’s Unity’ left coalition, founded in June 2017 to unite opposition to Macri, secured 22.5 per cent of the vote, whilst the Peronist ‘Justicialist Party’ got 10.9 per cent of the vote.
Following his midterm election victory, Macri is attempting to further intensify his neo-liberal attacks on the population. However, the government is facing strong opposition from social movements and trade unions including hundreds of thousands of people protesting in December against the latest labour law and pension reforms. The pension reform was passed in the Congress by a narrow margin and hundreds of organisations representing retired people are keeping up the fight against the reforms being implemented by suing the government. Meanwhile the new labour law has been delayed as opposition mounts.
Whilst the left opposition is currently an electoral minority, Kirchner’s supporters remain a major force in Argentine politics and with Macri’s harsh neo-liberal reforms garnering significant opposition, the next Argentine Presidential election in 2019 is far from a foregone conclusion.
Thus the Argentine courts have intervened to attack the left opposition’s most prominent leader, Kirchner who has been charged with treason, a crime which is punishable by 10 to 25 years in prison. Kirchner cannot be arrested unless Congress strips her of her immunity – and Congress is returning from a recess in March. At a press conference Kirchner stated, ‘This has nothing to do with justice or democracy. There is no case, there is no crime, there is no motive.’ Here the bourgeois judiciary is intervening in an attempt to end Kirchner’s role in Argentine politics – a method of ‘constitutional coup’ (in this case pre-emptive) which is being deployed elsewhere in the region.
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who was re-elected in 2014 with over 54 million votes, was removed from office in a ‘Parliamentary coup’ in 2016. The Chamber of Deputies impeached Rousseff and the Senate found her guilty and barred her from office, marking the end of 13 years of the left of centre Workers Party governing the country. Former Vice President Michel Temer took over as President; a decision made by the Senate, and has pursued neoliberal economic reforms and intensified the austerity. Amidst growing opposition led by the trade unions, Temer’s latest pension reforms have been dropped – the centrepiece of his agenda. Opinion polls indicate that Temer is one of the most unpopular Presidents in Brazil’s recent history.
Following the removal of Rousseff a determined campaign was launched against former President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva – the Workers Party’s candidate for the Presidential election in October 2018. Lula remains Brazil’s most popular politician, is ahead of all rivals in opinion polls to win the election this autumn. Lula has vowed to reverse the austerity measures imposed by the incumbent and unelected President Temer.
A politically-motivated corruption conviction has been imposed by the judiciary on Lula, and this January he lost an appeal against that conviction. If this is not overturned he will be disqualified from standing for election as President and faces a 12 year prison sentence. Lula says he will appeal to Brazil’s Supreme Court and to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and is determined to stand for President in October.
In a poll published by the respected pollsters Datafolha after the losing of his appeal in January, Lula retained a strong lead, projected to get between 34 per cent and 37 per cent of votes in the first round. His nearest rival is the far right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, who is polling 16 per cent to 18 per cent. Lula would comfortably win in the second round.
In Ecuador the left has also suffered a significant setback.
Rafael Correa served as President of Ecuador from 2007 to 2017 and as the leader of the PAIS Alliance political movement headed up the ‘Citizens’ Revolution’ which brought in left reforms that increased government spending on social programmes, reduced poverty and increased living standards. Correa realigned Ecuador foreign policy away from US imperialism and towards the socialist pole in the region headed by Cuba and Venezuela. He shut down the US’ military base in Ecuador in September 2009. Correa ended his term in office on an approval rating of 50 per cent.
In the April 2017 Ecuadorian Presidential election, Correa decided to stand aside and supported Moreno Lenin as the left candidate put forward by the ruling PAIS Alliance Party. Moreno had served as Correa’s Vice President for six years. The right wing opposition in Ecuador put up conservative banker Guillermo Lasso. The result of the election was close, with Moreno defeating the right wing candidate in the second round 51.16 per cent to 48.84 per cent.
During the Presidential election campaign, Moreno positioned himself as leader of a ‘de-Correafication’ process. Upon declaring his candidacy in October 2016, Moreno differentiated himself from Correa’s ‘confrontational’ style, indicated a ‘flexibility’ on the question of neo-liberalism and spoke of the need to ‘refresh the country’s international relations’ – an implication that he would distance Ecuador from Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia.
Following his successful election, Moreno has advanced this ‘de-Correafication’ process – pursuing an alliance with right wing opposition forces in the country as well as warming relations with the United States. Moreno’s hostility to Correa was put bluntly in June of 2017, as Correa was departing the country. He stated: ‘Now we can breathe freely, slowly we will all shed our sheep-like behaviour’ adding that ‘the table is not set… he [Correa] could have been a bit more reasonable about leaving things in better condition.’
Moreno, in alliance with the right wing opposition, has spearheaded an offensive against Correa and some of the tenets of the ‘Citizens’ Revolution’ through the recent referendum.
The referendum had three key aims: to stop Correa from standing in future Presidential elections by introducing a new lifetime term limit for all public officials to only be permitted to stand for a single re-election; to close the citizens’ participation branch of the state (through which social movements choose judges, the attorney general, electoral authorities and many other posts); and to repeal the speculation super profits tax levied on the sale of land properties and real estate which was introduced by Correa.
The ‘yes’ campaign – led by Moreno in alliance with the right wing – obtained an average vote of 67 per cent across the seven question included in the referendum.
The referendum represents a major blow for the left. Correa was planning on standing for President again in 2021, but Ecuadoreans voted to approve constitutional changes that bar Correa from ever becoming President again.
The referendum campaign has clarified and accelerated the split in the PAIS Alliance between Moreno and Correa supporters.
Correa led a campaign against the referendum – with the ‘no’ vote winning an average of 33 per cent of the vote, 36 per cent on the specific question regarding term limits.
Out of this ‘No’ campaign, Correa has launched a new political movement, called the Citizens’ Revolution Movement, which is consolidating a left opposition to Moreno’s increasingly right wing Presidency.
Of the 74 PAIS Alliance legislators in the country’s legislative, 30 have disaffiliated to form the new Citizens’ Revolution Movement with Correa, leaving Moreno with 44 and in need of securing at least 24 votes from other parties in order to legislate.
Moreno is currently on an approval rating of 70 per cent.
Following the referendum, prominent conservative economic and political actors in Ecuador are making demands of Moreno to strengthen ties with the US and cut taxes for the rich.
Correa forces have considerable political support and a newly formed movement through which to organise opposition to the right wing trajectory of Moreno’s Presidency.
In Chile a right wing government will be succeeding a left government with the inauguration of conservative politician Pinera as President. Pinera won the election with 54 per cent of the vote in December. He ran on a platform of lowering taxes for the corporations.
Supporters of the Honduran Alliance Against Dictatorship have been protesting for months against alleged fraud in the Presidential elections of November 2017.
The right wing President has remained in office despite the widespread allegations that the election was stolen by Juan Orlando Hernandez and his supporters through electoral fraud. Election observers of the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the European Union denounced irregularities, with the OAS going as far as calling for a new election – all of which has been ignored.
On the eve of the election, The Economist reported that it had obtained a recording of a training session for members of the Hernandez’s National Party tasked with staffing voting tables at polling stations on strategies and techniques for rigging the election.
The left candidate, Salvador Nasralla, had a 5 per cent lead when nearly 58 per cent of the votes were counted in the first few hours after the election. At this point the count slowed dramatically and Nasralla’s lead gradually diminished with mysterious computer crashes and sudden shifts in the tallies of votes.
Then the Supreme Electoral Tribunal – which is dominated by Hernandez supporters – declared Hernandez the winner with 42.9 per cent votes versus Salvador Nasralla’s 41.4 per cent.
Huge protests took place throughout Honduras against the irregularities and electoral fraud in the aftermath of the election, and are still continuing months later. At least 40 people have been killed and more than 2,000 detained as the regime bears down on the left opposition.
Hernandez’s National Party had originally come to power in 2009 after a military coup deposed the progressive democratically elected government of President Manuel Zelaya.
The latest polls suggest that the Mexican Presidential election taking place this year on 1 July could see a serious challenge from the left. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the leftist Morena Party is the front-runner in the latest poll with 34 per cent support, whilst Ricardo Anaya from the conservative National Action Party is on 23 per cent and Jose Antonio Meade the candidate of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is polling 18 per cent.
Defending left governments in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba
The remaining left wing governments in Latin America are under increased pressure from the Trump administration as they are no longer the majority in the region.
The Venezuelan Presidential election takes places this year on 22 April against a backdrop of on-going economic crisis and a US administration aggressively intervening to pursue their ‘regime change’ agenda.
Incumbent President Nicolas Maduro is seeking re-election for a second term. It is imperative for the continuation of Venezuela’s socialist revolution that Maduro wins the election.
The US has been funding a range of right wing, violent, neo-liberal forces, with tens of millions of dollars over the past 20 years, to destabilise the situation and organise a political opposition.
Also, in pursuit of this agenda, rounds of economic sanctions have been imposed on Venezuela and on his recent tour US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson threatened further sanctions – the banning of Venezuela oil exports to the US which is a measure that could really harm the economy. A similar approach was pursued by the CIA in its economic sabotage of Chile in the run up to the 1973 coup against Allende, where the goal was to ‘make the economy scream.’ The EU is participating in the US’ ‘economic warfare’ against Venezuela by also imposing sanctions.
Despite the adverse economic situation – with reports of triple figure inflation and the collapse in oil prices starving the government of funds for social project – there is continued mass support for the Chavistas and their revolution, as demonstrated by their string of electoral victories at the end of last year, first in the elections to the National Constituent Assembly and then the regional and municipal elections.
The US has already indicated that it will not recognise the result of the Presidential election in April and the Venezuelan right wing opposition have declared they are boycotting the election. The right wing ‘Democratic Unity’ coalition have criticised the timing of the election, arguing they would prefer it to happen later in the year. The flimsy accuse for boycotting the election barely conceals the opposition’s true intentions: in the context that they think Maduro will be re-elected regardless of whether or not they put up a candidate, they have decided to not participate and instead are campaigning to delegitimise the Venezuelan election internationally.
US Secretary of State Tillerson has recently also hinted that the US would support a military coup in Venezuela.
The left also remains secure in office in Bolivia and Nicaragua.
Evo Morales is standing for re-election next year in Bolivia’s Presidential elections, following a recent court ruling which removed term limits. Morales is currently the favourite to win. The Bolivian economy has grown strongly in recent years: 5.5 per cent in 2014, 4.9 per cent in 2015 and 4.3 per cent in 2016. This economic success has helped ensure that the political situation has remained stable.
In Nicaragua the left wing President Daniel Ortego, of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, FSLN, won the Presidential elections of 2016 with over 70 per cent of the votes. The Sandinistas also resoundingly won the municipal elections in November of 2017 – securing 68 per cent of the vote and 134 out of 153 mayoralties. Since December the US has imposed sanctions on Nicaragua.
In the case of Cuba the US’ hostility is again on the increase. Under President Obama some small but significant steps were taken to ease relations with the US. Full diplomatic ties between the two countries were restored for the first time in 50 years and the ‘Cuban Five’ were released after being imprisoned in the US in the 1990s for exposing the anti-Cuban terrorist groups training in Florida. Trump has started to reverse this easing of relations – including ordering the Cuban Embassy in the US to cut 60 per cent of its staff as well as tightening travel restrictions to Cuba.
The US has been implacably hostile to Cuba since the Cuban revolution of 1959. The US has imposed an economic, commercial and financial blockade on Cuba for over 56 years – and embargo which remains to this day firmly in place.
This socialist revolution, just 90 miles from the US, has for 59 years been offering inspiration to revolutionary movements across the world. The Cuban Communist Party has consistently taken a clear stand in opposition to imperialism, with Cuba playing a significant role in supporting national liberation struggles in Latin America and Africa.
US imperialism’s view of Latin America
On the eve of his recent tour of Latin America, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described Washington’s Monroe Doctrine as ‘relevant today as it was the day it was written’ in 1823. This doctrine set out the US framework that the southern Americas were considered by the US as its own ‘backyard’, where US policy should prevail. Since then the US has sought to control the region through many direct and indirect interventions.
Given the scale of left wing mass movements across the region the US backs the right wing forces that use violence to suppress the left. In terms of economics, the US principally extracts resources from those countries that will let it.
The rising economic power of China is offering Latin America a different model of international relations based on ‘win-win’ cooperation rather than imperialist extraction. China is already a top trading partner for a number of countries in the region and in January invited Latin America and Caribbean countries to join its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, offering $250 billion in investment over the next decade.
Tillerson has warned against these developing relations stating: ‘Latin America does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people’ – a ridiculous statement made in the same speech that he sang the praises of the US’ Monroe Doctrine! China’s Foreign Ministry responded by urging the US to abandon its ‘out-dated concepts of zero-sum games and look at the development of China-Latin America relations in an open and inclusive manner.’
The left has been significantly pushed back in Latin America since 2015 – with the ‘pink’ tide receding from its peak – with the loss of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Ecuador to the right. However the Cuban revolution continues to enjoy the mass support of its population and the left remains in office in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.
Across the rest of the region the left commands significant mass support in opposition to the right wing governments and the neo-liberal attacks on their population’s living standards.
The contesting forces of the left and right across Latin America will be engaged in big political struggles this year, including the important elections in Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico.