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Radical Latin America

A NEW wave of radicalisation is sweeping through the Latin American continent. It is reflected in increased support for radical populist movements in many countries and the landslide victory of the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate, Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, in Brazil’s presidential election.

The strengthening of radical populist movements follows a series of right-wing capitalist governments which carried through sweeping privatisation and opened the national economies to increased domination and control by Western multinationals during the 1990s. These policies had a devastating effect on the mass of the population. Poverty levels and misery increased alongside a widening of the gap between rich and poor. The present radicalisation is a sign that the working class and others exploited by capitalism are beginning to seek an alternative to neo-liberalism and capitalism.

A recent electoral breakthrough of this populist revival took place in Ecuador where Lucio Guitiérrez took the lead in the first round of the presidential elections. Guitiérrez, a retired army officer who is sympathetic to and comparable with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, led the January 21 Patriotic Society, and participated in the mass uprising in January 2000 against the former president Jamil Mahuad. Like Chávez, Guitiérrez is resting overwhelmingly on the poor and most downtrodden, including indigenous peoples. His opponent in the second round is Álvaro Noboa, a multi-millionaire who owns more than 100 companies in Ecuador. These developments have an added significance in that they follow the dollarisation of the economy which has failed to resolve the social and economic instability. Between 1999 and 2001, 400,000 Ecuadorians left the country – out of a population of 13 million.

Earlier this year in Bolivia, Evo Morales, a peasant farmer backed by the working class and indigenous peasants, narrowly missed being elected president. Throughout the continent there is a revolt against the neo-liberal polices of the 1990s, the market and the establishment political parties. All parties and institutions associated with capitalism and the ruling elite have seen an erosion of their support. In the recent elections in Ecuador while Guitiérrez took 20.3% of the vote in the first round, Xavier Neira, the candidate of the Partido Social Cristiano (PSC), the country’s main political party, took a mere 12.2% of the vote and came in a poor fifth! The same process took place in Venezuela when Chávez won the presidency in 1998 and the vote for traditional parties of the ruling class collapsed. The same loss of trust and confidence was seen in Argentina following the uprisings which took place during December 2001 and January 2002.

A recent poll organised by the Santiago-based Latinobarometro, reflected the new mood. It is shown in the contempt towards the established pro-capitalist parties. In Argentina in 1996, 19% indicated that they had ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ confidence and trust in the political parties. In 2002 this had fallen to 0%! In Ecuador it fell from 18% to about 8%. Paraguay, which has recently experienced mass riots against privatization, saw the steepest decline from 38% to 6%. The only exception to this trend is Venezuela – reflecting the highly-polarised and politicised situation there – where those responding positively to political parties rose from 10% to 20%.

The radicalisation was also reflected in attitudes towards the economy. When compared to 1998 (the last time the poll was taken), support for keeping the state out of the economy had dramatically fallen in all countries. When asked if the economy should be left to the private sector without state intervention, now 39% agreed in Brazil, 38% in Argentina, 36% in Venezuela, and 41% in Ecuador (from 55% in 1998).

Behind the growth in support for radical populist movements are demands for far-reaching change by the working class and the mass of the population. The victory of Lula in Brazil reflects this process. Lula has adopted a more ‘moderate’ stance, trying to reassure the ruling class by promising to honour existing agreements with the international financial markets and banks. Despite this ‘PT-lite’ stance, his victory will arouse massive enthusiasm and expectations amongst the working class.

These developments have alarmed US imperialism. Constantine Menges, an official in Reagan’s administration, said the process was "tantamount to the creation of a new ‘axis of evil’."

The real threat to the interests of capitalism, however, is the mass movement of the working class and oppressed which is behind such populist figures as Chávez and Guitiérrez and, now, Lula’s victory. They have denounced neo-liberalism and the grotesque wealth, corruption and power of the ruling elites in their respective countries. In the case of Chávez, some of the privileges of the corrupt capitalist politicians have been curbed and some reforms that benefit the poor have been implemented. More than 3,000 new schools which distribute free school meals have been built since Chávez came to power and state universities are now free for students. Such reforms have won the enthusiastic backing of the urban poor and oppressed. The reactionary campaign against him by the ruling class and US imperialism has also helped maintain this support.

However, these populist movements have not attempted to break from capitalism and carry through a socialist transformation of society. They have not even gone so far as to nationalise sections of the economy. The deepening crisis of world capitalism and the rising pressure of the working class, however, may drive such regimes as Chávez in a more radical direction. Significant blows could be struck against the interests of capitalism, and in particular US imperialism – for example, the nationalisation of important sectors of the economy or defaulting on foreign debt.

So long as the regimes remain with capitalism, however, and do not present a socialist alternative, they will stay prisoners of the market system. Chávez does not mobilise the mass of the working class and oppressed to carry through a socialist transformation of society. Nor does he appeal to the masses of Latin America and the United States to overthrow capitalism and imperialism. As a result, his regime is facing an impasse.

The ruling class has carried through a policy of sabotage and destabilisation and, in April, attempted to overthrow Chávez with the backing of the USA. This was defeated because of a spontaneous movement from the shanty towns and armed forces rank-and-file, along with some junior officers, rallying to his defence.

However, the ruling class is mobilising a massive campaign against him, fuelled by his inability to resolve the economic crisis which exists because he will not break from capitalism. This has resulted in a massive polarisation in society. In October, one million people took to the streets demanding that Chávez resign. One week later, another million took to the streets in his support! The polarisation is along class lines. The recent ‘general strike’ called by the employers and the corrupt trade union federation, CTV, reflected this. The Spanish daily El País reported: "In the popular zones few companies closed their doors and remained open… in the petrol sector, the administration and the offices in Caracas were paralysed but extraction, refinery and transport were unaffected". (22 October)

How long this deadlock can last is an open question but it cannot continue indefinitely. The economic crisis is slashing the standard of living of the middle class on a daily basis. In the first quarter of this year, $10 billion flooded out of Venezuela, the equivalent of 7% of gross domestic product. This has given the right-wing reactionary forces the opportunity to build a powerful opposition to Chávez.

This impasse is also a warning to Lula’s new administration. The mass of workers will have tremendous expectations and illusions in the first ever PT-dominated government. However, the swing to the right by Lula and the party’s leadership could result in these hopes being dashed. Sections of the ruling class have swung behind him, intent on shackling the PT government to the commitments made during the campaign not to adopt radical measures and to support pro-capitalist policies. Nonetheless, the economic crisis and workers’ struggles will put the government under enormous pressure. It is certain to provoke a political crisis at some point. Despite Lula’s promises to the ruling class, he could be compelled by the pressure of mass movements to adopt measures which conflict with the short-term and strategic interests of the capitalists and US imperialism.

As the experience of Venezuela and other recent developments show, there is a need to build an independent working class and socialist alternative. It needs to be based on a programme to break with capitalism and establish workers’ and peasants’ governments which would begin to build socialism, based on the nationalisation of the major monopolies, banks and financial institutions and the introduction of a democratic plan of production. The emergence of a new wave of radical populist movements represents the first steps by the masses of Latin America to search for a socialist alternative which is now an urgent necessity.

Tony Saunois


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