Anti-coup rally in Brazil.
Since the start of the 21st century, the left has won elections in most Latin American countries in a powerful wave of popular rejection of the disastrous neoliberal policies of the previous regimes.
One must however distinguish between two quite different sorts of left governments:
1) Social-liberal coalitions, which do not break with the fundamental “Washington Consensus” but implement several progressive social measures. The basic principle of this sort of government is to do what is possible to improve the situation of the poor — on the condition they do not touch the privileges of the rich. The left, or centre-left governments of Brazil, Uruguay and Chile are the most obvious examples.
2) Anti-oligarchic, anti-neoliberal and anti-imperialist governments, who set as their historical horizon “Socialism of the 21st Century”. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador belong to this category.
Other leftist governments in Paraguay (until 2012), Nicaragua, El Salvador and Argentina (until 2015) seem somewhere in between, or on the margins, of these two types.
Substantial gains were made by the popular layers in most of these countries, thanks to the social redistribution of the rent, particularly from oil and gas extraction (particularly Venezuela and Bolivia). But none of these governments effectively confronted the basic structures of the capitalist system — and no real attempt was made toward a transition to socialism.
So far, socialist Cuba with all its shortcomings remains the only such experience.
There were also no attempts to move beyond dependency on fossil fuels, except for a short period when the government of Raphael Correa in Ecuador decided to accept the Park Yasuni Project of the ecological and indigenous movements.
The aim of that proposal was to leave, in the forest area inhabited by peasant communities, the oil in the soil, on the basis that rich countries of the global North pay half of the oil's value as compensation to the Ecuadorian people.
As one would expect, the rich capitalist governments were not interested. Correa finally gave up, and opened the Yasuni Park to the oil companies.
Since the start, there were attempts by oligarchies to re-establish their traditional rule by various sorts of coups, with the blessings of US imperialism. But in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, these efforts failed, thanks to huge popular mobilisations against them.
However, in Honduras in 2009, democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya — who tried to implement some progressive measures — was removed by a pseudo-legal procedure of the Supreme Court with the support of the army. Something similar happened in Paraguay with President Fernando Lugo, who was accused in 2012 of supporting the peasant movements and was deposed by the Senate.
Authoritarian, right-wing governments replaced the progressive leaders in these two countries, with diplomatic support from the US.
In fact, the oligarchic reaction against the leftist governments never ceased during the past 15 years, but now it has achieved some very substantial victories.
In Argentina, the left Peronist experience of the Kirchner government (first Nestor, and after his death his wife Christina) came recently to an end with the election of the right-wing, pro-imperialist and neoliberal candidate, Mauricio Macri.
And in Venezuela, the oligarchic opposition won the parliamentary elections last December, thus seriously challenging the power of Hugo Chavez's successor, President Nicolas Maduro.
These defeats certainly have to do with a) the difficult economic conjuncture, due to the fall in the prices of commodities and b) the limits and contradictions of the processes of change in the two countries.
But they also document the capacity of the reactionary capitalist forces to manipulate, deceive and mislead significant sectors of the population — thanks to their quasi-monopoly ownership of the mass media.
The most successful leftist government in Latin America is probably Bolivia's government of President Evo Morales, the indigenous peasant leader who defeated the neoliberal oligarchic forces with huge popular support. But even here there has been disappointment with several decisions of the government, opposed by workers' unions and indigenous movements.
This may explains why a majority refused, in a recent referendum, to grant Morales the possibility of presenting himself for a third period as president — although this vote also expressed a more general rejection of excessive personal power.
In the present international conjuncture after the end of the Cold War, it is not very likely to see the return of the murderous military dictatorships across the Americas that took hold from the 1960s through the 1980s — although this possibility cannot be entirely excluded.
Considering the economic and political weight of Brazil in Latin America, the present confrontation in this country is decisive for the future of the continent in the next years.
Dilma Roussef, the candidate of the Workers Party (PT) won the elections against a neoliberal coalition in 2012 — and was elected president for the second time. Although she ran a moderately leftist campaign, once elected she pursued a clear economic neoliberal agenda.
In the context of economic crisis, inflation and recession, more concessions were made to the banks and big landowners, whose main leader was nominated agriculture minister.
Using as a pretext a corruption scandal in the state oil company Petrobras, the reactionary forces — neoliberal right-wing parties, mass media and conservative magistrates — began a violent campaign for the impeachment of Dilma with significant support among the middle classes.
Some of the more reactionary speakers even called for the military to seize power again.
Several PT leaders, but also leaders of the right-wing parties, were involved in the corruption scandal. This includes the presidents of the Assembly and Senate who are now leading the campaign for Dilma's impeachment.
Dilma is, in fact, one of the few political leaders not involved in the scandal: the pseudo-legal motive for the impeachment was some technical irregularities in the calculation of the state budget, via a mechanism used by most Brazilian governments.
A broad coalition in defence of democracy and against the impeachment has been formed, called the Popular Front, including most progressive parties from the PT to the far left Party of Socialism and Freedom, the unions, the peasant and other social movements.
This popular coalition opposes Dilma's impeachment, but also criticises the neoliberal policies of her government — and calls for a radical change of orientation.
With the vote in April for the impeachment of Dilma by the Brazilian Parliament, carried by more than two thirds, the issue is practically decided. The Senate and the Supreme Court still have to vote, but there is little hope that they will take a different course.
This is clearly a “legal” coup d'etat. The whole procedure has a strong ridiculous, tragicomic flavour, since the leader of the impeachment procedure in the Parliament, Eduardo Cunha is — unlike Dilma — heavily compromised in the Petrobras scandal.
Latin America is clearly entering a period of “low intensity democracy”.
[Abridged from Against The Current. Michael Lowy is a socialist academic of Brazilian origin who is a member of the New Anti-capitalist Party in France. He is the author of many books, including The Marxism of Che Guevara and Fatherland or Mother Earth?.]