Latin America’s left is in retreat, but it’s not finished yet

September 12, 2016
Pro-government rally. Caracas, August 29.

On being sworn into power on January 15, 2007, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said: “Latin America is not living through an era of change, it is living through a genuine change of eras.”

His enthusiasm was shared by many, and with good reason: after years of intense social struggles against right-wing neoliberal governments, new left forces were winning elections across the region.

Correa’s election came almost 10 years after Hugo Chavez, a left-wing Venezuelan military officer elected on a promise to end poverty by giving power to the people, kicked off the trend in 1998. A decade later, Latin America’s “Pink Tide” — a commonly used phrase that grouped together all regional left governments, regardless of differences — had swept left-of-centre presidents into power in every South American country bar Colombia and Peru.

More importantly, real changes were evident. Alongside dramatic improvements in social indicators, key demands of the social movements were won. The US-pushed Free Trade of Americas Agreement was defeated, and in several countries, control over natural resources was recovered and new constitutions enshrined a range of hard-won rights.

Recent defeats

Fast forward to 2016 however, and the region looks very different. The past year has seen the left lose a string of elections, and in some cases governmental power. In other places, dubious judicial processes have been used by the right to impeach those they could not beat at the ballot box.

Overall, the right has taken the political initiative and in some cases the streets — a terrain the left traditionally viewed as its exclusive purview. Corruption scandals have plagued left parties and important sections of its own social base have taken to the streets, decrying those in power. The left seems to have lost its way — or worse, become indistinguishable from the right.

This situation has led many to ask: has the Pink Tide reached the “end of its cycle”? And if so, what lessons can be drawn from this period?

Discussing these issues requires drawing up a balance sheet of the past two decades. It is therefore worth looking at what this “change of era” entailed to help us come to grips with the challenges facing a South American left that finds itself on the back foot.

The most obvious signs of the left’s troubles have been recent electoral performances. Having largely risen from the margins, new left parties became seemingly invincible by the end of the last decade.

This illusion, however, came to an abrupt end when rightist candidate Mauricio Macri won Argentina’s presidential election last year. A few weeks later, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) was outpolled 45% to 55% by the right-wing opposition in National Assembly elections.

Then in February, after having broken many election records and become the longest-serving Bolivian head of state ever, Evo Morales was defeated in a referendum to remove term limits for presidents that would have allowed him to stand again, essentially blocking him from being able to stand in the next presidential elections in 2020.

Social struggles

But there is a problem with arguing the cycle is over solely on the basis of election results. First, because the left’s electoral demise is not a fait accompli. In some countries, the left may still win upcoming elections. In others, it has at least confirmed its status as the main opposition, a position from which it could potentially regroup and challenge the right’s agenda.

Moreover, explaining the start and end of the cycle with the rise and fall of left governments leaves out the whole period of struggle that preceded these governments and are an essential part of understanding them.

The Pink Tide did not start with Chavez’s election nor end with Macri’s. It began with rebellions such as the 1989 Caracazo uprising in Venezuela and Bolivia’s Water War in 2000. Its fate will almost certainly be determined on these same streets.

But such anti-neoliberal mobilisations alone does not explain the left’s success. When looking at the region's recent history, emphasis is generally given to the economic impacts of neoliberalism and the social struggles it sparked.

However, neoliberalism was always much more than just a set of economic policies. Implemented at a time when military regimes were becoming a burden for the region’s ruling elites, neoliberalism required building a parliamentary-based democracy that, while granting the right to vote, concealed the power-sharing pacts among traditional parties. The aim was ensuring decision-making power remained firmly in the grip of the political class.

The rise of the left was based on its ability to tap into widespread discontent over economic exclusion and political marginalisation. But social movement struggles, and even rebellions, were not enough. Many concluded the left needed to wage a political struggle to convince the majority that an alternative to neoliberalism was possible.

Many of the region’s social movements helped form political parties. The left was most successful where it managed to put forward a clear political alternative to the neoliberal right. Where it failed to do so, outsiders candidates, in many cases adopting leftist discourse, filled the breach.

The first years of the “Pink Tide” cycle confirmed the correctness of this strategy as key demands of the left began to be implemented from government. Collaboration between left parties and social movements was also driven by a shared common interest in blocking the right's return to power.

Social movements provided left governments with a potential ally to help bypass legislative roadblocks and thwart the subversive actions of the right. These new governments also provided breathing space for movements worn down by years of mobilisation and repression.

Holding government

There were important popular initiatives, such as local participatory budgeting, constituent assemblies and Venezuela's system of community councils and communes, undoubtedly the most radical attempt to build grassroots democracy in the region.

But much of the left got caught up in the same parliamentary system it promised to revolutionise.

Developing new forms of democracy based on peoples participation proved difficult, especially beyond the local level. The left needing to constantly reaffirm its mandate within a parliamentary electoral system that favoured the right.

As the right sought to regain power by any means, left parties began to view the issue of popular support and government as one and the same thing — protecting the new era meant defending the new governments at all cost.

Public criticisms began to be viewed as “aiding the right”. Emphasise shifted from building new forms of radical democracy to marshalling forces for what seemed endless election campaigns.

Worse, in some cases left parties decided the only way to stay in power was to play the parliamentary game and cut deals with the opposition. A number of left politicians succumbed to the corrupting culture that dominates the old state bureaucracy.

A similar scenario played out with economic policies. To varying degrees, the left has been able to implement aspects of its anti-neoliberal economic strategy, and in some cases even take tentative steps in an anti-capitalist direction.

In doing so, the left dispelled many of the myths that neoliberalism created regarding the virtues of the free market and demonstrated that an alternative was desirable and possible. By implementing social movement demands, such as greater state intervention into the economy and recovery of control over natural resources, the left cut poverty and helped stimulate the internal market. Combined with booming commodity prices, this fuelled large growth rates.

But 10 years on, favourable export conditions have been replaced by a global economic slowdown. It is clear that the left is yet to develop a plan for how to break the region’s dependency on raw materials exports.

Every attempt by left governments to assert greater state control over the market has been met with a fierce response. Experiments in building a social economy from below — such as cooperatives and worker-run factories — have remained isolated and frequently absorbed by market forces.

With left governments facing mounting economic problems, the right has campaigned as more responsible managers of the economy.

Despite recent setbacks, however, it is not yet clear the new era is over. Recent election results provide evidence that discontent over political and economic exclusion remains. In many cases, the left has lost elections not because its supporters have voted for the right, but because its social base simply stayed home.

For its part, the right has had to recognise the new reality. It has distanced itself from the old traditional parties and adopted some of the left’s discourse and policies. A “new right” has promised to carry on the social policies of the left, but with less corruption and incompetence.

New phase

Rather than the end of a cycle, it seems the left is entering a new phase as part of this ongoing change of eras. It does so from a weakened position, having lost the initiative. It is in retreat, but not yet defeated.

Learning lessons from mistakes, as well as gains, of the recent period will be crucial to turning this situation around.

One lesson is that hegemony is not something won once and for all. Maintaining popular support is a permanent struggle that occurs on an ever-changing terrain.

Understanding the importance of fighting for hegemony led many social movements to take the leap into the realm of politics. Unfortunately, once in government, some concluded that hegemony was the same as holding onto power. This helped the right take the political initiative.

The left also needs to develop serious and concrete alternatives to capitalism, both in terms of economic strategies and the kind of participatory democracy we want to see.

[A longer version of this article will appear in Issue 3 of Alborado Magazine. Federico Fuentes is a Green Left Weekly journalist and co-author of Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions (2013).]

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