By RICARDO AYALA (PSTU, Brazil)
The cycle of electoral victories of so-called progressive parties, which had already brought Gabriel Boric (Chile) and Gustavo Petro (Colombia) to national governments, is now confirmed with the election of Lula (Brazil), the last of the 2022 crop. Thus, the largest economy in Latin America is added to Mexico, governed by López Obrador, and Argentina, presided over by Alberto Fernandez, bringing self-proclaimed governments as “progressive forces” to the five largest economies in the region.
Capitalism with a human face
The rebellion of the Argentinean masses in 2000 and the rise of Chávez and his “Socialism of the 21st Century” in Venezuela opened up a political process in Latin America that has led different political forces in various countries to present themselves as an alternative to neoliberalism and its social effects, initiating a wave of governments that rhetorically opposed neoliberalism on the continent.
Each of these governments opposed neoliberalism in different ways. Lula launched “neo-developmentalism” after his election as president of Brazil in 2003. In the same year, Nestor Kichner took over the Casa Rosada in Argentina, initiating “serious capitalism,” and the Frente Amplia (Broad Front), headed by Tabaré Vazquez, won the elections in Uruguay.
In 2006, after a national rebellion against water privatization, Evo Morales was elected in Bolivia and launched the “proceso de cambio” (the process of change), and the following year, Rafael Correa began his “Citizen Revolution” in Ecuador. To finish this cycle, Fernando Lugo became the president of Paraguay in 2008, overthrowing decades-long Colorado Party governments.
In government, these political forces advocated a “civilized” management of Latin American semi-colonial capitalism (meaning neoliberalism, respecting law and order). They opposed the traditional bourgeoisie and its parties, worn out by the social devastation produced by the economic paralysis resulting from the economic and financial liberation policy of the 1990s.
Among the main countries of the continent, Colombia, Chile, and Peru were left out of this first wave of supposedly anti-neoliberal governments.
The existence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), until then the oldest guerrilla grouping in the world, gave rise to its opposite pole: a paramilitary state. It is known for, until very recently, assassinating more than one peasant leader or trade-union leader a day, under the pretext of fighting the guerrillas. It also created, at the other extreme, a social fringe backing the government against the guerrillas, keeping the mass movement “walled off.”
In the case of Chile, the governments of the so-called Concertación (Coalition) between Christian Democracy and the Socialist Party, which succeeded the dictatorship, still held the expectations of the population. The social consequences of maintaining the counter-reforms implemented by Pinochet had not yet come to light. At the same time, the exportation of copper, the key to the country’s economy, maintained low unemployment and the survival of the workers.
In Peru, the corrupt dictatorship of Fujimori was the opposite of the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla movement, which, like in Colombia, kept the masses squeezed between guerrilla warfare and state violence.
Neo-extractivism: An economy based on the exportation of natural resources
The exportation of natural resources for the industrialization of China and Southeast Asia was the axis on which all the so-called progressive or “anti-neoliberal” governments based their economic policy. The exports of iron ore, copper, agricultural products (such as soya), etc., reached an unprecedented scale in the history of capitalism.
The “progressive governments” took advantage of the historical rise in the prices of these commodities but kept their subordination to the world division of labor imposed by the ruling countries, which control the world market for these products. Giving up their sovereignty, they deepened the same productive structure they claimed to oppose, causing the advance of deindustrialization on the continent.
Compensatory social policies
At the same time, social programs such as Bolsa Família (Family Staple) in Brazil or the encouragement of small businesses were incapable of compensating for unemployment and underemployment when the effects of the deep crisis of world capitalism set in and the prices of natural resources fell. The result was the devastating social effects throughout the continent, as well as the disappointment of the masses in the political forces that had awakened the hope of a real change in their lives.
The crisis: The tsunami that swept the first wave
The impeachment of Lugo in Paraguay in June 2012 began the crisis of these governments. The lack of actual changes in people’s lives deepened the social crisis according to the different countries’ degree of dependence and subordination to the world order.
The deindustrialization of Venezuela, caused by the absolute dependence on oil exports, uncovered the true face of Chavismo. The Central Bank of Venezuela estimated in May 2019 that inflation would reach 282,000% by 2021. In that same year, the institution estimated a 90% shrinkage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) compared to 2013, while the wages’ purchasing power had shrunk by 94%. Furthermore, the value of the food staple was calculated at 1,218,147.82 Bolívars (the local currency) while the minimum wage reached only 40,000 Bolívars.
With differences in rhythms and intensity, this same social reality hit all countries governed by the so-called progressive forces. From then on, their function of containing social discontent lost its meaning for the ruling classes, while the poor were disappointed by the setback in their living conditions.
The response of the traditional bourgeoisie was to deepen the extractivist model, just like the countries still governed by “progressivism,” such as Venezuela, that opened special economic zones, handed over to multinational corporations associated with the military to intensify the exploitation of gold, minerals, timber, etc.
The traditional bourgeoisie also began to fight over governments, and new far-right forces emerged as a more developed expression of the need for plunder and looting. And then the path of change through bourgeois institutions took its toll. In 2015, Kirchnerism suffered an election defeat in Argentina and, in the following year, Dilma Rousseff was removed from the presidency by the Brazilian Congress.
The effects of the crisis caused “progressivism” to come into direct confrontation with the masses. In Bolivia, the suspicion of fraud in the 2016 plebiscite that would give Morales an indefinite period in power generated a youth uprising. But it was capitalized on by the right wing, which, however, failed in its coup attempt.
In Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, Rafael Correa’s successor, applied a profound structural adjustment plan, in a deal with the IMF, in October 2019. One of the harshest measures was the brutal increase in fuel prices, which provoked an uprising of the Indigenous masses. And it was this rebellion in Ecuador that served as a spark to detonate the revolt of the Chileans, who took to the streets with their famous slogan against the increase in bus fares: “It’s not thirty pesos, it’s thirty years.”
The return: The new “pink” wave
The Chilean and Colombian masses uprisings placed these countries (belatedly) within the wave of governments considered progressive when they were already in crisis in South America. Before that, in 2018, the government of Mexico (a big economy mostly controlled by the U.S., serving it as a true colony) was snatched by López Obrador. Meanwhile, Jair Bolsonaro capitalized on the attrition of the Workers’ Party (PT) governments, encouraging new far-right organizations in the region.
After that, the election of Fernandez in Argentina in 2019 enabled an electoral recomposition of the so-called progressive forces in South America. The failed management of the COVID-19 pandemic by the Peruvian and Colombian governments detonated mobilizations in 2020. The pandemic also took the Chilean masses off the streets, but they maintained the expectation of the constituent process.
Since then, these three countries have been incorporated into the new wave of “progressive governments,” with the elections of Castillo (Peru), Boric (Chile) and Petro (Colombia). A process that has reached Brazil and got Lula (PT) elected at the end of 2022.
Photo: Argentina’s Alberto Fernández (left) meets with Lula from Brazil.