Letter from America

Receding pink tide?

Print edition : January 08, 2016

May 4, 2006: (From left) Presidents Nestor Kirchner of Argentina, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in Iguazu, Argentina. It was with a burst of energy that Latin America emerged from decades of military dictatorship after the Second World War and the painful economic downturn of the 1990s. Photo: ENRIQUE MARCARIAN/REUTERS

A supporter poses with a life-size cut-out of Mauricio Macri before his campaign rally in Humahuaca, Jujuy, Argentina, on November 19. In Argentina, the Right returns to the presidency for the first time since 2003. Photo: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

In Latin America, electoral victories of the Right have shifted the balance of forces in the continent away from the Left.

In Argentina, the Right returns to the presidency for the first time since 2003. After a contentious election campaign, the Right will dominate Venezuela’s National Assembly after 16 years in the cold. Brazil’s political world is in disarray, with corruption charges against leaders of the ruling Workers’ Party allowing the Right to appear as the country’s saviour. Elsewhere in South America, similar patterns are evident. Is the “Pink Tide” that began with the 1999 election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela finally receding?

It was with a burst of energy that Latin America emerged from decades of military dictatorship after the Second World War and the painful economic downturn of the 1990s. Blisteringly charismatic, Chavez drew the Left and popular nationalist forces together in his Fifth Republic Movement. He summoned the spirit of Simon Bolivar and promised to defeat not only the terribly cruel economic policies of his predecessor but also the structural control of the country held by the oligarchy and the United States. Chavez’s boldness appealed to a people long used to being cheated and beaten down. He swept the countryside and the slums, inaugurating a continent-wide enthusiasm for a new beginning.

Power drifted leftwards. In 2003, Brazil’s Workers’ Party took that country’s presidency, putting the automobile union leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva into the Palacio. That same year, in an Argentina that lingered on financial life support, the Peronists—led by Nestor Kirchner—won the presidency by a whisker. Two years later, the leftist Frente Amplio (Broad Front), led by Tabare Vazquez, took the presidency in Uruguay. The next year, elections in Bolivia and Chile brought the Left to the presidency—Evo Morales and his Movement for Socialism in the former and Michelle Bachelet’s Socialist Party in the latter. In 2007, Rafael Correa of the Ecuadorean socialist PAIS Alliance took power. When Paraguay’s Left took power in 2008 with the victory of Fernando Lugo of the Patriotic Alliance for Change, it appeared that the continent had exited from conservative and neoliberal control. Even Colombia—long a bastion of the most bilious Right—seemed ready to embrace some of the new dogmas of the continent.

Alternative alliance

The temperament of the Left in the continent was uneven. Chavez, Morales and Correa had the strongest anti-imperialist views. Their movements produced several institutions that reflected their politics. They created the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America as an alternative regional economic union to that being pushed by the U.S. (Free Trade Area of the Americas). To retain political control of their destiny outside Washington’s control of the Organisation of American States (OAS), they created the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Cuba, long banned from the OAS, took a seat in this new community. With the U.S. tied down in the war in Iraq, space opened up for these manoeuvres. Chavez took advantage of that. It was in this context that Chavez named George W. Bush “Mr Danger” (Senor Peligro). Argentina, under Nestor and then Cristina Kirchner, held fast to the mantle of Bolivarianism in the Southern Cone. They were Bolivarianism’s southern anchor. Cristina Kirchner—the daughter of a bus driver—came to her politics with a working-class sensibility. Like Chavez, Cristina Kirchner speaks in the idiom of the people. Constitutional mandates prevented her from running for re-election. If she had, she might have won.

Others joined in these arrangements but with different levels of enthusiasm. Neoliberal policies are well embedded in the fabric of Chile’s institutions, which is why it has had the most tepid role in the new frameworks. The transition from dictatorship tied the hands of the Socialists with the Christian Democrats in a Concertacion, an alliance that shared power but allowed the elite to dictate the policy framework. The Socialists govern within this straitjacket. Brazil’s Workers’ Party—under both Lula and the current President Dilma Rousseff —has been uneven in its support for the Venezuelan project, largely for reasons of old national antipathies and resistance from the considerably powerful ruling elite.

Nonetheless, new energy allowed for major shifts in the policy orientation in South America. Data from the United Nation’s Economic Commission of Latin America (CEPAL)’s November 2014 Inclusive Social Development report shows that in 1990 poverty and destitution in the continent disadvantaged just short of half the population. This is a staggering figure. By last year, the percentage dropped to under a third being deprived. The CEPAL study says that this drop can be understood by favourable economic developments on the world stage “and by a string of social policy initiatives, most notably the expansion and redefinition of policies and programmes for overcoming poverty and extreme poverty and promoting social inclusion”. This is what enabled the Left to win election upon election. The Bolivarians, for instance, have ruled the presidency and the legislature for 16 years. That is a long unbroken period in office.

Victim of Prices

Ana Saggioro Garcia, Professor of International Relations at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), tells me that “the fall of commodity prices and the slowdown of the Chinese economy” had an impact on South American growth rates. Ana Garcia, editor of BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique, suggests that South America’s reliance upon export of commodities had to do with an extraction-based economy. Mining and oil exports are not only “fragile in social and environmental terms”, she said, but with the downturn of the world economy from 2007 they are also economically fragile.

The CEPAL report from November suggests that poverty reduction stagnated from 2012, when the decline in the world economy reduced the revenues earned by the South American states by export of raw materials. That year, South America recorded the lowest level of poverty and extreme poverty since the 1970s. Slowdown of social spending has meant not only rise in poverty rates but also disgruntlement with the governments in power.

The elections in Argentina and Venezuela reflect deep discontent that the social spending has declined. The voters chose the conservative Mauricio Macri in Argentina and candidates of the rightward Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) of Venezuela. In Argentina the election was tight, with Macri winning with a 2 per cent margin. The closeness of the Argentina vote, suggests Professor Pablo Alabarces of the University of Buenos Aires, will make it difficult for Macri to overturn the social compact made between the Peronists and the public. “The political costs to suppress the social schemes,” he told me, “are much greater than the financial costs to maintain them.”

Professor Massimo Modonesi, who teaches at Mexico City’s UNAM, concurred. He told me that it would be “risky” for Macri to reverse the social programmes because they are ingrained in Argentine society. He could do so, Modonesi argued, if he does it “intelligently, moderately”, but if he tried to do it in a “clumsy and brutal form it would provoke strong social reactions”. During the election campaign, Macri had to acknowledge that the nationalisation of YPF, an oil company, and of Aerolineas Argentina would remain intact. He does not have the mandate to sell off these concerns. The Peronists retain control of 17 of 23 provinces and hold control of the legislature.

Opposition without ideas

In Venezuela, the election was not tight; it gave MUD, led by Chuo Torrealba (a former communist), a complete victory—112 seats against 55 of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. The presidency, however, remains with the Socialists. They also control many regional governments. To ride roughshod over them will be impossible. The socialist and the Bolivarian movement in general is embedded in the lives of the Venezuelans.

Low oil prices and suppressed purchasing from China have constrained the treasury in most South American states. In Venezuela this led to shortages and inflation. Argentina suffered a similar fate. There is no easy solution to the problem, and the Right has not articulated anything. Argentina’s Right, says Alabarces, campaigned on “absolutely nothing. They came under the slogan of Change, within which they collected all kinds of wishes and expectations.” They had no programme. In Venezuela, as well, the opposition ran on discontent. The enemy was Chavez’s successor, Nicholas Maduro, who has none of Chavez’s charisma and populist reach. Maduro seemed wooden, lost, unable to react to the concrete problems of the economic crisis. The arrest and trial of Caracas’ former Mayor, Leopoldo Lopez, for incitement to violence during last year’s demonstrations made Maduro seem weak, even vindictive. Chavez might have done the same thing, but he would have appeared to do so on patriotic grounds. He could channel the will of the people in a way that few of his successors can imitate.

When Tariq Ali asked Chavez what would happen to the Bolivarians if they lost elections, Chavez said that he would return to the streets and fight once more. Ana Garcia says that time in government led the political parties to break with social movements in many countries in South America. The most dramatic instance of this crisis was in Chile, where students and workers—led in part by the Communists—fought against price hikes and job losses in colleges and copper mines. Cristian Cuevas and Camilla Vallejo, leaders of copper workers and students, built significant movements that are hard to repress. Michelle Bachelet cleverly welcomed the Communists into an alliance with her government, but this has not fully neutered the protests. A shift in direction is demanded.

The Movement of the Landless (MST) and their allies play a similar role in Brazil with the Workers’ Party—critical, angry but aware of the balance of forces in their country. Perhaps a glance at Bolivia is necessary, where despite the compromises of the Morales government, the linkages remain firmer. What is necessary is not merely acknowledgment of the people but a new project that will confront economic realities of low commodity prices. Mines and China are not utopia for South America. New policies are needed, new slogans for a population that remains committed to deep changes in their lives.

Argentina’s Macri and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos as well as right-wing forces elsewhere hope that these electoral victories will shift the balance of forces in the continent away from the Left. On the surface they have a lot to celebrate. Behind the ballot box, however, lurk other futures—an impossible economic situation for them to manage, a population that will refuse to give up their new advantages and a Left that will fight them on the streets on every issue. The pink tide has receded slightly, but it will come in again.

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