Latin America's Leftist Shift:
Hopes and Challenges
by Benjamin Dangl
www.zmag.org, March 16, 2006
Within the last six years in Latin America
numerous social movements have gained momentum in the fight for
human rights, better living and working conditions and an end
to corporate exploitation and military violence. Recently, left
of center leaders have been elected in Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile
These political leaders, whose victory
in office is due largely to these social movements in the streets,
have pledged to fight poverty and prioritize the needs of the
people over the interests of Washington and international corporations.
This resistance is connected to centuries of organizing among
indigenous groups and unions in Latin America. I'd like to discuss
some reasons why this leftist shift is happening right now and
about a few key moments and events in this movement's recent history.
Latin America is currently waking up from
a decades-long nightmare brought on by military dictatorships
which came to power throughout Latin America in the 1970s and
80s, including Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Jorge Videla in Argentina
and General Rios Montt in Guatemala among others.
Under such dictators, hundreds of thousands
of innocent people, labeled as "leftist insurgents"
by the military, were kidnapped, tortured and murdered. Much of
this nightmare was funded by the US government and some of the
architects of the repression were trained by US teachers in such
places as the School of the Americas in Georgia.
Besides implementing this terror, dictators
worked with Washington and multinational corporations to introduce
neoliberal economic policies to the region. This economic model,
often referred to as the Washington Consensus opened up markets
for investment, put public works in the hands of private corporations,
rejected government intervention in the economy, worked to dissolve
unions and involved impoverished nations borrowing millions through
the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The debts accrued
by military dictators are crippling Latin American countries to
For decades this economic model has ravaged
Latin America while IMF officials and free market enthusiasts
continue to say, "just wait a little longer, the market will
fix everything." Of course, the market hasn't fixed everything.
In many ways the current leftist shift in Latin America is a
reaction to the failures of these policies.
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez emerged as a major
political leader in 1989, when then President Carlos Perez borrowed
billions of dollars from the World Bank, breaking the country
with debt and raising income taxes. Riots filled the streets and
many were killed. Chavez tried to lead a coup against Perez and
failed. It's the momentum from this conflict and discontent which
Chavez rode into office in 1998, in a groundswell of support.
People were tired of business as usual and the Bolivarian revolution
led by Chavez, offered a change.
In 2000, in Cochabamba , Bolivia, a people's
revolt against Bechtel's water privatization was sucesseful. The
Bechtel corporation (which has since been contracted to deal with
reconstruction efforts in New Orleans and Iraq) pushed this privatization
deal with Cochabamba which increased the cost of water by up to
300%. People were billed for using rain water and drinking from
wells they had created themselves. Cochabamba residents organized
protests, road blockades and city-wide strikes against the privatization.
Eventually Bechtel packed up and left town and water was again
made a public work.
The house of cards of corporate globalization
came crashing down in Argentina in December 2001. The neoliberal
policies supported by the IMF and implemented by President Carlos
Menem in the 1990s were widely seen as responsible for the collapse.
An economic depression which could be likened to the Depression
of the 1930s in the US, hit Argentina like a landslide. In one
day, Argentina went from being one of the wealthiest countries
in the region, to one of the poorest. The government was bankrupt
with debt, the banks closed down and factories laid off workers
by the thousands. People could no longer get money out of the
As a result, citizens from diverse classes
protested, kicking out the president, and demanding the resignation
of everyone else in the government and the corporations that were
to blame for the mess. "Que se vayan todos," was the
cry - "throw them all out" would be the English version
of this phrase. At this time, people in Argentina didn't just
kick out their corrupt leaders, they organized neighborhood assemblies,
barter fairs, urban gardens and alternative currency - all to
survive. The country had been broken and in this time of crisis
people looked to each other for support, solidarity and created
a new world out of the wreckage - without the help of the government.
Some workers who were fired took over their places of work - hotels,
factories and businesses were occupied and run by worker cooperatives.
In fact, this is one of the lasting successes of this 2002 movement;
hundreds of factories and businesses are still in the hands of
the workers across Argentina.
I have visited a number of these factories
and talked with the workers. Many of them weren't anarchists,
communists or leftists of any kind when they took over the factories.
Some of them were even members of right wing parties. They took
over the factories and businesses not for ideological reasons,
but because they had no food to eat, because some of them didn't
even have enough money to take the bus home when the boss threw
them out; so they stayed at the factory. They did this to feed
their kids, because there was no other choice.
This kind of crisis is in part what is
fueling the revolt in Latin America right now. People are saying,
"I can't pay for the water, the food, the gas. I can't afford
the hospital fees and want a better future for my children."
The neoliberal system doesn't work. People want to try something
else. Many hope this "something else" is represented
in the political processes led by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo
Morales in Bolivia , Nestor Kirchner in Argentina and others.
Such rebellions in the streets in Argentina
to throw the bums out and start another world, in Bolivia to end
gas privatization, in Brazil where farmers are taking over unused
land - these groups paved the way for the current political leaders
in the government, they opened up spaces for people like Chavez
and Morales to come to power.
So what does it mean that this leftist
movement has come into the political palace?
In the case of Argentina, President Nestor
Kirchner has negotiated deals with the IMF to bring his country
out of debt and economic depression by not doing everything the
IMF says. Since the 2001 crash, Argentina with Kirchner at the
helm has set an example by breaking with the IMF and setting the
tone at negotiating tables with international lenders. In 2003,
Argentina threatened to default on its payments to the IMF, something
unheard of for countries of its size. The IMF responded by backing
away from some of the policies and interest rates it was demanding.
Kirchner's hard line negotiating was an example for other countries
and helped Argentina climb out of its crisis.
Tabare Vasquez in Uruguay has made gains
in human rights and ending impunity for military officials involved
in past dictatorships. Morales in Bolivia has pledged to reverse
the negative impact of the war on drugs in Bolivia, nationalize
the country's gas (in some form or another), organize an assembly
to rewrite the country's constitution and reject US -backed trade
agreements. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has utilized massive oil
wealth to fund a social revolution.
However, these leftist governments are
far from perfect: Uruguay's Vazquez has gone down a neoliberal
path which some argue has gone further to the right than the previous
government. Instead of enacting the radical changes his base demands,
President Lula in Brazil has strictly followed IMF prescriptions,
and instead of using government funds to spur on social projects
in education and health care, he has continued making payments
on the $230 Billion debt.
Venezuela's political process is largely
powered by oil money, meaning the revolution may last only as
long as the oil does, and the revolution is not that exportable
to countries without such natural resources. Evo Morales in Bolivia
has already been accused of working toward gas nationalization
deals which are far from what social movements demand. And though
the "water war" against Bechtel in Cochabamba in 2000
was successful in kicking the company out, the public water system
that was developed in its place has problems with corruption and
mismanagement. The momentum and solidarity that exploded in Argentina
during their 2001-2002 crisis has all but disappeared. Class divisions,
apathy and a lack of civic participation mark the country's social
Other challenges to this leftist shift
are posed by the US government and multinational corporations.
The US military has set up a base in Paraguay , 200 kilometers
from the border with Bolivia. Hundreds of troops are reportedly
stationed there. Analysts in Bolivia and Paraguay who I've spoken
with believe the troops are there to monitor the Morales administration,
leftist groups in the region and to keep an eye on Bolivia's gas
reserves (which are the second largest in Latin America ) and
the Guarani Aquifer which is one of the biggest water reserves
in the hemisphere.
As US hegemony is threatened in the region,
military and other forms of intervention are not out of the question.
As documented by Eva Golinger in her book, "The Chavez Code,"
the US government supported and helped fund the short lived coup
against Hugo Chavez in April, 2002. Washington has worked hard
to push free trade deals in Central America , Colombia and continues,
along with many corporate media outlets, to demonize the hopeful
political processes in Latin America.
Things can't be expected to change overnight.
(I heard this phrase a lot while I was in Bolivia recently.) There
is reason to be hopeful about what is going on in Latin America
. A new space for democracy and a different kind of politics
and economics has been opened up; a new era where at best the
needs of the people are favored over the interests of Washington
and corporate investors.
There also may be safety in numbers. Many
left of center presidents are expected to win in Latin American
elections in the coming months. On April 9th, Ollanta Humala a
leftist social movement leader, is expected to be elected the
president of Peru. Left-leaning former Mayor of Mexico City, Andrez
Lopez Obrador leads the polls in the Mexican president race. The
election there will take place on July 2nd. Elections in Ecuador
will take place in October, and socialist Leon Roldos is expected
A progressive trade, political and economic
bloc - spurred on by leftist election victories - is also an enormous
possibility. This trade bloc would be an alternative to US hegemony
and neoliberalism in the region. Chavez is leading the way toward
making this a reality. Within such a bloc, instead of bowing to
Washington and corporate interests, progressive Latin American
nations will unify to create an alternative to exploitative US
backed trade agreements. Such regional cooperation and integration
offers a long term, sustainable solution to corporate exploitation.
[This article is from a talk given at
"The Winds of Change in the Americas Conference" in
Burlington, Vermont on March 5, organized by Toward Freedom ]
Benjamin Dangl is the author of "The
Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia ",
(forthcoming from AK Press). He edits www.UpsideDownWorld.org,
uncovering activism and politics in Latin America and www.TowardFreedom.com,
a progressive perspective on world events. Email Ben(at)upsidedownworld.org