Latin America has earned its place among the wave of popular uprisings occurring throughout the world’s nations, both central and peripheral, uprisings that are bringing the 40-year legacy of neoliberalism into question. The rebellion in Chile, which has been ongoing for over a month, has become one of the epicenters of these political and social upheavals.
Until recently, with the exhaustion of the cycle of “post-neoliberal governments,” the masses have been relatively passive and regional right-wing governments aligned with Trump have predominated in the region. Now, however, the situation has taken a sharp turn with the appearance on the scene of an actor that nobody expected: the masses. In just one month we have seen two popular uprisings in Ecuador and Chile (both of which are still in progress), and a coup d’état in Bolivia against former President Evo Morales that has triggered strong resistance from the workers, peasants, and indigenous peoples of El Alto and Cochabamba. More recently, an intermittent general strike has arisen in Colombia that is challenging the right-wing government of President Iván Duque.
Over and above national particularities, this new wave of class struggle and its refraction in Latin America has developed out of the conditions created by the capitalist crisis of 2008, which exposed a deep social and political polarization inherited from decades of globalization and put an end to the prolonged period of neoliberal hegemony.
In Latin America, the crisis came to a head during the period between 2011 and 2014 after the raw materials super-cycle was exhausted, a cycle that aided the rise of post-neoliberal governments and kept them in power. The economy went into recession in 2015-16 and, with a few exceptions, has since remained stagnant. During these years the pendulum of the continent’s politics swung to the right, witnessing the rise of Piñera in Chile, Macri in Argentina, Duque in Colombia, Kuczynski in Peru, Abdo in Paraguay and, if this were not enough, Temer/Bolsonaro in Brazil. All these governments have lined up with Trump and fed the illusion that a relatively orderly change in political signage allows for advances to be made on yet-to-be-realized (counter) reforms, in particular pension and labor reforms that have become increasingly vital for the capitalist class to carry out in these lean times.
But unlike the governments of the 1990s that took up the austerity policies of the Washington Consensus, these new right-wing governments have failed to establish a relatively stable hegemony. They have also encountered an adverse global environment for their free market orientation, an environment of booming nationalist tendencies in the United States and other powers, trade wars, and geopolitical instability.
While the economy does not explain everything—the most radicalized situations are occurring in Chile and Bolivia, whose economies are still growing—it is of decisive importance. A determining factor is the more general prospect of a slowdown that could turn into a recession in the context of the trade war between the United States and China. Latin America’s annual average growth went from 4% in 2004-11 to 0.2% in 2019, according to the IMF’s last report (though this prediction was made before the protests broke out in Chile and Colombia). With Latin America’s three main economies in serious trouble—growth in Mexico and Brazil has stagnated and Argentina is in a prolonged and deep recession with an unpayable debt—the regional outlook is bleak, and some are already predicting a “second lost decade.”
Trump, meanwhile, has launched an imperialist offensive against Latin America, using a discourse that has returned to that of the Monroe Doctrine, even if imperialism no longer has the strength it once enjoyed. This offensive is deeply entwined with the 2020 elections, in which Trump is trying to secure his reelection. Many of his recent political decisions should be read with this electoral logic in mind, including the increase of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports for Brazil and Argentina, a measure aimed at retaining the core of Trump’s electoral base. There is also the attempted coup d’état in Venezuela, which has been promoted by the Republican right in Florida and which seeks to gain political points among the state’s electorate of anti-Castro exiles, known as “gusanos” (worms).
In the explosive cocktail that is Latin America, ingredients of different density are being mixed in varying proportions. There is the persistent inequality in a broad sense (i.e., not only economic), as well as the frustrated expectations of the middle classes and the wage-earning sectors who have barely emerged from poverty during the last cycle of economic growth and who fear a relapse because of their precarious position. There is also the widespread conviction that the political class always works for the rich, or for IMF austerity, as in the case of Ecuador.
This “globalization of discontent” is not as yet configured in terms of a workers’ uprising as a whole. That is why a clear revolutionary dynamic has not yet opened up. Nevertheless, because powerful motors have set it in motion, this discontent will hardly be exhausted in these first stages without having lasting political consequences.
It has taken only days for the actions of the masses to delegitimize the great capitalist certainties of recent decades, certainties such as the success of the “Chilean model” and the “end of class struggle.” This is the magic of processes that go beyond narrow corporative and routine frameworks and question the established order. We should not, however, lump together all the actors in struggle onto one side; doing so may give the wrong idea that there is just one tendency in action, mechanically interpreting the action in the streets as a turn to the left.
A Shift to the Left and the Rise of the Right
Moving from description to theorization, it is important to note that the “Latin American Spring” results from the tendencies toward organic crisis which have taken a qualitative leap in these countries, as have the actions of the masses and the responses from the ruling classes, which in some cases tend to extremes.
Without a doubt, the most novel element is the shift to the left that has been put in motion by the exploited and oppressed masses who have moved from passivity to activity; they have taken to the streets in what Gramsci once described as a “chaotic whole” with a degree of radicalism not seen since the previous uprisings that brought the neoliberal governments of the early 2000s to an end.
The most advanced processes of this tendency have been the following: the revolutionary days that put the government of Lenin Moreno in Ecuador in check; the emergence of the class struggle in Chile, which had its highest point in the general strike of November 12; and the heroic resistance against the coup in Bolivia, particularly in El Alto and Cochabamba, which saw the emblematic blockade of the fuel plant in Senkata, a strategic point that left La Paz without fuel. However, reformist and/or populist leaderships in these countries have consciously avoided the development of the revolutionary elements in the uprisings.
The emergence of the exploited into the realm of class struggle faces a reactionary tendency that demonstrates the growing willingness of the ruling classes, or their most determined factions, to resort to “solutions of force.” This is, of course, nothing new; the use of force to keep the masses in check and to determine the political landscape has been utilized by Latin America’s right-wing governments for years, such as in the “institutional coup” against former President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. This political takedown was based on the use of the justice system as an arbiter and was legitimized by the reactionary middle classes, as seen in Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash). This tendency has taken its first leap forward with the ascendency of Bolsonaro to power in Brazil. It can also be seen more generally with the increasing importance of the armed forces across the continent.
Similarly, there is also the gradual consolidation of the coup in Bolivia, where the candidacy of Luis Camacho, the “Bolivian Bolsonaro,” is already taking shape. Although the situation is still precarious and unstable, the most rancid and racist right wing supported by the police, the armed forces, and the church will seek to transform its political victory into a state force, to impose a neoliberal program, and to sweep away the rights of indigenous people.
The advance of the anti-worker offensive in Brazil, which began with Temer and continued with Bolsonaro, has reinforced the region’s reactionary elements. It cannot go unnoticed that the major unions have failed to call for the least bit of struggle now that Congress has approved two key labor and retirement counterreforms from the neoliberal plan adopted by Minister of Economy Paulo Guedes and Brazilian employers. This trend has not been reversed by the release of imprisoned Workers’ Party (PT) leader and former President Lula da Silva or the postponement of two other pending austerity measures until after the 2020 elections.
The regional picture is rounded out with the narrow victory in Uruguay of Lacalle Pou, who now leads a coalition government that includes extreme right-wing formations like Cabildo Abierto (Open “Cabildo,” or town hall meeting). Beyond the symbolic impact of this victory, it adds another country in the region that now, to varying degrees, lines up behind imperialist policies.
In short, this situation can best be defined as one of polarization, with a still indeterminate relationship of forces between classes.
The Question of Leadership
We are witnessing the first manifestations of a cycle of class struggle that is unprecedented in recent decades. In this struggle the working class and the exploited are seeing an acceleration of their disillusionment with their political leaderships, the ruling classes, and their states. But the eruption of the class struggle by itself does not guarantee that these processes will evolve in a revolutionary direction, nor is their outcome guaranteed.
Once again, reformist and populist leaderships play the role of legitimizing the various diversions of the struggle “from the left” and the containing of struggle within the framework of the misery that is “the possible.”
In Ecuador, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE—Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador), which has taken the leader in both the street protests and the negotiations with the government, refuses to fight for the end of the presidency of Lenín Moreno. The CONAIE even called for a retreat before the mobilizations achieved their first victory with the rolling back of the fuel price hike.
In Chile, Piñera has stayed in power through a combination of diversion and repression, which would be impossible without the active collaboration of the reformist leaderships of the mass movement. Sectors of the Frente Amplio (FA—Broad Front) have participated in the scandalous “parliamentary kitchen” with the parties of the regime, including those from the Pinochetist right wing, to call for a constituent assembly process that is rigged and anti-democratic. Several FA deputies have given a further sign of their “responsibility” to the bourgeois state and the bosses by voting in favor of the anti-protest law that transforms any struggle into a crime. The Communist Party also played a conciliatory role: It made sure that the general strike of November 12, which marked the entry of decisive battalions of the working class into the struggle, was not an indefinite strike which could develop into a political strike to realize the demand of the millions in the streets who shout “Piñera Out.” Despite this, the process is an open-ended one, as shown by the hundreds of thousands who continue to mobilize.
In Bolivia, while the shift of the country’s major union, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB, Bolivian Workers’ Center) from being an ally of Evo Morales’s government to supporting the coup was bad enough, it was the betrayal of Morales’s own party, the MAS (Movement for Socialism), that was the key to weakening the struggle against the coup. While Morales sent contradictory messages from exile in Mexico, back in Bolivia a majority of the “masista” (MAS) leadership recognized the usurping, murderous government of Jeanine Áñez, a government that already has the deaths of those in Senkata and Cochabamba on its hands. In this way, it worked against the revolutionary tendencies developing in the resistance against the coup.
These groups, and their counterparts in other countries, argue that the way forward is not to deepen the revolutionary elements of the situation, but to instead conform to “lesser evilism” to pacify the mass movement. The great lesson that the current uprisings are teaching is that those who advocate for this strategy only end up facilitating the advance of the right wing and its reactionary program. This is how the institutional coup came to pass in Brazil, where the CUT and the PT did not call for a serious struggle to defeat the opposition. This is also how the coup occurred in Bolivia. So it was also with Macri’s austerity in Argentina, where the violent protest against the pension reform in December 2017 was channeled by Peronism and the union bureaucracy into the 2019 presidential elections. These forces are now fostering expectations in the government of newly elected President Alberto Fernández.
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In other articles, we have discussed the strategic aspects of passing from “revolt” to “revolution,” that is, from protests of the “citizenry” to the intervention of the working class as the articulator of the alliance of the exploited. In Chile, there is the experience of the Emergency and Protection Committee of Antofagasta, an example of democratic self-organization that coordinates the various sectors participating in the struggle. Such examples can be generalized if, as is probable, the working class enters the struggle with its demands against the despotism of the bosses and labor precariousness, the ultimate foundations of the so-called miracle of Chilean neoliberalism.
The general strike against Macron’s pension reform that has paralyzed France reaffirms our assessment of the emergence of the working-class, particularly in sectors that hold strategic positions, such as the transport workers. This and other uprisings around the world show the development of experiences of coordination and self-organization that can open up to more classic dynamics of revolution. It is not a question of passively waiting but of building revolutionary parties that can create revolutionary conditions and raise a program for such a perspective.
This article originally appeared in La Izquierda Diario.
Translation: Sean Robertson