Of all the Leftist leaders that came to power in Latin America in the last “Red Wave”, the one I love most is Evo Morales, the indigena president of Bolivia.
But, to say the truth, when the news came that voters in Bolivia rejected (in the February 21, 2016, referendum) the proposal to remove restrictions on presidential terms – thus preventing Morales from reelection for a 4th term in 2019 – I was satisfied with the result.
It shouldn’t signal the end of the rule of the MAS – Bolivia’s “Movement for Socialism”. It gives Morales plenty of time to prepare for an orderly transfer of power to a new generation that will continue his struggle. But if during 13 years in government he will fail to build a leadership that will be able to carry on without him being at the top post – Bolivian socialism may require a period in opposition to reorganize.
Red Wave of Hope
When the poor people of Venezuela elected Hugo Chavez as president, in December 6, 1998, we still lived in “the end of history” after the collapse of the “Socialist Block” led by the Soviet Union. The power of imperialism, led by the North American US, seemed too strong to challenge.
Soon challenges mounted from many sides. Al-Qaeda’s September 11 (2001) terrorist attacks in the heart of the US centers of power drew the imperialist super-power into two ill-conceived bloody and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. China built itself into the main engine of the world economy while internal corruption hit hard at the heart of the capitalist economy, resulting in a global economic crisis.
Latin America’s people used the diminished power of imperialism and its distraction by other fronts to challenge the imperialist domination by electing a series of leftist governments: Lula Da Silva in Brazil and Nestor Kirchner in Argentina in 2003, Morales in Bolivia in 2006, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Rafael Correa in Ecuador in 2007 and Jose Mujica in Uruguay in 2010, to name some.
The comprehensive nature of this wave is a result of the previous period of right-wing dictatorships and repressive regimes, symbolized by Pinochet’s bloody coup in Chile (1973) and the dictatorship and dirty war in Argentine (1974-1983). In other countries repression was even bloodier, like the rule of the death-squads’ government in Colombia and the genocide by the Guatemalan government against its native population. It was a US-coordinated war against the people, which crashed the hopes of a whole generation across the continent. Many of the youth that fought bravely against these oppressive regimes, and were regarded terrorists by the regimes and their imperialist backers, later became the leaders of the Red Wave that carried some of them to the center of state power.
It was not clear that the US and local capitalist-military elites will allow such a change to take place. As late as 2002 the US still tried to repeat its old tricks by initiating a coup against Chavez in Venezuela. At the same time there was talk in imperialist circles of restoring military power in restive Argentina. Only after the masses in Caracas took control of the streets and repelled the coup, and after the US got embroiled in Iraq, that the door opened widely for some fresh political air.
Achievements and Limitations
The new left-leaning (to various degrees) governments brought significant achievements to the masses that brought them to power.
The capitalist media likes to say that the main factor behind the economic development and the reduction in poverty over the last 15 years are mostly due to luck: The rise in the price of commodities as a result of China’s economic miracle. This is just another lie that tries to hide the importance of political power in deciding the distribution of wealth, internationally and locally.
The Argentinian government refused to pay in full its external debt, much of it was money given by world capitalism to bankroll the murderous dictatorship. It invested in local development instead of squeezing the people to pay for endless usurpation.
Only in 2003, after 4 years in government, a failed coup and a long strike by the company, Chavez succeeded to take control of PDVSA – Venezuela’s oil producing state-owned company – and to use the country’s vast resources for improving the life of the impoverished masses.
All around the region, to different levels, governments reversed privatizations and invested in social programs: education, health, social housing and relief from poverty. They reduced the dependency of their economies on the US and the IMF and looked for other opportunities, first and foremost by strengthening ties with China. By and large, Latin America succeeded to avoid the economic crisis that erupted in the imperialist centers in 2007-8.
All those were significant achievements that were hard to imagine before. We have witnessed dozens of countries around the world were economic bonanza from natural resource or commodities led to surge in corruption, repression, social marginalization and even civil war.
But the “Red Wave” was not a full revolution. Coming to power in democratic elections, the new regimes, even while writing new constitutions, kept the structure of the capitalist states. No one even tried to implement “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. The experiments with “participatory democracy” and “people’s power” remained limited and in no place outweighed the state apparatus.
On the economic level what was implemented is “mixed economy” with strengthening of the state’s sector but still leaving much space for the private sector. This could be expected, as the socialist states that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union also adopted different models of mixed economy. But in China political control remains in the hands of the communist party, after the capitalist class was annihilated (with much else) by the Cultural Revolution. In Latin America the Oligarchas have never lost their taste for state power.
The Ebb of the Red Wave
For some time the red wave seemed irreversible – but this was a mood, not a learned historical assessment.
Now the inevitable economic cycle, a basic feature of the capitalist economy, brings a delayed recession to many countries in Latin America. As everywhere, economic recession tends to expose the weaknesses of the economy, the society and the government. In the adversarial politics of representative democracy people in stress turn to the opposition not for what it stands for but to punish their failed governments.
The capitalist media celebrated the election of right-wing Macri as president of Argentine (November 2015) and the victory of the opposition in the parliamentary elections in Venezuela (December 2015) as the end of the Red Wave. The real picture is much more complicated.
After years in government the masses are entitled to judge their leftist rulers for their achievements and not for their rhetoric. The real meaning of leftist policy is loyalty to the workers and other poor masses and for their interests. The assurance of the interests of the poor masses can only come through the organization of these masses and their active participation in politics.
No left party or government is immune to corruption. It may even be that the corruption on the left is more destructive and more irritating, as the right is well known to serve the rich anyway. And incompetence may be in some cases as damaging as bad intentions. Forming a government to effectively serve the masses is the final real test to the sincerity, wisdom and creative abilities of those left parties that succeeded to reach this stage.
Of course, there are severe external pressures. The US and other imperialist powers are not innocent spectators. They will still do whatever they can to fail any attempt to create a more equal distribution of power and global resources. And don’t expect the local exploiters to play fair. They will use their money (as long as they have it) to buy and bribe their way to power as they ever did. But when you are in government you are best placed to mobilize the masses with the state apparatus to counter those pressures – if this is your vision and you are up to the task.
Climbing the Spiral
The task of the left forces in Latin America is not to preserve their power in its current shape but to find new ways to empower their people. Periods in opposition shouldn’t be regarded as a disaster. We may hope that the trauma of dictatorships and civil wars will not return to Latin America (in many other parts of the world it is still a painful reality). The main task, in opposition like in government, is to build a movement that is really connected and committed to the masses, open the way for them to express themselves and control political decisions, and find practical solutions to promote their aspirations.
The new surge of the Red Wave in Latin America, with or without some right wing government in-between, depends on the left’s ability to evolve, passing the leadership to a new generation (sometimes under the leadership of different parties), developing the model for participatory democracy that will ensure real control of the people over the state apparatus and implementing a modern socialist economy that will serve the people as a whole.
Haifa, March 2016
As I’m not an expert on Latin American affairs, I sent this article to some friends for comments.
Below is one response that I’ve already received…
A Trotskyist View from Argentina
By: Daniel Gaido
I’m afraid I disagree with the analysis
- There was never a Red Wave. Red is the symbol of communism, and the local bourgeoisie not only was not expropriated but did very well indeed under those allegedly red governments. To give you just one example: when Cristina Kirchner traveled to China, she was accompanied by Francesco “Franco” Macri, the father of Mauricio Macri, who in that single trip alone made 900 million dollars as commission for the signing of contracts with Chinese companies. This shows the completely bogus character of the opposition between peronism and macrism, as does the fact that the agreement with the holdouts has been made with the help of the peronist deputies and senators, who gave Macri (and imperialism) the quorum and the votes they needed.
- The current “shift to the right” is the result of the bogus (bourgeois) character of the alleged left and of the crisis of world capitalism. Since those allegedly leftist governments saw their task as being “humane” administrators of capitalist exploitation (amidst huge corruption – see Brazil but also Lazaro Baez in Argentina) it is only natural that they should be brought down by a crisis of capitalism.
- Not only social inequality continued to grow under the “red wave” governments (not a single shanty town has been eradicated, and indeed they have grown exponentially all over the region) but the colonial character of the Latin American economies has become much more marked under those allegedly nationalist governments. There has been a steep primarization of exports, which are virtually all primary products (commodities): soya beans, oil, cooper, etc.
- “Forming a government to effectively serve the masses” implies expropriating the bourgeoisie and handing over the means of production to the state, as Lenin and Che Guevara did. All the rest is empty talk aimed at deceiving the masses.5. Where is the working class in your analysis? It is never the subject of history, capable of determining its own destiny. Apparently it can only choose between a “good” and a “bad” bourgeois government, but it is and will always remain cannon fodder for capitalist exploitation.
6. “a movement that is really connected and committed to the masses, open the way for them to express themselves and control political decisions, and find practical solutions to promote their aspirations.” All this is, to put it mildly, extremely vague. I’d rather stick to Marx’s idea of what is needed:
Against the collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes.
This constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to insure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end — the abolition of classes.
The combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economical struggles ought at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political power of landlords and capitalists.
The lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defense and perpetuation of their economical monopolies and for enslaving labor. To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes.