Lessons from Latin America

By David Seddon

We have now posted three issues in the series on ‘Popular Protest, Social Movements and Class Struggle’. The main objective of this project is to report, describe and analyse on a comparative basis the numerous examples of progressive collective action by ordinary African men, women and youth across the continent, as they occur, and to situate them in their wider context – that of the combined and uneven development of capitalism and class struggle on a world scale.

A central concern is to provide the basis for an appreciation of the extent to which the instances of popular protest and the actions of social movements described and analysed can be seen as part of the long (up-and-down) struggle of workers and peasants world-wide to defend and improve their lives and their livelihoods, to increase the scope for sustainable social, economic and political development, and even, on occasion to contribute to the transformation of the very conditions of their existence – in other words to ‘make history’.

As this project is a part of the new ROAPE website initiative, its emphasis is inevitably and appropriately on what is happening in Africa. But it is implicit in the project approach that the discussion of popular protest, social movements and class struggle in Africa should not be separate or detached from a discussion of popular protest, social movements and class struggle in other continents (for example in Asia, Latin America, North America & Europe) and ultimately, world-wide.

With this in mind, we have obtained permission from a sister medium – The Dawn News:  International Newsletter of Popular Struggles – to reproduce (with minor editorial changes) an article that appeared on 19 April 2016 in The Dawn, which examines the rise and apparent fall of what is referred to here as ‘post-liberalism’ under progressivist governments over the last ten years.

David Seddon is a researcher and scholar who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world.

‘Latin America: the End of a Cycle or the Depletion of Post-Neoliberalism’

By Francois Houtart

Latin America was the only continent in which alternatives to neo-liberalism were adopted by several countries. After a series of military dictatorships, supported by the US and implementers of the neo-liberal project, reactions were quick to emerge. The peak was the rejection, in 2005, of the FTAA, a Free Trade Treaty with the US and Canada, as a result of the joint action of social movements, left-wing political parties, NGOs and Christian groups.

Progressivist governments

The new governments of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, Paraguay and Bolivia carried out policies that re-established the State in its role of wealth redistribution, reorganization of public services and in particular, providing access to health, education, and investment in public works. A more favorable distribution was negotiated for the entry of raw materials, between the multinational companies and the national state (oil, gas, minerals, and agricultural exports) and the favorable situation, for more than a decade, allowed significant revenue for the mentioned nations

Talking about an ‘end of cycle’ introduces the idea of a certain historical determinism, which suggests the inevitability of alternation of power between the left and the right – an inadequate concept when the aim is to replace the hegemony of the oligarchies with popular and democratic regimes. However, many factors may suggest the depletion of post-neoliberal experiences, assuming the hypothesis that these new governments were post-neoliberal and not post-capitalist in nature.

Of course, it would be delusional to think that in the capitalist world, in the midst of a systemic —and therefore particularly acute — crisis, the immediate establishment of socialism could be possible. There are also historical references on this subject. The NEP (New Economic Policy) in the 1920s in the USSR is an example to study critically. In China and Vietnam, Deng Xio Ping or doi moi (renewal) reforms reveal the impossibility of developing the productive forces without taking into account the law of value, that is, the market (which is supposed to be regulated by the State). Cuba adopted, in a slow yet cautious way, measures that were intended to invigorate the economy, without losing fundamental obligations to social justice and respect towards the environment.

Then, the issue of necessary transitions arises.

 A post-neoliberal government

The project of the progressivist governments of Latin America to rebuild an economic and political system capable of repairing the disastrous social effects of neoliberalism was no easy task. Restoring the State’s social functions meant in fact a reconfiguration, and always one under control of a conservative administration quite incapable of building an instrument of radical change. Venezuela’s case involved a parallel state… made possible thanks to the oil rent. In the rest of the cases, new ministries were created and renewed, as were their officials. The State that emerged after this process had, in general, a centralizing and hierarchical nature, with a charismatic leader, with tendencies towards making social movements an instrument of change, and promoting an often paralyzing bureaucracy. There was corruption, in some cases, on a large scale.

The political will to try to escape from neo-liberalism had positive effects: an effective struggle against poverty for dozens of millions of people, better access to health and education, public investment in infrastructure —in short, at least a partial redistribution of the national product, which was significantly increased by the rise in the price of raw materials. This made it possible to ensure benefits for poor people without seriously affecting the income of the rich. In this context, pan-Latin American organizations were created or strengthened, i.e. Mercosur, Celac, Unasur, and finally ALBA – an initiative involving Venezuela and ten other countries.

In the latter case, this was a new and innovative perspective on cooperation, which did not involve competition, but complementarity and solidarity, because, in fact, the internal economy of these progressive states remained under the control of private capital, with its own methods of accumulation, especially in areas connected with mining and oil, finance, telecommunications – even ignoring the ‘externalities’, meaning environmental and social damage. This gave place to reactions from social movements.

The mass media remained almost completely in the hands of big international or national capital, despite the efforts made to correct that virtual monopoly – an example of this effort is that of the national media laws of Telesur.

What kind of development?

The model of development adopted was inspired by the 1960s, the years of ‘developmentalism’, when the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) promoted import substitution and an increase of national production. Its application in the 21st century, in a favourable juncture for raw material prices, combined with an economic plan focused on the growth of production and the distribution of national income without transforming the underlying social structure (for example, without undertaking agrarian reform), culminated in ‘the re-primarisation’ [return to an emphasis on primary products – DS] of Latin American economies and an increase in reliance on monopoly capitalism, leading to a relative de-industrialization across the continent.

The project gradually became an uncritical ‘modernization’ of society, with different emphases, depending on the country concerned, with some, like Venezuela stressing community participation. This gave way to a growth in the ranks of the middle-class consumers of imported goods. Mega-projects were promoted and the traditional rural sector was abandoned in favour of agribusiness, which is very destructive of ecosystems and biodiversity, and even endangers food sovereignty. There was no real agrarian reform. The reduction of poverty, especially through support measures (as in the case of neo-liberal states), hardy reduced social inequality, still the highest in the world.

Could it have been done differently?

One may ask, of course, if it would have been possible to ‘do it differently’. A radical transformation (revolution) tends to result in armed intervention and the United States has all the necessary apparatus for that: military bases, allies in the region, the deployment of the Fifth Fleet around the continent, satellite information and AWACS aircraft, and there is historical proof that interventions are not ruled out: eg in Santo Domingo, “Bay of Pigs” in Cuba, Panamá, Granada. On the other hand, the strength of monopoly capital is such that agreements made in oil fields, mining, farming, etc. quickly give rise to new dependencies. It must be added that there is resistance to the implementation of autonomous monetary policies from international finance institutions, without even mentioning the flight of capital to tax havens, as shown recently by ‘the Panama Papers’.

On the other hand, the orientation of the leaders of those progressivist governments and their advisers was to ‘modernize’ society, regardless of major contemporary achievements, such as the importance of respecting the environment and ensuring the regeneration of nature, a holistic view of reality, based on a critique of ‘modernity’ driven by the logic of the market, and finally the recognition of the importance of the cultural factor. Interestingly, the actual policies were developed in contradiction with, and despite, some pretty innovative Constitutions in these areas (law of nature, “good life”).

The new governments were well received by the masses and their leaders were re-elected on several occasions with quite impressive results. In fact, poverty has declined significantly and the middle classes have doubled in just a few years. There was genuine popular support for these progressive governments. Finally, we must also add that the absence of a credible “socialist” reference after the fall of the Berlin Wall has not encouraged the introduction of another more radical model to replace the post-neoliberal one. All these factors suggest that it was difficult, objectively and subjectively, to expect a different kind of orientation.

New contradictions

However, this explains the rapid evolution of internal and external contradictions. The most dramatic of these were, obviously, the consequences of the crisis of world capitalism and in particular the (partially planned) huge drop of the prices of commodities, especially oil. Brazil and Argentina were the first countries that suffered the effects, immediately followed by Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, which resisted better due to their considerable foreign exchange reserves. This directly affected employment and the potential for middle class consumption. Latent conflict with some social movements and sections of the left intelligentsia now became overt. The concentration of power, which until then had been tolerated as the price of progress, and (especially in some countries) corruption now became an apparently integral part of the political culture, provoking popular protest.

The right obviously took advantage of this situation to begin to recover its power and hegemony. Appealing to democratic values that it has never respected, it managed to regain the support of part of the electorate, taking power in Argentina, overcoming the parliamentary majority in Venezuela, putting into question the system in Brazil and consolidating itself in most cities of Ecuador and Bolivia. It tried to take advantage of the disappointment of some sectors in the performance of the progressive governments, particularly among indigenous peoples and the middle classes; it also relied on help from the United States to overcome the conflicts inside its own bloc, especially between traditional oligarchies and modern sectors.

In response to the crisis, the progressivist governments adopted increasingly market-friendly measures, to the extent that the ‘conservative restoration’ that they frequently denounced, was actually surreptitiously introduced within their own administrations. The ‘transitions’ that took place then became adaptations of capitalism to new ecological and social demands (modern capitalism) rather than steps towards a new post-capitalist paradigm involving agrarian reform, support to peasant agriculture, better taxation, another perspective on development, etc.).

This does not mean that we are facing the end of social struggles —indeed, the opposite is true. The solution lies, on the one hand, in bringing together the forces for more radical change inside and outside of governments to re-define a new project and the forms of the transition, and on the other hand, the reconstruction of autonomous social movements with goals aimed at the medium and long term.

François Houtart is a well-known Belgian Marxist Sociologist who has written extensively on anti-globalisation and social movements. 


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