[Special Article] Latin America's Drift to the Right


Across Latin America, center-left and left governments are facing electoral losses and political troubles: Venezuela’s PSUV lost its majority in the National Assembly; Bolivia’s Evo Morales lost a referendum to run for another two terms; Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff is being impeached; Ecuador’s Rafael Correa announced he will not rerun for president in 2017. While the political difficulties facing most of these countries may have been triggered by a drop in commodity prices which created economic hardship, they are fundamentally a reflection of the limitations and vulnerabilities of a left project unable to break free from capitalist production dependent on the economic elite.

To understand the significance of this drift to the right, it is important to assess its breadth and depth. Federico Fuentes[1] emphasizes these are “setbacks” not defeats: The left can’t be so easily defeated because the last ten to twenty years of social transformation has brought people towards the left. The right-wing parties of today cannot be those of the 80s and 90s: They had to adapt to new political realities and reconstitute themselves into parties that accept many of the left social projects that have benefited and are supported by the population. Yet, despite this outward acceptance of the left social projects, the right wing’s project of capital accumulation is fundamentally contradictory to the social changes taking root in Latin America. Thus, consolidating the right’s electoral gains through changes in policy runs counter to the risen expectations of a socially awakened population. Paúl Ledesma[2] explains how many of those that voted for the right in the December elections were hoping it’d address Venezuela’s economic problems. They are now realizing that the right is only interested in taking power by ousting President Maduro from office and dismantling social protections (such as tenants' rights, and a land law which gave unused latifundistas’ lands to farmers and producers). Thus, the right drift is constrained by Venezuela’s political center of gravity that has already shifted left.

Nonetheless, the significance of these setbacks cannot be dismissed for they reflect the left and center-left governments’ inability to shift away from capitalist production leaving them vulnerable to global markets and the elite. João Pedro Stédile[3] explains that the current period is dominated by three projects: one a continuation of the neoliberal project dominated by big local capital and transnational companies, especially US banks; and its two responses: neo-developmentalism based on cooperation between working class and sectors of the national bourgeoisie; and the anti-neoliberal and anti-imperialist ALBA. The latter two are limited by Latin America’s periphery status in the global economy. Neo-developmentalism in Brazil was founded on a compromise between the Workers Party with sections of the bourgeoisie to resolve Brazil’s political crisis through economic growth from re-industrialization, an increase in state investment in the economy and society, and an increase in workers’ wages. The slowdown in the global market dealt severe blows to Brazil’s growth, shrinking the “economic pie” and straining this cooperation between national bourgeoisie and the working class.

Why have Latin American governments that came to power with a mandate for change been unable to break free from capitalist production that subordinates them to the domestic and global elite? According to Fuentes this is due to the limitations in: governmental power, the character of the parties, and the strength of the class struggles.

“Winning the government is not the same as an insurrection that overthrows the old capitalist state and brings about a new worker state,” Fuentes clarifies. That’s because winning the executive and maybe even the legislative still leaves “untouched the economic power that the capitalist elites have.” This is without even mentioning a bureaucratic state composed and structured to facilitate the needs of the previously political, but still economic elite. Unable to conquer the economic power of the elite, the pace of social transformation is tempered by the threat of coups and economic sabotage (e.g. boycotts in production of necessary goods and investments).

The second limitation exists within the left and center-left parties themselves. To win the government, these parties formed broad electoral fronts. Thus, the broad base which brought them to power, later limited their radicalness. Kirchernismo in Argentina includes right-wing Peronist elements. Nonetheless, class struggle can purge these right-wing elements and further consolidate the left direction of these parties. As Chavez moved further left – radicalized both by the elite’s coup and oil sabotage and the counter-response by the people that brought him back to power – some of his closest allies in the Movement for the Fifth Republic (an electoral coalition to first elect him to power) later became his strongest opponents.

We, thus, come to the engine of social transformation: class struggle. According to Fuentes, despite its strong mobilizations, Latin America’s class struggle has been limited by its inability to imagine and pursue a larger project. The social movement has to not only oppose the old world but build and run the new one. Fuentes points out that during the Gas Wars in Bolivia, when the gas installations were blocked in protest, households were left without gas for their homes. This eroded support for the protestors. While the protestors attempted to communally operate the factories, they were ultimately unsuccessful. “Were the working class, middle class, peasant sectors ready to run society?” asks Fuentes.

Nonetheless, the seeds of a new society are planted, taking root, and bearing fruits. In Venezuela, Ledesma explains that the government together with social movements is handing out seeds and training people to grow their own food to remedy the production and distribution strike by the elite. According to Karla Peña,[4] in Ecuador, food sovereignty was introduced into its constitution and enacted into law with public input. With a third of its population in rural areas, food sovereignty would have wide repercussions on land redistribution and inequality.

How deep the roots of change run in society will depend on the social movement. Stédile emphasizes the importance of social movements to act independently of governments, continue their mass struggles, and educate the population. Fuentes speaks about the importance of organizing young people and the need for the left to recover a central element in Hugo Chavez’s thought: Whether pursuing the Third Way or Socialism of the 21st Century, one thread through Chavez’s thought was the centrality of people’s protagonism in social change: The roots of the left project for social transformation is the masses. How deep it plants itself in society and the fruits it will bear will require a tree with deep roots.

Thank you to all those that made this article possible: those that offered their time to answer questions (Federico Fuentes, Karla Peña, Paúl Ledesma, João Pedro Stédile) and those that translated and helped make the connections possible (Dr. Scott John, Cassia Bechara, Ana Amorim, Tanya Kerssen, and William Camarada).

Written by Dae-Han Song (chief editor, World Current Report)

[1] Federico Fuentes is Assistant Editor of Links Journal of Socialist Renewal. He writes for Green Left Weekly, edits Bolivia Rising, and is part of the Venezuelanalysis.com editorial collective. He has co-authored books and written articles on Latin America and 21st Century Socialism. [2] Paul Ledesma is part of the Autana tepuy collective in Venezuela and the Campaign for a Venezuela Free of GMOs. [3] João Pedro Stédile is an economist and member of the national leadership of Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST). [4] Karla Peña is a PhD student in Cornell University’s Department of Development Sociology. Her research focuses on state-society relations in Latin-America, development politics, and indigenous and peasant movements.