Left Turn in Latin America

In sharp contrast to the 1990's, this first decade of the twenty-first century has seen a dramatic turn to the left throughout Latin-America; a turn brought about at the ballot box, within the framework of the very "democracy" that Washington worked so hard to establish on its Southern flank, and not from the springboard of guerrilla foco or golpe d’estado, as had been the case in the past.

2003 saw the election of the left-Peronist Néstor Kirchner as president of Argentina, followed in 2004 by the victory of Tabaré Vázquez Rosas, candidate of the leftist Frente Amplio in the Uruguayan presidential election. The past year has seen the consolidation of Hugo Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution" in Venezuela, and the virtual certainty that he will win the next presidential election. Chavez's close ally, Evo Morales, standard-bearer of the MAS (Movement for Socialism), has won an overwhelming victory in the Bolivian presidential elections. Brazil, the dominant power in South America has a left government, led by Lula da Silva, and the expectation is that Lula and his Worker's Party will win re-election this year, while on the Pacific coast of South America, Chile, the site of a US orchestrated golpe three decades ago to overthrow a left government, has now elected another Socialist, Michelle Bachelet, to continue the tradition of center-left rule that has shaped the Chilean polity over the past two decades. As a result, three quarters of the population of South America now live under left governments. In the Caribbean, the victory of Rene Preval in Haiti's presidential election is another victory for the left, while in Nicaragua it seems possible that the Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega, will win this year's presidential election. Finally, Mexico’s presidential election this year may well see a victory of the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), under the leadership of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador.

In the wake of this left turn in Latin America, there are four questions that Marxist revolutionaries need to confront. First, what impact will the coming of the left to power have on the working class and on the mass of the population in a region where living standards have sharply declined over the past several decades? Second, do left governments represent a rejection of the neo-liberalism that the American hegemon has sought to impose on Latin America, over the past two decades, a repudiation of globalization? Third, do left governments represent a threat to the domination of the United States over the Western hemisphere, a danger to American imperialism? Fourth, do left governments, however "radical," pose a challenge to capitalism, and its rule; a challenge to the mode of production based on the operation of the law of value, and its growing barbarism; in short, is this left turn in any way, shape or form anti-capitalist?

The decade of the 1990's in Latin America saw the widespread acceptance by its ruling classes and elites of what has come to be known as the "Washington Consensus," enshrined in the de-nationalization of key sectors of the economy previously state owned, and the sale of the leading enterprises in raw materials, public utilities, banking, insurance, and the media, to multinational firms, most often North American, the opening up of markets, hitherto "protected," to foreign commodities and capital, the imposition of draconian fiscal and monetary policies, linked to IMF diktat, and of WTO style "free trade" policies. The failure of decades of protectionism, economic nationalism, populist dictatorships of the left and right, to raise living standards or to reduce poverty, led to the election of center-right governments in much of Latin America. A decade later, the failure of the "Washington Consensus" to raise the standard of living or to reduce the numbers of people who live in abject poverty, led to mass movements, strikes, and social struggles directed at the depredations of globalization, and the center-right governments that promoted it. Into the void created by the collapse of the "Washington Consensus" and the regimes that supported it, stepped a series of left politicians, untainted by any connection to the discredited policies, who promised social justice, equality, and policies to raise the standard of living of the working class and the poor. The law of value, however, is implacable. And Latin America's left governments cannot challenge the basic rules and norms of capitalist globalization, leaving them with little room to maneuver between the constraints of value production and the need to prevent a social explosion. In opposition, the left could promise to challenge the Yankee hegemon and the IMF; in power, and lacking the economic and fiscal resources to back up its incendiary rhetoric, what remains is recourse to theatre. Thus Evo Morales will, indeed, make good on his promise to end the Yankee imposed war on coca growers: "Causachun coca!" he dramatically shouted, Quechua for long live coca, thereby striking two chords that resonate with the Bolivian masses -- the use of the indigenous language and the in your face rhetoric to the Yankees. Uruguay's new president, Rosas chose his inauguration day to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. Argentina’s president Kirchner suspended the laws granting immunity to former military leaders for crimes committed under the dictatorship, and declared the country debt-free after it paid-off its IMF loans. There is nothing in any of that to rouse real concern in Washington – save for the feeling that it may not be too long before the Latin American working class comes to realize that chewing coca leaves is only a palliative for hunger. Indeed, only Venezuela, and that because oil prices are now at record highs, has the economic wherewithal to fund programs for the poor – and that is dependent on the health of the global capitalist economy. However, Hugo Chavez is spending the bulk of his profits elsewhere: a lavish and rapidly growing military budget, the formation of para-state agencies to spread his Bolivarian ideology, and the use of the country's oil and gas revenues to prop up friendly regimes that share his vision. Meanwhile, the grinding poverty in which most Venezuelans live has not been alleviated, and any fall in oil prices will only exacerbate the effects of Chavez’s option for guns not butter.

"Neo-liberalism" in Latin America today does not mean what it meant in the 1980's and '90s, when it was closely linked to the specific economic policies imposed on Chile, after the overthrow of Allende, by the Friedmanite "Chicago boys," when its hallmark was the privatization of virtually all state owned industries, and draconian fiscal and monetary policies, necessary to initially promote American investment. What is essential for the American hegemon in Latin America today is fiscal "responsibility" on the part of the state, the standards of which are set by the IMF, and a basic commitment to free markets for capital and commodities. So long as the parameters of a quarter of a century of globalization are respected; so long as there is no return to the policies of import substitution, protectionism, nationalization, and obstacles to foreign investment, which characterized the left (and populist right) in Latin America, from the end of World War II through the 1970's, left governments present neither a threat nor even a major inconvenience for the American hegemon. So, both "economic discipline" and a respect for free markets have characterized Chile's center-left governments over the past two decades, with little or no change when the president was a Socialist – policies to which Michelle Bachelet is firmly committed. In Brazil, Lula has pursued economic policies in line with the protocols set down by the IMF, and his re-election will not cause a ripple in Washington. And to judge by his behavior as mayor of Mexico City, where the need to placate Washington was far less than it would be as president of Mexico, Lopez Obrador, and his PRD are unlikely to rouse the ire of either Washington or Wall Street: his most notable achievements as mayor included a determined policy to combat inflation, government support for private sector investment in housing, the forcible removal of squatters from undeveloped land, and the appointment of the ex-mayor of New York, and Republican presidential hopeful, Rudy Giuliani, as a consultant to craft a zero tolerance policy towards crime and corruption.

While Evo Morales, the new president of Bolivia rhetorically presents himself, and his MAS, as Washington's worst nightmare, leading the neo-Stalinists of the Monthly Review to celebrate his victory as "a world historical event of the first order," (1) the new president, as an effective condition for his taking office, first had to make his peace with the Santa Cruz oligarchia, the business interests who continue to dominate Bolivia's richest region. The cruceño's control over the country's vast oil and gas reserves, located in Bolivia’s Eastern province, made their acceptance of Morales, and a virtual veto over his economic policies, a condition for the peaceful transfer of power. While the MAS’s control of the largely indigenous population of the Altiplano made it indispensable if Bolivia was to have any kind of "social peace," a lesson that the past decade has driven home to both the local elites and to Washington, the cruceños threat to secede, and their control over the actual oil and gas reserves, has compelled the MAS to accept certain "rules of the game;" and the need for the profitable exploitation of the country's natural resources rules out a real challenge to the bases of globalization that is for now the norm of capitalism. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega's campaign rhetoric has taken a sharp left turn, as he seeks to become the next president, in contrast to his run in 2001, when he presented himself as pro-capitalist. Ortega now sounds like Morales, or Hugo Chavez, and Washington reacts to him in the same way. However, it is unlikely that even in the event of a Sandinista victory at the polls, there will be a real challenge to the bases of globalization and the policies of fiscal discipline that are linked to it. Moreover, Ortega has a challenger for the presidency who also claims the mantle of Sandino: Herty Lewites, the Sandinista mayor of Managua, recently expelled from the Sandinista party (because of his challenge to the authority of Daniel Ortega), who is the candidate of the Sandinista "business bloc," and who has openly championed good relations with the US: "We need one another," which masterfully sums up the actual position of the left in Latin America. Finally, there is Hugo Chavez, the latest incarnation of Latin American caudillismo, friend and ally of Fidel, and lider of the Bolivarian Revolution. However, beyond the rhetoric, socialist and anti-Yankee, Chavez insists that his model is one of "market socialism" (sic!), and his championship of the South American free trade zone (Mercosur), of which Venezuela is now a member, (2) and the formation of a consortium of state-owned oil companies, Petrosur, constitutes an implicit acceptance of some of the core elements of capitalist globalization, albeit with an anti-Yankee cover. Moreover, despite repeated claims that he will demand payment for Venezuela's oil in a currency other than the dollar, Chavez has made no move to actually challenge that currency's supremacy in the oil market, one of the single most important bases of US global hegemony. In short, from the moderate left to the purportedly reddest "red," the left turn in Latin America does not seem to presage even a challenge to the economic hegemony of American capital.

What about a purported challenge of left governments to the military and political aims of American imperialism? While it is virtually impossible to separate the economic bases of US hegemony in Latin America from the overall strategic aims of American imperialism, even if one could, here too the "threat" to Washington from the left in Latin America is more rhetorical than substantive, aimed more at the control of the Latin American masses that at mounting any real challenge to the US's global rule. In discussing this particular issue, it is important to be clear about one point: opposition to American imperialism and its strategic aims, even when it is substantive and not primarily rhetorical, is not tantamount to opposition to capitalism. Were that not the case, revolutionaries should have supported Hitler and Stalin, who indeed, were serious in their opposition to American global domination. Clearly, one cannot mistake inter-imperialist conflict for anti-capitalist revolution. Yet, it seems clear that the left turn in Latin America is not the harbinger of a budding inter-imperialist conflict, an indication of a challenge to American domination of the capitalist world order. It is not that there are not those on the left (and the right) in Latin America who dream of mounting such a challenge, or that were such a challenge possible, as a result of US weakness, that a large part of the left would not seek to take advantage of it, and further it. At such a juncture, the rhetoric of the Chavez's, Morales', Ortega's, and even Lula's might well be transformed into real anti-American economic and foreign policy initiatives. But, we are not at that point yet, and, under present conditions, that kind of policy shift – which has nothing anti-capitalist or revolutionary about it – is not on the agenda of the left in power. Despite the search by left governments in Latin America, for example Lula's Brazil, for markets in Asia for its growing agricultural exports (Brazilian agribusiness is now the world's number one producer of soy beans, and desperately seeks new export markets), and sources of investment capital; despite the hoopla of Chinese president Hu's Latin American trip, rich in promises of Chinese investment and trade, there is a paucity of both. The US remains Latin America’s biggest trading partner, and by far its largest source of investment capital. And the current left turn in Latin America does not mark the beginning of a challenge to the role of the US as the arbiter of capitalist order. Indeed, in Latin America especially, the extremely rapid growth of evangelical Protestantism, under the impetus of American missionaries, constitutes an additional, and little noticed, buttress to US cultural hegemony, the significant political implications of which are only beginning to become apparent.

Does the left turn about which we speak, then, represent any kind of threat to capitalist order in Latin America? And, if not, then what role does the left in power play in that region of the world? Anti-capitalism is too often simply equated with opposition to American imperialism, with nationalism (e.g. Bolivarianism), or with a rejection of "free markets," and a policy of economic autarky. Or, anti-capitalism is equated with a radical change in the mode of distribution of the wealth of society. At a time when such a variety of political projects claim to be anti-capitalist, everything but the abolition of the mode of production based on the operation of the law of value, and of wage labor as a commodity, which is the actual source of the barbarism through which humankind now lives, it is important to distinguish between changes (3) – even radical changes – in the structure of capitalism, and its revolutionary overthrow.

As a mode of production, capitalism has undergone, and doubtless will continue to undergo until its possible revolutionary overthrow, a series of mutations or transformations, aimed at consolidating its basic structures in the face of the contradictions with which it is rent. Among them are the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital, the growing intervention of the capitalist state in the operation of the law of value – this latter being in no way contradicted by the forms of neo-liberalism – as well as the transformation of a Fordist mode of production based on the assembly line into a mode of production based on a collective laborer, both manual and intellectual, and the formation of a single global market under the hegemony of the dominant capitalist power, in this instance the US. Those basic structures of capitalism, which persist through all the possible transformations internal to the operation of the law of value, are the exploitation of, and extraction of surplus-value from, a class of wage-workers, the fetishistic economic "laws" behind which stand this exploitation of the many by the few (the basic class structure of capitalism, of which individual private property is only one possible form), the imperative to the accumulation of capital ("private" or state), and the growing disjunction between value and wealth (exchange-value and use-value), a contradiction that no form of capitalism can escape. Nothing proposed by the left in Latin America (or anywhere else in the world) threatens those structures, not even the projects that Hugo Chavez still hesitates to reveal to the technocrats and bureaucrats who steer the ship of his Bolivarian Revolution. Everything proposed by the left aims at perpetuating those core structures of capitalism, while tinkering only with their forms.

What then does the left in power mean? It means that capitalism may be able to maintain its control over the working class and the mass of the population, even as the contradictions of capitalism rise to the surface and intensify to the breaking point. Here too chavismo is a case in point. Mass mobilizations against the Yankee devil, calls to emulate Simón Bolivar, slaveholder and leader of the bourgeois revolution in South America, who dreamed of a Latin empire, neighborhood committees to ferret out opponents of the regime (shades of Mao's "cultural revolution"), and a vast program, Vuelta al campo (Return to the countryside) to send the poor and unemployed, whose ranks continue to swell, to work the land, which the left sees as a vast welfare and public works program, but whose other side is the gruesome face of forced labor: two sides of the same capitalist coin in this epoch. That is the real thrust of the left turn in Latin America. Against it are the stirrings of working class struggle and resistance, often against left governments, in countries like Argentina, for example. But that is a story of class struggle, very different from the left turn in Latin America whose broad outlines we have here sought to describe.


March 2006


1. Monthly Review, Vol. 57, No. 9, February 2006. An event comparable perhaps to Stalin's proclamation of "Socialism in one Country,” or Mao's "Great Leap Forward," or his "cultural revolution," previously celebrated in numerous articles in that same publication.
2. Mercosur is a free trade zone originally set up in 1986, between Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, with Bolivia and Chile as associate members.
3 Moreover, even such radical changes in the structure of capitalism constitute not the first steps in a process leading to socialism, but rather the steps necessary to a re-consolidation, to a strengthening, of capitalism, and its class rule.

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