References to a Latin American left should come accompanied with an asterisk, as left-wing governments and movements attempting to transcend neoliberal capitalism – and in some cases capitalism itself – are ideologically diverse and not one homogenous bloc. However, broadly speaking, Latin America is in the midst of a left-wing resurgence, a new ‘pink tide’, following the defeat of a US and UK-sponsored coup in Bolivia and some spectacular election victories in countries such as Chile and most recently Colombia.
What are the lessons, if any, of these victories for those in the UK seeking to resist and create alternatives to their own reactionary ruling political and media class?
Colombia offers an instructive starting point. In mid-June, a country known as the US’s enforcer in the region, whose elite have historically waged war on the country’s progressive forces, elected its first left-wing president since it became an independent republic in 1810. Gustavo Petro, a former left-wing guerrilla and mayor of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, defied a sustained establishment campaign against him to storm to the presidency on a wave of dissatisfaction with the country’s rulers and hope for progressive change. If the left can win in Colombia, South America’s reactionary bulwark, then it can win anywhere.
A tipping point was reached when the security forces of right-wing president Ivan Duque brutally repressed an anti-government uprising that began in April last year: 40 protesters were reportedly killed. Colombia remains the country with the worst human rights record in the western hemisphere. Since the November 2016 signing of a peace agreement between the left-wing FARC guerrillas and the government, 320 former FARC combatants and more than 1,000 community activists have been murdered. It should surprise no one that the UK government provides the Colombian security forces with training and arms.
On 7 August, Petro and his inspiring vice-president, the Afro-Colombian activist Francia Márquez, will take office with the gigantic task of facing down the country’s blood-drenched elite and opening a path for the construction of real peace and social justice. Key to their victory was the creation of a broad front of left and progressive forces that galvanised social movements on the frontline of the struggle for change. Marquez, in a speech at last year’s The World Transformed said that she was running for office to represent ‘the people that have historically fought against structural racism, patriarchy and the economic model of death’.
Neoliberalism and death
Chile has also seen neoliberalism and death walk hand in hand. ‘Free-market’ economics was forced on the population following the 1973 US-sponsored coup that overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende and put fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet in power. In December last year Gabriel Boric, a 36-year-old former student leader and left-wing member of parliament, beat a far-right, Pinochet-admiring challenger to become president.
Since March this year, when he took office, Boric’s government has faced multiple challenges. But the most important will take place on 4 September, when Chileans vote in a landmark referendum to accept or reject a new progressive constitution to replace the one created under Pinochet, which is still shamefully in place today. Mass anti-government protests that began in October 2019 were viciously repressed by the right-wing Piñera government and provided the trigger for a process that culminated in Boric’s victory at the ballot box. Chile’s traditional ruling class, with the support of the establishment media, is going all out to try to prevent the new democratic constitution from being approved as this would give the country the legal framework to move away from a model of society built for the few.
Key battle in Brazil
Another key battle is being fought in Brazil, where former president Lula is set to win October’s presidential elections against neo-fascist president Jair Bolsonaro. During Lula’s presidency (2003-2010) there was often strident debate regarding his government’s left-wing credentials. Nevertheless, he left office with record approval ratings, and Bolsonaro’s 2018 election victory only came about following a 2016 US-backed parliamentary coup against Lula’s successor, Dilma Rouseff, who had won two presidential elections for the Workers’ Party (PT).
Brazil’s corporate-controlled media leveraged widespread anger at corruption in the country against the PT. So while polls pointed to a comfortable Lula victory in the 2018 elections – what would have been the PT’s fifth successive term in office – Lula was imprisoned in April 2018 on trumped-up charges. He was eventually released in November 2019 but the damage had been done.
It is grassroots protests and uprisings that have proven pivotal to weakening the right and resulted in the left’s electoral victories
History shows us that in Latin America, like elsewhere, the right have no qualms about discarding any democratic pretences when they feel their interests are threatened. The possibility exists that Bolsonaro will prevent elections from taking place in order to prevent Lula’s return to power.
Apart from Bolsonaro’s reactionary reforms inside Brazil, his government has also played an anti-democratic role against the left elsewhere in the region. When I interviewed Bolivia’s president Luis Arce last year, he outlined the Bolsonaro government’s role in supporting the 2019 coup that removed then-president Evo Morales from power. Grassroots resistance proved key to the coup’s defeat less than a year later and Arce (a key figure under Morales) winning the presidency.
The enemy at home
But it is not just the right in Latin America that is a threat to progressives in the region. As I wrote for Red Pepper in a 2004 article exploring the rise of the original ‘pink tide’ of left-wing governments: ‘With the influence of the US in the region being so overwhelming, it is often convenient to forget about the role our government plays in conditioning Latin America’s reality.’ While this is still true today, independent media has provided us with more scrutiny of the UK’s anti-democratic role in the region.
The mainstream media, meanwhile, has shown itself to be on the side of the right and hostile to progressive forces in Latin America. Building up an independent media that reports fairly on the region must be a priority.
Once we get through the fog of mainstream media distortions, we can see that while Latin American countries have different histories and circumstances to the UK, the people’s movements there have never stopped struggling for progressive change and resisting the forces of reaction. It is grassroots protests and uprisings, even in the face of intense repression, that have proven pivotal to weakening the right and resulted in the left’s electoral victories. Latin America offers us hope and inspiration. La lucha continua!