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What’s left? The rise of authoritarian politics in Latin America

Once swept by a ‘pink tide’, the continent is now seeing the rise of authoritarian politics. What lessons are to be learnt from the varied left experiences? By Jenny Pearce

13 to 16 minute read

Photo by MarioDelgadoSi (Flickr)

The victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) in Mexico’s July 2018 presidential election has led many to hope that a left is again resurgent in Latin America. His success bucks the recent trend in a region where the threat of ‘Castrochavismo’ has been used relatively effectively by the right to attack the left, which has sustained widespread electoral setbacks in the face of significant failings in government. Accusations of authoritarianism, economic mismanagement, corruption and even violence overshadow commitments to redistribution and social change.

The difficulty of discussing what is – or what remains of – the ‘left’ in Latin America today is that memories of US interventions enable some to argue that it is the threat from the ‘eagle of the north’ that limits and threatens the freedom of manoeuvre of the left. Clearly there is truth in this. The unsuccessful coup against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002 and the successful coup against President Zelaya (a progressive rather than leftist) in Honduras in 2009 attest to the dangers. Both were backed, if not instigated, by the US. Nor was the politicised impeachment of President Lugo in Paraguay in 2012 denounced by the US, which needed Paraguay as a geopolitical base for a military presence in the ‘southern cone’.

Yet to measure all left governments only against the opposition of the right, fear of external intervention, or the ebbs and flows of global capitalism – all unsurprising challenges for any left government – dooms us to ignorance. While not ignoring the ongoing dangers, it is time to look at the Latin American left through the prism of its own actions in power.

Lefts in power

The first decade of the new millennium saw the radical and reforming left come to government across Latin America. Hugo Chávez began what became known as the ‘pink tide’, when he won power in Venezuela in 1998. At the time he was by no means a radical socialist but committed to significant social and economic reform. He was followed by President Lula in Brazil, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, all declared socialists, albeit of varied forms with many contextual distinctions. In Argentina, the left-Peronist Kirchners, first Néstor in 2003 and then Cristina in 2007, held power for 12 years before losing to the right in 2015. In Uruguay, the Broad Front left coalition has been in power since 2004, while the liberation theologian and priest, Fernando Lugo, won office in Paraguay in 2008 until the coup of 2012. In El Salvador, Mauricio Funes led the former guerrilla alliance-turned political party, the FMLN, to government in 2009, where it remains under Salvador Cerén.

In Peru, Ollanta Humala held the presidency from 2011 to 2016, but shifted away from his original campaign promise of a great transformation from neoliberalism. He was arrested in 2017 for receiving bribes from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. The Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega, negotiated a pact with the conservative church and the private sector, which brought him back to the Nicaraguan presidency in 2006, where he remains despite facing an extraordinary social rebellion that began in April 2018. In Colombia, Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla, lost the 2018 election, but the fact that a left candidate could come second in a presidential run-off is historic. Nevertheless, the right has regained the presidency and violence against social activists is again on the rise as the peace process with the FARC guerrillas has unravelled in expectation of Iván Duque taking office.

The sheer variety of these experiences highlights the plurality of the different ‘lefts’ in Latin America. While the right and many international observers tend to divide them into a ‘good’ social democratic left and a ‘bad’ radical left, the reality is much more complex. The details of the distinctions matter if we are to learn from these experiences.

Latin America remains the most unequal region in the world, with a powerful oligarchic elite ready to use all means to protect its interests, including violence. The global context is also increasingly adverse compared with the commodities boom that preceded the 2008 global financial crisis, which enabled left governments to redistribute income to the poorest. This led to a notable decline in poverty – from 44 per cent of the region’s population in 2002 to 28 per cent in 2012, according to a 2016 Oxfam study – and the rise of a middle class.

Even so, some 165 million people, more than a quarter of the population, still live in poverty. Yet according to the Forbes list of multimillionaires, from 2002 to 2015 the wealth of the top 1 per cent grew on average by 21 per cent a year: despite left governments and a commodity boom, the rich captured an extraordinary proportion of the wealth created. And now, adverse global economic conditions threaten the real advances in poverty reduction, while the lefts in the region, in their varied expressions, face a range of crises.

Lefts in crisis – the rise of authoritarian politics in Latin America

The past few years have seen the political impeachment of the then-president Dilma Rousseff, of Brazil’s Workers Party, in 2016, and the imprisonment of the former president, Luiz Inácio da Silva (Lula), in 2018, in highly controversial procedures. Brazilians are angry and disillusioned with their political class, with half of Congress, including the present president, accused of much more serious corruption than that used to sentence Lula and exclude him from participation in the October 2018 elections. The electoral defeats of the left government of Michelle Bachelet in Chile in 2017 and of Cristina Kirchner’s favoured successor in Argentina in 2015 also marked shifts to the right. And where the left remains in power, there are some highly contentious and problematic situations.

The FMLN in El Salvador had its worst election results in 20 years in 2018. It faces the presidential election of 2019 much weakened. Its policies towards gangs have mirrored the ‘hard fist’ of the right, involving police and army executions of gang leaders, themselves responsible for terrible violence. Former president Mauricio Funes, not an FMLN member but elected with its backing, was convicted of illicit enrichment in 2017.

In Nicaragua, the government of Daniel Ortega, one of the leaders of the 1979 Sandinista revolution, has, since regaining the presidency in 2006, concentrated a huge amount of power in his and his wife’s hands. It has responded to protests at corruption and authoritarianism by unleashing para-police forces against protesters, leaving at least 300 dead by the end of July. Ortega’s one-time private sector allies joined the protesters, but there is ample evidence that the protest is led by students, rural workers, former Sandinistas and priests, all labelled ‘terrorists’ by the Ortega government.

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous and left president, has overseen a remarkable economic resurgence with important benefits to the poorest indigenous population and the rise of an indigent middle class. However, he is facing criticism from many of his supporters, as well as opponents, for rejecting a referendum outcome on a third term and accepting the constitutional court’s ruling – a court he controls – that he can stand in 2019.

Most of the opposition to Ortega in Nicaragua and those questioning Morales in Bolivia are neither counter-revolutionaries nor right-wing. Rather, they appear to express a democratising, ethical, equitable, environment and land-protecting politics from below. These aspirations are a legacy and outcome of the radical social activism that is as much part of the left tradition in Latin America as its electoral progress, but are rarely taken into account when the left comes to power.

This critical periphery of the left should not be lumped into categories that might more accurately describe the opposition from the historic right in Venezuela, which is a frightening but deeply fragmented shadow over the potential collapse of the Maduro government. At the same time, not all the problems facing that project can be laid at the door of sabotage by the right and the US. The problems facing Chavismo might have intensified with the dramatic fall of the oil price in 2014, but both Chavez and particularly his successor, Maduro, have made very poor policy choices concerning Venezuela’s oil industry, the foreign currency it generates and the country’s productive structure as a whole.

The exchange rate and price controls introduced by Chavez were originally designed to prevent capital flight and address economic sabotage after the 2002 attempted coup. Over time they became counter-productive, generating severe shortages of goods and corrupt currency manipulation through the black market in dollars. Chavez failed to use his political capital to incentivise and transform the productive and infrastructural base of the country or even, from a socialist perspective, reduce the dominance of the private sector. After 2002, he radicalised his political outreach to the poor with creative initiatives in community participation and a strong redistributive steer funded by the oil price increase in 2004. However, as a state-centred notion of ‘21st-century socialism’ emerged during the 2006 election, so the same centralising logic began to displace the more grassroots-oriented politics, leading to schisms within Chavismo.

State investment in a social and cooperative economy was poorly implemented, while the wealthiest families managed to preserve much of their capital. The situation worsened under Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, who inherited a serious economic situation. For supporters, Maduro’s refusal to implement austerity and retention of the vastly overvalued exchange rate for the import of basic commodities reflected his commitment to the poor. They blamed the malevolence of the opposition for hoarding, contraband and price speculation, which undoubtedly is partially true. However, increasing corruption has penetrated many spheres of government and society.

Those with power, including within the Chavista state, have been able to benefit from their access to cheap dollars. There is a sector of the left in Venezuela, and elsewhere in Latin America, that will justify this in defence of its project. In the meantime, those on the streets in July were public hospital and maternity nurses, not a rightist opposition, asking that their salaries should be set at the level of the minimum basket of goods needed to survive. At present salaries can amount to less than what it costs to go to work, one of the nurses’ main complaints, along with the shortage of basic medicines.

The most inspiring left project for many Latin Americans is that of ex-guerilla José ‘Pepe’ Mujica in Uruguay. As president from 2010 to 2015, he rejected the trappings of office and its financial rewards. This small country of 3.5 million people, with its history as one of the world’s first welfare states, was subject to brutal military rule in the 1970s; Mujica himself served 13 years in prison, some of it at the bottom of a well. The left has been able to return the country to some basic principles of redistribution and introduced some emblematic innovations, most famously state regulation of cannabis sales. While the Broad Front government has not transformed capitalism, it has demonstrated that the left can offer a more ethical way of managing it. AMLO may operate in the same mode – for example, he has also said he will not live in the presidential palace or take the full salary.

Learning about being left

So what do we learn about being ‘left’ in Latin America? The left in the region is a victim, it could be argued, of the problems of the electoral route to political power and the compromises this entails in a part of the world with a dark history of repression, corruption and clientelist politics, as well as the concentration of power and wealth in a global economy over which it has little leverage. Where else but from the state, it is asked, can the economy be transformed in favour of the poorest?

However, it is precisely in its focus on state power that the electoral left appears to have been caught in the traps of this dark history. The left in power has not shown a clear distance from authoritarianism, corruption and even violence in the pursuit of its project. Of course this is not true of all the lefts discussed above to the same extent. Nonetheless, a pattern is apparent in the way the left has tended to look away from the other source of a radical and transformatory project in Latin America – the grassroots movements and participatory innovations of the region.

The demand for urgent change that the left project articulates is often in tension with the much slower process of historically-excluded populations gaining a sense of their own agency. Building alliances between peasants and workers in the formal and informal sectors, and recognising the different experiences of indigenous peoples and women in the history of multiple oppressions, has proved as difficult in Latin America as elsewhere. Nevertheless, Latin America has probably given us more knowledge about how and when this emerges than anywhere else. This is the radical source of much new thinking and practice that has contributed to new perspectives on the potential for a sustained, transformatory left project.

Lula came from the workers’ movement. In power, however, Brazil’s Workers’ Party abandoned its roots and connections to the rich history of social mobilisation. Truly impressive experiments in participation, such as Porto Alegre’s participatory budget, gradually being extended to other cities, were no longer seen as priorities. Policies such as family subsistence support, channelled through mothers in exchange for children attending school, made a lasting improvement in poor people’s lives. However, without a transformation in the way of doing politics at the state level, such progress can be unravelled rapidly by the right.

Balancing the need for economic growth against the rights of indigenous people, both to land and to their understanding of the meaning of land, has also been a huge challenge for the left – for example, for Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Correa, a left technocrat, bequeathed impressive infrastructural and economic progress before completing his two terms. But he also entered into direct confrontation with the indigenous people and social movements who had originally supported him, when he chose the extractive economy over their rights.

Many of the difficulties the left faces in Latin America are serious dilemmas around how to challenge neoliberal capitalism while maintaining growth and respecting rights. Using the commodity boom to redistribute wealth and build popular support is not in itself a project of sustainable social, economic, environmental and political transformation that confronts the neoliberal mentality as well as its allocation of resources. To achieve this, the left needs to ensure it remains a movement rather than becoming an apparatus.

Being ‘left’ should be a process in which Latin America’s historically excluded are recognised for their capacity to act and build with others in the face of multiple tensions and trade-offs. The party left’s failure to appreciate this process leads to the centralisation of power, hanging onto its reins and falling into its logic, including at times corruption and personal enrichment. This, in particular, alienates the very people who should be part of the left process and not merely passive recipients of whatever benefits can be extracted. When it also includes a failure to address violence – and even to use it, as in Ortega’s Nicaragua, against the very democratising movements who should be part of the left process – then the left is in very serious trouble.

Another aspect of the issue of violence is the assumption that a left commitment to social justice will alone address the social violence that plagues Latin America. The enormity of this error is exemplified in the fact that the Venezuelan capital Caracas is today one of the most violent cities in the world. While the left governments oversaw continuous economic growth between 2001 and 2012, they also oversaw the continuous growth of murders and other serious violence.

AMLO in Mexico cannot ignore the fact that the country experienced almost 30,000 homicides in 2017, the most since records began in 1997, while 130 candidates were killed in the 2018 electoral campaign. What vision does he offer for a left facing not just the ongoing threats from the right, but from a political and social culture and structure of inequality that has facilitated this violence and been reinforced by it?

AMLO, the left in Mexico and beyond

AMLO should be seen very much in the light of Mexican history rather than as a beacon of a resurgent Latin American left. He promises a ‘fourth revolution’ for Mexico, after the 1810-21 independence struggle, the Benito Juárez reform and separation of church and state in 1854, and the revolution beginning in 1910 that overthrew the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Rooted in this national history, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the 1970s and then since 1988 its left-wing schism, which became the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), all the evidence suggests that AMLO is also a humble and uncorrupt man. His radicalism lies not in ideology but in experiences in his home state of Tabasco, and in particular in the 1990s, defending local indigenous people by blocking oil wells.

Nevertheless, AMLO should not be pigeonholed quickly. He has captured the massive discontent with what he calls the ‘power mafia’ in Mexico, and as mayor of Mexico City (2000-2005) showed himself to be an effective and progressive politician. However, he is socially conservative by all accounts on abortion and same-sex marriage, and he is committed to the centralising state. The indigenous Zapatista movement retains its distance from him for his historic association with a political system it profoundly rejects. He has also sought to reassure the business sector, at the same time that he has made clear he will take on corruption, poverty and crime.

In short, AMLO reinforces the point that there are many lefts in Latin America. His contradictions suggest once again that the truly progressive and transformatory energy in the region does not lie with centralising leaders but with the creativity, courage and self-learning shown by its social movements and activists. Progressive, rather than repressive, leaders are crucial to give the space and protection for such movements to grow. If AMLO builds the conditions for Mexicans yearning for real change to act without fear and restores their faith in an enabling, democratising, non-violent and uncorrupt politics, then he will point a way forward for that process.

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