Authors: Ash Narain Roy and Shimone Jaini
The rise and fall of a leftist government in Latin America evoke passion, nostalgia, optimism and rhetorical exuberance among commentators on the region that may not withstand rigorous academic scrutiny. The outcome of presidential elections in the region is often explained in terms of a victory or defeat for the left and the right. Experts and analysts spin their fine theories in their own imaginary laboratories. Media pundits have had notorious difficulty in predicting developments as they often defy the conventional wisdom.
Binaries usually suffer from blinkered vision. While one section has strong belief in the left’s redemptive power and sees a virile bloom in its upsurge, the other sees only gloom and doom. The analysis of the recent Bolivian election too conforms to this pattern. Such prognosis of Latin American politics is at once admirably catholic and regrettably myopic.
This paper seeks to contextualize the victory of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) in Bolivia and attempts a critical analysis of the new Latin American left and its agendas and trajectories.
Left on comeback trail or Bolivian exceptionalism?
Bolivians have shown an abiding faith in the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), electing Luis Arce, the party’s presidential candidate, with a staggering majority. It is a vindication of MAS’s popularity and legacy of Evo Morales leadership. Should the election of Luis Arce be seen as a harbinger of re-emergence of Latin American left, a Pink Tide 2.0 in the region or is it a case of Bolivian exceptionalism?
Luis Arce as Finance Minister in the Morales government was the architect of the “Bolivian miracle”. The triumph of MAS is no less a victory of Arce, an academic, low-profile and soft-spoken leader. He ran a smart campaign and avoided inflammatory utterances and Morales rhetoric. The former Finance Minister has been rewarded for successfully managing the country’s economy with significant poverty reduction, inflation control and unprecedented growth for almost 14 years. Interestingly, Arce’s vice-presidential candidate David Choquehuanca had opposed Morales’ decision to run for the fourth term.
MAS has moved away from Morales’ style of governance. It is now more institutionalised than ever before. Bolivia has demonstrated that there is no need for extreme populism or violation of democratic process to win. Democracy can triumph without establishing presidencies for life or manipulating constitutional procedures.
Bolivia under the interim president Jeanine Áñez had retreated into neoliberal wilderness. The intervening period in Bolivian history will be known for racist state oppression. According to a report of the Harvard School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights, the month of the coup was “the second deadliest month in terms of civilian deaths committed by state forces since Bolivia became a democracy nearly four decades ago.Bolivia has recovered from that dark phase and it needs to follow a pragmatic policy. President Arce has made right kind of noise assuring the people that Bolivia is back on democratic rails. He said, “We are going to create a government of national unity. Without hate and learning from our mistakes as Movement towards socialism.”
As to the victory of MAS, two factors deserve special mention. Firstly, state repression apart, the interim government was plagued by various corruption scandals and the Áñez government was never in control (Áñez had 34 different cabinet ministers in less than a year). Jeanine Áñez became even more unpopular when she announced her candidacy for the 2020 presidential elections, after having said that she wouldn’t contest elections. Her constant refusal to act as a transitional president effectively boosted Morales and his party, reminding Bolivians why they had supported MAS in the first place.
Secondly, while Morales legacy may have helped mobilise people in favour of MAS, it is more likely that Evo’s absence helped strengthen MAS and “enabled the rise of a new group of leaders”.The credit for an impressive turn of events equally goes to Arce’s moderate temperament and his technocratic style that set him apart from Morales. But he will need to guard against populist forces hijacking the government’s agenda. President Arce must ensure that Bolivia doesn’t go the Argentina or the Ecuador way: In Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, facing corruption charges, returned to office as the Vice president and promoted Alberto Fernández – who won by a large majority- as her party’s presidential candidate. He has been living under her shadow and has struggled to hold firm control of power. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa and his successor,Lenín Moreno have ended up becoming arch rivals.
Though Arce has said that Morales will have no part in this government, it remains to be seen whether Evo Morales stays on the periphery or Arce mirrors the trajectory of Lenin Moreno, who succeeded Rafael Correa in the name of continuity but reversed sharply the previously held stances and policies of the government. Arce will be governing a country which is now quite divided, economically weakened, far from the economic boom experienced by Morales, and lacks good diplomatic relations with several neighbours in the region. Arce’s government has an opportunity to rebuild these relations as most Latin American countries and the United states have welcomed Arce and expressed their wish to establish good relations.
All said, Bolivians have disavowed 12 months of a thuggish administration and rejected a period of ugliness, divisiveness, racism and sustained onslaught on democracy. The vote is as much a vindication of MAS’s legacy as a vote against Áñez government’s daylight delinquency. The OAS, the Carter Centre and the European Union have commended Bolivia for holding a clean and transparent election. British playwright Tom Stoppard had once said, “it is not the voting that is democracy, it is the counting”. Bolivia has sent a powerful message as well as a warning to nascent and struggling democracies around the world.
Revolutionising democracy or democratising revolution?
Till the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the make-up of the old left revolved around class and nation. The new left has added democracy building as its third axis.The demise of the old left is universally acknowledged. If the old left articulated and defended the interests of the proletariat, the new left is championing the interests of the ‘pobretariado’, the poor and disenfranchised class as victims of exploitation and social exclusion.
With the Berlin Wall collapse, Soviet utopia dissolved. Though China, nominally a Communist country, still uses the language of equality and brotherhood, it is only a tactical device to woo the dispossessed. ‘Communism with Chinese characteristics’ is indeed a one-party authoritarian system which sees nothing wrong in becoming rich. To Deng Xiaoping, reform was “China’s second revolution,” and he wanted to “let some people get rich first.” Today what is being pursued in Xi Jinping’s China is ‘CCPology’ and ‘CCPism’.
The Vietnamese revolution had strong nationalist credentials. Some say, Ho Chi Minh was half Lenin and half Gandhi. Others say, he was a cross between ‘Mao of the Long March’ and ‘Gandhi at the Spinning Wheel’. Ho Chi Minh was both a Confucian humanist and a Communist revolutionary. Among 20th-century statesmen, Ho Chi Minh was remarkable both for the tenacity and patience with which he pursued his goal of Vietnamese independence and for his success in blending Communism with nationalism. Ho was an enormously pragmatic Communist, a doer rather than a theoretician. That explains Vietnam’s success and not Communism.
Initially, Nicaragua’s Sandinista leaders defined themselves as Marxist or revolutionary socialist. Later they denied being Marxists. They also denied that they wanted Cuba-style communism in Nicaragua. Instead, they claimed they were fighting for a “New Nicaragua” that will be a pluralist democracy. Today, Nicaragua is under a one-man despotic rule of Daniel Ortega.
Cuba’s revolutionary credentials are still largely intact, perhaps the only country in the world that belongs to the old left but it is struggling to survive against economic adversities. It is true, Cuba benefited from the strategic alliance that Castro forged with Hugo Chavez as the Venezuelan leader lavished generous aid and trade benefits on Cuba. But Cuba had overcome economic crisis earlier without any help from outside. Between 1989 and 1991, USSR’s aid to Cuba evaporated. During this ‘Special Period’, oil imports dropped precipitously and the island-nation faced an unprecedented crisis. But Cuba gradually recovered from the crisis by “doing more with less”. As Christian Science Monitor says, Socialist Cuba has hung on “in spite of itself, achieving inspirational heights in public health and education, and enjoying international influence far beyond its means.” (1)
New left is distinctively Latin American
Who constitutes the new left? Andrew F Cooper and Jorge Heine maintain that “some elements of the old left have morphed considerably and a very different left has emerged.”(2).Jorge Castaneda and Marco A Morales say, “some are updated versions of the old Latin American left with a long term vision; others are populist versions of the left that seek power with short-term goals.” (3)The new left is grounded in Latin America’s long tradition of populism. It is not Castro and Che Guevara, but the legacies of Peru’s Victor Raul Haya de la Torre, Colombia’s Jorge Gaitan, Mexico’s Lazaro Cardenas, Brazil’s Getulio Vargas and Argentina’s Juan Peron that explain the rising tide of the new left in Latin America (4). The “pink tide” in Latin America was much misunderstood by outside observers. It was neither a “tsunami” nor a “tornado”; it was at best “a mild breeze”.(5)
What are the main traits of the new left? Revolution is no longer an objective of the new left. It follows reformist, not insurrectionary agendas. Andre Gorz characterizes its agenda as “non-reformist reforms” which means “to fight for alternative solutions and for structural reforms… (and) not to fight for improvements in the capitalist system; it is rather to break it up, to restrict it, to create counter-powers which, instead of creating a new equilibrium, undermine its very foundations.” (6)
Social and reformist agendas have the intended objective of not just seeking immediate improvements in people’s lives, but also to build popular political capacity so as to lay the foundation for further advances at subsequent stages of political struggle. The relative success of the new left in Latin America is thanks to its dynamic strategies, decentralised social bases and building coalitions and partnerships with multiple organisations, movements and stakeholders.
The Latin American left has moved in the direction of creating a new narrative of nationhood, challenging long-held assumptions and representations of culture, history, race, gender, citizenship and identity.What is common among new left governments is their strong emphasis on social egalitarianism. They have been working to bring politics on a new footing as they are engaged in deeper social transformations.
The new left is primarily the electoral left. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez described it as the “21st century socialism”. It is very different from the traditional left. Hugo Chavez was the most radical exponent and practitioner of the new left. He saw himself as a revolutionary and a liberator and won the hearts of his voters and left-leaning individuals and groups across the region. Chavez, to many analysts, represented the social division of the Latin American society. As Colombian social historian Andres Otavaro says, Chavez “revived the political and ideological debate in Latin America” and thanks to him socialism once again became “an alternative to the long-prevailing neoliberal model.”And yet, Chavez was no Castro and Venezuela is no Cuba.Chavez held largely credible elections and used the vast energy resources to promote his agenda. He did radicalise the new left agenda and made profound impact on other leaders.It is important to note that neither Lula nor Morales followed Chavez’s style or agenda.
During US President George W Bush’s visit to Latin America in 2007, while Bush and Chavez sparred at a distance over their visions about Latin America, Bush-Lula meeting was cordial and the two countries signed a biofuel agreement. Their ideological differences did not chill their official meetings. On his part, Chavez went to Buenos Aires while Bush was on official visit to Argentina and led a stadium full of leftists in screaming “Gringos go home.”
Morales had a different profile and support base from Ecuador President Rafael Correa. In fact, Morales avoided ‘Venezuela-ization” of Bolivia by following a pragmatic policy. Even the IMF recognised that Bolivia under Morales was “more effective in combating extreme poverty than any other South American government, slashing it from 33 % of the population in 2006 to 16 % in 2018. The Washington Post was all praise for Morales saying, “it is indisputable that Bolivians are healthier, wealthier, better educated living longer and more equal than at any time in this South American nation’s history.”
Argentine President Nestor Kirchner also steered clear of anti-Bush rhetoric though he questioned US-backed market policy. Uruguayan left leaders had no love lost for Chavez and Maduro. In fact, President Jose Mujica, a former Tupamaros guerrilla leader, said Maduro is “as mad as a goat”. Organisation of America States chief Luis Almagro, who earlier served as Mujica’s foreign minister, warned Maduro that he risked becoming “just another petty dictator.”
The left in Brazil and Chile and in Bolivia and Uruguay is as different as day and night. Neither the rhetoric nor the worldviews of Hugo Chavez, Luis InacioLula Da Silva, EvoMorales, Jose Mujica and Michelle Bachelet were similar. What was of course common among them was their opposition to the neoliberal reforms and policies that emanated from the Washington consensus.
Latin America’s new left leaders have not emerged from socialist movements. The new left parties are not the vanguards of revolution. The past and present presidents belonging to the new left don’t exercise hegemonic control over the government.
Social movement is new left’s novelty
Latin Americans, the indigenous and marginalized groups in particular, seem to have perfected the art of collective action. What Latin America has witnessed in this century could be called ‘festivals of protest’ or ‘politics of crowd’. “Dancing in the streets”, as described by Barbara Ehrenreich, has manifested amply in the region like nowhere else. The protesters, mostly the indigenous and marginalized groups, that the left parties have mobilized in their support, revel in feasting, costuming and dancing, long part of communal celebration of their culture. These techniques have been used while protesting, campaigning or marshalling support for their cause.
While street power in general evaporates fast, this has not happened in Latin America thanks to the good management of the ‘politics of crowd’. Elias Canetti, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960, in his treatise “Crowds and Power” refers to four defining attributes in a crowd. First, the crowd always wants to grow. There are no natural boundaries to its growth. Second, within the crowd there is equality. Third, the crowd loves density. It can never feel too dense. Fourth, the crowd needs a direction. It is in movement and it moves towards a goal.
Indigenous movements and nationalist forces have asserted their presence in national politics in unprecedented fashion in the past few decades. The indigenous people have forged strong national movements and built alliances with other progressive groups highlighting principally their land rights and cultural specificities. It is primarily a fight for asserting their control over their lands, waters and other natural resources. In nearly all Latin American countries with substantial indigenous populations, indigenous movements have gathered force.
Socialism in one country has proved to be a defeated enterprise. As François Chesnais says, socialism can only be conceived as a global / universal enterprise. Its effectiveness in the national space will depend, decisively, on its development in other national spaces, which tends to give it a historical-world process(7). The same is true of the new left.
New geometry of power
The 21st century has witnessed the rise of a new geometry of power in Latin America, that of below and above. With this has emerged new political actors. The most significant has been the rise of the indigenous. Democratization has opened up new spaces. With the traditional left in decline, indigenous groups have stepped in to fill the vacuum in many countries. Several countries in Latin America, Andean countries in particular, have seen sustained struggles for land and water and long marches and protests against mining and road construction through the forests. A host of grassroots movements from the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Mexico to the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil, and from the Argentinean piqueteros to the indigenous movements of Bolivia and Ecuador, a host of mass-based movements have occupied the social and political spaces vacated by the collapse of the traditional left.
Social movements are the principal novelty of the new left. The streets have become new theatres of politics. The more robust the street protests, the more pressure on government. Governments in Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina have been ousted by street power.MAS has become one of the pillars of democracy in Bolivia, but if the government doesn’t perform well, the highly politicised indigenous movements and street power may turn their ire against the government.
The third left
Besides the electoral left, there is ‘third Left’ stirring in Latin America. The Zapatistas and the piqueteros have shown utter disdain for power though they avow autonomy from the state and promote bottom-up decision-making, rather than pursuing state power. John Holloway, Marxist sociologist, has done considerable work on the Zapatista movement and the piqueteros in Argentina (8).These movements and others dismiss all political institutions as untrustworthy and authoritarian. Such distrust of power—bureaucratic, electoral and governmental is reflected in the slogan ‘que se vayantodos’ at the height of the piqueteros movement. Holloway sees revolution as a struggle against power, not for power.
The third left believes that the world can’t be changed through the state. The notion of revolution was strongly associated with gaining control of the state. This view has been challenged. As Holloway says, “the failure of those attempts to change the world through gaining control of the state has led very many people to the conclusion that revolution is impossible.”
It is the Zapatistas who first said that they want to make the world anew, to create a world of dignity, a world of humanity, but without taking power. Holloway argues that what is at issue in the revolutionary transformation of the world “is not whose power but the very existence of power. What is at issue is not who exercises power, but how to create a world based on mutual recognition of human dignity.” The third left makes demands for economic justice and human rights but it strives for the transformation of people—”self-management, independent thought, and self- construction.”
The third left has supported new left governments but has continued to be critical of their policies. Another characteristic of the third left is horizontalism which means “having everybody decide.” The Zapatistas use village-wide meetings to decide local issues, rotate regional leaders, and use intensive consultation to reach movement-wide decisions. The MST uses a more traditional set of pyramidal elected councils (with some less traditional aspects, such as mandating an equal number of women and men representatives at every level).
The leftist governments in Latin America benefited from the commodities boom. While the economy expanded, the period also witnessed sharp reduction in poverty. That boom has now ended largely as a consequence of a slowdown in China’s economy.
Because of the Pink Tide, women in power are no longer a novelty in Latin American politics;in 2014, female presidents ruled in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Their policies leave little doubt about the transformative nature of their leadership. Much of the economic development happened due to an intense extractive development model. The indigenous groups have sharpened attacks on the Left regimes. This model of development, which relies on the rapacious extraction of natural resources, entails environmental destruction and the fragmentation of indigenous territory.
From Mexico to Chile, Latin Americans frustrated with scandals, stagnant economies and government incompetence are taking to the streets. Often the protesters’ ire is aimed against the very populist leaders they rallied around earlier when rising wealth from a commodities boom fueled a surge in government spending and helped mask corruption. There are no takers for left governments’ slogans like “paradise with us or hell with the opposition”.
Some governments tried to justify their extractive development by saying how they need these projects to fight poverty. Governments sought to differentiate their prudent and indispensable extractivism from “predatory” extractivism. Some governments even preferred not to take away money from rich people since money came from extractive policies. However, this “hydrocarbon-fuelled social-democratic bargain” could not save their governments. The indigenous protesters who consider Nature as patrimony, not capital, refused to relent.
The fall of some leftist governments, not all, was due to what Santiago Anriaand Kenneth M Roberts call the “autocratic temptation”. Charismatic leaders began to believe that they speak “for the entire nation” and that “they can do so forever.”
Inequality and poverty have sharply fallen in Latin American countries ruled by the leftist governments even though some have had better record in redistributing income than others.
It would be erroneous to view the rise and fall of a government in Latin America as pendulum swings between the left and the right. There has been a steady expansion of democratic institutions and political rights in recent decades. The deepening of democracy has created political space and Latin America has seen the emergence of several new political parties and social movements. The changing political fortunes of governments are part of what political scientist Sidney Tarrow calls “cycle of contention”.
Social mobilisations and protest movements across Latin America have given a new dimension to democracy. Just as protests and social movements become protest cycles if these are well-organised, sustained and diffused to several sectors, the rise and fall of leftist government becomes cyclic.Like protests and social movements, the advent of a left government has followed a parabolic pattern. It expands to more sectors and more countries.
The new left has made Latin America the epicentre of left-wing politics in the world. It is now part of democratic politics.The region’s experiments in institutional innovations have gone a long way in deepening democracy. As they say, before the deed comes the doing. The unprecedented explosion of rage against injustices of various kinds in Latin America portend a radical change. The rage is the starting point. The rage implies doing. Will it prove to be another utopia?It may well be. But isn’t utopia the process of making a better world?
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6. Gorz, Andre.Strategy for Labor. Boston : Beacon Press, 1964.
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