What Happened to the Struggle for Socialism in Latin America?

At the beginning of the 21st century, Latin America saw an upsurge of grassroots struggle that brought several left governments to power — a historical moment known as the “pink tide.” Yet, in the last few years, popular discontent has grown toward these governments, and far-right leaders, like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, have come to power. What is happening to the Latin American left? Is its decline solely the fault of US imperialism? Or were there fundamental problems in the project of 21st century socialism? Truthout spoke to author Mike Gonzalez about his new book, The Ebb of the Pink Tide: The Decline of the Left in Latin America. Gonzalez argues that the economic policies of pink tide governments and the ways in which they have wielded political power have recreated the popular discontent that brought them to power in the first place.

Anton Woronczuk: In the introduction to The Ebb of the Pink Tide, you discuss how “pink tide” governments came to power during a time of mass struggle from the grassroots, and cite Bolivian President Evo Morales, who described his government as “a government of the social movements.” What gave rise to these movements?

Mike Gonzalez: Throughout the 1990s, a newly confident neoliberalism imposed its domination across Latin America. The anodyne phrase “structural adjustment” concealed a devastating process of globalization that had begun as the Berlin Wall fell. Under the rules now imposed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) for the global market, all forms of state intervention in the economy were forbidden. This meant state subsidies — to farmers or transport, for example — welfare spending of any kind, and so on. These all fell under the definition “restraint of trade” that described anything that interfered with the pursuit of profit. The first sign of things to come was the “Caracazo” uprising of the poor districts across Venezuela in February 1989, which began with a hike in the price of public transport. The Zapatista uprising in Mexico in January 1994, which coincided with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), was a reaction to the removal of subsidies to maize farmers to allow the giant U.S.-based monopolies free rein. For the farmers, it meant ruin.

The weakened states at best stood by and did nothing as the living standards of the masses collapsed. At worst, they sent in their repressive forces to deal with the rising protests. In Venezuela, the Caracazo was put down, leaving a toll of 3,000 dead. The local states collaborated with global capital, acting as its agent; there were rich rewards, of course, for the loyalty of the minority who profited from these arrangements.

The election of [Hugo] Chávez was an expression of the gathering discontent — though still in the formal framework of elections. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, however, the new militancy from below produced a direct confrontation over the privatization of the local water company. In Ecuador, the Indigenous movement that had created a national organization (CONAIE) in 1990 also mobilized against the new economic regime – in Ecuador’s case expressed in the “dollarization” of the economy. And in Argentina, the collapse of the economy produced in December 2001 an extraordinary movement under the slogan, “Que se vayan todos” – Let’s get rid of them all (“them” being the political class). Here, too, the movement embraced labor unions, militant movements of the unemployed, community organizations, occupied factories, students and others.

How did the relationship with these movements change after the “pink tide” governments came to power?

The important thing here is that the social movements arose independently of the state and of the political strategies and parties who were focused on state power. John Holloway’s influential book, How to Change the World Without Taking Power, underlined this quality of “autonomy” and celebrated the independence of the movements. For a few short years, the movements were dominated by this idea of autonomy. They acted outside the established political system, independently of official political organizations and the parties of the left. Instead, the movements produced new forms of resistance. In Bolivia, the town hall assemblies, or cabildos abiertos, expressed a new concept of collective organization, with an emphasis on internal democracy and horizontality. In Venezuela, this movement from below expressed itself forcefully when the attempted coup against Chávez failed because of the mass mobilization of the majority population in his support. So, the left governments were carried to power by a rising wave of grassroots resistance. But the movement had no common project for power; its independence was both a strength and a weakness. The logic of grassroots democracy didn’t fit with the logic of electoralism, but the impulse from below was translated into the occupation of the state. The movements demanded a direct, participatory democracy – not a new version of the representative system. But [those] who now claimed to speak on their behalf rose to occupy the state. This contradiction is at the heart of both the pink tide as it rises, and its ebb.

Many of these governments used anti-capitalist discourse, but still maintained relationships with foreign capital. Some of their defenders say the governments had to engage with extractivism, such as mining, in order to provide the material basis for socialism. How would you respond to this argument?

The left governments came to power as a result of the mobilizations from below whose demands were economic (the nationalization of natural resources and the socialized redistribution of the income realized from their exploitation). But critically, there was also a debate about dependency and the diversification of the economy to break the chains of that dependence on … single product — oil, copper, gold, agro –exports. Those two elements were interdependent. At the same time, there was a core political demand to do with participatory democracy, the accountability of public officials, and the recognition of the rights and citizenship of Indigenous communities.

The recognition of Indigenous rights was a cultural revolution. But the other two elements had more far-reaching consequences. The promise to use oil and gas revenues for the direct benefit of the majority population through state services and public spending was the foundation of the left governments’ mass support. But it also accepted, and indeed deepened, the core role of the extractive industries in their programs. It was a contradiction which very quickly created tensions.

Indigenous territories were often the sites of the major mineral deposits that guaranteed the income of the public sector.

In Ecuador, Rafael Correa, who won the presidency in 2007, had within a few years criminalized and arrested Indigenous leaders who were fighting the multinationals exploiting their territories.

In Bolivia, the protests by farming communities in the TIPNIS National Park over the construction of a major highway facilitating the exports taken out of the country by Brazilian and Argentine multinationals, produced a repressive response from the Morales government. The construction was suspended, but then resumed.

In Venezuela, a leading Indigenous activist, Sabino [Romero], who was fighting the state coal company, was murdered together with members of his family. Despite the high price of oil during the early part of the Chávez regime, diversification never happened, though it was promised. In Venezuela, social spending rose massively, but so, too, did the level and scale of corruption, which Chávez finally recognized, too late, just before his death in 2013. So, the promised break with global capital never came. More taxes and royalties came into the national budget, but the relationship with the global market did not change, and the dependency deepened.

By the mid-2010s, all the pink tide governments were committed to a renewed and expanded extractivist program in conjunction with multinational capital (Chinese, Canadian, Russian as well as U.S.) – resistance to which had produced the pink tide in the first place.

Let’s focus on the situation in Venezuela. You write, “While Maduro’s administration of Venezuela has been and continues to be disastrous, the roots of the problem lie in the Chávez era.” Yet Chávez founded a mass socialist party and described his various initiatives as a transition to socialism, while instituting state-subsidized food and health programs that made a considerable difference in the quality of life for millions of Venezuelans. How did this political program create the conditions for the current crisis?

This is a very complex question. But three elements are key. First, the promise to divert oil revenues to social spending. This was hugely expensive, because it was not planned — the Planning Minister Jorge Giordani came into increasing conflict with Chávez during his second presidency. The absence of a plan resulted in policies created in a reactive, short-term way. Chávez was anti-capitalist in his discourse, but never had an anti-capitalist strategy. Expropriations were purchases and often in reaction to the disinvestment or flight of a specific capitalist.

The deeper problem was that this created a relationship of a kind of welfare dependency between the majority and the state. Whatever Chávez’s intentions, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), created in 2006, was not a mass democratic party, but a centralized, top-down mechanism modelled on Cuba. The casualty was participatory democracy itself.

After 2006, Chávez’s appointees forged themselves into a ruling class, mimicking the system of patronage and clientelism that had prevailed for 40 years before Chávez. In his last document, Chávez recognized that far from transforming the state, the state had transformed and corrupted his administration. But it was too late. Maduro’s regime is authoritarian, controlled by the military whose culture of command prevails at every level, fuelled by corruption on a massive scale. Chávez did not have, despite his proclamation of 21st century socialism, a developed socialist project. He was a revolutionary nationalist. In 2016, Maduro nailed his colors to the mast. He announced the Arco Minero project, inviting 150 foreign multinationals to exploit the huge mineral potential of the Orinoco Basin. It was, in my view, the moment of counterrevolution.

What role do U.S. intervention and economic sanctions play in creating the crisis facing Venezuela? Don’t we need to emphasize the role of imperialism in the ebb of the “pink tide”?

From the perspective of today, the U.S. is playing a central role in undermining the Maduro regime. But Maduro’s loss of support from his own Chavista base has to do with his claim to socialist credentials while the population experiences unprecedented levels of hunger in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves. The coterie in power, who head the PSUV, has replaced popular support with military control, repression and violence, together with corruption on a massive scale. Production has collapsed, GDP is reduced by 50 percent, and around 85 percent of necessary medicines and drugs are unavailable – the remaining 15 percent are priced beyond the reach of most Venezuelans. The minimum wage of those who have a job will buy them a large pack of diapers or a dozen or so eggs. Yet no measures have been taken (as opposed to promised) to control corruption, limit prices or suspend payment of the foreign debt. The opposition parties, concerned as they claim to be for the fate of the people, have offered no program to address the crisis since they won their majority in the National Assembly in 2015. The mass demonstrations they have called do not indicate mass support for the right, let alone for its extreme wing to which [Juan] Guaidó belongs. It reflects the level of desperation of all Venezuelans who will seize on any opportunity to protest.

The most astonishing thing is the complacency of the international left who will defend this corrupt, cynical regime – the author of the crisis – on the simplistic basis that Maduro sounds like a revolutionary, ignoring the reality of working-class life in his Venezuela. Neither Maduro nor Guaidó has anything to offer the millions who invested their hope in Chávez. Of course, U.S. imperialism is playing its usual role in Latin America, reclaiming its natural wealth for the profit of its home multinationals. But the reality is that the choice is between several imperialisms — the U.S. and Guaidó, Russian and China with Maduro. For socialists, the only question is how best to strengthen and support the political resistance of a mass movement which has been disarmed by the manipulations of its leaders but must now try to rediscover is strength and independence for the struggles to come.

One leader for whom you reserve cautious optimism is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, and you describe his anti-corruption politics as serious, but ambiguous. Since your book was published, just as he came to power, do you have a clearer assessment of what role his government will play in the Mexican left?

The case of AMLO in Mexico is fascinating. Since he first entered politics and made his bid for the Mexican presidency, he has shifted his ground politically. In 2006, he lost his bid for the presidency by a margin of less than 1 percent, amid widespread and completely credible allegations of fraud (given Mexico’s history in this regard). The protests against the fraud produced a huge movement of protest that occupied Mexico City’s central avenue for almost a year.

He stood again in 2012 and 2018, each time attenuating his radicalism and seeking broader alliances. His reputation for honesty and his record won him a mass following which finally led to his election to the presidency in 2018. His campaign emphasized the fight against corruption, social justice and policies for dealing with the violence that has consumed the society for many years. This was enormously popular, especially given the record of the other candidates. But his campaign had become increasingly populist, and there were disturbing signs of compromise in the involvement of prominent right-wing figures in his government and his policy team.

I would say that he has been cautious in his first 100 days, though he refused to condemn the Venezuelan government or recognize Guaidó. It may be tempting to see him as a new Chávez – but his support was electoral, as was his political organization. I would hesitate to characterize it as a social movement, capable of independent mobilization. So the Mexican presidency remains as powerful and as centralized as ever.

AMLO’s relationship with Trump, too, has been cautious and diplomatic. His emphasis on morality and honesty is welcome in a corrupt Mexican state, but he will surely have in mind what has happened to the pink tide. He will seek to maintain some degree of independence and cement his support through social measures. Where that will take him, in the current volatile situation, is hard to predict.