June 6, 2003

Present situation in Latin America

James Petras


There are four keys to understanding the present situation in Latin America:

The uneven development of the class-ethnic struggle and the contradictions within the social movements.

The right turn of former leftist or populist electoral parties and their alliance with US imperialism

The decline of the neo-liberal socio-economic model and the isolation of the neo- liberal regimes and their increased resort to violence

The resurgence of imperial militarism and colonization - its victories and defeats.

Uneven Development of Class, Ethinic and Anti-Imperialist Struggle

Latin American popular movements and struggles reflect a complex pattern of advances and retreats, depending on specific circumstances and moments in time. There is no general "new wave" of victories or defeats. On the positive side there is the victory of the popular movement in Venezuela - defeating two US orchestrated coups and the agrarian reform program of President Chavez promising to settle 100,000 families by August 2003. In Bolivia, the MAS and the social movements, especially the cocaleros, have successfully blocked the privatization program of President Sanchez de Losada's regime and have increased their electoral and mass support. In contrast, in Ecuador and Brazil, Presidents Lucio Gutierrez' and Inacio Lula da Silva's embrace of neo-liberalism represents a temporary weakening of the left and mass struggle.

The uneven development of the mass popular struggle is found throughout Latin America - Peru advances, Chile is stagnant, Argentina declines but the Colombian guerrillas expand. The key to understanding the ebb and flow of the mass struggle in Latin America requires that we go beyond an analysis of the economic crises and examine the question of politics - particularly the relationship between electoral and mass politics. The reason is clear: all of the Latin American economies are in deep crises and suffering from growing social inequalities - but in some countries, the struggle advances and others it declines.

The key to understanding the uneven development of the struggle is to look at the different relations between social movements and political formations. In Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, the mass movements are linked to populist and socialist political formations - which advance the goals of the movements. In Brazil and Ecuador the mass movements are (or were?) linked to neo-liberal political regimes and parties which oppose the basic demands of the popular movements and are tied to the IMF and neo-liberal elites. In Peru, Colombia and Mexico the mass movements and guerrillas advance because they are independent of the neo-liberal regimes and bourgeois parties. In Argentina, and to a far lesser extent Paraguay and Uruguay, the mass movements are not able to construct a political alternative - with the result that the heroic struggles and mass protests have not led to as serious challenge for state power but has allowed bourgeois and reformist electoral parties to capitalize on the discontent through the election of Kirchner in Argentina and the Frente Amplio in Uruguay.

In summary, the social movements which have advanced furthest in the present period are those which have links to class/populist political formations, while those social movements without links have stagnated or retreated. The paradox is that in Argentina the popular uprising and the flourishing unemployed workers movement and neighborhood assemblies lacked a political organization in order to advance to political power, while in Brazil the popular movements were linked to a political party - the Worker' Party (PT) - which made a right-turn and abandoned the movement.

In both Argentina and Brazil the advance of the social movement was frustrated by the lack of an independent class political organization, despite the maturity of objective conditions.

The Social-Economic Situation

The objective situation in Latin America is "ripe" for a social transformation. All the major social indicators are negative. If we take the realistic figure of $5 USD per day as the poverty level, over 70% of Latin Americans live in poverty and almost 40% are indigent - living on less that $2 USD a day. In Argentina, the richest country in per capita beef and cereal production, nearly 60% of the population lives in poverty and one-third are indigent. Brazil has been in recession for over 3 years and has paid over $60 billion in debt payments, while both Cardoso and Lula have slashed public funding for housing, health, education and agrarian reform. In Mexico, Uruguay, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela the economies are in profound crisis, as the neo-liberal model based on exports, transfers export earnings abroad in the form of profit remittances, debt payments and tax evasion. Inequalities have widened over the last 5 years throughout Latin America: under the austerity programs introduced in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, the upper classes increase their profits through lower taxes, lower wage payments and smaller payments for social insurance - at the expense of the workers.

Chronic economic stagnation and social inequalities have not changed with the elections of Lula in Brazil, Gutierrez in Ecuador or Toledo in Peru - if anything the socio-economic situation has worsened. In the first 6 months of 2003 Brazil shows a 1% negative growth rate, Gutierrez has polarized the country, favoring foreign investors and prejudicing campesinos and Indians, and Toledo who has followed the IMF formula to perfection, faces massive street protests by all the major trade unions, peasant organizations and student federations in the country.

The Rise and Collapse of the "Fourth Wave of Neo-Liberalism"

Neo-liberalism is like a cat with nine lives. In each decade since the middle of the 1970's to the present, new dictators or presidents have emerged, promised to "modernize" the country via export led "free market policies" and have left office in disgrace, or have been ousted for incompetence, or corruption, or both. Only to be replaced by a new version of the same, with each new president promising "changes" and implementing even more severe "adjustments" that further impoverish the country. The current period is no exception - Da Silva, Gutierrez, Fox, Toledo presented themselves as "presidents of the people" during their election campaign, but once elected continued and deepened the neo-liberal agenda and their ties to US imperialism. This "fourth wave" of neo-liberals is arousing a new round of profound confrontations.

The most recent mass protests have occurred in Bolivia led by the cocaleros of Chapare, the 'fabriles' of Cochabamba, the miners of the Andes and the urban poor of La Paz; in Peru the public school teachers have launched a general strike, supported by farmers and peasants against the miserable salaries and low prices of farm commodities resulting from the importation of subsidized US grains and cereals. The same peasant-farmer-teacher alliances are found in Mexico and Colombia; in Venezuela the urban masses who defeated the US backed golpistas are organizing Bolivarian circles and pressuring the Chavez government for more radical structural changes and redistributive politicies in the economy and society. In Colombia, the two guerrilla groups - the FARC-EP and the ELN have successfully repulsed every major military offensive since President Uribe came to power - and today his regime is weaker and less able to secure political and economic support for the war, except from the Pentagon. In Ecuador, led by CONAIE and in Brazil, led by the MST, the mass movements are beginning to express their criticism of the new regimes which they originally supported, as frustration over neo-liberal policies grows and the right, including paramilitary groups in Brazil take to the offensive, taking advantage of the favorable "agro-export" policies of the elected Presidents.

As the financial elites in the US and Europe recognize that Lula, Gutierrez and Toledo have only a limited time to carry out the IMF's neo-liberal "reforms" -urging them to act forcibly and quickly before they are politically isolated and face mass confrontations. Despite impending collapse of the "fourth wave" of neo-liberal regimes, the popular political alternatives are visible only in Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia.

Subjectivity: The Future Alternatives

There is no question that the right-turn of the former left/populist candidates has temporarily limited the popular struggles in Brazil and Ecuador - but only for a short interlude. As we have seen in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina, once the pseudo-populists expose their neo-liberal agendas, within a year they face escalating popular mobilizations which call into question their legitimacy and stability. In the recent past numerous Presidents have been ousted by mass mobilizations before their official tenure in office has expired: Perez of Venezuela, De la Rua in Argentina, Collor in Brazil, Mahuad and Buccaran in Ecuador, and Fujimori in Peru.

The major questions facing the social movements is how to translate their defensive action into an offensive strategy, how to convert their social demands into a political program, how to unify the social movements into a political instrument? The mass social movements have been the most effective vehicle for expressing popular discontent and realizing reforms - in great contrast to the ineffective and opportunist "left" electoral parties. However the social movements have not created their own political instruments - with the notable exception of the Bolivian cocaleros -MAS ( Movement to Socialism). Most of the social movements have linked their hopes to electoral parties and candidates which they do not control and which frequently have ties with imperialist interests like the IMF.

The social movements face a contradiction between mass independent direct action and links to bourgeois electoral parties. This contradiction can be resolved not by turning away from politics, or political instruments or even electoral parties but by building a mass political instrument controlled and directed by and subordinated to the social movements.

Today the debate within the advanced social movements in Latin America is how to build from the positive advances in the past, learn from the mistakes of the present and build new mass political coalitions to go beyond protest toward the politics of social transformation.


In the present situation in Latin America, there are many positive signs and some ambiguous circumstances. While Latin America is ruled by neo-liberal regimes (except perhaps in Venezuela), none of the Presidents have consolidated power. Everywhere there is the same pattern: Presidents win elections, pact with the IMF, the multi-nationals and banks and lose the streets - as the great majority of the people turn against the "elected" president. Today Peru's Toledo has gone from over 50% of the vote to less than 10% of popularity. In Bolivia Sanchez de Losado went from 22% of the vote to less than 5%… The same pattern will take place with the new presidents in Ecuador and Brazil within a year or two. Secondly while the mass struggle rises and declines, there have been no decisive defeats, such as occurred with the military coups of 1964, 1973, 1976 etc... Thirdly the mass movements in some countries have combined various forms of struggle - road blockages, land occupations and take over of factories and government buildings with electoral struggles. Finally the class consciousness of the masses is slowly developing a critical viewpoint of "left wing" electoral parties and "populist candidates".

The current period is one of great opportunity and dangers for the mass movements. The danger comes primarily form the US plans for colonization via ALCA and militarization via Plan Colombia, US led "inter-American military coalitions" and military bases to foment military coups. Washington has succeeded in securing the support for ALCA from Mexico's Fox, the Central American and Caribbean client regimes, Uribe in Colombia, Lagos in Chile, Lula in Brazil and Toledo in Peru. Some "negotiations" will, of course, take place over US subsidies and protectionist measures (especially by the Brazilian regime).

But ALCA has also resulted in mass opposition throughout Latin America, where almost 80% of the population (95% in Brazil) is opposed to the "new colonialism". On any referendum ALCA loses. Therefore the US and the Latin American elites will approve of the recolonialization agreement without consulting the people or perhaps not even the legislature.

The new "Bush doctrine" of offensive military invasions everywhere at any time poses a threat to all the popular movements. Bush's militarization strategy has already been implemented by local client presidents . Since the beginning of 2003, over 60 workers and peasants were killed by the Sanchez de Losada regime in Bolivia. Several activists and rural workers in Brazil and in Guatemala have been assassinated by para-military forces linked to big landowners. Hundreds of peasants and trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia. Dozens of protestors have been injured and killed in Peru. Hundreds of Indian political activists have been jailed in Chile, Bolivia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Guatemala.

Latin America demonstrates, however, that US imperialism can be defeated. Cuba has dismantled several US-financed terrorist networks and defeated internal and external threats to its national security. Venezuela has defeated two US sponsored coup attempts. In Bolivia, the left is today the dominant political force in the streets and a powerful opposition in Parliament. In Colombia the popular and guerrilla movements continue to grow despite US military interventions. In Peru millions demand Toledo's resignation. In Argentina, under mass pressure President Kirchner proposes to postpone debt payments in favor of social spending and public investment - a promise which remains to be consummated.

In other words, the US empire is powerful and dangerous but its is not omnipotent - it can and has lost several recent struggles.

The present situation promises to be a period of growing social and political polarization in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Argentina. Before the end of 2003 we are likely to see a new alignment of political and social forces from below and perhaps some "regime changes" from above or from below.

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