Latin America - a continent fights neo-liberalism
Dan Morgan, Chile December 2019
Where do I begin? So many countries in turmoil. The commodity boom fuelled by China’s former spectacular growth rate ended and economic problems gave the opportunity for the right wing to smother the ‘pink wave’ in much of the continent. But capitalism does not solve people’s problems and so we now have a wave of social explosions. The best placard I saw in Chile was one held by a middle-aged woman that read, “Hay tantas wea, que no sé qué poner” which freely translates as, “There’s so much crap, I don’t know what to put”. In short, there are massive protests against neoliberal policies of austerity in Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Honduras and Haiti. The coup against a progressive government in Bolivia was also followed by huge protests and the story does not end there. Mexico and Argentina have seen electoral successes against the right and Venezuela and Cuba continue to resist US sanctions.
The imposition of neo-liberalism in Latin America, often through dictatorships, is well known, however, the return of democracy did not mean a reversal of these policies with continued privatisations and, for example, worsening social segregation in education. Now Chile and several other countries are convulsed by protests and the great need is for political development, for people to see the possibility of socialism, a real alternative system. The political will is not yet there and socialism is demonised. Cuba and Venezuela are struggling economically against increasing US sanctions and Venezuela is in such difficulties that it is successfully used as a negative example. How long will it take to overcome this? There’s no knowing, but it will and must happen. Until then, the protest movements will continue and will develop politically, as people learn in their struggles.
ECUADOR - REACTION PUSHED BACK
Rafael Correa, President 2007-2017, improved life for the people and fought for compensation from Chevron, the oil company giant, which caused an ecological disaster in the country. Business sectors hated him for making them pay social security contributions and minimum wages etc. But Ecuador had its longest period of political stability under his presidency. His successor is the treacherous Lenin Moreno, elected as candidate of the same political alliance but bent on reversing these gains (as well as cosying up to US imperialism in other ways). Austerity policies followed, and on 1 October he introduced an economic package called Decree 883 which was agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The people of Ecuador rose in revolt. Protests were started by the trade union confederation FUT, the indigenous peoples’ confederation CONAIE, the Popular Front and students. A transport strike paralysed the country from 3 October, and then the CONAIE came into action, marching on Quito, the capital, and defying the police. The armed forces were deployed on the 7th October and the government moved to Guayaquil for a short time.
With the whole country in revolt, the government was forced to talk to the CONAIE – the first session on 13th October was televised at their insistence. Moreno agreed to suspend Decree 883 and thus cancel the IMF package. The bad news was the arrests of several leaders of the ‘Citizen Revolution Movement’, supporters of ex-president Correa, leading to others seeking asylum in the Mexican Embassy.
CHILE IN REVOLT
Social Media, especially Facebook, buzzed with the news from Ecuador. People’s protests led to the cancellation of a neoliberal social package! If they can do it, why not us?
The Metro fare had just gone up by 4% (4 pence). No big deal, but just another cut in workers’ standard of living. From October 6th, secondary school students started jumping over turnstiles to avoid paying their fares. The ‘evade’ movement snowballed and by Friday 18th October the whole Metro network was closed at 3pm – police repression could not stop the protests. That night there was the first of many ‘cacerolazos’, pot and pan protests, and 23 Metro stations were set on fire. We still don’t know who did this. There are organised anarchist groups who certainly have done similar things, but it seems unlikely they could have coordinated such widespread attacks and at such an early stage of the protests. There are images of police entering Metro stations with cans of liquid but the truth is not clear. In any case, if there were a conspiracy to commit arson in order to discredit the protests and end them, it did not work at all. There were huge marches on Saturday 19th October and a social explosion followed, reaching its visible high point two weeks later when a million and a half demonstrated in Santiago and hundreds of thousands more across the country, even in small towns. In Villarrica the population of the commune is 50,000 with about 30,000 in the town and there were close to 3,000 on the march – and two weeks later it was even bigger, more than 4,000 strong. The lid was off the pressure cooker of decades of resentment at low wages, poor public health and education, miserable pensions and ever more visible corruption.
The marches, demonstrations and “cacerolazos” met fierce repression. For the first time the police fired shotguns, rubber bullets and tear gas grenades at face level, causing thousands of injuries including 354 eye injuries. At least 30 people lost the sight of one eye and a student taking photographs at a demonstration is now totally blind. At least 4 people died directly from army and police fire, hundreds have been tortured, including sexual torture, in police stations. Complaints by the official National Institute for Human Rights and Child Defence and civil society had no effect, nor did the Amnesty International report. Only the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report led to a promise to reform the police and demand an answer from the Police Director. HRW is of course the imperialists’ favoured ‘human rights’ organisation for its very tendentious reporting on Venezuela and Nicaragua, etc.
Politically the explosion, long feared by the ruling class, took them by surprise. All TV channels were filled with film of the demonstrations and discussion of people’s real problems for two weeks. Now they scarcely mention marches and concentrate on damage done by looters etc. The government’s plan for a tax reform to reverse the Bachelet government’s limited progressive measures was scrapped. Small improvements to the miserable minimum pension have been agreed, as was a state subsidy on low wages to raise minimum income to £375 net from £375 gross a month. (The exchange rate varies and purchasing power is very different but an average estimate of 800 Chilean pesos per pound has been used). Other social benefits that do not affect the basic neoliberal model will be given. The biggest gain, though, is the promise of a referendum in April on having a new constitution to completely replace the Pinochet one of 1980 which sets the neoliberal model in stone. There will now be a fight about how to elect the members of a possible constituent assembly.
Last year political action centred on feminist issues and women have been to the fore in this movement, recently creating the choreographed dance against rape that has gone world-wide. It includes specifically Chilean references to rape and harassment by the police, as well as other state institutions.
The protests were really spontaneous and for some time no real leadership was evident. Anarchist groups have indulged in burning buildings and infrastructure, possibly leading looting but much of this has also been spontaneous revolt and criminals taking advantage of the chaos. Now a ‘Social Unity’ group has been formed from over 200 trade union and social organisations which has made proposals for election of the constituent assembly for example.
One political problem is widespread objections to all political parties. In 2015 illegal financing by big business of the parties in Congress was clearly exposed and the huge, self-awarded salaries of deputies and senators have been widely denounced. Even the Communist Party, not involved in this corruption, was ‘tainted’ by its inclusion in Michelle Bachelet’s second government. It tried to end the worse abuses of the system but was stymied by its own right wing of Christian Democrats and also by the Constitution Tribunal. The Broad Front deputies are new but some opportunist mistakes, along with anti-politics prejudices, make its work hard. So forming a good political alternative will be difficult. Anarchistic attitudes go deep among wide sections of young people especially and the pro-dictatorship right wing is still important.
As of 5th December marches and one or two-day strikes continue along with growing local assemblies to discuss social issues and the possible constituent assembly.
COLOMBIA - STRIKES AND PROTESTS
The latest wave of protests in Colombia is a new phenomenon. Remember Colombia had difficult negotiations to end the long guerrilla struggle of the Marxist inspired FARC under previous President Santos. His more hardline successor since 2018, Ivan Duque, has undermined that agreement, leading to some FARC leaders resuming armed struggle. Others have been assassinated, along with an increased number of social activists including indigenous leaders – at least 500 killed since 2016 when the peace agreement was signed. These massacres by paramilitary and other criminal gangs have not been stopped by the armed forces. In August the army bombarded a supposed camp of FARC dissidents killing up to 18 children. On 5th November a vote of censure was presented in the Congress against the Minister of Defence and he resigned the following day.
A block of organisations set up a movement for a National Strike against outrages such as corruption, inequality and all neoliberal policies and this started on 21st November. The strike and associated demonstrations and “cacerolazos” have been enormous in all major cities. On the third day a young man was killed by police shotgun fire in Bogotá which increased resistance. The National Strike Committee which includes the main trade union centre has a list of 13 demands.
As of 5th December the strikes and protests continue.
BOLIVIA - COUP D'ETAT
Evo Morales, first indigenous president of Bolivia, wanted a fourth term in office and went for re-election on 20th October. This was the opportunity right wing pro-imperialist forces had hoped for. The constitution limits re-election to two terms and Evo had very narrowly lost a referendum held to change this. Then a legal judgement allowed him to stand but this manuoevre provoked a lot of resentment, along with the loss of some left wing and environmentalist supporters. Evo and his more ideological vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera had pursued a policy of developing nationalised industries along with ‘normal’ capitalist development, promoting indigenous peoples and social services. However after 13 years in power, a universal health service was only started this year.
Lots of US dollars, over 1.3 million last year alone from the National Endowment for Democracy, funded the right wing opposition. The rabid racist right wing, along with some leaders exploiting supposed regional grievances, plotted to get rid of Evo whatever the election result was. A plausible, soft opposition candidate, Carlos Mesa, was put up. Evo got 47% of the vote against 36% for Mesa, just over a 10% difference and therefore an outright victory for Evo in the first round of voting. But a mistake was made in inviting observers from the Organisation of American States which enabled them to release a preliminary report citing some vague irregularities. Bands of brutal thugs began blocking roads and then attacking leaders of MAS, the government party (which won over two thirds of deputies and senators in 2014, the previous elections and a majority this time). The police did nothing against the increasing wave of right wing protests and finally announced a mutiny in several cities. The army Commander-in-Chief then ‘invited’ Evo to resign, amid brutal intimidation of ministers and other leaders. Evo and Alvaro opted to leave for Mexico, and some MAS minsters and others sought political asylum in embassies. A senator, Jeanine Añez, was self-ordained as interim President and hard line ministers appointed to dismantle MAS’s state bodies. Many leaders are being charged with everything from sedition to terrorism to embezzlement and other forms of corruption.
New elections, with a new Electoral Tribunal, are promised for March or April. The new authorities will try everything to rig these, using widespread intimidation and acting with dubious legality. The election, however, showed how strong Evo’s base is among the poor and indigenous. They have strong local and peasant organisations (male and female) and their resistance will be strong. They have prevailed against hard repression in the past. We must hope they can again.
ARGENTINA - NEO-LIBERAL FAILURE LEFT SUCCESS
Mauricio Macri was very narrowly elected President of Argentina in 2015, defeating a less than charismatic candidate from the party of the previous president, Cristina Fernandez. Cristina’s government was popular but opposition to it grew amid rising inflation and accusations of corruption. She is probably not corrupt (although personally quite rich) but several of her ministers almost certainly were. Corruption is not unusual in Argentina and they all came from the traditional Peronist Party.
So a right wing businessman came in, promising neoliberal policies that would create economic stability and growth, bring investment and employment. The result was almost incredibly the opposite. Lifting of exchange controls led to a massive exodus of money. Devaluation first led to an exchange rate of 18 pesos per US Dollar from a previous rate of 10 or 14, and now stands at an amazing 58 pesos per dollar! Taxes on exports of wheat, maize and mining products were dropped and those on soya, the main export, cut from 35% to 30% so the fiscal deficit only increased.
In a financial mess, Macri went cap in hand to the IMF and got a big 50 billion dollar loan, later increased to 57 billion. He was forced to reintroduce the export taxes to try and balance the budget. Inflation was 48% in 2018 and estimated to be 52% this year. Cristina’s government ended with a national debt of 52% of GDP, it is now at 95%. Nineteen thousand companies have closed and unemployment is around 14%, the highest since 2004. Generous subsidies on natural gas, electricity and public transport were gradually slashed, leading to prices increasing by 2 to 3 times, hitting the poor hardest. Poverty has increased enormously and will stand at about 40% of the population at year’s end, with 7% indigent (miserably poor).
So in the elections of 27th October, the Fernandez double – Alberto for President and Cristina for Vice-President - got 48% and Macri 32%. Alberto Fernandez promises to be a moderate, centre-left president and faces tough economic problems left him by Macri. His first visit abroad was to President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico, and is very much in tune with him. They both condemned the coup in Bolivia for example.
MEXICO - AMLO ONE YEAR ON
Last year Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, thankfully shortened to AMLO, with his new National Regeneration Front (MORENA), won a stunning victory against the neoliberal and corrupt parties in Mexico. The alliance led by the MORENA, formed only in 2012, won a majority of deputies and senators. AMLO got 53% of the votes, the next highest had 23%. AMLO had been mayor of Mexico City: he is a soft-spoken, decent man who is no revolutionary but promised a hard fight against the corrosive all-embracing corruption in the country which is linked to extremely rich drug traffickers. He also promises free, secret elections to trade unions which have usually been corrupt class collaborationist organisations. If he can make big differences in these two things then Mexican politics will have the chance of serious change. The other distinctive feature of AMLO is that he does not take a submissive attitude to the USA. Feelings of national dignity are important in Mexico, and that explains some at least of his popularity.
BRAZIL - BOLSONARO TURNS THE CLOCK BACK
Jair Bolsonaro, a pro-fascist, racist, misogynist was, nevertheless, elected President last year and took office in January. He appeals particularly to the strong racist currents in Brazilian society. By self-identification, 48% are white, 44% brown and 7% black. The darker the skin, generally the more excluded and poor you are – slavery was abolished only in 1888. Racial divisions, as in the USA, explain a lot of the relative weakness of the working class movement. The Workers’ Party (PT) governments of Lula de Silva and Dilma Rousseff had introduced elements of positive discrimination for university education for example, and these were hated by racists. The corrupt political system was not challenged by Lula or Dilma and this was their greatest mistake, leading directly to the parliamentary coup against Dilma in 2016. Lula’s imprisonment on trumped-up charges followed – he has now been released after a year but still faces legal action.
Brazil, with a population of over two hundred million and the huge Amazon forest, is the giant of South America and so to have a reactionary and repressive government there is a major tragedy. Bolsonaro openly welcomes more rapid destruction of the Amazon forest – forest fires increased this year by 77% over last year. It was important that Brazil had not adopted neoliberal policies of ‘opening’ its economy. It has a lot of industry, which had been protected, however, Bolsonaro has promised to open it to please US imperialism. His reward last week – Trump imposed tariffs on imports of Brazilian steel and aluminium. His policies are counter to those of Alberto Fernandez, so there will be tensions in the Mercosur trading bloc.
The Landless Workers’ Movement MST organises around 400 thousand families in settlements and encampments to fight the big landowners and produce healthy food. Recently 700 of these families were evicted in Bahia state due to Bolsonaro’s regime. The prospect is bleak, for now, but resistance will develop. Joao Pedro Stedile is one of the leaders of the MST and writes good analyses of the situation from a Marxist standpoint, starting with the world outlook. An English translation of his latest long article can be found at:
URUGUAY - RIGHT WING WIN
The Broad Front, a left and centre-left alliance, has governed Uruguay since 1999 and won handsomely in 2014. This time it lost its majority of deputies and senators, and in the run-off ballot the right wing presidential candidate won by 51% to 49%. The commodity boom is over and all South American countries have had falling economic growth rates (although Bolivia maintained the highest rate under Evo, at 4%). Uruguay perhaps suffered more than most and the Broad Front had a very tepid approach to economic change. Although polarisation was avoided, no radical changes were made. If new President Lacalle brings in austerity, we shall see how long it takes for the people, and left wing forces, to react.
HAITI - MASS PROTESTS
Haiti is famous for the first successful slave revolt in 1898. French-speaking, it is different from the rest of Latin America and often ignored. The poorest of countries, it suffered decades of brutal dictatorships but in 1990 with the first democratic election there was a glimpse of hope. The new President Jean-Bertrand Arisitde promised progressive rule. Not to US imperialism’s taste, he was overthrown in 1991 by a military coup. He was President again from 1994 to 1996 and again from 2001 to 2004 when, with US backing, right wing paramilitaries removed him again and he went into exile. A number of corrupt neoliberal governments followed and recently the country has also been swept by massive protests.