Letter from South America
By Dan Morgan, Chile
Since 1998, when Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela and started the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, South America has been transformed. But now it is in trouble. The few golden years of high commodity prices and a majority of left-wing governments now seem long gone. Economically, growth is slow or negative, apart from in Bolivia. Politically, reactionary forces have used economic problems to take the offensive. In general, we are seeing the problems and limitations of reforms made within a capitalist framework.
Venezuela is the most worrying case. The Bolivarian revolution changed the constitution and gained power in the executive, legislative, judicial and military spheres. State enterprises were strengthened or set up but the capitalist sector of the economy remains strong - and in food production and distribution, dominant. Neither have the mass media been totally democratized; pro-imperialist and reactionary propaganda remains strong. Despite efforts to diversify the economy, it remains heavily dependent on oil production – and the price fell from over 100 dollars a barrel in 2014 to around 40 dollars this year.
The right wing opposition has unleashed economic warfare, producing shortages and a black market. It is anguishing to see that the government cannot ensure easy access to food and medicines for the population, after 18 years of the process of ‘Twenty-first Century Socialism’. A system to address this has been started, called CLAP – Local Committees for Supplies and Production. It sounds similar to the JAP – Councils for Supplies and Prices – the system that in Chile in 1973 ensured basic goods for the people, based on committees linked to local shopkeepers. This worked, as I can testify, but was not widespread enough to prevent the popular discontent that provided the political basis for the military coup against Salvador Allende. The father of Chile’s current president, Alberto Bachelet, was an Air Force General who coordinated the JAP system; after the coup he was imprisoned and tortured for his pains, dying from an unattended heart attack.
It is to be hoped that the CLAP system will work in Venezuela, because people without supplies of food and medicine will continue to be disenchanted and support the opposition, as over 60% did in the elections last December. The head of the Central Command of the CLAP, Freddy Bernal, says their role is ‘to defeat the economic war’, as part of government measures to protect the people from speculation, hoarding, the mafias, infiltrators and the corrupt “who also exist in the various public and private institutions” (speech on 13th July). Chileans who were in exile there tell me that a culture of corruption was deeply rooted, affecting much of life. That will not easily change, but finding the way to do so will be essential for the advance of the revolution.
The Communist Party of Venezuela is small but it may be significant that it calls for mobilization against “fascism, ‘entreguismo’ and corruption”. Here, ‘entreguismo’ refers to a section of the Bolivarian movement that is prepared to give in, to hand over power to the pro-imperialist and neoliberal opposition, rather than deepen the revolution. The only sure way to finally defeat the reactionary forces is to decisively weaken the capitalist sector, and achieve a largely socialist economy.
Brazil is the most recent and dramatic example of the reactionary offensive. The Workers’ Party won the presidency first in 2002, with Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva. But first he made a ‘pact with the devil’, i.e. a number of center and right-wing parties, promising not to basically change the capitalist economic model. Worse, neither he nor Dilma Rouseff, his successor, even attempted changes to the hopelessly corrupt political system, but relied on alliances with various corrupt parties - the viciously right-wing new de facto President Temer was the previous Vice-President. As a historic leader of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) wrote in 2013: “Today, in order to run for any position, for example, for councillor, you need to have more than one million reais [approximately 2 reais to the dollar]; a deputy costs around ten million. Capitalists pay and later politicians follow orders. Young people are fed up with this bourgeois way of doing politics, strictly commercial. But what is even more serious was the fact that political parties from the institutional left, all of them, adapted to those methods. And, therefore, provoked a sharp aversion to the way political parties act”. .
President Dilma Rousseff has been deposed, impeached, in a parliamentary coup, in my opinion more for her anti-imperialism, solidarity with other progressive governments on the continent, than for her mild progressive reforms at home. These social reforms of the Workers’ Party presidents lifted 30 million people out of poverty (in this huge country of over 200 million) but without basic change to the political or economic system or the judiciary, let alone the military. Thus, taking advantage of an economic recession, it has been relatively easy for reaction in Congress to stage an illegitimate, unjustifiable coup. Dilma was guilty of manipulating budget figures, allegedly, to help win her re-election. Something every past Brazilian president has done, and not a crime as demanded by the constitution to justify impeachment. She has not been accused of corruption, even political corruption. The majority of all members of congress (parliament) in Brazil have been found guilty, or are under investigation for corruption involving personal enrichment.
Fortunately, this coup just might end up rebounding on its instigators. A social movement has arisen to oppose this outrage, with mass demonstrations in many parts of this huge country; it could grow and forge the necessary unity and awareness that more radical policies are needed if the country is to win the battle for democracy, let alone social justice.
Argentina, as always, is very complex politically. Presidents Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and his wife Cristina Fernandez came out of the Peronist party; they were certainly not socialist, but definitely anti-imperialist and progressive. Rejecting the IMF and its ‘adjustment’ policies of privatisation and austerity, Néstor led a swift recovery from the economic meltdown of 2001, with rising living standards for all. There were important subsidies for basic services helping the poor above all.
The movement that is Peronism has included tendencies ranging from ultra-left to neoliberal. The big weakness of the government was the usual corruption by many of the ministers, and reports of a big increase in Cristina’s wealth while President. One positive result is that Peronism now seems to be definitively divided, with Cristina Fernandez leading the ‘Front for Victory’ on the left. This was very narrowly defeated in the elections last November, and the new, decidedly neoliberal President Macri set about reversing all progressive reforms. Increases in electricity, gas and public transport prices of 300 and 400% were announced. Despite legal challenges - the Supreme Court ruled against some of them – there will be huge price increases. Devaluation of about 50% has led to massive inflation, and there is a great increase in the number of poor. Over 120,00 jobs disappeared in the first six months of this year.
Again, there is hope, as a mass movement is developing which we can hope will develop solid left-wing policies and the necessary unity.
Other countries which have decisively broken with neoliberal policies are holding firm, despite the general right-wing offensive. In Ecuador, with Rafael Correa elected in 2006, the ‘citizens’ revolution’ won a new, democratic constitution and radical reforms. The most highly valued are social advances in education, health and social welfare; economic growth and the reduction in inequality. Workers’ rights were strengthened and cooperatives promoted. A coup attempt in 2010 based on the police was defeated with popular mobilisation and the army. Reaction tries to use sectional demands by indigenous organisations, with finance from NGOs based in the United States, against the government.
In Bolivia, the Movement to Socialism (MAS) government of Evo Morales (since 2006) continues to have strong support and the country has the highest growth rate of Latin America. The nationalisation of oil and gas resources transformed the finances of this poor country. MAS became the government party from almost nothing in four years, on the back of tremendous popular struggles. Of course, this meant the entry of opportunists and there have been several examples of expulsions of office-holders caught in corrupt practices. In this volatile country, sectional interests are a particular problem for the unity of progressives. Recently, some cooperative miners have been in dispute, even leading to the murder of a deputy minister. As Vice-President Alvaro García explains, this was due to the leaders going against cooperative principles, exploiting employees and sub-contracting to private companies. In the trade unions there are some ultra-left leaders who undermine unity. Just before a referendum on the possibility of Evo standing for another re-election, mass media used a blatant lie to cast a shadow on Evo’s character. This is now admitted by all to be a lie but the damage was done.
This highlights a central problem for progressive governments: the tremendous power of the mass media, dominated by capitalist ownership, and usually voicing the policies of US imperialism. In several countries right-wing parties are is disarray and the mass media are a natural replacement for them as political forces. To her credit, Cristina Fernández in Argentina proposed breaking up the two huge media empires and creating democratic media, but was unable to implement this before her government finished.
These examples of the political battles going on in South America, illustrating the problems for reforms, even radical, deep ones that do not accumulate enough strength and decision to achieve hegemony and meet capitalist and imperialist resistance with socialist counter-blows. To lead the fight for democratic change in the economy and mass media, among other things, it seems that a disciplined, politically educated working class vanguard is needed; often, crucially, to fight corruption in the progressive movement itself.