South America - popular struggle wins victories
By Dan Morgan, Chile
South America is big, but with only 440 million people – 5.5% of the world total - it is sparsely populated. With an average of 25 people per square kilometre it’s like the Scottish Highlands. There is a lot of land to covet, much of it productive agriculturally – plus the Amazon rain forest. Most of the countries are at a medium level of development with GDP per capita measured by purchasing power ranging from $26,000 US dollars (Chile) to $12,000 (Ecuador) but Bolivia is still poor at about $7,500. Despite the wealth generated, inequality is very high.
North America was colonised by Protestant farmers, leading naturally to capitalist development – apart from the little local difficulty of the US civil war. From 1500, South America was colonised by Catholic Spain and Portugal (apart from Guyana, Surinam and French Guiana). With a feudal mindset, they became Latifundistas, landowners of huge estates with little interest in technological progress. After the first genocides of the conquest and the diseases brought from Europe they wanted to exploit the indigenous peoples, keeping them in conditions of misery. When these were insufficient for the more productive plantations of coffee, sugar or cotton, slaves were brought from Africa. Brazil, for example, abolished slavery only in 1888, and racism is deeply rooted. The resulting racial division of the working class has greatly weakened its power. After winning independence from Spain (Portugal in the case of Brazil) the ruling elites soon became dependent on Britain for finance and all types of meagre development. Lenin gives Argentina as an example of semi-colonial dependence on Britain, in his book Imperialism, the highest stage of Capitalism. After World War I British imperialism was progressively replaced by US imperialism.
The Cuban Revolution had a big effect. Scared of its good example, the USA promoted reformist measures with lavish aid. When these went too far for its comfort, it promoted military rule instead. Notable coups d’état followed: Brazil (1964), Argentina (1966 and ‘76), Bolivia (1971), Uruguay (1973), and Chile (1973). Once revolutionary movements had been crushed, and with the weakening of socialism worldwide, civilian rule returned but with neoliberalism in force. Neoliberal policies meant increased exploitation, greater inequality, privatised or destroyed industries, reduced social benefits and more poverty. Inevitably resistance grew. The first electoral victory was by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. His army background, and popular support has meant that the Bolivarian revolution he started has resisted all types of opposition, despite brutal sanctions imposed by the USA.
This was followed by other governments seeking economic independence from imperialism, and developing South American integration through UNASUR. By 2010 we had Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina in this movement – the ‘Pink Wave’. Another notable political advance was the creation of ALBA-TCP (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – Peoples’ Trade Treaty). This now includes Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, six English speaking Caribbean island states, and Surinam (formerly Dutch Guiana). There is also CELAC (The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), without North America, as an alternative to the Organisation of American States which too often has been used as a tool of US domination.
All of the Pink Tide governments apart from Venezuela have suffered defeats by various means, taking advantage of the fall in raw material prices and consequent economic problems. A particular tactic is the use of “lawfare” – warfare by judicial means. The judiciary is one of the institutions of state power, and in capitalist countries will protect capitalism, and is usually pro-imperialist. Legal attacks on anti-imperialist politicians have been most notable in Brazil – where Lula da Silva was in prison, prevented from standing against Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. Now all charges against him have been dropped. Rafael Correa, former President of Ecuador, was similarly prevented from standing in the last elections and his former Vice-President, Jorge Glas, is in prison on probably trumped-up charges of corruption (and if not totally trumped-up, obviously selectively applied)
But now, as neoliberal policies so obviously fail to solve people’s problems, there is a new wave of anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal movements.
Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government’s strategy of moving to socialism was brutally cut short in 1973 by the US backed military coup. When the danger had passed, neoliberal rule with a democratic face was restored in 1990. With a stable, protected democracy foreign investment in new copper mines flowed in. Now 70% of production is in private hands, with only 30% owned by Codelco, the national company, although this provides more to the public purse than do the private mines. What was not privatised under the dictatorship was privatised after. Most productive industry was killed by the dictatorship. Now most sectors are dominated by an oligopoly of 2 or 3 companies: supermarkets, pharmacies, electricity, gas, forestry, chicken production etc. And they all collude to fix prices. At times they are caught out and derisory fines are imposed. So people are exploited as workers, and again as consumers. The state has been downsized – taxes are now just 21% of GDP, compared with the OECD average of 34%.
The health sector has a poorly funded public service with very long waiting lists for operations, and an expensive private sector which 18% of the population pays for. Pensions are individual and contributory – no employers or state contributions, so pensions are abysmal. Higher education is expensive, even for state universities. Loans leave students with massive debts. School education is highly socially segregated as it has a subsidised private sector which parents also contribute to. This means that in most areas only the poorest go to municipal schools. Apart from these abuses, a multi-million dollar robbery by police and army generals from the ‘reserved expenses’ was recently revealed. This, on top of the fact that those institutions have their own excellent pension schemes – enjoyed even by those convicted of murder and torture. The few military prisoners have their own comfortable ‘five star’ prison.
A key factor in the outburst of anger seen now is the political system. All the parties that have been in government since 1990 have been financed by big business – even Allende’s Socialist Party, to its shame, was financed by Pinochet’s former son-in-law, who was virtually given the company which owned all the nitrate mines, and most of the lithium. So the centre-left parties who managed the neoliberal system, along with the right-wing pro-fascist parties, are of course held in contempt. Discontent grew from 1990 onwards. Mass marches against the pension system, the education system, by the women’s movement, changed nothing. Not until President Michelle Bachelet’s second government (2014 -18) were there any real changes. She was elected with a programme of reforms, communists were included in the coalition for the first time, but rapidly the major reforms were forgotten under pressure from the right wing of the Christian Democrats. Disillusion set in. The feeling of alienation from the political system was general - anarchist and anarchistic opinions are strong, especially in the youth.
So the right wing Piñera was elected President again in 2018. In October 2019 he said Chile was “an oasis of peace” in a troubled continent. Only a week later, all hell broke loose. A 30 peso (4%) tube fare increase led to school students jumping turnstiles, and then huge marches. Tube stations were burned, some by anarchists, some reportedly by police. Supermarkets were looted and burned. The police started to fire tear gas grenades and rubber-coated steel bullets at the faces of demonstrators. Dozens of people lost the sight of one eye, and two were totally blinded. Mass marches every Friday became routine. They soon grew to over a million and a half in the capital Santiago, 20% of the population. By November the ruling class was in a sort of panic, and on the 15th all the old parties, plus Gabriel Boric of the newish Broad Front (Frente Amplio) agreed that there should be a referendum about writing a new constitution. The TV was also showing demonstrators, and many left wing politicians – this lasted only a short time. Even small towns had marches. In Villarrica, 50 thousand population, 4 thousand marched in this most right wing area: health workers, teachers and other education workers, parking ticket workers, builders from the site of the new hospital, the women’s movement which is strong here, and everyone who wants to see a new political system. The ‘front line’ in Santiago held off the police from the marches with shields, stones and sometimes Molotov cocktails and medical brigades were organised. There are still hundreds of people in preventive detention awaiting trial, and demonstrations now call for their release.
These mass protests led to a movement and last October we voted by 78% for a new constitution, to be written by a wholly elected convention. Turnout was 50%, normal for our as yet non-participatory democracy. After more public pressure on Congress, gender parity was added to the proposal, plus reserved seats for ethnic minorities, and space for independents to stand. Two national, and several regional lists for independents were the result, in a wholly new development for Chile. The Constitutional Convention was elected in May. The previously strong right wing was reduced to 24% of the seats. The rules stipulate that anything agreed must have a two-thirds majority, so the right wing does not even have a blocking third. The left wing – Communists, Broad Front, Ecologists and others – won 18%, the very anti-neoliberal People’s List 17%, the centre-left 16% and other independents 14%. The 10 ethnic minorities have 11%, 17 seats. Of these 2 are Aymara from the Andes, 8 from small ethnic groups, and 7 are Mapuche, the really large ethnic minority.
The convention elected as president a Mapuche woman, Elisa Loncón, who grew up in poverty, getting an education with great difficulty. This was a notable indication of the desire for a real change in political culture. The members are mainly young, professional or technical workers. Several lawyers or law students of course, plus teachers and health workers. Only one identified as a manual worker, which speaks of the weakness of the trade unions, which are divided and suppressed in the private sector. The convention began to meet with no computers or communication equipment – the government wants it to fail, and may well campaign to reject the constitution it proposes.
The May mega-election also made big changes in municipalities: the right wing lost many important ones in Santiago and other cities to Broad Front and Communists. Only one Regional Governor is a government supporter, although most are centre-left rather than left wing. Eyes are now on the elections for President and Congress in November. For the left, Gabriel Boric of the Broad Front beat Daniel Jadue, the communist in a primary. Anti-communism is still strong, although Jadue attracted support across a wide section of politics. Boric is more inclined to negotiate with the establishment, and so many on the left are a bit doubtful about him, but the agreement to support the winner of the primary has to be kept. Boric certainly got some centre-left and even right wing votes – one of the problems of open primaries.
As the convention indicated its support for the recognition of and rights of the Mapuche minority, the low-level war by Mapuche organisations intent on recovering territory, especially from the monopolist forestry companies has stepped up. Forestry machinery and lorries are burnt almost daily. A genocidal war 140 years ago in the region that was their homeland, left them with half a million hectares of land out of a total of 10 million. Then more was taken by further violence and fraud. The Allende government restored over 150,000 hectares of this robbery but those were again stolen in the dictatorship. It is these lands that are principally being fought for now. So the region is being militarised, with murder and repression.
We are a long way from very radical change – the judiciary and armed forces are key elements of the present system. The social forces for change are huge but politically wet behind the ears. A serious learning process will be necessary, especially for the anarchistic, anti-party independents. The trade union movement, although weak in the private sector apart from copper mining, will need to be deeply involved. As organisation and political education develop new possibilities will open up. The desire for change exists – unity above all is needed to make it a reality.
Peru had a revolutionary government from 1968 to 1975 – a military one of General Velasco Alvarado. After a coup against him most progress was reversed but his agrarian reform ended the centuries-old latifundio system. The Andean indigenous peoples keep their community spirit and the Maoist Shining Path guerilla movement gained a lot of support there in the 1980s, but provoked fear in the rest of the country. Its suppression by Alberto Fujimori in the ‘90s, who was elected but then imposed a dictatorship, explains much of his support. He is now in prison for corruption (most subsequent presidents have also been charged with corruption) and has handed on the baton to his daughter Keiko, also now charged with corruption. So the election in June was between this extreme right winger, Keiko Fujimoro, and Pedro Castillo, cast as an extreme left winger. Castillo is a rural primary teacher, son of poor farmers, and a Rondero leader. This movement consists of community vigilance committees, who also have informal judicial functions. As President, Castillo wants to extend this system from rural areas to the whole country, and provide them with logistialc and other support, to fight crime. He is from the far north of the country, and is notable for leading a teachers’ strike in 2017.
Free Peru (Peru Libre) is Castillo’s fairly new party. It was also formed in a rural region, and describes itself as Marxist-Leninist-Mariateguist: the last name is that of Jose Carlos Mariategui, a Peruvian Marxist. He identified the latifundio system as being responsible for Peru’s lack of development, and also said the strong community spirit in the Andes stemmed from the Inca empire and that despite the taxes levied, the basis of it was agrarian communism. So the campaign of terror unleashed against Castillo and his party was terrific. Thanks to votes for him of 85% or more in several Andean regions, he won by just 44,000 votes. Without a majority in Congress, he will have a hard time to transform society as he wants.
His inauguration speech presented a moderate but very progressive programme. A single, universal health system is promised, including quality regional hospitals which do not exist at the moment. Many new social benefits, recognition and use of indigenous languages, promoting science and ending deforestation in the Amazon basin. The luxurious presidential palace will be turned into a cultural history museum, and the Ministry of Culture will be re-named Ministry of Cultures. He does not have the strength to take over transnationals operating in the country but will try to tax them properly, monitor and control them. A major plank of his programme was to change the constitution, to end the neoliberal blocks in it. Clever tactics will be needed to get approval for a Constituent Assembly to undertake this, and he will need to arouse pressure from the masses.
Colombia has a long history of violence, virtually since 1948, so the peace negotiations with the FARC guerrillas, under President Santos were historic. This process has been systematically sabotaged by his successor Ivan Duque. The other guerrilla organisation, the ELN, wants a peace process but this has been denied them. Duque is a protegé of former president Alvaro Uribe who has a long history of cooperation with drug traffickers and is still active in the shadows. In the last part of the dirty war against the FARC it is now admitted that there were at least 6,400 ‘false positives’ in 10 years – unarmed, usually poor civilians killed by the army to inflate the numbers of guerrilla fighters killed.
Since Duque’s election in 2018 the murders of social activists have continued – trade unionists, environmentalists, indigenous leaders and journalists. Even with all these issues, mass protests against neoliberal policies have not erupted – until recently. In October 2019 protests forced the withdrawal of pension reforms. A national strike began in May, against very regressive tax reforms. Really massive protests in the major cities were repressed using the same methods as in Chile. At least 37 unarmed protesters have been killed and many injured. Sexual violence has been used by the police, and 87 people are reported to have disappeared. The website Declassified UK has revealed that “...as the police killed dozens of protesters in May, a UK military team was in the country advising them in a secret programme. It’s highly unusual for the British military to train another country’s police force.” (1)
Resistance is developing, to oppose neoliberalism and force real political change.
The best news is the return of MAS (Movement towards Socialism) to government. Evo Morales stood for a fourth term in 2019, a mistake in my view because he lost the referendum called to allow him to do that. Any candidate endorsed by him would have won, but the bad feeling he caused made the result a close one. The Organisation of American States (OAS) observers alleged fraud, without any evidence, and that gave the opportunity for the military leaders to force Evo to resign.
As could be expected, the reactionary policies of the resulting government were disastrous, but Jeanine Añez, the de facto president, was reluctant to call elections, using the pandemic as an excuse. Finally, up to 130 roads were blocked to force the elections, and in October 2020 the MAS candidate Luis Arce was elected with 55%. MAS got similar votes for Deputies and Senators. The new government is, if anything, better politically than Evo’s, and has charged 10 military leaders of the coup – 8 are in prison or house arrest, and 2 fled the country. Añez is also in prison. Hopefully, that will discourage future coup attempts.
Industrialisation, to overcome the extractivist, dependent economy, is again on the agenda. Bolivia has probably the biggest world reserves of lithium, and small lithium batteries are now being produced there. The future of car battery production is uncertain – before the coup there was a joint venture with a German company. There is a urea fertiliser factory, based on the huge natural gas resources, and a steel industry is planned for the first time.
I mentioned the ‘lawfare’ used against Rafael Correa and Jorge Glas above. Correa was succeeded by a member of the same party, Lenin Moreno, who turned out to be a total traitor, reversing what he could of the anti-imperialist, developmental policies of Correa. There was a popular uprising in 2019 against this treacherous government, sparked by a deal with the IMF. The indigenous movement was very strong, and the government eventually negotiated with them publicly, on television. This uprising, by the way, was just before the social explosion in Chile, and helped to inspire it.
There were general elections in 2021 – and the mass media reported that a right wing candidate won with 52% vote. That’s only a half truth, in fact 18% gave a blank or spoilt vote. So Lasso, the winner, got just 43% of the total vote, and Arauz, the Correa supporter, got 39%. Yaku Perez, a lawyer who is leader of the biggest indigenous party, called for the spoiling of the ballot papers. He says he wants no mining, and only limited oil extraction, but he also called for a vote for the pro-imperialist, neoliberal Lasso at the last election, as did his running mate this time. His call to abstain clearly favoured Lasso. So his real intentions are dubious.
The confusing political movement that is Peronism produced a real surprise in Nestor Kirchner, one of the architects of the anti-imperialist movement for Latin American integration from 2001. His wife Cristina Fernandez continued his work but economic problems led to the election of the neoliberal Macri in 2015. Total economic disaster ensued, and Cristina’s ally Alberto Fernandez was elected in 2019, with Cristina as Vice-President. He continues to promote regional integration. Macri left Fernandez with enormous debts, so economically he is hard-pressed. Argentina was the most industrially developed in South America but neoliberal policies in the 1990s destroyed much of this.
Now that all legal charges against him have been dropped, it seems likely that Lula da Silva will be elected president again. He says he has learnt some lessons from his previous period, when he made no effort to reform the country’s corrupt political system. The growing movement against neofascist Jair Bolsonaro will help movement in that direction, and more radical economic policies. Brazil was never neoliberal. It still has a lot of industry, which has some protection and an industrial development fund. It has a high tax take for the region of 33% of GDP.
Pink tides advance and recede, and we hope they progress with each movement. But the example of Cuba shows that only real control by working class organisations of the armed forces, judiciary, mass media and other state bodies, as well as parliaments, can ensure real independence from imperialism and permanent social advance.
...the example of Cuba shows that only real control by working class organisations of the armed forces, judiciary, mass media and other state bodies, as well as parliaments, can ensure real independence from imperialism and permanent social advance.