Latin America's new left in power
The Governments of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correaby Steve Ellner
The Process of Radicalization
The electoral platform of Chávez, Morales and Correa in their first successful bid for the presidency deemphasized far-reaching, socio-economic transformation and focused on more moderate goals. Their principal campaign offer was the convening of a constituent assembly in order to “refound” the nation's democracy on the basis of popular participation. During his campaign in 1998, for instance, Chávez calmed fears regarding a possible unilateral moratorium on the foreign debt by calling for a negotiated solution. In the period prior to his election in 2005, Morales toned down the radical demands on coca cultivation and hydrocarbon nationalization that had been formulated by the social movements of the 1990s, from which MAS emerged, as he reached out beyond his regional base of northern Cochabamba (Crabtree, 2008: 95-97). Prior to embracing “communitarian socialism,” President Morales and his vice-president García Linera defended “Andean capitalism,” which was to prevail for one century. Correa, for his part, in 2006 criticized human rights violation in Colombia but pledged to capture FARC guerrillas and turn them over to Colombian authorities, denied that he formed part of Chávez's Bolivarian movement even though he was a friend of the Venezuelan president and criticized the dollarization of the Ecuadorian economy but claimed it was unfeasible to change the system.
The three presidencies have been characterized by gradual but steady radicalization which was not held back by the types of concessions associated with the consensus politics and liberal democracy of previous years (Katz, 2008: 103-106). All three parlayed the widespread popular support for their initial constitutional proposals into consolidation of power and political and economic renovation. In general, the presidents followed a strategy of taking advantage of the momentum created by each political victory by introducing reforms designed to deepen the process of change. They also interpreted their electoral triumphs as popular mandates in favor of socialism. In Venezuela, Chávez's decrees of land reform and state control of mixed companies in the oil industry in 2001, his redefinition of private property in 2005 and expropriation of companies in strategic sectors in 2007 and 2008 set the stage for more radical stages (Ellner, 2008: 109-131). In a surprisingly confrontational move just months after taking office, Morales ordered troops to take over 56 natural gas installations and the nation's two major oil refineries in order to pressure foreign companies to accept new nationalistic legislation. In the months after his election, Correa radicalized his position on the proposed constituent assembly by insisting that it had the right to dissolve congress, thus placing him on a collision course with the congressional majority which represented the traditional political elite. The dynamic of initial moderation followed by gradual radicalization differs from the Soviet Union and China, where Communist
Parties came to power with explicit far-reaching structural goals stemming from Marxist ideology,
and Cuba where radicalization occurred at a more accelerated pace during the first three years of the revolution.
The governing left raised the banner of anti-neoliberalism and was thus in an advantageous position vis-à-vis the opposition to its right, which lacked a well-defined program to dispel fears that its assumption of power would signify a return to the past. A major issue of differentiation between the government and its adversaries to its right was privatization. While the leftists in power affirmed their anti-neoliberal credentials by largely halting and reversing privatization schemes, the major parties of the opposition upheld ambiguous positions, or no position at all, on the topic. Political polarization, in which all parties to the right of the government converged in criticizing virtually all of its actions, ruled out critical support for nationalist measures from a center-left perspective, and in doing so hurt the opposition which forfeited space on the left side of the political spectrum. In Venezuela, for instance, former leftist parties such as the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), Causa R and Podemos abandoned any appearance of following an independent line within the anti-Chavista bloc as they blended in with the rest of the opposition. Similarly, in Ecuador the social-democratic Izquierda Democrática (ID), which had supported Correa in the second round of the 2006 elections, assumed a position of intransigent opposition by his second term in office.
At the same time, the gradual approach to socialism pursued by all three governments has drawn harsh criticism from political actors to their left who consider the state to be “bourgeois” and favor a complete break with the past. The clash between the three leftist governments and their leftist critics also defined the specificity of the emerging new left in power. The defenders of the three governments envision a gradual transformation of the state in accordance with Gramsci's “war of position” based on the left's incremental occupation of spaces in the public sphere. According to this strategy, the left takes advantage of the presence of its activists in the public administration and the internal contradictions besetting the state (Bilbao, 2008: 136-137; Geddes, 2010). In contrast, orthodox Marxists such as Trotskysts invoke Lenin's dictum regarding the need to “smash the state” at the same time that they advocate blanket expropriation of banking, large agricultural estates and monopoly industry (Woods, 2008: 251-252). In addition, Communists and other traditional leftists criticize the term “twenty-first century socialism” for belittling the relevance of the struggles led by leftists over the previous century.
Some critics located to the left of all three governments come out of an anarchist tradition. They posit that the “constituent power,” consisting of autonomous social movements and the rank and file in general, inevitably confronts the “constituted power,” which embodies the state bureaucracy in its entirety as well as the “political class,” and call for a “revolution within the revolution” in order to root out bureaucratic privileges. This position finds expression in the indigenous-based movements in Bolivia and Ecuador which defend the autonomy of their communities and have resisted Morales’ and Correa's efforts to promote large-scale mining activity that threaten to devastate the areas where their members reside. Some of the movements have embraced “identity politics,” which is at odds with the electoral strategy followed by the leftists in power (Crabtree, 2008: 93-94; Dosh and Kligerman, 2009: 21). Among the indigenous leaders critical of the government on a wide range of issues including cultural identity was Bolivian presidential candidate Felipe Quispe, who fervently opposed Morales's limitations on coca production and advocated full-fledged nationalization.
When placed alongside the orthodox Marxist, neo-anarchist and new social movement currents on the left, the unique and heterodox character of the three presidents and their closest supporters become evident. Most important they recognize that “bureaucrats” who put the breaks on change are well represented in the state sphere, but stop short of initiating an all out purge and upheaval along the lines of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as is advocated by political actors further to their left. Furthermore, all three leaderships promote the creation of a broad-based highly diversified movement, but also place a premium on unity among supporters and defend vertical as well as horizontal decision making.
The strategy pursued by all three governments in favor of a “multi-polar world” resembles in some ways and contrasts in others with the foreign policies of governments committed to socialism in the twentieth century. The multi-polar world phrase was originally invoked by Chávez at the outset of his presidency as a euphemism for anti-imperialism and opposition to U.S. hegemony. The concept refers to the strengthening of different blocs of nations in order to defend mutual interests, such as OPEC in the case of Venezuela and Ecuador, and UNASUR (grouping all South American nations around common goals), which Correa became the president of shortly after its founding in 2009. The strategy of unity in spite of diversity recalls the Non-Aligned Movement headed by Josip Broz Tito, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Kwame Nkrumah beginning in the early 1960s,
which sought to go beyond ethnic, religious and political differences in order to unite the nations of the South around common objectives and demands.
In essence, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have followed a dual approach of uniting among themselves in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (ALBA) at the same time that they have played active and leading roles in promoting broader continental unity. In this sense, their strategy is comparable to the Cold War foreign policy of the Soviet Union that distinguished between its closest allies, which were committed to Communism, and third-world governments of “national liberation,” which were considered nationalistic and anti-imperialist. Similarly, the presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador define themselves as anti-capitalist and have often clashed with Washington but also act in unison with moderate governments, such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Nevertheless, the initial years of the twenty-first century contrasts with the highly polarized setting of the Cold War and is conducive to a greater degree of autonomy for Latin American nations vis-à-vis the United States (Hershberg, 2010: 241). Thus the “radical” Latin American nations have been able to cement close ties with the “moderates” in contrast with the isolated position of Cuba in the 1960s. Whereas Chávez courts the moderates such as the heads of state of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay (French, 2010: 48-51), Cuba promoted guerrilla warfare throughout the continent and in doing so forfeited the possibility of wining over or neutralizing moderate presidents such as Arturo Frondizi of Argentina (Ellner, 2008: 62).
Latin America was never united during the last century to the degree that it has been over the recent past. In the first place, moderate governments have acted firmly to avoid the destabilization and isolation of the countries run by radicals. The governments of Brazil and Argentina, for instance, helped mediate an end to the acute conflict generated by Morales's “nationalization” of the hydrocarbon industry in 2006, even though their economic interests were at stake. Subsequently, all twelve UNASUR members signed the Moneda Declaration, which deterred possible plans to topple the Morales governments in Bolivia in 2008, and two years later played a similar role in the face of an attempted coup in Ecuador. In the second place, the positions of the “radicals” have been complementary rather than antithetical to those of the “moderates.” Thus, for example, for the first year and a half following the Honduran coup of June 2009, the UNASUR “moderates” and “radicals” blocked the new government's entrance into the Organization of American States. While the “moderates” placed conditions on entrance, the “radicals” questioned the legitimacy of the new government per se (Valero, 2011). Finally, Latin American unity has brought the “radical” and moderate presidents together with centrist ones around common pursuits, such as the creation of UNASUR and its broader based successor, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
The discourse and content of the foreign policy of all three presidents are shaped by the imperatives of globalization (Arditi, 2010: 145-147). They are also free of the goals of absolute self-sufficiency and autarky that characterized Maoism half a century ago. Programs like ALBA and Petrocaribe (which offers Venezuelan oil to Caribbean and Central American nations under special terms) are justified along these lines. Furthermore, globalization pressures have taken the form of constraints that influence international policy, the fiery nationalistic rhetoric of all three presidents notwithstanding. Chávez, for instance, has refrained from defaulting on foreign loan payments or withdrawing from the International Monetary Fund, while Morales has, in the words of the editors of a recent study on the Latin American left, “tried to maintain access to U.S. markets” (Madrid, Hunter and Weyland, 2010: 156-157). The thrust of these strategies, policies and discourse are at odds with the “socialism in one country” thesis defended by the Soviet leadership under Stalin.
Steve Ellner holds a PhD. in Latin American history from the University of New Mexico and his academic interests center on organized labor and political parties in Latin America.
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