Latin American left moves to prevent defeats from becoming disasters

The left in two important Latin American countries, Argentina and Venezuela, is in emergency mobilization mode to prevent recent electoral defeats from turning into disasters for workers, farmers, minorities, youth, women and others who have benefited from reforms under left wing “Bolivarian” governments. 

On Nov. 22, a runoff presidential election in Argentina was won by a right winger, Mauricio Macri, ending a 12 year period of government by two successive presidents from the left wing of the Justicialist (Peronist) Party, Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Then on December 6, in Venezuela’s legislative elections, the right wing opposition managed to gain a massive victory, achieving a two thirds majority in the National Assembly, Venezuela’s parliament. Left wing President Nicolas Maduro of the Venezuelan United Socialist Party remains in power, but the right’s majority is big enough to severely threaten his government and block progressive initiatives. The legislature can now remove government ministers and the vice president, block spending bills and initiate procedures to remove President Maduro from power.

In both Argentina and Venezuela, the left in power had chalked up many solid achievements that favored the interests of workers, poor farmers, women and others.  They had also contributed to the integration of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and threatened to end U.S. hegemony in the region.

For this reason, the ruling oligarchies in Argentina and Venezuela as well as multinational corporations and the governments of the United States and its allies had worked to undermine this “Bolivarian process.”

Argentina, under the Kirchners, had managed to reconstruct its international credit after a painful default in 2001.  Most of the owners of the country’s sovereign debt accepted renegotiated terms, but a small group of hedge funds held out and got a judge in New York to back their demands for payment in full for the original amounts.  Should Argentina agree to that, it would undo the entire debt restructuring effort, as other creditors would be entitled to demand full payment also.  So Cristina Fernandez and her government have fought against these “vulture funds'” demands tooth and nail, with considerable international support, while continuing to build up the social safety net for the working class and poor.   

In Venezuela, the governments of first President Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, and his successor, Nicolas Maduro, had made great advances in labor rights, grassroots democracy, equality and especially the elimination of extreme poverty since Chavez was first elected in 1998.  In 2002, the Venezuelan right, fully abetted by the United States, tried to overthrow Chavez by force, and briefly took him prisoner.  But Chavez was freed and restored to power by a huge mass mobilization, which allowed him to purge the army high command of reactionary officers and proceed with his left wing program. 

Both Argentina and Venezuela, however, got into serious difficulties recently, first because of the worldwide financial crisis which began in the United States in 2008, then by the precipitous decline, to half of its former value, of the worldwide price of oil (Venezuela’s main export product), and more recently because of a scaling back of growth of Chinese industry, which was buying a lot of commodities from these and other countries like them.  Inflation resulted in both Argentina and Venezuela, becoming worryingly high in the latter.  Since Venezuela was using its oil revenue to support expanded social welfare programs (housing, literacy and education, health care) and to import items that it does not produce, scarcity became a major problem. In these circumstances there was a spike in violent crime. Smuggling and black marketeering did real damage in Venezuela:  Unscrupulous people would stock up on government subsidized gasoline and other products, and then sell them at an immense profit, frequently across the border in Colombia.

So, although the left retained, and retains a strong social base among the working class and the poor in both countries, its electoral strength was eroded.  Mistakes were also made as the two left wing governments felt their way through the uncharted territory of trying to move toward socialism in a world dominated by the power of transnational corporate capital and the hegemony of the United States and other powerful capitalist states.

The latest elections have been a wakeup call for major changes in how the left operates.

In both countries, though the opposition campaigned as moderate conservatives, the first statements that opposition leaders have made have a triumphalist, vengeful tone.  In both places, opposition figures are talking about labor flexibilization, meaning the reduction of the rights of workers and their unions.  In Venezuela, one opposition leader threatened a purge of the employees of the state controlled broadcast stations that cover activities of the legislature (in response, president Maduro handed over control of the stations to their workers).  Also, there were opposition calls for closing the mausoleum where the remains of Hugo Chavez are interred (Maduro is transferring control from the government to a foundation). 

In Argentina, Macri will have trouble putting through a radical right program:  The left still has a majority in the Senate, and the right does not have a majority in the Chamber of Deputies.  Plans Macri has announced, such as knuckling under to the holdout hedge funds and imposing austerity on the working class, will run into strong opposition both in the legislature and on the streets.  A sign of what is to come was seen at the ceremony in which Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner stepped down:  A throng of well over a million of her supporters clogged the streets of Buenos Aires.  

In Venezuela, President Maduro called for the emergency mobilization of the social base and the Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV) and its allies. In anticipation of the inauguration of the new legislature in January, Maduro must move fast to protect all the institutions of the Bolivarian revolution including grassroots democracy.  

But for this he also has to reconcile himself with the disaffected grassroots, and really listen to both their grievances and their proposals.  That this is recognized on the left is shown by statements of Maduro’s allies in the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV). PCV General Secretary Oscar Figuera said on December 10 “There has been a big defect in the process of change, which is the lack of an organic space for critical and self-critical evaluation.”

The December 6 vote was 56 percent for the opposition and 41 percent for the Bolivarians with a 74 percent turnout overall, showing that in fact the government had lost the confidence of a considerable sector of its own base. 

Yet the new opposition legislature has not offered any real proposals for dealing with the things that working class Venezuelans were complaining about, except revenge, privatization and austerity.  So there is a chance the left can turn things around by strengthening its ties with the grassroots, but it will be an uphill struggle.

We in the United States will watch the rectification process with fascination but we must remember that our duty is to increase our efforts to prevent the United States government from interfering further and doing more damage.

Photo: Right-winger Mauricio Macri was elected in Argentina, ending a period of government by two successive presidents from the left wing of the Justicialist (Peronist) Party.   |  AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.