South America: The Bolivarians strike back

As 2015 wound down, the left wing Bolivarian “pink tide” in Latin America suffered two serious setbacks. On Oct. 25, in a runoff election, right winger Mauricio Macri won the presidential elections in Argentina by a small margin, ending a 12 year streak of left-center rule under first Nestor Kirchner and then his wife and successor, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Then in Venezuela on December 6, the right wing MUD coalition was victorious in elections for the national legislature, giving it an ability to undo some of the progressive measures that governments run by the Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV) and allies have accomplished since the election of Hugo Chavez as president back in 1998. 

Both are sobering results for the left, which have it reassessing its political tactics and approaches to governing not only in those two countries but in other left-wing governed nations as well.  At the same time, the left is launching a fightback aimed principally at defending the gains made by the working class and poor during the last decade and a half.

The defeat of the left in Argentina was not by a huge margin.  Macri of the CAMBIEMOS coalition beat Daniel Scioli of the leftist Front for Victory, by only 2.6 percentage points, or 681,000 votes out of the approximately 25 million cast.  Moreover, the Front for Victory continues to have a solid majority in the Senate, and Macri has a plurality but not a majority in the lower house.  This will make it difficult for Macri to dismantle Kirchner era programs and policies that have strong popular support.

In Venezuela, the situation is more dire.  Election results showed the right wing MUD (Mesa de Unidad Democratica) coalition winning a bare two thirds majority in the unicameral National Assembly, with a total of 112 seats.  This is a very serious matter for left wing President Nicolas Maduro of the PSUV and his supporters.

With a two thirds majority, the right can do serious damage to the progressive heritage of the Chavez-Maduro governments.  Once the new legislature is sworn in on January 5, it can potentially not only pass its own legislation to undo some of  the social and labor reforms enacted by the PSUV and allies, but also call a constitutional convention, remove officials and begin proceedings to remove President Maduro from power.    

In both Argentina and Venezuela, the right wing victors have moved fast to consolidate their gains and to return their countries to old pro-corporate, neo-liberal economic strategies, while the left has gone into an emergency mobilization mode to block threats to working class gains.  In both countries, the right, during the election campaigns, had downplayed plans to dismantle popular social policies.  But it is hard to see how some of the proposed changes can be brought about without this.

 Macri, who was inaugurated on December 10, immediately implemented a de facto 30 percent currency devaluation and a cut in or elimination of taxes on agricultural goods such as beef, soybeans, d wheat, and other products.  The former led to a quick jump in prices and was seen as detrimental to the working class and other low and middle class sectors while the latter was hailed by big landowners, major supporters of the Argentine right.

Macri’s new cabinet is full of people from major transnational corporations such as Goldman Sachs, Monsanto and General Motors, as well as the International Monetary Fund. A major question is how Macri will deal with the matter of the “vulture funds”, U.S. based hedge funds which have been bedeviling Cristina Kirchner’s government with their demands for full payback on bonds that they acquired for pennies on the dollar when Argentina defaulted in 2001.

Macri says he will restart negotiations with these funds, but it is hard to see how he could accede to their demands without undoing the entire restructuring of Argentine debt which was one of the major achievements of the two Kirchners.  On foreign policy, Macri has tried to marginalize Venezuela within the MERCOSUR trade bloc.

In Venezuela, some in the MUD coalition which, after next week, will dominate the National Assembly has called for an end to the PETROCARIBE system of Venezuelan oil aid to poorer countries in the Caribbean area, and is demanding the freeing of right wing leader and wealthy businessman Leopoldo Lopez, who is serving a prison sentence for his part in violent rioting that killed 43 people in 2014.

How is the left responding?  First, in both countries there is clear recognition that an electoral loss is not just due to someone else’s wickedness, whether it be the wickedness of U.S. imperialism or the local reactionaries.  Especially in Venezuela, strong criticisms and self-criticisms are being made of the performance of both the PSUV and the government in the period leading up to the elections.

The Venezuelan Communist Party, grassroots and labor groups and President Maduro himself have been critical of the failure of the PSUV to maintain its democratic relationships with the mass sectors that have benefited from progressive policies. As well, there are criticisms of policies and management, such as the absurdly generous subsidy on gasoline which encouraged a damaging degree of smuggling across the border to Colombia.  

The Maduro government has been moving quickly to minimize the damage that the new right wing legislative majority can do.  Challenges have been mounted to four of the newly elected legislators on the grounds of electoral irregularities:  Three of them are right wingers and one is a PSUV legislator.

Against the wishes of the right wingers, the Supreme Court has ruled that their swearing in has to be delayed until these challenges are dealt with. If even one of the right wingers is forced into a new election, the right will lose its crucial two thirds majority, at least for a while.

Maduro moved fast to name 12 judges on the Supreme Court to replace the same number whose terms are about to expire.  He handed over control of the television and radio stations that cover legislative deliberations (a la C-Span) to the stations’ employees, and removed control of the mausoleum containing the remains of Hugo Chavez to a private foundation because some  of the MUD leaders had threatened to close it.

Maduro also moved ahead to create a “communal parliament.”  This is a logical extension of the Chavez-Maduro policy of empowering local communal councils at various levels as an integral part of the Venezuelan state. 

In Argentina, protest demonstrations have been growing in response to the moves of Macri toward a return to neo-liberal policies of free trade and foreign domination of the economy that caused such havoc in the past.    Major labor unions, including the very powerful CGT (General Labor Confederation) have hit the street to protest the damage that Macri’s policies have done to their members’ purchasing power and to demand redress.  There are also protests against Macri’s dismantling of government agencies that oversaw the media reform law which has functioned to break up big corporate media monopolies. 

The signs of a possible return to repression are also there: The government is threatening to prosecute Hebe de Bonafini, the 83 year old leaders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group that for decades has protested against the “disappearances” of victims of the bloody 1976-1983 military dictatorship, because of her fiery rhetoric at the demonstrations.  

Photo: Argentine workers protest pro-business, neo-liberal policies. |  Popular Resistance


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.