The Bolivarian crisis: Is Latin America’s “pink tide” receding?

First it was Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran president overthrown in a coup in 2009. Then, three years later, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, the victim of parliamentary maneuvering, found himself out of office. Next to drop was the Guyanese left, which lost at the polls in that country in May 2015. Meanwhile in Buenos Aires in November, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was succeeded by a hard-right regime. Only a few weeks ago, it was Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, ushered out of office in a coup that is still unfolding. And in Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro is struggling to preserve the legacy built by his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Everywhere, it appears that the left-wing leaders of Latin America and the governments they head are under threat.

The program of the left in Latin America, riding high since Chávez’s election to the Venezuelan presidency in 1998, is currently in the midst of a multi-faceted crisis. A glut in global commodities and a resurgent right-wing counteroffensive have come together to create an ominous situation. It is one which now threatens to force the recession of the nearly two-decade-old “pink tide” of left advance in the region.

The collapse in commodity prices has severely impacted many of these countries whose development model has, perforce, depended on selling oil, natural gas, or mining and agricultural products on the world market. Across the region, those left governments which have not already been forced from office find themselves in dire straits. In Venezuela, the heartland of the Bolivarian Revolution, drought and other serious conditions are exacerbating the economic problems already crippling government finances. There, the government has implemented two-day work weeks for public employees just to save electricity and hydropower capacity. Hospitals are short on supplies. Consumers go to the supermarkets only to find bare shelves.

The challenges brought on by the global commodity glut have served to put new wind in the sails of the right wing locally and internationally. They have taken advantage of the resulting difficulties to undermine confidence in the “Bolivarian” or “pink tide” governments of the left across Latin America.

Right-wing political groups have already succeeded in ousting progressive administrations in Argentina and Brazil in recent months and they now have Venezuela’s Maduro in their sights. Street violence is rising, with shocking scenes of right-wing rioters attacking police and government supporters. On March 29, two police officers were killed when rioters hijacked a bus and ran over them at high speed. On May 19, there were more attacks on police by right-wing demonstrators. Meanwhile, the right-wing majority in the National Assembly is working on a recall referendum to remove Maduro from office. Their initial effort to collect signatures for this move was only stalled after it was discovered that a large number of the people who supposedly signed are in fact deceased or otherwise unqualified. Don’t expect the right to give up, though.

At the international level, there are troubling signs of a possible outside intervention. The former president of neighboring Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, an ultra-right winger, has called for foreign intervention in Venezuela. The Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, appears to be ready to call for Venezuela’s rights in that body to be suspended. The new right-wing president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, has jumped on the anti-Venezuela bandwagon, as has Michel Temer, the acting president of Brazil installed in the midst of the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff.

There are reports of comments from U.S. intelligence sources expressing concern that violence may spin out of control in Venezuela, with a “violent military coup” a possibility. Such veiled signals have raised fears in Caracas that a foreign military intervention may be in the offing, and President Maduro has put his military on alert, while protesting against incursions by U.S. military aircraft into Venezuelan airspace.

Clear across the Atlantic, Spain’s right-wing caretaker Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, facing elections on June 26 as well as a slumping economy and credible corruption allegations, is joining in the anti-Venezuela chorus. His purpose is obviously to distract the attention of Spanish voters and create fear about what would happen if the left were to take power in Madrid. 

The right regionally is pushing maximalist anti-worker demands. The strategy of Macri and Temer is to “solve” their countries’ economic problems by returning to the neoliberal policies of the 1980s and 1990s. There is no reason to believe that if the right takes power in Venezuela, it will not follow the same course. Throughout the Chávez and Maduro presidencies, the right has accused the government of wasting oil wealth by using it to finance improvements in the lives of the poor, and by generous deals to help poorer countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

The original neoliberal offensive

But the right, recently restored to power in Argentina and Brazil, is showing on a daily basis that it has absolutely nothing to offer to the mass of the people but a return to the failed policies that caused great suffering to workers, small farmers, and the poor across Latin America and the Caribbean during the last two decades of the twentieth century.

The gains of these neoliberal policies, carried out by dictatorships and right-wing elected regimes all over Latin America (with the exception of Cuba) – at the insistence of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United States, and with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Latin American ruling classes – were few and far between. The negative impacts, however, were much easier to come by.

There were the much-vaunted free trade pacts, starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among Mexico, the United States, and Canada, which came into force in 1994. Such deals greatly favored international monopoly capital and its local associates while worsening the living standards of millions.

Privatization of national resources and government enterprises and agencies, often snapped up at bargain basement prices by a combination of local and transnational corporations, were another key aspect of the agenda during those years. Mexican businessman Carlos Slim Helú, for example, was able to become the richest man in the world overnight by acquiring huge chunks of the Mexican telecom system. The Bechtel Corporation, meanwhile, tried to privatize the water supply in much of Bolivia while jacking up the rates of users.

In almost every case, austerity was employed as a primary focus in the “reforms” forced on desperate publics. Drastic cuts in the “social wage” and sharp declines in the living standards of workers, peasants (small farmers), the retired, and unemployed people were par for the course. This was coupled with extensive programs of deregulation. There were widespread reductions of the restrictions placed on corporations concerning treatment of the working class and the natural environment. Mind-boggling levels of corruption flourished in the wake of such efforts.

The real kicker is that not only did these policies cause a decline in living standards of the masses, they also failed in everything they were supposedly meant to achieve. According to the propaganda of their right-wing backers, these kinds of policies were supposed to jumpstart the economies of the region by attracting more foreign investment. Instead, they led to massive debt crises. The situation became so bad that this period is now known as “the lost decade,” a time of stalled growth and stagnation.

Bolivarianism born out of resistance

Latin American workers and small farmers, joined by indigenous people, Afro-descendants, youth and students, women’s groups, and others rebelled against these measures. The first rebellion, against President Carlos Andrés Pérez of Venezuela in 1989, led to a bloodbath at the hands of security personnel. In Mexico, on the same day that NAFTA came into force – January 1, 1994 – armed indigenous farmers marched into the small city of San Cristóbal de las Casas in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, played the left-wing anthem “The Internationale” over the town loudspeakers, and announced a “Zapatista” rebellion against NAFTA and the Mexican government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

There were rebellions against the privatization of the water supply in Bolivia, especially in the important city of Cochabamba. These “water wars,” which forced the reversal of privatization, led eventually to the election of leftist indigenous leader Evo Morales as president in 2006.

Subsequently, the rebellion against neoliberal “structural adjustment” or “Washington Consensus” policies spread to the entire Latin American region. Left-wing governments were elected to power in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guyana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. The Organization of American States, seen by the Latin American left as an instrument of U.S. imperialism, was radically weakened. The U.S. government’s dream of a “Free Trade Area of the Americas” (FTAA) was destroyed, a fact that has never been forgiven by international monopoly capital or by many U.S. political leaders, who hope now to revive it in an even more glorious form as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.   

Instead of the vertically-organized integration of the Western Hemisphere under U.S. and monopoly capitalist domination, new bodies of democratic collective cooperation, trade, and defense were developed. The pink tide developed its own institutional alternatives, including the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), created as a counterweight to U.S. regional domination via the Organization of American States.

The Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA) grouped together the states with the most left-wing governments: Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, along with a number of small English-speaking Caribbean countries. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) were integrated into a process of horizontal solidarity, in which trade and financing was made available to the poorer countries – not on the basis of neo-liberalism or structural adjustment, but rather on the principle of solidarity.

PETROCARIBE used the oil resources of Venezuela to help the poorer countries in the region to develop their economies with discounted oil sales on easy terms, while plans were set in motion to create BANCOSUR, the Bank of the South, which would help with development projects and serve as a counterweight to the baneful influence of Washington D.C., Wall Street, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. The SUCRE was proposed as an alternative development currency for the area so as to counterbalance the overwhelming dominance of the U.S. dollar in international trade.

There have been great advances in employment, income, social welfare, labor, and people’s rights in all the countries that have taken part in this “Bolivarian dynamic.” In contrast, those major countries which have not been part of the “pink tide” of left-wing state power – Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, Honduras, and others – have done less well, at least from the point of view of workers, the poor, women, and minorities.

In all of those countries, inequality has been increasing, as have threats to personal security from crime, drug dealing, and out-of-control repressive behavior by security forces (though the left-wing governments of Cuba and Venezuela have played a major role in peacemaking in Colombia). The Bolivarian advance, of course, has not ended all international frictions in the area. There are still border disputes between Bolivia and Chile and between Venezuela and Guyana, for example, but these have been kept within peaceful bounds by the Bolivarian mechanisms of integration.    

On the international front, the Bolivarian dynamic was a key factor in persuading the United States to restore diplomatic relations with socialist Cuba. Due to the solidarity of Venezuela and other states not dominated by the United States, Cuba has been able to advance in spite of everything thrown at it. And even U.S. allies in the region, such as Colombia, made it clear that if the United States did not change its Cuba policy, there would be negative consequences for some U.S. objectives in the region.

Brazil, meanwhile, has been a key player in the creation of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) group of emerging economic powerhouses, which are seen as a threat to the domination of world trade by the United States, the European Union, and their allies.

But now it appears the period of forward march may be coming to an end.

The pink tide recedes

Three countries originally part of the “pink tide” have been dragged back into the old hegemonic system. In June of 2009, a military coup supported, at least post-facto, by the United States ousted the left-wing government of Zelaya in Honduras and succeeded in pulling that country out of ALBA. In June of 2012, the left-leaning government of Lugo in Paraguay was ousted by the right by means of parliamentary trickery. In May of 2015, the long-governing left narrowly lost an election in Guyana and was replaced by a right-wing regime which has re-aligned the country with the United States and transnational oil monopolies, exacerbating a century-old existing dispute with neighboring Venezuela. 

In none of these ex-pink tide countries has the triumph of the right improved the situation of the great mass of the people. In Honduras and Paraguay, especially, the advances of the working class, poor, ethnic minorities, women, youth, and LGBT people have been radically set back. But these are relatively small countries in terms of population and economy. With the recent sharp drop in world commodity prices though, the process has now also stalled in the most important nations of the pink tide alternative.

The new government of President Mauricio Macri in Argentina can only be described as hard right. Its economic approach consists of suppressing the Argentine working class and reversing the progress made during the administrations of Presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Having won the November 22, 2015 presidential election by a narrow margin, and in spite of not having a parliamentary majority, Macri appointed a cabinet consisting of people intimately connected with international monopoly capital and proceeded to impose neoliberal free trade, austerity, and privatization measures which have caused great suffering to millions of Argentines. The price of electrical service has jumped more than 300 percent, while the cost of living has been severely impacted by a devaluation of the currency. 

Since Macri took power, over 154,000 workers have been laid off or dismissed. He vetoed a bill passed by the Argentine Congress to stem the layoff extravaganza. On social policy, meanwhile, he has been weakening the previous government’s mechanisms for bringing those responsible for mass murders, torture, and “disappearances” during the military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983 to justice. The Macri government does not shrink, also, from the threat and actual use of repression to deal with protests against its economic and social policies. In response to this, organized labor in Argentina has reached an unprecedented level of unity and determination to fight the neoliberal polies at every turn.

While the Macri government in Argentina is reactionary, the new regime of Interim President Michel Temer in Brazil goes beyond that to be positively grotesque. Temer’s cabinet choices, all white males, range from the troubling to the bizarre. There was the initial appointment of a Minister of Science, Technology, and Communications who is an Evangelical Christian who does not believe in evolution; a Minister of Justice known for violent repression of protest when he was head of security for São Paulo; and numerous people who are under investigation for corruption and other crimes. 

Temer has abolished the Ministries of Minority Affairs and Women’s Affairs, and many on his team are known for their medieval attitudes on the rights of women and LGBT Brazilians. Now there are even moves to weaken Brazil’s anti-slavery laws. In all but name, slavery is still practiced by big landowners in some rural areas. The previous government had been trying to crack down. Temer’s crew, however, are backing away from such efforts.

As in Argentina, the desire of the population to see economic improvements and their worries about corruption are being used by the right wing in power to roll back all the positive achievements of Presidents Lula da Silva and Rousseff. And also as in Argentina, Brazilian organized labor is mobilizing to block Temer’s right-wing onslaught. Afro-Brazilian, indigenous, women’s, youth, LGBT organizations, and the left are in full mobilization mode, but Temer plows on with his reactionary program.

This is what workers in Venezuela can expect if the right-wing forces that now have a majority in the National Assembly manage to oust President Maduro from power. They are not shy about their wish to erase the memory of Hugo Chávez and the programs of his government. The right-wing speaker of the National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, ordered the removal of all portraits of Chávez from their building, saying that the veneration of the late president was a kind of “witchcraft.” This is not a person who is going to seek diplomatic agreements to move forward.

Why now?

Dissatisfaction with the left-wing and left-center governments in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela did not arise because the right wing is admired by the public, but rather because the improvements begun under the left have stalled.

The problems are most severe in Venezuela, where the drop in world oil prices has led to extreme inflation and scarcity of supplies in many sectors of the economy. It is important to understand that, largely, the problems have not arisen in the socialist part of the economies of these countries, but in sectors that are still under the control of private enterprise. In Venezuela, more than 70 percent of economic activity is still private. Food distribution, which is central to the problems of scarcity and inflation, is virtually monopolized by a small number of private companies that have ties to the right-wing opposition, especially the Polar company that controls 40 percent of the market. As one example of economic sabotage, it was discovered earlier this week that up to three million eggs may have been allowed to rot in the warehouse by one company, Ovomar, in an effort to avoid price controls.

Will entrusting power to the right solve this? On the contrary, many on the left in Venezuela and neighboring countries believe a solution is to be found through deepening the revolutionary changes already achieved by further empowering workers in the workplaces and communities, and by fighting against speculation, corruption, and other ills. The Communist Party of Venezuela, strongly allied with Maduro’s government, has called for a people’s takeover of the system of food distribution as a way of fighting against hoarding, scarcity, and price gouging.

On May 13, President Maduro announced a series of drastic emergency measures, and called for factories that have ceased production to be seized by the government and handed over to the workers so that production can be restarted. 

Back to the “lost decade”?

The neoliberals who have already taken over the governments of Honduras, Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, and who are now working hard to overthrow the Bolivarian government of Venezuela, do not have any solutions to offer except those that were tried, and failed, during the “lost decade” of the 1990s.

But do these right-wing politicians, and the class forces – nationally and internationally – that they represent even care about that? Of course not. Their project is not aimed at solving the problems of their respective homelands, but at protecting their own class interests by suppressing working class aspirations and struggles. 

That the right wing in Latin America may revert to the days of the bloody dictatorships such as those of Pinochet in Chile, Videla and his ilk in Argentina, and Banzer in Bolivia should not be seen as an impossibility. There are plenty of politically-motivated murders going on already in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia and even Mexico. While the left has been strong in the region, there is also a powerful and arrogant right, which includes extreme elements that can only be called fascist. 

What will be the attitude of the U.S. government and, even more importantly, the people of the United States as this situation develops? It is no secret that our government and political leaders do not like the “Bolivarian dynamic.” Our government continues to use taxpayer money to fund some of the right-wing opposition parties, especially in Venezuela. The agenda of transnational monopoly capital collides with Bolivarianism over issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is seen as a negative development by unions and other grassroots organizations throughout Central and South America. Corporate-controlled media conglomerates are in full cry for regime change in Venezuela and beyond. The Washington Post rails against Venezuela on an almost daily basis, with clear calls for outside intervention to accomplish regime change.

It behooves working and progressive people in the United States to greatly increase pressure on our political leaders and institutions to demand an end to hostile policies toward pro-people governments in our hemisphere and beyond.

U.S. workers are not made richer or happier when workers abroad are forced into deeper poverty and suffering. If the pink tide falters in Latin America, there is every reason to believe that right-wing reaction will feel emboldened to push its agenda internationally. How long before we too will feel its effects?

Photo: “Tres Amigos,” by alittlefishy. Mural depicting Evo Morales, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chavez. 


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.