The rise of the new left in Latin America


Ishan Cader talks to Dr.Jeffery Webber, Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London about how and why the neo- liberal regimes in ‘the US’s back yard’ were ousted by left and centre-left governments in Latin America.

Jeffery Webber:  If you go back in history to the early 1990s, the Latin American left had reached its nadir, its lowest point in the 20th century, and there are a number of reasons for this. These are important if we going to try and understand how the left re-articulated its project, and should be of interest to those trying to re-articulate left projects in Europe and North America.

Back in the early 1990s you have a situation where physically much of the organizational bases of the traditional Latin American left had been destroyed by military power. So if you look in the Southern Cone (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile), you have a period between the 1960s and mid-80s of brutal authoritarian assaults on labour unions, peasant associations, left parties, human rights organisations and their family members.

To take one example, in Argentina between 1976 and 1983, the bureaucratic authoritarian regime eliminates 30,000 organized activists. As you might expect, it takes generations to re-organize these bases even after electoral  democracy has re-emerged. In Central America there is a similar example of physical annihilation of huge layers of the organized left, mostly through counter-insurgency targeting of guerrilla organizations. In Guatemala and El Salvador, major guerrilla forces with a mass base are fighting stalemates with right wing authoritarian regimes; in Nicaragua there is the successful Sandinista revolution that lasts from 1979 all the way until the 1990s. During the 1980s under Ronald Reagan’s  support in the US, there is a counter-insurgent project to eliminate the entire wave of those forces. It was very successful seen from their own perspective; in Guatemala, there are 200,000 dead in just two years in the early 1980s. So there is a physical annihilation in much of Central and South America of the old forces of organization, and that was a very important and very poorly understood initiator for neo-liberalism. Neo-liberal re-structuring could not have unfolded in the 1980s and 1990s without the preliminary assault on those forces that might have been able to in at least a defensive way slow those measures.

Ideologically there is a situation where the Soviet Union and its client states are collapsing. Even for those sections of the left- and there were many of them Latin America- which never saw the Soviet Union as some kind of paradise, it was ideologically confusing for the one counter-weight to fall. And it had immediate material impacts for sections of the left. The Cuban revolution enters in a crisis right away- the so-called special period of the early 1990s- when their entire sugar quota ends with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Nicaraguan revolution comes to an end in 1990 through elections after a decade of counter-insurgency and civil war. So ideologically it becomes difficult to even talk about a socialist alternative without sounding naive and romantic.

Apart from the physical annihilation and ideological collapse of the far left, the centre left (social democrats, etc) start to move dramatically to the right during the 80s and 90s, almost uniformly. Therefore the organized social-movement left starts retreating into localised projects and community defence without any real sense of political projection to contesting power at the national or regional level. So the 80s and 90s was a real period of neo-liberal hegemony and quintessentially uncontested neo-liberal advance. There are exceptions that are essentially defensive, however heroic. In 1989 there is the Carracasco, famous riots in Venezuela against austerity measures. There is the more internationally famous Zapatista rebellion in southern Mexico in the state of Chiapas. And probably most successfully, but lesser known, is the landless workers movement in Brazil. But even the most successful movements of the 1990s are engaging in basically defensive struggles, and the rest of the tide is towards right wing governments at a state level, imperial triumphalism on the part of the US because the Soviet Union is out of the picture.

So you see the in formalisation of the urban world of work, the dispossession of peasants, increasing levels of poverty and inequality, attacks on what had existed of a welfare state. All of this with the promise that neo-liberal ideology offered, which said that ‘we are not offering you equality because equality is a hindrance on growth;  but we are offering a sense in which with the short term pain of austerity, trade liberalization, financialisation and so on, you are going to see the private sector replace the exiting public sector and create aggregate levels of growth that allow for a movement out of poverty of hundreds of millions.

It was about a 20-year experiment that transpired, and there is basically no region of the world that you see that is as close to an orthodox experimentation with the Washington consensus than Latin America.  At the end of that, South America enters into its worst recession since the 1980s debt crisis. In 1998 and 2002, financial crises that were happening elsewhere in the world (East Asia in 1997, Russia in 1998) reverberate back into South America; 1999 in Brazil, and then explodes in a major way in Argentina in 2001.

What this meant in aggregate terms in South America is you have a situation where negative growth rates, increases in aggregate levels of poverty and inequality in those four years, on top of 20 years of regression; what is offered as an exit to the crisis is an acceleration of neo-liberalism. Their argument was that although we have rhetorically committed to it, because of political obstacles, we haven’t been able to carry it through. But this time it didn’t pay off, and you start to see the emergence of an extra-parliamentary and later a parliamentary left in South America, and seeping into parts of Central America.

Ishaan Cader:  What about the ‘Pink Revolutions’ and the Washington Consensus….

JW: There is a mixed story here. Firstly, any policies that we talk about in these countries need to be understood in their relationship to the world market at the time. The major determining factor is that at the end of the recession in 2002, there is a turnaround that is quite dramatic in South America, that actually begins before the ascension to office of most left wing or centre-left parties.  It is driven by the re-dynamism of the zone of accumulation in China, which sparks a tremendous demand for the basic commodities in South America in particular. This means an acceleration of the price of virtually every commodity that South America focuses on. In Venezuela, the price of oil starts picking up dramatically (not exclusively because of China, but also because of a re-articulation of OPEC which had previously been quite inactive. Chavez was quite important in rejuvenating OPEC). It also meant that the basic pace of growth in the world driven by China was improving in the period between 2003 and 2008. So oil in the case of Venezuela, natural gas in the case of Bolivia, mono-cultural agro-industrial exports in the case of Argentina and Brazil, and mining minerals in the case of Peru and Chile. There is a relative de-industrialization in places like Brazil which was moving towards capital intensive farming.

It was important that governments describing themselves in different ways- centre left, or left in the cases of Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia,- were elected on those projects because their biggest achievement, I would say, was in the realm of re-production or consumption (as separate from production).  If you look at basic social welfare initiatives- education, anti-poverty, healthcare- there is a re-distribution of the rents they are taking in, i.e., the revenue that the state was able to capture from the increase in commodity activity, the increase in trade, and the re-orientation of trade towards East Asia, there is a relatively higher rate of re-distribution of these resources towards the populace, with quite important effects,  in terms of reducing poverty levels (better in some countries and less dramatic in others). In Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela you see improvements, contingent upon commodity prices.

And this is where it become quite complicated, because if you look at the history of Latin America, basing an emancipatory future on the consistency of commodity prices has never been a safe bet. The other thing to think about in the case of Bolivia that shows what in appearance is quite a radical measure, I would argue is actually substantively quite less radical in terms of policy than its appearance would suggest. And that is the so-called nationalization of natural gas in 2006. It was the biggest promise that the Morales government made; it was one of the biggest demands of the movements. But basically what you see is not a nationalization in the sense that it is historically understood – as some kind of expropriation of private wealth (investments by multinational corporations, etc)- but rather an extended re-negotiation of royalty rates and taxes. So what you saw is a movement from a very low taxation rate (one of the lowest in the world) to one that’s about average. But that quite modest measure had extraordinary repercussions for state revenue because it corresponded with a  major uptake in the price of international gas. There would have been an uptake anyway of revenue for the state, but this was accelerated because of the quite modest increase in taxes, which allowed for real social gains.

To what extent this is a break from the Washington consensus depends on how you define the Washington consensus.  If it is a set of policies, then there has just been a set of different policies in the contemporary period. My own reading is that there are deeper continuities than that would suggest. If you read the Washington consensus as a class project for the restoration of capitalist class power, then the capitalist class is far from being expropriated; it hasn’t even had its taxes increased, in the case of Bolivia and Ecuador. In the realm of production, production is orientated towards profit, still controlled by multinational capital both in Ecuador and Bolivia.

IC: Looking specifically at Bolivia, what led to the rise of Evo Morales in Bolivia

JW: In many popular accounts in the media, particularly in the Anglophone sphere of media  production, the history of the new left in Bolivia begins with the election of Morales in 2006.    Without the preceding history there is no way to understand how Morales came to office. To take quite a complicated story and make it as short as possible, you have a period between 1985 and 2000 in Bolivia, where a part from perhaps Chile under Pinochet, you have the most orthodox example of neo-liberal restructuring anywhere in the world. Jeffrey Sachs, the Harvard economics and IMF official- this was one of his first, before Poland, before the collapsing Soviet Union, destroying people’s lives- went to Bolivia, where he helped to write the structural adjustment programme of 1985.

The first assault was on the miners, who had to be defeated in the case of Bolivia. To bring into a context that some listeners might understand better, if Ronald Reagan had to defeat the air traffic controllers, and if Thatcher had to defeat the miners, this was the Bolivian moment. The Tin miners had been the leading force on the Bolivian left since the 1930s. They privatised the entire industry and destroyed the bases of that left. The traditional forms of class struggle and left political projects that emerge out of that, were historically transformed. This had tremendous affects, because what it meant was for the next 15 years it was smooth sailing for the right wing coalitions that were in power. And the principle source of resistance in a defensive way in that period was the fairly bizarre phenomenon of a re-peasantization process of a particular kind.

You see ex-miners doing what they should according to neo-liberal ideas, responding to their comparative advantage- producing cheaply what can be sold for the highest price in the international market. That happened to be cocaine in the case of Bolivia. And the coca growing regions in the department of Cochabamba is where many people who were unemployed started to re-peasantise. Small holding peasants have not historically been the source of revolutionary resistance (with some exceptions). In this case their livelihoods depended on an illegal crop- illegal when produced for cocaine. This coca was being grown for international distribution, and at the lowest end of the cocaine commodity chain, with most of the high end value added taking place in Colombia. It was the best option for livelihood and was being attacked at the same time by the drug enforcement agency with the revival of the so-called ‘War on Drugs.’ The militarization of this zone developed a strong anti-imperialist ideology among the coca-grower movement. It developed trade union structures and brought together both indigenous traditions of struggle inside the pre-existent peasantry together with Trotskyist and anarcho-syndicalists from the movement of ex-miners who had been re-peasantized. It is in precisely this milieu that Evo Morales is politicized.

Out of the ‘Cocaleros’ they form the MAS party in the late 1990s, and at the beginning this is a party that engages in elections for propagandistic  reasons, but there is no sense where they are thinking they are going to win the presidential election. Its mostly municipal elections, which they sweep in the coca growing regions. That was the main struggle in the 1990s. But in 2000 things really shift once more, with the privatization of water in the city of Cochabamba; a world bank driven project, and at a presidential level, Hugo Banzer, a former dictator was in office. There was a terrible right wing mayor inside of the city of Cochabamba. This is all in the generalized context of the recession I talked about earlier.

The privatisation of water meant some fairly dramatic things for people- very immediate basic grievances of two kinds for the urban popular poor. For some who had title to land, it meant a dramatic hike in the water tariffs they had to pay, such that they couldn’t pay them and meant choosing between water and food.  For those on the periphery, who had no access to the municipal water, had out of their own self-organisation built their own wells. But technically it fell within the concession that was awarded to Bector, the corporation without a competitor that won the bid (which is against the Bolivian constitution). Becto assumes control; the wells that the people had dug themselves were now the property of Becto, and taxed to access their own water. There was a grievance based on territorial-communal aspects of reproduction. But it connected all of the working class communities of Cochabamba and it was a particular federation of workers grasping the importance of this, under the leadership of a shoe-maker, Oscar Olivera. They saw what was happening to all of the working class and orientated outwards to defend the class as a whole, and opened up their offices in the central plaza to anyone who had problems.

It was out of this organic relationship with all kinds of layers of the working class that became the central focus of the coordinera; what became a week long insurrection that took over the city of Cochabamba and reversed the privatization of water. What happens out of this is that the Cochabamba victory quickly turned into a politicization that starts to extend demands.  And this was the first victory in 15 years of any kind. The coorderina become a model of how they could organise in this period. Over the next five years throughout different parts of the country you see reverberations of similar kinds of struggle starting to emerge, both rural over issues of land privatisation, and also in the cities. There are basically constant battles going on  in the Western part of the country but it reaches a crescendo in 2003-05 in what are called the ‘gas wars’

This is where you see how, over a five year cycle, a defensive struggle over water has become a battle over the social control and nationalization of the central source of foreign exchange in the economy; the control over natural gas. Deposits were found by the public state owned company in the mid-90s, and almost immediately privatized. In other words a major gift of already found materials to multinational companies who just had to sink their wells.

The mobilisation then shifts to the capital La Paz, and very importantly its proletarian suburb, a shantytown called El Alto (formerly a separate city but now a contiguous urban area). In Bolivia as a whole ,62% of the population self-identifies as indigenous, unique in a Latin American context (one of only two countries where indigenous people survive the Spanish conquest in a majoritarian position). In El Alto, there are 82% self-identifying as indigenous, and around 92-97% proletarian population (people whose labour is commodified in various ways, and who don’t live off the labour of others). So you have a working class indigenous community that has become a cauldron of all the best organisational traditions of recently dispossessed people, that have just landed there in a very new context- ex-miners, dispossessed Aymara peasants from the Western Andes, and so on.

They form the Federation of Neighbourhood Councils which becomes the principle urban force for pushing forward the gas wars of 2003-05. They do this in co-ordination with formal sector unions, e.g., still existing miners unions, public sector unions. It is a major co-ordinated effort, and they bring in 2003 the major part of the western country to a halt. To give you a sense of what this was like: La Paz exists in a very peculiar geographical arrangement in which there used to be in very ancient times a lake in the mountain. The lake is no longer there, but a very deep valley. And so all of the housing runs up the sides of the valley. And then on the top, on what is called the Altiplano, or higher plateau, there is suddenly a barren terrain at 4,100 metres, where the shanty town is.  The shanty town is up there because it is freezing, there is no wind protection, it is not a desirable place to live. From there to southern La Paz is almost 10 degrees Celsius difference.  So you have a proletarian population that comes down and works in the city.

This wasn’t a strategically good location historically, nor is it in the contemporary period, to host your ruling class. There are very few exits from the valley. The highway going through El Alto controls the circulation of commodities to Peru, Chile, Argentina and so on. This is important because although we are not talking about a struggle at the point of production in the case of El Alto, you could shut down major flows of the economy by road blockades. At a psychological level for the ruling class inside La Paz, it mobilised their most deeply felt racial fears of indigenous insurrection. On the lips of both the white and mestizo mixed race ruling class in southern La Paz, who live like its a little Manhattan, and the indigenous proletarian classes was Tupac Katari, who in the same capital, in 1781, shut down, in the biggest revolt against the Spanish colonizers, that same capital for three weeks, starving them out.

So in 2003-05, they overthrow and takeover and shut down the capital. They set the stage for the removal of two neo-liberal presidents; Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003 and Carlos Mesa 14 months later. They set a situation where a vacuum of power is opened up and in my reading this had little to do with the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party and Evo Morales. In terms of the organisation of these revolts they were much behind in terms of the demands, and always a multi-class, moderating force seeking constitutional exits to what may have been pre-revolutionary situations.  But nonetheless, the great virtue of the movements was their ability to self-organise and mobilise as hundreds of thousands, on a sustained, remarkable basis. Their weakness was no political formation that expressed the same kinds of demands they were  generating organically from their associations- unions, neighbourhood assemblies and so on- that could deal with the question of power once they had opened up the vacuum. So they had the ability to take down presidents, but what to do was not something they had been able to organise around. And so the one force that was around, that did have a cabinet ready to be put in place, and assume elections at the time, and had some association with the left on a multi-regional basis, crossing different indigenous nationalities- the only force in that situation was the Movement towards Socialism party and Evo Morales. He was Aymara, but lived in the Quechua speaking zone for most of his life; had links to different sections in a way that no other political leader did. And it was that reason, at that moment, that the MAS party was first able to negotiate with the outgoing elite and say: [if you don’t negotiate with us, we are going to let these people do whatever they want, which will turn out to be nasty for you. If you negotiate with us, we can channel some of the support into early elections]. So elections that were planned for 2007 were moved to 2005.

In those elections, there are many mixed feelings amongst the most radical sectors. There is a situation where you have caused those elections, and threw out the outgoing president; those are your actions. And you are electing for the first time in republican history since independence in 1825 a majoritarian situation where an indigenous person is going to be elected. So in race relations, it is a similar dynamic to Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election in South Africa. But unfortunately the similarities don’t end there, in the way which once Morales is in office, he separates the struggles that had been combined; a struggle for an end to class exploitation rooted in imperialism and the specific phase of capitalism they were living through- neo-liberalism, with demands for indigenous liberation and decolonization of the state and race relations in the country.  Anytime you talk about capitalism or neo-liberalism in Bolivia, you need to understand how it is quintessentially racialised in its form. The way in which people experience class exploitation and racial oppression are very intimately intertwined. So it is not surprising that there was a combined liberation struggle that is really impossible to imagine that you can achieve one without the other. But nonetheless, the Morales promise is precisely that: a cultural-democratic revolution, or the vice-president has called Andean-Amazonian capitalism, a capitalism that is apparently nice to indigenous people. This means they can express their languages, and more indigenous people in the congress. These are very important historic achievements that aren’t the product of the benevolence of the people in office. But that is separate in very open ways to a transformative project to end division on the basis of class. And so the project becomes the creation of an indigenous bourgeoisie and that is seen to be somehow a liberatory process. And this very different from the notions of the movements initially transpired to.

IC:  What is the future of the Bolivarian Alliance/ALBA….

It begins as an important but fairly modest project. The idea is floated in a very preliminary form by Chavez at the Quebec Free Trade Summit in Quebec City. Inside, Hugo Chavez was the only leader who spoke against the initiative being advanced by the US for the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The idea of the Free Trade Area of the Americas was that we would have- on the operative model of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which had already integrated Canada, the United States and Mexico- a free trade area that would run from Canada down to Argentina.

The entire idea, as with NAFTA, had very little to do with free trade, and everything to do with the concretization of investment rights of principally US and Canadian capital. Chavez was opposed to this, but it was only by 2004 that you see the formalization of what came to be known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of America (ALBA).  It initially just involved a few countries; principally Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela. A part of ALBA was called the People’s Trade Agreement between these three countries.  The idea was to trade not on the basis of exchange value or market exchange, but on the basis of solidarity and principles of moving towards an egalitarian South American unity, beginning with these three countries. What it meant in practice given the three countries operating within it- one very rich country by oil wealth, Venezuela, the poorest country in South America, Bolivia, and Cuba also a relatively poor country but with some extraordinary things to add to the equation, principally its health industry, the best healthcare system in Latin America or the Caribbean.

As an example of the arrangements, you had Venezuelan oil money financing Cuban doctors to go and serve in the poorest rural areas, not just as a charity function, but to train people to reproduce it once they lift. Students in Bolivia can go to Cuba to study to be doctors for free provided that once they return, they spend five years of their practice going to wherever they are told to go (which means the least attractive places in the country). That’s a basic example of the sorts of mechanisms that they were attempting to do.

Petrocaribe was another one. The poorest countries of the Caribbean entered into an alliance which was a part of ALBA, and received subsidized oil from Venezuela often for payment in kind, i.e., whatever their exports were. Oil was even provided for poor people in the Bronx, though this was more an act of political solidarity. There were other major long term aims. Establishing Bancosur, establishing a unity currency, the Sucre: these are basically what has not transpired. They have been theorized and discussed, but not moving towards that. A part of the reason is that you basically have a competition between what I take to be Brazilian sub-imperial power inside of South America as one project, and Venezuela led alliances as another. The argument against what I said is that Venezuela and Brazil frequently act in unison, when it is in their interests. This isn’t that surprising; effectively what Brazil is attempting to do is sometimes act in correspondence with US imperial aims when its necessary and when its possible to assert itself independently. And it wants to assert itself very differently from how Venezuela did through its ALBA initiatives.

So what we’ve seen is that in fact the most important regional integration project is not ALBA (though its the most promising one as a transitional form to be supported by the left), but the Unity of South American Nations (UnaSur), which is led by Brazil and has integrated all the countries of South America, including Colombia under Manuel Santos, Sebastien Pinera of the right in Chile. It operates at a geopolitical level by making some important stands, but not always for principled reasons. UnaSur has for example in the recent Venezuelan elections, which the United States refused to recognise, immediately declared it to be a legitimate process. The fact that the US is losing client states is an important fact.


Dr. Jeffery Webber is a Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University, London. His research specialities include Latin American Political Economy, Development Theory and Social Movements. His 2012 book, ‘Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggle in Modern Bolivia,’ explored the role of indigenous social movements in Bolivia and the rise of the Evo Morales government.”

Photograph of Evo Morales by Joel Alvarez