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Neoliberalism’s Latin American Struggle

“For example, when we say that the Chilean state should become a true guarantor of material rights, that is certainly antithetical to the neoliberal capitalist vision which turns rights into a business to be regulated by the market,” — Camila Vallejo (former Chilean student protest leader) interview by Zoltán Glück at CUNY Graduate Center, Oct. 15, 2012.

Neoliberalism has been an “occupying force in Latin America” for over three decades while it has stripped the nation/state(s) of the functionality of a social contract, pushed through wholesale privatization of public enterprises, and expropriated the people’s rights to formal employment, health, and education, all of which are crowning glories for “free-market determinism.”

Throughout Latin America (as well as around the world), neoliberalism’s motif consists of assault on the state, in favor of the market, on politics, in favor of economics, and on political parties, in favor of corporations. Singularly, neoliberalism brings in its wake a “corporate state.”

Henceforth, the corporate state, shaped and formed by neoliberal principles, pushes the social contract backwards in time to the age of feudalism, a socio-economic pyramid with all of the wealth and influence at the pinnacle, but, over time, like an anvil balanced on balsa wood.

Albeit, the Left, with renewed vigor, has pushed back against neoliberalism’s robbing the poor to enrich the rich. And, there are clear signals that this pushback has gained traction throughout Latin America.

The harsh social consequence of neoliberalism’s free-market economics propels social movements in Latin America into the forefront of resistance. These social movements, including the Zapatistas (Chiapas, Mexico), the Landless Peasant Movement (“MST”) in Brazil, the indigenous movements of Bolivia and Ecuador, and the Piqueteros or Unemployed Workers’ Activists in Argentina, and the students in Chile constitute some of the more prominent groups in opposition to neoliberalism’s tendency for subjugating the people, similar to a plantation economy like the American South, circa 19th century, whereby “slaves” are reclassified as “workers.” It’s worked for decades.

In that regard, as much as neoliberalism started (1970s) in Chile at the behest of Milton Friedman, its comeuppance is now coming to a head, as the legacy of the Latin American Left revitalizes throughout the continent.

People protesting in the streets understand the principle “to democratize means to de-marketize, to recuperate for the terrain of people’s rights that which neoliberalism has delivered into the hands of the market,” Emir Sader, The Weakest Link? Neoliberalism in Latin America, New Left Review 52, July-August 2008.

“Latin America is seeing its biggest wave of protests in years,” Sara Schaefer Munoz, Protest Wave Poses Test for Latin American Leaders, The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 9, 2013. Tens of thousands hit the streets in Brazil, Mexico, Columbia, and Chile where, across the board, they demand the return of some alikeness of a viable social contract.

The Free Market Battles The People

In strong opposition to interference with neoliberalism, as stated in the Wall Street Journal: “There is always the temptation [for governments] to spend, to improve roads or give credit to small producers,’ said Alejandro Grisanti, an economist with Barclays PLC, ‘But if the market smells even a little fiscal relaxation, it will be a negative.”

Thus, the battle lines between neoliberalism and a social contract are embedded within the dictates of the “free market,” which, if it “smells” a little fiscal relaxation, negative consequences will hit the country via Wall Street and the City, the worldwide “epicenters for free-market discipline,” chastising the perpetrators.

Thus and so, the battle lines are clear, Markets on one side, people on the other. The markets control the press, the banks, the military, the educational establishment, the media, the communications, and the police. The People control protests. The war continues in the streets.

As it happens, the Western press does not follow it in any detail, but hidden wars have been ongoing throughout Latin America for years.

Chiapas, Mexico, “The Zapatistas form the most important resistance movement of the last two decades,” Chris Hedges, We All Must Become Zapatistas, Truthdig, June 1, 2014: “They understood that corporate capitalism had launched a war against us. They showed us how to fight back. The Zapatistas began by using violence, but they soon abandoned it for the slow, laborious work of building 32 autonomous, self-governing municipalities.”

In Bolivia, the Cochabamba Water War of 2000 erupted in protest of privatization of the city’s municipal water supply accompanied by blatant increases in water bills. Coordinadora in Defense of Water and Life, a community coalition of citizens of Cochabamba, activated tens of thousands protesting in the streets. This massive public pressure caused the city to reverse the water privatization.

Brazil’s landless peasant movement (“MST”), 2,000,000 strong, commenced three decades ago, campaigning across the country to change a semi-feudal situation in which, they claim, less than 3% of the population owns two-thirds of the land and more than half the farmland lies idle, while millions of rural workers lack employment. Government forces have killed fifteen hundred (1,500) land reform activists. This hidden war continues to this day, as their struggle is carried out in the remote hinterlands.

Institutionally, the past decade has resulted in a pronounced shift away from pro-market forces, as repudiation of pro-market policies i.e., the Washington Consensus, is the raison d’etre of opposition candidates. By 2010, “… roughly 330 million people – or two thirds of Latin America’s total population — living in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Venezuela were governed by the left at the national level,” Gustavo A. Flores-Macias, After Neoliberalism? The Left and Economic Reforms in Latin America, Oxford University Press, 2012.

“It’s not hard to understand why: Economics. Few want to go back to the disastrous neoliberalism of the 1980s and 1990s,” Greg Grandin, Why the Left Continues to Win in Latin America, The Nation, October 27, 2014, “The inability of the right to pull together a coalition and articulate a larger vision shows the depths to which the Cold War in Latin America served as something like a five-decade-long voter-preference-suppression project. Washington-led and financed anti-communism united the right’s various branches. Without such an organizing principle the right can’t electorally compete, at least for now, with what voters, all things considered, want: economic justice, a dignified life, peace and social welfare.”

The Twilight of Neoliberalism

“There is no alternative [to free market policies],” the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once (1980s) pronounced, but across Latin America, there has been a steady erosion of support for the free market model.

Wherever Latin American countries have rejected neoliberalism, life is better. “Poverty in Latin America has been reduced substantially in the last three decades. In the late 1980s, nearly half of Latin America’s population lived in poverty. Today the fraction is about a third. This marks important progress, and it has continued in some area nations. However, it is worth noting that between 2002 and 2008, poverty contracted most in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Argentina, countries which had largely abandoned neoliberalism,” Dr. Ronn Pineo, Senior Research Fellow, The Free Market Experiment in Latin America: Assessing Past Policies and the Search for a Pathway Forward, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, April 11, 2013.

Overall income inequality data for Latin America is less positive; however, during the 2000s the Gini coefficient (a measure of economic inequality) improved in seven countries, five of which, Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Paraguay have moved the furthest away from neoliberalism.

In 1970, the richest one percent in the continent earned 363 times more than the poorest one percent. Thirty years later, on the heels of the neoliberal experiment, it’s 417 times.

Mainstream economic publications, like The Economist, claim the continent is well on its way to building middle class societies. Au contraire, the evidence suggest otherwise, as 8 out of 10 new jobs in Latin America are in the “informal sector” where more than half of all Latin American workers slug it out as itinerant retail sales clerks, day laborers and other loosely organized day jobs, slugging it out without regulations or benefits, slugging it out by scratching out a measly day-by-day existence. Proof positive of neoliberalistic policies enfeebling Latin American life.

Furthermore, because the bar is set so low for middle class status in Latin America, it’s in the sewer.

For example, in Chile, which is the darling of neoliberalists: “Mid-level income is very low in Chile. As a result the distance between the lower classes and the middle class is very small. Their precarious economic position makes them susceptible to social decline due to unemployment, illness, or poverty in old age,” Chile’s Middle Class Survives on Shaky Ground, Deutsche Welle, 2014. The middle class is defined as those who make more than $500 per month, which equates to $3.12 per hour.

Throughout Latin America, neoliberalism does not work for society because, by siphoning away funds for the betterment of society to enrichment of the elite, two-thirds of Latin American municipalities do not have the funds to treat their sewage but do dump in rivers, and three-fourths do not check public drinking water, so, little wonder tourists get diarrhea on regular occasion.

Here’s what Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang says about neoliberal policies in Latin America: “Over the last three decades, economists…provided…theoretical justifications for financial deregulation and the unrestrained pursuit of short-term profits… Economics has been worse than irrelevant.  Economics, as it has been practiced in the last three decades, has been positively harmful,” Ibid.

Neoliberalism in Latin America has been a bust, a dud, a fiasco, except for the wealthy for whom it turned into the bonanza of a lifetime. The people know it, and they’re slowly, methodically, assuredly turning left.

What of the rest of the world?

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at

More articles by:

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at

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