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A Chill Wind From the North: the US Returns to Latin America

Old familiar dangers lurk in the corners of Latin America. More than a decade of hope — enshrined in the experiments in Venezuela — now seems extinguished. The “pink tide” of electoral victories from Venezuela to Bolivia and upwards to Nicaragua appears to have receded. The Old Right has rejected the stentorian tones of the military for the mellifluous language of anti-corruption. Venezuela’s Bolivarians — the current face of its Left — lost the parliamentary elections, while Bolivia’s Evo Morales failed to amend the constitution to give him a fourth presidential term. Argentina’s electorate rejected the Peronist Left in favour of the Banker’s Right, while Brazil’s government of Dilma Rousseff suffers from the outright hostility of the media conglomerates and the conservative establishment.

Bleakness does not define the continent. In Peru, Verónika Mendoza of the Broad Front did credibly in the first round of the presidential contest, while in Colombia the Revolutionary Armed Forces prepare to sign a peace agreement and bring their politics to the ballot box. Institutions set up during the high point of the “pink tide”, such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (a regional trade platform), teleSUR (a regional media network), as well as various energy alliances (such as Petrocaribe and Petrosur), remain alive and reasonably well. New political currents and these institutional alignments suggest that the “pink tide” is not going to be easy to dismiss. It has established itself in the imagination of the people of Latin America and through the institutions set up over a decade ago.

Iraq distracts America

When Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Mr. Morales of Bolivia set in motion the Bolivarian alliance in 2004, the United States had its eyes on Iraq. The Global War on Terror, which now falsely included Iraq as a battlefield, absorbed the administration of President George W. Bush. An attempted coup against Chavez’s government in 2002 had failed as a result of the popular outpouring of support for the Venezuelan government. Latin America’s Left took advantage of this opening — as well as high commodity prices and demand from China — to build an alternative platform, which they called Bolivarianism. Named after Simón Bolívar, the liberator of Latin America from Spanish rule, Bolivarianism produced institutions for regional development. Trade within the region denominated in local currencies allowed the regional states to produce a new ethos.

The U.S., which sees Latin America as its backyard, continued to seek opportunities to undermine Bolivarianism. In 2006, U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield developed a strategy for “dividing chavismo” (the followers of Chavez) and “isolating Chavez internationally”. Plots and schemes appear in the U.S. State Department cables, with the ambassadors offering their own plans to destabilise governments loyal to the Bolivarian process. Nothing much came of it in the Bush years. South America’s economy enjoyed China’s voracious appetite for high-priced commodities whose profits allowed the countries to build up social welfare schemes to improve the livelihood of their populations.

Obama goes South

The financial crisis of 2007-08 dented China’s economy and saw the slow deterioration of commodity prices. It took a few years for the economic impact to strike Latin America with ferocity. A sharp tumble in oil prices in the summer of 2008 put the brakes on many of the social programmes that had become essential to the Bolivarian dynamic. It signalled the weakness in the experiment against Western domination.

President Barack Obama’s administration focussed intently on Latin America. Opportunity struck with the 2009 coup in Honduras against the Left-wing government of Manuel Zelaya. Mr. Obama recognised the new military-backed government. It opened the door to a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis Latin American states. The presidency of Peru’s Ollanta Humala (2011) and the second presidency of Chile’s Michelle Bachelet (2014) — both ostensibly of the Left — hastily drew in cabinet members vetted by the bankers and made their peace with the hegemony of the U.S. Chávez’s death in 2012 meant that the Bolivarians lost their most charismatic champion. The impact of the Honduran coup and Chávez’s death had made itself felt along the spine of Latin America. The U.S., it was being said, is back.

The entrenched old elite

Governments of the Left in Latin America relied upon the export of expensive commodities. The money earned from these sales provided the governments of the region the funds for essential social welfare programmes. Brazil, for instance, aggressively went after hunger and despair via its Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) and Bolsa Família (Family Allowance) schemes. What the governments could not do was to undermine the power of the old elites over the economy and build a new foundation for production in the region. When the funds dried up, the social welfare schemes suffered. Few alternative sources of revenue remained. Turning to the international financial markets put these countries in a situation of dependency which has its own political impact.

Old elites of Latin America maintained their authority throughout the period of the Leftist ascendancy. They are closely linked to the military and to U.S. embassies. U.S. State Department cables — released by WikiLeaks — provide a window into the intrigue inside the embassies. In Bolivia, a U.S. diplomat met with opposition strategist Javier Flores and opposition leader Branko Marinkovic, both of whom talked about blowing up gas lines and engineering violence to destabilise the government of Mr. Morales. To help the Right-wing opposition in Nicaragua, the U.S. embassy hoped to encourage “funds to flow in the right direction”. These conspiracies built up the confidence of the elites and their associates. They waited to strike.

Descent into violence

Economic weakness provided the opportunity. Across the continent, from Chile to Brazil, news reports began to appear of corruption in the cabinets of the governments. None of these media houses had previously taken an interest in corruption, nor did they emphasise the stories of corruption among the old elite or their favoured political parties. It was the Workers’ Party in Brazil and the Socialist Party of Chile that felt the warm breath of hypocrisy. Brazil and Venezuela’s well heeled took to the streets, bringing along with them their associated classes. The elements of a Latin American Spring came together. It was left to the U.S. State Department to name this “Revolution” — would it be the Tango Revolution or the Bossa Nova Revolution?

Dangerous violence against leaders at the local level became commonplace. In Venezuela, in one week of last month, three leaders were shot in cold blood — Mayor Marco Tulio Carrillo of La Ceiba, Deputy César Vera of Tachira Legislative Council and Fritz St. Louis of the Great Patriotic Pole party. Next door, in Brazil, a week later, two activists of the Rural Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) — Leomar Bhorbak and Vilmar Bordim — were killed in an ambush, while the president of the Mogeiro branch of the Workers’ Party, Ivanildo Francisco Da Silva, was killed in his home. These are names that join those on a long roster of Left-wing local activists who are being killed in sequence. Intimidation of activists is the goal.

No wonder, then, that veteran Leftist leader and National Senator Lucía Topolansky of Uruguay’s Broad Front warns of “a destablising operation” underway in Latin America. “Our countries have lived through very dark years of dictatorship, followed by the neo-liberal wave which also hurt people a lot,” she says. Senator Topolansky notes, “Now that democratic processes are beginning to consolidate, a destabilising wave appears.” Left leaders and activists from Mexico to Chile share this sentiment. They feel the chill wind from the North conjoined with the ambitions of their old elites.

Pockets of Leftist resilience remain intact. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, El Salvador’s Salvador Sánchez Cerén and of course Mr. Morales of Bolivia run governments that struggle to maintain a progressive agenda. The atmosphere is against them, but there appears to be fight left in their administrations.

MST leader Joäo Pedro Stédile suggests that the progressive forces across Latin America will not be weakened by the defeats of their governments or by the aggression of the old elites. Confidence in mass struggles remains high. That was illustrated when MST and other Left forces took to the streets to defend the government led by Dilma Rousseff. The old elites fail to recognise the consolidation of mass movements such as the MST, that cannot be broken as easily as a government can be overthrown. There is no stomach in Latin America — even among the old elite — for violence against the mass movements. They will have to live with it. Which means that they will not be able to capture society in the same way as they might capture the presidential palace.

This column originally appeared in The Hindu.

More articles by:

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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