Latin America on the Cusp of Revolution

Not long ago pundits eulogized the death of Latin America’s “Pink Tide,” that mixture of revolutionary movements and left-leaning governments that sought the ever-elusive “3rd way” of economic development for Latin America, which ripped the continent out of the once-sturdy hands of U.S. imperialism.

But victory appears to be sprouting from the freshly plowed fields of defeat. There is reason to believe that throughout Latin America the next hemisphere-wide revolution could be happening soon, or has already begun.

As of June 9, it appears that Pedro Castillo will be President of Peru, joining Chile and Colombia among the leading nations pushing Latin America sharply Left, while several other countries appear well on their way. Because of a mostly-shared language and common history of imperialist victimhood, Latin American social movements regularly spill over borders, and the stage is being set for a flood.

From the Ashes 

The nail in the Pink Tide’s coffin was supposedly the 2019 Trump-connected coup against Bolivia’s Evo Morales, but new signs of Leftist life had already emerged.

In late 2018 Mexico elected left-leaning Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who Mexico’s ruling class had attempted to keep out of power for years, going as far as stealing an election in 2006. AMLO was perhaps the one politician that working and poor people trusted, and they responded to his victory by waging a nationwide strike against big employers, resulting in union victories that gave new confidence to the formerly-paralyzed labor movement.

AMLO has passed a variety of social reforms that have kept him popular among Mexico’s poor, and recent elections have solidified his political power in some ways (governorships and city elections), while shrinking in others (Congress). Mexico is the 2nd biggest economy in Latin America, and had been in the hands of the rightwing during the entirety of the Pink Tide, as the regional balance of power shift’s Left Mexico will likely play an increasing role.

In 2019 Argentina’s Pink Tide-era politicians re-took power, with former President Cristina Kirchner now elected as Vice President. Argentina faces a debt crisis on top of an already-sinking economy that has plunged millions into poverty, a tinderbox that Covid made smoldering. These problems cannot be solved by left of center policies. Like neighboring nations Argentina has been especially hit by Covid, putting more political pressure on the government to take deeper action.

Ecuador and Nicaragua erupted in mass protests in 2019, both against IMF-dictated austerity cuts. After the Ecuador protests won their demands, a fresh round of protests ensued in 2020, after the government used the Covid crisis to re-implement the IMF cuts. Protests against austerity have been a traditionally powerful weapon in Latin America; for example, the 1989 Caracazo Uprising in Venezuela, which triggered a string of events that eventually resulted in the election of Hugo Chavez. The death knell of the Pink Tide, Bolivia, soon became a sign of its renewal, when ongoing organizing against the 2019 coup manifested in a 2020 election victory of Evo Morales’ party, Movement Towards Socialism, re-demoralizing the Bolivian rightwing.

This year Covid and austerity-related mass protests began in Paraguay and Guatemala, but the ongoing centerpiece of the new upsurge belongs to Chile, Colombia, and Peru, all which began as mass protests in 2019 and 2020.

On the Revolutionary Road  

Peru’s likely new President, Pedro Castillo, is a socialist in a nation stained by shocking inequality. In 2017 Castillo co-led a national wildcat strike of teachers that contributed to the chain of events leading to his June 6th election victory. But it was the rightwing parliamentary coup in 2020 that resulted in massive protests — in a single week Peru had three different presidents — that laid the popular groundwork for Castillo’s victory, a crisis triggered, in part, by the Covid crisis.

The establishment didn’t see Castillo coming, and after he made it through the 1st round they combined forces and waged a hysterical media campaign against him, predicting economic apocalypse if he won — as if Peru’s poor hadn’t already been living in such an apocalypse for many years.

Castillo ran as a candidate of the Perú Libre political party, an explicitly Marxist organization that identifies with Marx, Lenin, and Peru’s greatest 20th century Marxist writer/organizer, José Carlos Mariátegui. Perú Libre published an impressive radical-reformist platform in 2020 that included huge tax increases on corporate profits, the nationalization of key sectors of the economy for those who resisted, and a rewriting of the Peruvian constitution — a now-common demand of the Latin America Left that has been used to push revolutionary movements forward.

If Castillo is allowed to peacefully take power will he fulfill his promises to Peru’s poor? It’s true that past Peruvian presidents have veered right post-election, but Castillo’s political party, recent history of union activity and real connection to the impoverished rural areas makes it less likely he’ll succumb to the overwhelming pressure of Peru’s corporate elite backed by U.S. imperialism.

The upsurge of emerging Left movements/governments throughout the region will also help buoy the spirits of Perú Libre, which has suddenly leaped into a vanguard position of the Latin American social movements. How far Castillo goes depends on several factors, though if the establishment cannot immediately tame him, they’ll soon be working with Biden’s state department on how to get rid of him — a solution that has certainly already been discussed at length.

In reality Castillo has few choices if he is to remotely fulfill the expectations of the working and poor people who voted for him — and their expectations rose dramatically with his victory. Castillo’s options are limited because much of the wealth of the nation is in the hands of a small number of giant corporations and their wealthy owners, while the nation’s health and education sectors were destroyed by neoliberal reforms, a key factor that allowed the Covid crisis to evolve into a Peruvian catastrophe.

When it comes to economic growth, Peru and Chile had been the region’s neoliberal “economic miracles” in recent years. But Covid burst the investment bubble and exposed the capitalist wreckage, and with Castillo at the helm the Peruvian and U.S. investor class will begin their economic sabotage, starting with “capital flight” (the initial election projections signaled this outcome, when Peruvian stocks sunk after Castillo’s victory seemed possible).

The stage is thus set for a major confrontation, or a series of confrontations that are rooted in the core dysfunction of the country: a lack of development consistent with a capitalist economy of the Global South, showcased by stunning inequality and dignity-killing poverty.

Chile and Colombia 

The Peruvian Left certainly received some inspiration from neighboring Chile, where in 2019 enormous protests demanded an end to inequality and a new constitution to replace the fascist-era system that began with the 1970 U.S. instigated coup against Salvador Allende, and the consequent “birthplace of neoliberalism.”

It’s fair to say that the Chilean movement — which included a powerful general strike — has been large and powerful enough to be considered a “revolutionary movement” capable of winning structural economic and social change. Already the movement has demanded and won a constitutional convention, and delegate elections to the convention on May 16th were a crushing blow to the rightwing, since Left-adjacent delegates have a veto-proof supermajority as they write the new constitution.

The expectation now is that a Leftwing constitution will be created, to be approved via a national referendum vote. The lead-up to the vote is likely to be filled with large-scale mobilizations on both sides. If a Leftist constitution is approved by voters — with enormous economic implications — it’s unlikely that the U.S. backed establishment will passively accept the new balance of power that threatens their wealth and generational privileges.

The Chilean movement has been de facto “anti-capitalist” since some of the core goals are to undo the hyper-capitalist policies that have privatized many public resources, leading to the massive debt among the working and middle classes to pay for basic amenities like healthcare and education while leading to immense profits for a tiny minority.

Chile’s movement has found a near equal power in Colombia, which also began in 2019 and has only gained power over time, including a fresh series of national strikes that has shaken the government to the core; the movement commonly-referred to as “national strike” has paralyzed the government in several areas of the country. Ongoing talks with national protest leaders are unlikely to lead to an agreement that can satisfy either Left or Right, since the goals on both sides have already led to street clashes and discussion of civil war.

The fierce resistance of the Colombian government— dozens of dead and hundreds injured—  is likely connected to the country’s special role as the key U.S. ally in the region. The recipient of billions of dollars of U.S. aid over the years, Colombia plays a similar role for US foreign policy that Israel performs in the Middle East — each region’s politics is thus artificially tilted to the Right.

The recent events in Peru, Chile, and Colombia don’t themselves equal a revolution, but have ensured that the already-existing mass political activity — the surest symptom of a revolutionary movement — have many new doors open to them that can easily inspire new activity to deepen the revolutionary process: expectations have been raised high from the poorest sections of society, who see real pathways to achieving their demands.

Venezuela, Brazil and Cuba 

The recent Left upsurge will certainly give new life to struggling Venezuelan social movements, where the economy has been shattered largely as a consequence of U.S. sanctions that have targeted Venezuelan oil, the beating heart of the economy.

The surest evidence that Biden plans to continue the counter-revolutionary tradition of U.S. imperialism is his approach to Venezuela, where Biden continues the destructive sanctions that started under Bush and were deepened by Obama and Trump. Even more ominous is Biden’s continuation of Trump’s charade of not recognizing Venezuela’s democratically elected government, choosing to recognize the non-entity of Juan Guaido instead, a farce abandoned by most nations that initially agreed to the tactic that was used, unsuccessfully, to help overthrow the government.

Brazil is also set to re-explode: next year’s election will showcase the return of Pink Tide President Lula to the electoral arena, who is currently favored to win against far-Right President Jair Bolsonaro, whose government was sunk by Covid. Brazil is by far the largest economy in Latin America, and if Lula returns new expectations will be set upon him by the Brazilian working class to go beyond the Pink Tide reforms that helped millions while falling tragically short, especially in light of the wreckage caused by Covid.

As the new Left tide resurfaces, Cuba’s influence will be naturally buoyed in the region, just as the Pink Tide brought Cuba into closer economic-political relationships like the ALBA trade agreement.

As Chile, Peru, and Colombia discuss political solutions to their problems, they’ll inevitably be drawn towards the positive aspects of the Cuban model, which contain key virtues that the faltering capitalist nations lack. For example, the average Cuban typically has little anxiety about food, housing, healthcare and education — all things that are unaffordable commodities to tens of millions living in Peru, Chile, Colombia and beyond.

Within Cuba internal discussions about the nation’s political future — whether to take the Chinese route for example — will be affected by having new regional Left allies who can offset the rightwing effect of Cuba’s small but growing class of small business owners, aided and abetted by U.S. imperialism.

Biden’s rightwing foreign policy is also exposed with Cuba, as he has refused to loosen the tightening of cruel sanctions imposed by Trump, worsening the effects of the decades-long trade embargo. These sanctions were initially created after the Cuban revolution and remain motivated by a desire to destroy the example of Cuban socialism, which has survived intact enough to inspire movements across Latin America, especially in the context of a re-failure of Latin American capitalism.

A Pink or Red Tide? 

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the new Left upsurge, since it’s easy to dwell on the Pink Tide’s failures and to expect those mistakes to manifest in the present. This is one possible outcome.

But 2021 is a different world than 2005, with the immense economic pressure produced by Covid and neoliberal reforms. A recent study found that 22 million additional people fell into poverty during Covid in Latin America, pushing the total number well beyond 200 million.

These conditions will continue to shape demands among the still-evolving social movements, fueled by poor and working-class people; any movement that has the allegiance of the majority of poor people is automatically deeply dangerous to the status-quo.

The Pink Tide, broadly speaking, tried a social democratic reformist approach to capitalism, and found no political space that the ruling class found acceptable, since the elite understood that with each victory the working class was inspired to make more aggressive demands — which is why any government that fell out of the hands of the establishment was targeted for destruction.

At bottom a social revolution is huge layers of people actively engaged in a politics moving towards structural change. The youth involved in these social movements matured into a world that may have improved because of the Pink Tide, but the gap separating them from a dignified life was too wide, while many Pink Tide victories have been swallowed by a combination of U.S. foreign policy (sanctions especially), Covid, and a renewed assault by the IMF.

Ultimately there are only so many options for Left governments to take: in the past nationalizations have been used domestically in combination with high tariffs to encourage domestic industry and increase domestic spending on social programs. But such a strategy has its limits, especially in countries left under-developed by U.S. imperialism. The Pink Tide receded, in part, by the natural economic limits of this approach, combined with a global recession that trounced commodity-export dependent economies (another byproduct of underdevelopment).

Neither a U.S. dominated free trade or a nationalist, social democratic-capitalist protectionism can solve the deeper problems connected with an under-developed economy, as decades of experience ping-ponging between these solutions has proven.

Deeper socialist reforms that coordinate planning between nations is an approach that’s been dabbled with in the past, yet each new attempt provokes a flurry of U.S. intervention, such as the catastrophic Dirty Wars in Central America. Reagan’s willingness to fund and arm the Contras was, in large part, a reaction to the close ties between the Sandinistas of Nicaragua and Cuba. A real threat to capitalism was bubbling up in the region, which is also why Reagan invaded socialist-leaning Grenada in 1983.

More recent attempts at non-capitalist cooperation between nations began when Venezuela and Cuba formed the ALBA trade bloc in 2004, which new movements may still be inspired to join.

Joseph Biden has no plans to help Latin America develop, since such a strategy would threaten the profits of U.S. corporations, who benefit from the cheap labor on one hand, and a local elite on the other who continue to sell their country’s independence to the U.S. financial-military industrial complex.

For example, U.S. allies take out large government loans (often from US banks) to purchase U.S. military equipment and other expensive imports — like Boeing jets — that maintain a large, unserviceable debt that is later used as an excuse to slash social services and cut wages in a vicious cycle.

Socialists in the U.S. will surely be inspired by current events unfolding in Latin America, and can directly contribute to their success by organizing against Biden’s inevitable attempts of regime change. The U.S. Left thus has a duty and a self-interest to organize around demands such as “Hands Off Latin America.”

Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com

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