South America's Leftist Implosion: Let the Debate Begin

From Venezuela to Brazil to Argentina, the political left is crumbling, raising real questions about the durability of South America's so-called "Pink Tide." In Caracas, the future of Chávez protégé Nicolás Maduro remains unclear amidst plunging world oil prices, rampant inflation, power shortages and scarcity of basic goods.
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Map of Venezuela,Colombia,Ecuador and Peru.
Map of Venezuela,Colombia,Ecuador and Peru.

From Venezuela to Brazil to Argentina, the political left is crumbling, raising real questions about the durability of South America's so-called "Pink Tide." In Caracas, the future of Chávez protégé Nicolás Maduro remains unclear amidst plunging world oil prices, rampant inflation, power shortages and scarcity of basic goods. Opposition politicians have collected almost two million signatures calling for a recall referendum which could oust the president from power. In Argentina meanwhile, voters recently rejected Kirchner protégé Daniel Scioli in favor of Mauricio Macri, thus shattering the Peronist party's lock on power. Macri disdains the foreign policy maneuverings of his predecessors, that is to say power couple Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who lined up behind Venezuela and Cuba. By contrast, Macri is seen as much more partial to the United States.

Though certainly significant, such developments pale beside tectonic change in Brazil, which up until recently was the largest ostensibly leftist country in the wider region. There, lawmakers ousted Workers' Party President Dilma Rousseff so as to place her on trial for alleged financial wrongdoing. According to the Guardian, the new center-right administration in Brasilia seeks to "soften the definition of slavery, roll back the demarcation of indigenous land, trim house building programs and sell off state assets in airports, utilities and the post office. Newly appointed ministers also are talking of cutting healthcare spending and reducing the cost of the bolsa familia poverty relief system."

An Unflattering Picture

The significance of such developments cannot be under-stated. Whatever its flaws, the South American left was the most potent and well-organized force of its kind throughout the world and its possible implosion could have ripple effects. Without Brazil as a central buttressing force, constructing a viable, cohesive and continental-wide leftist project could prove daunting. In Chile, socialist president Michelle Bachelet is foundering halfway through her second term, having failed to secure an ambitious social agenda. Indeed, news reports suggest that Bachelet has "stalled" amid corruption scandals and economic slowdown linked to the global fall in commodity prices. Recently, frustration over Bachelet's stalled educational reforms prompted students to disguise themselves as tourists in an effort to infiltrate La Moneda, the presidential palace. Once inside, they launched a protest.

Whether Andean populist outliers Bolivia or Ecuador really present any viable reason for hope at this point is open to doubt and that is putting it mildly. In the early days, Evo Morales was known for his strong anti-imperialist and environmental credentials. However, despite social gains Bolivia is still caught in the resource trap and depends highly on the export of raw materials such as minerals. In 2013, the Bolivian president came under withering criticism from Indians when he announced plans to build a roadway through the TIPNIS park and rainforest. When indigenous peoples launched a protest, claiming the highway would lead to illegal logging and land grabs, Morales called out the police who brutally attacked the demonstrators' makeshift camp. The BBC notes that "some of the indigenous leaders, environmentalists and activists who helped put Evo Morales in power have criticized him, arguing that his policies seem to favor the wealthy, light-skinned minority." In the end, a shame-faced Morales was forced to shelve the project.

Meanwhile, though the government's socialist policies initially antagonized many in the wealthy eastern lowland province of Santa Cruz, and regional leaders even led a campaign for greater autonomy, "Morales's relationship with the Santa Cruz business leaders has improved and there is growing respect in Santa Cruz for his growth agenda." Furthermore, allegations that Morales used improper influence to favor a Chinese construction company damaged his standing. A former girlfriend of Morales holds an important position at the firm, which landed lucrative contracts with the Bolivian state. Recently, it seems Morales narrowly lost a vote when a referendum was called which would have allowed him to stand for a fourth term.

If Morales' leftist credentials have come under fire, then it could be said that President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is even more suspect. Like Bolivia, Ecuador is caught in the resource trap and specifically petroleum exports. In 2013, Correa pulled the plug on the so-called Yasuni-ITT initiative, which would have spared biologically rich Yasuni national park from oil drilling. Now, with oil prices slumping, Ecuador faces even more pressure to expand the Amazonian oil frontier because Quito owes crude to China. Correa has auctioned off new blocs of Amazon territory to Chinese firms, which has in turn sparked controversy.

Last year, thousands protested government expansion of the oil frontier, as well as other issues including repression of freedom of speech and the president's proposed amendment to the constitution which would have allowed him to be re-elected indefinitely. Correa responded by sending in the police, tear gassing demonstrators and conducting arbitrary arrests. In another draconian move, the Guardian reports that Ecuadoran authorities may have broken the law by spying on environmentalists, indigenous groups and political opponents who opposed oil exploitation in the Amazon. Perhaps reading the writing on the wall, Correa himself decided last year not to seek a fourth term in office.

Spineless Political Leaders

Though such developments are unflattering to be sure, they shouldn't come as any great surprise. Indeed, sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks paint a vain, narrow-minded and crass picture of many South American leftist leaders. The cables, which cover correspondence from the Bush and Obama eras, suggest that continental-wide leftist unity was not really in the cards and anti-imperialist rhetoric was only skin deep. If social movements had any high ideals about their leaders, they probably jettisoned such illusions after reading through Washington's correspondence with its various embassies throughout the hemisphere.

Take, for example, Lula and Dilma's Workers' Party, which secretly sought to outflank Venezuela throughout the wider region. In 2006, Brazilian diplomats traveled to Peru where they expressed grave concern about Chávez's rising influence. Lula's team also sought to sideline some of Chávez's more innovative proposals such as the so-called "Bank of the South." Meanwhile, Lula's Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said that Brazil and the U.S. should develop joint contingency plans to counteract Chávez. Other cables demonstrate how the Workers' Party sought to ingratiate itself with Washington while downplaying links to "outdated" leftists. In yet other correspondence, Lula's team expressed grave misgivings about Evo Morales, and specifically the prospect of a Bolivian-Venezuelan radical alliance.

Fellow leftist leaders scarcely emerge from WikiLeaks correspondence in a more positive light than their counterparts in Brazil. Take, for example, Bachelet of Chile who sat down with the Americans at La Moneda presidential palace to explain that not all South American leaders were dangerous populists. Moreover, Bachelet added, Argentina under the Kirchners lacked "credibility." Needless to say, Bachelet ordered her security team to work with the FBI in an effort to monitor restive Mapuche Indians in Chile. Over in Argentina meanwhile, the Kirchners were similarly cynical and sought to distance themselves from Venezuela in private meetings with U.S. officials. What is more, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner sought to limit Venezuela's influence within newly-created Bank of the South.

Self-Satisfied New York Times

Predictably, the establishment press is already pouncing on the left's failures in order to push its own wider hemispheric agenda. The New York Times has found it difficult to contain its own satisfaction at recent turn of events. That's hardly surprising given the Times' historic agenda for Latin America, predicated on right wing notions of free trade and U.S. military assistance. In April, 2002 the Times backed "respected business leader" Pedro Carmona, who overthrew Chávez in a short-lived coup. Santiago-based Times correspondent Larry Rohter expressed satisfaction over Chávez's forcible removal by the Venezuelan opposition. "Chávez was a left-wing populist doomed by habitual recklessness," Rohter wrote, adding that the Venezuelan leader's fall could not "be classified as a conventional Latin American military coup."

Not stopping there, the Times lambasted my first book Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. on the pages of the business section no less. "Socialism hasn't worked," intoned sage Times expert Roger Lowenstein, so why can't "Marxist" Kozloff and Chávez just wake up and endorse the free market, rather than consider innovative trade policies which go outside the usual corporate channels? Now that the left is crumbling in South America and pro-business leaders are coming back to power, the Times is salivating. Shifting political landscapes, the paper notes, "offers the United States an opportunity to jump-start its relationship with several neighbors that have historically regarded Washington as neglectful, imperial -- or both." It would be "foolish," adds the Times, for the U.S. to pass up the opportunity of signing trade pacts with the likes of Argentina or Brazil. In the event that new rightist governments have difficulty protecting U.S. investment, they can always turn to Washington for more military aid. Indeed, the Times touts human rights violator Colombia no less as "evidence of the potential of sustained security partnerships."

Lack of Depth at the Guardian

So much for the Times, but where's the wider debate on the left circuit about South America? I haven't seen much discussion on the matter, save for the Guardian of London where rival columnists have been swiping at each other without engaging in much substance. Take, for example, Nick Cohen, who purports to represent the conscience of the left but who nevertheless supported George Bush's disgraced 2003 invasion of Iraq, an effort which in his words offered the possibility of "salvation." In a column notable for sheer shock value, Cohen argues that "radical tourists" and "dupes" who have defended Venezuela are no different from sex tourists who seek out cheap and voyeuristic thrills in the Caribbean.

Just who are these "dupes" of the Venezuelan left? Pointing to Exhibit A, Cohen goes on the warpath against Seumas Milne, a fellow Guardian contributor who indeed seems to have a rather rigid and ideological view of the world. In a column, Milne attempts to link anti-government protest in Venezuela with the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, both of which are tainted by unseemly ties to Washington (incidentally, Milne might want to talk to some actual leftists in Ukraine who participated in the Maidan and hardly see themselves as willing dupes of the State Department). Having attacked Milne, a somewhat easy target, Cohen then takes aim at Noam Chomsky and Oliver Stone, figures who are all too willing to engage in "left orientalism" on Venezuela.

To be sure, Chomsky and Stone have their shortcomings on Venezuela and the left more generally, and I have been critical of both at different times. However, by setting up false straw men in the form of Stone and Chomsky, who should not constitute the last word on Venezuela, Cohen cheapens the debate. As early as 2006, I noted critical deficiencies within the Venezuelan health care system, as well as underlying problems with economic cooperatives and housing. I also interviewed a local environmental expert who spoke of dire ecological catastrophe around Lake Maracaibo and the need to move away from Chávez's petroleum-based economy.

The following year, I warned of the deepening cult of personality around Chávez and questioned the efficacy of Venezuela's populist model. In other articles, I criticized the country's foreign policy and Chávez's ties to authoritarian governments throughout the world. It's a shame that Chávez missed crucial opportunities to build bridges during the Arab Spring, for example (for more on Chávez's record, as well as the many challenges facing the South American left, see my second book which provides a nuanced and sober political evaluation of the wider region).Moving Beyond the Blame Game

The mainstream media does not suffer from an identity crisis and has always been clear in its policy proscriptions for Latin America: that is to say support for more corporate free trade and military repression. Leftist writers, by contrast, never developed a coherent and radical vision for the future. Judging from the "debate" so far, Guardian columnists prefer to swipe at each other rather than come up with any meaningful or constructive suggestions as to where the left, such as it is, might go from here. If Venezuela and other countries don't provide a viable political, social or economic model, then what are the alternatives?

Politicians from Bernie Sanders to Hugo Chávez love to employ incendiary rhetoric stressing the need for "revolution." More often than not, such platitudes either fall flat or don't go nearly far enough. To be sure, South America's "Pink Tide" succeeded in overturning many facets of ferocious "neo-liberalism," though leaders later failed to develop a more ambitious anti-capitalist critique. Indeed, it almost seemed at times that innovative measures like the ALBA exchange program, barter schemes, anti-poverty relief banks, worker-owned firms, alternative currencies, participatory budgeting and economic cooperatives to name just a few were a mere afterthought when juxtaposed with populists' more realpolitik objectives. Perhaps now, having witnessed the shortcomings of populism and the "extractive" model of development, which places more importance on commodity exports as opposed to local needs or the environment, South America's social movements will soberly take stock of their political milieu. In light of unscrupulous WikiLeaks cables, such forces may behave much more warily before offering their support to future saviors riding in on a white horse.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer and photographer who has given some thought to the notion of revolutionary change.

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