Essay: The masses in Latin America face a duality

November 30, 2016

From the November-December 2016 issue of News & Letters

by Eugene Walker

Can social movements resist neoliberal capitalism’s advances
and at the same time move beyond progressive governments’ narrow statism?

The last year has witnessed significant reversals in what has been has termed Latin America’s “pink tide”—a decade of progressive governments in a number of South American countries:

● Brazil—a stunning legislative coup removing President Dilma Rousseff from power. She was replaced by Michel Temer, a corrupt neoliberal who promptly appointed a cabinet without a single minority or woman in a multiracial country.

● Argentina—the election to president of rightist Mauricio Macri after the Left Peronist administrations of Cristina and Nestor Kirchner brought sharp austerity measures and increasing poverty.

● Venezuela—the government of Nicolás Maduro, who became president following the death of Hugo Chávez, has faced massive protests demanding a referendum for his removal after the economy collapsed and legislative elections sharply repudiated his ruling party.

● Bolivia—A referendum, which would have allowed President Evo Morales to run again for president in 2020, was defeated in a close vote.

● Ecuador—President Rafael Correa, after three terms in office, often in tension with Indigenous groups and environmental activists, has decided not to try and change the Constitution to allow him another term.


It is Latin America’s masses who, with their actions and hopes, created the possibility for a new beginning in South America at the onset of the 21st century. In 2016 is this opening slipping away? The South American masses are feeling the brunt of this closing as deep poverty returns, unemployment rises, hard-won rights are lost and austerity is imposed. There is as well the possibility of renewed outright repression and the imposition of new obstacles impeding the drive toward an emancipatory future they have been striving to obtain.

We can continue reaching toward those new human beginnings only if we comprehend our present reality of neoliberal and state-centered capitalism—including the limitations and contradictions within the progressive governments of this past decade and a half—and work out more concrete and total pathways toward a freedom-filled future.

I. How have we arrived at this impasse?

The problem lies in Latin America’s place in capitalism’s world market. Latin America has a strong dependency on the prices for its raw commodity exports. In the “boom” time of the 1990s and most of the first decade of the 21st century, commodity prices fueled the export economies of Venezuela (oil) and Brazil (iron ore, soybeans, oil), among others.

However, with the Great Recession, there has been a downward trend and even collapse in the price of raw materials that many Latin American countries grow or extract to place on the world market. The prices of oil, soybeans, and iron ore dropped, sending a number of economies, particularly Venezuela and Brazil, into deep recession.

At the same time, we cannot minimize the massive presence of U.S. capital in the form of military as well as economic “aid.” Plan Puebla Panama set the stage for Mexico and its neighbors, while Plan Colombia extended it with a huge emphasis on military aid to Colombia and South America. Turning a blind eye to the 2009 Honduran military coup, if not actually aiding it, seeking to isolate Venezuela under Chavez and now under Maduro are not fantasies or conspiracy theories but the reality of U.S. imperialism’s many faces.


Given these hard truths, what has the last decade and a half of progressive governments shown us? In spite of the their rhetoric of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism as well as their calls to build socialism for the 21st century, the reality of their economic policies is tethered to the world market. It could hardly have been different given the limits both in their concept of “power” and in what kind of view they have of the social-economic-political transformation needed in Latin America.

In contrast to the possibilities of fundamental social transformation—revolutionary changes from below—the focus in each country was on obtaining control of existing governmental institutions through elections. Once these institutions were under new progressive leadership, it was argued, substantial changes would be made.

Suffice it to say those changes failed to involve possibilities for transforming the capitalist labor process or disentangling from the web of the world market. For the former, at most what was posed was state ownership or state-private hybrids, not worker control from below. For the latter, what was begun was a Latin American capitalist market as opposed to the world capitalist market. The immediate future would be managing capitalism through the presence of a strong state that would redistribute the wealth, particularly to the poor.

II. The limits and contradictions of South America’s “Pink Tide”

Earlier this year, Garcia Linera, Vice President of Bolivia under Evo Morales, warned, “We are facing a historical turning point in Latin America” in which conservative forces are seeking “to take control of the management of the state…. They are targeting what can be considered the golden, virtuous Latin American decade.” []

What, for Garcia Linera, is the essence of this “golden, virtuous Latin American decade”? It is “taking over state power.” It is true that he claims “popular forces. . . have assumed the tasks of controlling the state,” but in his speeches and in the actions of the Bolivian government, the focus has been on the State as an indispensable tool. In this sense he is an ideological and actual representative of this “Pink Tide”—the pull of statism as the guiding force. The state becomes a substitute for authentic socialism constructed by the masses from below.

None of these progressive governments could have taken power had there not been genuine movements from below. In fact many of those leading the progressive administrations and congresses have emerged from various social movements. But it is one thing to be a militant and involved in social movements, and quite another to be that same person after an electoral change. To suddenly have one’s hands on “the instruments of power,” and to believe that, precisely that, is the pathway forward has been the ground of Pink Tide governments. Along with the destructive power of neoliberal capitalism and U.S. economic-military hegemony, it is such statism that is the source of the limitations and contradictions within the “golden, virtuous Latin American decade.”

Let’s briefly see what has happened with progressive governments in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela. (For a fuller discussion of Venezuela and Bolivia see my Utopia and the Dialectic in Latin American Liberation, Brill, 2015.)


Over 100,000 demonstrate in São Paulo demanding general elections and the resignation of President Michel Temer, installed in Brasil after the legislative coup.

Over 100,000 demonstrate in São Paulo demanding general elections and the resignation of President Michel Temer, installed in Brasil after the legislative coup.

In Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his Workers Party could not have been elected president without the massive support of many Brazilian social movements. Yet in power, the focus of the Party was not on eliciting the talents and ideas from people in these movements so much as it was managing the capitalist economy with an increased participation of the state under Workers Party control.

To be sure, da Silva directed a much-needed redistribution of basic resources to the poorest sectors of Brazilian society, lifting millions out of poverty. But controlling the state apparatus, not eliciting the fullest participation of the masses in determining their own future, was the Workers Party focus.

When the economic downturn hit, the masses saw only more mismanagement of the economy and extreme corruption on all sides. What social state was there for the masses to defend when the social movements had been mostly marginalized during the decade-plus of Workers Party rule?

In Argentina, where the extreme economic crisis at the beginning of this century brought masses to the streets—including new organizational forms such as neighborhood assemblies, factory occupations and unemployed worker/activist groups—what finally came to the fore was left Peronism, hardly a radical alternative. With the Kirchners some of the creative social movements from below were co-opted, others were marginalized. For close to a decade the economy grew, but there were no substantial changes in the social-political-economic terrain. When the economy once again went south, what was there for social movements to defend?

In Bolivia, from 2000 to 2005 powerful social movements—the Water War in Cochabamba, the coca growers led by Evo Morales, rebellions in the Indigenous countryside—combined, including major manifestations from the Indigenous city of El Alto above La Paz, to finally bring an end to the authoritarian, murderous rule of Sanchez de Lozada. That resulted in the election of Morales as Bolivia’s first Indigenous president. However, rather than a constituent assembly of social movements to write a new constitution, as the movements had demanded, Morales and others substituted an assembly of political parties.

State formation and party politics took precedence over social movements from below. This could be seen in various confrontations, particularly with Indigenous groups, whether it was over the government’s attempt to increase gas prices or the struggles over developmentalism via the attempt to build a road in the TIPNIS. Many Indigenous communities are asking for a different path.

In Venezuela, Chavez, particularly after the population en masse came out to stop a coup in the making against his Presidency, moved to construct what he termed “Socialism for the 21st Century.” Certainly his rhetoric, and in part his programs, were the most radical of the progressive governments in Latin America. However, at the same time contradictions were present.

How does one construct socialism while being completely dependent on capitalism’s supreme commodity, oil? As charismatic a leader as Chavez surely was, can socialism be constructed from the top down, without a proletarian and peasant base? What happens when the price of that crucial commodity collapses and the charismatic leader is no longer present? Witness Venezuela today.

III. Transcending the Present Moment

Three interrelated principles are needed to work out ways to transcend the present moment: 1. A view of the Latin American masses as reason as well as force of social transformation. 2. A willingness to throw out the concept that statism, state-capitalism, is any transition to socialism, to a future new humanism. 3. Seeing the need and accepting the challenge to work out a philosophy of revolution that, at one and the same time, is founded on the historic dialectic put forth most fully in the methodology and vision of Marx’s Marxism, and is open to the needed re-creation as a philosophy of revolution for our time in relation to the objective moment, and to the masses’ movement from practice that is itself a form of theory.

* * *

There can be no doubt that it has been the action and thought of the Latin American masses that has been, is, and will be the crucial source for social transformation. No party program, no would-be radical organization that is not in a profound, open, listening and learning relation to the mass movements can hope to make a serious contribution.

In our rightful hatred of private capitalism and of imperialism from the North, we cannot allow ourselves to be diverted from comprehending the grave historical contradictions of so-called Communism (read state-capitalism) in the 20th century, and now proclaimed anew by some would-be Latin American revolutionaries and others in the first decades of the 21st century. Neither the fetishism of state property and state planning nor the fetishism of a vanguard party-to-lead are viable pathways to the new world that humanity demands.

Without philosophical preparation for social transformation, for uprooting in the fullest emancipatory sense, no thoroughgoing Latin American revolutions are possible. Emancipatory dialectic thought is not an academic exercise, but the needed labor of mind, head and action, if we are going to once and for all uproot capitalism in all its economic-political and social forms, and freely bring forth new human beginnings.

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