The Struggle for Democracy and Socialism in Latin America

We stand with the movements in Latin America fighting against their own elites and outside intervention to uphold the neoliberal status quo.

As members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), we stand with the popular, democratic, and socialist movements in Latin America as they fight against rightwing movements, parties, and governments. We also stand against any attempts by the U.S. or other governments to intervene in Latin America to overthrow left-leaning governments or uphold the neoliberal status quo. While the two poles of the movement are clear and our commitment to the popular movements is resolute, the situation is complicated. The following essay is intended to open a conversation on these developments and provide a broader context for DSA members and allies.

Throughout Latin America a tremendous struggle is taking place between popular movements opposed to neoliberalism and authoritarianism, and rightwing forces attempting to defend the privileged elites and prevent the development of more radical democratic and socialist alternatives. The latter months of 2019 have seen enormous upheavals from below by popular movements in Ecuador and Chile; in Bolivia, an election protest was followed by a racist, rightwing coup that indigenous and working people continue to resist despite murderous repression; a general strike in Colombia; the rise of a huge feminist movement in Argentina together with the defeat of the rightwing government of Mauricio Macri, and in Haiti massive and prolonged protests against Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Latin America’s working people and the poor have unleashed a new wave of resistance and self-assertion.

In Chile the movement was sparked by a public transit fare increase; in Ecuador a cut in fuel subsidies sent people into the streets; in Haiti persistent poverty and government corruption sparked protests. Everywhere the movements are about economic inequality, governments and elites that ignore the people, and a desire for dignity and respect.  Popular protest movements in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Haiti have been met with fierce repression. In Chile, President Sebastián Piñera declared martial law and sent tanks into the streets for the first time since the end of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship; in Ecuador President Lenín Moreno declared martial law and a curfew accompanied by mass arrests; in Bolivia the unelected Añez government gave troops and police immunity to shoot to kill protesters; and in Haiti the government’s security forces violently suppressed demonstrations. In all four  countries there have been deaths, severe injuries, hundreds jailed, and civil rights abuses. All of these progressive popular movements seek improvements in economic conditions, an end to authoritarian practices, and greater democracy.

At the same time, far right political forces have moved in other countries to thwart the left. In Brazil, what has been called a “parliamentary coup” led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers’ Party) and the end of almost eighteen years of PT government. Last year, the far-right former military officer Jair Bolsonaro became president and quickly moved to overturn many of the redistributive policies of the former government. In Venezuela, right-wing forces supported by the United States backed Juan Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly, when he declared himself president in a (so far unsuccessful) attempt to overthrow the government of President Nicolás Maduro. And most recently, the Bolivian military backed politically diverse opposition forces calling for the resignation of President Evo Morales and succeeded in driving him from power. Throughout the region, right-wing forces—financial and corporate powers, technocrats, evangelical Christians, conservative political parties, fascist groups, and top military brass—often with the covert or overt support of the U.S. Trump Administration, seek to remove or block left parties from power and to stifle new popular movements.

The Origins of the Current Political Contest

The current political contest between popular movements and the right has its origins in the crisis of neoliberalism. The U.S. became the dominant power in the Caribbean and Central America around 1900, and after World War II extended its economic and political influence over South America. In response to the challenges posed by the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the guerrilla movements it inspired, as well as the exhaustion of post-World War II Keynesian development strategies,, military dictatorships held power in nearly every South American country between 1965 and 1985,  and for a decade longer in Central America.

The winding down of  military rule beginning in the 1980s generally led to a managed return to electoral democracy under traditional pro-capitalist parties, often those with close ties to Washington. At the same time, these regimes implemented neoliberal economic policies and contracted large foreign debts within the context of globalization. This neoliberal model led to further concentration of wealth, the imposition of “structural adjustment” (i.e., austerity) programs at the behest of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, denationalization of state industries and a corresponding decline in the strength of the industrial working class in manufacturing, mining, and transport (and their traditional labor federations and parties), and a sharp increase in underemployed, informal workers in urban centers.

At the same time, new social actors came on the scene—women’s and feminist groups, indigenous organizations, LGBTQ+ rights activists, organizations of small farmers and the self-employed—laying the basis for new social movements. Finally, as neoliberal regimes increasingly failed to meet the expectations of the population while also imposing greater austerity, traditional political parties in many countries began a period of sharp decline.

This decline cleared the path in the late 1990s and early 2000s for the historic rise of a range of left or center-left governments in the region,  such as those led by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. These “Pink Tide” governments implemented redistributive policies and infrastructure programs that lifted many out of poverty and improved the living standards of working people generally. But their economies remained dependent upon world commodity markets—oil and mineral extraction, soy, beef and other agricultural exports—to spur economic growth that could provide income needed to fund social programs. So long as commodity prices remained high, this model worked reasonably well. Economies expanded, social programs provided real benefits, and the governments paternalistically managed social movements and forestalled unrest.

While most called themselves labor or socialist governments, they did not dismantle or even diminish capitalist power domestically, nor could they find a durable way to counter the pressures of the world market. Some turned to China for alternative markets and capital investments, such as in metal mining, monocrop soybean agriculture, cattle ranching for beef, and timber extraction—all of which carry a heavy environmental toll. In some, corruption played a large role. In Brazil, Lula’s PT lacked a majority in Congress and found it necessary to buy off deputies from rival parties in order to pass legislation. In Venezuela, many public officials—who came to be called the boliburguesía or “Bolivarian bourgeoisie”—siphoned off oil revenues for personal gain.

The economic crisis of 2008 had a delayed impact in Latin America due to persisting high commodity prices. But as the Chinese economy slowed and commodity prices fell from 2012 on, the economic situation deteriorated significantly in a number of countries. Interest-rate and currency policies had negative effects in other cases. Falling government revenues made it difficult to maintain redistributive measures and social programs. Some left and center-left governments moved toward neoliberal policies of austerity, as, for example, Dilma Rousseff did in Brazil. Discontent and opposition began to grow among all classes in society, the elites, the middle class, working people and the poor.

With left-of-center governments in crisis or facing declining public support, the political right in each country began to look for ways to oust their rivals. In Brazil, it was the lava jato (“carwash”) investigation into political corruption, at the center of which was the Odebrecht Corporation, a huge construction enterprise with tentacles in a number of Latin American governments. The investigation exposed corrupt practices in all Brazilian parties, including the PT, eventually leading the courts to indict party leaders and giving parliament the opportunity to impeach Rousseff and replace her with her right-wing vice-president Michael Temer. In Argentina the rightwing managed to defeat the left electorally in 2015, and install conservative president Mauricio Macri (since defeated by a new Peronist party government). In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro squandered much of the popular support enjoyed by Hugo Chávez – even so, the charade of the self-declared president Guaidó, despite encouragement from the U.S. government, has gone nowhere.

Left-of-center governments, desperate to retain power, began to bend the rules of democracy in ways that violated democratic and socialist principles. In Venezuela, as the country went into a severe economic and political crisis, Maduro lost control of the National Assembly in 2015, prompting him to use the Chavista-controlled Supreme Court to nullify all the opposition-controlled National Assembly’s legislation, and in turn convened a new Constituent Assembly in 2017—designed to be dominated by Maduro’s allies—that since then has served as the de facto National Assembly of the country. In Nicaragua, Sandinista President Daniel Ortega modified the Constitution so that he could run for a third consecutive term and his wife could run as vice-president. In Bolivia the government of President Evo Morales presented voters with a referendum in 2016 on the question of whether the president and vice-president could run for a fourth term. When this was rejected by the voters, Morales appealed to the Supreme Court (filled with Morales’s allies), who ruled that his human right to political participation had been violated by the 2016 referendum. This allowed him to stand for a fourth term in October of 2019. Accusations of fraud in that election led to protests, then to a well-planned right-wing coup that involved both the police and the military, who demanded that Morales resign, which he did in early November.

The U.S. has intervened either directly or through the Organization of American States (OAS) to shore up allied right-wing governments and to support right-wing movements, political campaigns, and hard or soft coups. Even so, right-wing movements in Latin America generally have their origins in the domestic capitalist class, the clase política made up of professional politicians and government officials, and sometimes in the military. While the U.S. government plays a nefarious role—with its dominant role in economic investment, its military bases and close historic ties to police and army officers, and its interventionist diplomacy—the current crises cannot be attributed solely to U.S. imperialism. Indeed, most of the recent uprisings have come against U.S.-backed rightwing governments—Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras. Latin American bourgeoisies, when they manage to cohere around a program and a leader, are quite capable of organizing to promote their own political interests, even while often relying heavily on Washington for support. That Washington stands ready to provide such support was affirmed most recently in a late 2019 speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowing to “work with legitimate governments to prevent protests from morphing into riots and violence that don’t reflect the democratic will of the people.”

The Latin American Political Struggle for Power

Apparent right-wing successes in Bolivia, Brazil, and elsewhere may prove ephemeral. With neoliberalism and capitalist profitability in crisis across the globe, the Latin American bourgeoisie finds itself without a compelling governing program, unlike previous incarnations of the Latin American right. From the 1960s through the 1990s, the capitalist class united around the “national security state” in which the military defended traditional Catholic values, landed property, and the industrial and financial bourgeoisie. Some of these states launched massive infrastructure projects funded by foreign credit. From the late 1990s through the global financial crisis of 2008, Latin American bourgeoisies espoused democratic rhetoric, supported parliamentary regimes, and adopted a neoliberal program to end protectionism and welcome foreign investment.

But today, the region’s national capitalist classes are divided into rival factions with different ideologies and social bases. A new right-wing strategic program has not yet emerged, much less one that could draw support from the middle class and more conservative sectors of the working class. The U.S. State Department’s efforts to guide local rulers are hampered by President Donald Trump’s weakening of U.S. diplomatic capacity.  Though still an enormously important factor in the region, Washington is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. U.S. imperialism alone does not determine what happens in Latin America.

The Latin American left faces a parallel problem. The continent’s historic anarchist and socialist movements had their base in the industrial proletariat, organized in labor unions, federations, and Communist and Socialist  parties. The Cuban Revolution inspired a wave of guerrilla movements, often made up of students and sometimes workers and peasants, but nearly all failed disastrously and were obliterated by military and right-wing terror. The dominant strategic idea for decades was the Communist-inspired Popular Front, an alliance between left, petty-bourgeois, and sometimes capitalist parties against the old order inherited from Spanish colonialism. The desired outcome was a popularly-elected government working to achieve a peaceful transition to socialism. Salvador Allende’s presidency in Chile in 1970-1973 inspired mass working-class movements that threatened the ruling classes and led to fierce right-wing opposition backed by the United States. Tragically, Allende refrained from arming and mobilizing working people in time to counter the growing threats from the Chilean military, led by Augusto Pinochet, whose coup overthrew the Popular Unity government and smashed the workers’ movement.

Emerging from military dictatorship in the 1980s and 1990s, the established socialist and communist parties tended to become integrated into the political system in the course of carefully managed transitions to electoral democracy. They represented a social democratic option. When pushed by mass movements, they could move to the left, but their strong commitments to the existing institutional order prevented them from offering revolutionary leadership to the mass movements.

A new crop of parties emerged to fill the gap left behind by the older parties of the left, including the PT in Brazil, the Bolivarian Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSVU) and the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement for Socialism, MAS) in Bolivia. Powerful social movements have arisen as well, such as the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, CONAIE), a massive feminist movement in Argentina, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (Landless Workers Movement, MST) in Brazil, and indigenous-led movements against environmentally destructive gold mining and oil extraction in Peru and elsewhere. These new movements catalyzed political change and brought new leaders to power, but over time social movements’ independence was compromised as many activists accepted posts in the state apparatus and organizations became more dependent on governmental support. In some cases, such as Ecuador under Rafael Correa, governments came into open conflict with sectors of their own social base in the indigenous and other movements.

Today in most countries there are multiple political parties and movements, but there is not an agreed upon strategy or goal. Reformist and revolutionary currents exist in most places, with reform dominant, for example in Chile where the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) orients mainly toward negotiation with the old order. There, as elsewhere, such reformist parties or coalitions see their main role as pushing for reforms within the existing system, rather than organizing and providing leadership to the masses in the streets, or advocating new modes of economic development that could reduce their countries’ dependence on unpredictable fluctuations in global commodity markets. Such measures, if adopted,  would in turn allow implementation of major (and sustainable) social, political and economic reforms capable of shifting the balance of class forces. While revolution appears to be off the agenda in Latin America at the moment, the importance of revolutionary politics both in the fight for reforms and ultimately in the fight for socialism remains.

Finally, one of the characteristics of these popular movements is their volatility and their politically mercurial character. The Brazilian movement of June 2013, perhaps the best example, began as a popular protest with a decidedly radical left character but ended up with large sections being captured by the right. There is a direct line between the later stages of that movement, when the right took over the leadership of street demonstrations from the left, and the impeachment of Rousseff, the jailing of Lula, and the election of Bolsonaro. In many places what is now an alliance between working people and the middle class, with the former giving the movement its progressive character, could become a conservative or even reactionary movement led by the right. Or the right could take advantage of these politically ambiguous formations, as we have seen most recently in Bolivia.

While the situation at the moment is fraught with danger, there are also reasons for guarded optimism. Whatever their shortcomings, the “Pink Tide” governments did contribute to reducing social inequality and brought new respect and recognition to long-marginalized communities. This legacy is making it more difficult for neoliberal forces to reconsolidate a grip on power.   We have no doubt that, driven by capitalist exploitation, oppressive states, and environmental threats, working people in Latin America will continue to struggle and to build new labor and social movements, and that within these new social forces, radical and revolutionary currents will develop, committed to the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of democratic socialism. We offer our solidarity to the movement as a whole and to the revolutionary socialist currents in particular.

Despite the various problems with the left or center-left governments mentioned here, we believe that in general it is important to support such governments and the popular forces against the right and against a military coup and, of course, against U.S. intervention. We in the United States have a particular responsibility to work to stop any economic, political, or military intervention by our own government. At the same time, we should align ourselves with those in Latin America who fight for both socialism and democracy, believing as we do that it is the democratic and popular character of these movements that makes them vital to the fight for a democratic socialism.