Latin America's seemingly eternal dialectic
Tortilla con Sal, April 8th 2016
It is tempting to see the tragic death of Comandante Hugo Chávez Frías in 2013 as marking the start of a regional right wing offensive to roll back the gains of 15 years by progressive political movements in Latin America and the Caribbean. But those gains were only made in the face of fierce reaction by the region's elites and their foreign patrons. Mainstream corporate media coverage suggests a natural pendulum-like regional electoral swing in support of right-wing political ideas in Latin America. But what the region is experiencing has nothing to do with genuine democratic process. The current corrosive advance of right wing political forces in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina involves wholesale usurpation of legitimate democratic authority.
The right wing in Latin America has never let up in its regional campaign to pervert democracy via elections-under-duress, total psychological warfare by corporate media, economic sabotage, corrupt judicial maneuvers, outright terrorism and calls for external intervention. In the period immediately prior to the crisis in Argentina in December of 2001, only Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela had progressive governments. The failed coup of 2002 against President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela preceded new progressive governments in the region in 2003 when Nestor Kirchner and Lula da Silva took office in Argentina and Brazil respectively.
In 2004, the governments of the US, France and Canada colluded to oust President Jean Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. But that same year relatively progressive leaders were elected in both Dominican Republic and in Uruguay. Also in 2004 Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez took a decisive step, creating what became the Bolivarian Alliance of the peoples of our Americas (ALBA). Six months later, they created Petrocaribe. Both ALBA and Petrocaribe gave tremendous impetus to previously ineffectual efforts towards regional integration in defense of common regional interests against foreign domination.
Then in November 2005, at the Mar de Plata summit in Argentina, Hugo Chávez, Nestor Kirchner and Lula da Silva defeated efforts by the US, Mexican and Canadian governments to impose a neoliberal inspired Free Trade Area of the Americas. That categorical regional defeat for neoliberal ideology significantly sharpened the already acute conflict between progressive political movements and reactionary elites across the region, By then, Evo Morales had already been elected the region's first indigenous President in Bolivia.
In 2006, Michelle Bachelet and Manuel Zelaya took office as Presidents of Chile and Honduras respectively and Bolivia joined ALBA. But that same year, in Mexico, the right wing used flagrant, massive electoral fraud to deny the presidency to the social democrat Andres Manuel López Obrador. In November 2006, Daniel Ortega won Nicaragua's presidential election for the Frente Sandinista. When he took office in January 2007, Nicaragua immediately joined ALBA. December 2006 saw the re-election of Hugo Chávez and Lula da Silva in Venezuela and Brazil and, too, Rafael Correa's election as President in Ecuador.
All these changes from 2003 to 2006 cleared the way for genuine progress in regional integration. Created in 2004, the South American Community of Nations became, in 2007 in Caracas, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). That historic moment came amidst intensified right wing attacks on the governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. In Colombia, Álvaro Uribe worked constantly with the Venezuelan opposition to destabilize the Bolivarian Revolution led by Comandante Hugo Chávez. All through 2007 the regional right wing worked persistently to sabotage and discredit progressive government programs but, despite their efforts, Cristina Fernandez won the 2007 elections in Argentina and the social democrat Álvaro Colom won the presidential elections in Guatemala.
In 2008, Fernando Lugo was elected President in Paraguay, ending 60 years of right wing government. That same year, Honduras joined ALBA. By then a total of 17 countries in Central America and the Caribbean were members of Petrocaribe. In Bolivia in 2008, the right wing forced a recall referendum which Evo Morales won easily. Then, supported by US ambassador Philip Goldberg, the governors of Bolivia's provinces of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, Pando and Chuquisaca organized a campaign of terrorist violence culminating in the massacre of dozens of government supporters. An extraordinary UNASUR meeting in September 2008 declared the region's governments' unconditional support for Evo Morales, a key decision, provoking the collapse of the Bolivian opposition's murderous anti-government campaign.
At that moment more or less progressive governments held office in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. Right-wing avowedly pro-US governments held office in Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico and Peru. In general, the other countries in the region were more or less ideologically noncommital. The corrupt right winger Ricardo Martinelli won Panama's presidential election in 2009 but the social democrat Mauricio Funes won the presidency in El Salvador as candidate for the Frente Farabundo Martí.
Then on June 28th 2009, the US and its local allies organized a coup in Honduras, kidnapping President Manuel Zelaya and dumping him in Costa Rica. The coup in Honduras was a savage blow to democracy and human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. Regional condemnation was virtually unanimous. The coup demonstrated that, as in Venezuela in 2002, Haiti in 2004 and Bolivia in 2008, extreme right wing coups in the region will always receive decisive support from the US government and no more than complacent hand-wringing by way of response from the US allied regimes of the European Union.
2009 was also a crucial year in Nicaragua where the right wing mobilized a spurious campaign denouncing electoral fraud in the municipal elections of 2008. Defeated in their efforts to provoke widespread street violence, the right wing opposition leaders mounted a vigorous international campaign for economic sanctions against Nicaragua's Sandinista government. Consequently, the US government cut US$60 million in bilateral cooperation funds and the European Union cut another US$45 million. This economic sabotage happened at a time when Nicaragua's government budget was barely US$1bn and the whole region was sunk in a severe recession.
Despite the coup in Honduras and the constant provocative and destructive right wing campaigns against legitimately elected progressive governments, the region continued its integration process. In February 2010, at a regional summit in Mexico without the participation of the US and Canada, the attending leaders created the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Set against that, in September that year, the right wing in Ecuador staged a sinister coup attempt threatening the life of President Rafael Correa who only escaped assassination thanks to the loyalty of his security personnel.
All through this period the permanent destabilization efforts by the right wing failed to stem the impulse towards regional unity which reached its logical conclusion at the end of 2011 in Caracas with the launching of CELAC. That year in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega won a resounding re-election victory with well over 60% support for his presidency and President Cristina Fernandez too was re-elected, also by a wide margin. In presidential elections elsewhere that year, the right winger Otto Perez Molina won in Guatemala and the political chameleon Ollanta Huamala in Peru.
The following year, 2012, also saw mixed electoral results, with Danilo Medina winning the presidency in Dominican Republic and Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico. Later that year, already seriously ill, Comandante Hugo Chávez won re-election in Venezuela with an advantage of over 10%. In Paraguay however, the right wing set aside constitutional precedent to overthrow President Fernando Lugo via a corrupt impeachment procedure based on false accusations which President Lugo had no opportunity to contest. Paraguay remained isolated in the region until the election of right wing President Horacio Cartes in April 2013.
In 2013 came two events of transcendental importance for the region's stability. In January the CELAC held it first formal summit making possible a unified regional approach to global relations for the first time in Latin American history. That huge achievement was owed in great part to the vision of Comandante Hugo Chávez. But three months after seeing the realization of his vision, in the most tragic way, Chávez died of a suspiciously aggressive cancer. Following the President's death, Nicolás Maduro won a bitterly contested presidential election by a very narrow margin amidst extensive right wing sabotage and violence. Later that year, the social democrat Michelle Bachelet won the presidential elections in Chile.
So by the end of 2013, more or less progressive governments held office in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela. Right wing governments more or less committed to the regional agenda of the US government held office in Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Peru. 2014 was a busy electoral year with the re-election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Juan Manuel Santos In Colombia. Salvador Sanchez Ceren became President for the FMLN in El Salvador and Tabaré Vasquez won another presidential term in Uruguay. Social democrat candidates, Juan Carlos Varela and Luis Guillermo Solis won in Panama and Costa Rica respectively and have remained generally neutral in the region's broader ideological stand off.
The regional right wing and its US owners did better in 2015 with the election of US candidates Jimmy Morales in Guatemala, David Granger in Guyana and Mauricio Macri, in Argentina. Those results mean that now in 2016 more or less progressive governments hold office in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela. Right wing governments, more or less committed to the regional agenda of the US authorities, hold office in Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay and Peru. Other countries in the region are more or less uncommitted.
Even this brief and imprecise review of recent history, suggests that summary slogans like "a pink tide" or “the progressive cycle” or “the conservative restoration” obscure many relevant and diverse political, economic, social and cultural factors. Among the most important of those factors is the composition of electoral tendencies in each country. In general, right now it is possible to argue that, with some obvious exceptions like Guatemala and Peru, progressive political movements in most countries in Latin America have solid electoral support of around 35%-40% and their right wing opponents around 25%-30%. That leaves undecided a percentage of between 30%-40%.
That voter composition forms the main electoral battleground with rival political movements competing for the loyalties of undecided voters. On the other hand they also have to consolidate and protect the coherence and loyalty of their own core support. In Nicaragua, the Frente Sandinista has been very successful on both counts, while the right wing opposition there has failed spectacularly, dropping to levels of around just 8% support nationally. Elsewhere, elections can be very finely balanced. For example Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Mauricio Macri in Argentina won their respective countries' latest presidential elections by margins of just 2% or 3%.
Another self-evidently important factor in considering regional trends is the immediate national context. For example, Comandante Hugo Chávez was re-elected in 2006 by a margin of more than 25% and yet one year later lost, by a narrow margin, the 2007 referendum on constitutional reform. Then in 2012 he was again re-elected President with an advantage of almost 10% over the right wing candidate. Something similar happened in Bolivia recently where Evo Morales won the elections of 2014 by more than 38%, but last year his government lost a referendum to change the constitution by less than 3%.
Many other variables also play their part, for example the regional and national economic context, volatile events affecting the configuration of forces at any given moment, or the quality of the respective candidates and their electoral campaigns. Other factors, like the aggression of the US authorities towards governments that even mildly resist their regional agenda, are permanent, as is the manipulation and bad faith of foreign multinational corporations, especially in region's Western controlled financial sector. Nor is there any change in the endless psychological warfare of international and regional corporate media.
Given all these factors, attempts to extrapolate tendencies in the medium or long term are absurd. There is no natural pendulum-like swing between some notional progressive pole and its reactionary opposite. The impoverished majority and the avaricious elites are in constant,relentless conflict over the concrete aspirations of the region's majorities towards better, sustainable conditions of material life. In the medium and long term, the reactionary neoliberal inspired local elites and their foreign senior partners have nothing to offer towards meeting those aspirations and in the short term, only the deception and disappointment of which US President Barack Obama is the master. Only progressive movements inspired by some variant of socialism offer coherent programs of government to deliver good, equitable, sustainable living standards for the whole population.
Clearly, a complex mix of internal and external factors influences the development and outcome of events. Nothing is inevitable. Equally clearly, over the last two years, the presence of more or less progressive governments in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela results from the appeal of their programs to their countries' majorities despite the dirty tricks, intimidation, psychological warfare, sabotage, deceit, blackmail and outright terrorist violence of their countries' right wing elites. Conversely, right wing victories have generally resulted from the overwhelming application of their perverse formula under more favorable conditions. That is why what is at stake right now, in varying degrees, in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela is the very survival of national and even regional democratic institutions rather than a legitimate rearrangement of political power.
The desperation characterizing these corrupt right wing power plays suggests that at a continent-wide level the region's right wing political movements know they run the risk of being excluded in the foreseeable future as a credible political option. That is certainly the fate the right wing in Nicaragua is currently contemplating. In the short term, the right wing may manage to provoke anti-democratic change of government in Brazil and Venezuela, in doing so, merely deepening their countries' social and economic problems.
But it is far from clear that the region's peoples and popular movements will placidly accept being delivered like prisoners to a vengeful, repressive neocolonial future. Reflecting on the experience in Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega has remarked that “Peoples do make mistakes, but they correct them later...” The next year or so will reveal the real current balance between the capacity and power of progressive and revolutionary resistance in Latin America and the Caribbean against the aggressive usurpation of legitimate authority by the region's corrupt reactionary elites.