Latin America: From Reform to Resistance – An Interview with Jeffery Webber (part 1)

Jeffery Webber interviewed by George Souvlis

The history of Latin America has always been central to left-wing history and politics; and never more so than the past 50 years. Since the rise of Allende’s government in Chile and it’s brutal suppression after Pinochet’s US-backed coup, to its use as a testing-ground for neoliberal restructuring, and the subsequent rise of autonomous social movements and the Bolivarian “pink tide” of left governments, there is much we can learn from the continent. In the first of a two-part interview with Jeffery Webber, Senior Lecturer at Queen Marys, University of London, he analyses the contradictions in the contemporary Latin American left, and offers a detailed analysis of the politics of the continent since the 1970s.

George Souvlis: By way of an introduction, what were your formative political and academic experiences?

Jeffery Webber: I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in Kamloops, a city of about 90,000, in the interior of British Columbia, Canada. The weight of the settler-colonial character of Canada’s foundation was palpable in local social relations. Anti-indigenous racism was an essential feature of the city in which I was raised. I wasn’t politically conscious of, or organized around, opposition to this reality in my youth, but those formative years resonated powerfully later when I began to follow Latin American indigenous liberation struggles closely, and examine the intimate relationship between Canada’s historical settler-colonial project and its later projection abroad through capitalist imperial relations, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

My initial entry into a social, and at least amorphously political, radicalism was punk rock and post-punk music in the 1990s. I was in a series of bands that no one has ever heard of – we organized shows for out-of-town bands passing through town, and we travelled around British Columbia and Alberta playing shows organized mostly by teenagers. This was a broad cultural milieu of contradictory but real anti-racism, anti-sexism, queer liberation, and generalized anarchist sensibility. It was also outward looking – we followed, with a certain religious fervor, what was happening in these scenes elsewhere, from Washington, D.C. to California.

I reluctantly attended the local college for two years. preferred night classes in politics, history, and literature. Because they were at night, and the college was relatively affordable, the students in my classes were mainly working class, and a significant proportion were “mature” students in their 30s or 40s who worked full time during the day. Never having been east of Winnipeg, in 1997, I moved to Montreal to complete the last two years of undergraduate study at McGill University. The contrast with community college was stark. The chief function of McGill by this time was to reproduce a section of Canada’s Anglophone ruling class (a division of labour that McGill shared with the University of Toronto), and it was generally a conservative environment. At the tail end of the politically bleak 1990s, Montreal was beginning to come alive politically, and the city was obviously a revelation to me culturally. The so-called anti-globalization movement was emerging, and I was introduced to the worlds of Palestinian and, to a lesser extent, Latin American solidarity movements. I also worked long hours at the radical student newspaper, the McGill Daily, staffed by a strange mélange of politicized scientists and graphic designers, alongside the usual students of politics and literature one would expect.

I continued at McGill for my Masters in Political Science, shifting academic attention to Latin America. I first travelled to South America in 2000, beginning in Bolivia. The Water War – an uprising in the city of Cochabamba against the World-Bank driven privatization of water – happened just before my partner and I arrived and the country was still in a ‘state of emergency,’ with a large military-police presence in the streets and restrictions on basic civil liberties. Although I only had a cursory understanding of what was happening I knew enough that I wanted to return to Bolivia. We continued on that trip through northern and central Chile and onto Argentina.

On returning from Latin America, I participated in a massive demonstration in Quebec City in 2001 in opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The government had erected an incredible fence running throughout the city’s historic centre, which was clearly an invitation for the many tens of thousands of activists gathered to try to tear it down. More tear gas was apparently used that day than at any protest in Canadian history.

In 2002, I began my PhD at the University of Toronto. I was supervised by Judith Teichman, an incisive left social democrat, not aligned with my politics generally, but an excellent supporter of my research who gave me free reign to pursue my own path of inquiry and reach my own conclusions.

My real political and intellectual education in this period came from participation in the small, but attractive New Socialist Group – one could broadly characterize it as something of a post-Trotskyist formation that was attempting to take anti-racism and socialist feminism seriously – and editorial board membership on the group’s magazine and website, New Socialist.

Most decisively for my political and intellectual formation, I made a series of extended trips to Bolivia in the first years of my PhD, before moving to La Paz for about a year in 2005 (followed later by repeated visits right up to the present). This was the height of the left-indigenous, quasi-insurrectionary cycle of revolt that stretched from the Cochabamba Water Wars of 2000 to the Gas Wars of 2003 and 2005, with their epicenter in the conurbation of El Alto-La Paz.

Politically, this was an epic period of organization and mobilization, with meetings happening almost daily, cycles of mobilization, extended shut-downs of the capital city, and fierce battles between the indigenous popular classes – both rural and urban – and the police and military. Along the highways of the western altiplano (high plateau) road blocks were a persistent component of the peasantry’s repertoire of resistance, and in the city streets of the capital city and neighbouring El Alto, strikes, road blocks, marches, and clashes with the coercive apparatuses of the state were the routine maneuvers of the informal and formal proletarian social layers. Two neoliberal presidents were overthrown in a space of two years, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 2003 and Carlos Mesa in 2005. All of this laid the basis for the electoral victory of the country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, of the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism, MAS) party in December 2005.

As one would expect, the intensity of struggle in Bolivia over a prolonged period – unmatched in the wider ebb and flow of Latin America’s so-called Pink Tide since the late 1990s – was accompanied by an extraordinary outpouring of intellectual production and social theory. Sleepless radicals in their mid-twenties were writing the best books of their lives.

The intellectual grouping, La Comuna (The Commune), brought together figures as diverse as Álvaro García Linera (now Vice President), Raquel Gutiérrez, Raúl Prada, Luis Tapia, and Óscar Vega. I was madly consuming the writings of García Linera from the 1990s and early 2000s, as well as those of Tapia and Gutiérrez. I also attended all of the almost biweekly public forums of La Comuna in La Paz while I was in the city. Although eclectic in orientation, participants were united in their disparate efforts to grapple with the possibilities of melding revolutionary Marxism and traditions of indigenous liberation. Through these thinkers I found my way back to the most important social theorist in Bolivia in the twentieth century, René Zavaleta Mercado, and then on to a former student of Zavaleta’s, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, and the indigenous-nationalist sociology of Pablo Mamani Ramírez, as well as the journal he helped to found, Willka. On economics and the technicalities of agrarian relations and urban labour markets, I was reading the incredible output of Marxists at the Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario (CEDLA) – especially, Carlos Arze, Silvia Escóbar de Pabón, Enrique Ormachea Saavedra, and Bruno Rojas Callejas. Meanwhile, the radical journalists around the bi-monthly El Juguete Rabioso and the local team of the monthly Bolivian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique were putting out the best political journalism I’d ever read.

GS: More than 50 year have passed since Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown and killed. The US-backed military coup put an end to what was then a progressive period that capped a decade of social reforms. Do you consider the Chilean coup a turning point both for the Latin American and the global geopolitical scene? Was this, in some way, a prelude of the neoliberal reforms that took place the next decade, and acted as the beginning of the end for the “democratic road to socialism”? And, do you agree with Berlinguer’s understanding that the defeat of the Chilean working class was more-or-less unavoidable from the moment Frei’s Christian Democratic party—the main party of the Chilean bourgeoisie—was solidly aligned against the Unidad Popular, or do you think that there was any space for political movement?

JW: Let me try to deal with each of these issues in turn.

One way of registering the significance of the Chilean coup is to situate it within Latin America’s short, revolutionary twentieth century, which, following historian Greg Grandin, stretched from the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) to the final pacification of mass guerrilla insurgencies in Central America and the defeat of the Nicaraguan Revolution in the early 1990s. These two moments book-ended an intervening epoch punctuated by a dialectics of insurgent and counter-insurgent processes: populist experimentation and import substitution industrialization in Argentina and Brazil in the 1940s and 1950s under Perón and Vargas, reformist nationalism of democratic (Arbenz in Guatemala) and revolutionary (Paz Estenssoro in Bolivia) varieties that were crushed by right-wing coups in 1954 and 1964 respectively, the Cuban Revolution (1959) and the spread of disastrous copy-cat rural guerrilla movements invoking Che’s foco theory of insurrection in the 1960s throughout much of the region, bureaucratic authoritarian regimes in the Southern Cone and the human rights and democratization struggles against them, the Chilean “Democratic Road to Socialism” under Allende (1970-1973) – crushed under the trifecta of Pinochet, Nixon, and Kissinger – and, finally, the Nicaraguan Revolution (1979-1990) and the neighbouring guerrilla campaigns in El Salvador and Guatemala.

The arc of this short revolutionary century, in the world’s most unequal region, was extraordinarily polarized and violent, with the violence overwhelmingly meted out by the military and paramilitary agents of recalcitrant ruling classes and US imperialism, attempting to contain or eliminate reformist, and, less often, revolutionary movements of the popular classes and oppressed groups. All of this was occurring, of course, in the context of the Cold War, where the term “Communist” could be employed by state and military officials against enemies as flexibly as the label “terrorist” is used today. If the obedient mainstream media for much of the 2000s could be counted on to report that “Al Queda did it” within seconds of any political violence in the Middle East, Europe, or North America, in Latin America during the Cold War it was the Russians, or the Russians acting through their supposed proxy, Cuba, however laughably tenuous the links in a number of these situations.

By the early 1990s, the extent of the defeat of the revolutionary and reformist lefts in Latin was dramatic. If in the 1960s and 1970s it would not have been an exaggeration to say that most activists on the Latin American Left believed that a socialist revolution would radically transform their societies in the near future, the common sense of the 1990s was utterly mired in defeat – movements retreated to fragmented, localized concerns with no strategic vision of building toward challenging state, much less region-wide power, Left and Centre-Left parties shifted to the Right, accommodating themselves to the strictures of neoliberal respectability, NGOs monopolized a field once held by radical movements and helped transform a politics of collective conflict into one of technical problem solving and individualist coping strategies, and the extraordinary dispossession of the peasantry and the informalization of the urban world of work utterly transformed the traditional union bases and peasant organizations of the traditional Left.

An underground process of re-articulation into new modalities of struggle and new ideologies of left radicalism would only become visible in the late 1990s and early 2000s – the slow growth of a New Left had to learn how to operate in a strikingly novel sociological and ideological climate. Recomposition was a slow process, with reversals and setbacks defying any post-hoc linear reading of the period, however tempting that might be today.

The movements of resistance in and around the early 1990s – the short-lived Caracazo in Venezuela in 1989, the occupations and settlements of the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil, the historic indigenous uprisings in Ecuador in 1990 and 1994, and the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994 – stand out precisely because of their relative isolation and defensive character compared to the Lefts of Latin America’s revolutionary twentieth century.

Neoliberalism in Latin America was on the ascendancy in the 1990s. The ruling classes had rarely been so arrogantly self-assured. US imperialism was unchecked, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank were administering Latin American structural adjustment programs on behalf of Washington, and the ideological, organizational, and political infrastructures of the radical and reformist Left had never before reached such a nadir in Latin American history. The few people on the Left who suggested at the time that nothing had changed and that revolution was around the corner were correctly ridiculed. But it surprised everyone that from this low point the world’s most important regional resistance to neoliberalism would emerge in the late 1990s, and especially in the early 2000s, with a new cycle of extra-parliamentary struggles that eventually found contradictory expression in state institutions through the electoral rise of Centre Left and Left governments.

All of that is to point to some of the wider twentieth-century context against which the political significance of the Chilean Road to Socialism, and its defeat, should be remembered and evaluated.

In the early 1970s, the entirety of the Latin American Left was closely studying the Allende experience, attempting to assess the feasibility of reproducing the experiment under local conditions in distinct national contexts. Internationally, it had enormous resonance as well. As readers of Daniel Bensaïd’s extraordinary memoir will be aware, the European far Left was watching every turn in Chile, and Allende’s violent end was on the mind of every competent participant on both the insurgent and counter-insurgent sides of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974. So, internationally, the Chilean experience had awesome diffusive power.

For Latin America, the installation of the Pinochet regime also had, to answer the second part of your question, decisive regional consequences, insofar as the new political environment acted as something of a birth canal for the neoliberal project. Long incubated in the minds of Hayek and Friedman, the halls of rarified think tanks, and at the margins of some North American university economics departments, the monetarists found their opportunity to actually realize neoliberalism in the figure of Pinochet.

Pinochet himself was not instinctually neoliberal, however, and there was no immediacy to its implementation. Rather the neoliberal story, at least in terms of economics, really begins in 1975 in Chile, two years into the Pinochet dictatorship, when the so-called Chicago Boys assumed positions of dominance. This was the first radical experimentation in neoliberal restructuring in the world, and it laid the bases for the 1980s and 1990s in Latin America when, through the debt crisis and the political defeat of various Lefts in the region, the neoliberal project extended itself into virtually every corner.

I would argue that that most important lesson of the Chilean coup in terms of neoliberalism is how it captures so eloquently the absolutely characteristic extreme violence that accompanied its inception in Latin America. In order for the neoliberal economic project to succeed, it had been necessary to eliminate the Left, social movements, labour unions, and peasant associations, not just ideologically but physically and militarily, through ferocious state terrorism, backed by infusions of aid from the United States. The Southern Cone dictatorships in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil – coordinated through the US backed intelligence program, Operation Condor – exemplify this violent birthing process, as do the diabolic – in the Guatemalan case, genocidal – campaigns of counter-insurgent violence bent on crushing the Nicaraguan revolution and wider guerrilla risings in other parts of Central America. This was the necessary bloody prelude to the technical roll out of the neoliberal policy package. By the 1990s, with the Left defeated and the common sense of neoliberalism hegemonic in the region, the very idea of “democracy” had been reduced to elite rotation between ideologically indistinguishable parties acting on behalf of capital and empire, with Central Bank independence enshrined, fiscal austerity deified, and technocratic control of every meaningful component of governance consolidated.

The defeat of the Chilean Road to Socialism was decisive in this tragic trajectory.

Did Allende’s violent death signal the beginning of the end of the strategy of “the democratic road to socialism”? I would say, yes, in the short term, but perhaps not decisively in the slightly longer run. In the wake of the Pinochet military coup and the installation of dictatorships elsewhere in South America in the 1970s, as well as their continuation in Central America, the lodestar of Latin American Left activity was no longer an electorally-backed project of socialist transition in Chile, but mass guerrilla insurgencies in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador; these, in turn, were highly distinctive from the small groups of isolated foco guerrilla campaigns of the 1960s that emerged in parts of South America, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, or the urban guerrillas of the 1960s and 1970s, like the Montoneros in Argentina, or the Tupamaros in Uruguay.

An important outlier from this Central American guerrilla predominance in the Left’s imaginary of the 1980s was, it should be noted, the formation of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT). However difficult it is to remember from the vantage point of today, the PT began as an attempt to build precisely such a democratic road to socialism, in the most populous and most geopolitically significant country in Latin America. With the important exception of the PT, then, the defeat of the Chilean Road weakened the immediate pull of the democratic path.

But in the slightly longer term, as we will see in more detail as we continue our discussion of the ‘Pink Tide’ and its contradictions, the strategy of democratic socialism really reappeared, if in novel form, under the guise of “twenty-first century socialism,” most famously during the Chávez era (1999-2013) in Venezuela. Of course, Chávez lasted much longer in office than Allende, and Chávez, unlike Allende, did not emerge from a well-institutionalized party of the traditional anti-capitalist Left, so the comparisons between the two experimentations, while useful, should not be overextended.

Both the Chilean case under Allende, and the Venezuelan case under Chávez, reveal in distinct ways the powerful limits of relying on bourgeois constitutional frameworks and the extremely pragmatic relationship that capital has with liberal democratic niceties. But these limits don’t straightforwardly suggest to me the attractiveness of an alternative route of anti-power, or a simple turning away from the state, in the perspective of contemporary Latin American horizontalism or autonomism.

It still may be possible, as Panagiotis Sotiris has argued in a recent Viewpoint article, to forge a revolutionary path to post-capitalism that begins with the assumption of office by left forces. The crushing of the Allende government and the crisis of the Bolivarian process today in Venezuela do not on their own negate such a possibility. But any revolutionary deepening of such a process that begins with elections, as Sotiris nicely points out, will necessarily lead to an organic crisis of the state and torrential counterattack by bourgeois forces – à la the attempted coup in April 2002 in Venezuela, or the Pinochet coup in Chile.

A process that begins with elections will necessarily, faced with such opposition, quickly extend its parameters of struggle if it is to survive. Revolutionary transformation of capitalism will of necessity involve the purposeful extension of new modalities of popular power from below, outside of, and against the bourgeois state. If Left governments are not captured and subdued by state power, and instead attempt a deepening of democracy in an anti-capitalist direction, together with independent popular struggles from below, processes that might begin with left party participation in elections will at that stage escape the limits of electoral competition and reliance on bourgeois legal parameters and expand to battles across all spheres of socio-economic and political life, or they will be defeated.

Finally, your counter-factual query. Was there space for political maneuver in Chile after Frei’s Christian Democratic Party had aligned against Unidad Popular? In answering this question, I’d like to redirect it somewhat away from the potentialities of maneuvers from above and the focus on alliances between parties within the parliamentary system in the early 1970s, where Allende always enjoyed only a plurality of support rather than a majority, and toward the wider balance of extra-institutional forces.

The reason the best analyses of the Chilean process – Franck Gaudichaud’s Poder popular y cordones industriales, Peter Winn’s Weavers of Revolution, and Patrcio Guzmán’s three-part documentary La Batalla de Chile – are so powerful is precisely because they draw our attention away from Allende and formal political alliances and compromises at the elite level and redirect our focus toward the collective struggles, dreams, and debates of militant workers, shantytown dwellers, students, and revolutionary activists and organizers. Any such reorientation to the activities of those struggles from below enriches our understanding of the historical potential and limits of the Chilean experience.

From the beginning, Allende’s allegiance to gradualism and the legal parameters of the constitution were a terrible hindrance on the possibilities of transformation. This became clearer as the distance grew between militant projects for poder popular emerging from below – in the industrial belts and popular shantytowns in particular – and the dominant Communist Party position within Unidad Popular, which nurtured a paranoid fear of the independent organization of the lower orders beyond the government’s control. These growing internal tensions within the Left ran parallel to developments on the other side, as domestic capital and the political and military Right, with the support of the CIA, abandoned legal-democratic niceties early on, launching a destabilizing counter-offensive that reached its final crescendo with the successful coup in 1973.

The self-governed, radicalized shantytowns of Santiago, where the Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionario (Revolutionary Left Movement, MIR) had its strongest bases, and the growing movement of workers’ control and workers’ assemblies in the industrial belts of the capital and elsewhere, where the Left of the Partido Socialista (Socialist Party, PS) and radical Christians had their strongest bases, were the areas of most potential for transformative change, at least in urban areas, during the Allende era. This is where possibilities for dual power, the calling into question of the legitimacy of state power, and the demands for self-governance from below in communities and work places were taking off. These were also the areas where calls for the creation of armed self-defence committees were first made. Radical textile workers and shanty-town dwellers understood very early on the gravity of the plotting from the Right and the illusion that this reactionary threat could be contained through congressional pacts or negotiations with the military.

The leadership of the central trade union federation, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Chile (CUT), and the Communist Party, tried to thwart the development of such expressions of independent popular power, and once they emerged anyway, to contain them at all costs. The fact that Unidad Popular did not provide oxygen to these engines of self-activity limited the potential growth of power from below and thus the transformative potentiality of the government as well; the failure of Allende to allow the distribution of arms to self-defence committees also empowered a path dependent trajectory toward the success of Pinochet’s bloody intervention.

At the same time, as Gaudichaud and others have pointed out, there were internal divisions with the socio-political forces behind the popular power wing of the Chilean process. MIR militants, who saw the semi-, or in today’s parlance, informal-proletarian shantytown dwellers as the revolutionary subject, focused their energies accordingly, while the left of the PS focused on the industrial belts, where it located its preferred historic subject. The inability of united political action across these fields meant that all the movements for popular power remained mainly defensive in character, rather than offering an incipient basis of generalized dual power, or an independent political alternative to the ultimately doomed, legal parliamentarism of Allende’s path.

GS: I would like to ask you about the Latin America’s debt crisis. Could you give the context for this process and could you discuss how the transition to the “liberal” regimes of the 1990s took place? What was the role of international institutions (the IMF and others) during this period, and what were the implications of the structural adjustment programmes forced by these institutions onto Latin American societies? Can you see analogies between what happened during the 1980s in the countries of Latin America and what is happening now in Greece? And, do you share the argument that what happened in Latin America in the 1990s was a kind of laboratory for the neoliberal reforms that followed in the next few decades across the world?

JW: As I suggested, the inauguration of neoliberalism began in Chile in the mid-1970s. By the mid-1990s, with the partial exception of Cuba, whose ‘Special Period’ of crisis and austerity in the early 1990s had unique characteristics, virtually everywhere in Latin America had undergone a rapid economic reconstruction along the lines of the Washington Consensus. The debt crisis of the 1980s provided new leverage to the World Bank, the IMF, and the Inter-American Development bank, enabling these institutions to attach a whole series of strict conditionalities to new loans offered to indebted Latin American countries.

Hyperinflationary episodes in various countries made economic action an urgent necessity, for the poor especially, and because the Left was not in a position to offer a socialist solution, the new Right’s promise of a monetarist exit to the crisis won significant appeal – that is to say, while the state terror of the authoritarian period was usually a necessary precursor for the introduction of neoliberalism, by the 1980s there was also considerable neoliberal success at the level of ideas; a new commonsensical position flourished in which the state was seen to be standing in the way of growth, a bureaucratic leviathan, and that the extension of the market – through the privatization of state owned companies, trade liberalization, financial liberalization, and disciplined fiscal austerity – would lower inflation, create dynamism, private investment would replace public investment, employment would grow and the rising tide would lift all boats, even if not equally. The death knoll of import substitution industrialization, dominant in the region until the 1980s, had been rung. The new domestic Right, backed by international powers, won the political battle of the 1980s, imposing its solution to the very real crisis of the ISI model when the Left could not provide one.

Neoliberalism involved a move away from import substitution to a model of export-driven, ‘free market’ capitalism, premised on the exploitation of the region’s comparative advantages – in some countries primary commodities, in some countries relatively cheap labour with geographic proximity to the US market, and so on. The negative social consequences of the free market experiment were severe. A tiny layer of Latin American societies amassed unprecedented wealth through accelerated integration into the global economy, as evidenced by the pace of new billionaires and the formation of so-called multilatinas, large multinational Latin American corporations with regional weight. For the majority of Latin Americans, the most significant features of the 1980s and 1990s were increasing inequality, pauperization, the dispossession of peasantries and indigenous peoples, the decline of public sector employment and formal jobs, the acceleration of informal and insecure urban labour markets, environmental devastation, spikes in outward migration in search of employment, and extraordinary increases in violent crime.

There are certainly analogies between Latin America in the 1980s and what is occurring today in Greece. The ruthlessness of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund in their dealings with Greece is eerily reminiscent of IMF and World Bank treatment of subordinate Latin American countries during the debt crisis. Syriza’s abandonment of its clear anti-austerity mandate, and the total disregard for popular sovereignty in Greece – and even the elementary trappings of democratic accountability and self-determination – shown by powerful international institutions, closely mirror elements of the Latin American experience I have described. In this sense, Latin America and other parts of the Global South in the 1980s were laboratories for the austerity measures being rolled out in distinct regions of the world in the midst of the latest Great Recession since 2008.

GS: In introduction of the study that you edited along with Barry Carr, The New Latin America Left: Cracks in the Empire, you identify a kind of scholarly output that endorses “the uncritical celebration of the ‘pink tide’ phenomenon.” What are the main limitations of these analyses?

JW: A certain current of Latin American intellectuals long associated with the Left have played the role of sophisticated state apologists for the new Centre-Left and Left governments. The same mantle has been taken up by international intellectuals following Latin American developments from outside the region. Despite the many differences between them, a common weakness in the positions advanced by such intellectuals – a paradigmatic case is Álvaro García Linera, a prominent intellectual who assumed a powerful institutional role, the Vice Presidency in Bolivia – is a tendency to celebrate and defend the agency of the so-called progressive state, and to exaggerate the possibilities of a leftist government repurposing the capitalist state to meet popular needs; to minimize the necessity of independent class struggle and organization from below, or even to fear its potential altogether; to discourage independent popular criticism of left governments and revolutionary pluralism as divisive; to demonize genuine left oppositions through allusions to, or sometimes explicit accusations of, collaboration with the domestic Right or infiltration by imperialism; to exaggerate the necessity of governmental compromise with the interests of domestic and foreign capitalists, or to elevate any such tactically necessary compromises to enduring strategic positions; and to casually deflect substantive discussion of the structural problems of the new Left experiments by reducing them to the products of imperial machinations.

Given the crisis now facing the ‘Pink Tide’ there is today much more room for debate on the Left than there had been in previous years, and simplistic state apologia is waning. This is a positive development because a serious evaluation of the limits and possibilities of the last 15 years of left-wing experimentation in Latin America is not possible so long as such blinkers remain fastened in place.

GS: During the 1990s in Latin America, institutional politics was dominated by neoliberal parties. The only serious opposition to the neoliberal reforms implemented by the political establishment of this time came from social movements: Piqueteros in Argentina, Zapatistas in Mexico, the landless in Brazil, and indigenous movements in Bolivia and Ecuador. How did these movements prepare the political ground for what followed some years later? What were the main continuities and discontinuities within the movements before and after the election of the left-wing progressive governments? Did the movements institutionalize? Did the governments allow political space for autonomous movements?

JW: It’s absolutely correct that neoliberalism was hegemonic in the region in the 1990s, and that one important expression of this was the electoral dominance of Centre-Right and Right parties. Another indication of this hegemony was how far formerly Left parties had moved to the Centre, allowing the mainstream debate to be restricted more or less to the pace and depth of neoliberal restructuring; that the restructuring itself was necessary was accepted by nearly every significant political party in the region.

This meant that contestation of restructuring in the 1990s was left in large part to social movements and extra-institutional forms of class struggle, including the piqueteros in Argentina, the MST in Brazil, the indigenous mobilizations in Ecuador, the Caracazo in Venezuela, the peasant movements in Paraguay, the Zapatistas in Mexico, and the cocalero movement in Bolivia, among others. With some partial exceptions – particularly in Brazil and Ecuador – these movements were defensive in character, strong enough only to attempt to restrain the intensity of the neoliberal assault being thrust on these societies by domestic ruling classes and a hostile international setting.

The gradual shift from a defensive to offensive posture was catalyzed, in my view, by the deep regional recession between 1998 and 2002, which was an economic crisis of capitalism in its neoliberal form that became a political crisis of enormous proportions. Conservative governments in office at the time had no believable solution to the crisis, and the parties that had introduced neoliberalism across the region in the 1980s and 1990s began to internally implode, much before any political articulation of emergent social Lefts had really even begun.

So you see a dynamic of explosive social movements in the early 2000s, imploding conservative parties, and the beginnings of a search for political organizations to express the social power of the movement Left. In Argentina, the piqueteros had been a movement restricted largely to the provinces in the mid- to late-1990s; in the early 2000s they began to converge with other social forces in Buenos Aires and elsewhere once the country entered into its dramatic financial collapse in 2001. In Bolivia, the cocaleros were the principal defensive movement of the 1990s, and they were largely restricted to the region of the Chapare, in the department of Cochabamba. In the early 2000s, there was a remarkable shift beginning with the Water War that launched and nation-wide offensive against neoliberalism from below, reaching a climax in 2003 and 2005 with the overthrow of two neoliberal presidents. In Ecuador, the powerful moments of indigenous rebellion in 1990 and 1994 found an echo in the early 2000s, bringing down governments, although the indigenous movement was burned in 2002 by its short-lived association with the Lucio Gutiérrez government in 2002, which ran on a left ticket but quickly and radically abandoned that orientation once in office.

Such a patterns of movement from localized, defensive, and isolated struggles, to further-reaching, offensive struggles was taking place, obviously with different degrees of intensity, throughout much of South America – Central America and Mexico were on a much different trajectory, with an extraordinarily violent Right still on the offensive, and the Left and social movements marginalized, fragmented, and often terrorized.

That moment of economic crisis and militant extra-parliamentary radicalism in the early twenty-first century witnessed the beginning of a molecular transition toward moderation and parliamentary politics in the mid-2000s, as Centre-Left and Left governments won office in much of South America – a dramatic, near total reversal of political colours compared to the regional electoral map of the 1990s.

The new Centre-Left and Left regimes were buoyed by the Chinese driven commodities boom, and a shift toward the consolidation of what the Uruguayan political economist Eduardo Gudynas calls “compensatory states” began; that is, through modest increases in taxes and royalties progressive governments were able to skim from the high rents being generated by extractive industries to finance targeted redistribution programs without challenging the underlying class structures of society. Poverty fell and social conditions improved, sometimes dramatically. But the organizational capacities of the popular sectors began to decline, and patterns of paternalistic clientelism rose to the fore. Left governments were offering palliative care to the victims of perversely unjust societies, treating their visible symptoms with the revenue brought in by extractive industry in a context of a commodities boom. The transformative, systemic challenge that seemed to be on the horizon in the strongest instances of social movement activity in the early twenty-first century faded from view.

To my mind, the best theoretical assessment of how this occurred is offered by Massimo Modonesi, in his reading of Gramsci’s notion of “passive revolution.” He argues that passive revolution in contemporary South America involves a complex process of capitalist modernization pushed forward from above by progressive governments that have captured the state apparatus. This project partially and carefully recognizes specific elements of the demands that emerged from the social movement effervescence of the early 2000s, without transforming the underlying residual social structures of the neoliberal period.

Autonomous movements from below were contained, coopted, or selectively repressed. Modest redistributive policies were introduced alongside realignments between progressive governments and domestic and international capital; the latter quickly learned to live with the new Left governments, so long as their net profits continued to grow, as they did throughout the boom.

This is not, then, the mere restoration of orthodox neoliberalism, but nor is it in any meaningful way its transformation. Unusually high state revenues were the lubricant that temporarily disguised the howl of class conflict so long as high commodities prices endured. When they began to decline in 2011, as a result of the delayed reverberation of the global crisis into Latin America, these progressive governments entered into crisis.

The social movement Left, which had become increasingly skeptical of the conservatizing tendencies of the progressive regimes, had been considerably weakened by its insertion into the pacifying institutions of the compensatory state, while the Right throughout the region has regained its confidence. For capital, domestic and international, the Left governments had never been their first choice, but they had learned to live and profit under them so long as it was necessary. Now these governments have become a liability, and capital has returned to its more obvious and direct political representatives to restore the status quo ante.

GS: Let’s move on to discuss the case of Venezuela. What were the main gains and limitations of the Chavez regime? In what way did the global economic crisis influence the Bolivarian process there? What is the legacy of Chavez, and what has changed since his death?

JW: The rhythm of the Bolivarian process has been somewhat out of step with the rest of the Pink Tide. A standard narrative of Chavista activists and sympathetic intellectuals is to point to the origins of the process in the Caracazo uprisings of 1989, and to chart an onward and upward trajectory from that departure event, at least until very recently. In one sense, this is useful insofar as it turns our attention away from institutional parliamentary politics and big-man historical narratives with a narrow focus on the biography and leadership of Hugo Chávez and the succession of elections since 1998. In another sense, though, it can be misleading insofar as it fails to see that the density and breadth of Venezuelan popular movements in the 1990s and early 2000s was not anywhere near comparable to Bolivia, or Ecuador, or even to Argentina.

Chávez wasn’t elected on the wake of powerful uprisings and political left-wing renewal; rather, his hastily concocted electoral coalition in the 1998 elections was successful because it filled a vacuum in an environment in which the traditional parties of the post-1958 Punto Fijo system were in irreparable decline, neoliberal restructuring of the 1990s was deeply discredited, social movements were weak, the labour movement was dominated by a bureaucratic federation loyal to the traditional parties, and there were no surviving parties of the Left of any social or political significance. Chávez stepped into this vacuum on a modest platform of third-way social liberalism, anti-corruption, and doses of Latin American neostructuralism via the Osvaldo Sunkel reading Chávez had completed while imprisoned for his role in a failed coup attempt in 1992.

The first period of the Bolivarian experience in government stretched from the actual assumption of office in early 1999 until 2002. The signature initiatives of this first phase were the formulation of a new progressive Constitution through a participatory Constituent Assembly in 1999, and moves to reassert public control over the state oil company, PDVSA, which had been nationalized in the 1970s, but which had become a “state within a state,” largely operating as a private, autonomous entity. However tepid the general trajectory of social reform in these early years, it was enough to light a fire under the Venezuelan Right which launched a failed coup attempt in April 2002, and followed up with an oil lockout in 2002-2003, meant to destabilize the Chávez government by cutting off the blood flow to Venezuela’s economic system.

It was only later, through the defensive mobilization of the grassroots supporters of the democratically-elected Chávez in the poor neighbourhoods of Caracas and elsewhere, that a new density of popular infrastructures of organizing began to emerge from below, together with a punctuated radicalization of the government from above, such that between 2003 and the 2006 national elections the Bolivarian process lived through arguably its most creative and dynamic period, coinciding with a spike in the international price of oil in 2004.

The phenomenal uptick in state revenue allowed the extension of Chávez’s rightly celebrated social programs – the health and education missions, above all. Poverty was dramatically reduced, participatory democracy was expanded through what would become communal councils and eventually communes, there were initiatives of workers’ control in non-strategic areas of the economy, the development of cooperatives began to pick up pace, and the pledge by Chávez to build “twenty-first century socialism” was announced for the first time in 2005. In geopolitical terms, oil revenue financed Chávez’s initiation of various potentially counter-hegemonic regional projects, such as ALBA, Bank of the South, the common currency Sucre, and Petrocaribe. All of these are now moribund or ailing badly, but in the mid- to late-2000s they represented a potential basis for transnational collaboration between the growing number of Left and Centre-Left governments in South America, and relative autonomy from US-dominated institutions like the Organization of American States (OAS). These parallel domestic and regional processes of radicalization were extremely popular, as the overwhelming support for Chávez in the 2006 elections demonstrated.

However, as Julia Buxton points out in a recent interview in New Left Review, 2006 also marked the beginning of a third phase characterized by ideological clampdowns on internal pluralism within ruling circles of chavismo and supporting institutions. The creation from above of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV) in 2007 initially generated enthusiasm and millions of new members, but it never realized its potential due to its rigid verticalism, lack of internal debate, and the generalized absence of participatory democracy within the party. In subsequent years the party was reduced to little more than an electoral machine. A genuinely independent labour confederation never really got off the ground, despite several attempts. In 2007, Chávez experienced his first defeat in an electoral contest, after his proposed package of constitutional amendments was rejected in a popular referendum. The result was a product of top-down decision making in the lead up to the referendum and skepticism about the bureaucratizing direction of the Bolivarian process.

What became evident in this third period was the even further solidification of the oil sector as the near-singular engine of the Venezuelan economy. Industrialization projects under Chávez paled in comparison to those attempted in the last great oil renaissance by the first Carlos Andrés Pérez regime in the mid- to late-1970s. State nationalizations under Chávez occurred in telecommunications, electricity, and a series of other sectors in a haphazard pattern, but the government grew increasingly suspicious, even hostile, to worker’s control initiatives and frequently thwarted rank-and-file union democracy in state-owned enterprises.

The statist inflection of the dominant vision of ‘twenty-first century socialism’ became more and more apparent, and was criticized by the Left within chavismo. Statism from above was accompanied by a lack of strategic transitional vision for the economy, despite the rhetoric of twenty-first century socialism. There was rapid turnover of technical personnel in public industry and key areas of the state apparatus, and thus repeated failures to implement the meteoric rise in successive, short-lived, ill-considered government initiatives across several domains. A complicated, multi-tiered system of controls in the system of exchange rates and pricing, paired with a willfully impenetrable system of national accounting, opened up vast new areas for corruption. The most important economic analysis of these issues has been done by the Marxist economist Manuel Sutherland.

Ahistorical recriminations in the mainstream media aside, these are obviously not new problems to Venezuelan politics and economics; indeed, they are quintessential characteristics of general twentieth-century patterns in the country. Nonetheless, the biggest limitation of the Bolivarian project has been precisely its inability to alter such path dependencies. The intensification of the petro-economy under Chávez led to major structural distortions and contradictions even before the recent fallout from the global crisis in the form of declining oil prices. It meant the undermining of domestic production, a deluge of misdirection of subsidized foreign currency that was meant to purchase food and basic consumer goods inputs. By 2012, according to one former president of the Central Bank, of an allotted $US 59 billion in subsidized foreign exchange, roughly $US 20 billion had been siphoned off into shell companies with no productive purposes, and consequently into the hands well-placed civilian and military bureaucrats, alongside connected capitalists – together, the pillars of the so-called bolibourgeoisie. What this suggests is that some of the problems facing the Bolivarian process today are not reducible to short-term political errors made after Chávez’s death, of a pristine parental legacy poisoned by inept offspring. There are clearly structural and historical limits to the project that run much more deeply.

While the Bolivarian process exhibited a number of social and participatory achievements, these were always vulnerable given the failure of the Bolivarian process – and the wider regional Pink Tide – to alter Venezuela’s – and the region’s – historic, subordinate insertion in the international division of labour. In fact, oil dependency deepened. In 1998, oil’s share of total export value was 68.7 percent, whereas in recent years it has risen to 96 percent. The social gains of the Bolivarian process have always been intensely fragile as a result, acutely sensitive to fluctuations in global oil markets. The latest crisis of global capitalism has struck Venezuela fiercely. As early as 2009, the repercussions began to make themselves felt sharply. But in the last three years this has reached a whole new level of crisis, which the international Left would be negligent to minimize. The price of oil in 2013 fell from $US 100 in 2013, to $US 88 in 2014, to $US 45 in 2015, and to as low as $US 24 in 2016.

The social, political, and economic consequences have been dramatic, as Egardo Lander’s hard-hitting recent report for the Andean Regional Office of the Rosa Luxemburg Institute indicates. According to the latest figures of the UN Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, Venezuela had negative gross domestic product growth in 2014, at -4.0, in 2015, at -7.1, and a further projected contraction of -7.1 in 2016. While debt levels as a proportion of GDP have not yet reached a structural breaking point, with seriously declining revenues the ability for the state to pay these debts is weakening, and international reserves are plummeting – according to Lander, available international reserves in June 2016 were only 41 percent of those available at the close of 2012.

Inflation is running at the highest rate in the world. Scarcity of basic goods, food, and medicine has been amplified by the reselling of subsidized goods on the domestic black market, or smuggling to neighbouring markets in Colombia. This takes place both at a large scale of corrupt public officials and connected private capitalists leveraging the extreme variance between prices, and at a small-scale, as a survival strategy for impoverished families involved in petty, informal, illegal trade.

Health services are in steep decline, with scarcities in equipment and medicines driving Venezuelans with the means to acquire these inputs privately and supply them to the hospitals or health centers for their own treatment. For extended periods this year, electricity outside of Caracas was being rationed to four hours of service per day. Unsurprisingly, all of these dynamics are hitting the poor most severely, as the earlier social gains of the Bolivarian process are reversed, poverty increases, and inequality spikes and assumes new forms.

This structural economic crunch was the unenviable environment in which Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s successor, assumed the presidency. One-dimensional characterization of the crisis as a product of his leadership failings should be dismissed. But the Maduro government has hardly inspired confidence insofar as it has attempted to reduce these serious structural dynamics to an “economic war” waged by capitalists, and the ongoing machinations of imperialism.

The belligerence of capital and the interests of imperialism in deposing Maduro are real. With echoes of right-wing tactical maneuvers in Chile under Allende, there is evidence of hoarding of food and basic goods by private producers in an effort to intensify shortages and destabilize the government. Meanwhile, with about as much credibility as Reagan’s maniacal fears of Sandinista Nicaragua, as recently as last year Obama labeled the Venezuelan political and economic situation an unusual threat to the national security of the United States. The US has consistently backed the anti-Bolivarian opposition financially, not least through the National Endowment for Democracy, focusing in recent years on student opposition in particular. Still, the government’s overall assessment of the crisis is implausible, and strikes much of the population as such.

Rather than an “economic war” or imperialism, the principal concern of the present crisis in Venezuela is the regular misery of rentier capitalism in a situation of declining rent. It is in the context of the appearance of the contradictions of that underlying structural condition, and the failure of the Maduro administration to propose plausible exit strategies, that the domestic Right and imperialism are taking advantage and seizing the offensive. This is coinciding, of course, with electoral shifts to the Right in Argentina under Mauricio Macri, and the execution of the parliamentary coup in Brazil.

Popular support for Maduro is in precipitous decline, even if the right-wing opposition coalition of the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Roundtable, MUD) inspires little confidence. In the March 2013 presidential elections Maduro beat the MUD candidate Henrique Capriles by less than 2 percent of votes, compared to a spread of almost 11 percent between Chávez and the opposition in the last election in which Chávez participated. This was followed by the majority victory of the MUD in the December 2015 elections for the National Assembly, precipitating a stalemate between the executive and the assembly, and the frequent resort to presidential decree by Maduro as a result.

Capriles and his supporters refused to accept the veracity of the 2013 electoral results, for which no evidence of fraud was provided, and he was initially supportive of violent street protests in 2013, in which eight government supporters were killed. But when the protests fizzled out, he entered into various compromises with Maduro and opted to focus principally on institutional contestation in forthcoming municipal and assembly elections. A window was opened for the “hard right” of Harvard-educated Leopoldo López (now in prison), National Assembly delegate María Corina Machado, and the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma. Around the slogan #LaSalida, or “exit,” in February 2014, they mobilized their bases in violent demonstrations with the explicit intent of overthrowing the democratically elected Maduro government. Forty-three people were killed, at least half at the hands of the opposition. The right-wing opposition continues to demonstrate its pragmatic relationship to the niceties of liberal democracy – to be used when possible to win, to be transcended when necessary with violence and destabilization. But the majority of new opponents of Maduro cannot be equated with the organized plotters. Probably half the population, according to various polls, considers itself neither with the government nor with the opposition, or “ni-ni”; but negative views of Maduro’s presidency in particular are much higher even than this. In other words, there is genuine popular discontent with the Maduro administration, not merely the virulent right-wing of oppositional fanaticism.

The latest political development revolves around a recall referendum to replace Maduro. The 1999 Constitution enables this possibility. The National Electoral Council (CNE), after questionably rejecting 600,000 of 2 million signatures for a petition calling for a referendum, did recognize in August that the opposition had successfully collected signatures from over 1 percent of registered voters, thus allowing for the following stage of collecting signatures from 20 percent of the electorate which would result in a referendum. If the referendum happens before January 2017, half-way through Maduro’s term in office, and was successful in defeating Maduro, as it likely would be, new national elections would have to be held. If it is held only after January 2017, then Maduro would have to step down and the current Vice President, Aristóbulo Isturíz, would simply finish the presidential term on his behalf.

It is obvious that the government is attempting to delay the referendum process so that it can happen only after the January cut-off point. But it is also true, as Gabriel Hetland pointed out recently in The Nation, that the opposition has itself delayed the referendum process in a number of ways, probably calculating that given the severity of the crisis and its likely further deterioration in the short term, it would be better for them if Isturíz were saddled with the burden of state administration until the scheduled 2019 elections. At that stage, the Bolivarian project would be so discredited that only the most inept opposition couldn’t but step in and assume the reigns of state.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.