George Souvlis: 10 year ago Evo Morales was elected president of. In your article dealing with the Bolivian regime titled, “Fantasies Aside”, you argue that there’s a reconstituted neoliberalism in Bolivia under Morales. Is it a neoliberal regime, and if so, why and how does it differ from previous neoliberal regimes in the country? To what extent do indigenous people participate substantially in the policy making of the regime? Is any indigenous liberation taking place?
Jeffery Webber: I think the tenor of debate in scholarly accounts of Latin American political economy, around neoliberalism, post-neoliberalism, and neo-developmentalism, have tended easily to degenerate into semantic turf wars that often obstruct careful assessment of continuities and ruptures in countries such as Bolivia more than reveal new insights. So I’ll try to avoid that dynamic here, and just say, to start with, that I first made the argument that the Morales regime’s political-economic strategy since 2006 could best be characterized as “reconstituted neoliberalism” in my 2011 book, From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia. The later magazine piece you mention was a response to subsequent criticisms of that book coming from a certain crude, left-populist, celebratory position of the Morales regime and defensive apologia of any and every action it ever undertook.
In 2011, it was relatively controversial on the Left to make the argument I made. Today, whether or not the term “reconstituted neoliberalism” is used, what I meant by it substantively is much more widely accepted – that is, steep continuities in Bolivian political economy since 2006 in extractive resource exploitation in the hands of multinational capital, agrarian policy and rural class structures, fiscal austerity, low inflation targets, Central Bank independence, urban labour policy, and urban class structures, among other things. The argument is not that nothing has changed. Rather it is an argument about mainly about continuity in deep structures, rather than surface appearances. One fruitful debate should continue to be, then, the empirical, analytical, and theoretical determination of the actual contours of those deep structures and any alterations to them that have been achieved, and the fragility and contradictions built into those achievements where they exist. A second debate, separate but related, is the issue of what we could have reasonably hoped to have seen transformed during the Morales period, given Bolivia’s subordinate position in the world system, the international geopolitical and economic climate, and the evolution of domestic and Latin American political balance of forces over the last 15 years.
With the global commodities boom and the subsequent global economic crisis, rhythms of growth and distributive outcomes in Bolivia have been altered in significant ways over the Morales period, with considerable reductions in poverty achieved during the recent period of high growth. But poverty has also fallen in Colombia and Peru during the boom years, and no one could plausibly contend that these regimes have somehow transcended neoliberalism.
Because of the particularity of Bolivia’s role in providing natural gas to export markets in Brazil and Argentina at locked-in prices in recent years, the fall-out of the global crisis has not yet fully registered in the Bolivian economy. Growth rates have continued to be among the highest in the region. As and when this changes, the austerity measures being introduced across the region in the last three years are likely to rear their head again in Bolivia as well, this time under Morales’s watch. The class decisions being made in recent years in Latin America, including by the remaining or recently departed Centre Left and Left governments, in terms of which social sectors pay for the decline in state revenues accompanying the end of the commodities boom, have looked eerily similar to neoliberal patterns of old – that is, social programs that were extended during the lush years are now being retracted, rather than sustaining those social programs through aggressive taxation of the rich, expropriations, socialization of key economic sectors, and so on. If now, in the global age of austerity, it seems that it was premature of some analysts to announce the end of neoliberalism on an international scale because of temporary nationalizations and bank bailouts in the core advanced economies in the immediate aftermath of the crisis in the US and the Eurozone, as the Pink Tide’s hegemony recedes it likewise seems to have been premature of some analysts of Latin America to have celebrated those governments’ successes in transcending that model of accumulation.
Now to the specifics of Bolivia. I already alluded, in response to an earlier question, to the 2000-2005 left-indigenous cycle of revolt that laid the groundwork for Morales’s election in December 2005 and assumption to office in early 2006. So we can begin with Morales already in the presidency in 2006.
To start with the last part of your question first, on indigenous liberation, it needs to be emphasized from the outset that it was virtually inconceivable in the very recent Bolivian past that an indigenous person could become president. In some ways, Morales’s election was comparable to Nelson Mandela’s presidential victory in 1994. The vitriolic racism expressed by the right-wing opposition in the face of Morales’s victory also points to its symbolic importance. It is little wonder that many of Bolivia’s majority indigenous population identified with Morales and basked in his rise to office, and took his side against the racist opposition. But assessing what this says about the contours of indigenous liberation is another, more complex question, altogether. And to get at this question we need to treat the indigenous question and the class question not as separate liberation projects, or distinct tracks running parallel to one another; rather they should be seen, historically and concretely, as part of a necessarily combined anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist project. This is so precisely because of the intimately racialized character of historical capitalist development in the Bolivian context. There is no non-racial capitalism, and there is no non-racialized class struggle. The lived experience of class and the lived experience of indigeneity are a complicated unity of diverse forms of injustice, not reducible to one another, but also incomprehensible without acknowledgement of their integral relationship to one another. The majority of the exploited peasants, landless, and informal and formal proletarians in the country are also indigenous. Their economic exploitation is simultaneously and integrally a lived experience of racist and internally-colonial oppression. Liberation on one front therefore requires liberation on the other. One is not an indigenous person on Tuesday in El Alto and a proletarian on Wednesday; one is an indigenous proletarian in that city every day of the week. Separation of these realities is a delusion of neoliberal multiculturalism, as is any notion of cultural freedom in the absence of material transformation.
During the first administration of Morales, from 2006 until 2009, the Constituent Assembly was the principal terrain of racialized class struggle. The contest unfolded not merely in the institutional corridors of the assembly, but in the streets of the cities and highways and landscapes of the countryside. The country was extremely polarized. A coalition of popular movements formed called the Unity Pact, some of whose constituent parts were closely aligned with the MAS government, while others were more independent. The Unity Pact led the drive for such radical demands as a transformative plurinational reconstitution of the Bolivian state, a quintessentially culturally-material conception of transformation. The bureaucracy around Morales often sought to contain the Unity Pact, but was sometimes forced to take on its agenda within the halls of the Constituent Assembly. On the other side, was a highly mobilized bourgeois autonomist movement in the “eastern lowland” departments of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz, and Tarija. The actual Constitution adopted in 2009 was a highly compromised result of the dynamic struggle between these blocs, and the MAS’s role as mediator – the constitution adapts the word “plurinational,” for example, but much of the content of that original demand was dissipated in a sea of contradictory articles prioritizing the sanctity of private property within the same constitution. The number of indigenous people participating in the Constituent Assembly was impressive. And the first cabinet of the Morales’s government contained many indigenous ministers. Only a year into his administration, however, half of the original cabinet was dropped, including many indigenous representatives. By 2012, only three in twenty cabinet ministers were indigenous. A Vice Ministry for Decolonization was set up in 2009, led by Aymara intellectual Félix Cárdenas, but its actual weight in determining the political trajectory of the government is negligible. In 2010 a Law against Racism and Discrimination was introduce but like many legal protections, its paper guarantee hardly means strict adherence in reality. Moreover, as is now widely recognized, the relatively open-ended struggle to determine the character of the Morales administration between 2006 and 2009, dramatically narrowed, with a conservatizing turn in the second administration since 2010. Key breaks off note were the urban struggles against the end of gas subsidies in December 2010, the so-called gasolinazo, and, most importantly, the splits between the lowland indigenous organization, CIDOB, and its Andean ally CONAMAQ, on one side, and the government and certain highland indigenous-peasant organizations on the other, over the government project to build a highway through the national park and constitutionally recognized indigenous territory, the TIPNIS, in 2011. The contours of this conflict are too complex to get into here, but it is enough to point out that the Morales government’s commitment to indigenous self-determination is pragmatic when it comes to indigenous territories standing in the way of extending the infrastructural grid of extractive capitalism.
More important than the highs and lows of indigenous representation in the institutional apparatuses of the state, is the trajectory of racialized class formation in a country that has witnessed the acceleration of extractive capitalism accompanied with the modest construction of a compensatory state, and what this means for a politics of indigenous liberation.
As in Venezuela, very little in the structural basis of the primary-export model of capital accumulation has changed in Bolivia since Morales took office in 2006. GDP has been growing, state revenue has been soaring, and distributive outcomes have improved, but the underlying structure of the economy remains much the same. Indeed, relative to the recent past dependency on primary product exports has worsened. Just over 80 percent of total exports in 2013, for example, were of primary materials (if primary materials include mining minerals, hydrocarbons, and agricultural products). This clearly makes the country vulnerable in the medium- to long-term to volatility in prices on the international market. As the Bolivian economists Carlos Arze and Javier Gómez have suggested, the “plural economy” that the MAS government celebrates masks a reality of capital concentration. The dominant dynamic is a contradictory relationship between large-scale (mainly multinational) capitalist enterprises in the extractive industries and forms of smaller-scale production for the market that are subsumed into capitalist accumulation. What develops in class terms is an array of intermediary class sections in Bolivian society – street vendors, petty extractivists, small-scale industrial producers, medium-scale producers embedded in commercial agricultural which is dominated by larger capitals, and so on. These small players at incipient levels of accumulation are trying to push their demands on the state to improve their competitive prospects on the market. This “popular economy” is, in reality, highly stratified and exploitative. Improving petty capitalists competitive position means mobilizing behind a depression of salaries, further precariousness in labour relations, minimizing territorial integrity of indigenous rights to territory when minerals or natural gas are present, and so on. During the commodities boom, a growing layer of small-scale capitalists has emerged who accumulate profits through the exploitation of waged labour – this is happening in cooperative mining, contraband trade, commercial agricultural, urban transport sectors, the narco-economy, and so on. Rather than a combined anti-capitalist indigenous-liberationist project then, the evolution is more reminiscent of classically dependent capitalism in a weak and subordinate economy. Foreign capital dominates an extractive sector destined for export, while a section of smaller domestic capitalists play a structurally subordinate role in accumulation processes. Both sectors rely on the exploitation of Bolivia’s labouring classes. The petty capitalists, importantly, have been drawn in the main from Bolivia’s indigenous population. And the result, since 2010 especially, has been new alliances between long-dominant sectors of Bolivian capitalism – agroindustrialists, mining capital, and foreign oil corporations – and the emergent indigenous, petty-capitalist layer. A poisonous pairing occurs, in which the logic of big capital is legitimated through the “liberation” of indigenous petty bourgeois class formation. Finally, there are also detailed studies now showing, decisively, that similar patterns are true in the rural economy, despite the much vaunted promises of “agrarian reform.”
GS: In 2009 a coup d’état took place in Honduras when the Honduran Army on June 28, 2009 followed orders from the Honduran Supreme Court to oust President Manuel Zelaya and send him into exile. Why did this happen? What’s been the situation in the country since then? Is a political option on behalf of the elites, such as the dictatorial coups, still an option in Latin America when a hegemonic crisis arises? Have not the liberal regimes of the 1990ies solve once and for all the political dilemma between the democratically elected governments and army interventions in favor of the former?
The coup in Honduras ousted the modest social democrat Manuel Zelaya. A member of one of the richest families in the country, and a long-time operative in the Liberal Party – one of two ruling class parties that has dominated domestic politics since the founding of the republic – Zelaya could hardly be accused of being a dyed in the wool Communist. His crime was a series of modest encroachments on neoliberal orthodoxy – including an increase in the minimum wage and a suspension of mining concessions until a new environmental law was passed – and a geopolitical alliance with Left- and Centre-Left governments elsewhere in the region, particularly Chávez in Venezuela through Honduras’s proposed incorporation into ALBA in 2008. These were sufficient for the pathologically anti-Communist Honduran Right – once a home away from home for the US-backed Contras who helped defeat the Sandinista revolution in neighbouring Nicaragua – to see his violent ouster as a necessity. Once Zelaya was removed at gunpoint from his house and flown out of the country in the pre-dawn hours of 29 June, 2009, Roberto Micheletti, a figure from a competing faction of the same Liberal party, temporarily assumed the mantle of the new dictatorship. Fraudulent elections were then held, in which no parties that represented opposition to the coup were allowed to participate, and Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo of the Nationalist Party assumed the presidency of the once-again “democratic” country. That was enough for recognition of the regime by Obama and Hilary Clinton, as well as Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada at the time. Honduras was reintegrated in to the Organization of the American States (OAS), and welcomed by that vigilantly democratic fantasm known as the “international community.” Since then, despite fierce and enormously inspiring resistance from the eclectic currents within the Frente Nacional de la Resistencia Popular (National Front of Popular Resistance, FNRP), and the party Libertad y Refundación (Liberty and Refoundation, LIBRE), the post-coup reign of dictatorship has continued. Today the President in question is Juan Orlando Hernández, also of the National Party. Paramilitary assassinations of activists continue with utter impunity. Most recently, the phenomenal indigenous rights militant Berta Cáceres, who Todd Gordon and I had the chance to interview in a 2011 visit to the country, was assassinated while in her home. Her children, showing enormous courage, have publically continued to wage the battle against the state, the paramilitaries, and the multinational capitalists backing them both.
The Honduran conjuncture encapsulates a wider, morbid fusion of neoliberalism and militarism, linking the two ends of what is sometimes called the greater Central American corridor of reaction, from Colombia in the South to Mexico in the North. In this respect, Obama’s proposals for Plan Central America were meant to bridge Plan Colombia introduced by Bill Clinton, and Plan Mexico by George W. Bush. Accumulation opportunities for multinationals include narcotis, open-pit mining, hydroelectrical development, tourism, biofuel plantations, carbon-credit forests, and low-waged textiles and manufacturing in the maquiladora sectors. There is a great deal at stake.
9) In one of your recent articles in Jacobin magazine you argue that in Ecuador Left and indigenous forces are attempting to create an alternative to both Correa and the Right. Would you like to elaborate more on this? Are the policies that the government implements against the interests of the indigenous subaltern classes?
Rafael Correa entered office in 2007. Initially, the Right feared that Correa would take the country on a radical trajectory while the Left hoped that this would be true. The apparatuses of the state were divided. The Right retained control of the National Assembly and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and the private media leviathans congealed in opposition to the new government, in many ways playing the dominant role of the conservative opposition in the absence of clearly articulated and cohesive right-wing parties. The key business confederations were also initially very wary of the Correa administration, and adopted an early stance of confrontation. So the forces of reaction met Correa’s rise to office with suspicion and antagonism.
Still, this wasn’t a simple situation even in 2007, with Correa straightforwardly representing the popular classes and indigenous peoples in a context of political polarization. His party, the Alianza País (Country Alliance, AP) entered into conflict with sections of the popular movements almost immediately, along the lines of sectional labour disputes, urban public services, pension conflicts, and so on. Most importantly, the indigenous movement in the countryside was entering into conflicts with the state and multinational capital in the key zones of extractive Ecuadorian capitalism – mining, oil, water, hydroelectricity, and agro-industry.
With time, it became clear that Correa’s development model consolidated the interests of extractive capital, beginning with a pair of laws on mining and water in 2009 that kicked off the first major demonstrations from the popular movements during the first Correa administration. The mining law allowed for the expansion of concessions of multinational mining capital throughout the country, while the water law supported this process by privatizing access to what had been communal water sources, a necessary basis for large-scale private mining development.
By 2013, the first year of Correa’s second term, the key line of demarcation was no longer right-wing axes of contention with the government, but instead a wave of conflicts between the government and the historic bases of the country’s popular struggles in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, above all the indigenous movement. Hostilities between the Correa administration and sections of the bourgeoisie persisted, but these were no longer determining features in the terrain of societal conflict. Correa made this explicit by noting that this principal enemy had come to be the indigenous movement and what he called “infantile” environmentalists who were standing in the way of capitalist modernization. Early in the second term, Correa also stood off against public sector workers, laying off thousands, which further weakened an already debilitated labour movement.
Parallel to the evolution of business-state relations under Morales in Bolivia, the principal Ecuadorian business confederations had, by 2013, abandoned their earlier confrontational relationship with Correa, and adopted a flexible relationship of negotiation and compromise with the government. This conciliation helped to push forward the creation of a new ministry of foreign trade and the signing of a free trade deal between Ecuador and the European Union.
Between the early 1980s and the mid-2000s Ecuador lived through a profoundly unstable era of neoliberal experimentation and popular resistance, mainly led by the indigenous movement – in the 1990s and early 2000s the indigenous movement was one of the strongest in Latin America, but entered into steep decline and fragmentation in the wake of short-lived collaboration with the Gutiérrez administration in 2002. The financial crisis of 1999 was a peak instance of the country’s wider economic and political instability, followed by a wave of revolt that overthrew a succession of heads of state.
These were decades in which it was difficult for capitalists to make money. Correa’s government had the effect of pacifying social struggle and restoring profitability in banking, mining, oil, and agro-industry. His populism has been functional to capital, even if he was never capital’s first choice, and is eminently expendable in its eyes. This is more and more evident today, in a context of deepening economic turmoil in the country, with the fall of oil prices and declining state revenue, as the representatives of capital once again align openly against Correa.
It is absolutely true that the divided Left is trying to rearticulate itself in a variety of new social and political projects, with more success in the field of social struggle than political articulation. The Left is starting from a point of weakness and fragmentation, with its most important historic base, the indigenous movement never having recovered its strengths since the mid-2000s.
10) Hardt and Negri have defined as “progressive” forms of nationalisms that emerged in the last 20 years in Latin America. Considering that nationalism and socialism are so profoundly entwined in Latin America, what is your take on this issue? Do you believe that there is a kind of left-wing nationalism? If yes- do you think that the European left has something to learn from the recent experiences of Latin America regarding this issue?
I don’t take Hardt and Negri’s characterizations of the Latin American conjuncture very seriously; but on the substance of the question of nationalism, I do differentiate between nationalisms of the oppressed versus those of the oppressor, and I recognize the historical reality that nationalism has been and continues to be the expression of emancipatory struggles deserving of support from the Left; that is, principled support for anti-imperialism and the political right to self-determination of oppressed peoples who identify as a nation, as distinct from an anti-imperialism involving a search to identify with “our bourgeoisie” against “theirs.”
In the contemporary Latin American setting I think the mistake by some on the Left has been to confuse Centre-Left and Left governments, which have often aligned themselves explicitly with multinational-capital over the last 15 years, as being themselves expressions of socialist anti-imperialism and left-nationalism. To give you a concrete example, this mistake has meant at times leftists siding with Correa and multinational mining capital in Ecuador, rather than with indigenous resistance to mining expansion, the actual front-lines of anti-imperialist struggle in the country; or, apologizing for Morales’s steam-rolling of the rights of indigenous territorial self-determination in the lowlands of Bolivia to support highway construction through the TIPNIS backed by Brazilian capital, and, even worse, painting the resistance to this development as an expression of the lowland indigenous movements aligning with “imperialism” or the domestic Right.
José Carlos Mariátegui’s 1929 text on anti-imperialism is useful in this regard. The most notable aspect of the document is its resolute condemnation of the complicit role played by Latin American national bourgeoisies in the perpetuation of imperialism, which they always have seen as their own best source of profits and the source of continuity for their own political power. If one takes this view, an anti-imperialist alliance led by a national bourgeoisie is a dangerous fantasy. For Mariátegui, what was necessary instead was an alliance between workers and peasants in a movement that integrally combined the perspective of anti-imperialism with a commitment to socialist revolution at home.
The dynamics of Europe in terms of nationalism are not easily comparable to Latin America, but we can at least say that there is clearly a core and periphery within Europe, which has developed in and through the uneven and combined development of capitalism in the region; and this has consequences for the potentialities of anything like a national-popular movement in distinct contexts. The clearest recent expression of the unevenness of European capitalism is the position of the Troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – vis-à-vis Greece. A break with the European Union, a quintessentially imperialist institution, was absolutely necessary, and the national-popular movement articulated behind Oxi, and abandoned by Tsipras, was an emancipatory struggle. In contrast, Lexit fantasies aside, the nationalism mobilized by Brexit in the UK has been radically reactionary and racist, a veritable expression of oppressive nationalism imbued with all of the legacies of the British colonial past. As always, concrete analysis of concrete situations pays dividends.
11) Considering that you interviewed several Latin American Marxist feminist activists and theoreticians do you think that there was any significant progress on the women’s issues within the left-wing governments the last 15 years? Did the governments take serious the demands that were expressed by them? Did they improve their position within the societies?
The experiences have been contradictory, with some advances, some setbacks, and a great deal of variation across national contexts. If we look at Venezuela, for example, it is undoubtedly the case that within the generalized increase in urban collective life in poor neighbourhoods, and within a context of heightened organizing capacities in the popular barrios of Caracas and elsewhere in the most creative period of the Bolivarian process, women activists played an important role in rank-and-file movement politics. As the work of Sujatha Fernandes has shown, this uptick in women’s participation in social struggles helped create new forms of collective organizing and ways of doing politics that challenged traditional gender roles, collectivized what had been private tasks, and provided a counter-weight to the male-dominated formal institutional structures of the chavista state apparatus. The intensity of new forms of popular struggle that emerged from below within the Bolivarian process, in other words, provided a terrain for the particularities of struggles against gender oppression to build some momentum. The improvement in social services for the poor, in health and education especially, also relieved some of the reproductive burdens shouldered by women. At the same time, community leaders were still overwhelmingly men, and the bureaucratic structures of chavismo continued to be dominated by men.
In Bolivia, feminism had been dominated for decades by an NGOized middle-class technocratic liberalism, on one side, and middle-class anarcha-feminism on the other. The 2000-2005 period of left-indigenous revolt witnessed a stronger expression of indigenous popular feminism from below, with much wider participation, which framed itself as decolonial, anti-patriarchal, and anti-capitalist. It would be easy to exaggerate how much this perspective saturated the grassroots of the popular movements in general, but it is at least fair to say that the heightened level of popular organizing from below during that period opened up new opportunities for a popular left-wing, anti-racist feminism within the wider dynamics of political contestation.
Once Morales was in office, there was an upsurge in women’s participation in the institutional apparatuses of the state, including new indigenous women ministers, such as Nemecia Achacollo, and Nilda Copa, and indigenous women in other prominent official positions, like Silvia Lazarte, who became president of the Constituent Assembly, and Leonilda Zurita, who became head of the MAS party in the department of Cochabamba, among others. In 2011, over half of the twenty cabinet ministers were women, an absolutely unprecedented parity in Bolivian history, although this dropped significantly shortly afterward through various cabinet shuffles. Laws were also passed against domestic violence. Still, implementation is uneven, to put it mildly, and a political culture of harassment and gendered violence remains widespread. Morales himself has famously made public machista jokes about his female ministers, even if he does not convey the deep-seated, visceral Catholic patriarchy of someone like Rafael Correa.
Perhaps the most backwards evolution of the Left in terms of an emancipatory gender politics can be found in the recent Sandinista trajectory in Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega’s leadership, finding expression not least in his strategic alliances with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and various evangelical currents. The Sandinistas under Ortega’s new government infamously supported a ban on even “therapeutic” abortion, in a severe blow to reproductive rights within an already dismal landscape.
In short, the strongest advances – institutionally, organizationally, and culturally – have come about through women’s independent organizing within wider milieus during strongest periods of social movement expression from below.
12) Could we speak in 2016 about North American imperialist interventions in Latin America? What are the main shifting points in the ways they manifested themselves before and after the establishment of the progressive governments?
It is not uncommon on the Left to hear references to Latin America’s “Second Independence,” meaning Latin America’s new ostensible independence from US domination in the early twenty-first century in the context of the Pink Tide. This is a crude simplification, but it is true that relative autonomy from US domination has been achieved, even if this scenario seems likely to be short-lived. The US has long seen Latin America as its “backyard,” and has sought to realize, not always successfully, the ambitious parameters of the Monroe Doctrine in its foreign relations with the rest of the Americas, which it first sketched out in 1823.
In the post-War period, when the US replaced Britain as the dominant imperial power, the objective has been to retain its position at the top of hierarchical world system and to reproduce global capitalism in favour of capital in general, but also US capital in particular. In Latin America, this has meant policing threats of “good examples” that other nations might seek to emulate. Good examples have assumed various guises, such as nationalist reformist movements, like Guatemala under Jacobo Árbenz, or successful revolutionary insurgencies, like Cuba under Fidel Castro. The ideological cover for intervention during the Cold War was always defensive containment of aggressive Soviet expansion in the region. The specific interests in Latin America, working in tandem with the overarching strategic aim of maintaining US hegemony in the world order, included the desire to access and control natural resources, markets for export, sources of cheap regional and migrant labour, and so on.
Ideological justifications changed in the post-Cold War period, but the underlying strategic interests remained largely the same. “Democracy promotion” attained a new level of importance through the financing of sympathetic “civil society” organizations, while the drug war provided a new flexible pretext for intervention once the Communist bogeyman was no longer available. In the wake of September 11, 2001, the war on terrorism could also be mobilized, sometimes combined with the war on drugs under the neologism “narco-terrorist.” Colombia in the 1990s and early 2000s became the key US ally under the pretext of the drug war and Plan Colombia, with Álvaro Uribe transforming the country into something like an Israel of South America – a reliant ally that could be depended upon to police its neighbours and project US power regionally.
Once the Pink Tide occurred, the US continued with its overarching objectives, but these assumed new ideological covers and tactical expressions. A new priority, used variously in relation to Bolivia, Ecuador, and above all Venezuela, became the containment of “radical populism” which threatened liberal democracy. While we are unlikely to know the extent and details of US involvement until several decades from now, we know that the US welcomed the Venezuelan coup attempt in April 2002 – and subsequently financed the Venezuelan opposition through the National Endowment for Democracy –, the coup in Haiti that removed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, the right-wing destabilization attempts in Bolivia in 2008, the Honduran coup in 2009, the parliamentary coup in Paraguay that removed Fernando Lugo in 2012, and the parliamentary coup in Brazil in 2016. Meanwhile, the US has persisted in its militarized defense of neoliberalism under the pretext of the war on drugs, with the epicenter shifting from Colombia to Mexico, and embracing Central America in between. Most recently, the US has emphasized the construction of the Pacific Alliance, a trading bloc featuring Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. In the near future, with the turn to Macri, Argentina is likely to join as well. This is the latest projection of US geo-economic power, after the project for the Free Trade Area of the Americas was thwarted by the rise of the Pink Tide in the early 2000s.
But imperialism is hardly reducible to the United States. China has become a significant imperialist player in the region, and the way in which new bilateral asymmetrical relationships of debt and investment between China and various Latin American countries have been described by Centre-Left and Left governments as counter-hegemonic is delusional. Likewise, Canada is a tremendously important secondary imperialist power operating in the region, particularly in the realms of finance and extractive industries, as Todd Gordon and I suggest in our new book, Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America. What is more, the role of Brazilian sub-imperialism has also been extremely important to the developmental trajectory of the Pink Tide. Brazil’s project, which is a project of Brazilian capital, has sometimes been in conflict with US hegemony, but at other times has played a complimentary role, such as in the Brazilian occupation of Haiti, and Brazil’s counter-weight to the Bolivarian regional integration projects under Chávez.
The potential counter-hegemony of regional institutions such as ALBA, the Bank of the South, the Sucre currency, and, to a lesser degree, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) are all in relative decline, as the Pink Tide recedes or moves in conservative directions, and the regional right regains the initiative.
13) The Brazilian Senate voted recently to impeach the country’s democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff from office. Could we define this political development as a coup? Though, this is not the only the crisis that is taking place in Latin America at this moment, several of the progressive governments are facing similar challenges both from below and the right. Do you think that this is a structural crisis that progressive governments are facing? Which common denominators can you detect between the different political crises that are occurring? Do you think that these are indications of the end of the political cycle of the progressive governments in Latin America?
The removal of Dilma Rousseff from office should be described as a parliamentary coup, and the recent termination of this process with the vote in the Senate means that the highly contradictory “progressive cycle” in Latin America’s biggest and most important country, which began there in 2003 with the first Lula administration, has come to an end, with far-reaching implications for the rest of the region. As we noted above, this turn in Brazil follows closely on the heels of the election of Macri in Argentina and the National Assembly victory of the right in Venezuela.
The structural crisis of the Pink Tide governments is the result, in some ways, of a delayed reverberation of the global crisis of capitalism into Latin America. The crash in commodity prices and the concomitant drop in state revenues are its symptoms. The hegemony of the Centre-Left, which contained and redirected the radical impulses of the early twenty-first century extra-parliamentary movements through a process of passive revolution, is now experiencing a sustained retreat. However, in Brazil, and elsewhere, this decline of hegemony has brought to the fore an impasse rather than a new hegemonic project of the right. Michel Temer in Brazil is incredibly unpopular, and already there are significant movements of opposition. Macri is hardly revered in Argentina, and new spaces of social struggle are re-opening there as well. The right has no obvious solution to a regional economic situation which is unlikely to improve in the short term. So while the institutional hegemony of the Centre-Left is in retreat, new spaces are likely to open up from below to contest the ineptitude of the newly emergent regional Right.
The period of Centre-Left hegemony witnessed a number of significant progressive advances – declines in poverty, partial gains in regional integration relatively autonomous from US dominance, and new ideological horizons of anti-imperialism and anti-neoliberalism, even debates on the meaning of socialism in certain national contexts. The Centre-Left and Left governments were clearly discernible from the persistent repressive regimes of the Right in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Paraguay, Honduras, and elsewhere.
Yet there were structural limitations to the compensatory states built on the river of rent flowing out of a conjuncture of high commodity prices. Basic class structures of Latin American societies were not even marginally overturned by the Pink Tide process. Latin America’s insertion into the international division of labour went unchallenged, as extractive capitalism deepened and extended itself. The limits of the Pink Tide are now on full display. Things will get much worse before they get better; but the right has no solution for the endemic injustices underlying Latin American capitalism, which were only superficially and temporarily ameliorated under Left wing governments. New social struggles will undoubtedly emerge in novel and unpredictable forms, and new Lefts, too, will reemerge to challenge the austerity agenda of the new Right. It will be slow going, however, and there will be many false starts.
Jeffery R. Webber teaches politics and international relations at Queen Mary, University of London. He sits on the editorial board of Historical Materialism, and is the author of Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia and the forthcoming The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left (January 2017, Pluto and Haymarket).
George Souvlis is a doctoral candidate in history at the European University Institute in Florence and a freelance writer for various progressive magazines including Salvage, Jacobin, ROAR and Lefteast.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.