Latin America: an uphill ‘progressive’ path

Marco Consolo –

After the last electoral rounds in Latin America, there are many expectations in the left in Europe about the situation of progressive governments and their possibility of achieving structural transformations.  The right-wings have in fact lost several governments across the continent and are left with ‘secondary’ countries in the regional chessboard (Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay, Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica and now Peru). Apart from Venezuela and Cuba, which are a different case, all the main countries of the continent are now governed by ‘progressive’ coalitions, starting with the giant Brazil, passing through Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, and Honduras…

Many analysts have spoken of a ‘second progressive wave’, after the one of the past years, in which the figures of Hugo Chávez, Lula, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and others stood out. But the situation is very different from the past, and I try to explain why, starting with some decisive “political knots” that these new governments are facing and will have to face even more in the future.

In a world in open transition towards a new and accelerated multipolar realignment, the first difference with the past is the presence of a global multifactorial crisis, particularly economic, environmental and food related. It is a crisis that comes from afar, but which has worsened considerably, first with the pandemic and then with the war in Ukraine. No country is unscathed, and the Latin American continent is among the most exposed, for various reasons. The United Nations “Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean” (ECLAC) talks of a growth rate of only 1% by 2023. In a framework of highly regressive tax legislation and in the absence of profound reforms of the tax system, the resources available (and the room for manoeuvre) for public policies that can bridge social gaps are, therefore, severely reduced.

In recent days, a virtual summit of Latin American and Caribbean presidents has been held in search of alternatives to combat inflation and strengthen their countries’ economies. The meeting, called the ‘Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Countries Against Inflation’, was convened by the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

The meeting was attended by the presidents of Argentina, Alberto Fernández; Bolivia, Luis Arce; Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva; Chile, Gabriel Boric; Colombia, Gustavo Petro; Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel; and Honduras, Xiomara Castro. Also present were the Prime Ministers of Belize, Johnny Briceño, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, as well as a representative from Venezuela. Among the participating countries, Argentina is the one facing the most difficult situation, with a record annual inflation rate of 100%, while the escalation of prices of goods and services has not stopped for a decade.

The second political issue, on which there is still much confusion, is the difference between government and power, between being in government or having power.  Rarely does governing (and thus political power) coincide with having other powers (financial, military, media, judicial, etc.).  This is clearly recalled by some governments that has suffered a more or less bloody coup (starting with Allende’s Chile, passing through Brazil of Lula and Dilma Roussef, Bolivia with Evo Morales, Honduras with Manuel Zelaya, etc.). And also know this, those who today are facing the counter-offensive of conservative and reactionary forces that use all the ‘firepower’ in the various fields, to defend and maintain their class privileges. Speaking of the lack of ‘media power’, perhaps the two most striking examples were the bitter defeat in the Chilean vote to change the Constitution inherited from Pinochet, or the media terrorism in Colombia against the ‘political reform’ that Gustavo Petro’s government would like to implement.

The third “knot” is due to the broad and heterogeneous composition of the political-electoral coalitions with which they were able to win the electoral battle and the government. For example in Brazil, in order to win, Lula had to negotiate with the political centre and conservative sectors, starting with his Vice-President, Gerardo Alckmin. But it also applies to Chile with Gabriel Boric’s government, which, after its defeat in the vote on the new Constitution, has expanded its coalition to include the more traditional (and discredited) centre-left forces. Or Honduras, where Xiomara Castro had to pull her electoral coalition towards the centre, like a rubber band.  A situation that forces exhausting negotiations over any possible reform and the division of political and institutional appointments, not always well liked by the population.

The fourth issue, closely linked to the previous one, is the lack of a parliamentary majority in favour of the government. This weakness is due both to the different majority and double-shift electoral laws and to the strengthening of the right-wings (particularly the extreme right-wing) that has grown in the various countries. Even here (granted or not granted the political will for more or less profound transformations by ‘progressive’ governments), the margins of manoeuvre are very narrow. The consequences are clear. In Chile, just a few weeks ago, a very timid ‘tax reform’ was blocked, and the government’s agenda has become that dictated by the right, particularly on ‘security’ with the recent approval of a law dubbed the ‘trigger-happy law’ for the police forces. In Colombia, the attempt of a ‘political reform’ to renew the institutional establishment does not even appear on the horizon, despite the electoral promises of the current government. Or in Peru, where Pedro Castillo, despite his lack of experience, some errors, and a good dose of naivety, had to struggle with a parliament that gave him a hard time from the very day he took office and ousted him from his role as president, contributing to his imprisonment.

The other decisive element is the weak or non-existent mobilisation of social movements, which played a leading role, first in the mobilisation in the streets and then in the victory of these governments. Several factors contribute to this result. “Social peace” in presence of a ‘friendly government’, the subsumption of movement sectors into the government area, a certain ‘waiting’ to see what the government will finally do, and the disenchantment of many sectors with the lack of coherence between what is promised and what is then done. When campaign pledges are not kept, the distance between social movements and progressive governments is directly proportional to the passing of time. In many countries, far from seeking to establish an articulation with the social movements from the outset, albeit a critical and confrontational one, governments call for their mobilisation when de facto powers have gained ground, and they try to repair the damages. For the movements, it is not a matter of renouncing to their autonomy in favour of an ‘institutional’ vision, subordinate to the government, nor of standing at the window and watching, but of playing an active role in the class clash that inevitably opens up.

The other factor to be considered is the growth of right-wings, particularly the more reactionary and fascist ones, eroding the ‘liberal’ and ‘moderate’ right-wings that are losing ground almost everywhere. This is the case of the Republican Party in Chile, Bolsonarism in Brazil, the Bolivian coup-makers led by the “Civic Committees”, Javier Milei in Argentina… Far from proposing an “economic recipe” different from the past, the continent’s right-wings are re-proposing a model of accumulation based on policies that have aggravated, rather than resolved, the problems of the great majorities: reduction of the state with privatisations, cuts in social spending, liberalisation of the economy, signing of Free Trade Agreements (both with the US and the EU), etc. While they carry on revisionism and ‘denialism’ about the crimes of civic-military dictatorships, they strongly use the topic of ‘security’, which has long been their workhorse and political campaign priority.

With respect to the so-called ‘Security Agenda’, the leitmotif of the right-wing not only in Latin America, the truth is that there is little statistical evidence to support the climate of insecurity and fear in the air. But the “media latifundia” can create ‘reality’ and the bombardment is incessant, also thanks to the monopoly (at best oligopoly) of the production and circulation of information. In the absence of legislation to limit their overwhelming power, big media serve the interests of the elites and their investments, and in the ‘social networks’, algorithms recreate ‘reality’ and anguish uniformly and permanently. On the other hand, History teaches us that organised crime has often been used to condition or destabilise governments undesirable to capital.

More generally, democracies in Latin America suffer structural crises from the point of view of their political systems: crises of representation, of credibility in the institutions (which causes disenchantment and abstentionism to grow), of participation, of reliability and of presidentialist political regimes (practically in all the countries of the continent), concentrated in a single person, the President of the Republic.

This year, therefore, will not be an easy one, and it is good to calibrate expectations and criticism with these factors in mind. Certainly, there is often a lack of courage to affirm international relations in defence of the interests of the large, excluded majorities and not to kneel before hegemonic powers, multinationals and oligarchic ‘de facto powers’, not to be intimidated by campaigns of terror and coup conspiracies, to legislate in the communications sector, to openly fight against those who brazenly oppose greater social justice, the possibility of effective tax reform, and income redistribution.

There is little time left to act coherently, and to prevent the reactionary right-wings to regain political power, from taking advantage of the weakness and zigzag of those who govern today, using the expensive propaganda conveyed by the lies of compliant media and social networks.

The clock of History does not give discounts.