The State of Leftism in South America

Mar 21, 2014
5:01 PM

Reading the reports of Michelle Bachelet’s inauguration in Chile on March 11 and watching the videos, I couldn’t help but hear former president Salvador Allende’s words reverberating:

The seed which we have planted in the good conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shriveled forever. They have strength and will be able to dominate us, but social processes can be arrested neither by crime nor force. History is ours, and people make history. … Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people!

Bachelet’s win and Chile’s return to socialism is already being marked by some as a win for leftism in South America, a movement (or, better yet, a collection of movements) that have seen their share of ups and downs over the past 15 years.

The reason I say “15 years” all comes down to one man: the late Hugo Chávez.

Observers and analysts have been writing about the rise of the left in Latin America, specifically in South America, since Chávez came to power in Venezuela in 1999, ushering in an era in South America known as the Bolivarian Revolution, which has focused on reducing poverty, illiteracy and foreign manipulation.

Chávez was soon followed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, a former union leader and founding member of the Partido dos Trabalhadores. As the ruling party of one of the world’s largest countries and its seventh largest economy, the “Workers’ Party” is widely considered one of the most powerful leftist movements on the planet.

2006 turned out to be a red-letter year for South American leftists. Bachelet, whose father was tortured and died under the regime of Augusto Pincochet, was elected the first woman president of Chile. Evo Morales was elected to the presidency in Bolivia, pushing for indigenous rights and land reform. And Ecuador’s Rafael Correa immediately began reversing his country’s lurch toward further privatization and international indebtedness.

Nearly eight years later, however, the left has gone astray in some parts.

Lula was succeeded in Brazil by technocratic protégé Dilma Rousseff, who rode into office in 2011 with a promise to continue her predecessor’s policies, which for the most part she has. Yet despite her overwhelming popularity, Rousseff and the Workers’ Party found themselves in an awkward situation when massive protests broke out in the summer of 2013, forcing a party who had cut their teeth politically as organizers and activists to choose between maintaining law and order or legitimizing the concerns of protesters.

The result was a mixture of abusive police tactics and emergency reforms. Less than a year later, Rousseff’s popularity has dropped significantly (though she’s still popular), and the once glittering image of her party has been further dulled.

The administration is currently investigating alleged extrajudicial killings carried out by a group of Brazilian police officers in January, and Brazil has been criticized for its unpreparedness as the host country for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

In Bolivia, Morales has come under fire in the past few years for his crackdown on peaceful protesters, some of whom are the very indigenous communities he comes from and claims to represent. Morales, whose vice president has called the administration’s socioeconomic approach “Amazonian capitalism,” planned to build a highway through the Amazonian jungle, but public backlash forced him to scrap the idea.

Correa, who along with Morales joined Chávez’s anti-imperialist Bolivarian Alliance, also faced protests by indigenous peoples angry over increased mining and other environmentally unfriendly policies. Correa has also attacked freedom of press in Ecuador, successfully suing (through a rigged trial) a writer and the editors of one of the country’s biggest newspapers for slander.

Last October he stopped a bill that would’ve decriminalized abortions by threatening to resign. His socialist Alianza PAIS party subsequently lost control of the capital city after local elections in late February.

Then, of course, there’s Venezuela, where crime and inflation are soaring, the economy seems to be in a tailspin, and student protesters led by right-wing capitalists are setting fire to the streets in the capital city in an effort to remove the democratically-elected Chavista government from power.

Venezuela’s militarized police forces and Chavista vigilante groups are suspected of using extreme tactics in their effort to restore order. International observers censure Nicolás Maduro for talking out of both sides of his mouth: calling for peaceful dialogue out of one end, and urging the proletariat to quell the “fascist” uprising out of the other.

So far at least 29 people are dead, hundreds have been arrested and thousands have been detained.

The failures of the left notwithstanding, there are a few reasons for leftists to cheer in the region.

In 2005, with a literacy rate over 95 percent, Venezuela was declared “free of illiteracy” by UNESCO.  Venezuela’s vast oil wealth has allowed the Chavista government to effectively (though not efficiently) drop the rate of people living in extreme poverty, from 23 percent on the day Chávez took office in 1999, to 8.5 percent in 2011.

Chile, Uruguay and Argentina also have relatively low levels of poverty, though Argentina is currently suffering from rising inflation, and neoliberal policies have exploded the wealth gap in Chile.

In Brazil, Bolsa Familia is widely considered by analysts to be a prime example of how to combat poverty. Rousseff appears committed to the 10-year-old cash transfer program, which covers around 50 million brasileños and has decreased child deaths by over 70 percent.

But, for me, the two most promising spots on the map are Chile and Uruguay.

Last December, facing worldwide criticism from the likes of the U.S. government and the UN, Uruguay’s José Mujica signed a bill he’d championed for over a year into law that legalized the production, sale and consumption of marijuana for recreational use.

When the head of the International Narcotics Control Board denounced the law and complained his organization had never consulted, Mujica fired back:

Tell that old man to stop lying and stop showing off to the stands. Tell him to come to Uruguay and he can meet me whenever he wishes. … Anybody can meet and talk to me, and whoever says he couldn’t meet me, he is a liar, a brazen liar.

And on learning that he’d been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the second year in a row in February, the Uruguayan president offered this humble response:

We are only proposing the right to try another path because the path of repression doesn’t work. We don’t know if we’ll succeed. We ask for support, scientific spirit and to understand that no addiction is a good thing.

President “Pepe” is also a former guerrilla leader and the same man who in November 2012 was dubbed “the poorest president in the world” for his spartan lifestyle and the fact that he donates 90 percent of his salary to charity—making him the coolest president in the world, too.

Under normal circumstances, just having one magnetic head of state is enough for a region. But South America might now have two.

Earlier this month Bachelet became only the second person in 62 years to assume the presidency of Chile for a second non-consecutive term. Though her first term wasn’t too successful —there were student protests, an 8.8-magnitude earthquake and a global economic crisis— she left office in 2010 with an approval rating above 80 percent.

And who knows? Had the Chilean Constitution allowed presidents to serve consecutive terms, she might’ve never left.

After her first stint in La Moneda, she became head of the UN’s newly-created women’s organization, a position which she held until she resigned in March 2013 to run for president again. In the interim period she was also leader of the opposition against right-wing Pres. Sebastián Piñera, whose presidency has been described as “one of the worst governments in the history of Chile”—and by members of his own coalition, no less.

Because of the extreme unpopularity of the Piñera administration, and because she’s been a prominent critic of his policies, a Bachelet win had been something of a foregone conclusion in the months leading up to the election.

She won the New Majority primary last June with 73 percent of the vote, beating three other candidates. Though failing to garner the absolute majority of votes needed to win the presidency in November (earning only 47 percent), she beat former Labor Minister Evelyn Matthei in a runoff election held a month later, gaining 62 percent of the vote. Bachelet has a lot on her plate, and much of it is her own doing, having made a bunch of campaign promises that may prove too big to keep.

Bachelet has a lot on her plate, and much of it is her own doing, having made a bunch of campaign promises that may prove too big to keep.

She’s pledged to submit 50 bills to her country’s Parliament during her first 100 days alone.

Some of the bills would reform Chile’s education system, providing, among other things, a decent university education for every Chilean, free of charge. Bachelet has already begun tacking away from the “every” bit of that equation, which will undoubtedly anger students and supporters who voted for her with the understanding that she would guarantee free tuition for all.

In January the president-elect named Claudia Peirano as an undersecretary in the education ministry, but Peirano was forced to reject the offer when students discovered she’d criticized the idea of free tuition for all students back in 2011. Yet Bachelet herself was echoing Peirano’s concerns only a week before the inauguration:

We believe that we have to ensure and enable everyone who has the capacity and talent to receive the education they deserve. There are some people who might not have all the capacities. … But everybody who has the will and capacity should have the possibility.

Whether she’s for free universal tuition or not, an education reform bill will require a four-sevenths vote in the parliament to pass. The president’s New Majority coalition only won a simple majority, enough to pass the tax reform needed to pay for any overhaul of Chile’s education system.

Bachelet’s been equally tight-lipped with the rest of her agenda. She has promised to reform the copper-driven energy industry and keep Chile’s economy growing, though how exactly she intends to do that remains to be seen.

And the other major campaign promise she made —replacing the 1980 Constitution with a new, “more democratic” one— will require cooperation from the opposition if it’s going to get the two-thirds okay from parliament.

Ironically it’s the Constitution, instituted by Pinochet as a symbolic return to democracy, which will likely keep the new president from achieving much of her agenda.

As Chilean legal scholar Jorge Contesse recently explained in The Nation, while the Constitution budged Chile toward democracy, the “technocrats of the dictatorship” wrote the constitution in such a way that ensures right-wing, free-market forces hold greater sway in government.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure whether the recent events in Chile and Uruguay represent a new surge of leftism in South America or simply its last gasp. As much as people like me on the left like to think of the history of civilization as one, slow, faltering though unrelenting advance toward greater freedom, equality and justice, entire library shelves are packed with books documenting otherwise.

And no one knows this more than the people of Chile.

The protests in Venezuela are unlikely to topple the Chavista regime or halt the progress of the Bolivarian Revolution in Latin America. While not nearly as popular as his predecessor, Maduro is nonetheless the democratically elected president of Venezuela, and Chavismo is still overwhelming popular. Hopefully peace can return to that troubled country, and the widespread concern for crime and shortages can be properly addressed, so the people of Venezuela can carry on with the work of creating a free and equal Venezuela.

Brazil needs to redouble its efforts to combat poverty and drug addiction, while adopting a more humane approach to policing. If Rousseff can achieve those two things, and if Brazil successfully hosts the World Cup this summer and the Summer Games in 2016, it’ll serve as a testament to the progress made in South America’s largest country and the party who has governed it for over a decade.

The indigenous peoples of Ecuador and Bolivia must have their voices heard, and the natural treasures of both countries demand protection. Freedom of the press is a universal right and must be guaranteed by the government of Ecuador. Both nations should work domestically and with their neighbors to raise the people out of poverty and ensure that each one has access to a decent education, good housing and proper health care.

All eyes are currently on Uruguay and its experiment with marijuana legalization. A lot hinges on whether the Mujica administration can weaken the black market for the drug and destigmatize users. I also hope his stature as an outspoken critic of the drug war and the effects of neoliberal policies continues to rise this year, his last in office, and he becomes a prominent voice of the leftist movement in all of Latin America.

In October the people of Uruguay will head to the polls to elect Mujica’s successor, which at the moment looks as though it be his predecessor, the immensely popular former Pres. Tabaré Vázquez, who would no doubt continue Mujica’s policies.

Bachelet is poised to be Mujica’s comrade-in-arms for 2014, if she can achieve a mere half of what she has promised—or show that the opposition is thwarting her efforts. Should she become another preeminent voice for global leftism, and should Pres. Rousseff win reelection this fall and Vázquez win in Uruguay, what a progressive trio the presidents of Uruguay, Chile and Brazil will make.

While the state of the left in South America has crumbled in some areas, it remains strong and may even be strengthening in others. Depending on what happens in the coming months, we may be witnessing a rebirth of leftism in the region.


Hector Luis Alamo, Jr. is a Chicago-based writer. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.