Latin America’s left at the crossroads

Income inequality rose under Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Gallo/Getty)

William I. Robinson writes at Al Jazeera on the subject of the Pink Tide–“the ambiguous turn to the left in recent years in several Latin American countries”:

The Pink Tide governments have been “leftist” insofar as they have introduced limited wealth redistribution, restored a minimal role for the state in regulating accumulation, and administered government expansion in more inclusionary ways. When we cut through the rhetoric, however, a number of these governments – such as the Socialists in Chile, Kirchner in Argentina, and Lula in Brazil – were able to push forward capitalist globalisation with greater credibility than their orthodox neo-liberal predecessors, and, in doing so, to deradicalise dissent and demobilise social movements. What emerged was an elected progressive bloc in the region committed to mild redistributive programmes respectful of prevailing property relations and unwilling or simply unable to challenge the global capitalist order – a new, post-neo-liberal form of the national state tied to the larger institutional networks of global capitalism.

In many Pink Tide countries there has been no significant change in the unequal distribution of income or wealth, and indeed, inequality may actually be increasing.  Nor has there been any shift in basic property and class relations despite changes in political blocs, despite discourse favouring the popular classes, and despite mildly reformist or social welfare measures. In Argentina, for instance, the percentage of national income going to labour (through wages) and to the unemployed and pensioners (through social welfare subsidies and pensions) dropped from 32.5 per cent in 2001, before the crisis exploded, to 26.7 per cent in 2005. In Kirchner’s own words, the aim of his policies was to reconstruct capitalism in the country, “a capitalism in which the state plays an intelligent role, regulating, controlling, and mitigating where necessary problems that the market does not solve”. Despite its social programmes, the Kirchner administration worked to demobilise and divide Argentina’s social movements.

In Brazil, the wealthy grew in number by 11.3 per cent in 2005 alone as inequality deepened. “Far from doing any harm to the propertied, this [Lula] was a government that greatly benefitted them,” historian Perry Anderson observed in a recent essay in the London Review of Books. “Never has capital so prospered as under Lula … Brazilian financiers and industrialists have been warm supporters of Lula’s government.” The Brazilian stock market outperformed every other bourse in the world. However, Anderson noted that outlays to the Bolsa Familia, a popular social welfare program, totalled a mere 0.5 per cent of GDP, while rentier incomes from the public debt comprised 6 to 7 per cent of GDP and taxes remained staggeringly regressive.

Lula also gave powerful support to agribusiness instead of to small farms and the landless. In the countryside, land ownership was more concentrated at the end of Lula’s term than it was 50 years ago. Because there have been no structural transformations that have addressed the causes of poverty and inequality in Brazil, the improvement in living standards is based on government social programmes that could be reversed or eliminated should a right-wing government come to power or should an economic downturn force austerity.

On the other hand, Venezuela has attempted to organise a radical anti-neo-liberal bloc, seeking what Chavez has termed “21st-century socialism” that, at least in discourse, included Bolivia under Morales and Ecuador under Correa. Redistributive reforms have been much deeper in Venezuela than in other Pink Tide countries, and have attemped to transform state structure and property relations, and empower the popular classes.

In all three countries, constitutional assemblies have convened by popular referendum to redraft the constitution in favour of the popular classes, the most egregious neo-liberal policies have been reversed, and natural resources have been renationalised. There are ongoing land redistributions in Venezuela and promises of such programmes in Bolivia and Ecuador.

The Venezuelan government has nationalised a significant number of large companies in the power, telecommunications, steel, food, cement and banking sectors, encouraged the formation of hundreds of thousands of small business cooperatives, and distributed several million hectares of land to farmers.

However, it must be remembered that these more radical governments were brought to power through electoral processes that placed them at the reins of corrupt, clientalist, bureaucratic, and oligarchic states of the ancient regimes. In Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, prevailing state institutions have tried to constrain, dilute, and coopt mass struggles from below. In Venezuela, the biggest threat to the revolution is not the right-wing opposition, but what has been called the “endogenous” or “Chavista” right, whose penchant for state sinecures, local power fiefdoms, and acquiring business contracts through state or party privilege make them more interested in preventing a break with global capitalism than in socialist transformation from below.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

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