Socialist Alternative

Everything Solid Melts into Air: Revolution and Counterrevolution in Latin America

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Three decades after the cynical announcements of the “end of history” from the idealogues of big capital, drunk with the fall of the Berlin wall, we are living through a dramatic acceleration of the historical period.

By André Ferrari, LSR (CWI in Brazil)

From Sudan and Algeria to Hong Kong; from Chile, Ecuador, and Haiti to Catalonia; from Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq to France, we are witnessing popular rebellions, mass struggles, and a heroic resistance against established governments, their politics of neoliberal austerity, and their growing authoritarianism. In several countries, elements of revolution and counterrevolution characterize these processes.

This is the case in Latin America, which is once again becoming the epicenter of global turmoil and struggle. A hallmark of the process in Latin America is the repudiation of neoliberal politics adopted by rightwing governments in favor of the banks, big businesses, and imperialism. But this situation has also put the supposed “progressive” forces that have occupied governments in the recent period under historic pressure.

This rejection of neoliberalism has expressed itself on the streets, through strike action, through the mobilization of workers, of the youth, of the women’s movement, and of the indigenous and peasant movements. In some places, dissatisfaction was transformed into explosive mass movements that forced governments against the wall and opened up revolutionary situations. This was the case in Ecuador during the month of October and still is the case in Chile.

Struggles and elections – Argentina and Colombia

In other countries, such as Argentina and Colombia, mass revolts expressed themselves through action, with five general strikes against Macri in Argentina, and the recent November general strike against Iván Duque in Colombia. But the explosive potential of these struggles was temporarily contained by the hope of defeating the right at the polls in crucial elections.

The current ultra-rightwing Colombian president Iván Duque and his mentor, the ex-president Álvaro Uribe, suffered painful defeats in the 27 October regional elections, including in the capital Bogotá, and in Medellín where their party was expected to win but came in last place.

In Argentina, Macri’s defeat in the first round of the elections on the same day, 27 October, marked a rejection by broad swathes of society of a government that has driven the country towards an economic and social collapse. Hunger, unemployment, and the collapse of public services plague the country, bogged in recession and on the brink of a default on its debts.

Macri, the prodigy of neoliberalism and of Trump, who was meant to serve as an example to the rest of Latin America on how a new “modern” neoliberal right could consolidate power and dislodge supposedly “populist” center-left governments, ended up doing the exact opposite. Macri is the living proof of the absolute failure of neoliberalism as an alternative for Latin America.

The social conditions for an explosion of the same type as the “Argentinazo” of December 2001 and like what we are seeing in countries like Ecuador today, also exist in Argentina. The new government of Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will bet all their chips on building a new “social pact” to prevent such an outcome, while at the same time making sure to stay in step with the IMF and the essence of its austerity politics.

How long they will be able to hold off the hurricane of popular dissent is an open question. But one thing is for sure — there is no way to better the lives of the people while also making peace with the IMF and continuing to pay dividends to bankers and speculators.

The fresh experiences the Argentinian people have lived through with Peronism and Kirchnerism in particular, also mean that drawing new lessons from the current period will not have to be done “from scratch”. The lessons of this period can be learned much more rapidly and dynamically than in the past. An alternative presented by the socialist left, rooted in workers’ struggles, must be built out of of this experience.

Revolutionary winds blow through Ecuador

That same revolutionary whirlwind that the social pact of the new Fernández-Fernández government hopes to avoid in Argentina has already swept through Ecuador and Chile and brings panic to imperialism and the ruling classes of Latin America.

In Ecuador, we saw a mass response to a government elected with a “progressive” rhetoric, based on the continuation of the so-called “citizen’s revolution” of ex-president Rafael Correa, but once in power has only done the bidding of the IMF and imperialism.

President Lenín Moreno was made to face the popular fury aroused by his package of neoliberal measures, in particular the cuts to transport subsidies and the rise in the cost of fuel. The movement quickly transformed itself into a popular rebellion, drawing on the participation of workers, of the youth, of women, and a particularly heroic role played by indigenous Ecuadorians organized through the CONAIE movement.

Brutal and cowardly repression could not stop indigenous communities, the workers and the people in the streets from taking over the capital, Quito. Lenín Moreno was forced to flee to Guayaquil and withdraw his austerity measures, an important victory for the movement.

At the same time, the government opened negotiations, mediated by the UN and the Catholic church, with elements of the indigenous and popular movement. The fundamental objective was to get people off the streets and to avoid letting the rebellion turn into a revolution that would raise the question of political power. 

The government’s strategy has had the desired effect, at least for now. But nevertheless the government has lost its prestige in the eyes of a mass movement that has had a taste of its own strength, and will not stand aside if faced with new attacks.

New battles will come in Ecuador, but until then it is important that we learn lessons from this experience, particularly that we need a revolutionary strategy along with an anti-capitalist, socialist program as the only possible alternative to the crisis in Latin America. A political force that can defend this program and this strategy must be built.

Chile – social earthquake in the neoliberal “oasis”

Only days after the Ecuadorian uprising, the Chilean people made a powerful demonstration of the political volatility present not only Latin America but in many parts of the world today.

The rightwing president Sebastian Piñera had previously declared that Chile was an oasis of stability in a turbulent Latin America. Days later he announced that Chile was “at war with a powerful and implacable enemy.”

In fact, it was the response of the youth to the rise in metro fares in Santiago that served as the fuse for the “powerful and implacable” social movement. But as the protesters chanted in the streets, “It’s not just 30 pesos, it’s 30 years!” It has been 30 years since a “transition” to a “democracy” that has preserved in essence the political and economic system from Pinochet’s dictatorship: radical neoliberalism, extreme social inequality, and authoritarianism. Even with the amendments adopted over the years, even the country’s Constitution remains the same as the dictatorship’s.

Piñera responded to the popular uprising with methods of war, worthy of Pinochet: using the military and the police for brutal repression in the streets, arbitrary imprisonment, and outright torture. The government’s official death count has reached 23. The number of protesters that have lost their vision in at least one eye has already surpassed 220, which shows that it was the state’s deliberate intention to shoot protesters in the face.

The repression only served to radicalize the mass movement. In addition to protests that drew out over a million people onto the streets, the movement counted on the decisive role of the working class, acting as a class, and carrying out powerful general strikes. The participation of the youth, of women, and the combative movement of the indigenous Mapuche people, as well as others, were also decisive factors.

Piñera therefore decided to retreat, made public apologies, swapped around several ministers, and asked to open a dialogue and form a government for national unity. He announced a set of concessions at the same time, which went beyond just retracting the rise in transit fares, which he would never have done without having been shoved against the wall by the force of mass movements.

Among these concessions, it is expected that energy costs will be reduced, pensions increased, a cap on prescription drug costs will be established, as well as new taxes on the rich. In addition, Piñera announced a reduction in the salaries of members of parliament and government functionaries, term limits, etc.

Instead of containing the mass movements, these concessions only gave proof to the power of direct action in the streets, and the movement continued to grow. And so Piñera, with the support of the whole political establishment, proposed a process of revising the country’s constitution, which would begin with a referendum in April 2020 on whether a new Constituent Assembly should be formed.

However, this would amount to nothing more than a political maneuver, as even in the case of a Constituent Assembly under the proposals, the currently existing Congress as well as Piñera himself as president, both reviled, would be included. In addition, by requiring a 2/3 majority on all proposals, it would give the right an effective veto.

For workers, there is no exit from the crisis in Chile while Piñera remains as president. Additionally, a legitimate Constituent Assembly must be built from mobilization and organization from the bottom up, and be elected freely and openly to assume sovereign power in the country reflecting the strength and the will of the workers and the people.

A Constituent Assembly of this character would represent a step in the direction of a government of workers and all exploited and oppressed people. The power demonstrated by the mass movement is capable of seizing this historic victory. But to do this, it must not allow establishment forces to keep Piñera in power, or allow them to push through a constitutional revision from the top down, under their control.

Bolivia – the whip of counterrevolution

On the other side of the explosive and polarized situation in Latin America is the reactionary and pro-imperialist coup in Bolivia which began in early November. This coup, at this moment, is a reaction to the processes of advancing mass struggle in other countries. It can also be viewed as a “preventative counterrevolution”, ahead of the potential revolts in several countries.

After Honduras, Paraguay, Brazil, and now Bolivia, a coup as a route to power for the right is being considered more and more explicitly in many countries, and there is no doubt that this opens a new risk for Venezuela. The role of Trump and the authoritarian Bolsonaro are aggravating factors in this scenario. In the case of Bolsonaro, this goes as much for outside of Brazil as for within the country.

The coup in Bolivia was carried out by exploiting the diminished standing of Evo Morales after 13 years in power in the eyes of several sectors of the population, including part of his original social base of workers, peasants, and indigenous people who have come into conflict with the Morales government several times. One such instance was the repression in 2011 of the indigenous mobilization against plans to construct a ‘TIPNIS’ highway – through protected indigenous territory.The elections of 20 October were the fuse that set off an open conflict. Evo Morales sought to be elected for his fourth presidential mandate, despite having lost the referendum that would have allowed his reelection. The small margin in ballot counts that would have guaranteed him outright victory in the first round, as well as the lack of transparency in the count, created an unsustainable situation, and allowed the reactionary right to cynically wrap itself in the banner of supposed democracy, deceiving certain sectors of the population. What prevailed was the reactionary, authoritarian, racist, and pro-imperialist character of Evo Morales’ opposition.

The decisive factor in the coup was the change in allegiances on the part of the command of the Armed Forces. This took place soon after a mutiny of the National Police that began in Cochabamba and extended throughout the country. Without the army and without the police, Evo Morales would have had to bet on the mobilization of the masses to defend himself. He chose not to do this, fearing the radicalization of the masses. But it is also questionable whether this would have been possible for Morales given his damaged standing. In the end, he resigned at the insistence of the Armed Forces.The fact that after Morales’ exile, the resistance against the coup has only grown is the decisive factor of the moment. The “whip of counterrevolution” has once again only invigorated the “revolution” itself. The indigenous population, peasants, and workers of El Alto have served as the vanguard of this process of resistance, but the fight has expanded to the region of Chapare, where Evo is from, as well as peasant communities in several parts of the country.

The coup has not yet been able to consolidate itself, and the self-proclaimed president Jeanine Áñez is hated by all and effectively has no social base. As interim president, she is supported by the traditionalist right, lead by the defeated candidate Carlose Mesa, and by the emergent far-right formed around Luis Fernando Camacho of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, a key figure in the coup. But, Áñez can only base herself on the barrel of a gun and on the ongoing brutal repression that could force Bolivia into a civil war.

New elections in the context of this coup, this repression, and the open persecution of left and popular forces would have nothing in common with democracy, and will not serve to stabilize the country.

Much as in 2003, in the war over Bolivia’s gas reserves, when a mass movement toppled Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and in 2005 when it toppled the same aforementioned Carlos Mesa, and in 2008 when it defeated the coup promoted by the right in Santa Cruz and the “Media Luna” region of the country, the mass movement of today can defeat this right-wing coup.

To accomplish this, this time, it will be necessary to surpass the limits imposed by the leadership of Evo Morales, who in each of these situations restrained the movement and prevented it from driving forward to its natural conclusion. While absolute unity is necessary to defeat the coup, a new alternative is also necessary, of a socialist and revolutionary left, drawing lessons from the recent defeat represented by the coup, and aiming to reverse the situation in favor of the Bolivian peop

Socialist unity in Latin America

Bolsonaro, along with the whole of the Latin American right, fears the revolutionary winds blowing in from neighboring countries. The right is preparing itself for similar situations in Brazil. The socialist left in Brazil, as well as the broader workers’ movement, must be prepared for a new cycle of struggle that will be decisive for the future of people in our region.

The limits of Latin American “progressivism”, which has refused to break with capitalism, opened the door for the resurgence of the right and even the far-right. The crisis faced by this resurgent right itself opens new possibilities. It will not be the old center-left that will be capable of pointing a way out of this increasingly complex situation. The construction of a serious new socialist alternative that could point the way to a rupture with imperialism and capitalism and could raise the banner of a Socialist Federation of Latin American countries is now a question of life or death. There is not a moment to waste.

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