ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Latin America: A 'Red Tide'?



A ‘Red Tide’?

he death of general Augusto Pinochet on December 10 brings back memories of his commanding role in the massive human rights violations that involved thousands of victims of disappearance, exile, imprisonment and torture who

Economic and Political Weekly December 16, 2006

have been denied justice. Thirty-three years have now passed since the overthrow of the democratically elected Chilean government of Salvadore Allende and his death in the presidential palace on September 11, 1973. In a sense, Allende’s ideals of socialism (and socialist democracy) are being marked in Latin America over the last 13 months in the victories of a series of left candidates in presidential elections in the region. The spectre of a “red tide” once again seems to be haunting the moneybags of the region and their external patron, the Eagle of the North (Aguila del Norte). But spectres aside, what do the most recent electoral triumphs of left candidates in presidential elections in Latin America tell us about the prospects of the left there?

Hugo Chávez’s overwhelming victory in the Venezuelan presidential election held on December 3, with 63 per cent of the vote cast in his favour, comes as no surprise. This victory of the new icon of the Latin American left is only the latest in a series of triumphs of left candidates in recent presidential elections – in Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Of course, left presidential candidates have also lost, as in Mexico and Peru. In Mexico, Manuel López Obrador of the centre-left Democratic Revolution Party (known as PRD) lost the July 2 presidential election by a narrow margin, albeit amidst credible evidence of electoral fraud.

In Venezuela, Chávez has more or less been in power since 1998; re-elected in 2000, he overcame a coup attempt in 2002 and a recall referendum in 2004, and has now been once again re-elected with a massive margin of victory. It was essentially after the failed coup in April 2002 that Chávez and his Fifth Republic Movement began implementing a radical re-distributive socio-economic policy with the mass mobilisation of his constituency among the poor. Chávez has successfully channelled a significant part of the surplus derived from the petroleum industry into a number of “Bolivarian Missions” that have been combating poverty, malnutrition, disease, illiteracy, and so on. Frankly, he has been able to take the first steps towards the creation of an alternative to capitalism (what he calls “21st century socialism”) without having to directly confront capital (which still controls the economy, the media and the judiciary) because of what he did to the oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), ensuring that a significant part of the surpluses extracted (with the benefit of rising oil prices) are directed towards social programmes benefiting the people. In Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) was re-elected in October with around 60 per cent of the vote in his favour, though this was in a second round run-off. The left in Brazil had been weakened by the centrist shift of Lula, in particular, his adoption of the same orthodox macroeconomic policy of his predecessor, Cardoso, including compliance with the fiscal and monetary targets set by the International Monetary Fund.

Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional or FSLN), won the Nicaraguan presidential election held on November 5. The FSLN had been moving from the left towards the centre over the last decade or more, even endorsing the US proposal of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. But the business elite and their US principals are still suspicious of the former guerrillas who once overthrew the brutal dictator Anastasio Somoza. Much will now depend on the socio-political movements from below in swerving the FSLN from the centre to the left. After all, Ortega’s counterpart in Ecuador, Rafael Correa, who won the November 26 presidential elections there by a huge margin (65 per cent of the vote), unlike the small margin of victory in Nicaragua, did so on an electoral platform that was opposed to neoliberalism and US hegemony, and this under pressure of his constituents from below.

So what of the prospects of the left in Latin America? Clearly, one has to look concretely at what is happening in each of the countries to assess these prospects. There is not much uniformity across the countries where left political candidates have won in the recent presidential elections. But one thing seems clear – much depends on how, in what manner and the extent to which the socio-political movements from below pressurise the left electoral political parties in power to move beyond “national capitalism with a human face”. And, if there is a lesson from Allende’s Chile, it is that one will have to guard against US-backed Pinochets hovering in the shadows.


Economic and Political Weekly December 16, 2006

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