The decline of progressivism and the resurgence of the right in Latin America

The decline of progressivism and the resurgence of the right in Latin America

Brazilians who march in the street in defence of democracy (or against the impeachment of the former Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, as in this September 2016 picture taken in São Paulo) have recently experienced an increase in police repression.

(Alisson da Paz)

In 2010, the Argentinian TV station Encuentro broadcast a series of interviews with Latin American presidents that would go down in history: Brazilian Lula da Silva, Venezuelan Hugo Chávez, Ecuadorian Rafael Correa, Argentinian Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Chilean Michelle Bachelet, Uruguayan Pepe Mujica and Paraguayan Fernando Lugo.

All of them, however diverse, had one thing in common: they formed part of those governments describing themselves as progressive.

During the first 15 years of this century, such governments dominated the continent, although the right maintained its hegemony in a number of countries, such as Colombia and Mexico.

But with the heyday of progressivism now over, neoliberalism has returned to power, be it through the ballot box, as was the case in Argentina in 2015, or in its absence, as seen in Brazil. And whilst progressivism continues to endure in countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia, it is becoming ever weaker, in the midst of internal contradictions. One thing is clear: the continent is undergoing a political transition.

Progressivism, for want of a more accurate term that embraces political movements as diverse as Lulismo, Chavismo or Kirchnerismo, emerged in reaction to the neoliberal policies of the 1990s which cut public spending, dismantled the industrial fabric and privatised state-owned companies.

Grassroots mobilisation, led increasingly by indigenous movements, paved the way for these governments: the famous Cochabamba water war in Bolivia, for example, or the “Que se vayan todos” (“Out with them all!”) rallying cry in Argentina following the devastating crisis of 2001.

Progressive governments across the continent restored the power of the state and championed national projects aimed at freeing themselves from imperialist subordination to the United States, prioritising regional integration, with a decisive shift towards Mercosur (the former ‘Common Market of the South’ comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela) and new initiatives such as UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations, made up of 12 countries) or the Banco del Sur (Bank of the South, the Latin American development bank).

There were not only breaks but also continuities, which Argentine sociologist Maristella Svampa summarises in her research as the ‘Commodities Consensus’, referring to how, at a time of high commodity prices, all the countries of Latin America, those governed by the right – grouped within the Pacific Alliance – and the progressives, chose to ‘re-primarise’ their economies, highly dependent on raw materials exports. This was what finally led to the distancing of indigenous and peasant movements, those hardest hit by the socio-environmental repercussions of opencast mega-mining, soybean and oil palm monoculture, oil and gas production and the construction of large dams, etc.

Svampa tells Equal Times about a growing tension between two conflicting narratives: “one, Indianist, eco-territorial and decolonising, centred on respect for nature; and the other, ’national-popular’, with a strong statist and centralist dimension”.

Ecuador exemplifies this dispute, which has been settled in favour of the second option. Hence the criticism from the left: “The criminalisation of social protest has become commonplace under Correísmo. Correa is the right of the 21st century: he has modernised the state to modernise capitalism,” concludes the Ecuadorian economist Alberto Acosta. Ecuadorian economist Magdalena León is also critical: “It is a strategic error for leftists to fight with their ally.”


The new ‘C class’

Unlike the extractivism of the elites, progressive governments - dubbed “neo-extractivists” by Uruguayan Eduardo Gudynas – used part of the income from exports to finance social policies, which allowed them to make unquestionable gains in the fight against poverty and destitution.

In Brazil alone, 30 million people were lifted out of poverty and went on to swell the ranks of the new middle class or the ‘C class’. Lula and his successor Dilma Rousseff achieved this through welfare programmes such as the ‘Bolsa Familia’ (Family Fund), as well as measures to raise retirement pensions in rural Brazil and the sustained increase of the minimum wage, which rose by 70 per cent, after inflation, within a decade.

The problem is that the upward cycle enjoyed by raw materials came to an end and was succeeded by a widespread economic crisis that hit Brazil and the entire region head on. It was then, activist and academic Guilherme Boulos, a member of the Homeless Workers’ Movement, MTST, tells Equal Times that Rousseff had to make a choice: “While the economic cycle was on their side, the Lula and Dilma governments managed to improve the situation of the most disadvantaged groups in society without affecting the interests of the oligarchies.

But the moment of truth came when the economic situation took a turn for the worse.” Lula and Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT) opted for ‘moderation’, earning criticism from the grassroots movements whilst failing to pacify the political and media opposition, which ended up ejecting Rousseff from the presidency in what political scientist Renato Martins describes as an “interruption of the democratic regime”. Yet in the municipal elections in many parts of the country voters went on to endorse the shift to the right, with overwhelming results, such as the victory won by the evangelical pastor Marcelo Crivella in Rio de Janeiro.


Corruption and manipulation

In Brazil, corruption, in particular the Lava Jato case, the corruption scandal hitting Brazil’s biggest state-owned company, Petrobras, was the argument used to oust Rousseff, just two years after voters had given her a second term in office. Little did it matter that corruption is endemic in Brazil and that, although the PT is by no means clean, the blight is much worse amongst the two opposition parties, PSDB and PMDB.

“Eduardo Cunha, who was instrumental in securing her impeachment, is proven to be corrupt, with bank accounts in Switzerland, yet he remains free whilst others are being held in jail without any conclusive evidence,” says Martins.

The Lava Jato operation pointed the finger at the entire political system, but the person who fell was Rousseff. Martins calls it “selective justice”, and points to the collusion of the media, which shouted about the corruption in the PT while keeping quiet or downplaying the rest.

“Something similar is happening in Argentina, where the media hegemony, headed by the Clarín Group, make front-page news of corruption allegations linked to Kirchnerismo but overlook the bank accounts in Panama linked to Mauricio Macri.

“Selective justice”, in Martin’s view, has enabled Rousseff’s former vice president, Michel Temer, to take over the presidency without any legitimacy, and to impose emergency measures geared towards dismantling income redistribution.

The most blatant case is the PEC 241,which, if approved by the Senate, would lay down limits in the constitution on social spending and would, among other things, restrict increases in the minimum wage to inflation adjustments. In practice, Martins points out: “This would amount to supressing the key role of amending the budget” in Congress. The Brazilians who decided to march in the street in defence of democracy have already experienced the rise in police repression, in the flesh.


Populism adrift

There were other mistakes that precipitated the collapse of the progressive cycle. Although progress was made in terms of social indicators, the model followed was that of ‘inclusion through consumption’ rather than through the expansion of rights.

Furthermore, in many cases, pluralism ended up being more rhetorical than real; left-wing ‘populisms’ gradually headed towards “more traditional models of domination,” which tended to “reduce the scope for pluralism and legitimising the concentration of public power in the person of the president,” in Svampa’s words.

Another problem has been the excessive personalism of many of these political projects, which find themselves in crisis when they lose their leader: Nicolás Maduro has not managed to take Chávez’s place, whilst Fernández de Kirchner left the presidency with a high popularity rating but without a successor capable of winning the election.

In Argentina, Macri’s arrival brought with it a reminder of the differences between the progressives and a neoliberal right, despite the latter being cloaked in a discourse described by sociologist Gabriel Vommaro as “NGOist and new age”.

One of the first Macrista measures was to scrap taxes on mining companies and to cut those on soybean producers, at the same time as domestic electricity, water and gas rates were increased by up to 700 per cent. Another redistribution of income is underway and threatens to roll back the gains from fifteen years of centre-left governments. Martins predicts a dark future for Brazil: “The return is coming of a social barbarity that has historically characterised Brazil.”

The question is, to what extent the right can reverse the societal changes left by 15 years of progressive government, and the response, undoubtedly, lies in the pressure that civil society manages to keep up in the streets.


This article has been translated from Spanish.