December 26, 2021

The Political Needle Bends to the Left in Latin America

Vijay Prashad, Taroa Zúñiga Silva

FOUR emblematic coups have been now substantially reversed: Chile (1973), Peru (1992), Honduras (2009), and Bolivia (2019). Each of these coups were driven by political forces of the hard right backed by the military and by the United States government. Left-leaning governments will all be in power after March 2022, when Gabriel Boric of the Apreubo Dignidad (Approve Dignity) alliance will be sworn in as president of Chile. In January 2022, Xiomara Castro will be the president of Honduras, and in Bolivia and Peru, President Luis Arce and President Pedro Castillo are already in office. Arce, Castillo, Castro, and Boric fought election campaigns against nasty political forces, each of them near-fascist with close ties to the United States government. It was clear that Washington wanted to see these near-fascists in power, so that its agenda to squeeze the Left across Latin America would advance. But Arce, Castillo, Castro, and Boric emerged victorious based on broad coalitions of workers and peasants, the impoverished urban precariat and the declining middle-class. Mass mobilisations defined the election campaigns from the high plateau of Bolivia to the Caribbean lowlands of Honduras.


The laboratory for neoliberal policy was in Chile after the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the socialist project of President Salvador Allende in 1973. Pinochet brought in the Chicago Boys to hastily give the US-based multinational companies the best deal possible (particularly for Chilean copper), to allow the Chilean oligarchy to have an extended tax holiday, and to privatise most essential public services and programmes (including pensions). What enabled the Pinochet coup regime to last till 1990 was brute force against the organised labour and socialist sections as well as reasonably high copper prices. The turn to democracy after 1990 was managed by an agreement amongst liberals (called the Concertacíon) not to dismantle the neoliberal project but only to have the army withdraw to the barracks.

The surrender by the liberals to the Pinochet-era policies was not simply a Chilean phenomenon. The Third World debt crisis in the 1980s and the demise of the USSR in 1991 throttled the ability even of Left forces to propose any new socialist project. It was in this period that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) became an important factor in Latin American politics, pushing for austerity regimes upon societies that had no ability to tolerate public sector cuts. When the IMF demanded austerity in Peru in 1992, the right-wing President Alberto Fujimori conducted a self-coup to dismantled the Congress and judiciary and seize power. No such coup was necessary in other countries largely because their liberals conceded to IMF policies without a nudge. A few months before Fujimori’s self-coup, President Carlos Andrés Pérez adopted the IMF package with deep cuts in fuel subsidies at its heart. This package resulted in a mass uprising – the Caracazo – which inspired a young military officer, Hugo Chávez, to enter political life due to the violence used by Pérez to discipline the population into IMF austerity.

Chávez spoke not only for the Venezuelan people when he decided to run for the presidency in 1998, but his voice carried down to Patagonia and up to the Mexican-US border. He articulated a strong view against neoliberalism, which Chávez considered to be a policy of mass starvation. The election victory of Chávez on an anti-neoliberalism platform and his articulation of a continental Bolivarian policy – named after the great liberator of Spanish America, Simón Bolívar – inspired a range of political forces across Latin America and the Caribbean. It is remarkable how quickly the countries elected Left political formations: Haiti (2001), Argentina (2003), Brazil (2003), Uruguay (2005), Bolivia (2006), Honduras (2006), Ecuador (2007), Nicaragua (2007), Guatemala (2008), Paraguay (2008), and El Salvador (2009). These formations might not all have been as much to the Left as Chávez and the Cuban Revolution, but they certainly began to open new directions out of a frayed neoliberalism. The combination of the US illegal war on Iraq (2003), the global financial crisis (2007-08), and the general fragility of US power globally provided the international context for the rise of what was called ‘the pink tide’.


Fragility of US hegemony did not mean that the United States would allow these projects to develop without challenge in what the US has – since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine – claimed as its ‘backyard’. The first salvo against the ‘pink tide’ took place in Haiti, where President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed by a vicious coup in 2004 (he had experienced a previous US-backed coup in 1991 but returned to power in 1994); Aristide was effectively kidnapped by the US and the French and sent off to South Africa, while the authorities in the country conducted a purge of his political allies. The US coup against Aristide was followed five years later by a coup against the Honduran presidency of the liberal Manuel Zelaya, who was removed from office violently and sent off to the Dominican Republic. These coups came alongside a quieter and harsher strategy of the hybrid war, where the United States joined forces with the right-wing oligarchy of Latin America to use economic war, diplomatic war, communication war and a series of other hostile acts to isolate and damage their adversaries.

The hybrid war techniques had already been developed against Cuba since the 1960s: attempted isolation by excluding Cuba from the Organisation of American States in 1962 (with Mexico being the holdout), suffocation of the Cuban economy by sanctions and a blockade (broken by the USSR’s act of international solidarity), a communications war that included disparagement of the communist leadership, and acts of violence including invasions (at the Bay of Pigs in 1961) and 638 assassination attempts against Castro. This was the template for the hybrid wars against Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, with new forms of lawfare (using the law as a weapon) against the Left project in Paraguay (with the impeachment of Lugo in 2012) and in Brazil (with the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and the malicious arrest of Lula in 2018). A self-coup in Ecuador by President Lenin Moreno in 2016 came with a terrible deal – withdrawal of legal proceedings against US multinational oil companies and the surrender of Julian Assange to British authorities in exchange for an IMF-backed credit infusion. The creation of the Lima Group – engineered by the US and Canada – against the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela came in 2017, with the theft of Venezuelan resources and the creation of a fake president to challenge the legitimacy of the Venezuelan political process. The US government opened a fierce war against the people of Latin America and the Caribbean camouflaged behind the language of ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’.


The Left in Latin America has never been unitary. Older currents had been greatly damaged by the dictatorships of the 1970s and the 1980s, with thousands of cadres and sympathisers killed and entire traditions of thought and praxis lost to new generations. What was recovered in the 1990s came out of the resilience of the Cuban Revolution, the visionary leadership of Chávez, and the new social movements that emerged in opposition to austerity and to racism (particularly against the native communities of the hemisphere) as well as for the expansion of social rights (notably women’s rights and rights of sexual minorities) and for a better relationship to nature. Different traditions of Left thought developed, including different references of what counted as the Left (including a strong current inspired by the example of the Zapatistas in Mexico and their emergence in 1994).

The importance of Chávez is that he was able to bring together these various currents and bridge the political suspicions between those who favoured political activity through parties and through social movements. It was in the wake of Chávez’s immense political advance in Venezuela and in the continent that other such Left social formations began to emerge.

But, with the collapse of commodity prices since 2010 and the death of Chávez in 2013, the US imperialist agenda seized an advantage. The coup against Evo Morales in 2019 was done in the name of ‘democracy’, oddly backed by liberal forces who felt comfortable standing with racist and fascists adopted by the US government as the ‘democrats’ of Bolivia. By portraying Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela as the ‘troika of tyranny’, the United States was able to drive a wedge within the Left, peeling away sections that now felt uneasy being in alliance with these revolutionary processes. The victory of the hybrid war in sowing these divisions delayed the return of the Left in many countries and allowed the neo-fascists – such as Bolsonaro in Brazil – to take power. The divides remain intact, with progressive forces in Chile, Colombia, and Peru eager to distance themselves from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela using the vocabulary provided by US propaganda.

Nonetheless, the objective conditions of the fatal impossibility of permanent austerity enabled Left forces to reassemble and strike back. Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) did not collapse but resisted the coup regime with bravery and then fought to hold elections during the pandemic and returned to power in Bolivia with a majority in 2020. While the Left and Left-liberal forces in Honduras had been battered after the coup in 2009, they fought hard in the elections of 2013 and 2017 (losing – experts say – to widespread election fraud); Xiomara Castro, who lost in 2013, finally won a near landslide in 2021. A very fragile coalition gathered together around the candidacy of a teacher union leader, Pedro Castillo, who won a narrow victory against the right-wing candidate in Peru (the daughter of Alberto Fujimori, who conducted the self-coup in 1992). While in Bolivia, the roots of the movement to build socialism are deep and have been deepened by the gains achieved under the 14 years leadership of Evo Morales, these roots are much shallower in Honduras and Peru. Pedro Castillo has already been largely isolated from his own movement and the agenda he has been able to advance has been decidedly modest.

Commodity prices remain low, whose revenues had provided the fuel for the ‘pink tide’ of twenty years ago. But there is now a changed context across Latin America, namely a more engaged China. China’s interest in expanding the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across Latin America has meant that Chinese investment has provided new sources of financing for development in the region. It is widely accepted in Latin America that the BRI project is an antidote to Washington’s IMF project, the neoliberal austerity agenda that is largely discredited. With little original capital to invest in Latin America, the United States has mainly its military and diplomatic power to use against the arrival of Chinese investment; Latin America, therefore, has become a major front in the US-imposed cold war on China. In each of the new Left projects, China will play a significant role. That is why Xiomara Castro has said that an early visit for her will be to Beijing, while Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega decided to recognise the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate representative of China in the United Nations system. No doubt that from Mexico to Chile, the question of Chinese investment has altered the balance of forces and will likely bring together political groups that would otherwise not tolerate each other. The US is trying to portray China as a ‘dictatorship’ to appeal to those sections of the progressive majorities that have already been trained to be suspicious of the Cuban and Bolivarian revolutionary projects.

In 2022, there will be crucial elections in Brazil and Colombia. In Brazil, Lula leads all the polls and is likely to return to the presidency if the hybrid war strategies fail to stop him. Lula has been significantly radicalised by the attack on him and would likely be less willing to compromise with Brazil’s entrenched oligarchies and would likely be a firmer ally of the revolutionary processes in Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela as well as to Left governments elsewhere. Comments made by Lula and by Dilma Rousseff suggest that they will develop a close relationship with China to balance the suffocating impact of US power. Colombia, an old ally of the US where violence has been used by an illiberal oligarchy to maintain power, might see the victory of popular Left candidate, Gustavo Petro. Anti-austerity protests in Colombia have defined the country’s politics from before the Covid-19 pandemic and will likely set the terms for the election campaign. If Lula and Petro win, then Latin America will come closer to establishing a new regional project that is not defined by US-driven economic austerity and resource theft as well as political submission.