Latin America’s Fourth Left Wave Since the Cuban Revolution is Social Democratic
ON August 7, 2022, Colombia will have a new president (Gustavo Petro) and a vice president (Francia Márquez), both stalwarts of the country’s left-wing movements. They will form the first left government since the country won its independence in 1810. Two months later, on October 2, the people of Brazil will vote in the first round of their presidential elections. Polls show clearly that the former president and left leader, Lula, has an advantage over the right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro; there is even a suggestion that Lula might prevail in the first round and prevent the second-round vote on October 30. If Lula wins, then of the twenty countries in Latin America, more than half would have a government of the centre-left to the left.
The current wave of election victories for the left and centre-left does not entirely mirror the situation in the 2000s when a ‘pink tide’ developed after the left-wing breakthrough in Venezuela led by Hugo Chávez. At that time, the United States was focused on the Middle East, commodity prices were high, and there was a general sentiment across the region against the previous military and neoliberal regimes. Chávez led a process known as Bolivarianism that combined regional integration with policies geared to address deep-rooted social problems in the hemisphere. It was widely acknowledged that hunger could not be abolished, for instance, without a departure from dependence on Northern Atlantic capital markets and on the US military presence. Anti-imperialism shaped the broad social programmes in the Bolivarian experiments from Venezuela to Argentina.
The current election victories have taken place in conditions far more uncertain than in the decade of the 2000s. On the one hand, US imperialism is seen to be much more fragile than it was twenty years ago, with the feebleness of the US economy, the desperate attempt to weaken China and Russia by the United States, and a rising mood around the world that no longer seeks to follow Washington’s dictation. It is due to these developments that one can see a new buoyancy in Latin America, with the Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador providing evidence of the kind of independent thinking about foreign relations that is now commonplace from South Africa to Indonesia. But, on the other hand, the global inflation crisis, the problems of credit and debt, and the vulgarity of Washington’s threats have stayed the hand of many of these governments to frontally challenge US imperialism. Caught between a US-imposed Cold War against China and Russia, many of the countries in Latin America would rather sit it out, wait for general economic recovery, and meanwhile provide basic social welfare schemes as the limit of their ambitions. We are not, therefore, seeing Bolivarianism in its second phase.
Brazil and Colombia are good examples of the new moment, although this general orientation is visible in both Chile and Mexico. In these countries, the ruling classes – backed fully by US imperialism – remain in control of the economy. While the centre-left government of Gabriel Boric in Chile said it would nationalise the copper mines, its hand was stayed by this powerful bourgeoisie (this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the nationalization of copper in Chile by President Salvador Allende, whose government was overthrown in a coup the next year). The old capitalist classes maintain the old social hierarchies, entwining them with the power of US imperialism and the narco-capitalism of our times. Petro’s government in Colombia, for instance, has already been told by the armed forces that they will not tolerate any basic reforms (General Eduardo Zapateiro resigned in late July to prevent having to swear in Petro as the president – that’s the attitude). Finally, because of austerity policies and the legacy of the military dictatorships, the working-class and peasantry in the hemisphere are relatively fragmented and disorganised. Their inability to drive a radical agenda in many of these countries has been seen repeatedly. For instance, in Peru, despite the election of left-leaning Perú Libre’s Pedro Castillo to the presidency, the social and political movements have simply not been able to hold him to account as his government has drifted away from its commitments. The crisis in Argentina around a return to the IMF similarly shows the limitedness of the popular forces to drive their agenda through a government that is of the left. It is therefore proper to consider the possibilities merely to be social democratic and not socialist in this period.
MONROE DOCTRINE AND THE CUBAN REVOLUTION
Two hundred years ago, the forces of Simón Bolívar trounced the Spanish imperialists at the Battle of Carabobo and opened a period of independence for Latin America. The next year, in 1823, the United States government announced the Monroe Doctrine. On the surface, the Monroe Doctrine merely says that Europe has no right to intervene in the Americas. However, a close read of the text, the debates in the US around this text, and the use of this Doctrine indicates that it was the constitution of US imperialism, now no longer merely for the Americas but a Global Monroe Doctrine. By this Doctrine, the United States gave itself the right to intervene politically and militarily in the countries of the Americas whenever and wherever it wished. It was based on this doctrine that the US intervened repeatedly in Central America, the Caribbean, and South America, overthrowing governments as recently as 2009 (Honduras) and attempting to overthrow governments currently (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela).
Resistance to the Monroe Doctrine emerged when it became clear that the US would use this as a licence to intervene in the hemisphere and not to prevent European imperialism. After all, when Britain secured the Malvinas Islands from Argentina in 1833, the US did not stand against the Europeans, and nor did the US prevent the entry of European capital to subordinate the new states of the Americas (catalogued in great detail by Eduardo Galeano in his Open Veins of Latin America, 1971). The US intervention into Mexico in 1846-1848 resulted in the US annexing a third of Mexico’s sovereign territory, a violation of the territorial and national rights of Mexico. These events – Malvinas, Mexico – show the real face of the Monroe Doctrine, an instrument of US imperialism in the hemisphere that has been virtually adopted by the Organisation of American States, founded in 1948, which Fidel Castro called the Ministry of the Colonies.
The Cuban Revolution of 1959 was a direct challenge to the Monroe Doctrine. The Revolution affirmed the concepts of sovereignty (against US intervention) and dignity (for the social growth of the people). Inspired by the example of the socialist Cuban Revolution, wave after revolutionary wave has flooded Latin America with hope against US imperialism and for a left-wing breakthrough. The first wave was crushed by extreme violence against the Cuban example through military coups organised by the US programme called Operation Condor. These coups from Brazil (1964) to Argentina (1976) stayed the hand of the Cuban alternative. The illegal US blockade against Cuba did not prevent the island from accelerating its socialism and from expanding its internationalism. The second wave of leftism – from the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions of 1979 – opened new hope, which was once more contested by the imperialists through their ‘dirty wars’ in Central America and by imperialism’s alliance with the narco-terrorists of the region. The third wave came with the election of Chávez in 1999 and the advancement of what was known as the ‘pink tide’ in Latin America. The tide was undermined by the illegal US hybrid war against Venezuela, by the decline in commodity prices, and by the weakness of the social and political movements to contest the entrenched bourgeoisie in many countries of the region. In each of these waves, the example of Cuba shined.
We are now in the fourth wave of a left emergence since the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The wave is significant but should not be exaggerated. Even the mildest centre-left governments will be forced to address the serious social crises in the hemisphere, crises deepened by the collapse of commodity prices and by the pandemic. Policies against hunger, for instance, will require funds either from the various domestic bourgeoisie or from the royalties raised for the extraction of natural resources. Either way, these governments will be forced into a clash with both their own bourgeoisie and by US imperialism. The test of these governments, therefore, will not be merely in what they say about this or that issue (such as Ukraine), but how they act when faced with the refusal by the forces of capitalism to solve the major social crises of our time.