Latin America has made it. After decades under violent dictatorships that brutally disappeared dissidents, the region is finally thriving under democratically elected governments that promote social justice. Over the last weeks, the Left consolidated its presence across Latin America. Brazil re-elected President Dilma Rousseff to a second term in office; Bolivia re-elected President Evo Morales to a third. In Ecuador, the Supreme Court authorised Congress to move ahead with an amendment for indefinite re-election of President Rafael Correa.
The entrenchment of socially committed candidates on the Left, though significant, is a bittersweet victory.
The election of socially committed candidates on the Left was expected to encourage freedom of expression, revert neoliberal policies, bring alternative models of development.
There was some of that. There were also disappointing continuities.
It is undeniable that the region experienced real change. Brazil took 40 million peoples out of poverty. Bolivia declared a plurinational state; Ecuador’s constitution recognised the rights of nature. Leftist governments are diverse and their achievements in the region certainly impressive. Yet different leftist government disappointed for different reasons.
A revolutionary left that overrides political democracy
The revolutionary Left disenchanted its supporters in the most overt ways, undoing the electoral mechanisms that brought it to power. Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega did not bother to change the rules, running for a third term against the law; then Sandinistas proposed “re-election without end” to do away with elections altogether. Ecuador is about to announce “indefinite reelection”. Both reforms were presented as constitutional amendments to congresses largely controlled by the executive branch.
The Left’s trackrecord in freedom of information and the press has been coined as soft censorship. This year a paper shortage impeded circulation of print media in Venezuela. In Ecuador, media laws take journalists and cartoonists to court, while President Correa uses his weekly three-hour address to the nation to harass social activists. The rapporteur for freedom of expression at the Inter-American Court for Human Rights (IACHR), jurist Catalina Botero, ranked Ecuador as the country with the most restrictive laws for freedom of expression in the region after
Surprisingly, the self-identified Bolivarian Left is also prone to criminalising social protest. In Bolivia President Evo Morales violently repressed a peaceful Indigenous march contesting a road construction on TIPNIS territory. States use lawfare to silence inconvenient voices. Ecuador’s Citizen’s Revolution sentenced Indigenous leaders and students for contesting water policies. Clever Jimenez, a Congressman who denounced too many corruption cases, is hiding since he was sentenced for perjury. The General Secretary of Ecuador’s Federation of medical doctors has been jailed for the same crime.
These are extreme cases of governments rapidly losing credibility as a serious alternative. Yet Latin America’s moderate Left has other flaws of its own.
A moderate Left trapped in neoliberalism
Social democratic governments were credited with increasing minimum wages to lift millions out of poverty, and inequality fell for the first time in almost all of Latin America. Yet reforms failed to deliver structural access to welfare that would truly address inequality in the long run.
The new game is to multiply conditional cash transfer programs (CCTP), or giving monetary income to poor people in exchange for specific requirements. In Brazil, the Bolsa Familia provides small cash for keeping children in school and visiting health clinics (0.5% of the GDP).. It is the world’s largest CCTP in budget and reach (assisting nearly 50 million people). Some CCTPs are global success stories the World Bank describes as revolutionary. For the first time in Latin America, poor people are guaranteed a minimum income.
Yet the math does not add up. Brazilian economist Lena Lavinas argues that CCTP solve market-failure problems. In other words, they mainly reduce the intensity of poverty are promote market incorporation. They guarantee a minimum income that permits millions of poor people to enter market dynamics. Simply put, they no longer live on subsistence patterns and can now access credit lines to buy washing machines. This process of market incorporation has expanded national domestic markets, and enabled mass consumption societies over the last decade.
Yet there are two interrelated shortcomings of this 21st century welfare. First, CCTP are volatile programs, not consolidated rights. Second, they have not been accompanied by structural policy. Income is not enough to secure access to housing, health, and education. To bring the poor masses into market dynamics is insufficient if states fail to provide them with decommodified social services that equalize opportunities.
Many social programs are but another neoliberal solution. Rather than tackling inequality, they encompass the financialization of poverty.
Dependent-development: where the Left meets the Right
What is common to all different Lefts across Latin America is their inability to generate new models of development once they reach power. Far from reversing historical patterns of structural dependency, they are accentuating reliance on natural resources and foreign capital.
Extractivism is booming everywhere. In Uruguay, the “cool” president Jose Mujica publicly bets on mine exploitation to “improve” lives. The case of Yasuni National Park in Ecuador has become emblematic of the Left’s schizophrenia with environmental issues. Correa’s government dismissed its conservationist discourse and ignored Article 12 of its Constitution securing the rights of nature to put the last untouched bit of the Amazon for sale.
Hypocrisy runs high in Brazil too. Despite widespread social opposition and Indigenous protests against the Belo Monte dam, President Rousseff repeats the strategies of military regimes in the 1970s in her attempts to modernise Amazonia. Beyond their irreversible impact, such mega-projects encourage top-down decisions made behind closed doors. They call attention to what governments on the left have yet to learn about democracy.
This kind of development indicates who rules. Peru’s new law undermines environmental standards and prior consultation to satisfy international demand. Minerals comprise half of Peruvian exports, most of which go to China.
Latin American dependency on foreign capital has been diversified, but certainly has not diminished. According to the Inter-American Dialogue, China committed to nearly $100bn in loans to Latin American since 2005. Venezuela alone got half of those funds. These loans can be more stringent than those granted by the World Bank and may require oil sale agreements in exchange (Venezuela and Ecuador). By 2013, for instance, China covered about 60 percent of Ecuador’s financing needs getting nearly 90 percent of its oil in exchange.
The problem with such development strategies inherited from the 1970s is not only that they perpetuate dependencies most leftists and progressives in the region are trying to reverse. They continue to treat Indigenous territories as terra nullius, dismiss Indigenous authority and allot their land to extractive industries that fuel the global capitalist system.
The region has various shades of Left with substantial differences. Underneath all that diversity, however, lies a collective sense of disappointment. The disillusion, in turn, creates an ideological vacuum. Latin America is unlikely to fall into right-wing extremism like Europe. In fact, the reelection of President Rousseff indicates that the alternative is not really an alternative.
As Latin America’s political Left reveals its inability to bring the changes hoped for, we are dispossessed of a main avenue for political change everywhere. If neither right nor Left, then what horizon to shoot for?