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Buchanan: Ebb of the Radical Left in Latin America

Ebb of the Radical Left Tide in Latin America

Paul G. Buchanan

7-16-09

The military ouster of President Jose Manuel Zelaya in Honduras is remarkable not because it ended 15 years of elected rule in Central America and was only the second military coup in Latin America in the last quarter century (the unsuccessful coup against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002 being the other one). It is also remarkable because it is the clearest sign that the crest of the radical leftist wave has washed across the Latin American political landscape and is now ebbing on the shoals of authoritarianism, demagoguery and ineptitude. To be sure, not all of the Latin American Left is being swept away with the outgoing political tide--to the contrary. It is the more militant manifestations—the Boliviarian revolution in Venezuela and its imitators in Bolivia, Ecuador and (now) Nicaragua—that have begun to see their political fortunes wane. That is worth exploring.

The Latin American Left’s resurgence in the late 1990s came in response to the excesses of market-driven economics and the failures of elite-manipulated electoral politics in the region. It represented the third manifestation of indigenous socialism, one that differed significantly from the original version that emerged in the 1930s inspired by the writing of the Peruvian theoretician Carlos Mariategui and the revolutionary praxis of Marxist-Leninist, Maoist and Trotskyite groups in the 1960s through to the 1980s (which continue to exist sporadically in remnants such as Sendero Luminoso in Peru and the FARC in Colombia, both of which are pale versions of their original selves). As explained in a recent book published by the Victoria University of Wellington Institute for Linkages with Latin America (VILLA),[1] the latest version is neither revolutionary or true to its original form. Whereas in Mariategui’s vision the emphasis of indigenous socialism in Latin America was on the development of a socialist praxis specific to the Latin American context rather than an adaptation of imported European ideas, and the second version attempted to adapt foreign armed struggle strategies to the regional geopolitical landscape, the latest version places majority import on the indigenous component in national progressive movements as well as on using electoral vehicles of political contestation to secure and maintain popular control of government. Phrased succinctly, the emphasis of the original version was on homegrown socialism, not on indigenous issues per se. The emphasis of the second version was on irregular warfare. In the latest version the emphasis is on channeling popular/indigenous rights and grievances, not on socialism. The distinction is important because in practice the policies and behaviour of some of the “new” Left, including the likes of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and Zelaya, are more national populist than socialist in nature, placing them closer on the ideological spectrum to Juan Peron and Getulio Vargas than to Che Guevara, Carlos Marighella or Salvador Allende.

The latest incarnation of the Latin American political Left came in three sub-types: corporate, cooperative and radical. The Concertacion governments in Chile epitomize the Corporate Left, nominally grouping Socialists and Social Democrats in ruling coalitions but which completely adhere to market-driven macroeconomic policies inherited (then refined) from the dictatorship that preceded them. Their left orientation is seen along the margins rather than at the centre of the socioeconomic model. The Cooperative Left accepts that in an age of globalization of production and exchange market-driven macroeconomic policy is the only game in town, but refuses to extend market prescriptions to social health, welfare and education policy. Instead, it uses taxation on relatively unfettered market actors and state partnerships in the management of strategic assets as redistributive instruments that fund the provision of public goods to the majority. The most successful example of this sub-type is the Worker’s Party government of Luis Ignacio da Silva (Lula) in Brazil. The Radical Left emphasis its anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist orientation, places emphasis on direct action and “popular” mandates, and governs via ideological patronage lines. It differs from traditional national populists in that it explicitly calls for cross-border ideological solidarity as a form of counter-hegemonic resistance to Western imperialism, which has led to diplomatic and economic openings with countries such as China, Iran and Russia as well as the formation of a regional trade bloc, the Boliviarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), that is posed as an alternative to US dominated regional trade networks like NAFTA and CAFCA. The exemplar of this Left sub-type is the Boliviarian Revolution led by Chavez in Venezuela, but is also manifested in the approach of Morales in Bolivia and to a lesser degree by Correa in Ecuador (and, the coup plotters in Honduras argue, Zelaya as well). Most recently, former Sandinista leader and current president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, has expressed a desire to have his country join the Boliviarian alliance.

Of the three variants of contemporary indigenous socialism in Latin America, it is the radical version that is in trouble. Although its leaders prefer to blame external actors for their problems (and there is truth to their claims that foreign agents actively conspire against them, as US complicity in the 2002 coup against Chavez demonstrates), the real blame for their decline rests squarely with themselves, specifically their behaviour while in office.

The main reason the radical left is in decline is that it has an overtly instrumental view of democracy, particularly the use of elections and constitutions as foundations for political representation. Having seen the futility of “war of maneuver” (armed struggle) approaches to imposing popular rule, in the 1990s an early 2000s the radical left undertook to engage “wars of position” within extant democratic systems (by focusing on electoral competition and party politics using connections with grassroots social movements as the basis for popular appeal). Once in power, however, they moved to close down avenues of contestation by using constitutional reforms and electoral gerrymandering to circumscribe the range of action available to oppositions. Distribution of public goods and other social benefits occurs along partisan lines rather than on the basis of need, and outlets for opposition voice have been censored using a variety of security laws. The result is a “closing” of the regime, or put another way, authoritarianism from within.

To be sure, these regimes are popularly based. But they are increasingly undemocratic in nature, preferring instead to adopt Leninist-inspired vanguardist approaches to governing. That places them at odds not only with the international community (or at least advanced capitalist democracies), but also increasingly, with their own constituents as institutional feedback loops and other modes of independent redress are manipulated or shut down. Most importantly, in putting their political self-interest before the cross-class interest that supposedly is the basis of their appeal they have increasingly alienated the very constituency that is the source of their legitimacy. What started out as “popular” or “participatory” democracies are increasingly acting like rule from above.

Another reason the radical left has begun its decline is managerial incompetence. Both Venezuela and Ecuador have oil reserves that generate enough export revenue to pad their treasury coffers, which allows them to engage in redistributive policies that generate popular support. Bolivia has natural gas (and tin) that it uses to the same effect, although conflicts with elites in the gas exploitation regions (especially Santa Cruz province) and foreign commercial partners (especially Brazilians) have proven intractable and often sparked violent protests. However, overt dependence on commodity export revenues puts these countries at the mercy of market demand fluctuations, which when coupled with a lack of diversification of the national economic base makes them completely dependent on sustained foreign consumption for ongoing economic growth and the delivery of public services and redistributive promises. Moreover, by demonizing foreign investors and attacking the local managerial classes as well as domestic oligarchies, these regimes have not only seen a drop in demand for export commodities; they have also prompted a massive wave of capital and intellectual flight out of their countries. That has in turn led to the deterioration of basic infrastructure, a decline in production as well as in research and development, and the rise of corruption as untrained partisan cronies replace professional managers in strategic industries.

The result is that it is harder and harder for these regimes to deliver on their redistributive promises. The syndrome is most evident in Venezuela, but is replicated amongst its smaller allies as well. The exception to the overall trend is Ecuador, where Rafael Correa has backtracked on some of his more militant projects in order to maintain a modicum of consensus and peace in his society while at the same time maintaining sustainable economic growth.

In addition, the substitution of professionals by partisan cronies has extended into the militaries of these countries, leading to growing inter-service cleavages and strained civil-military relations. Venezuela has seen overt politization of a largely professional officers corps by Chavez partisans. Many experienced officers have left the armed forces, with some now openly in opposition to the Chavez regime. This has impacted negatively on service morale and operational readiness in spite of large weapons purchases from new allies such as Russia and the reported presence of Cuban military advisors. As a result, it is an open question in military circles whether key elements in the armed forces (those with more technical and external defense orientations) will obey command orders in the event Chavez is faced with a domestic uprising. To a lesser extent and with less success, Correa and Morales have also attempted to promote ideological partisans to command rank. All of this has not gone unnoticed by the military commands of traditional adversaries such as Colombia and Chile, who see in these developments sources of hostility as well as opportunity.

The response of the radical left to internal political problems is to blame foreign imperialists (particularly the US) and domestic “traitors” for their reversal in fortune. As a counter to these purported destabilizing forces, they have worked to establish closer cross-national political and military ties amongst themselves and with the geriatric socialist regime in Cuba. Cuban health and education specialists are the architects of the most successful literacy and public health programs in Venezuela, and have been detailed to help the Morales regime undertake similar reforms in Bolivia. Although such humanitarian assistance cannot be faulted even if politically motivated, it has given rise to the perception that Cuban interests increasingly influence these regimes. That view has been accentuated by the formation of paramilitary militias in support of the Chavez and Morales regimes along lines originally developed, again, in Cuba. In turn, Chavez has sent political advisors to Nicaragua and Honduras in order to assist them with proposed constitutional reforms, something that was one of the reasons why the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court were alarmed by Zelaya’s attempt to hold a referendum on constitutional revision that would allow his re-election (currently prohibited by article 239 of the constitution). Be it accurate or not, the overall impression given by these actions is one of expanding Stalinization of radical left governments coupled with their increased meddling in the internal affairs of their neighbours. Neither is acceptable in the current political climate.

Even if it was Zelaya’s ambition to emulate Chavez, he did not have the support of Congress, the Supreme Court the military or the public majority (unlike Chavez). The Honduran coup was therefore not so much about Zelaya and his referendum. His forced removal was the Honduran elite’s way of drawing a line in the sand against the perceived “Boliviarianisation” of the Honduran regime. In doing so, they exposed Chavez for the paper tiger that he is. Although he threatened to declare war on Honduras should any Venezuelans be detained or hurt as a result of the coup, and was the most vociferous in seeing the malevolent hand of the US in orchestrating Zelaya’s overthrow, Chavez found himself without an audience or support on the issue. Continuing its non-confrontational and egalitarian regional approach, the Obama administration condemned the coup, thereby pulling the rug out from under Chavez’s claims that imperialism was once again at work in the region (in fact, Chavez was reduced to calling US Secretary of State Clinton to plead for increased US participation in the negotiations between Zelaya and his successor on the terms of any political settlement to the crisis). All other Latin American governments rejected the call to use force to restore Zelaya and instead opted to use the offices of the Organization of American States (OAS) in order to secure a diplomatic compromise on the matter. The irony of the latter move is that Venezuela had withdrawn its representatives to the OAS months earlier claiming that it was an imperialist tool. Under various protocols associated with the “Defense of Democracy” provisions of the OAS (first enacted in 1991 and first implemented in Haiti in 1994), every single country in the Western Hemisphere denounced the coup and agreed to impose sanctions as outlined in the Act and its amendments. But none supported a restoration by force (such as what occurred in Haiti).

While formally denouncing the coup and engaging in symbolic gestures (such as withdrawing their ambassadors from Honduras), the OAS and many of its member states tacitly condoned its anti-Boliviarian thrust by not immediately implementing the full range of political, economic and military sanctions available to them. Instead, the OAS argues that time is needed for diplomatic negotiations to succeed in resolving the crisis (which are currently ongoing under the mediation of Nobel Peace Laureate and former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias). With the OAS recommendation accepted by virtually all of its members, Venezuela was left marginalized and unable to influence the course of debate on the matter. For their part, the smaller radical left regimes (including Cuba) moderated their discourse in accord with the broader regional response. Hence the real purpose of the coup was served: Chavez has been warned and exposed, leaving him bereft of majority hemispheric support, isolated from the mainstream diplomatic approach to the crisis and marginalized as a regional player.

The regional response to the coup is the culmination of a decade-long trend in which non-radical left governments increasingly resented Venezuelan (and later Bolivian) interference in their affairs. After an initial period of comradely fraternity, Lula’s government has distanced itself from Chavez and his ambitions (as has Argentina). Chile and Peru have protested Morales’ support for irredentist indigenous movements along their common borders. Cuba is alleged to have rejected Boliviarian advances within it, something evident in the recent purge ordered by Raul Castro of high-level officials with strong Chavez connections. The bottom line is that without Latin American Left solidarity, coupled with the enmity of right-leaning governments such as those of Alvaro Uribe in Colombia or Vincente Calderon in Mexico, the radical left has seen its sphere of influence reduced to its core members.

One other variant of the decadent Left is the Kirchner/Fernandez government in Argentina. Originally of the cooperative left variety, the Peronist governments of Norberto Kirchner and his successor, wife Cristina Fernandez, also sought to impose constitutional reforms and use executive decrees to increase (their) executive power vis a vis the national congress, courts and provincial governments. Fernandez precipitated months of conflict with farmers and urban workers when she attempted to unilaterally impose export taxes on a range of wage goods, then nationalized private pension programs in order to use their cash reserves as a stop-gap to the loss of export revenues resulting from the farmer’s strikes. In June 2009 the Kirchner/Fernandez government’s attempt to manipulate congressional elections by bringing them forward from November backfired when voters overwhelmingly rejected their preferred ticket, leaving Fernandez as a lame duck president, Norberto Kirchner discredited as Peronist party president, the party itself seriously divided and with opposition control (including opposition Peronists) of Congress and most provincial governorships. Whatever their ambitions, the Kirchner-Fernandez alliance has only served to destroy the Peronist Party as a unified political agent. They are in no position to support their radical counterparts.

In contrast, where the corporate and cooperative Left is in power, things are going relatively smoothly. Brazil, Chile, El Salvador (where a former FMLN supporter has recently been elected into the presidency) and Uruguay, as well as the more traditional left-leaning APRA government in Peru, are all riding a wave of relative economic growth in spite of the global recession. Brazil and Chile are economic powerhouses (albeit on different scale), Uruguay is regarded as the most peaceful and stable country in South America, and Peru has largely recovered from the horror days of Alberto Fujimori (who is now in jail). All of these governments have refused the authoritarian temptation of trying to use the good economic moment in order to re-jig the constitutional framework in order to perpetuate themselves in power. Instead, they have reaffirmed their commitment to democracy in principle as well as practice, thereby allaying elite fears while at the same time underscoring their commitment to popular voice exercised within democratic institutional channels. With elections coming up over the next year in several of these countries, it will be interesting to see if they are rewarded for that approach.

The lessons for the contemporary Latin American Left should be clear. In the present context the legitimacy of the political left lies not just in its popular appeal but also in its democratic credentials. Authoritarianism, whether imposed by coup or internal manipulation, is a discredited form of governance in the region, something that even the coup-mongerers in Honduras recognized by using minimal force, then immediately retreating to the barracks and returning government to Zelaya’s congressionally-approved successors. No matter how justifiable the Left ideological project, using authoritarian means to achieve it undermines claims of governmental legitimacy. It is certainly true that the likes of Chavez, Correa and Morales have their share of disloyal opponents at home and abroad plotting their overthrow, but in using authoritarian measures to safeguard against that possibility they have only reinforced their opponents claims against them. They need to be better than their opponents if they are to have long-term prospects, and better means more than simply staying in power. Only Correa appears to understand this fact.

There are three options for the radical left at this juncture in Latin America’s political history: they can either re-establish their democratic credentials by re-opening their political systems so that oppositions can have a chance to legitimately compete against them based on policy differences and their own success in delivering on their ideological promises; they can turn into full-fledged dictatorships; or they can suffer Zelaya’s fate, but in far bloodier fashion. The first option may open them to electoral defeat; the second will leave them in disgrace, and the third will erase any gains made under their rule. The first option allows them to contest their ideas and record with a view towards better adapting their policies to the requirements of national circumstance and the impact of externalities; the second will confirm suspicions and unify external and internal opposition to them. That could result in the third option, which will result in widespread violence and the return to the unhappy days of military/economic elite rule. Of the three alternatives, only one allows the radical left to compete for power again in the event they lose office. For that reason alone, it is the only viable choice, especially since the non-radical left has proven to be quite successful under such conditions.

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[1] Warwick E. Murray and Roberto Rabel, eds., Latin America Today: Challenges, Opportunities and Trans-Pacific Perspectives. Wellington, 2008: 57-70

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A member of the www.kiwipolitico.com collective, currently on leave from the University of Auckland, Paul G. Buchanan writes on matters of comparative, international and military politics. His article “Lilliputian in Fluid Times: New Zealand Foreign Policy after the Cold War” will be published later this year by Political Science Quarterly.

 
 
 
 
 
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