Latin American Symptoms

Surveying the state of Latin America, as it reels under recession and pandemic, it’s useful to bear in mind that these are essentially extractivist economies, based on the export of cereals, vegetables, minerals, meat, fish, gas and oil. With cheap manual labour, they also produce second-rank manufacturing goods – and drugs. Such economies generate overblown service sectors, run-down peripheries and devastated hospitals and schools. The stick and the carrot are firmly in the hands of the exploiter classes, who, while native to the region, behave like foreign occupiers.

The centre of gravity of these ‘lands of the gospel’ has always lain elsewhere. Since the days of the Bourbon and Braganza monarchies, Latin America has imported and adapted its ideas, its systems of government, traditions, artistic forms and technologies. Just as the industrialization of the continent subordinated it to international chains of production, so its modernization was subject to the interests of the advanced-capitalist metropolis. In the words of the Brazilian thinker Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, we are exiles in our own lands.

It will be objected that Latin America has also been the world’s leading continent of revolt, that the working class succeeded in establishing advanced forms of organization here in the 20th century. Examples range from the forms of popular representation established by the COB (Central Obrera Boliviana) during the Bolivian revolution of 1952, or the creation of the PT (Workers’ Party) in Brazil during the 1980s, which mobilized the poor under the aegis of the working class. But on the whole, authoritarian and demagogic regimes – Perón in Argentina, Vargas in Brazil – have set the political tone, absorbing spasms of revolt into a retrogressive caudillismo. This was the local version of combined and uneven development.

In the past few years, this combination of rebellion and paralysis, advance and retreat, has undergone a vertiginous acceleration. Instability has become permanent. Take Bolivia. In October 2019, the country had its 190th coup d’état in 195 years of independence: the police mutinied, the military came out against Evo Morales, the elected president, and drove him into exile. (The police had also spearheaded the 2010 rebellion against Rafael Correa in Ecuador.)

An OAS investigation found no irregularities with the official count of Bolivia’s first-round election, which Morales won – only with the unofficial ‘quick count’. Yet not just Trump and Bolsonaro but the EU and OAS threw their weight behind the Bolivian coup. With the presidency occupied by an unelected figure of the far right, Bolivia endured a year of tumult until the October 2020 elections, decisively won by Luis Arce, the candidate of Morales’s movement, MAS.

The situation is not a complete return to Bolivia’s status quo ante, since Arce’s economic policies are closer to the Anglo-American ideal. Politically he is in a position to learn from the mistakes of Morales, who used the judicial machinery to override a plebiscite that had denied him the chance of a fourth term.

Meanwhile, Chile has opened a window onto the future – although the ruling bloc is trying to make sure it doesn’t open too wide. The first inklings came in October 2019, when students at Chile’s oldest state school, the Instituto Nacional, began vaulting the turnstiles in metro stations to protest against a 30-pesos increase in ticket prices. The student body has been changing: wealthy families have steadily withdrawn their offspring, preferring to ensconce themselves in the well-policed suburbs flanking the foothills of the Andes. But it wasn’t just about the 30 pesos. The fuse was lit and within a few weeks, Chile was ablaze.

October 2019 saw one of the largest demonstrations of all time in Latin America, with a million people in Santiago’s Plaza Italia, now rebaptised as Plaza Dignidad. Polite opinion said this was a typical Latin American uproar that would soon die down. But the popular forces organized a general strike that brought the country to a standstill, from one end to another. New forms of political organization flourished alongside – and despite – the traditional Socialist and Communist parties.

Chile’s President, Sebastián Piñera, is a scion of one of Latin America’s most extravagantly wealthy families. He responded to the uprising by ordering the police to fire rubber bullets at the insurgents’ faces. More than a hundred people suffered facial injuries, many were blinded; thousands were arrested. (Rubber bullets were developed by the security forces in the UK and used against protesters demanding British troops’ withdrawal from Northern Ireland in the 1970s. They were taken up by the IDF, aiming at the foreheads of the Palestinians, and have since been used globally – against the 2013 protesters in Brazil, the gilets jaunes in France and BLM demonstrators in the US.)

Rubber bullets did not kill the movement in Chile. In November 2019, the Congress ruled that a referendum should be held in April 2020 on drafting a new Constitution to replace the one imposed by Pinochet forty years before, which enshrined the neoliberal order. The move was supposed to halt the protests, yet by early 2020 the uprising was spreading again, with strikes across dozens of sectors, occupations, militant demonstrations, attacks on the rotten political establishment and confrontations with the police.

The pandemic offered Piñera the chance to delay the referendum till 25 October 2020, but he could not change the outcome when the vote finally took place. More than 5.8 million Chileans voted in favour of drafting a new Constitution; only 1.6 million voted against. A majority also voted that the Constituent Assembly, due to be elected on 11 April 2021, will be made up exclusively of delegates elected for that purpose – not recycled parliamentarians. The Assembly will be made up of 50% women, 50% men, and indigenous minorities, starting with the Mapuche, will have guaranteed representation. The candidates won’t need to run under the auspices of a political party: representatives of factory committees, neighbourhood groups, schools and trade unions will be able to stand.

That said, the election will use Chile’s disproportionate constituencies – favouring the rural regions, to the detriment of the cities – and the D’Hondt system of proportional vote allocation, which notoriously favours larger parties. The Constituent Assembly’s 155 members will have to agree any measures by a two-thirds majority, so a minority of 53 will have a veto. They have been instructed to focus on social security, education, healthcare and employment: the daily life of society, rather than what the Argentinian jurist Roberto Gargarella has called the ‘engine room’ of the political system. In addition, 648 people have been arrested for participating in the demonstrations against Piñera’s regime, and another 752 people have been convicted of damage to private property. The government refuses to pardon them and denies that they are political prisoners.

Nevertheless, though nothing is guaranteed, Chile’s uprising has produced results that go well beyond what has been achieved by formidable protest movements elsewhere, from the US to Algeria, Lebanon to France, Belarus to Nigeria.

While Chile advances towards an uncertain future and Bolivia reverts to a changed version of its recent past, Peru sinks into the present. No nation better expresses the volatility of Latin America. It last held a presidential election in 2016, and has had four presidents since then: Martín Vizcarra replaced a discredited Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in March 2018, and was impeached by a hostile Congress in November 2020; his successor, ultra-conservative Manuel Merino, lasted barely five days, amid popular uproar at Vizcarra’s ouster, and was replaced by Francisco Sagasti, a US-educated technocrat, before the month was out.

Peru’s political class has utterly dissociated itself from the Peruvian people, and the parties stand for virtually nothing except themselves. Congress has been occupied by charlatans and opportunists of every stripe, or by out-and-out crooks: mafia men, evangelical sects and robber barons.

Four factors feed into the present crisis. First, Peru has still not settled accounts with the Fujimori dictatorship of the 1990s, an era of death squads, embezzlement and maximum corruption in party politics. Second, the boom in raw mineral exports, which sustained development in recent decades, never reached the poor with its proceeds and has now gone into a tailspin. Third, denunciations of corporate and political corruption have been instrumentalized to benefit the right – and the extreme right. Finally, the pandemic: Peru has had one of the world’s highest death rates per capita from coronavirus.

These four features can be found today in all Latin American countries, as can a fifth: deindustrialization. With factories closing, the working class has been fragmented and millions of its former members thrown into unemployment, precarity and abject poverty. From the point of view of the dominant classes, the best governments are undoubtedly authoritarian ones that can push through the dismantling of trade unions and reduce wages, to compete on the international market with China. Unemployment would be structural; any progressive projects definitively abandoned. In theory, a basic income would compensate for permanent unemployment. In practice, the economy would centre around agribusiness and mineral extraction, with most lacking regular work.

This is the social framework the Bolsonaro government has been trying to impose on Brazil. But here too, we find the same instability, advance and retreat, on the extreme right. Though he organized demonstrations calling for Congress to be shut down, Brazil’s President has given up the idea of a coup due to lack of support. His Senator son is being tried for embezzlement of public funds, a case that will be heard in the Supreme Court. At the height of the pandemic, Bolsonaro called for monthly cash-transfers of 40 dollars to the unemployed. Congress tripled the sum in an afternoon.

Instead of whipping up his horde of fanatics, Bolsonaro now doles out cash and sinecures to the swamp of old-school Congressmen and political-patronage networks known as the ‘Centre’. The candidates he backed in the October 2020 municipal elections fared badly. He has sabotaged attempts to develop a vaccine for the virus, which has already killed 170,000 Brazilians. He has enjoyed the enthusiastic support of finance capital, but that sector takes a dim view of the emergency-support programme. And Trump’s good will no longer counts.

At the heart of Latin America, spreading out across the Guianas, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, there is the Amazon. The ‘lungs of the planet’, seen as an indispensable natural asset by those apprehensively watching the process of climate change and environmental breakdown. And greedily coveted by powerful states, giant pharmaceutical companies, big landowners and cattle ranchers, multinational corporations that plant and harvest myriad agricultural products; by well-intentioned NGOs and by those desperately fleeing the cities where no work is to be found, who act as the spearhead of capitalist incursion. For them too, the Amazon is still summed up in the words of John Donne to his mistress: ‘O my America! my new-found-land … How blest am I in this discovering thee!’

Translated by Max Stein

Read on: Mario Sergio Conti’s analysis of the Brazilian pandemic response; Roberto Schwarz on Bolsonaro’s neo-backwardness.