A very strange piece of legislation was introduced by the right wing Parliament in Venezuela this week; a bill providing amnesty for crimes the oligarchs and their operatives have committed since Hugo Chavez was elected in 1999. This bill provides a catalog of their political offenses over 16 years. In 45 articles, it covers all manner of crimes committed from misdemeanors at a public rally to felonies like terrorist acts involving explosives and firearms. They are essentially admitting exactly what Chavez/Maduro have claimed — crimes to overthrow the government by undermining the economy and creating political havoc. The bill will very likely be vetoed by Maduro and if they override his veto, it may be ruled unconstitutional by the court.
Latin America has been a key battleground in the conflict between neo-liberal capitalism and US hegemony against the growing people power that is demanding a more equitable economy that builds from the bottom up and is more democratic. Venezuela has been the focal point of the campaign against the progressive cycle. The amnesty bill shows the extreme actions the US and oligarchs are willing to take to wrest power from the people and return it to the wealthy business interests. The wealthy have made progress in some key countries leading to people ask whether the progressive cycle has come to an end and what lies ahead for the region.
Return to Neoliberal Oligarchy
Many recognize that Venezuela is the cutting edge that defines the progressive cycle in Latin America. The landslide December 6, 2015 victory of the right-wing Democratic Unity Roundtable, winning two thirds of the seats in Venezuela’s National Assembly elections, was a major turning point in Venezuelan politics. The legislature is now targeting President Maduro for recall, a lengthy process involving collection of signatures and a vote, or they may seek impeachment as is currently being pursued in Brazil. Other countries are also experiencing problems. In “Is South America’s ‘Progressive Cycle’ At An End?” Claudio Katz writes:
The year 2015 ended with significant advances of the Right in South America. Mauricio Macri was elected President in Argentina, the opposition gained a majority in the Venezuelan parliament, and Dilma Rousseff is being hounded relentlessly in Brazil. Then there are the conservatives’ campaigns in Ecuador, and it remains to be seen whether Evo Morales will obtain a new mandate in Bolivia.
Add to that the recent visit of President Obama to Cuba and what that means for the future of the Cuban Revolution and the political situation in Honduras; and it is evident that the region is undergoing a major transition. In addition to the US pivot to Asia, there has also been a pivot to Latin America by the United States. The region had been breaking free of US domination, but US intervention in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Cuba, as well as in Ecuador and Bolivia is having an impact.
But, these changes should not be viewed as the end of the story. They are only the next phase and just as the damage done in the previous neo-liberal era led to the progressive cycle of the last 15 years, it may lead to an even more radical transformation in the future. As with the amnesty bill that admits to a series of crimes, the big business governments are already overreaching and stimulating a new blow-back.
A key reason for the return of the oligarchs was the failure of the left to be as radical as was necessary. They did not nationalize their banks to get control of their currency and they did not ensure a media that represented the people but allowed oligarch control over mass media.
They allowed US funding through US AID and the National Endowment for Democracy to pollute their civil society. And, they did not listen to the complaints from below whether by indigenous people opposing extraction of natural resources, students calling for free education, the rooting out of corruption or making transportation affordable, among other issues. The right wing co-opted these issues and used them to remove governments.
Out of the challenges that the people of the region will face with the return of privatization, commodification and the destruction of the social safety net, could come new approaches, new leadership and a renewed radicalization. The long sought unification of the region may develop in response to US hegemony, some are already developing that solidarity across nation-states.
Every Nation Has It’s Own Story
Venezuela: The right wing legislature had an uninspiring beginning. On January 5, Henry Ramos Allup, a key figure in the disastrous neoliberal era that preceded Hugo Chavez, was sworn in as National Assembly president. He promised to remove Maduro in six months. One of the first acts was to remove pictures of Hugo Chavez and Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America, from the National Assembly. This led to protests outside the legislature with thousands of people carrying the pictures.
The outgoing National Assembly created a “National Communal Parliament” as a way to build grassroots power and influence over the direction of the country. The Communal Parliament is built on the Law of Communes and provides a way for the people to organize inside of government. In addition, there was a great deal of self-reflection with Maduro seeking advice from all quarters, People put forward plans for how to respond to the right wing takeover of the Assembly. People are confronting the failures that led to the takeover: “The government’s abstention in combating corruption, speculators, and hoarders led directly to the people’s abstaining from the vote.”
On March 14, there were rival marches in the capital. Thousands protested in support of Maduro and in opposition to President Obama continuing sanctions on Venezuela. The sanctions were described as US imperialism and the ongoing efforts by the Obama administration to remove Maduro. In the wealthy district of Caracas there were smaller demonstrations calling for the removal of Maduro, with some politicians calling for his removal by extra-legal means if necessary.
Now that the amnesty bill has cataloged all of the crimes against the economy and government, imagine how different things could have been if the Maduro government had enforced the law against these right wingers. Will the blow back from this right wing takeover result in greater use of state authority to enforce the law against those seeking to destablize the government?
Argentina: President Mauricio Macri was inaugurated on December 10 and in one month he signed more that 260 decrees rapidly pushing through neoliberal changes and rolling back social programs. These laws favor big business interests at the costs to the poorer classes. They seek to stop the advances of the Media Law which opened the media to broader ownership and control. There have been currency devaluations which led to a 40% rise in the cost of food. He also lifted restrictions on foreign currency exchanges so anyone can buy up to $2 million monthly without explanation of where the money came from. Macri ended export taxes on agricultural goods that were used to fund social programs and infrastructure policies.
The blow-back is already beginning with thousands taking to the streets. The first protests were on December 22 with thousands of Argentines from various workers, social and leftist groups gathered at the Plaza de Mayo to decry the fiscal and labor policies. Macri’s policies have already led to massive job loss and workers who protest face police shooting rubber bullets at them. Thousands of people have gathered in the streets and squares in Buenos Aires and other cities to protest economic policies, defend public media, and demand truth and justice. Protests continued as recently as mid-March because Macri called for more austerity as he worked for a deal with hedge funds that own Argentina’s debts.
Brazil: President Dilma Rousseff, who recently won re-election, is now engulfed by a mass protest with her political opponents calling for her impeachment. Despite controlling the mass media, the oligarchs have been unable to defeat Dilma and her predecessor Lula in four elections. Lula is now expected to run at the end of Dilma’s term in 2018. One year after the last election, the Brazilian Supreme Court weakened the plutocrats further by banning corporations from making electoral donations — which made up 76% of political donations. The challenge was brought by the Brazilian Bar Association which argued corporate financing was a corrupting influence that violated the principle that all voters are equal.
Unable to win against the moderate center-left party of Dilma and Lula, the oligarchs have organized street protest to cause chaos and build their campaign for her removal. Who is behind the protests? The protests are “incited by the country’s intensely concentrated, homogenized, and powerful corporate media outlets, and are composed (not exclusively but overwhelmingly) of the nation’s wealthier, white citizens who have long harbored animosity toward PT [ workers'party] and anything that smacks of anti-poverty programs.” These are the same plutocrats who supported a 1964 military coup against a left government (also supported by the US) that brutally held power for two decades – with leaders trained in torture by the United States,
Dilma, who was tortured herself, is no radical, she has has parties running to her left and she has supported austerity measures and put in place an anti-terrorism law; her support comes from the poor. The US is being told the protests are “The People vs. the President,” when in fact the people behind them are really the plutocrats and the upper and middle classes.
The poor have consistently been on the side of Lula and Dilma. Even though the party is more akin to social democrats in Europe, it is still hated by the US foreign policy establishment. Brazil is a key player in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bank which threatens US and western financial hegemony over the developing world. As Eric Draitser writes: “despite all the fancy anti-corruption rhetoric, the assault on Rousseff’s leftist government is the result of a coordinated campaign by business interests tied to the U.S. Washington and Wall Street that see in Brazil a dangerous precedent in which a left-wing government …”
Dilma’s government has also made the mistake of failing to root out corruption , which is systemic and not limited to her party but to people seeking her ouster but for several years they also failed to listen to people protesting against the increased costs of transportation, indigenous peoples protesting ethnocide in the building of an Amazon dam, and students protesting the restructuring of schools among others. Not only have these protests been ignored, they have been brutally repressed. The failure to listen to these protests weakens her political foundation.
Ecuador: Under President Rafael Correa, elected in 2007, Ecuador has seen a radical shift from unstable, conservative governments to one that rejected free markets and transformed the country, reduced poverty, shrank inequality and illiteracy, brought stability, economic growth and a new constitution. One key was creating a role for the government in building the economy with public investment, guaranteeing education up to university level and providing healthcare to all. He put in place a new media law in 2013 that democratizes the media; divides media access between private ownership, public ownership and community ownership. His policies led to a failed 2010 coup attempt by the oligarchs and funded by USAID. Correa continued an independent foreign policy granting Julian Assange asylum, closing a US military base and closing a media outlet being funded by USAID and NED.
Correa, who has decided not to seek re-election, has been facing protests by indigenous people in Ecuador. What is behind this uprising? “A range of indigenous groups, trade unions and leftist parties mobilised across the country on August 13. Their long list of demands included calls for land reform, opposition to mining, support for bilingual education and the shelving of the government’s proposed water and labour laws.” He also faced protests from the right who were opposed to increased taxes to pay for social services. Correa seems to see all these protests as anti-government and does not distinguish between potential allies on the left and those from wealthier classes who will not be allies. Frederico Fuentes of Green Left writes: “The protests appear to reflect his government’s inability to regain the initiative with new radical reforms that could win popular support and advance the citizens’ revolution.”
In 2015, Correa successfully ushered through fifteen constitutional amendments despite right wing protests. The amendments included declaring communication mediums a public service, changes to regulations governing public sector workers—including the extension of the right to unionize—and a reduction in the age requirement for the office of president, dropping from 35 to 30.
Correa has announced he will not seek re-election in 2017. He has started a national dialogue on redistribution of wealth through inheritance and capital gains taxes.
Bolivia: President Evo Morales will not be able to seek re-election in 2019 because Bolivia voted down a referendum that would have allowed him to seek re-election. Bolivia’s longest standing and most popular president finally has an end date for his time in power, on January 22, 2020. Morales was the first indigenous president who won election after serving as president of the coca farmers union. He won three re-elections, his most recent in 2014 by more than 60% of the vote.
Benjamin Dangl summarizes his time in office:
Over this decade, he has presided over a host of historic policies and measures, including rewriting the constitution in a constituent assembly, extending government control over the country’s lucrative natural gas reserves, and expanding access to education, healthcare, and the political process to previously marginalized sectors of society. Economic growth has remained solid through much of his time in power, thanks to his government’s economic policies and the boom in oil and gas prices. As a result, under Morales, poverty rates have dropped dramatically for citizens in South America’s poorest country.
The failure to pass the referendum, which lost by 2%, is not a sign of a shift to the right. In fact, Morales was criticized from the left for continuing an extraction-based economy and not instituting land reforms. Dangl points out the country “will still be in the hands of the Bolivian people who, over the last decade and a half, kicked out multinational corporations, ousted neoliberal tyrants, faced down US imperialism, and expanded the country’s – and the world’s – imagination about what is politically possible, not just via the ballot box, but through protests, barricades, and social movements.” No doubt the big business interests and US imperialists will try to change Bolivia’s direction but by then the reality of neoliberalism in Argentina will be evident and Bolivia may end up taking an even more radical path.
Honduras: The Obama administration with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 helped a right-wing coup in Honduras remove an elected left-of-center president, setting back the cause of democracy and enabling corrupt and drug-tainted forces to tighten their grip on Honduras. Clinton emails show she aided business interests in Honduras and in 2011 Obama welcomed the coup president in Washington, DC praising “his strong commitment to democracy.” The original “Banana Republic” a symbol of US imperialism has been having protests ever since the US aided coup:
Every Friday evening for the past three months, thousands of protesters have marched through the streets of Tegucigalpa and smaller cities, carrying torches and signs reading “The corrupt have ripped apart my country” and “Enough is enough.”
The protesters, who call themselves the oposición indignada (the outraged opposition), demand that President Juan Orlando Hernández be held accountable for fraud and graft, which allegedly bled the national health service of more than $200 million to enrich senior officials and finance the 2013 election.
Two-thirds of the people are now at or below the poverty level. Crime and violence are rising with the highest homicide rate in the world. The ousted president’s wife ran for president in 2013 on a social democratic platform but the coup party stole tens of millions from their national health service to defeat her.
Honduras is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an environmental activist. The post-coup government has brought in transnational corporations to extract natural resources. People fighting to protect their lands are at risk. The murder of Berta Cáceres, shot by gunman in a bedroom where she was sleeping, has put international attention on the violence. Less than two weeks later, Nelson Garcia, a father of five and community leader, was shot four times in the face—”gunned down in his home.” At the same time, Honduras has blocked Gustavo Castro, the sole witness to Berta’s killing, from leaving the country. He has been stuck in the Mexican Embassy and fears for his life. Click here to sign a petition for him.
These actions are leading to escalation of protest. Under the banner “Berta lives, the struggle continues!” indigenous groups and supporters from across Honduras protested in the capital. They called for justice in the murders, expressed solidarity with Castro and demanded activists not be criminalized for speaking out. These types of injustices have unpredictable impacts especially in an environment where people know a government is corrupt and illegitimate.
Cuba: For four hundred years since the time of Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors, Cuba was colonized by Spain. When they fought a war for independence, it was sidetracked by the United States and the US became its colonizer. It was not until Fidel Castro overthrew a military dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in 1959, that Cuba finally became free. But the United States did not stop trying to re-take Cuba through an economic blockade, hundreds of attempted assassinations, coups and military invasions — none of which worked and an independent Cuba survived.
This week President Obama became the first president since the Cuban Revolution to visit Cuba. It was more of an economic invasion than it was a friendly visit. Obama brought with him 1,200 corporate executives and government officials who were seeking to find ways to make money from the open door with Cuba.
The Cubans know that the United States has not given up on its efforts to control them but will they be able to withstand this economic invasion? In recent years Cuba has begun to experiment with forms of private ownership, especially worker-owned cooperatives. This communitarian approach to ownership is consistent with their socialist philosophy. They are evolving slowly. Will they be able to continue to evolve without being dominated by US big business capitalism? Perhaps if they can go slowly, evaluate and carefully consider next steps, they can create a new kind of economy that we can all learn from. Certainly big finance capitalism is not working for most people in the United States and neo-liberalism is not working for the world. We need some new approaches. Let us hope Cuba shows a new way.
What Is the Future?
As you can see each country in Latin America, and there are more we could write about than are covered here, is different with its own complexities. People in the area have long fought domination from the outside and from their own oligarchs.
Many groups in the US work in solidarity with Latin American civil society groups. Currently, a caravan for peace, life and justice is preparing to travel from Honduras to Washington, DC. You can meet them in DC during the SOA Watch Spring Days of Action. And farm workers in the US are uniting with farm workers in Mexico to demand better pay and treatment by Driscoll’s. You can support them by joining the boycott of Driscoll’s berries.
We don’t know what the future holds, but we are confident that if the movements in Latin America continue their work, they will succeed again. We can help by opposing US intervention and we can learn from them. The next era of light will be even more successful than the current one.