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The New Southern Democrats

Fed up with the neoliberal policies advocated by Washington and the IMF, Latin America is turning to the left. The question now is, can it last?
 
 
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In "The Motorcycle Diaries," director Walter Salles' tribute to Che Guevara, the hero speeds up the spine of the Andes clinging to his buddy on the back of a wheezing Norton. The year is 1952 and it is dawning on the young Che that the gorgeous vistas of his beloved Latin America conceal a corrosive cancer of greed and oppression. He dedicates himself to fighting for the common people, and the film ends on a hopeful note: change is coming.

The film has been a bright spot in the dark weeks surrounding the U.S. election. But it's just a movie, after all. We know how the real story ends. Che will die in Bolivia before his 40th birthday, betrayed by the peasants he sought to deliver, and right-wing governments throughout the continent will spend the next four decades brutally suppressing liberation movements while transnational corporations plunder the region's wealth unimpeded.

All the more reason to welcome recent real-life developments in Latin America. Chronically ignored by the Bush administration but expected to embrace its free trade proposals, Latin America is pushing back. Over the past weekend, as George W. Bush and other Pacific Rim leaders descended on the Chilean capital of Santiago to press a trade agenda, 30,000 protesters flowed into the streets like lava, chanting against the Iraq war and globalization.

That was a dramatic illustration of anti-American sentiment, but in reality the protest goes much deeper. Citizens throughout Latin America have been steadily turning leftward since the late 1990s, electing leaders in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela with strong social agendas and demonstrated independence from the U.S. Some defied Bush on the Iraq war. Most have displayed deep skepticism of the so-called Washington Consensus, a philosophy originating in the U.S. and upheld by the International Monetary Fund that emphasizes free trade, tightened government spending and the privatization of state-held utilities.

Whether this is a revolution or a momentary spasm is the subject of much speculation. Major media have downplayed the shift, remarking that recently elected leftists are more likely to work within the system than openly challenge it.

Nevertheless, change is afoot. Ariel Perez, a native of Argentina who teaches language at the University of California-Santa Cruz, thinks it's fueled by anger over economic bullying by the global North and the havoc wreaked by a decade and more of globalization.

"There is a pride there," he says. "We can't drop our pants and turn around every time. And that is the attitude of these men, and that is what the people are liking now."

Trading Up for a Leftist

Two days before Americans reelected the most conservative leader ever to sit in the White House, the small country of Uruguay put a leftist president in office for the first time in its 170-year history. Tabare Vazquez, a cancer specialist, ran for office pledging to tackle poverty in the once-prosperous country and to prioritize trade within Brazil's Mercosur trade bloc. This was an implicit jab at the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a Bush project to drop trade barriers throughout the Western Hemisphere (with a key exception that has irritated governments throughout Latin America: Washington wants to keep giving subsidies to American farmers). Vazquez was rewarded with more than 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race against the two U.S.-friendly political parties that had run the country for all time.

As if to hammer home their point, voters also rejected a typical piece of advice from the IMF – the privatization of the state water utility – deciding, in the words of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, that "water, a scarce and finite resource, must be the right of every person and not the privilege of those who can afford it."

Clearly, the connection between their own miseries and the neoliberal reforms advocated by Washington and the IMF was not lost on the Uruguayans. The country suffered an economic crisis culminating in a run on the banks after neighboring Argentina's economy crashed in 2001 under a staggering debt load made worse by U.S. and IMF dictates. The contagious downturn left the relatively affluent and progressive Uruguayans, who identify closely with Europe and led Latin America in adopting a welfare system and women's suffrage, facing a 30 percent poverty rate and watching their young people leave en masse in search of opportunity.

Independence from the IMF

Uruguay, huddled between Brazil and Argentina on the Atlantic coast, is only the latest country to rebuff the free-market charge led by the Bush White House and the IMF. Its two neighbors, Argentina and Brazil, as well as Venezuela, have the region's strongest left-leaning presidents.

Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, a member of the Peronist party, arrived in office in May 2003 and promptly put the IMF on notice: Argentina would not pay back its $100 billion debt at the expense of the Argentinean people. (When a country defaults on an IMF loan, as Argentina had, the fund usually relaxes its repayment schedule and even agrees to keep the monetary spigot turned on – as long as the country agrees to "austerity measures," which means less money for social programs, and other conditions like the privatization of utilities, widely seen as benefiting transnational corporations.) Through a protracted tussle with the IMF Kirchner held his ground.

Brazil has seen pronounced change as well. Two years ago Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, a former union leader, became Brazil's first working-class president. Lula did not default on Brazil's $250 billion debt – centrist forces within his party had prevailed on this issue in the run-up to the election – so he did not take Brazil's new spirit of independence to the IMF arena as Kirchner would six months later. But by promoting his Zero Hunger campaign, restored ties with Cuba and regional trade through Mercosur, Lula made it clear that Brazil, the country with the most inequitable distribution of wealth in the world, would honor its socialist yearnings and conduct trade on its own terms. Like many other Latin American countries, Brazil also now has a blossoming economic relationship with China, another threat to Washington.

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, backed by the clout that comes with having the world's 7th-largest oil reserves, is more brazen. A former guerrilla commander from the impoverished hinterlands, Chavez came into power in 1998 and began firmly regrouping the national oil company under state control after a series of moves by the previous administration to privatize it. Oil company managers and some unions that stood to gain from privatization went ballistic; meanwhile, Venezuela's elites bristled at Chavez's warm relations with Fidel Castro, who supplied Venezuela's guerrillas with arms in the 1960s and now sends doctors to care for Venezuela's poor in exchange for cheap oil. A Chavez opposition sprang up with Washington's support but has failed twice – once in an April 2002 coup and in August at the polls – to oust him. Meanwhile Chavez makes no bones about his contempt for Bush's vision of world trade domination and has even publicly called Bush a pendejo, or asshole.

Gaining Footholds

Signs of unrest are developing elsewhere as well. A year ago, Bolivia's Washington-backed president, Gonzala Sanchez de Lozada, fled to Miami via helicopter after riots broke out over his privatization campaign and plans to sell natural gas abroad. His replacement, Carlos Mesa, has pledged to put the natural gas industry under state control.

In Nicaragua and El Salvador, the political parties that grew out of the guerrilla movements of the 1980s are losing national elections but dominating at the local level – a possible precursor, says University of New Mexico professor Benjamin Goldfrank, to success at the national level.

"My sense is the left has come back based on two things," says Goldfrank. "One is charismatic presidential candidates. And on the other hand, the left has been experimenting with local-level participatory democracy in major cities of the region."

By gaining a foothold in local government and then opening up the doors to the public – not to mention improving services – leftist parties in Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela have established their credibility, Goldfrank says, paving the way to presidential victories.

"So while you have the failure of neoliberal and traditional right-wing policies at the national level, at the local level you also get the idea that the left won't produce chaos, but will govern effectively."

Latin America is hardly a worker's paradise. Colombia stands out as a throwback, its President Alvaro Uribe hewing closely to Washington's dictates on drug eradication and approach to the left-wing rebels that get their money from the narcotics trade. Peru's Alejandro Toledo, that country's first indigenous president, came to office in 2001 promising to create 1 million new jobs, but has been unable to deliver and now has an approval rating of 10 percent.

Meanwhile, in countries with a leftist in office, things are far from rosy. Unemployment in Brazil is 11 percent, and Brazilians grumble that Lula has failed to deliver on his promises – a factor that probably contributed to his Workers Party's loss of the mayoralties of Sao Paolo and even its stronghold of Porto Allegre a month ago. Goldfrank reports that the more radical contingent of the Workers Party has left the building. And the other day some students tried to egg Lula, Goldfrank says, but missed.

This could be a clue to the future. The leftist presidents may have sailed to victory on populist agendas, but the realities of their agreements with the IMF, and of their economies' dependence on foreign investment, limits what they can do.

"All these left-wing governments are doomed to fail again as they did before," says Perez. "When capital doesn't get what it wants, it pulls out, and that means hunger."

So they are caught in a vise. If they don't do enough, the people will fire them. If they do too much, the system will retaliate, precipitating crisis, and the people will fire them.

As a result, they have moderated. Vazquez agreed on the campaign trail to honor IMF austerity measures that accompanied a bailout in the wake of the economic collapse. That may imperil his ability to fulfill the promises that got him elected. In Argentina, a country that privatized its oil company a decade ago, Perez says Kirchner took tentative steps toward returning to that arrangement by setting up a state oil company – 45 percent of which is privately held.

"And that's it," says Perez. "That's as far as he can go. As soon as you start shaking the tree to get some money back, they're going to start doing something to create an unstable situation."

Goldfrank does not see the recent trend as a flash in the pan, nor as mere reactionism. But he does take a wait-and-see attitude.

"The real question is whether they can do anything different from previous regimes," he says. "Chavez has much more leeway to do that because of Venezuela's oil wealth. Vazquez and Lula don't have the extra resources. They have less room to maneuver."

It is the poetic Galeano, writing about Uruguay, who has the most hope to share about the fate of the people 6,000 miles down the road.

"We are now starting to recover that creative energy, which seemed lost in the long night of memory," he writes. "... It won't be easy. Relentless reality will soon remind us of the inevitable distance between what we want and what we can do ... We have limited space to move. But what alone seems difficult, and even impossible, can be imagined, and even attained, if we get together with our neighboring countries like we have been able to get together with our street neighbors."

Traci Hukill is a freelance journalist based in Northern California.