Looking for the Left Turn

Beyond binaries and generalizations, vilification and glorification, where do we find Latin America’s “left turn” today?
February 20, 2015

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro gives a photo of the late President Hugo Chávez to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. (AGENCIA BRAZIL / PUBLIC DOMAIN)

There was an unmistakable sense of vindication when Bolivian vice president Álvaro García Linera spoke to a packed New York University auditorium in early December, showcasing the accomplishments of Evo Morales’s leftist government. Flanked by slide after slide of charts and graphs, García Linera methodically traced Bolivia’s remarkable transformation in the 10 years since Morales swept into the presidency following decades of political and economic turmoil. According to the figures, the number of Bolivians living in poverty has been significantly reduced, public investment has increased, GDP has grown steadily, billions have been accumulated in foreign reserves, and strong international credit has been maintained. All this has been accomplished via policies and politics that directly challenged the neoliberal orthodoxy of Bolivia’s past: Morales nationalized natural resources, levied heavy taxes on banks, ended cooperation with U.S. drug and development agencies, and, in 2008, expelled the U.S. ambassador for trying to undermine the Bolivian government. At the same time, democracy has grown more stable and more inclusive than ever, especially for the country’s long-sidelined indigenous population. And in October, Morales won an unprecedented third presidential victory in an undisputed landslide that led the Financial Times to call him “one of the world’s most popular leaders.”

As told by García Linera, Bolivia’s rise has certainly been striking. But his presentation was especially dramatic because he delivered it while Jorge Castañeda—former foreign minister to Vicente Fox’s conservative PAN government in Mexico and now an NYU professor—sat onstage after briefly introducing the vice president. It was Castañeda who in an influential 2006 essay for Foreign Affairs wrote of Latin America’s “two lefts,” one of which, exemplified by the leftist administrations that governed Brazil under Lula da Silva and Chile under Michelle Bachelet, was “modern, open-minded, reformist, and internationalist,” while the other, the unreconstructed populist left of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner, was “nationalist, strident, and close-minded.” For Castañeda it was clear how to categorize the newly elected Morales, “a skillful and irresponsible populist” for whom, like his counterparts in Venezuela and Argentina, “economic performance, democratic values, programmatic achievements, and good relations with the United States are not imperatives but bothersome constraints that miss the real point.”

Castañeda made no mention of either that essay or his later writings, wherein Nicaragua and Ecuador—whose own social and economic advances under Daniel Ortega and Rafael Correa respectively have been notable if less dramatic than Bolivia’s—also fit into a bad-left order of things. But against the literal backdrop of Bolivia’s transformation, and in García Linera’s occasional asides to Castañeda, it was hard to shake the sense that this particular binary left much unexamined. Today, governments once part of what Castañeda approvingly called a “viable, sensible, and sensitive” left face serious challenges born of popular dissatisfaction with their pace of change, questionable priorities, and lingering neoliberal orthodoxy. In Brazil, protests ahead of last year’s World Cup tournament, following a summer of major street actions in 2013 against public transportation fare hikes, revealed a nation whose growth and gains in the eight years of Workers’ Party (PT) governance under Lula were now being met by growing impatience over festering inequality, especially as spending on mega athletic facilities sapped public resources. And Dilma Rousseff’s surprisingly narrow reelection in 2014 exposed significant disenchantment with the PT among labor and social movements increasingly voicing discontent over their marginalization by a left government.

In Chile—following Bachelet’s first presidency and with the right in power for the first time since Augusto Pinochet’s rule—a massive student movement took over the streets to demand structural changes to the dictatorship’s legacy of privatization, whose orthodoxy remained largely unquestioned in the 20 years of center-left governments since the democratic transition. Newly reelected, and with several former student leaders now in Congress, Bachelet has promised to push through major constitutional and economic reforms, including making all public education free, which would mark the most radical, progressive changes in Chile since the era of Salvador Allende.

Álvaro García Linera (left) and Jorge Castañeda (right); New York University, December 3, 2014. (José Raúl Guzmán)

These examples reveal the risks inherent in broadly generalizing about political processes that may share overarching features but whose essence is better found in nuances that resist both simple categorization and efforts to counter-generalize. Left unsaid in García Linera’s presentation, for instance, was Bolivia’s troubling environmental record, as the government’s focus on oil and gas exploitation comes up against a long-running discourse of respect for the earth, generating intense clashes with indigenous groups who form the core of the government’s base. At the same time, relying on extractive activity has left countries like Ecuador overexposed as the price of energy commodities tumbles precipitously, raising concerns about the long-term prospects of Ecuador’s own social and economic gains under Correa’s administration. Neither did García Linera address Bolivia’s presidential succession, an issue that constitutional reforms lifting term limits have so far allowed Morales to punt away but that generate ever more pressing questions about the long-term viability of Bolivia’s advances, especially in light of Chávez’s untimely death in 2013 and the deep divisions it has exposed on the Venezuelan left. And while movements for LGBT and women’s rights have scored major victories under left-wing governments in Argentina and Uruguay, they lag far behind in places like Bolivia and Nicaragua, even as long-marginalized ethnic and racial communities have won new political and legal standing.

No nation better exemplifies the challenge of seeing the left turn’s nuances than Venezuela, where the turn began 16 years ago. At the time of Chávez’s first election, in December 1998, Latin America was mired in a seemingly intractable neoliberal morass that wreaked havoc on the region’s most vulnerable. Over the next decade, facing intense opposition from entrenched interests in Venezuela’s media, private sector, and the state itself, chavismo kindled a new era of wealth redistribution spearheaded by a strong government anchored in the support of newly empowered sectors of the citizenry. Hard-fought control over Venezuela’s oil industry at a time of spiking prices, as well as strategic alliances with Cuba, Brazil, and Argentina, allowed Chávez to invest in health, food, education, and housing for those long denied a slice of the oil pie. In the process, the chavista government was able to slash poverty, reduce illiteracy to nearly zero, and spur a flurry of local cooperation and organizing that Chávez came to call “Socialism of the 21st Century.”

What socialism of the twenty-first century did not do, however, was to generate significant domestic production, and Venezuela’s historic dependence on oil revenues to purchase imported goods continued to deepen. Moreover, currency-exchange controls, initially aimed at curbing capital flight following a crippling, opposition-led oil industry strike in 2003, over time created incentives for corruption and black-market speculation that not only sapped government coffers but also slowly eroded popular confidence in government capacity. This lead some supporters of chavismo to push for greater radicalization and left adrift others, whose support for the government was based more on performance than ideology—especially with the opposition divided and offering little in the way of alternatives.

These problems were apparent before Chávez’s death in 2013. But they have grown exponentially in the administration of his successor, Nicolás Maduro, as inflation, shortages, and the public debt spiral; blackouts become commonplace; and prospects get grim as oil prices continue to plunge. In 2014 the measured level of poverty increased for the first time in a decade, and recent polls put both Maduro and Chávez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) at unprecedented lows in the run-up to crucial parliamentary elections to be held later this year.

Critics of the left, whatever the variant, may claim vindication of their own in Venezuela’s current predicament. But a more honest appraisal would see Venezuela’s crisis less as a function of socialism—which Chávez began to articulate only in 2005—than as a consequence of a petro-state dynamic that chavismo left fundamentally unaltered, rendering its achievements vulnerable to a boom-and-bust cycle that has befallen regimes of very different ideological stripes in the century since Venezuela’s first oil pump began operating. Of course, Venezuela’s woes offer a cautionary tale to progressives in the United States and elsewhere about how specific contexts and histories, more than general features, define what is and is not radical or revolutionary in any given setting. That the left turn’s record is therefore mixed, or as Venezuela’s example suggests, less ambitious than portrayed, ought long ago to have been clear to anyone with a greater analytic stake than to vilify or to glorify. But the question remains: Is it possible—or helpful—to speak of a Latin American left turn?

The answer is yes. Chávez’s election in 1998 helped to expand political horizons and imaginaries that freed people and governments from a market logic that had hamstrung the region for nearly two decades. Seen in this light, if Venezuela’s challenge for the left is that its socialism has proved far thinner than Chávez professed and others wanted to believe, it does not suggest that profound, even revolutionary changes are altogether absent. As George Ciccariello-Maher has noted in Jacobin, “recent years have marked not the establishment of a socialist country [in Venezuela] but the appearance of the poor in the public life of the nation,” ensuring that for even the most reactionary sectors of the opposition, sidelining popular voices and demands will be far more difficult going forward than it was before 1998.

At the same time, and paradoxically, the same oil revenues that ultimately weighed down Venezuela also helped to jumpstart, through a policy of continental solidarity and financial largess, nations whose debt obligations and stolid political systems precluded vital changes, perhaps nowhere more strikingly than Bolivia. More recently, initiatives to build regional autonomy by explicitly excluding the United States and Canada from new hemispheric political and economic institutions, notably Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), seek to break with decades of integration dominated by North American influence. To be sure these institutions remain nascent. But they codify an underlying effort, one that rises above ideological and programmatic differences, to achieve integration on the region’s own terms.

All of which points to a deeper reality. The left turn’s legacy is to be found not only in new regional bodies or in García Linera’s graphs and figures but also, as the late Venezuelan anthropologist Fernando Coronil observed in his final essay in 2011, in its expansion of “the agents, agendas, and conceptions of democracy.” He continued: “Just as no single social actor can now be represented as the agent of History without meeting significant resistance from other actors, no one conception of democracy can establish its hegemony without debate. The struggle for democracy now entails a struggle about democracy.”

At its core this struggle has recalibrated the balance between social and economic rights on the one hand and the civil and political rights that held sway under neoliberalism on the other. How far, against what pressures, and with what consequences that pendulum has swung are questions that local contexts and histories have informed, in the process accounting for varieties that could not and cannot be subsumed by simple binaries. All of which imply difficult questions for careful observers in the United States, both about how they will approach this variegated Latin American left in the years ahead, and what lessons it will draw for expanding the horizons of politics and society throughout the region—and at home as well.

Alejandro Velasco is assistant professor of Latin American Studies at New York University’s Gallatin School. His book Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Venezuela will appear this summer from the University of California Press.

Read the rest of NACLA's 2015 Winter Issue: Mapping the Moment

Tags: Pink Tide, Left Turn, Hugo Chavez, Alvaro Garcia Linera, Evo Morales, Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela, Bolivia

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