Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil. Photo: Wikipedia Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil. Photo: Wikipedia

Héctor Rios takes a look at the context of the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff

On 12 May, the Brazilian parliament voted in favour of the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. This implied the suspension of her functions for 180 days. Several sections of the international community have classified this issue as a political coup against Brazilian democracy and particularly against the Worker’s Party, which has dominated Brazilian politics over the past decade. Beyond its domestic consequences and the new issues which have shown the innocence (regarding corruption claims) of Rousseff presidency, the Brazilian crisis confirms the critical situation for centre-left governments in the region.

Take the parliamentarian coup against Paraguay’s president Fernando Lugo in 2012, the election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina last year ending twelve years of centre-left governments led by Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Kirchner, the electoral defeat in Bolivia of Evo Morales in the last referendum to expand his role as president in 2015, and most significantly, the political crises of Venezuela after the death of the socialist leader Hugo Chavez in 2012.

These issues provide stark evidence that left governments have been suffering political difficulties and strong contradictions that could mean the end of the dominant position of centre-left coalitions in Latin America. While it’s clear that the image of crisis has been produced by the increasingly militant anti-democratic strategies of the conservative national and international opposition forces, their successful attacks have shown the weaknesses of the common political strategy adopted by the Latin-American left over the last two decades.

This situation has brought about a process of deep reflection and analysis on the Latin left, in order to confront this reactionary politics and regain the initiative without losing its own influence. With this context, I’ll try to describe some topics of discussion for the Latin-American left with respect to what can be called the recent ‘cycle’ of progressive left governments.

The cycle of progressive left Latin governments

Before drawing an outline of left wing criticism, it is important to define what is meant by the concept of “political cycle of progressive left governments”. It’s a label to describe the national and regional political expression of different governments led by centre-left coalitions during the 2000s decade in South America. More concretely, it refers to the governments of Venezuela under ‘Chavism’ (1998-now); the Brazilian governments of the Worker’s Party (2003-now); the “Kirchner Age” in Argentina with governments led by ‘Justicialist’ Party (2003-2015); The Bolivia’s government of Evo Morales and the MAS (Movement for Socialism) since 2005; the “Citizen Revolution” in Ecuador, under the government of Rafael Correa (2007-now), and Uruguay with the consecutive governments led by Broad Front since 2004 up to the present.

Despite their differences, these governments have three basic characteristics in common. The first is the employment of a democratic strategy, expressed in electoral participation and pluralist grassroots participation in their organisations. All these governments have focused their energies on the achievement of electoral majorities, combining the use of ‘social movement’ formations with political alliances between centre and left parties in political coalitions. Relatedly, the new Latin left has tried to democratise its structures, assuming strong criticisms of the hierarchical political expressions of the traditional left and developing different levels of local participation.

The best example of this is the Movements for Socialism (MAS) in Bolivia, an organisation which brings together indigenous peasant unions, federations of workers unions and other forms of local association with the employment of electoral alliances with traditional parties. This organisation has the dual condition of being a massive social movement, which provides identity, values and the projection of grassroots activities, whilst also being a political-electoral coalition, which allows flexible coordination of political alliances within the context of the formal democracy.

The second characteristic is the implementation of anti-austerity policies. The programmes of these governments have included the increase of social investment and the active state role as key factors in the economy, and implementing policies of redistribution that focus on the reduction of inequalities and wealth concentration. For example, in Argentina the governments of Nestor Kirchner increased state investment in public services, expanding employment and increasing the minimum wage. These policies reduced the levels of inequality in the country from 0.51 in 2000 to 0.42 in 2013 (GINI index). Similarly, the government of Hugo Chavez increase state expenditure from 20.5% of GDP in 1998 to 35% in 2008, prioritising investment in health and housing for citizens. As a result in 2011, the GINI index fell to the historic 0.39, one of the lowest values in the region in twenty years.

The third element that these progressive governments have in common is an anti-imperialist position. The left governments have tried to improve their national sovereignty, assuming a political distance from the international institutions as IMF and imperialist countries. This characteristic is an object of discussion in the region but the clearest evidence of the anti-imperialistic policy was the defeat of the FTAA (Free Trade Area of Americas) in 2005. The trade deal, proposed by the USA in 1994, claimed to create a free market area in the region, which included free access to exploit natural resources, migration policies and security policies led by the USA. However in 2005, during the Mar del Plata American Summit, the centre-left governments led by Venezuela refused to sign up to the USA’s agenda, enforcing its cancellation. This issue was the most significant geopolitical failure of the USA in the region in decades and it empowered regional integration.

A left-wing critique: the weaknesses of progressivism

Despite the relative success of these policies, the weaknesses shown by these governments have focused debate on explaining why left governments have suffered early setbacks in their agendas, why they have been forced to delay the radical changes promised during the early years and why popular dissatisfaction has increased in recent years.

The first two points of criticism are the explosive rise of bureaucracy and competition within state control under these left governments. The anti-austerity policies have increased the size of state, integrating a massive number of new officers, usually members of government coalitions. This change has given the opportunity for social movements to participate directly in state activities, controlling key sectors of the state apparatus and leading the implementation of some policies. However, it has produced negative consequences for social movement democracy and has also increased the competitiveness between members of the governing coalitions, altering the unity of these coalitions.

In the first case, the inclusion of social movement leaders in the state has produced contradictions between social and political interests and local and national priorities, reducing the independence of social movements and the internal democracy of local organisations. In the second case, the extended field (in the state) for the alliances has raised competitiveness between members of the coalition, which year by year increase their demands looking for more influence and benefits from the governments. The rise of competitive relationships between coalition members has reduced the flexibility of governments, intensifying the pressures and political compromises with coalition members, slowing down the political agenda and ultimately obstructing political unity.

A second criticism is the absence of relevant changes in the economic structures. As is well known, the Latin-American economy is characterised by its extreme dependence on raw materials exports and non-manufactured products. The classic analysis has described the economic dependency of these countries as the most significant weakness to confront imperialist policies, principally because their growth and development depends on international price fluctuations and the level of consumption by developed countries. In this sense economists as Eduardo Gudynas and Gabriel Palma have criticised the continuity shown by progressive governments with the highly extractive economies.

In the opinion of those two, the exploitation of natural resources as the base of Latin-American economies is not sustainable at this time, because it does not give the autonomy and sovereignty that the left proclaim. For one, these economies are conditioned by foreign investment, technology and consumption, and furthermore the level of land exploitation is limited and implies the devastation of vast amounts of territory thereby producing constant contradictions with local movements and environmental sustainability.

A third debate is the paradox of equality without growth. Indeed, Left governments have implemented far-reaching policies of redistribution but without obtaining high levels of growth. As World Bank data indicates, the left-governed countries have not shown significant levels of growth in the last decade, instead following the same patterns of the region, whose growth levels have fluctuated around 3% and 1% per year over the last five years. It means that the rise of social investment has been supported by the high price of natural resources during 2000 – 2008, which increased national incomes in the countries favouring redistribution policies, though significant changes in structures of production have not been made.

In this sense, the limited changes in macro-economic policies implemented by progressive governments cannot change the typical pattern of dependence for Latin American economies, which, post-2008 crisis, have been shown extremely hampered in sustaining the social policies that their electoral base demand.

The Latin American left and an uncertain future

In summary, it possible to say that the competitiveness between coalition members, anti-austerity policies without growth, the absence of economic innovation in ‘dependent’ economies and the unexpected economic effects of the 2008 crises on fragile economies are the key weaknesses that could explain the current difficulties of left governments in the region. However it’s impossible to avoid the issue that these weaknesses have given the opportunities to national oppositions of the right, assuming their historical anti-democratic strategies with which they are trying to enforce the political fall of the region’s left.

As Michael Lowy has highlighted, the coup, military or legal, is a historical strategy used every forty years by the conservative Latin American opposition to defend its privileges, collaborate with imperialist interests and stop the advance of popular movements and the left. By this token it’s impossible to deny that the parliamentary coup against president Rousseff is in fact only a newer version of the military coup suffered by Brazilian people in 1964.

The question is whether this coup will initiate a new authoritarian age in the region, just as five decades before the Brazilian military coup started the bloodiest cycle of dictatorships that the region has suffered in its history. Or whether the left will be able to innovate on its faltering political and economic strategies without losing power.