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Dilma Rousseff in happier times, Porto Alegre, 2010. Photo: Flickr

Dilma Rousseff in happier times, Porto Alegre, 2010. Photo: Flickr

As the economic downturn hits Latin America, Dan Morgan considers the impact on progressive developments and looks ahead to the role of political organisations

South America is in trouble. The few golden years of high commodity prices and strong left-wing governments now seem long gone. Economically, growth is slow or negative, apart from Bolivia. Politically, reactionary forces have used economic problems to take the offensive. We have the real threats to the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, the narrow defeat of Kirchnerism in Argentina last October, and now the parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. In general, we are seeing the problems and limitations of reforms made within a capitalist framework.

Venezuela

Venezuela is the most worrying case. The revolution changed the constitution, gained power in the executive, legislative, judicial and military spheres. State enterprises were strengthened or set up but the capitalist sector of the economy remains strong - and in food production and distribution, dominant. Chileans who were in exile there tell me that a culture of corruption was deeply rooted, affecting much of life. That will not easily change. Despite efforts to diversify the economy, it remains heavily dependent on oil production – and the price fell from over 100 dollars a barrel in 2014 to around 40 dollars this year.

The right wing opposition has unleashed economic warfare, producing shortages and a black market. It is anguishing to see that the government cannot ensure easy access to food and medicines for the population, after 18 years of the revolutionary process. A system to address this has been started, called CLAP – Local Committees for Supplies and Production. It sounds similar to the JAP – Councils for Supplies and Prices – the system that in Chile in 1973 ensured basic goods for the people, based on committees linked to local shopkeepers. This worked, as I can testify, but was not widespread enough to prevent the popular discontent that provided the political basis for the military coup against Salvador Allende. The father of Chile’s current president, Alberto Bachelet, was an Air Force General who coordinated the JAP system; after the coup he was imprisoned and tortured for his pains, dying from an unattended heart attack.

It is to be hoped that the CLAP system will work in Venezuela, because people without supplies of food and medicine will be disenchanted and continue to support the opposition, as they did in the elections last December. The head of the Central Command of the CLAP, Freddy Bernal, says their role is ‘to defeat the economic war’, as part of government measures to protect the people from speculation, hoarding, the mafias, infiltrators and the corrupt 'who also exist in the various public and private institutions' (speech on 13th July).

The Communist Party of Venezuela is small but it may be significant that it calls for mobilisation against 'fascism, "entreguismo" and corruption'. Here, ‘entreguismo’ refers to a section of the Bolivarian movement that is prepared to give in, to hand over power to the pro-imperialist and neoliberal opposition, rather than deepen the revolution. The only sure way to finally defeat the reactionary forces is to decisively weaken the capitalist sector, to achieve a largely socialist economy.

Brazil

Brazil is the most recent and dramatic example of the reactionary offensive. President Dilma Rosseff has been impeached in a parliamentary coup, in my opinion more for her anti-imperialism, solidarity with other progressive governments on the continent, than for her mild progressive reforms at home. These social reforms of the Workers’ Party presidents lifted 30 million people out of poverty (in this huge country of over 200 million) but there was no change to the political system or the judiciary, let alone the military. Thus, taking advantage of an economic recession, it has been relatively easy for reaction in Congress to stage an illegitimate, unjustifiable coup. Dilma was guilty of manipulating budget figures, allegedly, to help win her re-election. Something every politician might do, and not a crime as demanded by the constitution to justify impeachment. She has not been accused of corruption, even political corruption. The majority of all members of congress in Brazil are under investigation for corruption involving personal enrichment.

To look at recent history a little more: The Workers’ Party won the presidency first in 2002, with Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva. But first he made a ‘pact with the devil’, i.e. a number of center and right-wing parties, promising not to basically change the capitalist economic model. Worse, neither he nor Dilma Rouseff, his successor, even attempted changes to the hopelessly corrupt political system.

As an historic leader of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) wrote in 2013: 'Today, in order to run for any position, for example, for councilor, you need to have more than one million reais [approximately 2 reais to the dollar]; a deputy costs around ten million. Capitalists pay and later politicians follow orders. Young people are fed up with this bourgeois way of doing politics, strictly commercial. But what is even more serious was the fact that political parties from the institutional left, all of them, adapted to those methods. And, therefore, provoked a sharp aversion to the way political parties act'.

Fortunately, this coup just might end up rebounding on its instigators. A social movement has arisen to oppose this outrage, with mass demonstrations in many parts of this huge country ; it could grow and forge the necessary unity and awareness that more radical policies are needed if the country is to win the battle for democracy, let alone social justice.

Argentina

Argentina, as always, is very complex politically. The Peronist governments of Cristina Fernandez and her husband Nestor Kirchner before her were certainly not socialist, but definitely anti-imperialist and progressive, with important subsidies for basic services helping the poor above all. The movement that is Peronism has included tendencies ranging from ultra-left to neoliberal. The big weakness of the government was the usual corruption by many of the ministers, and reports of a big increase in Cristina’s wealth while President. The political class in Argentina has this culture.

Peronism now seems to be definitively divided, with Cristina Fernandez leading the ‘Front for Victory’ on the left. The was narrowly defeated in the elections last November, and the new, decidedly neoliberal President Macri set about reversing all progressive reforms. Increases in electricity, gas and public transport prices of 300 and 400% were announced – these have now had to be modified as the Supreme Court ruled there was no prior discussion of these in assemblies. Devaluation of about 50% has led to massive inflation, and there is a great increase in the number of poor.

Again, there is hope, as a mass movement is developing which we can hope will develop solid left-wing policies and the necessary unity.

These are three emblematic examples of the political battles going on in South America, illustrating the problems for reforms, even radical, deep ones that do not accumulate enough strength and decision to achieve hegemony and meet capitalist and imperialist resistance with socialist counter-blows. Among other things, it seems that a disciplined, politically educated working class vanguard is needed to give the necessary leadership and, crucially in many cases, fight corruption in the progressive movement.

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