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Postado dia 09/10/2023 às 14:18:25

In Latin America, Economic Equality Is a Precondition for Democracy

Across Latin America at the turn of the twenty-first century, mass protests and popular discontent with the failures of neoliberalism upended decades of elite rule. Progressive governments were elected across the hemisphere, spanning the spectrum from modest reformers to incendiary radicals.

In a new book, political sociologist Gabriel Hetland assesses the strength of participatory democracy in the two leftmost countries at the height of the so-called Pink Tide: Bolivia and Venezuela. His unexpected findings raise important questions for leftists anywhere hoping to one day exercise state power.

The Pink Tide’s Red Crest

The left governments that rose to power across the continent were as diverse as the populations they governed. Venezuela and Bolivia may have boasted the reddest of South America’s Pink Tide governments, but the Hugo Chávez and the Evo Morales administrations had decidedly different characters, each shaped by distinct historical contexts and social forces.

Hetland categorizes the Chávez government as “left populist.” A career military officer, Chávez was elected president in 1998 as a renegade reformer. The cycles of anti-neoliberal protest that prefigured his rise were largely uncoordinated and decentralized, making Venezuela’s left turn, at the outset, a relatively top-down affair.

Evo Morales, in contrast, was a veteran movement leader carried into office on the backs of formidable popular movements in 2005. Hetland classifies the Morales government as “movement-left,” his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party embodying a militant, even revolutionary upswelling.

In Hetland’s analysis, these distinctions conditioned the regimes’ diverging responses to the inevitable right-wing backlash. Where Chávez found it necessary to “build a stronger bulwark against the Right by extensively organizing and mobilizing popular sectors,” Morales, fearing civil war, “worked to contain right-wing backlash through limited mobilization and demobilization of popular forces.”

Until his untimely death in 2013, Chávez encouraged a vibrant “participatory and protagonistic democracy” in Venezuela, fomenting a militant base in the popular classes in order to defend an increasingly radical project from domestic elites and their imperialist allies. In Bolivia, however, Hetland argues, the MAS’s insurgent project morphed into what Antonio Gramsci called a “passive revolution,” with significant social reforms accompanied by popular demobilization and deals with elite interests.

For Hetland, it comes down to the construction of “leftist hegemony.” In this analysis, left hegemony is achieved when a left party is able to establish “moral and intellectual leadership” to the extent that even the Right is compelled to “play the game of politics” on its terms. He contends that Chávez’s government succeeded in establishing hegemony in Venezuela, whereas Morales in Bolivia did not.

This divergence explains Hetland’s unexpected findings at the local level. In both countries, Hetland compares two municipalities, one governed by the ruling left and another by the right-wing opposition. He anticipated, as most Jacobin readers might, greater participatory governance under the left-run cities in both countries. Instead, he found something else: both the left and right-run cities in Venezuela were implementing robust participatory budgeting programs, while both Bolivian cities appeared to be actively suppressing popular input.

Leftist Hegemony in Venezuela

Hetland dates the heyday of leftist hegemony in Venezuela from 2005 to 2013. Chavismo’s supremacy in this period had three facets: Chávez’s unmatched charisma, high oil prices, and a favorable regional context.

Following Chávez’s 1998 election, the 1999 National Constituent Assembly ushered in a period of broad popular participation and organizing. The new government mobilized Venezuela’s popular classes in forms that began with neighborhood groups called Bolivarian Circles, then issue-based urban committees, communal councils, and communes. In 2007, Chávez founded the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

In this heady period of popular advance toward socialist horizons, abundant oil revenues were key, but more important was their destination. Increased state social spending took the form of the flagship social missions, which provided free public services and staples. Social spending as a percentage of GDP rose from 11.3 percent in 1998 to 22.8 percent in 2011, while poverty fell from 62 percent to 32 percent. From 2012 to 2015, Venezuela was the most equal country in Latin America.

During this hegemonic high point, opposition hard-liners were marginalized in favor of a softer strategy “willing to engage on Chavismo’s terms.” As a result, both the left- and right-governed cities that Hetland studies adopted robust policies to engage residents in significant political decision-making.

Hetland writes that the left-run rural municipality of Torres “may have been the world’s most democratic city” between 2005 and 2016. Under stalwart socialist Chavista mayors, Torres enacted radical reforms toward collectivizing local governance and began experimenting with socialized production. But even in the city of Sucre, a center-right-led municipality in the greater Caracas metropolitan area, Hetland found what he characterizes as “administered democracy,” or a “state-controlled democratic regime” with residents granted “real, albeit limited” control over budgeting.

Post-2013, however, the pillars that sustained Chávez’s left-populist hegemony collapsed. After his death in 2013 came the 2014 fall in oil prices, which wouldn’t recover until 2021. In this period of economic reversals and decline, the regional context deteriorated accordingly, with a fierce right-wing resurgence across the continent.

The economic depression in Venezuela that ensued is unprecedented, thanks to the economic warfare from the US government in the form of devastating sanctions and the destabilization from their allies in the opposition, aggravated by a “dysfunctional currency policy” that Nicolás Maduro didn’t abandon until 2019. As Hetland points out, however, those external and internal factors are not isolated: the inflationary currency policy was enacted in response to the threat of capital flight in 2003, and US sanctions are largely responsible for the decline in Venezuelan oil production, helping to keep the government starved of revenue.

Maduro’s increasingly repressive response to the deteriorating political situation matched the opposition’s escalating tactics, culminating with Juan Guaidó’s “tragicomic” US-backed escapades. By then, the spiraling economic crisis and corresponding political crisis had effectively eliminated the conditions for leftist hegemony in Venezuela.

From “Insurgent Reform” to “Passive Revolution” in Bolivia

Hetland divides the Morales government into three periods: insurgent reform between 2006 and 2009, passive revolution from 2009 to 2016, and crisis from 2016 to 2019. In this telling, Morales entered office with a transformative program but soon began moving right.

Morales’s 2006 election was the triumphant culmination of several years of militant, indigenous-led, anti-neoliberal protests. Two conflicting blocs emerged in this period, divided on ideological, ethnic, and geographic lines: a “revolutionary-left Indigenous bloc” in the highlands and a “reactionary ‘eastern-bourgeois’ bloc” in Santa Cruz and the lowlands.

Under Morales’s first term, the government brought in significant new revenue through partially nationalizing natural gas, convened a constituent assembly, and pursued land reform. This period of insurgent reform was one of intense left-right conflict. As pressure from opposition elites mounted in the form of political sabotage and street violence, Hetland describes MAS serving “as an arbiter between left-popular and right-wing forces.”

Under Morales’s second term, with MAS in full control of the government, the administration opted for moderation instead of radicalization. In response to the growing right-wing backlash, the government allied with lowland agrarian elites, and relations with popular movements grew strained. This ambiguous period of “passive revolution” was not without significant social gains, but movements faced “escalating repression and cooptation,” while the prevailing structures of class power were largely preserved.

Morales’s third term was even more fraught, with his controversial decision to eliminate term limits despite a national referendum vote to the contrary. The opposition seized the conjuncture to stage the October 2019 coup, and the ensuing dictatorship of far-right Jeanine Áñez wrought “real and symbolic violence” against the indigenous majorities, sparking mass protests. When Áñez finally relented and held elections in October 2020, MAS candidate Luis Arce won by a comfortable margin.

This complex and contradictory interplay between transformation and restoration, revolution and reaction, conditioned the disappointing democratic results Hetland encountered in his Bolivian fieldwork. In right-wing-governed Santa Cruz, the heartland of the racist opposition, Hetland describes a reactionary regime of “technocratic clientelism,” rampant corruption, and no semblance of participatory programming.

More troubling, however, was the clientelism and hostility to participatory governance that he found in El Alto, the MAS-governed city famous for its militant mobilizations and formidable popular organizations. Participatory budgeting processes did exist, and civic associations staged regular, dramatic direct actions to impose their will, but the city government was increasingly at odds with local movements, mirroring a national strategy of demobilization and containment.

Democracy and Its Discontents

In many respects, Hetland’s research is a welcome rebuke of the stern denunciations of Chávez’s authoritarianism that remain all too common among liberals, to say nothing of the Right. In Venezuela, where bourgeois checks and balances were largely abolished and the president’s party dominated all branches of government, working people had more control over the conditions of their lives than perhaps anywhere else in the continent at that time. This account of the democratic revolution unfolding between 2005 and 2013 also counters the claims of left critics like Franck Gaudichaud, Massimo Modonesi, and Jeffrey R. Webber, for whom the entire Pink Tide was an exercise in “passive revolution.”

But Democracy on the Ground is also a cautionary tale. In the left-governed bastion of Bolivia’s celebrated indigenous movements, Hetland encountered a fraught process of popular contention. These tensions help explain why, despite the 2019 coup’s momentous democratic reversal, internal conflict continues to plague MAS and its organized social base. Indeed, the subsequent reversals in Venezuela reveal how contingent the gains of any revolutionary project always are.

Fundamentally, the book is about the meaning and scope of democracy under capitalism. Hetland recounts how Latin American struggles for democracy were shorn of their socialized promise with the triumph of the neoliberal counterrevolution over insurgent national liberation movements. With the region’s political economy firmly subordinate to US-led financial and commercial interests, the definition of democracy was significantly diminished to ensure capital’s dictatorship in the workplace and imperialism’s mandate over the global periphery.

The rise of participatory local governance initiatives in the region dates to precisely this period in the 1980s and 1990s. As Hetland’s study shows, the Right may, under certain conditions, be temporarily obliged to suffer a degree of democratization in municipal budgeting. But it will not long countenance any such encroachment into the economy.

Today the Latin American right is once again confirming its historical antipathy to democracy in any sphere. This hostility is in full view in Guatemala, where even formal liberal democracy has only been tolerated grudgingly for short periods.

Liberals, who remain devoted to the exhausted institutions of (neo)liberal democracy, cannot distinguish between the Right’s antidemocratic attacks and Left projects to overcome liberal institutions with more radical collective formations. Democracy on the Ground lays that distinction bare, revealing the deeply democratic commitments of the socialist left and the challenges to sustaining that promise.

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