by Prof. James Petras
March 05, 2016
Over the past three years Latin American leftist leaders, who
presided over heterodox 'free trade' and commodity based welfare
economies, lost presidential, legislative and municipal elections
and referendums or faced impeachment.
They fell because they lost competitive
elections, not because of US invasions or military coups.
These same leftist leaders, who had
successfully defeated coups and withstood gross US political
intervention via AID, NED, the DEA and other US government agencies,
lost at the ballot box.
What accounts for the changing
capacity of leftist presidents to retain majoritarian
electoral support over almost a decade?
Why did the US-backed and funded
candidates win this time, when they had been defeated in
several previous elections?
What accounts for the defeat of
the rightist violent road to power and their subsequent
victory via the electoral process?
and Popular Mobilization as a Prelude to Leftist Electoral Victories
The electoral victories of the Left were preceded by a deep crisis
in the 'free market' and deregulated economies, which were
accompanied by intense class struggle from below.
Class struggle polarized and radicalized
vast sections of the working and middle classes.
In Argentina, the total collapse
of the financial and manufacturing system led to a popular
uprising and the rapid overthrow of three presidents.
In Bolivia, two popular
uprisings overthrew two US backed 'free market' presidents.
In Ecuador, a popular 'citizen
movement' ousted a US-backed president.
In Brazil, Paraguay and
Venezuela, burgeoning peasant and urban movements, engaged
in direct action and in opposition to their 'free market'
presidents, resulted in the election of left presidents.
Four inter-connected factors came to the
fore to explain the left's rise to power:
First, the dramatic collapse and
ensuing socio-economic crisis, entailing poverty, stagnation
and repression by rightwing regimes, precipitated a
large-scale shift to the left
Secondly, the intense class
struggle, responding to the crisis, politicized the workers,
radicalized the downwardly mobile middle classes and eroded
the influence of the ruling class and the impact of their
elite-controlled mass media
Thirdly, the leftist presidents
promised long-term large-scale structural changes and
successfully implemented immediate social impact programs
(employment, social benefits, bank deposit protection, pay
raises and large scale public investments)
Last, but not least, the leftist
presidents came to power at the beginning of or during a
mega-cycle commodity boom providing multi-billion dollar
surpluses in export earnings and tax revenues with which to
finance new inclusionary social programs
Clientalized Politics, Social De-Mobilization and Extractive
During the first years of the left governments, they kept the heat
on the rightwing elites:
They moved on the legal front to
consolidate political power by convoking constitutional assemblies
to approve progressive constitutions. They attracted and built on
the support from their new indigenous, popular and middle class
The constitutional changes reorganized new social alignments,
especially the rights of indigenous people, but fell far short of
serving as the basis for a change of property relations.
The left governments reinforced their dependence on agro-mineral
exports by designing a growth strategy based on economic partnership
with multi-nationals and agro-business plantation owners.
The rising prices of commodities on the world market led to
increases in government revenues, public investment in
infrastructure and expanded employment in the public sector. The
left governments constructed large-scale patronage systems and
clientelistic electoral machines, which 'mobilized' the masses on
electoral and ceremonial occasions and for international forums.
International left academics and journalists were impressed by the
left administrations' fiery rhetoric supporting anti-imperialist,
anti-neoliberal policies. Local and overseas pundits parroted the
rhetoric about new forms of 'socialism', 21st century socialism in
Ecuador and Venezuela and Andean socialism in Bolivia.
In actual practice long-term, large-scale contracts were signed with
international giants like, Repsol,
Monsanto, Jindel and scores of
other imperial backed multi-nationals.
Big agro-exporters received credits, loans and technical aid while
peasants and local producers received only the paper 'land titles'
for their small holdings.
No large-scale land distributions were
undertaken. Landless peasants, who were engaged in land occupations,
were forcibly evicted. Increased government spending on credit and
technical assistance was channeled almost exclusively to large-scale
soya, cattle, cotton and other agro-exporters, which increased rural
class inequalities and exacerbated the decline of food security.
During the decade, militants became functionaries, who developed
ties with business groups and began their own process of 'social
The agro-mineral export model raised incomes and reduced poverty but
also accentuated inequalities between government functionaries and
peasants and urban workers. The newly affluent, upwardly mobile
middle class no longer flocked to hear 'egalitarian rhetoric'.
They sought security, pursued
credit-financed consumerism and looked upward toward the wealthy
elite for their role models and life style changes - rather than
expressing solidarity with those left behind.
to Defeat - Pragmatic Accommodation as a Formula for Neo-Liberal
The leaders' anti-imperialist rhetoric was increasingly discounted
by most people as it was contrasted with the large-scale inflow of
capital and the contracts with multi-nationals.
The symbolic 'gestures' and local projects celebrated before large
crowds were accepted but increasingly failed to compensate for the
daily routines of centralized power and local corruption.
Over the decade the political cadres of the left governments
rounded-up votes via electoral patronage favors, financed by bribes
from contractors and illicit transfers of public funds.
Re-election bred complacency, arrogance and a sense of impunity. The
perquisites of office were taken for granted by party leader but
were perceived as unwarranted privileges by many working class and
The de-radicalization process at the top and middle levels of the
left regimes led the lower classes to rely on individualistic,
family and local solutions to their everyday problems.
With the demise of the commodity cycle, the broad coalition of
workers, peasants, middle class and professional groups splintered.
Many rejected the malfeasance of the left regimes as a betrayal of
the promise of change.
Thus the popular sectors embraced the moralizing critique mounted by
The retrograde radical right exploited discontent with the
incumbents and played down or disguised their plans to reverse and
undermine the employment and salary gains, pensions and family
allowance gained over the decade.
The left governments stimulated the growth of extractive capitalism
and converted their mass base into a passive recipient of regime
The unequal power between leaders and followers was tolerated as
long as the incremental rewards continued to flow. As classes rose
in the social hierarchy they shed their leftist ideology born of
crisis and looked to elite politicians as the new 'modernizers'.
The left regimes encouraged a 'dependency culture' in which they
competed for votes on the bases of growth, markets and patronage.
The left functionaries, unable to rise via the 'closed' agro-mineral
sectors - under the control of the multi-nationals, turned to state
corruption, extracting 'commissions' as intermediaries for the MNC,
or simply absconding with public funds allocated for municipal
health, education and infrastructure projects.
As a result, electoral promises were not kept.
The corrupt practices were ignored by
their elected leaders, deeply offending the popular electorate, who
were disgusted by the spectacle of corrupt left politicians
applauding radical rhetoric while raiding federal funds with
Party loyalty undermined any national political oversight of local
politicians and functionaries. Disenchantment with the local
functionaries spread up to the top. Popular leaders, who were
repeatedly elected soon, were implicated or at least complicit in
The end of the decade and the end of the commodity boom marked the
twilight of idols.
The left lost elections throughout the
The Kirchner-Fernandez regime
was defeated in Argentina (2015).
The Lula-Rousseff regime faces
indictment and impeachment in Brazil (2014-2016).
The Chavez-Maduro regime lost
the legislative election in Venezuela (2015).
The Evo Morales regime lost the
constitutional amendment allowing the president's third term
re-election in Bolivia (2016).