Monday, July 6, 2015
The Citizen Revolutions in Latin America
By François Houtart (openDemocracy)
The countries of the ‘citizen revolution’ in Latin America are post-neoliberal, but not post-capitalist.
we are to understand the evolution of the progressive Latin American countries one must remember that they have come out of
a neoliberal period that affected the whole continent for more than two decades, starting in the 1980s. At the behest of dictatorships
and guided by international financial organizations, such as the IMF and the World Bank, the economies were liberalized, the
embryonic social security systems dismantled as states were subjected to structural adjustment – in other words to budgetary
restrictions that were basically imposed in order to pay the interest on external debt.
Political resistance and that of social movements mounted in most countries
of the continent and in a number of them succeeded in toppling the existing regimes, in particular through the ballot box.
In the case of Nicaragua and El Salvador this only occurred due to guerrilla struggles. In others, attempted coups
eventually led to elections, as in Venezuela. Elsewhere it was through elections. New political formations appeared, largely
as the political expression of the social movements: the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil, the Movement towards Socialism
(MAS) in Bolivia, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation
Front (FMNL) in El Salvador, and the Alianza País (AP) Movement in Ecuador.
These new political
formations absorbed many of the irreplaceable leaders of the social movements, thus weakening them. In time, the new parties
did not escape the traditional defects of the Latin American political sphere – nepotism, corruption, caudillismo
(strong charismatic leadership) – thus losing some of their moral influence.
The new constitutions
played an important role in initiating changes. In Ecuador and Bolivia huge numbers of people participated in preparing them
and they introduced unheard of notions, such as buen vivir, inspired by the philosophy of the indigenous peoples,
pluri-nationality and the rights of nature.
It was a difficult transition as it required building the
new while the old structures were still in place – particularly in the economic field – with decision making powers
often located outside the continent, peripheral vis-à-vis the centers of capitalism.
were strong reactions. Thus on the eve of the elections that were to bring Lula to power in Brazil there was a massive withdrawal
of foreign capital. In El Salvador, at the beginning of the elections, there were rumors circulating that if the FMNL won
the United States would prohibit the transfer of migrants’ earnings, which are the main source of foreign currency in
the country. In Venezuela, after the electoral victories of Chávez and Maduro, the local capitalists organized artificial
shortages of basic consumer goods.
Latin America is
the only continent where political systems have adopted post-neoliberal measures. It has not happened in Asia or in Africa,
nor in the Arab world and even less in Europe where the European Union has been applying liberal measures ad nauseam
in order ‘to get out of the crisis,’ as if the crisis did not originate from those very measures! As for the United
States, it was no exception to the rule.
Therefore it was necessary to reconstruct the functions of the State that had
been eliminated by neoliberalism, which had however conserved or reinforced the juridical system as a means to protect private
ownership of the means of production and also strengthened the forces of repression, abandoning social investments and public
services for the sake of economic fundamentalism.
In the progressive Latin American countries, priority was
given to the social and economic role of the State and to the development of public facilities, especially in the field of
health and education. None of them took such advanced measures as the Cuban revolution had done. They all remained in the
framework of a mixed economy, conserving the pluralism of education and health operators. The NGOs had an important role during
the neoliberal period in making up for the shortcomings of the system mainly through numerous development projects. Their
field of action however shrunk in recent years, which some interpreted as an attack on freedom.
Also, the world
economic context contributed by favoring the countries of the continent that wanted to enter a post-neoliberal era. The
price of primary commodities, oil, minerals, certain agricultural products increased and, for a decade, the foreign currency
income grew considerably, thus facilitating policies for public investments and social protection.
the same time, most Latin American countries experienced a relative de-industrialization and an acceleration of extractivism
(mining and oil industries), which has generated social conflicts, notably with the indigenous populations that are directly
affected. The fall in prices of oil and minerals since 2014 has caused serious problems for countries like Venezuela, Ecuador
and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia. In addition, the crisis of the central capitalist countries impacted on the demand for primary
commodities. There was a slowing down in the growth rate of China while the United States and its allies in the Gulf carried
out aggressive oil policies to weaken their Russian, Iranian and Venezuelan adversaries.
In terms of social
policies, progressive regimes gave priority to the fight against poverty. In a few years, thanks to programs such as the bolsa
familia in Brazil or the humanitarian vouchers in Ecuador, millions of people have been lifted from ‘extreme poverty’
and ‘simple poverty,’ according to United Nations categories. These programs, which are usually decentralized
to the municipal level, are usually linked with the obligation to attend a health center and the schooling of small children.
This decrease of poverty should however not overshadow the fact that the Gini co-efficient (which measures the gap between
the richest and the poorest) has hardly been affected. In fact, while the poorest have gradually got out of their situation
(although the figures still stand at more or less 10 per cent, depending on which country), the richest have become even richer
and, in countries like Brazil, much richer.
The contribution of these policies to relieving poverty
cannot be denied. However, they ought to be criticized. This type of war on poverty does not produce ‘social actors’
but rather political ‘clients.’ Moreover, the countries that have remained neoliberal, like Colombia, Mexico,
Costa Rica and to a large extent Peru and Chile, have also started similar programs, sometimes with similar results, or even
slightly better ones. These measures are however taken in a different spirit. Inspired by the World Bank, they consider the
reduction of indigence as a means to expand the market economy.
Broader access to health and education
has also been a major goal for the progressive countries of Latin America. In Ecuador, in less than ten years, the number
of pupils and students has doubled. University reform tends to reinforce the deficiencies of the system and four “super
universities” have been created, mainly to respond to the demands of the sciences and high-tech sectors. A thousand
‘millennium schools’ have been constructed, replacing the small local schools in rural regions. These schools
gather various small rural schools in bigger ones, better equipped, but obliging children to make longer journeys and losing
a good part of the bilingual programs, in Spanish and indigenous languages. The higher education policies are influenced by
the desire to enter into modernity and follow the patterns of the European education model of the largely neoliberal Bologna
Reform. Reforms in education thus turn out to be relatively technocratic, typical of the development approach (see below).
There is much investment pouring into infrastructures. Ecuador has built hundreds of kilometers of excellent roads
in very difficult geographical conditions, particularly in the Andes. Brazil is multiplying its hydroelectric dams, especially
on the rivers in the Amazon. Urban transport is being modernized, thanks to cableways and subways. Refineries, public buildings
and airports are being built. Expenditure on country lanes, peasant agriculture (almost abandoned), bilingual schools, social
housing (except in Venezuela) are of less importance. Industrial agriculture for export has escalated, above all in Brazil
and Argentina: ethanol, agro-diesel, animal feed and GMOs are encouraged. This is part of the ‘new productive model’
Latin American integration
Important progress has also
been made in Latin American integration. Venezuela has been the main driver of new initiatives. As in previous decades, two
historical currents of thought are still vibrant in the continent. The first one advocates the integration of the ‘Great
Country’ as Simon Bolivar used to say, and ‘Our America,’ according to the Cuban José Martí.
The second one favors integration with North America, in accordance with the Monroe Doctrine, ‘America for the Americans,’
which opposed European colonialism.
The progressive countries opted for the first perspective. Hence the constitution
of Unasur (Union of the South American countries), of Celac (Community of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean),
the work of Hugo Chávez and of ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance of the peoples of Our America), also conceived by the Venezuelan
president. These initiatives are in addition to Mercosur (Common Market of the South) that groups together the countries in
the Southern Cone and is a prolongation of the victorious struggle against the project of the US president, George Bush, the
FTAA (Free Trade Treaty between North America and South America).
On the other hand, countries that have
stayed neoliberal are faithful adherents of the OAS (Organization of the American States), based in Washington. They have
set up the nations of the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, plus "observer countries") to promote
economic ties with Asia in a neoliberal framework with the United States.
For their part, the progressive
countries have also taken some anti-imperialist measures: Ecuador has closed the US base at Manta; Venezuela regularly denounces
the interference of US services supporting the opposition; and Bolivia has expelled USAID, the cooperation agency of the United
Three development models
Which development models are
being pursued by the progressive Latin American countries? There are roughly three different approaches.
The first project
is what might be termed ‘neo-developmentalism.’ It is a new version of the project championed by the CEPAL (UN
Economic Commission for Latin America) in the 1960s, replacing imports through national production and the development of
local capitalism. Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua are clearly going in that direction, with the constitution of a modern capitalism
opposed to the old oligarchies and accepting the war against poverty, the promotion of formal employment and the reduction
of the informal, the setting up of social security, and the need for a stable State financed by taxation.
sectors of finance, internal trade and economic intermediaries with China all prosper. However, the growth of exports to finance
the State necessitates new contracts with the extractive multinationals and agro-business and, because of the fall in prices,
there is recourse to indebtedness with the World Bank and with the banks from North America, China and the Gulf countries
– however on better conditions than previously. As a result there is less attention to ecological problems and little
interest in the original peoples (in Ecuador), as well as opposition to the claims of workers, small peasants and the indigenous
peoples, who are considered as obstacles to the model. There is a tendency to criminalize resistance and a centralized State
is the instrument of these policies.
The second model is clearly social-democratic, accepting capitalism as the basis of growth and distributing part
of the social product. This is the case of Brazil, where the Workers’ Party has encouraged the development of local
capitalism in agriculture and attracted foreign capital. Never have the rich earned so much money but, at the same time, some
30 to 40 million have emerged from poverty. On the other hand, there has been no serious land reform and the new government
of Dilma Rousseff includes a former graduate of the Chicago school as Minister of Finance and the former spokesman of the
large landowners at the National Assembly as Minister of Agriculture. The Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST), after having
supported the government during elections, has virtually declared war against it by returning to the land occupation of the
latifundia, particularly the property of one of the government ministers. Argentina and Uruguay are in a somewhat
The third case is that of Venezuela. There have been more serious efforts at peoples’
participation, with communal initiatives in which the grassroots decide on how to utilize part of the public budget. Towards
the end of his life, Hugo Chávez stressed the importance of eco-socialism, integrating concern with nature into the
socialist project. Unable to rely on the administration of the State at the beginning of his mandate, he set up, with oil
revenue, a parallel State and organized different kinds of ‘missions’ for all the public service fields: in health,
with Cuban doctors, education at different levels, the social economy, agriculture, indigenous peoples, etc. But the fundamental
disease of Venezuela is the rent from oil, which has destroyed local production (everything being bought with petro-dollars),
agriculture (70 per cent of food is imported) and all the social norms (violence is social and only partly political). The
country has not left behind a political culture of corruption, even if there has been great progress in the social and cultural
fields. The desire for fundamental change in the country explains the ferocity of the opposition.
countries of the ‘citizen revolution’ in Latin America are post-neoliberal, but not post-capitalist. This can
be explained by the strength of the system that imposes its laws on a global scale, but also by the social vision of leaders,
who tend to modernize their countries rather than seeking a new paradigm for the collective life of human beings on the planet.
This is done with the support of a popular majority, formed partially by the ‘clients’ of the regimes
motivated by the prospect of immediate advantages. Another major weakness of these perspectives is their ignorance of the
‘externalities’ implied by the economic model. They produce major ecological and social damage not taken into
account in the development model.
It is certainly true that progress has been achieved, but it risks being eroded
in more dire economic situations. True, also, that a return to power of the right would mean a remaking of neoliberalism with
its great retinue of misfortunes. Nevertheless, the need to go beyond the present situation, which is recognized by several
social movements, is absolutely fundamental.
This article, "The citizen revolutions in Latin America," by François Houtart, was first published
on Jun. 27, 2015 at openDemocracy.net, under a Creative Commons license.
Born in Brussels in 1925, François Houtart was ordained
as a priest in 1949. He holds a PhD in sociology from the Université Catholique de Louvain, and Honoris Causa Doctorate
from the universities of Notre Dame (USA) and La Habana. Emeritus professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain
and full profesor at the Instituto de Altos Estudios Nacionales del Ecuador (Quito), he authored over 50 books. François
Houtart is one of the founders of the World Social Forum and a member of its International Council.