Latin America’s Bitter Stalemate

Mabel Thwaites Rey

The Pink Tide governments failed because they couldn't transform the region's economy. But the resurgent right doesn't have a solution to the economic crisis either — and the impasse is deepening the basis for violent, reactionary politics.

Rafael Correa, Evo Morales, Néstor Kirchner, Cristina Fernández, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Nicanor Duarte, and Hugo Chávez at the signing of the founding charter of the Bank of the South, December 9, 2007. Presidency of the Nation of Argentina / Wikimedia

Interview by
Jeffery R. Webber

The impacts of the global economic crisis of 2008 began to reverberate across South America around 2012, with a number of countries governed by progressive parties entering into protracted economic downturns. After a short period of time, this often translated into political defeat at the hands of the Right, whether through elections, extra-constitutional means, or an internal rightward drift within governments conceived as part of the progressive cycle. Coming up in October, near-simultaneous elections in Argentina, Bolivia, and Uruguay will further impact upon continuities and ruptures with the “end of the cycle” and the rise of the new right across the region. It is a crucial moment to pause and take stock of both the longer-term and immediate political-economic dynamics underpinning such developments.

With all of this in mind, I had an extended conversation in Buenos Aires in early May with Mabel Thwaites Rey, professor in the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Buenos Aires, one of the leading theorists of the Latin American state, and a preeminent analyst of the rise and fall of the progressive tide of social movements and governments in the twenty-first century.

In our discussion, we trace the rise of anti-neoliberal social movements at the turn of the century and the progressive governments that followed them. Key issues taken up here are the impact of the commodities boom and the role of the state under new progressive governments, compared to its role during the orthodox neoliberal era.

Next, we discuss the puzzle of the “end of the cycle.” She explains the collapse of the progressive cycle with reference, first, to the central material factor of the global crisis of 2008 and the way its effects were mediated in Latin America through the collapse of commodity prices. She explores the social bases and organizational forms assumed by the new right-wing oppositions, with penetrating insight into the role of the corporate media, judiciary, and the ideological platform of anti-corruption.

Still, the new right-wing forces are shown to lack the ideological and political coherence of the Latin American rights of the 1990s, at the height of neoliberal hegemony. In the absence of such a coherent project, this might simply mean more violent and draconian forms of right-wing rule.

Thwaites Rey’s analysis draws fundamentally on a Gramscian understanding of the state as a social relation. “There is always a tension in the sense that every conquest can be reversed, a form of subordination,” she says, “but this does not mean abandoning the struggle to obtain gains which are translated into the state apparatus in the form of laws, resources, offices.” In Latin America, she explains, state formation has been intimately tied to the expansion of global capitalism.

The following interview was conducted in Spanish and has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jeffery R. Webber

Can you contextualize historically the progressive wave of movements and governments that emerged at the outset of the twenty-first century, and later their decline? What explains the emergence of many different types of leftist formations and social movements, and out of them, eventually, progressive governments?

Mabel Thwaites Rey

Together with Hernán Ouviña I edited a book, Estados en disputa. Auge y fractura del ciclo de impugnación al neoliberalismo en América Latina (States in Dispute: Rise and Fracture of the Anti-Neoliberal Cycle in Latin America), which was published earlier this year. We laid out a series of characteristics of what we called the anti-neoliberal cycle in Latin America. Our perspective begins its analysis with the surge of movements of contestation, protest, and popular demands, which accumulated over the 1990s, the decade of structural adjustment.

Neoliberal adjustments had particularities in each of the countries of the region and varied in the depth with which they implemented policies such as privatization of state enterprises, economic liberalization, and labor market flexibilization. But all were affected by the adjustment wave, which destroyed our economies and the quality of life of our peoples. In Argentina, the process of privatizations and deregulation was very drastic, with an enormous external indebtedness.

Social discontent in the region generated distinct expressions, with more or less radicalism. In the majority of our countries there was an eruption of struggles, movements, and unrest that led, towards the end of the century, to the emergence of governments which echoed these demands and, to a greater or lesser extent, opposed the neoliberal policies which preceded them.

There has been much discussion as to how best to characterize these governments — post-neoliberal, left-wing, progressive. What binds them, I think, is that all of them, bad or good, challenged, questioned, confronted — whether rhetorically or more concretely — neoliberalism.

This colored the majority of the political processes of the region at the start of the new century, and in some countries this was translated into progressive governments.

An important element is the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power. He won the 1998 elections, assumed office in 1999, and began to radicalize in 2002, following the failed coup attempt. He put forward a vision of twenty-first-century socialism and renewed and reinforced the other political processes underway in the region. The Bolivarian leader represented a regional breakthrough.

The second element to keep in mind is that this cycle unfolded in an international context of a rise in commodities prices — a bonanza for the exporting countries in the region, which are a majority. These countries benefitted from extraordinary export revenue, whether from grain, energy, or minerals.

That is not to say that the reactionary cases of Peru, Chile, or Colombia have been the same as the progressive ones of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela. Even within the latter countries, the forms of this differential rent were distinct, because this also has to do with the kind of production involved and what is being exported. It is not the same thing to appropriate rent from copper or gas and nationalize these industries, as it is to make use of a part of the rent which comes from land — as in the case of Argentina — which is privately owned. There is a constant tension over how to capture this differential rent that comes from the countryside.

And the third component, which has a common role in the majority of these processes, is the role of the state. Not because the state played no powerful and central role in the neoliberal epoch in favor of capital’s capture of surplus and the disciplining of workers — it did. In the new period, what national states began to recover was the capacity to arbitrate between bourgeois fractions, and the capacity of redistribution and mediation between dominant and popular classes, or between capital and labor.

These are three of the features that we highlighted as distinctive of the anti-neoliberal cycle, with all of the problems that each one of them had.

Jeffery R. Webber

What was the relationship of these progressive governments to the leftist social struggles that often preceded them?

Mabel Thwaites Rey

In terms of struggles, we argued that the moment of apogee of struggles was followed by a period of decline in terms of popular activity. There are many discussions over why the popular movements diminished, or whether there were only ever movements from above, propelled by the states themselves.

Massimo Modonesi has an analysis based in the Gramscian concept of “passive revolution” and speaks of “pacification.” He argues that what the governments produced was a capture, a subsumption of the energy of the insurrectionary popular initiative, in order to redirect it toward bourgeois recomposition. So, he speaks of passive revolutions, in a progressive sense because they made concessions, but they maintained intact the structure of capital.

While we say that at the base of the anti-neoliberal cycle, as a whole, were the protests and demands of the popular struggles begun in the 1990s, the progressive governments that followed did not arrive in office on the tail of an immediate boost of popular struggles. The exception is Bolivia, which is the clearest case of a consistent popular mobilization that flows into the government of Evo Morales. In the majority of cases there were mediations.

In Argentina, the crisis was in 2001–2002, and in 2003 the process was channeled politically by a fraction of Peronism. In Ecuador the Citizen’s Revolution was protagonized by urban middle classes and not the Pachakutic indigenous movement. In Venezuela, it’s not true that there was a great process of popular activity. On the contrary, it is from the leadership of the state that Chávez began to promote popular participation. Therefore, to speak of “pacification” in the Venezuelan case is to simplify a more complex situation, since more than “pacification,” there was an attempt at activation.

In the cases of Brazil and Uruguay, the governments that came to office were constituted by center-left coalitions that had been combative at one time, but which at a certain moment — in the case of the PT it is especially clear — made political alliances and moderated their public discourse in order to win elections. So, they don’t come to office on the peak of a grand participatory wave that one could say was subsequently “pacified” purposefully by the state leadership. In any case, they can still be reproached for how little they did to activate popular participation from the state in order to deepen changes.

Another aspect to consider is that there is no possibility of governing and of stable political leadership if there is no attempt to articulate and calm certain exacerbations of demands and internal struggles.

Jeffery R. Webber

Can you speak more on the impact of the commodity boom and its decline?

Mabel Thwaites Rey

What [the limits of the commodity boom] produced was the paradox of deepening the existing productive schemas. Extractivism, mono-production, and deindustrialization were all accelerated as an effect of the external boom.

In Brazil, this dynamic is very clear. In those years the industrial contribution to GDP fell while the proportion constituted by agricultural production increased. This is apparent in the tendency of “soyization” — the expansion of land devoted to the cultivation of soy — with all of the conflicts that it brought with it, and to the detriment of fomenting other more integrated forms of production that could also keep in mind environmental criteria.

It’s clear that this cycle allowed the capture of surplus and the redistribution of part of it. It was important to the deepening of social policies and, in some cases like Argentina — and not only there — it enhanced the axis of consumption and employment. That is, after decades of increasing unemployment and pauperization, to guarantee access to levels of consumption and employment for the popular sectors was central to winning hegemony, and the political project of Kirchnerism was based on this.

Some analysts argue that these years were characterized by a “commodities consensus,” i.e., that the prevailing ruling pact was to maintain mining and agro-industrial extractivism, without distinction among national political projects. We argue, on the contrary, that what prevailed was a pact to sustain consumption and employment, as a way of ensuring legitimacy.

Jeffery R. Webber

In your view, what are the most important institutional characteristics of these states across this period, and how do they relate to the mechanisms and limits of structural transformation?

Mabel Thwaites Rey

Another aspect to keep in mind is the institutional question. While in a few processes, which because of the level of preexisting political decomposition, required or enabled constitutional reforms — as in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela — in the rest, there was not change in the basis of political organization. And even in those three cases which had constitutional reforms, the formats of political representation remained more or less unaltered.

They maintained the schema of classical representative democracy, with periodic elections, and without modifications or amplification in participation. This had the strength of regular popular consultation, but also the negative of closing off other instances that could have given a greater stability to deeper processes of transformation.

So, it is also clear that when one critiques the absence of structural transformations or that the rent from the resources of the bonanza cycle were used without altering the underlying productive matrix, it’s necessary to keep in mind that if they had not distributed that rent, they would have lost political support, and if that happened, the opponent that promised to do so would have won, even if they were lying. That is why we believe that the central issue is how to produce processes of transformation, which necessarily require a larger appropriation of the surplus to be directed toward other policies of a longer-term nature, when there are very immediate, very pressing demands to satisfy.

The process of transformation generates a constant tension, where in each country there are distinct bottlenecks in the productive structure, which can become more acute to the extent that the sustaining material bases are not transformed. And how are these material bases built? One question that could be asked is why stronger popular support for structural changes could not be built.

One of the axes that we explain in the book and which we continue to work on is the dimension of consumption, which is structured at the global level. That is, the forms and devices of consumption defined at the global scale are a material factor of the capitalist system, much stronger than we sometimes want to accept. They are very powerful devices in terms of cultural construction, of ideological cement.

Jeffery R. Webber

So, now that we have discussed some of the vagaries of the progressive wave at its height, when and why did the so-called “end of the cycle” begin?

Mabel Thwaites Rey

There are general economic elements at the root of the end of the cycle. Latin America was initially able to counter the effects of crisis of global capitalism of 2008, but beginning in 2011 problems were accentuated, and by 2013 serious problems appeared in almost every country of the region. Bolivia was the most successful at circumventing the crisis, through its fairly orthodox budget, as distinct from Ecuador and Venezuela, which could not avoid the blow. In Brazil and Argentina, too, the crisis began to hit strongly, with the fall in grain prices. Symptoms of great weakness began to appear, which made the more structural problems of each country more acute.

The year 2013 is key: Dilma was reelected in Brazil and immediately applied an adjustment plan that ran contrary to what she had announced in her campaign, sparking a chain of protests and irruptions of discontent which the Right was able to capitalize on. And to this was added the death of Chávez. I think that just as one can mark the beginning of the cycle with the arrival of Hugo Chávez to office, his death in 2013 was a very powerful moment of political inflection for the region. All the limits that the Bolivarian process already had were made more acute following the death of its leader.

In 2013, protests appeared in Brazil over the transport system. This was followed by indigenous protests in Ecuador, and protests in Argentina led by segments of unionized workers demanding a reduction in the taxes on their wages, and upper-middle- and upper-class sectors that expanded their anti-populist rejection of the government. These comfortable layers began to take to the streets, especially in Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina, under the banners of security and anti-corruption.

Jeffery R. Webber

Can you explain the role of anti-corruption campaigns as a kind of adhesive glue of right-wing oppositions?

Mabel Thwaites Rey

An alliance became visible between the corporate media, important segments of judicial power, and the intelligence services, articulated with the United States, around the use of corruption as a lethal weapon to be wielded against these governments. Already in an adverse economic context, corruption scandals — some real, others unfounded — began to appear as instruments of political struggle and judicial intervention. However, the underestimation of the importance of corruption in public opinion on the part of progressive governments is also clear. It is not acceptable that there are individuals who are in governmental positions or in high positions of power who exhibit ostentatious self-enrichment, and the importance of this was underestimated.

In almost all of the processes, the mainstream media assumed a leading organizational role in the right-wing opposition. It has long been well known that these media corporations are engaged in the economic game; but this time, their role as the principal organizers of the social and political right-wing opposition to progressive governments became very apparent. In contrast to the illusion that social media would counter the power of traditional media and would guarantee a democratic circulation of information and opinion, media concentration in its digital form proved to be very powerful.

In that context of social and political dispute, the economic crisis made these governments more vulnerable, and a very strong process of political degradation began in the region. The first landmark was the electoral triumph of Mauricio Macri in Argentina in October 2015. He was able to win at the ballot box by a very slim margin and began to implement substantive neoliberal changes, bringing the country into its present social and economic crisis. He applied, simultaneously, a monetarist plan of containing inflation and a strategy of massive indebtedness, with the declared objective of attracting foreign investment. Both strategies led to disaster, with unstoppable inflation, exorbitant interest rates, devaluation, recession, unemployment, and an unsustainable debt that led to a request for assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

Jeffery R. Webber

Beyond the case of Macri, how do you characterize the new right-wing wave in the region? We have Macri, Bolsonaro, Piñera, and others — different inflections in different countries. What are the common characteristics across the different scenarios, as well as the most important particularities?

Mabel Thwaites Rey

What one seems to notice is the degree of intolerance that certain middle and high social sectors have in the face of minimal processes of reform. It’s a fear that seems exaggerated in the face of measures that, for us, do not imply any deep transformation. However, they provoke an irritation and rejection much stronger than is warranted.

In some cases, it was the inflammation of the rhetoric deployed by leaders that generated such a strong antagonism. The reaction of the Latin American rights is worrying, because they have shown themselves to be extremely bellicose in the face of everything that appears to be popular or left-wing. In Europe, the Left is hated because they defend immigrants; here, what is hated is the pretense of egalitarianism. And they use the argument of corruption — which undoubtedly exists — as an excuse to attack “the popular” in all its manifestations. It is obvious that corruption is merely an excuse, otherwise they could not accept figures like Macri, who comes from a family which has enriched itself through dubious contracts with the state; Macri himself has been accused of contraband trading, he has offshore companies that featured in the Panama Papers, and he publicly admitted — fifteen days after his father’s death — that his father had paid bribes to advance his business interests.

An issue that binds the various rights is that of security and repression. In Argentina, for example, they rail against garantismo, the legal system which guarantees human rights and prohibits brutal repression. This was always interpreted by the right as a defense of criminals, and as a counter to this they demand an “iron fist.” This is also the case in Brazil, where it is more accentuated because of the explicit component of racism.

Furthermore, I think that one doesn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to understand that the US State Department, through its embassies, military attachés, and intelligence services operated and continues to operate against whatever political force that minimally challenges its interests. The arrival of Trump accelerated this process, albeit with contradictory and complicated results, because he is so brutal that he frightens his own officials. In any case, US interests are present.

Jeffery R. Webber

Although all these new or reconfigured parties of the Right have managed to attain office, they have no plausible exit of their own to the present economic crisis, and the dynamics of the world market are hardly favorable to their chances of success. Bolsonaro’s popularity is down to 30 percent, and Macri’s government is in full-throated crisis and his prospects are dim in the October elections. Given these kinds of dynamics, what is the probability that this new right will endure for an extended period?

Mabel Thwaites Rey

I think there is a very important difference between the neoliberal wave of the 1990s and the present. In the 1990s, there was a strong intellectual, political, and economic density to the Right. There was a promise that applying specific measures of the Washington Consensus — privatization, deregulation, liberalization, fiscal discipline — would produce notable improvements. And, above all, globalization was the promising banner of an integrated and happy world. They said that globalization would allow us access to different markets and that the sovereignty of the consumer would prevail. It was a very powerful promise of welfare, which assured people that prosperity would come once the limits of the social welfare state were overcome.

In Latin America, the project arrived “key in hand,” with recipes indicating the necessary policies to apply. The loans from the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the United Nations Development Program arrived with procedural manuals, including how to run the state.

Today, it seems that the various rights have no clear path. There is nothing that can be exhibited as the lovely way forward, a source of enthusiasm that could generate some illusion about the future. There isn’t one. They don’t have one because the consequences of the crisis are so terrible and permanent adjustment policies are not such an enchanting offer. Just the opposite. What is worrying, however, is that this exacerbates another type of right — more brutal, more xenophobic, more anti-popular, and more disposed to use force and violence, which is what we are beginning to witness.

Republished from NACLA.

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Mabel Thwaites Rey is a professor in the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Buenos Aires and one of the leading theorists of the Latin American state.

Jeffery R. Webber is presently a senior lecturer of international political economy at Goldsmiths, University of London. He will take up a new position in the Department of Politics at York University, Toronto in January 2020. His latest book is The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left. He is presently at work on The Latin American Crucible: Politics and Power in the New Era, under contract with Verso.

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