The Self-destruction of the Left in South America: Reflections on Brazil, Venezuela, and fellow travelers

It had long appeared that while the Northern hemisphere found itself ever more in the grip of a neoliberal orthodoxy, Latin America had emerged internationally as a champion of an alternative paradigm, whereby vibrant economies were maintained simultaneously with public policies which favored income redistribution and a more robust investment in the common good.

Such a transformation had been given the descriptive term of the “pink tide”, encompassing the rise of populist democratically-elected socialist and socialist-leaning parties in the Latin American continent, from the tip of the southern cone to the Caribbean beaches of Venezuela. Charismatic figures led the way in an unprecedented wave of social reform, with varying degrees of ideological fervor, from the most ardent firebrands like Hugo Chavez, to the more, in practical terms, moderate likes of Lula da Silva in Brazil and the Peronist Kirchners in Argentina. The bloc was significant not only in ostensibly seeking to address deep-rooted structural inequalities but also positioned itself in opposition to the tremendous commercial and political influence which the USA exerted historically on the region. Internally, these political parties associated with what’s known as the “Foro de Sao Paulo” , had successfully formulated an alternative to the “Washington Consensus’’ , with its defining trinity of marketization, privatization, and deregulation.

In any case, it’s notable that for a myriad of reasons this movement of sorts has for all intents and purposes collapsed, despite tangible accomplishments in some areas, leaving us with the task of performing the autopsy of the corpse of the once lively indigenous South American brand of socialism. Signs of the moribund status of the bloc are everywhere, the catastrophic defeat of the Chavistas in the latest parliamentary elections in Venezuela , the election of the center-right Mauricio Macri in Argentina , the proliferation of anti-government protests in Brazil all point to a significant degree of discontent- and all events in one way or another seem spurred by the exposure of systematic corruption, mismanagement and incompetence at the heart of these political projects, which inevitably led to widespread disillusionment. The honest observer will note that some of the troubles are perhaps attributable to the continuity problem inherent in populism and the lingering “caudillo” mentality that long characterized South American politics, but equally, it’s evident that to a significant degree the Left has managed to dig its own grave with its own mistakes, some of which have been unprecedented in scale.

My native Brazil perhaps serves as an emblematic case study of how these various factors have come together to turn back the “pink tide”. Lula da Silva’s government, carried into electoral triumphs by virtue of great populist charisma, consolidated itself on the back of popular welfare and social protection reforms, which alleviated the most extremes of poverty- yet his successor Dilma Rousseff came in as someone, who like Maduro vis-à-vis Chavez in Venezuela, simply couldn’t fill those shoes, and was unlucky enough to assume office at a time equivalent to the end of a long festivity when all that’s left is a mess to clean up and the realization that a hangover is inevitable.

When Good times go Bad

The numerous tales of the country’s, and indeed the continent’s, burgeoning prosperity has indeed consisted of tangible improvements, and not just papering over the cracks. The World Bank for instance notes that the middle-class has doubled since 2003, something attributed to a greater degree of investment in social programs, infrastructure and crucially the areas of education and health- this was all enabled by a favorable economic climate, as the World Bank Regional Chief Economist Augusto de la Torre put it in 2012, “It’s a historic increase, related to the drop in unemployment rates and informal employment. Therefore, the growth of the middle class in the past ten years is down to growth dynamics and job creation.”

These sentiments are corroborated by the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), whose latest 2015 report, despite the subsequent turmoil since de la Torre’s cheerful conclusions of 2012, nevertheless still testify to a socio-political picture that is a vast improvement from the aftermath of the neoliberal experiments of the 1990s. That said, the ominous pronouncements of a consistent economic decline do cast a shadow over much of this, suggesting that the downturn is not only a feature of corruption and incompetence of the left-wing parties in power over this period- but that to some degree at least this is a result of external factors at play in international markets. ECLAC’s report notes for example that, “The sharp falls in commodity prices across the world were reflected in the average prices at which Latin America and Caribbean countries export those products. Given that 44% of the region’s exports are commodities, the drop in the prices of most of these products has a major effect on its export
prices, and in fact the Latin American export commodity price index shows a fall of 30% from its 2014 level. Oil has led this fall, losing 48%”.

The manner in which these unfavorable conditions have wreaked havoc with the socialist projects of the “pink tide” have been documented with glee by the likes of The Economist, which never squanders an opportunity to cast aspersions on favorite targets like Venezuela . So despite the fact that for instance, Oxfam reported in 2010 that the “Bolivarian revolution’’ had made Venezuela the country with the “most equal distribution of income in the region” describing it as a “success story’’ in this aspect at least, The Economist instead curtly dismisses these accomplishments as a “monumental swindle”.

Though undoubtedly the commentators at the notoriously neoliberal publication are too eager to ascribe all responsibility to the government for factors it has little control over, like falling commodity prices or China’s relative withdraw from the region, nevertheless its February 6th article on the matter does reveal an ugly prospect for the country- with the economy contracting by 7.1% in 2015 and inflation at 141.5%, widespread shortage of food and common household items, and violence at an all-time high. Similar catastrophic reversals of fortune have also defined the current Brazilian landscape, where it’s reported that, among many things, “ jobs in the formal sector fell by 1.5m in 2015, the fastest pace of job destruction since comparable records began in 1992 […] Sales of vehicles dropped by a fifth last year. The IMF now predicts that GDP will shrink by 3.5% in 2016, more than three times as much as it expected in October”. If we contemplate in addition to a dreadful economic prospect the fact that the whole continent is now plagued by the outbreak of the Zika virus, certainly we see that there is a mixture of bad luck and mismanagement at play that has undermined confidence in the governments, and would have regardless of who was at the helm.

The shadow of Corruption, and Future Prospects

In any case, the charge of corruption can’t be overlooked as perhaps the main reason for the downfall of the South American left, as the vicissitudes of the markets (though unfortunate) nevertheless couldn’t alone have caused the now omnipresent psychological letdown that has turned citizenry against their governments. This is particularly clear in Brazil, where the PT (Worker’s Party) has presided over a veritable suicide of the party’s perception in the national consciousness, with President Dilma Rousseff now engulfed in the largest corruption scandal of the country’s recorded history- no small feat!

The Brazilian political scene is one where scandals and tales of clandestine profiteering by public officials are not unheard of by any means, yet what erupted in what’s referred to as ‘’Operation Car Wash’’, a term coined by virtue of shady financial transactions at a gas station in Brasilia, has been a sight to behold in its scale and scope, not to mention the money involved, with the repercussions of it all being enough to affect the country’s GDP for the worse.
The police investigation began as an inquiry into strange goings-on in the aforementioned gas station, which unexpectedly ended up lifting the curtain on a vast and inglorious private enrichment scheme centered around the country’s long esteemed golden goose, the state-owned oil company Petrobras, involving the higher echelons of the political and commercial establishment. So far the amount of public money misappropriated in the swindle has been estimated to be R$2.1 Billion (the equivalent of around $500 million) , and as The Guardian reports, the operation “has charged more than 70 political leaders, lobbyists and captains of industry with bribery, tax evasion or misuse of public funds”, adding that “Those charged so far make up a Who’s Who of Brazil’s elite. They include the head of Brazil’s biggest building firm, Marcelo Odebrecht; the former head of investment bank BTG Pactual, André Esteves; the head of the senate, Renan Calheiros; the treasurer of the ruling Workers party [PT], João Vaccari, and dozens of senators and deputies”.

We could with some justification conclude that the PT, despite rhetorical emphasis on being a party of the left and for the impoverished, and with some record to back it up, nevertheless never attempted to initiate a different political strategy upon taking office. On the contrary, the Left comfortably inherited and gladly expanded, if not institutionalized, a system of corrupt wheeling and dealing which operated on the basis of patronage in order to ensure the smooth working of the political machinery of the notoriously labyrinthine Brazilian bureaucracy and legislative process. This is a modus operandi which, as The Economist is happy to remind us, has also defined, to varying degree, socialist governments elsewhere in the continent, sometimes with the added charge that said governments have not only stepped up corruption, but have also dabbled in judicial appointments, and constitutional tinkering, and legislative tricks that have served to cover their tracks while simultaneously undermining the opposition- a charge often leveled at Argentina’s Christina Kirchner for instance.

It can be said that in many ways, a look at the state of oil serves a great illuminating function, in elucidating the nature of the problems facing socialist governments in South America, and which has led to the electoral crippling of the “pink tide”. From the impact of falling commodity prices to the corruption scandals and cynical instrumentalizing of state oil companies (which could be said of both Brazil and Venezuela particularly), some patterns become evident. Perhaps the tragic irony of it all is that the Left’s undoing has been something of a mirror image of what free-market fundamentalists had done in the 90s and before; namely that if the latter had secured ill-gotten gains from hand-picked beneficiaries by selling off public assets and so on, what the Left did was but a socialized version of this-whereby state companies become personal ATM machines, and political weapons for consolidation of power and private enrichment.

Yet, a more level-headed consideration of the triumphs and failures of the “pink tide” wouldn’t be found at the pages of The Economist, or similar publications which have lacked in nuance on this question, to say the least. Colombian columnist and analyst Andres Cala for instance, argues that while setbacks are very real, and that indeed the Right has mobilized to challenge reigning governments, it’s unlikely that the event of a change of direction would reverse all the accomplishments of the past 15 years or so. Cales states that burgeoning right-wing movements would be “more Wall Street-friendly, and challenge policies that have institutionally handicapped them, such as appointments to the courts and limits on press freedoms” but that nevertheless they lack “the political mandate to undo years of economic devolution from old concentrations of wealth.”

The scenario of political succession however is by no means uniform across the continent, while general features point to a picture of greater institutional stability than before, with elections being conducted without a serious risk of a coup d’etat depending on the outcome, nevertheless the individual marks of leadership styles have revealed great contrasts in the prospects for political solutions to crisis.

In the case of Brazil, there has been recognition for instance, that the very fact that independent investigations by the federal police and public prosecutors into the corruption scandal have been conducted freely and fearlessly, not shying away from targeting heavyweights and big names, testifies to a greater degree of maturity and progress in the country- that wrongdoing is no longer hidden away and ignored, but at last is being dealt with.
On the other hand, places like Venezuela have suffered from Maduro’s vacillating and clumsy leadership, given he has so far dealt with adversity by imprisoning opposition figures (charged with ‘coup plotting’), and has reacted truculently to challenges from his newly-elected legislature to solve the economic crisis or be removed from power- instead of constructive efforts, Maduro’s response has been to mobilize the arms of the Venezuelan state which have been stacked with chavistas, like the courts, to paralyze any opposition to his rule.

So perhaps it’s all ultimately a mixed bag, the days of the “pink tide” may well be over, in that its unlikely that Peronistas, Chavistas, Lulistas, and their fellow travelers will ever again enjoy the reputation they could boast of a few years back, due to incompetence and bad luck. Yet its true that the Latin America they have nurtured, defined as it is by its own voice in the world out of the shadow of the United States, and with a political culture that is democratic and generally stable and functional are accomplishments that a more prosperous and more demanding citizenry wouldn’t turn their backs on willy-nilly. In any case, admirers of the movement might find some comfort knowing that while Latin-American socialism might seem moribund at home, it has perhaps found a new unlikely home in Vatican City at least.Facebooktwitter

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