Latin American and Caribbean Foreign Ministers meeting, 2011. Demotix/ Nelson Gonzalez Leal. All rights reserved.How to define the last decade and a half of South American politics? There are different options. One of the most used descriptions is that what unifies the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Venezuela is that left-to-the-center leaders govern these countries. Leaders come from traditional leftist parties, such as the Broad Front in Uruguay or the Socialists in Chile, from populist parties like the Peronists in Argentina, or from newer parties, such as the Workers’ Party in Brazil. While this is a correct way of highlighting a connection between these very diverse governments, it is not a definition that explains much of what they are actually doing.
We need to go further back in history to comprehend what contemporary South America is experiencing. Whatever we see now is inevitably linked to the past. This is not to say that we are puppets of our destiny, but that what seems to be new for us is always the result of accumulated changes that preceded us.
What took the left to power?
The process that took the left to government should be understood as part of
what I call a process of disincorporation or exclusion of the poor strata of
society from the socio-political arena. It was a long process that started in
the 1970s and continued until the late 1990s. This period was associated with
neoliberal state reforms and military authoritarian regimes. While
neoliberalism increased precarious life conditions, socioeconomic inequality
and marginalization; authoritarianism eliminated or substantially reduced civic
and political liberties.
Latin America faced massive cycles of mobilization against neoliberalism, which in many cases led to the collapse of governments. In 2001-2002, Argentina saw four presidents in almost two weeks. Bolivia also went through four presidential breakdowns in 2002-2005. Ecuador and Venezuela experienced the collapse of their party systems and political regimes, but this was not the case in Uruguay and Brazil. Each country is very different, and when referring to such a huge process, we should not ignore these differences. However, what is common to all these countries is that the exclusionary consequences of neoliberal reforms led to the disincorporation from the socio-political arena of masses of poor people and middle-classes. In a few words, what took the left to power in these countries was the failure of neoliberalism as a sustainable developmental path.
What makes current governments similar to those of the 1930s-1950s?
The similarity among contemporary governments in South America is not based on the fact that they are all coming from the left, but that they are associated with a cycle of transformations that gradually reincorporated those segments of society that were disincorporated by neoliberal reforms and military regimes. This means that what characterizes and unifies these very different governments is that they put forward a series of policies for the expansion of the socio-political arena through the inclusion of those that have been socio-economically and – sometimes – politically excluded.
This implies a
redistributive conflict, because in order to reincorporate excluded sectors
what is needed is to relocate resources from the wealthier to the poorer
segments of society through taxation, subsidies, social policies and other
state mechanisms. This is generally considered a leftist program, but in this
case, it has a wider connotation. The reincorporation of the excluded and poor
people that has been happening since 1998 is the second wave of its kind in
Latin America’s history. The first incorporation happened in the 1930s-1940s
after economic (and sometimes political) liberalism collapsed due to the 1929
crack in the New York stock market, the ruin of most of the western European
economies, and decades of accumulated protests for inclusion by peasants,
indigenous and labor movements across most of Latin America. This led to the
emergence of leaders such as Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Getúlio Vargas in
Brazil, and Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, who pushed for the creation of
social policies that would include as full members of society the poor and
excluded that were increasingly unionized and clamouring for their rights.
In the last decade, leaders such as Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Lula de Silva in Brazil, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador are (or were) related to a similar process of recreation of social policies after the fall of neoliberalism. The current leftist governments in the region are part of a huge and prolonged historical process of struggle among socio-economic and political groups for the expansion or reduction of the socio-political arena. The 1970s-1990s cycle was a period of reduction of the socio-political arena, increasing the power and wealth of the richest, and massively marginalizing the weakest. As had happened before in the 1920s-1940s, this developmental path collapsed, and a new wave of incorporation emerged as a result. While Perón and Vargas dealt with incorporation in very different ways, Chávez and Kirchner did the same with reincorporation.
Currently, some of these governments are going through what could be the end of this cycle of massive reincorporation of the poor. What will come next is difficult to say because developmental paths are as much the result of economic cycles as they are a mix of intended and unintended results of political struggles among contending groups in society. All that is certain is that using long-term historical lenses can help us to understand the present challenges of South Americans.
For first incorporation: Ruth Berins Collier and David Collier (1991) Shaping the Political Arena: Critical Junctures, the Labor Movement, and Regime Dynamics in Latin America (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
On second incorporation:Federico M. Rossi (2015) “The Second Wave of Incorporation in Latin America: A Conceptualization of the Quest for Inclusion Applied to Argentina”, Latin American Politics and Society, 57 (1): 1-28.