The end of the progressive narrative in Latin America

Protests against President Dilma Rousseff are a turning point in the breakup between government and citizens in Brazil. The same process is gradually spreading to other Latin American countries. Español. Português.

Salvador Schavelzon
15 September 2015

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and Dilma Rousseff. Asuntos del Sur. All rights reserved.

Are we witnessing the end of the progressive governments’ cycle in Latin America? Recently, when a number of progressive election victories took place in Uruguay, Brazil, El Salvador and Bolivia, the question seemed to fade. But the tide is turning.  And it goes beyond equally recent election defeats in large cities and regions throughout Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia.

The latter have certainly carried some symbolic weight, but they seem to point towards a new equilibrium, rather than to a break in national support for progresismo. Beyond the polls, however, there looms the likelihood of a yet undetermined time of change. It is due to the exhaustion of the model and to the internal transformation of the progressive, plurinational or Bolivarian political narrative.

Progressive governments occupy the centre of the political spectrum where, both to the left and to the right, there is a reshuffling of forces and mounting mobilization. The map of the political situation is not homogeneous and cannot be generalized, but gobernistas (governists) - term used in Brazil to refer to militant government supporters who do not accept the slightest criticism - express some degree of concern. After taking the first policy measures in the aftermath of its close win at the October 2014 elections, gobernismo in Brazil shows remarkable difficulties in holding on to its own narrative.

Brazil is probably the country where the end of the cycle is most apparent. The successive, conservative mobilizations convened by the opposition in Argentina and Venezuela have not ultimately eroded popular support for their governments. They are still likely to win the next election.

On the other hand, so far, strong peasant and indigenous mobilizations in Ecuador and Bolivia have not undermined the majority backing for Morales and Correa. In Brazil, according to recent measurements (April and May 2015), Dilma Rousseff’s approval rate lies between 7 and 10 percent. And her once extremely popular predecessor Lula da Silva, a likely candidate for 2018, is starting to be affected by current discontent.

In addition to an indignant opposition, government criticism has quickly reached the mass of its own voters. To the most cynical governists, however, neoliberalism is over, and the current drop in popularity is due to a crisis in the making of which they have no responsibility, and to the influence of the mainstream media.

In fact, Dilma Rousseff’s popularity was already very low during the clashes of June 2013 and the FIFA world cup in 2014, two occasions when the distinction between the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT), corporate power, the co-governing conservative parties, and the opposition, was lost at street level.

This perception of a conservative front being joined by progressivism is precisely what triggered the breaking of the progressive narrative. In the opposite direction, the presidential election of 2014 allowed the PT to recover its historic voters thanks to a remarkable polarization of the electorate. It did away with both Marina Silva, perceived as an associate of neoliberalism, and Aetius Neves, outplayed by the focus on social issues during the campaign.

But the disenchanted majority vote for Dilma was followed by real outrage at the appointments to the cabinet and the first government measures. President Rousseff assumed austerity and adjustment policies upon re-election, in sharp contrast with the campaign promises still ringing in people’s ears.

Lula brokered an agreement by which the PT accepted the inclusion of an economic advisor to the opposition, and to undertake spending cuts weighing on the working classes and on education. Another shocking appointment (as Minister of Agriculture) was that of Katia Abreu, who some time before had been awarded by the indigenous peoples a symbolic prize for her role defending environmental crimes and promoting the expansion of agribusiness in indigenous lands.

These gestures to the markets did nothing to neutralize the demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of citizens calling for Dilma’s destitution. Stressing an anti-corruption stance, they hinted the possibility of a closing of the cycle in a most conservative way.

The voices that could be heard in the streets are now also finding an expression in Congress. There, the influence of la Bala, el Buey y la Bíblia benches (the Bullet, the Ox and the Bible - BBB) has grown significantly: they control the House of Representatives and exert much more influence than social movements.

Conservative sectors both in government and in opposition managed to curb ongoing anti-homophobic educational initiatives, to pass a constitutional amendment reducing criminal majority age at 16, and to allow outsourcing in all sectors of the economy.

The end of the cycle is happening in Brazil through the abandonment of the project of change that brought progresismo to power and the incapability to mobilize the citizenry and stop conservative reforms, all the more so considering the progressives’ direct involvement in these reforms in some cases (i.e. the deterioration of labour rights).

Nevertheless, progresismo is still in command, and could very well come out again on top by campaigning against the same sectors with which it actually runs the country.

The worship of technocracy

Although a defeat in Venezuela or Argentina would be a significant loss for the presidents’ league that Chavez inaugurated in 1999, the end of the cycle entails the acceptance of a conservative model considered to be a necessary condition for stability and political continuity.

Opinion polls and electoral calculation therefore determine the gobernista political project, leaning towards the cult of institutions and technocracy while keeping a discourse that, by focusing on social issues, caters for its original constituency.

In Argentina, where a presidential election is due in October, Kirchnerism is fielding a candidate, Daniel Scioli, who was politically launched by Carlos Menem. He never enjoyed Néstor Kirchner’s and Cristina Fernández’s confidence, but he was accepted thanks to his good performance in the surveys. Scioli’s candidacy comes to show two things: that Peronism is still more than Kirchnerism, and that it holds political positions very similar to those of its rivals’ in the conservative arena.

Old politics are also creeping into the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement towards Socialism – MAS) in Bolivia. Its hegemonistic views have led MAS to co-opt media and recycled opposition figures, as if decisions on candidates and election agreements had no consequences.

Any objectives other than occupying institutions are thus being dismissed, and popular mobilization is being replaced by the assumption of the adversary’s positions, views and demands. Any attempts to put forward stronger reforms and to question both the shape and operation of the State –as promised in the wake of Evo Morales’s re-election in 2014- are being abandoned.

On the other hand, the dynamics of the political system make regeneration and a return to the roots quite impossible. Indeed, political campaigns are financed by the business sector, and State revenue depends on some of the worst development and extractivist activities. They are also the basis for spurious alliances with both local chieftains and multinational capital with no other aim than to cash in as fast as possible on investment.

Most social policies depend on this source of financing. Both the brand and the popularity of the progressive governments is now closely associated with an economic model that is highly dependent on international prices, and that has also catastrophic ecological consequences.

An assessment of the Latin American progressive governments should include important measures such as: progress in regional coordination; the declaration of unconstitutionality of the laws of impunity for dictatorship related crimes; the universal child allowance in Argentina; some elements of the constitutional reforms in Bolivia and Ecuador; sovereign debt negotiations; poverty reduction, social intervention and infrastructure building in poor neighborhoods.

The end of the cycle is related to the disruption of these agendas, an increase in poverty in Argentina and unemployment in Brazil, and to the constraint on the rights and the guarantees of urban periphery dwellers and indigenous peoples facing eviction from their territories.

The negotiation of bilateral agreements in Ecuador and the imprisonment of opponents in Venezuela have broken some taboos too. The balance sheet is equally negative as regards the promised industrialization and the phasing out of the primary economy model, wholly dependent on international commodity prices.

The new ideological framework

When talking about structural changes in the inequality and economic matrix, progressive governments seem to have been transformed by power and the institutions, rather than the other way around.

While orthodox recipes are announcing a comeback, the possibility of strengthening processes arising from the Buen Vivir (Good Living) thinking and aiming at another type of development, definitely fades away.

At the same time, the new ideological framework of progresismo ensures popularity and staying in power, but at the cost of abandoning the principles and the anti-capitalist demands which inaugurated the progressive political cycle riding on a wave of popular demonstrations. That is made quite clear by the progress of three elements: consumption ideology, consensus on development, and the political agenda brought in by religious sectors.

Governist propaganda presents consumption growth as the access of millions of people to the middle class. In addition to abandoning the peasant, indigenous and workers’ agendas, the revision of both economic priorities and the distribution of wealth – which keeps on benefiting mostly the rich – is being shelved. On top of it, access to consumption does not include access to healthcare, education and quality transportation, all of which remain beyond the reach of the majority.

Pope Francis accession to the Vatican, just a few days after Hugo Chávez’s death, has already resulted in some setbacks for progressive legislation. It halted changes in the Argentine Civil Code, and legitimised the collapse of the bond between governments and minority struggles historically embraced by the left, thus stopping incipient progress in some countries.

The transformation of Jorge Mario Bergoglio from being an authority in a conservative church that closed down art shows and did not assume a critical position during the Argentine dictatorship into an acting a progressive world leader, is not only a communications operation. It also marks the end of progressivism as we know it.

Consumption growth and a conservative agenda are now entwined with a statist and hyper-presidential perspective linking with nationalist political identities - with their Batllista variant in Uruguay (José Batlle, president of Uruguay, 1899-1903 and 1911-1015), Peronista in Argentina (Juan Domingo Perón, president of Argentina, 1946-1955 and 1973-1974), Emenerrista in Bolivia (Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, MNR, founded by President Víctor Paz Estenssoro in 1942) -, if not with dictatorship supporters themselves, if we are to judge by the development model that is being adopted.

Maybe one should take seriously the proposal to found a new International led by the Pope, which was called for by Italian philosopher and politician Gianni Vattimo and hailed by some of the main gobernista players who attended the Forum for the Empowerment and Equality in Buenos Aires, in March 2015.

 Rafael Correa staged there a sudden and rather overplayed attack against what he called the "abortion agenda" with the aim of preventing legal regulation on this issue, and against "gender ideology" on minority rights – which adds to Correa’s already classic diatribes against environmentalists and indigenous peoples.

Thus, the policies relating to social, racial and decolonization antagonisms are being replaced today by conservative values conveyed through a sense of brotherhood and reconciliation which leave aside the fight against inequality. Popular sectors are being framed and demobilized through the establishment of State and religious paternalistic welfarism.

The new perspective comes with a new consideration of dissidence as radicalism - that is, contrary to the interests of the nation. In geopolitical terms, the increased repression and criminalization of dissenters is conducted with an eye to the East - that is, with a discourse and an economic vision close to that of authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China, devoid of any anti-capitalist emancipatory outlook.

Progressivism and the left in power, substituting working class and social and indigenous movements for family and middle class values, cease to be what they were. They take the path of security and consumption that defines the new development nationalism.

This is quite obvious in Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas returned to power in 2007. The rapprochement with the church, which they fought in the 70s, is now a fact: a law has been passed prohibiting abortion under any circumstance. In 2014, moreover, the Nicaraguan Congress, with no debate and no previous information, passed another law giving the green light to the construction of an inter-ocean canal. It grants sovereign rights for 50 years to a Chinese company, and suppresses and criminalizes farmers and populations who will be displaced by the new canal.

The political cycle founders also when development policies draw progressive or leftist Bolivarian governments close to the nationalist-liberal efforts currently undertaken in Peru, Colombia and Mexico: they are all manipulating State power to guarantee a model that is anything but progressive.

Instead of an anti- or post-extractive outlook as an alternative for a new political cycle, what we are witnessing today is the emergence of a new Right with a revamped, “post-ideological” and “for the people” discourse. It flies the ethics and anti-corruption flag that the Left has lost.

With no citizen engagement and no policies linking territorial struggles with the struggles in the cities, the new cycle is giving way to an autistic and individualistic alternative system. It combines social nationalism, a religious discourse, and individualistic republicanism, and it is conveyed through a fuming anti-State discourse.

This article was first published by Asuntos del Sur

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