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This summer, as the British Labour Party finds itself blindsided by the rise of Leftist populism, a number of analyses have sought to counterpose this against broader problems facing the Left across Europe. In power in many countries at the time of the 2008 crash, and having embraced free market economics and neoliberalism in many cases, social democratic parties have been left unable to articulate an alternative to traditional supporters enduring falling living standards, rising levels of job insecurity, and who – for the first time since 1945 – see an economic and political system which is palpably failing them.
In the absence of new ideas, the Left has increasingly taken refuge in old ones, generally defined in opposition to something: most notably, austerity. Paul Mason views this as the start of a long transition signalling the end of capitalism as we know it; the trouble is, as whatever will replace it is still entirely unclear, social democratic parties find themselves trapped defending a system which they know no longer works, amid a context of what was once organised labour being dispersed, atomised, by the rise of self-employment, the digital economy and globalisation.
In trouble across Europe – only in Italy, where the centre-right was humiliated by various euro-related disasters, are the social democrats still in a position of relative strength – the Left’s only (supposed) success story has been in South America: where it’s dominated over the last decade and more. But even there, its position is now dramatically weakening, for reasons which are depressingly familiar.
In any case, we should note that what might seem like ‘success stories’ to unreconstructed Leftists have amounted to little more than ugly, lowest common denominator populism in too many cases. The main driver behind the Left’s rise in South America has been powerful, emotive memories of the 1970s: when the US covertly supported a whole host of murderous, fascist dictatorships, particularly in the continent’s South Cone (encompassing Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay). As democracy returned, and those who grew up under these regimes came of age, populist, socialist movements grew in influence: most of which styled themselves in opposition to the imperialist meddling of Washington.
Yet when they came to power, the response of a number of leaders (particularly in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and to a lesser extent, Argentina) was to consciously divide their countries between rich and poor. To oppose the demagogue Hugo Chávez in Venezuela was to be depicted as part of some American-backed Fifth Column, trying to bring the horrors of the 1970s back; and while it’s true that the CIA have clearly tried to infiltrate the opposition at times, it’s more accurate to say that under President Obama, the State Department has simply waited for Venezuela to collapse, as it inevitably will.
In August 2003, around 3.2m signatures were collected for a recall referendum against Chávez, provided for in the constitution. These were rejected by the National Electoral Council (CNE) on the grounds of being put together before the midpoint of the Presidential term; the government then raided CNE and seized the petitions. In September, the opposition collected a new set of signatures, some 3.6m: rejected by the CNE on the grounds that many were invalid. Riots which killed nine and injured 1200 followed this decision. The petitioners appealed to the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court, which reinstated 800,000 signatures, bringing the total to well over the 2.4m required; but this was overturned by the Court’s Constitutional Chamber, and again, the government seized the list.
Eventually, the referendum was granted – but only after the list of signatories was posted online by Luis Tascón, member of the National Assembly and government supporter. On television, Chávez boasted about the list, warning darkly that “those who sign against Chávez are signing against their country… against the future”; and that all signatories would “remain registered in history, because they’d have to put their name, last name, signature, ID number and fingerprint”.
Signatories now found themselves fired, denied jobs, denied official documents, threatened and intimidated by government-backed militias. Many fled the country. When it came, the referendum was rigged, as subsequent elections have been. The list itself can still be bought even now from market stalls in Caracas for a few dollars.
When supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, or the man himself, defend Venezuelan ‘democracy’, they are actually defending a police state: in which opposition leaders are jailed, and opposition supporters intimidated and worse by militias. Despite being one of the world’s most oil-rich nations, it’s a basket case. There is no paper or toilet paper on the shelves; the puppet Parliament has given Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’ successor, the right to rule by decree; Maduro falls back on comically suggesting that the Americans will bomb Venezuela, and sabre rattling against neighbouring Colombia and Guyana; food shortages remain endemic; murder, kidnapping and violent crime have reached epidemic proportions. Chávismo, whatever it stood for to begin with, has failed.
In Ecuador, meanwhile, President Rafael Correa uses millions of dollars from the country’s intelligence budget to censor and remove online videos and other information critical of him. The last remaining freedom of expression NGO was ordered by the government to close earlier this month, despite recording more than 600 attacks against journalists over the last four years. Amnesty International has accused Correa of restricting “core human rights of freedoms of assembly, association and expression in Ecuador”.
And in Argentina, which took to inventing its own inflation figures out of thin air, has imposed strict currency controls, and where the media has found itself under continual government attack, the as yet unexplained death of Alberto Nisman, a federal prosecutor investigating the 1994 car bombing of the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires, again brought into focus a country where corruption is rife, the intelligence services have alarming amounts of unchecked power, and where freedom of the press is, in practice, significantly lacking. The peso was devalued by 20% in 2014; further devaluation is likely next year, and on the black markets, the currency has fallen much further.
The response of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has been, again, to sabre rattle: against Britain over the Falklands, American hedge fund managers, even Uruguay over a pulp mill. Peronism, a political doctrine which essentially stands for nothing, depends on this sort of populism. It’s a mistake to view Kirchner as a socialist; she’s not. She’s a neo-corporatist who buys off the poor while providing no genuine long term help, while encouraging a cult of personality – anathema to fully functioning republics, as the speech in this video beautifully explains – common to the leaders mentioned above, as well as Evo Morales in Bolivia. None of these countries are success stories; none should be cited by any sort of serious, grown-up Left as models to be emulated.
With the Brazilian economy in crisis, its oligarchs still hugely powerful (demonstrated by the FIFA scandal as much as anything else), and Dilma Rousseff weighed down by corruption allegations, what does that leave? Peru to an extent; Chile and Uruguay. On the South American Left, only the latter two countries (routinely cited in surveys as safest, least corrupt, and offering the continent’s best quality of life) have been consistent successes over the last decade: in both cases, by remaining moderate, non-ideological, and seeking to bring the whole country with them. Not cynically dividing them and engaging in what, in Argentina to an extent and Venezuela especially, has often amounted to political warfare against legitimate opponents.
Michelle Bachelet’s Chile is often described, albeit dubiously, as South America’s only First World country. The politics of its government? For want of a better term, Blairite. But the country itself is not remotely left wing, and closer ideologically to Colombia (which has increasing ties with the US) than the rest of the continent. Bachelet, moreover, is now enduring historically appalling approval ratings: which encouraged Latin American conspiracy theories regarding Chile’s recent Copa América triumph on home soil, are predicated mostly on a corruption scandal involving her son and daughter-in-law; and presage, almost certainly, a shift to the Right at the next election. Bachelet’s socialists are in trouble.
In summary, then: while populism and rabble rousing were always going to fail in Venezuela or Argentina, the gains made elsewhere in Chile or Brazil have also begun to come unstuck. An increasingly exhausted South American Left finds itself trapped between similar contradictions to those undermining its counterparts in Europe. Nowhere are these starker, or more complex, than in Uruguay: a genuine beacon over the last decade, but which is now sliding into serious economic and political trouble. A detailed analysis of events in the so often neglected Oriental Republic will follow in Part 2.