End of a cycle for the left in Latin America?

We share a common enemy: a neo-conservative project for capital accumulation on a global scale, based on extreme mechanisms of dispossession, including war and the hollowing out of democracy and politics. Español

Jose Luis Coraggio
18 May 2016
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

We are at the end of a cycle that started in the second XIXth century. During this cycle, including in the XXth century, the left was governed by the ideology of progress and economic determinism. After the collapse of the so-called ‘communist’ countries, the question of the relevance of a new left for the XXIst century was raised. Different elements are necessary to answer it, the growing number of citizen initiatives all over the world (that is the subject of the launch text by Laville), the ambivalent experiences of left governments in South America (second subject raised by Coraggio), and the structural crisis of European social democracy (to follow, third and fourth texts by Hulgard and Lévesque). The analysis of these complex background issues opens up new perspectives for collective action and emancipation (fifth and sixth, closing texts by Wainwright and Hart). Very different from those of the traditional left, this week’s opinions and debates are also to be found in detail in Spanish (Reinventar la izquierda en el siglo XXI – Hasta un dialogo Norte-Sur) and French (Les gauches du XXIe siècle – Un dialogue Nord-Sud ). Jean-Louis Laville, economist and sociologist, supervised 'Les gauches du XXIe siècle – Un dialogue Nord-Sud' (Bord de l’eau, 2016).


'Women against the coup' protest against Brazil's acting president Michel Temer. May 17, 2016. Andre Penner / Press Association. All rights reserved.Since the beginning of the century, Latin America has been seen as an example of how it is possible to recover from the stripping that took place during thirty years of neo-conservative policies and neo-liberal economic programmes.   

Several countries saw the rise of governments with national-popular projects supported by broad sectors of society. We would highlight five principal features of such processes: a) their adherence to the formal rules of democracy, as seen from the large number of elections and popular consultations that took place, and the respect shown for their outcomes, even when they were not always the ones being sought; b) their rejection of neo-liberalism, which had shown its inability to manage the economy and achieve the promised growth and trickle-down effect, the crisis of that model being felt by the majority of the population, including the middle class; c) their popular orientation, responding to numerous social demands that had been neglected by previous governments, ranging from access to food, health care and education to the defence of human political rights; d)  their affirmation of national sovereignty, disconnecting from the interference and impositions of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, coming into conflict with the project for subordination of the periphery to the interests of the more concentrated economic groups and encouraging the creation of new institutions to position the region in a globalised world  (UNASUR; CELAC); e) the reappearance of the nation state as the central agent for change, regulating markets, renationalising strategic industries, redistributing income and attempting to rebuild the domestic market and restore social rights that had been infringed during the reign of neo-liberalism.


One fortuitous factor assisted with these transformations: the sharp upward trend in the price of commodities, the principal foundation of those economies. Nevertheless, the success of those governments cannot be attributed to such circumstances, as no doubt if they had taken place under governments on the right, they would have further concentrated wealth and accelerated the flight of capital, attracted by the financial lottery. In any event, these new governments of the left were popular-oriented, not only redistributing wealth but also reasserting a guarantee of expanded social and political rights that previous governments had scorned. 

Those governments could be described as an effort by the left to reinvent itself for the twenty-first century, combining aspects of the social-democratic model of the twentieth century with those confronting concentrated economic groups, particularly foreign ones, and splitting  from global capitalist institutions. Nevertheless, with the possible exception of the attempt by Venezuela, it cannot be said that they were anti-capitalist projects, although the rhetoric may have been present in the three Andean nations that defined themselves as “revolutionary”.[1]


They had, and still have, two main failings: a) the lack of any deepening of democracy, therefore reproducing the failings of formal democracy: the separation between government and the governed, aggravated by personalised presidentialism in the form of leaders who rather than encourage, in fact actively discourage the organisation of an autonomous civil society, leaders who pointed out the “right path” without listening to the multiplicity of other voices coming from other social projects in highly heterogeneous societies; b) in particular it should be noted that in countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia, where these governments arose from the actions of historical Indian and peasant farmer social movements which had ousted neo-liberal governments, there was not only no enrichment of such relationships, they in fact became weakened.[2] The relationship with new social movements was also not positive: ecologists, feminists and sexual orientation groups were the first to be classified as “infantile” by those governments. 

The initial enthusiasm of these movements declined as they ceased to be regarded as valid intermediaries, and their historical demands were ignored.  In line with this, the state that had returned developed characteristics similar to those governments that preceded neo-liberalism, a neo-developmental state apparatus, disconnected from organised civil society, redistributing and regulating the market, but without reinventing itself: in short, a progressivist twentieth century state with a state apparatus that could easily be hijacked and redirected towards a redrafted neo-liberal project, without consolidated bunkers to prevent assault from the new right, as is evident now in Argentina or in the “soft coup” under way in Brazil.

Continuities, but drop in poverty

In the case of public policies, it should be borne in mind that even given the neglect of the United States – except in the cases of Paraguay and Honduras – which was focusing on other areas of conflict, there was no relaxation in resistance by the establishment.  Among other aspects, access to capital markets continued to be punished with biased so-called “country-risk” indicators in what could be described as a ‘soft’ embargo.  There was also no decline in the trend towards foreign take-over of the economy, with the appropriation of natural resources, the securing of a portion of international income from agricultural and mining commodities, efforts to skim off the cream of the domestic market, and the control of a banking system dedicated to encouraging the outflow of foreign capital, money laundering, and profit from state debt.

In this context, controls on the flight of the savings of the middle classes and capitals in general were insufficient. Gambling on continued high prices for their exports, governments did not respond to the demand to restore ecological balance, nor did they make progress in the diversification of their productive matrix, although significant progress was made in the support provided to science and technology. 

There was no real political will to form a regional bloc to integrate economies and develop strong links between their societies. The possibility of signing free trade agreements with Europe began to be considered in several of these countries.

But in social impact, there was a sharp drop in poverty through an increase in employment and redistribution policies, and there was a notable rise in the production of public goods such as education and health, with a commitment to provide access to consumption as a mechanism for social integration and growth of the middle classes. In many ways it was a process from which all sectors benefited, and this led to a belief that the legitimacy of the governments was assured.  

The need to reinvent the left

At this moment in time, the model is shipping water because of the dramatic drop in commodity prices, political sabotage by much of the business sector and the systematic bombardment by the privatised media controlled by economically powerful conglomerates, seeking a path towards  “normal” relations with the dominant power in the region.

In addition, the lack of an autonomous system for social communication at the base, the weakening of social movements and organisations not addicted to governments, and the behaviour of the middle classes, self-seeking and often reluctant to accept  the presence of popular sectors on the public stage, have created conditions in which those processes can become blocked by the electoral mechanism itself. This was predictable, but is now evident in the fore-mentioned instances of Argentina and Brazil.  

Some talk of the end of a cycle. We think we must view it from another perspective, at least in the medium term. The internal play between the forces is not comparable to that at the beginning of the century, and some of these processes can still be sustained and become consolidated. In any event, the time has come for reflection, whether from positions in government or from the role of opposition. It is no longer sufficient to seek differentiation from the left of the twentieth century. There is a need to update the original proposals, rich in options, in all fields of social and political action.  

For the moment, the experience that our peoples have lived through establishes a material and symbolic starting point that will have a say in the short memory of a citizenship which differs from that of the end of the last century.

The struggle for hegemony continues, the first reactions of these societies are beginning to emerge, and their rearticulation demands learning from these experiences, debating and defining the paths of the possible alternatives that the right denies.

In this regard, the various works gathered together in the book Reinventar la izquierda en el Siglo XXI. Hacia un diálogo Norte-Sur, [Reinventing the Left in the 21st Century. Towards North-South Dialogue] appears precisely at the moment of reflection and affirmation of the characteristics that a renewed left in the region should possess, when these experiences were already well advanced but the return of the right was still not envisaged in the manner and in the time it in which it is now taking shape.

They contribute to the critical examination of those processes, their advances and difficulties and their methods of political action. All the matters raised by the authors are today on the agenda of democratic and popular political thinking.  This is urgently required for praxis, for committed theoretical thinking and for activism in the new situation, which is not the end of a cycle but a moment in the process of the defence of societies against the same neo-liberal program that gave rise to the emergence of the new left.

This book shares Latin American experiences and reflections with the countries of the North. Despite all the differences, we share a common enemy: a neo-conservative project for capital accumulation on a global scale, with a civilising project centred on the commercialisation of social life in all its forms, based on extreme mechanisms of dispossession, including war and the hollowing out of democracy and politics.

We can all learn from each other, and that is why it is so important to have this exchange of opinions among intellectuals from the various regions of our world-system. We are facing difficult times, but they are full of potential. An encounter and dialogue between the perspectives included in this book that include the organised social players, is needed. That is the direction in which we are heading.  

[1] See a summarised analysis of these processes by François Houtart here.

[2] See, for example: Maristella Svampa, Pablo Stefanoni and Bruno Fornillo, Balance y Perspectivas. Intelectuales en el primer gobierno de Evo Morales, La Paz, Le Monde Diplomatique/Fund.F. Ebert, July 2010.

How to cite:
Coraggio J-L.(2016) End of a cycle for the left in Latin America?, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,17 May. https://opendemocracy.net/jose-luis-coraggio/end-of-cycle-for-left-in-latin-america


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