The new popular resistance in Latin America

Image: Lennart Wittstock
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By CLAUDIO KATZ*

The sequence of resistance in the last three years confirms the persistence in Latin America of a prolonged context of struggles

Latin America remains an area convulsed by popular rebellions and transformative political processes. In different corners of the region, the same trend of renewed revolts that marked the beginning of the new millennium can be observed. These uprisings have subsided over the last decade and have regained intensity in recent years.

The pandemic has limitedly interrupted this escalation of mobilizations, which neutralized the short-lived conservative restoration of 2014-2019. This period of renewed coup d'état did not manage to deactivate the protagonism of popular movements. The 2019 rebellion in Ecuador inaugurated the current phase of protests, which repeated the traditional pattern of outpourings. Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Haiti were the main centers of recent confrontation.

The political effects of this new wave are very varied. It altered the general map of governments, recreating the centrality of progressivism. This aspect has predominated in most of the geography of the region. At the beginning of 2023, progressive leaders prevail in countries that gather 80% of the Latin American population (Santos; Cernadas, 2022).

This scenario also facilitated the continuity of governments harassed by American imperialism. After numerous attacks, the demonized presidents of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua remain in office.

The cycle of Washington-sponsored military and institutional coups in Honduras (2009), Paraguay (2012), Brazil (2016) and Bolivia (2019) has also been partially neutralized. The recent coup in Peru (2023) faces heroic opposition in the streets. This rebellion has so far obstructed the covert intervention of the Marines in devastated countries like Haiti. The same popular struggle brought heavy defeats to attempts at aggression by the recycled neoliberal governments of Ecuador and Panama.

But this massive intervention from below provoked a more virulent and programmed reaction from the ruling classes. Wealthy sectors have processed past experience and are less tolerant of any questioning of their privileges. They articulated an extreme right-wing counter-offensive to subdue the popular movement. They aspire to resume with greater violence the failed conservative restoration of the last decade. This complex scenario requires an assessment of the forces in dispute.

 

Uprisings with electoral effect

Several uprisings in the last three years had an immediate electoral effect. New leaders in Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Honduras and Colombia emerged from major uprisings that forced changes in government. The demonstrations forced elections that resulted in victories for progressive candidates against their far-right opponents.

This sequence first occurred in Bolivia. The revolt successfully confronted the military and overthrew the dictatorship. Añez threw in the towel when he lost his last allies and the middle sectors that initially supported his adventure. Corrupt management of the pandemic has increased this isolation and diluted the civil continuity attempted by center-right candidates. The rebellion from below forced the return of the MAS to the government and several of those responsible for the coup were tried and jailed. The conspiracy continued in the bastion of Santa Cruz and it is currently being decided whether it will persist or be crushed by a forceful official reaction.

A similar dynamic took place in Chile, as a result of the great popular uprising that buried the Piñera government. The spark of this battle was the cost of transportation, but the rejection of that 30 peso expense led to a towering protest against 30 years of Pinochet's legacy. That torrent led to two electoral victories that preceded Boric's triumph over Kast. The large increase in electoral participation with anti-fascist slogans in popular neighborhoods made this feat possible in the most emblematic country of regional neoliberalism.

Due to this centrality of Chile as a symbol of Thatcherism, the election of a progressive president, within the framework of the Constituent Assembly with a large popular presence in the streets, aroused enormous expectations.

A more dizzying and unexpected sequence took place in Peru. Popular dissatisfaction with right-wing presidents surfaced in spontaneous protests led by young people deprived of their rights. This revolt followed the health tragedy of the pandemic, which exacerbated the incompetence of the governing bureaucracy.

Pedro Castillo became the recipient of popular discontent and Fujimorismo was unable to prevent his arrival at the Government House. The redistributive discourse of the unionist professor created the expectation that he would put an end to the paralyzing succession of conservative governments.

In Colombia, mass rebellion forced the establishment to relinquish his direct control of the presidency for the first time. Several million people took part in huge demonstrations. The mass strikes met with fierce repression and managed to overthrow a regressive health reform. As in Chile, they later spread to express the enormous malaise accumulated over decades of neoliberalism.

This discomfort resulted in the electoral defeat of Uribismo and the improvised right-wing extremist who tried to prevent Petro's victory. With this triumph, a center-left leader became president, overcoming the terrible fate of assassination suffered by his predecessors. He is accompanied by an Afro-descendant woman representing the most oppressed sectors of the population.

Xiomara Castro's victory in Honduras followed the same path. Her victory rewarded the sustained fight against the coup that the US ambassador sponsored in 2009. This coup started the long Latin American cycle of lawfare and parliamentary court coups.

The 15 points of advantage obtained by Xiomara over her opponent neutralized the fraud and annulment attempts. In a dramatic context of poverty, drug trafficking and criminality, the heroic popular struggle led to the first female presidency. Xiomara began his administration by revoking the laws on the secret management of the state and the handing over of special zones to foreign investors. But she had to face the suffocating presence of a large US military base (Palmerola) and an ambassador from Washington who intervened quite naturally in the internal debates on peasant settlements and the laws for the reform of the electrical system (Giménez, 2022).

 

Victories of another kind

In other countries, the rise of progressive leaders was not a direct result of popular protests. But such resistance worked as a backdrop for social discontent and the inability of dominant groups to renew the primacy of their candidates.

Mexico was the first case of this modality. López Obrador became president in 2018, in a tough confrontation with the PRI and PAN castes supported by the main economic groups. AMLO took advantage of the attrition of previous administrations, the division of elites and the obsolescence of continuity through fraud. But it acted in a context of lesser impact of the previous mobilizations of teachers and electricians.

Unions have been greatly affected in Mexico by the industry's reorganization and have not been a determining factor in the ongoing political change. AMLO maintains an ambiguous relationship with its Cardenista historical reference point, but inaugurated an administration far removed from its neoliberal predecessors.

Also in Argentina, the arrival of Fernández (2019) was not an immediate result of popular action. It did not reproduce the rise of Néstor Kirchner (2003) to the Casa Rosada, in the midst of a generalized rebellion. Previously, the right-wing Macri suffered a resounding setback in the streets when he tried to introduce a pension reform (2017). But he has not faced the periodical general revolt that shakes Argentina.

The main labor movement on the continent is located in this country. Its willingness to fight has been very visible in the 40 general strikes carried out since the end of the dictatorship (1983). Union membership is at the top of international averages and is linked to the impressive organization of the piqueteros (unemployed and informal workers). The struggle of these movements made it possible to sustain the State's social aid, which the ruling classes granted under the great fear of a revolt. The new forms of resistance – linked to the former belligerence of the working class – facilitated the return of progressivism to government.

Over the past three years, the disappointment generated by Fernández's failure to live up to his promises has sparked wide rejection, but limited outcry. There were important victories by many unions, frequent government concessions and demonstrations, but popular movement action was contained.

In Brazil, Lula's victory was an extraordinary feat, within a framework of social relations that were unfavorable to the popular sectors. Since the institutional coup against Dilma, dominance of the streets has been captured by conservative sectors that anointed Bolsonaro. Workers unions lost their protagonism, social movements were hostile and left-wing militants adopted defensive attitudes.

Lula's release encouraged the resumption of popular action. But this impulse was not enough to reverse the adversity of the context, which allowed Jair Bolsonaro to retain a significant mass of voters. The PT resumed mobilization during the election campaign (especially in the Northeast) and revitalized its forces during victory celebrations.

In a scenario of great division among the dominant groups, tiredness with the outbursts of the former captain and Lula's aggregating leadership, the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro created a scenario of potential recovery of the popular struggle (Dutra, 2022). The fear of this resurgence led the military high command to veto contesting the result of the polls promoted by Bolsonarism.

But the battle against the extreme right has only just begun and to defeat this great enemy it is imperative to regain the trust of workers (Arcary, 2022). This credibility was eroded by disillusionment with the model of pacts with big capital that the PT developed in its previous administrations. Now a new opportunity arises.

 

Three relevant battles

Other situations of enormous popular resistance in the region did not result in progressive electoral victories, but in major defeats for neoliberal governments.

In Ecuador, the first such victory was recorded against President Lasso, who tried to resume privatization and labor deregulation, along with a plan of tariff and food increases dictated by the IMF. This outrage precipitated the confrontation with the indigenous movement and its new radical leadership, which carries out a forceful program to defend the popular income.

In mid-2022, this confrontation recreated the battle fought in October 2019, against the aggression launched by Lenin Moreno to raise fuel prices. The conflict ended with the same results as the previous struggle and with a new victory for the popular movement. The gigantic mobilization of CONAIE entered Quito in an atmosphere of great solidarity, which neutralized the rain of tear gas unleashed by the police.

In 18 days of strike, the experienced indigenous movement defeated the government's provocation by imposing the release of leader Leónidas Iza (Acosta, 2022). CONAIE also won the revocation of the state of exception and the acceptance of its main demands (freezing fuel prices, emergency aid, subsidies for small producers) (López, 2022). The government ran out of ammunition when its insulting speech against indigenous people lost credibility. He had to give in to a movement that, once again, demonstrated great capacity to paralyze the country and neutralize attacks against social achievements.

Another victory of equal importance was achieved in Panama in the middle of last year, when teachers' unions joined transport workers and agricultural producers to reject the official increase in the prices of gasoline, food and medicine. The unity forged to develop this resistance led the indigenous community to a protest movement that paralyzed the country for three weeks. The demonstrations were the biggest in decades.

This social backlash brought a neoliberal government to its knees and forced it to back off its austerity plans. President Carrizo was unable to satisfy the business chambers that demanded greater toughness against the demonstrators. This victory was particularly significant in an isthmus that has seen enormous growth over the last two decades, taking advantage of the profits generated by managing the Canal for the dominant groups. Inequality is astonishing, in a country where the richest 10% of families have an income 37,3 times higher than the poorest 10% (D'Leon, 2022).

The US invasion in 1989 installed a neoliberal scheme that complements this asymmetry with scandalous levels of corruption. Tax evasion alone is equivalent to the entire public debt (Beluche, 2022). Victory on the streets represented a major defeat for the model that Central American elites present as the way forward for all small countries.

The third case of extraordinary popular resistance without electoral consequences can be seen in Haiti. The gigantic mobilizations took center stage again in 2022. They faced the policies of economic plunder implemented by a regime led from the offices of the IMF. This organization led to an increase in fuel prices, which triggered protests in a country still torn apart by the earthquake, rural exodus and urban agglomeration (Rivara, 2022).

The demonstrations develop in an absolute political vacuum. Elections have not been held for six years, in an administration that does away with the judiciary and the legislature. The incumbent president survives on the simple support of the US, Canadian and French embassies.

The current mismanagement is prolonged by Washington's indecision in consummating a new occupation. These interventions under the guise of the UN, OAS and MINUSTAH have been recreated again and again over the last 18 years with disastrous results. The local servants of these invasions call for the return of foreign troops, but the futility of these missions is obvious.

This modality of imperial control has in fact been replaced by the widespread spread of paramilitary groups that terrorize the population. They act in close complicity with the business (or government) mafias that compete for the remains in dispute, using the 500.000 illegal weapons supplied by their accomplices in Florida (Isa Conde, 2022). The assassination of President Moïse was just one example of the disastrous consequences generated by gangs controlled by different power groups.

These organizations also tried to infiltrate protest movements in order to dismantle popular resistance. They sow terror, but have not managed to confine the population to their homes. They also failed to raise expectations of another foreign military intervention (Boisrolin, 2022). The rebellion continues as the opposition looks for ways to create an alternative that overcomes the current tragedy.

 

Resistance-centered approaches

The sequence of resistance in the last three years confirms the persistence in Latin America of a prolonged context of struggles, subject to the usual pattern of rises and falls. Successes and setbacks are limited. There are no triumphs of historical importance, but neither are there defeats like those suffered during the dictatorships of the 1970s.

This stage can be characterized by different denominations. Some analysts observe a long cycle of contestation of neoliberalism (Ouviña, 2021), and others highlight the preeminence of popular resistance actions that determine progressive cycles (García Linera, 2021).

These approaches correctly hierarchize the role of struggle and the consequent centrality of popular subjects. They offer perspectives that go beyond the frequent disregard of processes unfolding from below. In this second type of vision, a great ignorance of the social struggle and a biased inquiry into the geopolitical courses coming from above prevails. In particular, they study how conflicts are resolved in the exclusive field of powers, governments or dominant classes.

This last view tends to prevail in characterizations of progressive cycles as processes that are merely opposed to neoliberalism. Its democratizing political impact, its heterodox economic directions or its autonomy in relation to US domination are highlighted.

But with this approach, the different positions of the dominant groups are evaluated, without registering the connections of these strategies with policies of control or subjugation of popular majorities. They omit this key data, because they do not value the centrality of the popular struggle in determining the current Latin American context.

This distortion is most visible in the biased use of categories inspired by Gramsci's thought. These notions are taken to evaluate how the capitalist classes manage to manage, articulating consensus, domination and hegemony. But it is forgotten that this cartography of power constituted for the Italian communist a complementary element in his assessment of popular resistance. This rebelliousness was the pillar of his strategy of conquering power by the oppressed, in order to build socialism.

An up-to-date application of the latter approach to Latin America requires that priority be given to the analysis of popular struggles. The modalities used by the powerful to expand, preserve or legitimize their domination enrich but do not replace this evaluation.

 

Comparisons with other regions

By questioning the resistance of the oppressed, the Latin American singularities of these struggles are perceived. In recent years, popular action has shown similarities and differences with other regions.

In 2019, there was a strong trend in various parts of the world for a new wave of protests led by outraged youth in France, Algeria, Egypt, Ecuador, Chile and Lebanon. The pandemic abruptly stopped this advance, generating a two-year period of fear and isolation. This reflux, in turn, was accentuated by the centrality of right-wing denialism that contested health protection. In this context, the difficulty of articulating a global movement in defense of public health, centered on the elimination of vaccine patents, came to the fore.

Once this dramatic period of confinement is over, the protests tend to reappear, awakening the fears of the establishment, which warns of the proximity of post-pandemic rebellions (Rosso, 2021). In particular, they fear the outrage generated by high fuel and food prices (The Economist, 2022). This dynamic of resistance already includes a significant resurgence of strikes in Europe and of unionization in the United States, but the leading role of Latin America continues to be a relevant fact.

Everywhere, the subjects of this battle bring together a great diversity of actors, with the young precarious worker playing a significant role. This segment suffers a higher degree of exploitation than formal wage earners. They suffer from job insecurity, lack of social benefits and the consequences of work flexibility (Standing, 2017).

For these reasons, it is particularly active in street fights. It has been deprived of traditional negotiation arenas and faces a very diffuse employer counterpart. In different countries, he is pressured to impose his demands through the state.

Migrants, ethnic minorities, indebted students are frequent actors in these battles in core economies, and the mass of informal workers occupies a similar centrality in peripheral countries. This last segment is not part of the traditional factory proletariat, but is part (in broader terms) of the working class and the population that lives by its own work.

Argentine piqueteros are a variety of this segment, which forged their identity by taking to the streets, faced with the loss of work in the places that centralized their demands. This battle gave rise to social movements and different varieties of popular economy. An equally important role was played by the peasant sectors that created the MAS in Bolivia and the indigenous communities that gave rise to CONAIE in Ecuador.

The ties of these struggle movements in Latin America with their peers in other parts of the world have lost visibility due to the deterioration of international coordination bodies. The last major attempt at such a connection was the World Social Forum, organized in the past decade by the alterglobalist movement. People's Summits as an alternative to meetings of governments, bankers and diplomats have lost their impact. The battle against neoliberal globalization no longer has this centrality and has been replaced by more national popular agendas (Kent Carrasco, 2019).

There certainly persist two global movements of great dynamism: feminism and environmentalism. The first achieved very significant successes and the second periodically reappears with unexpected peaks of mobilization. But the common scope of global campaigns provided by the Social Forums has not found an equivalent substitute.

There are many reasons for the great vitality of struggle movements in Latin America. But his progressive political profile, far removed from chauvinism and religious fundamentalism, has been very important. The region has managed to contain reactionary tendencies sponsored by imperialism to generate clashes between peoples or wars between oppressed nations.

The Pentagon has not found a way to induce the bloody conflicts in Latin America that it managed to unleash in Africa and the East. Nor has it been able to install an appendage like Israel to perpetuate these massacres or validate the enduring terror of the jihadists.

Washington has been the invariable promoter of such monstrosities in an attempt to sustain its imperial leadership. But none of these aberrations has so far prospered in the backyard due to the centrality held by popular struggle organizations.

For this reason, Latin America remains a reference for other international experiences. Many organizations of the European left seek, for example, to replicate the unity strategy or the redistribution projects developed in the region (Febbro, 2022).

*Claudio Katz is professor of economics at Universidad Buenos Aires. Author, among other books, of Neoliberalism, neodevelopmentalism, socialism (Popular Expression).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

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