LATIN AMERICA is at a crossroads. Driven by a deepening economic crisis that many blame on the harsh policies of Western lending institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank?which increasingly call for governments to divest from industry and to privatize public services like water, electricity, telecommunications, transportation, and health care?populist movements are gaining ground throughout the region.
Beginning with the election of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in 1998 and again in 2000, and followed last fall by the upset victories of Luiz Inacio ?Lula? da Silva in Brazil and Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador, governments across Latin America have begun to turn left. Lula even joked last December that Brazil, Venezuela, and Cuba constituted a new ?Axis of Good.?
These electoral gains are only one sign of political changes taking place, much of it sparked by the failure of free-market economic policies. Levels of unemployment, poverty, and public debt are soaring throughout the region, even with severe cutbacks on social spending and the IMF-ordered privatizations of state-owned industries, writes economist Mark Weisbrot in Connection to the Americas (May/June 2003), published by the Minneapolis-based Resource Center of the Americas. And though it may be years?if ever?before most Latin American governments abandon the ?Washington consensus? economic policies that swept the region in the 1990s, grassroots revolts are already catching fire in the streets and rural areas.
Here?s a brief look at some of the developments taking place outside the mainstream U.S. media?s gaze:
Argentina: Thirteen years ago, workers began taking over and reopening idle factories. After the country?s spectacular economic collapse in early 2002, an average of three factories per month have come under worker management. Now, more than 120 worker-operated factories across the country employ 12,000 people, producing everything from ceramics to clothes to metallurgical supplies.
Bolivia: In early 2001, the municipal government in Cochabamba sold the management contract for the city?s water system to a subsidiary of U.S. construction giant Bechtel, which raised water bills by as much as 300 percent. Riots broke out, and after four months of civil strife the government canceled the contract. Bolivia?s ?water war? is widely viewed as a watershed moment in the region?s resistance to the IMF?s privatization programs and has emboldened activists to challenge other IMF policies. In February, police officers in La Paz protesting an IMF-ordered income tax hike clashed with the army in a melee that left 13 people dead. This populist momentum nearly translated into a major upset in the March presidential election, in which socialist coca farmer Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, finished a surprisingly strong second to right-wing incumbent and businessman Gonazalo Sanchez de Lozada. The vote was close enough that Bolivia?s congress has been left with picking the next president.
Venezuela: When president Hugo Chavez was briefly deposed on April 11, 2002, and again when the country was rocked by strikes last winter, the U.S. media jumped on the story, reporting what looked like a massive popular movement against a petty dictator. Some 200,000 anti-Chavez protesters took to the streets supporting his ouster. What you didn?t see, says Greg Palast, who covered the short-lived coup for BBC television (see profile on p. 76), was an even larger pro-Chavez rally across town. The left-leaning Chavez enjoys wide popular support among Venezuela?s poor and working classes, who have benefited from his policies.
Ecuador: As in Bolivia, privatization programs, cuts in public services, and huge telephone, gas, and electric rate hikes have drawn increasingly organized resistance in Ecuador. These popular uprisings led to the upset victory of former army colonel Lucio Gutierrez in last year?s presidential election. Gutierrez defeated billionaire banana magnate Alvaro Noboa by campaigning on a platform of social change, more compassionate economic policies, and an end to corruption.
El Salvador: Some 200,000 health care workers marched through the streets of San Salvador last October dressed in white to protest the sale of public hospitals, according to NACLA Report on the Americas (Jan./Feb. 2003). The demonstration was the country?s largest since the bloody civil war of the 1980s.
Whether this new wave of populist organizing will translate into real shifts in political power in the region remains to be seen. Some Latin America observers fear the current situation is merely a prelude to a repeat of the 1960s and 1970s, when a leftist tide was brutally quashed by a series of military dictators from Central America to Chile, generally with U.S. support.
?No one knows for sure what the United States will do,? says Mary Turck, editor of Connection to the Americas, noting ?the way the United States is militarizing the Andean nations [Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia] in the name of the war on drugs.?
The grassroots movements growing across Latin America today are driven not so much by ideology as by opposition to the harsh loan conditions imposed by the IMF and other international lenders and by people?s desire for social justice and democratic control over their own lives.
Mark Weisbrot warns: ?Those who insist that the people should suffer more before they can experience the economic changes they demand would do well to consider the warning of John F. Kennedy: ?Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.??
Connection to the Americas, the membership newsletter for the Minneapolis-based Resource Center of the Americas, provides comprehensive news, analysis, communiqu?s, and action tips on issues affecting Central and South America. Subscriptions: $40/yr. (membership) from Resource Center of the Americas, 3019 Minnehaha Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55406; www.americas.org.