Latin America Looks Left

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.

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.