Social Movements and State Power: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador
By James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer
(Pluto Press, 16 August 2005)
Paperback: 274 pages
“[A] mobilized people is the sine qua non of revolutionary change -- and revolutionary change is the only solution.”
-- James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer
Many progressives have taken heart by the electoral results in South “American” countries that ostensibly indicate a turn to the Left, away from decades of neoliberal government. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, with his fiery oratory and willingness to openly defy US imperialism, has caught the imagination and support of anti-imperialists everywhere. In December, the equally outspoken Evo Morales, an indigenous leader of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), captured the presidency outright in Bolivia. Combined with movements that led to a rapid-fire replacement of five neoliberal presidents in Argentina from 21 December 2001 to 25 May 2003, before the election of “centrist” Nestor Kirchner, and the leftist-supported electoral victory of Ecuadorian presidential candidate Lucio Gutiérrez in November 2002, many progressives are feeling buoyant.
Yet authors James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer caution against over exuberance.
Chávez, they note, is susceptible to electoral removal; Chávez’ continuance in power is dependent on a large voter turnout; “elections can be won despite mass media opposition if previous mass struggle and organization create mass social consciousness”; Chávez’ alliances should be based on relations with the social movements and Cuba and not the regimes in South American states; Chávez’ commitment to socialism is questionable; Chávez meets the demands of Venezuela’s creditors; Chávez’ political wing is in danger of not paying close enough attention to the mass social movements.
In Argentina, Kirchner has been consolidating his grip on power by parlaying centrist neoliberal economic policies and addressing human rights concerns. He has based Argentine’s economic recovery on agricultural and mineral exports that benefit mainly big business concerns. The entwinement between the Kirchner regime and foreign oil interests remains in place. Petras and Veltmeyer state that little social progress has occurred. The authors warn, “Kirchner is ‘progressive,’ but only in a very limited sense, in both time and space.”
Kirchner’s election is considered as a defeat for divided leftists. But, as Petras and Veltmeyer note, with the passing of time and little substantial improvements for workers, the opposition to Kirchner’s middle-of-the-road politics is gaining momentum.
Luis Inacio (Lula) da Silva represents the biggest disappointment for progressives. Since his election as president of Brazil, Lula has replaced the egalitarian power structure within the Worker’s Party (PT) with a top-down power structure. He has appointed neoliberals to prominent positions in the government while the leftist appointments were marginalized.
Under Lula, “The PT’s program was a clear continuation of outgoing President Cardoso’s disastrous neoliberal policies and in some cases even a radicalization of his liberal agenda.” He is seen as Pro-FTAA (a western hemisphere so-called free trade association). He enacted budget cuts that redistributed money from the poor to pay foreign debt-holders. So egregious were the cuts that “Lula transferred funds from the very poorest to the very rich.” Lula also cut public pensions, carried out privatization, and enacted regressive labor policies. Damningly of Lula, Petras and Veltmeyer write, “Lowering the minimum wage of the poor and destitute, reducing the pensions of public employees, and weakening protective labor regulations, abandoning 200,000 encamped landless rural workers, and then telling the Brazilian public that he speaks for the working people require great audacity -- the courage to sincerely to articulate and repeat the Big Lie.”
The authors opine that Lula’s embrace of George Bush “must indeed touch the lowest point of public servility in recent Brazilian diplomatic history.” But the PT hasn’t always submitted to the US; for instance, there was the tit-for-tat photographing and fingerprinting of US visitors to Brazil that upset US officials.
The authors criticize the decision to encourage foreign investment in Brazil as a means to promote growth; it is the converse situation that attracts foreign investment, according to the authors: investment is attracted to expanding markets and does not cause the expansion.
Lula’s government allocates money on inegalitarian bases; for example, subsidies provided for agricultural exports favor the tiny “elite” of plantation owners. Meanwhile, Lula fails to address “the most extreme land ownership inequalities in the world. Less than 1 per cent of the landlords own 50 per cent of the land, while 25 million rural families are landless.” Such disparities have led to an increase in slave and child labor in the countryside.
Lula has boasted often of how he is going to alleviate hunger and yet he has prioritized debt payments to the IMF. An example was his regime’s decision to reallocate money from the Fund to Combat and Eradicate Poverty to meet an IMF-mandated surplus target. Creditors thereby received $430 million, money with which the PT government could have fed ten million hungry children.
The authors describe a PT that has been co-opted.
Ecuador, which has a history of government oppression, also is a country where electoral results have given cause for cautious optimism. Extreme interest payments have exacerbated the social and developmental programs of the country and worsened the economic plight of the poor. The decision to dollarize hit most Ecuadorians hard.
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) put its social movement behind Gutiérrez and leftist political parties Pachakutik with MTD helped provide a needed political base for Gutiérrez’s Sociedad Patriótica (PSP; a political grouping for military officers involved in the coup attempt of January 21) without securing agreement to support their political programs.
Gutiérrez chose to focus on debt reduction, privatization of strategic assets such as oil, electricity, and telecommunications and a campaign against public sector workers and unions. When Gutierrez’s chicanery became undeniable, CONAIE withdrew its support.
The process of change in Ecuador has been driven by mass mobilizations led by the indigenous. Since publication of the book, the guileful Gutiérrez has been forced from office.
The duplicity of Lula and Gutiérrez lead the authors to conclude that electoral politics is a dead end. The leftist parties and movements have been too easy to co-opt. They note that in Ecuador, NGOs (of which the authors are highly skeptical, finding that many NGOs function as a “Trojan horse for global neoliberalism” by providing alleviation for the poor masses as an alternative to social activism) have penetrated CONAIE and that PSP used intimidation against opposition. The Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, a leftist party, was described as readily joining any government coalition in exchange for some power. Therefore, it is a “serious political mistake to seek power from within the system -- to turn toward electoral constitutional politics and join the government. This much is obvious.”
In Bolivia, the authors note that the party of Morales, MAS, supported the right-wing populist party, New Republican Force’s plea for a constituent assembly; in this way the political left helped keep the state machinery out of the hands of social movements.
President Carlos Mesa continued along the neoliberal path of the deposed Sanchez de Lozada and pushed for the privatization of gas to great indignation of the masses. In a divide-and-conquer attempt, the Mesa government sought to derogate powers to the municipal governments that would work with collaborationist NGOs to appease the masses -- to the detriment of the social movements
The authors conclude: “electoral politics and the pursuit of political power via the instrument of a political party such as MAS is a dead end for the movement. Electoral politics is a game that the popular movement cannot win, governed as it is by rules designed by and that favor the dominant class, and that compel the movement to settle for very limited change and the illusion of power. Every single advance of the popular movement in Bolivia has been through a strategy of mass mobilizations.”
Subsequent to the book’s publication, Mesa was also ousted by a popular uprising and Morales came to power. To bring about revolutionary conditions in Bolivia, the authors postulate the need for a consolidation of the movements around a “powerful organization of insurgent forces.” Then the consolidated movement must break away from the system.
Petras and Veltmeyer see Morales, who has chosen the path of electoral politics, as a stumbling block to the achievement of this. This renders Morales’ commitment to socialism as a pretense because “He knows all too well that a commitment to play by the rules of electoral politics commits him to a capitalist path.” Yet, the authors also concede, “In practice it is necessary to combine both electoral and mass revolutionary politics -- as Morales is discovering.”
The authors identify three basic modalities of social change and political power in Latin America: electoral politics, social movements, and social action through local development. Capitalism and electoral politics are enemies of social movements and NGOs tend to be co-opted by the system. The authors conclude, “What is needed is a social revolution that will change class relations, property relations, and the class character of the state.”
“The only way forward” is through class struggle against the holders of political power in every venue.
Petras and Veltmeyer provide an excellent class analysis of power relations in South “America.” Electoral victories by supposedly progressive candidates must be regarded skeptically. The authors caution against the difficulty of achieving social change solely through electoral politics that have been rigged by the capitalist system. For this reason, they find that mass social movements should never be abandoned.
Other Recent Articles by Kim Petersen
This Is Not
Struggle to Restore the Dignity of Labor