Turkey and Latin America: Reaction and Revolution

Turkey and Latin America have experienced many similar historical and contemporary political processes and socio-economic changes despite significant cultural and historical differences. For example, Turkey is the center of a former empire, an Islamic country and member of NATO — Latin America is none of those. For purposes of this article, I want to focus on the contemporary socio-economic and political similarities and differences.

Both Turkey and Latin America have passed form bourgeois-national-statist development models beginning during the 1930s and ending approximately in the latter half of the 20th century. Both Turkey and most countries of Latin America have been ruled by neoliberal regimes. Neoliberalism came to Latin America a decade earlier (1970s) and more intensely than Turkey (1980), but has produced very similar class polarizations. In both areas neoliberalism has led to massive privatizations and the denationalization of banks, industry, telecommunications and other strategic sectors. The process of neoliberalization has passed through three phases in both regions.

The first phase of neoliberalism took place shortly after a military coup. Privatization was accompanied by massive corruption, crises, deepening inequalities and the emergence of a kleptocratic state.

The second wave of neoliberalism emerging from the corruption and decadence of the preceding phase was characterized by greater dependence on the IMF and World Bank and attempts to accelerate privatization through stabilization programs to create the bases for the large-scale, long-term invasion of foreign capital.

The third wave of neoliberalism began in the new millennium with the coming to power of neoliberals who combine deepening subordination to foreign capital with ‘poverty programs’ to neutralize popular opposition and incentives to activate the provincial ‘national bourgeoisie.’

In Latin America the first wave of neoliberalism coincides with the military dictatorships of Chile’s Pinochet (1973-1989), Argentine Generals (1976-1984), Uruguay (1972-1985), Bolivia (1971-1984) and Peru (1991-2001). In Turkey the comparable period is the military coup (1980), the military-civilian regime of Turgut Ozal (1983-89) and the unstable coalition regimes from1990-1999. These regimes laid the groundwork for the neoliberal counter-revolution, by violently suppressing all popular, socialist and militant trade unions, parties and movements. The first wave neoliberals created the beachheads for future large-scale privatization. Because of massive corruption, mismanagement, incompetence and internal political conflicts, combined with inflation and popular revulsion, the first wave neoliberal regimes went into crisis, leading to the second wave of neoliberalism.

The second wave of neoliberal regimes in Latin America combined greater dependence on the IMF, a government of technocrats, finance capital with policies designed to reduce inflation in order to attract foreign capital. In Turkey, the second wave of neoliberalism includes the Bulent-Ecevit-Kemal Dervis regimes (especially March 2001-August 2002) and the first government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2003-2007). In Latin America this second wave coincides with the rise of ex-populists and ex-Marxists turned neoliberals who criticized neoliberalism in their election campaigns but who deepened and extended privatization and de-nationalization once in power. In Argentina, the Peronist President Menem (1980-1989), Brazil ’s Cardoso (1994-2002), Peru ’s Toledo (2001-2006) and Alwyn and Lagos in Chile (1990-2005) represented this trend. The second wave of neoliberalism in Latin America led to a major crisis and breakdown, leading to popular revolts and the overthrow of several neoliberal presidents in Ecuador (2000, 2003 and 2005), Argentina (2001), and Bolivia (2003 and 2005) as well as the election of radical nationalist populist Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (1999). In Turkey, the crisis of 1999-2001 led to the election of Ecevit who proceeded to subordinate Turkey to the IMF and appointed former World Bank official Kemal Dervis as Minister of the Economy. Turkey ’s 2001 economic crisis, unlike Latin America, did not lead to a massive popular uprising. Despite this important difference, the crisis of neoliberalism both in Latin America and Turkey led to the rise of pseudo-populist neoliberals (the ‘third wave’), who combined a ‘welfare’ ideology and promotion of the ‘national bourgeoisie’ with the privatization and de-nationalization of all strategic sectors of the economy.

Erdogan in Turkey, Lula in Brazil and Kitchner in Argentina, all combine a rhetoric of social paternalism with right-wing ‘free market’ practices.

The third wave of neoliberalism has benefited from high world market prices for export commodities (metals, agricultural products, energy etc.) and an expanding world economy. But the internal class, ethnic and regional inequalities have deepened.

In Turkey and Latin America the current neoliberal presidents (unlike the past) have several advantages: they have well-organized party apparatuses which reach into popular sectors, have well-funded ‘welfare’ or ‘poverty’ programs to buy the votes of the poorest classes and have been able to disarticulate the left through co-option and selective repression.

Nevertheless, the third wave of neoliberalism faces several severe challenges from within and below and from the appearance of a successful alternative model. In Latin America, the advance of Venezuela’s President Chavez on the road to ‘21st century socialism’ with the nationalization of petroleum, telecommunications and massive free health and education programs has secured widespread popular support from the Latin American masses. Chavez’ progressive socializing policies successfully refute the propaganda that neoliberalism is the ‘only alternative.’ Secondly, major movements of trade unions, urban poor and peasants are on the move again — in Brazil the landless rural workers and public employee unions are now in opposition to Lula. In Argentina and Chile, the teachers and other public sector unions are demanding a greater share of the growing revenue of the state. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales is pressured by the right wing oligarchy and by leftist workers: he must turn left or face defeat by the right. In Ecuador and Peru, the mass movements through massive public demonstrations are challenging the reactionary social democratic regimes.

Equally serious, the financial crises of the US and Europe are having a negative impact on the economies of Turkey and Latin America, weakening the ‘social’ neoliberals.

A new phase of class conflict and social mobilization is challenging the ‘third wave’ neoliberals. In Latin America, it has a bold face in President Chavez, a mass base among the urban and rural poor, and especially with the public employees faced with budget cuts and privatizations.

In Turkey, the left faces the task of winning over the millions of poor migrants in the cities and countryside influenced by Erdogan’s ‘populist’ Islamist image. However as his regime is clearly dominated by urban technocrats tied to financial capital — it is only a question of time when the mask of ‘benign conservatism’ falls and the true face of cruel neoliberalism is revealed.

Despite historical and cultural differences Turkey and Latin America are part of the neoliberal cycle of expansion and crisis. Like Latin America, the response in Turkey will depend on the unity of diverse social forces in a socialist program. In Latin America the wave of popular revolts includes peasant, workers, unemployed workers, indigenous peoples, Afro-Latinos, women, public employees and progressive Christians. In the Turkish context, popular revolts will result from the unity of workers, Kurds, Alavi, peasants, urban poor, People’s Houses, progressive Muslims and public employees. Fundamental to the successful outcome of these struggles is opposition to US, European and Israeli imperialism and their wars against Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Afghanistan and Venezuela. Anti-imperialist struggles can only succeed by confronting their local Turkish and Latin American collaborators — first and foremost Erdogan in turkey and Lula in Brazil.

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  1. Michael Kenny said on September 1st, 2007 at 10:14am #

    Mr Petras is dead right to detect a disaffection for neo-liberalism which is not just limited to Turkey or Latin America. Basically, neo-liberalism has failed to deliver the goods and for that reason, people are increasingly looking elsewhere.

    Neo-liberalism itself was a response to the growing feeling in the 1960s and 70s (in Europe, at least) that socialism was running out of steam, not because it had failed, but because it had succeeded. 50 years of socialism had empowered large numbers of people, giving them welfare protection, job security, education, decent housing and purchasing power beyond their wildest dreams. The problem was that it was all done through a top-heavy state and trade union bureaucracy, which was fine as long as many people were poorly educated, but as education levels improved, they saw no reason to be told what was good for them by their (largely self-appointed) “betters”. Being myself of that generation, I know what I’m talking about here!

    Alternatives? Communism? We didn’t know then what we know now about the corruption of the communist dictatorships but the communists blew their own brains out in Prague in 1968 and compounded the error in Portugal in 1974.

    Hence arose neo-liberalism. The perceived evil was state bureaucracy, so why not just dismantle the state bureaucracy and leave people free to do what they wanted? Sounded great, but then came Thatcher and people saw that neo-liberalism simply meant dismantling the welfare state, artificially creating unemployment to push down wages and re-creating the sort of super-rich elite and miserable mass of poor that Europe had spent 75 years trying to get rid of. Problem was, the socialists were still preaching the old cloth-cap dogmas straight out of the 1930s. The socialists had become conservatives, so the neo-liberals became progressives! And so they got away with it! For a while anyway, until the pudding proved to be inedible! Globalisation, the natural next step in the process, became the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    Communism is discredited, socialism has run out of steam, neo-liberalism is a cure worse than the disease. A new ideology for the 21st century? For the young, it’s ecology and the great blessing of ecology is that its inherently regulatory nature torpedoes the underlying deregulation ideology of neo-liberalism. Indeed, a look at the right-wing websites and news outlets will show that from libertarians all the way to neocons, that whole cabal is scared silly of ecology! So ecology it is! Let the neolobs eat cake! On condition, of course, that it’s made from healthy ingredients, obtained on fair trading terms and without damaging the flora or fauna, and is wrapped in a biodegradable package, which, needless to say, must be thrown into the trash can reserved for that type of waste. The neolibs can put that in their pipes and smoke it. As long, of course, as they don’t do it in a public place!