What’s With All That Socialism in South America?

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Presidents Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Evo Morales of Bolívia, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brasil, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, at the World Social Forum Latin America in 2008

The past twenty or so years in South America have seen several powerful electoral victories of socialist-aligned candidates and parties, followed by years of reform. Eventually the momentum for change slowed, however, to be followed by disappointment and defeat. This article is a quick attempt at taking stock, and, on a superficial level, to begin the self-criticism that is supposed to be part of progressive and socialist movements. I highlight three countries: Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, because those three had unambiguously successful socialist victories in contested elections, and because they illustrate distinct problems.

First I mention a few common features. The main one of course is the United States, and here are several aspects: the many acts of political and military destabilization that originate with the US government; the heavy-handed corporate imperialism, whereby large international corporations control the extraction of key resources and the production of key export goods; and the overall neo-liberal management of the global system of commerce and finance, up to now dominated by the United States via the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. This neo-liberal apparatus stymies many independent domestic initiatives, and discredits them as well through research and publications.

But the “United States” in a broader sense is represented by the middle class in each country, reflecting US values, US expertise, US racism, and US-cultivated ambition; and with close family and business ties to the US as well. This poses a direct challenge to socialists, who may rack up 60 percent landslides in some elections, with almost no support from the middle class. But why is this a problem? It is hard to face the possibility that racist and self-interested people may nonetheless have valuable professional expertise, especially when they constitute the best-educated sector. But their open contempt for many economic policies may contain something to think about: they are in the business every day, and directly can see the consequences of economic policies. When they merely complain, socialists can calmly celebrate; but when they joke and laugh . . maybe it’s worth a second look.

While winning support from the middle class may be too much of a challenge—and too much of a distraction as well—for socialist movements, winning at least some kind of grudging respect should be a goal.

Another shared problem of socialist movements is that they remain suffused with patriarchal norms and practices. The problem here is not only “toxic masculinity” at the personal level, but also gangster chauvinism at the organizational level. I admit—proclaim even—that gangsterism is superior to “armchair” academicism in political struggle; but are those really the only two alternatives?

This is an important question. Let’s admit that in the real world a socialist program requires considerable repression. Those people screaming and yelling about freedom have a point. It is impossible to protect socialist priorities from domestic middle-class ambition and foreign intervention without restrictive measures that affect the whole population. Therefore it is vital to avoid having the government, the military or the police go rogue. Repression must not go beyond what gets broad public consent; even the appearance of corruption must be avoided; and vulnerable members of society must have valued input into what is law and how it is enforced.

There actually is progress on the fringes of the socialist movement in developing more inclusive approaches involving collective deliberation with openness to criticism. This puts the socialist fringe way ahead of all conservative parties and dominant institutions, but ahead unfortunately too of most mainstream socialist organizations. The macho-gangster mindset still looms large.

A brief comment on the challenge facing socialists world-wide: global capitalism and traditional patriarchy form a most noxious combination: societies with relatively few successful men; most women performing a plethora of arduous, menial, and low-paying jobs along with household tasks; and a lot of unemployed, unsuccessful, and resentful men standing around. It is the ideal breeding ground for every kind of gang or warlord-run militia; not fertile soil for a political program that sees itself based in an organized labor movement.


Now to turn to issues distinctly highlighted in each of the three countries.

In Ecuador many groups came together to oppose US and global corporate neoliberalism, while favoring expansion of social programs. The elected president, Rafael Correa—a U of I Ph.D graduate!—embarked on a nationalistic development program expanding mines and other enterprises with a view to financing expanded social programs with their profits. Unfortunately, this split the movement, prompting furious opposition from former allies, including a significant part of the enormous indigenous movement, which felt that decision making about and revenues from enterprises on indigenous territory should be theirs. Of course, environmentalists were also disappointed by the emphasis on traditional growth. Eventually the electoral majority opposing international capitalism broke up into several minorities with drastically different domestic programs. After Correa left, right-wing forces were able to retake the presidency—though still not the assembly—and start to make the usual concessions to the IMF in return for loans.

The Venezuelan experience highlights three issues, all related to heavy dependence on its huge oil reserves. First, oil exports are conspicuous and oil extraction involves advanced technology; thus, both imports of equipment and exports of product are vulnerable to sanctions imposed on the country by the US government. Second, after a nearly successful coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez, supporters of the coup were purged from the state-run oil company and replaced by supporters of the government. Unfortunately, that caused the loss of important professional expertise leading to further deterioration of the industry. Third, although officially a high priority, diversification of the economy beyond oil has gone painfully slowly. Venezuela still imports many things that could be produced domestically. The huge increases in social spending on education and health care, however laudable and beneficial for individuals directly served, have not yet yielded skilled workers and entrepreneurs to build a diversified economy. The returns to “human capital investment” are not there. This teaches us to be realistic about what programs will mainly improve our current lives, and what programs increase prospects for the future by transforming the economic structure.

In Bolivia, the “plurinational” indigenous movement, an alliance of several distinct indigenous nations, managed to overcome a coup by a hostile military and an openly contemptuous and racist middle class, and to regain considerable control over affairs where most of the population lives, in the highlands. However, it had to be more open to compromise with foreign mining companies, especially those mining lithium, than was its now ousted leader, President Evo Morales. Also, it is doubtful that the La Paz government has much influence in the drastically different environment of the eastern lowlands forming part of the Amazon basin. There farmer-investors from the US Midwest and Brazil probably dominate the scene. The plurinational alliance dominating the highlands exhibits an admirable resilience under pressure, but it has great difficulty extending effective rule beyond the traditional constituencies.

I hope that the brief comments above succeed in pointing to a variety of problems facing socialist movements in South America, and likely elsewhere too, with some indications of how they may be overcome. While ever-increasing numbers of people all over the world turn their backs on capitalism, the problem is they often have major doubts about socialism as well. I don’t look forward to third alternatives.

Michael Brün currently teaches economics at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington and at Heartland Community College in Normal.

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