A review of Mike Gonzalez, The Ebb of the Pink Tide: The Decline of the Left in Latin America (Pluto Press, 2018), £19.99
In January this year, the Venezuelan right launched an attempted coup against the government of Nicolás Maduro, successor to Hugo Chávez. A wave of street mobilisations was launched after opposition leader Juan Guaidó pronounced himself interim president. Guaidó’s presidency was backed by massive international diplomatic intervention from the Organisation of American States, the United States and many European governments including the UK. Guaidó has tried to send aid into Venezuela in an effort to capitalise on real hardships faced by ordinary people. The US has called on Maduro to allow the aid in, but it remains committed to economic sanctions, including against the country’s state-owned oil firm. The ongoing conflict in Venezuela has refocussed attention on Latin America and the political processes that have been at work there since the turn of the century.
Since Chávez’s election as president of Venezuela in 1998, Latin America has seen a series of left-wing governments in various countries, collectively known as the Pink Tide. The most notable were in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, not because of the nature of the governments themselves and of the measures they did or did not take, but rather because of the massive levels of popular mobilisation that they reflected. Alongside these, several other countries have seen governments which some commentators have also considered part of the Pink Tide: from those of Néstor Kirchner and later Cristina Fernández in Argentina, the Workers’ Party (PT) governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil through to the recently elected government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico. There has been considerable debate about whether this huge range of governments can even be usefully categorised together as part of a general movement because the circumstances of their coming to office vary considerably, as do their records.1
What is clear, however, is that this phase of political development in Latin America seems to be coming to an end. The enthusiasm that greeted the Pink Tide is on the wane. Venezuela is in acute crisis. In Bolivia the government of Evo Morales is pursuing a model of Andean/Amazonian capitalism. The new government of Lenín Moreno in Ecuador seems to be quite different from its predecessor under Rafael Correa. In Argentina there is an aggressively neoliberal government under Mauricio Macri and, worst of all, Jair Bolsonaro is president of Brazil.
This reversal matters a great deal to the international left. The Pink Tide governments were widely revered among many on the left across the world. Indeed, for some influential figures, such as the leadership of Podemos in Spain, they provided a model of good practice and a new hope.2 It would not be an exaggeration to say that for some, the reaction to Chávez and Morales bordered on adulation. As Mike Gonzalez suggests: “Analysis was set aside in favour of a political celebration.” On the other hand, the ebb of the Pink Tide is used by the right (in Latin America and more generally across the world) as evidence that any left alternative project is impossible. We have a rehash of the claim that history is at an end and that only a neoliberal model is viable in the 21st century. It is claimed that all suggestions to the contrary are either utopian delusions or malign attempts to introduce undemocratic regimes that will end in repressive authoritarianism and economic chaos. This is precisely the narrative being harnessed in support of the coup attempts in Venezuela, both in the Organisation of American States and the European Union. It is also used by cruder right-wing commentators against Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. In the light of the failure of many of the projects in Latin America, an understanding of what happened to the Pink Tide governments is vital.
Gonzalez’s book provides a short but wide-ranging foundation to a critique of these governments and an outline analysis of the political processes that took place (and are still taking place in some cases) during their terms of office. It seeks to draw on both his own earlier writing, especially on Venezuela,3 and on more detailed studies such of those of Jeff Webber and George Ciccariello-Maher.4
Gonzalez begins by setting the rise of massive social movements and later left governments in the context of the neoliberal assaults in Latin America in the 1990s. The transition from military dictatorships to supposedly democratic governments including formerly leftist politicians was marked by the emergence of the state as an agent of multinational capital. It acted to sustain infrastructure and exercise social control, while privatising services and state industries and opening the economy to the forces of globalisation. Gonzalez points to the “abandonment of any version of socialist transformation” among the mainstream of the left as well as a weakening of trade unions in the context of aggressive neoliberalism.5 At the sharp end of the rampage were the indigenous peoples, the dispossessed rural poor and the urban masses in the ever-expanding barrios of the cities.
As the catastrophic effects became clear, the protest and active resistance of millions led to an upsurge that rocked the neoliberal order in Latin America, challenging the governments and indeed the international institutions that imposed it. Examples include the urban uprising in Venezuela in 1989 known as the Caracazo, the mass indigenous risings in Ecuador from 1990 and the spectacular Zapatista revolt in Mexico in 1994. Resistance came from outside the left parties and the weakened trade unions and was centred on the grassroots organisations of the urban poor or the indigenous peoples which later provided the mass social base on which the Pink Tide governments came to power. Their demands for control of the resources for life such as water, land, employment and shelter or protection for the natural environment were combined with a demand for an authentic democracy in which power could be devolved downwards, and for a popular culture that embodied alternatives to exploitation and inequality.
The stories of the mass social movements remain inspiring, whether seen through the uprisings in Ecuador around the indigenous mass organisation CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), the Cochabamba Water War in 1999-20006 and the subsequent toppling of the government in the 2003 Gas War in Bolivia7 or the defence of the Chávez government in the attempted coup of 2002 and the bosses’ strike of 2002-3.8 For those who believe that the liberation of the working class remains the act of the working class itself they also pose interesting and complex questions about its changing nature. Neoliberalism has reshaped the structure of the class away from manufacturing and public sector employment and towards a coalition of forces among formal and informal sectors, indigenous organisations, slum dwellers, neighbourhood associations, street vendors and small traders.
In Bolivia, for example, when mining was the vital industry, the mineworkers’ FSTMB union (Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia) and the union federation it dominated, the COB or Bolivian Workers’ Centre, were the key agents in class struggle. The mining sector is now reduced to virtually nothing, with a few thousand miners in private or cooperative mines. But their traditions of organisation and ideology are now spread widely, for example among the coca growers of Chapare and in the community organisations of the slum city of El Alto.
Bastions of the traditional labour movement in other countries are similarly reduced. There are still concentrated and organised workers in some sectors and locations, but they do not have their previous relative strength or retain the role of providing political leadership that they once had. In Latin America and some parts of the Global South, this requires a new evaluation of the nature of the forces that have the potential to change society and challenge for power. Similarly, the interaction of considerations of class, ethnicity, community identification, gender and location demand a new assessment of any potential revolutionary project in the 21st century.9
In a quote that Gonzalez says could be the epigram to his whole book, he uses John Beverley’s formulation of the key question of the relationship between the social movements and the Pink Tide governments that they effectively brought to office: “Do the social movements capture the state, or are they instead captured by it, limiting the radical force and possibility they carried initially?”10
The economic priorities of the Pink Tide governments did not imply a substantial break from neoliberal economic perspectives. Even in the most radical models, the essence of neoliberalism was not conclusively challenged. This is not to say that these regimes made no difference to working class living standards or offered any benefits. The impact of the missions in Venezuela or the redistributive programmes under the Lula governments, for example, was by no means negligible. During the commodity price boom of the early years of the century, the more radical of the Pink Tide governments were able to use the compensatory state to redirect resources into education, housing, health and welfare provision.
However, the dynamic of capitalist accumulation was not challenged. Nor indeed was the dependence of these economies on primary production. The dependence on oil in Venezuela is the most obvious example, but all the Pink Tide governments have increased their dependence on extractive industries or export agriculture. This has meant a damaging impact on the environment and on the communities forced from their land to make way for mining, petrochemical, ranching or agro-industrial production. Examples are the Tipnis infrastructure project in Bolivia11 and the Yasuní oil field in the Ecuadorean Amazon.12 Perhaps most striking of all has been the Maduro government’s plans for the Arco Minero in Venezuela,13 where 159 multinationals are invited to apply for concessions to exploit minerals, oil and gas to a private, military-run corporation in a region where constitutional rights are suspended. David Harvey refers to the process as “accumulation by dispossession”. In turn, this has meant an economic model which accepts the insertion of these countries into the world economy as producers of primary products under the control of global capital, albeit under renegotiated terms. When the effects of the recession from 2008 eventually made themselves felt in Latin America from around 2012 onwards, the same class choices have had to be made about who pays the price of the crisis.14
Nor were the structures of the state challenged by the Pink Tide governments. Although the social movements that had led to them had undoubtedly produced mass assemblies and wide forms of participatory democracy which did challenge the very existence of the state, these faded from use under the new Pink Tide regimes. Even where new constituent assemblies did come into being, these functioned as organs of the capitalist state. In no instance was there a suggestion that the salaries of public officials should be restricted to the average wage for example, nor was there an effective mechanism for accountability or recall. The army was not replaced by any type of workers’ militia and indeed, in the case of Venezuela in particular, the army became central to the running of the state. Gonzalez describes the process by which the Pink Tide governments set about “translating that energy [of the social movements] back into electoral politics, taking over the administration of the state without transforming it”.15 Temir Porras, a long-time insider in both the Chavez and Maduro governments, makes a similar point in a very interesting recent interview in Jacobin magazine highlighting “Chavez’s mobilisation of revolutionary rhetoric, saying we will transform Venezuelan society and build socialism, while at the same time most of the gains…occurred not through a revolutionary state but through a more or less traditional liberal democracy”.16
The question of corruption has often been the stick used to beat the left governments of the Pink Tide and has to be faced honestly. Denial is not an option, as Gonzalez has correctly and repeatedly stated. It is not good enough to say that it is a figment of the imagination of the right. Nor is it adequate to try to minimise it by saying, for example, that in Brazil Dilma was personally clean (probably true) or that those who impeached her were more corrupt (definitely true) or that in Venezuela the forces of the right receive backing from corrupt business people, drug runners or the Bannonesque forces of the alt-right in the US (all as plain as the nose on your face). Rather it has to be faced that the political and economic deals done with sections of domestic capital, with multinationals and foreign investors brought with them corruption and chicanery which has impoverished the people of Latin America and destroyed their resources. Only a breaking of the logic of capitalist accumulation and a demolition of the capitalist state structures that enforce it will give an authentic voice to the millions who mobilised and will still mobilise against oppression, neoliberalism and capitalism. With it has to come the development of accountable, representative, sustained organs of popular power from below. This is what has been lacking in the processes that took place in the Pink Tide countries.
There remains the question of how to organise the forces of the working class as now constituted in order to carry out this task. The social democratic, Stalinist and Guevarist parties of the 20th century in Latin America failed to do this, collapsing either into a surrender to neoliberalism, sectarianism or an elitist vanguard approach that had little to say to the mass movements. For some, the idea of a revolutionary party is now irrelevant and has long passed into the dustbin of history. For these, many fine writers and critics of the Pink Tide included among them, the answer lies in horizontalism, spontaneity, localism or ill-defined movementism. But the problem is that, faced with the ruthlessness of the capitalist state and of imperialism, they too have been unable to furnish a political method or apparatus capable of decisively overthrowing the system and moving towards the economic and political liberation of the vast majority of producers.
Other critics, including some cited in this review, have not necessarily abandoned the idea of a revolutionary party, though there is precious little discussion in their critiques of how such a thing might be constituted, how it might relate to the social movements or how it might be effective. The revolutionary left still exists in Latin America and has begun to develop a critique of the experiences of the last two decades. Some of it is very impressive, such as the currents that identify themselves as critical Chavismo in Venezuela. These currents remain largely marginal, however, to the reality of working class struggle. Yet the debate is a crucial one in order both to learn from the experiences examined in this book and to prepare for the future battles that are already beginning. The political situation in the ebb of the Pink Tide calls for parties that can drive the fight against the right, look to the potential power of the working class, the mass movements of the poor and the oppressed and link these in a strategy that aims not to manage the system but confront and overthrow it.
To attempt a critique of the Pink Tide governments does not mean that socialists are neutral in the class battles taking place at present. We are unconditionally and unequivocally against the forces of the right, which are attacking the interests of the people of Latin America. We are unremitting in our opposition to imperialist intervention, which shows its head ever more aggressively in the continent. The point is to analyse and learn from what has happened in order better to be able to participate in the struggle for the emancipation of working people and their conquest of power.
Andy Brown is a member of the Socialist Workers Party based in Newham.
1 Gonzalez, 2019, p22.
2 For example, Errejón and Mouffe, 2015, p70.
3 Gonzalez, 2014 and 2017.
4 Webber 2011, 2012a and 2017; Ciccariello-Maher, 2013 and 2016.
5 Gonzalez, 2019, pp12-13.
6 Olivera, 2004.
7 Hylton and Thomson, 2007, part three, Dangl, 2007.
8 Gonzalez, 2014, chapters 4 and 5.
9 Gonzalez, 2019, p63.
10 Gonzalez, 2019, p35.
11 Webber, 2012b.
12 Gonzalez, 2019, chapter 4.
13 Gonzalez, 2017, 2019, p128.
14 Porras, 2019.
15 Gonzalez, 2019, p86.
16 Porras, 2019.