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"Centre-Left" Regimes In Latin America

By James Petras

08 April, 2006
Axis Of Logic

Examined here is the phenomenon of the "centre left" regime that has emerged recently in Latin America, and the reasons why such palpably neo-liberal governments attract the uncritical support of leftist intellectuals worldwide. The "centre left" governments of Lula in Brazil, Kirchner in Argentina, Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Toledo in Peru, and Gutierrez in Ecuador are measured against a set of criteria designating espousal of leftist politics, a test failed by them all. It is argued that, in order to develop authentically leftist views about future patterns of agrarian policy and transformation, and to support these once developed, it is necessary first to sweep away the rhetoric that these days is taken for "leftist" views.


Several years ago I asked an editor of a leading US business journal (Forbes) about how he characterized the politics of a Mexican President (Luís Echevarria) who was speaking at a Leftist conference commemorating Salvador Allende, the socialist President of Chile ousted by the military coup of 11th September 1973. In what was a very revealing answer, the business journal editor replied: "He talks to the Left and works for the Right".[1] This response captured more accurately than many leftist analyses, and certainly more cynically than any of them, the nature of the political dilemma facing all current and future attempts at grassroots mobilization - by movements composed of poor peasants, agricultural labourers, and urban workers - throughout Latin America. Namely, the disjuncture between a programme of socialist reform promised by radical politicians before taking office and the actual neoliberal policies implemented once they are in power.[2] A review of the performance by recent "centre left" Presidents in Latin America fits very well with the comment of that Forbes editor, and undermines the faith placed in them by much of the political left in Europe and the US.

Such political betrayals fuel a slide into a-political ideology. Combining an initial optimism with a subsequent pessimism, they culminate in the belief among those at the grassroots that nothing will change, so there is little or no point in trying. Alternatively, they license an unalloyed optimism; the view - more usually held by leftist intellectuals - that the policies implemented are either the socialist ones promised, or the best that can be done in the circumstances.[3] Whilst almost everyone (political leadership and intellectuals alike) seems to be against neo-liberalism, therefore, it is not always clear what - if anything - they are for.[4] The assumption frequently made - that if one is against neoliberalism then this signals an automatic support for a progressive politics, not to say socialism itself - is incorrect. For this reason, the object of the brief presentation that follows is twofold. First, to examine what constitutes a leftist position in the current political climate. And second, to compare the latter with the policies now being implemented by the political leadership in a number of Latin American countries: Lula in Brazil, Kirchner in Argentina, Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Toledo in Peru, and Gutierrez in Ecuador.

In short, the object is critically to analyse what passes for leftist credentials among those holding power in Latin America. The practical importance of this task, as distinct from the necessity for it, is also clear: in order to develop authentically leftist views about future patterns of agrarian policy and transformation, and to support these once developed, it is necessary first to sweep away the rhetoric that these days is taken for ‘leftist’ views.



Given the shift away from socialist theory and politics, it is in an important sense hardly surprising that claims made by intellectuals for the leftist nature of a programme with which they are associated, or implementing, is permitted to pass without substantial challenge. Prior to any discussion of "centre left" regimes in Latin America today, therefore, it is important to understand exactly what it means "to be left" -- from a historical, theoretical and practical perspective. The method for determining "What is left" is based on analyzing the substance - and not the symbols or rhetoric - of a regime or politician. The practical measures open to scrutiny include budgets, property, income, employment, labour legislation, and priorities in expenditures and revenues. Of particular importance is to focus on the present social referents, social configurations of power and alliances – not the past - given the changing dynamics of power and class politics. The third methodological issue is to differentiate between a political campaign to gain power and the policies of a political party once in power, as the gulf between them is both wide and well known.

Historically there is a consensus among academics and activists as to what constitute criteria and indicators for defining a leftist politics. These include the following fourteen points, all of which combine to structure what might be termed a minimal leftist programme:

Decreasing social inequalities. Increasing living standards.
Greater public and national ownership in relation to private and foreign ownership. Progressive taxes (on income and corporations) over regressive taxation (VAT, consumption.).
Budget priorities favouring greater social expenditures and public investments in jobs, rather than allocating subsidies both to capitalist producers and to foreign debt payments. Promoting national ownership of raw materials and resources, and protecting the latter from foreign exploitation. Diversification of production to value added products as opposed to selling unprocessed raw materials. Subordinating production-for-export to the development of the domestic market. Popular participation and power in decision-making, not least central planning, as opposed to de facto rule by businesses, international bankers (IMF) and political elites. The selection of key cabinet ministers in consultation with mass grassroots movements (representing poor peasants, agricultural labourers and urban workers) instead of those representing simply local and foreign businesses. Adoption of a progressive foreign policy targeted against the global spread of laissez faire economics (= free markets), military bases and imperial wars and occupation. Reversing privatizations already carried out, and discarding the policy of extending/consolidating privatizations. Increasing the level of the minimum wage. Promoting legislation facilitating trade union organization, plus universal and free public education and health services.
With these criteria in mind, one can proceed to analyze and evaluate the contemporary "centre left" regimes, so as to determine whether "New Winds from the Left" are in fact sweeping Latin America, as many claim.



With the possible exception of Evo Morales (see below), no recent assumption of the Presidency of a Latin American country has attracted as much enthusiasm and acclaim from those on the global left as the election of Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva as President of Brazil.[5] Even before his election, however, Lula, signed a letter of understanding with the International Monetary Fund (June 2002) to pay the foreign debt, to maintain a budget surplus of 4% (up to 4.5% subsequently), to maintain macro-economic stability and to continue neo-liberal "reforms". Once elected, he slashed public employee pensions by 30%, and bragged that he had the "courage" to carry out the IMF "reforms" that previous right-wing presidents had failed to do.[6] To "promote" capital investment, Lula introduced labour legislation increasing the power of employers to fire workers and lowering the cost of severance pay. Social programmes in health and education were sharply reduced by over 5% during the first three years, while foreign debt creditors received punctual (and even early) payments of over US$100 billion dollars – making Brazil a "model" debtor.

Past privatizations of dubious legality of lucrative petrol (Petrobras), mining (Vale del Doce), and banks were extended to public infrastructure, services and telecommunications – reversing seventy years of history – and making Brazil more vulnerable to foreign owned re-locations of production.[7] Brazil’s exports increasingly took on the profile of a primary producer; thus exporters of iron, soya, sugar, citrus juice, and timber expanded while its industrial sector stagnated due to the worlds highest interest rates of 18.5% and the lowering of tariff barriers. Over 25,000 shoe workers lost their jobs due to cheap imports from China. After Guatemala, Brazil remained the country with the greatest inequalities in the whole of Latin America.

Agrarian policy was directed toward financing and subsidizing agribusiness exports, while the agrarian reform programme stagnated and even regressed.[8] Lula’s promise to his "ally", the Landless Workers' Movement (Movimiento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST), to distribute land to 100,000 families a year was totally disregarded. Under the previous center-right regime of President Cardoso, some 48,000 families received land each year compared to only 25,000 per year under Lula, leaving over 200,000 families camped by highways under plastic tents and 4.5 million landless families with no hope.[9] Lula’s policy favouring agroexport led to accelerated exploitation of the Amazon rain forest and deep incursions into Brazilian Indian territory, thanks to budget cuts in the Environment and Indigenous Affairs Agencies.

In foreign policy, Lula sent troops and officials to occupy Haiti and defend the puppet regime resulting from the US orchestrated invasion and deposition of elected President Aristide. Lula’s differences with the US over ALCA were clearly over US compliance with "free trade" and not over any defence of national interests.[10] As Lula stated, "Free trade is the best system, providing everyone practices it" - meaning that what he opposed was not free trade per se but rather the failure of the US to adhere to this.[11] Whilst Lula opposed the US-sponsored coup against Venezuela in April 2002, as well as other imperial adventures, and spoke for greater Latin American integration via MERCOSUR, in practice his major trade policies focused on deepening his ties outside the region - with Asia, Europe and North America.[12]

The evidence presented here in outline suggests that Lula fits closer the stereotypical profile of a right-wing neo-liberal politician rather than a "‘centre left" President. Why, then, does he continue to be regarded by ‘opinion-formers’ in the media and the academy as a representative, not to say the embodiment, of leftist interests? The answer is all too simple. Intellectuals and journalists who classify Lula as a leftist do this on the basis of his social, trade union and occupational background, an identity now twenty to thirty years old and no longer relevant to the interests and agency he embodies in the present, plus his theatrical populist symbolic gestures.


Under President Kirchner, Argentina has grown at a rate of 8.5% per year, substantially increased export earnings, reduced unemployment from over 20% to approximately 15%, raised pensions and wages, re-negotiated a portion of the private foreign debt and rescinded the laws granting impunity to military torturers.[13] Compared to Lula's ultra-liberal policies, therefore, Kirchner appears as a progressive leader.[14] Looked at from a leftist perspective however, the regime falls far short. Kirchner has not reversed any of the fraudulent privatizations of Argentina’s strategic energy, petroleum and electrical industries. Under his regime the profits of major agro-industrial and petroleum sectors have skyrocketed with no commensurate increases in salaries. In other words, inequalities have either increased or remained the same, depending on the sectors.

While Kirchner has financed and subsidized the revival of industry and promotion of agricultural exports, salaries and wages have barely reached the level of 1998 - the last year before the economic crisis. Moreover, while poverty levels have declined from their peak of over 50% in 2001, they are still close to 40% - a very high figure a for a country like Argentina which produces enough grain and meat to supply a population six times its current size. As in the case of Lula, Kirchner's central banker and economic and finance ministers have long-term ties to international capital and banks. Whilst economic growth and some social amelioration have taken place, much of it can be attributed to the favourable world commodity prices for beef, grains, petroleum and other primary sector materials. In foreign policy Kirchner - again like Lula - opposes ALCA only because the US has refused to reciprocate in lowering its own tariff barriers.

That Kirchner’s foreign policy is hardly anti-imperialist is evident from the fact that Argentine troops occupy Haiti at the behest of the US, and engage in joint manoeuvres with the US. While Kirchner revoked the law of impunity that had hitherto sheltered military torturers, no new trials have been scheduled, nor have any punishments been meted out to those guilty of human rights abuses during the "dirty war". Although Kirchner opposes US attacks on Venezuela, he supports the US proposal to refer Iran to the Security Council of the UN. While unemployment has declined, one out of six Argentines is still out of work. Unemployment relief remains at a very low level, of no more than US$50 per family per month. Despite a nominal increase in salaries, growing inflation of over 10% has reduced real earnings for the majority of public employees.

The structures of socio-economic power remain in place – in fact Kirchner has played a major role in restoring and consolidating capitalist hegemony after the mass popular uprisings of December 2001. He has not redistributed property, income or power - except among the different segments of the capitalist class. His criticism of Washington only extends to the most extreme interventionist measures which seek to prejudice Argentine big business and convert it into a powerless client: hence Argentina’s opposition to the State Department’s attempt to form an anti-Chavez bloc. Kirchner's rejection stems from almost exclusively from economic considerations: the fact that Argentina receives petroleum from Venezuela at subsidized prices, has secured a major ship-building contract from Venezuela, and has signed lucrative trade agreements with Venezuela to market its agricultural and manufactured products. With regard to Cuba, Kirchner opened diplomatic relations, but has maintained his distance. While on excellent diplomatic terms with Chávez, Kirchner shares none of his redistributive policies.

In conclusion, Kirchner meets none of the leftist criteria set out above. He is more clearly a pragmatic conservative willing to dissent from the US when it is profitable for his agribusiness and industrial capitalist social base. At no point has Kirchner shifted any of the budget surplus now used to pay the foreign debt to fund the depleted health and educational facilities and to provide better salaries for personnel in those vital public sectors.


Tabare Vazquez was elected by an electoral coalition (The Broad Front and Progressive Encounter) which included Tupamaros, Communists, Socialists, as well as an assortment of Christian Democrats and liberal democrats. However, his key appointments to the Central Bank and the Economic Ministry (Danilo Astori) are hardline neo-liberals and defenders of continuing previous budget constraints where social spending is concerned, while generously financing the agro-export elites.

During the Economic Summit in Mar de Plata (Argentina) in November 2005, while tens of thousands protested against Bush, and Chávez declared ALCA dead, Tabare Vazquez and Astori signed a wide reaching ‘investment protection’ agreement with the US, which embraced the major free market principles embodied in ALCA. With the full backing of Tabare Vazquez, Astori has not only rejected re-nationalization of enterprises, but has given notice of an intention to privatize major state enterprises, including a water company, despite a popular referendum in which more than 65% voted in favour of maintaining state ownership. The Tabare Vazquez regime has taken no measures to lessen inequalities, and has put in place a paltry ‘job creation’ and emergency food relief programme which covers a small fraction of the poor, indigent and unemployed Uruguayans.

Meanwhile the government has laid down the royal carpet for a Finnish-owned, highly contaminating, cellulose factory which will have an adverse effect on fishing communities and perhaps even the important tourist facilities downstream. Tabare Vazquez and Astori’s unilateral signing off on the controversial factory has resulted in a major conflict with Argentina which borders the Uruguay River, where the plant will be located.

The Tabare Vazquez regime has repudiated every major programmatic position embraced by the Broad Front (Frente Amplio) in its 30 years of existence: from sending troops in support of the occupation of Haiti, to privatizing public properties, embracing free trade, welcoming foreign investment and imposing wage cuts and salary austerity controls on the working class. Like Kirchner, Tabare Vazquez has re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba, but he avoids any close relationship with Venezuela. Probably the most bizarre aspect of the Broad Front government is the behaviour of the Tupamaros, the former urban guerrilla group now converted into Senators and Ministers. Mujica, the Minister of Argiculture, supports agribusiness enterprises and foreign investment in agriculture, and simultaneously upholds the law on evicting landless squatters in the interior. Senator Eleuterio Huidobro attacks human rights groups demanding judicial investigations of military officials implicated in assassinations and disappearances of political prisoners. According to Huidobro, the ‘past is best forgotten’, thereby embracing the military and turning his back on scores of his former comrades who were abducted, tortured, murdered and buried in unmarked graves.


Probably the most striking example of the "center-left" regimes that have embraced the neo-liberal agenda is that of Evo Morales in Bolivia.[15] His background is both rural and radical: an indigenous farmer growing coca (cocalero), he is also the leader of the Movement to Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS), which draws on strong support from peasant smallholders in the Chapare region. Not only was Morales’ election victory beyond dispute - he obtained 54 per cent of the vote cast, a majority unrivalled in the past half century - but it was greeted with enthusiasm by a wide spectrum of world political opinion, especially on the left.[16] Just why the latter in particular should be so pleased about the accession to the Bolivian Presidency of Morales, however, is unclear. Even before he took power, therefore, his political record could only be described as ambivalent.

Between October 2003 and July 2005, scores of factory workers, unemployed urban workers and Indian peasants were killed in the struggle for the nationalization of petroleum and gas, Bolivia’s most lucrative economic sector and source of revenue. Two presidents were overthrown by mass uprisings in a two and a half year period for defending the foreign ownership of the energy resources. Yet Evo Morales did not participate in either uprising; in fact he supported the hastily installed neo-liberal President Carlos Mesa until he, too, was driven from power.

As President, Evo Morales has ruled out the possibility that gas and petroleum will be expropriated. Instead he has provided long-term, large-scale guarantees that all the facilities of the major energy multinational corporations will be recognized, respected and protected by the Bolivian state. As a consequence, the multinational corporations have not only expressed their support for Morales, but have also lined up to extend and deepen their control and exploitation of these non-renewable resources. By means of a none-too-clever linguistic sleight of hand, Morales claims that anyway "nationalization" does not correspond to the expropriation and transfer of property to the state. According to his "new" definition, minority state ownership of shares, tax increases and promises to ‘industrialize’ the raw materials are all equivalent to nationalization.

While the exact terms of the new contracts have yet to be published, all the major multinational corporations are in full agreement with Morales' policies. Evidence of this is that Petrobras, the primarily privately owned Brazilian oil and gas giant, is prepared to invest US$5 billion dollars over the next six years, in the exploitation of gas and petroleum and in the construction of a petro-chemical complex. Other multinational corporations have followed suit: Repsol (a firm based in Spain) promises to invest US$150 million dollars, while Total and BP (French and British respectively) plus a whole host of other major energy and mining corporations are all prepared to expand investments and reap billions in profits under the protective umbrella of Morales and his MAS regime.

No previous government in Bolivian history has opened the country to mineral exploitation by so many foreign capitalist enterprises in such lucrative fields in such a short period of time. In addition to the oil and gas sell-offs, Morales has declared that he intends to privatize the Mutun iron fields (60 square kilometers with an estimated 40 billion tons of ore with an estimated worth of over US$30 billion dollars), following the lead of his neo-liberal predecessors. The only changes which Morales will introduce in the bidding is to raise the share of taxes Bolivia will receive from US$0.50 a ton to an undisclosed ‘but reasonable’ amount (according to the multinational corporations).

Reneging on his promises, Morales has refused to triple the minimum wage. His Minister of the Economy has undertaken to retain the previous regime's policies of fiscal austerity and "macro-economic stability", while the increase in the minimum wage will amount to less than 10%. And although the Morales government raised the teachers' basic salary a meager 7%, in real terms this amounted to less than 2%. Now the basic salary earned by a teacher is US$75 a month, so their net gain under the new "revolutionary" indigenous president is less than US$2 dollars a month, and this at a time of record prices for Bolivian raw material exports, and a budget surplus.

Despite being the leader of coca growing peasant farmers, Evo Morales has declared his support both for the continued presence of the US military base at Chapare, and for the intrusive presence of the US Drug Enforcement Agency. In keeping with US policy demands, he has reduced the areas of coca production to less than half an acre for domestic medical uses. To appease his peasant supporters, however, Morales not only promotes and funds indigenous cultural events/celebrations, but also encourages the use of indigenous language use in schools located in the Andean highlands, and at public functions. Land reform will involve colonization projects in hitherto unsettled or uncultivated terrain.

Taking land away from large proprietors or plantations, however, is not on the agrarian reform programme. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, both Morales and his Agricultural Minister are opposed to any expropriations of large landowners, ‘whether they are owners of…5,000, 10,000, or 25,000 or more acres as long as they are productive’. This has effectively put an end to the hopes of millions of landless Indian peasants for a "profound agrarian reform" as promised by the indigenous President. What Morales is doing instead is to promote agro-export agriculture, a policy effected by means of generous subsidies and tax incentives.

Like those of Lula and Kirchner, the appointments made by Morales to the economic, defence and a number of other ministries all have previous links to the IMF, the World Bank and earlier neo-liberal governments in Bolivia. Indicative of Morales' favourable disposition towards capitalist enterprise was the signing of a pact with the Confederation of Private Businessmen of Bolivia in February 2006, whereby he committed himself to maintain "macro-economic stability" and the "international credibility" of the country. This means in effect curtailing social spending, promoting foreign investment, prioritizing exports, maintaining monetary stability and above all promoting private investment.

Morales' capitulation to the Bolivian capitalist class was evident in his decision to re-activate the National Business Council, which will analyze and take decisions on economic and political issues. About this Morales said, "I am asking the businessmen to support me with their experience." (Forgetting to add their experience in exploiting the labour force.) He went on to ask these capitalists to advise him on "ALCA, MERCOSUR… on agreements with China, the USA…as to their benefits for the country". The president of the Business Confederation, Guillermo Morales, immediately emphasized the importance of signing up to the free trade agreement (ALCA).

Whilst Evo Morales was busy signing a pact with the business community, he refused to meet with the leaders of FEJUVE (The Federation of Neighbourhood Councils of El Alto in La Paz), the biggest, most active, democratic urban organization in Bolivia. It had been very active in leading the mass struggle, both to overthrow the previous neo-liberal presidents and to demand the nationalization of gas and petroleum. Ironically, Morales received 88% of the vote cast in El Alto, an area of the national capital where scores of deaths and injuries occurred in the run-up to his election. He showed his contempt for FEJUVE by naming two of its members as ministers - Mamani as Minister for Water and Patzi as Education Minister - without even consulting the organization, which takes all decisions via popular assemblies. Both Ministers were forced to resign from FEJUVE, in part because Patzi rejected the long-standing grassroots demand to create a teachers' college for the 800,000 residents of El Alto, claiming it was an "unacceptable cost to the system" (given Morales’ selective austerity budget). For his part, Mamani refused to expel the foreign multinational company Aguas del Illimani, which overcharges consumers and fails to provide adequate services.

According to FEJUVE the Morales regime has failed to deal with the most elementary problems, such as the exorbitant electricity rates, the absence of any plan to provide and connect households with heating, gas and water lines. The major trade union confederations and federations (COB, Miners and others) have protested against the refusal of Morale to rescind the reactionary labour laws passed by his predecessors which "flexibilized labor" - depriving workers of legislative protection against dismissal, and thus empowering employers to hire and fire workers at will. As a reward for his pro-business policies, Japan, Spain and the World Bank have "forgiven" Bolivia’s foreign debt.

In order to sweeten this kind of bitter neo-liberal economic pill, Morales has adopted a familiar ploy: the rhetoric and agency of populism.[17] He has excelled in "public theatre", consisting of a populist folkloric style that reproduces the discourse about a socio-economically uniform people, one of whom is himself. Such images of ‘being’ no different from the masses, of "belonging" to them, of sharing their not only their interests and background, but also (and therefore) their discomforts and aspirations, are aimed at securing grassroots acceptance of his programme/policies as theirs. To this end, therefore, Morales not only dances with the crowds during carnival, declares a reduction of his presidential salary as part of the austerity programme affecting the living standards of already impoverished Bolivians, but also delivered a section of his Presidential Speech to Congress in the Aymara language.

The same populist logic informed the announcement by him of a "plot" aimed against his person by unspecified oil companies, the object being to rally support among his followers while he prepares to sign away the country’s energy resources to these same oil companies.[18] Needless to say, neither the Defence or Interior Ministries were aware of the "plot", nor was any evidence of its existence ever presented. But the non-existent ‘plot’ did indeed serve to distract attention from his energy sellout. In a similar vein, while Morales has spoken of his dear friend Hugo Chavez, and embraced Fidel Castro, he has conceded military bases to the US and offices to its DEA (the Drug Enforcement Agency), as well as granting concessions to international (= "foreign") capitalist enterprises interested in access to and extraction of Bolivian energy and mining resources.

Although Morales has improved diplomatic relations with Cuba and Venezuela, and secured social and economic aid, therefore, the economic foundations of his policies are oriented toward an integration of Bolivian development with the interests of Western capitalist countries. In this and other respects, the Morales regime is following in the footsteps of his neo-liberal predecessors, not least his pro-big business outlook and his obedience to IMF fiscal, monetary and budgetary imperatives. Accordingly, the policies, appointments, institutional ties of the Morales government all suggest that the most appropriate political label in his case is not a leftist but much rather a "centre right" one.


The election of Toledo in Peru and Gutierrez in Ecuador was hailed by many of those the political left, who in support of this endorsement cited the plebeian origins of both presidential candidates, their alliances with Indian organizations (such as CONAIE in Ecuador) or indigenous identity (Toledo spoke Quechua and wore a poncho during his election campaign).[19] Notwithstanding the fact that Toledo emerged from the neo-liberal graduate programme at Stanford University, and was subsequently a functionary at the World Bank, leftists acclaim centred on his opposition to the Fujimori dictatorship (with US backing) which they asserted was a sign that "change would come".

Change did indeed come, but not of the kind that the global left had anticipated. Much rather, it took the form of intensified privatizations of mining, water and energy, subsidies for agribusiness and mining exporters, the lifting of trade barriers, and a decline in living standards of the middle class as well as the rural and urban poor. For the last three years, the diminished popularity of Toledo's neo-liberal programme can be gauged from the fact that his support in opinion ratings never exceeded 15% and mostly hovered below 10%.

Much the same is true of Ecuador. Once in office, Gutierrez embraced IMF doctrines, extended support to the US-instigated Plan Colombia, backed the US military base in Manta, proposed the privatization of the state oil and electricity companies, jailed protesting trade union leaders, divided the Indian movement through selective funding and ties to right wing evangelical leaders. He was eventually ousted in a popular uprising in 2005. The legacy of Gutierrez was a much-weakened Indian social movement (CONAIE), the discrediting of Pachacutik, its fraternal party, and a neutered trade union movement.

Somewhat predictably, those on the political left was slow to comprehend the direction being taken by these two "centre left" Presidents whose election they had greeted with such optimism. It was only after the political damage was an accomplished fact, therefore, that those on the left belatedly recognized the reactionary nature of the Gutierrez and Toledo regimes. At this point, and almost reluctantly, they dissociated themselves from these politicians, and stopped referring to them as part of the "New Left Winds". When combined with leftist endorsement of Lula, Kirchner, and Morales, that of Toledo and Gutierrez points to a serious failure on the part of progressive opinion to understand the nature of the political programme being supported. Why?



The great majority of Latin Americans – workers, peasants, unemployed and poor - have suffered grave consequences as a result of the support given by movements to which they belong to "centre left" parties and coalitions. Much of the blame for this situation must fall on the immediate leaders of these movements, some of whom were co-opted, others deceived, manipulated or self-deluding. Part of the fault, however, lies with leftist intellectuals, journalists, NGOs, and academics who wrote and spoke in favor of "centre left" politicians and parties. They promoted their virtues, their histories and their promises; they lauded their opportunities, their plebeian backgrounds, and their probity - in a vastly uninformed, uncritical and superficial manner.

The list of leftist intellectuals culpable of this covers three continents, and reads like a "Who’s Who" of progressive opinion: Emir Sader, Adolfo Gilly, Michel Lowy, Heinz Dietrich, Perry Anderson, Atilio Boron, Raul Zibechi, Frei Betto, Noam Chomsky, Ignacio Ramonet among others.[20] To a greater or lesser degree, and over a long or short time frame, all sang to the chorus of "New Left Winds are blowing in Latin America". A close reading of their writings, however, reveals that these left intellectuals were more influenced by the text and rhetoric of "centre left" personalities and parties, and less by their class practices, economic policies, strategic political appointments, and their elite linkages before and after being elected.

In general, the Left intellectuals were seduced by what might be termed superstructural phenomena. The latter encompass political symbols, political forms and identity politics - especially the presence of "Indians" and women in positions of power - and not the socio-economic content and class nature of the policies concerned. Much was made by those on the left of "Indian" and/or ethnic identity, or the social origins of the party or politician, ignoring or overlooking thereby their neo-liberal transformation, their current business elite reference groups, plus their current socio-economic elite associates. They bought into the carefully choreographed political gestures and theatre: the promises to reduce Presidential salaries (Morales), ceremonies paying homage to past struggles (Tupamaros), and weeping or "feeling" for the poor (Lula), all this rather than the selling off of the strategic raw materials to foreign multinational corporations.

It is difficult to overestimate the gravity of the resulting political focus by leftist intellectuals/ academics on form rather than substance. This uncritical espousal by many on the political left of ethnic "otherness" simply because it is an identity that is indigenous, without interrogating the class ideology and politics of this "other" identity, has on occasion played directly into the hands of the political right, who have factored this kind of response into their own agendas. Thus, for example, in the case of the US-engineered coup in 1954 against the democratically elected government of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, the US Central Intelligence Agency selected Castillo Armas as a puppet to head the "opposition".[21] To those organizing the coup, one of the main attractions of Castillo Armas was that he appeared to be of an indigenous "other" identity in a country where half the population was Mayan.[22]

In part, the judgment of leftist intellectuals was impaired by a nostalgic remembrance of years past - when they knew Lula as a trade union leader (a quarter of a century earlier), the Frente Amplio as an organization of grassroots struggle (resisting the military dictatorship in Uruguay during the 1970s), Evo Morales as a militant peasant leader (of coca farmers in the 1990s), and Kirchner as a leftist sympathizer (with the Montoneros in the 1970s). Writing on the basis of identities which were no longer current, and thus irrelevant to the present political situation, leftist intellectuals failed to appreciate the extent to which there had been a shift from left to right. Instead they invented a non-existent but hospitable "centre left" label which was affixed - inappropriately, and without reason - to those such as Lula, Kirchner, Morales, Toledo and Gutierrez. In this way, the label created neatly fits in with their wishes and desires to be ‘against’ the system while being part of it.

Not a few of these left intellectuals were impressed by the "centre left" diplomatic gestures of friendship towards Cuba and Venezuela, the warm reception of Hugo Chávez, even the occasional embrace of progressive leaders. No doubt they confused the favorable diplomatic gestures by Cuba and Venezuela toward the "centre left" regimes - understandable from the view of state policies aimed at countering US pressures – as a general endorsement of their internal policies. Regardless of any reasons for Cuban and Venezuelan support, leftist intellectuals have invented a "common purpose" with the "centre left", some - such as Dietrich - even fantasizing about the presence of a new "left bloc".[23] The latter was based, presumably, on policies such as deepening foreign ownership of strategic materials, widening social inequalities, and promoting free trade.

Symbolic politics is visually accessible on the front pages of the mass media - it does not require a capacity to research, collect and analyze data. Insofar as left intellectuals substituted the "symbolic left" for the real existing converts to neo-liberalism, they can with an easy conscience do things like become political advisers, accept invitations to Presidential inaugurations, and imbibe cocktails at receptions. As history teaches us, this chance to be close to power is indeed a heady experience. Most cynically, it could be argued that the only place where the "Left Winds" blow is through the empty space between their ears.


There are powerful left-wing forces in Latin America, and sooner or later they will contest and challenge the power of the neo-liberal converts, as well as their allies in Washington and in the multinational corporations. In the case of Bolivia this is likely to be sooner, not least because the scale and scope of Morales' broken promises, together with his embrace of the business elite, has already provoked the mobilization of the class-conscious trade unions, the mass urban organizations and landless agricultural workers and poor peasants. The insurrectionary movements on whose back Morales rode to office are still intact, and - more importantly - their co-opted leaders have been replaced by new militants. Populist "gestures" and "folkloric" theatre can have at best only a short-term impact, in that the capacity to divert class-conscious miners and the Indian militants in El Alto from the reality of grinding poverty is of necessity limited. The insurrectionary forces that brought Morales to power can also bring him down.

Left-wing forces are also powerful in Colombia. More than US$3 billion of US military assistance has been spent on Plan Colombia over the past four years by the Uribe regime. Although the latter is propped up by paramilitaries and some 1,500 US Special Forces "advisers", the government of Uribe has nevertheless failed to defeat the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and have suffered major defeats in late 2005-2006 in the face of a guerrilla offensive. Uribe may indeed win re-election as President of Colombia, but he will at best rule only half of the country.

In Brazil, the control/co-optation of the class collaborationist labour confederation (CUT) by the Lula regime has led to the formation of a new militant confederation ConLuta (founded May 2006). The not uncritical collaboration with the Lula regime on the part of the MST has led to a political impasse, internal debates and a sharp decline in support within and outside of the organization. This may lead to a political rectification and re-orientation toward class politics. It is nevertheless the case that the Brazilian left faces a "long march" toward re-establishing its political credibility gaining. Much the same is true of the left in Uruguay and Argentina: the new "centre left" neo-liberals, unlike the old right, have co-opted many of the leaders of the major trade unions and some of the unemployed workers groups. This has been done by means of allocation of government posts, inclusion in Congressional electoral slates, and generous stipends.

President Chávez of Venezuela stands as the major political figure representing a real governmental challenge to US imperialism.[24] He has led the fight against ALCA and the US invasion of Haiti; he defeated a US-sponsored coup attempt and has demonstrated that social welfare, nationalism and political independence is viable in the Hemisphere. But as in Cuba, Chávez faces not only US aggression from the outside but opposition from within. Many officials in his party (The Fifth Republic), the state apparatus and sectors of the military are not in favor of his proposed Twenty-First Century Socialism. Between Chávez and the ten million voters who support him is a political apparatus of dubious political credentials, with notable exceptions. In the case of Cuba, Fidel Castro has spoken of a similar internal threat from a ‘new class' of rich emerging from the scarcities of the "Special Period in Peacetime" (1992-2000) and the opening to tourism.[25] He has called for a new revolution within the revolution.

If there are "New Left Winds blowing in Latin America", therefore, they come from the call by Castro for a new revolution within the left, from the insistence by Chávez that socialism is the only alternative to capitalism, from the new grassroots leadership in Bolivia, Brazil and elsewhere, as well as from the advancing 25,000 strong guerrilla movement in Colombia. A new generation of autodidactic popular leaders and young militants who are also intellectuals, are emerging in the urban councils of El Alto, in the new class-oriented trade unions of Brazil, and among the students joining the peasant fighters in the jungles of Colombia. They are the ‘Left Winds’ of Latin America.

By contrast, the "centre left" regimes and their leftist intellectual supporters represent a sad epitaph on the "radical" generation of the 1970s and 1980s: they are a spent force, lacking critical ideas and audacious proposals for challenging imperialism and capitalist rule. They will not fade away - they have too much of a stake in the current system. Although there is a long history in Latin America (and elsewhere) of this kind of deception - by others of the leftist self, and by the leftist self of the leftist self him/herself – there is a huge irony in the pattern of delusion that currently exists.

In the past, therefore, leftist intellectuals aligned with pro-Soviet communist parties tended to put a break on revolutionary mobilization, arguing that the time was not yet ripe. Although such misrecognition persists, now it has been reversed. Leftist intellectuals who are politically non-aligned currently argue that the revolution is already here and must be supported. The element of irony is unmistakable: whereas earlier leftist intellectuals saw no revolutionary potential where this actually existed (at the rural grassroots during the 1960s), present-day ones see revolutionary potential in places (the Presidential Palace) where it is actually non-existent.

When measured against a set of criteria commonly accepted as designating a leftist politics, the Latin American regimes hailed by many intellectuals as "New Winds from the Left" fail to meet the test: none pursue redistributive policies; most have implemented regressive budgeting policies, subsidizing big business and reducing expenditures for social policy; class selective austerity programs have been applied prejudicial to minimum wage earners and low-paid public employees in health and education; privatizations - legal and illegal - have been extended and deepened, even of lucrative publicly-owned mineral and energy sectors; foreign investors have been given privileged access to local markets, cheap labour and privatized enterprises and banks. All the latter have had – and will continue to have - a deleterious impact on the living standards of the rural poor.

While none of the so-called "centre left" regimes can accurately be designated "leftist", there are some variations in the degree of adherence to the neo-liberal model. Kirchner has channelled some of the economic surplus towards the funding of national capitalist development, and also supported some price controls on basic foodstuffs and electricity rates. Lula, by contrast, is found at the other end of the spectrum: he has undermined a specifically national development of manufacturing with an overvalued Brazilian Real and exorbitant interest rates favouring financial capital.

Occupying a slightly different position on this same spectrum, Morales combines the pro-foreign investment programme of Lula - especially in minerals and petroleum - with a policy of increasing tax rates on foreign-owned mining, gas and oil producers. While most of the "centre-left" regimes considered here provide troops for the US-sponsored occupation of Haiti, and continue to support US military bases in Bolivia and Brazil, they are unanimous in their opposition of US direct intervention in Venezuela. And although most on the "centre-left" promote minimalist subsistence anti-poverty programmes, none pursue structural changes in land tenure and public investments aimed at creating employment, so as to get at the root of poverty.

A final irony is that a US policy designed and executed by one of the most extreme rightwing governments in recent Western history has led to some frictions, particularly in its attempt to impose non-reciprocal free trade agreements and a legal basis to punish electoral regimes for not conforming to the dictates of Washington. Such impetus from above is in turn countered by impetus from below. Within the framework of neo-liberal politics, therefore, these "centre-left" regimes also face strong pressures from popular organizations and threats of renewed mass direct action. This in itself serves to compel these regimes to resort to populist discourse: making symbolic gestures of solidarity with the grassroots on the one hand, and asserting their independence from the ultra-imperialist Bush regime, to which they offer only rhetorical defiance/opposition, thereby seeming to distance themselves from the US.

It would be a mistake however to consider such "centre-left" regime gestures as a sign of a major left revival. The credit for the latter development is due to the mass movements outside the regime, mobilizations that in a majority of instances are composed of poor peasants and agricultural workers who demand more than just symbolic defiance and empty gestures of (economically non-existent) "sameness" and solidarity with the grassroots. What the rural (and urban) poor require - indeed, demand - is a sharp turn toward substantial socio-economic transformations. The way in which such changes will affect the current agrarian structure is thus a matter of some political urgency. It is an issue which leftist intellectuals and academics who are enthusiastic supporters of "centre left" regimes in Latin America have yet to address in terms that are specifically leftist.


Anderson, Perry, "Cardoso Legacy", London Review of Books, Vol. 24, No. 24 December 2002

Betto, Frei, "Zero Hunger in the Municipalities", Panama News, April 13-26, 2003

(Frei Betto was one of Lula’s chief advisers until Dec. 2004).

Borón, Atilio, "La encrucijada Boliviana", December 28, 2005.

Brass, Tom, 2000, Peasants, Populism and Postmodernism: The Return of the Agrarian Myth, London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass Publishers.

Chomsky, Noam, "Latin America and Asia Breaking Free of Washington’s Grip",

Deere, Carmen Diana, Niurka Pérez, and Ernel Gonzales, 1994, ‘The View from Below: The Cuban Agricultural Sector in the "Special Period in Peacetime", The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2.

Demmers, Jolle, Alex E. Fernández Jilberto, and Barbara Hogenboom (eds.), 2001, Miraculous Metamorphoses: The Neoliberalization of Latin American Populism, London and New York: Zed Books.

Dietrich, Heinz, 2006, "Evo Morales, Communitarian Socialism and the Regional Power Bloc," at:
Power_Bloc and January 8, 2006.

Foot, Paul, 2005, The Vote: How It was Won and How It was Undermined, London; Viking/Penguin Books.

Gilly, Adolfo, 2005 "Bolivia: a 21st Century Revolution", Socialism and Democracy, vol.19, no.3, November 2005, pp 41-45.

Gott, Richard, 2005, Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, London and New York: Verso.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri, 2000, Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri, 2005, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, London: Hamish Hamilton.

Löwy, Michel, (ed) Marxism in Latin America from 1909 to the Present, Humanities Press, 1992

Lucas, Kintto, 2000, We Will Not Dance on Our Grandparents' Tombs: Indigenous Uprisings in Ecuador, London: Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR).

National Commission on Disappeared People [Argentina], 1986, Nunca Mas: The Report, London and Boston, MA: Faber and Faber.

Petras, James, 2002, "A Rose by Any Other Name? The Fragrance of Imperialism," The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2.

Petras, James, 2006, "The Bankers Can Rest Easy – Evo Morales: All Growl, No Claws?", Counterpunch, 4th January,

Petras, James, and Henry Veltmeyer, 2000, Neoliberalism and Class Conflict in Latin America, London and New York: Macmillan Press/St. Martin’s Press.

Petras, James, and Henry Veltmeyer, 2001a, Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century, London and Halifax: Zed Press/Fernwood Publishing.

Petras, James, and Henry Veltmeyer, 2001b, Brasil de Cardoso: expropriação de un pais, Petrópolis: Editorial Vozes.

Petras, James, and Henry Veltmeyer, 2001c, "Are Latin American Peasant Movements Still a Force for Change? Some New Paradigms Revisited," The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2.

Petras, James, and Henry Veltmeyer, 2002, "The Peasantry and the State in Latin America: A Troubled Past, an Uncertain Future," The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 29, Nos. 3&4.

Petras, James, and Henry Veltmeyer, 2003a, System in Crisis: The Dynamics of Free Market Capitalism, London and Halifax: Zed Press/Fernwood Publishing.

Petras, James, and Henry Veltmeyer, 2003b, "Whither Lula’s Brazil? Neo-Liberalism and 'Third Way' Ideology," The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1.

Ramonet, Ignacio, "Bolivia",, December 29, 2005.

Sader, Emir, 2005, "Taking Lula’s Measure", New Left Review (Second Series), No. 33. and "Lula: Um oportunidad perdida", 7/ar/libros/osal/sader.doc

Schlesinger, Stephen, and Stephen Kinzer, 1982, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Taylor, Lewis, 2005, A review of Latin American Peasants, edited by Tom Brass, Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol. 24, No. 3.

Washbrook, Sarah (ed.), 2005, "Rural Chiapas Ten Years after the Zapatista Uprising," a special issue of The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 32, Nos. 3&4.

Zibechi, Raul, "The Uruguayan Left: From Cultural to Political Hegemony", CVP Web Site no. 567


[1] This imagery conjures up a classic scene in film comedy: The Paleface (1948), in which the eponymous and cowardly dentist on the frontier, played by Bob Hope, stalks and is stalked by a gunfighter. On his way to a showdown with the latter, Hope encounters all sorts of contradictory advice – "he shoots from below, so duck to the side", "he fires to the left, so lean to the right," etc., etc. – that fuels the hilarious outcome. Both the confusion generated by advice received, and the kind of advice itself, are not so different from the ones experienced by the ranks of rural and urban workers when confronted with a politician who, like the gunman in the film comedy, says one thing but does another (= "talk to the Left [but] works for the Right").

[2] For the element of class struggle occasioned by the imposition of neo-liberal programme, see Petras and Veltmeyer [2000; 2001a; 2001c].

[3] An example, in rather a minor key it has to be said, is the review by Taylor [2005: 418-20] of a book about Latin American peasants that critically examined the leftist credentials of postmodern theory (including "moral economy" and "everyday forms of peasant resistance"). Objecting to the view expressed by a number of contributions to the volume that what such an approach endorses is neither progressive nor socialist but a reactionary form of populist/nationalist politics, the position taken by the reviewer was by contrast that "anyone with firsthand experience of grassroots rural organization in Latin America knows that issues such as 'moral economy' and ‘everyday forms of peasant resistance’ comprise an essential part of the warp and woof of micro-level politics. Without an understanding of these, no progress can be achieved." The inference both that it is necessary to fit in with rural ideology as presently constituted, that this is somehow compatible with a progressive (never mind a socialist) politics, and that anyway this is the only way forward politically, highlights as clearly as one could hope the malaise among those who continue to think of themselves as on the left. It is this, more than anything else, that has resulted in defeat after defeat for the left in many parts of the Third World, where socialist and communist parties have locked onto existing grassroots discourse in the fond (and frequently unexamined) belief that the politics of opposition are ipso facto socialist and progressive. What it overlooks is the fact that agrarian mobilization against international capitalism is in class terms heterogeneous, and thus projects economic interests and contains programmatic demands that are contradictory, not to say incompatible. Rich peasants in these movements rather obviously want different things from the poor peasants and workers who are also part of the same mobilization, a really rather simple fact that seems to have escaped Taylor.

[4] This is especially true of the now hugely fashionable analysis of Hardt and Negri [2000; 2005] based on frothy and essentially meaningless concepts such as "multitudes" and "empire", for a critique of which see Petras [2002]. Like many other "leftists", they have pinned their political hopes on new social movements such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. Composed for the most part of Mayan peasants, the Zapatista movement is largely a defensive one, about the reproduction of indigenous cultural identity and institutions (see the volume edited by Washbrook [2005]). As such, it has little to do with socialist objectives.

[5] For the details of the effusive celebration by the left generally that greeted this election victory, see Petras and Veltmeyer [2003b].

[6] This kind of "hard man" boast by newly elected politicians espousing what they claim to be "centre left" views (= "Third Way") is designed to demonstrate fiscal rectitude both to the domestic middle class and to international capital. The same kind of utterances were made in the UK after 1997 by Tony Blair and ‘New’ Labour (or, more accurately, New "Labour"), a situation memorably described by the late (and much lamented) Paul Foot, a socialist of the "old" school. About this he wrote [Foot, 2005: 429]: "The case against capitalism, and for a democratic socialist society to replace it, seems every bit as strong in 2003 as it was when the vote was first granted to most people some 85 years ago. Yet the sad fact is that in those years Labour Governments, including particularly the majority Labour Government that came to office at the end of the twentieth century, have done little or nothing to achieve the Party’s founding aim - namely to use the power given them by the franchise to represent the organized workers and to close the gap between the rich and the workers in this country or in any other. In the past Labour ministers used to apologize for this failure. Now they boast about it."

[7] Lula's key economic ministers were dominated by right-wing bankers, corporate executives and neo-liberal ideologues, all linked to the IMF and multinational corporations. These ministers occupied the Finance, Economy, Trade and Agriculture Ministries, plus the Central Bank.

[8] On the agrarian reform, see Petras and Veltmeyer [2003b: 17ff.].

[9] The dynamics of the previous regime, that of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, is outlined in Petras and Veltmeyer [2001b].

[10] ALCA (Área de Libre Comercio de las Americas) is the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

[11] What Lula objected to, specifically, was the policy of US agricultural subsidies combined with tariff protection extended to US commercial farmers and agribusiness enterprises.

[12] The MERCOSUR treaty established a common market covering the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

[13] A quarter of a century after the end of the military dictatorship, immunity extended by the Argentinean state to those who operated death squads during the "dirty war" (guerra sucia) that lasted from 1976 to 1982 remains a live political issue. According to the report of CONADEP, the National Commission on Disappeared People [1986], nearly 9,000 people "disappeared" during this period, although the real figure is said to be around 30, 000. Among the "disappeared" were many participants in rural labour organizations [National Commission on Disappeared People, 1986: 378]: "There were numerous disappearances amongst workers and small farmers…particularly in the northern provinces of Tucuman and Jujuy and the border provinces of Chaco, Formosa, Corrientes, and Misiones, in the two latter especially in connection with the Agrarian Leagues. There were many amongst the members of these Leagues who are now dead, in prison, or disappeared."

[14] For more on Kirchner, and general background information on the economic crisis faced by Argentina, see Petras and Veltmeyer [2003a: 68ff.].

[15] This section draws on materials contained in Petras [2006].

[16] Morales received congratulations from Fidel Castro, as well as from President Chirac of France and Wolfowitz (of the World Bank).

[17] On a resurgent populism in Latin America, see Brass [2000], Demmers, Fernández Jilberto and Hogenboom [2001], and Petras and Veltmeyer [2002].

[18] This, of course, corresponds to the relay-in-statement common to populism: namely, that I - your representative, who embodies your (= plebeian) interests and those of the nation - am threatened by "foreigners" who are against me, you, and Bolivia. Such a discourse not only fuses the identity of President and people, fostering thereby the element of national solidarity, but also focusses this on the "outsider" who is, it is inferred, to blame for the ills of ‘the people’ and their President.

[19] Formed in 1986, the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (CONAI) was the public voice of all the different indigenous groups in Ecuador [Lucas, 2000]. For an account of the mobilization in Ecuador of its indigenous population, see Petras and Veltmeyer [2003a: 185ff.].

[20] For this intellectual support, see Sader [2005], Löwy […], Dietrich [2006], Anderson […], Boron […], Zibechi […], Betto […], Chomsky […], and Ramonet […].

[21] A wide ranging agrarian reform was central to the Arbenz government programme, a policy which entailed the expropriation of the large uncultivated reserve belonging to the US-owned agribusiness enterprise, the United Fruit company. The latter was, unsurprisingly, the main instigator of the move to overthrow Arbenz [Schlesinger and Kinzer, 1982].

[22] The intention was to present to the Guatemalan population a seemingly plebeian figurehead of what was actually a foreign coup, thereby presenting the latter action as a form of grassroots agency. According to the CIA [Schlesinger and Kinzer, 1982: 122], therefore, Castillo Armas 'had no strong ideology beyond simple nationalism and anti-Communism. But he "had that good Indian look about him. He looked like an Indian, which was great for the people' ".

[23] For this "new left bloc", see Dietrich [2006].

[24] See Gott [2005] for an interesting account of the domestic policies effected by the Chávez regime.

[25] See Deere, Pérez and Gonzales [1994] for an account of the contradictions that surfaced in Cuba during the "Special Period in Peacetime". The relaxation by the Cuban state of controls on peasant markets in the 1980s generated a trend towards privatization, in the form of decollectivization, sharecropping, and diverting inputs from state enterprises into private production.









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