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Turning the Neoliberal Tide in Latin America

Sean Purdy, Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), São Paulo, Brazil

December 10, 2020

A recent series of popular struggles has begun to turn the neoliberal tide in Latin America. The two most important events were the victories of the Movement for Socialism in the Bolivian presidential and congressional elections on October 18 and the overwhelming win in the Chilean plebiscite on October 25 to convoke an elected Constituent Assembly to rewrite the country’s Constitution.

Other recent successful struggles by workers and social movements in Latin America include feminist demonstrations and occupations in Mexico, anti-austerity protests in Guatemala that resulted in the burning of the National Congress and the municipal elections in Brazil in November which saw extreme right candidates supported by President Bolsonaro defeated and clear gains by the socialist left. Colombia was rocked by massive protests in September against the economic consequences of the pandemic, the failing healthcare and social assistance system and massive human-rights abuses by the police and military.

As in the rest of the world, the ultra-right, neoliberal offensive exacted high costs in the last 5 years in Latin America. Economic crisis and massive cutbacks to government programs have resulted in increased poverty and misery. According to the UN Human Development Index that measures life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living, all Latin American countries have either stagnated or worsened over the last years. A key part of the assault has been severe restrictions on labour and pension rights that were won through struggle in the last decades.

In Chile, the neoliberal offensive of the Pinochet years – continued by conservative and social democratic governments since then – saw a rash of suicides by elderly people whose privatized pensions left them in dire poverty. In Brazil, since the parliamentary coup in 2016, extreme inequality is once again on the rise. The situation in Venezuela – assaulted by criminal sanctions from the US and hostile neighbouring governments – is breathtakingly bleak.

Both the criminal negligence of many governments and long weakened health care and social assistance systems have certainly worsened the situation of the vast majority of Latin Americans during the Covid-19 pandemic. Brazil is second only to the US in numbers of deaths (178,000) and several other countries in the region have disproportionately suffered. As elsewhere, people of colour, women and minorities have borne the brunt of the deadly virus.

Accompanying the attack on living standards was the increased militarization of society and the attempt to roll back social gains for women, minorities and the LGBT community. Fake news about “gender ideology” and attempts to restrict social rights has run rampant. Often successfully resisted, the attacks nevertheless showed the growing confidence of the extreme right.


It was in this context that the illegitimate, right-wing government of Bolivia called general elections for October. In late 2019, the MAS party under Evo Morales clearly won the presidential elections, but a concerted campaign by the US and the Organization of American States in league with local right-wing forces, carried out a coup against the democratically elected winner. Hundreds were killed in clashes between the police and pro-MAS demonstrators and non-elected representatives from the far-right parties assumed the government. The elected president Morales was forced into exile.

Confident that they would win in the 2020 elections, the coupsters failed to take into account the simmering social and economic tensions of the country, the gross negligence of the government during the pandemic and the overwhelming support of the people for Morales and MAS. The MAS campaign was based on rank-and-file mobilization of workers, especially among the majority indigenous population, and its candidate, Luis Arce, won an impressive 55% of the vote in a race with 4 candidates and majorities in both chambers of the legislative assembly . A few weeks later, ex-president Evo Morales triumphantly returned home from exile.


The plebiscite in Chile came after a year of intense struggle by social movements and unions, including strong feminist groups protesting for reproductive rights, against the devastating effects of neoliberalism under the right-wing government of Sebastian Piñero. Despite massive police brutality (hundreds were blinded by rubber bullets) and the near collapse of the health-care system during the pandemic, the Chilean people regularly took to the street against the neoliberal privatization measures of the government, including increases in pubic transit fares and cuts to social and education programs. The centre of the capital city, Santiago, was a veritable battleground for several months with subway trains and public buildings regularly burnt down by demonstrators.

The plebiscite had two questions: 1) the necessity or not of a new Constitution to replace the old one enacted during the Pinochet dictatorship; and 2) in the case of a positive vote, whether the Constituent Assembly should be composed of a mixed Convention (half composed of already elected parliamentary members and half directly elected) or an entirely elected Assembly with 50% representation by women and guaranteed participation by Chilean indigenous peoples.

A year of massive struggle clearly paid off: 78% of Chileans voted for a new Constitution and 79% for a newly elected Constituent Assembly. Voting for the representatives of the Constituent Assembly are slated for April 2021.

Certainly, late 2020 in Latin America is a far cry from the dire situation one year ago. Yet there is no room for complacency. The far right might be down in some countries, but it is not yet out.

American imperialist interventions in the region will not stop because Biden beat Trump. The new Democratic President has a long history of undemocratically and forcefully imposing American foreign policy priorities on other countries. His picks for cabinet positions – a who’s who of neoliberal imperialists – clearly reflect this orientation.

Local far-right forces will continue to organize. Jair Bolsonaro, the semi-fascist leader of Latin America’s largest country, Brazil, has become a beacon for the far right not just in Latin America, but around the world. The racist Camacho, MAS’s main opponent in the Bolivian elections, still politically and economically controls the rich Santa Cruz region in the country. Right-wing paramilitaries continue to murder trade unionists and journalists in Colombia. Narco-traffickers in collusion with local and state governments in Mexico continue to murder women with impunity. Extreme poverty and inequality amidst plenty still characterize every Latin American country.

But one thing is for sure: the recent victories for the social movements, the left and the working class in Latin America did not come out of nowhere. They were the result of uniting disparate forces in a common program and courageous rank and file mobilizing. This is the only way to truly turn the deadly neoliberal tide.   


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