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LATIN AMERICA
The irregular path of progressive governments
Ramiro Escobar*
4/22/2015
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Several years have passed since many Latin American countries, especially South American countries, gradually began voting for center-left presidents at the ballot boxes. More than a decade later, we can adjust the periscope and see if those governments changed not only the political variables, but also the social situation and if they gave more weight to democracy. Apparently, what happened was like painting a chiaroscuro.

It is difficult to determine when the ‘wave’ of progressive governments in Latin America began. While it may be considered that the coming to power of Hugo Chávez in 1999 is a milestone, even before that there were signs that the ‘left’ had not disappeared completely from the scene. Chile’s Socialist Party, for example, was part of the government since 1990. Sure, it operated within the Concert of Parties for Democracy, a front group (which included the Christian Democrats and a few more parties) which did not promote changes that would make many political scientists or financial experts blink.

Left-wing leaders
But in the decade from 2000 to 2010, there was a sort of unusual twist in this region. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the Workers’ Party (PT), came to power in Brazil in 2003; in 2005, the Broad Front (FA), also came to power in Uruguay with Tabaré Vázquez as president; in 2006, it was the turn of Evo Morales Ayma and the Movement Towards Socialism in Bolivia (MAS); the following year, in Ecuador, Rafael Correa also managed to become president.

In 2008, former bishop Fernando Lugo became president of Paraguay after winning the elections of that year with the Patriotic Coalition for Change. Overall, it seems to be the peak moment for the left in the continent.

Three of these leaders —Chávez, Correa and Morales— are committed to amending the Constitution and getting reelected (although he is not from the left, Alvaro Uribe did the same in Colombia), a position that caused controversy in their own countries and in much of Latin America. Chávez, the one who took the most authoritarian route, had four presidential terms (1999-2001, 2001-2007, 2007-2013, and a few months in 2013), and he would have continued if he had not died on March 5, 2013.

This year (2004), Morales Ayma comfortably won the elections of Oct. 12, with 60 percent of the vote, thus assuming his third term. He did not receive over 70 percent of the vote, as he hoped, but it is certain that he has no political rival in Bolivia, a country helped to grow by an average economic growth of over 5 percent, unprecedented in Bolivia’s turbulent history.

It was not long before Morales was congratulated by Correa, the loquacious Ecuadorian president, who had a similar performance on Feb. 17 of last year (2013): he won 57 percent of the vote in his third presidential election (like Morales), without a strong rival who could scare the ‘Citizen Revolution’. But something else links these two leaders who seem to be playing alone in the field.

Neither have serious economic problems. Morales has made Bolivia, currently, the fastest growing country in South America — faster than Chile and Peru, the presumed stars of the region — and the second in Latin America. He seems to have found the way to square the circle to make a revolutionary change be a financial success.

The turns of the economy
Forecasts from the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) state that Ecuador will grow by 5 percent in 2014. Along with Bolivia (5.5 percent), Ecuador is the fastest growing country in South America. This is something that perhaps neither leader nor their critics could foresee.

This situation proposes a perspective that is not often observed in the public debate. There may be a relationship between having a government from the left and achieving economic stability, or even achieving an economic boom.

Bolivia and Ecuador have made their economies revolve around the high price of oil. This model, as many economists have pointed out, may have limitations, but it has generated, at least for now, an economic stability that keeps much of the population satisfied, and that is what gets these presidents reelected.

This is not so in Venezuela, which is going through a crisis that even some Chávez followers recognize. Venezuela’s economy in 2014 is expected to shrink by 0.5 percent, and shortages are becoming more frequent despite the country’s vast oil reserves and the high international price of oil. The inclination towards autocracy that has facilitated out of control expropriations in several areas (food, for example) proves to have had an influence on this situation.

Morales has not gone that far. He has raised taxes on oil, in some cases up to about 80 percent, but he works with the private or state sectors in other countries (Petrobras from Brazil, to name one case), especially for oil. Foreign direct investment increased by 30 percent in 2013, which made credit rating agencies such as Standard and Poor’s give Bolivia their blessing.

The picture would not be complete without the numbers for poverty reduction. On this topic, the trends of the ‘progressive arc’ countries resemble each other. Bolivia, according to the United Nations Development Programme, had the best rating: it reduced poverty by 32.2 percent in 2000-2010 period, and then follow Venezuela (22.7 percent), Ecuador (21.9 percent) and Brazil (18.6 percent).

In Brazil, the economy no longer dances to the same rhythm of a few years ago, when it was able to grow at over 7.5 percent per year, and it even borders a macroeconomic recession. But now, the recent election brought the possibility of reviving growth. Dilma Rousseff, the re-elected president of the Workers’ Party, emphasized this possibility after defeating the social democrat Aecio Neves on Oct. 26 in an election in which the desire to preserve social programs won the bid against opening up more to global markets.

Disagreement with indigenous people
Have these governments been not only interpreters of the popular sentiments but also of the dynamics of social movements? Partly yes, as in the case of Morales, who today remains the president of the Federation of Farmers of the Tropics of Cochabamba (his last reelection was in July 2012), a group that represents coca growers in the area.

But there is a thorny territory for these new types of governments: the indigenous world. Almost none of the ‘progressive’ presidents has ceased to have conflicts with various indigenous groups, if not with all. Even Morales, who is an indigenous leader — although in reality, he is a coca union leader — has not been able to avoid this conflict.

In Argentina, where the indigenous population is small (between 1.5 and 2 percent of the population), clashes over land were not lacking. This situation reached a tense moment on May 22, 2013 following the death of a member of the Qom ethnic group in the Province of Chaco. Apparently, Cristina Fernández has a human rights agenda, but it is more urban, with few links to the indigenous.

In Argentina, as well as in Chile, a gap is perceived between the leader’s actions and what is actually happening amongst the native peoples. In fact, one of the roughest patches that Michelle Bachelet had in her first term as president of the Concert of Parties for Democracy in Chile (2006-2010) was her troubled relationship with the Mapuche (meaning “people of the land” in Mapudungun, the language of this ethnic group).

The case of Matías Catrileo, a Mapuche student leader who died on Jan. 3, 2008 during a skirmish with the police, became tragically emblematic. It happened during the first term of the current president, and it stirred up a conflict during which the Chilean government implemented the ‘Terrorism Act’ to contain protests by the Mapuche, who demand the return of their ancestral lands.

This was so evident that, on March 14, 2014, three days after assuming leadership of the government for the second time, Bachelet apologized to the Mapuche “over the plunder of their land.” She did so in front of Francisco Huenchumilla, Mayor of the region of La Araucanía, where over 500,000 citizens of this ethnic group live. She also announced measures that would benefit the Mapuche.

Among these measures is the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs. However, there is no full consensus among the Chilean indigenous population regarding the political shift of Bachelet, who is considered a ‘socialist’. It is apparent that both in the Argentine and Chilean cases, the indigenous issue was not a vital part of the agenda of ‘change’, which was more focused on the majority urban population.

The low demographic representation of the indigenous has not been the only source of conflicts. In Ecuador, where President Correa in his first campaign (2006) could count on the support of a large part of indigenous population (although the Pachacutik movement had its own presidential candidate, Luis Macas), it did not take long for a tense distancing to occur.

Upon taking office, Correa appointed Monica Chuji, a woman from the Kichwa community, as Secretary of Communications. But a few months later, problems erupted in the province of Orellana, where indigenous demonstrators had several clashes with the police. Initially, they demanded the paving of roads, a promise made by the oil and gas companies operating in the area, but later the protests were aimed against the presence of transnational companies and the government’s energy policy.

Correa went as far as to accuse the indigenous of sabotage and terrorism because their actions led to violence. The persecutions began and became clear, as in the case of other countries, the chasm that was forming between the state administration and the indigenous, regardless of the government’s ideology.

The president also made some all-too-common mistakes. On March 10, 2012, during one of his radio speeches, Correa declared: “we will not let that childish left, with its feathers, its ponchos, destabilize the process of change.” This was his response to a March in Defense of Water, which traveled the country and called into question the government’s mining policy.

Led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, the mobilization questioned the emergence of large-scale mining projects in the Amazon region. The country’s energy policies are proof that the power of the extractivist industries does not only reach the governments of the right, and that it almost always ends up affecting indigenous territories.

Also in Bolivia, the defense of lands put some indigenous peoples at conflict with the Morales government. Despite being a president with indigenous roots and having the majority support of the various ethnic groups and the general population — on October 12, he won the presidential election with this massive support — in 2011 a sharp divide was formed because of the incursions on a protected area.

This protected area is the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), 12,000 square kilometers in size, which would be bisected by a road running from Villa Tunari, in Cochabamba, to San Ignacio de Moxos, in the department of Beni. Even when part of the population was in agreement with the road, protests erupted.

By mid-2012, a series of peasant and indigenous demonstrations in defense of TIPNIS marked what would be the greatest disagreement between Morales and part of the indigenous community. The demonstrations were so powerful that the project was halted. And the lesson became clear again: there is no automatic link between a progressive government and the indigenous population.

Why does this clash come about? The extractivist model, implemented in the regions for some years now, has not necessarily changed with the arrival of the governments of the left or center-left. As Pablo Canelo, a member of the Alejandro Lipschutz Institute of Sciences, says “they are replicating the extractive model and facilitating natural resources of the region to transnationals.”

This model, implemented along with the neoliberal economic policies (with an emphasis on economic liberalism even if it has political and social costs), depends on strip mining and more exploitation of petroleum, without necessarily taking into account the rights of local populations. It is certainly not a democratic framework.

For these new governments, the framework seems to include the need for more redistributive social programs, and the way to fund these programs is to get the state itself or have agreements with national or transnational companies to extract these important natural resources. The problem with this route is that it creates a situation that can have serious social consequences.

*Peruvian journalist and international issues analyst. Latinamerica Press collaborator since 2005. Columnist on international issues for the Peruvian newspaper La Republica and collaborator for the Spain’ newspaper El Pais. Professor of Journalism at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas and Universidad Antonio Ruiz de Montoya.


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Defense of TIPNIS in 2012 represented the biggest disagreement between the progressive government of Bolivia and the indigenous peoples. / Servindi.org
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