A decade ago, the so-called “Pink Tide” of leftist governments in Latin America seemed to be heading towards a tragic end. However, events in the past few years have raised questions about whether a new Pink Tide has emerged. The defeat of the coup government in Bolivia, the election of Xiomara Castro in Honduras, the rise of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, the historic election of Gustavo Petro in Colombia, and now the return of Lula in Brazil suggests a new age may be dawning in the region. Yet for all the successes, there have also been setbacks—the coup against Pedro Castillo in Peru last fall, and the failure of the Gabriel Boric government to pass a new constitution stand out as the sharpest examples. In the first of a four-part series of special collaboration episodes between NACLA and The Marc Steiner Show, we turn to a panel of regional experts to discuss the context and prospects of the ‘New Pink Tide’ to steer the region towards a more prosperous and just future. This episode is co-hosted with Dr. Hilary Goodfriend.
Hilary Goodfriend is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Latino and Latin American Studies Research Center at the University of California, Riverside. She is a contributing editor for Jacobin and Jacobin América Latina. She is also on the editorial board of NACLA.
Thea Riofrancos is an Andrew Carnegie Fellow, Associate Professor of Political Science at Providence College, and a member of the Climate + Community Project. She is the author of Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador from Duke University Press.
Sabrina Fernández is a postdoctoral fellow at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a member of the Foundation’s International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies, and a Visiting Researcher at the Free University of Berlin.
René Rojas, a professor at Binghamton University’s College of Community and Public Affairs and a member of the editorial board of the left journal Catalyst.
Studio Production: Dwayne Gladden
Post-Production: Stephen Frank
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Hello, and welcome everybody to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. It’s good to have you all with us.
And we’re initiating here a special series in collaboration with the North American Congress on Latin America, popularly known as NACLA. And I’ll be your host, Marc Steiner, with co-host from NACLA.
Now, since 1966, NACLA has been at the forefront of covering and critiquing US imperialism and the political economic military intervention in the Western hemisphere. They carry this out in solidarity with the nations in the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean, in their fight against oppression, injustice, economic and political subordination.
So today, we are really truly excited to bring you this first part of our four-part series of conversations with NACLA. Today, we’re going to talk about the resurgence of the Latin American left in elected office and the intense struggle with a powerfully, deeply-rooted right-wing power that exists.
But through this series of cross-border discussions, we’ll take stock of struggles for democracy, dignity, and livable planet is taking shape in the face of rising fascism, ecocide, and reactionary social control. We’ll also examine the international dimensions of those struggles, including American influence and intervention. And each episode will be co-hosted by one of our collaborators from NACLA. So I’m delighted to introduce my co-host today, Dr. Hilary Goodfriend.
Hilary is a member of the NACLA editorial board, contributing editor to Jacobin and Jacobin America Latina. And she’s currently a postdoctoral fellow in Latino and Latin American Studies Research Center at the University of California Riverside. And welcome, Hilary, it’s a pleasure to have you with us.
Thanks, Marc. It’s a pleasure to be here.
And before we start, let me just tell you one thing. It’s also a pleasure to have Hilary here who did the lion share of the work, getting all this put together and is done a brilliant job. So I’m just peddling behind. Go ahead, Hilary.
To the contrary Marc, it is my pleasure. In the early 21st century, a series of left-wing governments were elected across Latin America with promises to undo a generation of disastrous neoliberal economic policies and build up national and regional sovereignty against US domination.
With the commodities balloon fueling social investments, governments in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina, lifted millions out of poverty while forging alternative forms of regional integration to counter Washington’s outside influence.
Left parties also took power in El Salvador and Nicaragua and Honduran President Mel Zelaya divide expectations, steering his liberal government left once an office. As the impacts of the global economic crisis spread to Latin America however, a right-wing backlash drove many of these administrations from office, sometimes at the ballot box, sometimes through parliamentary coups and so-called lawfare, and sometimes at the barrel of a gun.
But reports of the death of the so-called pink tide proved premature and a new generation of left governments are now taking power across the region, including in countries left out of the earlier left turn.
In the midst of this, we’re in a moment where our planet is boiling, right-wing fascism is rising, the power of international capital is intensifying and corporate plunder continues to seek out to support left Latin American countries, the governments, their territories, their people.
So in our series we’ll be discussing the political movements, not only struggling against that, but proposing alternative ways to the current conversions of these multiple crises. We’ll look at the histories animating those struggles and what it will take for them to win. How are grassroots movements engaging new left states and mobilizing to hold them accountable? What are the stakes for the left successes and failures in this time? And what does success even look like? What practical lessons can the left, United States and around the world learn from what’s happening in Latin America?
So in this episode, we bring together an amazing panel of Latin American scholar activists to unpack what’s really going on. Talk about what the state of leftist is in Latin America. What does a recent Brazilian election tell us about the depth of the struggle between the left and the right for the future?
We’ll look at who and what comprised the left in Latin America today. What is it about this moment in Latin America’s history that it defines this new left as well as the nature of the right-wing opposition in an international context?
So let’s welcome our guests. We’re joined today by Thea Riofrancos. Thea is an Andrew Carnegie fellow, associate professor of political science at Providence College and a member of the Climate Plus Community Project. She is the author of Resource Radicals from Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador from Duke University Press. Welcome, Thea.
We’re also joined by Sabrina Fernandes. Sabrina is a post-doctoral fellow at the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation. She’s a member of the Foundation’s International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies and a visiting researcher at the Free University of Berlin. Hi Sabrina.
And finally we welcome, Rene Rojas. Rene is a professor at Binghamton University’s College of Community and Public Affairs and a member of the editorial board of the left journal, Catalyst.
Here we are recording on this close victory just happened in Brazil with Lula. So it makes, I think, sense for us to turn to Sabrina first here, but please all kind of jump in.
Now, I want to kind of think about how this election, what it meant. It was so closely watched internationally, it was a close margin in Brazil and it seems many ways be really emblematic of the divide throughout Latin America, throughout the world.
So let’s begin to talk about what’s going on here and what does it mean for, what people call this pink tide and for the left and the reality of where the most Latin American governments are and now with this resilient victory. So Sabrina, why don’t you just, I mean you were in the middle of it, you saw it, you’re there, you were there. So take it away.
Yes, Marc. Yeah, it was very, very intense. It was very close. So a difference of just over two and 3 million votes and what we’re talking here is that we knew from the beginning of the second round that Lula needed to get at least the 2 million votes. So getting the 2 million just a little bit more is good news, but it also means that the country’s still very much divided.
The fact that Lula came in right after the results and he gave a speech saying that, “Well, I’m the president of 215 million Brazilians.” That’s very different from what Bolsonaro said when he got elected in 2018 saying that the minorities will have to bow down to the majority. So Lula already set the tone for a very different type of presidency, talking about dialogue, talking about negotiating and reunifying the country.
This is really important in terms of how the polarization around Bolsonaro he is buoying Brazil has led to a lot of political violence and we know that the far-right is getting more and more extreme in their actions. So ever since the results, there are clusters of Bolsonaristas in the streets and they’ve been blocking roads. There was looting involved, murders because one of the things that Bolsonaro did in the past years was actually very much help people get their hands on guns and then lost control of it. And we know that they’re not going to stop now.
They’ve been looking basically for conspiracies to try to explain that it was fraud or we had this video actually showing that some of this Bolsonaristas were just camping on the street, claiming it was fraud and asking for military intervention. Somebody just told them that the minister for the elector Supreme Court had been arrested, which is a lie, and they just start celebrating all together and it is sort of like a trance. The way that they’re behaving it reminds us very much of this sectarian looking scenario.
So we are dealing with this, but at the same time would know that Lula made it in because there was popular support, there were social movements involved, but he also made it in because he was able to negotiate with the traditional rights from the beginning. So now we are going to run into a period of big contradictions.
We have a kind of economic politics are going to come out from the government because while we have banks and financial institutions backing Lula up as well. And at the same time, what do we do now in terms of fighting not just Bolsonaro, we need to fight Bolsonarismo. We might even have to call it something else in terms of the new right, the outright, because some of them are even willing to throw Bolsonaro under the bus just to ensure that they can keep their project and their ideology going.
Yeah. You going to say something Hilary? You going to jump in?
Well, I think this leads us a little bit into some of our next question and I’d like, feel free everybody to jump in on this, but in that sense, I’m curious about these continuities and ruptures from the previous cycle of left governments, the pink tide in the region.
What we’re seeing is that, like the previous cycle of electoral victories, a lot of the governments elected in the last five years, Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras, Chile, Colombia, they were all buoyed to different degrees by cycles of mass protest movements or popular uprisings against authoritarian neoliberal regimes. And some of them in the case of Brazil represent restorations of prior left expressions, and some of them are really unprecedented in the case of Colombia or Mexico.
So I’m interested in what you all think about what distinguishes this new phase of the left and does it make sense to talk about a new pink tide? So Sabrina, I don’t know if you want to think about this a little bit in the context of Brazil and then everyone else can jump in or.
Well there’s been a lot of conversations around this new pink tide, tied to Lula’s election because we also know that Lula plays a major role in terms of leadership in the region. Lula is actually able to unify forces that are associated with the new pink tide with this progressive wave. They usually don’t come together. So one of the expectations that we have is, can Lula for example get Boric and Maduro in the same room? Can this happen?
Now, that is a question that would help us determine whether there is some sort of unifying project for the region in terms of not just Latin American integration, but thinking in terms of what are the progressive policies that we’re building together and how are we fighting together against the rise of the right in our continent as well, because there are many similarities in the way that the Bolsonaristas behave in Brazil with the far-right in Argentina, the far-right in Chile. And we can see that they actually share techniques, they know each other, they do events together. So having these unified front with the leadership will be important.
I get the sense that there are some tensions, especially when I think in terms of Chile and Venezuela for example, that were not as big last time if we were thinking in terms of Chavez, Bachelet like the previous area.
So I kind of want to compliment Sabrina’s really interesting comments on this sort of geopolitical or kind of regional coordination front and how these different governments might or might not align and the role of particular presidents perhaps in playing kind of a role of encouraging collaboration amongst them, with maybe a sort of domestic political economy set of ruptures with the prior pink tide.
So two things that come to mind and I’m very interested, I’ve read a lot of Rene’s work on this topic, so I’m super interested in what he has to add to this, but I see two points of contrast with the prior pink tide. One, more properly political we might say, and one more properly economic.
So on the political front for all of the contradictions and tensions, and maybe we’ll get into that of pink tide one, let’s say in terms of domestic politics, I think it’s clear that the level of what we might call political hegemony internally was much higher.
So if we just compare for example, what happened in Chile’s recent constitutional referendum with the constitutional referenda of Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela in the first round, it’s actually you flip what the left did in Chile was what the right did and we can actually just flip. So it was 60, 70% approval ratings for those constitutions in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela in the first pink tide and that was what the Rechazo got in Chile this time.
So we obviously have faltering political hegemony and it’s not just the constitutional vote, it’s also in terms of we don’t have unified government in any of these cases. We have divided government, we have congress full of the right-wing or centrist opposition, so there’s limits to the political agenda and the legislative agenda. And then as Sabrina already said, we have this very embolden and even more savvy right-wing compared to the kind of fragmented and in its period of decline right-wing of the first pink tide.
So I think that we’re going to see limitations in the left being able to advance its agenda through legislatures, but also limitations in terms of where the popular support and pushing forward might come, because we also have low approval ratings in all of these cases, which is a big contrast to the first pink tide, where those governments were year after year, the most popular governments in those countries histories.
And now we have very steep declines of 50 to 20% of 50 to 40% if we’re looking at Chile at Colombia already. And I’m very curious how Lula does a different figure, but he may too, face the headwinds of inflation and fake news and all the things that are undermining popular support for left-wing government. So we have much less political hegemony or political control or unity. That’s one.
The second and I’ll be briefer here and I know Rene has worked on this topic too, is the kind of commodity boom or the global economic conjunction. And there’s so much to say here, but I’ll be very brief, we’re not in the same kind of commodity supercycle that benefits on the economic front, putting aside climate, putting aside environment and putting aside indigenous sovereignty, there was clear economic benefit that translated into political support due to the supercycle driven largely by Chinese industrialization but also by other demand and other emerging economies.
We have some commodities booming now, others not, but it’s much more chaotic. It’s much more geopolitically driven and it’s much more subject to this kind of supply side and demand side shocks that are unpredictable. So we don’t have a clear sense that these governments will have stable revenues and that’s extremely important for whether they will survive politically. So I’ll just kind of pause there.
No, that was important.
Yeah. If I could add to that, I echo what Sabrina started off with and all of Thea’s comments just now. I kind of work backward. The region is confronting now strong headwinds economically speaking and it’s very challenging moment. No government in power, right, left center will enjoy the kind of commodity bonanza that occurred in the first decade of the new century.
What’s interesting is that for me that cause for radical new development models, but those radical new development models themselves require the political force and the social force to push them through. And I think as Thea was describing, the left is much weaker in this current conjuncture in many ways than it was 20, 15 years ago. And so the social power required to push through these new development models I fear, won’t materialize as strongly as is required.
Another comment I’ll add, just going back to the broader regional scope from a political lens. I actually was never convinced that beginning around 2015, the region moved into a kind of period of right-wing restoration or neo-authoritarianism. I thought rather and it had everything to do with the decline of the commodity cycle and the commodity boom. The region was entering a period of turmoil and uncertainty that could go in many different directions, and in fact it has gone I think in many directions and that’s what we’re seeing.
And I think now, this new cycle of new pink tied governments are actually more of the same. More of the same instability, more of the same uncertainty. And overall I would say the upshot of this is that many cases will move into rebalancing of a equilibrium of what was established in the first 15 years of the new century. And I think that’s happening in Brazil, certainly happened in Argentina and other countries.
And then you have some other cases like Chile, like Colombia, like Mexico, even though Mexico’s quite different where popular movements and mass organizations are trying to move things in a new progressive direction, but meeting all kinds of challenges.
What you all raised here, raises a lot of questions about, for me how we define the left in throughout Latin America and what does that mean? I mean if on a couple levels, one that you all mentioned the external factors that could affect the economies of countries and also that means the consciousness of people in those countries.
What could happen because of that? Whether it’s right or left in charge, whoever’s in charge, but especially now with the left-wing government in charge. And it also seems to me that it really kind of begs the question of, how these left governments are really organized.
One of the things that I think Hilary and I talked about before we went on and did this program together, was the kind of divide that takes place between left governments and movements on the ground inside these countries and how that plays into this. So it seems to me this moment is a really lot more complex than just these victories taking place.
I mean, it is wonderful the Lula one, I mean that’s a huge chunk, but it seems to me that we’re in a very complex moment here. And am I reading that wrong? The four of you, including my co-host here, Hilary are kind of the people who know this land the best. Everything I’ve read from your articles and what you’re saying now, says that we’re in a very undefined moment that is still full of danger.
Let’s take Brazil, Colombia and Chile as three very different examples of the makeup of the government here. So Brazil comes in with this extremely broad coalition. The VP for Lula comes from the traditional right. You have to really expand the alliances and once we get into the second round, they grow even more, so the right is ever more present.
So these contradictions are already there and the leadership question that Dilma Rousseff raised a couple of years ago are reflecting on the process of the coup against our government in Brazil, which is the fact that workers’ party needs to learn to differentiate the role of the party and the role of the government, because the government is part of this really broad coalition and the government is filled with the institutional contradictions of it, but the party needs to keep mobilizing.
So this is a lesson that she says has to be learned by the Brazilian left in general because a lot of the mobilizations against the coup back in 2015, in 2016, they didn’t go as far precisely because people couldn’t dissociate the two things. The PT got way too institutional.
Then we get into the point of Colombia where the Pacto Historico, the coalition behind the Petro-Francia government had to actually, well it’s in the name, create the pacts from the beginning. If we compare it to Brazil, there was a lot more negotiation with union leaders, with movement leaders than we had in the case of Brazil when it was just no party leadership talking to each other.
So there’s more of a popular element coming with Pacto Historico so much that Francia being the VP is part of the win because she was not positive to be the VP, but she does so well with the primaries that she basically imposes her name on this.
When you look into the situation in Chile coming from the Estallido Social from 2019. Nowadays, you kind of see a rupture even October 18th, now when the anniversary of one of the big dates from the Estallido, there were people in the streets, students, but still very much in the sense of anti-politics. The Boric’s government doesn’t represent us. So the people in the streets don’t identify themselves with the government that God elect us sort of as a result of the mobilization by claiming well, now they’re too institutional.
So there are a lot of divides there, the fact that you have this government that really had to bank on pushing the constitution forward wasn’t able to do so and then the alliances is not just about Frente Amplio in the case of Chile. What is the role for example of the ex-Concertacion in sustaining elements of the Boric government.
So what we understand here is that these makeups of what is the left, in general, they’re actually very, very different from place to place. But we tend to extract certain policies that around extractisvism, developmentalism, social policies for fighting hunger, for lifting people out of poverty and say that, “Oh look, these governments, they have sort of a common agenda, but their historical makeup is quite different.”
When we’re talking about the party that is represented by Boric’s Comprehensive Social is a very new party, younger people who are newcomers to institutional politics. Whereas in the PT you have this old guard that tends to be kind of suspicious of new voices unless they can be completely assimilated into the party structure.
So we are dealing here with these different histories for the parties, for the movements, and that’s going to help us understand what’s coming later on in terms of how they behave with each other as well, not just domestically.
I think this question of who comprises these coalitions and what are their social bases is really critical. And I think there’s also this question of what lessons could be learned from the past experience in power, in terms of navigating both from the part of movements but also from the part of political parties and folks in office navigating these relationships. And I think a big question is are those lessons, will those lessons be learned?
Yeah. I think the focusing on the social bases, the constituency supporting these new left governments is critical in particular and I think both Thea and Sabrina have already raised it, thinking about the state of mass movements, of mass mobilization. And I think there are two dimensions there.
One, as was mentioned earlier, is how mass mobilization, mass movements are relating to left governments in power. But the other thing is to just look at the nature of mass movements themselves and what kind of social force they can bring to the table. And I think that’s critical for understanding the prospects for this new generation of the foreign governments.
In the Brazilian case, I’m far more pessimistic. My view is that the early pit dig governments and realismo was actually all about consolidating a political system coming out in a delayed form out of the dictatorship, but stabilizing a party system that was based on elite brokerage and bargaining and the demobilization of the historic movements labor in particular, but others as well that backed the PT on its rise since the late ’70s and ’80s.
And I think that led to many of the problems under Dilma, which were exacerbated after her impeachment and four years under Bolsonaro. And now we’re in a situation in which, and I think largely due to the PTs strategy for governance, the PT lacks the mass movements, strong mass movements and therefore will be forced to govern the way it did in the past, which was again reaching these fairly obscure and unsavory packs with the central, these right-wing kingmaker parties, but also with economic and business elites. In that sense, I think what I expect from Lula’s return to power is a movement further to the right than we had even under the first PT terms and that’s concerning. I don’t see a way out of that.
The Chilean case, and I’ll stop after my remarks on Chile, have turned out to be disappointing, but I thought there were elements in this equation that were more promising to begin with. Boric comes to power not only three years after the great uprising, that rebelling Estallido, but really after a 10-year period in upsurge in mass mobilization that included more sectoral if you will, movements around students and their demands, women and feminism and its demands, the elderly pensioners and its demands, but also a 10-year cycle of labor insurgency that gave, I thought would give Boric much more leverage to push through the reforms.
But I think one of the things that occurred is that the new government, the new left, both in the constituent assembly but also in power, made a lot of mistakes and did not really calibrate its relationship with these new movements in a way to best leverage their social bases and their social power. And that led to the disastrous outcome of the second plebiscite and the mass rejection.
I think, the emphasis was on more particularistic issues, more identity-based issues, all of which the left needs to get behind. But it forgot to really focus on the main demands of the mass mobilizations as 10-year cycle, but also of the rebellion itself, which were a basic set of universalist reforms around education, wages and labor protections, healthcare and pensions. So that coalition and its strength started to break down and ultimately it was a lost opportunity.
The difference in the second round between Boric and Kast was 55, 45 sort of. So it is much better than what we had with Lula and Bolsonaro. Yet it showed Kast was someone that was very associated as being far-right and one of the issues that we’ve been raising with friends in Chile around building the left there, is that many times when you’re naming the enemy in Chile you say, “Oh, it’s neoliberalism.” But it’s about time you call it fascism because those elements were present in Kast campaigning and they’re becoming stronger and stronger, especially now that the Rechazo got such a big mandate. So naming the enemy as something that’s actually very, very dangerous, not the enemy that we’ve had for all this time.
Returning to this question of the development model, I’m wondering if maybe we can talk a little bit about this question of extractivism and this question of extractive industry for export as the engine driving growth, generating government revenue, which was very contentious under the first pink tide and it remains this critical side of debate over questions about not just dependency and development but ecology and democracy more broadly.
So maybe Thea, you could start us off by explaining what we mean when we talk about extractivism and sort of what the critique is, that is being put forward by movements and whether or not we are seeing any kind of break with this model of accumulation or development in the region.
Yeah. It’s a great and big question that the other panelists also have a lot to say about. I mean, I’ll start by saying, no, we’re not seeing a break. Latin American economies remain as externally dependent and as dependent on particular commodity exports as in prior moments. What’s different as we discussed earlier is that the global market conjuncture for those exports is less good.
So when extractivismo or extractivism I see as a sort of critical concept developed by the Latin American left, by different segments of the Latin American left and I trace its origins to dependency theory to thinking in the ’60s and ’70s to revolutionary third world Marxism, that was really thinking about, what is the world system? What is the role for whether it’s more recently decolonized Africans, South Asian or earlier decolonized in Latin America, you emerge out of formal colonial control, yet your economic situation really remains the same.
Whatever industries were developed in the colonial period, mining, large scale agriculture, those sorts of things that are very export oriented, oriented towards the industrial needs of the metro pole, whoever is occupying that position at the moment. So we have a very externally, oriented economy that doesn’t lend itself to national development. You have kind of enclave situations where there’s a disarticulation between the extractive sector and again the rest of the national economy.
This gets much worse actually. Much worse than the ’60s and ’70s kind of leftist we’re thinking at the moment because when we have neoliberalism and full market integration, not only are you externally dependent and that’s a hundreds year long history, but you are now in very volatile and integrated and increasingly financialized commodity market and you have basically no control over prices. There’s never been a repeat of OPEC in another sector, so there isn’t coordination among producers.
And so you’re competing with your neighbors, there’s a race to the bottom, there’s a divide and conquer strategy and you are just continually reliant on something that has dramatic price fluctuations. And if you’re lucky enough to be president when the prices are good, again you can fund social programs, but if you’re not, there are very limited avenues other than really a deep transformation that would require a tremendous amount of political will and actually class confrontation, that’s what it would require. And confrontation at a regional and global scale as well. Each country is not really an island here, there’s a regional and global system kind of at stake.
So extractivism again, kind of names this situation and critiques it. And more recently kind of building on the dependency theory roots, we have much more interest in what are the environmental harms here, integrating concepts like unequal ecological exchange, thinking about how resources are sucked out and environmental harm and also resource drain are left behind. So you get kind of the losing end of not just an economic exchange but an ecological exchange. And then of course with the rise of more politically mobilized indigenous peoples around the America starting in the ’90s you have also a forceful indigenous and kind of anti-colonial as well in the moment kind of critique of these sectors.
So that’s kind of extractivism and as I said, I don’t see that changing and I’m going to say something brief and then turn it over to my panelists. What I do see changing, so I don’t see the economics of that changing in the currently. None of these left governments has yet escaped that condition. And we might say some have not tried to, but even the ones that are trying to have not yet reached that outcome. So I think economically we see a lot of continuity.
Politically though, there are some shifts and I do think that the current crop of left leaders with some important exceptions, so I would not apply this to AMLO or to Fernandez in Argentina. So putting aside Mexico and Argentina, I do think that actually in Bolivia too at which we don’t maybe talk about enough, Arce has changed his rhetoric at least around some of these issues. In Chile for sure. Lula to some extent though I’ll defer to Sabrina there in Honduras, which we haven’t talked about yet.
Absolutely, there has been a big integration of environment climate and also indigenous rights kind of, and Colombia, I’m sorry, that was the one, the top one I was going to mention. So the Petro-Francia campaign really centered these issues, a lot of wanting to depart from extractivism and also thinking in an environmentalist and indigenous framework of doing so.
Anyway, so you have a political shift. Absolutely, and I think that speaks to our prior conversation around who the protestors have been, who the social bases are. You have some reflection of these grassroots environmentalists and indigenous kind of demands in the kind of halls of power but I think that is actually pointing to its own tension, which is the tension between some new ideas, policy programs and political kind of rhetoric around this.
On the other hand, the remaining two economic and political blockages to that transformation that we talked about, which is the continued dependency on this for revenues to fund the social programs that these governments also have promised to do. And then the political blockage, which is not, they don’t even have majorities in the Congress, so it’s kind of hard to imagine how politically you would push something through except through an antagonistic, confrontational mass mobilization, but we’ve seen limitations there in terms of their willingness to go that route.
So I don’t want to sound pessimistic because I think it’s important that the dialogue around this has shifted and that there’s also more pointing to regional coordination around a new development model, but I see there those two structural blockages kind of quite in place.
I’ll jump in here. I’m glad Thea ended by situating this within the political or against the political backdrop. I think all the concerns with extractivism are correct and its harmful consequences and also the logic within it that tends to corner countries and states into certain economic policies.
On the other hand, sometimes I think we might go too far in the direction of a natural determinism or fatalism. You say, once you start depending on natural resources, then you’re stuck. It’s all over. And clearly these things can move in different directions, compare the Saudi dependence on oil to, Danish dependence on totally different social outcomes and results.
And I don’t see any other way to move into a different greener more sustainable and egalitarian developed model if it doesn’t start from point A, which is our current extractivism. In the case of Chile for instance, I don’t see how we can move toward a better development model, more democratic development model, a less elitist one without starting off depending a lot on lithium.
I think it’s going to be key, it’s a strategic mineral asset that Chile has that will provide not just the revenue for social programs, so potentially the capital to invest in new green sustainable industries. So I’m a little more optimistic.
My pessimism comes in again from a political perspective, if we don’t have the social forces that can press in that direction, like say, “Okay, let’s start here with resource dependency, but let’s move into a higher order political economy.” Then we’re doomed. But my comment is just to say I don’t see another way out because it threatens to place the brunt on a transition away from extractivism, the main cost on ordinary pouring working people if you don’t have another alternative in place.
That in my opinion would lead to further strengthening of these new forms of reaction, these new kind of quasi-fascist right-wing movements because it will tell ordinary, poor, marginalized, and working populations that the left doesn’t have an answer.
So what would those alternatives be? What does that mean alternatives? In terms of what will strengthen this, quote, unquote, “pink tide” to stop the exploitation of extractivism, to stop the power of the right to blunt what the United States and in the corporate world’s doing in Latin America. So what does that mean? How would you all define that?
I think it depends on what your main problem with extractivism is. If you primarily see the problem with extractivismo in developmentalist terms, there’s a developmentalist critique of extractivism, right? Which is that it keeps you in the primary export first node of supply chain, always least value added, most volatile pricing, sector of the global economy.
So if your vision of the alternative is a developmentalist one, then what you want to do is upgrading. You want to move up the supply chain, you want to use industrial policy, maybe green industrial policy in order to not just be, let’s say the lithium exporter to stick with Rene’s example, but you want to make higher grade lithium chemicals. You want to get into cathodes and cells, you want to get into EVs, right?
So you want to have an industrialization where a lot of the primary product stays within your borders, gets industrialized locally, and then you either serve the domestic market with that consumer facing good or you export a way higher value added more profitable and less volatile in terms of its pricing kind of export.
So we have the industrial policy alternative. I’ll just name one, a second one for maximum contrast. I think the other one is a more firmly kind of antique extractivist, which also would say the industrial policy still reproduces extractivism, it just kind of nationalizes it or something, or links it to other nodes, but it continues with the problems of environmental degradation of loss of primary forest land too.
So there’s climate effects, there’s effects on indigenous and Campesino communities. We don’t have consultation or consent. So if your critique is more ecological and or indigenous, then you might imagine this kind of buen vivir economy that is not per se green industrial policy that we could talk.
Maybe there’s a way to make those compatible, but it’s maybe more about forms of regenerative agriculture, maybe it’s about ecotourism, maybe it’s about some marrying of scientific research and ancestral knowledge. So there are these kind of not about extraction or industry, but maybe kind of thinking of nature as a form of livelihood and of cohabitation with nature and a very different type of alternative.
The first might lend itself more potentially to Rene’s point, to the mass popular support, fuller employment, boosting revenues. The second which I think is worth considering, it’s sometimes harder to tell how would that support the masses of urban and peri urban masses?
I think this is a really good contrast because we both we’re going to find sort of a romantic world view. Lula has been talking about reindustrializing Brazil sort of being in the terms of the first critique and a lot of people are happy because it means job creation but also means creating certain device.
For example, what is good mining? What is bad mining? So you get rid of the bad mining that’s associated with garimpo in Brazil, that’s illegal, that’s going within the indigenous territory and poisoning rivers with mercury and things like that and working together with organized crime. And then there’s the other proper mining and there’s the other proper agri-business.
Lula has been talking about responsible sustainable agri-business. And I think one of the things that should be quite key for us in this contrast of what Thea brought in, is the issue of property here. Who holds property here? How a Nico is property of land, what are the rights to the territory?
So in the end when we’re talking about alternative in Latin America, we’re always talking about sovereignty of some kind and these different perspectives of sovereignty that permeate the left for some of the left sovereignties about being very anti-imperialist in the sense of opposing the United States or the European Union and more of that traditional campus approach to things.
And sometimes we’ll buy into contradictions coming from China and Russia, but as long as we’re not with the US on this. Or it could be sovereignty in the sense of radical sustainability as a way of thinking about sovereignty in the sense that, yes, we could have economic policies right now, they’re going to bring in this new wave of industrialization and development and great jobs and our GDP is going to grow, but at what cost?
Because at the same time we need to talk about mitigation, adaptation and how much of climate change is actually affecting our possibility to execute the things that we promised in terms of policies with this money that’s coming in from this new wave of both extracting these minerals are key in the green transition and also creating this industrial output.
This is a really important question because it never remains just within borders. So it requires you for you to think of sovereignty within your borders, but also how you integrate with your neighbors because you’re sharing biomes, you share ecosystems. When we’re talking about migration issues related to extreme water events, this is still part of what we’re dealing with right now.
People will be going across these borders in Latin America and the fact that climate change is a global issue. It’s not just regional or just national. So it requires you for you to think that, “Yes, maybe we are going to export our lithium, but we cannot just take for granted that these communities are going to be sacrifice zones.” So how do we change the way that we are going to mind this so we’re not just talking about compensation, financial compensation to these communities because well, can you financially compensate also the rivers and the aquifers? I don’t think so.
So you get into the much, much harder questions that in the end they require that we move past the romantic world view of what’s going to be the ideal situation here. I don’t think we’re ever going to get into an ideal situation, but I think we need to negotiate better, what people are willing to give up and what kind of livelihoods that we can provide to people along the way.
One final thought here with extractivism and its alternatives is I said before, none of these nations are islands. Can we have socialism in one country alone? That’s an age-old question. Can we have post extractivism in one country alone? Is I think our question for a moment or one of them.
I do think that, it is extremely difficult to make this transition domestically without some kind of redistribution or support at the global level. As difficult as that sounds, it’s even more difficult for a country like Colombia to suddenly say, “We’re not exporting oil anymore.” Because the second they say, “We’re not going to explore.” Which is not even the same as saying, I mean they still have the current concessions, but the minute they say, “We’re going to ban new exploration and try to have a post oil economy.” Or the beginnings of it, their currency is suffering, their debt becomes very concerning. What are their revenues going to be?
And so I just want to resurrect this idea from Ecuadorian civil society that was picked up by Rafael Correa when he was in office of the Yasuni Initiative. What would it look like for the global community to compensate or to redistribute in order to transition to non-extractive sectors?
Because I think given the debt loads and the currency volatilities, it’s extremely hard for these governments to do that even if they really want to and even if a plan and an alternative is in place. They just face an immediate capital flight risk and immediate debt repayment risk and an immediate currency risk all at once.
We’ve seen the sort of first iteration of the pink tide cut short by these right-wing expressions that took the form of electoral movements like we saw in El Salvador with Nayib Bukele. We saw parliamentary coups and law fair and outright military coups, that’s the case of Honduras with Mel Zelaya.
So how would we characterize these current right-wing formations? What are their social bases? What fractions of capital do they represent? And to what degree are they reassertions of prior reactionary expressions, technocratic neoliberals or religious fundamentalists or military authoritarians? To what degree do they represent something new?
Rene, go ahead.
Sure. This is a very tough question.
Yes. An important one, but a tough one.
Obviously, there’s enormous variation across the region in terms of the composition and the origins of this new very hard revanchist right that is undoubtedly on the rise. I think, they’re two, very schematically speaking, two ways of approaching it.
One is to say that these kind of elements are there, just waiting for the opportunity to emerge and compete for power. In Brazil, you’ve heard a lot of talk about the beef, Bible and bullets coalition as if there’s a static, social composition that’s always been there just waiting for the moment to pounce.
Brazilians are, there’s a segment that is just racist and they couldn’t countenance the affirmative action programs of Lulismo. There’s this evangelical bloc and there’s just reactionary on social and cultural issues. And then there’s the hard on crime law and order type bloc also that’s just there and just waiting to come together and competing for an exercise power. And the Chilean case, there’d be something similar.
There’s this idea that there’s a fascist vein running deep throughout Chilean society. That’s always been there, that has been kept in check, but now they see an opportunity and they’ve come out in the form of Kast and the movement. But I think there’s another way of thinking of it that I find more compelling, which is that the right realigns in these ways. In many ways responding to the failures of the left and the failures of the left have been significant for ordinary poor working and marginalized people.
My view of the growth of the right has been that, has been people disappointed at hopes for reform that were cut short and that were disappointed. And the left in power, what it did is in many ways exacerbate the disaffection, exacerbate the mistrust and the humiliation that neoliberalism made people experience over since the ’80s in the region.
In that sense, if that’s what’s going on, then what we’re seeing is a convergence of forces toward the right looking for an alternative. They’re the wrong alternatives for sure. They will only make things worse. They will lead to a polarization which will undermine any kind of social and civil fabric for our societies. But I think what’s fueling it is popular mass frustration with attempts at reform.
When that occurs, then I think elites start to flirt with the Bolsonaros with the Kast. Otherwise, my reading is that business elites much prefer the stability, the mild reformism of a center-left Concertacion in Chile of Lula and Dilma in Brazil. But when politically those options start to crumble for the reasons that I described, then they start looking for other political vehicles. And as a last resort, I don’t think that it’s been elites pushing reaction.
I think as a last resort, they experiment with Bolsonarismo with Kast and other similar expressions throughout the region. But from that perspective, I think what’s happening is that neo-fasc, I’m very careful with that word.
Let’s just say these new forms of reaction and revanchism in our countries are not produced by elites. They’re not an elite project. I think it’s the other way around. They drag elites toward them, but they emerge for a number of reasons having to do with the mass constituencies and the mass basis of reform parties and efforts.
The case of Brazil, we have a huge increase in the number of Nazi cells in the country. We’re talking proper Nazi cells. It’s not kids wearing swastikas and things like that. Organized, we’ve had more cases of political violence against random people associated with being anti-Bolsonaro not even being PT or anything.
In the past years, the past two months we had hundreds of cases murders. We are dealing with a situation that’s not just the semiotics anymore. So when Bolsonaro had a secretary that was basically using go was kind of imagery and then okay, “We get the guy out.” But Bolsonaro is very directly using mottos from the past. So talking about family, land and God and liberty. So talking the same terms as in the past.
So I think I disagree slightly with any here in the case of Brazil that I think that we spent the past four years being very careful with the word fascism. And I think that led us nowhere when it just keeps smashing us in the face. Whether we going to add proto-fascism, neo-fascism, 21st centuries fascism or something to the first part of it to qualify it, to deal with these differences because obviously there are economic differences from the way it was in the past century in Europe.
But I think what the main difference that we get here is actually that it’s fascism in Latin America. It’s fascism in places that were affected by colonialism, that were very much impacted by these dependent capitalist approaches to the economic structure that also are affected by imperialism. So in the sense that, yes, our nationalism in Brazil is going to come with the flags of the US and Israel.
So when you have this ultranationalism that promotes all these fascist approaches, it’s going to be some level of subordinated nationalism no matter what, but I think what’s at the core of this is that political violence becomes very normalized and obviously Colombia is a completely different situation because political violence has been ingrained in the history before the left finally comes to power now.
But for Brazil, we’re seeing a new wave of political violence and absolutely no empathy around it and the police joining. So the fact that we had the reactionary forces and obviously the police in Brazil has been reactionary for a really long time, but absolutely unafraid of acting on trying, voters suppression on Sunday in Brazil and then later on helping with the blockades.
We are quite aware that something that there was present before, is still opening up new ground. And I think this is why a lot of the movements in Brazil kind of started making the point in the past few years. You use the word fascism, especially because when you use the word fascism, you can also talk about anti-fascist action because whether it is properly fascist or not, we still have to have anti-fascist action all the time.
Yeah. I would agree. Totally. I wasn’t at all trying to downplay the threat that is there. It’s out. And I agree it needs to be confronted whether we call the problem fascism or the solution, anti-fascism. I think secondary, I totally agree that there are these very noxious, dangerous political forces that have been unleashed in our countries and we have to confront them.
My fear is that if the left emphasizes the anti-fascism aspect of it, rather than changes to its own program, its own political strategies, in power, because we are, we have fought for and Chile, the left was in the political desert for decades. Now, it’s in positions of power.
And I would prefer to see alongside a checking of this new right, I would prefer to see the left to use its power, both political power in the state and also the social power of its backing to transform its own program and its own strategies of governance. And I think that’s the best way to check the growth of neo-fascism, neo-authoritarianism, whatever it is that, whatever label we choose to pin on it.
Yes, I agree with that.
I think it’s really critical to situate, as you did Rene in an earlier comment to situate this current moment in a context of crisis of profound and multiple converging crises to which the left has offered a certain response, and these new far-right and research and far-right formations are offering alternative and much more sinister responses. And there’s contest in which the exit from this, the current crisis is well to be redundant, deeply contested right now.
We’ve talked about how the current economic context is a lot less favorable in many ways than it was for the first iteration of the pink tide, but at the same time there’s a way in which this increasing multipolarity and potentially relative weakening of US hegemony opens up certain space for the kinds of sovereignties that we’ve been talking about and regional initiatives.
So I’m wondering what possibilities do you see in this new moment, but also what are the threats in terms of the kinds of interventions and limits that we’ve seen US power and the power of international capital more broadly to put on these popular projects?
Well, I think we need to go back to this point around extractivism, right? So if there’s actually a proper push to blockade access to certain minerals or to certain commodities, they create more priorities, more domestic priorities, that’s definitely going to lead into conflict, that could come both in terms of challenges around trade agreements, challenges, the WTO, things like that or even working directly with elites in each country to top our government or not.
When we are looking in the case of Colombia and Petro with talking about fossil fuel phase out and having to deal with some of the contracts around oil exploitation that were put together in the past years by Duque that we already found a lot of irregularities connected to those contracts. This actually creates a vulnerability. So the more radical the project is in terms of dealing with these economic interests in the region, the more vulnerable these projects is going to get.
It was the same thing when Xiomara Castro in Honduras started talking about reviewing the mining contracts. That was the first big alert for the international community and say, “Well no, she can’t do that. She’s going to be violating this and this and that.” And obviously that comes with the approach from the center, from the liberals together with the far-right of just naming these people as dangerous, as communists, they’re taking over the region and how is afraid of the coast of Venezuela and the way that they put it. Are you going to nationalize things? This is very dangerous.
And one of the things that we saw the week before Lula got elected, and now in the past days after the actual election, a lot of the editorials in Brazil have been talking about, “Don’t put the state on everything. Don’t go spending everything.” I know Lula promised to spend, spend, spend. You can’t go ahead and spend things, it’s going to create more economic instability. And it’s already a way of pushing things in a certain direction that we know are connected as well to these economic agreements and interests from outside. And obviously I think we need to talk about the role of China in the region here.
If a lot of the movements creating parts like elements of the Lula program, they’re movements involved in the No New Cold War campaign as well. So trying to reject this polarity between the US and China, but also the fact that for example, Venezuela has been able to handle things throughout the crisis because of the help of China. So you can’t just go and claim that China is not a big player in the region.
It is a big player in the region. It is a player even for those lithium mines that people are looking to. So you have German companies, you have US companies, but we also have the Chinese involved in this process. So I guess in terms of the issues around US imperialism, it also has to deal with how these governments handle China here.
And talking in the sense of Brazil, we know that Lula is really big on bricks, so China is already one of the main partners here. But I always recall something that happened right after Biden got elected and when they sent Biden, sent some invoice into to Brazil to talk to Bolsonaro and Bolsonaro sat down with them and he still said, “Yeah, but I still don’t acknowledge that Biden won this election. It was stolen from Trump.” Yet, Biden normalized Bolsonaro either way because one of the main deals, “We should make sure that the 5G network in Brazil wouldn’t be going through with China.” So they’re willing, the US is willing to work with these governments.
Sure, I mean look at Juan Orlando Hernandez in Honduras. Both parties were happy to cooperate and legitimize that regime until it was no longer useful.
The way you framed the question, Hilary, I thought was really, really useful. On the one hand, this is kind of a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the global economic climate is very unfavorable, but the geostrategic climate I think is more favorable than it has been in a long time, and that has to do with the factors you mentioned.
The first is I think the Washington’s grip on the hemisphere has weakened. Washington no longer has the ability to call the shots the way it used to in the region. It’s got too much to worry about and it cannot prioritize. Now, of course, it will intervene in a country like Honduras if it has to, but it won’t intervene in a country like Brazil or even Chile.
I think it has no capacity nor the desire to do so. I mean, you might say, “Well what about Colombia?” I mean, sure, it intervened for over a decade with billions of dollars in military aid and training, et cetera, but they achieved their goal, which was to defeat FARC, in my view. And I don’t think they want to continue that form of interventionism, even in a country as volatile as Colombia.
And the other factor, which you mentioned is the rise of a rival to the US, which is the China as a superpower. And that does open up some space to explore domestic policy alternatives, whether it’s a thing within the hemispheric US designs for the region or using the Chinese presence to gain some leverage.
So I think in that sense, we are better positioned than we have been in previous periods in other eras, which to me indicates that the decisive factors will be domestic in terms of where things move. It’s not at all to say that imperial meddling is no longer a threat, but I feel at this juncture does not have the capacity that it once did to even try to call the shots.
It’s in some ways a interesting way to kind of conclude who we are. It sounds like Latin America and the left governments are facing a great uncertainty about where this all could lead and maybe lays bare all the contradictions of the past coming to the fore at this moment, and that’s part of what I gleaned from all this being said and kind of sets us up, I think, for an interesting series of discussions about what happens next and where do we go.
I think that’s right. I think this has been a really excellent discussion and really brings out a lot of the threads that I hope the rest of this series will be picking up on and really diving into. So just a big thank you, to our guests for their time and for this thoughtful conversation.
Oh, thanks for having us. I’m really looking forward to the series. Also, hoping that some of the questions that get to be addressed can help us with this question of alternatives that we raised earlier on, because yes, the challenges are quite big right now, but there’s a project being built at the same time and we’re part of it.
A good way to end it. That’s good. We need that. That was a good way to conclude this conversation. And I just want to thank all of you, Thea Riofrancos who was here earlier with us, Sabrina Fernandes, Rene Rojas, and my being co-host here Hilary Goodfriend, it’s been a pleasure to really kind of get to know you at least on this project and have you kind of outline all this and make it work for all of our listeners.
And I want you all to stay tuned for coming installments in this series. Our next conversation will bring more Latin American activists to focus on struggles around resource extraction and exploitation. And the third installment, we are planning a discussion around the struggle of sexual reproductive rights across the region, and finally looking at land-based movements and what they say for these new Latin American left governments and where this all takes us and takes Latin America and takes us all.
So I want to thank all of you for being, this has been a great discussion. It’s been just a pleasure to co-host with you, Hilary, and I want to thank you all for all your insightful views today as we look at what’s happening next in Latin America.
Once again, thank you all for joining us today, and I want to thank our co-host, Hilary Goodfriend for making this such a successful podcast and the may thank our guests while we’re at it here. Thea Riofrancos, Sabrina Fernandes and Rene Rojas, and to our friends at the North American Congress and Latin America, NACLA for this collaboration.
So please let me know what you think about what you heard today and what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at [email protected] and I’ll get right back to you. And you can find NACLA at nacla.org and on Twitter @NACLA and on Instagram, @nacla_report. And we’ll have at least three more episodes of our collaboration coming up with NACLA. So stay tuned for those.
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