21st Century Socialism?


The Latin American revolution seemed unstoppable until recently. Now, in Venezuela and Argentina, a resurgent right is using economic hardship to foment resentment and secure legislative victories. In November 2015, after 12 years under a popular leftist government, voters in Argentina chose Mauricio Macri, right-wing former mayor of Buenos Aires, as their new president. A month later, Venezuelan voters handed 109 of 167 legislative seats to the centre-right Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unid ad Democratica, or MUD)—the first time since 1999 that the United Socialists (Partido Socialista Unido da Venezuela, or PSUV) have not held the assembly.

Several factors converged to bring about the change in Venezuela. Foremost were the crash of oil prices, a campaign of economic sabotage or capital strike by local business elites (including price speculation and the hoarding of key consumer items to create scarcity) and a media war carried out by the political opposition in league with Washington. MUD picked up 2.4 million more votes in the December eleclion than in 2010, while about two million PSUV supporters chose not to vote in protest of the government's handling of the food shortages.

The problem lies in Latin America's place in capitalism's world market. Latin America has a strong dependency on the prices for its raw commodity exports. In the "boom" time of the 1990s and most of the first decade of the 21st century, commodity prices fueled the export economies of Venezuela (oil) and Brazil (iron ore, soybeans, oil), among others.

However, with the Great Recession, there has been a downward trend and even collapse in the price of raw materials that many Latin American countries grow or extract to place on the world market. The prices of oil, soybeans, and iron ore dropped, sending a number of economies, particularly Venezuela and Brazil, into deep recession.

At the same time, one cannot minimise the massive presence of US capital in the form of military as well as economic "aid". Plan Puebla Panama set the stage for Mexico and its neighbours, while Plan Colombia extended it with a huge emphasis on military aid to Colombia and South America. Turning a blind eye to the 2009 Honduran military coup, if not actually aiding it, seeking to isolate Venezuela under Chavez and now under Maduro are not fantasies or conspiracy theories but the reality of US imperialism's many faces.

Given these hard truths, what has the last decade and a half of progressive governments shown? In spite of their rhetoric of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism as well as their calls to build socialism for the 21st century, the reality of their economic policies is tethered to the world market. It could hardly have been different given the limits both in their concept of "power" and in what kind of view they have of the social-economic-political transformation needed in Latin America.

In contrast to the possibilities of fundamental social transformation—revolutionary changes from below—the focus in each country was on obtaining control of existing governmental institutions through elections.

The fall in commodity prices has also affected political fortunes in Argentina where a new president is making good with Wall Street's vulture capitalists, pulling out of Bolivarian Revolution projects like TeleSUR, and inviting the International Monetary Fund to audit the public books (read: proscribe austerity) for the first time in a decade.

The masses in Latin America face a duality. The question is can social movements resist neoliberalism's advances and at the same time move beyond progressive governments' narrow statism? It is one thing to be a militant and involved in social movements, and quite another to be that same person after an electoral change. What has recently happened with 'progressive governments' in Brazil, Argentian, Bolivia and Venezuela speaks volumes about the limits and contradictions within the dialectic of 21st century socialism which shows no sign of returning.

Vol. 49, No.31, Feb 5 - 11, 2017