Possibilities for progress and “creative tensions”
The relationship between popular organisations and alternative governments (which express some degree of autonomy or confrontation with the ruling classes) has been the subject of analysis in Our America for at least two decades, as a result of the possibilities opened up in different countries in the region.
These so-called “progressive” governments (Kirchnerism in Argentina, more recently López Obrador in Mexico), in other cases “nationalist” (Chávez in Venezuela, Evo in Bolivia) or, more loosely, “left-wing” (the PT in Brazil, now Boric in Chile) have had and continue to have a complex relationship with popular organisations and social movements in their countries. In general, they have to coexist with popular demands to which, in many cases, they are unable to provide answers. During the “progressive cycle” that began at the beginning of this century, some of these governments disregarded the popular agenda they had originally raised in order to align themselves with the sectors of power they were supposed to confront. Sometimes they even resorted to repression in the face of social protest. In other cases, on the contrary, they advanced in conquests and rights that ratified the support of the majorities, and popular organisation grew and strengthened hand in hand with these advances. Experiences were uneven, depending on the country and the moment.
For their part, popular organisations were learning to calibrate their expectations. In general terms, the objective of these governments is to accumulate forces and achieve gains, taking advantage of the favourable wind, without confusing these short-term possibilities with the strategic aspirations, which are still (or should be) alive and well: to achieve, in some future that is not the present, a real radical change in the capitalist system and to advance towards forms of socialism and equality.
Former Bolivian Vice-President Álvaro García Linera characterised these conflicts as “inherent to any process of change” and defined them as “creative tensions within the popular bloc”(1). He listed at least three axes of conflict: the relationship between the state and the social movements; the dilemma between the “hegemonic flexibility” that these governments must have and the firmness that characterises the demands of the social movement; and the tension between general interests (for which the state should look after) and the corporate interests defended by sectoral organisations. At the height of Evo’s government in Bolivia, Linera naturalised these tensions – he underestimated them – because, he said, “this is what real revolutions are like”. The subsequent evolution of progressive governments has not been in keeping with this revolutionary illusion; however, the points of tension analysed are still relevant for understanding the experiences that are still making headway in the current situation. In any case, if these tensions were underestimated at the time, they should be given more attention now.
The Colombian particularity (I)
Colombia, which faces a historic election on 29 May, has the chance to draw on a handful of regional experiences that could prove useful in terms of learning and, perhaps, in terms of a favourable context. In its contemporary history, the country has rarely been in tune with Latin American political cycles. During the second half of the 20th century, there was no populism in Colombia in the style of Cardenismo in Mexico, the nationalist processes in Peru or Bolivia, or Peronism in Argentina; Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the liberal caudillo who could have embodied such a possibility, was assassinated to abort any illusion of change. Afterwards, dictatorial forms in Colombia did not require strident military coups d’état as in the rest of the continent between the 1970s and 1980s; repression, while equally or more criminal than in other countries, maintained institutional formality: the continent’s famously “solid” “democracy”. The fact that the country has been immersed in a 70-year internal armed conflict, where leftist guerrillas fought for power not only with the state but also with drug trafficking and paramilitary groups, is part of the same peculiarity. At the beginning of the 21st century, the country was at the antipodes of the “progressive cycle” that characterised the most dynamic experiences in the region: while Chávez and the others risked changing course in favour of the people, in Colombia Uribe governed by force of massacres against communities.
“The fact that the country has been immersed in a 70-year internal armed conflict, where leftist guerrillas fought for power not only with the state but also with drug trafficking and paramilitary groups, is part of the same peculiarity”
However, now, if the Petro-Márquez ticket wins, Colombia will have the chance to share the path of other fraternal peoples.
Let us look at some notes on these experiences which, even with open balances, can illuminate the times ahead not only for Colombia, but for the entire region.
A brief contemporary history
In the 1990s, Latin America saw the consolidation of a neoliberal offensive that took advantage of the crisis the left entered into after the defeat of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, the failure of the insurgent attempts in Central America and the deepening crisis in Cuba following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. These political setbacks were accompanied by ideological turmoil. The paradigms that guided attempts at socialist revolution during the 20th century were called into question. In the wake of these crises, some lefts retreated into possibilism and integration into the system. In other cases, the retreat was towards other genuine searches for political intervention while maintaining the horizon of social change in an anti-capitalist sense. From the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the rebellions and insurgencies that took shape in response to this neoliberal offensive took different forms, but in general they coincided in something substantial: the protagonism of the people in the streets, without the weight of the vanguards of the last century. In the best cases, this lack was replaced by political protagonism of a new kind and the emergence of “new social movements”. The retreat after the ideological crisis of the 1990s was towards less strident ways of understanding possible revolution, but also towards the grassroots. Zapatismo in Mexico, the Landless in Brazil, the piqueteros in Argentina, the revitalised indigenous movements in Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, were all part of these emerging movements organised from below.
Traditional parties and organisations, even those of the left, lost weight in favour of new forms of social organisation. In this way, the people gained bolder dynamics of struggle. Some lefts made the theoretical and practical effort to rethink their strategies and tactics, thus managing, in some cases, to re-splice themselves in a good way with the dynamics of the masses fed up with neoliberal adjustments. This positive aspect was accompanied by another, counterproductive one: the crisis of representativeness and the success of the retreat to the grassroots in the new social movements distanced these experiences from specifically political disputes. The new social struggles did not include in their agenda the classic recipes for seizing power, but neither did they include any other strategy for contesting the state: defensive resistance prevailed. In the best of cases, the revolts’ power to dismantle the state put the anti-popular regimes in check, but there was no clarity or capacity to offer political alternatives that emerged from the social movement in struggle. This vacancy explains why the alternative political emergences following outbreaks and rebellions often emerged from caudillista leaderships or political exponents who opted to break away from traditional party structures.
The “Progressive Cycle”
This distance of origin between the popular rebellions that put anti-popular governments on the ropes and, in many cases, the politicians who managed to gain access to the presidency to lead the attempts to change course after the neoliberal debacle, did not prevent a regional cycle favourable to the peoples of Our America. In the book Latin America. Huellas y retos del ciclo progresista (2017), we described: “The so-called progressive cycle defined an unprecedented moment of achievements and opportunities (…) In mid-2009, at its peak, various political proposals with popular roots were governing in seven of the twelve South American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela) and in three of the seven Central American countries (El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua). Including Cuba, these governments covered more than 300 million people”.
During this cycle, there were achievements that constituted advances for the interests of the peoples. These governments were able to take advantage of the boom in international commodity prices to strengthen state coffers, reduce poverty (between 2001 and 2011) and expand rights. They also promoted laws to regulate the media with the aim of neutralising the media terrorism of the big corporations that threaten and will threaten any process of change. The results were uneven and ultimately ineffective, but these battles deserve the attention of any alternative project, because the problem of the reactionary hegemony of the big media and their capacity for harm is still intact.
Some Latin American lefts seemed to find, within the framework of that progressive cycle, a paradigm for the accumulation of forces and the exercise of control of the state, a situation that had not occurred since the failures of the revolutionary attempts of the 1970s and 1980s. There was a challenge to US hegemony that had its high points in the form of the rejection of the FTAA in 2005. The whole period constituted an alteration of the regional geopolitical chessboard in favour of real integration, as proposed by the ALBA project conceived by Chávez and Fidel.
“Some Latin American lefts seemed to find, within the framework of that progressive cycle, a paradigm for the accumulation of forces and the exercise of control of the state, a situation that had not occurred since the failures of the revolutionary attempts of the 1970s and 1980s”
As part of attempts to broaden their political base, progressive governments called upon supportive popular organisations or leaders to take up positions in the state. This was a novelty and a challenge. There were diverse situations: from clear examples of co-optation of social movement cadres who abandoned the struggle, to experiences of popular accumulation from the possibilities offered by management. In other cases, some organisations explored attempts at independent electoral participation. In this way, councillorships or parliamentary seats were won while keeping the banners of struggle high in the air.
The virtues of this cycle coexisted with strong limitations and conditioning factors. There were various social protests in the face of injustices and inequalities which, despite the discourse, the alternative governments did not decide to reverse. The unquestionable legitimacy of the struggles had to come into play, however, with the macro-political conditions that warned of the growth of reactionary sectors. These were riding on the erosion of the progressive administrations, an erosion to which the social protests were contributing.
There were sectors of the popular movement that chose to stay away from these governments. The drift of those who prioritised confrontation is varied, but one fact is indisputable: the right took advantage of this contradiction between popular organisations and progressive governments. Social movements and governments, in their own ways and with their differences, coincided in confronting the right and challenging them for power, but in confronting each other they mutually weakened each other and facilitated the conservative restoration.
Towards 2015, with the exhaustion of the favourable world economic cycle (but not only because of that, but also because of their own mistakes), this cycle began to decline.
Short-range reactionary counter-offensive
The reaction of the economic power and the right wing turned out to be disproportionate, revanchist (although, strictly speaking, they had not suffered any major offences). The redistributive policies implemented by the progressive governments had been adopted on the basis of growth, without affecting the accumulation of big capital, which also continued to increase during the governments of Lula, Kirchner and Correa. However, more out of ideological reaction than out of material affectation of their interests, the offensives against these governments did not spare dirty campaigns and even explicit violence. Lugo in Paraguay (2012), Zelaya in Honduras (2009), Dilma Rousseff in Brazil (2015) and, although they did not succeed, there were also coup attempts against Chávez in Venezuela (2002) and Correa in Ecuador (2010).
Judicial persecution complemented this offensive, leading to the imprisonment of Lula, the harassment of Cristina Kirchner and the proscription of Correa. This process, known as “lawfare”, was most effective where the popular movement was weakest. This should not be separated from the scenario of persecution and imprisonment suffered by hundreds of grassroots leaders and popular activists, by right-wing governments, but also by some progressive governments. Correa’s government in Ecuador is surely the record case of criminalisation of the indigenous movement by a government that raised banners of change in favour of the people. In the coming scenarios, the new progressive governments should not tolerate the criminalisation of the social movement. The use of the judicial apparatus (generally in the hands of reactionary sectors) for political persecution legitimises uses that, over time, any ruler who tries to take measures that affect economic power can turn against him.
The new right-wing governments that have emerged in the last five years have joined forces with governments that were already doing so, such as those of Peru (Kuczynski), Colombia (Santos/Duque) and Chile (Piñera). This entente was expressed regionally in the formation of the Lima Group (2017). From there, an international pole of confrontation and sabotage of any anti-neoliberal attempt was forged: the Bolivarian government in Venezuela was fought, the coup against Evo in Bolivia was endorsed, and the victories of Macri and Bolsonaro in Argentina and Brazil were celebrated. The main objective was to bring the region back into unrestricted alignment with US policies. However, this neoliberal counter-attack failed to consolidate: the people’s rebellion shook the regional chessboard once again.
Current context Towards a new progressive cycle?
In recent times, some changes of government have raised the possibility of a ‘second progressive cycle’. These are the cases of López Obrador in Mexico (2018), Alberto Fernández in Argentina (2019), Luis Arce in Bolivia (2020), Pedro Castillo in Peru (2021), Xiomara Castro in Honduras (2022) and Gabriel Boric in Chile (2022), to which could be added an eventual triumph of the Petro-Márquez formula in Colombia (29 May) and Lula in Brazil (first round in October this year).
It is difficult to draw common conclusions from these attempts at alternative governments. However, beyond interpretative voluntarism, there are reasons to relativise the idea that this is a new cycle that could have similar characteristics to those described above.
“there are reasons to relativise the idea that this is a new cycle that could have similar characteristics to those described above”
On the one hand, there is a determining economic and geopolitical factor that differentiates the context of the first decade of this century, where the progressive cycle mentioned above took place, from the current context. The exponential increase in commodity prices that benefited Latin America is far from being repeated. Today, the recession of the second decade of this century has been compounded first by the pandemic and now by the inflationary aftermath of the war. Even if some current indicators allow us to speak of economic recovery, the outlook is one of deepening global inequality and greater hardship for the continent, regardless of the sign or intentions of the governments in each country.
This unfavourable economic context is compounded by the fact that the supposedly alternative governments already in office are not developing common regional agendas. The lukewarm attempt to form the Puebla Group when Fernández took office in Argentina and met with López Obrador in Mexico (2019) did not go beyond initial declarations of intent that were not followed up. In fact, while Mexico abstained from condemning Russia at the UN a few days ago (April 2022), the governments of Argentina, Peru, Chile and Honduras voted in line with the pressure imposed by the US on all countries in the region. Bolivia and Cuba were the only two countries to reject this condemnation. The mess is even worse when it comes to sensitive issues such as the situation in Nicaragua or Venezuela. There are no glimpses of common criteria or collective strategies at the regional level.
Another complex aspect is the stability of these governments, their durability. Without sustainability over time, no “cycle” is possible(2). The Castillo government in Peru is going through a deep crisis, pushed in part by disillusioned social sectors. Alberto Fernández in Argentina squandered his first moment of popularity; after a timorous and claudicating administration in the face of the economic powers, the political front that brought him to the presidency is broken and the right is back on the prowl. While Xiomara Castro has dodged the first disestablishment obstacles shortly after taking office and López Obrador has been in government for three years without appealing to popular mobilisation to support his proposals for change, the case of Arce in Bolivia appears to be the most stable. Boric in Chile is still an unknown quantity: in order to win in the second round, he made a pact with the Concertación and sectors of traditional politics; it remains to be seen how the popular movement, which has just staged a historic rebellion whose power is still latent, will react(3). Lula’s candidacy in Brazil is leading in the polls, although, these days, the appointment of a conservative businessman as his vice-presidential running mate is a sign that can be read as an echo of the previous PT governments’ capitulation to economic power in that country.
Even with these weaknesses, it is often said that it is better for popular organisations that such governments exist rather than right-wing governments, which ruthlessly attack any popular interest. But the judgement becomes less forceful if measured in the medium and long term: these right-wingers return, inexorably, riding on the failure and ineffectiveness of progressive governments to sustain popular support. The moderation that leads to pacts with economic power and the relegation of promised changes does not guarantee stability, but rather paves the way for the return to government of reactionary forces.
The Colombian particularity
The continental context surrounding the upcoming elections in Colombia does not appear to be very favourable. But what in other countries can be understood as the ups and downs of the masses in the face of the progressive attempts and their surrender, in Colombia, on the other hand, takes on a different weight. The dilemma between the possible triumph of the Petro-Márquez formula, or its defeat, takes on the seriousness of a historic possibility that compromises the popular movement.
Gustavo Petro is an experienced politician who was a member of the M-19 guerrilla movement in his youth. Since then, and after the demobilisation of that force in 1990, he has been a congressman, mayor of Bogotá and presidential candidate. His left-wing background is reflected in the coherent confrontation he has maintained with the political forces of the right and in key programmatic axes, such as criticism of extractivism, an issue that has eluded other progressive parties in the region.
He is accompanied on the presidential ticket by Francia Márquez, a 40-year-old Afro-descendant social leader who built her reputation on her fierce defence of territory and the environment, and was able to set the agenda in favour of the rights of grassroots women, as is her case. She is the candidate of the social movements. In the consultative elections last March, her pre-candidacy as part of the Historical Pact (the electoral front she shares with Petro) received an avalanche of votes that made her the third most voted figure in the country.
When it came to choosing his vice-president, Petro responded positively to the expectations of the militancy: there was speculation that he might choose someone from the Liberal party in the name of broad alliances, but he opted to strengthen his link with the organised popular movement by recognising the figure of Francia. The election campaign has been conducted with the social movement’s candidate playing a prominent role. A good omen for what is to come. Although, of course, they will have to win first. If they fail to do so on 29 May (they need more than 50 per cent of the vote), the second round will take place on 19 June. In that instance, political violence, a card that the defenders of economic power always have up their sleeve, could increase, and no one risks a result in a rarefied context.
The left social and political movement in Colombia is as fragmented as any other, but the singularity this time is the unanimous support that all the popular organisations are giving to the candidates of the Historical Pact.
The Colombian people have been so badly hit that, faced with the certain possibility of change, they cannot afford the luxury of apathy(4). Although Petro is often questioned for his personalism and his arbitrary decisions when it comes to building political strength, the vast majority of the country is willing to leave pessimism for better times, and bet heavily on victory.
(1) Tensiones creativas de la revolución. Por Álvaro García Linera. En https://www.bivica.org/files/tensiones-creativas.pdf
(2) El fin del “oasis”: el cambio político en el Pacífico sudamericano. Por Manuel Canelas. En https://www.fundacioncarolina.es/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/AC-07.-2022.pdf
(3) Eventos disruptivos y política contenciosa: reconfiguración de la relación política entre el Movimiento Ukamau y el Estado. Por Valentina Abufhele Milad y Aland Castro Nuñez. En https://lanzasyletras.com/conquistando-la-vida-buena-tambien-en-chile-el-caso-ukamau/
(4) No queda más remedio que la audacia: entrevista a Silvio Rodríguez. Por Mario Santucho. En https://revistacrisis.com.ar/notas/no-queda-mas-remedio-que-la-audacia