In the course of a seminar organised by the São Paulo Forum from June 30 to July 2 at Rio, which brought together ministers, political leaders and research workers from about ten Latin American countries (eight of which were in South America) headed by left governments the Research Institute for Left Governments in South America was launched. This will enable representatives of the governments and political parties in office regularly to assess the progress and new challenges encountered.
Ten years after the first progressive governments began taking power in South America, what is the situation? Economic growth has been maintained thanks to a strategy focussed on improving wages, creating jobs, supporting the most disadvantaged, diversifying economic relations and greater independence in relation to international financial organisations. Millions of people have escaped poverty and destitution while the development of a real internal market has enabled these countries to face the crisis without suffering too much harm. However, while the policies applied have met the emergency, inequality has not been reduced, imperialism – which was weakened – is still lying in wait and the question of transforming these societies is still a current issue.
The progressive governments of South America must, today, face three major challenges:
Enabling the people to exercise sovereignty, in particular by respecting the political choices of governments that are properly elected, cannot be taken for granted in South America.
This is so, on the one hand, because Latin America is still considered as its private hunting ground by the United States, which does not hesitate to finance coups d’état to overthrow any president whose policies it dislikes, as in Chile in 1973 and in Honduras a few months ago.
The second reason is the free trade agreements and “treaties of ‘mutual’ protection of foreign investment” signed between the major European and North American multinationals and the previous very accommodating governments as well as the fact that the weight of foreign trade (imports and exports) in the development of the majority of Latin American countries makes the latter dependent on the major business groups and financial institutions.
The third reason is that the majority of progressive governments in Latin America have achieved power through presidential elections and the alliance of a variety of social movements and of political organisations aiming at social transformation that are still a minority at parliamentary level. Thus the dominant classes not only have available some economic and financial levers with which to oppose change but also many representatives inside the state apparatus.
To remain in power, the progressive governments of South America must, therefore, strengthen their links between the social movements, the political forces aiming at transformation and the government, maintain an appropriate rhythm of structural reforms in all areas and base themselves on a policy of alliances at international level. Strengthening links between social movements, left political forces and progressive governments is indispensible in the context of the worldwide crisis of the capitalist system. Although this systemic crisis is considered in South America to favour the economic development of countries with important stocks of natural resources, it is nevertheless seen as endangering the balance of political power at a planetary level. With the US seeking, at all costs, to maintain its hegemonic role and possessing 50% of the world’s military arsenal, the crisis of European social democracy and an ideological crisis affecting the part of the left that aims a social transformation, which has not yet recovered from the fall of the Berlin wall, the balance is indeed fragile.
This popular support of the progressive governments’ actions is indispensible for giving them the legitimacy needed to confront this balance of power. It involves the democratisation of institutions, the decentralisation of power – but also developing struggles to ensure observance of the people’s will.
Consequently, many progressive governments have very rapidly carried out constitutional changes, particularly ones that allow the people to express themselves, often by a referendum on policies adopted. The question of decentralising power is also being studied in these countries.
However, the rate at which these institutional reforms are carried out is not insignificant. Many believe that these institutions, created by previous dictatorships, have, to some extent, played a role in braking the development of neoliberal policies. Others feel that the decentralisation of power must not weaken the role of the central state, especially in the context of this dangerous world crisis.
Moreover, advancing from a representative democracy to a real one of real people’s power is not so easy. Indeed, military dictatorships and neoliberal policies previously carried out have divided and greatly disorganised the progressive trade-union and political forces. Education, still mainly private, is not accessible to all, nor is culture, which, filtered through the news and communication media in the hands of the major financial groups, is still controlled by the United States.
Finally, protecting the gains achieved even while developing struggles to ensure respect for the people’s will, presupposes a political culture “transmitted to the people” – as happened in Cuba – a real “socialisation of politics”, the participation of the workers in the process of transformation. This, in turn, involves reviewing the respective roles of the government and the left political parties that, for their part, must “represent critical and dialectical awareness of the problems that society is facing and must carry out an ideological struggle for the alternative project”.
The economic and social assessment of the first years of government is fairly positive: agrarian reform, developing a policy of technical innovation, increasing employment and reducing poverty, setting up a process of collective bargaining, undertaking structural reforms in the areas of education, health and taxation … However, growth too often leads to increasing inequality between areas of activity and hence between regions and social strata. Nor does it always take into account the need to protect natural resources and biodiversity or ensuring sovereignty of food supply.
How, then, can a new, socially fairer and lasting mode of development be established?
How can the major industrial and financial groups be prevented from turning South America into the world’s future granary and their principal supplier of raw materials and rare earth elements. Which investments should be encouraged to avoid increasing the unequal development between various sectors of activity while ensuring sufficiently rapid growth for the wellbeing of the population as a whole? What should be the rate at which essential reforms are undertaken to satisfy the population’s needs without playing into the hands of the right, but taking the time needed for political agreements? What conditions have to be made for Chinese imports that the left governments have decided to encourage to free themselves from domination by European and North American capital? Social clauses? Financial compensation? But also what transfer of technology to negotiate in order to enable, in time, the reduction of manufactured imports? Which firms should enjoy these transfers of technology and what should be their legal status so as to benefit the country?
What is meant by lasting growth and development? How can one reconcile the ancestral land rights of aboriginal populations in Brazil, development of food-supply sovereignty, reducing the exportation of agricultural products and reducing the foreign debt? How can the protection of world biodiversity, of which Ecuador has a great share, with access to fuel and power indispensible for its development, be assured when important reserves of oil and gas lie in its subsoil?
Speaking a common language (except for Brazil) and having a shared history of Iberian conquest of their lands at the end of the 17th century and of national liberation in the 19th, of economic expansion during the crisis of the Second World War followed by the return of a new North American imperialism, which was responsible for the unbearable increase in their external debt, the Latin American countries (especially those of the South) are, on the whole, in favour of regional alliances.
However, at present, there co-exist, in South America, several different kinds of institutionalised regional cooperation that do not all have the same objectives. Firstly, there is the Organisation of American States (OAS) created on United States initiative with the aim of developing “free trade” between the American states. Then the setting up of MERCOSUR, a regional union that only covers four South American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) whose objective was to struggle against the enormous foreign debt by creating a “common market” but, not having given up the “productivist” mode of production, and which has to deal has to deal with a disaster from the long-term development point of view. Then we had, in the 2000s decade, the arrival of the first progressive governments to office and the awareness of the immense resources that South America possesses and the building of the UNASUR, that brings together twelve countries of South America, determined to oppose any alliance of the LACA kind (set up on US initiative but defeated at the Caribbean summit in 2005). This aimed at ensuring that decision-making was in the hands of heads of state, not the financial markets, while setting up joint projects. Finally, we have the creation of the Banco del Sur and ALBA, an alliance between Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and some Caribbean countries that share the same political objectives (the Bolivarian Alliance).
The co-existence of these different regional structures, each of which has a different objective but which partially bring together many of the same countries is not devoid of problems. However, in the context of the present crisis and the recomposition of the international balance of forces, the building of a new political power and a centre for the development of South America does not seem utopian, in view of the continent’s enormous wealth in natural resources and of all the things that unite these countries.
However, the questions remain: How to avoid reproducing the capitalist principles underlying the building of the European Union and free ourselves from being dominated by economic and financial monopolies? How to build a union based on solidarity that is not reduced to just technical cooperation as is still the case in SUCRE (the regional system of monetary compensation) the new common currency between the ALBA countries while at the same time reducing the enormous disparity in development between Brazil and its neighbours Uruguay and Paraguay? How to integrate the greatest number of countries into this regional Union while scrupulously respecting their national sovereignty?
As can be seen, the challenges that face these progressive governments of Latin America are far from being insignificant. The issues they raise are also in the foreground of European concerns.