Reducing recent mobilisations in countries such as Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela to merely a confrontation between right versus left fails to address the complexity of the region’s current political landscape.
For almost twenty years Latin America has experienced a sustained period of political surges on the left, resulting in the establishment of progressive governments most notably in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador. Twenty years is slight, however, when compared to 500 years of western capitalist ideology imposed upon the people and resources of the region, first in the form of European colonisation and then as neoliberal imperialism in the 20th and 21st centuries.
This is important to bear in mind when considering the recent protests against the current ‘pink tide’ of leftwing governments in Latin America. Yet while there is a push from the right to depose progressive governments, these movements are each different to one another and loaded with mixed symbols and nuanced demands which, if reduced to a simple right versus left analysis, fail to address the distinct hues that colour Latin American politics today.
Confusion in Quito
Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador and leader of the self-described ‘Citizen’s Revolution’, has never been a darling of the western press. Too self-assured, too close to Hugo Chávez, defiant of attempts to prosecute Julian Assange and persistent in demanding that Chevron pay compensation for oil spills in the Amazon. Recent anti-government protests in Ecuador provided the perfect cue for papers like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to discredit a Latin American government insubordinate to western ideology.
The media offensive did not stop to consider whether these mobilisations were in fact a sign of a democratic and politically engaged society, following decades of military dictatorship and divisive economic policies. That doesn’t make front page news. Instead, media outlets zoomed in on the presence in the protests of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), interpreting their participation as the predominant representation of all discontent in the country. Although a key actor in national politics, CONAIE has, according to other indigenous communities in Ecuador, lost touch over the years with much of its grassroots support. In a recent teleSUR article, the indigenous Ecuadorian activist and poet Maria Clara Sharupi argued that ‘there is little ground support for the CONAIE-led uprising and the measures have been imposed on communities by people aligned with bankers and the old elite’.
On the surface, the CONAIE demands appear pertinent. They attack the government’s dependence on extractive industries, such as petroleum and mining, and ask for communitarian administration of water resources. The sociologist Werner Vasquez argues that while some of CONAIE’s demands may be valid, their tactics should be different given that the Correa government is different to previous neoliberal governments. The 1980s and 90s saw the IMF hand out multi-million dollar loans across Latin America in exchange for strict structural adjustments, inevitably forcing governments to cut back on social welfare programmes. In Ecuador, the subsequent dollarisation of the economy impoverished the economically-marginalised sectors, leading to widespread protests and the ousting of President Jamil Mahuad on 1 January 2000. According to academic Marc Becker, since Rafael Correa came to office in 2007, ‘dramatic increases in social spending significantly lowered poverty and inequality rates. [Correa’s] success earned him the highest approval ratings of any chief executive in the Americas and repeated re-election to office.’
Still, Roland Denis, a Venezuelan analyst and former vice minster of Planning and Development under Hugo Chávez, is weary to relieve leftist governments from all criticism and condemns the homogenisation of recent uprisings in Latin America as solely expressions of the structural right. In an interview published on the Spanish website Rebelión he comments on the recent protests in Ecuador: ‘The right’s opportunism is without doubt part of all this, as it tries to re-establish its power. But the indigenous uprising as such has nothing to do with the right, neither politically nor ideologically. On the contrary, the demands that they have raised are widely anti-capitalist, related to the direct democracy of the peoples, social and environmental rights and the economic sovereignty of Ecuador before the global world order.’ As much as the right has played a central role, it is unfair, according to Denis, to class all protests as part of the same global strategy: ‘It is a real insult to the spirit and condition of class particular to this [Ecuadorian] uprising.’
Opportunism in Brazil
Travelling south to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, we find similar scenes in Brazil. Protests that came to the fore in June 2013 have given fresh impetus for the right to call for President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. But while the ruling classes have always expressed disdain for Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) – alongside dominant private media groups that maintain an almost daily offensive against the central government – other protests have arisen over the years; protests by some on the left who are frustrated with the government but supportive of Rousseff nonetheless.
In June 2013, many took to Brazilian streets to express dissatisfaction with the political system and public services, denouncing police and federal corruption. The foreign media failed to capture the distinct message of the mobilisations, which were asking for reform but under the Rousseff government. Headlines such as ‘The Streets Erupt’ in The Economist or ‘Brazil Unrest’ on the BBC portrayed a country at breaking point, with images of burning buses and riot police, often instigated by individuals and groups unaligned with the leftist organisations that had initially led the mobilisations.
2015 has seen a second surge in mass protests. Organised by groups overtly on the right, the demonstrations have capitalised on the initial momentum of the June 2013 mobilisations to channel dissent towards an agenda which, in the short term, targets the removal of Rousseff from office. The concept of protest – once a platform to demand political reform – has become a space for traditional economic elites to seek the overthrow of a democratically-elected government. Their anti-constitutional ambitions have received little criticism in the international press while managing to set the terms in Brazil’s political institutions. The website Brasil Wire considers the consequences of the recent protests to be ‘A diminished PT, a tighter presidential election than anyone could have envisaged a year previously, the most conservative and retrogressive congress since 1968, and this paralysing media, judicial and parliamentary coup.’ According to the article, ‘these were the last things any of those original protesters wanted or expected’.
Mixed signals in Caracas
In Venezuela, the protests of 2014 – or guarimbas as they came to be known – were more transparent in their origins; there was no confusing frustration on the left with the violent manifestations that plagued key cities across the country, in which public transport units, cargo trucks and, on one occasion, a nursery were set alight. Most people came out to condemn the protests, including sectors on the right, but because the protestors were predominantly young white male students, they proved to be picture-perfect for western media. The resulting deaths of 43 people received considerably less limelight than the plight of opposition candidate Leopoldo Lopez, a key instigator of the guarimbas with known links to Colombia’s scandal-ridden former president Álvaro Uribe. Indeed, Lopez’s recent sentencing to 14 years in jail for arson, public incitement and conspiracy was bigger news in the western media.
Latin America is still under siege from external political and economic actors, but these recent uprisings reveal the continent’s intricate and sometimes contradictory political body. Mobilisations today can no longer be taken at face value, simplified into headline-grabbing one-liners, pitching the ‘good’ versus the ‘bad’. In the last twenty years, Latin America has changed. As new democracies confront the old elites, the political landscape becomes more complex than ever.