Latin America: States of Revolt

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Mike Gonzalez examines the growing instability in South America.

A young Brazilian stayed behind after one of our workshops at Porto Alegre. 'I wanted to ask', he said, 'whether we've got an anti-capitalist movement in Latin America too.'

Like all those apologetic, simple questions, it hit right at the heart of the argument. Some leaders of the anti-globalisation movement in Europe and the US seemed to be arguing that it was simply limited to the protests at a series of economic summits from Seattle through Prague and Genoa to New York in February this year. That of course makes it a much narrower and more limited movement, whose demands can be contained within programmes of reform and negotiation with the big global financial institutions.

The reality of the anti-capitalist movement is that it embraces all the struggles against the imposition of market-led strategies and their effects. It's a telling feature of the way the system works that the World Bank, the IMF, Davos and the World Trade Organisation never meet in the regions where their policies are wreaking the greatest havoc. Latin America has suffered the unwelcome attentions of these institutions particularly acutely. And it was testimony to the multinational control of communication that my young questioner did not know that the 1990s had produced not only savage policies of 'structural adjustment' but also a series of determined and influential struggles against them.

In Mexico, for example, the Zapatista insurrection in Chiapas was declared on 1 January 1994, coinciding exactly with the launch of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), the first completed stage of the incorporation of Latin America into a global capitalist order. Its symbolic power was extraordinary, and echoed through the emerging anti-capitalist movement--its symbols and slogans were central to the Seattle protests, for example. Yet it was not the only resistance going on in Mexico. Continuing unionisation battles along the US-Mexico border coincided with demonstrations against the impact of economic integration on small farmers, the rising cost of basic foodstuffs, increasing unemployment and the privatisation of electricity. The year-long student strike at Mexico City's huge National University (Unam) which began in 1999 was a mass protest against the imposition of student fees and the loss of the right of access to higher education for all. It was bitterly fought. It is one of the political tragedies of those years that these struggles were not linked organically, so that successive corrupt governments were able to ride the tide.

In Ecuador the decision to 'dollarise' the national economy late in 1999 provoked an extraordinary movement, jointly led by the Ecuadorean Indigenous Peoples Organisation (Conaie) and the national Trade Union Congress, which overthrew a government. For weeks the movement controlled the capital and several provincial cities as well as the highways between them. (The blocking of highways as an act of protest has been a regular tactic in mass struggles in Latin America, and would have a central role in the growth of the current Argentinian resistance.) It is true that a new government eventually took power which implemented those policies, though both national organisations launched renewed protests a year later against the same policies. In late March this year the Free Trade Area of the Americas will hold its own summit meeting in Quito. Hopefully it will not be able to deliberate in secret or in silence--the mobilisations are already beginning.

Colombia--a special case?

However much the US and British governments may try to persuade us that Colombia is a special case, the 'war against drugs' being waged there, now rebaptised the 'war against terrorism', is integral to the general strategy of globalisation. The agreement between the government of Pastrana and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) ceded a territory the size of Switzerland to the Farc. For the Colombian military this was always intolerable and they have decided to launch another war. Clinton's last gift to Colombia--$1.3 billion of arms--was a clear signal that for the US there could be no 'free territories' in Latin America, and that the Colombian state must now re-establish its control. Effectively this meant a shift in power to the military, a reimposition of military imperatives over Colombian territory. But it was highly significant that most of the firepower was concentrated on the southern regions, where the Farc and the National Liberation Army (ELN) areas are concentrated, even though the north produces around 40 percent of the country's cocaine production. The south is also the location of important oil reserves. Colombia, then, is not a little local difficulty but a key link in the chain of control and discipline over an integrated economic unit. The military state will also function perfectly to repress the strikes and protests, like those that exploded in early February, against the more direct impacts of neoliberalism.

Bolivia in 2001 provided an inspiring example of successful resistance to water privatisation. Workers, small farmers and students joined with community organisations--blocking highways, occupying the centre of Cochabamba and refusing the privatisation of water. The government, which had already driven through a series of restructuring measures, was forced to back away from the deal with a multinational corporation.

In Brazil the spectacular growth of the Landless People's Movement (MST) points to the devastating effects of WTO decisions on the countryside. The electoral successes of the Workers Party (PT) certainly reflect a desire for a deeper social change. After all, the organisation was born out of industrial struggles in the early 1980s. But once in positions of state and local power, the PT's internal contradictions were exposed. The 'participatory budgets' of Porto Alegre, for instance, are inspiring in their attempts to create a genuine grassroots democracy--but they are always imprisoned within a framework of strategic economic policies that are wholly controlled by the international financial agencies of global capital. The result was devaluation of the Brazilian currency, which has led directly to a fall in economic growth from six percent to just over one percent in the last 12 months, as much as anything because of shrinking markets for Brazilian goods both at home and abroad.

No country is exempt from protest, just as none can close its borders to a marauding international capital. In Uruguay, just ten days before the Porto Alegre conference began, a 15-kilometre protest caravan of cars and buses wound its way from Montevideo, the capital, to the luxury seaside resort of Punta del Este. The roads were lined on both sides with supporters every metre of the way. In Venezuela the Chavez alternative seems to be coming to grief as oil prices fall. Demonstrations against his government may have been exploited by many sections for their own reasons, but there is real popular discontent behind them.

The latest and possibly the most significant chapter in this history of mounting resistance is unfolding now in Argentina. For two months the sound of clattering saucepans has dominated the political scene--the so-called cacerolazos that have accompanied so many of the demonstrations against the policies of the several governments that have succeeded one another since 19 December. But the movement began earlier, with the protests of the unemployed--the piqueteros--who barricaded the main highways across the country.

With the economic crisis that brought down the de la Rua government in December, Argentina witnessed the birth of a new kind of politics. As banks closed their doors and unemployment hit 3 million, supermarkets were looted by the poorest sectors, the middle classes marched through the streets, the trade unions joined them, and the unemployed came in from the intercity highways. In the districts of the major cities people's assemblies were created spontaneously as the local populations gathered to discuss what should be done and build their protests. At the time of writing, the movement is strong and growing, and the current president has little to offer beyond some cosmetic surgery and more neoliberal solutions.

A spontaneous mass movement is groping its way towards a different kind of social order, but the alternatives are only now being debated, and often in very confused and contradictory ways. What is clear to a growing majority across the region is that the solution of a reforming state protecting its internal markets and guaranteeing living standards to its own people is not a real option in any sense. After all, that was the solution offered by Menem and the Peronists during Argentina's last major economic crisis in 1989. What followed was massive privatisation, international debt and the integration of the national economy into the global order. Chavez too offered a new kind of state reformism in Venezuela as a solution to the protests that exploded in the early 1990s. That too appears to have reached its limits. And the most trumpeted solution of this kind--the growth in influence and support of the Brazilian Workers Party--has now come face to face with the realities of a global system.

The movement in Argentina, therefore, is more than just another wave of protest. Its forms as well as its demands suggest, however embryonically, that the solution must be popular and democratic--that a capitalist state will always protect the interests of the few against the needs and interests of the masses. That such an alternative system must be international and socialist is an argument that now has to be won within the movement. Porto Alegre placed it on the agenda--to the discomfort of the 'top tables' of Social Democratic politicians and spokespeople--when the MST unfurled a banner at the final meeting it said, 'A better world is possible--but only with socialism.'