And The People Entered The Scene

15. 3. 2017

In Latin America, even the Right is talking like the Left. In recent times, this is the only way to win elections in most countries of the region. But to be able to rule afterwards, you must make deals with big money. And then you do your own thing—as much as possible.

The Latin American Left still rules triumphant. Brazil, Bolivia, El Salvador, Costa Rica… In recent months, left-wing parties and movements again—that is to say, like they have done for a dozen years—recorded several victories. In the little El Salvador the former guerrillas from the Farabundo Marti Front again took power, as did the leftist Party of Civic Action in the notoriously quiet Costa Rica. In mid-October the Bolivians elected Evo Morales as president for the third time running—Morales, a former leader of small coca growers, is the first native in this office in the entire history of the country and an icon of the egalitarian wave in the region.

However, it was the elections in the regional superpower, Brazil, which were followed by the world with greatest interest. They were won again by Dilma Rousseff, a successor of the great Lula, champion of egalitarian change.

The elections in Brazil were full of dramatic events (a plane crash and the death of one of the candidates) and twists like in action movies, but perhaps the most interesting is the fact that each of the three main contenders for the presidency— Dilma Rousseff, Aécio Neves and Marina Silva— used a language invoking the needs and aspirations of the poor. This says something universal about Latin America today. Dilma boasted of the achievements of herself and her predecessor. The liberal Neves and the ecologist Silva attacked Dilma personally, criticized the abuse of power by the regime, blamed it for the stagnation in the economy, but did not dispute the essential achievements. For how can you question the fact that over the last 12 years the governments of Dilma and Lula drew approximately 40 million people out of poverty?

Life is Good with the Left

Thanks to flagship programmes No Hunger and Bolsa Familia (family scholarships for each child) the poorest have begun to eat better, buy household items and send their children to school—rather than to work or to beg on streets. The minimum wage has increased by 70 percent. Just these changes expanded the consumer market and boosted demand—manufacturers of food and other basic goods could rub their hands in glee. More than 20 million new jobs have been created and unemployment is at a historical low of 6 percent. Over 40 million people have set up bank accounts for the first time in their lives.

These few examples from Brazil form a good introduction to the tales of “refolutions” in Latin America. The key thing was—as it seems—the revision of the false belief that the “invisible hand of the market” would solve all problems. The Latin American movements for change along with their leaders apparently did not have any ambitions to create a universal ideology: they dusted off the ideas of Keynes and Rhine capitalism, used some new-socialist ideas and added a lot of pragmatic thinking to the mix. In the world of neo-liberal hegemony this pinch of revisionism may seem revolutionary, but in fact it is not. If you talk about a revolution, it is only from the frog perspective: for example, many people who were malnourished are today reasonably well fed and feel the wind in their sails. This is quite a lot—but is it a revolution? Brazil owes this change to President Lula. During his eight years’ rule 30 million Brazilians joined the new middle class. This class now counts about one hundred million people and is therefore able to elect the head of state.

Let us look at the Brazilian change “from below,” from the perspective of household budgets. Household budgets of the new middle class range today between a thousand and five thousand reals. A decade earlier these people had no jobs or did casual work, often for miserable sum of money. Observations and conversations with people from various walks of life in Rio and Sao Paulo—from a lawyer representing a large company to a cleaner and cook form the favelas working in the homes of the wealthy—confirm the official optimism. Brazil has made a leap, and millions of poor people broke out of the worst poverty, which often had not allowed them to eat their fill.

One of the local weeklies traced the changes in the life of the Perreiras, a poor family from Sao Paulo, which during Lula’s two terms in office covered the distance from exclusion to the new middle class.

In 2002, the income of the Perreira family (four children) was 700 reals—now it is 4000, with 600 reals going for mortgage payments. The father of the family, who like President Lula once worked in a steel mill, was out of work a decade ago. He railed: he had always lived honestly, raised two daughters and two sons, no one from the family had ever sought earnings in the criminal underworld, and at Christmas they did not even have beans. Pride would not let him apply for government aid, despite the fact that as a father of four children he could get several hundred reals a month from Lula government’s flagship program. “I want a fishing rod, not a fish,” he was saying.

Mr Perreira got a permanent job as a security guard and doorman at the end of the first term of the unionist president (2003–2006). New jobs were created and new opportunities opened up. His grown-up son Diego also got a job, as the head of sales in a large company. Now, the company pays him for an English language course: they are going to send him to the US for an internship. The second son, Rodrigo, works as a car mechanic. Jade Perreira left her job as a saleswoman and thanks to the availability of scholarships took a course in physiotherapy. The second daughter Amanda is studying nursing and will be the first university graduate in the family. All children have private health insurance.

Never before have the Perreiras eaten so well. They cannot afford the most expensive beef tenderloin, but they eat meat every day, and sometimes also the expensive seafood. In their kitchen they have a refrigerator with a freezer, always full, a 42-inch flat-screen TV in the living room, and a music system, on which Mr Perreira is listening to his favorite Chico Buarque. The Internet is connected around the clock, they are googling and chatting. Ms. Estela—the mother of the family—browses the net for recipes for her increasingly sophisticated cuisine. They could afford refurnishing their apartment. They say that once they had no dreams, they just wanted to scrape by. Today they live on another planet and say that they owe it to Lula’s rule.

The Right is Trapped

Lula initiated over a hundred different social programs. He began by raising the minimum wage and pensions. The poorest get benefits, but under the condition that their children will go to school rather than to work. The poor started buying things, which helped the economy. Global demand for soy beans, meat, iron and many other export products favored job creation and helped in launching projects which drew the poor out of poverty: from electrification of the areas without electricity to scholarships, training, loans. All funded by the government. The newspapers are still full of announcements about courses and trainings sponsored by the state; they publish analyses about shortage of professionals in specific industries to help choose the subject of study.

Two decades ago, only 13 percent of young people between 18 and 20 years of age had completed high school—now it is 41 percent. There was a significant increase in the Universal Development Index (the Brazilian equivalent of the global Human Development Index), which includes per capita income, education and life expectancy (which has risen from a low 0.493 to an impressively high 0.727).

The effects of the egalitarian policies are also impressive: an average Brazilian now lives nine years longer compared with the period before the governments of the Workers’ Party of Lula and Dilma: 74 years as opposed to 65. The Brazilian Left has managed to combine two processes sometimes considered to be as a irreconcilable as fire and water: good condition of the economy and large spending on the fight against poverty. This does not mean that Brazil is an idyll—the starting point was extremely difficult: poverty, inequality, violence on different levels of social relationships.

In general, however, rivals and critics of the current government in Brazil find themselves in an extremely awkward position: they can say that they would do the same thing as Lula, Dilma and the Workers Party, only better. It is imprudent to denigrate the achievements of the government, because the people see and feel what life is like—and it is better than ever. For example, Silva said—in accordance with her green profile— that she would be better at safeguarding the environment; she criticized the government for spearheading development at the price of devastation of nature, but she would maintain the social programmes. And the liberal Neves emphasized that the family scholarship programme for the poor, Bolsa Familia, was started not by Lula and Dilma, but by the historical leader of his party, a liberal donning social democratic robes, the ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso—Lula and Dilma only expanded the programme. Even the liberal party, which fielded Neves, calls itself social democratic. Politics in the region, and not just government policy, have shifted to the left.

A similar language is used by parts of the Latin American right and centre in other countries. Already a decade ago in Venezuela a man named Manuel Rosales, the candidate of the right, was trumping up Hugo Chávez in promises of paradise for the people. Henrique Capriles is currently attacking the autocratic tendencies of Chávez’s successor, but he does not attack the programs for inclusion of the poor—he would not destroy, but improve them. Thus, the rivals of the ruling left, regardless of what they call themselves, join the main stream of the river, and do not even try to swim against the current. You either turn left, or you do not exist.

A World Turned Upside Down

The direction in which the river of politics flows is typically defined by historical experience.

In Poland, after the nominally socialist People’s Republic, a greater part of politicians and “chattering classes” renounced the active role of the government in the economy. Almost every idea of more interventionism or increasing taxes is met with an allergic reaction. The ideas of equal opportunities and egalitarianism provoke panic, as if Bolsheviks or the Khmer Rouge stood at the gates of Warsaw. It is of no use to explain that, for example, West Germany after World War II with its state-controlled capitalism, or even the US at the time, were not countries of communist terror—and yet they had a relatively egalitarian policy.

The course of history in our part of the world is responsible for the fact that the two main parties in Poland are right-wing: one of them is right-liberal (Civic Platform), the second is right-anti-communist-Catholic (Law and Justice). Even the parliamentary left uses the language of the right when talking about socio-economic issues: we remember how the “leftist” Leszek Miller praised the virtues of a flat-rate tax.

In Latin America, history has shifted politics to the left. What dominated here were dictatorships in the name of defending the status quo of big landowners, industrialists and the Monroe doctrine, under which the United States had granted itself the right to intervene in the Western Hemisphere if it decided that its interests were threatened. Governments ruling on behalf of big capital did not care for the poor and liquidated their opponents.

The opening in the sphere of political freedom after the Cold War was not accompanied by a similar opening in the socio-economic sphere. The poor—in some countries the majority—were still poor. Politics in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, first tested in Chile and Argentina (today commonly called neoliberal), increased poverty and inequality in the region. It consisted of opening local markets to cheap products and financial speculation, a crude anti-inflation policy, withdrawal of the government from its social duties, privatization of the public sector—a sometimes more severe variant of the policy adopted by Leszek Balcerowicz. Between the early 1980s and the beginning of the new century, the number of Hispanics living below the poverty line almost doubled.

That is why at the end of the 1990s in almost entire Latin America a leftist wave begins—a trend that makes voters give power to former guerrillas, activists, trade unionists fighting dictatorships and neoliberalism. Chávez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Lula and Dilma in Brazil, the Kirchner couple in Argentina and a few other leaders are the result of oppression and violence on the part of dictatorships, and the subsequent neglect of poverty and inequalities. Their governments have improved the fate of millions in most countries and that is why the majority still vote for them and their successors.

Not everywhere the egalitarian wave is fixing the world with equal success. Political and economical crisis in Venezuela is a painful example of a lost opportunity, despite the mate- rial advancement of a substantive part of the poor. Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay have something to boast of in the field of reducing deprivation and inequality, although there is still plenty to do in these countries. Lula, the legend of Brazil, says that a dozen years of governing on behalf of the poor—and for them—is little, compared to five centuries of rule by the rich and privileged, who exercised power only in the interests of their class. Fixing the world will take some time.

The End of Radicalism

The successes of the left in Latin America would probably be impossible if it had not blunted its radicalism. Grinding down the sharp edges affected nearly all charismatic leaders and their political camps. It is not even that holding power teaches humility, as not everything can be done right away. It is possible that without limiting their aspirations, the leftist leaders would not have managed to carry out any changes. The old power structure, especially in the economy, but also in the judicialy sector, would not allow a very far-reaching violation of its interests.

A perfect example of the self-restraint of the “refolutionists” was quoted in the Polish weekly Polityka by Professor Ladislau Dowbor, an adviser to Lula: before Lula took office, he reassured bankers that he would meet the commitments of his predecessors relating to the interest rates on public debt. “Government bonds were bought out by banks on the basis of a special agreement determining interest,” said Dowbor, “for my savings deposited in a bank I was getting 8 percent a year. And the bank bought government bonds for that money and the state paid it 25 percent. A fantastic amount of money flowed to the rentier class.”

Initially, Lula did not change this, because the change would hurt the interests of an influential group. “In Brazil, everyone knows,” Dowbor says, “that when you are herding cows across a river, you have to kill one cow and give it to the piranhas. The piranhas throng to it and the other cows can pass to the other side of the river unharmed. Lula threw the interest rate on public debt to be devoured. The privileged felt safe and did not block the programmes for the poorest.” In other words, it was a “tax for peace,” and its reduction became possible when the new leftist government felt more confident.

A similar game was played with big agribusiness by José Mujica in Uruguay, and before that by Nestor Kirchner in Argentina (the latter only until the time, when under the reign of his wife and successor, Cristina Fernández, agribusiness rebelled against the raising of the tax on soybean exports). Several years ago, the great landowners in Bolivia almost overturned the government of Evo Morales and they just stopped short of declaring a secession of the agricultural regions, which are also home of the largest deposits of natural gas and oil. Their resistance waned when they saw that Morales introduced tax incentives for exporters of agricultural products.

The pragmatism of the ruling left-wing Latin American leaders, their deals with the capital and the old elites, is not always liked by the rankand- file activists, trade unionists and ordinary supporters who brought them to power. Sometimes it is the source of a rich “inner life”—shocks, revisionisms, splits.

A Fractured Left

One example is Uruguay. From the outside, it seems that all progressives are unconditionally in love with President Mujica (approaching the end of his term), known for bravery during his guerrilla times and a modest lifestyle when in power. Basically, it is true, but with an infinite number of various “buts”. Mujica himself is celebrated, but his economic policies are considered too conservative by a part of the left.

Gabriela Bekley, an activist from Montevideo, explained to me a few months ago what “but” is held by a part of the ruling government against Mujika. “He surrendered the economy to the social liberals, like his predecessor and likely successor Tabare Vázquez. The social liberals are making deals with agribusiness and foreign companies. Foreign investors are exempted from taxes and enrich themselves, but the larger society does not share this wealth,” says Bekley, and this is only the beginning of the reservations. Other issues: the exploitation of minerals with no regard for environmental degradation, deforestation, lack of a tax reform that would reduce the profits of big capital. A similar criticism of the ruling Workers’ Party in Brazil is formulated by its internal critics and splitters as well as by many urban, environmental and labor movements. At the heart of the criticism in recent years has been wasteful expenditure on the construction of stadiums, and another aspect of this: appeasing the developers who sponsor election campaigns.

Some people of the left, thinking like Bekley, did not want to accept that the candidate of their camp in the last election (October/November 2014) was Tabare Vázquez, who as a president in 2005–2010 vetoed the law permitting abortion for social reasons. People had to wait for his successor José Mujica to pass this law.

Moral conservatism of some parts of Latin American left is a source of bitter controversy. For example, Evo Morales is furiously attacked by feminists. Maria Galindo, 54, director and activist of one of women’s organizations, regrets that the world admires him as a promoter of the rights of indigenous people. “And what about the rights of women and homosexuals?” she asks. “With the support of the Church and the army, Morales is blocking changes to the restrictive anti-abortion law. It allows abortion only in the cases of rape and when the life of the mother is threatened.”

The attitude to women’s rights and abortion law is probably the biggest difference between the ruling left in Latin America and the left in Europe or the US. This state of affairs is not affected by the fact that the three major countries of the region are ruled by women: Brazil— Dilma Rousseff, Argentina—Cristina Fernández, Chile—Michelle Bachelet. Bachelet is trying to force through a very conservative law making abortion legal only in 3 cases (rape, threat to the mother’s life, damaged foetus). In the arch-Conservative Chile enacting even such a restrictive law is next to impossible. Fernández is against the pro-choice bill, and Rousseff, although an atheist, is taking an opportunistic position (she does not want to antagonize the Church and the popular neo-Protestant religions). Equally conservative in this regard are male leaders, and at the forefront of the anti-liberal approach are Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

Like in Poland, combating domestic violence and feminicide (feminicidio) is running against obstacles—and these crimes are even more common than in our country. The term “feminicide,” coined by researchers of domestic violence, is legitimized by the experience of many countries. Police investigations of homicide against women are protracted or sometimes not even undertaken, and sentencing is usually milder than in situations when a woman kills a man. The killing of a man by a woman is treated by courts as a premeditated crime; the killing of a woman by a man is treated as a crime of passion (the punishment is then much lower, for example as for manslaughter). So in practice feminicide is a different category of crime than murder, even if the law makes no distinction according to sex.

Progress in the areas of customs and culture usually takes more time than material progress and requires a revolution in the minds. Liberation from cultural oppression usually comes when basic material needs are met, and enrichment is followed by education. Many Latin American countries, including those successfully ruled by the Left, are still struggling primarily with poverty, which places demands from the moral sphere on the back burner.

Sometimes political leaders lack the courage, even if their heads are open to change: they fear losing the support of the poor. The latter tend to be conservative on moral issues, although that is slowly changing too. The visionaries of the current “refolutions” hope that the various rights and freedoms reinforce each other. Although there is no rock-solid correlation, the overall material improvement can inspire openness in matters of culture and custom. These “refolutionists” who are trying to plan the next two or three steps forward are hoping that in the countries governed by the left things will soon go that way.

Artur Domosławski

Reporter of the Polityka weekly, an expert on Latin America, author of the book Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life (Verso, 2012).

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