Fiery mobilizations shook Latin America in 2019, part of a global upsurge. Youth, women, indigenous people and workers ignited enormous protests. They started in Honduras, Haiti and Venezuela; went on to Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil; and finally spread to Colombia, Chile and Bolivia. And this is only a partial list!
The failure of free-market capitalism to provide a decent standard of living to the majority had long been clear. People were fed up.
Both right-wing and reformist left governments faced popular wrath for refusing to attack vast wealth inequality, government corruption and indifference. Many regimes fell, only to be replaced by ones worse or no better. The battle for real change is still raging.
The gospel of neoliberalism. A key problem is U.S. economic domination through free trade policies from the 1980s. Called neoliberalism, these include eliminating trade barriers, selling off public property, eliminating social programs and depressing wages and working conditions. Institutions like the World Bank demanded such changes by poor countries to get loans.
Haiti bowed to the Clinton administration and dropped trade protections, destroying local agriculture. The country is now food insecure and desperately poor. Fifty-nine percent of people live on less than $2 a day.
Haiti’s current struggle started in 2018 with President Jovenel Moïse attempting to raise the cost of gasoline. Intense protests stopped him, but people remained mobilized. They demanded his resignation for murdering protesters, being charged with embezzling millions, and contributing to their long-term misery.
Across the board, neoliberalism brought the Latin American working class government-imposed austerity. Dissatisfaction built popular movements to elect leftwing parties to power. By 2009, two-thirds of the countries had done that.
Reformist left governments no answer. The governments of Venezuela and Bolivia, both professing socialist aims, initially increased social programs with revenue from sales of resources like oil, natural gas and minerals. But, like the rest of the region, their economies were dependent on commodity prices remaining high. In 2013, they crashed, and recession hit.
Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, successor to Hugo Chávez, imposed harsh austerity through cuts to wages and social spending in order to pay off foreign debt. Huge protests in 2017 and 2019 were met with criminalization of protesters. Over the last five years, more than 3 million people have been forced by want to leave the country.
In his early years in office, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales reduced poverty through government aid. But he lost support from his indigenous base with infrastructure projects and mining on their lands. In response to the economic crisis, he cut social programs. Former allies like the Bolivian Workers’ Confederation and university students led mobilizations against his betrayals.
In 2016, Morales lost a referendum to allow him a fourth term in office, yet he ran anyway in 2019, inspiring protests. He resigned and left the country after losing the backing of key sectors of the population, the police and the military. This allowed a reactionary government to step in. Indigenous people, women, and workers were left on their own to defend themselves against vigilante violence and state repression.
Right-wing regimes also in crisis. Chile’s upsurge stems from its reactionary history. A U.S.-engineered coup overthrew the reformist socialist regime of Salvador Allende in 1973. Infamous dictator Augusto Pinochet took over and privatized pension, education and health care systems. Limited democracy only returned in 1990. Chile has the highest wealth inequality in Latin America.
An October 2019 transit fare hike in Santiago inspired organized fare evasion by secondary school students. This sparked widespread protests against economic disparity and 30 years of repression. Women have been prominent in these fights, extending into 2020.
The rebellion against Colombia’s right-wing president Iván Duque started with a national strike against a rumored austerity package. It rapidly broadened into protests led by students, women, and indigenous people over inequality, corruption and murders of tribal leaders.
The huge size and militancy of the struggles in the region is unprecedented. But a common feature is that they have not gone beyond protesting specific issues of poverty, wealth inequality, corruption, environmental destruction and repression to demanding fundamental change.
Clearly undefeated, poor and working people will continue battling in the new year. Finally winning popular demands means going beyond socialism-in-name-only to real systemic change. Given the level of struggle, there’s reason for optimism. What is desperately needed is to build the revolutionary parties that can win trust and lead the way.
Send feedback to Luis Tejada, a member of the joint Comrades of Color Caucus of FSP and Radical Women, at firstname.lastname@example.org.