CWI Summer School: Political upheavals in Latin America

Entreme Right and reformist Left in crisis


The discussion on Latin America at this year’s CWI Summer School in Barcelona took place at an important conjuncture for the continent. Deepening economic crisis, caused by the collapse of the commodity boom, is creating huge instability and political upheavals in country after country. As well as provoking movements against governments of the neo-liberal right, the crisis has also undermined and exposed the limitations of the reformist left governments which came to power in Latin America around the turn of the century. While the dynamic underway is complex, real opportunities are posed for revolutionary socialists to shape the course of events in the coming period. The meeting marked an important step forward for the CWI on the continent through reunification with the comrades from Izquierda Revolucionaria in Venezuela and Mexico, who made an invaluable contribution to the discussion.


Comrades William and Miguel explained the nature of the sharp challenge now faced by the Maduro government in Venezuela. Coming to power in 1999, the Chávista regime implemented reforms which benefitted the working class and poor by using funds from the country’s nationalised oil industry. The government was pushed to the left under pressure from the masses but, despite its adoption of socialist rhetoric, Chávez and Maduro have left the bulk of the economy in the hands of the capitalists. With the 2008 economic crash and subsequent slowdown in China, the basis for ‘oil socialism’ was undermined and social spending cut. Tony Saunois of the CWI’s International Secretariat pointed out that a similar model has been pursued by the Morales government in Bolivia, which has been able to maintain spending on the basis of the discovery of precious metals in the country, but that this too is ultimately unsustainable.

A spiralling economic crisis has developed in Venezuela in recent years, exacerbated by conscious sabotage on the part of the ruling class. A capital flight of $300 billion has taken place, the equivalent of twelve Marshall Plans. Shortages of basic commodities have led to spiralling hyperinflation, projected to hit 1,000% this year. For broad sections of the population, life has become a daily struggle to secure their next meal. The government’s response has been to sell state bonds in order to pay its debts and bribe bosses to import goods but this has had little impact. The bureaucracy has also swung in an increasingly authoritarian direction, particularly after Chávez’s death in 2013, removing elements of democratic control of industry and using state repression against sections of workers. While the bulk of workers and the poor don’t want a return to power of the traditional right-wing, remembering the brutal repression of the 1989 uprising, these factors have demoralised the masses and opened up opportunities for reaction.

In 2015, the right-wing alliance won a majority in the National Assembly. They achieved this by hiding their real political programme, pledging to maintain the social reforms of the Chávistas, but also promising stability. However, their role has since been to destabilise the situation further, mobilising middle class youth – including fascist elements – to engage in confrontations with the state and paying sections of workers to take part in ‘general strikes’ against the government. Imperialism is determined to remove the Chávista regime in order to send a message and undermine the left across the continent, with Trump saying he no longer recognises the government and threatening to stop buying Venezuelan oil. Both a ‘democratic’ counter-revolution and another attempted coup, such as that defeated by the masses in 2002, are possible in the next period.

To solidify his position, Maduro called elections to a Constituent Assembly to draft a new ‘revolutionary’ constitution. However, constitutional tinkering cannot resolve the crisis facing the Venezuelan people and fend off the threat of the right. That will require a break with capitalism and the adoption of bold socialist policies, including the nationalisation of the banks and all key sectors of the economy under democratic workers’ control, the development of a plan of production to meet people’s needs, a state monopoly on foreign trade and a moratorium on the national debt. The CWI in Venezuela is campaigning to build independent organisations of the working class to fight for this programme.


Last year, Brazil saw a parliamentary coup against President Dilma of the ex-social democratic Workers’ Party (PT). For 13 years, the PT had been the preferred vehicle for capitalist rule in the country. The party implemented a broadly neo-liberal programme while introducing limited social reforms which benefitted the poorest in society and using its authority amongst the working class – based on its role in opposing the military dictatorship which ruled the country from 1964 to 1985 – to cut across social movements from below. However, comrade Rafael explained how the economic crisis opened up the class divisions in Brazilian society and a section of the capitalist elite lost faith in the PT’s ability to maintain social peace while also carrying through the harsh austerity they deem necessary.

The pretext for the coup was the uncovering of major corruption at the state-owned oil company, Petrobras. That the PT were guilty of corruption is undeniable but so too is the politically motivated nature of Operation Lava Jato (Carwash) and the subsequent impeachment. Despite the fact that the PMDB – a right-wing coalition partner of the PT – was also implicated, Michel Temer was instated as interim President and quickly set about implementing sharp attacks on pensions and public services.

Temer’s government has the support of only 3-4% of the population and its cuts have provoked the development of mass opposition, including the largest general strike in the history of the country in May this year. Tony Saunois pointed out that the ruling class may regret their attack on the PT, as Dilma’s predecessor, Lula, is the only bourgeois politician with any authority in the country, because of the social reforms introduced under his presidency. However, he has been found guilty of corruption and may be barred from contesting future elections.

The coup disorientated much of the left, with some uncritically defending Dilma while others adopted a sectarian, agnostic position on the coup, arguing it made no difference whether the PT or PMDB held the Presidency. Liberdade, Socialismo & Revolucao (LSR – the CWI in Brazil) opposed the coup but also called for the building of a broad, socialist front as an alternative to the PT and all the parties of Brazilian capitalism. However, the left in the country is undergoing growth and realignment in the wake of the coup, with the strengthening of the left inside PSOL (Party of Socialism and Freedom), in which LSR participates. Our comrades are also involved in the new People Without Fear front – launched by the homeless workers’ movement, MTST – which organised a major day of protest against Temer on March 15th.


Comrade Gabi described how 42% of people in Mexico live below the poverty line. The economy is in crisis, with foreign direct investment falling, debt mounting and the value of the peso slumping. In response, the right-wing government has launched an assault on low-paid workers, with energy ‘reforms’ greatly increasing the cost of petrol and sharp cuts to public services, although attacks on healthcare and education have been forced back by movements from below. Coupled with allegations of government corruption and connections with drug cartels, including the murder of 43 students, this has opened up a space for the left.

Next year’s presidential election could see victory for Lopez Obrador, head of the left-wing MORENA (Movement for National Regeneration). Obrador came close to winning in 2006 and 2012, with electoral fraud widely suspected to have secured victory for the right. In 2006, this led to an upsurge in mass struggle, with a popular uprising in Oaxaca and a huge strike of metal workers in Michoacan. Obrador failed to give leadership to the movement and he has subsequently moderated his position. Elements of the establishment are seeking to ‘domesticate’ him and his party. However, the lead-up to the presidential election in 2018 could see a resurgence of struggle from below and Izquierda Revolucionaria will support efforts to develop an independent voice for the working class, poor and indigenous peoples in this context.

Chile, Colombia, Cuba…

In Chile, comrade Pablo explained that the government of ‘Socialist’ President Bachelet is facing mounting opposition from both the youth and older workers, despite the use of repressive measures reminiscent of the Pinochet dictatorship. Students are demanding that Bachelet fulfil her promise to introduce free education and a new mass movement has emerged in opposition to a regressive pension scheme which forces workers to pay 10% of their salary to a private company which is making huge profits while most pensioners live in poverty. The CWI in Chile is involved in the front leading this struggle, which includes the bank workers’ union, and arguing that this be used to build a new, powerful left force in the country.

An important theme which emerged in the discussion was the potential for explosive movements of women. Comrade Tatiana explained that thirteen women per day die in Brazil as a result of gender-violence, disproportionately effecting those from poor and oppressed communities, with similarly horrific circumstances across Latin America. In 2015, the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) movement against femicide emerged in Argentina and quickly spread from country to country. This new generation of women fighters can clash with the continent’s conservative elites, including over restrictive abortion laws. Women will also be hit particularly hard by neo-liberal austerity and will play a central role in resisting it. As part of the People Without Fear day of action in Brazil on March 15th, LSR members joined other women’s rights activists in occupying the National Social Security office in Sao Paolo in opposition to Temer’s openly sexist government and demanding an end to the attacks on public pensions. The CWI’s forces in Latin America will seek to concretely connect the struggle for women’s liberation to the need for a socialist transformation of society.

The pace of events in Latin America is dizzying and barely a country has been left untouched by the impact of the economic crisis. Giving the first ever contribution from a Colombian comrade at a CWI school, comrade Juan explained that the tentative truce in the country’s decades-long civil war between the state and guerrilla forces has seen powerful and independent movements of teachers, peasants and other sections emerge and win victories. Comrade Victor pointed out that the Castro regime’s ambitions to follow the ‘Chinese road’ towards reintroduction of capitalism in Cuba have been checked for the time being, with plans to push one million state workers into the private sector meeting opposition from within the ranks of the Communist Party itself.

The struggles in Latin America since the turn of the century are rich in lessons for socialists across the globe. The crisis now facing reformism in Venezuela in particular is instructive and it is the duty of Marxists to draw an honest balance sheet of this experience for the education of working class activists. There is no half-way house between capitalism and socialism. If movements of the working class are not carried through to a decisive break with capitalism, they will ultimately be knocked back. The masses of Latin America are now assimilating these lessons. The next period will be one of tumultuous struggle in this continent with a rich, revolutionary history and the strengthened forces of the CWI will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in the fight for socialism going forward.

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August 2017