Populism and Democratic Socialism in Latin America: Reply

Populism and Democratic Socialism in Latin America: Reply

Democratic socialism cannot emerge exclusively, or even primarily, from the grassroots—it implies the structuring of social resources in ways that require government action.

Rafael Correa speaking to supporters, 2011 (Ministerio Coordinador de Producción, Ecuador / Flickr)

This article is part of a forum on the lessons of Latin America's "pink tide" for democratic socialists. To read the rest of the forum, click here.

My essay that kicked off this forum was based on the observation of a seeming contradiction: that the prospects of democratic socialism seemed to be going one way in the United States and another in Latin America. The Sanders campaign kept surpassing expectations, while some of Latin America’s left-wing governments faced existential crises. In the short months that have since passed, much has already changed. In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff has been impeached and is temporarily removed from office—likely for good, pending the outcome of the vote in the Senate. (Bryan McCann’s response provides the details.) In Peru, the left lost in the first round, and in the runoff the centrist technocrat, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, narrowly defeated the right-wing authoritarian, Keiko Fujimori. And here in the United States, Clinton and Trump will be their parties’ respective nominees and one has to hope that the experience of Peru will be repeated, but with a much wider margin of victory.

My piece was also intended as a provocation: how are we supposed to get to democratic socialism, when both the moderate path and the more radical “populist” one seem to have encountered various kinds of trouble? McCann agrees with some of the pessimism of the original piece: there are too many interest groups involved to be able to attain democratic socialism in Brazil—the best that can be hoped for is a restoration of a fragile and flawed social democracy. But perhaps the behavior of Latin America’s “New Right”—which rhetorically promised to defend social gains but administer them more effectively—will make a flawed social democracy seem more attractive again, given that the “New Right”’s first moves in Brazil and Argentina have included curbing social spending and cutting culture and education budgets. Michel Temer in Brazil has faced significant backlash for staffing his first cabinet entirely with white men, and many of the cynical and self-serving politicians who orchestrated Dilma’s ouster have already been removed from office for corruption or (like Temer) barred from running for further office.

The responses from Sujatha Fernandes and Thea Riofrancos (and to some degree, McCann) also focus on an absence from the original essay: social movements. Both point out that the pink tide was only made possible because of anti-neoliberal mobilizations of the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps Riofrancos puts it the most strongly: populist leaders do not go about creating “the people,” populist leaders are made possible by popular mobilization. The movements come before the leaders.

This in many ways rings true. Popular unrest, among other things, shows politicians how to respond to genuine grievances. Meanwhile, and at least as important, social movements create solidarity and change the conditions of political possibility. They are vehicles for naming and fighting various forms of oppression. Redistributive social policy is not a gift from kindly governments, it emerges from the dynamic between governments and popular demands.

But we should not overly romanticize social movements. Neighborhood groups in Venezuela, to take one example, may have helped create Chávez, but many also employed violence and intimidation, even during Chavismo’s best years. A comeuppance for the bourgeoisie, undoubtedly, but also part of the reason that Venezuela’s divisions are so deep—perhaps even a part of its extraordinarily high levels of violent crime. To add a historical example: careful post-mortems of Salvador Allende’s Chile show that the sectors of the labor movement that seized factories and put them on the state payroll created enormous economic problems for his government. So while the reminder to focus on the bottom-up is well taken, and of course I too am inspired by the grassroots campaigns for social justice across the Americas, democratic socialism cannot emerge exclusively, or even primarily, from the grassroots. Grassroots action is necessary but not sufficient, for democratic socialism implies the structuring of social resources in ways that require government action. Finally, on this point, it might also be worth noting that a forum similar to this one but carried out ten years ago would have found plenty to celebrate with the governments in power, and so focusing on celebrating social movements in some ways marks a retreat.

Javier Buenrostro’s essay makes a different argument: that the problem of Venezuela (in the extreme case) and of other left governments lies in having failed to change the mode of production based on the extraction of natural resources. This is also an important point: Venezuela has witnessed a succession of economic crises both under “socialism” and under “neoliberalism.” If today’s crisis discredits “socialism,” as some say, then the riots and state repression known as the Caracazo of 1989 discredit “neoliberalism.” In reality, Buenrostro argues, the problem is deeper. Lack of diversification remains a major economic problem for most Latin American economies, exacerbating both instability and inequality. And this is also a source of conflict between even left-wing governments (looking for mineral or oil resources, for example) and people in rural areas (frequently poor, indigenous, or both) whose lives and environments are most affected. The very deep questions about the nature of economic development Buenrostro raises are beyond the scope of this response, but this too is a valuable point. Those who seek to transform society over the long run need to plan for adversity. This crosses ideological boundaries: Evo Morales did it better than Hugo Chávez; the Frente Amplio governments of Tabaré Vázquez and José Mujica in Uruguay did it better than Rousseff in Brazil.

Mujica, the austere and blunt man who developed an international reputation for continuing to live in the same small apartment and drive the same old Volkswagen Beetle when he was president of Uruguay, has recently said that “if it is time for the left to lose ground, let it lose it and learn from the experience.” The pink tide is not over, the left is not defeated across the region, and it is remains as necessary as ever. But for the time being, majorities have turned against it in many places. One can only hope that one of the legacies of the pink tide will be of the construction of a better and more effective left in the future.


Patrick Iber is assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso. He is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (Harvard University Press, 2015).

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