The new millennium unleashed a wave of popular rebellions in Latin America, which propelled a number of left governments into power. These governments came to be known as the Pink Tide, and while they have not pursued full-blown “red” policies, they received enthusiastic support from radical quarters, including from some of our leading thinkers. Noam Chomsky, for instance, praised the achievements of the new reformers in the areas of democracy, sovereign development, and popular welfare.1 The ability of these countries to soften neoliberalism’s worst effects, empower popular sectors, and stand up to US domination mark a welcome rebound from the prior “lost decades” of market fundamentalism and social exclusion. In the global context, the Pink Tide contrasts starkly with full-blown neoliberal continuity in the capitalist core and the discouraging outcomes of the Arab Spring in the Middle East.
Yet the tide is receding, and unlike daily coastal ebbs, the decline of the region’s left is a longer-term retreat of reform governments. After Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999 as an outsider populist-nationalist, Lula, the historic leader of the Workers' Party, was elected president of Brazil in 2002, followed by Nestor Kirchner in Argentina in 2003, Evo Morales in Bolivia a year and a half later, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador one year after that. They and their successors enjoyed impressive runs. But beginning in 2015, key losses initiated a reversal of the Left’s fortunes. That year, elections took down reform Peronism. Then followed a “constitutional coup” that toppled Dilma Roussef in Brazil. Rafael Correa’s coalition in Ecuador is crumbling after his reform candidate just eked out a win. Although Morales’s hold on power remains firm, when Nicolás Maduro goes in Venezuela, bringing down with him what remains of the Bolivarian Revolution’s accomplishments, the cycle will be complete.2
How should we evaluate the Pink Tide? What is its true record of achievements and failures? What undercut its promise and reversed its ascent? Interestingly, most assessments, from friends and foes alike, point to avoidable mistakes made by politicians and their parties. From the Right, analysts divide Latin American reformers into good and bad lefts, arguing, unsurprisingly, that Pink Tide shortcomings emanate from their original populist sin. There, while natural rents could buy popular allegiance, such patronage corroded stable republican institutions, irreparably polarized political and civil society, and inevitably led to fiscal disaster. Others from the Left, mostly radicals, point not to its demagogic overreach, but to the reformers’ docility and acquiescence to elite power. Here, reformers are scolded for not going far enough; indeed, even the “wrong” strategies scorned by conservatives confined themselves to limits “permitted” by business elites, seeking to restore neoliberal legitimacy.3
Such critiques of the Pink Tide reformers share a curious commonality. Both adopt voluntarist approaches to assessing the region’s left turn. Resurrecting a hobbyhorse of revolutionary socialists — notably pounded by those who argue that revolutionary opportunities have routinely been squandered in absence of “correct” leadership lines4 — they focus on the decisions made by those in charge of the reform process. But they ignore, or give scant attention to, the opportunity structure in which these forces operated. Assessing the tactics of officials and activists in this fashion makes for, at best, an incomplete analysis. However much we sympathize with their programs, we need to understand how the circumstances of their rule substantially constrained their choices. The region’s contemporary left can best be evaluated only by situating its record within contemporary structural conditions.
A structural perspective that corrects for the voluntarist judgements of the Pink Tide urges us to move from a focus on the will of reformers to their abilityto affect change. After all, how can we thoughtfully assess left governments’ willingness to challenge elite power without first mapping the contours of what was feasible? The international left, both allies and critics of the Pink Tide, needs a capacity-based assessment to generate a more solid appraisal of the accomplishments and limitations of the post-2000 left turn in Latin America. More importantly, placing the Pink Tide in its proper context offers invaluable lessons for new popular struggles currently taking shape in the region. Without an understanding of the structural conditions in which radicals operate, it will be impossible to design a strategy to overcome the failures of a left surge that seemed so promising. To do so, this paper proposes a comparison between the Pink Tide and the region’s classical postwar left.
What Once Was and What Might Have Been
The excitement and expectations awakened by the Pink Tide’s emergence was directly proportional to the deep pessimism that had engulfed radicals and socialists after two decades of defeat and surrender. The scope of the Left’s retreat had dimmed the memory of the tremendous achievements of popular classes in the previous era. Beginning in the late 1950s, a new wave of radical movements, labor upsurges, and left parties either took power or succeeded in forcing the ruling class to make significant concessions. In many ways, this radical left realistically put socialism on the region’s agenda — both in terms of democratically planned economic development and genuine popular rule. Reviewing the bases of the pre-neoliberal left’s gains will help us better understand how the changed context of the 2000s constrained the Pink Tide and contributed to its decline.
Latin America’s Classical Left
Latin America’s prior radical surge culminated between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s.5 Although its defining characteristic was the militancy of workers and other popular urban sectors, this left cycle originated with the 1959 Cuban Revolution and closed with the demise of the Central American campesino-based insurgencies. The classical Latin American left did not replicate the Cuban Revolution’s distinctive dynamics and features, but the barbudos’ triumph was instrumental in opening a new radical path.
For one, it broke with Moscow-dominated Communist Parties’ Popular Front orientation, which hinged on alliances with modernizing capitalists. The key characteristic of the new left was its forceful rejection of subordinating working-class organization and demands to the requirements of a so-called bourgeois-democratic stage of development. It relied instead on militant class struggle to achieve decisive influence over, rather than remaining subsidiary to, the ruling class. And reflecting the radical policies implemented by the Cuban revolutionaries, this generation of the Left adopted a program of expanding and deepening the structural transformations unleashed by bourgeois modernizers. These involved comprehensive land reform, a thorough nationalization of key productive sectors, and the decommodification of vast swaths of social provision. In addition, the classical left proposed a profound democratization of political and economic affairs.
Of course, this more radical agenda sometimes created fissures between the forces leading the militant movements and their representatives in the state — as witnessed in the debates that wracked Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile — but overall the classical left agreed that state power was a lever to push forward their transformative agenda. In the postwar period, this agenda was pursued via two distinct routes: labor insurgency in the growing manufacturing sectors of South America, and, a decade later, agrarian insurgency in the countryside of Central America.
The first strong challenges from the Left emerged from the rising militancy of Southern Cone labor movements. Though workers’ socialist parties only came to power in Chile with Allende’s 1970 election, militant labor movements shaped state policies throughout. Alongside a growing agitation among rural masses for land, Brazilian unions took the initiative to break through the bonds of estado novo corporatism, pushing the Goulart government to adopt pro-labor reforms in the 1960s. Meanwhile, militants within the Argentine labor movement began to exert ever-greater influence, and, in alliance with radicalizing Peronists, led a labor insurgency that repeatedly forced military governments to abdicate power. Similar pressures pushed a nationalist military government in Peru in progressive directions. By the early 1970s, most major Latin American economies confronted the specter of widespread working-class revolt and, along with it, the imprint of significant social and institutional reforms.
When South American labor’s assertiveness was beat back, the region’s radicalism was not yet totally defeated. With the urban working class in the most industrially advanced countries in check, rebellion spread across Central America with seismic force. When mass movements for democracy and basic social rights for plantation labor and peasant communities arose and collided with landed oligarchies’ recalcitrance, new people’s armies emerged from organized rural communities and armed insurgency engulfed Nicaragua, El Salvador, and, to a lesser extent, Guatemala.6 Soon, these rural and mass revolutionary movements lost their effectiveness. The Sandinista revolution was brought to its knees by US-organized military intervention and a ferocious blockade, while stalemates and negotiated transitions weakened the other two insurgencies.
In sum, the post-Cuban Revolution Latin American left was founded on the mobilization of the working class and popular sectors. It strove to displace the ruling class from power and aimed to advance toward some kind of socialism and radical democracy. It is ironic, then, that the classical left acquired a reputation for having a narrow, class-reductionist approach in its demands and cultural priorities. Without a doubt, it raised the material standards and improved the livelihoods of all subaltern groups. But the classical left’s impact went far beyond “mere” economic improvements for working masses. No other political force in the region’s history contributed as much to democratizing political and social life across the board as the postwar left. Besides elevating popular sectors into forces to be reckoned with in national political arenas, the breadth and depth of the classical left’s reform program had enormous impacts on gender and racial equality. Indeed, we owe the completion of democratization in Latin America to that generation of radicals.
The Pink Tide
The demise of Latin America’s left could not last forever. After the blows inflicted by authoritarianism and negotiated democratization, a new left eventually reemerged. Around 2000, defensive struggles against neoliberalism in the region turned into an offensive wave that once again shook elite rule. Popular forces began mounting protest, first in sporadic episodes and later in generalized upsurges. This resurgent mobilization embodied expanding cycles of popular resistance to market reforms and it was on its strength that the Pink Tide governments came to power in Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador. And once in office, they adopted social policies aimed at reversing the harshest effects of two decades of economic liberalization.
The Pink Tide is characterized by two key features. First, its base in the mass mobilizations that began roughly in the second half of the 1990s. As structural adjustment and austerity threw growing swaths into the economic insecurity of the informal sector, laboring classes were also severed from their established links to establishment parties. Facing an intensified instability and material insecurity and cut off from parties that once represented their interests vis-à-vis the state, the region’s “dis-incorporated” masses responded with increasingly militant protest. As traditional political institutions lost the ability to effectively represent the interest of working people, and basic living conditions deteriorated, mass defiance grew in waves. This characteristic — expanding mobilization amid political disintegration — is central to the rise of the Pink Tide. The present comparative analysis, therefore, relates to cases where it was prominent, chiefly Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia.7
In most cases, this groundswell of protest advanced in proportion to the weakening of the neoliberal status quo. After he failed to take power in 1992, Hugo Chávez rode the tide of discontent and routed the traditional parties to win the Venezuelan presidency in 1998. For the next few years, periodic upsurges would defeat counterrevolutionary moves, bolster the Chavista hold on power, and deepen the progressive agenda. In Argentina, waves of localized protests by unemployed workers gained steam in the latter half of the 1990s, and following an economic collapse, laid siege to the capital. With the centers of power choked off and uncontainable unrest in the streets and commerce, a new brand of Peronism headed by Nestor Kirchner built up support by leaning on, and making concessions to, sections of the militant piquetero movement.
In Bolivia, the traditional party system centered around the MNR, the dominant party following the 1952 nationalist revolution, began to fall apart as mass organizations escalated mobilizations. A relatively new left party with Evo Morales at its head, the MAS, got ahead of the cycles of protest that became more threatening with each new round of mobilization. Fighting key planks of liberalization, these movements — indigenous communities, small coca farmers, informal neighborhood residents, etc. — culminated in virtual insurrections in 2003 and 2005, which toppled successive governments and voted Morales into the presidency.
The Pink Tide’s second key feature is the new governments’ commitment to ameliorating the welfare of the mobilized constituents that paved its road to power. The welfare program of Pink Tide reformers is best captured in Silva and Rossi’s notion of “second incorporation.”8 A diverse set of progressive measures offered the region’s battered working sectors immediate and substantial relief. Besides pushing general wages upward via raising minimum wages and other mechanisms, reformers reversed some of neoliberalism’s worst effects by expanding outlays on welfare programs. They subsidized basic services, like transport and utilities, and diverted huge sums to cash transfers for the most vulnerable groups such as the unemployed, mothers without formal work, and the precarious poor.
Some Pink Tide policies were more far-reaching. Going beyond Lula’s touted fome cero(or “zero hunger”) anti-poverty handouts, the Kirchners in Argentina restored industry-wide collective bargaining, which boosted wages for an increasing chunk of the working class, and guaranteed transfers for mothers who kept their children in school. The most ambitious reforms were adopted by the Bolivarian government. Hugo Chávez, who already dedicated more resources to housing and local infrastructure programs than his pink peers, instituted misiones, decentralized programs that made free health, education, and other services available to all Venezuelans.
As described by Silva and Rossi, the rollout of social programs by the Pink Tide breathed new life into the political culture, shrunken for decades by neoliberalism.9 Typically, this occurred as new or restructured parties brought organized subaltern groups into their fold. In Argentina, Kirchnerism made alliances with unemployed piqueterosand reached a reaccommodation with the country’s industrial unions. The MAS in Bolivia integrated shanty dwellers, informalized miners and peasants, and community organizations. Again, the Bolivarian revolution went the furthest and deepest: after experimenting with a range of institutional links to militant groups, it settled on communal councils as the key mechanisms for connecting organized urban slum communities to state institutions. In short, Pink Tide reformers designed a number of new public institutions to advance popular interests, which genuinely upgraded their political participation and influence.
The Pink Tide’s Retreat
The Pink Tide produced undeniably progressive results. As explained, one of its pillars was significant increases in spending on social programs. Venezuela and Ecuador in particular saw dramatic spikes as Chávez and Correa took immediate steps to divert national revenues to social provision. The neo-Peronists, after halting further austerity cutbacks, steadily raised social spending from under 7 percent of GDP at the height of the crisis to nearly 10 percent in five years.10 Since then, social programs have periodically enjoyed large infusions, to the point that when Cristina Fernández left office, Argentina allotted one of the highest shares to social spending in the region, second only to Chile. By the time the Bolivarian regime consolidated itself in 2006, social spending reached one-eighth of GDP just as the oil economy boomed. The MAS government in Bolivia took a bit longer to reverse years of cutbacks, yet by 2009 Morales had restored social allocations to former high points. After subsequent tumbles, his government once again boosted social spending to one-eighth of GDP (See Figure 1).
Increased social spending had significant effects on poverty and inequality. By expanding benefits for the most vulnerable, social programs dramatically reduced poverty rates. Most Latin American countries saw significant increases or no improvements in the share of people forced to live in stark poverty. Over the following decade, however, Pink Tide countries succeeded in reducing the proportions of those surviving on three dollars or less a day. The most dramatic improvements were the direct consequence of reformers’ social orientation, as is acutely reflected in the Ecuadoran and Argentine cases. Venezuela’s record was more erratic. After modest gains, poverty shot back up in 2002 and 2003, a regression intentionally caused by a domestic oil blockade engineered by displaced and revanchist elites. More telling was the response: once mobilized masses overcame the oil lockout and beat back attempts to oust Chávez, the Bolivarian regime consolidated itself and adopted the thorough programs described above. The result was an unprecedented anti-poverty performance, one that even the World Bank had to grudgingly recognize (see Figure 2).
What Argentina accomplished in over a dozen years — a 20 percentage-point drop in poverty, the Bolivarians, under constant counterrevolutionary fire, did in four! Unfortunately, Venezuela’s present economic collapse has wiped out these gains. Still, the redistributive social policies prioritized by left governments aggressively addressed inequality. As Gini scores bear out, Pink Tide countries became the most equal countries in the region, with Venezuela and Argentina leading the way.11 Even Bolivia, which in 2000 shared with Brazil the distinction of being the region’s least equal country, pushed its coefficient from .6 to .47 during Morales’s first five years in office, a drop few societies have ever experienced.
Yet, despite its accomplishments, the Pink Tide is in retreat. Whereas the classical left was crushed by its own ruling classes, its more recent incarnation is presently under siege at the voting booth, rejected by much of its own constituency. Besides Morales and the MAS in Bolivia, all other Pink Tide governments have suffered declines. The neo-Peronist Daniel Scioli lost to a revamped center-right neoliberal candidate in November 2015; while Scioli just barely upped his party’s vote total, Macri, the winner, claimed roughly 4 million more votes than the opposition’s combined total from 2011. Evidently, the Right was successful in picking up votes from the reformers’ natural constituents. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa’s coalition won with the narrowest of margins last year and has since splintered irreparably. The worst has been the Chavista unravelling. Although Maduro, Chávez’s successor, just won a second term, the deep crisis and decomposition of the Bolivarian process is undeniable. Despondent over inflation, shortages, hunger, and corruption, the Venezuelan urban poor, the same who repeatedly mobilized to protect Chávez, now, re-impoverished, are simply defeated. Increasingly, the government has had to restrict participation and amend rules to remain in power. In 2015, the opposition won a resounding parliamentary majority. This year, after rewriting Chávez’s constitution, the official Socialist Party handily beat a redivided opposition. Elections might have been clean, if not completely fair, and vote totals accurate, but turnout was abysmal. The 2 million fewer votes for Maduro than for Chávez in 2012 show that the boycott called by the opposition was boosted by Bolivarian frustration and disillusionment. Other Pink Tide governments may have escaped the Venezuelan catastrophe, but their erstwhile backers are clearly abandoning them.
More importantly, the transformative potential of the Pink Tide has run its course. The goal of expanding social improvements failed to overcome rigid fiscal barriers. Confined to the same sources of revenue as their neoliberal predecessors and regional rivals, reform governments found it difficult to sustain increased welfare spending. In Argentina, for instance, where expenditures rose the most dramatically in recent years, the losing Kirchnerist candidate came from the conservative wing of neo-Peronism and acknowledged the inevitability of austerity in his campaign.
The central reason for the Pink Tide’s failure to push its reform agenda was because of its stubborn reliance on revenues flowing in from commodity rents, as shown in Figures 3 and 4. Much like their neoliberal predecessors, they remained dependent on natural-resource exports, and hence were prisoner to fluctuations in commodity prices. As global crude prices rebounded bullishly from the deflated levels of the 1990s, Venezuela deepened its dependence on oil. By 2013, over four-fifths of export earnings came from crude, compared to under half when Chávez first came to power.12 The Kirchners were elected in Argentina right when global prices for soy and its derivatives began a prolonged expansion. And they took full advantage: whereas these goods accounted for less than a quarter of all earnings the year before Nestor’s election, by the time Cristina left office, they provided nearly 40 percent of export revenues.
When world commodity prices plummeted, the result was an unavoidable tightening of services and goods for their urban poor backers. Leftists in power could only think of tapping and squeezing as much as possible from their countries’ existing production and commercial circuits rather than developing new, alternative, and more reliable means to provide for their constituents. A recent Chavista voter could not have put it better, declaring that the government “just needs to find a way to make an economic revolution, so we can eat once again!”13 In short, poor urban voters abandoned the Pink Tide for its inability to break through the limits set by the neoliberal economy. Whereas elites beat back the classical left for going too far, the Pink Tide governments are falling to the very sectors that voted them into office, who are punishing left regimes for not going far enough.
What then explains this inability to transcend the restrictive economic models and social policies they inherited and seek sustainable and qualitatively superior social provision? Why wasn’t the Pink Tide capable of deepening democratic participation beyond top-down neo-corporatism that recreated subordinating forms of clientelism? In other words, what prevented the Pink Tide from moving past its initial reforms toward the “economic revolution” demanded by its supporters? One possibility is that the regimes were constrained by their ties to elite interests, as some radical critics have claimed. But such accusations fail to capture the more complex dynamics at work. Pink Tide officials clearly understood the basis of their rule was active popular support. They realized that political survival depended above all on satisfying their constituents’ interests. Herein lies the key puzzle: if their vital commitment is to the poor urban masses, why did they avoid deeper economic reforms that might have taken them off the tracks of clientelist welfare provision and on to a path of sustainable social and political non-elite integration and power?
Pink Tide governments failed to move toward more substantial restructuring not out of overriding obligations toward business elites. Rather, they failed to deepen reforms that might have secured the backing needed to stay in power because they felt unable to take that more challenging route — and were correct in that assessment. Incapable of pressing in that direction, they had to opt for the more achievable short-term gains, thus avoiding a head-on collision with local ruling classes. They opted to win elections with the resources made available by the economic status quo. This is in sharp contrast to the classical left’s strategic dilemmas. The classical left typically faced hostile political elites, yet fought to compel governments, from the outside and below, to adopt immediate fundamental reforms. They pushed uncompromisingly toward radical ends even if it meant sacrificing the electoral viability of elite-oriented reform governments, and ultimately, democracy itself. The exceptional Chilean case, where the working class elevated its own parties into power, broadly follows the same pattern of relentless pressure exerted to deepen reform even before Allende’s election. The key distinction is between a left in power doing what it felt was feasible to gain votes, and the earlier left using its leverage to push beyond holding state office, to strive for a deeper transformation.
Capacities Behind Contrasting Left Orientations
The main factor distinguishing the Pink Tide from the classical Latin American left is not just the latter’s more radical will. The classical left’s aggressive pursuit of reform derived, as just noted, from its greater ability to pursue radical reforms. This enhanced sense of its ability, in turn, was rooted in greater transformative capacities. To understand this difference, we need a conceptual framework that helps us unpack the mechanisms that govern subaltern political leverage. There are two axes on which laboring groups’ power turns: the first measures their mobilizational resources, and the second, their structural leverage.
Mobilizational resources refer to the social ties, organizations, and institutions that help working people engage in collective action. The ability of popular sectors to mobilize effectively is built on shared resources that underpin organizational bonds, cultures, and infrastructure. These help working people overcome the divisions and the costs that normally inhibit collective action. Atomized workers and the poor in general have very diverse sets of immediate needs, which often makes it hard to come together around a political agenda; in addition, they typically confront particularly high costs when taking on powerful elites. Without robust and internally vigorous organizations to bring them together, they have a hard time developing the solidarity and preparation needed for collective action. Mobilizational resources, in other words, give workers and the poor the ability to construct and maintain the organizations they need to confront their ruling classes.
The most obvious example of this is trade unions. Unions have classically been the vehicle through which workers build solidarity and reduce the costs of political engagement. But there are also other examples, many of which lie beyond the workplace. In the United States, the role played by the Black church in the Civil Rights Movement is a paradigmatic instance. Other examples are civic associations, political parties, neighborhood associations, etc., all of which pool resources, help generate shared identities, and create bonds of trust and facilitates coordination among individuals.
Structural power, by contrast, comes from the leverage that ordinary people might enjoy owing to their positions in institutions valued by elites. Unlike mobilizational capacities that must be built up, structural leverage is built in to subaltern sectors’ position in the economy. The key to it is the fact that ruling classes rely on working people’s labor as the source of their own wealth and income. When workers or peasants withhold this labor, it imposes intolerable costs on economic elites, and this becomes a lever for extracting concessions from power centers. The mere refusal to participate in routine tasks and activities threatens to undermine ruling-class power. The more workers and the poor are integrated into institutions that produce value for ruling classes, the higher their potential structural leverage.
Organizational power and structural leverage are related but distinct. It is very possible for groups to build large and enduring movement organizations, but not have structural power in the economy. And of course, it’s very common to be located in key economic sectors, but to fail in building the organizations needed to take advantage of it. Comparing the capacities of the classical left and the Pink Tide in these two dimensions helps explain both their achievements and limitations. I offer two claims in particular. Firstly, the classical left’s accomplishments were rooted in robust structural leverage. Elevated structural power in turn undergirded for workers and the poor effective organization and heightened confidence to make demands for radical reform. By contrast, the Pink Tide was propelled by a relatively sudden and powerful growth of mobilizational capacities, but with weak structural power. While the mobilization of built-up association capacities achieved quick reforms, when these reached their limits, they were ultimately hamstrung by the absence of effective structural leverage. These realities, in turn, arose from two paradoxical developments.
The capacity of Latin America’s classical left was rooted in the growth and profit strategies of hostile economic and state elites. Economic modernization promoted by business and political managers spawned a working class positioned in economic areas that mattered most for elite goals. Labor movements, unions, and their partisan organizations deployed this leverage in a bid for structural transformations. Their challenge was so threatening that elites decided to quash it altogether. The Pink Tide experience differs in crucial ways. A decade or more of anti-neoliberal resistance had revitalized subaltern associational capacities, raising them to levels not seen in decades. Armed with renewed organizational resources, the urban poor rebelled, brought down governments, and replaced them with friendly left governments. Once in power, however, the regional left was handicapped by state elites’ confinement to the basic contours of the neoliberal model they inherited. Popular sectors pushed as hard as they could, but their mobilizations could only achieve so much.
Once they had exhausted their disruptive potential, the Pink Tide subaltern constituencies lacked the leverage necessary to push further. Without constituencies with the structural power necessary to take on business elites, left governments focused on appeasing their followers with neo-corporatist welfare provision, avoiding harsh confrontations with leading economic sectors on which they relied for the revenues they redistributed. Ironically then, in one sense, Pink Tide commitments to their urban poor voters blocked more aggressive reforms. Pink Tide restraint, therefore, did not flow from pledges to defend the interests of commodity-based business elites and restore neoliberalism’s legitimacy. Its timidity, rather, was a symptom of the least costly strategy they could devise to satisfy their constituents’ interests and secure reelection, despite its built-in limitations.
This raises another key factor for understanding the Pink Tide’s shortcomings. The diminishing returns of popular mobilizational power introduced a dynamic which further damaged subaltern organizational resources. Because the urban poor faced difficulty in sustaining their associational capacities, while Pink Tide governments were interested in maintaining some degree of organization among their followers, both sides settled on an accommodation — the state channeled political resources and welfare funds to its grassroots backers in exchange for continued organized support. Although the arrangement did increase the political participation of the urban poor, it came at the cost of deepening a culture of clientelism. This resulted in an increased dependence of the poor on the state, which in turn further reduced popular organizations’ ability to push Pink Tide governments toward deeper reforms. This contrast — between the politics of patronage and clientelism on one hand, versus mobilization based on structural leverage on the other — is what separates the political fortunes of Latin America’s two lefts.
The “Classical” Latin American Left
Ironically, the rise of Latin America’s classical left was fueled by elite modernization projects. For the first time since the Mexican Revolution, the region’s popular sectors effectively threatened ruling-class power. Its foundation was the organized industrial working classes that emerged with the post-Depression industrial development in the region’s most economically advanced countries, along with the rebellious “peasantry” that was thrust into militancy with capitalist transformation of agriculture. Aided and often coordinated by an ancillary layer of students and low-level professional revolutionists, these effective left movements were built on radicalizing segments in unions and insurgent proletarianized rural communities and associations.
isi and Agrarian Modernization
Self-interested elite responses to either adversity or new opportunities in the world economy enhanced popular classes’ capacities for struggle. Elite efforts to modernize their economies, through industrialization or the promotion of agro-industrial exports, provided the foundations for working-class and peasant militancy. Absent these programs, the structural and organizational backbone of the classical left would not have acquired the power it did.
The process was initiated by the Great Depression. In the larger economies, mainly in South America, the ruling class confronted shrinking trade, and then the turmoil of the war years, by adopting an inward-oriented development model known as import-substitution industrialization, or ISI. For ruling classes in these countries, the global crisis undermined profit strategies based on traditional commodity exports. Trade restrictions in traditional markets and declining export revenues caused financial havoc and sharply reduced their ability to import manufactured goods. This loss of externally produced manufactures persuaded states to turn to the development of local industry. The state created incentives for domestic business to invest more heavily in local industry, which had been slowly developing since the turn of the century. This new economic strategy had the added benefit of giving political elites more bargaining power in the global state system as their economies expanded and deepened their industrial base.
In Central America, economic transformations followed an almost inverse logic. While top state managers were transforming the industrial structures of the region’s larger economies, market forces were reshaping the composition of isthmian agriculture. After the war, elites of Central America’s more backward economies moved to diversify into new agro-industrial branches to take advantage of expanding global markets during the boom years. Although the state was involved, it played less of a role in the expansion and diversification of Central American agro-business, which was fueled by new opportunities for agrarian oligarchies to expand markets for traditional commodities such as coffee, and increasingly for newer, more processed goods like sugar and cotton.
Key Features of Elite-Led Industrial Transformations
Besides refashioning the basic structures of Latin American societies, these elite-led initiatives produced new class alignments that would be crucial for the formation and rise of the Left. Three ISI features are especially noteworthy for their impact on working-class capacities. The first is the basic reality of industry versus traditional commodity production. Diverting resources into manufacturing concentrated thousands upon thousands of laborers with basic skills into more technologically advanced labor processes. Secondly, ISI entailed planned measures to move from low-level manufacturing, such as textiles and foodstuffs, to integrated industrial complexes that connected basic goods, like steel, to higher value-added downstream finished products. A key aim of this vertical integration was the development of capital goods sectors that would solidify domestic manufacturing, relieving the economy from its dependence on machinery imports. The attempt to move up the industrial pecking order placed more skilled workers into more selective and technologically advanced branches.
Lastly, elite industrialization strategies gave prominence to the “commanding heights” of the economy, core branches deemed indispensable for the overall program and treated as sacred cows. The state approached these special sectors — finance, utilities, foreign trade, transport, and heavy industries — with special care and advantages. Guaranteed and growing investment in these essential branches not only provided them with unwavering protections, it multiplied the workforce that labored in strategic areas. All three key features operated in a context of reduced real unemployment, as industrial expansion absorbed hundreds of thousands of underemployed workers in the “traditional” economy.
Industrialization and Economic Transformation
The transformation of Latin American societies was deep and dramatic. In the more developed countries, as planners’ projects came into being, simple industries grew and evolved into more comprehensive and integrated industrial complexes. At the height of the ISI period, the share of manufacturing in GDP rose to almost one-third in the largest economies. To put these shifts in perspective, US manufacturing shares had peaked in the mid-1950s postwar boom at about 35 percent. Even in countries whose economic infrastructure was skewed toward natural commodities, manufacturing exploded.
The driver behind this transformation was a massive influx of investment in machinery and technology. In Argentina, for instance, business nearly tripled its annual investment in industrial infrastructure from an average of slightly more than 2 percent of GDP in the early 1940s to 6 percent in the early 1960s. A decade later, capital investment increased further.14 In Chile, ISI policies were less ambitious and got off to a later start. During the 1940s and early 1950s, despite planned attempts to kick-start domestic manufacturing, industrial investments stagnated. But in the decade leading up to the 1964 Christian Democratic victory, state promotion of manufacturing became more effective, with annual investments in new machinery averaging close to 7.5 percent of GDP. Business continued to invest at that pace under Frei, the country’s aggressive bourgeois modernizer, and even during socialist Allende’s first two years in office. Brazil was the most impressive example of diverting resources into manufacturing. There, annual investment in capital goods doubled between 1950 and 1964, when reformer Goulart was ousted, and then quadrupled over the next fifteen years!
Sustained investment in industrial plants transformed Latin American economies. Southern Cone countries in particular, along with Mexico, emerged as predominantly urban and manufacturing societies. Brazil, for instance, where coffee was still the main export in 1950, developed the most advanced manufacturing in the region. Over the course of two decades, industry grew from 17 percent of GDP to nearly a quarter of all output. At the height of the labor mobilizations before the 1964 military intervention, manufacturing already exceeded 22 percent of all production. In Chile, the manufacturing share of the economy more than doubled in the twenty years leading up to 1972, from just over a tenth to nearly a quarter of GDP on the eve of the coup. The manufacturing boom was the strongest in Argentina. Whereas it already represented 28 percent of GDP by the early 1960s, manufacturing came to account for over a third of all output by the end of the country’s second industrializing push in the mid-1970s. These sectoral shifts translated into tectonic redistributions of national labor forces which until recently had been predominantly rural. By 1970, under a quarter of the labor force worked in agriculture in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Venezuela. Even Peru and Brazil, long dominated by peasant and plantation production, saw their shares of workers toiling in agriculture cut to less than half.
The results were impressive. Throughout the region, industrial development fueled overall expansion, driving some of the world’s most impressive growth rates. An economy like Brazil’s, for instance, whose chief export was coffee in 1950, found itself selling trucks and chemicals to the world twenty years later. During the same two decades of Brazil’s economic turnaround, yearly growth rates, which averaged 7.5 percent over the entire period, consistently exceeded 10 percent beginning in the mid-1960s. During the 1960s, Mexican growth averaged 7 percent per year. Even Argentina, which notoriously suffered a series of stop-and-go cycles, nearly doubled per capita national output from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s. Similarly, in Chile, gross per capita product was three-fifths higher in 1972 than it was at the time ISI efforts consolidated in the mid-1950s. In short, industrial development was not only an unprecedentedly profitable for the region’s business elites, it was also a reliable formula for stability and electoral success — if its political fallout was kept within manageable limits.
Industrialization and Working-Class Formation
The new accumulation strategies made the region’s elites fabulously wealthy. They opened profit opportunities in vital new lines with guaranteed state backing. Yet they also unleashed new forces that presented a host of challenges to those elites. Chief among these was the newly found power of the working class, which came down on the establishment to devastating effect. Of course, some degree of disruption would have been inevitable, since this was the era in which democratic rights witnessed a real deepening across the region. But whatever power was extended to ordinary citizens was multiplied by the placement of workers in structural locations from which they could sabotage the realization of elite interests. The emerging working class capitalized on its strategic location to build powerful labor organizations. It then mobilized its organizational capacity to exercise leverage and make increasingly radical demands.
Strong growth brought new entrants into urban labor markets at accelerated rates. During the ISI years, job growth equaled population growth rates. Even as demographic rates exploded and the countryside expelled a seemingly unending flow of internal migrants, rapid industrial development could not absorb the ongoing waves fast enough. From 1950 to 1973, even as the per capita hours worked were flat, the total number of hours worked expanded at high rates. Brazil required 37.5 percent more labor hours in 1960 than in 1950, and another 29 percent more a decade later.15 Over those two decades, Argentine industry required almost a third more human work time. Total work hours expanded by 50 percent in Mexico. In Chile, total hours of industrial work grew by a quarter from 1960 to 1970.16 And throughout, workers’ productivity rose many times over. In Argentina and Chile, it doubled from the 1950s to the mid-1970s, while in Brazil and Mexico, labor productivity nearly tripled.
It was in this context of growing labor demand and tight labor markets, along with rising growth and productivity, that masses clustered into ever more profitable industrial production. During the ISI years, manufacturing labor, as a share of the working population, reached unforeseen (and never to be seen again) levels. Brazil saw its manufacturing labor force grow from one-tenth to over one-seventh of those economically active.17 In Chile, the industrial share of the labor force went from around 15 percent to almost a quarter by 1973. In Argentina, the industrial share dipped slightly from its 1960 high, yet in 1975 it was still nearly one-quarter of the working population. Laboring in the very plants that were essential to the success of business and state strategies, workers found that they were theindispensable ingredient to elite economic success. The labor movement understood that if they stopped cooperating and withheld their contribution — their ability and willingness to work — or threatened to do so, the entire strategy could be paralyzed and might even collapse. This formidable leverage was even more powerful when the capacities of other crucial sectors, namely transport and construction, were factored in. Combined with workers in these key areas that built up and connected the increasingly strategic manufacturing complexes, the share of the labor force with looming structural leverage increased to one-fourth in Brazil, over a third in Chile, and roughly two-fifths in Argentina by the 1970s. When one out of four or one out of three workers perceives he is essential for the materialization of employers’ profits, the rise the class’s confidence is immeasurable.
As industrialization advanced, so too did union density. Workers’ advantageous location and the historic self-assurance it sustained promoted increasing organization in the labor movement. As they acquired awareness of their positional power, workers strove to build stronger organizations. Of course, they sometimes had the backing of powerful institutions, as in Argentine and to a lesser extent, Brazil. But without an awareness of a forceful capacity underwriting them, workers would not necessarily choose to invest in their unions, much less set them into action. This reality, more so than state and partisan sponsorship, was behind increasing unionization rates, particularly in strategic sectors. In Brazil, which had the weakest labor movement, one-fifth of all workers became unionized: between 1965 and 1975, union membership doubled from 1.6 to 3.2 million workers. In Chile, union density increased threefold in the ten years leading up to Allende’s toppling. By 1973, half a million workers were union members. The working class achieved the most impressive organization in Argentina. There, the state had encouraged unionization, and by the end of Perón’s second stint, union density reached an almost unthinkable 50 percent!
Strategically located and now also organized, the region’s labor movements did not hesitate to make use of their mobilizational capacities. In Brazil, the most militant sections, situated primarily in steel, organized a strike wave that was a central precipitating factor behind the 1964 military coup. In 1958, there had only been thirty-one major strikes; but after Vice-President Goulart became president, workers turned up the pressure. By 1963, when the General Workers Command (CGT) led the “strike of 700,000,” 172 major stoppages paralyzed key industrial centers and put elites on warning.18 The most intense waves of industrial insurgency disturbed the economic and political orders of Chile and Argentina. In the former, rebellions were already commonplace by the early 1960s, when workers organized roughly 250 strikes each year.19 But with the aggressive industrialization push under Frei, industrial insurgency exploded. During his 1964–1969 government, Frei endured an average of 1,000 strikes each year. Even when the Communists and Socialists reached power in 1970, the major labor federation headed by these two parties could not contain the relentless strike wave. Allende faced 1,800 stoppages his first year in office but had to contend with a full 3,300 two years later.
The story is similar in Argentina. The industrial rebellion that toppled anti-Peronist military juntas did not dissipate once the workers’ caudilloreturned triumphantly in 1973. In fact, Perón was welcomed by an escalation of stoppages by workers who anticipated sympathetic concessions.20 Incessant, major strikes exploded from 550 in 1974 to 1,250 in 1975. Not only were production and profits threatened, private property, the very basis of bourgeois rule, was under attack as the labor movement, over the heads of its officials, pressed for deepening expropriations and political transformations.
The cumulative effect of this newfound working-class radicalism was to trigger a furious response from regional ruling classes. Across the more industrialized countries, the state strove to undermine the foundations of working-class power even if doing so sacrificed the growth model in which it had invested so ambitiously. The region’s string of coups — 1964 in Brazil, 1966 and 1976 in Argentina, 1973 in Chile, 1975 in Peru — all had the goal of restructuring the economy in ways that restored unchallenged bourgeois rule.21 Pinochet’s coup against Allende immediately and ruthlessly destroyed labor’s organizations and demolished left parties, never hesitating to physically eliminate their most advanced militants. Almost overnight, the region’s most advanced working class was demolished, and, like survivors of a natural calamity, emerged from the ruins scattered and immobilized. By contrast, in Argentina, as in Brazil and Peru, corporatism had so entrenched unions within the state that military terror failed, even with its near-genocidal assaults in Argentina, to break labor’s associational capacities.
More to the point, Chile’s left was unable to recover because of economic transformations wrought by repeated crises which, over a short period, wiped out entire branches of manufacturing. In Argentina, the survival of ISI’s strategic sectors underwrote workers’ leverage well into the 1980s. Like in Brazil, labor’s effective mobilizations played a decisive role in restoring democracy before the generals could “reorganize” society. Lula’s comrades escalated their second-wind industrial revolt, with strikes nearly doubling each year from 1979 to 1986 when they peaked at 1,500 and cost employers 50 million days of lost work. This was the furnace that forged the “new unionism” that gave birth to the PT.22 Similarly, sturdy industrial unions in Argentina led strike waves that by 1981 shifted to offensive mode and drove the generals from power.23
But the decline of labor, and with it, the classical left’s plummeting influence, arrived when market reforms led to the type of economic restructuring first produced by Chile’s earlier shocks. Spurred by recurring imbalances that were endogenous and endemic features of ISI, elites moved away from developmentalism. Opening their economies to foreign competition and removing protectionist policies led to the slow disintegration of the industrial systems that ISI aimed to build. As elites tore down one growth model and replaced it with another, they simultaneously shattered the basis for the Left’s power.
The Agrarian Route to Left Radicalism
The decline of the Left in the Southern Cone did not mark the end of radicalism in Latin America as a whole. Just as workers’ movements and parties were defeated in the more industrialized regions, another front for Latin America’s left burst forth in three Central American countries — Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These insurgencies, which primarily adopted armed struggle rather than industrial rebellion, were born and amassed power as a direct result of the effects of elite agricultural modernization.
Rural agitation had also been an important dimension of South American left strategies. Indeed, changes made in the countryside to support industrialization activated layers of rural laborers who often lent their weight to the radical upsurge. In Peru, for instance, workers in competitive export plantations became a militant force on the Left.24 In Chile, peasant enfranchisement and land reform restructured rural social relations and reorganized former tenants and landless sectors into concentrated forces with influence over one of the most contested political issues of the moment.25 But rural radicalism in Central America deserves special attention because capitalist agrarian transformation there became the foundation for a unique route to popular insurgency.
The main impact of these rural-based insurgencies was to deliver real democratic reform and permanently dismantle the repressive labor system on which their agrarian oligarchies relied.26 The Sandinistas led a generalized insurrection that toppled the Somozas in 1979. In neighboring El Salvador, the FMLN twice attempted to replicate the former’s strategy. They came close, first in 1981, then again with the final 1989 offensive, occupying vast sections of the capital, each time fighting the oligarchic military regime to a standstill. The Guatemalan guerrillas built a less potent military apparatus that was essentially contained by the early 1980s, yet, punching above their weight and withstanding the regime’s genocidal response, they also forced a stalemate. The Salvadoran insurgency best illustrates the Left’s achievements: the mass armed insurgency of proletarianized rural communities was so costly to the traditional agrarian oligarchy that it reshaped their fundamental interests. By making the extra-economic forms of labor exploitation unviable, it forced ruling classes to shift to other commercial and manufacturing sectors.27 Removing coercive labor control as a profitable option opened the door to a negotiated democratic transition. The success of agrarian radicalism in Central America was rooted in a combination of mass organization and structural leverage that departed in important ways from the classical South American model of insurgency.
Two interconnected phenomena linked agrarian modernization in Central America to rising rural militancy. First, expansion intensified pressure on subsistence farming communities, which either lost their holdings or were pushed into marginal areas. Peasant displacement was intensified by the emergence of new commodities that thrived alongside coffee. Chief among these were cotton, sugar, and livestock, which experienced massive growth from the demand coming from the postwar economic boom in the advanced world. Secondly, as the agrarian frontier expanded, it sucked hundreds of thousands into the plantation labor force. While labor demands for coffee were the highest, these were seasonal, concentrated in the October–January harvesting months. The boom in nontraditional agro-exports absorbed labor into more stable, even yearlong, work in more technologically advanced crops and their derivatives. Diversification thus fomented the creation of new labor markets with more advanced processing segments that absorbed more permanent workforces. And as peasants were pulled from subsistence and petty commodity production, new basic food industries sprang up, most notably in El Salvador. The combined effects of pressure on peasant communities and accelerated proletarianization would prove essential to the insurgent movements. Escalating, zero-sum conflicts between exporters and plantation workers, and between landed elites and peasant communities, served to organize popular sectors into vigorous associations. These incorporated almost whole cloth into armed movements that mobilized the seasoned popular movements into massive physical assaults on the agro-export economy.
The postwar boom fueled and reconfigured the commercial plantation system. Between 1950 and 1975, Central American coffee exports almost tripled to 10 million quintals. Four-fifths of that growth occurred in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.28 This second coffee boom pushed plantation elites to intensify production after 1960: in El Salvador, production increased by 50 percent by 1980, while in Guatemala and Nicaragua, expansion was even more dramatic.29 At the same time, rising American demand for other key natural commodities presented new lucrative opportunities for landed elites. Cotton production to supply the textile industry quadrupled from the 1950s to 1980, going from under half a million to 1.75 million bales.30 Cotton required the best, costal flatlands and new plantations swallowed up traditional estates and farms formerly dedicated to food crops: In El Salvador, land converted to cotton expanded 2.5 times, to 130,000 hectares by the late 1960s, while in Nicaragua it tripled to 363,000. Cotton expansion was the most dramatic in Guatemala where it rose exponentially from just 5,000 to 225,000. Sugar cultivation followed the same rates.31 Finally, livestock expansion exploded as Central American exports rose from around $10 million in 1960 to $300 million by the late 1970s. Most of the expansion was destined for the insatiable US market. New infrastructure was required to service the region’s expanding agribusiness. Massive investments led to the construction of new roads, railways, and ports, as well as dams and other electric plants that satisfied the economies’ ballooning energy needs.
The spectacular growth of agribusiness created two simultaneous conflicts between landowners and popular sectors, which provided the foundations for the potent guerrilla wars that engulfed Central America. First, it pitted agrarian business elites against entire peasant communities pushed into increasingly marginal lands or thrown off land altogether. Booming crops like cotton spread through the fertile Pacific strip, appropriating from local communities whatever holdings they still held. Cattle pastures pushed beyond quality arable land and extended the agrarian frontier by absorbing marginal mountainous and forested lands. Displacement thus occurred via two paths: often, the removed peasants were tenants on traditional estates who were evicted en masse as plantation owners converted to new cash crops. At other times, displacement came about as landed elites used state or para-state coercion to throw newly established communities off irregularly settled lands.
Expansion of export agriculture, particularly cotton and cattle, brought land conflict to a boil by the late 1970s. El Salvador illustrates how abrupt and far-reaching the dislocation was: researchers estimated that between 1971 and 1980, the share of rural families who were landless more than doubled, growing from an already untenable 29 percent to an unthinkable 65 percent.32 Those who retained their means of subsistence fared scarcely better: in 1975, 34 percent possessed less than one hectare and 15 percent farmed between one and two hectares.33 Hardest hit were areas in the north and northeast, precisely where cattle production had taken hold after the US granted El Salvador an import quota and approved a local meatpacking plant.
Nicaragua and Guatemala experienced similar patterns of expansion and displacement of communities who had settled previously marginal lands. In the former, cattle expanded dramatically in Matagalpa, where in some municipalities pastures came to encompass 95 percent of surveyed land. Poor traditional farmers were pushed further east toward the border. The Matagalpa-Masaya corridor later provided strong support for the Sandinistas during the mid-to-late 1970s. In Guatemala during the 1960s, impoverished highland peasants, many pressured by new cattle ranchers, moved to the coast to till better land. But they immediately found themselves competing with the cotton barons taking over the area. Soon, cotton production again marginalized peasant groups as it came to dominate 70 percent of land in those zones.34 As in Nicaragua, these Mayan communities became core participants in the armed movement as they were squeezed from all sides. Similarly, in El Salvador, the northeastern provinces that suffered the most displacement became bastions of the FMLN.
Land conflicts alone would likely not have generated the uncontainable rise of the Central American armed left. Another consequence of export agribusiness contributed to the explosion of mass peasant insurgency. For as sugar, cotton, and cattle barons were evicting peasants and seizing their lands, plantations were also attracting increasing numbers of workers, particularly during harvest time, from the very areas experiencing encroachment. The skyrocketing demand for labor opened a second front in the struggles between subaltern rural groups and modernizing agrarian elites.
Labor demand for export crops was driven both by territorial expansion and by the steadily rising yields from productivity-enhancing inputs. Whereas cattle ranching had low labor requirements, the new plantations were extremely labor-intensive, particularly during peak times of the production cycle, Again, cotton best illustrates the exponential growth of seasonal wage employment in Central America. Until the mid-1950s, cotton cultivation in the region required less than 100,000 pickers come harvest. Ten years later, the number of cotton-harvesting jobs surpassed 350,000. A decade after that, cotton plantations employed nearly half a million pickers.35 In addition, limited processing segments such as ginning, baling, sugar refining, and meatpacking created tens of thousands of permanent jobs. Many of these, along with employment in the modest manufacturing in wage goods tied to market agriculture, were taken by the growing numbers of displaced peasants forced to migrate to capital cities and other towns. The most precarious of those in the sprouting slums also supplied large portions of the seasonal labor. In Nicaragua, for instance, a third of cotton pickers came from large urban areas. Most harvesting, however, was done by the growing rural population languishing on the peasant margins.
Throughout the region, the very communities that were squeezed by export farming and ranching sent hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to earn cash at harvest time. The more modern agriculture encroached on their lands, the more rural communities relied on seasonal wage labor. Unable to survive on the diminishing returns of subsistence farming, seasonal wages became indispensable. Not only did these communities supply major shares of harvesters on coastal plantations, but the proportion of their populations making the yearly trips down to the coast also grew. In El Salvador, up to 70 percent of beleaguered peasant communities in the north migrated annually in search of wages. In Guatemala, whereas between 10 and 15 percent of cotton-harvest workers were from the capital during the 1960s, far more descended yearly from peripheral highland provinces: by the end of the decade, over three-fifths of seasonal migrants came from two western highland Mayan provinces, and most of the working population from Kiché and Huehuetenango were harvesters.36
Agrarian Modernization and Class Formation
Not surprisingly, migrant seasonal workers forced into wage work received very harsh treatment on the plantations. Coercive labor conditions sparked militant resistance by these newly proletarianized laborers. Beginning in the late 1960s, plantation workers throughout the isthmus began striking for better conditions and better pay. Because even minimal labor rights and protections undermined their ability to make profits, elites responded with brutal repression. Throughout the region, the 1970s saw an escalation of intertwined plantation labor mobilizations and land invasions. Unable to press their demands through nonviolent labor action, the growing peasant movements turned to armed actions to defend themselves and to win basic labor and civil rights.
The intertwined nature of land and labor conflicts thus fueled the rise of the region’s radical left. But mass guerrilla insurgency in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador arose from a phenomenon that was the inverse of what propelled labor rebellions in the Southern Cone. Whereas workers’ positional leverage there undergirded rising levels of organization, in Central America communitarian associational capacities pitted against revanchist elites facilitated mass armed disruption of the whole economy by the newly formed agricultural working class. Interestingly, peasants and indigenous highlanders were mostly not compelled to join sides; rather, their struggles in their communities werethe insurgency.
In all three countries, the crises of the 1970s sparked intense yet short-lived industrial action by workers in the food-processing industries that accompanied the growth of commercial agriculture. But because the Central American economies were so dependent on agro-exports, the strike wave among coffee, cotton, and sugar workers was the most threatening. In Guatemala, for instance, harvesters began agitating in the mid-1970s. Their efforts culminated in a February 1980 sugar walkout that rapidly spread to seventy of the largest sugar and cotton plantations that employed over 75,000 workers. In addition to the formation of new organizing structures that emerged to coordinate the rebellion, migrant workers received the active support of the Committee for Peasant Unity, the CUC, a broad rural front organized to fight for land and resist the assaults by landowners and military and paramilitary forces. The strike was so disruptive that the state was compelled to concede and raise day wages by nearly three times. Similar worker protest took place in Nicaragua. El Salvador experienced the strongest wave of labor rebellion in the agro-export sector. There too, the mid-1970s saw generalized mobilization, with students and public workers playing a central role. But once more, seasonal plantation workers were the most effective. Peasants led an extensive organizing effort and, supported by liberation-theology sectors of the church, had formed FECCAS, the Christian Federation of Peasant Association. With such backing, coffee workers launched a weeks-long series of strikes in 1977 throughout the coastal region. On this occasion, however, the state responded with repression as police mowed down picketers.
Plantation workers were capable of mounting such effective mobilization under such oppressive conditions because of the organizational resources provided by their home communities. In other words, the struggles of otherwise vulnerable migrants, workers who faced the highest costs for making demands on elites, were underwritten by the associational capacities developed by their villages from traditional structures as well as from the cooperatives formed against predatory landlords. The support from federations like FECCAS and CUC to both land invasions and seasonal labor strikes best illustrates the intertwined nature of land and labor conflicts. More to the point, it reflects how peasant communitarian institutions mobilized farm workers who simultaneously battled landed elites from their position in export agriculture. Their militancy in turn bolstered the peasant-based insurgency, helping to deploy it as an armed destabilization of export production and its auxiliary infrastructure.
A distinct combination of associational and structural capacities thus formed the basis for guerrilla movements. As repression against peasant organizing intensified, emerging popular movements responded by increasing coordination and came together into broad revolutionary coalitions such as the National Front for Popular Unity in Guatemala, and the Popular Revolutionary Bloc and the United Popular Action Front in El Salvador. These in turn formed tight bonds with the armed factions that emerged simultaneously. Eventually, when state terror — which reached genocidal proportions — closed off all avenues for open political activity, popular coalitions and the peasant communities that built them joined the armed insurgency entirely. By the early 1980s, mass incorporation into the guerrilla movements created a radical force that began exerting a different type of systemic leverage over elite interests.
State violence having denied them the possibility of exercising leverage at the site of production, organized popular sectors returned to more marginal areas to consolidate the movement. The retreat did not eliminate their ability to disrupt elite interests. Although workers could no longer make use of their position in production, subaltern groups, now fully integrated into the revolutionary movement, inflicted heavy blows on the export elites. From the safety of guerrilla-controlled territory, the revolutionary movement waged a campaign of sabotage against nearby plantations and ranches as well as the infrastructure projects that sustained export activity — highways, bridges, hydroelectric dams, transmission towers, ports, etc. were all hit. Insecure about their investments, many elites, even when not directly affected, abandoned their properties. Again, in El Salvador, where the mass insurgency was strongest, export-agricultural interests were severely damaged.37 Export agriculture’s share of GDP was cut in half in the decade after 1975 and never recovered. In fact, the insurgency there imposed a transformation of profit strategies. Elites moved their investments into other sectors which did not rest on extra-economic coercion of labor. As Elisabeth Wood explains, it was this leverage over core economic interests and elite responses that paved the way for peace negotiations and genuine democratic reforms.38
The parallel onset of industrial and agrarian modernization and the structural power of subordinate classes in Latin America supports one of Marx and Engels’ key points, what we might call the “revolutionary gestation” claim, in the Communist Manifesto. They maintain that as capitalist development “tears asunder” the old order, it fosters from within a class with the potential to overturn the new bourgeois order. As competitive pressures prodded industry to centralize production and bring masses of workers under one roof, that very process also organized the “proletariat” into a class “for itself,” with common daily experiences, adversaries, and grievances — and at the same time, armed this growing and concentrated industrial army with the social heft to take down the system. The job of radicals was to harness this built-in potential and provide it with programmatic and strategic direction. The more capitalist production expanded, the more organized and weighty the working class would become, and the more the revolutionary left would accomplish. In essence, Marx and Engels predicted a virtuous circle, propelled by a positive feedback loop between structural power and effective organization and radical politics.
The trajectory of Latin America’s classical left appears to conform broadly to the Manifesto’s thesis. Firstly, capitalists’ drive to compete globally generated the growing potential of the region’s left. There is no doubt that the Left’s achievements far outpaced the successes of the pre-ISI period in scope and depth. When subaltern sectors rebelled previously, their struggles were largely confined to enclaves of natural commodity production that characterized Latin America. In addition, and retrospectively, the classical left, rooted in the industrial class, far outperformed a new, perhaps ultra-left, generation of challengers in the general May 1968 context. The region’s new radicals, inspired by the fighting spirit of new Guevarist ideas, criticized what they viewed as the established left’s conservatism, and urged the most marginalized popular sectors to create conditions that would accelerate revolutionary change.39 The MIR in Chile, Montoneros and ERP in Argentina, and the Tupamaros in Uruguay — the urban guerrilla stars of the moment — claimed that subaltern groups least bound by the moderating influence of traditional parties and unions best embodied the new “Americanist” radical spirit. But the historical record reveals this challenge to have been not only short lived, but also a failure. The Left’s accomplishments came not from these urban guerillas or Guevarist histrionics, but from the struggles of the classical left’s painstaking work among workers and agrarian communities.40
Finally, the classical left’s achievements went far beyond narrow, bread-and-butter categories. The 1968 generation routinely accused their predecessors for ignoring various kinds of nonclass oppression. Ironically, however, it was the classical left’s accomplishments on material issues that opened opportunities for struggles for gender and racial equality and cultural progress. Without the generalized gains in social provision and without the advances in the democratization of the economy and other spheres of social life, the fights for women’s rights and indigenous enfranchisement, for instance, would never have gotten off the ground and gathered steam. These direct and indirect achievements must be kept in mind when comparing the classical left to the Pink Tide.
The Rise and Weakness of the Pink Tide Left
Formally speaking, the Pink Tide comprised the Left governments that came to power during the 2000s. These consisted of new parties or coalitions, or refashioned traditional ones. By no means radical — much less anticapitalist — they nevertheless aimed to reform reigning neoliberal orthodoxy in significant ways.
The Pink Tide’s emergence must be understood in the context of the post-ISI neoliberal turn. If ISI provided the foundations for the rise of Latin America’s classical left, its eclipse by economic liberalization policies laid the bases for the emergence of the contemporary left. On top of the political problems described above, state-led and centrally planned industrialization was handicapped by a set of economic flaws. Faced with recurring commercial and fiscal imbalances, state managers adopted market-reform policies that provoked the social and political conflicts that decades later gave rise to the Pink Tide. Neoliberalism produced unprecedented levels of social exclusion and turmoil. Massive marginalization and popular resistance to it eventually created the political upheavals that led to left electoral wins. Simultaneously, however, the neoliberal turn hamstrung the Pink Tide by consolidating a social weakness that ultimately undermined more radical transformations and continued electoral success.
Key Neoliberal Transformations
Perhaps the central feature of Latin America’s turn to neoliberalism was the opening of its economies to global competition. As domestic manufacturing was exposed to global competitors, only its most efficient sections survived. This resulted not so much in generalized deindustrialization as in a highly fragmented and uneven manufacturing sector. Some branches, no longer protected by tariff barriers and deprived of favorable credit lines, were entirely wiped out. In other cases, the old industrial complexes were dismantled, with those individual branches staying afloat which successfully raised productivity during ISI. As state industries were broken up and privatized, investors targeted promising plants, streamlining them to continue to compete successfully and even expand. Both dimensions — the wholesale elimination of some industries and the fragmentation of former industrial chains — decimated working-class power.
Trade liberalization, loss of state support, and privatization had the immediate effect of abruptly raising levels of unemployment and underemployment. As factories shuttered or were rationalized, hundreds of thousands of employees were thrown out of work almost overnight. The numbers are frightening. Job loss in Argentina, which had historically boasted virtual full employment, was the most dramatic. According to official counts, unemployment doubled during the first five years of the 1990s, from 6 to 12 percent. By 2000, it reached 15 percent, and after a financial meltdown and devaluation the following year, it stood at nearly 20 percent. As liberalization and structural adjustment took hold in Bolivia, unemployment rose to roughly 9 percent in 2001 from 3 percent a decade prior. During the same period, joblessness more than doubled in Ecuador, rising to 14 percent by the end of the 1990s. These were not one-off spikes. Unemployment averaged over 15 percent from the mid-nineties to the mid-aughts in Argentina and roughly 10 percent in Ecuador.
Official Venezuelan statistics are similarly staggering. Once market reforms were introduced, unemployment never fell below 7.5 percent, reaching 15 percent by the end of the 1990s and averaging nearly 12 percent in the decade-and-a-half prior to the consolidation of Chavismo. Since the election of Pink Tide governments, many have gradually been able to find work again. Unemployment, however, still reflects crisis levels: in 2015, when Kirchnersism was defeated in Argentina and before the worst of the present Venezuelan disaster, both countries registered 8 percent joblessness rates. Worse still, most of the job recovery has been in the informal sector.
The material reality of the working class has been harsher than even the above figures suggest. For while huge chunks of the population entirely lost their means of subsistence, an even larger portion of the population ended up scrounging their livelihood in the expanding informal sector. In Argentina, over two-fifths worked in informal conditions, most as off-the-books employees in mushrooming microenterprises or as unskilled “freelancers” in petty retail and services. Over a decade of Kirchnerist rule barely made a dent in informal employment, which remained at 37 percent when the neo-Peronist lost the 2015 elections. In Bolivia, a full 70 percent of the economically active population toiled in the informal sector on the eve of Morales’s 2005 triumph. Yet here, again, reduction has been nothing to boast about. In 2014, the last year for which there is official data, nearly three-fifths of the working population was still getting by on unregulated work. Correa’s reforms in Ecuador did absolutely nothing to reign in informality: the informal workforce stood at 57 percent when he left office last year, the exact same proportion as when he was inaugurated. The overall story repeats itself in Venezuela. After structural adjustment policies were enacted in the late 1980s, informality climbed from just over a third to over one-half of the working population when Chávez was elected. Then, it continued to climb after elites shut down the oil industry. After the Bolivarian state gained control of the sector, reforms reduced the informal sector, but ever so slightly, from a high point of 58 to just under half in 2014. In general, the vast majority of all workers in Pink Tide countries were thrown into unregulated and insecure work by market reforms; and nearly half is still relegated to such precarious jobs.
Stubbornly high unemployment and escalating dependence on the informal sector dissolved the foundations of working-class leverage. With a majority of workers competing for a shrinking pool of regular, secure jobs, and most forced to obtain a living in atomized, precarious work, using their economic position to make demands became nearly impossible. Surpluses of skilled employees precluded bargaining for improvements even in thriving industrial sectors. More generally, the prospects for confronting the new harsh conditions collectively evaporated as appeals to solidarity and common organizational efforts collapsed. Striking in these circumstances was suicidal. In short, the post-liberalization realities removed nearly all possibilities for workers to use their labor-market positions to demand concessions, be they individual or collective.
Capital’s shift to branches that are relatively insulated from labor disruptions is reflected in rates of investment in new machinery and equipment. Compared to the ISI period, the drop was dramatic. In Ecuador and Bolivia, where industrialization efforts were always weaker, investments in plant and technology remained low. In Argentina, elites dedicated far less to bring new machinery online, although privatization tends to inflate gross fixed-investment numbers. While plenty of money was spent on modernizing healthy branches, real capital formation suffered steady declines from the mid-1970s peak through the 1990s. Where gross capital formation topped 31 percent of GDP in 1976, it shrank to a mere 14 percent by 1990. It recovered slightly but did not exceed one-fifth of total output until 2006. In Venezuela, the drop in machinery investments was equally sharp under neoliberalism. From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, the state oversaw investments amounting to 13 percent of GDP on new technologies and equipment. After the structural adjustments of the mid- and late 1980s, annual capital investments were cut nearly in half.
With investment diverted away from industry, manufacturing naturally lost its share of overall output throughout the region. Pink Tide countries experienced sharp reductions. From its mid-seventies apex of over a third of GDP, Argentine manufacturing diminished to roughly one-quarter twenty years later. It has never recovered. More importantly, that 25 percent aggregate figure hides a sharp polarization between a few advanced, highly efficient branches and an agonizing collection of small, dispersed firms that were on the brink of closure.41 In Venezuela, the industrial share of GDP reached 22 percent prior to market reforms; when Chávez was first elected, manufacturing had shrunk to 17 percent, and it has continued falling since.
In combination with the rise of informality, these changes led to a drastic fall in union density across the region after the 1980s. Pink Tide countries were not spared, and in many ways, they experienced the most pronounced drops, falling to levels not seen since the early twentieth century. Nor has the collapse of unionization recovered since the Left came to power. Argentina’s decline in union density is startling considering the levels achieved during ISI. Whereas half of all employees were in unions in the 1970s, by the 1990s, just over one-fifth of workers were members.42 According to the ILO, ten years of Kircherist government etched the share of workers in union up to 30 percent, but union density has since resumed its decline. Bolivia and Venezuela also experienced sharp deterioration in labor organizing, with drops in their unionized workforces ranging from one-third to one-half. Whereas during ISI, the promotion of industry around the mining and oil sectors drove peak union density to a quarter or more of all workers, by the 1990s only around 9 and 13 percent of Bolivia and Venezuela’s workers, respectively, belonged to labor unions.43
With historically low levels of unionization, in a context of rampant informality and industrial fragmentation, it is unsurprising that the region’s workers lost their capacity for collective action — even for economic self-defense, much less to demand additional gains. Although the data is incomplete and not altogether reliable, there is no denying that as employment was degraded or eliminated, workers were unable to respond with effective mobilization. In Argentina, as crisis and restructuring shredded living standards, unions were not altogether quiescent. The 1980s hyperinflationary crisis drove workers to protest aggressively for salary adjustments: that decade, there were an average of over five hundred yearly labor conflicts, most concentrated in the latter years when real wages sank the fastest.44 While far below the mid-1970s upsurge, the rate of labor protest reveals the preservation of significant associational capacities. By the 1990s, the ability to mobilize was in irreversible decline as privatization, disintegration, and flexibilization hollowed out workers’ associational power. The once-powerful Peronist labor movement, now under unrestrained assault, only mustered 330 yearly actions. By the latter half of the decade, as hundreds of thousands of jobs vanished and wages were essentially frozen, there were a mere 110 industrial conflicts per year. The loss of associational and mobilization capacities in manufacturing was clearly behind the overall weakening, as industrial conflicts shrank by nearly half. The collapse of labor mobilization in other Pink Tide countries, though not as extreme given the lower baselines, was similarly gloomy. Bolivia and Ecuador saw yearly strikes diminish from an average of roughly 240 and 100, respectively, to fewer than 100 and 40. Venezuela experienced the near disappearance of labor mobilization during the 1990s. The year with the most strikes, 1992, witnessed a meager fifteen stoppages.
Since then, labor protest has dwindled even further in most Pink Tide countries. In effect, the working class, even under leftist governments, has remained without potent sources of systemic leverage and has failed to recover the organizational resources needed to revamp its associational capacities and militancy. Argentina alone, thanks to the dramatic economic recovery triggered by a massive 2002 devaluation and its moderately protectionist effects, has had a resurgence in labor protest. In 2007, after five years of robust expansion, unions waged over one thousand struggles.45 But this figure is misleading; the rebirth of strikes under the Kirchners reflects the way their institutionalization of a recentralized collective bargaining regime boosted unions’ associational capacities for the purposes of wage stabilization.46
Still, neoliberal restructuring’s erosion of labor’s positional power did not completely wipe out subaltern disruptive capacities. As labor was marginalized, popular sectors developed other effective organizational resources that gave them resounding abilities to disrupt. Neoliberal crises and instability pushed growing informal sectors and precarious communities into struggle just as the basis for industrial insurgency withered. Their escalating protests built up powerful movements which, although lacking structural power, exerted a different form of overwhelming leverage.
Neoliberal Crisis and Subaltern Remobilization
The marginalizing effects of neoliberal restructuring of industry and social provision helped remobilize popular sectors against elites. But economic degradation and social exclusion alone did not directly spur left organization and mobilization. After all, it took over fifteen years for popular forces to recover real influence. Rather, disruptive subaltern remobilization took place following an extended buildup of a new infrastructure for political mobilization. Paradoxically, such new class capacities were not based on structural leverage in the economy, but rather, on the elimination of that leverage. Facing their marginalization, popular sectors initiated a series of protest cycles, over the course of which they developed, expanded, and coordinated new forms of effective organization. This new associational power became strong enough to oust neoliberal governments and replace them with Pink Tide parties. Its lack of a structural foundation, however, could not forestall the exhaustion of popular organizational resources, leaving it vulnerable to rollback by state elites.
Cycles of Protest and Rising Organization
Market reform’s social devastation prodded popular sectors into waves of protest over subsistence needs. Once disincorporated and severed from state-backed employment and social provision, vast layers of workers and the poor formed independent campaigns to fight for material goods largely unconnected to work and production. Cast off by neoliberalism and forced to survive on the margins of formal markets, former clients and constituents of modernizing government brokers developed new organizations or recast old ones to press authorities for access to basic services, utility subsidies and infrastructure, urban titling, freedom to pursue semi-legal activities without harassment, and/or just plain relief handouts. Lacking positional leverage, such efforts relied on maximizing disruption through direct action, which in turn required strengthening existing bonds of solidarity.
In Bolivia, for instance, former miners turned coca growers refashioned labor and peasant associations first developed by the ISI corporatist state to organize defense of their new livelihoods against eradication campaigns. In Venezuela, slum dwellers formed community associations to protect and support their new neighborhoods and fight for affordable transport. In Argentina, unemployed families organized road blockades to demand welfare plans from the state. These initial defensive rounds of anti-neoliberal resistance spawned the organizational building blocks that laid the foundation for more extensive associational capacities that popular sectors would successfully mobilize to bring down neoliberal governments.
As second-generation market reforms aggravated exclusion and simultaneously cut into the state’s ability to address popular grievances, protests expanded. Defensive and local organizations began cooperating with their peers and shifted to more offensive demands. Ramping up mobilizations, popular groups soon formed protest blocs that coalesced around political demands which were more national in scope. The process of branching out and coordination led to qualitative jumps in subaltern associational capacities. Broad fronts were created, some cohering more formally than others. They tackled liberalization proposals that resonated widely, confronted acute economic crises, or took on standing administrations altogether.
In Bolivia, peasant leagues, workers’ confederations that had welcomed informal workers, and federated shanty-neighborhood councils lent support to local struggles over water rights. These then led national demonstrations that brought down the president during the 2003 “Gas War.” Bolivia’s mass movements achieved the highest degree of institutionalization, providing the formal organizational bases of the new MAS party which jumped to the head of the protests, later elected Morales to the presidency, and has since been the hegemonic force in the country. In Argentina, the unemployed piqueterosescalated their mass disruptions, organized mass assemblies to coordinate their actions, and eventually formed powerful fronts that included unions and community organizations. During the 2001–2002 financial collapse, they brought the country to a standstill, intensifying provincial roadblocks and then centralizing their rebellion around the capital. Soon thereafter, they helped stabilize Kirchner’s shaky government, as a number of their federations became key neo-Peronist support bases. The Venezuelan process was somewhat different. There, early unrest by community groups and semi-clandestine formations that built alliances set the stage for Chávez’s first election in 1998. But in the Bolivarian revolution, anti-neoliberal protest organizations took associational capacities to a new level afterward, as they mobilized to defend the radicalizing government from a series of early elite attacks.
From Independent Militancy to Populist Clientelism
Despite their success in catapulting left governments into power, these mass movements soon became dependent on the state and lost their great disruptive capacities. Three dynamics combined to produce this outcome. Firstly, the movements underwent the inevitable process of exhaustion connected to constant and costly mobilization. Secondly, the relief and redistributive demands that fueled their rise were partially fulfilled by the new governments in the form of new and expanded welfare programs; these were typically channeled through movement structures. Lastly, to the extent that mobilization continued, it soon shifted from grassroots militant protest aiming to overturn neoliberalism to more agitation coordinated from above to defend Pink Tide governments. These factors combined to weaken and further demobilize mass protest movements that sustained the Pink Tide and to erode their independence. Not only did the insurgent organizations suffer a decline in their abilities to mobilize; reincorporation and allegiance to “their” governments and partisan structures meant that they came to depend on state resources, rather than the organizational resources painstakingly amassed in struggle, for their members’ well-being and for their institutional survival.
From their marginalized positions, popular organizations succumbed to these conditions. Cut off by market reforms from economic institutions valued by elites, they became subordinate to leftist authorities and brokers. Unable to deploy structural leverage, their agitation was subsumed under the political requirements of Pink Tide rule. Left governments were not merely manipulating their constituents. Since they were dependent on this social base, Pink Tide politicians committed to delivering as best as possible — failing on this front would result in electoral defeat. Latin America’s new left was thus caught in a clientelist cycle that preserved the status quo rather than pushed beyond it. Governments institutionalized popular groups and channeled commodity rents to their backers, maintaining a level of organization that served to fend off challenges and turn out the vote. In return, popular constituents secured the reproduction of their organizations which they deployed not only to defend Pink Tide governments but also to provide and even expand relief for members. Of course, in this subordinate relationship and from weak social locations, former insurgents could no longer push for more radical demands. The Pink Tide was trapped in a neoliberal growth model, albeit with improved distributional policies. The Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela and the rise of neo-Peronist populism in Argentina best illustrate the transformation of powerful insurgencies into dependent clienteles as well as how this shift further compromised the Pink Tides inherent social weakness.
Venezuela: From Militant Tsunami to Tottering Trickle
The originating event that led to the rise of radical Bolivarian populism was the February 1989 insurrection known as the Caracazo. This rebellion inaugurated the anti-neoliberal mobilizations that peaked a decade later with the Pink Tide’s string of electoral successes. The revolt, led by the unemployed and informally employed residents of the capital’s suburban slums, was directed at the reelected Social Democrat (Acción Democratica, or AD) icon Carlos Andres Pérez who had presided over the oil-boom splurge of the 1970s. In the 1980s, he again campaigned on a populist platform, denouncing neoliberal restructuring and multilateral financing conditionalities as “a neutron bomb that killed people, but left buildings standing.” CAP, as Pérez is known, was a leading figure in the party system installed by the Punto Fijo power-sharing agreement with his Christian Democratic (COPEI) rivals, a pact that emerged from the contentious re-democratization of 1958. It enshrined the quasi-corporatist arrangement whereby state-supported unionization and the benefits of institutionalized collective bargaining were exchanged for labor’s allegiance. Under the Punto Fijo regime, formal employees enjoyed generous real wages, which from 1960 to the mid-1980s grew well above productivity gains.47
Though puntofijismo was already under pressure by the late 1980s, CAP led the neoliberal attack on Venezuelan petro-corporatism. Perez began his second stint by at once implementing the very pro-market, IMF-recommended reforms he had denounced. Also foreshadowing the bait and switch, or “neoliberalism by surprise” approach of former or would-be populists across the region, CAP’s program — the infamous paquete (or “package”) — only increased the vulnerability of the expanding informal workforce by deepening their dependence on the market for basic needs.48 Thus, when CAP’s paquete accelerated privatization, increased sales taxes, further liberalized trade, and eliminated subsidies, the precarious urban poor exploded. To restore order, Pérez sent in the military with shoot-to-kill orders. By the end of the Caracazo, thousands lay dead, though hundreds have never been accounted for.
The rebellion had three critical consequences for the emergence of the Bolivarian regime. Firstly, it put the final nail in the coffin of the disintegrating AD-COPEI party system. The adoption of neoliberal policies threw huge numbers out of work and undercut the resources that sustained the incorporation of workers, particularly eroding the AD’s institutionalized links to unions. Growing segments of the working class concentrated in hill shanties surrounding opulent central Caracas were now cut off from the bipartisan system of interest representation. Secondly, the urban poor deepened their local organizing efforts. With a majority of the working class cut off from the traditional systems of representation, radicals and community activists developed barrio associations, both legal and not-so-legal, rooted in mutualist provision and defense of social services. These marginalized but organized sectors would become the bedrock of Chávez’s social support. The Punto Fijo system in tatters, elites found it impossible to secure the consent of these increasingly mobilized groups. Finally, the Caracazo activated a layer of middle-ranking, nationalist officers who had been forced to repress the rebellion. In fact, Chávez and his cohort began conspiring seriously to take power and reinstall a “progressive-nationalist” regime after their experience putting down the insurrection. Ironically, Chávez’s new radical populism arose with the backing of the very sectors he had been ordered to repress. As an outsider attacking the old order’s neoliberal turn, he was well positioned to bring the informal workers into a governing coalition.
The turn of the century opened a process of deep transformation, driven by repeated elite attempts to topple Chávez followed by massive mobilizations defending his rule and radicalizing the reform process at each step.49 Following his failed 1992 coup attempt, Chávez, who with two words — “for now” — famously admitted only a temporary setback, was swept into office six years later. The same informal sectors that had rebelled in 1989 and supported his uprising now overwhelmingly voted for his vague anti-poverty and anti-corruption pledges. While Chávez ended up with 56 percent, neither AD nor COPEI ran candidates, as they sensed the popular hostility toward punto fijismo. After a brief grace period during which the opposition worked to reorganize itself, elites, now genuinely threatened by a new constitution, went on the offensive. After Chávez won another election with 60 percent under the loosely assembled Movement for the Fifth Republic, opponents orchestrated lethal street violence followed by an April 2002 coup, used their technical and bureaucratic supremacy to conduct a protracted and devastating lockout of the strategic oil industry at the end of that year, and, given the failure of their extra-parliamentary tactics, finally launched a recall referendum campaign in 2004 to oust Chávez legally.
Each move galvanized Chávez’s supporters, spurring their organization and mobilization and resulting in turn in enhanced leverage over Bolivarian social policy. In response to the short-lived coup, hundreds of thousands of Chavistas, activating their barrio networks, descended onto the capital, confronting the putschists with mass direct action and prompting the restoration of Chávez’s rule by loyalists in the military. Chavista success on the street encouraged further advances in popular political participation and militancy. Bolivarian activists responded to the employers’ strike of 2003–2004 by mobilizing at work sites, particularly in the oil industry, where worker ingenuity and self-management restarted production, though not before elites shrank economic output by 8 percent and reversed promising declines in poverty. This time, Bolivarian workers’ roles in beating back elites’ economic attack led to the formation of a new labor confederation, the UNT, which largely displaced the corporatist holdover CTV, which had sided with employers during the lockout. The UNT put forward radical reforms like workers’ control and co-management of production and the formalization of flexibilized wage earners.50 The final assertion of popular power came in 2004, when Chavistas organized constitutionalist mobilization in defense of the Bolivarian regime and soundly defeated the Right’s recall campaign with 2 million more backers turning out in relation to the 2000 presidential elections.
The lesson was unequivocal: Chávez’s political survival depended on consolidating his supporters’ organized power and addressing their radicalizing demands. Within a year, Chávez declared that his revolution would be socialist in nature. Twenty-first-century Bolivarian socialism contained two basic pillars: universal social provision and a restructuring of participatory political institutions. Chávez intensified the redistribution of oil revenues, which began a steep five-year climb as the lockout was overcome and global crude prices rebounded. It was over this period that per capita social spending doubled. With this infusion of hard currency, the new Bolivarian regime founded a number of social programs, called misiones, which offered universalist health care, free secondary and postsecondary education for students of all ages, and popular distribution of subsidized food. Decommodified social provision naturally underpinned popular allegiance to the government. On this basis, the Bolivarian regime reconstituted a new corporatist model, petro-patronage now financing state linkages primarily with the informal sectors of the working class. To institutionalize this expanded clientelism, Chávez created two key associational structures: a unified Socialist Party (the PSUV) and communal councils. Both were hybrid organizational models, combining horizontal participatory mechanisms at the grassroots level with top-down decision making with the party leadership and the state.51
But this Bolivarian socialist project carried grave risks. Firstly, dependence on petro-patronage made popular welfare dependent on the vagaries of the global crude market. So, as oil prices began to decline — most notably in 2009 and 2015 — social spending also spiraled downward. The economic and social crises produced by falling oil revenues tested the urban poor’s Bolivarian commitments. Their allegiance was further eroded by the bureaucratization entrenched by the regime’s partisan and communitarian institutions which created powerful conservative constituencies and incentives for corruption. Though the PSUV and the community assemblies were built on vibrant grassroots self-activity, this popular participation was ultimately channeled in a top-down manner by the authority and interests of new elites. Given the deteriorating economic situation and the alienation verticalist centralization wrought on rank-and-file Chavistas, the new regime began suffering massive disillusionment and desertion, even before Chávez’s unexpected death and the disappointments of his politically clumsy successor, Nicolás Maduro. When the economy nosedived in 2015, predictably hurting informal workers and their families the worst, Chavismo could find neither the political initiative to shift to a radically different development model nor motivate its historic backbone to defend the regime from growing right-wing attacks.
The recession, propelled by collapsing oil prices, worsened dramatically after 2014, with output shrinking by almost 6 percent in 2015 and by even more the following two years. Inflation doubled from around 60 to 120 percent in 2015 and has since entered five-digit territory. The combination of acute shortages, consumer price ceilings, and multiple exchange rates helped generate a ruthless black market for goods and dollars inflicting additional blows to the poor’s living standards. The opposition exploited the crisis to mount an offensive that began with violent street demonstrations and culminated in the successful December 2015 takeover, with a near supermajority, of Congress by the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition. Since then, with the economy in a freefall and poverty at unprecedented levels, the country finds itself in a stalemate that is aggravating the crisis. After wielding partisan control of the judiciary to block the opposition’s recall campaign, Maduro launched a constitutional assembly which the PSUV, despite its shrinking support base, has used to govern. In a context of generalized collapse, he has exploited new electoral rules, the opposition’s inability to overcome key strategic differences, and widespread Chavista disillusionment to hold on to power in the last elections.
Argentina: The Peronist Giant Returns on Feet of Clay
The Argentine case parallels Venezuelan developments in many respects. Whereas the Caracazo opened the drawn-out crisis of neoliberalism and the traditional party system, in Argentina, it gathered steam during the 1990s and culminated in December 2001 with the country’s own popular rebellion and political implosion. At the same time, the Pink Tide experience in Argentina departs significantly from the Venezuelan experience. For one, the old party system was not completely undone as the new reformers represented a reconfiguration of Peronism, the mainstay of postwar politics. Consequently, left movements needed to be even more forceful to win substantial concessions. Accordingly, the new regime did not radically alter its core policy platform or the state’s representative institutions.
As in Venezuela, the popular explosion against the political class was fueled by the squeeze imposed on workers by market reforms. The open trade, deregulation, and privatization policies of orthodox Peronist Carlos Ménem expanded poverty, precarious work, and unemployment to unprecedented levels. Regionally, Argentina had come closest to full employment under its ISI regime. By the end of the 1990s, half the population had slid into poverty, joblessness had expanded to one-fifth, and over half of the employed population worked informally. Traditional blue-collar sectors like construction and manufacturing were particularly hard hit, with roughly half of employees in these sectors out of work at the time of the collapse.
Beginning in the late 1990s, swaths of workers and their families who had been thrown out of work or into the insecurity of informal labor initiated a series of revolts that grew progressively until they enveloped and shut down the capital at the end of 2001.
Meanwhile, austerity measures adopted by both major parties — the Peronists and the Radical Party (UCR) — seeking IMF loans to back the local currency’s dollar parity pushed even middle layers in Buenos Aires and other large cities into street protests. After the UCR-led ruling alliance reappointed the architect of the 1990s monetarist reforms and froze all bank accounts to avoid a run on the currency, the capital exploded in December of 2001 amid fears of an impending devaluation. The rebellion, which resulted in dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries, forced the UCR president to flee and in the course of a week toppled three interim presidents.
While formal industrial unions were either passive or complicit with liberalization, unemployed workers spearheaded the mobilizations. The main tactic used was highway roadblocks in demand for unemployment relief. Initially, these piqueteros were concentrated in provincial towns which had depended almost exclusively on shuttered plants. Relying on community and former work-site networks, thousands suffering sudden joblessness demanded relief by blocking major highways. Fearing the impact of these actions on the stability of the already fragile neoliberal agenda and hoping to contain the protests, authorities responded by delivering relief “plans.” Instead, this dynamic helped multiply the associational capabilities of the piqueteros who replicated a tactic that evidently worked.52
Throughout Argentina, masses of the unemployed organized to shut down highways, expecting public assistance. The piquetero movement thus grew in intensity and spread until it was in a position to engulf the country’s administrative and economic centers. Through the late 1990s, the movement consolidated its associational resources as regional and then national federations were created. As Eduardo Silva shows, in 1997, there were 140 total roadblocks, disproportionately held in the interior.53 By 2002, there were over 2,300; they grew to involve an average of 2,000 participants with over half in the economic heartland around Buenos Aires.54 Largely, the piquetero eruption and the destabilization of its escalating disruptions brought down the old regime.
The popular rebellion, under the slogan “que se vayan todos” (roughly “throw them all out”), dissolved broad segments of the existing party system and forced Peronism to refashion itself for its own survival. Nestor Kirchner took office after winning a mere 22 percent in the early elections held June 2003. Though piquetero mobilizations had subsided somewhat, by midyear the capital had experienced 120 roadblocks and Buenos Aires province, 194. To stabilize the situation and solidify its tenuous rule, the new government prioritized their demobilization. To remove the piqueteros from the streets, Kirchner extended and bolstered the reforms of the interim government. Crucially, this involved consolidating the relief “plans” into a single workfare-style program, Plan Jefes y Jefas de Hogar, and selectively conferring management of these funds to the unemployed workers’ organizations in exchange for political allegiance. Indeed, by 2002, this plan covered 1.5 million households, accounting for 7.5 percent of federal expenditures.55 Coupled with other key reforms, this shift to consolidated and expanded discretionary relief played a huge role in demobilizing the piqueteros.
The default and massive devaluation adopted by the interim government, gave a much-needed boost to exports, generating new revenues for social spending. When the price of soy and other primary commodities began rising in 2003, the new government raised export taxes and channeled growing portions of the export windfall into state coffers. Within a year of Kirchner’s election, international soy prices had doubled; in 2007, when these began spiking again, he further raised retenciones from the timid 13.5 percent adopted by the interim government (they had fallen to a mere 3.5 percent under Meném) to 35 percent. It was during this period that real per capita social spending increased by half. As job growth rebounded furiously — unemployment had been halved by 2006 — much of this expansion came to be disbursed through a new targeted per-child cash transfer, the Asignación Universal por Hijo (AUH), created at the end of 2009. By 2013, it covered over 2 million poor families, offering the region’s most generous transfers to nearly a third of all households.56
The rapid return to growth and the expansion of welfare programs had crucial political consequences. Firstly, party and state institutions were only partially transformed. Whereas the anti-Peronist liberal parties were irreversibly damaged, the PJ underwent an important realignment. Under the new growth and welfare regime, the neo-populists rose to dominance within Peronism. After securing social stability and consolidating rule, Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernández, won back-to-back elections, the second in 2011 with an overwhelming majority and popular mandate. Nevertheless, while the traditional factions of Peronism were weakened by the 2001–2002 rebellion and mobilizations, the very restoration of growth and order promoted the recovery of old-guard Peronist centers of power. These were able to open a new front against Kirchnerist electoral dominance, as well as its new patronage systems. By 2015, they had formed a powerful block of local caudillos and bureaucratic officials, receiving over one-fifth of the vote. The old liberal opposition, by contrast, lost all capacity to compete for power: while a few Radical leaders hold onto provincial machines, national candidates have scarcely cleared 10 percent, whether in primaries or elections. Rather, the party has dispersed behind personalist candidacies or deals with new emerging oppositions.
Secondly, besides demobilizing most piqueteros, the new conditional and targeted welfare funds became the conduit for incorporation into the Kirchnerist populist coalition. While the new clientelism benefitted the vast informal sector, it did so by coopting unemployed organizations and stripping them of their independence and militance. Though a minority of the piquetero movement attempted to maintain the initiative, the bulk was reshaped and integrated into robust Kirchnerist patronage networks. This has not only eliminated their autonomy in carrying out disruptive actions in favor of members’ interests, it has also stifled their mobilizational capacities. The funds pumped into these groups no longer enhance their organizational resources, establishing instead brokerage systems for the delivery of services. Yet unlike the Bolivarian process, Kirchnerism concurrently failed to install new structures of popular participation and state intermediation.
The result has been a sharp decline in popular organizational capacities along with weakly institutionalized neo-Peronist partisan incorporation. Meanwhile, whereas Venezuelan elite opposition suffered a series of debilitating defeats until 2015, in Argentina pro-market forces were able to reorganize against little resistance from the movements. Although a 2008 mobilization against rising export taxes was not a complete success, it revealed the contours of a new forceful opposition. Institutionally, the anti-populist opposition would be built around the social-liberal administration of the capital under current president, Mauricio Macri. Beginning in 2011, the Kirchners had to withstand rising protest in Buenos Aires and beyond fueled by reactivated middle layers or rebuilt Peronist bureaucracies. In the context of a weakly structured Kirchnerist following, the reassembled opposition amounted to a formidable challenge.
All in all, these developments dealt a powerful blow to the diffuse and demobilized Kircherist coalition. As the economy began faltering in 2013–2014, they were ill-equipped to block the opposition’s advance. Having peaked in late 2012, world soy prices experienced a freefall throughout 2014, dramatically reducing public revenues. The share of social expenditures fell by more than one-tenth, and for the first time under the Kirchners, per capita welfare outlays were cut. In the meantime, as the state continued to allot multibillion-dollar yearly sums for debt repayment, it began running deficits which sharply undermined the peso. Though the Fernandez government increased cash transfers and the minimum wage, rising inflation undermined their real values. With GDP contractions in 2014 and again in 2016, and amid spiraling consumer prices, Macri comfortably beat Fernández’s chosen successor in the 2015 runoffs. Tellingly, the Kirchnerist candidate increased the coalition’s turnout by half a million votes; the anti-populists, however, doubled their vote total to over 12 million!
Venezuela and Argentina illustrate the built-in weakness of the Pink Tide left. Whereas ISI empowered workers by placing them in the most indispensable positions for the realization of elite interests, the neoliberal accumulation model inherited by Pink Tide governments dissolved working-class power. If postwar industrialization programs gestated challengers to, if not gravediggers of, bourgeois rule, market reforms birthed rebellious masses without the tools to contest the foundations of elite power. These constraints impeded the new movement’s ability to push through core transformation of the economic model that marginalized them. Fortunately, when assessed relative to elite power, subaltern weaknesses were not completely debilitating. For while neoliberalism eroded workers’ leverage, it also fragmented business capacities.
The combined effect of post-ISI elite fragmentation and the disorganizing impact that left governments had on domestic business communities is a present inability to impose a coherent and ruthless orthodox program on former Pink Tide countries. Where they have taken back power, anti-Pink Tide liberals have largely failed to undo the core reincorporation social policies of their predecessors. In Argentina, Macri has not dared take away centralized collective bargaining or the main Kirchnerist welfare program, the AUH. And the very announcement of an IMF agreement triggered massive remobilization of the associational capacities of workers and the poor. In Venezuela, the unravelling of social provision is occurring under the Chavista government. But the fact that the Right has been unable to regain power in such appalling social conditions reflects the opposition’s inability to forge a unified program that could meet minimal conditions for post-Bolivarian rule.
The key point is that reliance on the informal urban poor as its mainspring left the Pink Tide without the type of power needed to push through radical programs. This impotence underpinned a vicious cycle. Unable to break with the neoliberal model, the best Pink Tide governments could do to meet their backers’ interests was to divert commercial rents to popular constituencies. This cemented a negative feedback loop between the political benefits of natural-commodity export strategies and new forms of clientelism with the informal poor. In lieu of constructing a strategy atop a structurally empowered social force capable of driving a more radical emancipatory and egalitarian program, the Pink Tide was forced to exchange mobilized support for patronage. The arrangement hampered its social support base. When the trade bonanza dried up, the arrangement collapsed. This structural weakness, more than elite sabotage, undermined Pink Tide rule.
How should the Left react to the Pink Tide’s decline? Arguing that its fall is predicated on an inherent power gap lends an air of inevitably to the Left’s current reversals. Pessimism and resignation, however, are not the attitudes radicals and popular movements should come away with. Indeed, the Left must appreciate the accomplishments of the Pink Tide’s tenure. A balance sheet of the contemporary left’s achievements reveals that even in a context of more limited potential, the Pink Tide managed to institute social and political reforms that granted needed relief and influence to popular sectors and, more importantly, have genuine staying power. The resilience of these measures, with all their flaws, stems from the subaltern associational capacities developed during anti-neoliberal resistance. Even if whittled and compromised, their clientelistic consolidation gives them the ability to effectively counter attempts by the new right to eliminate these programs. The informal poor might no longer be willing to mobilize in defense of Pink Tide parties and politicians, but they will not sit by as elites strip away the meager welfare resources they fought to win.
In short, even when the Pink Tide lacked the structural leverage to push through proposals for economic democratization that the classical left thrust onto the agenda, their more orthodox neoliberal successors face enormous barriers to rolling back neo-corporatist reforms. The on-the-ground balance of organizational forces redounds in a sort of policy stalemate: although the Pink Tide reforms cannot be deepened, neither can they be completely gutted. Some might say that thin reincorporation is a fixture in the region’s new political ecology. This perspective should allay concerns over the exaggerated threat of a neo-authoritarian hard right in the region. While far from satisfactory and certainly not the emancipatory project that many celebrated, the Pink Tide did erode the bases for the cruel and totalitarian form of market orthodoxy that reigned prior to its ascent.
Finally, comparing the Pink Tide to the classical Latin American left highlights the tough, yet indispensable, tasks arrayed before Latin American radicals. Neither generation got anywhere without amassing independent organizational resources. Their contrasting realities exposes the disadvantages of doing so without a solid structural foundation, yet it also demonstrates the inescapable necessity of building organizational strength for any radical challenge to elite power. Pitfalls abound, as reflected in the failed Marea Socialista campaign to build a radical and independent labor pole in Venezuela. Without a substantial presence in key economic sectors, it was eventually eclipsed by official Bolivarian labor confederations and, more fatefully, by the PSUV.
But opportunities are also plentiful. Argentine transit militants exploited track-worker safety disputes to bolster the organization of the subway system’s service employees.57 Bolivian neighborhood associations in the informal slums that ring La Paz remain strong, even while struggling to preserve their autonomy. Encouraging examples can also be found in non-Pink Tide countries. The MST, Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, rose to become the region’s strongest mass movement, perhaps ever, thanks largely to a gradual and persistent accumulation of organizational resources among working communities and families from the economy’s periphery. In Chile, students, from marginal structural positions, rapidly built up new associational capacities used to launch a movement that placed radical politics back on the national agenda after decades of neoliberal hegemony.
But these examples also show that while bolstering the movement’s associational power is surely necessary, it is plainly insufficient. Comparing the Pink Tide to the classical Latin American left underscores the indispensability of organizing a base whose regular activities give it the capacity to disrupt the economic basis of ruling-class power. The Left’s task, therefore, is not to forsake the movements that fueled the Pink Tide, but rather to develop linkages that might coordinate their mobilizations with the struggles of popular sectors that enjoy structural power. Once more, although neoliberalism disempowered vast working-class segments, market reform has not eroded the positional leverage of all workers. The change in growth model has shifted elites’ profit strategies to new sectors and branches. These industries are now more scattered and isolated and employ less-skilled employees among immense informal surpluses. The relatively fortunate workers occupied in them face intense competitive pressures to preserve their jobs; unlike masses cast into informality and complete insecurity, they are not driven into resistance and protest.
Still, neoliberal production is not invulnerable. Current conditions present elevated barriers for organizing its leading sectors, but once radicals find ways to build workers’ associational capacities in these sectors, the Left will once again have its hands on a powerful and lasting lever for winning more transformative reforms. The ISI economy did much of the heavy lifting for us. Now, the Left must make the tireless, and far from glamourous, efforts to organize key nodes in business’s profit strategies, and thereby unlock the enduring structural power of the neoliberal working class. Again, a series of working-class battles, less resonant perhaps than early Pink Tide cycles of protest, offer guidelines. Effective organization of fractured, atomized, and informalized workers in mineral extraction and export infrastructure, such as the painstaking unionization and coordination of subcontracted miners and dockworkers in Chile — the poster child of Latin American neoliberalism — point us in the right direction. The Left’s task is to identify instances in which such successes might be replicated.