Over the last weeks, Latin America's left consolidated its presence. Brazil re-elected President Dilma Rousseff to a second term in office; Bolivia re-elected President Evo Morales to a third. In Ecuador, the Supreme Court authorised Congress to move ahead with an amendment for the indefinite re-election of President Rafael Correa. The entrenchment of socially committed candidates on the left, though significant, is a bittersweet victory.
Leftist governments are diverse and their achievements in the region cannot be overlooked. Brazil took 40 million people out of poverty. Bolivia declared a plurinational state; Ecuador's constitution recognised the rights of nature. Yet, different leftist government disappointed in their own ways.
Curbing political rights
The revolutionary left disenchanted its supporters in the most overt ways, undoing the electoral mechanisms that brought it to power. At first, Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega did not bother to change the rules, running for a third term against the law; and then Sandinistas proposed "re-election without end" to do away with elections altogether. Ecuador is about to announce "indefinite re-election". Both reforms were presented as constitutional amendments to Congresses largely controlled by the executive branch.
The left's track record in freedom of information and the press has also been disappointing. This year a paper shortage impeded circulation of print media in Venezuela. In Ecuador, where freedom of expression is said to be most restricted after Cuba, media laws take journalists and cartoonists to court, while President Rafael Correa uses his weekly three-hour address to the nation to harass social activists.
Surprisingly, the left is also prone to criminalising social protest. In Bolivia, Morales violently repressed a peaceful Indigenous march contesting a road construction on TIPNIS (Territorio Indegena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure) territory. In Ecuador, Indigenous leaders and students were sentenced to jail for contesting water policies. Brazilian authorities did not shy away from violently suppressing mass protests in the months leading up to the World Cup.
The neoliberal trap
Social democratic governments were credited with increasing minimum wages to lift millions out of poverty, and inequality fell for the first time in almost all of Latin America. Yet reforms failed to deliver structural access to welfare that would truly address inequality in the long run.
In Brazil, the Bolsa Familia provides small cash for keeping children in school. It is the world's largest conditional cash transfer programme in budget and reach, assisting nearly 50 million people. Such programmes are global success stories the World Bank describes as revolutionary.
Yet it is questionable if they really have revolutionised poverty alleviation. Brazilian economist Lena Lavinas argues that these programmes are only market incorporation. The Bolsa Familia guarantees a minimum income that permits millions of poor people to enter market dynamics. Simply put, they no longer live on subsistence patterns and can now afford washing machines. This process expanded national domestic markets, and enabled mass consumption societies over the last decade.
Yet there are two interrelated shortcomings of this 21st century welfare. First, these programmes are volatile, not consolidated rights. Second, they have not been accompanied by policies for structural changes. Income is not enough to secure access to housing, health, and education. To bring the poor masses into market dynamics is insufficient to lift them out of poverty, if states fail to provide them with decommodified social services services that equalise opportunities.
Many social programmes promoted in Latin America are but another neoliberal solution: Rather than tackling inequality, they represent the financialisation of poverty.
Various leftist governments across Latin America have been equally unable to generate new models of development. Far from reversing historical patterns of structural dependency, they accentuated reliance on natural resources and foreign capital.
Extractivism is booming everywhere. In Uruguay, "cool" President Jose Mujica publicly bets on mine exploitation to "improve" lives. The case of Yasuni National Park Ecuador has become emblematic of the left's schizophrenia with environmental issues. Correa's government dismissed its conservationist discourse and ignored Article 12 of its Constitution securing the rights of nature to put the last untouched bit of the Amazon for sale.
Hypocrisy runs high in Brazil too. Despite widespread social opposition and Indigenous protests against the Belo Monte dam, Rousseff repeats the strategies of military regimes in the 1970s in her attempts to modernise Amazonia. Beyond their irreversible impact, such mega-projects encourage top-down decisions made behind closed doors.They call attention to what governments on the left have yet to learn about democracy.
Latin American dependency on foreign capital has been diversified, but certainly has not diminished. According to the Inter-American Dialogue, China committed to nearly $100bn in loans to Latin American since 2005. Venezuela alone got half of those funds. These loans can be more stringent than those granted by the World Bank and may require oil sale agreements in exchange (Venezuela and Ecuador). By 2013, for instance, China covered about 60 percent of Ecuador’s financing needs getting nearly 90 percent of its oil in exchange.
The problem with such development strategies inherited from the 1970s is not only that they perpetuate dependencies most leftists and progressives in the region are trying to reverse. They continue to treat Indigenous territories as terra nullius, dismiss Indigenous authority and allot their territories to extractive industries that fuel the global capitalist system.
The region has various shades of left with substantial differences. Underneath all that diversity, however, lies a collective sense of disappointment. As Latin America's political left reveals its inability to bring the changes hoped for, we are dispossessed of an important avenue for political change.