www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address

Back to home page

International Socialist Review Issue 44, November–December 2005

Analysis of a continent in revolt

Latin America on fire


THE SCALE of the social crisis throughout Latin America is immense. From Tijuana to Patagonia, implosions of the neo-liberal model since 2000 have ushered in a period of intensified class struggle in almost every country. Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela are the best known instances, but today spirited protest and political polarization also mark Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay. Even Chile—the darling of neoliberalizers after Argentina’s collapse in 2001—is showing signs of losing its apparent immunity from the economic and social tribulations that ravage the rest of South America.

Neoliberalism in Latin America

Neoliberalism consists of a package of economic policies that include privatization, labor flexibilization, debt repayment, balanced budgets, and trade liberalization.3 Also known as the “Washington Consensus,” these measures are usually imposed on individual nations as conditions for loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank. Proponents argue that neoliberalism creates economic growth in the countries that adopt it. The reality is much different, of course, as has been made clear by the economic crises that have rattled Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina—Latin America’s three largest economies—during the 1990s and 2000s.

In fact, no correlation exists under neoliberalism between economic growth and social improvement. The opposite is true: neoliberalism widens the gap between rich and poor. Latin America’s economies grew by 5.8 percent in 2004, but the region remains the one with the most unequal distribution of wealth on the planet.2 Forty-four percent of Latin Americans live in poverty, subsisting on less than $2 per day.3 Fifty-eight million people live in extreme poverty on less than $1 per day. Chronic malnutrition plagues 19.4 percent of Latin American children under the age of five.4

Every day 2,500 children die in Latin America as a result of curable diseases—an increase of 500 per day in recent years. Urban unemployment across the continent grew from 6 to 9 percent between 1996 and 1999, while underemployment went from 50 percent to 56 percent. By 2003, unemployment affected 13.6 million people. At the same time, more than seven million children aged ten to fourteen were exploited in industrial and agricultural labor. Thirty million youth under the age of eighteen dropped out of school in order to work to help their families. Even the U.S. State Department calculated in 2004 that Latin American unemployment averaged 10.7 percent, “with underemployment significantly higher.”5 According to the International Labor Organization’s Panorama Laboral 2004, 19.5 million workers lack employment in the great urban centers of the region.6

Neoliberalism throws millions of people out of work (downsizing) and condemns millions more to the hellish world of insecure jobs and sweatshop conditions (flexibilization and informalization).7 Outsourcing and two-tier wage systems lead to the shrinking of large factories as well as to a weakening of class consciousness and habits of solidarity. In many Latin American countries, the working class as a whole has suffered an experience of fragmentation.8

The prices paid by workers for such basic necessities such as water, gas, and electricity have soared with neoliberal privatization, thus exacerbating the impoverishing effects of lower wages, job insecurity, and unemployment.9 Privatization also hurts workers by causing rampant decay in health, education, and transportation services, since privatization reduces state revenue. A huge net outflow of debt payment from Latin American nations to foreign creditors results as governments borrow in order to try to keep state services minimally intact. Between 1996 and 2002, debt transfers from Latin America and the Caribbean to foreign capitalists equaled an astonishing $206 billion.10

Neoliberalism perpetuates and deepens a vicious circle of imperialist oppression. IMF and World Bank “structural adjustment programs” (SAPs) are based today on the theory of “comparative advantage,” a doctrine which states that “the best way to increase overall welfare is for each to stick to the activity at which it is best, and to trade with others working on the same principle. [The theory] is frequently cited as a reason why Latin American countries should stick to exports based on natural resources and cheap labor.”11 SAPs thus have the effect of compelling Latin American countries to rely primarily on the export of raw materials or basic commodities (agricultural goods, natural gas, oil, and minerals) as the preferred way to create economic growth. This means that Latin American capitalists generally sell their products on the international market without having added much, if any, value (e.g., they sell unrefined oil and gas as opposed to refined oil and gas). Neoliberal theory tells them that profits from exporting such basic goods are sufficient to help Latin America to continue to modernize.

Mass struggle in Latin America

The most important feature of the present period in Latin America is the reemergence of the masses—mass actors and forms of mass struggle—onto the stage of history. With the bankruptcy of neoliberalism evident in the eyes of millions of Latin America’s urban and rural workers, discovering an alternative to global capitalism, and to the U.S.-dominated system of world imperialism, has become a matter of extreme urgency.
In most Latin American countries, the main protagonists of the mass actions directed at neoliberalism since 2000 have been peasants or rural workers, unemployed urban workers, the poor, indigenous peoples, and neighborhood organizations—in contrast to unionized, urban, and employed workers. In Argentina and Ecuador, the amorphous middle class has on occasion played an important role in social rebellion.12 The failure of employed workers, organized in the traditional unions, to enter ongoing battles on a grand scale has meant that no country to date has seen a breakthrough away from the grip of global capitalism and towards working-class self-determination.

A glance at the early trajectory of Argentina’s piqueteros, or unemployed workers’ movement, illustrates this last point. The piqueteros come originally from the ranks of oil workers and others who lost their jobs in the 1990s because of the privatization of Argentina’s state-owned industries. They initially asked the General Workers’ Confederation (CGT) to help them get organized. Shunned by the CGT because they were unemployed, the piqueteros next approached the dissident wing of the CGT—with the same results. When they went on to ask for organizing help from the alternative Argentine Workers Confederation (CTA), they still got the familiar bureaucratic song-and-dance. The piqueteros finally had no choice but to organize themselves and to attempt to flow around the politically passive and compromised leaderships of the traditional unions in order to pursue their goals and demands. Thus it came as no surprise that the piqueteros figured as key actors in the Argentinazo of December 2001 [the uprising of struggles that year], while, with the exception of teachers from La Matanza, the organized workers of the two CGTs and the CTA remained conspicuous by their absence.

Bolivia, Venezuela, and Argentina have recently become exceptions to this general pattern of a lack of participation by the unions and employed urban workers in the major social struggles of Latin America.13 Because of the close involvement of urban workers in the campaigns led by various social movements since 2003 (water, coca, gas, and taxes), organized and employed workers—especially those in El Alto—now stand out as a central component of the most recent phase of the Bolivian social rebellion.14
In Venezuela, the creation of a new labor federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT), has quickly displaced the conservative Venezuelan Confederation of Labor, which sided with the employers during the failed U.S.-backed coup of 2002.15 The UNT has grown to become a key protagonist in a new surge of Venezuelan activism. And in Argentina, an improving economy “has given certain groups of workers the confidence to fight back—most notably, telephone and subway workers. A subway strike last year won the six-hour workday with no cut in pay and hundreds of additional jobs.”16

Antecedents in Latin America’s struggle against neoliberalism go back to the 1994 Zapatista rebellion in Mexico, but the rhythm of backlashes accelerated dramatically beginning in the winter of 2000. The government of Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad fell in January at the hands of two million peasants and poor workers who took over the streets in protest against dollarization. In April, a coalition of factory workers, peasants, irrigators, coca growers, and neighborhood associations in Cochabamba, Bolivia, won the first great victory against corporate globalization. After several days of battling police, they halted the privatization of water and ran the U.S.-based transnational Bechtel Corporation out of the city. Since then, struggles across Latin America have continued apace.

Argentines mounted eight general strikes, and as many as fifty roadblocks per day, throughout 2001. These actions culminated in the Argentinazo and the overthrow of the neoliberal regime of Fernando de la Rúa. Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) stepped up its schedule of land occupations and joined forces with the urban homeless—“os sem teto” (“the roofless”)—to seize abandoned buildings in São Paulo. In the process, the MST weathered an assassination campaign carried out against leading members by paramilitaries connected to big business.17 2001 also witnessed the successful struggle of Puerto Rican activists to drive the U.S. military off the island of Vieques, where the U.S. Navy’s live ammunition exercises have poisoned the environment for inhabitants.

In 2002, extraordinary mass direct actions blocked the privatization of electric power in Peru; halted the sell-off of state banks and social services in Paraguay; defended the rights of coca farmers in Bolivia and of indigenous peoples in Chile; and protected small savings accounts and the security of employment in Uruguay—to name only a few of the best known struggles. No doubt, the most spectacular mass action was the avalanche of poverty-stricken Venezuelans who descended the hills around Caracas and defeated U.S. imperialism’s attempt to stage a palace coup against President Hugo Chávez. An electoral backlash against neoliberalism led to presidential campaign victories by Workers’ Party candidate Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Lúcio Gutiérrez in Ecuador. Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism narrowly missed winning the Bolivian presidency.

The highpoint of struggle in 2003 occurred in Bolivia. February’s successful revolt, which aimed at rolling back an IMF-imposed tax increase, included an episode in which units of the La Paz police exchanged fire with army regulars while defending high school-aged protesters from tear gas and bullets fired by the soldiers. In October 2003, the social movement against the sale of Bolivia’s natural gas, as well as the indigenous movement seeking equality and autonomy, forced President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to resign and to flee the country. Between sixty and eighty people were killed by the government over three weeks of conflict that also won the promise of a national referendum on the future of control over natural gas and oil.

But Bolivia proved to be only the tip of the iceberg of struggle in 2003. In Colombia, the year began with renewed government persecution of the unions and social movements. Soldiers ransacked the offices of the Colombian CUT, FENSUAGRO, and SINTRAEMCALI. The president of SINALTRABAVARIA, and a member of USO, were arrested and accused of terrorism, while the heads of several human rights organizations received death threats.18 Colombian activists refused to back down, however, even in the face of the death squads who carried out assassinations with impunity throughout the year. In the months of January and February alone, demonstrators demanding reconnection to electricity service blocked access to Electrocaribe and were violently repressed. Teachers in Baranquilla went out on strike for better pay. Thousands of workers in Colombia’s oil fields engaged in a twenty-four-hour work stoppage to protest the concession of oil contracts to the U.S.-based transnational Chevron.

Urban and rural workers across Central America intensified their campaign against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2003.19 More than 1,500 militants from fifty different unions, especially teachers, joined housewives’ organizations and indigenous groups in a protest in front of the Honduran Congress building in Tegucigalpa. They spoke out against the sale of power plants to transnational corporations, the proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and other injustices. In Panama, the battle to preserve social security occupied the focus and energies of the global justice movement the entire year. And in Guatemala, 15,000 peasants marched on the Supreme Court in November demanding a solution to the lack of rural development and denounced the negotiation of a bilateral trade agreement with the United States.

The pro-business face of the Kirchner government in Argentina fell out from underneath its populist mask during 2004. While workers in factories that had been occupied during the Argentinazo steadfastly resisted government attempts to return the properties to their former owners, the pace of strikes and demonstrations picked up after a government crisis in early April—and this, despite the fact that various groups within the piquetero movement decided to support the government. Price increases, low wages, and continued high unemployment angered workers and some in Argentina’s middle class—all of whom, taken together, accounted for direct actions virtually every other day from May through August.20
Struggles over unemployment and social security broke out in Chile in early 2004. Four hundred laid off miners in Lota blocked a highway demanding back pay and the extension of unemployment insurance in January. Members of the Part-Time and Temporary Workers Union of San Pedro de la Paz occupied City Hall demanding the fulfillment of promises for 100 emergency employment plans in February. The same month saw more than 3,000 people demonstrate in Santiago against the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the government’s decision to send Chilean troops to help police Haiti.

August 2004 brought a resounding defeat for U.S. imperialism and Venezuela’s ruling class when President Hugo Chávez won a clear victory in a recall referendum demanded by the country’s right wing. Protesters against privatization, the banks, and the government’s plan to slash pensions also flooded streets in Uruguay and Paraguay over the course of months of demonstrations. In Uruguay, leftist reformer Tabaré Vásquez won the presidency at the end of October in an election that vigorously rejected the neoliberal policies of outgoing president Jorge Battle. Also in October, some 65,000 Chilean civil servants launched an “indefinite strike” and marched for labor demands in Santiago, Concepción, Valparaíso, Temuco, Rancagua, and La Sirena. A Chilean court in Temuco absolved in November eight militants of the indigenous Coordinadora Mapuche Arauko Malleko who had been charged by the government with “illicit terrorism.”

From January to June 2005 the center stage of struggle returned to the Andes. In mid-April President Lúcio Gutiérrez was driven out of office in Ecuador by masses of protesters fed up with his particularly corrupt brand of neoliberalism. In January and March, the struggle in Bolivia reignited as protesters in El Alto sought to rid themselves of the French transnational, Suez, which had privatized and then botched the city’s water service. The fight to reclaim El Alto’s water from Suez dovetailed with a debate in congress over a new hydrocarbon law that was supposed to clip the wings of the oil and gas transnationals. When the hydrocarbon law failed to satisfy the social movements and principal unions, the slogan of “nationalization” inspired a three-week mass general strike in May and June that ended up dealing a severe blow to Bolivian and transnational capital, as well as to the hold of U.S. imperialism on the country.21

Imperialism in Latin America

These are but a tiny percentage of the struggles that have occurred in Latin America since 2000. What they and countless other struggles share is a determined opposition to neoliberalism and a visceral hatred of the imperialist powers that impose corporate globalization, especially the United States.

The shape of U.S. imperialism in Latin America still follows the main contours of its post-Second World War presence, but with three significant differences. First, the ideological justification has become fighting the “war on terror” and the “war on drugs,” as opposed to the anti-communist crusade that got top billing before the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union.

Second, militarization has become a much more central pillar of U.S. imperialism in the region. The U.S. has always claimed—and it has ruthlessly exercised—a “right” to invade Central American countries at will. But with Plan Colombia, the U.S. has taken a qualitative leap in its drive to dominate Latin America through the threat and use of force.22 U.S. military units of one kind or another now dot almost every country on the map south of Mexico.

The United States maintains a complex web of military facilities and functions in Latin America and the Caribbean, what the U.S. Southern Command (known as SouthCom) calls its “theater architecture.”
Much of this web is being woven through Plan Colombia, a massive, primarily military program to eradicate coca plants and to combat armed groups (mostly leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). In the last five years, new U.S. bases and military access agreements have proliferated in Latin America, constituting a decentralization of the U.S. military presence in the region. This decentralization is Washington’s way of maintaining a broad military foothold while accommodating regional leaders’ reluctance to host large U.S. military bases or complexes.23

The most recent armed manifestation of U.S. imperialism in Latin America is the establishment of a new military base in Paraguay.24

The third significant development concerns the tendency toward tighter U.S. control over the national economies of Latin America. Through the IMF and World Bank, the U.S. has the final say not only about the conditions of development—and even the survival—of Latin American economies (loans, access to modernization), but also it can frequently dictate domestic trade legislation, advance or veto presidential candidacies, and set the level of health care, education, and overall well-being of whole populations.25

The creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas will tighten the bonds between Latin American capitalism and U.S. imperialism even further. The FTAA aims to legalize and to institutionalize a grand partnership among the hemisphere’s capitalists.26 Scheduled to take effect in 2005, the FTAA process has stumbled over agricultural subsidies and will not meet its timetable. Nevertheless, politicians such as Brazilian President Lula have won the majority of the governments of the eventual member nations to a posture of negotiating an “FTAA lite,” which is seen as more favorable than the original to Latin American economies. Unless a mass movement stops the FTAA dead in its tracks, the U.S. will most likely realize the imperialist interests and goals it has embodied in the accord—if not through the form of a global FTAA, then through the growing list of bilateral trade agreements.

This is because, with the probable exception of Venezuela’s government, no Latin American government, much less any national bourgeoisie, seriously opposes the FTAA. If it did, it would withdraw from negotiations. Not even the Lula government in Brazil, which has serious trade disputes with the U.S., is willing to scuttle the FTAA. It is reasonably certain now that the U.S. will agree to phase out its agricultural subsidies as long as it receives what it has been bargaining so hard for behind the scenes: access to natural resources.27

The FTAA process highlights one final aspect of U.S. maneuvering to establish a firmer grip on Latin America’s national economies. Along with bilateral TLCs (Tratado Libre de Comercio; Free Trade Agreement) and regional accords such as NAFTA and CAFTA, the FTAA remains the primary means through which the U.S. hopes to undercut European, Chinese, and Japanese economic competition. Inter-imperialist rivalry spurs the U.S. into intensifying and diversifying the mechanisms through which it maintains and prosecutes its interests. For example, in the MERCOSUR countries (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay), the EU boasts the lion’s share of trade and accounts for 43 percent of foreign direct investment. This explains why the “EU and the U.S. are increasingly engaging in a race of who can sign the most advantageous trade agreements with developing countries” throughout Central and South America

Regardless of the degree of imperialism’s more immediate intrusion into the region’s economies, it is important to recall that U.S. imperialism still wields its club in Latin America by means of an “indirect hegemony.”

Alternatives in Latin America

There are presently six center-left or left-leaning governments in power throughout South America: Chávez in Venezuela, Kirchner in Argentina, Lagos in Chile, Lula in Brazil, Toledo in Peru, and Vázquez in Uruguay. A seventh, Evo Morales in Bolivia, may soon join their ranks. Yet Latin American voters’ expectations of positive change through the ballot box have been consistently defrauded.

The case of recently ousted Ecuadorian president Lúcio Gutiérrez is emblematic. A popular leader because of his role in the uprising that toppled Mahuad in 2000, Gutiérrez was elected with the support of the largest indigenous groups and workers’ organizations, which thought they perceived in the ex-colonel a willingness to challenge neoliberalism. The new president quickly showed his true colors, however. In 2003 he caved to an IMF structural adjustment program that froze wages until 2007 and resulted in the immediate layoff of 120,000 public-sector employees. The Ecuadorian SAP also imposed a “no-strike” clause on public workers, mandated a 375 percent hike in the price of gas, and required the privatization of electricity, water, petroleum, and telecommunications.

No matter how much of a turncoat Gutiérrez turned out to be, the case of Lula in Brazil still figures as the most egregious betrayal of voter aspirations.28 During his first two years in office, Lula slashed public sector pensions, passed labor legislation favorable to the bosses, continued to negotiate a version of the FTAA, allowed foreign companies to develop transgenetic organisms, and dragged his feet on agrarian reform. He kept interest rates high, faithfully paid the external debt, and developed a budget reserve of 4.25 percent—more than the amount required by the IMF. Prioritizing his romance with international and national capital over the bettering of conditions for the urban and rural workers, the unemployed, and the poor who elected him, Lula could finally settle only 10 percent of the more than 400,000 landless peasant families he promised to accommodate by the end of his four-year term. He severely underfunded his much-touted Zero Hunger program because of the same skewed priority. Last but not least, Lula sent Brazilian soldiers as U.N. “peacekeepers” to Haiti, where their real role is to shore up the puppet government that the U.S. installed after it kidnapped elected Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.29 And now his Workers’ Party has been all but destroyed by a series of political corruption scandals that came to light in 2005, and which confirm that Lula and the PT stand for nothing more than “politics as usual.”30

Electoral debacles such as these have posed in painfully sharp fashion the question of how to transform society in the interest of workers and the poor. How can we overthrow neoliberalism? Indeed, how can we overthrow capitalism? The electoral road has revealed itself to be a dead-end. And the field of untried answers today is quite small compared to the array of possibilities on offer as recently as the 1970s. Historical experience has resolved what once were raging theoretical debates among dedicated leftists.

While many support the FARC today against the paramilitaries and Colombia’s murderous army, for example, very few advocate adopting guerrilla strategies for change. Che Guevara with his foco theory may be an inspirational icon, and preparations for armed self-defense may be necessary for any serious mass revolutionary movement in Latin America today, but the vast majority of Latin American workers—both urban and rural—have had their fill of guerrilla war.31

For some on the left Chavismo represents a developing alternative to neoliberalism.32 Chávez is a hero to many, since an anti-imperialist aura surrounds him, not only because of the failed CIA-sponsored coup against him, but also because of his embrace of iconic thorns in the side of U.S. imperialism (Castro, Kaddafi, and Saddam) and his ferocious criticism of Bush’s war on Iraq. Chávez’s proclamation of the need for a “socialism for the twenty-first century” at the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre converted him overnight into the new personification of hope that Lula once was in the eyes of the great majority of Latin Americans.

During his first couple of years in power, Chávez remained generally hostile to independent working-class organization and sought to channel workers’ militancy into his Bolivarian Circles, as well as into unions with strong ties to the government, such as the PDVSA. Nowadays, in the aftermath of the coup attempt and the recall referendum, Chávez permits greater social space within which the self-organization of the working class can develop.

The final verdict on Chávez’s historical role in Latin America’s fight against imperialism and neoliberalism will remain unclear for some time. But a few things are known that should counsel caution for those hoping that Chávez will light a revolutionary path to socialism. Twenty-one percent of the government’s 2005 budget is earmarked for payments on the external debt. Chávez’s currency devaluation increased workers’ cost of living while giving a boost to big business and the banks. Representatives of the state-run electric company denounced leaders of Venezuela’s new mass-based independent union, the National Workers Union (UNT), as being “counterrevolutionaries.” Without the blessing of large oil reserves and high prices for oil, moreover, Chávez would not be able to carry out from above—that is, from his position as head of state—the kind of improvements he is actually making to ordinary Venezuelans’ lives. Thus it may well be the case that Chavismo, as a model for arriving at “socialism,” proves difficult to generalize to other countries in Latin America.

When Chávez discusses what “twenty-first century socialism” might look like, he refers mainly to redistributive measures, co-managed state enterprises, employee ownership of some businesses, and joint stock companies combining national and transnational capital. Chávez clearly envisions the state as the primary vehicle through which to transform Venezuelan society. In this respect, his supposedly new road to socialism has also been tried and resulted in failure.

Although Chávez speaks of taking a different path to socialism, distinct from Stalinism or European social democracy, previous efforts to introduce socialism by means of government laws, co-management or state ownership have failed. For example, in less developed countries, the ouster of colonial governments or puppet states in the 1950s and 1960s saw various attempts at “African socialism” or “Arab socialism”—which turned out to be a variant of capitalism, with the state running things. Venezuela itself nationalized the oil and metal industries in the 1970s, which didn’t challenge capital or democratize the economy.33

Nevertheless, there exist a growing number of highly positive signs. The nationalization in late 2004 of a bankrupt and closed-down paper company, Venepal, under workers’ self-management may have signaled a new turn in Venezuelan politics. The extent to which Chavismo may eventually contribute to some kind of “anti-capitalist”—or even socialist—revolution in Venezuela will stand in direct proportion to the extent to which workers can take advantage of, and push the struggle within the space Chavismo has opened, and beyond. Socialist revolution requires the self-emancipation of the working class, as well as the democratic creation of new social institutions by the rural and urban workers, the peasants, the races and nationalities, the women and men, and all other oppressed groups who have joined together in solidarity to make history.

Latin America has experienced some version of virtually all of the conceivable strategies and alternatives for radical change—from guerrilla warfare to electoralism—and all have been found wanting. There is one exception: no Latin American society has yet organized or achieved a socialist revolution based on workers’ self-emancipation—on socialism from below. The ideas and solutions offered by revolutionary socialism can catalyze the anti-neoliberal energies that presently course through the veins of Latin America and transform today’s struggles into a future based on economic justice, political equality, and personal dignity.

Tom Lewis is on the editorial board of the ISR.

1 Kim Moody defines neoliberalism as “the policy of dismantling much of the national regulation of economic life…in favor of market governance,” Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy (London and New York: Verso, 1997), 43. Michael D. Yates observes that, far from constituting a new economic theory, neoliberalism “is nothing more than…libertarian neoclassical economics…. Neoclassical theory is the intellectual foundation of neoliberalism,” Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003), 141,148. As such, neoliberalism reprises the basic propositions and methods of analysis characteristic of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political economists Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill. Yates presents a cogent exposition and critique of what he calls “neoclassical/neoliberal dogma” in Chapter 5 (119–56).
2 “Growth and the poor,” New York Times, May 25, 2005.
3 Adolfo Franco, “Latin American and Caribbean Overview” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 2004), 1. available online at
4 These last two statistics appeared in Gregorio Iriarte, “Cifras que escandalizan,” La Opinión (Cochabamba, Bolivia), el 15 de julio de 2005.
5 Franco, 1.
6 International Labor Organization/Organización Internacional del Trabajo, Panorama Social 2004, available online at
7 See, for example, Brendan Martin, “Public employees confront the perils of privatization,” WorkingUSA, May/June 1999, 29–30.
8 The informal sector in Latin America grew from 40.2 percent of the total workforce in 1980 to 54.4 percent in 1992, while public sector and large-scale private firm employment dropped from 59.8 percent to 45.7 percent. In Argentina, for example, public sector and large-scale private firm employment decreased from 60.7 percent to 50.4 percent, while in Brazil the same types of employment plummeted from 66.3 percent to 45.8 percent. As Colin Clarke and David Howard remark, “The urban economies of Latin America and the Caribbean have changed markedly under contemporary policies of trade liberalization and export-oriented industrialization…. [M]any large firms have contracted or disappeared, and employment in small firms in the informal sector has expanded,” “Cities, capitalism, and neoliberal regimes,” Latin America Transformed: Globalization and Modernity, Robert N. Gwynne and Cristóbal Kay eds. (London and New York: Arnold and Oxford
University Press, 1999), 309–10.
9 Consider also the effects of privatization in the transportation sector: “Rail privatization has led to soaring transport costs, drastic cuts in services and massive layoffs,” Brendan Martin, “Railroad concessions: Off track from the start,” NACLA Report on the Americas XXXVI, 3, January/February 2003, 25.
10 Eric Toussaint, Your Money or Your Life: The Tyranny of Global Finance (updated edition, Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2005), 274.
11 Duncan Green, Silent Revolution: The Rise and Crisis of Market Economies in Latin America (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003), 267–68.
12 The term “middle class” is used haphazardly in most writings about Latin America. Clearly, professionals such as lawyers, doctors, mid-level managers, intellectuals, etc. fall into this category. But some groups that are apparently referred to by the term “middle class” would, in my view, be better classified as “white-collar workers.” These would include civil servants, bank tellers, teachers, health care workers, office workers, store clerks, etc. Not only are many of these groups unionized, but their economic interests only occasionally coincide with those who are truly middle class according to the description given above. For an illuminating discussion of the “new middle class,” see Alex Callinicos, “The ‘New Middle Class’ and socialist politics,” in Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman, The Changing Working Class: Essays on Class Structure Today (London: Bookmarks, 1987), 13–51.
13 A recent article by “Profesor J” in La Haine (June 10, 2005) and circulated on the Internet refers to the “almost non-existent Bolivian working class.” This is a common misconception that can be corrected with a small amount of reading. El Alto, for example, which is largely populated by people of indigenous descent, and which has taken the leading role in both gas wars (2003 and 2005), represents the largest concentration of workers in all of Bolivia. To counterpose “indigenous” or “peasant” to “worker,” moreover, is a practice beloved of academics, but it is also one which finds no echo among “peasant workers.” It surely counts for something that the names of the Bolivian (also the Brazilian) MST and the Bolivian CSUTCB—identify themselves as “landless rural workers” and as “peasant workers.” On the composition of Bolivia’s working class, see Roberto Sáenz, “Crítica del romanticismo ‘anticapitalista,’” Socialismo o Barbarie, Año V, Núm. 16, (Abril 2004): 9–36. Also see Oscar Olivera, in collaboration with Tom Lewis, ¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2004), 105–28.
14 With indigenous organizations and unions comprising its backbone, the Bolivian social rebellion has set as its most immediate goal the recovery and nationalization of Bolivia’s hydrocarbon resources. The demise of the neoliberal government of President Carlos Mesa on June 6 represents an important victory for this cause. Not only Mesa but also the Bolivian Congress suffered an impressive defeat in May and June. Because of the degree of unity displayed by the social forces, as well as the radical nature of their demands, the ouster of Mesa represents the highpoint to date of Latin America’s many anti-neoliberal campaigns since 2000.
15 Lee Sustar, “What’s next in Venezuela?” Socialist Worker (U.S.), May 20, 2005.
16 Sustar, “Where is the struggle headed in Argentina?” Socialist Worker (U.S.), January 28, 2005.
17 See Tom Lewis, “Brazil: The struggle against neoliberalism,” International Socialist Review 18, June–July 2001.
18 CUT (United Workers Confederation); FENSUAGRO (United National Federation of Agricultural Laborers); SINTRAEMCALI (Cali Union of Office Workers and Municipal Enterprises); SINALTRABAVARIA (National Union of Bavarian Workers); USO (Workers Labor Union); and PCC (Colombian Communist Party).
19 Public Citizen provides regular updates on CAFTA: “The Central American Free Trade Agreement (known as CAFTA) is an agreement between the United States, five Central American nations (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua), and the Dominican Republic. It was signed May 28, 2004, and was approved by an extremely narrow margin in the middle of the night by the U.S. Congress on July 27, 2005. El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras have also approved the agreement. Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic have yet to vote on the agreement…. CAFTA is a piece in the FTAA jigsaw puzzle and is based on the same failed neoliberal NAFTA model, which has caused the ‘race to the bottom’ in labor and environmental standards and promotes privatization and deregulation of key public services,” available online at
20 Juan Luis Rojo, “Carestía, esclavitud laboral, y desocupación,” Socialismo o Barbarie (2 de abril de 2004), available online at For the chronology of strikes and demonstrations, see “Argentina,” OSAL (Año V, Número 14): 106–16.
21 For details of the events of May and June in Bolivia, see Tom Lewis, “Is Bolivia on the edge of revolution?” Socialist Worker (U.S.), June 10, 2005.
22 For a clear, powerful, and up-to-date analysis of Plan Colombia, see Doug Stokes, America’s Other War: Terrorizing Colombia (London and New York: Zed Books, 2005).
23 John Lindsay-Poland, “U.S. Military Bases in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Foreign Policy in Focus, August 2004.
24 See Ben Dangl, “What is the U.S. Military Doing in Paraguay?” Znet, August 3, 2005.
25 One need only remember the way that Wall Street and the IMF punished and menaced the real in Brazil during the presidential campaign in summer 2002 until then-candidate Lula came out with his promise to pay the external debt and to adhere to all existing business and loan contracts.
26 To understand why the global justice movement objects to the FTAA, see Global Exchange´s analysis and documentation, available online at
27 See Lourdes Ma. Regueria Bello, “El ALCA después de Miami. Reflexiones para una evaluación,” Revista Cuba Socialista No. 29, 3ra época, 2003, available online at texto/ csalca8.htm. A recent news report indicates that, “The United Status is prepared to cut agro subsidies by 60 percent in the next five years and eventually eliminate them, but wants deeper cuts by the European Union and Japan,” New York Times, October 10, 2005.
28 For an excellent discussion of Lula (also of Kirchner and Chávez), see Claudio Katz, “A new center-left bloc in Latin America?” International Socialist Review, Issue 41 May-June 2005), 58-64.
29 Toledo, Vásquez, Lagos, and Kirchner have all acted similarly to confirm their fundamental allegiance to neoliberalism.
30 See Monte Reel, “Bribery Scandal Now a Crisis for Brazil’s President, Washington Post Foreign Service, June 21, 2005, available online at See also “Brazil’s Lula apologizes to nation amid graft claim,” available online at
aqFYu9eSo114 and Arthur Ituassu, “Lula: the dream is over,” available online at
-institutions_government/dream_2767.jsp. For an insightful analysis, readers of Portuguese may also consult Jefferson Choma, “Governo Lula atolado na sua maior crise política,” Opinião -Socialista 219 (2 a 8 de junho de 2005), available online at
31 For an excellent study of Guevarism, see Mike González, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution (London and Sydney: Bookmarks, 2004).
32 The head of Bolivia’s COB, Jaime Solares, scandalized the rest of the Bolivian Left when he stated, in the midst of June’s mass rebellion, that he could contemplate a solution to the crisis coming in the form of a progressive military strong-man, such as Chávez in Venezuela. A more cautious but generally positive appraisal of Chavismo to date is offered by Brazilian Luciana Genro, a leading member of P-SoL. “[The Bolivarian revolution] is still in development and it has not defined its class character precisely. The idea of the Bolivarian revolution expresses a sense of transformation and a process of development. But anyway Chávez and Chavismo today, even with its mediation, contradictions and limitations, is a fundamental part in the fight against the plans of North American imperialism for recolonization.” See Luciana Genro, “Constructing an alternative anti-capitalism in Brazil,” in Hannah Dee, ed., Anti-capitalism: Where Now? (London: Bookmarks, 2004), 134.
33 Sustar, “What’s Next in Venezuela?”
Back to top