Latin America’s new left in power: the governments of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa

Presidents Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Rafael Correa (Ecuador) and Evo Morales (Bolivia).

By Steve Ellner

January 2012 -- Latin American Perspectives, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- Most political analysts place the governments of Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador) in the same category but without defining their common characteristics.

Beginning with the publication of Leftovers in 2008, critics of the left sought to overcome the shortcoming by characterising the three presidents as “populist leftists”, which they distinguished from the “good leftists” taking in such moderates as Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. According to the book’s co-editors Jorge Castañeda and Marco Morales, the salient features of the populist left consist of a radical discourse devoid of ideological substance, disrespect for democratic institutions, pronounced authoritarian tendencies and vituperations against the United States designed to pay political dividends at the expense of their nation’s economic interests (Castañeda and Morales, 2008).

On the other side of the political spectrum, the long-time political analyst and activist Marta Harnecker has proclaimed the emergence of a “new left” in Latin America represented by all three leaders. Harnecker associates the new left with “twenty-first century socialism” embraced by the three presidents, while recognizing that both concepts are vague and will be defined over a period of time in large part through practice (Harnecker, 2010: 35-50). Another expression of the common thrust of the three governments was the call by President Chávez in late 2009 for the formation of a “Fifth International” which would constitute a new international movement in favor of radical change. The proposal sought to analyze and apply the novel experiences of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, as well as other occurrences, in order to break with traditions stemming from the previous four socialist internationals.

These developments make clear the need to go beyond the rhetoric of many of the left’s detractors and defenders, and to examine the wide range of similarities in order to determine just how new the new left is. One common feature of all three governments was the election of a constituent assembly at the outset of each presidency, which corresponded to a moderate political stage followed by the implementation of more radical socio-economic policies. All three governments came to power with an absolute majority of votes and counted on congressional majorities, advantages that facilitated the democratic road to far-reaching change. Other common characteristics that this article will examine include the emphasis on social participation and incorporation over considerations of economic productivity, modifications of the Marxist notion of class, diversification of economic relations, preference for radical democracy over liberal democracy, and the celebration of national symbols.

The article’s focus on a common model helps distinguish the three experiences from other ideologies and governments on the left in Latin America. Castañeda, for instance, labels the Argentine governments of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández as “populist left” and alleges that their discourse and policies are as irresponsible as those of Chávez and Morales (Castañeda, 2006: 38-40). By examining the salient characteristics of the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, the article will test the accuracy of these broad categorization. The article’s analysis of novel features and approaches also addresses the reservations and critical stands of traditional leftist organizations such as Communist parties and Trotskyist groups in the three nations. Finally, in spite of close relations between the three governments and Cuba and predictions that they will eventually replicate the Cuban model, the article sheds light on fundamental differences between the two paths to socialism followed in two distinct international settings, namely the Cold War and the post-Cold War.

The radical democracy model

The political model embraced by the three governments, all of which were committed to socialism, represents a thorough break with the socialism of the past. One distinctive characteristic was the frequency of electoral contests, including party primaries, recall elections and national referendums, which were marked by high levels of voter turnout. The left in power generally emerged triumphant, sometimes by margins without precedent in the nation’s history. In April 1999, for example, 88 percent of Venezuelan voters ratified the government-sponsored referendum in favor of a constituent assembly. Venezuelans reelected Chávez for the second time in December 2007 with 63 percent, the highest of any presidential candidate in the nation’s modern democratic period. Similarly, Morales received 64 percent of the vote in his bid for reelection in December 2009 at the same time that his supporters garnered an unprecedented two-thirds majority in both houses of congress. Chávez and Morales also emerged victorious in recall elections with 58 and 67 percent of the vote respectively. Finally, in all three nations an overwhelming majority of voters approved new constitutions opposed by leading government adversaries.

These sizeable majorities provided the three governments with greater options to carry out radical reform than were available to other leftist presidents, such as Salvador Allende, who reached power in 1970 with 36 percent of the vote and the Sandinista Daniel Ortega, who returned to the presidency in 2006 with 38 percent. Nevertheless, given the acute political tensions and extreme polarization in all three countries, the strategy of holding frequent elections as a means to affirm legitimacy was risky since any defeat would have provided an intransigent opposition a platform to wage battle against the government.

Another characteristic of the political life in the three nations was the avoidance of intense repression, even though the opposition accused the government of laying the foundation for dictatorial rule. Party competition in the context of the acute political conflict that characterizes the three countries contrasts with the traditionally low level of tolerance on the part of fragile third-world democracies toward “disloyal oppositions.” As a whole, government opponents as a whole in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador represent a “disloyal opposition”, which by definition questions the legitimacy of those in power. By refusing to support virtually all government initiatives and by accusing it of authoritarianism, the opposition, in effect, seeks to delegitimize the government’s legitimacy. Moreover, at certain key junctures, important sectors of the opposition have been implicated in violent actions that other anti-government organizations failed to repudiate at the time. In the case of Venezuela, opposition leaders in 2004 openly advocated urban foquista actions called “la guarimba” seeking to create conditions of ungovernability. In Bolivia paramilitary groups tied to various governors attacked pro-government mobilizations in 2008, blew up gas pipelines to Brazil and destroyed government offices in the eastern lowland region.

Another distinguishing political feature of the three governments was their defense of radical democracy in the tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and rejection of many of the basic precepts of liberal democracy. Radical democracy emphasizes social incorporation and direct participation. In contrast liberal democracy, with its central concern for the rights and prerogatives of minorities (which is often synonymous with elites), places a premium on the system of checks and balances and diffusion of authority. The adherence to two distinct paradigms contributed to the intense polarization, and explains why the opposition questioned the democratic credentials of the three governments (Curato, 2010: 36-38).

The differences between the two approaches manifested themselves in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador in concrete ways. In the first place, radical democracy champions the principle of majority rule in which decision making on all matters requires 50 percent of the vote plus one. In contrast, the concern for minority rights by the advocates of liberal democracy leads them to insist on the need for consensuses between governing parties and the opposition on important decisions. Indeed, the opposition in all three countries praised the model of “pacted” democracy, which in the case of Venezuela and Bolivia had prevailed under the old regime (Smith, 2009: 108-109).

 In addition, the defenders of liberal democracy often demand percentages significantly higher than 50 percent for legislation. The clash between the two concepts occurred at the constituent assembly in Bolivia in 2006 when the opposition demanded that the vote of two-thirds of the delegates be required for approval of each article of the constitution as well as the final document. After seven months of resistance to the notion of providing the “minority” with a “veto”, Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism, MAS) accepted the two-thirds arrangement. Nevertheless, MAS’s position on the matter led it to take advantage of a temporary boycott of the assembly by two main opposition parties in order to ratify the constitution in December 2007 with the support of a simple majority of the delegates, who represented two thirds of those in attendance that day. Former president Jorge Quiroga who headed the main opposition party called the move “a national disgrace” at the same time that violence broke out throughout the nation. In Ecuador, Correa insisted that a simple majority of the delegates to the constituent assembly be required to approve articles, rather than the 66 per cent requirement which he claimed would have obstructed meaningful change (Conaghan, 2008: 56-57). Similarly, the Venezuelan opposition harshly criticized the Chávez-dominated National Assembly for stipulating that appointment of supreme court judges require the approval of a simple majority of the chamber’s deputies, rather than a two-thirds vote (Hawkins, 2010: 22).

The system of referendums and recall elections incorporated in the constitution of all three countries is also in line with the concept of majority rule, which is a basic component of radical democracy. In Bolivia and Venezuela the recall proved to be an effective mechanism to deal with crisis situations by moving the locus of political confrontation from the streets to the electoral arena. In Venezuela, the presidential recall election in August 2004 served to defuse tensions dating back to the 2002 coup and ushered in several years of relative stability. In Bolivia, Morales appealed to voting majorities in the face of insurgency by holding recall elections in August 2008 for the national executive and the nation’s governorships, some of which were promoting the internecine conflict.

Swayed by liberal democracy’s line of reasoning, the opposition in all three countries, as well as many political analysts, called the referendums examples of “plebiscitary democracy.” According to this model, the national executive frames issues in accordance with its own agenda without input from the opposition, and the public is presented with an “all or nothing” proposition. Government adversaries in Venezuelan, for instance, lashed out at Chávez’s proposed constitutional reform for being procedurally flawed. They argued that most of its 69 articles should have been incorporated into legislation to be considered by congress on an individual basis, rather than voted on as a package in a national referendum. In Ecuador, both the opposition and some political analysts accused Correa of promoting “plebiscitary democracy” on grounds that he presented the referendum on the nation’s new constitution in April 2007 as a vote of confidence on his government and threatened to “go home” if he lost (Conaghan, 2008: 46-47).

In the second place, popular mobilization and participation on a mass scale and an ongoing basis are basic features of radical democracy (but are viewed with suspicion by defenders of liberal democracy) and have proved essential for the political survival of all three presidents. Social movement protests paved the way for the rise to power of Morales and Correa (as well as Néstor Kirchner in the case of Argentina). The endorsement of the powerful Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenes del Ecuador (CONAIE) and other social movements for the candidacy of Correa sealed his triumph in the second round of the presidential election of 2006. In Venezuela, the rallying of massive numbers of poor people on April 13, 2002 made possible Chávez’s return to power after his ouster two days before.

In both Venezuela and Bolivia the mobilization of government supporters was designed to guarantee order in the face of opposition insurgency. Thus, for instance, the concentration of Chavistas in downtown Caracas on the day of the April 2002 coup was intended to serve as a buffer between violent members of the opposition and the presidential palace; and during the two-month general strike beginning in December, brigades consisting of members of surrounding communities protected oil instillations. In Bolivia, peasants and miners converged on the city of Sucre to ensure the personal security of constituent assembly delegates, who faced threats from paramilitary units shortly prior to the final vote on the new constitution. Finally, on September 30, 2010, thousands of Ecuadorians took to the streets and impeded the possible deployment of military forces in support of coup rebels who had virtually kidnapped President Correa.

In the third place, Chávez, Morales and Correa are charismatic leaders whose governments have strengthened the executive branch at the expense of corporatist institutions as well as the checks and balances that had underpinned liberal democracy in the past. Furthermore, the three governments favor the incorporation and direct participation of the non-privileged over corporatist mechanisms and political party prerogatives, and in doing so have broken with long-standing practices, accepted by some leftist parties, which facilitated elite input in decision making (Dominguez, 2008: 50). Along these lines, the governing leaders in all three countries reject the Leninst party model and instead favor, in the words of Bolivian vice-president Alvaro García Linera, “a more flexible and fluid model” (García Linera, 2010: 32). Finally, the governing political parties lack the influence, strength and independence to serve as checks on executive authority. Thus, for instance, the governing Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) is largely controlled at the regional level by cabinet ministers and, at local levels, by Chavista governors and mayors. Correa’s political organization, the Alianza País (PAIS), founded by about a dozen groups shortly prior to his election in 2006, is too heterogeneous to wield significant power.

Some government supporters justify the preponderant role of the national executive by claiming that the president maintains a “dialectic” exchange with the general population in which he formulates positions and then modifies them after receiving feedback from below (Raby, 2006: 100, 190-91; see also Laclau, 1978: 228-238). The opposition has responded to the centralization of power by raising the banner of decentralization and (in the case of Bolivia’s eastern lowland departments as well as the state of Guayas in Ecuador) territorial autonomy.

The political model that has emerged in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador is unique in fundamental ways that clearly differentiate it from both Communist nations and social democratic ones. On the one hand, the electoral democracy and party competition that prevail in the three nations are the antithesis of the closed political system of “really existing socialism.” In addition, unlike the Soviet Union and China, there was no tight-knit vanguard party in the Leninist tradition (or powerful political party of any type) that played a central role both before and after reaching power. On the other hand, the confrontational discourse of the leftists in power, the ongoing intensity of political conflict, the acute social and political polarization and steady radicalization have no equivalents among nations in Europe and Africa governed by parties committed to democratic socialism. Finally, popular participation in social programs and political mobilization in such massive numbers and over such an extended period of time in favor of the governing leadership have rarely been matched in other Latin American nations (Ellner, 2011).

The emerging hybrid model combining dimensions of both radical democracy and the representative democracy inherited from the past is also in many ways sui generis. Features associated with radical democracy include referendums, party primaries, frequent elections, numerous public works projects undertaken by community councils, the active role of social movements in the political life of the nation, a strong national executive and an official discourse exalting direct participation and attacking the representative democracy of the past. Nevertheless, the old system and structures have not been dismantled. Even though in Venezuela the specter of community councils displacing the elected municipal government has been raised, representative institutions at all levels have been left largely intact in the three nations.

The process of radicalization

The electoral platform of Chávez, Morales and Correa in their first successful bid for the presidency deemphasized far-reaching, socioeconomic transformation and focused on more moderate goals. Their principal campaign offer was the convening of a constituent assembly in order to “refound” the nation’s democracy on the basis of popular participation. During his campaign in 1998, for instance, Chávez calmed fears regarding a possible unilateral moratorium on the foreign debt by calling for a negotiated solution. In the period prior to his election in 2005, Morales toned down the radical demands on coca cultivation and hydrocarbon nationalization that had been formulated by the social movements of the 1990s, from which MAS emerged, as he reached out beyond his regional base of northern Cochabamba (Crabtree, 2008: 95-97).

Prior to embracing “communitarian socialism”, President Morales and his vice-president García Linera defended “Andean capitalism”, which was to prevail for one century. Correa, for his part, in 2006 criticized human rights violation in Colombia but pledged to capture FARC guerrillas and turn them over to Colombian authorities, denied that he formed part of Chávez’s Bolivarian movement even though he was a friend of the Venezuelan president and criticized the dollarization of the Ecuadorian economy but claimed it was unfeasible to change the system.

The three presidencies have been characterized by gradual but steady radicalization which was not held back by the types of concessions associated with the consensus politics and liberal democracy of previous years (Katz, 2008: 103-106). All three parlayed the widespread popular support for their initial constitutional proposals into consolidation of power and political and economic renovation. In general, the presidents followed a strategy of taking advantage of the momentum created by each political victory by introducing reforms designed to deepen the process of change. They also interpreted their electoral triumphs as popular mandates in favor of socialism. In Venezuela, Chávez’s decrees of land reform and state control of mixed companies in the oil industry in 2001, his redefinition of private property in 2005 and expropriation of companies in strategic sectors in 2007 and 2008 set the stage for more radical stages (Ellner, 2008: 109-131). In a surprisingly confrontational move just months after taking office, Morales ordered troops to take over 56 natural gas installations and the nation’s two major oil refineries in order to pressure foreign companies to accept new nationalistic legislation. In the months after his election, Correa radicalized his position on the proposed constituent assembly by insisting that it had the right to dissolve congress, thus placing him on a collision course with the congressional majority which represented the traditional political elite. The dynamic of initial moderation followed by gradual radicalization differs from the Soviet Union and China, where Communist Parties came to power with explicit far-reaching structural goals stemming from Marxist ideology, and Cuba where radicalization occurred at a more accelerated pace during the first three years of the revolution.

The governing left raised the banner of anti-neoliberalism and was thus in an advantageous position vis-à-vis the opposition to its right, which lacked a well-defined program to dispel fears that its assumption of power would signify a return to the past. A major issue of differentiation between the government and its adversaries to its right was privatization. While the leftists in power affirmed their anti-neoliberal credentials by largely halting and reversing privatization schemes, the major parties of the opposition upheld ambiguous positions, or no position at all, on the topic. Political polarization, in which all parties to the right of the government converged in criticizing virtually all of its actions, ruled out critical support for nationalist measures from a center-left perspective, and in doing so hurt the opposition which forfeited space on the left side of the political spectrum. In Venezuela, for instance, former leftist parties such as the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), Causa R and Podemos abandoned any appearance of following an independent line within the anti-Chavista bloc as they blended in with the rest of the opposition. Similarly, in Ecuador the social-democratic Izquierda Democrática (ID), which had supported Correa in the second round of the 2006 elections, assumed a position of intransigent opposition by his second term in office. (1)

At the same time, the gradual approach to socialism pursued by all three governments has drawn harsh criticism from political actors to their left who consider the state to be “bourgeois” and favor a complete break with the past. The clash between the three leftist governments and their leftist critics also defined the specificity of the emerging new left in power. The defenders of the three governments envision a gradual transformation of the state in accordance with Gramsci’s “war of position” based on the left’s incremental occupation of spaces in the public sphere. According to this strategy, the left takes advantage of the presence of its activists in the public administration and the internal contradictions besetting the state (Bilbao, 2008: 136-137; Geddes, 2010). In contrast, orthodox Marxists such as Trotskysts invoke Lenin’s dictum regarding the need to “smash the state” at the same time that they advocate blanket expropriation of banking, large agricultural estates and monopoly industry (Woods, 2008: 251-252). In addition, Communists and other traditional leftists criticize the term “twenty-first century socialism” for belittling the relevance of the struggles led by leftists over the previous century.

Some critics located to the left of all three governments come out of an anarchist tradition. They posit that the “constituent power”, consisting of autonomous social movements and the rank and file in general, inevitably confronts the “constituted power”, which embodies the state bureaucracy in its entirety as well as the “political class”, and call for a “revolution within the revolution” in order to root out bureaucratic privileges. This position finds expression in the indigenous-based movements in Bolivia and Ecuador which defend the autonomy of their communities and have resisted Morales’ and Correa’s efforts to promote large-scale mining activity that threaten to devastate the areas where their members reside. Some of the movements have embraced “identity politics”, which is at odds with the electoral strategy followed by the leftists in power (Crabtree, 2008: 93-94; Dosh and Kligerman, 2009: 21). Among the indigenous leaders critical of the government on a wide range of issues including cultural identity was Bolivian presidential candidate Felipe Quispe, who fervently opposed Morales’s limitations on coca production and advocated full-fledged nationalization.

When placed alongside the orthodox Marxist, neo-anarchist and new social movement currents on the left, the unique and heterodox character of the three presidents and their closest supporters become evident. Most important they recognize that “bureaucrats” who put the breaks on change are well represented in the state sphere, but stop short of initiating an all out purge and upheaval along the lines of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as is advocated by political actors further to their left. Furthermore, all three leaderships promote the creation of a broad-based highly diversified movement, but also place a premium on unity among supporters and defend vertical as well as horizontal decision making.

Foreign relations

The strategy pursued by all three governments in favor of a “multi-polar world” resembles in some ways and contrasts in others with the foreign policies of governments committed to socialism in the twentieth century. The multi-polar world phrase was originally invoked by Chávez at the outset of his presidency as a euphemism for anti-imperialism and opposition to U.S. hegemony. The concept refers to the strengthening of different blocs of nations in order to defend mutual interests, such as OPEC in the case of Venezuela and Ecuador, and UNASUR (grouping all South American nations around common goals), which Correa became the president of shortly after its founding in 2009. The strategy of unity in spite of diversity recalls the Non-Aligned Movement headed by Josip Broz Tito, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Kwame Nkrumah beginning in the early 1960s, which sought to go beyond ethnic, religious and political differences in order to unite the nations of the South around common objectives and demands.

In essence, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have followed a dual approach of uniting among themselves in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (ALBA) at the same time that they have played active and leading roles in promoting broader continental unity. In this sense, their strategy is comparable to the Cold War foreign policy of the Soviet Union that distinguished between its closest allies, which were committed to Communism, and third-world governments of “national liberation”, which were considered nationalistic and anti-imperialist. Similarly, the presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador define themselves as anti-capitalist and have often clashed with Washington but also act in unison with moderate governments, such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Nevertheless, the initial years of the twenty-first century contrasts with the highly polarized setting of the Cold War and is conducive to a greater degree of autonomy for Latin American nations vis-à-vis the United States (Hershberg, 2010: 241). Thus the “radical” Latin American nations have been able to cement close ties with the “moderates” in contrast with the isolated position of Cuba in the 1960s. Whereas Chávez courts the moderates such as the heads of state of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay (French, 2010: 48-51), Cuba promoted guerrilla warfare throughout the continent and in doing so forfeited the possibility of wining over or neutralizing moderate presidents such as Arturo Frondizi of Argentina (Ellner, 2008: 62).  

Latin America was never united during the last century to the degree that it has been over the recent past. In the first place, moderate governments have acted firmly to avoid the destabilization and isolation of the countries run by radicals. The governments of Brazil and Argentina, for instance, helped mediate an end to the acute conflict generated by Morales’s “nationalization” of the hydrocarbon industry in 2006, even though their economic interests were at stake. Subsequently, all twelve UNASUR members signed the Moneda Declaration, which deterred possible plans to topple the Morales governments in Bolivia in 2008, and two years later played a similar role in the face of an attempted coup in Ecuador. In the second place, the positions of the “radicals” have been complementary rather than antithetical to those of the “moderates.” Thus, for example, for the first year and a half following the Honduran coup of June 2009, the UNASUR “moderates” and “radicals” blocked the new government’s entrance into the Organization of American States. While the “moderates” placed conditions on entrance, the “radicals” questioned the legitimacy of the new government per se (Valero, 2011). Finally, Latin American unity has brought the “radical” and moderate presidents together with centrist ones around common pursuits, such as the creation of UNASUR and its broader based successor, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

The discourse and content of the foreign policy of all three presidents are shaped by the imperatives of globalization (Arditi, 2010: 145-147). They are also free of the goals of absolute self-sufficiency and autarky that characterized Maoism half a century ago. Programs like ALBA and Petrocaribe (which offers Venezuelan oil to Caribbean and Central American nations under special terms) are justified along these lines. Furthermore, globalization pressures have taken the form of constraints that influence international policy, the fiery nationalistic rhetoric of all three presidents notwithstanding. Chávez, for instance, has refrained from defaulting on foreign loan payments or withdrawing from the International Monetary Fund, while Morales has, in the words of the editors of a recent study on the Latin American left, “tried to maintain access to U.S. markets” (Madrid, Hunter and Weyland, 2010: 156-157). The thrust of these strategies, policies and discourse are at odds with the “socialism in one country” thesis defended by the Soviet leadership under Stalin.

Discourse and political vision

Since 2005, Venezuelan, Bolivian and Ecuadorean leaders have espoused support for an alternative to capitalism embodied in the general concept of socialism for the twenty-first century. Following the ratification of Bolivia’s new constitution in January 2009, Morales proclaimed the birth of “communitarian socialism” which was underpinned by the regional autonomy promoted by the new document. Morales, Chávez and Correa have proposed to adapt socialism to the concrete reality faced by Latin America, at a time when the conventional wisdom in the west asserted that this model was all but dead. 

In sharp contrast to the socialist trajectory of Cuba after 1959, the political process in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela unfolds within the parameters of a bourgeois democratic society in which capitalist relations of production are still the dominant mode of economic activity. Bolivia’s Vice-President García Linera, for instance, has stated that socialism does not preclude the existence of a market economy and favors dialogue with those who do not share MAS’s long-term structural goals (Postero, 2010: 27-28), while Chávez has called for a “strategic alliance” that would bind his government to the business sector. In effect, Venezuela’s mixed economy consists of state companies that compete with – but are not designed to replace – private ones in certain key sectors as a means to avoid inflation and scarcity of basic commodities. Finally, the economies of all three nations rest in large part on the export of extractive commodities to United States markets.

Along similar lines, cultural and social transformation has failed to keep pace with radical political change. Venezuela, for example, remains a highly consumer oriented society where such values of capitalist society as conspicuous consumption, individualism, and the primacy of private property are still highly valued (Lebowitz (2006: 113; Alvarez, 2010: 243). Furthermore, the conservative opposition in all three countries relies on a full array of allies including the private media, the Catholic Church and the every present role of the United States. In short, unlike in the Soviet Union after 1917, China after 1949 and Cuba after 1959, efforts to promote socialism for the twenty-first century occur in the highly contested arena of capitalist society, in which most traditional values and institutions, though weakened, are nonetheless present.

Twenty-first century socialism, as Marta Harnecker (2010: 25-26) points out, is born from a reappraisal of past leftist strategies based on long-held assumptions and an acknowledgment of the mistakes of previous efforts at socialist construction in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. The new perspective discards the purported role of a vanguard party and the dogmatic application of theory with little or no application to the Latin American social reality. It questions the preeminent role attributed to the working class, and the inability to incorporate broad segments of the population including the urban poor, the informal sector, religious communities, the indigenous, the afro-descendants, and women.

The rejection of working-class vanguardism has created the political space for working closely with other groups and political forces that advocate change. In the case of Bolivia, a central aspect of this approach, as vice-president Alvaro García Linera states, is the “project of self-representation of the social movements of plebian society” (Rockefeller, 2007: 166). The strategy is particularly relevant in Bolivia and Ecuador where political organizations on the left and the right have historically manipulated indigenous organizations to promote their own political program. In an interview with the German Marxist Heinz Dieterich, Morales assessed past asymmetrical power relations between workers’ organizations grouped in the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) and the indigenous population by pointing out that COB leaders “always said in their congresses that the Indians would carry the workers to power on our shoulders. We were the builders of the revolution and they were the masters of the revolution. Now things have changed and intellectuals and workers are joining us” (Dieterich, 2006).

In contrast to capitalism’s emphasis on the individual, twenty-first century socialism incorporates a strong moral and ethical component that promotes social well-being, fraternity and social solidarity. The model draws inspiration from Catholic and even Protestant theology of liberation. Indeed, most of its leaders still profess a religious faith. In an interview with British scholar Helen Yaffe, Correa pointed to the compatibility between theology of liberation and socialism and added: “Twenty-first century socialism… can be joined by both atheists and practicing Catholics – because I am a practicing Catholic. It does not contradict my faith which, on the contrary, reinforces the search for social justice” (Correa, 2009).

Twenty-first century socialism draws inspiration from the history, political practices and social-cultural experiences of Latin America. Like radical populism of the past, twenty-first century socialism glorifies the popular will as personified by historical symbols to a greater extent than traditional leftist and social democratic parties, which tended to be more selective and inclined to rely on imported slogans (in what was in many ways a missed opportunity for them). Chávez and the Chavistas, for instance, are willing to overlook the contradictions of nineteenth century and early twentieth century “caudillo” leaders such as Cipriano Castro in order to glorify them and emphasize their nationalist behavior, much as the Peronistas reinterpreted Juan Manuel Rosas and Juan Facundo Quiroga (Raby, 2006: 112-121, 231; Ellner, 1999: 130-131).

Leaders in all three nations have created a new narrative of nationhood that challenges long held assumptions and previous representations of culture, history, race, gender, citizenship and identity. Thus, the new political movements offer an alternative reading of the past that challenges the conventional wisdoms that had previously legitimated the old order. This dynamic process links contemporary social movements and political forces to a tradition of political and social struggle. Re-envisioning the past serves to incorporate previously marginalized peoples including indigenous, afro-descendants, peasants, women and workers who historically struggled to change social conditions in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

The indigenous movements in Bolivia see themselves as inheritors of the struggles led by Tupac Katari and Tupac Amaru that led mass movements against Spanish colonial authorities. By forging connections between past and current struggles, these movements build on a legacy of resistance previously excluded from the official historical record. The process, which is described among Bolivia’s Aymara as “to walk ahead while looking back”, incorporates historically marginalized voices and creates a sense of empowerment among those contemporary forces engaged in the process of social change (Hylton and Thompson, 2007: 149). When Morales announced the nationalization of Bolivian gas on May 1, 2006, he explicitly drew inspiration from the past, insisting that “the struggles of our ancestors like Tupac Katari, Tupac Amaru, Barotlina Sisa ... were not in vain” (Hylton and Thompson, 2007: 131).

The intellectual tenets of twenty-first century socialism can be found in the works of Peruvian intellectual José Carlos Mariátegui, which are frequently cited by Chávez and other pro-government leaders in the three nations. Mariátegui proposed an Indo-American socialism, adapted to the social and political reality of the continent. While recognizing the importance of the working class, he promoted the incorporation of the indigenous and rural communities as part of the broader class and national struggle. Along these lines, Mariategui argued that the indigenous heritage of collectivism dating back prior to the Spanish conquest would facilitate socialist construction under a revolutionary government. He also recognized the interrelation between race and class within an economic system inherited from the colonial experience and the importance of incorporating a broad front with which to confront the forces of capital (Mariátegui, 1970: 9, 38-48).

In all three countries, there is also an effort underway to incorporate women traditionally overlooked by the male dominated historical accounts. As a result, women’s role in the independence process, their contributions to the social and political struggles in the nineteenth century and their participation in the labor and political struggles of the twentieth century have been highlighted. In Ecuador, as part of a process dating back several decades, the independence leader Manuela Sáenz has undergone a reassessment and has emerged as an important figure in her own right, and not viewed simply for her relations with Simón Bolívar. Her contributions to the South American independence movements, including her courageous actions at the Battles of Pichincha and Ayacucho where she acquired the rank of colonel, has earned her the admiration of some social movements. Similarly, Bartolina Sisa, who led an indigenous rebellion in La Paz in 1781 that served as inspiration for the establishment in 1983 of the International Day of Indigenous Women celebrated on September 5th, has in the twenty-first century become even more revered. The cases of Sáenz and Sisa, one criolla and the other indigenous, highlight the incorporation of large numbers of women in the social struggles taking place in the region.

In the case of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez and his followers have called into question the traditional representations of Venezuelan history and its most dominant figure Simón Bolívar. The new political discourse has created a space where scholars and others have celebrated the role of criollo elites such as Francisco Miranda, Andrés Bello and Simón Rodríguez, while giving increased emphasis to other figures who had asserted equality of the races. Among the latter are “el Negro” Miguel, who led a rebellion in Buría in the state of Lara, Afro Venezuelans Juan Andrés López del Rosario (Andresote) and José Leonardo Chirinos, who headed uprisings against the Spanish in 1730 and 1795 respectively and Manuel Gual, and José España, who conspired against Spain in 1797.

Bolívar’s views are now a source of public discussion concerning the past and present course of Venezuelan politics and society. His divergent opinions on democracy, race, international relations, social conditions and public policy serve to bolster positions taken by both the government and the opposition.

Social and economic dimensions

The social and economic conditions that paved the way for the left’s assumption of power in the three countries did not accord with the orthodox Marxist vision of a socialist revolution. In contrast to what Marxist theory predicts, the organized working class did not constitute the vanguard or the major driving social force in the confrontations leading up to the left’s advent to power. Non-proletarian, underprivileged classes played leading roles and belonged to powerful social movements in the case of Bolivia and Ecuador, while in Venezuela they participated in the disruptions that shook the nation in February 1989. (2) In urban areas, they took in workers in the informal economy and unorganized ones employed by small firms in the formal economy. These sectors “marginalized” and “semi-marginalized” in that the political and cultural elite had long ignored them and they lacked representation at the national level as well as the benefits of collective bargaining agreements and (in many cases) labor legislation. The social upheavals in the years prior to the left’s initial electoral triumphs help explain the more radical course of events in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador as compared to Brazil and Uruguay under moderate governments.

Neoliberal policies along with globalization-induced structural changes in the 1980s and 1990s fueled the growth of the informal economy and weakened the labor movement, whose struggles at the workplace were overshadowed by social movement activism and mass disturbances. The Bolivian mining workers’ Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros (FSTMB), and the COB labor confederation, with a long history of independent, militant unionism largely unmatched in the continent, were weakened by the phasing out of state-controlled enterprises and atomization of the labor force under neoliberal governments beginning in the mid-1980s (Kohl and Farthing, 2006: 125). In Venezuela, the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) not only endorsed neoliberal-inspired labor legislation in 1997, but helped draft it as well, and then went on to organize general strikes from 2001 to 2003 in conjunction with the nation’s main business organization in an attempt to oust President Chávez (Murillo, 2001: 62-64).

Chávez reacted to organized labor’s submissiveness and resistance to change by questioning the Marxist insistence on working-class primacy in the revolutionary process (Blanco Muñoz, 1998: 392-393) (although more recently he has modified his position). Twenty-first century socialism theoreticians flatly reject orthodox Marxism’s cult of the proletariat, “a privileging whereby all other workers (including those in the growing informal sector) are seen as lesser… unproductive workers, indeed lumpenproletariat” (Lebowitz 2010a; see also Alvarez, 2010: 114-116; Harnecker, 2007: paragraphs 115-116). The three governments both in policy and discourse emphasize incorporation of marginalized and semi-marginalized sectors of the population in decision making and the cultural life of the nation and their eligibility for the benefits accorded to workers of the formal economy. This orientation contrasts with traditional Marxism’s special appeal to the proletariat, whose salient characteristics were hardly that of an “excluded” sector. Not only was the proletariat incorporated in the economic system, but it was generally represented by a trade union structure. The challenges posed by the goal of incorporation of the marginalized and semi-marginalized sectors, which were to a large extent lacking in organizational experience and discipline, were in many ways more demanding than the task of representing the interests of the organized working class.

The social makeup of the ruling bloc in the three nations embodies diversity, complexity and internal tensions. This pattern is contrary to Marx’s prediction, which has influenced orthodox Marxist movements over the years, of industry-driven polarization pitting an increasingly large, concentrated and powerful proletariat against the bourgeoisie. According to the traditional Marxist vision of polarization, non-proletarian, non-privileged social sectors eventually become virtually extinct, or else form an alliance with the proletariat without creating sharp internal conflicts over distinct priorities or interests. The profundity of the fissures in the leftist bloc in the three nations also calls to question the concept of “multitude”, which takes for granted the unity and convergence of the social groups and sectors resistant to the established order. (3)

Social heterogeneity and conflicting interests are particularly evident in the case of Bolivia. It was easier for the left to maintain the unity and support of the indigenous movements, peasant unions, labor unions and the cocalero movement in the Water War (2000) and the Gas War (2003), which shook the nation, than it has been for the Morales government since 2006. In spite of similar roots, indigenous groups and unionized peasants have clashed as a result of adherence to distinct paradigms. While the former defend the sacredness of indigenous self-government and traditions, including in some cases prohibition on property inheritance, the latter come out of the tradition of the 1952 revolution favoring individual property ownership. In reality, however, the indigenous communitarian ideal (known as the ayllu) often clashes with the self-interests of indigenous community members, thus putting in evidence the complexity of the internal contradictions within the governing movement in Bolivia (Fabricant, 2010: 93-98). At the same time, the peasant unions criticize Morales’ land distribution program for its bias in favor of the communal property and rights of indigenous groups, which they claim constitute the “new hacendados” of the Bolivian east.

A similar situation of confrontation in spite of similar origins pits those miners who resisted neoliberal reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, and those that acceded to pressure to form worker cooperatives. Some political actors and analysts, such as vice-president Alvaro García Linera, defend the new social movement paradigm by arguing that the traditional working class has been severely weakened, and conclude that the Morales government is “the government of social movements” (Ruiz Arrieta, 2010: 185-186).

The three governments’ class orientation, which does not center on the industrial proletariat, has implications for the strategies they follow. Inclusionary politics and social programs in general are sometimes pursued at the expense of economic objectives. The Venezuelan government, for instance, has assigned large sums of money to community councils and worker cooperatives in popular areas, programs that are often not cost effective but incorporate the previously excluded in decision making and provide them with valuable learning experiences and a sense of empowerment. These priorities contrast with the focus on production targets of really existing socialism, such as during the Soviet all-out industrialization drive in the 1930s and the Great Leap Forward in China beginning in 1959.

Various parties on the left and center-left of the political spectrum implicitly or explicitly criticize the focus on the marginalized and semi-marginalized sectors and the emphasis on social programs over economic objectives, and insist on the primacy of industry, productivity and the working class. Social democratic oriented parties such as the Patria Para Todos (PPT), which dropped out of the pro-Chavista governing coalition in 2010, and the ID of Ecuador embrace this discourse. Both parties have lashed out at the government of their respective nations for belittling the importance of technical competence and efficiency. Further to the left, Trotskyist factions in Venezuela, in accordance with their adherence to proletarian ideology, have expressed skepticism toward government-promoted worker cooperatives which received massive funding more as part of a social strategy in favor of the poor than an economic one to promote development. The cooperatives, which generally grouped only about five members, often hired workers who were not protected by labor legislation, collective bargaining agreements, or union representation (Ellner, 2008: 157, 187). The Communist Parties of all three nations, while more supportive of the government, criticized it for underestimating the importance of the role of the working class and failing to respect its independence vis-à-vis the state (Figuera, 2010; Pérez, 2009).

While the three nations failed to advance significantly in increasing their productive capacity, as did the Soviet Union and China under initial Communist rule, they did make inroads in the diversification of commercial and technological relations. In their international dealings, all three governments privileged relations with state companies and private ones outside of the advanced bloc over the multinationals. Venezuela, for instance, attempted to lesson dependence on the multinationals by signing contracts with state oil companies in Russia, China, Belarus, Iran and various Latin American nations for preliminary exploration of the oil-rich Orinoco Oil Belt for the purpose of obtaining certification. These developments were a reflection of the decline of U.S. political and economic strength at the outset of the twenty-first century.

Expropriations, threats of expropriations, confrontations and greater state control of private (and particularly foreign) owned companies went beyond the actions and discourse of most radical populist and nationalist Latin American governments since the 1930s. The Chavista government reasserted control of the oil industry and expropriated strategic sectors including electricity, steel, cement and telecommunications in 2007 and 2008 and then took over firms accused of price speculation and others in order to limit the practice of outsourcing. In Bolivia, using the threat of expropriation and insisting on the irrevocability of deadlines for compliance of new legislation, the Morales government succeeded in pressuring foreign companies into accepting the law that obliges concessionaries to sell oil and gas to the state-owned Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB).


Scholars and political analysts have long been divided between those who emphasize the uniqueness of conditions in a given nation and those who affirm the scientific nature of the social sciences and tend to generalize and synthesize across national boundaries. Similarly, leftist theoreticians are divided between those influenced by the Hegelian tradition of focusing on national trajectories that underpin distinct “roads to socialism” and those who apply what they allege to be the fixed laws of Marxism. This work has documented the convergences of three Latin American countries which are historically different in many respects, but have adopted various similar policies and approaches to achieve structural change. The common grounds include political and economic strategies that challenge the interests of traditional sectors in fundamental ways; the constellation of social groups and identities, some of which have played a more central role in political struggles than the traditional working class; and the celebration of national symbols associated with rebellions against the old order.

The article attempts to underline the similarities between the presidencies of Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa by contrasting them with social-democratic, really existing socialist and classical populist experiences of the past. The three presidents also stand in sharp contrast with non-socialist, center-left governments in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, where political conflict and polarization are less acute, relations with the United States less confrontational, and socialism has not been proclaimed as a goal.

Some social scientists have cautioned against viewing the “pink tide” in Latin America as a “homogenizing project” and call for a focus on diversity and specificity as a corrective to simplistic explanations (Motta and Chen, 2010; Motta, 2009; Hershberg, 234-235, 244-245; Beasley-Murray, Cameron and Hershberg, 2010: 15). This article has also recognized diversity and complexity, at the same time that it points to the similarities of the roads followed by the three governments and the similar challenges they face. In the first place, the article discusses the diversity of social groups that support transformation, each with distinct interests and goals, and the resultant internal tensions that beset the left. In the second place, the challenges faced by governments stemming from their trial-and-error approach to socialism, which attempts to avoid the perceived errors of “already existing socialism”, defy simple solutions and formulas. In the third place, the article discusses different models of democracy that underlie the clash between government and opposition, and in doing so points to the diversity of criteria that complicates the debate over the boundaries between democratic and non-democratic behavior.

These conflicting definitions of democracy and their application to concrete conditions have complex implications that are at odds with the simplicity of the thesis of the “bad left”, or “populist”, authoritarian left put forward by Jorge Castañeda (Castañeda 2006; Castañeda and Morales, 2008), Mario Vargas Llosa and other ardent critics of twenty-first century socialism. In short, diversity and complexity characterize the political landscape in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, even while the three countries share basic features, such as sharp political and social polarization, political systems that borrow significantly from radical democracy and governments that embrace an anti-capitalist discourse and nationalist foreign policy.

I would like to thank Miguel Tinker Salas for his careful reading of the manuscript at various stages and for his comments that greatly enhanced the quality of the work.

[This article first appeared in Latin American Perspectives, vol. 39, no. 1, January 2012, pp. 96-114. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author’s permission.]


1. The falling out of the center-left position may be a generalized trend in twenty-first century politics. See, Hedges (2010) and, for Venezuela, Ellner (2008: 105-108).

2. Sara Motta (2009: 37-43) argues that orthodox Marxists, with their focus on production as the center of political contestation, and social democrats minimize the importance of social movement, territorial-based struggles because they are unable to engage the state or impact national politics.

3. See Laclau (2005, 239-244) for his refutation of the concept of multitude put forward by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.


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