Monday, May 16, 2016
Business Recorder column Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Latin American Left's nadir? Rashed Rahman Brazil's embattled President Delma Roussef's suspension from office pending her impeachment trial comes as a big blow amidst the Left in Latin America being pushed back by its centre/centre-right rivals across the continent. While Roussef's impeachment process unfolds over the next few months, her ideological ally in Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro was treading furiously in the water to stave off threatened chaos. On May 14 he announced a state of emergency, ordered the seizure of 'paralysed' factories, the arrest of their owners, and military exercises to counter the threat of an "armed intervention". The US predicts (and no doubt hopes, if not actively promotes) that Venezuela is sliding towards popular revolt amid food and power shortages, runaway inflation, protests and political uncertainty. The state of emergency allows the government to limit the right to protest and authorise preventive arrests and police raids without a warrant. Maduro says the measures, which initially apply for three months, would likely be extended through 2017. The seized factories would be brought back to life to overcome the economic sabotage of the owners, using the excuse of a shortage of raw materials to pursue a crippling halt to production and thereby bring the Maduro government to its knees. Maduro, the successor to popular and charismatic leader the late Hugo Chavez, has been battling an economic crisis since coming to office in 2013. The global crash of oil prices has not only caused the oil-rich country's economy to shrink nearly six percent last year, it has all but put paid to Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution model that used high oil revenues to provide relief, subsidies and safety nets to the poor. Inflation is predicted to touch 700 percent this year, food shortages and a drought that has forced extreme energy rationing have all combined to weaken Maduro's support and embolden the right wing political parties, backed by the captains of industry and wealth concentrated in a few hands, to deliver the coup d'grace to Venezuela's left-wing government. A similar outcome is already in action in Brazil. Roussef has likened the impeachment vote against her in the Brazilian Senate to nothing less than a coup. She is charged with fudging budget figures. As one wag put it on social media, when our redoubtable Finance Minister Ishaq Dar does that every other day, not a fly stirs! Roussef is also charged with being implicated in a corruption scandal in the country's oil giant, Petrobas. Her mentor and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, hailed until recently as a saviour of his country, has also been dragged into the scandal. They both deny any wrongdoing. Brazil's experiment in democratic socialism too, like that of Venezuela, seems to be staring down the barrel of a gun. To understand the context of how these two countries in particular, and Latin America in general, have arrived at the present conjuncture, it is necessary to delve into a brief historical background. South America, like North America, suffered colonial conquest by European powers from the 17th century onwards. The two continents were vast, thinly populated by indigenous inhabitants, and brimming with natural and other resources. The wars of conquest decimated the indigenous peoples and after a relatively brief contention between rival settler colonialist powers, the Americas were divided up in their present shape. While most of North America fell into the lap of English colonisers and their descendants (reinforced later by immigration from other European countries), the southern continent was carved up between the Iberian colonists. Thus most of South America became the blood-stained (by massacre and genocide of the indigenous peoples) property of Spain, with the large and noteworthy exception of Brazil, which came to the Portuguese colonialists. This carving up of South America (and areas north upto Mexico) and the subsequent settlement of hordes of settler colonialists from Spain and Portugal gave the continent the appellation Latin America. For all intents and purposes, this popular name reflected the complete marginalisation, if not annihilation, of the indigenous peoples. The edifice of 'white' Latin America therefore was erected on the blood and bones of the inheritors of the ancient and magnificent Mayan, Aztec and Inca civilisations of South and Central America. Like in the case of the US to the north, once the settler colonialists had acquired sufficient strength, they revolted against their 'mother' countries. This led to numerous wars of national liberation and independence. Notable heroes of these 'fratricidal' conflicts include Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti and many others. The independent Latin American countries that emerged as a result of these struggles presided over societies of mixed ethnic origins, to which melting pot was introduced the layer of black African slaves transported across the Atlantic to work their colonial masters' plantations in the New World. Hence what we see in Latin America today is the admixture of indigenous, settler colonialist (white) and black populations, offering a dizzying mosaic of colours. Latin America in modern times, and certainly since the Second World War, saw a continuation of rebellions and uprisings by the oppressed, including slave revolts, indigenous peoples' uprisings, and even visionary transformational revolutionary movements that aspired to a just and equitable society without the prejudices of race and wealth. After WWII, these revolutionary aspirations found sharper manifestations. The breakthrough Cuban Revolution of 1959 led by Fidel Castro inspired similar guerrilla movements throughout Latin America, particularly during the 1960s and 70s, when most of the continent was plunged into a dark pit of military coups and the extremely brutal and repressive dictatorships that followed. These regimes laid the foundations of the phenomenon of forcibly 'disappeared' people, which by now is all too sickeningly familiar to us. The most horrific and last of such military coups occurred in Chile in 1973, when the army commander, General Augusto Pinochet, overthrew the elected Marxist President Salavador Allende. Allende died fighting against the coup makers. Chile was subsequently turned into a killing field and torture chamber for all dissidents, irrespective of their political or ideological leanings. Ironically, at the precise conjuncture when the Left globally was rocked back on its heels in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Latin America seemed to show the way forward. In country after country, as the tide of military dictatorships gave way to elected democratic governments, grassroots Left movements came to power through the ballot box in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and even Chile. The test for this experiment in democratic socialism in countries with a violent and repressive past was always going to rest on the economy. Not only did these left-wing governments inherit intact power and wealth structures that favoured the white descendants of the settler colonialists, these very structures militated against and excluded the indigenous, black and mixed race peoples. To economic deprivation, inequality and past political repression, therefore, was added the inflammable material of deeply entrenched racism. Nor had the hegemonic influence of their powerful northern neighbour, the US, abated (notoriously reflected in the Monroe Doctrine that sought to exclude rival European colonial powers and preserve the whole of Latin America as Washington's happy hunting ground). Washington had actively promoted in the 1960s and 70s the military dictatorships that strangled the Latin American people's aspirations for independence, social equality and justice. Now the contest was between left-wing elected governments seeking to overturn the historical deprivation, injustices and repression visited upon indigenous, black and mixed race populations, and the tribe of the privileged rich and powerful, backed by Washington and the notorious CIA. What is playing out currently in Brazil and Venezuela is the revenge of the privileged against 'upstart' left-wing government's and movements that have challenged their long standing hegemony through democratic means. These examples reflect the limits of this endeavour in a world still dominated by the coalition of the rich and powerful one percent. If the democratic road to socialism fails in Latin America, will the oppressed once again look to militant means to a brighter future?