Sunrise Over South America: The Changing Face of Socialism in the 21st Century

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The era of U.S.-sponsored, direct military interventions in the affairs of Latin America appears to have ended, with the U.S. instead retreating to an attempt at domination via the “dollar diplomacy” of institutions like the International Monetary Fund.  In direct response to the decades of neoliberal domination, the region has recently seen an undeniable orientation towards “socialism.”  This analysis will focus on the five “socialist” Latin American nations–Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Cuba, who have joined the ‘Pink Tide’ of the 21st Century Socialism movement.  The supporting institution of this movement, the Bolivarian Alliance (Alianza Bolivariana para los pueblos de nuestra América, or ALBA) will be examined as the important bedrock of the constituents’ alternative, socialist development.  This work will highlight the recent history of each of these themes, expanding on its modern political and economic characteristics, which will be used to close each theme with a prediction for future directions.

It is necessary to begin with a discussion of the meaning of the word ‘socialism’.  Many researchers of the 21st century socialism campaign treat the subject with skepticism, calling “socialism” in this case a misnomer.  While acknowledging that line of thought, this research brief will instead treat the movement as a self-defining entity.  Thus, the ‘socialism‘ investigated here does not involve political theoretics about the meaning of the word; rather, this analysis seeks to explain the 21st century socialism camp in terms of their actions, style, and rhetoric.  As such, this work serves only as a broad overview of the topic, highlighting nations’ achievements, challenges, similarities, and differences without exhausting the depths of possible analysis each could merit in a work of less scope.  It is with this methodology in mind that this research brief is structured.

Venezuela: “…with a new socialism, a socialism of the 21st century…”

With the goal of bringing social well-being to his people, President Hugo Chávez announced that he would lead Venezuela firmly to the left at the 5th World Social Forum in 2005, eliciting varying responses from resentment from the U.S. to pride and hope from Venezuela’s oppressed masses.  Now, 12 years after Chávez was elected, have his promises of prosperity been fulfilled?

Chávez first attempted to claim power in 1992, when he led his Ejército Bolivariano Revolucionario (Bolivarian Revolutionary Army) in a failed coup against then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez.  Shortly thereafter, Chávez took the presidency in 1998 through electoral methods, winning an impressive 56.2 percent of the vote on a platform of anti-corruption.

In an interview with the author, Venezuelan ambassador to Washington Bernardo Álvarez spoke of Venezuela’s success in the transition to a socialism of the 21st century in terms of the nation’s concrete advances toward greater economic equality:

We only need look as far as Venezuela’s dramatic social advances. Over the last decade, we’ve seen not only a dramatic decrease in extreme and household poverty, but also in rates of income inequality. More and more Venezuelans have access to vital social services like education and health, unemployment has been cut in half, and more and more people are participating at a number of levels in their democratic government.

Official statistics seem to support Ambassador Álvarez’s assertion.  According to data taken from a recent report from the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, real GDP has grown by 94.7 percent in 5.25 years, cutting poverty by more than half and extreme poverty by 72 percent.  Inequality has been greatly reduced, and public health-care and education have developed dramatically; for instance, access to clean water has risen 12 percent since 1998, and access to sanitation by 20 percent in the same time period.  Averaging over 13 percent since 1998, unemployment fell to single digits for the first time in 2007.  Most impressive of all, these successes were all achieved while lowering the public debt from 30.7 percent of GDP in 1998 to 14.3 in 2008.[i]

Though it may seem from these feats that Chávez has been a modern-day Prometeo, there have certainly been some Olympic challenges, and several remain.  Chávez indeed represses his opposition, creating what some have labeled a “tyranny of the majority.”[ii] The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) has shown a steady increase in corruption in Venezuela in the past decade, with its current ranking almost as poor as is possible.  In the same period, Freedom House has given Venezuela a consistent label of “Partially Free” (among alternatives “Free” or “Not Free”); while this is not as bad as it could be, it is obviously not optimal.  Critics of leaders of the new Latin American Left seize upon data like this, and point to human rights violations and repressions of democracy.  Venezuela has certainly seen its share of political discord, becoming increasingly polarized as Chávez’s rule has progressed.  Nonetheless, to categorize Chávez as anti-democratic requires some qualification.  He clearly has had the support of the majority of Venezuelans, as evidenced by his popularly-mobilized restoration to power after the coup in 2002 and his winning of the 2006 election with 63 percent of the vote.

In economic terms, the expansion of the Venezuelan economy has been in large part due to its export of petroleum.  In fact, the highly respected Dr. Riordan Roett of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies says that the Venezuelan economy would be failing but for the oil market.  Thus, Venezuela must take care to diversify its economy and avoid the resource curse that is so virulent among developing nations.  A significant shock to the Venezuelan system, predicted as likely by some,[iii] could upset the current mandate for the continuation of Chávez’s revolution.  Though the recent representative gains by his opposition in Venezuela’s National Assembly should be viewed critically, as both unsurprising and unlikely to seriously affect Chávez’s continued changes,[iv] they exemplify this dangerous susceptibility, and at least put a horizon on what was previously unlimited.  For the moment, however, the outlook is certainly positive, as Chávez continues to seek to help other leaders (via funding) surf the “Pink Tide” to similar successes.

Nicaragua: A “Failed State”?

Dr. Riordan Roett, in the interview for this work, labeled Nicaragua a failed state.  As the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere, this categorization may not be far off.  Apparently, this economic misfortune seems to be forcing President Daniel Ortega to walk a tightrope between necessary support from the oppositional IMF and ALBA.

The Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), headed by Ortega, came into power as victors in an armed revolutionary struggle with the attrition and eventual collapse of the brutal corrupt and malevolent Somoza dictatorship in 1979.  Their primary policy goals were a foreign policy that was “independent and nonaligned” and a “mixed economy,”[v] though of course their independence was more a statement against American imperialism than a withdrawal from foreign support.  In the midst of the Cold War, the Reagan administration in the United States was galvanized by the perceived “Communist” threat in its backyard, and so initiated illegal, covert programs aimed at destabilizing Nicaragua (such as the scandalous Contra affair, kept secret from even the U.S. Congress for some time.)  Obviously, these initiatives worked, brutalizing the country’s economy and spurring a civil war.  In 1990, Ortega surprised the international audience by losing to Violeta de Barrios Chamorro (the United States-backed candidate).  Nicaragua’s citizens were eager to end the civil war that had been raging for a decade; one Nicaraguan woman, emotionally distraught because, as she explained, “Daniel will no longer be my president,” admitted that she voted for Chamorro, “because I want my son in the Sandinista army to come home alive.”[vi]

The following three Nicaraguan presidents, Chamorro, Alemán, and Bolaños, all under heavy influence from the United States, “implemented a series of neoliberal policies, gutting the social and economic polices of the Sandinista era and impoverishing the country.”  After “drifting increasingly to the right” with his subsequent candidacy in every election, Ortega eventually reclaimed the presidency in the 2006 election by an earlier, controversial noncompete deal for shared political hegemony which Ortega had reached with President Alemán.  However, it was clear that Ortega had changed–so much so that many consider his current policies a continuation of the neoliberalism instituted by the previous administrations.  In fact, a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund maintains the status quo of neoliberalism.[vii]

Since reassuming office, Ortega has used his ALBA membership to institute some beneficial social policies: abolishing educational matriculation fees, a Cuba-assisted literacy program, and a Venezuela-supported Zero Hunger program. Many analysts downplay the importance of these initiatives, however, citing increased repression and corruption in Managua.  Examples vary from oppression of political dissidents and electoral fraud to the fact that Ortega obtained, via ALBA, a promise of $300 to $500 million from Venezuela, administered personally by Ortega himself.[viii] Ortega’s corrupt methods of repressive governance are unsustainable; unstable régimes are exactly that–unstable.  Hopefully, Nicaragua (and the other nations included in this analysis) will learn this lesson before the inevitable fruits of corruption and repression derail their movements.

In sum, it seems that Ortega might be attempting to milk both the United States and the Bolivarian Alliance for all they are worth.  He has continued to use IMF support, as well as that of Venezuela and the ALBA countries, to yield some development: while inflation is rising, many other economic and social indicators are progressing modestly–helped in large part, of course, by foreign aid.[ix] With his unsustainable methods of repression in the background, Ortega will soon be forced to make a decision. Pieces of both colors will not continue to be permitted to play in the advancing chess game between the U.S. and ALBA. Judging from Ortega’s statements about eventual independence from the IMF,[x] it seems that Ortega (or his successor, if from his party) will eventually choose the side of ALBA.  Whether the U.S. continues to fund Nicaragua, if that allegiance becomes clearly defined, remains to be seen.

Bolivia:  “Indigenous Socialism,” Radical Success

At the other end of the spectrum of success, according to Dr. Roett, is Bolivia.  Dr. Roett says that “Morales in Bolivia has been the most successful–Bolivia is growing.”  Though this growth comes on the back of natural gas exploitation and via strong Venezuelan support, the growth itself is unquestionable.

Paz Estenssoro was elected president in the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, and he instituted some major socialist policies: public ownership of the Bolivian mines, large government subsidies, significant wage hikes, and agrarian reform.[xi] However, the succeeding administrations trended Bolivia to the right, including the reelection of a newly-neoliberal Estenssoro after severe economic crises forced leftist Hernán Siles Zuazo to resign from office.  These crises created a veritable circle of fire; governments instituted stronger neoliberal policies in response to crises, which led to more crises and a government call for more severe neoliberalism, and so on.  This would basically continue until the reign of Morales. When Evo Morales won the Bolivian presidency in 2005, his party, MAS (Movement toward Socialism), was elected with a firm mandate to change the policies of the previous neoliberal régimes.

Initially elected with 54 percent of the vote (with a record of 85 percent participation), Morales survived a recall effort in 2007 with a vote of confidence of 67 percent.  Clearly, the population supported Morales’s efforts, including a renegotiated contract with Brazil’s Petrobras, a strong alliance with Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, and a new constitution instituting communal natural resource ownership and validating massive agrarian reform.[xii] Morales himself listed off his successes in an interview in 2007:

After one year, we can say that Bolivia has begun an irreversible change…We began with the Austerity Plan in the government apparatus.  The President’s salary was reduced by   60%…Reducing salaries at all levels of the government has yielded 61 million bolivianos in savings, which are being allocated for hiring 2,400 new teachers and doctors.  We have raised the minimum wage by 13.63 percent, and we have begun a literacy campaign which we expect will help us end illiteracy in just a few more months.  With the help of Cuba and Venezuela, we have established eleven ophthalmology centers and sixteen surgical centers, which have served more than 200,000 people.  We have also invested US$217 million in the education of primary school students through the “Juancito Pinto” bonds.  After one year of our administration, even the most conservative sectors recognize that unemployment has been reduced by at least two points and that sectors like construction, mining, and hydrocarbons are growing by more than ten percent.  This year we expect our economy will grow by at least five percent, above all, because we just inaugurated the National Housing Plan and a Production Development Bank which,    together, represent an injection of about US$150 million into the economy.[xiii]

Most important to note within this huge curriculum vitae is the external assistance Morales has received from Chávez and Castro, as well as the quoted “austerity measures,” which Morales implemented successfully.

Uniquely, the Bolivian socialist movement, especially in its earlier stages, was driven in large part by indigenous concerns.  Most of MAS’s initial electoral momentum came from the peasants in the countryside, who had been devastated by years of neoliberalism.  Morales, the country and region’s first full-blooded native leader, was himself a rural Aymara coca grower.  The cocaleros (growers of coca) have even been called MAS’s “vertebral column,” having “indianised” the politics of the nation to ensure that indigenous issues played a central role in the “diverse social movement organisations” that formed MAS.[xiv] Though this might appear intuitive for a country that is over 60 percent indigenous, in light of the long historical trends of disenfranchisement, oppression, and marginalization of Latin America’s indigenous populations, Morales’ election could be viewed similarly to the election of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Though its path has been illuminated by an inherent dependence on hydrocarbons throughout the economy, from exporting Bolivia’s natural gas to accepting aid funded by Venezuela’s petroleum, it seems that Bolivia is on the right path to progress. As Chávez continues to promote ALBA and further regional economic integration (naturally favoring the “pink” members), with GDP growing at an average rate of about 5 percent since Morales’s election,[xv] and with the continued support of other socialist countries in the hemisphere (and without intense opposition from the United States), Bolivia indeed seems to have made the most successful transition to socialism.

Ecuador: Finally Picking Up the Pieces?

Ecuador, like most Latin American countries, has had a chaotic political history.  Even after the beginning of serious political reforms in 1979, presidents were often elected under false pretenses, and even more often driven from power.  Only recently, with the election of Rafael Correa, has this pattern stalled; what remains to be seen, especially in light of the recent attempted coup, is if the pattern has ceased for good or if it is simply paused.

Correa’s first steps toward the banner of 21st century socialism were effective, though costly.  A “giant increase in public spending” has helped lower poverty, at the expense of a debt crisis.  Meanwhile, GDP growth has been modest but increasing, due in large part to oil exports.[xvi] The most significant aid to stave off economic crisis in Ecuador has come from gifts from Bolivia and Venezuela.  Dr. Roett even goes so far as to assert that “Ecuador has oil and some other exports, but no real development agenda regarding economic policy”.

With a fast-paced approach similar to Chilean Salvador Allende’s methods in the early 1970s, Correa has moved very quickly in his socioeconomic restructuring in order to maintain his popular support.  Of course, Correa has followed the ultra-plebiscitarian style, and he was elected with a strong mandate, neither of which appeared on Allende’s résumé, so the comparison, though popular, is limited.  Though it came with severe demonstrations from domestic opposition, Correa’s education reform has been highly lauded by most observers.  As part of this reform, the government will dismiss poor quality teachers, provide salary raises based on performance, and demand more stringent accountability across the educational board.[xvii] Funded with petrodollars, Correa has doubled welfare payments and the amounts of housing loans, subsidized electricity, and declared several “‘emergencies’ that start[ed] the money flowing with virtually no red tape…in ten sectors, ranging from education and health to the prison system.”  Correa has also created new plurastically-appealing cabinets, from the National Secretariat of the Migrant to the Secretariat of People, Social Movements, and Citizen Participation.[xviii]

In an almost direct response to Dr. Roett’s discrediting of Correa’s strategy for development, Catherine Conaghan explained that “the government in 2007 issued a comprehensive national-development plan” that “hiked taxes on foreign oil companies, raising the royalty tax on windfall profits from 50 percent to 99 percent” and “hounded bankers into lowering charges on banking transactions”.[xix] Of course, Dr. Roett’s opprobrium may still stand in terms of quality or effectiveness.  Like the other “petropopulists,” Correa’s biggest challenge was, until recently, to diversify the Ecuadorean economy and reduce its dependence on his pink allies.  Now, the so-called coup by Ecuador’s police forces illustrates the extreme popular backlash citizens can exhibit when they perceive threats to social benefits to which they had previously become accustomed.  Implementing necessary austerity measures without further encouraging revolt now dominates Correa’s agenda.

Cuba: Senior Socialist Trailblazer Saying ‘Out with the Old’?

There is no doubt that Cuba deserves mention in any analysis of socialism in the Western Hemisphere.  It is important to note, however, that the Cuban socialist revolution vastly preceded the 21st century socialism movement, and possesses some fundamental differences from it.  Indeed, when Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba, Hugo Chávez was less than five years of age.

The easiest place to begin in Cuba’s relevant history is the mid-twentieth century.  Though President Carlos Prío Socarrás “made Cuba a refuge of social democracy at mid-century,” corruption and disillusionment led to the formation of a party further to the left led by Eduardo Chibás and his “ardent admirer” Fidel Castro.  This party, the Cuban People’s Party-Ortodoxo (PPC-O) had as its pledges, e.g.: “nationalism, anti-imperialism, and socialism,” a State-central economy, limited private ownership, and a Cuban Institute of Social Security with socialized healthcare.[xx]

The electoral path in Cuba was blocked by the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, until he was overthrown by Castro’s eventually-successful July 26th Movement.  Defeated in large part by Castro’s populist appeal (a trait that continues to this day and has formed an oft-cited model for many later socialist revolutions), the Batista régime collapsed unreservedly, providing Castro with pristinely smooth sands from which to build his revolution.  Of course, those sands were still a part of the larger beach that was the Cold War, and much of Cuba’s policy was dictated by externalities from the Washington-Moscow standoff.  For instance, Castro originally appeared reluctant to embrace dogmatic Communism, though he later declared his Marxism-Leninism as a result of “a combination of will and circumstance,”[xxi] with ‘circumstance’ formed by Cuba’s forced dependence on the Soviet Union due to the United States’ rallied opposition.  It is in this area that Cuba differs in its historic ideology; Cuba often seemed little more than a puppet of the U.S.S.R., in contrast to the type of independent mutual aid promulgated, as will be described, by the 21st century socialists.  The Soviet Union (now replaced by Venezuela as Cuba’s chief benefactor) can be largely credited for keeping the Cuban revolution afloat during the many crises it has experienced through the years.  However, the United States should, at least in part, be blamed for continuing to pursue the embargo that has caused many of those crises.

The trials inflicted by these troubles never built up a large-scale (domestic) opposition to Castro.  Dr. Carlos Indacochea, professor at the George Washington University, points out that the often-ridiculed $25 wage in Cuba has a much higher relative value in the Cuban system than is intuitive. Additionally, Indacochea insists that things were much worse under Batista, so that the many challenges faced under Castro régime still appeared better alternatives to the Batista dictatorship.

Even within the matrix of Soviet political domination, Castro still brought many crucial social programs to the Cuban people.  Education has been his most significant success.  Illiteracy has been relegated to the past, and, though ideological, Cuba’s free education system has created a phenomenon that Dr. Indacochea calls the Cuban “rent-a-professional” system.  This scheme exports professionals to other countries with higher wage systems to earn remittances, and can also be seen clearly in the field of healthcare.  Not only is healthcare a right of the Cuban people, but medical training is a particular focus, leading, for instance, to Castro’s “We send doctors, not soldiers!” statement regarding the Haitian earthquake in early 2010.

Of course, the most ardent Fidelistas yet cannot deny sundry instances of human rights violations in Cuba.  For instance, Castro himself even recently apologized for the work camps to which many gay Cubans were initially sent.  As well, political dissidents are regularly exiled and imprisoned. It stands to reason that this repression would have occurred on a much larger scale if so many political opponents had not been allowed (or encouraged) to migrate to the United States and elsewhere.  Still, among most of the domestic Cuban population, Castro appears to remain hugely popular.

With the disappearance of the guaranteed support of the U.S.S.R., Fidel Castro’s revolution has started to reach the limits of its elasticity.  Once he ceded some power to his brother, Raúl Castro, he initiated limited economic changes designed to keep the Cuban model from collapsing.  Most recently, Havana dramatically announced the lay-off of 500,000 workers and the corresponding relaxation of private sector restrictions.  With so much changing in Cuba, it is difficult to predict the future of the island nation; indeed, even the United States Congress seems to be preparing to make the most radical change to U.S.-Cuban relations in 50 years by relaxing its travel ban and, possibly, its embargo.  As the Revolucionarios leave power in the context of all of these external changes in the hemisphere, what remains to be seen is how the new leaders of Cuba, with little collective memory of the Batista régime and more access to global information, continue to adapt (or perhaps reject) the traditional Cuban model.

ALBA: A New Dawn

Just as the pink tide movements have been backlashes against the woes wrought in Latin America by economic neoliberalism, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) is a response to the U.S.-backed free trade agreements it seeks to promulgate throughout the hemisphere.  It has been largely successful, though funded, of course, by Venezuela’s petroleum exports.

Fernando Ramon Bossi, organizational Secretary to the Bolivarian Peoples’ Congress, outlined “10 points to understand the ALBA”, available on ALBA’s website.[xxii] Among much standard populist rhetoric, Bossi did explain two key points.  ALBA is explicitly anti-capitalist, providing an opportunity for mutually beneficial aid with purportedly less strings attached than the U.S.’s austerity requirements.  Additionally (and not unrelated), ALBA is anti-imperialist, stressing the importance of national sovereignty.  In the interview for this piece, Venezuelan Ambassador Álvarez echoed this sentiment, making it clear that Venezuela seeks to help other nations develop their own version of socialism, not to export its own version to them.

Led by Chávez, ALBA seeks regional integration above all else.  The creation of PetroAmerica illustrates this best, “whose objective is that the state energy companies… undertake investment, exploitation and exploration of oil and natural gas jointly…”  ALBA has also instituted several exchange systems that dodge the “traditional centres of multinational and U.S. power and influence.”  For example, Venezuela has exchanged oil for agricultural products with Argentina, and, within ALBA, oil for healthcare professionals from Cuba.  Outside of the economic realm, ALBA also sponsors socially aimed efforts, the best example of which is Telesur, a “counter-hegemonic telecommunications project” that “aims to rival CNN and Fox.”[xxiii]

Naturally, the United States views ALBA as a significant thorn in its paw; it is left out of much of the region’s trade since ALBA serves as a tantalizing alternative (even originally called the Bolivarian Alternative) to free-trade agreements with the United States.[xxiv] Thus, from the U.S. and other forces, ALBA has met with significant opposition.  From trade agreement contests to allegations of modern U.S.-sponsored destabilization efforts to problems of economic competition amongst regional partners, ALBA faces large obstacles.[xxv] Nevertheless, it successfully navigated the economic crisis, in spite of fuel and raw materials prices falling.  ALBA seems to be progressing; most recently, Venezuela announced that it will import 12 thousand tons of poultry from Nicaragua in 2011,[xxvi] and Ecuador and Nicaragua have announced that they will sign a trade agreement in November of this year.[xxvii]

Conclusion: Where Will the Century Lead?

The populist, plebiscitarian leaders that form the 21st century socialists certainly believe that their revolution will sweep the hemisphere.  That belief will only be validated or repudiated with time.  Several nations continue or have begun to elect more rightist governments, like Piñera in Chile, Santos in Colombia, and Calderón in Mexico.  As noted, some critics, like Dr. Indacochea, even question whether the ‘pink tide’ is socialist at all, naming it instead simple anti-imperialist rhetoric.  Though this argument can be largely reduced to semantics (and it is clearly not the objective of this work to enter that debate), if one accepts socialism as a system in which the state controls the primary means of production, in these cases usually hydrocarbons, in order to administer sweeping social programs, the 21st century socialist movement is indeed “socialist.”

All of the countries analyzed here are undergoing significant changes and, due in part to the often distasteful methods used in their political transitions, many of the 21st century socialists face strong domestic opposition.  Despite the immense social successes this movement has brought to its constituent nations, the future remains somewhat unclear.  Are these changes sustainable, or will the systems collapse under their costs?  Are the benefits achieved so tangible as to satisfy the majorities, or will the respective electorates tire of sacrifices and unfulfilled promises?  Will this movement continue to be a progression, or will it fade into domestic counter-movements?  While only time will tell, the new day heralded by ALBA and the socialists of the 21st century seems, though admittedly hazy, nevertheless bright and promising.

References for this work available here