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I. Latin America

Typology of Latin American Governments

I mentioned that, in the last ten years, progressive and left sectors have been winning more and more governments in the region. Various analysts have made an effort to classify governments by drawing up different typologies. We can initially distinguish two large blocs: right, or conservative, governments that seek to retrofit neoliberalism, and governments that define themselves as “on the left” or “center-left” and are looking for alternatives to neoliberalism.

Governments in the first group, which want to retrofit neoliberalism, endeavor to implement a series of reforms “which make it possible to take the transnationalization and denationalization of their economies a step further, by increasing the incentives to big capital and continuing to regressively redistribute income.”35 They are the governments that implement what Roberto Regalado has referred to as “neoliberal reforms.”36 The governments of Colombia, Mexico, and most of Central America fall into this first group.

Governments Seeking Alternatives to Neoliberalism

The left or center-left governments in the second group are elected because they present platforms that offer an alternative to neoliberalism. Even though they are very different from one another, these governments have at least four identical planks in their platforms: the struggle for social equality, political democratization, national sovereignty, and regional integration. The governments have, in turn, been classified into two groups.

The first subgroup contains governments that seek to balance liberalism with progressive social policies, for example, the governments of Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay. They are those that Jorge Castañeda, former Foreign Minister of Mexico, has referred to as part of the “good left.” Aram Aharonian characterizes them as governments “with post-neoliberal, developmentalist policies, which, without breaking with neoliberal developmentalist policies, place a fresh emphasis both on the social sphere and on production policies which promote productive domestic capitalism.” According to Regalado, these governments implement reforms that “try to alleviate the economic, political, and social contradictions of today’s capitalism without breaking with the system.”37

Governments Breaking with Neoliberal Policies

The second group contains governments that want to break with neoliberal policies, leading some analysts to classify them as anti-imperialist. They include the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, which adopt measures of social and economic protectionism against the United States and which Castañeda characterizes as part of the “bad left.” Aharonian describes them as “governments based on social and popular mobilization that have an express desire to change, are in favor of a break with neoliberal policies, and have a new understanding of the economy, of regional integration, and of integration of the peoples.”38 According to Regalado, these governments implement “reforms whose strategic direction and intent are anti-capitalist,” and are, therefore, reforms that might lead to revolution.39 James Petras, an American intellectual renowned for his radical views, considers these latter governments part of a “pragmatic” left,40 and contrasts them with groups he calls “the radical left,” which includes the FARC.41

“Left” Governments Facing Objective Limitations

Henceforth, to refer to that group of governments that wins elections by raising anti-neoliberal banners, we shall speak of the “left,” in quotation marks. We leave to the reader the task of classifying them according to the series of criteria which we list below.

However, before continuing, I shall specify what I mean by the left. In the 1960s, there was a tendency to define the left not so much by the goal it was pursuing, as by the means it used to reach that goal. The implicit goal was socialism, the means were the armed struggle or the institutional struggle, and the left was branded revolutionary or reformist, according to which method it used. In the 1990s, the term “new left” was sometimes used to refer to the left that had abandoned the armed struggle and joined the institutional struggle. At other times, this term was applied to the “social left,” which is made up of a large number of diverse subjects, such as indigenous peoples, women, environmentalists, and human rights activists.42

I would like to suggest a stricter definition that is derived from the goal pursued. If we adopt such a definition, we have to ask if the objective is to give capitalism a facelift by making it more humane or if the goal is to build a society to replace capitalism. So I give the label “left” to the forces that struggle to build a society that is an alternative to the exploitative capitalist system and its logic of profit, a society of workers organized by a humanist- and solidarity-based logic whose aim is to satisfy human needs; a society free from material poverty and from the spiritual poverty that capitalism engenders; and a society that does not issue decrees from above but rather builds from below, with the people as protagonists. In other words, a socialist society.43

These forces, therefore, will not be characterized solely by a struggle for equality that manifests itself in a war on poverty—although this may be one of their most distinctive features—but also by their rejection of an aberrant societal model based on exploitation and the logic of profit: the capitalist model. I should add, nevertheless, something more. I fully agree with the Uruguayan researcher Beatriz Stolowicz who maintains: “One is not left just because one says one is, but one is left because of what one does to achieve these necessary transformations and constructions. That is how one comes to be left.”44

But why is it so necessary to use the criterion of practice to decide who is on the left? Because—as I wrote in 1999 in The Left on the Threshold of the Twenty First Century: Making the Impossible Possible—the right has unscrupulously appropriated the left’s language, which is particularly obvious in the way it formulates its programs.45

Words like “reforms,” “structural changes,” “concern over poverty,” and “transition” are today part of the right’s anti-human and oppressive language. As Franz Hinkelammert says, “The key words of the opposition popular movements of the 1950s and 1960s have been transformed into the key words of those who ruthlessly destroyed them.”46 He goes on to say, “The night, when all cats are grey, falls. Everyone is against privilege; all want reforms and a structural change. Everyone is in favor of a preferential option for the poor.”47

Today—in the midst of the crisis of neoliberalism—this appropriation of the left’s language has reached the point where even capitalists have adopted the left’s criticism of neoliberalism. The role of the market has begun to be challenged; there is talk of the need for the regulatory power of the state.

We have to acknowledge that, as Beatriz Stolowicz says, “In the sphere of discourse, capitalist strategies are not dogmatic, they change their arguments, they criticize what they used to propose when the negative effects of this cannot be hidden and could generate political problems.” To win over adepts, “they show solidarity with the discontent over globalization” (as Joseph Stiglitz called it). They join in the anti-globalization zeal, using the adjective “neoliberal” to qualify it—neoliberal globalization—because of the decisive weight of finance capital as it continues to cause convulsions. Thus, “neoliberalism” is now simply speculation, and the latter is blamed on the irresponsibility of “bad executives,” thus protecting the credibility of capital. The suggestion began to be raised that neoliberalism must be overcome by counteracting financial speculation with more productive investment. Capitalism thus presents itself as a kind of “neo-developmentalism,” and is against both laissez-faire economics and populism.48

Electoral Victories, but Less Room to Move

Returning to the subject of our governments, it seems to me important to briefly examine the situation existing when they were elected—that is to say, the reality they have to deal with. In this way, we can evaluate their performance as objectively as possible. When analyzing the balance of forces in the subcontinent, I mentioned the Pentagon’s efforts to retain military control over the region by trying to reverse the process that is taking place there. I should like to point out two other elements that are important for a better understanding of the context in which these governments have to operate.

It is obvious that the new heads of government have had less room to maneuver in recent decades, than in the earlier period. Paradoxically, the fact that the population eligible to vote has increased enormously in recent decades and electoral fraud has become more and more difficult to pull off (which, therefore, makes it more possible for left candidates to be elected), has not led to an expansion of the democratic system.49 The problem is that most important decisions are not made by parliaments or elected presidents, but by bodies they cannot control: large international financial institutions (the IMF and World Bank), autonomous central banks, big transnational corporations, and national security bodies. And then there is the role played by the media, which are concentrated in the hands of large economic groups.50

Opposition-Controlled Media

I remind you of what Noam Chomsky has said about the role these media play: they are instruments to “manufacture consent,” which make it possible to “shepherd the bewildered herd.” According to Chomsky, propaganda is as necessary to bourgeois democracy as repression is to the totalitarian state.51 Therefore, bourgeois political parties can even accept a defeat at the polls as long as they continue to control most of the mass media. The media, from the moment of such a defeat, work to win back the hearts and minds of those who made the “mistake” of electing a leftist head of government. That is the reason why visceral reactions, such as those we have seen in a number of countries, follow any measure taken by left governments to censure the media’s disinformation campaigns and efforts to incite violence, or to create legal instruments that protect the people’s right to receive accurate information. The powerful international media echo these reactions. For today’s political battles are not won with atomic bombs but with “media bombs.”

An example of these media bombs is the campaign to make people think that Venezuela is engaged in an arms race that threatens the region. Allusion to Venezuela’s recent weapons purchase from Russia buttresses the allegation. However, if CIA data are consulted, it is clear that the situation is completely different. Using these data, Belgian economist Eric Toussaint reports:

Venezuelan military spending is the sixth highest in the region behind that of Brazil, Argentina, Chile (a country with a much smaller population than Venezuela’s and considered to be a “model country”), Colombia, and Mexico. In relative terms, comparing military spending to GDP, the Venezuelan military budget is the ninth largest in Latin America. Have people been able to read this in the most important international papers? Absolutely not. What was reported in August 2009 is that Sweden had asked Venezuelan officials to respond to a Colombian allegation that Venezuela was supplying arms to the FARC, and that Sweden had in effect told Colombia that SAAB missiles found in a FARC camp had been supplied by Sweden to Venezuela. However, was anyone able to find an article reporting the detailed and concise reply given by Hugo Chávez? The missiles in question had been stolen from a Venezuelan port in 1995, four years before Chávez took over the presidency.52

It would seem that today the election of left candidates is better tolerated because these have fewer and fewer real possibilities of modifying the existing situation.

Analyzing the Balance of Forces

I think that we must be careful when the time comes to judge “left” governments in the region. If we are to judge them by what they do, we must be very clear about what they cannot do, not through lack of will but because of objective limitations. And to do that, we have to begin with a correct analysis of the inherited economic structure, of the economic situation in which these governments find themselves, and of the balance of forces—national and international—facing them. This is something that the most radical left sectors, which demand that their governments take more drastic measures, often don’t take into account. They give Venezuela as an example of a government that should take more drastic measures because it has an extremely favorable economic situation; in fact, in all of human history, there has probably never been a revolutionary process with such a favorable economic situation.

Here, I share the opinion of Valter Pomar [head of international affairs for the Brazilian Workers Party (PT)]. Pomar maintains that the existing situation could oblige a revolutionary government to adopt capitalist measures, but that these measures take on a different strategic meaning if a capitalist or socialist government adopts them.53 All we have to do is look at the situation in each country and analyze the balance of forces, and then we will be able to understand what these governments can and cannot do.

Let us think for a moment about the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in Brazil. As the candidate of the PT, Lula won the presidential election in 2002 with even more support than Chávez garnered in 1998. However, we should not forget that this came about because of a policy of cultivating the kind of broad alliances needed to win at the polls and to govern the country. We must remember that his party had, and still has, a minority in both houses of the legislature. Although the PT still controls a significant number of town governments and important state governorships, it is in the minority provincially and municipally, as well at the national level. To all of this must be added the fact that Brazil depends to a much greater degree on international finance capital than does Venezuela, which has huge oil revenues. Moreover, Lula doesn’t have the same kind of support from the armed forces as Chávez. (The latter defines his revolutionary process as peaceful but armed.) This is why I agree with Pomar, that the balance of forces, institutional mechanisms, and economic circumstances that would allow the Brazilian government to operate in a manner similar to that of the Venezuelan government do not exist.54 Pomar does, however, acknowledge that Lula’s government could do more than it does.

If we keep in mind all the factors we have mentioned above, rather than classifying Latin American governments according to some kind of typology as many analysts have done, what we should do is try to evaluate their performance by keeping in mind the balance of forces with which they have to operate. Therefore, we should not look as much at the pace with which they proceed as the direction in which they are going.55 The pace, to a large extent, depends on how these governments deal with the obstacles found in their path.


  1. Aharonian, “Latin America Today.”
  2. Roberto Regalado, “Es necesario construir una hegemonía popular,” an interview on the website of Amigos de Vive TV, October 19, 2009.
  3. Ibid.; Beatriz Stolowicz defines them as post-liberal reforms. I recommend her excellent article “El debate actual: posliberalismo o anticapitalismo,” in America Latina hoy ¿reforma or revolución?, 65-101. In this article, Stolowicz exposes what lies behind these reforms.
  4. Aharonian, “Latin America Today.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. The “pragmatic left” includes President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Fidel Castro in Cuba; a multitude of big electoral parties, the main unions and peasant associations in Central and South America; the left electoral parties, the PRD in Mexico, the FMLN in El Salvador, the electoral left and the workers’ confederation in Colombia, the Chilean Communist Party, a majority of Humala, a Peruvian nationalist parliamentary party, some of the leaders of the MST in Brazil, the MAS in Bolivia, the CTA in Argentina, and a minority of the Frente Amplio and the workers’ federation in Uruguay. Also included are the great majority of Latin American left-wing intellectuals. This bloc is called “pragmatic” because it has not called for the expropriation of capital nor for the rejection of the debt, nor for any kind of break in relations with the United States. See James Petras, “Latin America: Four Competing Blocs of Power,” March 2007,
  7. The “radical left” includes the FARC in Colombia, some factions in the unions, peasant and neighborhood movements in Venezuela; the workers’ federation, Conlutas, and some factions of the Landless Movement in Brazil; parts of the Bolivian Workers’ Federation, the peasant movements, and the neighborhood organizations in El Alto; parts of the peasant-indigenous movement of the Conaie in Ecuador; the teachers’ and indigenous, peasant movements in Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Chiapas, Mexico; factions of the nationalist peasant left in Peru; sectors of the unions and the unemployed in Argentina. It is a heterodox political bloc, diverse and fundamentally anti-imperialist, which rejects any concessions to neoliberal policies, is against paying the foreign debt, and in general supports a socialist or radical, nationalist program. See Petras, “Latin America: Four Competing Blocs of Power.”
  8. See note 24 in Stolowicz, “El debate actual: posliberalismo o anticapitalismo,” 99.
  9. Harnecker, Rebuilding the Left, paragraphs 117-21.
  10. Beatriz Stolowicz, Gobiernos de izquierda en América Latina. Un balance político (Bogotá: Ediciones Aurora, 2007), 15.
  11. We take up this idea again in Rebuilding the Left, 45.
  12. Franz Hinkelammert, La lógica de la exclusión del mercado capitalista mundial y el proyecto de liberación (Costa Rica: DEI Publishers, 1995), 145.
  13. Ibid., 147.
  14. Beatriz Stolowicz, Gobiernos de izquierda en América Latina, 89-90.
  15. The democratic regimes that arose after the dictatorships in the Southern Cone and then expanded throughout the subcontinent are what some authors have called “restricted or wardship” democracies. See Franz Hinkelammert, “Nuestro proyecto de nueva sociedad en América Latina: el papel regulador del estado y los problemas de autorregulación del mercado” (“Our Project for a New Society in Latin America: the Regulatory Role of the State and the Problems of Market Self-regulation”), PASOS, No. 33 (1991).
  16. For a broader discussion of this subject, see Marta Harnecker, La Izquierda en el umbral del Siglo XXI: Haciendo posible el imposible (Madrid: Siglo XXI de España editores, 2000), 183-90.
  17. See Noam Chomsky, Como nos venden la moto (Barcelona: Icaria Editorial, 1996), 16. The term “the manufacture of consent” was coined by Walter Lippmann in his Public Opinion (London: Allen and Unwin, 1932). Chomsky, with Edward S. Herman, has also published a book with the title Manufacturing Consent.
  18. Toussaint, “La roue de l’histoire tourne au Venezuela, en Équateur et en Bolivie.”
  19. Valter Pomar, Las diferentes estrategias de la izquierda latinoamericana (Mexico: Ocean Sur, 2009), 246.
  20. Valter Pomar, “La línea del Ecuador,” December 3, 2008,
  21. Michael Lebowitz, “Venezuela: a Good Example of the Bad Left,” June 1, 2009, Monthly Review 59, no. 3 (July-August, 2007) 38-54.
2010, Volume 62, Issue 03 (July-August)
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