Contrasting Perspectives on Latin America

By Rodrigo Acuña

September-October 2013

Canadian Dimension

With the recent protests in Brazil over a number of social grievances leading up to 2014 FIFA World Cup, and the NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden possibly making his way to Ecuador or Venezuela so as to seek asylum, Latin America has recently captured global media attention. In Brazil, as protestors originally took to the streets over a 20-cent hike in public transport fares, reporting by some of the major corporate media has often been surprisingly sympathetic to protestors.    

In the June 19 New York Times Simon Romero wrote that, given some of the Workers’ Party’s (PT) success in raising living standards, and doubling the number of university students from 2000 to 2011, expectations among Brazilians remained high and were not being met. In the June 22 issue of the Economist, a long-time champion of neoliberal economics, an article noted how “Brazilians pay taxes at rich-world rates (36% of GDP) and get terrible public services in return.” The piece observed that for a minimum-wage worker in São Paulo, whose employer does not cover transport costs as is required by law of formal employees, he or she must spend a fifth of their pay to get to work on public transport.

Commenting that Dilma Rousseff’s government has been “put on notice”, the Economist concluded: “In the past decade 40m Brazilians have escaped absolute poverty. Most are still only one payday from disaster, and will fight tooth and nail not to fall back. They see further gains in living standards as a right. The marches are a sign that they are waking up to the fact that they pay taxes and deserve decent public services, not just shiny stadiums.”  

Such analysis by the Economist is of course some-what hypocritical given its past praise of the PT’s adherence to market discipline while criticizing the more leftist governments in the region who are attempting to restructure the balance between corporate power, the state and U.S. interventionism. In Bolivia earlier this year, Hydrocarbons Minister Juan Jose claimed that, after the government of Evo Morales nationalised seven oil companies in 2006, the state has now obtained $16 billion in revenues. Mainstream media reporting of course rarely cover these developments as maintaining a laissez-faire environment for foreign investment is almost a standard prerequisite to obtaining favourable media coverage.

In the UK, although the Guardian often provides insightful reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean, when it came to the late socialist president Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, it often failed. Rory Carroll ― the Guardian’s Caracas-based foreign correspondent from 2006 until 2012 ― is a case in point.

In his book Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, published earlier this year by Penguin Press, Carroll had much to say on the eccentricities of Latin America’s outspoken leftist leader. Claiming that Chávez reviewed television footage after every broadcast of his weekly show Aló Presidente, he argues that while the former military colonel seemed to genuinely care for the country’s poor, over all his policies were a failure. The forty-nine laws established in 2001 for example, aimed to carry out land reform and increase taxes on foreign oil companies from 1 to 16 per cent, are described by Carroll as not being “truly radical” and drafted in a secret manner which upset big business.  

While Carroll has numerous interesting anecdotes to share based on his years of working in Venezuela, and discusses issues such as corruption within the government, and the inability of some observers on the Left to examine this in detail, his almost complete failure to give Chávez any credit for reducing poverty is noticeable.

Worse, as was observed in a petition to the Guardian signed by numerous experts on Latin America in late 2011, since 2001 hundreds of peasant activists have been killed by gunmen hired by large land owners. In their view: “[t]he Guardian's Caracas-based correspondent, Rory Carroll, reported none of this and has disregarded this grave human rights issue for years” ― a point which is again evident in his book.

A more sober analysis of Venezuela, and countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and Cuba, can be found in Roger Burbach, Michael Fox, and Federico Fuentes’ book Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism available by Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books. With backgrounds in the alternative press and academia, these authors place their focus on the different political trajectories the leftist governments in the region are following in what many of them label as ‘socialism for the twenty-first century.’

In Venezuela, the authors note that the Chávez administration from 1999 did much to reduce poverty, as was noted in 2005 when UNESCO declared the country free of illiteracy. Citing another study from the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research, the authors also observe that from 1999 to 2007 the amount of primary care physicians in the public sector increased more than twelve times, from 1,628 to 19,571, “providing healthcare to millions of poor Venezuelans who previously had no access.” Other aspects of the Venezuelan political process are also discussed in this book, such as the struggle between community participation and the state’s growing and often corrupt bureaucracy.

Moving on to Ecuador, the authors argue that while president Rafael Correa has managed to reduced urban poverty by 17 percent, he has also come into conflict with some social movements given his inclination to open up sectors of the country to the mining industry. In Cuba, where a pro-Soviet model of socialism was promoted from the 1960s, Burbach, Fox and Fuentes contend that the state is looking to loosen restrictions on small businesses but, after opposition from unions and local party officials, the plan to lay off half a million workers was put on hold as the private economy does not have the conditions to absorb this new work force.  

When discussing Brazil, the authors highlight that due to the constraints of market forces, the PT domestically has been much more conservative than its socialist counterparts throughout the region. They write that, four months prior to Lula da Silva’s presidential victory in 2002, “[f]inancier George Soros cautioned that a Lula win would plunge Brazil into economic ‘chaos’, and the corporate media warned of rising inflation.” As a consequence of this pressure, Lula publically promised not to stray away from market economics. He then moved to promote large national private businesses which then further spread their tentacles throughout the region.

Although historically the PT promoted participatory councils and popular budgets, which were implemented in over 100 municipalities throughout the country, Burbach, Fox and Fuentes contend that, once in office, Lula decided not to pursue this avenue on a national scale as Chávez did in Venezuela.

After 2007 though, as internal dissent grew, the party saw an internal shift as its original concept of socialism again resurfaced as one of the PT’s central themes. Also, while the PT has been less bold on national issues, in foreign policy it has displayed greater independence which has worked in favour of Venezuela against the full wrath of Washington. The authors write that for the Left in the region: “Brazil under the PT has played a pivotal role in standing up to U.S. hegemony, integrating the region, and supporting the more radical governments in their push for ‘twenty-first-century socialism’.”

In the coming year, media interest in Brazil and South America will remain high due to the multimillion-dollar football extravaganza of the 2014 World Cup. If protests continue, the serious social issues throughout the country may also draw press attention. For those interested in understanding the deeper dynamics of the region though, and the diversity of political paths currently being chosen by various countries, looking at the pages of the alternative press, and works like Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions, should provide several insights.   

* This article is a slightly extended version of a piece which originally appeared in the magazine Canadian Dimension, Volume 47, No. 5.

Posted on October 14, 2013 .