Cracks in the Bloc: Why the Latin American Left Should Remember 1989
Platypus Review 130 | October 2020
A CERTAIN CHANGE CAN BE SENSED in Latin America’s remaining bastions of left-wing rule. The once popular governments of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—together with their charismatic and populist leaders—have been forced to the defensive as widespread protests show signs of disillusionment with unfulfilled promises of prosperity and change. The five principal members of the intergovernmental bloc known as ALBA, or the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, once constituted the most overt challenge to United States hegemony in Latin America and presented the only viable alternative to the post-Cold War geopolitical order in the region. Today, however, what once seemed to be a solid and solidary political bloc is now showing cracks, as popular discontent erodes the legitimacy on which the alliance was initially founded. In many ways, the protests that shook the ALBA bloc in 2019 were reminiscent of the revolutions that swept across the Eastern bloc in 1989, marking the beginning of the end for both the Soviet Union and the global communist movement.
While the disintegration of the Soviet Union may have been considered the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century by the likes of Vladimir Putin, for the United States it represented the triumph of neoliberal economics over socialist planning and the prevalence of Western liberal democracy over Eastern authoritarianism. Suddenly the sole hegemon in a unipolar world order, the United States found itself with a free hand to exert its influence across the globe. Nowhere was this influence felt more directly than in Latin America, where the undisputed dominance of the United States—as claimed by the Monroe Doctrine of 1823—had once again become a geopolitical reality. In this region, the end of the Cold War spelled the end for both the military juntas and the revolutionary insurgencies that had become so closely associated with Latin America’s political landscape. The Castro regime’s struggle to keep Cuba from complete economic collapse throughout the 1990s eliminated any real or symbolic threat that Havana might have posed to United States hegemony. The ongoing conflict between FARC rebels and the Colombian government continued to be a regional concern, but much more for fear of the group’s involvement in the international drug trade than for its aspirations to continue the communist struggle. For a decade it seemed that the United States would succeed in recreating Latin America in its own image: liberal, democratic, and capitalist. However, in 1999, when many former Eastern bloc countries were debating accession to the European Union, Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela.
Pink Tide Rising
Considering the global consequences of the Eastern bloc revolutions of 1989, the rise of socialist Hugo Chavez to the presidency of oil-rich Venezuela just a decade later was a curious and eye-opening phenomenon. What was perhaps even more sobering to observers in Washington was the effect that Chavez’s larger-than-life persona would have on the region. The historic election that brought Chavez to power inspired a tidal wave of like-minded left-wing populists across Latin America, all of whom shared Chavez’s frustration with what seemed like a return to Yankee imperialism at the end of the Cold War era. The subsequent “pink tide”, as it had come to be called, saw the electoral success of center-left, social-democratic candidates across Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2004, the Cuba–Venezuela Agreement was signed to ensure continued Cuban access to subsidized Venezuelan petroleum in exchange for the development of Venezuela’s healthcare system by tens of thousands of Cuban medical workers. The agreement also laid the foundation for what was originally called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America, only to be renamed the Bolivarian “alliance” after the addition of three subsequent members.
In 2006, the group grew beyond the Cuban–Venezuelan partnership when newly elected President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state, joined the ALBA bloc. In 2007, Daniel Ortega, the leader of Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution and ruler of the country from its victory in 1979 to 1990, returned to power in the recent presidential elections and joined the bloc as well. In 2009, the election of President Rafael Correa in Ecuador resulted in a further addition to what was becoming a significant regional alliance. While these five countries formed the political backbone and economic muscle of ALBA, membership was also extended to a number of smaller Caribbean island states, notably Grenada, which was the target of a United States military intervention in 1983 following its attempted turn to communism under the New Jewel Movement.
Development and Defiance
The alliance’s initiatives have ranged from culture to economics and international diplomacy, all in defiance of the United States’ claims to hegemony in these areas. Between 2005 and 2011, a multi-sport event known as the ALBA Games was organized every two years among the member states. The satellite television network Telesur was launched to promote media broadcasting between the ALBA members and Uruguay. A common virtual currency known as the SUCRE was introduced to facilitate trade between members of the bloc. In the cases of Ecuador and Venezuela, this common currency was particularly important, as the Chavez government had greatly restricted the use of the United States dollar, which still stands as the official currency of Ecuador. In addition to a common currency, the oil treaty known as Petrocaribe was established first for the benefit of ALBA members and later expanded to other Caribbean states, creating a considerable regional market for the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA.
While these developments proved successful in creating an alternative to dependency on trade with the United States and have done much to stimulate a sense of solidarity in the region, it is difficult to say that they have proven effective in undermining United States hegemony in Latin America. Rather, the challenge to United States hegemony has been mostly symbolic. ALBA has granted both Syria and Iran special observer status to the bloc, and several ALBA countries established close bilateral relations with Iran during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. China has also been an important partner for ALBA, offering its own launch sites to send Venezuelan communications satellites into space.1 In 2012, the Ecuadorian embassy in London granted asylum to the Australian whistleblower Julian Assange, whose website WikiLeaks was the target of a criminal investigation by the United States government. Moreover, when attending the 2013 summit of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) in Moscow, Morales declared in an RT television interview that Bolivia was similarly prepared to offer asylum to the United States whistleblower Edward Snowden, who had recently fled to Russia.2 The next year, Putin embarked on a tour of state visits across Latin America, beginning with Russia’s old client Cuba, where he generously proposed to write off $32 billion of the country’s pending debts.3
Cracks in the Bloc
Through cooperation and solidarity, the ALBA countries managed to consolidate what has effectively been the only alternative model to United States dominance in Latin America since the end of the Cold War. By doing so democratically—at least from the outset—they proved that ideology remained a powerful force in politics and that years of United States intervention would neither be quickly forgotten nor easily forgiven. Despite all the initial developments, however, growing discontent within the bloc reveals that what began as a popular revolution has fallen short of delivering on many of its initial promises. In economic terms, the ALBA countries still present levels of inequality and corruption that are contradictory to the ideals of state-managed socialism. In political terms, restrictions imposed on the press and other key tenets of civil society have only added fuel to the fire with respect to citizens’ perceptions of the ALBA regimes. After two decades, it seems as though the region’s once-solidary pink tide has been stirred by a wave of unrest and dissatisfaction with the status quo.
After his third term in office, Correa was succeeded by his vice-president Lenin Moreno, who was quick to distance himself from many of his predecessor’s leftist policy positions. In 2018, Moreno held a referendum on constitutional reform and formally withdrew Ecuador from the ALBA bloc. Nevertheless, his proposed cancelation of fuel subsidies and introduction of austerity measures resulted in mass protests in October 2019, with many demonstrators calling for his resignation. Ortega has been under even greater ongoing pressure to resign after his unpopular reform of the social security system and controversy surrounding the construction of a Chinese-funded canal across Nicaragua set off a series of protests that have resulted in hundreds dead and many more injured. In Cuba, however, the Castro regime has managed to avoid such unrest by agreeing to a referendum on constitutional reform in February 2019. In the vote, nearly 90 percent of Cubans decided to take a definitive step away from the old economic model in favor of a constitution that legally recognizes both private property and foreign investment.4 While these reforms were passed pacifically, the hardline stance of Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro has resulted in months of mass demonstrations against his regime, plunging Venezuela into a state of prolonged turmoil and instability. Finally, in Bolivia, Morales’ claims of victory in the October 2019 general elections were met with widespread riots amid accusations of electoral fraud. Unlike in Venezuela, the protesters finally received support from military and police forces, which successfully pressured Morales and his government to resign. The governments of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela all issued official statements condemning what they considered to be a coup. The interim government of Bolivia responded by withdrawing the country from ALBA.
The Future of the Latin American Left
Today, it is still uncertain what the future holds for the remaining regimes of the ALBA bloc. While the upheavals of 1989 that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and finally the collapse of the Eastern bloc were shockingly sudden and decisive, it is likely that the case of ALBA will be quite different. If 2019 was any indication, then the next decade may be one of gradual erosion rather than one of decisive collapse. Such a development would leave Latin America and, effectively, the whole of the Western Hemisphere with no alternative to absolute United States hegemony.
If this scenario is to be avoided, then the remaining leaders of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America must regain the popular support and confidence that first brought them to power. In order to achieve this, the vanguard of the bloc should be more Bolivarian and, following the example of Simon Bolivar himself, prioritize completing its popular revolution over clinging to positions of authority and creating cults of personality. Moreover, the bloc should return to the project of constructing an Alliance by improving its image on the international stage in order to prevent future defections and expand its membership throughout the region. Finally, and most importantly, the bloc should once again become a project of all the Peoples that take part in the struggle of improving day-to-day conditions and developing a better society in which to work and live. If these steps are not taken, then the historical mistakes made in the Eastern bloc may come to haunt what remains of the Left in Latin America. But while the relatively recent history of Eastern Europe serves as an omen, the future of Latin America still remains unwritten. |P
1. Sean Kelly, “This Is How China Is Slowly Creeping into Latin America,” The National Interest (December 2017), available online at https://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-china-slowly-creeping-latin-america-23843.
2. RT, “President Evo Morales to RT: Bolivia to Consider Snowden Asylum Request If Submitted,” RT, (July 2013), available online at https://www.rt.com/news/morales-bolivia-asylum-snowden-534/.
3. Polly Mosendz, “Putin Writes off $32 Billion of Cuba’s Debts to Russia,” The Atlantic, (July 2014), available online at https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/07/russia-writes-off-32-billion-in-cuban-debt/374284/.
4. Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta, “Cubans Overwhelmingly Ratify New Socialist Constitution,” Reuters, (February 2019), available online at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cuba-constitution-referendum/cubans-overwhelmingly-ratify-new-socialist-constitution-idUSKCN1QE22Y.