Chris Harman


South America’s New Revolt

(July 2004)

From Socialist Review, No.287, July/August 2004.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Che Guevara’s vision of continental revolution is being revived, argues Chris Harman, but political leadership remains essential

Nearly four decades after the murder of Che Guevara, a new ferment of revolt is beginning to spread across South America. Three governments have been driven out in three years – in Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia – by spontaneous uprisings. In Peru the Toledo government that took office after the fall of the Fujimori near-dictatorship is being shaken by recurrent rebellion against its economic policies. In Brazil discontent with the policies of the Workers Party government of Lula elected just 20 months ago is giving birth to new left currents. And in Venezuela the intense political polarisation of the whole country after the two failed attempts to overthrow the government of Hugo Chavez seems likely to come to a head in the next few weeks.

This new ferment is barely four years old. The previous 20 years were bitter indeed for the left through most of South America. A series of military coups had devastated the workers’ movement – in Brazil in 1964, in Uruguay and Chile in 1973, in Argentina in 1976, in Bolivia in 1980 – and returns to civilian rule in the course of the 1980s did little to repair the damage. There were workers’ struggles but they were defensive, as economic crisis and industrial restructuring took their toll. This was often called ‘the lost decade’, when 40 years of intermittent economic growth came to an end with an enormous debt crisis.

The 1990s were not much better. Ruling classes and their advisers everywhere came to the conclusion that renewed ‘development’ was only possible by replacing old policies centred around state intervention by a turn towards neoliberalism. As they privatised, deregulated and dismantled welfare programmes, foreign capital flooded to buy up privatised services – and domestic capital flooded out, seeking security in foreign banks and profits on foreign stock exchanges. Meanwhile, restructuring of industry destroyed swathes of jobs, even before the Asian economic crisis of 1997 hit the continent, creating another downward recession cycle. As governments pushed through still more neoliberal packages and wide sections of the population found already meagre living standards reduced still further, a new discontent began to build up, scarcely noticed, at the base of society.


The first explosion of this discontent was in Ecuador in January 2000. Thousands of people organised by the indigenous peoples’ movement, Pachakutik, converged on the capital, Quito. Soldiers guarding the parliament building, instead of repelling them, allowed them in and, as President Jamil Mahuad fled, an army officer, Lucio Gutiérrez, joined with one of the indigenous leaders and a high court judge to establish a revolutionary junta.

The uprising was a reaction to economic policies which had impoverished wide sections of the population. Economic output had shrunk by over 7 percent in the previous year, and inflation had rocketed to 60 percent. Mahuad, a Harvard-trained economist, had responded by pushing through further austerity measures. A key plank of the government plan was to replace the country’s currency, the sucre, by the US dollar.

The victory of the uprising did not last long. Within hours military chiefs had replaced the junta and installed a new government under Mahuad’s vice-president, another neoliberal, Gustavo Noboa. But protests continued for the next three years, with another near-insurrection involving armed clashes in February 2001, and repeated strikes and blockages of roads until finally, at the end of 2002, the neoliberals were defeated in the presidential elections by a coalition headed by Gutiérrez and backed by the indigenous alliance.


The Argentinazo uprising of 19-20 December 2001 was a spontaneous coming together of all the different groups hit by an economic crisis comparable in depth to that which hit the advanced industrial countries in the 1930s. The Radical Party government of president De La Rua effectively confiscated the savings of the middle and working classes by freezing all bank accounts, cut the salaries and pensions of public sector workers, and then declared a state of siege after unemployed crowds looted the big supermarkets. People from the white collar and lower middle class neighbourhoods of inner Buenos Aires poured into the city centre to join unemployed manual workers in besieging the presidential palace. After two days of bloody clashes with the police – and around 30 deaths – De La Rua fled in a helicopter.

It was four weeks, and four presidents, later before a veteran Peronist politician, Duhalde, was able to form a half-stable government, and 18 months later before elections produced a formally legitimate president. Even then, the government had to buy time for itself by repeatedly deferring a final agreement over debt repayments with the IMF, and did not dare carry out sustained repression against the unemployed piqueteros in the capital (it was forced to beat a sharp retreat in the summer of 2002 when its one attempt to do so led to a huge popular backlash).


The turn of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, president of Bolivia, to flee by helicopter came in October 2003 when thousands of miners armed with gelignite joined with peasants, indigenous organisations and workers from the huge suburb of El Alto to take over the centre of the country’s capital, La Paz.

The first stirring of revolt in Bolivia had been provoked in 2000 by the privatisation of water in the Cochabamba region. A series of protests eventually forced the government – led at the time by President Banzer, a former military dictator – to rescind the privatisation. Wave after wave of struggle followed over the next three years, with road blockades repeatedly shutting down large regions of the country. There was a near-uprising in February 2003, when government tax increases and cuts provoked a series of confrontations in the capital, including a strike by the police, the burning of government buildings, and clashes with the military police that cost 33 lives. The government withdrew the tax plan but managed to hang on to power.

The successful uprising came eight months later, as protests began across the country against plans to export natural gas via Chile. More shootings of protesters by government forces had the effect of drawing into a single movement all the rebellions of the previous three and a half years. This was enough to drive Sanchez de Lozada from office, to be replaced by his deputy, former television celebrity Carlos Mesa.


Venezuela has not witnessed an uprising against an established government. But it has experienced two processes of mass insurgency by the poor in support of a government they see as their own. The first was when the poor took to the streets of the capital, Caracas, in April 2002 to force the abandonment of a military coup that had briefly seized power from Hugo Chavez. The second was eight months later, when an upswell of agitation from below – from the urban poor and from sections of workers – defeated an employers’ ‘strike’ (in reality a lockout).

The effect of the attempts to overthrow Chavez has been to radicalise a big section of the workers and the urban poor. Chavez won the presidency in 1998 by tapping a popular mood of opposition to the existing political establishment, but his campaign was not in any sense anti-capitalist or based on an appeal to class feeling. Rather it centred on demands for a purer form of bourgeois parliamentarianism, which was embodied in a new constitution. But the upper classes turned rabid when Chavez began pushing minor reforms to the advantage of the poor and reorganised the management of the state oil company (Latin America’s biggest multinational) to try to stop its profits flowing into elite pockets. Even then, at the time of the first attempt to overthrow him, many workers were still under the influence of corrupt unions leaders affiliated to the old political establishment, and stood on the sidelines waiting to see what happened.

The upper class onslaughts on Chavez have changed that. He himself has been very indulgent with those who plotted against him (the Supreme Court chosen under Chavez’s constitution allowed the military plotters to go free, the newspapers and private TV channels continue an endless stream of lies about the government, the Caracas metropolitan police remain in the hands of the upper class opposition and freely assault Chavez supporters, the bulk of Venezuela’s oil continued to flow to the US throughout the war against Iraq). But among the mass of workers there has been growing awareness that what is happening is the development of a class struggle, however much it is wrapped up in talk of democracy, nationalism and the legacy of the country’s founder, Simon Bolivar.

That is why the country’s rich are embarking on one more attempt to get rid of Chavez, and what he has come to symbolise, through a referendum due in the next few weeks.


The tempo of development in Brazil – by far the biggest country and economy in South America – has been very different to the previous four cases. The election of the Workers Party government 20 months ago was a massive display of opposition to neoliberal attacks. But it was electoral opposition, not rooted in recent struggle – except in the case of the Landless Workers’ Movement that had been trying to take over big estates.

The Workers Party had originated in the industrial militancy of metal workers in the ABC area of São Paulo in the late 1980s. But years of parliamentary opposition to the civilian heirs of the old dictatorship domesticated much of the party’s leadership. So Lula endorsed an IMF agreement drawn up by the outgoing Cardoso government before his election in 2002, and in government was soon pushing welfare cuts the Workers Party opposed in opposition. This led to demonstrations and strikes, to the expulsion of four Workers Party parliamentarians, and to the launching by them of a new Socialism and Liberty Party.

A new reformism

An uprising is not a revolution, although it can prepare the ground for one. The masses who take part in an uprising are driven to take action by hostility to aspects of the existing system. That is not the same as yet understanding the need to overthrow it totally, or having the confidence to do so.

For these reasons, even when uprisings open up a potentially revolutionary situation, there is an interlude in which versions of reformism come to the fore. There can be a Kerensky who may or may not give way to a Lenin at a later stage.

New varieties of reformism have emerged from the revolts against neoliberalism in South America and for the moment overshadow revolutionary forces.

Kirchner in Argentina comes from the Peronist Party that ten years ago embraced the neoliberalism of the then president, Menem. But now he sees that stabilising Argentina politically means haggling for better terms with the IMF, loving up to the trade union bureaucracy, making certain token gestures to the left (like lifting the immunity of army officers involved in murders under the dictatorship) and buying off at least a little of the discontent of the unemployed (by a ‘jobs plan’ which provides doles, distributed by both the Peronist apparatus and by the piquetero organisations). Such an approach won him a honeymoon after last year’s election and gained him some support from some of the more susceptible elements of the left.

In Bolivia Mesa is trying a similar approach. He has been opening his government up to the supporters of one of the key figures in the protests of the last four years, Evo Morales, the leader of the cocaleros (the growers of coca leaves from which cocaine is made). Morales justifies playing along with Mesa by claiming any alternative would provoke US military intervention.

In Brazil Lula is under much less pressure from below since he was brought to office by the masses in the ballot boxes, not in the streets. His ‘left’ gestures have mainly involved trying to make the major imperialisms take into account Brazilian big business interests (by opening up their markets to the exports of Brazilian agrocommerce capitalists). But he continues to get some support from the trade union bureaucracy, and the important Landless Workers’ Movement has not quite lost faith in him.

Gutiérrez in Ecuador rapidly disillusioned many of his supporters when he signed a new agreement with the IMF last year. The indigenous groups broke with the government and are now among the organisations trying to revive the popular movement from below.

Chavez is seen by many on the Latin American left as different to the others, since he initiated a process of reform instead of having it forced upon him by the mass movement from below. But his central approach remains reformist, as was shown a year ago when he praised Lula as showing the way for all Latin America.

The mass movement has an important role to play in this strategy, but it is as a form of pressure within an overall strategy based on trying to change Venezuelan society piecemeal, from the top down. This centrally relies on manoeuvres within the institutions of the state, above all in the armed forces. Retiring some senior officers and moving others sideways has so far prevented any more coups. But Chavez’s control still depends on keeping on board officers who might not object to marginal reforms but who will never swallow wholesale revolution. As a result his tirades against imperialism and the rich are accompanied repeatedly by conciliatory gestures to them, like making the future of the government depend on a referendum they have campaigned for.

Towards revolution?

The uprisings have not led to revolution yet. But neither have those who took part in them yet suffered any decisive defeats. The new reformism rests on making promises to the masses, not on an all-out confrontation. Yet at some point the pressure of the world system on its weaker national components will demand such confrontation.

This is shown most starkly over the question of debt. The new reformists are caught between two different pressures. On one hand the local ruling classes insist that they keep IMF and the banks happy. On the other, cutting living standards further in order to do so can precipitate renewed popular insurgency.

The revolutionary left has to prepare itself for new explosions. When the new phase of revolt began four years ago it was weak, divided and often demoralised as a result of the defeats of the mass movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Now there is a vast new audience for revolutionary ideas. The various fragments of the revolutionary left have some influence in the discussions of Bolivian COB union activists, among the piqueteros of Argentina, in the new Venezuelan union federation. But they are not yet the decisive force anywhere, and have to struggle to win people away from reformist and half-reformist ideas.

In Argentina the trade union bureaucracies are telling people to trust Kirchner, and within the piquetero movement there are powerful groups refusing to see it has to connect with employed workers if it is to exercise real strength. Some go as far as to justify not doing so, deploying ‘autonomist’ arguments that see social change as possible if each group does its own thing, without a decisive confrontation with the state.

In the Andean republics (Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia) a key part in the new insurgency has been played by the movement of indigenous, non-Spanish-speaking peoples who make up half or more of the population. They were virtually enslaved during the three centuries of colonial rule, and have been treated as second class citizens and routinely humiliated in the nearly two centuries of independence. Their movements, like the movements of black people in the US in the 1960s or of dalits in India today, are about dignity and recognition – and about the right to use their own language – as well as about economics. This can easily shift over to hostility, not only to the Spanish-speaking ruling class and political establishment but also to Spanish-speaking workers and urban poor. Yet these too are fighting back against the neoliberal attacks. The revolutionary left has to learn to identify itself with the indigenous movements against oppression (something it has not always done in the past), but at the same time convince them of the need for a united movement to revolutionise society.

In Venezuela the activists in the mass movements have enormous illusions in Chavez. It could not be otherwise, since it was his top-down reforms that prompted the failed offensives of the bourgeoisie and the right. But those illusions can stop the movement acting independently as he again and again tries to conciliate the bourgeoisie so as to operate through the existing structure of the state. For all the grandiose talk about a ‘Bolivarian revolution’, no revolution has taken place in Venezuela. This leaves the bourgeoisie with the hope of getting their revenge on the mass movement that thwarted them twice – with some at least looking for help from the hard right wing government and the murderous paramilitaries of neighbouring Colombia.

The speed that events work themselves out in South America will vary considerably from country to country. My guess is that the tempo will be much faster in Bolivia, Argentina and Venezuela than in Brazil and Uruguay. Whatever the exact pattern, revolutionaries have a chance to play a role for the first time in decades.

Last updated on 27 December 2009