Latin America in 2016: The Resurgence of the Right Continues (1/2)
In Part one, we look at how in Brazil, Peru, and Argentina, governments shifted to the right in Latin America in 2016, imposing neoliberal economics in a context of high dissatisfaction with government
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore.
As 2016 draws to a close, this year certainly was not void of quite interesting and noteworthy political, economic and cultural developments in Latin America. The continent saw a rightward shift politically in certain countries and also was dealing with a tremendous amount of corruption, scandals, as well. But what were the trends that occurred in Latin America in 2016 and what can we expect going forward into the New Year? Well, to discuss that and to get some analysis and overview, we’re joined by our Real News correspondent and producer from Latin America, Greg Wilpert. He’s speaking to us today from Quito, Ecuador. Greg, thanks a lot for joining us.
GREGORY WILPERT: My pleasure.
KIM BROWN: Well, Greg, certainly a lot to cover. You’ve been following a number of stories throughout the year. So, where shall we get started?
GREGORY WILPERT: Yes, well, I thought maybe we could look at first what have been the over-arching trends that you mentioned in the beginning. I mean, one of the things that, of course, for anybody’s who’s been watching Latin America, one of the things that stands out is this kind of roll-back of the leftist governments in Latin America. I mean, during this time what we saw first, at the end of last year, that is in December of 2015, the government of Cristina Kirchner which belonged to the progressive blocks of governments, lost the election and a new right-wing government won in Argentina. And then, of course, later on in the year this was followed by a right-wing government in Peru, and then the overthrow, basically, or the impeachment trial of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil.
So, there were three governments that really switched hands from… or that moved decidedly towards the right. And this was a continuation of a trend that had already been taking place earlier already with the overthrow of the government in Honduras in 2009, 2010, and then also in Paraguay. So, there’s been an ongoing trend that the leftist governments have been defeated in the region. That’s one major trend that was continued in 2016.
The other major trend is kind of the intensification and discovery of corruption scandals throughout Latin America. This was particularly true in Brazil, in Chile, and to a lesser extent with minor things going on in Ecuador and Bolivia and also in Venezuela.
Then, the third trend I would highlight that has affected the region as a whole, I would say, is that many of the governments in the region have become highly unpopular. I mean, this is especially true in the cases of Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. And to a lesser extent, perhaps, in Venezuela which is going through tremendous problems and we’ll get into the details of that. The only governments where you can say that they truly still have high popularity ratings, I would say, are Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia.
So, those are some of the trends and we should probably unpack a little bit and we can do that when we get into the individual countries as to why there’s been this rightward swing and why the governments are unpopular. But just as a general trend, I would mention that there’s been a significant decline in raw material prices — that is commodity prices, as it’s called among economists. And also many of these governments have made mistakes or have implemented policies that were highly unpopular. So, this kind of explains the background. I would say it’s a combination of an economic trend that is a recession in the region and also of trying to implement or deepen neo-liberal policies that really just intensified the economic crisis and inequality of the region.
KIM BROWN: Okay, Greg, well let’s go through some of these countries individually. Let’s start with Mexico. Mexico is obviously dealing with a number of issues including strikes from teachers and doctors. As you mentioned, the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, not super popular. He had a visit from then GOP Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump — a lot going on in Mexico. What are the main take-aways?
GREGORY WILPERT: Yeah, I mean, that certainly… Mexico belongs to one of the ones that remain right. It never had this kind of leftward swing, or this pink tide that some people have called it that affected most of Latin America in the early 2000s until 2015 or so. It wasn’t part of that trend and so that’s one of the interesting things. So, it’s basically been governments that were governed consistently by right-wing governments that implemented neo-liberalism, privatized pretty much everything that they could privatize. Now they’re touching, so to speak, the crown jewels, which is the oil industry. They’re trying to privatize that. And, at the same time — and this is also well-known — that when you’re trying to implement neo-liberal policies of privatization, of austerity, of reducing the public sector, this is often accompanied with protest movements, with social movements that are objecting to these policies. And so, there’s been a concomitant wave of repression in Mexico.
One of the things, of course, that I should also mention in Mexico is that this has been combined in a very toxic combination with the fight against the drug trafficking in Mexico. So there’s been some overlap with, you know, tens of thousands of people killed in the War on Drugs, in Mexico. But, at the same time, these same mechanisms and the same tools that were used for the drug war are being also applied, to some extent, against the social movements in Mexico. So, there’s been a tremendous amount of repression.
And actually the end effect, ironically, strengthened the progressive movements of the left in Mexico and it actually results in relatively good prospects for them for 2017. Actually, the presidential election will happen in 2018 with Andrés Manuel López Obrador who was the main left progressive candidate for the presidency back in 2012 where he lost. He’s actually leading in the polls. He founded a new party and it’s been gaining tremendously by leaps and bounds in popularity in Mexico. And so, it seems that he might have a good chance of actually winning the presidency next time around in 2018.
KIM BROWN: Well, Greg, one quick question. So, how is Mexico faring economically? Because, as the United States is enjoying a robust stock market, for whatever that’s worth, with the stock market setting trends. You know, the Dow Jones Industrial average over 20,000 points really for the first time in history. But at the same time, during the presidential campaign, with the rise of Donald Trump, now the President-elect, we saw the Mexican peso really take a hit. Were those things connected in any way?
GREGORY WILPERT: Yes. I mean, the economic situation in Mexico has certainly been very difficult, especially with, like I said, the shrinking of the public sector, efforts to cut down on wages for the public sector. That’s why there have been so many teachers’ and doctors’ strikes going on in Mexico. And the increasing austerity has meant, basically, more difficult situation and an increase inequality. So, even though the economy has been relatively stable, inequality has certainly gone up significantly in Mexico and that’s what’s promoted a lot of the uprisings and social movements in Mexico.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. So, let’s move along to Colombia which had a referendum vote put to the people about how best to negotiate the peace, lasting peace, between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels. Take us there.
GREGORY WILPERT: Right. Yes, Colombia is another government that has maintained this rightward position, right-wing government, for a very long time now. And one of the reasons, of course, was that Colombia has had the civil war going on for decades, for 50 years now. And that’s finally being put to rest. And this is really a significant achievement because the civil war in Colombia has always been kind of the excuse to crack down on progressive and social movements in Colombia and to use that as… to basically claim that any activists are parts of the guerilla forces and, therefore, you know, they would be persecuted. And so that’s now coming to an end. So, that’s a very important move which means it’s an opening for the left and might mean that progressive forces in Colombia will actually have a chance to finally take over government. The elections there probably won’t be probably until late or mid-2018, so it’s still a ways off. But you know, it might be too early for them to really make in-roads in the political system, but they certainly have better chances now than they ever did before.
However, I want you to also keep in mind that in Colombia there’s a continuing influence of the far-right, especially the former President Álvaro Uribe and the para-military forces are still a force to be reckoned with and are continuing the repression and assassination campaigns against activists in Colombia. So it still remains a hot spot, but like I said, I do think it also has better chances, just like Mexico, for other forces to come up and to turn things around in that country.
KIM BROWN: And another country that took a bit of a rightward shift this year was that of Peru, who in July of this year elected Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Tell us about now President Kuczynski, if I’m pronouncing his name correctly.
GREGORY WILPERT: Right. Yeah, he’s also another neo-liberal. He took over after somebody who was nominally progressive, but turned out to be mostly middle of the road, that is Ollanta Humala. He was originally thought to be maybe somebody who would follow in Hugo Chávez’s footsteps, of Venezuela, but turned out to be very centrist and didn’t do much of anything. Now there’s a new neo-liberal government, I mean, that’s really moving the country economically to the right in Peru. So, in that sense, continues this trend of a rightward shift in Latin America. And he’s already started to… I mean, he’s only taken office since July, so it’s a little bit too early to see exactly what he’s doing or what he plans to do. But he’s basically announced also privatizations and cutbacks in the public sector. And so we have to see now how progressive forces in Peru are going to react to that, if at all.
But one positive light there for more progressive forces in Peru was the fact that they did manage to almost make a runoff vote in the presidential election in the middle of the year. So, they might be able to build on that and we’ll have to see. In Peru, it’s still a little bit early to see what direction things are going to take.
KIM BROWN: And, lastly, at least for this first segment here, Greg, let’s talk about Honduras, where continuing human rights abuses continue, especially in the wake of some notable activists being murdered in 2016.
GREGORY WILPERT: Yes. So, this year we saw the assassination of Berta Cáceres, who was an environmental and human rights activist, which really hit a blow. It wasn’t just because she was an activist but because she was a leader of one of the main organizations fighting the construction of a dam in Honduras. And she was brutally killed along with others. There was something like over a hundred other activists have been assassinated, actually, in Honduras since 2014. So, this whole wave of repression of social movements in Honduras has continued unabated. So, this is again, another instance of how popular resistance is being met with brutal force in Latin America.
KIM BROWN: So, Greg, the country of Brazil was certainly in the headlines for a number of reasons this year. Obviously, the Summer Olympics in Rio gained a lot of international attention but especially how the poor people in the favelas were displaced and removed in order to accommodate the Olympics. And then-President Dilma Rousseff was not even in attendance because of the political opposition that she was dealing with at the time. What kind of year did Brazil have?
GREGORY WILPERT: Yes. We had to cover Brazil a lot — not only because it’s the largest country in Latin America, but also because a lot happened, like you mentioned. And perhaps the most significant event, really, was the removal of Dilma Rousseff from office on charges that she committed some administrative irregularities in the budgeting process, which proved to be — and the opposition even admitted it in the end — that it was really an excuse to get rid of her. That the real reason they wanted to get rid of her was because she represented an obstacle to the imposition of neo-liberal economic policies in Brazil and so this had really nothing to do with the formal reasons that were presented for impeaching her. And that’s why, with reason, particularly supporters of Dilma Rousseff called it a legislative coup.
So, this was really a major event in shifting of the politics of the whole region to the right. And, of course, they’d managed to do this because they took advantage of a whole series of corruption scandals and investigations into corruptions that had been taking place since, actually, late last year. And they have been engulfing more and more of Brazil’s political class. And so, that was also used as an excuse, or as an opportunity really, because her own popularity had sunk into the basement and so they saw this as an opportunity to strike against her and to get rid of her. I mean, the campaign to get rid of her already started right after her election in 2014. And so, it really culminated with this impeachment in August of this year.
At the same time, now more and more people are mobilizing against the new government of Michel Temer which has, like I said, taken a very hard-right swing in the sense of introducing a whole bunch of privatizations. They want to privatize the airports. They want to privatize all kinds of different sectors, telecommunications — just all kinds of things. And at the same time, they’re also, of course, cutting back and one of perhaps the most significant things in terms of cutting back in the public sector is their introduction of a constitutional reform that will freeze public spending for the next 20 years. Of course, against that, many people are mobilizing. Students have been mobilizing.
And one of the things most people don’t know is that over 1,000 primary schools have been closed down because of occupations by the students. University protests have been taking place. And, of course, the Landless Workers Movement, the MST, has been mobilizing very strongly against the government of Michel Temer. And they’ve been suffering also lots of repression in the form of having their offices raided recently and now many of their leaders are facing accusations of being some form of a criminal organization. So, we see the conflict in Brazil really intensifying.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. Well, Greg, listen, we have a whole other segment to come back and discuss the year in 2016, politically and culturally in Latin America. We’ve been speaking with our Latin America correspondent and producer, Greg Wilpert. So, stick around and thanks for watching The Real News.