The Year in Latin America: The Right Continues to Advance, but so do Popular Movements

2019 presented a complicated and mixed legacy for Latin America. Right-wing governments continued to make electoral in-roads, but popular uprisings against neoliberalism also left their mark on the region, says TRNN’s Greg Wilpert.

Story Transcript

TAYA GRAHAM: It’s been a tumultuous year for South America. Right-wing populism has taken root in Brazil, while the Amazon Rainforest burns. The ousting of Bolivia’s first Indigenous president has stoked controversy and protest. Meanwhile, Venezuelans continue to suffer, caught between a faltering regime and an interventionist U.S. policy that seems more interested in the country’s oil than its people.

The Real News has been on the ground covering all these important stories in the region and more. As we approached the end of 2019, we thought it would be helpful to review what has happened and what will happen next in one of the most critical areas in the world. It’s part of a series of year in reviews we will be producing on critical topics we’ve covered throughout the year: Latin America, Israel, Palestine, the climate crisis, U.S. politics, and of course, my beat–criminal justice system reform.

To begin this review, I’m joined by our Real News editor and resident expert on South America. Greg Wilpert has been reporting on Latin America for 20 years. Greg, thank you so much for joining me.

GREG WILPERT: My pleasure.

TAYA GRAHAM: So let’s first go from the general to the specific. What do you see as the main trends in Latin America in 2019?

GREG WILPERT: I think there are four main trends that were taking place in this year. The first one is that the rightward drift of the governments in the region has continued. That is a drift that began already in, with the election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina in 2015, and has been accelerating, really. And in this year, in 2019, there were three more countries that joined the ranks of conservative or right-wing governments. So you could actually say that there’s now a total of 16 conservative or right-wing governments in Latin America. So that’s the first major trend, a continuation basically of one that had been long established.

The second one, which is actually quite new, is that there’s been a wave of popular uprisings, of protest movements, particularly against neoliberal policies throughout Latin America. This had took place in four main countries, in Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, and Haiti. And we can go into details as to exactly why that happened, but that’s really the main trend that’s relatively new. I mean, we’ve seen these kinds of protest movements in the past, particularly in the period of the early 2000’s, but they’ve made a really strong comeback this year.

Then the third trend is that there were also a couple of protest movements that are more conservative in nature and were directed against leftist governments. And here I’m particularly thinking of the movements that took place against the government of Evo Morales and against the government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. And again, I want to get into greater detail to explain those. But that was also an important new development, relatively speaking.

And then, finally, there were two exceptions to these other trends. So it makes it for a relatively messy picture, which is that the actually left-wing governments did win two elections, and one was particularly in Argentina relatively recently. And then at the end of… Actually, it was in the middle of 2018 but didn’t take office until the beginning of this year, was the government of Mexico under Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, which is, a definitely center-left government. And that was something very new. And that was a very particular situation which one would have to look at.

And then there’s one outlier, which is Costa Rica, because there was no real change. It had always been relatively progressive and social democratic, and so we can kind of leave it out as an exception.

TAYA GRAHAM: So let’s break down the first trend that you mentioned, where you said that there have been conservative and right-wing successes in several countries that are actually consolidating the gains that they’ve made over several years. Can you explain why they’re basically enjoying such success with the electorate?

GREG WILPERT: Yeah. It varies, of course, always from country to country, but I do think there’s some general trends that we can look at. And there’s, like I said, three main governments, the three governments where they actually changed hands from more progressive or center-left governments to the right. And in each one of these cases, one can actually point to a particular trend.

Well, first we should mention, which countries are they? So there were El Salvador with elections in February of 2019; they elected Nayib Bukele. We didn’t really know who he was, but he turns out now to be really a very extreme right figure in El Salvador. Then we had Uruguay very recently, the election which just barely elected a right-winger in that country just by less than a 1% margin in a runoff vote.

TAYA GRAHAM: That’s a slim margin.

GREG WILPERT: And then there was the election in Bolivia, which was kind of a special case, and I’ll have to analyze that in greater detail. Because actually, the left–Evo Morales–did win that election I would say, despite what a lot of what a lot of others are saying about what happened there. And we need to take that apart very briefly. We can’t go into great detail, but in other of our stories, we have done that.

But the overall trend, why these switches–these transitions from center-left to right–were possible, I would say, is that there was a more generalized economic downturn in Latin America in this period. So there was an economic slowdown. It wasn’t actually in a recession or anything like that, but all three of these countries had enjoyed relative economic successes and people came to expect that. And all of a sudden, the economic progress in these countries started to slow down, and it’s particularly the case, actually, for Uruguay, and Bolivia.

And so that kind of turned people against the mess, one general overarching trend. Now again, each country is specific in its details, but another trend that I think applies to all three countries is that the center-left or the left had been in government for a relatively long time already. So they kind of exhausted themselves to a certain extent. That is, corruption became a little bit more of a problem.

For example, in El Salvador, the government of the FMLN had been in office for 10 years, in Uruguay, it had been 15 years, and Evo Morales had been in government also for 15 years, which is a very time. And so, in that time, you could see basically a, so to speak. Exhaustion. Now these three governments really added on, or like I said, there were already something like 12 other, ah, no, 13 other governments in the region that you could call conservative.

So let me just briefly give a quick idea as to what’s going on, in terms, and why that’s reinforcing the existing trend, that is, the main ones that had already been conservative. We all know about Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro, which is this extreme right government which was elected in October 2018. Then, and Ecuador is kind of a, also a little bit of a special case, but because it was elected as a progressive government, which then, under the same president, made a 180-degree turn, and became conservative, started trying to implement neoliberal reforms on his own, basically betraying his protege, sorry, his mentor, which was Rafael Correa.

And then in Paraguay, had been conservative ever since the coup that had taken place in 2012. And then, in Honduras, also had been conservative ever since the coup in 2009. And then, you also have the government of Haiti, which is also, ever since the whole, the coups against Aristide, has been also quite conservative governments. So those are five countries that had been basically in office already, as a result of, essentially, you could say, either illegal or legal coups of one sort or another. And then, you had ones where you always had conservative governments, which was basically Chile, Colombia, Peru and Guatemala.

Chile’s a little bit of a exceptional case, because it had also had Social Democratic governors, but they always tended to be relatively conservative. So those are kind of the overall, how should I say, the foundation on which these new governments turned right, these three new ones in Uruguay, El Salvador and Bolivia. And as I said, well, we will go maybe a little bit more detail in, about Bolivia, but I just wanted to mention it, because it is a special case that we have to look at it in great detail.

But then of course there’s the governments that continued basically on a left kind of trajectory, which is Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba. And we always say, actually, for those of us who are observing Latin America, thought Bolivia would be part of that. And we’re kind of surprised when that, so to speak, when that coup happened in Bolivia in November. But Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba continued to hang on. And that’s also something one would have to look at exactly why, but I would argue actually that US intervention isn’t, despite the efforts to overthrow them, is one of the reasons they’re actually still in office.

TAYA GRAHAM: Interesting.

GREG WILPERT: Because it really hardened their positions and made them more determined to hang on, so to speak, despite opposition movements within their countries.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, the other movement that you described was popular uprisings, pushing against neoliberalism. I think you mentioned Chile and Colombia being some of the countries that were pushing back. Why are we seeing this right now?

GREG WILPERT: Yeah. So the main ones really are Chile and Columbia, definitely, and I would add to that, also Ecuador and Haiti. Those are the four countries where you had a large movements are in the opposition to the government, again, particularly against their neoliberal policies. And one could say that this, these are, like I said before, these aren’t completely new, but they’re new for 2019. And they fit within the larger worldwide pattern that we’ve seen in many other places around the world. I mean, we’ve also talked about the protest movements that, for example, just recently, the strikes that took place in France, and then also in various parts of the Middle East, particularly Lebanon.

So, and then–well, Hong Kong is perhaps a different case. But these are things that have been going on throughout the world. And of course, the main reason, and this is something that everybody, all analysts usually point to, is that neoliberalism provokes a reaction, because it makes lives insecure for people, and it makes life more difficult for people. And they’re basically losing social benefits of various kinds, that they’ve been, had come to depend on. Of course, sometimes they go to the streets in order to claim them in the first place, but in this case they’re being taken away. The taxes might be increased. I mean, for next year, for example, in Ecuador, there was a gasoline tax that was introduced, that particularly effected the working class.

And then in Chile, there was a labor reform and a pension reform and also university reform. People rejected privatization. And in Columbia, same thing, or actually pretty much similar; an education process that wasn’t moving forward that the government had promised, and the money wasn’t being provided to the university. That was very largely student led. And Haiti is a little bit more complicated, but it also is a right-wing government that had been introducing neoliberal reforms to those guys to that country.

So these are things that they definitely have in common. And this also goes along with wave of repression against these governments. And that’s one or the other kind of hallmarks of neoliberalism in Latin America, and again, probably all around the world, is that the neoliberal policies of privatization, of austerity, of cutbacks, is accompanied with protests, which is then accompanied with repression against those protests. And so that’s basically the pattern. And that was really firmly established in 2019.

TAYA GRAHAM: That’s actually really interesting that you said that. Because neoliberal policies in the United States, there is always a wealthy class that is benefiting from them, and is able to push them forward, despite popular sentiment against them. So it’s interesting that in South America they’ve actually successfully pushed back.

GREG WILPERT: Yeah, that’s actually a very important point that I forgot to mention, exactly, that they were successful in every case. Well, the Haiti case is still unresolved. The protests are actually continuing as we speak, and they might continue for awhile longer. In Columbia, Chilean Ecuador, though, the government was forced to retreat, and to say that they are going to withdraw the reforms, and negotiate with the opposition about them.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, there’s another trend you identified, which is a pushback against left and center-left governments, and I think you pointed them out in Bolivia and Venezuela. So how is it different? How do they compare and contrast in those two countries? What does that pushback look like for them?

GREG WILPERT: Yeah. I mean, of course, the cases are somewhat different, particularly for Look comparing Venezuela and Bolivia, because Venezuela has gone through a very severe economic crisis, which wasn’t at all the case with Bolivia. I mentioned earlier that Bolivia did go through an economic downturn, but it wasn’t, like I said, it wasn’t actually even a recession. It was just a slowing down of the growth rate, and so, it was a very different situation compared to Venezuela in that sense.

But in both countries, you had a very large, well, a sizable middle-class, really, that was opposed to these governments, that finally, that mobilized with the support of the US government, really, in opposition to these countries. Actually, another one, a country where it happened earlier is Nicaragua, in 2000, in the spring of 2018. which was, it followed a similar pattern in that.

Now, that’s not to say that these governments themselves didn’t do things that might’ve provoked these protests. They certainly did. I would say they’ve made certain mistakes. In the case of Venezuela, I would say that the economic policy contributed to the recession. It wasn’t just the sanctions, although I think the sanctions-

TAYA GRAHAM: Exacerbated the problems, absolutely.

GREG WILPERT: Exacerbated, and actually, you could say that they made the problem, the economic problems, far, far worse than they otherwise would have been. In the case of Bolivia, it wasn’t so much economic. The government actually followed a very sensible economic policy that was praised even by the IMF, which is unusual and surprising. And they basically praise the lowering of the of the poverty rate in Bolivia.

And in Nicaragua was also economically speaking, doing relatively decently, and not so great, but it wasn’t having major problems. So there, I would say in Bolivia and Nicaragua, it definitely wasn’t the economic issues, and Bolivia was also the, that is in terms of what the government itself did, which had to do with the running for, with Evo Morales deciding to run for a national, another term in office, even though there had been a referendum that narrowly rejected an elimination of the term limits.

And so, I would say that some part of the opposition probably definitely rejected that part of Evo Morales. But the rest of it, if you look at the other thing that they have in common is you look at the class basis of the protests. Like I said before-


GREG WILPERT: You can tell, very clearly, that the middle classes are the ones who are protesting, middle and upper classes, are protesting against these governments in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Whereas the working class, still, to a large extent supported these governments. Now there’s, this isn’t uniform, I’m just saying, this is the general trend. There’s certainly also far left split offs of the governments, and of the political party system that joined the opposition, and so on.

But as a general trend, I think you could say this. This also happened earlier, I should point this out, under Brazil, in Brazil, in 2016, under Dilma Rousseff. It was also this middle-class movement against the government, which was also partly economic, but largely political, with US support. And so these are, those are the patterns that we saw in the, for lack of a better term, conservative protest movements against progressive governments.

TAYA GRAHAM: Okay. So, just to make sure that I understand correctly, we’re seeing a pushback by middle-class and upper middle-class people against progressive policies and progressive leftist governments. Am I understanding that correctly?

GREG WILPERT: Yes. I would say that’s in general, again, albeit in very general terms.

TAYA GRAHAM: It’s general terms. General terms.

GREG WILPERT: Because of the situations and their details and the specifics are very different, in various cases, but in the general sense, I would say that’s true, yes. Yeah.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, you mentioned that the right experienced most of the gains, but it looked like in Argentina, Mexico, I think, also Costa Rica, that there was some success for the left-center and progressive politics there. Why do you think they had that success? Why were they able to hold onto it?

GREG WILPERT: I think there’s several different reasons, but one of them has to do with the opening of political space that is in both Argentina and Mexico. In Mexico, it was really a constant push on the part of the left in Mexico, for reforms in the electoral system, and so on. And also, well, that was one part, in order to gain greater participation to gain greater reliability in the electoral system. Then there was also, of course, the major split within the conservative forces in Mexico, which divided, that’s their vote, basically, and made it possible for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to win that election, actually quite solidly. Yeah, I think he got slightly, only slightly, under 40%, 50%. And so, in Mexico, it’s not, you don’t have to get, you just have to get a plurality of the votes. You don’t have to get an absolute majority. So that’s why he was able to succeed, and managed to build on that since then.

And Argentina is, of course, it’s a slightly different situation, but there had been a progressive or center-left government under Néstor Carlos Kirchner, and then, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, his wife, and they had established, so to speak, a track record that people basically wanted to return to, after Mauricio Macri had been elected, who was a neoliberal, and was introducing all these neoliberal reforms. And people just flat out rejected that. So it kind of provided that knowledge, that background; make it relatively, well, I wouldn’t say easy, but definitely provided an opening for Christina Fernandez, and Alberto as a vice presidential candidate. The ex-president became a vice presidential candidate, and the leader, or the presidential candidate who won, who’s taking office very soon, is actually very soon, in December.

Alberto Fernandez, I think they’re not related even though they have the same last name, but it made it possible for him to win that election. Costa Rica, as I mentioned earlier, it’s really an exception to all of the, everything that happens in Latin America, because it’s been, I mean, one of the… And something that’s surprising, I would say, that most other countries in Latin America don’t learn from the Contra Costa Rica example, because there’s, except for Haiti, actually, they’re the only country in the Western Hemisphere that decided to abolish its military, and to use that, the military budget, basically, for social programs. Haiti did do that briefly under Aristide-

TAYA GRAHAM: That’s amazing.

GREG WILPERT: But that, as we know, it didn’t go so well because of the coup. But Costa Rica was able to maintain that since the 1940s, which is the longest track record of any country in Latin America, and now has a government that has promised to become, and to implement, basically, a Green New Deal, and to become carbon neutral, I think, by 2030 or something like that.

TAYA GRAHAM: That’s incredible.

GREG WILPERT: So they set a very ambitious goal, and it looks like they’re on track to achieving it. So, but that’s, like I said, a huge exception in Latin America.

TAYA GRAHAM: So what conclusions would you draw from the fact that all of these conservative and right-wing movements have really continued to have success? I mean, what can we look forward to in 2020, when we’ve seen that the conservative right has really consolidated their gains in Latin America?

GREG WILPERT: Yeah. I mean, first of all, I would point out, that I think that what you’re seeing, and this is of course nothing new, is an ongoing battle, of course, for actually, basically, for the middle class, because of the… And well, for two things. One is for a battle for the middle class, and the other is a battle to either end franchise or disenfranchise the working class and the Indigenous populations. So those two things are going on at the same time. That is, I would say, the right wins every time they managed to win over the middle class, and when they manage to disenfranchise or to marginalize the working class and the poor and the Indigenous populations. That’s when the right usually wins.

And then, the left usually wins when, well, actually sometimes, usually it’s on a fluke, actually, the first time around for it. Just to give an example, I mean, Hugo Chavez, for example, managed to win the middle class, without the participation, and without the support of the poor, and the working poor, and of the, well, Venezuela has a very small Indigenous population. And it was only afterwards that he, once he was in office, he expanded the franchise, basically, in Venezuela to include much more of the working class. You see participation rates climbing, you equally see much more voting centers, for example, in the poor neighborhoods, and things like that. And so, usually, that’s how the left wins, is by winning over the middle class on a fluke, so to speak, and then managing to expand it. I would say that’s kind of a general pattern that, well, for which Venezuela was kind of emblematic.

But now, the right basically managed to take over, through a combination of things. I think one of them is, like I said earlier, in some examples, is poor economic management in some cases. And of course, this hasn’t the right hasn’t taken over in Venezuela yet, but Venezuela is a bit of an example for the poor economic management. The other country… And then but also economic misfortune in the sense that there was a global–not a global, but a regional kind of downturn, or slowing of economic growth, which had an impact. But the actual main reason–and we probably should have started with this–the main reason they’ve succeeded is through illegal means.

Now I’m speaking specifically of many, no, not 2019 so much, but specifically 2018, where they managed to take over, for example, in Brazil by marginalizing our ad, by excluding Lula de Silva as the presidential candidate. And there’s plenty of evidence that this was done completely illegally, that they didn’t have a case for his corruption. As a matter of fact, now he’s free. After the election happened, he could have run for president, if the case had followed a different timing. And we can also then, if, for example, then the other examples are, well, Ecuador, okay, it was legal, but the president made a 180-degree turn. And the people are basically betraying his voters.

TAYA GRAHAM: That’s right.

GREG WILPERT: And then, you’ve got the legacies of coup governments, such as in Paraguay, Honduras and Haiti, which they themselves aren’t necessarily coup governments, but they’re building on coups that happened several years earlier. And then you have the governments that have always been right-wing, and specifically Colombia, Peru and Guatemala, which are also legacies, actually, of coups that happened decades earlier, essentially, and never opened up their electoral system for a real left participation. And it’s especially the case in Columbia and Peru, because they always use the Correan war as an excuse for persecuting the left in those countries.

And so that’s why they left us is extremely weakened in Columbia and Peru. So those are the main reasons, I think, the right has been able to win is a combination of factors. The other major factor, of course, is the increasing efforts on the part of the US government to intervene in the region. And this, like I said, hasn’t been very successful, except for maybe in the case of Bolivia.

And again, I mean, the case of Bolivia is a bit of a special case, in the sense that what made the difference for the coup there was the participation of the military, unlike in Venezuela where the military did not participate in overthrowing the government, even though the US has been and the opposition has been pushing for a coup for, well, definitely all of 2019, but also, actually, well before that. And they haven’t made any gains in Venezuela, because they don’t have the military. That is, the opposition and the US government doesn’t have the Venezuelan military on their side.

Whereas in Bolivia, that wasn’t the case. Particularly the police and the military decided to essentially oppose Evo Morales, which is why he ended up seeing, well, having to resign, essentially. He didn’t really have much choice in the matter. So those are, yeah, I guess some of the ways one can make sense of what’s going on.

TAYA GRAHAM: I have to say, there are quite a few important lessons I think that the US needs to take from this, not the first of which is that, when the poor and minorities are disenfranchised, aren’t able to vote, and when populism and conservatism wins the middle class, then progressive ideas die.

Do you add that to unlawful behavior by leaders? There might be a few I’m thinking of in particular. And then you have a conservative movement that wins. So I think there’s some important lessons that we need to take from this. So Greg, help me wrap this up. What can we look forward to in 2020? What should we be looking for in Latin America?

GREG WILPERT: I think one of the things that is, of course in terms of the elections that are coming up… Actually, 2020 has very few elections compared to, let’s say, 2018 or 2019. 2018 had six major elections and general elections; 2019 had only three. And there’s actually only one presidential election next year which is the one in Bolivia, which is under a coup government.

So we’ll have to, that’s going to be the big story, I think, for us at least, in 2020, is what’s going to happen in March 2020, when the Bolivian presidential election is scheduled, which has taken, being organized, essentially, by a coup government. So the big question is: will it be a fair election? Will the opposition be allowed to participate fully, which still has the largest party. That is, the Movement Towards Socialism of Evo Morales is still the largest party in the country, and the most popular one.

The other elections that are happening in Latin America next year are parliamentary elections in late 2020, in Venezuela, then parliamentary elections in Peru, actually early of next year. And then you have something interesting which is coming out of the protest movement, which is in Chile. They’re going to held a referendum on whether or not to rewrite the constitution, which was one of the main demands of the protesters.


GREG WILPERT: And so, that’ll be happening, actually, several times next year. That is, first to, to whether or not to have-

TAYA GRAHAM: It’s amazing! They’re going to rewrite their constitution?

GREG WILPERT: Yes. That was one of the main demands, because it was a constitution that was written under the dictator, Augusto Pinochet, and hadn’t been really reformed since then. So it’s a right-wing constitution that makes neoliberalism institutionalized in Chile. And that’s what, that’s why people see it as being so important, to completely reform.

So they’re going to have a vote first on whether or not to have a new constitution, and then who’s going to be honored, and then, whether or not to accept it. So that’s, that is, who’s going to be on the Constitutional Assembly. And the other things we can look forward to, in terms of more general developments, is first of all, of course, more neoliberal policies, with so many right-wing governments, and I think more protests, and more repression. Now those are going to continue. And I would say probably, especially in Ecuador, Columbia and Haiti, because there, the situation really hasn’t been resolved. I mean, maybe in Chile as well. Actually the protests there are still continuing despite these concessions of the government.

And I would say, add to that list, actually, Brazil and Honduras, because Brazil also is going to face a recognition sooner or later, I think, from the popular movements. And then, finally, I also think what we should be paying attention to is, how’s the US government going to react? Particularly with regard to Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, the Trump administration keeps mentioning that they still want to get rid of these governments, that they still want regime change.

TAYA GRAHAM: Absolutely.

GREG WILPERT: And the big question is, what is it going to cost, in terms of lives lost, and in terms of the suffering? Because the sanctions that the United States has imposed on these countries, and particularly Venezuela and Cuba, but now also in Nicaragua, are also causing a lot of suffering.

Although I should mention, at Varian, there’s some light of hope, I think, in the case of Venezuela, in the sense that the economy seems to be recovering a little bit. Recently, the Wall Street Journal just had an article about it. And the Venezuelan government and the more moderate opposition are coming to an agreement, particularly in the leadup to the parliamentary elections. So that would provide a real alternative, especially if they managed to make inroads in the political system, and to establish themselves as a real alternative to the hard right, far right, that the US government is supporting.

TAYA GRAHAM: Well, that actually is a lot to look forward to. You’re going to have to keep me updated and better educated on what’s happening in Latin America. Thank you, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: My pleasure.

TAYA GRAHAM: My name is Taya Graham, and I’m your host for this year in review on Latin America. Thank you for spending time with me here on The Real News Network.

Studio: Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino, Will Arenas, Taylor Hebden

Gregory Wilpert

Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.