In a recent interview, Noam Chomsky took stock of the main successes and failures of the so-called “progressive left” in Latin America. As for the mistakes, he criticized economic projects that had entered the region, as ever, through global trade and production chains.
Their entering the market was, as always, to Latin America’s disadvantage, as its economies became little more than auction sites for raw materials destined for the industrialized countries of the North, China and other emerging powers.
According to Chomsky, increased exports of primary products initially created better conditions for countries like Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia to increase their spending on social policies.
So, intensive investment in infrastructure and accelerated export of natural resources made it possible to remedy some of the ills of the neoliberal agenda, in force in the 1990s.
During this period, poverty and destitution would advance at a metastatic rate, declining only from the first decade of the 2000s, during the leftist governments’ peak.
Despite poverty reduction during the “progressive left” era, Chomsky wonders whether this reality is a result of the structural reduction of inequality, of sustainable development policies or of a circumstantial boom dependent on favorable demand cycle for raw materials.
Clearly, the increase in international demand for oil, natural gas, minerals and monocultures was mainly responsible for Latin American left-wing countries’ boom decade. With the end of it, these countries must now face the social, economic, political and environmental costs of irrational extraction of natural resources, a phenomenon usually termed “neo-extractivism”.
Latin American neo-extractivism brought with it some manifestations of the so-called “resource curse”. This is the paradox that countries abundant in natural resources tend to have weaker democratic institutions and, in general, worse economic performance rates, compared to those of industrialized countries deprived of such resources1.
To a greater or lesser extent, all Latin American countries have undergone a severe deindustrialization process and, in extreme cases like Venezuela, the only industrial activity still going is linked to the extraction and processing of oil.
From the political point of view, neo-extractivism developed with the capture of the State by construction companies and companies in the mining-energy sector as its backdrop.
Before the corruption scandals that tainted several leftist parties in the region, a considerable part of the Latin American electorate made a distinction between the political projects led by Lula, Kirchner, Chávez, Correa and Morales, and the political projects of a right-wing accustomed to contesting elections through corruption.
This is probably the most damaging legacy of the embrace between the “progressive left” and neo-extractivism: the impression that no matter the ideological shirt of those who dispute the election, the winners will always be accountable to the corporations that finance the electoral game.
Traditionally, when symbolic mechanisms for preserving the hegemony of an economic elite were at risk in Latin America, there was the possibility of seizing de facto control of the state and silencing leftist leaders who came to power democratically (Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, João Goulart in Brazil and Salvador Allende in Chile) or those who had all conditions in place to do so (Jorge E. Gaitán in Colombia).
To Antonio Gramsci’s disappointment, the new economic elite no longer need mechanisms as vulgar as dictatorships or murders in Latin America. In fact, they can dispense with political hegemony in order to continue to exercise economic power.
It is interesting to observe how the recent history of Latin America can be told by way of great cycles of discursive idioms. Between the 1950s and 1980s, expressions rooted in the “national security doctrine” inspired the discourse of dictators and their sympathizers.
“Restoration of the internal order and process of national reorganization” were some expressions that army generals turned self-proclaimed presidents used to justify their usurpation of democracy and state terrorism.
With the end of the Cold War, idioms were imported not from the School of the Americas, but from the Chicago School. Terms such as “macroeconomic stabilization, management shock (choque de gestão) and trade openness” came to dominate the speech of Heads of State, Ministers and Presidents of Central Banks throughout the continent.
From the second half of the 1990’s, a new idiom was incorporated into the left and right’s political discourse. It was the neoextractivist idiom, adaptable to any ideological aspect. As a result of this modism, infrastructure megaprojects were multiplied, both for energy production and transportation of raw materials, to Chinese ports or the global north.
In the middle of the extractivist boom, representatives of the “progressive left” such as Rafael Correa, Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega used a discrediting discourse against those who defend traditional forms of occupation and use of the territory.
“Developmental enemies and dogmatic environmentalists” were some expressions used to disqualify those who oppose large-scale extraction models. On the other hand, “public utility, national interest and development” are some terms that conform to the mantra of the economic models characterized by intensive extraction of natural resources.
The undeniable benefits of social development and environmentally sustainable projects aside, the core of the controversy seems to lie in the meaning of this word so worn out by the game of political discourse: development.
From Mexico to Chile, through Ecuador and Brazil, this term has been used as a synonym for two things: a) the satisfaction of social demands, with income and employment generated by megaprojects being an ideal means to achieve such a noble purpose; and b) a majestic growth of gross domestic product.
In general, while self-appointed leftist governments emphasize the first definition, those who avoid such a label or directly assume the stamp of the right embrace the second definition.
In the case of Brazil, piecing together the remains following the moral implosion of the Workers’ Party (PT) and, more importantly, reconstructing a leftist political project, require the design of a truly emancipating development model.
Such a process must begin with the recognition that the PT governments were indifferent to and, particularly in the case of Dilma Rousseff, aggressive to the demands of indigenous peoples.
Suffice it to mention the use of state intelligence devices to spy on and criminalize indigenous leaders, NGOs and opponents of ecologically disastrous “development” projects, such as the Belo Monte and Tapajós hydroelectric plants.
It is not appropriate to discuss at length the instrumentalization of economic policy for construction companies’ and large extractive companies’ benefit during the PT governments.
However, it is important to emphasize the need for a new discourse in which the overcoming of poverty does not come with irreparable environmental liabilities and the denial of fundamental rights of indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and traditional communities.
There is no denying that the emancipation of Brazil in the face of the asymmetries of the global production and trade chain will go alongside the reduction of poverty.
Nevertheless, it is evident that the ideological appeal to redistributive justice was defrauded by the “progressive left”, both in Brazil and in other Latin American countries, where the poorest population strata managed to consolidate themselves, at most, as occasional consumers and not as citizens.
In the process of piecing itself together again, the “progressive left” should renew its discourse on development, with a view of the objective as not only overcoming poverty, but while recognizing the differentiated way of life of certain sectors of the population, such as indigenous peoples.
Defending the concession of the interoceanic canal to a Chinese tycoon, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega paraphrased, in his own way, an address by Augusto César Sandino, for whom sovereignty would never be achieved as long as poverty persists in Nicaragua.
For Ortega, a bizarre project that connects two oceans and salinizes the largest freshwater lake in Central America is the only way to bring his country out from underdevelopment.
It is clear, however, that the concession of a pharaonic channel, socially and environmentally unviable, will only contribute to the enrichment of the presidential endogamy of the Ortegas, in power since 2006, and to sink Nicaragua into the tangle of corruption, injustice and dependence that characterizes the transnational investment in infrastructure.
This symbiosis between corruption and development policy is one of the toxic trademarks that must be eradicated from the Latin American left in general and the Brazilian left in particular.
Referring to the PT’s redirection post-2016 impeachment, Chomsky said: “I don’t think the game is over by any means. There were real successes achieved, and I think a lot of those will be sustained. But there is a regression.
“They’ll have to pick up again with, one hopes, more honest forces that will, first of all, recognize the need to develop the economy in a way which has a solid foundation, not just based on raw material exports.”
Thus, it can be affirmed that development policies based on neo-extractivism only contributed to excavating the ethical and political abyss in which we find a considerable part of the leftist parties that won electoral victories in recent years in Latin America.
To escape from this abyss, according to Boaventura, a new intercultural left must be put together, ready to raise the flag of environmental justice and give a voice, a vote and priority to the traditional peoples for decisions related to their territory.
If the mark of the left is individual and collective emancipation when faced with unjust social structures, there is no human group more accustomed to resisting cultural and material domination than those mentioned peoples. Their history of resistance to the commodification of nature must be an example for the Latin American left.
Daniel Cerqueira is a Lawyer, Senior Program Officer at the Due Process for Law Foundation (DPLF). Twitter: @dlcerqueira
Translated from its original in Spanish by Katie Oliver
This article appeared originally in https://www.opendemocracy.net/