Class struggle in Latin America

Ecuador protests in 2011

This is the edited text of a speech given by SAM McGILL on the eve of Brazil’s crucial run-off presidential election between the left-wing candidate Luis Ignacio da Silva (Lula) and the far-right Jair Bolsonaro.

What happens in Brazil impacts the whole region; this vast country is home to 215 million people. It is the B in BRICS, the third-largest economy in the Americas after the US and Canada, and a major exporter of steel, energy and beef. Yet extreme poverty means over half the population experience food insecurity; 19 million face daily hunger. Just six men hold the same wealth as the poorest 100 million. Brazil is rated by Standard & Poor’s as BB minus, two notches below investment grade, making loans more expensive, resulting in ballooning debt: in 2021 Brazil had a debt-to-GDP ratio of 93%. In the last decade, agribusiness has surged to 25% of GDP while industrial output shrank by one-fifth, reflecting its increasing need to service debt interest payments. 

On the campaign trail, Lula appealed for national unity in a deeply polarised society. The first round of the election had handed Bolsonaro’s coalition large majorities in the senate and chamber of deputies (see Brazil, p11). Lula was forced to turn to disillusioned right-wing and business sectors to shore up votes. Victory therefore will come at a political cost, leaving him little room for manoeuvre. Lula has committed to repaying Brazil’s debt and pledged support for the free market. How far he is able to deliver on promises to end hunger and protect the Amazon will depend on the compromises these electoral alliances force him to make, versus working class pressure holding him to account. Nevertheless, a Lula victory will open up political space for Brazil’s working class forces to organise and – like the election of Gustavo Petro in Colombia – will be welcome across the region, especially in neighbouring Venezuela. The battle in Brazil highlights the challenges, contradictions and opportunities facing the struggle for social change in Latin America today.

Poverty in Latin America is rooted in the underdevelopment of former colonies held down by imperialism. Across the continent countries are forced to export cheap raw materials and cash crops, leaving them reliant on expensive imports with stunted infrastructure. International loans with high interest rates force ever increasing dependency on extractivism and agribusiness. The battle is over whether these are used for industrialisation and development – or the enrichment of imperialist investors and the domestic bourgeoisie. The fight for social justice is bound up with the fight for sovereignty. 

Following the commodities crash of 2015, the Covid-19 pandemic and now sanctions on Russia, debt has exploded in Latin America. This reflects the crisis in imperialist countries which are scrambling to invest in anything remotely profitable. Money spent on debt repayments represents 59% of revenues from exports of goods and services. In 2019, Argentina, Belize, Dominica, Ecuador, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, El Salvador and St Vincent & the Grenadines all devoted more resources to debt servicing than to health expenditure. 

The US still considers Latin America its backyard and is increasingly threatened by the rising influence of Chinese trade, which has exploded from $17bn in 2002 to $449bn in 2021. Nevertheless, at $800bn in trade – nearly double China’s share – the US remains the region’s main partner. Accumulated Chinese loans only total $138bn out of $2.41 trillion total regional debt.


A key focus is on lithium, which is already being extracted in Chile and Argentina; Bolivia has yet to begin commercial extraction. Evo Morales nationalised Bolivia’s lithium 14 years ago, but the challenge remains how to draw in expertise to extract and process lithium without completely submitting to imperialist multinationals and environmental destruction. Having faced down a lithium coup in 2019, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government is overseeing a stringent process to find an international partner. The Uyuni salt flat in Potosi holds the world’s largest lithium deposits. Potosi was the centre of silver mining under Spanish colonial rule, where slaves were worked to death depleting its resources. MAS is determined that lithium will not leave the same legacy. Lithium involves extraction from brine – the US’s Abermarle plant in Chile requires 500,000 gallons of water to produce one tonne of lithium, leaving local communities without water in one of the driest regions on earth. Following protests, Bolivia is pursuing a new method based on chemical processes which use much less water but requires imported inputs and is more expensive. The challenge, in the words of Morales, is to ‘industrialise with dignity and sovereignty’. 

Taking back control of natural resources, radical land reform and developing the chains of production are key to breaking the dependency of Latin American countries. This inevitably brings conflict with imperialism.

Strategies of resistance

To confront this reality, the armed struggle was taken up by guerrillas across Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, with Peru, Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia and Argentina using the Cuban Revolution as a reference point. All were defeated. The only exception was Nicaragua where Sandinistas triumphed in 1979 before facing a ten-year bloody US-backed civil war. Elsewhere, US-backed coups, brutal military dictatorships and Operation Condor decimated progressive movements. Neo-liberal shock doctrines expanded agribusiness and mining, driving urbanisation. Less than half of the region’s population lived in the cities in 1960. Today it’s over 80%. Armed struggle in the countryside is no longer viable, as Fidel Castro advised in peace negotiations with Colombia’s FARC guerrillas in 2012. 

Heralding change, in 1992 Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez led a military rebellion against the repressive Perez government. It failed, but gave impetus to a new movement, that saw him elected by landslide just six years later, kickstarting the Bolivarian revolution. In power, Chavez convoked a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution and ploughed oil revenues into poverty-busting social programmes. He was targeted by a short-lived coup and oil lock-out. The working class, mobilised through collective projects, defeated both. Their consciousness was to be further deepened through Venezuela’s system of participatory democracy – communal councils and communes. This experience illustrated the possibilities of an electoral strategy in the fight for socialism. As Venezuela and Cuba founded ALBA, social movements swept to power through elections in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Centrist presidents were pushed to the left in Honduras and Paraguay as the ‘pink tide’ took off in the 2000s. 

Electoral quagmire

But this ‘socialism of the 21st century’ faced its own contradictions. Operating within the confines of bourgeois democracy, with almost constant elections to be fought, structures of participatory democracy competed with traditional seats of power. In Venezuela, with the exception of oil, the commanding heights of the economy – banking, food distribution, media – remained in private hands. The state lacked monopoly of foreign trade, increasing its vulnerability to capital flight, hoarding and speculation. When the opposition boycotted elections for the national assembly, large majorities enabled the Bolivarian revolution to implement change, including passing land laws and creating free universal healthcare and education. But when the opposition participated in elections, these majorities were reduced, creating a political stalemate. There remains a tension between the need for concessions and the risk that the interests of the poor will be sacrificed to the electoral process. 

Since 2015, hyperinflation and suffocating sanctions have significantly changed Venezuela’s economy. The massive GDP contraction decimated funds for imports. This propelled import substitution and today Venezuela produces 80% of its own food. Non-oil exports are rising. Though economic recovery is uneven, Venezuelan migrants are returning. Political consciousness has hardened. Mass commitment to anti-imperialism and conviction in the Bolivarian process has been essential in withstanding this economic crisis. 

Bolivia also holds important lessons. The coup of 2019 reflected the failure to dismantle the bourgeois police and army. As the Cuban Communist Party pointed out at the time, Bolivia’s armed forces had been trained by the US; it was at the behest of the CIA that they captured and assassinated Che Guevara in 1967. During the coup the security forces showed their true colours as they ripped the indigenous wiphala flag from their uniforms and joined fascist gangs in unleashing terror on the indigenous population. 

But the working class and indigenous communities launched a sustained mobilisation against the coup government, forcing it to elections where the MAS won an overwhelming majority in 2020. It is yet to be seen if the government of Luis Arce, having brought the coup plotters to justice, is prepared to completely purge the security forces of their reactionary elements (see article p11).

These examples highlight that the only guarantor of a continuing socialist process is the conscious participation and mobilisation of the working class and poor, organised and armed when necessary. The revolutionary masses in Venezuela and Bolivia have emerged stronger through hard-fought class struggle. 

Latin America’s ‘second wave’

Winning a landslide victory on the crest of a social movement is completely different to winning a small majority in a second round run-offs where parliament is controlled by the right-wing. We have seen in Paraguay, Brazil and now Peru how a supreme court, backed by right-wing majorities in the Senate, conducts lawfare. They imprisoned Lula and removed Dilma Rousseff. Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez Kirchner faces a possible 12 years in prison, a ploy to block her from next year’s election. In Peru, President Castillo has appealed to the OAS in an attempt to avoid a constitutional coup and the extreme right-wing taking back control. This political deadlock allows him no scope to address the social problems that sparked the protests that brought him to power. Just as imperialists developed methods to suppress revolutionary armed struggle in the 1970s and 1980s, today they finesse their methods to hamstring the movements pursing an electoral path.

Under intense pressure from imperialism, will these leaders resist or capitulate? This depends on their connection with the social movements that elected them. Chavez, like Fidel, was known for his relationship with the masses and unswerving commitment to anti-imperialism. When Chavez and Fidel founded ALBA in 2004, Nicaragua’s Ortega, Ecuador’s Correa and Bolivia’s Morales threw their weight behind the project, declaring themselves socialists and anti-imperialists too. Compare this to Chile’s Gabriel Boric, a leader thrown up from protests of 2013 and 2019: yet he has played into the hands of US imperialism by attacking the revolutionary ALBA countries at the OAS summit. Once in power he declared war on the indigenous Mapuche people after using them for votes. In the pursuit of ‘fiscal responsibility’, Boric has cut public spending by 24% while leaving the profits of the rich and multinationals untouched.

Chile’s constitutional referendum, which could have mobilised huge sections of the Chilean working class, instead was used to dissipate revolutionary discontent. Boric has increased funding for the police who are once again attacking protestors in Santiago. The class struggle will explode again in Chile because all the same social and political issues remain.

The working class must be able to participate in shaping social transformation, holding elected leaders to their promises – their mobilisation cannot be turned on and off like a tap in election campaigns and shelved in between. Class struggle remains the motor of change, and would-be progressive leaders ignore it at their peril. In 2009, Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa told FRFI that: ‘socialism for the 21st century seeks this change through democratic processes and the is no longer through armed struggle. There are things in traditional socialism which we agree with...But we reject some elements – class struggle, violent change and dialectical materialism itself.’ 

Less than a year later Correa was the target of a failed coup; later, the vice president he then backed to succeed him, Lenin Moreno, rushed into the arms of the IMF, betrayed the Citizens’ Revolution and attempted to imprison Correa. The class struggle has not disappeared for the ruling class and their imperialist backers.

But nor has it disappeared for the revolutionary forces. How was the coup in Bolivia overturned? Class struggle. How is Venezuela still standing? Class struggle. As the conditions for social change through the ballot box diminish in Latin America a new strategy will be forged in struggle.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 291, December 2022/January 2023