Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges
and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Steve Ellner, 2014, Lanham, Maryland,
Roman and Littlefield, 291 pages, paperback.
commentators and researchers on Latin America prefer moderate leftist governments, such as those of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, which are capitalism- and
U.S.-friendly. These governments avoid the participatory democracy that
guarantees popular input into decision-making. The radical left in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, by contrast, enshrines
participatory democracy in their constitutions; and it rejects the
state-centered strategy of the old left. It also repudiates neo-liberalism.
Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and
Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century, edited by
Steve Ellner, a distinguished and prolific Venezuela scholar, is sympathetic to the
radical left. Most of the essays appeared in Latin American Perspectives, May 13,
important article on Bolivia by Federico Fuentes was written for
this volume. Ellner provides a sophisticated introduction to the book and introductions to each section.
introduction is masterful, covering theoretical and historical issues. “The
term ‘twenty-first century Latin American radical left,’” he writes, “as used
here applies primarily to the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador and
excludes more moderate movements both in power (as in the case of Brazil) and
out of power . . . [These governments] are staunch critics of the capitalist
system, if not advocates of socialism. In addition, radical leftists have taken
advantage of their . . . political victories by moving quickly against
adversaries and deepening the process of change.” The complexity of the task
facing the radical left lies partly in a commitment to electoral democracy and
partly in the stance of the right and the far left.
Although the essays are wide ranging, I will
focus on these three governments.Using the work of Ernesto Laclau, Ellner
underlines the complexities of social heterogeneity for the radical left
leaders of Venezuela (Chavez and Maduro), Bolivia (Morales) and Ecuador (Correa). They reject worker
vanguardism in favor of non-privileged, multisector support. Their political base
includes the indigenous, the rural poor
and the informal sector, as well as workers. Thus Ellner suggests that the
historical situation of Latin America, as opposed to that of the Soviet Union or Europe, be taken into account when
evaluating leftist governments in the region.
lays out and critiques the notion of the “bad left” versus the “good left”
associated with Jorge Casteñada that refuses to die despite qualifications and
criticism. This binary formulation is useful to Washington for pointing the finger at radical,
unacceptable leaders: populist, demagogic and needlessly anti-American. Ellner
concedes that the radical left bears some resemblance to the populism of the
1930s and 1940s, including an emphasis on charismatic leadership. But the whole
argument fails to take account of the
diversity of the base and the complexity of government policies as it navigates
the tricky waters of the opposition and the various sectors on the left. It
also fails to acknowledge the pragmatic and trial-and-error approach to change.
A critique of the division of bad left versus good left runs through many of
the essays in the book.
In addition to
writing an introduction, Ellner has also contributed a piece on Venezuela, entitled “Social and Political Diversity
and the Democratic Road to Change in Venezuela.” In it he discusses the long
drawn-out conflict between the state and the private sector over, among other
things, price controls. The result was the wave of expropriations taking place from
2009 to 2013. The process of expropriation illustrates how radical change takes
place in a democracy. He also shows how government policies impacted the three
sectors which Chavez, (and later Nicolás Maduro) counted on for support;
workers, middle sectors and the “unincorporated,” which includes the informal
sector. Thus divisions within the Chavista cause reveal unity but more importantly, the heterogeneity
which Ellner underlines in the introduction.
has also written an essay on Venezuela. It examines the negotiations
attendant on The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Here the complexity of
change is emphasized as the negotiations moved from the hands of bureaucrats to
Chavez’s special Commission.
Unlike Venezuela, in Bolivia the presidential election of the
indigenous union leader, Evo Morales, was a triumph of the social
movements. They pushed for a new
constitution which ensured a pluri-national state and indigenous autonomy. The
movements also pressured Morales to nationalize the hydrocarbon sector. The
state takes 80% of the profits and invests some of the revenue in productive
enterprises at home. Thus the state rather than the market becomes the key
player in the economic realm.
Fuentes points to these developments to refute the claim that Bolivia represents a “reconstituted
neo-liberalism.” In the “‘Bad Left’ Government versus the ‘Good Left’ Social Movements,”
he takes issue with the likes of ultra-leftist writer Jeffrey Webber. Webber
sides with those social movements that are more radical than the government; he
paints Morales as simply accommodating to business interests.
In contrast to
the ultra-left, Fuentes argues that socialism in the region requires a more
hospitable international climate than the neo-liberal one provides. It is
arguably unrealistic to expect Bolivia or any other Latin American country
to make a complete break with capitalism.
The picture in
Ecuador and the position of President Rafael Correa is
somewhat more ambiguous. All the radical left governments operate within a
capitalist framework, but Correa’s actions frequently put him in the
pro-business camp. Ecuador is often grouped with Venezuela and Bolivia as a radical left nation, and it is
rhetoric is anti-capitalist; and he expropriated nearly 200 companies. Correa
has done much for the poor majority. The popular classes have benefited from
anti-oligarchic and anti-business reforms. Yet social movement activists accuse
him, rightly, of hewing to a capitalist model of development which includes
foreign corporations that figure in his plans for increasing oil production.
Correa has also tried to marginalize
the social movements. In the case of indigenous groups, he represses protests
against extractive enterprises. The indigenous often clash with the government
over water policies. (Venezuela and Bolivia also have extractive industries, but
have opened up spaces for popular organizations.) Even though the focus of the
volume is radical left governments, I would like to have seen criticisms of
extractivism by left activists not in
power treated more systematically. Recently, considerable attention has been
paid to critics of extractivism. (See the work of Raúl Zibechi and Gerardo
Enriques.) For example, discussion of these critics appears in the Current
issue of Z Magazine (March, 2015) and
Nacla’s Report on the Americas
In any event, Marc
Becker concludes that Correa is less consistently radical than Chavez and
Maduro and Morales, especially regarding social movements. In Correa’s defense,
Becker observes that in this era of neo-liberal hegemony, no leader has broken
This book is a
valuable contribution to the growing literature on the left in Latin America. It reappraises the radical left: It
redeems it from the marginalized status in the political science literature,
and from critiques of it as simply populist and authoritarian.
I have only
one quarrel with the volume. I was disappointed by the essay on Nicaragua and
El Salvador. On Nicaragua, Héctor Perla Jr. and Héctor M.
Cruz-Feliciano do not do justice to the critique of the FSLN by the ex-Party
opposition. Citing one remark by Dona Maria Tellez is not sufficient. The left
opposition is concerned about ― elections aside ― the lack of
democratic behavior exhibited by the FSLN and its leader, President Daniel
Ortega. For example, it is widely believed that the Party controls the
community councils. And Ortega marginalizes the social movements that he cannot
control. (An interesting opportunity was missed by not exploring more fully the
tension between radical left ends and political means.)
Yet the book overall represents a
masterful and successful effort to analyze and defend the radical left.