Emir Sader, professor, sociologist, and
executive secretary of the Latin American
Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO).
Photo: Universidade Federal de
Minas Gerais.

With the rise of center-left governments, the South American region has—almost universally—appeared to leave behind the pillars of the Washington Consensus and the neoliberal model. Fiscal adjustment has been replaced with an agenda marked by a social emphasis, and the projects related to a free trade area with the United States are veering toward a renewed emphasis on horizontal regional integration.

However, recently some of the elements of the current Latin American context have begun transforming. In addition to the international financial crisis—which has had less of an impact on Latin America than in other regions, but has had an effect on external trade in several countries—the region has seen many new political changes. The persistent coup d’etat in Honduras; the major losses incurred by the Kirchners during the latest elections in Argentina, and the weakening of the government’s position in relation to agribusinesses and the media that followed; the endorsement of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) for Alvaro Uribe to authorize the presence of U.S. troops at seven bases in Colombia, after President Rafael Correa decided not to renew Ecuador’s contract with the United States for its base in Manta, and despite the fact that the bases violate the agreements of the South American Defense Council, to mention just a few. In an interview with CIP Americas Program, Emir Sader, professor, sociologist, and executive secretary of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO), explains the roots, repercussions, and possible challenges that these changes present.

Lucia Alvarez: Are we facing a new political course in Latin America? What impacts have the latest events of the region produced?

Emir Sader: Latin America has suffered a very rapid change from one decade to the next. The 90s was a neoliberal paradise: the majority of the continent was accepting of the policies and more governments held this ideological view. The forms that the transformation took on were profound and radical compared to other regions due to these factors. But later the combination of certain factors created a reaction to the model and was the impetus for a wave of governments that left behind the Washington Consensus and began to take initiative. This very new process had to do, in part, with the crises of the economic model experienced in the three principle economies of the region (Mexico 1994, Brazil 1991, and Argentina 2001-2002). Additional factors included the political isolationist policies of the Bush administration that only found allies in Mexico and Colombia, as well as the capacity for resistance demonstrated by social movements in Latin America. But it is not fair to say that this process was a simple one. Since the 2002 coup d’etat in Venezuela there have been attempts by the right to take power again. The offensive of the rural oligarchy in Argentina and the secessionist attempts in Bolivia are two examples of this movement. They are all distinct methods in the same effort to recuperate power. What we see now are the remnants, that which has survived from the years of neoliberal consensus.

But such that these experiences are so unique, can they be considered part of the same attempt?

I believe so. Not just because the back drop of issues—such as land and soy—are the same, but because they are attempts that translate into the desire for a return to the conservative countryside. As they say in Argentina, this situation poses two situations: the intensification of change or a conservative restoration. It is important to take into consideration, however, that today the right does not have a political agenda but it does have strong economic power; it is in decline but not economically and that is an important point. That is why the right is trying to delineate spaces where its interests will not be affected.

That is what is happening in Bolivia for example …

This is especially clear in the case of Bolivia where the resurgence of the right was born out of a secessionist attempt despite knowing full well that the movement was not viable, among other things, because the Bolivian Armed Forces were against it and the Latin American context was not favorable to the secession. What they are actually trying to accomplish is to delineate eastern territories where the agrarian reform will be unable to take hold. The fight over export taxes in Argentina had to do with its effects on soy agribusinesses; the coup in Venezuela was the result of agrarian reforms, although it is obvious that the coveted treasure of that country is the national oil company (PDVSA). Even the military coup in Honduras was related to this process. That is why I say that though the methods and political expressions are different, the attempt to recuperate power is the same.

What are the effects of this process for the central-left governments?

The Economist, a conservative British magazine, has said that the era of leftist governments is coming to a close because the crisis is imposing a rightist agenda: fiscal adjustment and violence. This was in August, but of course in El Salvador, a progressive government recently triumphed, which clearly showed this isn’t the case. The authorization of troops in Colombia is in reality a continuation of the Bush policies on military bases, in fact, these bases already exist. The coup d’etat in Honduras, on the other hand, must be recognized as a novelty, an anachronistic act. In this case, one must take into account that the solution could be pro-United States. If Zelaya returns with his hands tied, unable to submit a candidate before the public, unable to blame the coup leaders, it will be a triumph for the United States. Arias is a man who supports the rightist stance of Hillary Clinton. If Zelaya returns impotent it will be a windfall for the recovery of the U.S. sphere of influence that is disguised as adhering to democratic policies and claims to be anti-coup.

What kind of precedent does this coup experience leave for other countries like Bolivia?

Times change quickly. At another point in time, under these same conditions, there would have been a coup d’etat in Bolivia. But today this possibility doesn’t exist due to other factors that I mentioned earlier: the dividing up of the Bolivian territory and the lack of regional context. Today there is no doctrine that favors military coups, not even within the Organization of American States (OAS).

Where the coup in Honduras does have an effect is in the neighboring countries of Central America—like Nicaragua—where a constitutional reform was proposed that included a change that would allow the executive power to extend its term of office. In that sense the coup is a means to the kinds of solutions that could favor neoliberal sectors in the short term, but could also favor military threats in the intermediate term.

When the massacre at Pando occurred, the intervention of UNASUR was fundamental and effective. What will happen in the case of Honduras if none of the regional organizations, including the OAS, can reverse the coup?

The coup demonstrated that a unanimous condemnation at the international level does not have the necessary political force if it cannot impact the interior political climate of the country. Zelaya changed his position during his term in office and was not backed up by his party, the justice system, the parliament, or the armed forces. So it is a very special case. It is not El Salvador or Nicaragua. It demonstrates that the instruments of Cold War can still be called upon because the issue with military coups is not just that they exist but that they stand as a threat. Coups d’etat were thought of as relics of the past and of no concern.

In any case, the issue is still not resolved and it would be difficult to repeat this exact situation. MERCOSUR’s position and that of other countries, which states that they will not accept a new government that takes office as the result of a coup, could be an obstacle, although this factor could be controlled. If the return of Zelaya is accepted, as we have mentioned, with hands tied, it would signify a pyrrhic victory.

How is the United States positioned in relation to the region?

Two major themes from the Bush administration have remained. The first, related to Obama’s description of the Iranian government after the reelection, was surprising. Respectfully calling it an Islamic Republic—as the United States should have from the start—and avoiding the brand of terrorism was significant. However, in the United States, the idea that the North still maintains a capacity to judge continues to exist. This produces a big impact in the language of the press and in the behavior of other governments.

The other theme that has not changed and is even more serious is the idea of the war on drug trafficking. The erroneous notion continues in which blame is directed toward the production of coca and not on consumption, when the United States is the largest consumer in the world and that is the impulse for production. If there was no demand, there would be no coca production in rural areas. They would produce rice or any other crop. This factor and the issue of prohibition are what produce such extraordinary prices. In addition, by utilizing this analysis, the United States is in some ways able to export its own problems; it functions as a pretext for the installation of military bases that combat terrorism.

This is demonstrated in the case of Colombia. Today the FARC doesn’t exist but they are a pretext that will allow Uribe, one of the few U.S. allies in South America, to be reelected. At the root of his campaign for a third term is the fact that Uribe is intensifying the conflict with the FARC because he has lost internal and municipal elections. He lost Medellín, Bogota, and Cali. But Uribe knows that with the democratic security platform, he is sure to win at the national level. In reality there are two pretexts: the war on drugs, and terrorism. The current military, which has no power and is very isolated, is very useful for the Colombian president.

What threats exist behind the troop installation?

Even if it were strictly a Colombian issue—which it is not because in truth it has been denounced by neighboring countries—the South American Security Council does not allow member countries to host troops from other countries. In reality, there already are military troops. The purpose of this agreement is to explicitly state their intentions and formalize a reality that already exists. This is what interests Uribe. Now the Colombian president is quite content because he did not receive the unanimous rejection he expected and because he saw this as a question of personal character. The truth is that what’s at stake is South American sovereignty. This has enormous significance for the region unless Colombia decides to leave the Council.

Could that happen?

Brazil put a lot of emphasis on Colombia’s membership, keeping in mind the fact that if not everyone enters, the Council will lose strength. But Colombia has been invited as a silent observer. There already were deals with the United States, it wasn’t necessary to formalize them. The armed forces chief specifically said there would be five or seven naval bases, but now with this explicit agreement, there exists a contradiction with the regional process. We’ll have to see if this will pose a dilemma for Uribe. The two projects are incompatible.

What advances have been made by the progressive governments over the last 10 years?

I believe that the moderate governments, and the more radical ones, have two elements in common. They are also the two weakest points in the neoliberal model, the ones that created the most resistance: a priority on regional integration with respect to free trade agreements, and the determinant weight on social policies as a means to a better quality of life for the population with its consequent social legitimacy. All of these governments feel legitimized by the failure of these antiquated social policies despite the opposition rightwing press and political campaigns. On voting day, the social policy is what decides the outcome, and I believe that it has improved in every aspect.

First, the formal jobs sector improved in every country and especially in Argentina and Brazil. Precarious working conditions, the informal economy, and flexibility were cruel facets of the neoliberal model. The majority of Latin Americans didn’t have a contract and had no access to legal redress. This is a fundamental issue because it affects everyone, youths, women. Second, the issues of purchasing power, the distribution of wealth, housing costs were greatly improved. Brazil, which is the most unequal country within the most unequal continent, improved for the first time in many years. Now the great majority of people are increasingly finding themselves in the working class and moving out of poverty. This is thanks to a combination of additional factors: the government welfare program Bolsa Familia, micro credit, electricity brought in to rural areas, the real increase in salaries, and the food price controls.

But in some countries, like Venezuela, poverty rates decreased by just one percentage point, and in Argentina it is said that the poverty levels are rising.

There are some areas that have worsened, but there is better data out there.

How does inflation affect these countries?

Inflation is an instrument and it can have an effect. But it is due to the stabilization of salaries, so it is not a direct index like employment levels, the educational process, public health, or housing. These factors, for example, improved a lot in Venezuela. Despite its oil resources, Venezuela had a poverty rate not unlike Brazil due to the bourgeois robbing the country of its capital and exporting it. Benefits for the youth and the elderly are programs that really improved this situation. Though this is also a result of the state recuperating the country’s natural resources, it is not simply due to social policies but also because the state petroleum resources were increased.

And what has happened in countries that have not implemented these types of social policies, such as Peru or Colombia?

The economic growth in Peru grew dramatically through exports, since the term of former President Toledo and throughout Alan Garcia’s term as well. However, this growth was not coupled with a greater distribution of wealth throughout society or any popular support. They didn’t even create social policies with the resources raised. Chile is a country that, along with Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Argentina, was one of the least unequal countries on the continent. With the return to democracy, the country improved despite the Pinochet legacy, however it saw a major decline in comparison with the 70s. Today it is a profoundly unequal country even as its wealth has increased. In Mexico—the country often compared to Brazil and Argentina, above all due to its size—after choosing to sign on to the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, 90% of its trade is now with that country. You don’t have to be psychic to imagine the size of the crisis that this relationship is moving toward. Mexico’s gross domestic product (GDP) has already diminished and it has had to return to the IMF for assistance.

To what do you attribute these different effects of the international crisis?

It has to do with the diversification of international commerce. Today, the United States is no longer the most important country for Brazil; it’s the second most important. And for the continent as a whole, the United States makes up around 25% of external trade. Secondly, the intensification of interregional exchange has been very important and is seen most clearly in Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela. Third, the popular consumption within internal markets has been significant. The diminishing of the relative importance of exports, even increasing in absolute terms, allowed for the existence of distinct forms of capital creation and diversified possibilities. These are the factors that allowed the continent to practically save itself from the crisis.

What is the perspective for those that have been most affected?

The most affected countries—due to the importance of exports—did not have diversified economies or a sufficient internal market to be able to reengage in development. That is the issue in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, especially because of dependence on oil. What is clear now, as seen through the Chinese model, is that economic development is linked to the weight placed on the internal market and is substantially dependent on it. In any case, the export of gas is very important as well and is a resource that neither Brazil nor Argentina have.

What errors can you point to in the steps taken by the center-left?

I would say that Brazil—and I would assume you could make similar conclusions with respect to Argentina—will leave three negative legacies: first, the hegemony of financial capital; second, the agribusiness model; and third, the dictatorship of privately-owned media. In some countries one of these factors will have larger consequences than others. The error was in not having an alternative model in these aspects, in not having significantly diminished—in the case of Brazil they have recently begun doing this—the interest rates in order to be less attractive to financial capital. The crisis arrived—despite the fact that it was not created here—due to the dependence on international credit, and in addition there was a flight of capital, a decrease in exports, and the internal market was dispersed. So, in order to come out of the crisis there needs to be more regulation of financial capital, emphasis on the importance of regional integration and internal markets, as well as an alternative policy based on public opinion.

Are they doing enough in these respects?

Latin America has seen more advances than any other region in the world, but not at the necessary level. It should have advanced in the creation of a unique currency and used integration in social contexts. It is necessary to do away with the narrowest forms of integration such as commercial trade, economics, and finances and move toward other issues like the media, culture, technology, education. The region has advanced slowly and in part as a result of the crisis.