Something Left in Latin America: Venezuela and the Struggle for Twenty-First Century Socialism

Steve Striffler

Abstract


For the Latin American Left the road to ruin, or at least setback, was broadly similar across the region and not all that different from the path to success a decade earlier. The commodity boom delivered, but so too did the bust. Left governments came to power in the late 1990s and 2000s through popular insurgencies of varying intensity and composition. Once in office, they focused on consolidating political power both via legalistic measures, most notably through the creation of progressive constitutions, and by continuing to build and mobilize the diverse constituencies that brought them to power in the first place. This process alone was significant. It mobilized people, invested larger numbers in the political process, and in some cases produced important advances for indigenous and Afro-descendant populations. This political process did not, however, necessarily create the basis for radically restructuring the political economy or pose a significant threat to property relations.

The governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and (to a much lesser extent) Ecuador, however, all took steps to deepen the process of change. Flush with oil money, Venezuela went the furthest. But as commodity prices plunged, economies contracted, and inequality once again increased, people protested against attacks on the social-public goods they had won over the past two decades. Popular frustration was now directed at left governments that had come to power on an anti-neoliberal wave, promising to rule on behalf of the nation. Such setbacks are, however, to be expected in deeply contested class struggles for systemic change within bourgeois democracy. Although the specifics differ, the contentious and polarizing nature of these struggles, the loss of middle-class support, and the difficulty of advancing and sustaining left projects in such circumstances is clearly part of the explanation as to why the left has experienced setbacks in not only Venezuela, but Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. How the Latin American left responds remains to be seen, but the simple fact is that it has become an important force on the political landscape.


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