Next week Ecuador goes to the polls with a strong leftist candidate. But the attempt to destroy the socialist movement in Bolivia, and its survival of those attempts, provides lessons for socialists on the continent and around the world, argues Danny Pilkington.
Next week, Ecuador will vote for its next president in a two-candidate run-off. Having won the first round of voting with 33%, left-wing economist Andres Arauz is a hopeful prospect for socialists in the region. He faces the banker, Guillermo Lasso, who – to the dismay of Western liberals hoping to see socialism combatted from the centre – managed to see off the liberal environmentalist candidate, Yaku Perez. Where Arauz offers an economic model which rejects International Monetary Fund (IMF) austerity measures and foreign interference; Lasso, Perez, and the outgoing Lenin Moreno all represent a kind of politics where capitulation to the economic interests of the USA is standard.
The omnipresence of imperialism means that it characterises our entire historical era. It operates under the veneer of various supposed humanitarian crusades, liberation projects, or ‘wars on terror’, and is always underpinned by the assertion that imperial conquests expedite a greater sense of morality throughout humanity. Of course, the reality of imperialism is quite different. Its perpetrators – above all the USA – have inflicted untold horror upon the post-colonial world. Through a structure of ideologies, global power imbalances, and national networks of oligarchy and patronage, those at the top act with relative impunity.
The contemporary Bolivian and Ecuadorean political contexts offer some insight into these systems.
Bolivia, is at a different stage in the enforcement of, and partly successful resistance to, these systems. Having been exiled from the country during a US-backed coup in November 2019, former president Evo Morales has triumphantly returned to Bolivia to see his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) restored in power, defeating Jeanine Anez’s coup government and electing Luis Arce to the presidency in October 2020. In February 2021, Luis Arce’s MAS rejected the coup government’s IMF loan and returned the full sum of $346.7 million – it had already built up $24.3 million in interest and commissions. A firm rejection of economic intervention from the global north, or ‘West’. But in Bolivia, a country with such an incredible wealth of natural resources – highly exploitable and profitable in the wrong hands – the struggle against imperial forces is far from over.
Despite their successes in Bolivia, and hopes in Ecuador, left-wing movements in Latin America know they have heavy odds stacked against them. The USA and its subservient allies among the Latin American oligarchy and military have successfully destroyed agrarian and socialist movements in the region for generations (Guatemala in 1954; Brazil in 1964; Chile in 1973 – the list goes on). The US-backed parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff of the Brazilian Workers’ Party in 2016, and Trump’s economic sanctions on Venezuela, which are estimated to have resulted in the deaths of around 40,000 people between 2017-18 (Joe Biden stated on 2 March 2021 that the sanctions would continue under his administration), are evidence of this continuous, unabating war on socialist politics and its associated national liberation projects. Not only are these wars against ideas, they are vicious attacks on people living in these countries, often under their elected governments. Yet, each example of US intervention will be readily justified by its imperial perpetrators. An excuse, or moral reasoning, will always be fabricated and skilfully marketed to Western audiences. This framing is usually presented as a dichotomy, an honourable struggle between the forces of good; the global arbiters of ‘peace’ and ‘liberty’, versus the oppressive ‘regimes’ of the bad. However, the reality of these power struggles, must begin from a different dichotomy: imperialism versus anti-imperialism.
The 2019 US and Western-backed coup in Bolivia exemplifies this struggle. Owing to an impressive nationalisation of natural resources, for 6 of the 14 years Evo Morales was president, Bolivia ranked first in South America for economic growth (having ranked lowest before Morales). His MAS administration’s social reforms had reduced poverty from 65 to 35 percent in the period since 2006. The MAS movement itself was a highly mobilised and powerful force, bringing together trade unionists and long oppressed indigenous communities. Yet, when Morales won the first round of voting in 2019, the right rallied around allegations of election fraud made by the Organisation of American States (OAS) – a transnational body closely aligned to the strategic interests of Washington. Despite there being no evidence found for these claims, Morales was still deposed, for two reasons.
Firstly, his removal was endorsed by the White House, therefore the coup received wide support throughout Western media outlets and political spheres (including the EU). The effects from this kind of international abandonment are difficult to mitigate for – just ask the people of Palestine, or sanctioned Venezuela. Secondly, Morales was up against the oligarchy within Bolivia itself. With deep roots in the courts, police, and military high command, the right-wing opposition controlled powerful sections of the state apparatus and therefore had the practical means for subverting democracy with relative ease. It is worth noting that a former MAS minister recently urged people to avoid being ‘‘timid, contemplative, or complacent’’, and start preparing to organise should the armed forces disobey ‘‘the will of the people’’ again. This call for a militant left is encouraging for those on the side of democratic justice. For those on the imperialist pro-coup right, it is an indictment of their record of interventionism, and a strong indicator that these interventions will no longer be tolerated by the left.
The correlation between international pro-coup support and domestic coup-enforcing oligarchies and state apparatuses illustrates a vital point about imperialism. Left-wing movements and administrations which seek to implement socialist reforms must battle against a global capitalist order whose beneficiaries command great power within international and domestic institutions. This is a somewhat bleak situation for the left, and reinforces that for any hope of a prolonged victory, we need movements strong enough to resist both actors. In forcing through – and winning – the 2020 election, MAS demonstrated this kind of resilience.
But the fight continues. In March 2021, Anez and others were arrested for their role in the coup process – a coup which involved massacring civilian protestors and subjecting MAS politicians to degrading acts of torture. However, these arrests have been resisted by the OAS, and the international liberal media are framing events as an ‘‘opposition crackdown’’, rather than simply the due legal process which would follow the illegal and murderous overthrowing of a democratically elected government. These misleading narratives throw the true nature of injustice into obscurity.
The threat of military intervention seen in the Bolivian coup of 2019, however, is but one imperial tactic of many. In Vijay Prashad’s Washington Bullets (2020), the different types of US imperial warfare are ably summed up: ‘‘US power must be used through military action (asymmetrical wars), but also through the use of measures such as economic inducements, sanctions, and information warfare as well as support for local police and military forces (hybrid wars).’’
Prashad’s analysis notes that imperialism, the guiding principle of US foreign policy, often comes within covert operations that apply pressure using various strategic tools; all of which are aimed at achieving ‘‘preponderant power’’ for the United States.
Let us take the example of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to explore this point. The IMF, in its own literature, sets out that it aims to ‘‘ensure the stability of the international monetary system’’. All this sentence really means is that the IMF’s focus is to maintain the economic interests of those who dominate the existing global financial order. The use of the term ‘’stability’’ here is particularly wearing, as to stabilise, is simply to nullify the potential for radical change.
Since the 1970s, the IMF has been an arms-length extension of the US state apparatus. It is compelled by Washington to apply pressure to foreign economies, and subsequently shows up in poor countries and pressurises governments into visiting crushing austerity upon their people in exchange for high-interest loans – which go on to subordinate this nation to its financial overlords. As such, disengagement with the IMF is a recognisable act of anti-imperialism.
The current political situation in Ecuador is instructive here. Outgoing president Moreno departs with an 8 percent approval rating; his legacy defined by a costly re-engagement with the IMF, slasheding funding for public services, and the renouncement of Julian Assange’s asylum. If Ecuador elects Lasso and the right, this political trajectory will likely continue. The alternative is a vote for Arauz, who wants to reignite ‘correaismo’ socialism and implement progressive taxation reforms, reject the IMF, and form business relations with China as opposed to the US.
However, Arauz faces challenges not entirely dissimilar to those faced by Morales in Bolivia. His economic policies are at odds with the goals of the international financial order and its imperial ‘’stability’’ project, but he is also meeting resistance from domestic institutions. Reports emerged on 5 March 2021, showing photos of Perez – the US-favoured, defeated liberal candidate, now backing Lasso – having a secret meeting with one of the judges from the Electoral Disputes Court. This is of concern as Perez is a member of the Pachakutik party, who had just lodged a legal challenge against the election results with a view to have them overturned.
Even the period prior to the results of the first round of voting – which Arauz won – saw suspicious developments. Voting is a legal obligation in Ecuador, yet on the day of the elections, it was reported that the authorities told queuing voters they would not be collecting the fines usually issued for not voting. Obligatory voting is something which often benefits the left as it increases the engagement of otherwise disenfranchised working-class communities. These reports thus highlight an undermining of democracy and an implicit attack on the left – facilitated by state institutions. Now, with a recent call from Perez – a supporter of the coup in Bolivia – for the military to intervene and nullify the election results from the first round of voting, it would be sensible, rather than conspiratorial, for Arauz and his movement to prepare themselves for un-democratic interventions. Imperialism, manufactured or supported by international economic powers, and facilitated by domestic oligarchical actors, poses a serious threat to Ecuadorean democracy.
The contemporary left-wing camps in Bolivia and Ecuador are but the latest in a long list of Latin American movements whose socialism is defined by anti-imperialism; by a fight for national liberation which is premised on an unwillingness to capitulate to imperial interests. Often, these conflicts are obscured within a ‘democracy vs authoritarianism’ ideological framing, the familiar Hollywood-style depiction US invasions as heroic. Really, imperialism in the modern era plays out as a battle between the global north and the global south as a class struggle. The neoliberal and imperial ideologies of the global north are so entrenched across conservative and liberal (‘‘progressive’’) state and media institutions that the reality of this class oppression is very easily obfuscated. Imperialism is a fundamental component of our oppressive global economic order, and as such, the left must unify behind causes which threaten it. International solidarity with working-class movements in Bolivia and Ecuador must reflect such an understanding.