The Vicissitudes of the Latin American State

A Conversation with Mabel Thwaites Rey

In early May, while in Buenos Aires, I had an extended conversation with Mabel Thwaites Rey, one of the leading theorists of the Latin American state and preeminent analyst of the rise and fall of the progressive tide of social movements and governments in the twenty-first century. She is a professor in the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Buenos Aires.

In our discussion, we trace her intellectual and political development, the centrality of Gramsci and Poulantzas to her general understanding of the capitalist state, as well her theorization of the specificities of the Latin American state form, having to do, above all, with its subordinate incorporation into the world system of states and dependent relationship to the logics of global capital accumulation.

From these theoretical foundations, our discussion moves to Thwaites Rey’s interpretation of the rise of anti-neoliberal social movements at the turn of the century and the progressive governments that followed them, themes covered in the volume she co-edited with Hernán Ouviña in 2012, El Estado en América Latina: Continuidades y rupturas (The State in Latin America: Continuities and Ruptures). Key issues taken up here are the impact of the commodities boom and the specificities of the role of the state under new progressive governments, compared to its role during the orthodox neoliberal era.

Next, we discuss the puzzle of the “end of the cycle,” a theme taken up in another volume Thwaites Rey co-edited with Ouviña earlier this year, Estados en disputa. Auge y fractura del ciclo de impugnación al neoliberalismo en América Latina (States in Dispute: Rise and Fracture of the Anti-Neoliberal Cycle in Latin America). She explains the collapse of the progressive cycle with reference, first, to the central material factor of the global crisis of 2008 and the way its effects were mediated in Latin America through the collapse of commodity prices. She explores the social bases and organizational forms assumed by the new right-wing oppositions, with penetrating insight into the role of the corporate media, judiciary, and the ideological platform of anti-corruption. Still, the new right-wing forces are shown to lack the ideological and political coherence of the Latin American rights of the 1990s, at the height of neoliberal hegemony. In the absence of such a coherent project, this might simply mean more violent and draconian forms of right-wing rule.

Jeffery R. Webber (JW): It’s May 2, 2019, and I’m here in the office of Mabel Thwaites Rey, at the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Buenos Aires. To start, can you describe your political and intellectual formation?

Thwaites Rey (TR): I graduated from Law School and I have a law degree, but I quickly began post-graduate study in social sciences and to teach classes at the University of Buenos Aires. I was focusing on the area of Political Science. I did a Masters in Social Sciences at FLACSO and then a Masters in Public Administration and a doctorate in Politics-Theory of the State, both at the University of Buenos Aires. My strongest formation has been in the field of theories of the state and also in the analysis of public policy, structural adjustment, and political economy, in a very broad sense.

I was trained in the Marxist tradition in the 1970s and 1980s, and I was a militant in party formations. Later, no, but I always continued to have ties with social and political movements of the left, both in the university scene and beyond it. I locate myself in the space of the popular left, close to the autonomist tradition, with regard to its critique of the more rigid party model that is sustained, for example, in variants of the Trotskyist tradition, which has a strong presence in Argentina. While I have many affinities and affection for comrades that adhere to it, I don’t come from the Trotskyist tradition. I believe, however, that we have to try to construct a synthesis of the distinct currents of the left, a difficult and arduous task, to which I am constantly drawn.

I am a student of the “state problematic” but I am not a “statist.” I understand that the state dimension has been grossly underestimated and little understood, and therefore I insist that it has to be considered and studied in depth, both in theoretical terms and, above all, for its importance in the definition of strategic politics.

JW: The subject of the state is a good place to begin, then. In broad theoretical terms, what is your understanding of the capitalist state, and from that foundation, how should we introduce the particularities of the Latin American state?

TR: I have followed the classical Marxists works on the state. I have worked a lot on the theoretical perspective of Antonio Gramsci, the idea of the “extended state,” of the state as articulator of social relations, and the Poulantzian derivation of Gramsci is what has most interested me. The contribution of Poulantzas to the understanding of the state dynamic and the state problematic has been fundamental in my intellectual development.

The contributions of Gramsci and Poulantzas are those which seem to me the most fruitful in analysing the state. The debates around “derivation” made a very valuable contribution as well, although how to develop, within this tradition, more specific, intermediary categories, which can be useful to understanding concrete processes, continues to be unclear to me.

What binds many of these intellectual currents is the view of the state as a social relation, a view to which I subscribe, and to which I add the insurmountably contradictory dimension of the state form. Emphasizing the contradictory suggests that when popular struggles manage to translate their demands into the apparatuses of the state, these same apparatuses can serve, at the same time, to appease struggles, to channel them, and in so doing solidify capitalism. Thus, there is always a tension in the sense that every conquest can be reversed, a form of subordination; but this does not mean abandoning the struggle to obtain gains which are translated into the state apparatus in the form of laws, resources, offices. Because defeat produces frustration, and that does not improve the chances of overcoming capitalism. In that sense, I agree with some of the arguments put forward by Álvaro García Linera in this respect, and with the idea of the “suture knot” that Guillermo O’Donnell developed in the late 1970s.

JW: And the specificities of the Latin American state?

TR: To address the specificities of Latin America, we worked on the book El Estado en América Latina: Continuidades y rupturas (The State in Latin America: Continuities and Ruptures), which we published in 2012 as a collective product from the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO) working group of the same name. Hernán Ouviña and I argued that the specificity of Latin America has to do with the region’s historically dependent constitution of the capital relation at the global scale. So, what is specific is that Latin American state formations cannot be thought about without keeping in mind their constitution as part of the process of the expansion of capitalism at the global scale, from the conquest forward.

We can refer to all of the debates of the 1960s and 1970s with regard to at which moment Latin America can be said to have acquired a capitalist character, if it was or wasn’t in a feudal phase, when it developed its structural dependence; but what we can’t ignore is that the peripheral states are characterized by the fact that, from their origins, they do not have full governance over their spatial territories of social reproduction, to the extent that they are traversed by the logics of global accumulation, to which they are subordinated. And this has a very particular, specific significance.

We had many conversations in the 1990s with John Holloway, a friend whom I love dearly, about the idea of the global circulation of capital and the struggle of national states to capture portions of capital and to make it productive in their national territorial spaces. We emphasized that there was never an equivalence between all national states, since that competition between states to capture capital was determined by the histories of each state, its structures, its modes of accumulation.

So, from these premises, we can begin to see the specific dimension to Latin America, to analyse the national anchoring of each state, which has a very distinctive particularity in Latin America. To raise the question of nationalisms in Latin America is not to raise the issue of “nationalisms in general” and, even less, European nationalisms. You cannot make a direct translation, i.e., “all nationalism is bad.” Anti-colonial struggles, struggles for liberation, anti-imperialist struggles have a specificity, with distinct connotations in peripheral national states. I think that this is one of the specificities of national states in the region.

JW: Shifting gears away from the theoretical and historical question of the state in Latin America, let’s move to more recent political developments in the region. Can you contextualize historically the progressive wave of movements and governments that emerged at the outset of the twenty-first century, and later their decline? We could begin with the conjuncture of the end of the 1990s and early 2000s. What explains the emergence of many different types of leftist formations and social movements, and out of them, eventually, progressive governments?

TR: Together with Hernán Ouviña I edited a book, Estados en disputa. Auge y fractura del ciclo de impugnación al neoliberalismo en América Latina (States in Dispute: Rise and Fracture of the Anti-Neoliberal Cycle in Latin America), which was published earlier this year. In the introductory chapter, we laid out a series of characteristics of what we called the anti-neoliberal cycle in Latin America (CINAL). We have a perspective, in this sense, which begins its analysis with the surge of movements of contestation, protest, and popular demands, which accumulated over the 1990s, the decade of structural adjustment.

Neoliberal adjustments had particularities in each of the countries of the region and varied in the depth with which they implemented policies such as privatization of state enterprises, economic liberalization, and labour market flexibilization. But all of them were affected by the adjustment wave, which in accordance with the guidelines of the Washington Consensus, destroyed our economies and the quality of life of our peoples. In Argentina, the process of privatizations and deregulation was very drastic, with an enormous external indebtedness.

Social discontent in the region generated distinct expressions, with more or less radicalism. In the majority of our countries there was an irruption of struggles, movements, and unrest that led, towards the end of the century, to the emergence of governments which echoed these demands and, to a greater or lesser extent, opposed the neoliberal policies which preceded them.

There has been much discussion as to how best to characterize these governments – post-neoliberal, left-wing, progressive – and also over how best to classify this “pink tide,” with some countries redder, and others pinker. What binds them, I think, is that all of them, bad or good, challenged, questioned, confronted – whether rhetorically, or more concretely – neoliberalism. They were governments that emerged saying “we don’t want to be neoliberal,” we are against the policies of neoliberal adjustment.

This coloured the majority of the political processes of the region at the start of the new century, and in some countries this was translated into progressive governments, in others no. If one analyses the process in its totality as a cycle, we can include Mexico, for example, where in 2006 Andrés Manuel López Obrador, with a progressive nationalist discourse, lost the elections only through fraud.

An important element is the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power. He won the 1998 elections, assumed office in 1999, and began to radicalize in 2002, following the failed coup attempt. He put forward a vision of twenty-first century socialism and renewed and reinforced, in favour and against, the other political processes underway in the region. The Bolivarian leader represented a regional breakthrough.

The second element to keep in mind is that this cycle unfolded in an international context of a rise in commodities prices, a bonanza for the exporting countries in the region – a majority. That is, these countries benefitted – regardless of the governments that they had and the forms in which these resources were used – from extraordinary export revenue, whether from grain, energy, or minerals.

That is not to say that the reactionary cases of Peru, Chile, or Colombia have been the same as the progressive ones of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela. Even within the latter countries, the forms of this differential rent were distinct, because this also has to do with the kind of production involved and what is being exported. It is not the same thing to appropriate rent from copper or gas and nationalize these industries, as it is to make use of a part of the rent which comes from land – as in the case of Argentina – which is privately owned. In the latter case, the discussion moves to how to capture that differential rent, which brings within it enormous conflicts and tensions, which are those that have historically confronted Argentina. There is a constant tension over how to capture this differential rent that comes from the countryside as a result of the climate of the geographic location where these lands are situated, which is so naturally favourable for agricultural production.

And the third component, which has a common role in the majority of these processes, is the role of the state. Not because the state played no powerful and central role in the neoliberal epoch, which it did, in favour of capital’s capture of surplus and the disciplining of workers. In the new period, what national states began to recover was the capacity to arbitrate between bourgeois fractions, and the capacity of redistribution and mediation between dominant and popular classes, or between capital and labour. Following René Zavaleta – and also, to a certain extent, the recovery of his work by Luis Tapia – who distinguished between a structural moment and an instrumental moment of the state, we can say that during the CINAL a more structural moment was configured, given the possibility of the state operating in a more “bonapartist” mode, to mediate capitalist relations.

These are three of the features that we highlighted as distinctive of the anti-neoliberal cycle, with all of the problems that each one of them had.

In terms of struggles, we argued that the moment of apogee of struggles was followed by a period of decline in terms of popular activity. There are many discussions over why the popular movements diminished, or whether there were only ever movements from above, propelled by the states themselves.

Massimo Modonesi, a dear friend, has an analysis based in the Gramscian concept of “passive revolution” and speaks of “pacification.” He argues that what the governments produced was a capture, a subsumption of the energy of the insurrectionary popular initiative, in order to redirect it toward bourgeois recomposition. So, he speaks of passive revolutions, in a progressive sense because they made concessions, but they maintained intact the structure of capital.

I agree that the processes can be analysed in this way, but always and only when the analysis does not have a romantic perspective, of a popular movement always in expansion and always crushed while trying to advance… when the reality shows various different things. In the first place, it shows that while we say that at the base of the anti-neoliberal cycle, as a whole, were the protests and demands of the popular struggles begun in the 1990s, the progressive governments that followed did not arrive in office on the tail of an immediate boost of popular struggles.

The exception is Bolivia, which is the clearest case of a consistent popular mobilization that flows into the government of Evo Morales. In the majority of cases there were mediations. In Argentina, the crisis was in 2002-2002 and in 2003 the process was channelled politically by a fraction of Peronism, that is within the party system. In Ecuador the Citizen’s Revolution was protagonized by urban middle classes and not the Pachakutic indigenous movement, which years before had led the struggles. In Venezuela, itself, it’s not true that there was a great process of popular activity. On the contrary, it is from the leadership of the state that Chávez began to promote popular participation. Therefore, to speak of “pacification” in the Venezuelan case is to simplify a more complex situation, since more than “pacification” there was an attempt at activation, above all in the first period. In the cases of Brazil and Uruguay, the governments that came to office were constituted by centre-left coalitions that had been combative at one time, but which at a certain moment – in the case of the PT it is especially clear – made political alliances and moderated their public discourse in order to win elections. So, they don’t come to office on the peak of a grand participatory wave that one could say was subsequently “pacified” purposefully by the state leadership. In any case, they can still be reproached for how little they did to activate popular participation from the state in order to deepen changes.

Another aspect to consider is that there is no possibility of governing and of stable political leadership if there is no attempt to articulate and calm certain exacerbations of demands and internal struggles. And, furthermore, it is not the same to try to articulate as the government a large number of diverse demands, and being part of a movement that has its own partial and bounded demands, which are disputed by others.

Returning to the second element of the cycle, which is the economic expansion facilitated by a process of increasing income in these countries as a result of the commodities boom – this eventually began to reach its limits, and, furthermore, what it produced was the paradox of deepening the existing productive schemas. Extractivism, mono-production, and deindustrialization were all accelerated as an effect of the external boom.

In Brazil, this dynamic is very clear. In those years the industrial contribution to GDP fell while the proportion constituted by agricultural production increased. This is apparent in the tendency of “soyization” – the expansion of land devoted to the cultivation of soy – with all of the conflicts that it brought with it, and to the detriment of fomenting other more integrated forms of production that could also keep in mind environmental criteria.

Another interesting component of this complex question is that it is one thing to offer a critical description of what happened, and another to understand if it could have so easily developed in another manner. Because, what relation of forces do you have that can assure the material dispossession of the owners of the principal means and factors of production, and alter the productive bases, in an international context that demands and pays well for export products? There are various debates, in that sense, that are still not settled. I believe that the manner in which they are eventually settled will also impact upon where we stand in the face of other cycles to come that propose to expand popular interests. That is a central theme.

It’s clear that this cycle allowed the capture of surplus and the redistribution of part of it. It was important to the deepening of social policies and, in some cases like Argentina – and not only there – it enhanced the axis of consumption and employment. That is, after decades of increasing unemployment and pauperization, to guarantee access to levels of consumption and employment for the popular sectors was central to winning hegemony, and the political project of Kirchnerism was based on this.

Some analysts argue that these years were characterized by a “commodities consensus,” ie., that the prevailing ruling pact was to maintain mining and agro-industrial extractivism, without distinction among national political projects. We argue, on the contrary, that what prevailed was a pact to sustain consumption and employment, as a way of ensuring legitimacy. This is relevant to differentiating the nature of each of the political processes of the region, and not to overestimate a single dimension, of strong environmental content, as an exclusive explanatory criterion.

Another aspect to keep in mind is the institutional question. While in a few processes, which because of the level of pre-existing political decomposition, required or enabled constitutional reforms – as in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela – in the rest, there was not change in the basis of political organization. And even in those three cases which had constitutional reforms, the formats of political representation remained more or less unaltered.

They maintained the schema of classical representative democracy, with periodic elections, and without modifications or amplification in participation. This had the strength of regular popular consultation, but also the negative of closing off other instances that could have given a greater stability to deeper processes of transformation. Because the more classical models of liberal-democratic elections bear the urgency of demonstrating very immediate results in order to win elections, they conspire against the requirements of deeper transformations. Paradoxically, this also applies to the aspirations for radical regressive change. The right also requires time to introduce its desired changes. And yes, the point is that we have to go to elections and try to wing them on the bases of promises made and what the government was actually able to carry out.

So, it is also clear that when one critiques the absence of structural transformations or that the rent from the resources of the bonanza cycle were used without altering the underlying productive matrix, it’s necessary to keep in mind that, if they had not distributed that rent they would have lost political support, and if that happened, the opponent that promised to do so would have won, even if they were lying. That is why we believe that the central issue is how to produce processes of transformation, which necessarily require a larger appropriation of the surplus to be directed toward other policies of a longer-term nature, when there are very immediate, very pressing demands to satisfy.

The process of transformation generates a constant tension, where in each country there are distinct bottle necks that are created in the productive structure, which can become more acute to the extent that the sustaining material bases are not transformed. And how are these material bases built? One question that could be asked is why stronger popular support for structural changes could not be built. One of the axes that we explain in the book and which we continue to work on is the dimension of consumption, which is structured at the global level. That is, the forms and devices of consumption defined at the global scale are a material factor of the capitalist system, much stronger than we sometimes want to accept. They are there and they are very powerful devices in terms of cultural construction, of ideological cement.

JW: So, now that we have discussed some of the vagaries of the progressive wave at its height, when and why did the so-called “end of the cycle” begin?

TR: There are general economic elements at the root of the end of the cycle. Latin America was initially able to counter the effects of crisis of global capitalism of 2008, but beginning in 2011 problems were accentuated, and by 2013 serious problems appeared in almost every country of the region. Bolivia was the most successful at circumventing the crisis, through its fairly orthodox budget, as distinct from Ecuador and Venezuela, which could not avoid the blow. In Brazil and Argentina, too, the crisis began to hit strongly, with the fall in grain prices. Symptoms of great weakness began to appear, which made the more structural problems of each country more acute. Each country has its own form of insertion in the world market, its own logic of economic, social, and political articulation in relation to that form.

The year 2013 is key: Dilma was re-elected in Brazil and immediately applied an adjustment plan that ran contrary to what she had announced in her campaign, sparking a chain of protests and irruptions of discontent which the right was able to capitalize on. And to this was added the death of Chávez. I think that just as one can mark the beginning of the cycle with the arrival of Hugo Chávez to office, his death in 2013 was a very powerful moment of political inflection for the region. It seems to me that the impossibility of transferring to Maduro that charismatic leadership, the difficulty of containing the political and economic pressures that piled on in that period, was definitive. That is, all of the limits that the Bolivarian process already had were made more acute following the death of its leader.

We could say that this cycle lasted a long decade, that didn’t quite make it to a decade and a half. In 2013, protests appeared in Brazil over the transport system and the right capitalized on these protests. This was followed by indigenous protests in Ecuador, and protests in Argentina led by segments of unionized workers demanding a reduction in the taxes on their wages, and upper-middle and upper-class sectors that expanded their anti-populist rejection of the government. These comfortable layers began to take to the streets and protagonize this terrain, especially in Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina, under the banners of security and anti-corruption.

It was precisely the question of corruption that began to articulate the political and social antagonism. An alliance became visible between the corporate media, important segments of judicial power, and the intelligence services, articulated with the United States, around the use of corruption as a lethal weapon to be wielded against these governments. Already in an adverse economic context, scandals of corruption – some real, others without foundation – began to appear as instruments of political struggle and judicial intervention. Government corruption is always plausible, and therefore the allegations easily gained traction in the media, while being fervently pursued by a judicial system that is aligned with dominant interests. However, the underestimation of the importance of corruption in public opinion on the part of progressive governments is also clear. It is not acceptable that there are individuals who are in governmental positions or in high positions of power who exhibit ostentatious self-enrichment, and the importance of this was underestimated.

In almost all of the processes, the mainstream media assumed a leading organizational role in the right-wing opposition. It has long been well known that these media corporations are engaged in the economic game; but this time, their role as the principal organizers of the social and political right-wing opposition to progressive governments became very apparent. In contrast to the illusion that social media would counter the power of traditional media and would guarantee a democratic circulation of information and opinion, media concentration in its digital form proved to be very powerful. Today, there is a greater concentration in the capacity to create and diffuse messages, and the right did not remain quiet, but rather organized to fight on this digital terrain for that percentage – between 25 and 50 per cent of the population, depending on the country – which had never been persuaded by the proposals of the progressive governments and remained in opposition to them. Those people were always there, with the potential to irradiate their ideas, to articulate their interests, with very significant economic resources and power.

In that context of social and political dispute, the economic crisis made these governments more vulnerable, and a very strong process of political degradation began in the region. The first landmark was the electoral triumph of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, in October 2015, when only a short time earlier he had seemed to represent an unthinkable electoral option. But he was able to win the battle at the ballot box by a very slim margin of votes and began to implement substantive neoliberal changes, bringing the country into its present social and economic crisis. He applied, simultaneously, a monetarist plan of containing inflation and a strategy of massive indebtedness, with the declared objective of generating conditions to attract foreign investment. Both strategies led to disaster, with unstoppable inflation, with exorbitant interest rates, devaluation, recession, unemployment, and an unsustainable debt that led to a request for assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

JW: Beyond the case of Macri, how do you characterize the new right-wing wave in the region? Because we have Macri, Bolsonaro, Piñera, and others – different inflections in different countries. What are the common characteristics across the different scenarios, as well as the most important particularities?

TR: What one seems to notice is the degree of intolerance that certain middle and high social sectors have in the face of minimal processes of reform. It’s a fear that seems exaggerated in the face of measures that, for us, do not imply any deep transformation. However, they provoke an irritation and rejection much stronger than is warranted given the character of the reforms these processes actually produced.

In some cases, it was the inflammation of the rhetoric deployed by leaders that generated such a strong antagonism. The reaction of the Latin American rights is worrying, because they have shown themselves to be extremely bellicose in the face of everything that appears to be popular or left-wing. In Europe, the left is hated because they defend immigrants; here, what is hated is the pretence of egalitarianism. And they use the argument of corruption – which undoubtedly exists – as an excuse to attack “the popular” in all of its manifestations. It is obvious that corruption is merely an excuse, otherwise they could not accept figures like Macri, who comes from a family which has enriched itself through dubious contracts with the state; Macri himself has been accused of contraband trading, he has offshore companies that featured in the Panama Papers, and he publicly admitted – fifteen days after his father’s death – that his father had paid bribes to advance his business interests.

An issue that binds the various rights is that of security and repression. In Argentina, for example, they rail against “garantismo”, i.e., the legal system which guarantees human rights and prohibits brutal repression. This was always interpreted by the right as a defence of criminals, and as a counter to this they demand an “iron fist.” This is also the case in Brazil, where it is more accentuated because of the explicit component of racism.

So, in Argentina, you have that component of law and order, as well as meritocracy, and to these you need to add anti-Peronism. The perspective that Peronism is an equalizing plebianism, that violates the sense of meritocracy that those in the middle classes feel, as ostensible inheritors of a tradition of social advance through hard work, imbibed from their immigrant grandparents. We joke that here there is a “hereditary meritocracy,” because the grandparent had sufficient merits for all if his descendents, who merely need to invoke them. So, there is this deeply engrained idea of Peronism as attempting to make a level playing field of something which should not be equal. And it is not necessarily anti-democratic, from their perspective; in this sense it is paradoxical, because they assume that a democracy must allow each to climb all of the social scales that one can according to his or her individual merit… and it appears to them that Peronism is trying to lift the undeserving up the social ladder through shortcuts that they haven’t earned.

But, at the same time, classical Peronism is not the only object of opprobrium, because this time round Kirchnerism is also seen as a Peronism which raises an agenda of leftism and human rights. So this fuels the rehabilitation of reactionary ideas that were always present. It’s not as if the right appeared out of the ether, it was always there. What happens is that in specific periods they see it as necessary to retreat a bit, because there is no possibility of articulating their own demands, because the public sphere is hegemonized by other discourses and other policies. Then, in a specific moment, the situation is altered, and they emerge again with all of the possibilities of expressing themselves, while the dominant media give their ideas shape, build them, and amplify their discourse. It is another fallacy to believe that the media invents everything, manipulates people, leads them along by their noses. What they do is give substance to and diffuse that which is already present.

Furthermore, I think that one doesn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to understand that the US State Department, through its embassies, military attachés, and intelligence services, operated and continues to operate against whatever political force that minimally challenges its interests. The arrival of Trump accelerated this process, albeit with contradictory and complicated results, because he is so brutal that he frightens his own officials. In any case, US interests are present, they are present.

JW: The last question – although all of these new or reconfigured parties of the right have managed to attain office, they have no plausible exit of their own to the present economic crisis, and the dynamics of the world market are hardly favourable to their chances of success. So, for instance, Bolsonaro’s popularity is down to 30 per cent, Macri’s government is in full throated crisis and his prospects are dim in the October elections. Given these kinds of dynamics, what is the probability that this new right will endure for an extended period?

TR: I think there is a very important difference between the neoliberal wave of the 1990s and the present. In the 1990s, there was a strong intellectual, political, and economic density to the right. There was a promise that applying specific measures of the Washington Consensus – privatization, deregulation, liberalization, fiscal discipline – would produce notable improvements. And, above all, globalization was the promising banner of an integrated and happy world. They said that globalization would allow us access to different markets and that the sovereignty of the consumer would prevail. It was a very powerful promise of welfare, which assured people that prosperity would come once the limits of the social welfare state were overcome, and once the wasteful spending of states was liquidated. In Latin America, the project arrived “key in hand,” with recipes indicating the necessary policies to apply. The Washington Consensus ensured that the internal bourgeoisies, charged with applying these projects, did not have to discharge any intellectual effort to develop them. The loans from the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the United Nations Development Program arrived with procedural manuals, including how to run the state.

Today, it seems that the various rights have no clear path. There is nothing that can be exhibited as the lovely way forward, a source of enthusiasm that could generate some illusion about the future. There isn’t one. They don’t have one because the consequences of the crisis are so terrible and permanent adjustment policies are not such an enchanting offer. Just the opposite. What is worrying, however, is that this exacerbates another type of right – more brutal, more xenophobic, more anti-popular, and more disposed to use force and violence, which is what we are beginning to witness, with such anxiety.

One crucial question is, what comes after the failure of these governments, which arise as champions of anti-corruption and enemies of the populism and redistributive vagaries of the irresponsible and authoritarian left? This is why the form that the resolution of the current crisis in Venezuela could assume is so alarming. That Trump, for domestic electoral reasons, is seeking to destabilize Venezuela in the worst way, is a crucial issue for the whole region. The completely inept coup attempt earlier this year, with Juan Guaidó receiving support from the right-wing governments of the region, couldn’t succeed, but it continues to be a very grave and dangerous situation. Hence the importance of efforts to calm the political situation in a way that avoids a militarist radicalization of the conflict. The role of Mexico and Uruguay is very important in the current context. It’s clear that the arrival of Macri, the fall of Dilma and the incarceration of Lula, in addition to the displacement of Rafael Correa by a conservatized Lenín Moreno in Ecuador, have facilitated the rightist offensive against Venezuela. It is clear here how the anti-neoliberal cycle had a regional component, which, albeit incipient and insufficient, tried to counter the influence of the United States. Today, this no longer exists. •

Jeffery R. Webber teaches in the Department of Politics at York University, Toronto. Webber sits on the editorial board of Historical Materialism. His latest book is The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left. He is co-author, with Franck Gaudichaud and Massimo Modonesi, of Impasse of the Latin American Left, forthcoming, Duke University Press.