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At the Base of a Pink-Green Tide

ECOLOGIES | Essays  }

Daniel Willis / October 16, 2021
Could a growing wave of resistance across Latin America help to protect democracy and advance ecosocialist aims? 6739 words / 27 min read

Photo: March in support of Evo Morales, Buenos Aires, 2019 by Santiago Sito


The reactions were as quick as they were predictable. As soon as exit polls and early results suggested that Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca, candidates for the Movimiento al Socialismo–Instrumento Político por la Soberanía de los Pueblos (Movement Towards Socialism - Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People, hereon in MAS-IPSP) were on course to win the Presidency and Vice Presidency, the arch-liberals and aggro-centrists took to Twitter to argue this constituted proof that there was never any coup. The holding of elections, the argument goes, combined with MAS-IPSP’s comfortable margin of victory and the absence of (official) military rule demonstrates that Leftist claims of a US and military-backed coup in November 2019 were incorrect. In contrast, many instead expressed sheer joy and relief at the victory, not just at the removal of the racist Áñez regime but because it was the first piece of good news for the international Left for a couple of years at least. Many saw this as a vindication of the MAS-IPSP’s record in office in the years 2006-19 and as more or less the same result that would have occurred had the 2019 elections been brought to their proper conclusion.

Both of these positions miss two key things, however. Firstly, that elections only happened in the first place because of the resistance of Bolivia’s social movements, particularly in July and August 2020 when they made the country temporarily ungovernable and forced the Áñez regime to stop delays to the vote. A key theme of the last edition of New Socialist, on Johnsonism in the UK, was that “no election can be won without significant support from within the popular classes”. In the case of Bolivia’s Presidential elections last year, as well as the constitutional plebiscite in Chile, this can be taken one step further. No election / plebiscite would have happened at all without the popular support and resistance of the popular classes.

Elections only happened because of the resistance of Bolivia’s social movements, particularly in July and August 2020 when they made the country temporarily ungovernable and forced the Áñez regime to stop delays to the vote.

Another key point, however, is that fissures between these same social movements and the MAS-IPSP had opened up in the later years of Morales’ Presidency. In 2019, these tensions were exploited by the Right who used (relatively slight) diminishing levels of enthusiasm for Morales to force through their coup. The movements, who are not one monolithic bloc, were split on how to respond (with some actively opposing Morales) and the Right took advantage. In 2020, however, these social movements were more united and delivered the MAS to power, playing a key role just as they had done in Morales’s 2005 victory as well as the key social struggles of 2000-3 (including the Water War, Gas War, and downfall of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada).

This article will not seek to relitigate these debates or the finer points of the 2019 coup, but will instead attempt to assess the broader implications of this resistance for the advancement of ecosocialism. The past 12-24 months has seen powerful social struggles for justice and democracy emerge onto the streets in Chile, Ecuador and Argentina as well as Bolivia. In Peru- usually considered one of the continent’s more conservative countries, and which semi-bypassed the original Pink Tide- not only did widespread demonstrations force interim President Manuel Merino to resign after only six days in office in November 2020, but there have also been strikes by agricultural and healthcare workers against the country’s neoliberal economic model and mobilisations in support of new President Pedro Castillo against false accusations of electoral fraud. In some of these cases, widespread social resistance has been absolutely vital in making key concessions and victories, perhaps implemented through electoral or constitutional means but deeply rooted in the blockades and cacerolazos, possible.

That is not to say that these have been ecosocialist victories won by ecosocialist movements; in some cases, far from it. However, combined they could have important lessons and implications for democracy and continental politics in Latin America, as well as an important international impact in efforts to tackle climate crisis and build a just transition. Firstly, in the case of Bolivia, the renewal of the relationship between the movements and the MAS-IPSP could be crucial in encouraging the party in government towards a more “ecosocialist” agenda (what that means and the challenges/limits it involves is interrogated a little below). The new Vice President David Choquehuanca is, in particular, expected to play a critical role in ensuring that the MAS-IPSP governs with the consent and participation of its base.

Secondly, the victory of Arce and Choquehuanca is an important knockback to the counterrevolutionary wave which has been making progress across South America in the past six years, particularly since commodity prices (which had funded many of the Pink Tide’s social programmes) took a dive. Bolivia’s racist coup government, endorsed by the military and far right, has been defeated. The people of Chile are in the process of rewriting their Pinochet era constitution. And in Peru and Ecuador, first round votes in the 2021 Presidential elections offered the most support to “21st century socialism” candidates Pedro Castillo (who subsequently won in the Presidential run-off) and Andrés Arauz (who was ultimately defeated in the second round) respectively.1 The fight against the Right in Latin America is essential to have any chance of achieving just and sustainable climate and energy policies not completely geared towards cronyism and capitalist accumulation, and it would be impossible without the sustained social resistance that has re-emerged in the last couple of years.

These victories may have important international ramifications. Although its potential was never really realised, the Pink Tide promised (or perhaps we optimistically hoped it would support) the development of a continent-wide bulwark of anti-imperial ecosocialism. Such a pole is vital to counteract Anglo-European colonialism in key international negotiations at the UN, at the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP), or in negotiations on a Binding Treaty that would make transnational corporations accountable for the human rights’ impacts of their operations. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the regional bloc designed to improve co-operation between Pink Tide governments, has suffered from the withdrawal of Ecuador and temporary withdrawal of Bolivia in recent years. The return of the MAS-IPSP to government, however, could nurture a renewed link between what the Bolivian government and its allies advocate for on the international stage and the demands of the grassroots social movements at their base. Expectations over the impact of this may need to be tempered for the time being, all COPs are bastards after all, but a strong and united Latin America is vital for pushing forward an ecosocialist vision that we can all take hope in.2

The return of the MAS-IPSP to government could nurture a renewed link between what the Bolivian government and its allies advocate for on the international stage and the demands of the grassroots social movements at their base.

It is in this somewhat disparate collection of desperate hopes that the Left can, perhaps, look for an alternative future. If this is the beginnings of a new Pink-Green Tide, then we must offer continuous solidarity whilst (for those of us living in the imperial core) challenging and undermining the regressive power and foreign policy agendas of our own governments. Yet agreement on how and when to do that is complicated by mixed understandings of what actually constitutes an “ecosocialist” movement or future.

In search of “ecosocialism”

The term ecosocialism is generally used as a somewhat catch all term that indicates a form of red-green politics, combining socialist principles and analysis with a sense of urgency about the need to tackle the climate emergency and, perhaps, build a more environmentally and socially sustainable economic system. Recently, discourse on ecosocialism in the global north has focused heavily on the need for rapid decarbonisation and the prospects to achieve this at the same time as improving labour rights, reducing inequality and increasing democratic control of the economy. Hence the endless discussions of what might constitute a Green New Deal or a platform for degrowth from an ecosocialist perspective.3

The question of advancing an ecosocialist platform from the Global South, however, is a somewhat different question. Firstly, the question of decarbonisation is far more complicated by the UN-recognised right of countries to develop.4 Unlike the UK and US, Bolivia has not had high levels of per capita carbon emissions either historically or in the present day, and has been among the Global South nations arguing that this means they have a greater right to the remaining “carbon space” (the amount of carbon dioxide that could still be emitted without ensuring catastrophic levels of global warming). Because of this, decarbonisation should be less of a priority, at least in the short term, for Bolivian ecosocialism than meeting basic human needs and reshaping the economy.

Unlike the UK and US, Bolivia has not had high levels of per capita carbon emissions, and has been among the global south nations arguing that this means they have a greater right to the remaining “carbon space”.

Secondly, however, this question of reshaping the economy is also fundamentally tied to legacies of colonialism (both the formal colonialism of the Spanish Empire and the more recent influence of the US and international finance on Bolivian politics). Bolivia has, like many of its South American counterparts, an economy built on commodity exports: tin, oil, gas, before that silver from Potosí, and in the future quite possibly lithium and rare metals such as indium. Export-oriented economies tend to be highly dependent on demand and prices for raw materials in the global north, any fall in which can have catastrophic effects (the global fall in commodity prices c.2014 is credited with irreversibly weakening a number of Pink Tide governments). These economies are also highly dependent on finance and loans from the north to expand new commodity frontiers in the hope that the crash will never come, but in the process concentrate even more infrastructure and resources on increasing exports. The response to this from Evo Morales and former Vice President Álvaro García Linera was an attempt to use the taxes and rents generated by commodity exports to redistribute wealth within Bolivia whilst, over time, diversifying and repurposing the economy to have a stronger manufacturing base (most notably in the development of Bolivia’s first electric car). However, this “lean in” approach to exports, particularly after 2014 when Bolivia’s extended period of rapid growth began to slow, produced significant tensions and contradictions (as discussed further below). As Bret Gustafson says in his recently published book Bolivia in the Age of Gas,

While breaking these chains of dependency has always been the goal of the most authentic socialists, the pursuit of sovereignty by way of oil and gas development has generally tended to be a trap.5

A perhaps more fundamental question for the advancement of ecosocialism from a Bolivian perspective, therefore, is how to escape dependency and build a new economic model all while relying heavily on export income.

Finally, it is crucial to recognise as Jason W. Moore does that “global warming poses a fundamental threat…to capitalism itself…a world ecology that develops through the web of life”.6 Moore argues for a view of capitalism not as an external system that simply impacts negatively on nature, but as a system for ordering all life that is deeply implicated and embedded in all levels of human interaction with the people and space around them. The threat to this system posed by global warming and ecosocialism is therefore not just about tackling inequality and commodity dependency, although these are obviously crucial, but is also related to the need to dismantle racist hierarchies of oppression and to restructure the relationship between the people and the economy (to name just two areas of concern). These are of particular relevance in Bolivia as the return to power of the MAS-IPSP represents a significant victory against the far right in Bolivia and a knock back for the ascendant Right axis internationally.

This is crucial because, whereas some readings of “green” politics in the Global North have appeared to subsume everything under the supposed need to reduce carbon emissions across the board, I would argue that the defence of democracy by Bolivia’s social movements, and Arce/Choquehuanca’s subsequent electoral victory, are vital and necessary steps if any progress at all is going to be made against the capitalist world ecology in the coming years. For ecosocialists, defeating the far right, dismantling racist structures, redistributing wealth nationally and internationally, and bringing energy and manufacturing under greater domestic control for Global South economies cannot become secondary objectives, somehow of a lower status because they do not deal directly with the issue of carbon emissions or biodiversity. There is a huge risk, particularly in the complex debates around “climate finance”, that any green-sounding policy is automatically approved by climate campaigners. The problem is that this could usher in a whole range of problematic false solutions including carbon markets, supposed green trade deals, or climate-debt swaps.7 Rather than looking for neat, technocratic fixes, ecosocialists must be prepared to advance the argument for massively increased climate finance (specifically in the form of grants, and not loans), debt cancellation, and reparations for climate debt and colonialism. Not only would these provide some of the vital resources necessary for a global energy transition, they would also transfer control of the transition away from international financiers to governments (and perhaps movements) in the Global South.

For ecosocialists, dismantling racist structures, redistributing wealth nationally and internationally, and bringing energy and manufacturing under greater domestic control for Global South economies cannot be secondary objectives.

That is why the reconnection of the MAS-IPSP and its social base, and the renewal of similar waves of resistance across the continent, is crucial to the advancement of ecosocialist goals. Not because the new government will immediately divorce itself from fossil fuel exports – far from it in all reality. Instead, it is because the possibilities these movements and new governments open up for the rolling back of the capitalist world system with Bolivia as the starting point. For those on the Left in the Global North and imperial core, the question is how best to support these movements, how to offer timely and helpful critique in the spirit of solidarity (and in a way that does not create opportunities for reactionaries to exploit) and how to demonstrate active and meaningful solidarity that goes beyond the typical rallies and data collection exercises.

Tin, oil, gas, lithium, indium

Given the conditions and limits set out above, the record of the Morales government on ecosocialist issues (very broadly defined) remains a mixed picture, albeit one with significant progress made under difficult international conditions.

As might be expected in a relatively short space of time, Morales and the MAS were unable to fundamentally undo the structure of Bolivia’s export-led economy, heavily geared towards the export of natural gas. However, that should not diminish the achievements of Morales’ early years as President, during which time the oil, gas and electricity sectors were nationalised, telecommunications and mining were part nationalised. As García Linera explained on a recent The World Transformed webinar in conversation with Jeremy Corbyn:

With these resources the government was able to generate a more dynamic economy, improve employment, build infrastructure…for the 12 years after 2009 Bolivia achieved an average GDP growth rate of 5%, an historic record. It’s the longest period of economic growth in the past century in Bolivia (even with the fall in commodity prices after 2014)…The second characteristic was that the government was able to bring a large number of people out of poverty. Bolivia had been the poorest country in Latin America (joint with Haiti) with 60% of the population living in poverty and 40% in extreme poverty…We went from 58% to 32% living in poverty in one decade…and extreme poverty fell from 36% to 14%.

Whilst exports remained a key factor in the Bolivian economy, the rents and taxes they generated were redeployed and redistributed to reduce poverty, support economic growth and improve basic infrastructure. García Linera goes on to argue that the MAS-IPSP also paid much greater attention to developing Bolivia’s internal market in balance with exporting sufficient resources to fund development.

This sums up the developmentalist approach that characterised much of Morales’s time in government. With Luis Arce as Minister for the Economy from 2006 to 2017, Bolivia performed something of an economic miracle whilst also making key social advances. Furthermore, in this time Bolivia made significant advances in terms of renewable energy with investment in numerous solar, wind and hydropower projects. Perhaps most infamously, in October 2019. Evo Morales proudly announced Bolivia’s first domestically constructed electric vehicle. This moment encapsulated the lithium dreams of modernity of the MAS in government. Natural resources were viewed as the key to unlocking a socialist future. Resources to be sold, yes, but with the twin goals of using the proceeds to invest in social programmes and domestic industry. To develop the high quality manufacturing of electric vehicles would not just create further export opportunities – it would begin to undo centuries of dependency. This not quite extractivist approach, of selling resources to reinvest and redistribute elsewhere, was central to Morales and García Linera’s vision for Bolivia’s future.

Natural resources were viewed as the key to unlocking a socialist future. Resources to be sold, yes, but with the twin goals of using the proceeds to invest in social programmes and domestic industry.

However, the allure of modernity and export driven riches has led many Latin American nations down dangerous paths. In particular, this approach drove a wedge between a faction of the MAS-IPSP lined up behind García Linera and another group perceived to be closer to Indigenous organisations and the social movements. Tensions were particularly inflamed when, despite having written the Rights of Mother Earth into the constitution only the year before, the government approved the TIPNIS highway project which was opposed by indigenous organisations (Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia and CONAMAQ) as it ran through indigenous territory. The 2014 commodity price crash drove a further wedge between these groups as Morales opted for an increased reliance on exports to ride out the wave, resulting in an uncomfortable alliance with agro-industrialists in south-eastern Bolivia (including in the openly hostile Santa Cruz department) in the later years of his Presidency.

The allure of modernity and export driven riches drove a wedge between a faction of the MAS-IPSP lined up behind García Linera and another group perceived to be closer to Indigenous organisations and the social movements.

The extent to which Morales was happy to accommodate big business should not be too heavily emphasised - the Plurinational State is still facing numerous “corporate court” cases raised by foreign investors against the states nationalisation and expropriation of mines, electricity companies and smelting plants (including one still unresolved case brought by the mining giant Glencore).

Nonetheless, numerous Morales allies (such as Alejandro Almaraz, who left in 2010 believing that Morales’ support for gas exports was trampling indigenous rights) resigned from the party in frustration at his approach, whilst others, including David Choquehuanca, were removed from their posts. And in 2019 the government was forced to backtrack on an export agreement for lithium with Germany after protests against the low levels of royalties the Bolivian state would collect from the deal.

Clearly, some of these actions go against many of the principles of an ecosocialist platform, and indeed against the work of the MAS-IPSP in its early years in government. However, rather than continually trying to re-litigate this period to decide whether Morales was a true “socialist”, “extractivist” or, as his opponents on the Left accuse him of being, a “neoliberal” (categories that are rarely treated critically and instead act as a sort of roughshod political compass based on a crude balance sheet of “achievements” versus “mistakes”) it is perhaps more productive to consider why Morales’ project was shaped in this way. Gustafson argues that Morales in power was ultimately shaped and limited by the structures of the Bolivian state and global economy, and that “revolutionary and decolonial aspirations would later dissipate as these liberatory efforts gave way to the expansion of the gas industry”. This was in turn part of a longer process in which Bolivia became increasingly “locked in” to the export of raw materials through decades of export-oriented development and infrastructure. It is quite clearly ridiculous to expect these structures to be overcome within two decades, and indeed García Linera has regularly talked about the need for extractive exports to lay the foundations for this transformation rather than being an end in themselves.

This presents several key challenges for Luis Arce as President. Firstly, how to reunite the various factions and social movements that made up the MAS-IPSP’s original base in the 2000-5 period but which has splintered in recent years. On this point, the joint Arce-Choquehuanca ticket was viewed as a partial victory in reuniting the Left, although what tensions this relationship comes under in the years to come remains to be seen. A second related point is how the MAS-IPSP manages its electoral base to guarantee continuing strong support. Anthropologist Carwil Bjork-James argues that Morales lost key votes in La Paz and El Alto in 2019, not enough to be close to losing the election but enough to create an opportunity which the Right exploited to its full advantage, and that the return of many of these voters was key to the wide margin of victory in 2020.

But perhaps most importantly, Arce and Choquehuanca will have to deal with the issue of how to push forward the MAS-IPSP’s programme of economic transformation, build on its successes with renewable energy and domestic manufacturing, all the while seeking to challenge Bolivia’s dependency on commodity exports (difficult enough in normal times, even harder when trying to escape the Covid-19 depression) and advance the rights of its citizens. It is certain that Bolivia will fund its social programmes for some time through the export of natural gas, perhaps lithium, and maybe even the rare metal indium (although campaigners have highlighted that the Bolivian state currently receives next to nothing for indium exports to Europe intended for use in electronics). The challenge is not to end extractive exports or the fossil fuel economy overnight, but to increase democratic accountability over these industries, increase the royalties and income for the state to redistribute, and to ensure that these businesses do not contravene the rights of Mother Earth but facilitate a socialist transformation over time (the successful new wealth tax introduced by Arce this year is encouraging in this regard). All of these things will be much easier if the MAS-IPSP is able to retain its social base and previously fragile coalition in the years to come.

Building the Pink-Green Tide

Maintaining this strong social base and a commitment to ecosocialist transformation could also have wide ranging international implications. Perhaps some of the most disheartening and fundamentally misguided assessments of the late Morales era were those which depicted the MAS-IPSP as a driver of ecological destruction on a par with Bolsonaro. While some of those who compared Morales’ tenuous alliance with agro-industrialists in South-Eastern Bolivia with Brazilian President’s support for agro-industry in the Amazon did so out of a genuine sense of concern over the raging fires in the Chiquitania, others saw an opportunity to discredit the MAS-IPSP and further exacerbate the fissures in their base. This was particularly the case because the department of Santa Cruz where the Chiquitania is located has a history of opposition to the MAS-IPSP, a strong secessionist movement and ties to an organised and violent far right movement.

Part of the reason that the Right were able to enforce their coup in November 2019 was down to the impact of this temporary and incoherent but definitely existing green-brown alliance. This was not an alliance in the sense that environmental activists worked knowingly to put Bolivia’s far right into power, nor that the key concern of the far right was to limit the power of agro-industry. Yet it was an effective temporary coalition in the sense that environmentalist arguments against Morales (positioned, unrealistically and unfairly, as the key agent of the fires) further delegitimised the government and created further political space for the Right to exploit. Some environmentalist activists and organisations therefore found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being part of the coalition of forces which brought the racist, vengeful, and fascist adjacent Áñez regime to power (it is worth noting that, in 2020, many of these same actors were criticising Áñez and Carlos Mesa when they realised that widespread fires had again occurred in the Chiquitania, but by this point the horse had somewhat bolted).

This raises vital questions about the alliances that climate activists, environmental NGOs and other “green” actors make both ahead of COP26 and in the decade(s) to come as battles over our ecological future intensify. The lessons from the Bolivian coup of 2019, one would hope, are to be wary of nefarious forces who will make use of “green” arguments and rhetoric to back regressive and unjust policies.

The lessons from the Bolivian coup of 2019, one would hope, are to be wary of nefarious forces who will make use of “green” arguments and rhetoric to back regressive and unjust policies.

But it can also offer hope. With a strengthened and renewed social base, the Arce/Choquehuanca government has a strong mandate to continue Bolivia’s tradition of active participation and leadership of global south struggles for justice on the international stage (more on this below). And there is also the potential for Bolivian social movements and actors to play a key role in coordinating a new wave of social movements and forms of resistance to neoliberalism currently sweeping over the continent.

In Chile, as New Socialist has covered at length, a 2019 protest against high transport costs in Santiago erupted into a year of rage and resistance against the country’s persistently high inequality and crumbling neoliberal regime.8 As in Bolivia, it was only through sustained public demonstrations and the co-ordination of trade union, student, peasant, feminist and environmental movements into a single unified struggle that made the October 2020 vote to rewrite the Pinochet era constitution possible (and which may yet result in a Leftist President in November 2021). As Nelly Cubillos, member of the Territorial Assembly of Valparaiso and Network of Feminist Economics of Abya Yala, described in a recent webinar on ecosocialism and indigenous struggles:

The multidimensional crisis of neoliberalism [in Chile] has been met with many different types of struggle…[the question is how] to connect all of these struggles for a life of dignity, to make strategic alliances between the feminist movement and the Mapuche struggle for example. As you can see…the entire neoliberal model is in crisis. It is not simply a climate crisis, or a crisis faced by workers, it is a crisis of life in which the neoliberal model has demonstrated its incapacity to sustain life.9

In Ecuador, similar demonstrations against the Moreno regime brought the country to a state of emergency in October 2019. The protests were in response to the cancellation of fuel subsidies and imposition of austerity measures, implemented by Moreno but in reality instigated by the International Monetary Fund as the “structural reform conditionalities” of a $4.2 billion loan to the Ecuadorian government. The resistance was led by Ecuador’s indigenous movements with support from trade union and student movements, and resulted in the reintroduction of fuel subsidies. As in Bolivia, however, Ecuador’s recent experience of a Leftist government willing to rely on commodity exports to drive development has created a fissure between a “top-down” correista movement (of former President Rafael Correa and leading candidate for the Presidential run off later this year, Arauz) and grassroots indigenous movements such as CONAIE and its political arm, Pachakutik. During the first round of the Presidential elections, Pachakutik candidate Yaku Pérez benefitted from both the anti-Moreno demonstrations and lingering anti-Correa sentiment to go very close to making the runoff. However, when the runoff between Arauz and neoliberal Guillermo Lasso was confirmed, Pérez (who was being talked up by some as the “new face” of ecosocialism in Latin America) refused to back Arauz and instead argued that military intervention was justified to prevent him taking power.

While Arauz would likely have continued Correa’s platform of seeking to redistribute wealth, invest in public services and oppose IMF-backed reforms, Pérez argued in favour of an anti-extractivist agenda which protects indigenous rights, a key demand of many ecosocialist movements. However, as Melissa Moreano Venegas highlights, he also backed the idea of a new free trade deal with the US, had suggested he will continue the unpopular deal with the IMF, and espoused support for a smaller state and tax cuts (all policies that will impact low income groups, exacerbate climate change and limit Ecuador’s ability to move away from export driven growth).

As in Bolivia, the tensions between Leftist demands of redistribution and the ecological need to make resource extraction just and sustainable have been brought into conflict by economic crisis and colonial commodity dependency. It should be recognised that the anti-extractivist demands of indigenous communities are entirely valid and not incompatible with a socialist agenda. However, as Denis Rogatyuk argues, these demands were potentially exploited and mobilised as wedge issues by the right as a means of undermining the Left’s claims to ecological justice:

Like the anti-Morales and pro-coup Bolivian NGO ‘Standing Rivers’ and its Atlas Network–affiliated leader Jhanisse Vaca Daza, Pérez and Picq have for years attempted to portray Correa as an anti-indigenous, anti-environment leader that pursues an “extractivist” model of development.

The goal for the Left in the face of this should not be to choose poverty alleviation over anti-extractivism or vice versa, but to find a way of reconciling these contradictions while maintaining a focus on colonial capitalism as enemy number one. Ultimately, in the case of Ecuador these two sides (represented by Arauz and Pérez) were not reconciled, with the result that the neoliberal Lasso is now in charge to maintain the much-hated status quo.

On the same day as the Presidential runoff in Ecuador, Peruvians went to the polls in their country’s Presidential election. The sitting President, Francisco Sagasti, was the fourth since the last general election in 2016: since then, two have effectively been removed by a coalition of neoliberal and far right parties in the Peruvian Congress. The third, however, Manuel Merino, lasted only six days in office after widespread demonstrations against the removal of President Martín Vizcarra by Congress on spurious grounds of “moral incapacity”. This parliamentary coup unleashed a wave of frustration and resistance across almost every corner of Peru. Commentators noted the young age of many of the demonstrators and how the protests combined a broad social base without any clear ideological coherence. It has been particularly heartening to witness, from afar, the emergence of groups of tear gas “deactivators” who have fought back against brutal violence by the Peruvian police by using traffic cones and water buckets to douse gas canisters. At one point, after the demonstrations made Merino’s Presidency completely untenable, there was a brief possibility that Rocío Silva Santisteban, a Marxist poet and human rights activist who was one of the few in Congress who voted against Vizcarra’s removal, could have taken Merino’s place as interim (and Peru’s first female) President.

The election, however, produced an altogether different surprise. Out of the sixteen Presidential candidates standing in the first round, more Peruvians opted for Peru Libre’s Pedro Castillo than any other. To say this was an unexpected result is probably fair; some broadcasters in Peru did not even have an image of Castillo to use in their election graphics, while others noted that Peru Libre had not even set up an official Twitter account. Castillo has also been described as a 21st century socialist by some, more often as a communist by his enemies, but has also been condemned for his “socially conservative” views on gender equality, equal marriage and abortion (some on the Left would have preferred Veronika Mendoza, third in 2016’s first round, to be contesting the runoff). Despite seeing a dramatic poll lead collapse in the face of a red-baiting campaign by arch crook Keiko Fujimori, however, Castillo won in the Presidential run-off by less than 50,000 votes. A tense period then followed in which Peru’s electoral commission refused to ratify the result in the face of transparently bogus accusations of electoral fraud levelled at Castillo by Fujimori. Social movements from across Peru travelled to Lima to defend democracy against these claims, vastly outnumbering Fujimori’s supporters, and in July Castillo was inaugurated.

Castillo represents a conundrum: a Leftist who has promised to tackle mining corporations (whether by full nationalisation or increased taxation, it remains unclear) and invest in public healthcare and education, at a time when Peru is by most measures the country worst affected by Covid-19 in the world. While his reported views on issues of gender justice are extremely worrying, it should be noted that his opponent is not only still undergoing investigations for corruption, but is also a neofascist whose father’s government embarked on the forced sterilisation of indigenous women in Peru in the 1990s. During the campaign, Castillo received backing not only from Mendoza, but also from the Nuevo Perú party and its Indigenous and trans founder Gahela Cari. Cari’s “critical vote” shows a way forward for the Left - ensuring important support for Castillo from a broader coalition of Left parties, while refusing to stay silent on issues of social justice. Castillo’s victory, then, will hopefully represent a repudiation of the neoliberal cronyism of Peruvian politics, while at least being a lesser evil than his opponent on other issues (although hopefully he will be open to progressive influence from these allies). Questions do remain about the extent to which Castillo will be willing (or able) to tackle Peru’s big extractive sectors, advance Indigenous rights, or push for a new constitution, especially given the Left’s heavily outnumbered position in Peru’s Congress. However, in the face of sustained hostility from Peru’s elite classes and media (which has already resulted in the resignation of Castillo’s Foreign Minister and former foquista revolutionary Héctor Béjar) it is clear that ongoing solidarity with Castillo is required from the international Left.

It’s the hope that kills you

As should hopefully be clear, the movements summarised here are rarely explicitly ecosocialist in their intentions. But they do share a deep sense of rage and frustration against the neoliberal economic system and how that manifests itself through corruption, austerity, inequality, violence, ecological destruction and imperialism. Although, at present, disparate, these movements are emerging at an absolutely crucial time for the continent and might not only win further important victories in upcoming elections, but could reverse the progress of the right of the past decade.

This is absolutely crucial if any progress is going to be made in important international negotiations taking place later this year, at COP26, and throughout the coming decade to coordinate a response to climate change. Historically, the MAS-IPSP and Ecuadorian governments have played key roles in putting forward arguments for climate justice from the perspective of the Global South. The Bolivian delegations to previous COPs engaged closely with civil society and were keen to advance ideas from grassroots movements.10 ALBA has continually stood up for the right of countries to develop, demanded increased climate finance, and called for major historical emitters to decarbonise at a far quicker rate than so-called developing countries. However, in recent years, the international role of Bolivia and Ecuador has been heavily diminished. Both were removed from ALBA by the Áñez and Moreno governments respectively, whilst their leadership on other key international issues (such as the UN treaty to regulate the actions of transnational corporations) has been heavily lacking. Fortunately, in November Luis Arce announced that Bolivia would return to ALBA, as well as to CELAC and CONASUR (two other regional organisations that Bolivia had resigned from under the coup government). With Global North nations in the process of a year of greenwashing and grandstanding ahead of COP26, the role of Leftist governments in the Global South to promote climate justice arguments will be vital to push for genuine system change (without, of course, being any guarantee of success).

With Global North nations in the process of of greenwashing and grandstanding ahead of COP26, the role of Leftist governments in the Global South to promote climate justice arguments will be vital to push for genuine system change.

All of this is to say that, while nothing is guaranteed, any ecosocialist future is near impossible without strong Leftist governments in Latin America with an engaged social base behind them. The reversal of the original Pink Tide in the past decade has weakened social protections, stalled poverty reduction efforts and advanced neoliberalism across much of the continent (it is no accident that Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador are all within the top 25 countries by Covid-19 death toll). Against this, a new generation of activists is combining with established social movements, trade unions, indigenous organisations and feminist groups to push back against their outdated constitutions, failing neoliberal economies and not quite post-colonial social hierarchies. Climate demands are part and parcel of these movements, for sure, but whether they would be called ecosocialist movements in the assumed sense is, at this stage, doubtful.

What is for certain is that, for justice to be achieved, these movements will have to bring into power a new Pink-Green tide to demolish neoliberalism, undo economic dependency and fight the climate crisis simultaneously. So maybe, if we are allowed to hope for a second, they could be called the first shoots of spring.


  1. 21st century socialism is a phrase often used to describe the policy agendas of Leftist Pink Tide governments, being particularly associated with Evo Morales (Bolivia), Hugo Chávez (Venezuela) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador). Each of these governments have tended to pursue commodity export driven growth as a means of reinvesting the revenues in widespread social programmes to cut poverty and illiteracy and improve public health and education. 

  2. For a critique of the limitations of COP meetings and discussion of civil society’s managed expectations for COP26, the presentation by Lidy Nacpil (Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development) and broader discussion from this webinar is useful. 

  3. For a critique of the various Green New Deals from an anti-imperialist perspective see Max Ajl. 2021. A People’s Green New Deal. London: Pluto. 

  4. The principle of the “Right to Development” and the common but differentiated responsibilities of developed and developing nations for tackling climate change have been contested at length between Annex 1 countries and countries in the global south during international climate change negotiations over the past three decades. A useful introduction to the history of these discussions, produced by the COP26 Coalition, can be found here

  5. Bret Gustafson. 2020. Bolivia in the Age of Gas. London: Duke University Press. p.52. 

  6. Jason W. Moore. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso. p.290. 

  7. The case of “climate-debt swaps”, an idea increasingly pushed by the architects of the neoliberal economic order, is illustrative. Rather than offering genuine debt cancellation between governments and compelling private sector creditors to follow suit, World Bank and IMF policymakers are now talking up the possibility of offering up limited debt relief to countries on the condition that this is spent on green goods and climate initiatives. While such finance would be partly welcome, it is yet another example of the ingenuity of neoliberals in finding ways to attach conditionalities to every penny of finance offered to the Global South. In this scenario, a global pandemic is not a good enough reason to cancel debt, but “saving the planet” (and by our extension, themselves), clearly is. 

  8. For those looking to learn more about Chile’s Social Explosion I would recommend the new 90 minute documentary Santiago Rising, produced by Nick MacWilliam and Alborada Films

  9. Author’s translation. 

  10. For example, see the People’s Conference on CLimate CHange and the Rights of Mothers Earth and resulting Cochabamba Peoples’ Agreement


Author:

Daniel Willis (@not_djw)

Daniel Willis writes about Latin American history and politics, with a particular focus on Peru, global commodity chains and extractivism.