Argentina’s Presidential election 2019 – is this the year that the Latin American left launches a counter-offensive?

Argentina election 2019The prospect of the left gaining an electoral victory this autumn in Argentina, one of Latin America’s largest and most influential countries, provides a significant impetus for left and progressive movements across the whole region. The strong chance of a victory for the Alberto Fernandez and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner left ticket also raises the following question: will 2019 signal the start of a left wing counter-offensive in Latin America which sees the left pushing back against the US-sponsored right wing offensive that has put the ‘pink tide’ on the defensive for the past five years?

The united left in Argentina emphatically defeated the right wing in the country’s primary elections on Sunday 11 August 2019 by a margin of 15%. This vote is a key indicator of public opinion ahead of the country’s important Presidential election which is taking place on Sunday 27 October. The broad left wing alliance Frente de Todos (Front For Everyone) saw Presidential candidate Alberto Fernandez and his Vice Presidential running mate and former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner win 47% of the vote. The Fernandez/Kirchner ticket trounced the incumbent President Maurico Macri, a right wing neo-liberal with close links to the US, who secured only 32% of the vote.

The strong performance of the left in Argentina’s primary elections is not the only indication of hope in the region. Bolivia’s left wing President Evo Morales, who is standing for re-election in October, is currently leading the opinion polls against his rivals, presides over a growing economy and is leading a government that is delivering progressive social reforms for the population.

The events of the past year confirm that the left, whether in government or in opposition, are at the centre of the huge political and social struggles that are unfolding throughout Latin America. The left has shown itself capable of mobilising tens of millions of people to take on the continent’s right wing forces, which are backed up by Trump’s US Administration. Most significant has been the resolute resistance waged by millions of Venezuelans this year against Trump’s repeated attempts to organise a military coup to remove the Maduro government. In the most recent manifestation of resistance, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have joined protests this month (August 2019) against the crippling economic sanctions and new measures that amount to an economic embargo that the US is imposing on their country. At the same time massive protests have also been taking place this month in Honduras against the right wing President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Also of huge importance has been the mounting opposition to Bolsonaro’s far right government in Brazil where millions have protested against his vicious neo-liberal attacks on the population. Bolsonaro, who won last year’s Presidential election in Brazil (October 2018) only secured his victory after the left wing’s candidate, Lula da Silva, was barred from standing. Lula was ahead in all the opinion polls prior to the election and would have defeated Bolsonaro had he not been jailed on false allegations of corruption in a conspiracy involving the US Department of Justice and the Brazilian judiciary. The political vacuum this anti-democratic attack on the left created paved the way for Bolsonaro to win the Presidency and in essence cheat the real balance of forces.

The enormous political and social struggles sweeping Latin America, including the prospect of the left winning the Argentine Presidential election in October, graphically demolishes proclamations of the pro-imperialist Western media which has asserted for several years that the Latin American right wing were in the process of sweeping the left off the political scene and irreversibly wiping the ‘pink tide’ out of existence. This was a totally incorrect characterisation of the situation, reflecting wishful thinking on the part of the pro-US commentariat. In reality both the right and the left in Latin America have very deep social roots and mass support. The election of Macri as President of Argentina in 2015 did indeed herald the advance of the Latin American right which has inflicted a series of setbacks and defeats on the left in a number of major countries on the continent and reversed many of the impressive, progressive gains secured by the ‘pink tide’ from 1998. In the wake of these defeats, the balance of forces in the region has favoured the right wing and has allowed the US to apply enormous pressure on countries in Latin America which still have left wing governments including Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Mexico and Cuba.

If 2019 is the year that the left wins in Argentina big questions will confront the new government. The biggest issue will be how to resolve the economic crisis that several years of Macri’s harsh austerity measures has deepened and how to raise the living standards of Argentinians in the context of an on-going international economic slowdown.

A left government in Argentina will also face the question of what orientation to take in a world of growing political instability and international polarisation. Donald Trump’s US Administration is aggressively pursuing an ‘America First’ policy which demands US allies subordinate themselves to the US, whilst those designated as enemies of the US – including the Latin American left, Iran and China – are issued with threats, economic sanctions and other subversive interventions. The rise of China on the other hand offers the left in Latin America a different model of international relations based on ‘win-win’ cooperation and mutual benefits. China also provides the left in Latin America, and worldwide, with an example of an economic policy which has succeeded in bringing hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and maintained rapid economic growth through the international financial crash of 2008 and the decade of global economic crisis that has followed.

The failure of Macri’s neo-liberalism in Argentina       

Macri’s poor performance in the Argentine primaries and diminished prospects of winning the Presidential election in October is a product of the abject failure of his government’s right wing, neo-liberal policies. Macri’s Presidency confirms that the Latin American right wing have no solutions to the economic crisis unleashed since the financial crash of 2008 and the crash in commodity prices. He has failed to restore economic growth and pursued policies that have impoverished the population.

Macri’s government has implemented aggressive austerity – cuts to social spending, reduced wages, slashed public sector jobs, privatised pensions and energy companies and tax cuts for the rich. In an act of national humiliation Macri approached the IMF for a loan which was agreed in June 2018 for $50bn – later increased to $57bn – with economic impositions to carry out further austerity measures.

In the twelve consecutive months from April 2018 to April 2019 Argentina’s economy was in recession. The rate of inflation has reached 55% in 2019 which is raising the cost of living and diminishing the living standards of the Argentinian people.

A report from the Research and Training Center of the Argentine Republic highlights the disastrous impact of Macri’s neo-liberal policies on the population. Unemployment reached 9% at the end of 2018 with young women disproportionately affected with an unemployment rate of over 20%. Over 35% of the population lives in poverty and 7.4% are homeless.

Macri’s harsh attacks on living standards and his deal with the IMF have faced strong opposition from the Argentinian population – including many large protests and strikes. Vocal opposition from Fernandez and Kirchner to Marci’s austerity programme and his decision to invite the IMF back to Argentina has been at the centre of the left’s electoral campaign in the primary elections ahead of October’s crucial Presidential vote. As reported on the Argentinian website Rocket To The Moon, over 100,000 people attended the left’s pre-election rally – reflecting huge momentum and enthusiasm for the Fernandez/Kirchner ticket.

Left alternatives to neo-liberalism

Macri’s election victory in 2015 took place against the backdrop of Argentina’s economy slowing significantly in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash and the international crash in commodity prices. Prior to this economic slowdown, Kirchnerism in Argentina from 2003-2015 – alongside other left governments in Latin America – pursued progressive redistributive policies that brought millions of people out of poverty and achieved impressive social gains.

However, the left did not use this period of prosperity to make enough economic changes to protect growth in the event of a global slowdown. This weakness in economic policy unfortunately undermined the left’s capacity to defend and improve the living standards of the population as they had done in the previous period. This situation stimulated political instability and provided ground for the right wing to advance under the false pretences of having solutions to the economic turmoil.

As explained in this article, on the Brazilian website Revista Opera, Argentina’s per capita GDP grew by 58% from 2002-2011 – an annual average of 5.2%. After 2011, however, GDP growth stalled and by 2015 per capita GDP had fallen by 3% compared to 2011.

This negative economic trend in the final period of the left governments in Argentina can be summarised as that whilst a ‘revolution in distribution’ was pursued, there was not at the same time a ‘revolution in production’.  As the Revista Opera article points out, Kirchernism increased the amount of fixed investment from 15.1% of GDP in 2002 to 19.5% of GDP in 2007 – but this then fell back to 15.8% of GDP in 2015. Insufficient levels of state investment following the 2008 financial crash and the collapse in commodity prices undermined Argentina’s capacity to grow its economy through these enormous economic difficulties.

China and Vietnam’s economic models, with  their ‘revolution in production’, rapidly growing economies and fast increases in average living standards alongside dramatic poverty reductions, has some lessons for the whole left, including in Latin America. China and Vietnam’s economic success has been underpinned by a sustained and considerable increase in fixed investment and state intervention in the economy. The result of this policy of massive state investment has seen the Chinese economy grow rapidly over the past 40 years, bringing 850 million people out of poverty during that period. China sustained strong economic growth in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash and the global collapse in commodity prices. Vietnam has successfully pursued a similar path.

Latin America, the US and China

The US has a long record of intervening in Latin America to ruthlessly promote its own interests – from directing military coups, supporting dictatorships and subverting democratic processes, to launching economic warfare and impoverishing entire societies to pave the way for regime change. The goal has been to make Latin America the US’ backyard through installing and supporting puppet right wing governments and dominating the economies of the region. Latin America’s ‘pink tide’ from 1998 has challenged US hegemony in the region with left wing governments determined to follow an independent path, develop their countries and raise the living standards of the overwhelming majority of their societies, promote regional integration and pursue a foreign policy independent from the US and based on ideas of cooperation and a multi-polar world.

Successive US governments have actively intervened in Latin America to overthrow the left governments associated with this ‘pink tide’. Amongst the myriad of strategies the US has deployed to attack the left is that of ‘lawfare’ – a relatively new initiative that Hillary Clinton spoke of as US Secretary of State from 2009. ‘Lawfare’ involves the US Department of Justice working with the continent’s unelected, elite, conservative judiciaries to imprison leading left wing politicians on fake charges of corruption in an attempt to effectively decapitate the left by jailing its leaders.

The website Brasil Wire has extensively documented how this US ‘lawfare’ campaign has succeeded in imprisoning the leader of the Brazilian left Lula da Silva, which prevented him from standing for the Brazilian Presidential election last year which he would have won. Cristina Kirchner has also been the victim of conservative ‘lawfare’ attacks and therefore took a last minute tactical decision to run as Vice President rather than President in this year’s Argentinian Presidential election with her former Chief of Staff Alberto Fernandez stepping up to be the Presidential candidate.

A left victory in Argentina’s Presidential election would pose a challenge to this ‘lawfare’ offensive. Alberto Fernandez visited Lula da Silva in prison earlier this year and said: “I believe in his innocence and he has every right to be free and to defend himself. It’s a blemish on the rule of law. I am concerned that this is happening on this continent. As I am a man committed to the rule of law, I will be by Lula’s side as long as necessary.”

A left government in Argentina would undoubtedly face a hostile US administration. As noted by Ricardo Aronskind on the website Rocket To The Moon Trump’s “way of acting in politics and international economy – with friends and enemies – is to threaten violently, and then obtain a favourable agreement, at the expense of others.”

The rising economic power of China is offering Latin America a different model of international relations, based on respecting other countries right to determine their own affairs and ‘win-win’ cooperation. China is now Argentina’s third-largest trading partner in the world. Since 2005 Chinese banks have lent $17bn to the Argentine government to fund energy and infrastructure projects – most of which were approved under the governments of former Presidents Nestor and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. They were not abandoned by Macri.

A recent survey by Argentina Project and Poliarquia revealed that 76% of Argentinians hold a positive view of China and that 54% would prioritise relations with Beijing over Washington if forced to choose. 80% view Chinese investment in Argentina positively – a stark contrast to the population’s hostility to the IMF.

2019 has already shaped up to be a year of big social and political struggles in Latin America – with the left mobilising millions of people to resist both the neo-liberal onslaught of right wing governments in the region and Trump’s aggressive economic attacks on left wing governments and attempts at regime change. 2019 may also be the year that the left makes a significant electoral breakthrough in Argentina which has the potential to tip the regional balance of forces in favour of a left wing counter-offensive against the right wing and the US. It would certainly build momentum behind the growing struggles the left is waging across the continent.

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