Latin America: Between Populism and Imperialism

Part Two: The Working Class in Latin America

Article continues from #38: .

Marx always recognised that the basis of the proletariat’s antithesis to capitalism was forged on a daily level in the struggle for immediate economic goals. He recognised that if the working class did not fight in this way then it would not develop the collective sense to organise and overthrow capitalism at a later stage. Worse still they would become in his words, reduced to the status of “mere degraded wretches”. Striking and organising collectively is not easy. Apart from the ideological domination of the capitalist class which allows it to propagandise against class solidarity (indeed the BBC has banished the word “class” from its bulletins) and persuade workers to stay at work no matter what, there is also the simple material fact that workers have families and a prolonged struggle, especially if it gains nothing, can lead to disaster.

In places like Latin America there are even more enormous difficulties. The state regularly resorts to death squads (i.e. the police out of uniform) to murder anyone who becomes prominent in any fight to organise for even the most minor of claims. This is particularly true in Central America where anyone who takes up the cause of the exploited becomes a target of these death squads. And even when these are faced down by many courageous workers there is then the question of dealing with the unions (sindicatos). In the advanced capitalist countries the unions have become part of the apparatus for labour regulation rather than the representative force of a collective struggle (which they were in the beginning). In Latin America the picture is even more complicated. Frequently the central unions are not only the clients of one political party or another but they actually operate more like mediaeval guilds or the mafia in deciding who can get work and who cannot. And even if all these difficulties are overcome there is still the political problem of not falling into the programmatic arms of the leftwing of capital. As we saw in the first part of this article, the rise of the Left in Latin America has led to a whole series of diverse regimes which are all tinged by one form of populism or another. In Chile, Argentina and Brazil “moderate” socialists are in power. ‘Moderate’ here means that they will do nothing to discourage inward investment and thus try to keep the workers quiet with stirring speeches that things will get better in the future and little more. After four years in power the Workers Party of Brazil has done nothing other than preside over increased poverty in Brazil and only gets the workers’ votes as the least worst option. The other illusion is that the problems of daily life can be solved by driving out foreigners from ownership of chunks of the economy. In Latin America nationalisation and nationalism have always been close bedfellows. In this article we look at these issues in the context of two very different strike movements which have broken out in 2006. The first is the strike in the Chilean copper mines and the second is the struggle of the schoolteachers of Oaxaca in Mexico.

Solidarity not Nationalism is the Way Forward

The strike in the largest copper mine in the world, Escondida, just outside Antofagasta in Chile ended on September 1st after lasting 25 days. The strike sent waves of unrest throughout the international bourgeoisie. The owners, the Anglo-Australian consortium BHP Billiton, lost $16 million a day as production fell to 40% and then to zero. The “left” government of Michelle Bachelet was concerned that the strike would be a signal for a wave of action throughout the Chilean economy and those who need the copper 3/4 like the growing Chinese economy 3/4 all looked on nervously as it wore on and the copper price rose from $0.80 to $3 a pound. The “socialist” Chilean government provided a heavy police presence at the mine and are rumoured to have encouraged BHP Billiton to resist the most ambitious of the miners’ demands.

Undoubtedly the strength of the miners’ response took almost everyone by surprise. After all no Escondida miner had ever been on strike. In the years after the Pinochet coup anyone trying to resist the demands of the capitalists risked their own lives. Pinochet murdered a whole generation of working class activists (however mistaken so many of them were to believe that there was a parliamentary road to a better future under Allende). Now the General has lost his immunity from prosecution for the crimes of the 1970s while one of the victims of his torture squads is President. Such a political background no doubt helped the open cast mineworkers of Escondida to fight for a better wage. However what really sparked the strike was the high price of copper which had given BHP Billiton record profits. The Melbourne-based conglomerate recorded a 63% rise in profits to $13.7 billions the biggest ever profit reported by an Australian company. Most of this went back to the shareholders and this sparked the anger of the miners when the company offered them only a 3% rise in wages. After weeks of negotiations between the unions and the company the union declared a strike. This had the active support of 1200 of the 2000 miners. In some ways the strike had admirable features. The miners did not go home and passively await the outcome of the strike but established a tented city at the mine entrance. Every night union leaders had to report to them as to the state of the negotiations. And during the day the workers busied themselves by carrying out socially useful activities like collecting rubbish from the beach or painting municipal buildings to establish some solidarity with the inhabitants of Antofagasta. And in a sense the workers could claim a victory in that the original wage offer of 3% then became 4 % and finally the company agreed to give 5% plus a $17,000 one-off bonus as well as implementing a series of health provisions.

However on closer examination it looks as though the union sold them short. The final package, which the union recommended was approved by 1607 votes to 121, but it is to last only 40 months (!) at a time when world copper prices show no sign of declining. The strike was also causing more grief to BHP Billiton then they were prepared to admit. At first they could keep up 40% of production but eventually had to shut down operations altogether. And as the original demand was for 13% and a $30,000 bonus the miners have hardly made a dramatic gain. It is a reminder that Marx also warned workers not to put too much store on economic victories as the real victory is in the development of the consciousness of the class.

Since the strike ended there have been two developments. Contracts are up for renewal in most of Chile’s copper mines including those run by the state and the workers in them have taken heart from the struggle at Escondida. The 400 Workers at BHP Billiton’s $1billion Spence copper project have voted to go on strike after rejecting the company offer of 3.8% which is exactly the rate of inflation in Chile. They have asked for 10.8% plus a bonus and increased benefits. The Government is also bracing itself for a similar struggle at the state-owned Codelco copper firm (which is the biggest copper producer in the world). This has increased its profits from $4.3 billion last year to $7 billion this. Codelco workers want a share of these profits but the Government does not want to pay them a rise above the inflation rate (i.e. nothing). This makes the second development at Escondida appear all the more ridiculous.

During the strike union leaders constantly made speeches inflaming nationalist sentiment stating “the copper is ours not the foreigners”. Now they have begun a campaign to get the Government to nationalise the mine. This is at best an irrelevance since the same exploitation goes on in both state and privately owned mines. At worst it is much worse than this in that it feeds the illusion that state ownership is workers’ ownership. This is not the case as the whole history of the Eastern Bloc and the USSR show. As long as money and wage labour exist so does exploitation. The unions always use nationalist arguments to divert workers from understanding the real nature of exploitation is in the capitalist mode of production itself not in which set of capitalists own which bit of the means of production. The workers of Escondida would be better asking why the union called a strike when other contracts in Chilean copper mines were coming up for negotiation. Instead they fought alone (and as their strike led to a copper price rise BHP Billiton did not lose much). If they had shut down Chilean production totally they would have found it easier to fight.

The Teachers’ Strike in Oaxaca - From Ritual to Revolt

There is an annual ritual in Mexico. Every May since 1980 the corrupt and powerful Sindicato Nacional De Trabajadores Educativos, the teachers national union (SNTE) stages a strike. The teachers arrive in the central square or zocalo of every regional capital and occupy it, setting up camp for a week and then when some of their demands are met they up tent and return home. This year the same thing happened except that the teachers in Oaxaca demanded not only more money for themselves (at $500 a month they are regarded as well paid) but also for an increase in the minimum wage rates for all workers in the state. Furthermore they did not go home when some of their demands were met but continued occupying the square until June 14th. At this point the strike tradition met up with the election tradition. In election years the ruling party (which for 80 years was the PRI or Party of the Institutionalised Revolution - a real oxymoron if there ever was one) nowadays the PAN (Party of National Action) create some provocation to set off a popular movement in order to terrify people into voting for the established party. In Mexico it is actually referred to as the voto del miedo (fear vote). On June 14 Ulises Ruiz Ortiz of the PRI, the local Governor of Oaxaca (which is both a state and a city) who is known for his repressive rule (he has ordered 37 political murders since taking office in December 2004), sent the police at dawn to attack the teachers and their families. They beat people, dropped tear gas from helicopters and set fire to their belongings, leaving 100 people injured and 2 dead. The teachers retreated from the zocalo but regrouped and returned to retake the square by throwing rocks and using sticks against the police. A huge demonstration of 400,000 Oaxacans then paraded in solidarity and within a few days the strikers and many groups which joined them had set up an alternative local government called the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) and demanded the resignation of the Governor. This political demand was too much for the union leaders of the SNTE (who just happen to be high up in the PRI). They went into the square and promptly announced that the strike was over and the workers would return to work on July 10th. However they were met with cries of “traitors” and “sell out” and the strike continued. Not only that but the APPO was soon in battle for control of radio and TV stations. They would occupy one then the Government goons would arrive to attack and shut it down so they would move on to another. The State Governor was even reduced to taking out the main TV transmitter when local people occupied the TV studios and began broadcasting their version of events. In typical Latin American tradition squads of non-uniformed agents occasionally fired on the demonstrations in order to intimidate those taking part. Eight people, including a child of 12, have been killed in this way and hundreds wounded, but the resistance has not been broken. In some ways the situation is a standoff. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz still remains Governor but his violence and manoeuvring have failed to quell the movement.

Oaxaca is, of course, not the only city to be occupied by a permanent mass demonstration. There has been little publicity about the deeper movement in Oaxaca but the result of the Mexican elections is well-known. Lopez Obrador, the candidate of the leftist PRD was stated to have lost the by 0.6% of the vote amidst widespread and blatant vote-rigging. Nothing out of the norm for Mexico here but the sense that the oligarchy have deprived the have-nots of a regime which (however unlikely) promises them some relief has led to the questioning of the whole parliamentary charade. The PRD have steered clear of any popular movement and are trying to mobilise an all-class alliance to fight for clean elections. The movement in Oaxaca by contrast debated boycotting the July 2nd election and aims to change the whole political character of Mexican society. The two movements thus underline that 2006 has been a year of significant change in Mexican political life. The humiliations that have been heaped on workers over the last few years are coming home to roost. The plan for the PAN/PRI parties to implement the US’ Plan Puebla Panama to build a superhighway across the narrowest part of the isthmus to benefit US multinationals has further alienated Mexicans. They are told that the highway will benefit everyone but they can see that the removal of peasants from the land to make way for the road and its associated infrastructure is a benefit only to big business and the corrupt contract donors in the Government. The ruling class might have got away with this if the economy had been booming but, as we pointed out in the first part of this article, the economic performance of the whole of Latin America has been nothing less than disastrous. Whilst Latin America was a beneficiary of the post-war boom in the 1960s, the 1980s were called the “lost decade” as per capita growth rates plummeted and the economies south of the Rio Grande actually contracted under the impact of the IMF’s imposition of neo-liberal policies. The 1990s saw a sluggish recovery but currently per capita GDP in Latin America is growing at only 0.2% per annum. Mexico is slightly better then the average at 0.9% but even this is hardly “development” as the IMF keeps talking about. Mexico’s case would be worse were it not for the subventions sent from the 4 million or so Mexicans who have migrated to the USA. The key figure is that the disparity of income in Mexico is greater than in most countries in the world and the gap between rich and poor is getting wider. Mexico has 40% of its population classed as “poor” (i.e. earning less than $2 a day) and 25% as living in “extreme poverty” (less than $1 a day). This is actually worse than the world average (1) so the question is not really why is there social unrest but why has it been so long coming.

Possibilities and Problems

According to some reports (2) the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), although constituted in an ad hoc and informal fashion, although it is dominated by activists from various small organisations whose activities tend to be endorsed by the whole assembly, does operate something like a proletarian organisation. Delegates are mandated to carry out tasks rather than simply elected like parliamentary representatives who can then do what they like. If they fail to do what they are supposed to then they can theoretically be replaced. Such an organisation built around the needs of the struggle from the bottom up is the very opposite of the sort of mobilisations organised by Chavez Bolivarian Movement in Venezuela where the workers carry out actions for the Government in order to ensure its polices are implemented. Such mobilisations are to defend state capitalism (3) rather than to really be a step on the way to a new form of society.

There is no doubt about the bravery and resolve of those involved in this struggle. As popular resistance has increased, as the legitimacy of the system has come under question, so Government violence has increased. 2006 has produced more ruling class violence against workers and peasants than for some time.

However despite all this resistance and determination to take matters into their own hands by the workers in Oaxaca the goal for which they are fighting is still not clear. The replacement of the hated Governor of Oaxaca is hardly the beginning of a new society (and in Oaxacan history is not new since popular movements have already kicked out three such Governors in the past). If the APPO was wanting to really change society rather than just promote the rhetoric of change they might first have thought of dismantling the teachers’ union whose leaders have so clearly been acting for the Mexican state. And a real revolutionary movement also needs to understand what it is that it wants to change. It is not just about removing one corrupt governor nor even about people power. It may be too early for this but the issue is not confined to Oaxaca nor even all Mexico, but is a global issue. What has to change is the social formation, the mode of production. As long as the fruits of our labour are turned into commodities for the capitalists to then use against us then there can be no talk of “revolution”. In this sense overthrowing the currently constituted state power is also not enough as the bases of that power lies on the alienated labour of the working class. Dismantling capitalism is a task which cannot be accompanied by any one section of the working class on its own. The monster can only be destroyed by an international movement which first paralyses the capacity of the great imperialist powers to act, and then spreads over the planet. In Latin America there are signs that the working class is beginning to stir itself not to support the latest populist caudillo4 or even self-proclaimed “democratic socialists” but is beginning to fight on its own terrain for its own interests. Each successful struggle offers encouragement to the next struggle and many of the collective experiences of struggle have thrown up new experimental forms of organisation which may yet turn to take on a proletarian programme. Such a programme is absolutely essential if workers are to coalesce around a vision of how to change society. It cannot come to all workers at the same time but arises here and there in episodic sparks of consciousness. It is only when workers found a party for themselves to put all these sparks of consciousness together that the mass organisations thrown up by the struggle will have something to guide them away from false solutions like Cuban state capitalism or Chavez’ caudillismo towards the only alternative to capitalism - communism.

On a world scale this is what the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party is working towards. This is not a re-run of the mistakes of the past. The future World Party of the Proletariat will not be a Stalinist party. It is not an instrument to run a territorial power. It is an international instrument of revolution which cannot identify with any territory in which the working class may come to power. That is the task of the class wide bodies established in that area and as we have said no one not even the class party of the most far-sighted communists can carry out that task for the workers. They have to do it themselves for themselves. This was one of the great lessons of the Russian Revolution. At the same time the Party is an essential element in putting together all the experiences of workers in the past. Revolution cannot be made starting from scratch every time and the role of the Party is ensure that this does not happen. It will be the first to see the obstacles in the way of liberation some of which, like trades unionism, nationalism, and state capitalism posing as socialism, we have touched on in this brief article.


(1) According to the International Labour Organisation the employed world working class stands at 2.8 billion of which about half live in poverty (as defined above) and one in five (520 million) live in extreme poverty (i.e. cannot even get $1 a day). In Mexico it is 1 in 4.

(2) Much of the second half of this article is based on information from a sympathiser in Mexico but the material about the nature of the internal organisation of the APPO is taken from various US Indy media commentators.

(3) Castro had similar mobilisations in the Seventies in Cuba. His Committees for the Defence of the Revolution were however as much about policing every neighbourhood as carrying out any real initiatives to benefit the local people.

(4) Caudillo means leader and was usually the term which referred to Latin American military dictators in the nineteenth century.

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