The resignation of the president of Ecuador’s Constitutional Assembly, Alberto Acosta, on June 23 is the latest in a series of setbacks for Latin America’s 21st century socialists. With political conditions deteriorating in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, it makes sense to ask – what happened to Latin America’s socialist revolution? Where is the change their leaders promised to bring?
Acosta’s resignation comes just five weeks before a national referendum to approve the new constitution he and his party have spear-headed. Citing a disagreement with the president and his governing political party Alianza Pais (AP) over his concerns that the constitution was not ready for a national referendum at the end of July, Acosta said in an interview with Reuters that he had been asked to step down by AP party officials.
The announcement came on the same day that the southern Bolivian province of Tarija approved a referendum for greater autonomy, distancing itself from the President’s socialist/indigenous party MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) and deepening the political crisis there. Tarija is the fourth Bolivian department to hold and approve a non-binding referendum demanding greater provincial autonomy.
When you combine these events with the deteriorating social conditions in Venezuela, it would seem that 21st century socialism is on hard times. What happened to the people’s revolution?
According to Jorge Castañeda, former foreign Minister of Mexico, Latin America’s so called “left turn” began in 1998 with the election of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. Influenced by the political theories of Heinz Dieterich  a German sociology and economy professor at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City, Chavez began what he called a socialist ‘Bolivarian revolution’ using oil subsidies and hard currency from national oil profits to support other supportive governments around the region.
By 2007, seven South American countries were governed by self-proclaimed socialists or left of center governments; however, it was only in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela that radical populist candidates were most successful. While Argentina has not changed its traditional Peronist roots, the other three countries have elected political neophytes who promised to overthrow the traditional elite through revolution.
So far only Venezuela has approved its new constitution while citizens in Bolivia and Ecuador yet agreed on a solution. In these countries, disagreements between the ruling and opposition political parties have delayed constitutional referendums, leaving citizens, business, and foreign interests in limbo, with no recourse to the rule of law, until the new constitutions are approved. In the meantime politicians cannot go about instituting further reforms or solving the everyday needs of the populace. The political turmoil also means that neither Bolivia nor Ecuador, both major energy exporters, have been able to take advantage of the soaring price for oil and natural gas in global markets.
A major roadblock in these countries is Latin America’s tradition of zero-sum politics where a gain for one party automatically means a loss for the opposition. The refusal of the ruling parties to consider the interests of the former political elite is a classical fallacy and ironic twist on the traditional politics in these countries where a relatively small wealthy minority has ruled without much concern for the interests of the disenfranchised majority. Now that the situation is reversed, the new ruling powers seem happy to continue this legacy of exclusion.
In Bolivia’s case, Morales has complicated his efforts, although with the apparent majority’s support, to reform the nation by refusing to listen to opposition groups’ concerns, mostly in the gas rich eastern lowlands. Consequently, four of the nation’s nine provinces, all in the lowlands, are in open revolt against his government.
Ecuador’s president has shot himself in the foot by insulting many who become obstacles; indeed, judging from opinion polls, his capacity to be offended seems to be his greatest charm. He has so far managed to alienate many of the nation’s major interest groups by attacking the media, accusing the military of plotting with the CIA against him, challenging the powerful CONAIE indigenous party by saying he didn’t need their support, and by refusing to meet with the leaders of the major commercial sectors. Perhaps not surprisingly, recent opinion polls show Correa’s popularity and support for the new constitution are declining. The resignation of Alberto Acosta will almost certainly make this situation worse.
Another problem with today’s socialism is its negative political ideology. It is a movement based on a rejection of the status quo but doesn’t offer viable alternatives of its own. This is the case in Venezuela where government policies have caused a shortage of basic food supplies and critical machinery for oil drilling, high inflation, and the creation of a parallel black market commonly used to get around the state’s Kafkaesque currency controls. Add a wave of violent crime and it’s isn’t hard to understand why people are growing impatient.
Finally, the strategy of generating political support by blaming the country’s problems on the United States seems worn thin and makes it more difficult to move the agenda forward. The US is, at its current best, a reliable trading partner and largest market for Latin American exports as well as the home of millions of Latin American immigrants. Socialist narratives that the neoliberal policies of the Washington Consensus were 100 percent responsible for the economic crises at the turn of the century fail to explore the role of incomplete political reforms and the endemic corruption on a national level. This omission makes the next steps all the more difficult.
It remains to be seen whether popular discontent with 21st century socialism continues to grow. It may be that the new socialists’ greatest contribution is their challenge of the status quo, reminding the traditional elite that indifference to the vast inequalities between the haves and have-nots is a recipe for disaster.
N. H. Gill
Viña del Mar, 2008
Notes:  Dieterich, Heinz. “Socialismo del Siglo XXI” Mexico City, 1996.