The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Reflecting on Latin American alternatives to global capitalism

The socioeconomic landscape of Latin America by the end of the 20th century epitomised perfectly the relenting and damaging effects that neoliberalism had on the countries of the Global South, bringing poverty and instability to an already vulnerable continent. In response, a number of left-leaning governments and movements, known as the ‘Pink Tide’, came to power at the cusp of the 21st century. No longer would Latin American societies have to live and work within countries that had downsized their public sectors and deregulated their labour markets. In this guest post by Magdalena Tanev, the governments of Bolivia under Morales and Venezuela under Chávez are compared to understand the means necessary to reject the neoliberal economic model. Additionally, she will look at the experience of the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional), which emphasises an autonomous form of government in defiance of the Mexican state, to establish whether taking state power is the most effective way to resist global capitalism.

The Bolivarian Revolution as a counterhegemonic project

Hugo Chávez’s election in 1998 represented the first of the ‘Pink Tide’ movements that challenged neoliberal hegemony in Latin America. In his attempt to create a new Bolivarian collective will that expelled neoliberal structures, Chávez sought to put human needs at the heart of his objectives, over profit driven liberalised markets. Probably the most notable element of this newfound social economy was the network of democratically organised cooperatives: by 2007, there were up to 60,000 cooperatives estimated to be in operation, with over 2.5 million Venezuelans involved (Piñeiro Harnecker 2009: 310). The values of solidarity, cooperation and sustainability that were prioritised in Chávez’s social economy were supported in new educational initiatives, including Misión Vuelvan Caras, which provided skills training and logistical help for unemployed Venezuelans to start up socially owned and communally beneficial enterprises (Wilpert 2007: 81). 

Photo by Joka Madruga

The government also created a new system of Bolivarian Universities, that focused on developing an emancipatory knowledge rather than learning how to merely ‘function’ in a neoliberal economy. Educational participation increased across the board: rates went from 21.8% in 1998 to 30.2% in 2006 for tertiary education (Chodor 2015: 111). Chávez’s quest for 21st Century Socialism within the Venezuelan economy did not end there: the 1999 Constitution brought the totality of the state oil company, PDVSA, under government control and it was given 60% ownership of the Orinoco Oil Belt in 2007. Land reform and industry nationalisation further enhanced the transformative nature of a government seeking to escape the neoliberal structures that had plagued it previously. Communal Councils were set up to create working groups to complete social and structural neighbourhood projects, and ultimately give Venezuelans an important role within civil society.

The re-founding of the political party PSUV in 2006 also encompassed the full and democratic participation of all sectors of society. Frequent electoral contests created high levels of political mobilisation which was matched by the high numbers of Venezuelans that took part in pro-government marches and rallies. On the international stage, Chávez sought to lessen Venezuela’s economic dependency on the US by opening up the Orinoco Belt to state oil companies of economies outside of the advanced capitalist world, including nations such as China, Iran and Russia. In a further effort to defy the Washington Consensus, Chávez created ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America - Peoples' Trade Treaty as a counter to neo-liberal free trade agreements. ALBA’s main objective is to build cooperative development and foster mutual and economic exchanges (McMichael 2012: 224).

Photo by Transnational Institute

The achievements of these policies in the Chávez era cannot be disputed, both in terms of tangible gains and the beginnings of an emergence of Bolivarian collective will. However, neoliberal pressures and the ongoing tumultuous events of today indicate that counterhegemonic status is far from being achieved for the Bolivarian Revolution. The economy’s overdependence on oil revenue and subsequent crisis, the death of Chávez, problems of corruption, a lack of institutionalisation of progressive changes and an increasingly volatile opposition, among other factors, have created an extremely unstable situation in Venezuela. Society remains plagued with high inflation and severe shortages due to the effect of plummeting oil prices on what is essentially a rentier economy. Furthermore, a black market of dollars and essential supplies has emerged in Venezuela as a result of the dysfunctional currency controls set up to counter economic sabotage in the early 2000s.

The MAS in Bolivia: reformist or transformative?

The socialist project enacted under the Movement for Socialism (MAS) in Bolivia following the election victory of Evo Morales in 2005 represented a break with the country’s neoliberal past, yet lacked the radical nature needed to challenge neoliberal hegemony on a fundamental basis. Morales challenged the capitalist relations of production domestically in Bolivia by expanding the role of the state in the economy, which was most notably seen in the nationalisation of the hydrocarbons industry. By the end of 2013, the portion of the economy owned by the state reached 35%, up from the 17% ownership of previous governments (Agencia Boliviana de Información, 2013). However, while the conditions in which TNCs operated had shifted – foreign companies were obligated to sell shares and sign new contracts - a complete break from the neoliberal model and free market economics was not evident within Bolivia’s main industries. 

Photo by Samuel Auguste

Nevertheless, like Venezuela, the MAS did diversify its trade partners and reduce its dependence on the U.S. economy: Brazil and South Korea now form Bolivia’s largest export markets (Weisbrot, Ray and Johnston 2009: 25). Modest beginnings to a truly socialist project were also seen in the National Development Plan, which emphasised the importance of the social impact of economic activity and the development of the country’s primary sector: a natural gas plant was opened in 2013. While these policies brought more growth than the country had seen in the previous three decades, there was, however, no significant impact on poverty or unemployment levels, nor did they totally expel neoliberal structures from the domestic economy.

Social programs were also introduced to alleviate the harsh effects of austerity on the popular masses. The Bono Juana Azurduy de Padilla program extends small cash payments to expectant mothers when they see a doctor and the Bono Juancito Pinto Program makes payments to mothers who keep their children in school. These initiatives also include help to the elderly, with increased financial benefits for those over 60. Some labour rights which had been dismantled by years of neoliberalism have been re-established, as the government repealed Article 55 of Supreme Decree 21060 of 1985, which ‘formed the cornerstone of deregulation of the labour market’ (Simarro and Paz Antolín 2012: 541). While class distinctions have not been fundamentally altered, nor have neoliberal structures been profoundly challenged, these measures have had a positive impact on the nation’s poorest.
Political participation and inclusion of Bolivia’s previously marginalised indigenous groups also increased under Morales. The MAS consulted regularly on policy with its social movement base through assemblies, and allowed for substantial autonomous mobilisation. While this resulted in more trust and support for democracy, Bolivia’s upper classes remained strong influencers within government due to their economic power. On the international stage, Morales’ rhetoric towards the U.S. has been inflammatory – yet, being one of Latin America’s poorest countries, Bolivia remains unable to sever global neoliberal ties, and foreign direct investment remains present in the nation’s main industries.

The EZLN: autonomous power or powerless autonomy?

Following a different course to counterhegemony and rejecting the goal of transformation through taking state power has proved to be more successful in the 38 Zapatista municipalities in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Declaring ‘Ya Basta!’(enough is enough!) on 1 January 1994, the Zapatistas and their figurehead, Subcomandante Marcos, declared war on the Mexican government, calling neoliberal globalisation ‘a war against humanity’ (Subcomandante Marcos, 1997). The Zapatistas have challenged the relations of capitalist production by organising autonomously to create their own production networks outside of the Mexican economy. These networks of production exclude exploiting intermediaries and entail fair prices, care for the environment and contributions to regional development. Labour structures were transformed as the nature of Zapatista communities became ‘masterless’, with the aim of each worker becoming empowered with the capacity for self-organisation and self-valorisation (Lorenzano 1998: 148).

Zapatista school, Photo by Yaya Dada

The EZLN also reject the political structures of the Mexican state and operate autonomously through their own municipal governments: the caracoles and Juntas de Buen Gobierno act as decision making institutions. These bodies of governance prioritise communal needs and social participation over foreign capital. They defy fundamentally the previous neoliberal economic structures in the region and the political forces that served them. The Zapatistas have also made considerable effort to counter neoliberal hegemony by aligning with wider anti-capitalist movements elsewhere in Mexico, clearly seen in the launch of ‘the Other Campaign’ in 2005. During its first phase Subcomandante Marcos travelled throughout the country to listen to accounts from different organisations about their experiences with capitalism.

Transnationally, the EZLN have inspired and influenced other anti-capitalist movements, namely the Anti Globalisation Movement, and has the support of over 80 EZLN solidarity communities in Europe and over 50 in the U.S. (Morton 2011/2013: 220). Such networks of solidarity are integral for counterhegemonic action that challenges neoliberalism on a global scale. The EZLN have succeeded by not aligning themselves ideologically: the Zapatista banners of ‘dignity’, ‘hope’ and ‘humanity against neoliberalism’ represent common goals and enemies that can be identified with worldwide (Mentinis 2006: 140).

Zapatista store, Photo by Yaya Dada

In sum, counterhegemonic potential can be identified within each of the three cases, yet it is only the EZLN that was able to transform its political, economic and societal structures on a fundamental basis and totally reject neoliberalism. This does raise the question of whether taking state power is really the best way to break from neoliberal globalisation? What is certainly evident is that states that wish to continue to operate in the global web of capitalist relations, under neoliberal hegemony, must allow for some cooperation with the presiding economic structures, rendering true transformation almost impossible to achieve.


Chodor, T. (2015). Neoliberal hegemony and the Pink Tide in Latin America. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Harnecker, C. (2009). Workplace Democracy and Social Consciousness: A Study of Venezuelan Cooperatives. Science & Society, 73(3), pp.309-339.

Lorenzano, L. ‘Zapatismo: recomposition of labour, radical democracy and revolutionary project’ in Holloway, J. and Peláez, E. (1998). Zapatista!. London: Pluto Press.

McMichael, P. (2012). Development and social change. 5th ed. London: SAGE.

Mentinis, M. (2006). Zapatistas: The Chiapas revolt and what it means for radical politics. London: Pluto Press.

Morton, Adam David (2011/2013) Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development, Updated edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Simarro, R. and José Paz Antolín, M. (2012). Development strategy of the MAS in Bolivia: characterization and an early assessment. Development and Change, 43(2), pp.531-556.

Subcomandante Marcos (1997). The seven loose pieces of the global jigsaw puzzle. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Aug. 2017].

Weisbrot, M., Ray, R. and Johnston, J. (2009). Bolivia: The Economy During the Morales Administration. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Aug. 2017].

Wilpert, G. (2007). Changing Venezuela by taking power. London: Verso.

Magdalena Tanev has successfully completed her MA in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham in October 2017. Her dissertation 'A comparison and critical assessment of resistance movements to neoliberalism in Venezuela, Bolivia and Mexico' received a Distinction level mark.

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