Latin American victories for reproductive rights and for democratic socialism hold lessons for the whole world, especially the U.S. Based on a presentation to the July 2022 Convention of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization — Editors
These are very dark days in the United States and the world but a look to our neighbors South of the border should give us inspiration that better days are ahead if we fight and organize! Abortion rights have been won in parts of Latin America thanks to Feminist mass movements of the type we also saw in the Kansas referendum in the U.S., but going far beyond them. And the 2019 anti-austerity protests that swept Latin America have translated to electoral victories in Chile and Colombia.
A far right Christian fundamentalist court just threw out the rights of nearly half of American women, girls, and others with uteruses to control whether or not we will have children. And the supreme court has made clear this is just the start of their plans to impose theocracy on the vast majority of Americans who oppose them. (The anti-choice movement that was finally thrust into control of the US supreme court is rooted in White supremacy and I think it’s little coincidence that we got abortion bans and a White supremacist president after non-White children became a majority of American babies in 2016. The right is freaking out about not enough White babies and are trying to force White women to have more White children)
Fortunately, we have neighbors who have recently successfully fought the same forces of reaction and beat them. Argentina voted to legalize abortion at the end of 2020 after over 1 million women and allies marched in the streets to demand this change. Mexico’s supreme court ruled that banning abortion is unconstitutional in 2021 and 8 Mexican states have legalized abortion since 2019!
In Texas, where women have now been stripped of the right to an abortion since September (long enough so that forced labor is happening as we speak), we now see some Texan women going to Mexico for abortion, a return to the dynamics of life before the court decision Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion across the US for 50 years. (I have a senior citizen friend who went to Mexico for an abortion back in the late 60s.) Texan women were going to neighboring states for abortions over the last few months but now abortion will be banned in nearly the entire South. The victories of our sisters in Mexico may now be a lifeline for many Texan and Arizonan women!
The most recent major victory for reproductive rights was in Colombia whose highest court legalized abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in February 2022. Another smaller victory was that Ecuador legalized abortion in cases of rape the same month that Colombia decriminalized abortion. Mass movements led to this and women who saw their neighbors gain the right to reproductive freedom were inspired that they too could win. We have a lot to learn from these successful movements in Latin America here in the US. A hopeful sign is that our pro-abortion rights protests have adopted the green bandana which is the symbol of support for abortion rights in Latin America.
The next domino likely to fall in Latin America is Chile. Abortion is still illegal but the draft of the new more progressive constitution that will be voted on there enshrines the right to abortion in the constitution. 350,000 women protested in favor of abortion rights on International Women’s Day in 2019. In contrast to previous pink tide presidents, Chile’s new president, Gabriel Boric, supports legal and free (no cost) abortion and ran on an explicitly Feminist platform!
The Left in Colombia and Ecuador
Another major victory that should give us all hope is the election of Colombia’s first Leftist president this summer! Gustavo Petro is an ex-rebel no less. Colombia also now has a Black female vice president, Francia Márquez! The election of a leftwing president came after anti-austerity protests exploded in late 2019 in which hundreds of thousands of Colombians participated in, particularly in the Southern city of Cali and the capital, Bogota. The Colombian left long suffered electorally because of the presence of armed left groups and a decades-long armed conflict. The peace deal that passed in 2016 paved the way not only for peace but also took away a tool the Colombian right had deployed to repress protesters and demonize the Left. (The peace deal initially did not pass a national referendum but eventually passed after mass movements demanded that it go through. I witnessed a camp in Bogota demanding the peace deal continue in the immediate aftermath of the failed referendum.) In Colombia I saw graffiti that said, “Paz es justicia social” meaning “peace is social justice” and this graffiti proved true! Six years after the peace deal, social justice is coming forth thanks in part to this imperfect peace deal.
Moving to the South, Ecuador was brought to a standstill for 2 weeks in June by mass protests over economic issues that were called by Indigenous groups, particularly the capital, Quito. The rightwing government, led by President Guillermo Lasso, engaged in talks with Indigenous groups after it agreed to their demands that it lift a state of emergency in several provinces before talks could begin. High unemployment levels in the country remain stubborn post-Covid. The pandemic pushed 1/3 of Ecuadorians into poverty. In late 2019, anti-austerity protests gripped Ecuador after fuel subsidies were abruptly lifted and the protests paralyzed the country to such an extent the previous Moreno government agreed to return the fuel subsidies. Fuel prices have nearly doubled in the last 2 years and the Lasso government agreed to lower fuel prices in response to the mass protests this summer. (There was a wave of anti-austerity protests in 2019 throughout Latin America including Chile that inspired one another!)
In 2021 rightwing banker Lasso was elected president in a runoff election but an Indigenous candidate, Yaku Perez, surprised everyone by nearly making the runoff, down only by less than 0.4% of the vote from Lasso, who became president. (A fourth center-Left candidate, Xavier Hervas, also took 15% of the vote.) A new bloc of Leftist voters had emerged who rejected both patriarchal strongman extractivist Left politics, as exemplified by the Rafael Correa presidency (2007-17), and by neoliberalism.
From my perspective as someone who lived in Ecuador for a year, a key turning point in Left politics happened in 2021, when powerful Indigenous Left groups called for a boycott of the runoff presidential election. In a country with mandatory voting, over 20% abstained from the runoff and an additional 17% of voters cast invalid ballots, a massive increase over the 6% blank ballot rate in 2017. Blank ballots exceeded the number of votes Arauz received in 6 provinces. The boycott was also a longshot strategic move because if the number of blank or spoiled ballots had exceeded the vote count for the 2 candidates, the election would have been declared null and void. Ultimately the Indigenous-led Left’s abstention made a crucial difference in derailing Correismo’s grip on power.
In a country where over 2/3 of the parliament was composed of left or center left parties, a rightwing banker prevailed against Rafael Correa’s successor thanks to mass abstentions. The Indigenous Left and other sectors of the Left feared what Correistas would do with a return to power and feared authoritarian retribution, especially against the non-Correista Left. Saving democracy for them was more important than electing a leftwing authoritarian president who would still in any case continue to implement austerity. Fortunately, the 2/3 Left national assembly has stalled most of Lasso’s neoliberal economic agenda and the Left in many ways there is stronger than ever now that it has broken the pink tide’s strongman mentality that only one man will save us.
As for Arauz’s promises of ending neoliberal policies, recall that Rafael Correa made a deal with the IMF in 2016. Correa took out massive loans from China that have had highly unfavorable terms. China is Ecuador’s major creditor and for years was taking 80-90% of Ecuador’s oil in debt payments which were paid in oil not in dollars in terms incredibly favorable to China and unfavorable to Ecuador. Furthermore, the current government is renegotiating Ecuador’s debt to try to have those loans not paid directly in oil. It is ironic to see a rightwing president negotiate less imperialist trade terms while a leftwing president who was an economist agreed to incredibly imperialist loans. The Ecuador experience points to a major shift in that, excluding Mexico, China is now the #1 trading partner in Latin America.
In Ecuador, in an environment with high unemployment and poverty, huge swaths of the Left and the working class chose democracy and civil rights over promises of less austerity from Arauz. Arauz promised to not repeat the anti-democratic repression of Correa but he was Correa’s handpicked successor. The calculation was made by enough Ecuadorians on the Left that they would be in a better position to live to fight another day under a rightwing president than under an authoritarian Left Correista one.
Chile’s Left Opening
Further to the South, the leftward move in Chile is a very promising development. Gabriel Boric, a 36-year-old Leftist and former protest leader, was sworn in as president in March. Mass protests of hundreds of thousands in 2019 began against economic inequality but grew to demand Chile write a new constitution. A new constitution has been drafted to replace the one that was imposed on Chile by the Pinochet dictatorship. In his inspirational and highly charismatic inauguration speech Chile’s new president specifically mentioned indebted students, LGBT people, trans people, and the Indigenous. He also gave a shout out to those struggling against oppression, those defending human rights, and to the Feminist movement.
During his campaign Boric said, “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.” Let us hope Boric’s prediction comes to pass! If Chile, which has some of the weakest social safety nets in Latin America and whose last president was a billionaire, can make such Leftward progress, it will inspire Left movements all around Latin America. Boric chose a majority women cabinet, and importantly, put women in charge of key ministries. The new minister of defense in Chile is Salvador Allende’s granddaughter, which is an unfathomable turn of fate given that her socialist grandfather was overthrown by a military coup! It also includes Camila Vallejo, a prominent Communist Party politician who came to fame during Chile’s mass student protests in 2011.
The victories of social movements in Latin America should give Leftists around the world hope. As the Latin American revolutionary saying goes, “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!”