The State of the Left in Chile, El Salvador, and Nicaragua

The State of the Left in Chile, El Salvador, and Nicaragua

On this episode of The Time of Monsters, Jeffrey Gould and Doug Bell discuss recent political trends in Latin America.

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Time of Monsters: The State of the Left in Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua
byThe Nation Magazine

This week we return to Central and South America with Jeffrey Gould, a scholar and filmmaker who has a long history of documenting social movements in the region. Currently distinguished visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Gould is author of many books on social movements in Latin America, including the recent Solidarity Under Siege (2019). In this discussion we’re joined by journalist Doug Bell. This episode is a follow up to a previous conversation with Gould and Bell in February.

Gould has just returned from a trip to Chile and El Salvador. He discusses developments in those countries, including the difficulties the left in Chile is facing in its efforts to amend the constitution. While the Chilean left is meeting resistance, it is still much more robust than the left in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Gould discusses why once vibrant political movements in those countries have gone into abeyance. Among the themes of the discussion are the need for movements to be grounded in working class activism and also the problems issues like immigration and crime present to the left.

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This week, we return to Central and South America with Jeffrey Gould, a scholar and filmmaker who has a long history of documenting social movements in the region. Currently distinguished visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Gould is author of many books on social movements in Latin America, including the recent Solidarity Under Siege (2019). In this discussion we’re joined by journalist Doug Bell. This episode is a follow up to a previous conversation with Gould and Bell in February.

Gould has just returned from a trip to Chile and El Salvador. He discusses developments in those countries, including the difficulties the left in Chile is facing in its efforts to amend the Constitution. While the Chilean left is meeting resistance, it is still much more robust than the left in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Gould discusses why once-vibrant political movements in those countries have gone into abeyance. Among the themes of the discussion are the need for movements to be grounded in working-class activism and also the problems issues like immigration and crime present to the left.

Jeet Heer: The old world is dying. The new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters. With those words from Gramsci, I welcome you to the Time of Monsters podcast sponsored by The Nation magazine. In previous podcasts, we’ve taken up the issue of the so-called Pink Tide 2.0 in South America.

And this is a sort of continuing story and I want to revisit it with today a particular focus on what’s happening in Chile with also discussion of El Salvador and Nicaraguand the difficulties the left is facing in those countries. And to do so, I’m very pleased to have on Jeffrey Gould who’s an outstanding scholar and documentary filmmaker.

Currently the distinguished visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Study which I think I’m constitutionally obligated to say is at Princeton, but is not part of Princeton University except in some strange metaphysical sense. Also joining me is Doug Bell.

A Canadian journalist, a memoirist also involved, with film being a screenwriter and all-round man of the world. So Doug, you want to like, maybe let’s start talking about Chile a little bit.

Doug Bell: Well, I’m just, I’m, I’m thrilled to be here g as always. And thrilled to have Jeff Gould on who’s just back or, you know, not like within the last couple days, but the last couple of weeks back from Chile and back from sort of whirlwind I guess somewhat whirlwind tour of parts of Latin America, but Chile particularly is, is on my mind particularly given the extraordinarily circuitous circumstances of the process of constitutional reform that’s gone on there over the last couple years.

Very quickly and, Jeff, I’ll throw it to you almost in Stan. They’ve gone through two or three iterations of an effort to rewrite their Constitution, which started, which a plebiscite after 2019, a kind of popular populist uprising, somewhat from the left against a long-standing tradition of neoliberal free market at somewhat authoritarian government dating back to Pinochet in the ’70s.

That plebiscite voted 80 percent in favor of a new Constitution. Then you had a left-wing president elected Bouch. And then the trouble started that, that we’ve gone through now two iterations of a new effort, which is now really almost backward started which is to say a constitutional convention recently elected with the majority or at least the plurality coming from the right and the center right in the far right.

So Jeff if I may, I’m gonna throw it to you and let you talk a little bit, but what you saw on the ground and what’s been, what, what, what, what’s on your mind?

Jeffrey Gould: Okay. Thanks. Thanks to both of you. I was there briefly. And while I was there, I’d say several notable things happened. One was a mayday demonstration, or really two mayday demonstrations, which typified the severe problems on the left, there was one Maday demonstration organized by the traditional Trade Union Federation. His acronym is COT in Spanish. And that’s, that COT has been around, was, was, was a dominant player in the 1960s and, and early 1970s. Reemerged after Pinochet and continues to play a significant role.

It is allied with parties that in turn are allied with Boric and that includes the Communist Party, which is still an important presence. I think it in, in parliamentary elections, it got the last time maybe 12 percent, something like that, which in a multi-party system, you know, is something So they, they staged one demonstration fundamentally in support of the government.

And then the rest of the left staged another demonstration. And in that demonstration, which I happened to be participate in, in the sense of walking along with everybody else and, and getting tear gassed which does seem to happen to me every time, and I’m in Chile, I end up getting tear gassed.

So I don’t quite understand that. But but this was the tear gassing in, in this latter case had to do with actions of people who are considered, call themselves anarchists that dress in black and, you know, they trash some windows and, and that brought out the tear gassing of everybody.

But in the speeches, the one thing that, that, that. Made it clear was that everyone was called upon to emit what in, in Spanish is both nolo, which I guess is null not a blank ballot, but a nullified ballot in some ways. Yeah. What’s, what is, just for our listeners here, what, what, what would be the proper way of stating that?

Both the newest Oh, a spoiled ballot. A spoiled ballot. Yeah. Spoiled ballot. A spoiled ballot. Purposefully spoiled. Absolutely. Yes. And, and so people were called upon to do that. And the basic argument was that the process had been so corrupted, so tainted by the compromises that, that the government had to make with the right, which in turn has, you know, a dominant presence in the Senate.

And, and the assembly. So, you know, they made a number of compromises about the, what the limits of the Constitution could be. And as a result of that, and as a result of the very strong hostility toward Bordick who, who I should mention was a key student leader in 2011. There was a major uprising in 2011, and there were three people who were, who, who were the leaders of that bordick and then a woman BA Kaman Bajo was a communist party leader as well.

And then another person who’s, whose name I’m, I’m blanking on right now, and they’re all Bodek is president and the other two key leaders are you know, close advisors and part of his government. So the hostility towards them and the parties they represented on the. Rest of the left really amounted to essentially stating, you know, they have betrayed us.

That they, that, you know, they’re traitors to our cause. They aren’t the left. There’s nothing worth supporting. And the, you know, the constitutional process is, is completely corrupted. So that translated in, in the elections into 16 percent spoiled ballots and 5 percent blank. And I, some studies have that.

There was some kind of survey which suggested that the overwhelming majority of the spoiled ballots were from the left. And they were from generally poor districts. So that effectively Helped to sabotage the left’s chances. In these last elections, which took place, I believe it was May, May 6th or, or first week of May.

Yeah. And in those elections as Doug pointed out, the, well, the far right got something like 35 percent of the vote the center right. Got somewhere around 21 percent and the Boic group I think got 28 percent. And another chunk of, of votes went to those parties, which include the Socialist party, which of course was the party of ae, but it’s gone through major neoliberal transformations.

They got under 10 percent and it’s important to point out. Two things here. One is that they’re generally called the ion which was the political alliance, which took over after Pinochet r won many elections. And they constitute a support in general. They have been supportive of Bordick, even though, you know, they started out being considered to be, you know, very way too much to the center for Bordick and his coalition.

But now they, they’ve essentially worked together. They got, as I say, under 10 percent. So the net outcome is that the far right, and when I say the far right cast, who’s the past presidential candidate winning 44 percent of the vote when Bodek won. He, not only does he Support pinoche and maybe one shouldn’t judge somebody by their father, but, but his father was was a Nazi, I mean a German Nazi in, in Germany.

Mm-hmm. And, you know, some of that carried over I think politically but at the very least, he’s died in the wool Pinot Chita. So his party’s getting 35 percent of the vote and combined with a more traditional Right. They have, you know, 56 percent of the vote, you know, very clear majority. And that means I think that in the end, the new constitution, which will be created, won’t be a significant improvement over the current one, which heavily favors private enterprise and everything, health, pensions, education but it’ll probably include some measures that, you know, it’s just sort of a bone thrown to the, to the, to the left, I’d say.

So that, that’s kind of the most immediate situation. I could add a couple of more observations or just anecdotes, which struck me as significant one in particular. So I, in the in, and I guess it’s, this will also help back us up just a little bit because the important antecedent for all of this took place in the referendum of 2022, which was voted down by 62 percent.

62 percent voted against the constitution. That was Provo proposed in 2022. And that constitution was proposed by a constitutional convention, which was dominated by various factions of the left. Now without getting into long thing about what was in that constitution, I think some of there were two, there, there, there were two things in important.

One, it was just very, there, there were like 300, 380 articles in the, in the New Constitution and there, right alone, right on its own. Like, that’s just too many for people to read and digest 380 articles. And it was pretty much the, the this, the group that made up the constitutional convention really was, you know, essentially, okay, I want this, I want that.

We’re gonna have this, I want rights for this. So it even came down to rights, which are probably familiar in this country, and I don’t want to make light of them. But like neuro rights for the neurodivergent, I have a strong suspicion that the vast majority of Chileans didn’t know what that meant. But I think more significant was the call for Chile to follow the Bolivian model under Abel Morales.

And a call for a PL national society. And what that, what that translated to was far greater rights for Indigenous people, but also it was interpreted, I mean, it was ambiguous language and allowed for the interpretation that the representatives of the Indigenous people could basically veto legislation that they’d have complete control over, you know, a large chunk of southern Chile.

And the complete control, you know, in all senses, in all sense of the word. And then, you know, a number of other fairly Ambiguous statutes whi which the right was allowed to interpret as you know, a a right to abortion up to including the nine ninth month of pregnancy. And so, so this gave rise to the, just this massive right wing effort at disinformation.

And they were extremely successful. But and unfortunately part of the blame is in the drafters of the Constitution with the language they use, but also but also you know, the kind of incoherence and, and length of the constitution. Another, another argument that was made by the right, which the language of the Constitution because of its ambiguous nature.

Allowed them to make was that they would abolish private property in the sense that really the private ownership of homes, which was not in the Constitution, but again, we’re talking about kind of sloppy language and this kind of, you know, left this thrust that we’re going to, you know, impose our, our view.

So that, you know, that all contributed to the defeat. But there was one other, just getting back to the anecdote. There was one there, I should say. There, there was a massive campaign on the left for what was the approval, a Pero and that campaign had, you know, very interesting facets to it, which, which were the growth which emerged from.

What the Chileans called the of 2019, the social explosion which were the mass protests, which swept the nation in October of 2019. Now, those those that period of protests saw the rise of what were called kado, which was an old colonial term, but essentially there were popular assem assemblies that sprung up all over the place.

And during this campaign for approval of the Constitution in 2022, the, the same form reemerged and that same form. And, and so in that form you had neighborhood groups. So this guy I’m doing research with on something to do with the AEN Day period and, and factory organization is from one of the traditional leftist working class strongholds.

He himself from An extended working class family very much tied to the left. And so he was, you know very much of an activist in all this campaign in his native community, which was certainly extremely important during the early 1970s. So he recounts the following.

He got, you know, a huge group of people from his neighborhood to participate in this assemblies. And, and in the assemblies it was all about discussing the constitution and, you know, what it meant for community organization and so on. And so during the course of that, he had brought on on board some of his, you know, childhood friends.

Again, people who used to be, would’ve used to been part of you know, the organized working class and now are not organized and are more of a precarious than anything else. So he brought some of them on board, and one of them during the course of an assembly in which university students had been invited to or asked to participate in the university, students from, from outside of the neighborhood participated in it.

And after one woman offered her her commentary, this former, this friend from the neighborhood says to the says to the woman, and I’ll just say it in Spanish and then try and translate. He just started it by saying, and so that translates roughly as, Hey, skinny what do you think about?

OK, so here we need to back up for one second. In Spanish, I mean, in Latin America, everywhere I’ve been, Central America especially, the terms, for better or for worse, the terms forgo Gord Goda and then referring to skin color. All of those are just common expressions uttered millions of times a day by people just as descriptors.

They have no charge to them whatsoever. It’s just the way people speak, the way people have spoken for, I’m sure centuries. So this guy just utters you know, this word flaka, skinny. And so immediately a group of people, I think mostly women surround him and essentially say to him, you know, don’t you ever speak that language again?

You’re demeaning women. You’re objectifying. Their body is just outrageous. And they were furious at him. And again, without, you know, I wasn’t there. This is, this is secondhand, but the net result of that was that the guy said, I’m done with this. I’m not participating in this shit anymore.

And that was that. And so I do think that, you know, that symbolizes another dimension of the problem of the left. I think that that that inability. To communicate even at this kind of basic level, and the in, in the constant effort to impose a certain certain language, ha, has a debilitating consequence.

So, let me stop there.

JH: Well, it seems like from, from that story, there’s also a pattern that we, we see elsewhere in the world of a kind of educational divide. That there’s a kind of, you know, discursive divide between, you know people are college educated as, as the female speaker was, and people coming out of the sort of working class lap.

And that that sort of, you know, that discursive divide, like has real consequences.

JG: Absolutely. Yeah.

DB: I, I just wanted to sort of throw in on, on a similar point, which is, it’s astonishing to me that a a movement driven by the left starting, and obviously starting prior to this, and there’s a whole history here, but let’s just look at the populist movement that grew up in 2019.

I mean, that was as a response to a kind of quintessential neoliberal economic problem, which was that the, the working class and the student class came together over a pretty obvious issue, which was a rise in the price of public transit right in, in Santiago. And that was the, that was the sort of you know, the precipitating, yeah, the pre, the detonated, the precipitating event, whatever you want to call it.

And this business of being able to take that idea. Or that notion of solidarity around something as simple as a rise in price. You know, that that was, you know, and let’s face it. I mean, it’s a cliche to say it, but straw that broke the camel’s back 20 years of neoliberalism, the most unequal society in Latin America.

You know, the idea that you were gonna bump my bbu, you know, just bump up the what, what ought to be a public service, you know, for the benefit of, of, you know, a privatized transit system just was that, was the bridge too far. All that having been said, you, you then get an 80 percent run up, you know, an 80 percent agreement that you need a new constitution.

Right? And then precisely because of. The kinds of agitations that you’re, you were just talking about, Jeff, this inability of, of internal dis discourse, sensible, consistent internal discourse within the left has now thrown the situation into a complete tumult. I mean, even after the 62, 38 vote.

Right. Which, and I, again, I’m, I, I put myself in your hands in this regard, Jeff, because I, you know, I’m, I’m a guy that’s just, you know, reading it in the paper like everybody else. There was a sense that there was it, that there was some money that had come in from, from primarily from the states to create you know, memes and misinformation campaigns that got it to 62, 38.

But even at that, there was still, and again, these are rough numbers, but there was still at least a 70 percent agreement that there needed to be a new constitution even after. They, they, they Bach had been to some degree, given a spanking and told, no, you can’t go this far. You have to have it. It has to be reasonable.

It has to be within a reasonable framework. And now the difficulty is, is that with the numbers as, as you’ve described them you have the right and the far right now being essentially able to rewrite the Constitution as AC Fed, I mean, II, and ultimately probably returning to many of the same principles and premises, that that wouldn’t have given any discomfort to finish it.

I’m sorry, I’ve gone on a bit, but the real problem here I think is this business of the spoiled ballots, because that is, that’s a big number, 20 percent in that case, of people that would’ve voted with the left, At a minimum would’ve afforded the left under the, as I understand it, and again, I put myself in your hands, Jeff, as I understand it, that would’ve given the left something of a veto had they had the, those votes been counted as part of a conciliation on the left, but instead spoiled ballots, you know, we’re sick of the whole thing and they walk away and so it, it leaves the left.

I just, I guess my question, all this, and there is a question, dammit is, is there, what is the way forward for the left after, after all of that? Other than just a return to kind of radical action and violence?

JG: Yeah, no, that’s a, that’s a good question. Speaking of violence, I don’t know what it, what it was, but there were a couple of terrorist acts just yesterday, I think blowing up.

Blowing up stuff, which is very anomalous. But I’m not sure about the path forward, but I do think that part of the problem is this notion that the board of government betrayed the people, betrayed the left and there. I mean, it’s a very tricky question because obviously he has been compelled to do certain things, which he undoubtedly would rather not, and particularly his close associates who come out of that 2011 radical movement wouldn’t want to do either.

And those are, those are seeding ground to the police and military apparatus. So, for example, in the che area in the south he’s avoided, you know, it’s often painted as militarization of the zone in declaring martial law, which is what the, right. Wants him to do. And he hasn’t done that. In this, you know, the background to that, again, for, for listeners who are not familiar with it, the che the Indigenous people are one of the groups in Latin America, the Indigenous groups in Latin America, who, who in some ways were never fully defeated.

I mean, they, they, you know, they maintain a tremendous amount of Historical pride and, and militancy. I mean, they, they, they were really, I’d say more than any other moment in history, they were defeated by Pinochet because during that period in the early 1970s they made really significant gains and they were, you know, a very powerful political and social force in the area.

Pinoche, you know, demolished their organizations and, you know, probably engaged in, you know, the worst forms of repression there than, than anywhere else. And you know, pretty dastardly seen. So you know, the CHE during this period, after Pinochet, since 1989, you know, continued to protest primarily against these major logging operations.

There’s a huge, I don’t know the percentages, but there’s a huge logging industry and the log, the logging’s done on lands that the CHE claim. And so there’s been a great deal of struggle around that issue. And there is definitely a group within the Mouche who are who, who. Resist in violent forms.

Usually, almost always the you know, burning of, of vehicles and that sort of thing, you know, just forms of resistance to halt the logging operations. So that’s been, you know, that’s been a storyline and it intensified during the very beginning of the, of Warwick’s government and that led bordick to engage in some repressive or order some repressive operations.

But fundamentally from what I understand the you know, Maintaining the roads, you know, essentially saying, okay, the roads are protected by the Kari, the police and, and that, and that sort of thing. Although some people have been arrested and there are a lot of protests around that as well.

And then the other place where this is going on where, where there is something of a militarization of the border is in the north on the, on the Peruvian border. And there, I, you know, I have to confess ignorance. I mean, there’s been a lot of immigration a lot of illegal, I suppose, Vian standards immigration, a lot of it coming out of Venezuela.

There, there’s a large immigrant population in Chile. And when I say large, again, I don’t have the percentages, but there, there’s maybe a couple hundred thousand Haitians and half a million Venezuelans out of whatever, 9 million population. But this is a huge change for, for Chileans. And it’s, and it’s typically another issue that the right mobilizes on.

And so this is part of the thing that the right mobilizes around issues of criminality, which apparently is an issue on the, on the northern border, that there are gangs involved or narcotics operations somehow mixed up with immigration issue. So you have, you know, the standard international right wing issues, immigration you know, crime, immigration and crime.

Yeah. Yeah. And then the third one having to do more with the, you know, issues of, of gender. Those Boic has held the line on. But on those other issues of criminality and immigration he, he has, I guess you put it in the political spectrum, he has bent to the right and so it leaned to the right in terms of more, you know, attempt at more repressive action.

Now, that said, is nothing like what a right-wing government would do, but, but that doesn’t, that doesn’t hurt the right, I mean, the right just says that it’s ineffective. We need, you know, we need to do this. So, you know, just be stronger about it. So that’s part of what’s, what’s going on. But then at the same time, Bordick is try, has been trying to get through what I think most people would consider to be decent progressive legislation.

And that includes for example a reduction of the work week from 45 to 40 hours. A significant increase in minimum wage. Now each time in attempt to raise the pension, and now he’s trying to rewrite the tax code to make it progressive. He’s a, you know, been able to extract a royalty greater royalties outta the mining operations and each time he does anything, because his coalition, which as I said before, is not just his coalition, which emerged to some degree outta the various post pinoche social movements, but also the traditional parties of that concertion that each, you know, they’re in a minority in the Senate.

And more or less equal in the assembly. But he needs to, and this is a problem that is, that that’s befall all be felt, all left-wing government, is that they rarely emerge with with a majority in Congress. And so each time he is, had to negotiate and he has to negotiate with the right.

And so, for example, with the minimum wage law, he had to offer, you know, subsidies to businesses, that sort of thing. So each time and a similar sort of deal with the reduction of of the work week that he had to negotiate, he had to compromise. And so those things, so taken as a whole from the position of the left you know, it’s all amounts to betrayal.

And. You know, that’s simply a position.

DB: Is that a betrayal? So it’s observed as a betrayal and rough and ready way of putting it. It’s observed as a betrayal particularly, or the core group would be that group that were, that spoiled, the ballots. They would say that all of that was, was, was a betrayal.

JG: Right, right.

DB:I’m sorry, Jeff, but I am interested in your view, just from what you saw on your observation ongoing. If he walked away to whatever degree or ragged the puck as it were, Canadian expression means wasting time. Anyway. If he ragged the puck on the issue of of, of constitutional reform and simply addressed himself to these rather more sort of practical.

Economic reforms, could he get to a subsequent election with at least the possibility of reforming the coalition that got him pa first passed the post the last time.

JG: I mean, I think it’s possible. I think but, but that’s, you, you, you raise j just to touch back on the defeat of the referendum and how it impacted his government, is that perhaps he made a tactical mistake by giving everything he could to the approved side back in, back in 2022.

And this was during his first five months, I think it came five months after he took office. And so he is, you know, d doing everything he can, which again, some people might have considered to be, you know, incorrect. You know, in a level like the government shouldn’t get involved. But regardless, he got very much involved and he had already due to missteps been relatively unpopular.

So that didn’t help the cause in either sense. And the defeat was considered very much to be a defeat of him. Yeah. Yeah. And so in terms of recuperating lost ground, I mean, it is possible because I think his attitude towards the Constitution now is very much like, you know, that’s not up me. The Chilean people will get devoted then to December if they approve it or they don’t, you know, and he’s, he’s staying out of it.

And then finally is a smart move. I don’t know. The right is just powerful and resurgent. And the left is, you know, fractured and demoralized. So yeah, it’s a bad combination. But if he continues, for what it’s worth, I have noticed that his popularity rating has gone back up again.

And that may be because some of these reforms are beginning to take effect.

JH: yeah. No, it does seem that there’s some wisdom in in trying to focus on policies that actually have immediate effect on people’s lives and, and that this sort of a constitutional approach is both too ambitious and perhaps doesn’t get you the sort of popular majorities that you need.

But I think in terms of a sort of demoralized left though and maybe this is something we include with, do you want to give some impressions of El Salvador and Nicaragua, where I think the left has been very weak and maybe give us her context for understanding why that is.

JG: Yeah, I mean, I think comparatively the left is much weaker in Nicaragua and El Salvador and Chile.

I think the other thing to realize I su that’s important is that the left has not just a long tradition that the left certainly has in the other countries, but it’s also very much of a working class tradition. So the working class, the, what was the industrial working class? You know, the strong majority, which in turn represented 50 percent of the population at one point or 40 percent of the population was identified with the two major leftist parties, the Communist Party and the Socialist party.

And that sort of, you know, that is something that still resonates in the population. And so it’s that, it’s that tradition that now is still very important to a lot of people. And it’s, you know, there’s a kind of poignant moment coming up, which will be the 50th anniversary of Pinochet coup that comes up on September 11th.

And there the positioning is interesting and Bordick and his supporters are really, you know, Stepping out in front of this, there’s no, no neutrality on this issue. There’s just, you know, a powerful educational and and cultural component to their, to their moves and, and they’re meaningful to a large sections of the population that experienced, you know, the brutality of the Pinochet regime.

The problem, of course, is that, I don’t remember the exact figure, but I think Pinochet got at least 40 percent of the vote in, in the plebiscite. Right as to whether he was gonna stay or not. Yeah. And those people have not really been shifted since then. He’s still, you know, the PTA block people who think that Pinochet was a great man, or at least a man who, who you know, may have had, had some excesses.

I think that’s the term they use. There’s a few excesses, you know, like those tens of thousands of people who are tortured, few excesses. But but you know, they’re still sort of supportive of the legacy. So I think that’s an important battle, but it also reflects on this particular kind of political tradition.

Now, shifting over to Central America, I think one of the, one of the things I noticed particularly in El Salvador when I was doing research there in the, in the late nineties, was that the left. To some extent had a, had already abandoned some of its pre-war roots. It’s particularly, its commitment to labor rights and organization and its commitment to land reform.

And some of that, you know, with, without getting into, you know, a lot of the details of that, some of that was negotiated was part of the negotiated peace process that, that the land reform, whatever had been done, was done. And we can’t move on on that. But I, but I do remember a particular telling moment.

I think it was in 19, you know, in the late 1990s when the FMLN, which then was the left had one, you know parliamentary and Municipal elections in Western Salvador, which at once was the seat of the rebellion of 1932. But, but also the massacre of 1932 and had subsequently moved strongly to the right.

It became kind of like a military breeding ground in part due to the terror, which was, you know, wreaked upon the the Indigenous people of the area. And that’s a separate issue. People are interested. I have a documentary film online and a book but about the 1932 massacre, but the point I’m trying to get here is, is in, in the late 1990s, there was this reversal and that FMLN took power, municipal power, sent deputies to Congress from this very area.

And I remember as I was doing research, coming upon this, this area outside for those who know the area of, and there was this vast former coffee plantation, but already in the late ’90s it was, it was abandoned because it was at 800 meters, which with global warming made it unsuitable to coffee cultivation.

So already that had, you know, that was taking these effects. And so nothing was being done on the land. And yet in these villages near the land you had everybody was, seemed to be outta work and with no access to land. So I went to the FMLN and pointed this out. Look, you’ve got this abandoned, huge abandoned plantation. You’ve got all these people right next to the plantation who’ve got nothing. Do something about it for Christ’s sake, one way or another. And the basic response that I got at various levels in including academic ones, people academics who were tied to the FMLN was that, you know, that was all passé.

Like there’s just, you know, that’s just not relevant anymore, you know, a land reform on a minute of school scale. So anyway, so that moment, that particular moment in the late ’90s was telling to me, and I think it’s also, you know, true definitely true of the FMLN. It was in the government from 2009.

It, it controlled the presidency from 2009 to 2019. It did. Very little, not surprising, did nothing in terms of land distribution. It did next to nothing in terms of support for, for unions, because by then it had been transformed into something else, which on some level represented in a historical left.

And so it could still call itself a left. It, you know, had this kind of anti, anti imperial stances to some degree. It had a rhetoric in favor of the people. It made some moves, definitely like trying to provide meals for kids going to school. You know, it, it provide uniforms for kids going to school.

It made a number of gestures that had concrete material benefits, but fundamentally it was divorced from it. It remained divorced from the social movements, which had, you know, given them their re dera back in the 1970s. So I think that was, that was really significant. That contributed to the transformation of the FMLN, the former Gorilla Organization, just as the FSLN, the Fuentes and Nicaragua being transformed from these parties with roots in those classic social movements of labor and peasantry and being transformed into, you know, essentially bureaucratic parties with vested interests and those interests Not specifically corresponding to the rank and file working class and peasantry.

DB: Yeah, it’sinteresting, isn’t it though, that precisely because their eyes are off the prize. They’re taking their eyes off the prize, which is to say some kind of genuine social solidarity. It makes them even more, you know, likely to be demonized by the sort of traditional interests of capital and and the interests that would stand against land reform at any, in, in any respect.

I mean, I can’t think of two. Well, certainly Nicaragua. I mean, Ortega now is just completely demonized as a complete. And I mean, for good reason. I mean, there is a good reason for it. He has shut down a lot of the, you know, fundamental civil liberties in the country. But again, what’s he left with?

If, if not any kind of commitment to, as you say, sort of traditional ideas of, of social solidarity?

JG: Yeah, I think with Ortega, I mean, it, it, they are slightly different stories, although they both involve corruption. I mean, you know, he’s turned, his government is, seems to be, you know, chock full with corruption, at least in, in a nepotistic sense without doubt.

And there’s also no doubt that there was tremendous corruption during the FMLN governments, particularly the first one, but the second one as well. And that to me—again, without having studied it all—seems to be endemic. I mean it’s obviously not strictly a left-wing phenomenon, but when your operation becomes business heavy just, I mean the FSLN starting with what was, you know, the, their electoral loss in 1990 and what was known as that pinata when a number of FSLN heavies got, got wealthy all of all of a sudden because they were able to privatize to themselves as it were, what had been collective goods because that, of course was the thrust of everything was privatization at that moment.

Well, you know, they became an entrenched group within the Ententes Andis, a leadership group that at once was also a business elite. And the same sort of thing happened with, with the FMLN because of all the. The goodwill they’re getting from Chavez and oil money and that sort of thing. I mean, oil, you know, gasoline operations and what have you.

So there were business interests, which, you know, combined with political power lent themselves to degrees of corruption and that certainly part of it. And that’s, but just stepping back for one second about the problem of the the left, I mean, what could be the left, I mean, in the case of Nicaragua, there was a sonni, the opposition to Ortega.

Yeah, it was typical. I think one of its iterations, it’s got a new name now, but one of its iterations was the, I think the renewal sun, the movement for Sun, the renewal or something like that. And it was made up by, you know, serious. Sanda leaders who had been you know, in fact, I’d say the majority of the Sandinista leadership joined it.

But what they were unable to do was to tap into those more client holistic networks that Ortega was able to hold onto and to fo and they also lacked, I’d say, although their great historical figures were part of them, including the ones who have been, you know, were imprisoned by Ortega such as daughter Maria.

Yes. They they were unable to create a viable anti neoliberal politics. They were unable to really develop any kind of of. Activism once again related to the working class in the peasantry. And they, in the end, became kind of a middle class phenomenon. There was a moment that there was a particularly popular one in 2005 who might have taught, you know, might have out on Ortega before Ortega got elected president, but he died of a heart attack during the electoral campaign.

But since then, that party again, although they, you know, the leadership comes from San Denise, the roots was simply unable to articulate kind of a left politics from, you know, within opposition to Ortega. And so what that means is that the opposition to Ortega although it comes from a lot of different sources does not have a clear for working-class peasantry position at all.

And I think that contributes to its weakness. Ortega obviously has been able to do a tremendous job at attacking any form of opposition these days. And to me it’s somewhat of a mystery. Why, because as late as 2016, he enjoyed a tremendous amount of popular support and that’s never been fully examined.

I think that was another weakness of the non-Ortega left, was their inability to fully come to grips with why Ortega could maintain, you know, such a political presence and such power. Yeah.

DB: Yeah, if I may, I just think that what you’re saying is so interesting because it really does frame the extraordinary difficulty of sustaining a left coalition in, in terms of practical politics, because precise, it seems to me that precise that, and again, I’m blue-skying here a little bit, but it seems to me that there’s a kind of underlying, almost like a political sense memory that informs a good deal of, you know, a variety of different left coalitions in, in Latin America, which all goes back to the American intervention starting in the 1960s that, you know, people were getting killed, right?

And. Nicaragua sat beside Guatemala, where 200,000 people were killed in the most horrifying ways imaginable. And so in a sense, that’s what gives rise to the kind of, I would say a deep-seated but not necessarily conscious sense of solidarity. And it, and, and unless the left, and this goes for Chile, it goes for Columbia, it goes for parts of Central America.

If they can’t get beyond that sense of, and I use this term advisedly, resentment, right? If they can’t create a genuine political alternative, then they’re just gonna be in this kind of constant sec sort of a You know, like an M.C. Escher painting or something like, like constantly feeding back on itself and not able to move forward and, and maybe being able to, to generate some political support on the margins.

But not being able to actually move a left project forward. And God knows, I mean, I was thinking about what we were saying about Chile. It may have been a mistake to move forward with the constitutional process, but my God, they had an 80 percent agreement that it needed to happen. 80 percent.

I I mean, you’re just never gonna get better politics than that.

JG: No, no. It’s true. There’ almost like a technical. Question though, that I didn’t mention. The 80 percent vote was with nonobligatory voting. And then with, with the next, with the next election voting became obligatory.

And so there were a lot of people who were thrown into the process who, who weren’t interested in voting or, or any,

JH: yeah. But, but also if you have, as you mentioned, you know, like a very long complex constitution the voting, no. Like, you just need a few veto points. You just need a few issues that people like are really against and to get a negative coalition.

Right. But I think as sort of, you know, like wrapping this up, we’re getting our thoughts together. I mean, I think one important theme is the sort of, you know, necessity of politics that’s actually grounded in, you know, working class movements and has this sort of sense of responsibility and cohesiveness that that gives.

And, and in the absence of that, you do kind of get, you know, parties that are simply there for the sake of holding power and are easily corruptible. And perhaps that’s that’s a That applies, you know, far beyond Latin America.

JG: So part two of, you know, one part of the demise of the left in, in El Salvador is the rise of this guy, Nayib Bukele, and he, you know, is, is a powerful but emerges as a powerful dominant force. And once again, although it’s hard to characterize him politically, he’s definitely not on the left. Although he started on the left— but the key thing, the fundamental reason he is so popular is because he managed to eliminate criminal violence the violence of gang violence, which had terrorized major chunks of Salvador and society.

And he was able to do it through massive repression, massive violation of human rights. But he did it. So when I was there recently, I mean, you could just, it was palpable in the air that. Suddenly there wasn’t this, the gang violence didn’t exist. So that just goes as part of, you know, the left not only has to ground itself in what Jay was mentioning you know, those kinds of politics, but they need to come up with some kind of response as well to the tremendous I mean the, I don’t think the levels of violence in Chile are criminal violence or anything like what they were in El Salvador, but they’re strong.

And you know, again, how do you deal with that? How do you respond to that? Obviously, none of us have the answer, but the left has to come up with the responses to that into immigration. So,

JH: Yeah, no, those, those points are really well-made and those are very powerful sources of organizing and, and everyone could say more broadly.

I mean, it is the sort of difficulty of dealing with you know social praying and social collapse while also trying to, you know, push forward a reform agenda. It, it seems like there’s a lot of tension within a program that has to grapple with all of that. I want to thank professor Jeff Gould for this survey of three very complicated countries with very complex histories but which I think we’ve been able to survey in a way that’s very clarifying.

And also to thank Doug for joining this conversation as well.

DB: As always. Thanks very much, as always, Jean. And thank you, Jeff. I learned a lot more through the course of this than I knew at the beginning.

JH: A very enlightening conversation. Thanks.

JG: Thanks. Very interesting.

DB: Thanks.

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