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Chávez vs UKIP? How Latin America has reinvigorated the European left

Radical left parties, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, did well in the recent European elections.  But how far can they go?  And what are the lessons for the UK?

Asa Cusack, Research Fellow, Institute for Latin American Studies, University of London

The numbers speak for themselves.  Though currently in opposition, both its plurality in European elections and recent polling suggest that Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) will soon become Greece’s largest political force.  Only founded in March, Spain’s Podemos (We Can) took five seats and 8 per cent of the vote in May’s European elections.  Its support now stands at 15 per cent, compared to 25 per cent apiece for the traditional parties.  How did both manage it?

Surprisingly, the answer is by emulating the Latin American left.   Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras has undertaken numerous fact-finding missions to Venezuela over the past decade and considers Hugo Chávez a personal hero.   Podemos, meanwhile, was established by a group of longstanding advisors to the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, all based at Madrid’s Universidad Complutense.   So central has their experience been that Podemos cite ‘thorough analysis and learning of recent Latin American processes’ as one cornerstone of their approach.

The parallels are indeed striking.  Both Syriza and Podemos propose an eye-catching audit of public debt and renegotiation of any portion deemed illegitimate, the same means by which Rafael Correa achieved a 65 per cent haircut on US$3 billion of Ecuadorian bonds.  Both would renationalise public services and ‘strategic’ industries, moves central to the reinvigoration of the state in Ecuador, Bolivia and especially Venezuela.  Both advocate public investment and subsidies for co-ops, mutuals and SMEs, perceived creators of more and better jobs.  The same sectors were the focus of efforts to diversify away from primary exports in Venezuela and Ecuador.

Syriza and Podemos also recognise that the deregulation favoured by big business has been detrimental to normal workers and wider society; they instead reassert the state’s responsibility to provide opportunity and well-being.  This means reversing labour-market flexibilisation, a higher minimum wage, and shorter working hours to improve quality of life and create jobs for Europe’s masses of young unemployed.  The same focus on the social effects of economic policy has seen the Latin American left extend labour rights, keep minimum-wage levels in step with living costs and multiply transfer benefits.

Syriza and Podemos even stray beyond Latin America’s example, advocating a universal minimum income rather than targeted benefits.  By introducing VAT bands for basic and luxury products, they mitigate fiscal regressiveness and insulate the poorest.  Proposed reintegration of private healthcare and education into public systems would reverse trends that most threaten those with the least.  Admittedly, the means differ in Latin America – vast social programmes in Venezuela, conditional cash transfers in Ecuador and Bolivia – but the idea of the state as guarantor of a ‘dignified life’ is the same.

The similarities extend even into the policy-definition process itself.  Syriza emerged as a ‘space’ for articulating single-issue movements and smaller parties, its assemblies doubling as forums debating future direction.  Podemos relies on a network of location- or issue-based ‘circles’ that allow everyday citizens to craft solutions to Spain’s post-crisis ‘state of emergency’.  From zero in March, there are now 766.  Similar bottom-up initiatives were crucial to mobilising and engaging popular support in Latin America, with Venezuela’s own ‘circles’ eventually acquiring local-level competences from the traditional state.

Finally, Syriza and Podemos reject the slick marketing of the third-way era.  Like Chávez, Morales and Correa, their leaders argue aggressively even where it puts noses out of joint.  Podemos campaign manager Iñigo Errejón – until recently a government-aligned pollster in Venezuela – considers this a ‘challenge to the leadership taboo [that] a charismatic leader is incompatible with real democracy’.  Where Morales sports his Cosby sweaters, Chávez his fatigues, and Correa his Otavalo shirt, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias maintains the look of a laid-back programmer.  The message is authenticity, confidence, and closeness to the everyday citizen.  And, like Chávez with his weekly ‘Hello Presidente!’ show or Correa’s near-identical ‘Citizen’s Link’, Podemos has utilised community broadcasting to circumvent mediation by mainstream public and private channels, making a national celebrity of Iglesias.

The common ground is rejection of neoliberal solutions to what are seen as neoliberal crises.  Latin American cases involving ‘out with the lot of ‘em!” protests, lethal repression and the fall of various ‘partidocracies’ are only more extreme versions of the indignado movements in Greece and Spain.  And, like their Latin American counterparts, Syriza and Podemos have won support from across the board by yoking distaste for a self-serving political ‘caste’ to a concern for those worst affected by its failings.

Yet there is no guarantee that these strategies will succeed, as Latin America has also shown.  Classic splits have emerged, with maximalist dominance in Venezuela provoking internecine conflict between state and private sector, while a centrist drift in Ecuador has blunted the radical edge of Correa’s ‘Citizen’s Revolution’.  Podemos may be too young for all that, but Syriza has already risked fragmentation in courting Greece’s traditional left.

But what of the UK left?  Is Chávez really the answer to UKIP?  It’s perhaps not as unlikely as it sounds.  Although the financial crisis has not wrought the devastation seen in Greece and Spain, a significant wellspring of discontent does exist.  Bankers’ bonuses, executive pay, mis-selling and rate fixing have fuelled public fury towards big business.  Corruption scandals and relentless media reports of state incompetence have made anti-politics the country’s prevalent political tendency.  The apparently indistinguishable insincerity of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband only frustrates those with genuine grievances.  And let’s not forget – though everyone else has – that just three years ago Britain was aflame with the nebulous rage of the 2011 riots.

While the UK may not at first seem to offer fertile ground for Latin America-style leftism, the rise of Syriza and Podemos was unforeseen in their own countries.  Just as Podemos credits its rapid rise to ‘articulation of “floating” discontent’, when Labour has managed to pluck discontent from the air – through market-unfriendly policies like capping energy prices and (almost) renationalising rail franchises – its leaders have been shocked by their own success.  The question now is whether the left can channel this popular discontent, or whether instead it continues to allow UKIP to depict itself as the only party defending the average citizen.

At the very least, the longevity of the Latin American left and the rapid rise of Syriza and Podemos suggest that the ‘third way’ may no longer be the only way!

Asa CusackAbout the guest author

Asa K Cusack is Research Fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London.  His research focuses on Latin American and Caribbean political economy, particularly Venezuela, Ecuador, the Anglophone Caribbean and regional integration.

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