Monday, April 17, 2006


"Viva America!"

Don't worry: I haven't suddenly turned into a patriotic American. I'm referring to Latin America where, I have decided, I am going to move to at the end of this year. Those of you who read my good friend Snowball's esteemed organ may remember that in pre-Homo Ludens days I contributed three posts on Latin America while I was travelling in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. In about six months time, my one-way ticket will take me to Buenos Aires where I will try and find work as a running dog of cultural imperialism (or an English teacher, as it's better known). From there, who knows where my nose will take me? Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela are all tempting, as is the rest of Brazil. And Patagonia. And Peru. And then why not go up to Mexico, or swim over to Cuba?

So why am I boring you with my emigration plans? One of the things I tried to talk about in my posts for Histomat was some of the political and social shifts that are happening across the continent. Unfortunately, my Spanish wasn't good enough to talk politics in any depth, though one particularly charming cab-driver did tell me that all liberals and communists were homosexuals. In lieu of more enlightened analysis, I thought it might be useful to look at a handful of Latin American countries and see if the fabled leftward shift is really accurate, especially since another potential darling of the left is, at the time of writing, favourite to become president of Peru.

Not a red cent to rub together...

The map above shows that, on the surface at least, the majority of South America's voters have decided that they wish for their countries to go in a leftwards direction. This is in some contrast to the 1990s, when governments across the continent imposed hard-line economic measures (mass privatisation of industry, reductions in public spending, steep cuts in salaries and benefits) to curb inflation.

These neoliberal policies are now widely seen as the cause of the series of economic crises which beset South America around the turn of the millennium. In Argentina, for example, the economy grew by minus 0.8% in 2001, and GDP fell by 10.9% in 2002. In the same year, 57% of Argentinians were living below the poverty line. The fact that Argentina has an abundance of natural resources, a large and skilled labour-force and a 97% literacy rate led the population to question why their country was in such dire straits. The finger, in common with the rest of the continent, was pointed at the neo-liberal USA.

In my posts for Histomat, I described how European powers were forced to decolonise during the 19th century as Latin American independence movements took hold. In 1823, the US issued the Monroe Doctrine which stated that European intervention in Latin American affairs would no longer be tolerated. In intervening years, however, the Monroe Doctrine has been used to endorse the US's own interventionist policies. During the 20th century alone, the US undermined or overthrew 40 Latin American governments. In the last five years, the US has intervened in Haitian, Venezuelan and Bolivian elections to name but a few.

The current of anti-US and even nationalist feelings in South America is thus understandable. But are those feelings analogous to left-wing politics? What does "left leaning" in the map above actually mean? And is the international socialist movement's prediction that Chavez, Morales et al will bring about 21st century socialism justified?

Post-box red?

"Left leaning" or "left wing" is, as usual, a rather elusive term. What does it mean when applied to all the pink countries on the map above?

For Michelle Bachelet, the recently elected first female president of Chile, it means attempting to use capitalism to bridge the gap between rich and poor. It fundamentally does not mean breaking with any form - even the neoliberal form - of capitalism. A little tinkering around the edges is as much as one can reasonably expect from the new Bachelet government. Although she calls herself a socialist, she has never promised anything more than very modest redistribution.


For Nestor Kirchner, who won the 2003 Argentinian election in spite of winning fewer votes in the first round than his neoliberal opponent Carlos Menem, it means taking a Peronist "third way" approach. He has distanced himself from the US and its surrogate institutions, criticising the World Bank for changing "from being a lender for development to a creditor demanding privileges," and has struck up close ties with fellow left and centre-left leaders Chavez and Lula. But he remains - as do his colleagues in Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay - subservient to neoliberalism. As James Petras says in Counterpunch magazine, he has "maintained all privatised firms, punctually paid the foreign debt, applied IMF fiscal policies and sent military forces to Haiti to uphold a US-imposed puppet regime and repress the poor struggling to restore the democratically elected Aristide government." It is worth noting that Argentina's one-off payment of its $9,810m worth of IMF's debts were largely financed via a deal with Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela.

Which brings us to the big boys, the men in whom the left places so much faith, the leaders who many believe will bring socialism to 21st century Latin America: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia. For Chavez and Morales, the term "left wing" means something more radical.

Both men have huge support. Morales won 54% of the vote against 29% for his closest opponent, and Chavez remains in power despite an attempted coup. Their support was garnered largely due to their anti-US rhetoric, their promises to redistribute wealth and ensure that revenue accrued from the countries' natural resources get diverted back to the people, and in Morales's case because of the support of Bolivia's indigenous populations.


The most important achievement of the Chavez government is that it is still in power. In 2002/03, the senior management of the PVDSA, Venezuela's state oil company, decided that, with the support of the Venezuelan right and the US government, they would go on strike. The idea was that a stalling of oil production would force Chavez from power. Unfortunately, PVDSA workers refused to strike and continued producing oil without their bosses. Which just goes to show how important senior managers are...

The shit that the PVDSA bosses tried to throw at the Venezuela state came right back to splat them (excuse me going all Trev 'n' Simon on you here) since the workers have now taken control of PVDSA. This is an important step, especially following the worldwide surge in oil prices, as Chavez has been able to reinvest oil revenues into social programmes, such as the "missions" described by Americo Tabata in this month's ISR. Tabata also suggests that, while the Chavez regime itself may not be socialist, it allows Venezuela's traditional socialist groups to come to the surface and grow in confidence.


Evo Morales has only been in power a couple of months, but he has already achieved some (modest) tax increases on the rich, salary cuts of up to 58% for senior civil servants and politicians (including himself!), salary increases for public sector workers, and still promises to nationalise subsoil industries (i.e. mining, but not refining). Tom Lewis, also writing in the ISR, also highlights the importance of Morales's pledge to hold elections in July to choose a new Constitutional Assembly which, he proposes, will formally end neoliberalism in Bolivia. Like Chavez, Morales's rhetoric has also been unequivocally anti-American. Morales has not quite gone as far as his Venezuelan counterpart in likening Bush to Hitler (or, even more charmingly, calling him "un pendejo"), but the US were less than enthusiastic when he was elected at the beginning of the year, and that's got to count for something.

So does this make Chavez and Morales revolutionaries? Or even socialists?

Americo Tabata makes the following important point in his article "An unconscious socialist revolution":

Effectively, for many people in our [Venezuela's] poor communities, having a doctor in a neighbourhood, almost a family doctor, has become a revolutionary demand, when it should be a basic right for everyone. It's that way because in capitalism, the most elemental and basic rights have become "revolutionary" gains for working people. Nevertheless, health care, education, and the right to work continue being democratic - and not specifically socialist - demands."

With this in mind, we must admit that neither Chavez nor Morales are socialists. Tom Lewis notes that, following Morales's victory, his wellwishers included business leaders and Paul Wolfowitz. This should give us pause for thought. So should Chavez's assertion that "socialism is not in contradiction with economic development nor with private property."

Shortly after the 2005 insurrection which forced his neoliberal predecessor from power, Morales sanctioned the privatisation of the MUTUN iron mining field, which also contains 70% of the world's total magnesium reserves (for one field to contain that much is beyond this unscientific mind's ken) - in fact, he even overturned a decision to suspend tendering for contracts. Even his plans for nationalisation are modest: they will only affect subsoil industries, and they will not be retroactive. Not surprising, perhaps, that business leaders have welcomed him with relatively open arms.

Morales, incidentally, played no part in either the 2005 insurrection or the 2003 insurrection. Both of these insurrections had revolutionary potential, but Morales rejected these opportunities and instead went down the parliamentary road. Chavez has turned down opportunities for radicalism too: the attempted management strike of the PVDSA provided ample grounds for wresting control of other industries out of private entrepeneurs and into the hands of the state. Instead, he has persevered with a series of private-public-partnerships.

Keep the red flag flying?

The success of Chavez and Morales, and the international left's excitement over the situation in Latin America, is understandable. After the so-called "end of history" and the rise of the neos (liberalism and conservatism), there has been precious little for the left to cheer about in recent years. And the left should cheer about what is happening in South and Central America: these new regimes are making the neocon US government's position ever more isolated, and are giving the poor renewed confidence. As Tariq Ali has said, one must gain power first in order to enact social change. Morales and Chavez are both canny politicians who know they must practice some pragmatism in order to maintain their presidencies.

The two leaders' close ties with Cuba should provide hope for the international left as well. When Castro dies, it will be important to have a strong left-wing movement in Cuba which enjoys foreign support in order that the inevitable democratisation of the country does not lead to it becoming another American satellite.

So the left should indeed continue to give the governments of Bolivia and Venezuela (and, more measuredly, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay) its support. But it should be conditional support: the condition being that Chavez and Morales must always side with the poorest sections of their countries, and must always fight for their rights, and never side with the multinationals and the imperial demands of the West. When these leaders of the left fail to meet these conditions, we should not hesitate to criticise them, pile on the pressure, and support the ordinary men and women who got them there in the first place.


Blogger Comandante Gringo said...

Having leaders who are (objectively, anyway) faciliating the switchover to the socialist mode of production is a plus indeed; but it is a huge mistake -- which so many in the western Left are making in spades -- to fixate on, and build their strategies around, the leaderships and 'elected' (in the bourgeois manner) leaders of these tendencies in América Latina. As you are pointing out in the article, there are tenuous linx at best between these leaderships and the masses they purport to represent.

The proper stance for the Western Left to take is a full -- but wholly critical -- support for the mass movements themselves; and only secondarily, for these leaderships -- and then, only so long as they are doing what the masses want. And so far, most of these are failing or at best getting only a passing grade. And so we shouldn't really be supporting most of these self-promotors and fraud artists. For instance: we should really be treating Lula as the enemy of the working-classes he has actually become. Same with his bastard "Partido dos Trabalhadores" -- which is no workers' party...

What's in a name, eh?

Frankly, it would be best if the masses simply dispensed with most of this lot at the earliest opportunity, and set up an alternative government of "soviets" continent-wide -- armed to the teeth against external and internal aggression (note that AFAIC there still must be an organized Party which the masses put forward to represent their interests in class society; and there certainly must still be a government, at least in some socialist sense).

And so I'm very glad that you are heading down that way to give us daily reports on the Latin American Socialist Revolution..!

5:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Caetano Veloso says that the U.S.A. is a country without a name, and Brasil a name without a country! Clever man.

9:17 PM  

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