Claudia Jardim and Jonah Gindin spoke to veteran political activist and author Tariq Ali, during his recent trip to Caracas, about Venezuela and Latin American resistance to US neoliberalism.
How do you explain the explosion in social movements against neoliberalism in Latin America?
I think the reason for this is that Latin America was used as a laboratory by the United States for a long, long time. When Washington wanted to crush popular movements by unleashing military dictatorships, it did it in Latin America first: in Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Then, [the US government] got Latin America in a grip economically, and said â€œthis is the only way forwardâ€. The laboratory of the American Empire is the first to rebel against the empire.
Chile under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet, then Brazil under President Fernando Cardoso and Argentina under successive governments, were de-industrialised. These rulers thought that their countries could function in an economic bubble created by a false boom, largely fuelled by foreign money coming into banks where there were low interest rates.
Whenever the investments got risky, international investors would pull out. They had absolutely no motivation for building Brazil or Argentina â€” so you gradually began to have the rise of new social movements from below: peasant movements, landless peasant movements, unemployed working-class movements that began to challenge this, initially in villages, in one town, in one locality, in one region. And then gradually it began to spread. The result was continent-wide protests.
You had an uprising in Cochabamba in Bolivia against the privatisation of water. You had a struggle of the peasants of Cuzco in Peru, against the privatisation of electricity. On both struggles, the government made repression its first response, and then had to retreat. Then you had an unbelievable collapse in Argentina, where within three weeks four or five presidents came and fell. That began to demonstrate very graphically the crisis of neoliberal capitalism. In Brazil, Cardoso had de-industrialised the country completely. There was no national bourgeoisie left, there were no national traditions within the capitalist sphere left, and the country began to suffer.
Do you see the US empire absorbing this energy by proposing a softer version of neoliberalism?
I donâ€™t think US rulers, at the moment, are prepared to do that. They will only do that if they feel threatened. And they donâ€™t feel threatened at the moment. And one reason â€” I have to be very blunt here â€” they donâ€™t feel threatened is because there is an idealistic slogan within the social movements, which goes like this: â€œWe can change the world without taking power.â€ This slogan doesnâ€™t threaten anyone; itâ€™s a moral slogan. The Zapatistas â€” who I admire â€” when they marched from Chiapas to Mexico City, what did they think was going to happen? Nothing happened. It was a moral symbol, it was not even a moral victory because nothing happened.
I think that phrase was understandable in Latin American politics, people were very burnt by recent experiences: the defeat of the Sandinistas, the defeat of the armed struggle movements.
From that point of view, the Venezuelan example is the most interesting one. It says: â€œIn order to change the world you have to take power, and you have to begin to implement change â€” in small doses if necessary â€” but you have to do it. Without it nothing will change.â€
Without adequately addressing state power, what alternative to neoliberalism is the global social justice movement offering?
It has no alternative! These activists think that it is an advantage not to have an alternative. But, in my view thatâ€™s a sign of political bankruptcy. If you have no alternative, what do you say to the people you mobilise? The MST [Landless Workers Movement] in Brazil has an alternative, it says, â€œtake the land and give it to the poor peasants, let them work itâ€. But the thesis of the Zapatistas, is a thesis for cyberspace: letâ€™s imagine. But we live in the real world, this thesis isnâ€™t going to work. Therefore, the model for me of the MST in Brazil is much much more interesting than the model of the Zapatistas in Chiapas.
In Colombia there has been a huge militarisation that is very similar to Cold War US strategy in Latin America. Where does this fit in with a new strategy that, as you have pointed out, is largely economic?
Colombia is exceptional at the moment, and of course Venezuela where Washington tried to push through a new coup dâ€™etat that failed. US rulers will do that if nothing else succeeds. Where they feel democracy doesnâ€™t serve their interests they will return to the military â€” thatâ€™s obvious.
But at the moment the problem is how to devise a society in which you can push through social-democratic projects for the poor. Thatâ€™s why Venezuela is very important. Before President Luiz â€œLulaâ€ da Silva was elected, a possibility emerged, [given that] Argentina had collapsed and in Venezuela there was President Hugo ChÃ¡vez. If you had a Bolivarian federation, of Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba, it could produce a completely different way of looking at the world and a different form of society, which would not be repressive, which would not be vicious, which would transform the everyday lives of the poor.
That has not happened. Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner, in my opinion, is better than Lula. The big disappointment has been the Brazilian Workers Party.
But that doesnâ€™t mean we stop thinking about the possibilities. Ten thousand Cuban doctors are working in Venezuela, thousands of poor Venezuelan kids are going to Cuba to learn to be doctors. Here you take advantage of each otherâ€™s strengths, not each otherâ€™s weaknesses. So itâ€™s very good that Venezuela and ChÃ¡vez are taking advantage of the strengths of Cuba, rather than its weaknesses. The social structure they have created, health, education thatâ€™s something that Brazil could do as well, but it doesnâ€™t do it.
The global justice movement is wary of ChÃ¡vezâ€™s populism, his military background, and what they fear may become a top-down â€œrevolutionâ€ that excludes the grassroots. How do you think this movement and Ch vez can be reconciled?
As long as the poor in Venezuela support this government it will survive, when they withdraw their support it will fall. But I think it will be useful if the Global Justice Movement â€” and there are many different strands in it â€” came and saw whatâ€™s going on here. Whatâ€™s the problem? Go into the shantytowns, see what the lives of the people are, see what their lives were before this regime came into power. And donâ€™t go on the basis of stereotypes.
You cannot change the world without taking power, that is the example of Venezuela. Ch vez is improving the lives of ordinary people, and thatâ€™s why itâ€™s difficult to topple him â€” otherwise he would be toppled. So itâ€™s something that people in the Global Justice Movement have to understand, this is serious politics. Itâ€™s pointless just chanting slogans, because for the ordinary people on whose behalf you claim to be fighting getting an education, free medicine, cheap food is much much more important than all the slogans put together.
What do you think of the Venezuelan example of participatory democracy?
I think it needs to be strengthened. I think itâ€™s weak, I think the movement here needs to institutionalise on every level â€” the level of small pueblos, the level of the towns, the level of different quarters â€” organisations,, Bolivarian Circles, whatever you want to call them, which meet regularly, which talk with each other, which discuss their problems, which arenâ€™t simply a response to calls from above. Itâ€™s very very important, because ChÃ¡vez is an unusual guy in Latin America â€” very special â€” and he is young and long may he live, but he has to create institutions which outlast him for the future of this country.
What is at stake in Venezuela? Whose interests? Can Venezuela survive alone? What does Venezuela mean to the US?
Venezuela is an example which the US wishes to wipe out. Because if this example exists, and gets stronger and stronger and stronger, then people in Brazil, in Argentina, in Ecuador, in Chile, and in Bolivia will say â€œif Venezuelans can do it, we can do itâ€. So Venezuela, from that point of view, is a very important example. Thatâ€™s why Washington pours in millions of dollars to help the stupid opposition in Venezuela; an opposition which is incapable of offering any real alternative to the people, except what used to exist before: a corrupt, a servile oligarchy.
I think that one weakness, until recently, of the Bolivarian revolution has been that it has not done more towards the rest of Latin America, because itâ€™s been under siege at home. But I think, once ChÃ¡vez wins the referendum [on whether to recall him, held on August 15], and then [there are pro-ChÃ¡vez victories in] the local elections, and the mayoralty of Caracas in September, I hope then a big offensive is made for the rest of Latin America too.
From that point of view, the model of the Cuban doctors is a very good one. I mean, a Venezuelan doctor â€” in five years Venezuelans will come back [from Cuba] as doctors, they can help both their own country, and they can go to other countries to work in the shantytowns. They are small things, but in the world in which we live they are very big things.
Fifty years ago they would have been small, today they are very big. And thatâ€™s why we have to preserve and nurture them.
The mainstream private media plays an important political role in Venezuela. How can this disinformation be combated?
What we lack in Latin America is means of communication, we need a satellite channel like Al Jazeera, and I said weâ€™ll call it â€˜Al Bolivarâ€™ if you want. But you need one which reports regularly â€” what the right is saying, what the left movements are saying, which gives an account of what it is the MST wants, which challenges Lula, but which does it quite independently, without being attached to any state. And I think this satellite channel could be very important for the whole of Latin America, to challenge the BBC World, and CNN and have a Latin American channel.
What do you think opposition and US strategy will be in the event of a ChÃ¡vez victory on August 15?
Well, I think the only strategy left is to try and overthrow him by a military coup. But the military seems to be supporting him. The previous coup was a warning to him as well: you canâ€™t simply rely on the military without educating people. I think without the military in Venezuela, they canâ€™t do anything â€” they cannot topple him.
This referendum has been the big demand [of the Venezuelan opposition] for years, as they claimed â€œoh, heâ€™s not allowing a referendumâ€ â€” forgetting that without [Chavezâ€™s] constitution you couldnâ€™t have had this referendum. So if Chavez wins this referendum, the opposition will be fractured, I think it will be completely demoralised, itâ€™s foolish.
Do you think opposition might claim there was fraud in order to deligitimise Chavez s victory?
Well, look, we have to fight that when it happens, but I think this is why the process should be transparent, and I think lots of observers will be coming. And if that happens, the government has to go immediately on the offensive, and say â€œthis was a clear victory, you want you go into the whole country and talk to every single voterâ€. Go completely on the offensive and say, â€œthis isnâ€™t Floridaâ€.
In any case, one shouldnâ€™t worry permanently â€” you know one should depend on the strength of the people. If the people vote him in, and he wins the referendum they will be big celebrations all over the country. And it will be obvious, what has happened.