Every Generation of North Americans Must Come to Terms with Latin America

You’d have to be living under a rock not to know that major developments in Latin America have created a tectonic shift in geo-political calculations. Ecuador is the latest entrant into the win column for the left. Rafael Correa’s new government joins the list that already includes Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia.

One Left, Many Paths.

Jorge Castaneda, writing in Foreign Affairs (May-June 2006), conjured up a categorical divide between the “two lefts.” The first left (Argentina, Brazil, Chile) is “modern, open-minded, reformist, and internationalist, and it springs, paradoxically, from the hard-core left of the past.” The second left (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador) is “born of the great tradition of Latin American populism, is nationalist, strident, and close-minded.” Such a division is attractive to those of the neo-liberal persuasion because it allows them to peel away the former from the latter, demonize the “populists” and claim that there is no difference between the neo-liberal agenda and that of the “modern” left. Many in the U. S. left reproduce this divide, valorize its other half (Venezuela, Bolivia) and pillory Lula and others as sell-outs.

Such divides are not only unreasonable, but they are also singularly unhelpful. Every country gets the left political force that it deserves. Each social formation has a different class composition, a different relation of ethnic minorities to a majority population, has a separate colonial history with differential capitalist development, and has very distinct progressive political traditions. A broth of Anarchism, Anarcho-Syndicalism, Marxism, Communism, agrarian Populism, social Catholicism alongside messianic great leaders (from Bolivar to Peron) and indigenous communitarianism created a stew of ideas, traditions and resources for the political struggles across the region. In 1959, Silvio Frondizi, who founded Argentina’s Revolutionary Left Movement, put the notion of the “left” plainly, “Although the word ‘left’ does not have much scientific value, its use has conferred on it the meaning of a critical revolutionary position vis-à-vis the current capitalist society, aiming at its transformation into a future socialist society.” Frondizi’s impatience with reform belied his own catholic understanding of the left tradition, whose parties had to trod a fine line between the alleviation of immediate grievances and the creation of a collective will decisive enough to risk total social transformation. Brazil has its own history, as does Venezuela. In one place, revolutionary time moves faster than the other. That does not mean that the leadership is to be exculpated for its own failures: Lula’s regime, for example, has smothered any state and non-state institutional forms that might have kept his delegates honest. Nevertheless, those who carry around a litmus paper to gauge the acidity of a regime will surely always be disappointed.

The Washington Consensus helped equalize suffering for the lower ranks of Latin American society: fifty percent of the region’s people live in poverty, with a quarter in what is known as “extreme poverty.” The situation was so grave that a well-regarded survey (Latinobarometro) found that less than a third of the region’s people believed that privatization was good. The rest knew that its impact was diabolical. The new regimes in Latin America have worked very prudently. They came to power by the ballot, in many cases holding together a wide and shallow coalition. This meant that very radical reforms could not be accomplished within the space afforded by this shallow width. So far, the moves have been very guarded: reduction of public foreign debt (Argentina) and cautious contract disputes over rent distribution (with the exception of Bolivia‘s nationalization of gas, which was itself not as militant as theoretically possible). The regimes have also not acted to increase the minimum wage: there appears to be a consensus that unless productivity is raised, any rise in wages will result in inflation, which will collapse the impact of the rise on real wages.

Against inflation, there have been some modest attempts: the Argentine government has put price caps on products like beef, and set up limits on utility rates. Even in Mexico, under pressure from this leftist dynamic (and the great fight of the people over the election), the newly installed conservative government has indicated that it will craft pragmatic anti-poverty means (which is a big move for the PAN, which is programmatically anti-poor). A report by Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid and Igor Paunovic of ECLAC-Mexico argues that the new developments presage the creation “of a new paradigm of economic development policies.” But they are vigilant about being too optimistic. “Whether this [new wine in a new bottle] will age gracefully and have a rich and memorable taste or, on the contrary, sour and decay is too early to know,” they conclude (their essay is in Revisita: Harvard Review of Latin America, Spring 2006).

Venezuela is an outlier. As oil prices are high, the revenues from this sector enable the Bolivarian Revolution to finance its social justice agenda. But even its agenda is on unstable foundations. If oil prices drop, the regime will have to slash some of these programs. Which is why the Bolivarian Revolution has moved rapidly for social transformation: the attempt to move urban slum-dwellers to develop rural areas, the writing of a new Constitution, the reconfiguration of the oil ministry, the creation of Telesur, the television network ­ these are all useful developments to consolidate the Bolivarian agenda when the oil is bringing in revenue. Chavez is also able to create regional and international solidarity based on these favorable budgets. As Tariq Ali writes in his new book (Pirates of the Caribbean, Verso, 2006), “While it is perfectly true that during the first period in office, the Bolivarians remained prisoners of macro-economic policies and were unable to bring immediate benefits to those who needed them the most, the partial solutions that began to be implemented after 2002 were extremely important. They improved the lives of millions of poor people by providing them with education and better health care. These achievements cannot be measured simply in cash terms and those who dismiss or ridicule them have, in most cases, little awareness of the social crisis that had gripped Venezuela or the reasons for the popularity of the process.”

But again there is a limit on the macro-economic side. The Revolution’s reliance upon its oil revenues makes it dependent on the U. S. market. Sixty percent of Venezuela‘s substantial oil exports go to the U. S. Chavez intimates that he wants China to become a leading oil importer from Venezuela, but this will take immense infrastructural changes and include high transport costs. Chavez will not be able to diversity the consumer base for Venezuelan oil in the short or medium term. The Venezuelan reforms are viable and achievable because of the oil money. Similar reforms might be possible in Bolivia if the revenues rise, as expected, to $780 million from $320 million (and the recent land reform can be combined by infrastructural development funded by this capital infusion). But they are not so easily possible in states that don’t have such a revenue stream. “The tragedy of investment,” the wise Michal Kalecki warned us, “is that it is necessary.”

The View from North America.

During the Dole-Clinton election in 1996, I was in Rhode Island. It was dull election, and during one of those interminable discussions about who to vote for, I got into an argument with an otherwise interesting man who belonged to one of the American socialist parties. He began to lecture me about the failures of the Cuban Revolution. Some of the points he made were correct, but on the whole, it was a most disagreeable rant. He had little care for the history of the island, or for its complex place in global geo-politics. What bothered him was that it was a “Stalinist regime.” This was it. And it was convenient for him that the Cubans perforce began to innovate with all kinds of economic mechanisms during the Special Period (in addition, the confusion over the regime’s response to AIDS patients emboldened him ­ for a more measured view, see Anne-Christine D’Adesky’s chapter in Moving Mountains: The Race to Treat Global AIDS, Verso, 2004).

The U.S. movement suffers from a historic inadequacy in our relations with radical movements across the planet. Since the suppression of the left in the United States there has been a tendency to either dismiss or to valorize, to hate or to love, movements elsewhere in the world. Balanced strategic assessments that are a necessary prerequisite for genuine solidarity are often missing. What we have instead is a desire to use other social movements for our own line struggles, or else to measure these movements based on a theoretical purity rather than on the historical constraints and possibilities in those societies, as well as on a dialectical theory for the transformation of humanity (whether Marxism or something else).

For almost fifty years Cuba provided the U. S. left with just this kind of ideological football. Cuba became the object around which people in North America belabored their disagreements. The objective developments and subjective disagreements within Cuba were rarely at the center of the conversation (but for an interesting beginning, go read Socialism and Democracy‘s special issue from 2001). C. Wright Mills, the New Left guru, critically presaged this use of Cuba in his 1960 book Listen Yankee, where he wrote, “I do not worry about [the Cuban Revolution], I worry for it and with it.” To worry “for” and “with” is a useful formula for solidarity. Close study, patience and a keen ear should be our requirements. Radicals do not seek messiahs; rather we search for social motion that might move forward a just political agenda that gains widespread support as it draws more and more people into its dynamic.

In 1972, Salvador Allende warned his compañeros to work hard, but patiently. “The creation of a socio-economic regime entails the development of social and economic factors which are essentially opposed to that regime. Those factors, engines of revolutionary change, are not the laws or the institutional apparatus of the state; they are inherent in the economic structure, in the new relations of production which we are promoting, in the conscience of the workers, in the new labor organizations which are changing the infrastructure. It is a rudiment of materialist scientific analysis that the accumulation of quantitative changes produces qualitative changes. No one can have illusions of changing from day to night a socio-economic regime. The institutional form of a state can be transformed rapidly, but not its economic structure.”

Chavez, Correa, Lula, Morales: they stand in for the hopes of millions. But they are also on quicksand, hastening to harden their footfalls, to create the ground for social transformation. Rather than our condescension or our adulation, they need our North American critical solidarity.

Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. His most recent book is a co-edited volume (with NACLA’s Teo Ballvé), Dispatches from Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism (Boston: South End Press, 2006).


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