by Comrade Victor Hampton
For almost a decade, the political developments in Latin American have been a topic of considerable discussion and debate within academia, the mainstream media and among ‘the Left’ (broadly defined). Much of this attention, however, has been relegated to assessments of electoral movements and events and has especially focused on governments that have been categorized as ‘left of centre’ and as such, the debate has been predominantly between those who almost uncritically support these governments and those who outright dismiss these processes.
It shouldn’t surprising then that when these complex and contradictory political processes in Latin America are examined, the critiques are more often then not centred on those in positions of leadership in government as well as their electoral apparatus. From a revolutionary perspective, certainly the positions and trajectory of governments cannot be ignored but neither can the relationship and orientation of mass movements to these governments. Omission of this critical component leads to two main errors in evaluations of the current political moment in Latin America.
On the one hand is the interpretation of what is taking place in Latin America as more or less an electoral process, albeit with varying degrees of engagement from social movements in and around these electoral projects. The so-called ‘pink tide’ theory, which emanates largely from liberal/social democratic/NGO sectors, seeks to reduce the current political conjuncture in Latin America to an electoral domino effect, where charismatic ‘left’ leaders and their emergent parties are building from each others momentum, capturing the imagination and aspirations of the people in successive elections across the region. This view sees governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile (up until the election of Sebastian Pinera), Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Paraguay (during the brief government of Francisco Lugo), Uruguay and Venezuela as part of a unified and regional electoral ‘trend’.
What is implicit in this analysis is reinforcement of the reformist notion that social transformation is accomplished primarily, if not exclusively, through winning elections and subsequently seeking to reform the state apparatus through the government. Among many things, what is obfuscated in this analysis is the dramatic difference in the political character of particular governments, which are reflected in their particular political programmes as well as the positioning of advanced sectors and the organized popular masses to it. For example, despite having elected a President from Socialist Party in Chile under Michelle Bachelet, there were massive mobilizations by the student sector against education reforms which failed to address the main grievances of people around the cost and quality of education; to fierce resistance from Mapuche communities to continued sacking of resources from their ancestral lands in the south of the country. The policies of the Bachelet government, as well as other ‘centre-left’ governments in the region, represented in-large part a continuity of neoliberal capitalism despite in its programme and as such, the masses and with advanced sectors and organizations were mobilized against many of their proposals.
Indeed, the election of centre-left governments has, in almost all of the aforementioned countries, not resulted in meaningful redistribution of resources, let alone a revolutionary transformation of society. In post-neoliberal Latin America, national bourgeoisies arguably have more power today, despite a widespread repudiation of the completely subservient comprador bourgeoisies to North American and European imperialism. There is not a example in Latin America today where revolutionary mass movements do not find themselves at odds – at least from time to time – with decisions and positions of those in government in their respective countries. More importantly, few if any purport to build socialism merely through incremental government reforms.
The view that presents the progressive, nationalist governments in Latin America as proof of the feasibility of a non-confrontational transition to socialism ignore three basic facts of Latin America today: (1) the means of production, including much of the land base, are still in the hands of the bourgeoisie in all of Latin America; (2) elements and attitudes of the ‘old state’ endure in spite of the measures and campaigns against them (where such measures have been attempted); and (3) that the many advanced mass movements and revolutionary organizations in the region (including those that are in some measure supporting a government within their locality) do not actually purport to suggest that socialism will be achieved simply by forming the next government.
On the other hand, there is a perspective among a section of the ‘radical left,’ including those with anarchist and anti-revisionist orientations, that tends to dismiss the entirety of the government-mass political projects in Latin America, with others in the region even positioning themselves in opposition to them (for example, the Communist Party of Ecuador- Marxist Leninist and the Communist Party of Ecuador – Red Sun who are in opposition to the Correa government and in the case of Red Sun, also in opposition to the Venezuelan government). The basis of these critiques range from a general distrust of the role of the government / state as well as military in these processes; the correct point of the continuity of the old regimes and the ‘revolutionary’ governments in the form of bureaucratism, corruption and cronyism; the continued concentration of production in private hands; the penetration of Chinese capita; among a wide array of other valid criticisms of Latin America’s leftist governments. They reaffirm, correctly, that these processes have not undergone socialist transformation. But in the end, their final analysis is one of dismissal for what these processes are not. In coming to such a conclusion, these forces negate to recognize potential and opportunity in these processes to accelerating the struggle.
Nonetheless, between these two erroneous positions that generally negate the agency of the masses, is the view which recognizes that what is developing in Latin America – with the disparity and complexity that defines the many unfolding of processes in all their particularities – is a process that has politicized and mobilized millions of people while facilitating the accumulation of forces and strength of revolutionary mass movements. For all the continued problems and contradictions that of Latin America’s leftist and center-leftist governments, the political shifts in the region has opened up opportunities for a reorganization of revolutionary forces that had dispersed by the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. Some of the current governments in Latin American are the fruit of the increasing and evolving mobilization of the masses since the 1990s. These struggles, mostly in response to the imposition of neoliberal economic reforms, had the effect of realigning political forces, discrediting market economics and its proponents (from both the right and ‘left’ parties). In certain cases, gains have been made in areas such as health, education, infrastructure and communications as well as other areas (which will not be mentioned in this article, but are considerable in certain countries). These victories have not only been the result of popular struggle but have in turn, raised the expectations and consciousness of the people to demand deeper transformation. In a few cases, these struggles have put the building of ‘socialism’ (albeit in ambiguous and inconsistent terms) back on the agenda. In terms of mass struggle, some of these processes are providing political space and resources that have in some cases, facilitated the development of dual power.
While proletarian internationalists have a duty to observe closely and provide criticism to what we perceive as errors being committed by our comrades in other lands, we also need to appreciate the political moment and take advantage of opportunities presented to strike against the principle enemies and advance our overall objective. That said we must be clear about the contradictions that still exist (as most advanced sectors in these countries are not shy to acknowledge and confront) and guard against arriving at erroneous conclusions, particularly those that have a narrow electoral or gubernatorial focus.
By looking at the examples of the developing revolutionary mass movements in Venezuela and Ecuador, we can see that there are clearly important and positive initiatives underway to draw inspiration and lessons from. More importantly, far from being destined to failure there are most definitely signs for optimism as struggle transforms the people who become more organized and determined to see their processes radicalize.
Compared to other countries in the region, historically Venezuela’s revolutionary left was an active but relegated force for much of the second half of the 20th century.
Following the popular rebellions against the Perez Jimenez regime in 1958, the social democratic Accion Democratica (AD) colluded with other political forces to isolate the Venezuelan Communist Party and cement its role as a the power broker ‘on the left’. From the signing of the Punto Fijo pact (a power sharing agreement signed by the AD with two other parties), the AD retained a tight grip on the main worker and peasant organizations of the country, bringing them into a corporatist arrangement with capital and the state.
Venezuela has been exploiting its oil resources since the turn of the last century. The revenues from oil, mostly conceded to US capital, generated revenues for mega projects (most of which were flawed due to skimming and corruption) as well as for generating a clientelist relationship between politicians and the people. Moreover, a labour aristocracy was created in the oil sector where some workers, technicians, professionals as well as trade unionists, lived materially well-off compared to the majority of the population.
Within this scenario, armed organizations waging guerrilla wars formed to foment a popular uprising, although these organizations never grew to the capacity of organizations in Colombia or Central America. Of these, the most significant armed organization was the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), which was comprised of members from the PCV as well as the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR). The FALN was active from 1960 into the 1970s and modelled itself on the Cuban July 26th Movement, concentrating itself in the countryside. The group had presence throughout the country and certainly impacted Venezuelan politics, but was never able to repeat the achievements of the movement they were modelled on. By the early 1980s, the armed struggle dissipated.
What’s more, many of the figures from the period of armed struggle integrated themselves into the electoral sphere, starting electoral parties such as the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) or Causa R.
In fact, such was the effectiveness of corporatism in Venezuela that it was held up and lauded by liberals and conservatives alike as an ‘exceptional democracy’. That is, until this facade was lifted during the Caracazo rebellion of 1989. A severe structural reform and austerity package imposed by the International Monetary Fund and implemented by the Accion Democratica led to dramatic increases of the price of oil and basic food stuff, leading to a mass uprising throughout the country and severe state repression. In the aftermath, with up to 3000 people massacred, traditional political parties were discredited and the entire political-economic system was in disrepute.
In this crisis of illegitimacy for the Venezuelan state and all its political actors, steps in a paratrooper named Hugo Chavez Frias, who was widely recognized for having played a leading role in a failed coup attempt in 1992 that sought to implement a progressive nationalist platform. Following his jailing and release, Chavez campaigned heavily and won the presidency in 1998 with a main campaign promise to call a constituent assembly to change the constitution of the country. Importantly here, Chavez did not merely win an election due to some mystical charisma. With the experience and networks previously worked out from his clandestine Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement ‘200’, they spent several years organizing, weaving together scattered groups and organizations with the demand of a constitutional assembly.
While constitutional reform still operates within the framework of bourgeois democracy, the importance of this demand in laying the foundation for mass politicization and mobilization as well as for left regroupement cannot be over stated. By calling for a constitutional assembly not only was the entire foundation of the previous socio-political (not yet economic) system fundamentally questioned and rejected, but it also opened the door for widespread organization and agitation, winning over the people to materializing all of their concrete demands as the legal foundation for how society should be and operate. Using the constitutional assemblies as vehicles for mass education and democratization, tens of thousands were politicized and organized, while mass organizations and advanced sectors benefitted from the opportunity to accumulate forces.
Moreover, the new constitution provided an ongoing reference for the people when making their demands as well as a tool for political education for the masses that reframed the traditional bourgeois paradigms of representation and paternalism. The constitution not only guaranteed civil rights, but also social rights such as access to education, health care, culture, etc. and rested these on a foundation of popular participation where the masses and organized communities had the right to participate in any and all aspects of social, political and economic life. With the passing of the 1999 constitution, not only was the stage set for an acceleration of struggle as the people began to organize themselves, but also the foundations where set for the sectors of the Venezuelan people with the most revolutionary potential to build and/or consolidate dual power.
However, with a few notable exceptions, at the start of the Bolivarian process there were few large, seasoned mass organizations to play a leading role in advancing and radicalizing the process. This is evidenced by the absence of organizations to direct the Caracazo rebellion, leading instead to the military rebellion two years later. During the early years of the Bolivarian process then, the government made various attempts to initiate, stimulate or encourage different forms of organization on national scales. This ranged from the Bolivarian circles to more specialized neighbourhood committees addressing specific issues. In this regard, insufficient credit is given to Hugo Chavez, who despite occasional outbursts at not only at the Venezuelan Communist Party but also at revolutionary organizations such as the Alexis Vive collective or La Piedrita (both political-military organizations based predominantly in Caracas), consistently recognized the role and necessity of organized mass and advanced (even armed) movements and encouraged the people to exercise political and economic power. This was increasingly present in Chavez’s political discourse and emphasis where he called on the people to organize and assume political power through the manifestations of their organization.
While most of the early government initiatives towards creating popular mass organizations were not as successful as expected, throughout the development of the Bolivarian process the organization of the people has grown exponentially. Thousands of cooperatives have been formed, numerous factories occupied and reorganized under workers control, hundreds of community and alternative media form and unified under a network as well as sectoral organization. Moreover, there has been increasing coalescing of revolutionary forces as demonstrated by the creation of the Great Patriotic Pole, which brought the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) under the same electoral banner with leading mass organizations, many of whom are independent from and hold critical positions of the PSUV and its leadership.
The call for people to organize themselves was adopted and institutionalized by the government under Chavez. In Caracas and other places people began to organize themselves in their neighbourhoods order to carry out some of the reforms passed by the government including land regularization and surveying. Some places enjoyed a longer tradition of community self-organization, such as the ‘23 de Enero’ neighbourhood where the Movimiento Tupamaro had effectively built a form of local dual power including the creation of an armed counter-balance to the police. From these experiences, advanced organizations began to develop geographically-based organizations for community control, which led to the passing of the Law of Communal Councils in 2006 and a strategy for the creation of communal power, which effectively created parallel structures of popular control over territory and resources. The subsequent laws passed including the Law of Communal Councils and Law of Communes outlined a model for communities to follow in organizing themselves so as to access resources to meet the identified needs of the community. Importantly, these laws were a case where government responded to popular calls and initiatives, not the other way around.
To date, more than 30,000 communal councils have been created, organizing literally millions of people. Importantly, movements like the Corriente Revolucionario Bolivar Zamora, a merger between the Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino Front with other organizations, have been able to use these Laws of People Power to organize on larger levels, including communes (groupings of numerous neighbouring communal councils) as well as communal cities (groupings of communes) to effectively create popular control on large swaths of territory.
From the sour experiences of dealing with government bureaucracy, corruption and indifference under the previous governments – which unsurprisingly carries into the new government – the initiative of communal power took on the objective of countering representative, bourgeois structures. Until his death, Chavez reaffirmed the call of many revolutionary mass organizations and adopted the slogan “commune or nothing” as the path for the Bolivarian process. Far from being subsumed into government, revolutionary mass movements are vigorously guarding their autonomy from the Bolivarian government, as well as the PSUV. For these movements, the objective is socialism under popular power, with the organized people exercising direct control over geographic communities, resources and media just to name a few. The Bolivarian process has been an opportunity for the people to prepare, in ideological as well as in practical terms, to wrest and exercise power.
The masses have been steadily radicalizing and increasing their capacity and organization while pushing for the Bolivarian process also radicalize. At times, this has been reactive, as with the fall out of the attempted coup and oil strike. At other times, it has been proactive, as with the proliferation of popular initiatives to place production and communities under popular control (as with the worker run factories and communal councils).
There are today numerous revolutionary movements and organizations building popular control using the constitution and laws passed to control territory and air waves. While some of these groups are more inclined to participate in the government-created People’s Militias (which number in the hundreds of thousands), some retain their own armed structures. Notwithstanding the numerous challenges ahead, it is clear that there is an active and sizeable revolutionary mass movement that is determined to fight for popular power and socialist revolution, even communism, and that they see the continuation of struggle within the current Bolivarian process as the most viable form to advance this.
Unlike Venezuela, Ecuador has a more recent experience of revolutionary armed struggle and mass struggle out of which the current situation emerges.
Building from previous revolutionary collectives, the Eloy Alfaro Popular Armed Forces (more commonly known as Alfaro Vive Carajo) formed in 1983 to wage a people’s war modelled on the Cuban ‘focoist’ strategy, but with a mostly urban base. While most guerrilla movements in Latin America were based in the country-side particularly during this period, the AVC were predominantly based in urban centres. By the end of the decade however, the AVC had been liquidated by the government of Febres Cordero and the remaining AVC members signed a peace agreement and created a legal party.
In the 1990s, however, Ecuador became the Latin American epicentre of mass mobilization and social upheaval. Popular organizations in general and Indigenous organizations operating under the Indigenous National Confederation of Ecuador (CONAIE) initiated a massive anti-neoliberal and anti-imperialist front that brought down a number of presidents through mass mobilizations. During the uprising against the Mahuad government in 2000, a brief popular junta was established that included the President of CONAIE, the head of the Supreme Court and the leader of a section of the military that supported the uprising, Colonel Lucio Gutierrez. Gutierrez would subsequently be elected with a coalition of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary popular left forces on a progressive and anti-imperialist platform (which included opposition to the Plan Colombia proposal) in 2003. Included in the coalition that formed part of the Gutierrez cabinet included the electoral wing of CONAIE, Pachakutik and the Popular Democratic Movement (MPD), the electoral mass front of the Communist Party of Ecuador- Marxist Leninist (PCMLE).
Gutierrez quickly betrayed the movement and changed his orientation to a pro-US, pro-IMF line which generated a desertion of the previous support base. Pachakutik was first to withdraw, with the MPD withdrawing support after about 6 months. Again, the masses took to the streets in huge numbers, demanding the resignation of Gutierrez. With the military withdrawing its support of Gutierrez, he was forced to leave Ecuador and sought refuge in Brazil in 2005.
Following the ousting of Gutierrez, fresh elections resulted in Rafael Correa winning the Presidency Correa, a US-educated economist who was Minister of Finance under Alfredo Palacio, the successor of Gutierrez, was well-regarded as an honest politician for his resignation from the Palacios government due to an unwillingness on the part of that administration to challenge the IMF loan repayment demands.
From his election in 2006, Correa and his allies in government along with mass movements began a similar Constituent Assembly process as in Venezuela under the banner of a ‘Citizen Revolution’. As with Venezuela, the Ecuadorian constitution contained dramatically different philosophical foundations, enshrining the Sumak Kawsay, an indigenous principle translated as ‘good living’ as the guiding principle of government policy. The constitution also provided for mass participation in all aspects of governance, and prohibited any foreign military bases on Ecuadorian territory (effectively removing the US military base located in Manta).
Despite the comparatively progressive character of Correa in relation to Gutierrez, in the aftermath of the Gutierrez government, there were significant political developments that impacted left formations. The influx of money coming from North America and Europe to fund NGOs, particularly those working on environmental issues and with Indigenous communities, served to continue the cooption of leaders within mass movements, particularly the CONAIE. The MPD also emerged weakened from the Gutierrez experiment, and has increasingly been at odds with the Correa government in almost every respect, but particularly over education reforms, which is a base of MPD membership. Both CONAIE (and its electoral wing) as well as the MPD have been in opposition to the Correa government, with the MPD even supporting the 2010 coup d’etat attempt by police and army officials and backed by imperialism. There are certainly grounds for scepticism and opposition to aspects of Correa’s governance and policies, including what is perceived at times to be an arrogant attitude, not to mention the neo-developmentalist orientation of its extractive policies.
Similar to Venezuela however, the process in Ecuador has not only consisted of increased social expenditures and some positive position on international affairs (as evidenced by the firm position against the Colombian bombing of a FARC camp in Ecuador as well as the granting of asylum to Julian Assange) but also a process of mass mobilization and facilitation of creating popular control. Aside from the significant levels of participation in elections since the 2007 Constitutional Assembly, mass mobilizations have been constant including the mass response to the 2010 coup d’etat, where tens of thousands mobilized to confront the short-lived coup. In addition, mass organizations pushed for a democratization of the media achieving a law that distributed 34% of the airwaves to organized communities.
In the past few years also, there has been an increase in extra-parliamentary organizing with new revolutionary formations taking advantage of the favourable social and politican conditions to organize themselves, while also calling for a deepening of the process. Revolutionary mass organizations have not only been at the forefront of the calls to reject US military presence in Ecuador and the democratization of media, but have also been calling for ‘agrarian revolution’ to redistribute land. There are also reports that there is greater coordination with armed struggle organizations in Colombia including the FARC, who are also assisting in training and arming people in the event of another coup attempt.
It must be stated however, that unlike in Venezuela where Chavez was always largely aligned with the advanced elements and organizations among the masses, Correa has more than once been at odds with certain elements within the mass movements and even within his own party. Indeed, there are valid concerns about tendencies towards
, seeing himself as the process as opposed to an instrument of it. As such, the tendency towards sacrificing principle and progressive policy in order to perpetuate his government remains and signals that revolutionary mass movements currently aligned with the process could find themselves at odds with the government in the near future.
While the process in Ecuador may not be as advanced in terms of revolutionary organization of the people and construction of people’s power, it does nonetheless appear to be heading in that direction. As in Venezuela however, this will largely depend on the organization of the people and the ability of revolutionary organizations to manoeuvre through the apparent contradictions of the state-led projects, taking advantage of opportunities to organize, build unity among revolutionaries and accumulate forces and power while not being sucked into or entangled by bourgeois reformism.
A revolutionary analysis of what is taking place in Latin America must begin with an examination of what revolutionary mass movements are doing and saying, and where these movements are heading. Indeed, they must be viewed as ongoing processes, as opportunities for revolutionary forces to make gains in preparation for intensification of open conflict with enemy classes within.
The sites of greatest prospects for revolutionary advancement are those where advanced movements, autonomous from government and not subsumed in governing parties, are taking advantage of the circumstances of being able to shape policies and access resources to build forces while also utilizing their space and legitimacy to push for radicalization. Indeed, when one compares Ecuador or Venezuela – where the newer mass parties have entered into government – to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Brazil or Uruguay, where revisionist left parties with longer histories and tighter reigns over mass organizations, the importance of the self-organization, renewal and independence of mass movements and revolutionary organizations in pushing for radicalization of government policies and an intensification of struggle is evident.
Other important but less emphasized aspects of these processes include the broader attempts towards regional integration to create a united front against imperialism while also mitigating the social and economic impact of economic and political sabotage (as with the embargoes that were applied to Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua). By creating regional alliances and institutions to ensure and expand regional trade of goods and materials, the ability of US imperialism to attack processes by refusing to export or intervening to deny and even withhold credit for imports, is dramatically weakened.
Indeed, it can be said that these experiences have learned from past struggles, including the Chilean tragedy of 1973 where the Socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a bloody military coup. In that case, the Chilean left became divided on the question of arming the people, which was ultimately rejected by the Allende government and the Socialist and Communist Party. In Venezuela, the creation of a militia as well as the tacit approval given (by Chavez at least) to armed revolutionary groups speaks to the realization that the people need to be able to defend themselves and their gains against violent enemies.
Importantly, these processes are also learning from previous experiences in the history of our liberatory, communist movement in so far as they are recognizing that people need to be prepared not only to take power, but also to exercise it. Despite being the creators of all value, the history of revolutions from the French to the Russian to the Chinese to the Cuban have shown that there is a steep learning curve to creating socialism. While bourgeois attitudes linger in people and transpose into remodelled institutions, the people must learn how to govern and how to control production through trial and error.
If we can make generalizations about the more advanced processes in Latin America such as those profiled here, while it can be argued that they are not yet socialist and are not yet revolutionary, are undoubtedly anti-imperialist, popular and are preparing the ground for revolutionary ruptures in the future. The accumulated struggles in the region have led to the creation of space and gains, not usually permitted or conceded by the bourgeoisie, to build revolutionary organization and consciousness among the people. The bourgeoisie have been forced to yield this territory because of the strength and organization of the masses under these processes, including the demonstrated capacity to withstand, repel and respond to violence of the ruling class (with Ecuadorians overthrowing several Presidents and Venezuelans repelling the coup attempt of 2002).
However, it must be clearly understood – and the advanced movements in Latin America recognize this – that there is currently a war of position which requires revolutionary forces to prepare themselves and the masses for intensification of struggle. The bourgeoisie and imperialism will not allow for a peaceful construction of socialism and a transfer of wealth and power to the people. In both Ecuador and Venezuela, there have been numerous examples to illustrate the validity of this assertion. Within a protracted struggle, preparation must include the creation of dual power up into and including the capacity of the people to defend themselves militarily against internal and external threats. We salute those forces that are advancing these calls and preparations, and see this as a sign of the reason to identify positive development in the revolutionary struggle in Latin America.
At the same time, from a Marxist-Leninist perspective, the absence of a leading ideological and organizing collectivity, represents an obvious concern and weakness. Without a strong reference and centre for the masses to push the process across sectors along a revolutionary path, the ability to withstand the offensives of the bourgeoisie and imperialism are low and the possibilities of defeat and dispersal, high.
All revolutions must be conceived as processes with different stages, and the task of communist revolutionaries is to progressively improve our position (strength) relative to our enemy. As outlined in the article by comrade Amil K. in this issue, this requires consideration not only of the capacity of force that the enemy has in terms of arms and manpower, but also the tools and factors that allow it to rule by consent. Any accumulation of forces must contest with this reality, and take into account that the building of dual power as a necessity to decisively break the power of the ruling class over the people and prepare for decisive engagement with it. As the revolutionary movements in Latin America develop and the people learn and prepare, an internationalist’s duty is to accompany these processes so that experience and victories accumulate along with our forces, while errors and defeats are progressively minimized.