Antidote to imperialism

Print edition : June 13, 2014

The Triumph of Politics: The Return of the Left in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, By George Philip and Francisco Panizza, Polity Press, Cambridge, Pages: 224, Price: £15.99

Comandante: Inside Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, By Rory Carroll, Cannongate, London, Pages: 302, Price: £20.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a 2010 picture. Behind him is a portrait of the 19th century Latin American hero Simon Bolivar. Inspired by Bolivar and Che Guevara, the leadership in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela struggled to create a society based on the ideology of the new South American Left. Photo: REUTERS

Two books that explore the rise of the Left in Latin America, especially in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.

In case of rain, the revolution will take place in the hall.—Erwin Chargaff

IT can be argued that in the context of the structural transformation of capitalism the Left has staged a comeback in Russia, France and Latin America. This is clear from a re-evaluation of the future of left-of-centre politics and its viability at a time when communism is re-emerging and social democracy appears too fragile to transform history or show any acceptance of anti-systemic protests.

The return of the Left in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador has directed Latin American politics through a radical trajectory in the last few years. Before the leadership lies the formidable task of tackling issues concerning economic deprivation, brutalisation of workers, increased spending on war and technology and the need for ethnic minorities to feature explicitly in a pluralistic vision. These are the deep-seated concerns of worldwide anti-globalisation movements.

An ever-expanding capitalism finds it difficult to cope with environmental limits in terms of the earth’s resources. Socialist programmes must realise the contradictions within the new political and economic conditions which the Right is imposing on the world. Globalisation of production and the drawbacks of centralisation demand a new approach to social change in industrialised societies. The return of the Left has become indispensable and meaningful and can wrap up the unfulfilled agendas undermined by the crippling appeal of the possibilities of power in capitalism. A necessary exchange of ideas between left-wing politics and dogmatic orthodoxies would help throw light on the nature of human struggle characteristic of the major crisis in contemporary democratic politics and globalism.

Ideological debates in Latin America came to a head with the election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency of Venezuela in December 1998. As George Philip and Francisco Panizza maintain in their book The Triumph of Politics, “Whatever his faults, Chavez has never lacked ambition or leadership skills and he soon made it clear that he saw himself as a challenger to almost the whole set of ‘Miami Consensus’ ideas”, which laid emphasis on free trade, market reform, representative democracy and good governance. It was not only Chavez who broke away from the Miami Consensus but also his close political allies Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, who together can be rightly termed “twenty-first century socialists”. Some of the ideas that these three stood for showed “a combination of novelty and Old Left values” that had a great significance for the political future of the region. As argued by Philip and Panizza, “their willingness to use both electoral and extraordinary tactics against democratically elected governments and legislatures, their radical populist stance, their use of plebiscites to strengthen the presidency, their economic nationalism and strong anti-U.S. stance together form a distinctive political brew” (page 2).

The role of Chavez

Chavez died before his dream could come true, but the fight he began against the long-drawn-out economic and political tensions in Latin America has given impetus to an international agenda for social reconstruction.

Within this agenda, a programme to salvage the world from neoliberal economics and its resultant inequality and abuse of power is the subliminal ideology intended to abolish pro-capitalist logic and put in its place the notions of reciprocity and community feeling. These notions would bring about the realisation of the dream of its most historic figure, Simon Bolivar, who envisaged a united Latin America. It was Chavez’s personal appeal and magnetism that brought him nearer his people, his popularity and his political legitimacy arising out of his sense of belonging to the people who reposed power and faith in him. This is why even Columbia, which was inherently a client nation of the United States, began to give into overtures from Chavez. He relentlessly developed significant ties with Cuba, which became a sore point with the U.S. because of its intolerant stance on communism or the revival of Marxist practices in Latin America. Most significantly, it was Chavez who was responsible for the birth of ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), ALBA-TCP (ALBA-Peoples’ Trade Treaty), CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) and UNASUR (Union of South American Nations). In order to prepare for the eventuality of U.S. intervention in Latin America in the wake of the Iraq crisis, Chavez drew closer to Russia, Iran and China, creating a scenario of confrontation with the U.S. and its European Union allies that ravenously eyed West Asia and Africa for oil or any geopolitical advantage.

In such a policy lies a blend of populism and authoritarianism, as argued by Rory Carroll in his book Comandante. Chavez’s story is about a modern-day dictatorship that paradoxically initiated a period of democratic civic education and social redistribution of wealth. The man behind the leader emerges in the words of the author Ben Fountain: “ego runs amok, an ego that happens to be attached to a masterful politician, a dynamo of energy and charisma and a colossus of managerial ineptitude”. Interestingly, Chavez was a past master at broadcasting his image to his countrymen: visiting his favourite terrace in his palace, Miraflores, he would have the TV cameras continuously buzzing relaying the time he spent painting, reading, having breakfast and hosting officials and high dignitaries. What they discussed was not important; the images made the news: “After twelve years in the palace the commandant’s every gesture, every action, seemed freighted with significance, tokens of power to be deconstructed and interpreted” (page 271). Why was a particular Minister seated next to him? Did he appear jovial, indicating he had something up his sleeve?

Carroll writes, “The personal and the political, private and public, painting and governing all splashed onto the same canvas”, emphasising that Chavez always regarded himself as an artist who was the architect of his nation’s “unfinished portrait”. The nation viewed the revolution he started from within the palace. What had once been known as the people’s palace began to be referred to as Chavez’s palace after 12 years. Although in the beginning he had proclaimed that he would only stay for one term, as time passed and he became more powerful, he harboured an ambition to stay on until 2050. He remained a self-proclaimed philosopher-king, an “an all-encompassing persona of painter, singer, poet, horseman, warrior, father, teacher, thinker, leader” (page 272) to the end. Sadly, cancer cut short his dream.

Nevertheless, he had always envisaged the birth of a socialist democracy that would grow out of a peaceful revolution underpinned by a strong military preparedness.

With such a vision, he took measures to keep the International Monetary Fund at bay and nationalised all institutions so that the alien corporate world could be kept out. Capitalism disappeared for the time being, but a substitute system remained elusive. The economy began to depend on its oil resources, leading to unprecedented inflation. Unrest also rose in the country because of the division of classes into the underprovided and the rich elite, with the latter having the media and the banks fully under its grip.

Whatever the critique of his dominance in a drastically damaged world in which possibilities of accepting received political ideologies have been exhausted, the anti-imperialist agenda and far-reaching remedies Chavez initiated—like cutting off oil supplies to the U.S. and keeping the dollar out—succeeded in checking the unpredictable play of market forces. He built trade relations with China and backed Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The dream of an anti-imperialist union became a reality with the induction of Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Chile into the left-wing club headed by Fidel Castro and Chavez. Inspired by Simon Bolivar and Che Guevara, the leadership in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela struggled to create a society based on the ideology of the new South American Left. Carroll’s story of Chavez is a heartbreaking account of a man who wasted the opportunities that came before him.

The imperial forces have always insisted that the egalitarian project of the Left had floundered in a “post-socialist” world and they could never have allowed such an experiment of the people’s rule to take root in Latin America. The conservative Right is supported by the U.S. in its bid to destabilise Venezuela, which has seen terrible riots and arson in recent weeks. The U.S.’ theory of the “the rotten apple”, which lays emphasis on not allowing any contagion of anti-U.S. left-wing tendencies to emerge stronger in Latin America, is in jeopardy in the face of the rise of the Left.

The West could never put up with Chavez pouring millions of dollars earned from booming oil profits into social schemes of education, health, housing and infrastructure for the poor. Chavez would spend days travelling through villages, partaking of meals with the peasantry, and making sincere efforts to boost their standard of living. He, along with other Latin American leaders, indeed resurrected socialism in a land that the U.S. military and imperial ambitions had not spared.

His policies to provide free compulsory education, bring down extreme poverty (from 40 per cent in the 1990s to 7.3 per cent at present), reduce infant mortality (from 25 per 1,000 to 13 per 1,000), introduce popular restaurants for the deprived and ensure an increase in minimum wages (the highest in the region) were fiercely implemented. Chavez’s literacy campaigns, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, made Venezuela “an illiteracy-free territory”.

People in Venezuela still hark back to their much-cherished leader and continue to feel that there can be no substitute for Chavez, who gave his countrymen, for more than a decade, the dream of an egalitarian and flourishing society deeply opposed to any oligarchy.

The Bolivarian revolution he initiated in contemporary times is bound to see such right-wing hurdles, but the vision of a world order that stands against the free market neoliberalism of the West sustains the Left movements in Latin America and its dependence on the democratic practice of people’s participation.