It’s somehow appropriate that this new analysis of Latin America’s “Pink Tide” should emerge at this critical historical juncture marked by the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
For well over a decade, new progressive governments in Latin America have been developing post-neoliberal economic and political experiments, with Chávez front and center, stirring the ferment. Solidarity activists in the United States and around the world cheered for the signs of hope, especially welcome after the body blow dealt to the left by the demise of twentieth-century socialism. Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions probes the complexities and contradictions of building these new social models with the old structures still in place.
In the interest of full disclosure, we approached this book with great excitement, since the writers are collaborators, colleagues, and even, in at least two cases, friends, and we have great respect for all of them. Roger Burbach’s work stretches back to his time in Chile under Allende, and he has shown great integrity critiquing the rise of Sandinista democracy and its demise under the caudillo-leadership of Daniel Ortega. Contributor Marc Becker is a professor at Truman University and the author of many significant works on Ecuador and its indigenous movements. Michael Fox is a reporter, filmmaker, and former NACLA editor who has lived in various countries in Latin America. Finally, Federico Fuentes has collaborated with Marta Harnecker and written much insightful analysis of Venezuela’s Bolivarian process and developments in Bolivia.
Transitions in the title cues readers to the ambiguous, evolving nature of the processes the authors describe, with “the future of twenty-first century socialism” much in question. Even the definition, in fact, is being clarified in practice. It varies from analyst to analyst, though most agree that it breaks with the twentieth-century project “in rejecting authoritarianism, bureaucratized central planning, state capitalism, and the lack of democracy...it does not arise from government fiats nor from self-defined vanguard parties.”
“There is no singular definition or model,” the authors write. “[Twenty-first century socialism] will be a diverse process—differing widely from country to country.” As a general guide, the authors suggest Marta Harnecker’s definition of socialism as a system in which social production is organized by workers to meet social needs, the means of production are socially owned, and respect for humans and nature takes precedence over profit.
In the first three chapters, the authors paint broad-brush pictures of three key developments that gave rise to turbulence, and with it the possibility of transitions: The rise of social movements mobilizing communities on the margins of society to oppose neoliberalism—movements of indigenous people and peasants, unemployed workers and impoverished city dwellers; The re-appropriation of wealth derived from the continent’s land and mineral resources, and the social conflict over these extractivist policies; The erosion of U.S. hegemony in the region, coupled with tighter regional integration through organizations such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas (ALBA), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR),and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the latter founded in 2011 as a direct challenge to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS).
The rest of the book consists of country studies. The authors identify Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador as being “at the more radical end of the political spectrum,” and draw significant parallels. Leaders in all three countries have employed the rhetoric of socialism, and their governments have (to varying degrees) taken control of national resources and deployed them for national projects. Each country has held a constituent assembly to revamp the constitution to extend the sphere of public participation. And in each, popular majorities have defended the governments against fierce attacks by local oligarchies.
But the three fall at different points along the spectrum of social transformation proposed by social theorist André Gorz. “Reformist reforms are those that merely appease immediate social needs, but leave the population or the movement that pushed for them demobilized and less empowered than before the reform,” Gorz has written. “Transformative reform, on the other hand, also addresses social needs, but leaves the population and the movement more empowered and mobilized than before.”
In Venezuela, where the writers maintain that the transformative project goes deepest, the government not only used the country’s huge oil reserves to implement a wide-ranging social welfare project, but also funded a succession of experiments in establishing participatory democracy and socialized production. When the 2005-2006 effort to build socialism through a national network of cooperatives failed, the government re-upped its efforts to encourage worker control of enterprises as well as local control of decision-making through community councils. New laws and structures give the people a foundation to build on, but corruption and the self-interest of the new ruling class, the “bolibourgeoisie,” have stymied most of the socialist initiatives.
Bolivia, one of the countries hardest-hit by neoliberalism, has succeeded in re-capturing control of much of its economy from transnational capital, bolstering its productive capacity, and reducing poverty, unemployment, and inequality. Though these steps don’t immediately change the capitalist economy, they do “lay the basis for the transition to socialism by gradually resolving many social problems and consolidating the economic base through adequate distribution of surpluses,” according to Luis Alberto Arce Catacora, the finance minister of the governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party.
Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa does not come from the social movements and in fact has repressed and disrespected them. He called the military to disperse indigenous community protests of oil drilling and slapped 200 opponents of extractivist policies with terrorism charges, contributor Marc Becker notes. Though Correa has defaulted on foreign bonds, taxed the rich, and substantially increased social spending, he has failed to nationalize any natural resources, “which raised questions of whether his policies were more of a social democratic flavor than those of a radical socialist.” Correa has, however, been one of the region’s most outspoken anti-imperialists, giving UNASUR a home office in Quito and offering asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
The chapters on Brazil and Cuba are offered as counterpoints to the others. Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) sacrificed its socialist roots for electoral success. Though its social-welfare policies have improved people’s lives in the short run, they have also had the net effect of demobilizing social movements. “But for the Latin American left,” the authors note, “Brazil under the PT has played a pivotal role in standing up to U.S. hegemony, integrating the region and supporting the more radical governments in their push for ‘twenty-first-century-socialism.’” Ironically, Brazil’s economic dominance of the region creates tensions with its neighbors and often replicates the hegemony it opposes—a contradiction identified in the book, but not explored deeply.
The very brief chapter on Cuba explores some of the problems facing the country as it attempts to revive its economy and expand popular participation while not losing the core values of twentieth-century socialism.
The country studies are the heart of the book, packed with informative detail. But given the complexity of the social and political transitions in each context, the chapters might have been better presented as a series of individual contributions, as was done with Ecuador, rather than under joint authorship. The work as a whole lacks a unified authorial voice, despite the joint attribution. Inconsistencies of perspective, added to what seems to be poor copyediting by the publisher, leave it to the reader to discover a through-line for the book.
First, there is a consistent lack of clarity on how to categorize what Ecuadoran politician Alberto Acosta simply calls the “post-neoliberal governments” of Latin America. The “consolidation of the radical left in political power” is as an accomplished fact on page five. Later we’re told these are “left-leaning” governments, and individual chapters question whether these “radical left” or “left-leaning” governments are seriously challenging capitalism. Admittedly, “socialism of the twenty-first century” is an evolving concept, but we would hope the authors could either define their categories more clearly or explain the shifting usages.
But the most serious of the ambiguities and contradictions in the text reflect the actual ambiguities and contradictions between the governments, the social movements and “Pachamama” or “nature”—which obscures a critical set of questions.
In most of the book, the authors express considerable respect for the social movements, which they credit for helping the progressive governments take power. Yet in Chapter 3, “Neo-extractivism and Socialism,” they say, “Social movements . . . have been notably more hesitant to take on the issue of socialism, instead focusing more on ethnic and identity politics.” While that might be a fair assessment of U.S. social movements, our research and experience indicate that Latin American social movements themselves have been the among the strongest advocates for socialism, and they most often criticize progressive governments for not going far enough to establish “twenty-first century socialism.”
The governments’ resource-extraction policies elicit this criticism more often than any other issue across the continent. While governments view nature almost exclusively as a source of revenue, the people they represent, in particular social movement activists, see nature as their home. They fight both for the preservation of their communities and the rights of Pachamama, which they see as inextricably linked.
In this divide between the governments, on one hand, and the social movements and the earth on the other, the authors conclude with noted social movement scholar Emir Sader who implicitly admonishes the left and social movements to line up behind the “center-left governments” since “if the left and the social movements engage in internecine battles with the new left governments, the right will take advantage of the situation.” This advice ignores the experience of Pachakutik when it collaborated with Ecuador’s “left-leaning” Lucio Gutiérrez regime, with a dramatic loss of credibility it is only now regaining. And this wasn’t an isolated example.
This perspective also raises questions about the very definition of “left” and “right” that sharpen in the shifting political landscape of post-Chávez Venezuela—where workers in the country’s industrial heartland of Guayana, formerly strong supporters of the Bolivarian process, came out in large numbers in the April 2013 elections to vote for the opposition.
With the Chávez-era nationalizations of basic industries such as iron, bauxite, aluminum, and carbon, the workers saw cuts in pay and benefits; loss of protections for job safety and security; a refusal to renew collective contracts or to honor collective bargaining in the name of “worker’s control”; and arbitrary decisions that led to the destruction of vital machinery. In the case of Sidor, the steel manufacturer nationalized in 2008, production has gone from 4.3 thousand liquid tons in 2007 to 1.7 liquid tons in 2012. The same is true, in more or less the same proportion, across the board in Venezuela’s nationalized industries of Guayana. Are the workers “right-wing” because they clamor for responsible administration, increased maintenance of, and investment in their workplaces, along with collective bargaining and democracy? Or are they part of a new, independent left as they launch a broad-based democratic union movement?
Viewing the social and worker’s movements as playing an ancillary and subordinate role to “leftist” governments and viewing nature in exclusively economic terms (even if as a source of wealth to benefit the people) is consistent with an approach to solidarity among activists formed in the revolutionary moments of the mid-to-late twentieth century. In light of current processes and new thinking among activists, all these assumptions must come into question, starting with a clearer definition of terms like “left,” “socialist,” and “radical,” and de-linking those symbols from the “socialism” of the state capitalism of the 20th century.
The authors of “Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions” have courageously taken on the task of analyzing processes midstream and as the river flows toward its destiny; it’s anyone’s guess where it will arrive. The authors, all qualified and seasoned political analysts, have offered up their best guesses based on their collective analysis. Even if one disagrees with their perspectives or conclusions, this volume will contribute significantly to an understanding of the new political processes of Latin America.
Clifton Ross and Marcy Rein are the co-editors of Until the Rulers Obey: Voices From Latin American Social Movements, due out in Fall 2013 from PM Press, Oakland, CA.
Read the rest of NACLA's Summer 2013 issue: "Chavismo After Chávez: What Was Created? What Remains?"