Revolutionary Legacies in the 21st Century

February 25, 2009

On the occasion of the Cuban Revolution’s 50th anniversary, this Report examines legacies of revolution throughout Latin America. Besides the Cuban landmark, the year 2009 also marks other important anniversaries in the Americas: Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela is now a decade old; the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua took place 30 years ago; and Mexico is approaching the centennial of its 1910 revolution, as well as the bicentennial of its War of Independence.

These anniversaries represent an auspicious moment for us to pause and critically reflect on how the region’s revolutionary past lives in the present. This is a particularly useful task today, given the unprecedented political changes under way, with eight South American and, possibly by April, two Central American countries having elected governments generally considered left or center-left. What becomes immediately clear in this Report’s essays is that both yesterday’s revolutionaries and those of today fashion their visions of a better world on the basis of an imagined, often glorious, history. Imagining and building a future often means imagining, and aiming to reconstruct, a vision of the past.

In the case of Cuba, as Louis A. Pérez Jr. explains in his article, the most immediate set of historical coordinates by which Fidel Castro’s revolution plotted its course was the logic of patria, the 19th-century conception of nationhood understood as a “place-bound source of self-identification.” In the 20th century—following the United States’ appropriation of the Cuban anti-colonial struggle and the imposition of its own brand of neocolonialism—patria assumed the form of “an unfinished project to whose fulfillment later generations were committed.”

Sinclair Thomson, in his discussion of Bolivia’s cycles of insurgency, notes a similar phenomenon. The policies of the country’s 1952 National Revolution—including outright nationalization of natural resources, agrarian reform, and universal access to schools and the ballot box—were methodically reversed in the 1980s and 1990s by the MNR, the party of the revolution turned neoliberal. As the popular movement that overthrew the Bolivian government in 2003 gathered steam, he notes, “Memory of the revolution and criticism of the MNR’s retreat from it, under the aegis of the United States, were deeply embedded in popular and syndicalist culture.”

The theme of betrayal runs sharply through Roger Burbach’s account of the transformed Sandinista party of Nicaragua. The original movement’s commitment to popular, participatory democracy stands in stark contrast to today’s FSLN, with its pacts with the right, resort to sectarianism and religious rhetoric, and authoritarian crackdown on critics. Meanwhile, feminists and dissident Sandinistas of the “renovation” movement remain fragmented and marginalized, even as the government targets them with special fury.

Tensions within revolutionary movements, following a revolutionary triumph, are sometimes effaced in the name of national unity, as Alan Knight notes herein. During the PRI’s heyday in Mexico, he says, the party promulgated an “official amnesia” over power struggles among the original revolutionary leadership, papering over embarrassing tensions by incorporating “all the great heroes into one big common pantheon.” Nonetheless, Mexico’s revolutionary legacies remain contested; indeed, nearly every Mexican political force, save the far right, claims to be the legitimate heir of the revolution. Some, however, have a better claim to legitimacy, as Knight argues.

Finally, authors Sujatha Fernandes and Laurent Dubois point us toward popular constructions and adaptations of revolutionary ideologies. For Fernandes, imagined and remembered revolutionary heroes of the past—heroes outside the liberal republican narrative, such as Afro-Cuban warriors and Venezuelan devotional figures—return to hold even left leaders’ feet to the fire. Dubois, in his appreciation of C.L.R. James’s now 70-year-old masterpiece, The Black Jacobins, notes that James’s work innovatively considers how enslaved people in the 18th century “crafted an idea of rights that was truly universal in scope, refusing to accept, as most revolutionaries in the United States and France did, that a human being could be a slave.” The articles in this Report, following in James’s tradition, challenge us to “grasp how, at rare moments, change becomes possible.”


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