September 25, 2007

If Marx were alive to contemplate Haiti and Paraguay today, he might well declare a new law of history. Something like, "The potential for revolutionary change is directly proportional to the objective hopelessness of the circumstances." Who could have imagined a few years ago that these two small, isolated, and ignored nations would be transformed from objects of pity into beacons of hope?

Each of them was once the glory of progressive politics in the Hemisphere - Haiti during its revolution at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and Paraguay in the days of the Guaraní-Jesuit republic of the early seventeenth. Both nations have long since been forgotten by the rest of Latin America, scorned for being Black and Indian, the poorest and the near poorest, and left to suffer under two of the longest line-ups of dictators any nation has known. Now all eyes are on them.

“Our primary objective is to move from misery to dignified poverty," declared Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the humble parish priest who assumed Haiti's presidency in February. A liberation theologian expelled from the Salesian Order for his radi-cal views, Aristide has spent many of his 37 years living and working in the slums of Port-au-Prince. During the campaign, he never flaunted his doctorate or his mastery of five languages. He has survived six assassination attempts, the most recent in December, and refuses to accept any salary for serving as the nation's president.

Aristide was swept into office by an avalanche of poor people -- lavalas in Creole -- who learned to live in the shadow of death, and refused to give up hope. Ninety percent of those eligible voted; Aristide won 67% of the vote. His platform: justice, openness, and participation are the route to dignity.

Paraguay, too, is a pressure cooker that bursts. After living for a century and a half under iron-handed dictators, everyone is suddenly organizing, demanding, insisting. Laws are being challenged; the press functions openly and critically. "We are all thrilled, frustrated and exhausted," women's organizer Line Bareiro told me in April. "There is so much to do, and none of us knows how much time we will have to do it."

The electoral calendar is crammed: one campaign after another through the end of the year. The first municipal elections in the nation's history will be held May 26. According to some polls, the front runner for mayor of Asunción by a wide margin is Carlos Filizzola, an independent socialist union organizer. Any one of these attributes could have earned him a life in solitary confinement a little over a year ago. Internal party elections will follow, then elections for a constituent assembly in November, and, once a new constitution is written, a plebiscite to approve it.

Both countries' processes are unfolding under the watchful eyes of the military and the United States, neither of which can be very pleased. Aristide has successfully retired a number of high officers. Gen. Andrés Rodríguez, Stroessner's number two man who overthrew the dictatorship in February of last year, has a long record of illicit activities. Yet he has gone after other corrupt former officials, and allowed the old system of domination to collapse.

Friends of Haiti are quick to list the ways in which its liberation will not offend the United States: no U.S industry to nationalize, no strategic resources to withhold (in fact, no industry or natural resources to speak of), no links to extra-hemispheric powers (what power could there be?). The same could be said of Paraguay. However, the Bush Administration's "wait-and-see" attitude is frighteningly reminiscent of Carter's Nicaragua stance in 1979. We all know how quickly that eroded.

Joining the mainstream of “democratic" politics is not what makes Haiti and Paraguay inspiring: rather how it happened, and where it may lead. In both countries social movements - labor, women, squatters, peasants - have been at the forefront; political parties are rushing to catch up, and it may be irrelevant whether they ever do. In Haiti it took five years of massive public protest after the dictator was forced to flee - a determination that refused to budge. In Paraguay it will likely take another five years of intense activity before one could imagine an Aristide in power; but the people have begun to travel down that path.

More than any other movement, the progressive grassroots church has been the motor of change in both countries. As the appeal of Marxism wanes, the ethics of community life, drawing on socialist traditions so deeply rooted they transcend Christianity, continue to offer keys to liberation.

The obstacles are enormous, the process barely begun. But both peoples seem determined to persevere against all odds. These days, when so many have stopped dreaming of the future, when economic crisis and resurgent Empire seem to have dashed all hope, we should all take heart in "Marx's" new law. And we should defend the advances Haitians and Paraguayans have achieved at such great sacrifice.


In our last issue (Vol. XXIV, No. 5), the translator of Eduardo Galeano's article was inadvertently omitted. It was done by Liz Heron for New Statesman.

Due to an editing error, Luis Guillermo Lumbreras' article identified the pre-Columbian Valdivia culture as located in present-day Chile. Though named for Chile's conquistador, it flourished in what is now Ecuador.

Finally, the Shakespearean characters Calibán and Ariel, referred to by Miguel Rojas Mix, are from "The Tempest," not "A Midsummer Night's Dream."


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