55. Latin America



Latin America presented special difficulties for an organisation like ours, rooted as we were in Britain and with cadres coming from a working class background, with a smattering of intellectuals and students familiar with languages other than English. Other Trotskyist organisations, who began with intellectuals and students, with most not progressing beyond a narrow circle, initially possessed a greater capacity to intervene through the languages of Latin America, principally Spanish and Portuguese.

Nevertheless, through the diligent work of pioneers, such as Tony Saunois, Tom Nerney, Paulina Ramirez and her brother Matias, we eventually were able to build an important base in Chile and Brazil in particular. The original group that we had established in Argentina allied itself to the Grant-Woods split of 1992 and did not play any further role in the CWI. Our work brought us valuable comrades in Chile, such as comrade Celso, with a long history in the workers’ movement including fighting the Pinochet regime in the underground, suffering in the process terrible torture and imprisonment. Another valuable addition was a young 19-year-old Andre Ferrari, a founder of the Brazilian section. In both countries the CWI now has flourishing organisations which are growing and attracting the best of the workers and the youth.

Tony Saunois visited Mexico following the uprising of the Zapatista guerrilla movement (EZLN) whose main spokesperson  was ‘Subcomandante Marcos’. The country had been hailed by international bankers as a model of ‘neo-liberalism’. In the 1990s, however, the Zapatistas organised a revolt of the Mexican people against this ‘model’.

Tony Saunois attended the Zapatistas’ gathering on behalf of the CWI in 1996. He commented: “In 1996, the first Encuentro Internacional (International Assembly) was called by the EZLN in the rain forests of Chiapas. This meeting was attended by a few thousand youth and academics from all over the world. This was historically a very important meeting in that it was the birthplace of many of the ideas of the anti-capitalist movement which emerged later on a world scale.

“Rejecting the ‘centralised planning’ and Stalinist forms of organisation, most of those present supported the building of ‘horizontal networks’ as an alternative to political parties. While neoliberal capitalism was rejected and opposed, socialism was viewed as a relic of the past. It was a reaction to the Stalinist forms of organisation and ideas which became discredited with the collapse of Stalinism. In practice, Marcos and the EZLN leaders demonstrated in Mexico what such ideas would mean.”

In Chile there had been initial rejoicing at the arrest of Pinochet in London in October 1998. The population had become accustomed to the idea that he was immune from such actions. The right, infuriated by Pinochet’s arrest, abandoned the mask of the ‘democratic far right’ and returned to death threats against victims’ families, left-wing intellectuals and former political prisoners. On demonstrations they carried effigies of left leaders, particularly the leadership of the Communist Party. Moreover, when student federations, who were the first to celebrate, organised demonstrations the police were unleashed against them. Nevertheless, the arrest of Pinochet – despite his subsequent release – indicated that the winds of change would affect Chile after the long rule of the dictator and his authoritarian state.

As the new decade broke, the crisis that was affecting the West quickly manifested itself in many countries of Latin America, particularly Argentina, in a catastrophic economic situation that led to political turmoil and working-class protest. Argentina was not a ‘typical’ Latin American country. At the beginning of the 20th century it had higher living standards than Spain, Italy and even Germany at one stage. By 1933 it was the tenth richest economy in the world and a decade later was ninth. In 1945 it was even richer than France – then suffering the effects of the Second World War – and posted at one stage higher living standards than Canada. It was up until this point enjoying perhaps the highest living standards of Latin America.

A severe social crisis in Brazil led to a new movement for a new workers’ socialist party launched by former Workers’ Party (PT) activists, trade unionists and socialists. This came only one year after the presidential election victory of Luíz Inácio da Silva (‘Lula’) who, despite his promise before the election to take a different road, carried through a pro-capitalist programme. As a result, on 19 January 2004, in Rio de Janeiro, representatives of various left-wing socialist organisations, including the Brazilian section of the CWI, Socialismo Revolutionario, together with trade union leaders, intellectuals and former PT MPs, met to launch a “left democratic socialist movement”.

I visited Brazil to attend the first conference of the new party that was taking shape, Partido Socialismo e Libertade (Socialism and Freedom Party, ‘P-SOL’). This conference met in the capital Brasilia and was attended by about 1,000 workers and representatives of different left organisations, most of them from a Trotskyist background. Subsequently one of the MPs that were expelled from the PT, Joao Batista (Baba), visited London to speak at our annual ‘Socialism’ event. In an interview in Socialism Today with me, he commented on the factors that led to the development of P-SOL: “Instead of satisfying the aroused political and social expectations of the masses, Lula has moved in the opposite direction. He has surrounded himself with the pillars of international capitalism. The president of the Brazilian bank is the former head of the Bank of Boston, and is now the right-hand man of Lula.” He had accepted completely the dictates of the IMF, allocating more than 50% of the budget to repay debts and interest charges: “Not even Cardoso spent so much on this. And this is at a time when President Kirchner in Argentina carried out a partial repudiation of debt in 2003.”1

Venezuela, after the coming to power of Hugo Chávez in 1999, was the Latin American country in which the battle between contending social forces, revolution and counter-revolution, assumed its sharpest expression over the subsequent decade or so. Imperialism remained suspicious and afraid of the contagious effects of Chávez and the Venezuelan revolution. His government had given popular expression to the anger felt by the masses against the elite and neoliberalism, as well as their desire for big changes. But the majority of the workers had neither drawn clear class conclusions nor embraced the idea of the need for an alternative revolutionary programme.

Chávez evinced a form of radical Venezuelan nationalism with concern for the poor, partly rooted in his own peasant background. His stress on this found a reflection within the armed forces, which contained radical nationalist elements linked to concern for the ‘people’ and the need to modernise and develop Venezuelan society. He invoked, particularly in the first stages, the powerful tradition of Simón Bolívar, the early 19th century fighter for liberation from Spain, during his ascent to power. After his election, he took the mantle of Bolivar and paraded through the streets to jubilant cries from the mass demonstrations that greeted him. This was widely interpreted as a step towards a struggle against imperialism and capital. This terrified the ruling class in Venezuela and aroused the opposition of the US in particular; its representatives denounced the ‘dictatorial’ methods and powers of Chávez. He used the colossal income from oil – Venezuela has one of the largest oil reserves in the world – in order to introduce substantial reforms, which benefited the poor. Despite the continual attempts of reaction – with the support from imperialism outside especially during the coup of 2002 – Chávez managed to win election after election.

We gave critical support to the progressive measures which were introduced but we never went to the lengths of others, like Alan Woods and the International Marxist Tendency, who tried to compensate for their small forces with shrill, noisy and largely uncritical praise for Chávez and his regime. The fact that Hugo Chávez expressed an interest at one stage in the ideas of Leon Trotsky, mentioning on occasion the ‘permanent revolution’, did not mean that he was about to be transformed into a rounded-out Marxist or Trotskyist.

Significantly, at the World Social Forum in Brazil in January 2005, Chávez spoke for the first time of the need for socialism. He declared: “It is necessary to transcend capitalism. But capitalism can’t be transcended from within capitalism itself, but through socialism, true socialism, with equality and justice.” We welcomed this step forward, at least in words, but pointed out that it was not enough just to support the ideas of socialism. A programme was necessary to achieve this. Unfortunately, he was not putting forward a clear programme for the working class to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist planned economy. In fact, when he announced the nationalisation of one firm, he declared that this was “an exception, not a political measure”.

At this stage his nationalisation programme was restricted to abandoned factories and land. While welcoming such measures, we said this was not enough: “Why only take the bankrupt companies leaving those still functioning and making a profit in the hands of the ruling class?”2 We drew on the experience of Chile under the Allende government, which went a lot further than Chávez was proposing. Partial measures in Chile merely gave reaction the chance to organise and strike back.

With the death of Chávez, Venezuela has now entered a very uncertain period. His successor Nicolás Maduro has confronted a far more determined opposition, which has resorted to street demonstrations and forms of civil disobedience in order to force the new president – who scraped home in the first elections after Chávez’s death – to once more subject himself to the verdict of the electorate. They hoped that would lead them back to power and the whole Venezuelan ‘experiment’ would be defeated. The isolation of Cuba and the concessions which are being made to the ‘market’ by the Cuban regime following Chávez’s death have further strengthened the pro-capitalist forces in Venezuela and Cuba itself.

However, events in Venezuela are taking place against an entirely different background to when Chávez first came to power. There is not one stable capitalist regime throughout Latin America. The pages of The Socialist recorded the almost constant upheavals in countries like Ecuador, Bolivia and Mexico, even while the continent on the surface appeared to be progressing, at least economically.

My 2004 visit to Latin America, primarily to Brazil, also took in Chile. This country, let us remind ourselves, was held up as a shining example of the neo-liberal model which was capable of lifting the continent out of its age-old poverty. We analysed the real content of the ‘Chilean experiment’, which consisted of a colossal impoverishment of the masses when it was under the heel of the Pinochet dictatorship. This allowed Chile to develop in a one-sided fashion, benefiting as well from the so-called super-cycle commodities boom – through massive increases in copper exports. This was fuelled by the growth of world capitalism, and particularly of China, throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s.

That has now come to an end with the increasing economic slowdown confronting China. This will be reflected in a contraction of income for a swathe of countries in the neo-colonial world that linked their fate with the seemingly endless economic progress of China. It is not an accident that Chile saw increased strikes and social struggle erupt in 2013, beginning with the youth in the mass uprisings of the students. This in turn has impacted on the working class as a whole. The discontent was reflected in the mass abstentions, which took place in the November 2013 general election, in which just 42% of the registered electorate voted.

In Brazil, the left political organisations that began to coordinate the task of building an alternative to the PT included a number from the PT, many of them from the Morenoite tradition,3 and the Brazilian section of the CWI, Socialismo Revolucionário (SR).

Outside of the PT there was the United Socialist Workers Party (PSTU) which had split from the PT in 1992-93. They remained aloof from the process of creating a new movement. Heloisa Helena, a PT deputy, unlike the leadership of her own organisation Socialist Democracy (DS) – the Mandelite group – stated that she would vote against the pension bill in the Senate. This led to her expulsion from the PT, joined by others, including some deputies. They formed the core of the new party P-SOL at its founding conference, which I attended with our Brazilian comrades.

An early indication of the favourable prospects for P-SOL was shown at the anti-globalisation World Social Forum (WSF) of early 2005 in Porto Alegre. This was attended by our Brazilian comrades and a very enthusiastic, largely youth, international contingent from the CWI. This gathering was notable for the attendance of Hugo Chávez, who spoke at an enthusiastic main rally. Kevin Simpson, part of the CWI contingent, reported: “From four hours before the rally, young people in their thousands streamed towards the Gigantinho (‘little giant’) stadium in the sweltering summer heat… The queue snaked as far as the eye could see… These thousands had come to hear Hugo Chávez… speak of the rebellion against ‘neoliberalism’ and US imperialism… Unlike the Lula… meeting earlier in the week, where his supporters were bussed in, all expenses paid, all those here came of their own volition and were overwhelmingly youth… Many of these young people were Brazil’s (and Latin America’s) new generation of fighters for social change in the making. They have broken with any illusions in Lula and capitalism; they are anti-capitalist and anti-war – as are many of their generation in other continents – but there is an important difference: they have come through the experience of what has been a continental-wide rebellion in the last few years against neo-liberalism.”

This just gives a flavour of the effect of the revolutionary events in Latin America, particularly of young people worldwide. The report goes on: “By the time the auditorium was full, huge red flags were being waved in the air – a large P-SOL contingent took up the left bank of the stadium and led the way chanting anti-Lula and anti-imperialist slogans.” When a small group of the youth section of the Brazilian Communist Party, which was participating in Lula’s government, started chanting pro-Lula slogans and waving their party flags, “In literally seconds a seething anger and a bitter hostility filled the air as thousands of people shouted for them to be kicked out.” The chant went up ‘pelego’, which is a cushioned blanket put on horses’ backs underneath the saddle to allow the animal to be controlled. In contrast, “A wall of sound greeted Chávez’s arrival on the stage”. The right-wing trade union leaders who tried to introduce Chávez were booed.

The mood changed again completely when Chávez began to speak: “I am not here as the president of Venezuela. I do not feel like the president. I am only president because of particular circumstances. I am Hugo Chávez and I am an activist as well as a revolutionary. Because to break the hegemony of capitalism and that of the oligarchs, the only way is revolution”, to which the crowd roared their approval. He emphasised the fight of the southern continents against the ‘rich north’; however, he did not raise this in the context of the struggle between social classes internationally and quoted, favourably, the work of the ‘non-aligned group of nations’ in the 1960s and 1970s as an example of what could be organised amongst Latin American nations today. Significantly, he moved on to quote Leon Trotsky, commenting that the coup against him in 2002 illustrated the point made by this leader of the Russian revolution that “every revolution needs the whip of the counter-revolution”.

He had faced a least three serious attempts to overthrow him. These had been defeated by the mass movement but as we explained in the meetings of the WSF, unless the revolution was taken forward and capitalism overthrown, the counter-revolution will strike again until it succeeds. In answer to this he stated: “There are people within my country. Good people… who say I don’t go fast enough or that I am not sufficiently radical. But these comrades have to realise that this is a process, a process with phases and rhythms. Remember, we are taking on a world system which is a big task. I know that I am at risk of being booed but Lula is a good man and a friend of ours.” The report continues: “And Chávez was booed but this was partially drowned out by the applause he received as he ended his speech.”4 At this stage P-SOL was scoring 3% to 5% of the vote in opinion polls. The candidature of Heloise for the presidency in 2006 was floated at this meeting and received much support.

The CWI sections in Latin America have continued to advance, as demonstrated by the highly successful annual Latin American School, which brings together workers and youth from many of the countries throughout the continent. The CWI now possesses a very strong section in Brazil, a growing force in Chile and possibilities in other countries. Latin America is a crucial arena of the class struggle and therefore it is vital that the CWI not only continues to advance, but acts as a catalyst for bringing together into a common organisation the genuine forces who are willing and able to build a tenacious revolutionary party, leading to mass organisations of the working class. The road to mass revolutionary parties lies in the first instance through the likely formation of transitional formations, broad parties, in which the Trotskyists and Marxists can play a key role, leading at a certain stage to mass revolutionary parties. In order to achieve this, we must avoid the pitfalls of sectarianism and opportunism.