A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Recent developments in Latin America continue that region’s remarkable surge toward democracy and socialism and away from the clutches of US imperialism. Left parties have won recent presidential elections in Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, and Costa Rica and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (known by its Spanish acronym PSUV) has thus far withstood violent efforts by counterrevolutionary forces bankrolled by the United States to oust it from power. One discordant note was the election of the reactionary National Party’s Juan Orlando Hernandez as president of Honduras over LIBRE candidate Xiomara de Castro in November 2013 in an election marred by massive fraud.
In Venezuela, violence by oppositionists from the upper classes broke out in early 2014 in an effort to turn the clock back to the days when a tiny elite owned most of the nation’s wealth, while the vast majority lived in squalor. Though the Bolivarian government has widespread support throughout Latin America as well, indeed, as the world, the United States is aiding the counterrevolution and has imposed sanctions. The US talks incessantly about repression by the Venezuelan government in the current volatile situation, yet it is the reactionaries who did most of the killing. Among those killed was a government supporter riding a motorcycle decapitated by wire strung across a street by oppositionists.
The United States has been working with the Venezuelan oligarchy to undermine the Bolivarians ever since Chavez was elected president in 1999 and escalated those efforts after Chavez’s death last year. The State Department, the CIA, USAID and Non-Governmental Organizations such as CANVAS and Freedom House have poured tens of millions of dollars into Venezuela in support of sabotage, widespread media propaganda and hoarding and shutdowns by businesses. These efforts are widely known throughout the Hemisphere if not here, and for many Latin Americans undoubtedly bring to mind events leading up to the 1973 coup in Chile. That effort was also armed and financed by the US and resulted in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of socialist Salvador Allende by the fascist Augusto Pinochet.
The US was also deeply involved in the 2002 military coup that temporarily deposed Chavez, only to be repulsed by a popular uprising. Though Venezuela has structures and levels of popular participation in fundamental decision-making that exceed those in virtually every country in the world, Washington and the corporate media have been hammering away for 15 years with the lie that it is a dictatorship that must go. One distortion among many is the nature of the “labor strikes” that have periodically disrupted Venezuela throughout the Bolivarian years.
In reality, most every one of these strikes was a lock-out by business owners involved in or supportive of the counterrevolution. Workers would show up at work, only to find the factory, mill or refinery closed. Highly-paid union bureaucrats like Carlos Ortega, who assumed control of the influential Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) despite never having been duly elected, collaborated with these efforts. The working classes, by contrast, are the most steadfast supporters of the Bolivarians.
Documents unearthed recently by investigative reporter and attorney Eva Golinger reveal that the former Colombian dictator Alavaro Uribe and paramilitaries from Colombia are also involved in the dirty work in Venezuela. Colombia is one of the US’s last remaining client states in the region and receives more aid from Washington by far than any country in the Hemisphere, aid that is used primarily to suppress a growing movement that, like those throughout the region, is made up of women’s groups, campesinos, workers, indigenous groups, students and revolutionaries.
Uribe’s and Colombia’s involvement hearkens back to Operation Condor, a campaign in the 1970’s and 1980’s in which the US and five military dictatorships in South America coordinated efforts to obliterate progressive and revolutionary opponents. So while the US talks incessantly about “democracy promotion,” people throughout Latin America and the rest of the global South know all too well from a long and brutal history that such talk is a cover for the real objective of destroying any and all challenges to imperialism.
Meanwhile, the alliance between the United States and the Honduran oligarchy was strengthened by last year’s stolen election. The oligarchy’s National Party took power in an equally fraudulent 2009 election held on the heels of a military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected progressive Manuel Zelaya because of reforms he implemented to improve the livelihoods of the general population. The LIBRE party was formed by the movement that supported Zelaya, and hundreds of its members and candidates, along with journalists and human rights workers opposed to the coup government, were murdered in the months leading up to the election. Zelaya was driven into exile for several years and legally barred from running in either election by the coup regime.
On the day of the election, hundreds of international observers witnessed widespread alteration of ballots, vote-buying, intimidation and violence by the Honduran military, paramilitary squads and others allied with the NP. The fraud was of such magnitude that it undoubtedly swung the results, as every non-partisan pre-election poll indicated de Castro was comfortably ahead. The US immediately recognized the results as valid, just as it did in 2009 when it was virtually alone in the Hemisphere in recognizing the coup and the first post-coup election.
Poverty has increased dramatically since the coup so that Honduras is now the second poorest country in the Hemisphere, ahead only of Haiti. State violence has risen to an even higher level since the November election as the NP government clears the way for mining companies and other Western investors. While LIBRE and its constituents are the targets of the violence, they bravely struggle on, organizing and mobilizing.
In Chile, moderate socialist Michelle Bachelet was elected president one year ago while Camila Vallejo, revolutionary leader of the 2011 student rebellion, was elected to Congress. Chile remains scarred by the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship, as Bachelet can attest: her father was an official in Allende’s government who died in one of Pinochet’s prisons and she herself was detained and forced out of the country. Since being elected, Bachelet has mapped out a legislative agenda that is quite popular and quite radical.
In El Salvador’s presidential election on March 9, Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the incumbent Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) won a narrow victory over Norman Quijano of ARENA. The FMLN is the country’s revolutionary coalition that led the fight against imperialism and the far-right during the 1980-92 civil war. In the five years since it gained the presidency, the FMLN has instituted land reform and other progressive legislation while also advocating independent development through organizations like the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas.
ARENA, on the other hand, is the party of the 1980’s death squads founded by Roberto D’Aubisson who, along with Jonas Savimbi, P.W. Botha, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, was on Ronald Reagan’s short list of favorite terrorists. Since the election, ARENA has issued statements that sound ominously like a threat to re-launch civil war. For its part, the US is not pleased with the FMLN victory. Though it has made no overt move against El Salvador yet, it continues to demand austerity measures that favor investors and endanger reform efforts.
In Costa Rica, meanwhile, Luis Guillermo Solis of the left Citizen Action Party (PAC) was elected president of Costa Rica on April 6, while socialist Jose Maria Villalta of the Broad Front (FA) did better than any revolutionary candidate in Costa Rican history in the first round of the election. Though there are differences, the two parties have shown signs of working in coalition to address vast wealth inequalities and imperial domination.
Brazil’s first woman president, Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party, was narrowly elected to a second term in October. In a year marked by large demonstrations of workers angry at a lack of progress in closing the country’s wealth gap, most notably at the time of the World Cup in response to billions spent on soccer stadiums many saw as a grossly misplaced priority, Rousseff won by just 51.6% to 48.4% for her opponent. Rousseff was forced into a run-off when she received 41.6% of the vote in the first round, compared to 55% for her two top opponents. The results of the two votes reflect the Workers Party’s declining popularity, though no electoral force to the left of Rousseff from either within or without the WP has yet emerged.
In contrast to Rousseff, Bolivian President Evo Morales won re-election with 60% of the vote, compared to 25% for his closest rival. Morales of the Movement For Socialism party (the Spanish acronym is MAS) begins his third term with the country’s economy growing at a faster rate than any in the Hemisphere. Amidst his solid popularity, Morales faces opposition from his base, particularly around the very issue of growth as extractivism has cause serious concerns among the indigenous population and others who see growth predicated on the destruction of the environment and traditional lifestyles.
Finally, Tabare Vazquez of the left Broad Front was elected president of Uruguay last month for the second time, succeeding Jose Mujica who, like Roussef, was once a guerrilla. Vazquez is a physician who was president from 2005-10 and oversaw changes that have done a great deal to decrease poverty as well as inequalities in wealth and power. Vazquez, like Mujica, enjoys popular support but tensions between the Broad Front and their poor and working class constituency that increased during Mujica’s last several years in office remain.
As we know all too well in the US, where both parties are controlled by the business class and politicians by definition rule in opposition to the popular interest, it’s a mistake to read too much into elections. In Latin America, however, people long terrorized by imperialism have built vibrant movements that made possible the Bachelet, LIBRE, WP, Bolivarian, FMLN, MAS, PAC and FA candidacies. Together with the mass movements that led to the electoral victories of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the PAIS Alliance in Ecuador, these parties and states have formed a formidable challenge to international capital. Many participants have been killed in the process and others languish in prisons, yet tens of thousands carry on, risking all in the fight for freedom.
Though the tide has definitely turned from the days of the Somoza family in Nicaragua, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba and the rest of the long list of despots in the employ of the United States, obstacles remain. Increasingly, popular organizations are in conflict with the very left-of-center presidents who road their efforts to office and have proven all too willing to accommodate multinational corporations. Though this phenomenon is perhaps most pronounced in Brazil, such conflict has been directed at the governments of Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, even Bachelet herself in her first go-round as president of Chile.
In many ways, this accommodation is the hallmark of political figures from the upper and professional classes, though it is also evident in the trajectory of some with deep working class roots like Morales. Such politicians embody a trend that, while socialist in ways, also seeks to reconcile irreconcilable class conflict. They view the running of society as the purview of professional politicians such as themselves and generally keep the mass movements that catapulted them to office at arm’s length. With popular organizations excluded, office holders are susceptible to the intense pressures from Washington, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and multinational corporations.
The revolutionary socialist approach in Venezuela, on the other hand, is based on the active participation of the country’s people. That participation consists, among other things, of rank and file control of unions, special attention to the rights of the indigenous, and the formation of cooperatives and people’s councils that play significant roles in social and economic planning and decision-making. That is a stark challenge to the old-style oligarchy and imperialism, and explains why reactionary elites and the US ruling class are especially hostile to the Bolivarian Revolution.
Continuing problems where left-of-center parties have been voted into national office also speak to the limitations of electoral politics. Many popular organizations know of these limitations and have demonstrated again and again that, whether blocking a mine, stopping construction of a dam or standing up to the army, participatory democracy and direct action are the foundations on which a new Latin America will be built. The issue is whether these forces can build structures strong enough to control and, where necessary, remove those they elect to national office while simultaneously fending off the forces of counterrevolution.
Still, whatever the flaws of those who road to electoral office on the tide of popular insurgencies, primary responsibility for the continuing problems in these societies lies with Western investors and those who serve them. Nicaragua, for example, had much of its infrastructure destroyed by contra terror. As in Indochina, the US may have lost but it succeeded in laying waste prospects for the development of an alternative approach any time soon.
To prevent both complete and partial victories for Empire, domestic solidarity efforts are of the utmost importance. Though it may sometimes seem small compared to the might of imperialism, we know from the 1980’s that solidarity work prevents worse violence. That 250,000 to 300,000 people were killed in Central America during that time is horrible enough; the outright invasions Washington desired, however, would have resulted in a far higher toll and were prevented by revolutionaries in those countries as well as by US groups like the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. The people of Central America certainly know this, as do imperial managers, even if millions of Americans do not. So whenever one feels like throwing one’s hands in the air and giving up because the task seems overwhelming, remember that that is precisely what the forces of darkness want. Conversely, the cry of campesinos and workers should ring loud and true in our ears at all times and inspire us: “Help us by changing your country.”
Nowhere are people moving forward as they are in South and Central America. That is significant for us because democracy is contagious and when global movements become strong enough, it can spread even to the most unlikely of places – the United States, say. In addition, successful resistance to Empire brings us closer to the day when we can finally shed the baggage of domination and exploitation and begin to relate to people around the world in something approximating peace and harmony. For these and other reasons we should pay attention to and support the many positive developments to our south.
copyright 2015 Andy Piascik
There are excellent resources on Latin America in English including http://nacla.org, http://venezuelanalysis.com and http://upsidedownworld.org/main, as well as activist solidarity groups like http://www.cispes.org, http://nisgua.org, http://www.hondurassolidarity.org, http://www.nicanet.org, and http://colombiasupport.net.
Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author who writes for Z Magazine, The Indypendent, Counterpunch and many other publications and websites. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.