From Che to Chavez: Latin America revolts against the empire

February 22, 2006

Stuart Munckton

On October 8, 1967, the Argentinean-born socialist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara was murdered by a CIA agent in Bolivia. Having helped lead the successful Cuban Revolution, Che was in Bolivia attempting to spread the struggle against imperialism. Nearly 40 years later, on December 18, Evo Morales — a poor indigenous coca farmer and radical leader of the Movement Towards Socialism — was elected Bolivia's new president.

The February 12 Sydney Morning Herald ran an article by David Segal entitled "Viva Che, the comandante of capitalism", which argued that the widespread use of Che's iconic image by corporations to sell products amounts to the "nails in Che's coffin". The revolutionary ideals Che fought for are dead, Segal argued; "capitalism won".

Someone must have forgotten to tell this to the impoverished workers and peasants across Latin America, who have probably never heard of — and couldn't afford anyway — Magnum's "Cherry Guevara" ice-creams. Clearly Morales never got the message. Asking for a minute's silence for Che and "the millions of human beings who have fallen in all of Latin America", Morales said in his inauguration speech that the struggle he is leading is "a continuation of the fight of Che Guevara".

In recent years several pro-US and pro-corporate governments have been brought down by popular revolt in Latin America, and a growing number of governments have been elected on platforms that challenge Washington-pushed neoliberal policies. An opinion piece in the February 13 LA Times by Niall Ferguson argued that "while the United States has become fixated on the Muslim world, a region much closer to home has been quietly spinning out of American control".

The increasing isolation of the US in the region was demonstrated at the Summit of the Americas meeting in November, where the US failed to force through its key project for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would further expose the continent to domination and exploitation by US corporations.

In the 1980s and '90s, the US and international financial institutions forced severe neoliberal policies onto Latin America, impoverishing millions of people.

The first signs of the regional revolt came in Venezuela in February 1989, when the poor spontaneously rose up against International Monetary Fund-imposed price rises on basic goods. Through the 1990s, movements against neoliberalism grew. In Bolivia, a mass revolt stopped the attempt to privatise the nation's water in 2000. In 2003 and 2005, mass revolts overthrew pro-US governments in Bolivia in battles that centred on the demand, supported by Morales, to nationalise Bolivia's gas reserves.

In most countries the mass movements, while putting governments on the back foot and forcing concessions, are yet to win power. But in Venezuela, the struggle has gone beyond periodic revolts and into an ongoing revolution to transform the nation. The government of socialist President Hugo Chavez, elected in 1998, has led the poor majority in a battle to take control of Venezuela's resources and put them to use to overcome crippling poverty and underdevelopment. When Chavez began introducing reforms that benefited the poor over the rich, the local elite and multinationals — backed by the US government — responded with repeated attempts to overthrow the government.

The resistance to any encroachment on their power by the capitalist elite has radicalised Venezuela's poor, who have come to realise that it is impossible to achieve change simply by electing a government and getting it to enact reforms. The Venezuelan people have been forced to take the road of revolution and fight for popular power on the streets. In the process, many have drawn the conclusion that capitalism cannot be reformed.

In Venezuela, the revolution has raised the banner of socialism again, well after it was declared dead and buried with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Venezuelan revolution is working to build a "new socialism of the 21st century", based on principles of democracy and humanism. And it is working: poverty is decreasing (by 3 million people last year alone) and the poor are winning more and more power.

Imperialism is yet to be defeated in Latin America, but it is being pushed onto the back foot. From Bolivia to Venezuela to Cuba, people are putting paid to the notion that the only spirit Che Guevara represents today is the vodka that the Smirnoff corporation uses his face to flog. The exact opposite is true: the revolutionary socialism that Che fought and died for is alive and well — and advancing.

[Stuart Munckton is the national coordinator of the socialist youth organisation Resistance.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 22, 2006.
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