Latin America's Turbulent Transitions: The Future of 21st Century Socialism
By Roger Burbach, Michael Fox & Federico Fuentes
Zed Books, 2013
In a quirk of history, Margaret Thatcher died a little more than one month after Hugo Chavez. Thatcher was a figurehead for the global class war in the 1980s and '90s known as “neoliberalism”. Chavez was a figurehead for the struggle against it and the alternative starting to be built in Latin America over the past decade.
A new book, Latin America's Turbulent Transitions, looks at the struggles transforming the continent, with a particular focus on the processes headed by radical governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.
Author and academic Roger Burbach, former NACLA Report on the Americas editor Michael Fox and Federico Fuentes, who worked in Green Left Weekly's Caracas bureau from 2007-2010, provide a detailed look at the many changes that are undermining traditional US hegemony in the region.
In a case study of five countries ― Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador (written by Marc Becker), Brazil and Cuba ― they look at specific examples of how these highly individual but closely connected processes of change are playing out.
In particular, they point out how the struggle for popular power and social justice is closely bound up with the struggle against US domination on behalf of US corporate power.
They detail the significant gains in regional integration in recent years that have weakened US power. These include the formation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Bank of the South (BANCOSUR) and, most significantly, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) that unites all nations in the Americas bar the US and Canada.
Within the broader push for regional integration, a more radical, anti-capitalist pole has emerged to play a leading role. This is the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) ― founded by Cuba and Venezuela in 2004 and now involving eight nations, including Bolivia and Ecuador.
It is the processes of change in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador ― linking up with revolutionary Cuba ― that have most frightened the powerful and captured people's imaginations around the globe. In these nations, radical governments have come to power through elections, backed by mass movements of the oppressed, to push wealth redistribution and promote more participatory democracy.
The exact alternative being built by these revolutionary movements remains unclear, but they have raised the banner of “21st century socialism”. This is an attempt to find a way beyond capitalism that avoids the mistakes of the failed 20th century models.
The background to these dramatic changes is spelled out in the opening chapter that looks at the devastation wrought on Latin America's peoples by neoliberalism.
Amid the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the weakening of many socialist parties, new social movements challenging neoliberalism arose with different approaches and social bases than the tradition left. In Mexico, Bolivia and Ecuador, indigenous groups played a key role.
But crucially, it was when these movements began to challenge for, and win, government that real transformations have opened up. Although in no case did the election of left governments resolve the struggle for power between US-backed oligarchs and the oppressed majority, it has enabled popular measures such as nationalisations, social programs and constituent assemblies to set out new rights.
These have strengthened the position of oppressed.
The chapter on Venezuela describes how the mass movement lead by Hugo Chavez arose and the intense class struggles that broke out when the rich elite tried to overthrow Chavez's government. After the US-backed oligarchs were defeated, the revolution radicalised, posing socialism as its goal.
But it has come up against its many blocks to its advance ― in particular from the still-existing capitalist state, the difficulties of building up new revolutionary structures, and the role of bureaucratic and corrupt elements within the revolutionary camp.
The chapter is probably the most concise summary of the gains and challenges facing the Bolivarian revolution I have read. Although written before Chavez's tragic death on March 5, it also grapples with the challenge of a post-Chavez Venezuela ― with its need to build a collective leadership to take the revolution forward.
In Bolivia, the role of indigenous and campesino (small farmer) movements has been central to bringing President Evo Morales to power. The Morales government has increasingly brought key industries into state hands, at the same time as working hard to break traditional US control over the state (before Morales, the US embassy were even consulted on ministerial appointments).
Like in Venezuela, the defeat of the oligarchy through mass mobilisation has brought with it new internal challenges for the revolution. However, Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera describes conflicts between the government and its social movement-base as “creative tensions” driving the process forward.
In the chapter on Ecuador written by Becker, the many social gains of the Rafael Correa government are spelled out, as are the bold anti-imperialist positions Correa has taken (including granting asylum to WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange).
But Becker also details the damaging split between Correa's government and indigenous social movments (largely over issues surrounding mining) that has weakened the process of change.
Nonetheless, Becker concludes that the “task is to criticize the government for its mistakes but also support its positive moves and to make a common front against the right”.
The authors emphasise how the concept of “21st century socialism” is being forged in struggle. It is still easier to define what it is against than what it is for.
However, a few features are already clear. One is a commitment to democracy ― not just competitive elections (of which Chavez, Morales and Correa have won dozens collectively), but new participatory forms. This is most advanced in Venezuela, with the formation of thousands of grassroots communal councils directly involving millions of people in governing their communities.
A second feature is ecological concerns, based on the recognition that capitalism is destroying the planet and "21st century socialism" must place environmental sustainability at its heart. The Morales government, especially, has been at the forefront of advocating for radical global measures to tackle climate change and hosted tens of thousands of activists at its "People's Summit" on climate change in 2010.
However, this comes with particular contradictions for economies dependent on extracting raw materials. The book points to the tensions between the need to use revenues from the export of raw materials, now increasingly under state control, to develop the economies and tackle povery, and the ecological destruction that often accompanies these industries.
Each of the three cases are different, with the authors concluding the “quest for socialism is most advanced in Venezuela” and weakest in Ecuador, with Bolivia in the middle.
That there are no ready-made formulas or easy solutions is shown by the case of Cuba, which is seeking to update its socialist model inherited from the 20th century. The chapter on Cuba looks at the way it is seeking to re-invigorate its political and economic system, remove bureaucracy and inefficiency, and ease the sometimes stifling grip of over-centralised state control.
The authors point out that the new market measures and promotion of small-scale property ownership in Cuba are not the same as the large-scale opening up to the market seen in China and Vietnam. Cuba is seeking to reinvigorate its socialist system, not create the sort of new capitalist class that has arisen in China.
It is often pointed out there are different types forces pushing Latin American integration ― the radical wing led by ALBA nations and more pragmatic forces that see their interests as being advanced through greater regional integration. The chapter on Brazil gives a close-up look at an example of the second type.
It looks at the trajectory of the Workers' Party (PT), from leading the mass movement against military dictatorship and for socialism to the moderate PT government led by Lula elected in 2002.
One the one hand, Lula's government deeply disappointed its social base ― not least of all the huge land reform movement lead by the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) ― in internal affairs, limiting its reforms to minimal anti-poverty programs. There was a drop in poverty rates, but the rich got richer and inequality grew under Lula.
On the other, Lula's government blazed a new trail in foreign affairs (one continued by the Dilma Rousseff PT government). This path sought to promote greater unity and cooperation among nations of the global South as a counterweight to the power of the US, while still happily dealing with US interests when that suited Brazil.
This approach falls short of the revolutionary internationalism of the ALBA bloc, and pushing Brazilian capitalist interests has caused some conflicts with other South American nations. But having a nation of Brazil's size push against US hegemony has been crucial to the changes.
The authors conclude that the “long Latin American spring” is a “period of turbulence and transition”. They write: “Twenty-first century socialism in Latin America is a complex process of change sweeping the region … [in which] the banner of socialism is unfurling at a very distinct pace in each country”.
Nonetheless, the very fact the socialist banner is unfurling at all is of great significance at a time of deep capitalist crisis, including the capitalist-induced ecological crisis. This makes this book ― which combines a useful introduction into the changes with discussion on the theoretical and strategic implications ― an absolute must-read.