Report on Socialist Resistance conference on Latin America
29 June 2006
On 24 June, Socialist Resistance held a conference on the current political situation in Latin America. The conference, entitled “Latin America – A continent in revolt,” was hosted in the University of London Union building in central London. Its two headline speakers were Celia Hart from Cuba and Michael Lowy of the Fourth International. The conference ran from 10 am to 6 pm and was divided into three sessions. Each session was addressed by a speaker(s) and then opened up to the floor for discussion, at the end the speaker(s) would come back answer any questions that were raised and give a final summary of their position.
I attended the conference on behalf of
Socialist Democracy in order to get a better understanding of the ongoing
struggle there and a sense of the debate on the left surrounding it. I
also hopped to get some ideas and contacts for our own weekend school on
Latin America that will be taking place in Dublin at the end of September.
What follows is a report of the proceedings of the London conference.
Session one – Latin America today
This session was addressed by a panel of speakers. First was Michael Lowy of the Fourth International. Though Brazilian by birth he works as an academic in Paris, and is a leading member of the French section of the FI, the LCR. He has published a number of books on Latin America; these include “The Marxism of Che Guevara”, “Marxism and Liberation Theology” and the “The War of the Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America”. At the start of his address he made a brief remark about the inappropriateness of the term Latin America, suggesting that the “Afro/Indo Americas” was more accurate. However, the main subject of his talk was on the structure of these societies. He said that all the states in Latin America, to varying degrees, could be described as dependent capitalist societies. They were dominated by US imperialism and there was collaboration between imperialism and the domestic ruling class. These societies were also marked by massive inequalities, which had become even starker after twenty years of neo-liberalism. Michael gave the example of Brazil, which has been described as a Swiss/India society, meaning that the rich live a lifestyle comparable to the rich of Europe, while the mass of the population live like people in the sub-continent. Not surprisingly this iniquitous situation has given rise to rebellions. The first wave came in the wake of the Cuban revolution in the 1960’s, but was crushed through dictatorship. In the 1990’s there was a process of “democratisation” but this didn’t change the structure of society and there was a continuation of social apartheid. This has provoked a new wave of rebellion that has taken on a number of forms. The most basic form has been a dramatic increase in crime, with people deciding to take what they can get for themselves as individuals through whatever means. However, there has also been a new wave of social protest, such as in Argentina and Bolivia where government have been forced from office. There has been a massive growth in social movements across the continent. Within this the peasant/indigenous movements are the best organised and have the highest level of political consciousness. Michael traced the roots of these movements to Liberation Theology, and its concept that poor have to liberate themselves. Over time, these movements became autonomous from the church. However, such moments have had difficulty finding political expression. He argued that this was caused by the parties of the left lagging behind popular consciousness. In addition, the left governments that have come to power on the back of the social movements, in Brazil and Chile, have stayed within the existing capitalist framework. The exceptions to this have been Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela. However, as Michael pointed out, even in these states there are limitations. In Venezuela, the working class and poor do not have an independent political voice; the movement being very much centred on the figure of Chavez. In Bolivia, there is a political party, the MAS, but it has very weak roots.
The second speaker was Celia Hart from Cuba. She is the daughter of two of the historic leaders of the Cuban revolution, a member of the Cuban Communist Party, and has written articles on Trotsky and permanent revolution. Her focus was on the need for Latin American integration. She believed that ALBA (Bolivian Alternative for the Americas) agreement offered potential for movement in this direction. Signed by the presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba on 29 April in Havana, ALBA offers an alternative to free trade. While other governments have been invited to join, Celia admitted that she could not see the possibility of alliance between Castro and Brazilian leader Lula, citing as evidence the opposition of Brazil to nationalisation of the Bolivian gas industry. She listed some of the achievements of greater co-operation between Cuba and Venezuela. For Venezuela, the import of Cuban teachers and doctors had underpinned its healthcare and education programmes. For Cuba, there had been an increase in trade and an easing of its energy shortages. While ALBA represented some modest success, Celia said she believed that ultimately the integration of the continent could only take place through socialism. She also said that as well as integration at a state level there was the need to integrate the forces of the left. What was holding this back was the growth of neo-reformism, with many left parties retreating to pre-Marxist ideas. Celia also believed that there were lessons for the Cuban revolution from the new social movements in the continent. These were the importance of self-organisation and the possibility of there being more than one left party. Overall, Celia believed that the current upheavals in Latin America offered hope for revolutionaries.
The third speaker was Eduard Diago of the Fourth International, a member of the French LCR who had spent a number of months living in Venezuela. He said that the revolutionary developments in Venezuela pre-date the election of Chavez, and that there has been a radicalisation since. There had been a deepening of the class struggle and a deepening of the popular organisations. The revolutionary process also contained the possibility of going beyond the national framework of Venezuela. Eduard said that with this process there were a number of contradictions and questions being raised. These included how to overthrow capitalism and what to replace it with; what the role the working class should play, and what model of economic development the country should adopt. There is also a debate in the movement on whether should there be a socialist revolution in Venezuela. Some elements within the movement only wanted to go as for as a new social democracy. There was also a debate over the relationship between the state and the constitution. Eduard pointed out that the constitution enshrines the private ownership of the means of production. This represented a compromise between different forces that support Chavez. However, the state had also expropriated a number of enterprises. These struggles and contradictions represented the revolution within the revolution. An example of this is the debate within the trade union movement in Venezuela. While trade unions had recently voted to form a national federation, there was still an ongoing debate on whether it should be independent or subordinate to the government.
In terms of the opposition, Eduard believed that the right had been defeated on the electoral field, although the threat of a coup still remained. The main political battle was now between reformists and revolutionaries with the Bolivarian movement. In this situation the task of revolutionaries was to channel the ongoing class struggle in a socialist direction. To achieve these revolutionaries needed to deepen understanding of need to overthrow capitalism; continue the struggle against the right wing, continue to struggle within Chavista movement, engage in debate with the Bolivarian left, and unify the social movements. On this basis the LCR was supporting the Unify All our Struggles current. It was important to demonstrate that the Government could be opposed without aiding the right.
The contributions from the floor mainly focused on how the left should relate to the political developments. These ranged from enthusiastic support to hostility. One member of the International Bolshevik Tendency denounced the FI for its previous support of Lula’s party in Brazil and it current support for Chavez in Venezuela, who he described as a Bonaparte. Many of the speakers from political groupings emphasised the limitations of the current movement and the need for a revolutionary political party. There were also criticisms the role Stalinism has played in Cuba.
Summing up, Michael Lowy said that the
FI had initially supported the decision by its group in Brazil to go into
government the in hope that it would lead to a struggle against the right
wing, but when it became clear this would not be the case they withdrew
support from the group. The FI were now supporting a new left party and
backing its candidate in the presidential election. Michael said
he believed that the current struggles had put socialism back on the agenda,
but for this to be realised the left needed to organise. In her summary,
Celia Hart said that while there were contradictions in the Bolivarian
process, the social movements could not be written off in the struggle
for socialism. Marxists needed to be active in these movements in
order to influence them. Celia defended Cuba’s general record but
admitted that mistakes were made. She said that these mistakes had
to be viewed in the light of the influence that the Soviet Union had exerted
on Cuba for a long period. The final summary came form Eduard Diago.
He said that the left would be supporting Chavez in the upcoming elections.
Its strategy should be to base itself on the most radical elements of the
Chavez programme. This included the struggle against bureaucracy;
socialism; internationalism and popular power. Eduard said that while
there was a need for a revolutionary party, what wasn’t needed was a proliferation
of small feuding organisations. The party would have to represent
the masses and be built within the Bolivarian movement.
Session two – permanent revolution
Session two of the conference was split into three separate workshops. Michael Lowy presented one on “The politics of Che Guevara”, while Celia Hart presented another on the history of the Cuban revolution. The third workshop, and the one I attended, was on permanent revolution and was presented by Phil Hearse of Socialist Resistance.
Hearse argued that while the political tactics used in each country in Latin America would be specific, there was a basic strategic framework for the continent. In developing this strategy there were three basis questions that needed to be asked. What was the character of those societies, what was the character of the ruling class, and what was the revolutionary subject? Phil identified these societies as ones in which are marked by a stark division between the super rich oligarchy and the mass of the poor. These countries also had a dependent relationship with imperialism. He pointed to the fact that much of Mexico’s financial services sector was owned or part owned by US and Spanish companies. The ruling class in these countries used extreme violence to maintain their position. Also there was identification between race and class, with the ruling class being mostly white and the poor overwhelmingly indigenous and mixed race. The consequence of all this was that there no progressive element within the Latin American bourgeoisie. It was not capable of carrying out democratic reform. This task fell to the oppressed classes. In the classic Marxist theory of permanent revolution this would mean an alliance of the working class and the peasantry. However, according to Phil Hearse, this formulation was no longer applicable.
The impact of neo-liberalism and urbanisation meant that the peasantry was now relatively small. It had been replaced by a class that is often descried as the “urban poor”, people who are eking out a living outside the formal economy. Any revolutionary movement would have to win over this class and address the issues that affected them such as housing and public utilities. Phil concluded by recalling the statement by Che Guevara that there would either be a “socialist revolution or the caricature of revolution”. While reformists would say that socialism is not possible in Latin America, the fact is that there is no basis for reformism because the ruling class won’t make any concessions.
When the discussion was opened to the floor many of the points from the first meeting were made again. These dealt with the nature of the movements and the need for a revolutionary party. A member of the International Bolshevik Tendency once again took the opportunity to denounce Hugo Chavez, claiming he was another Juan Peron. There was also a question on how a revolution in Latin America would actually unfold. My own contribution was on this issue, highlighting the case of Argentina where there was an almost total economic and political collapse, where there was a high level of popular mobilisation and activism, but where a revolutionary party was not present, the social movements could not take power, and the ruling class were able to stabilise the situation.
In his summary Phil dismissed the comparison
between Chavez and Peron, saying that there is no support for Chavez from
the bourgeoisie. He said that revolution could be provoked by another attempt
by the right or imperialism to get rid of Chavez or Morales. For
the left the key was to make the shift form reformist demands to revolution.
Those would be achieved by linking local demands to national movements.
This was the lesson of Argentina: without a coherent national organisation
the movement cannot be guided to power.
Session Three - Socialist Transition in Latin America
As with the opening session, this final plenary was addressed by a panel of speakers. The first speaker was Phil Hearse. He said the political upheavals in Latin America had put socialism back on the agenda. This had been influenced to some degree by the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement in 1990s with its slogan of “another World Is Possible”. However, there are many lefts in Latin America. He distinguished the militant left from the centre left. An example of the latter was Lula in Brazil, where public spending only accounted for 13 per cent of GDP. In order to bring about real change in Latin America the power of the elite had to be broken. Phil reiterated the point made in the previous session that there was no basis for reformism, because the ruling class wouldn’t make any concessions. He also attested the necessity of a revolutionary party with a socialist leadership for a successful revolution. This would emerge from within the existing popular movement. It was therefore irresponsible to denounce the current leadership at this stage. Phil concluded by saying that the current situation was unstable and that the revolutionary process would either move forward or be defeated.
The second speaker was Amancay Colque of the Bolivia Solidarity Campaign. She gave a brief outline of the history of the struggle against neo-liberalism in Bolivia. These polices were first unleashed on the country in 1983. While there was opposition, headed by the miners union, it was defeated. The next major challenge did not come until 2000 with the popular uprising in Cochabamba region against US multinational Bechtel who had taken over their water systems as an IMF-imposed condition for Bolivian debt relief. The company was forced to withdraw from Bolivia and the attempt to privatise the water system was defeated. This provided the impetus for further struggles. In 2003, a campaign on the issue of oil and gas revenues led to an increase in taxes on foreign companies and forced the government to resign. This process culminated in 2006 with the election of Evo Morales as president, and his May Day decree nationalising the country’s oil and gas industry.
Amancay said that while the nationalisation was a welcome development, nationalisation was not enough for Bolivians. They wanted to go on and fundamentally change society. They also had few illusions about Morales. He had come to power on the back of the movement against neo-liberalism and if he did not deliver on his promises his government would go the same way as its predecessors. Amancay emphasised that the Bolivian Solidarity campaign was linked to the social movements and not the government.
The third speaker was Jorge Martin of the Hands of Venezuela campaign. He began by giving a brief history of the campaign. Set up in 2002, it has four basic aims - solidarity with Venezuela, opposition to imperialist intervention, countering media lies and building links between socialist movements in Britain and Venezuela. Jorge claimed that there was a revolution unfolding in Venezuela, but that it was not a unique case, just the most advanced point of a continental process. There was a crisis of capitalism and imperialism in the region. The ruling class in Latin America couldn’t deliver any reforms. This meant that the opposition movement was radicalising and a debate was opening up about the possibility of a socialist alternative. In this situation revolutionaries shouldn’t stand outside the debate. Jorge emphasised that Venezuela was not just about Chavez; also there was the development of social movements that were organising themselves and advancing their own demands. What socialists had to do was to participate in these movements and push them forward. In Venezuela there were three tasks – to destroy the old state apparatus and create new democratic institutions; to challenge the private ownership of property; and to create a revolutionary organisation with a national structure.
The final speaker was Andrew Kennedy of
Socialist Resistance. He said that Latin American fitted the scenario
of permanent revolution, where democratic and socialist tasks had to be
unified. The current situation could not go on indefinitely and it
would be resolved one way or another. Andrew highlighted the role
of the working class in the revolutionary process. He said the working
class had been slow to move and was lagging behinds the political consciousness
of the urban poor. The struggle in Venezuela was about winning the
battle of ideas, this included raising demands for neighbourhood control
and participatory budgets. There was also a need for a revolutionary
party as a way of ensuring democracy and holding the leadership to account.
Socialists also had to take up broader issues such as women’s rights, particularity
the high level of violence against women in these societies, race, sexual
orientation and the environment. In Britain solidarity meant educating
people about the revolutionary process in other countries, and publicising
social achievement such as the successful health service in Cuba.
Amancay Colque said that parties had a very poor reputation in Bolivia. This stemed from the national revolution in 1952 that was ultimately betrayed by the parties that led it. There was a need for new organisations in which socialists could work together. Solidarity work was needed to inform people about what was going on in Bolivia. Amancay said that delegations visiting Bolivia were a very important part of this. However, Bolivians would not accept lectures from the British left. Solidarity needed to be a two way process with people in Bolivia and Britain learning from one another how to advance the struggle in both countries.
In his summary Phil Hearse said that the
struggles in Latin America was important because an advance ion one area
of the world could strengthen the opposition in other areas. The
struggle in Latin America was a struggle that would be crucial for the
rebuilding of the left.
Overall, this conference was very positive. It was well organised and attracted a sizeable crowd of one hundred people. I learned a lot from it about the situation in Latin America, and from the debate over how it should develop, particularly the tension between supporting social movements and building a revolutionary party. I certainly got the sense from it that there is a revolutionary process under way there. The activists from Venezuela and Bolivia had a seriousness about them that is often lacking among members of left organisations in Britain and Ireland. As one of activists said – solidarity should be about advancing the struggle in both countries, not left parties in Britain latching onto Latin America because of the low level of class struggle in their own country.