Latin America: The Risen People

The Citizen: Issue 1
November/December 2008

Author: Seán Edwards

Ronald Reagan famously described Latin America as the United States’ ‘back yard’, and, indeed, the continent has been under its hegemony since the beginning of the last century, when Theodore Roosevelt sent his rough riders into Cuba. The US has been able to rely on the willing collaboration of the Latin American bourgeoisie and the land owning oligarchies. As Eduardo Galeano describes them in The Open Veins of Latin America, their desire for independent development, where it exists at all, is tempered by their fear of organising the impoverished mass of the people.

By judicious interventions and regime changes, the North Americans maintained their domination at very little cost. Sometimes this involved installing outright fascist regimes like Pinochet’s in Chile, or organising bands of gangsters like the Nicaraguan contras; only the tiny island of Grenada suffered a direct invasion in recent times. By 1990, all the governments of Latin America, except Cuba, were more or less subservient to the US. Cuba, now isolated without the help of the Soviet Union, was suffering extreme hardship and was not expected to hold out for long.

But, indomitable Cuba refused to surrender, and throughout the continent people were developing new forms of struggle. Latin America today is a continent in revolt. It is in struggle for its second liberation, this time from the United States. In every country, there is a massive resistance to US hegemony and the economic policies it has imposed, known as ‘neo-liberalism’. This means privatisation of state industry and natural resources, deregulation of private enterprise, and the opening up of the economy to transnational corporations. It was here that the ‘Chicago School’ of Milton Friedman first got the chance to apply its theories after the Chilean coup in 1973 put Pinochet in power. Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine gives a graphic account of the close relationship between the ‘Chicago Boys’ and the fascist regime. The military regimes in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil provided a similar economic environment. The military regimes, ruling by terror, effectively put a stop to independent capitalist development in the south of the continent. As the ‘School of the Americas’ trained their military in torture and repression, so did their universities train their economists in neo-liberal theory. The results were catastrophic, even Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, relatively prosperous countries, were reduced to penury.

By the time the military dictatorships had served their purpose, neo-liberal economics had become the unquestioned orthodoxy worldwide, policed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on behalf of European and American interests. The unpayable national debts that Latin American countries suffered from left them open to pressure, so their economic policies continued to be written in Chicago and Harvard. Huge fortunes were made, while the standard of living of the majority declined catastrophically.

The neo-liberal economic offensive cracked in a most surprising place, Venezuela. Although it was the richest country in South America, thanks to the oil industry, the economy was in disarray. As in much poorer countries, the destruction of the rural economy had resulted in millions of displaced peasants crowding into the cities. The hills around Caracas are covered with the shanty towns they erected. There they live precariously, working in the black economy, selling goods in the street, or taking to crime.

In 1989, the economy was in trouble, due to the collapse in the price of oil. The newly elected president, Carlos Andres Perez, gave in to international pressure to implement tough policies, economic ‘shock therapy’. The sudden massive increase in the price of fuel and food provoked several days of rioting and looting; Perez sent in the troops, and hundreds of people were killed.

Hugo Chavez and a group of junior officers in the army resolved to remove Perez and subsequently attempted a rebellion, which failed, on 4 February 1992. Nevertheless, the attempt made him hugely popular, and, after he was released from jail, he set about building a movement for change and won the presidential election in 1998.

One of the first steps taken by Chavez was to call a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, changing the name of the state to the ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’, to make a break with the corrupt politics of the Fourth Republic. The new policies also broke with the tradition of subservience to the interests of the US and with neo-liberal economics. In particular, Chavez asserted control over the State oil company PDVSA, which had been run in their own interests, and the interests of big business, by a managerial elite.

The Venezuelan coup d’état, beginning on 11 April 2002, was pretty much a standard operation, straight from the book. It was an old formula, used in Chile in 1973, and used again later in Haiti in 2004. A news media barrage against the government to be removed, strikes called by the employers, and violent incidents, all served to mobilise the middle classes in the name of ‘civil society’ and prepare the way for a military takeover. What was unprecedented was the manner of its defeat by the greatest mass mobilisation of a people ever seen. Millions of people surrounded army barracks throughout the country, giving courage to the majority of the soldiers who opposed the coup. The new government led by the head of the Chamber of Commerce, Pedro Carmona, ‘Pedro el Breve’, lasted just long enough to show its fascist character, collapsing in forty-eight hours. Hugo Chavez returned in triumph in the early hours of Sunday, 14 April. The events are brilliantly shown in the TV documentary ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ by Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain, who were in the presidential palace interviewing Chavez at the time of the coup.

The failure of the coup proved to be the greatest defeat suffered by the United States in Latin America since the Bay of Pigs, when a US sponsored invasion force of Cuban counter-revolutionaries was routed.

Chavez went on to overcome the ‘strike’ and sabotage in the oil industry, and the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ that he leads emerged stronger and more determined.

The role of the United States in the coup has been documented in Eva Golinger’s book The Chavez Code, and opposition groups have continued to receive funding from the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute, chaired by John McCain. A notable beneficiary of this funding was Sumate the organisation which campaigned for a referendum to recall the President. This referendum was held in 2004, and Chavez won handsomely. Subsequently, he was re-elected in 2006. All the time, the majority of the Venezuelan press and television shout that ‘Chavez is a dictator’, and this is taken up by the world press, led by the Washington Post and El País. It is difficult to find a report or an article sympathetic to Chavez in any mainstream media, and actions of his government are distorted. Some recent examples are illustrative.

The broadcasting licence of the television station RCTV expired and was not renewed. This television station had played a major role in organising the coup d’état in 2002 and bragged about it. In no other country would this have gone unpunished, yet, in Venezuela, it was allowed to carry on up to the expiry of its licence. There was a phoney international outcry about how Chavez was suppressing the freedom of the press. The licence went to community television.

There is another campaign, still continuing, to show that Chavez is suppressing human rights. What happened was the Comptroller-General, an independent officer of the state, was charged with examining the financial dealings of candidates according to an anti-corruption law, which had been supported by the opposition in the National Assembly. He recommended to the electoral commission (CNE in Spanish) that a number of candidates be disqualified, government supporters and opponents impartially, for corrupt dealings or abuse of office. As usual, the allegations of the opposition politicians were reported, with none of the background information. The Supreme Court ratified the decision of the CNE.

What is not reported on is the programme to address the abominable state of public health and education that Chavez inherited. Venezuela did have a public health and education system, but these had been so neglected for decades that the poorest were effectively excluded. There was no health service in the poor neighbourhoods; no Venezuelan doctor went there. Cuban doctors came and set up clinics there, living among the poor and providing them with a health service for the first time. Representatives of the medical profession, who were themselves not willing to even go to these areas, tried to stop the Misión Barrio Adentro, as the project is called. Now, a new generation of Venezuelan doctors is being educated to serve the people, some of them in the Latin American Medical School in Cuba, some in Venezuela.

Cuba also helped with Misión Robinson, the campaign to eradicate illiteracy, in which over a million people have been taught to read using the method called Yo Sí Puedo (Yes, I Can), which had been successful in Cuba. Misión Robinson 2 brings adults who have missed out on education up to primary school standard. Misión Rivas provides secondary education for those who had not had the opportunity before; one million students participated in it in its first two years. Misión Sucre is the third level continuation.

New schools, Bolivarian Schools, are appearing in the barrios. These keep the children all day and provide them with breakfast, lunch, and an evening snack. The school is likely to be the only good building in the area. The aim is for all schools to follow this model, and the programme has been extended to secondary schools, the Liceos Bolivarianos.

The national oil company, PDVSA, had an enormous office building in Caracas, which had been occupied by an army of well paid junior executives, all of whom joined in the stoppage in 2002. Since the stoppage was not a legal strike in any way, they lost their jobs. The company found that they weren’t needed anyway and gave the building to the new Bolivarian University. This university is designed to open up opportunities for third level education and has very much a work-centred and community-centred approach. Over the decades, the state universities, like the schools, had become increasingly exclusive and inaccessible to students from a working class background. There is a continuing struggle within those universities for and against the Bolivarian process. In addition, there exist private colleges where the very rich send their children – these are totally anti-Chavez.

Another plank in Chavez’ platform is food security. Venezuela imports most of its food, while many large estates lie idle. A law was passed enabling the government to compulsorily purchase idle land and distribute it to peasants to work. In addition, many large landowners proved not to have title to the land that they occupied. This law was, and continues to be, furiously resisted by the land owners, as its implementation is demanded by the peasant organisations. Over a hundred peasant leaders have been murdered in the course of this struggle. In the border areas, Colombian paramilitaries have been involved. At present, in the western state of Zulia, the indigenous Yukpa people are involved in an intense struggle with landlords over their historic lands. In spite of the policy of the government on land distribution and on indigenous rights, the forces of the state have not moved to protect them, but even threaten them with eviction. On the other hand, there has developed a considerable solidarity movement with the Yukpa.

According to James Connolly, the struggle for Irish independence necessarily involved pursuing the aim of socialism. So in Venezuela, as the Bolivarian Revolution developed, it had to either come to a halt or take a socialist path. The Venezuelan elite has for long been aligned with the US, economically, politically, and culturally. It has long ago abandoned any thought of independent economic development. On the contrary, the policy was to privatise national assets. The phone company, the steel industry, and other state enterprises were sold off; and even the jewel in the crown, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), was being prepared for the market. So, the direction taken by Chavez’ government had them worried from the beginning. With the power of the press and television at their command and encouragement from the American and Spanish governments, they thought they could easily remove him with a coup d’état. The collapse of the coup and the subsequent attempt at economic sabotage had the effect of mobilising the people and sharpening the class struggle. While it did not start with explicitly socialist aims, the Bolivarian movement has now proclaimed the building of ‘Twenty-first Century Socialism’ as its aim. Not everyone in the movement is happy with this. Some government-supporting businessmen are doing very nicely and would like to put a brake on these developments.

Much has been made of the narrow rejection of the proposed changes to the constitution last year. Most of the proposals were aimed at enhancing popular participation in democracy – through community councils, for example. What the world press reported was the proposal to remove the two-term limitation on the president; this was usually reported as making Chavez president for life. With sixty-nine amendments, the proposals were overly complicated; further, popular participation in formulating the proposals was insufficient. The result was that many of Chavez’ supporters did not come out to vote.

It did not help that at the same time Chavez was trying to reconstruct the political movement in the form of a new party. The MVR (Movement for a Fifth Republic) was not much more than an election machine, riven by factionalism and rivalry, and showing, in fact, many of the characteristics of the politics of the Fourth Republic that Chavez wanted to get away from. He sought the solution in a new start, the Socialist Unity Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and demanded that all the parties supporting him join in. The Communist Party and the PPT (Fatherland For All) declined the invitation. It has taken some time to repair relations; the three parties are now joined in the Patriotic Alliance. The PSUV had a massive recruitment of members; whether it will overcome the weaknesses of the MVR or if old bad habits will survive remains to be seen. ‘Socialism of the Twenty-first Century’ is the proclaimed aim of the party, though what that means is not so clear. Obviously, it means different things to different people, or even to the same person. There is plenty of argument among the left Bolivarians about the nature of socialism and about the class nature of the struggle going on, and an increasing influence of Marxism. The Communist Party, as a participant in the governing alliance, plays a very active role in this regard.

There is continuing struggle within the Bolivarian Movement over the direction and pace of the process. So far, it has been becoming more radical, taking on new tasks in the development of the country, moving in a socialist direction. These tensions have been reflected in the trade union movement UNT, which has replaced the old CTV, whose leadership participated in the coup d’état of 2002.

Chavez did not come into office with a programme for the nationalisation of industry. Demands for nationalisation were made when businesses bankrupted by their participation in the bosses’ strike of 2002-2003 were abandoned by their owners. The workers, faced with the loss of their jobs, demanded that the state take over, most notably in the case of the paper company Venepal. The aluminium company Alcasa was taken over in 2005. A feature of these companies is the ‘co-management’: workers’ participation in management. The nationalisation of the steel company Sidor came after an intense struggle this year, which revealed some of the divisions and strains within the movement. The workers of the big Sidor steelworks were on strike, resisting pressure by the management to worsen their conditions and job security. The company was adamant, and the strike became bitterer. The workers petitioned the government to take over the company. The minister was fiercely opposed, as were his allies in the UNT, and there were confrontations between the strikers and the police. After a protracted struggle, the minister was sacked and the company was nationalised. The momentum is developing; now, the cement industry is being nationalised, and the state is buying Banco de Venezuela from the Spanish bank Grupo de Santander.

In spite of the huge changes, the state and the personnel of the state remain in place. Civil servants from the old régime are likely to have no enthusiasm for implementing change, even if they are not actively sabotaging it. Sometimes, they implement policy unwillingly or not at all. Sometimes, Chavez just goes round them. The organisation of the ‘misiones’ is carried out by the ‘zona educativa’, officially part of the Ministry of Education, but de facto separate. Many of the projects are paid for directly by PDVSA, the oil company. The income from oil has made many things possible. Businesses have not been expropriated, except some which had been abandoned by their owners. Those which have been taken over have been paid for.

A mass movement of people has developed in the Andes, where there is an indigenous majority, and has been growing in strength and confidence, especially in Bolivia and Ecuador. In both countries, the popular organisations were able to drive unpopular presidents from office, leading to the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Unlike in Venezuela, the social movements pre-date the election of the governments and had autonomous power of their own from the start; their relations with the governments are not always easy. Both countries followed Venezuela’s example in setting out to change the constitution, increase the rights of the common people, and deepen and develop democracy.

The new constitutions, which are fiercely contested by the oppositions, will soon be put to the people in referendums.

It is the opposition which has the money, control of the press, and the backing of the United States. This enables it to get the support of a large part of the middle class. Their campaign is aimed at destabilising the country and causing as much economic damage as possible. It is increasingly desperate, and its racist and fascist character is clear.

In Bolivia, the people mobilised in a successful campaign to defeat the privatisation of water and the handing over of control of their water supplies to transnational corporations, who even tried to charge people for the rain which fell on their roofs. The Union of Bolivian Workers (COB) also campaigned for national control of the country’s oil and gas. The mobilisation of the people in these campaigns enabled the election of Evo Morales as president, the first indigenous president ever in a country of indigenous people traditionally ruled by a white elite. The new government moved to take control of the country’s natural resources, especially the natural gas. This is a country that was robbed of its wealth of silver by the Spaniards, then robbed of its wealth of tin, and then left as the poorest country on the South American continent. The white business elite have reacted to their loss of power with extraordinary venom and overt racism. Their strategy is to try to separate the richer lowland states of the east, whose centre is the city of Santa Cruz, where they have a local political majority and control the local authorities. They illegally held referenda on autonomy and refuse to accept the authority of the central government. This is in spite of the result of the referendum of August 10, which gave Evo Morales a majority of 67%, a gain of 14% since his election. Two of the opposition governors were recalled in that referendum also. Three governors, including Ruben Costas in Santa Cruz were, however, confirmed in office. They proceeded to organise what they call a ‘strike’ against the government. Thugs belonging to the openly fascist Union Juvenil Cruceñista were out on the streets, stopping people from going to work. This is an organisation that drives around in jeeps painted with swastikas, which does not disqualify it from getting American financial support.

The National Endowment for Democracy and other US agencies are, as usual, involved in these attempts to destabilise Bolivia. By coincidence or otherwise, the current US ambassador previously served in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, helping to break it up; he has similar ambitions in Bolivia.

Tariq Ali described Fidel, Hugo, and Evo as ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ in his book of that title. The forces the three represent, the indomitable Cuban revolution, the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, and the mobilisation of the indigenous people, together have the potential to unite the continent. Now Paraguay, also a country with an indigenous majority, has thrown out its old political parties with the election of Fernando Lugo, a former bishop and a proponent of liberation theology.

Following Simon Bolivar and José Marti, Hugo Chavez has the aim of the unity of Latin America: La Patria Grande. As opposed to the US plan for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA in its Spanish initials), Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia founded ALBA (Alternativa Bolivariana por America), a programme of economic co-operation between states. Venezuela has good relations with Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, whose ‘moderate’ governments are far less radical, and is developing economic co-operation with them also.

The main agent of US policy in South America is the brutal regime of Alvaro Uribe in Colombia. Colombia has been in a state of violent conflict since 1948, when the popular presidential candidateDid you mean: Jorge Eliecer Gaitón Search Results Web results Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was murdered. There followed a decade of violence, la violencia, between Liberal and Conservative parties, who eventually did a deal to share office between them. In Colombia, any communist, social democratic, or radical party has always been suppressed by force. The state has always used paramilitary death squads against trade unions and working class parties. The veneer of a two party system helps the US to support fascism in the name of democracy.

The insurgency of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), formed in response to the terrorist actions of the state, dates from 1964. The armed forces of the state waged war not only against the FARC and the ELN (National Liberation Army) but also against the population of the countryside. But, more crimes are committed by the paramilitary forces, the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), now going by the name of the Black Eagles. Responsibility for their actions is, of course, not acknowledged by the state, in spite of their proven close links with the military and with politicians, including Uribe’s own family and the Vice-President Santos. The paramilitaries also carry out murders and kidnappings for businesses (Coca-Cola, for example), assassinating trade union leaders to order. This year to date, twenty-seven trade union leaders have been murdered. The paramilitaries and the army have also carried out massacres against the indigenous population. They are also heavily involved in the drugs traffic.

There have been a number of attempts to bring peace to Colombia. In the 1980s, the FARC tried contesting elections through the Union Patriotica party, but the candidates were all murdered. Starting in 1999, there were protracted negotiations between President Andres Pastrana and the FARC. But, under pressure from the United States, Pastrana broke off the talks in 2002.

The United States bankrolls the war in the name of the ‘war on drugs’ and now the ‘war on terror’. Plan Colombia provides it with a foothold on the South American continent, and it is not about to give it up. The intransigent position of Uribe suits it very well; he is not prepared to contemplate a peace deal of any kind.

President Chavez was involved, at Uribe’s request, in an attempt to negotiate an exchange of prisoners with the FARC. In fact, with Chavez’ intercession, the FARC unilaterally released some of the civilian prisoners it held. The whole effort was wrecked when the Colombian Army raided a camp in Ecuador, killing the FARC’s main negotiator Raúl Reyes and twenty others. They claim to have found a laptop computer there, apparently undamaged by the bombing, which proved, among other strange things, that Chavez was funding the FARC. An impressive amount of information allegedly taken from this magic computer has been used to criminalise anyone connected with the attempt to organise the exchange of prisoners and prosecute people with whom the government was apparently co-operating a short time ago. It is hard to believe that Uribe was acting in good faith at any time

The reporting of these events shows how the press is as deeply embedded as the ‘journalists’ accompanying the American army in Iraq. Colombia is a modern democratic state, and Venezuela is a dictatorship. The terrorist crimes of the state and the paramilitaries are simply not reported.

Chavez, sensing once again, no doubt, that he was being set up for a military conflict with Colombia, has been strangely conciliatory towards Uribe, even calling on the FARC to give up the armed struggle. The FARC say there is no prospect for peace with the Uribe government, linked as it is with drug trafficking and paramilitarism, while it continues to seek a military victory over the insurgency. They have detailed proposals for a peace settlement, which they say they would present to a new government.

The US is not about to be conciliatory towards Chavez; it’s just that, so far, removing Chavez, like assassinating Castro, has not been achieved. They have reconstituted the Fourth Fleet, which has been holding exercises in the Caribbean, docking in Curaçao, just off the Venezuelan coast. Yet, it complains when Chavez buys guns and planes from Russia or organises a military reserve. Chavez says the revolution is ‘peaceful, but not unarmed’ and able to defend itself. It will need to be. Chavez, asked what he expected of the next American President, said: ‘We don’t have illusions about anyone, since we are talking about an empire. Nevertheless, it is our desire that the new president understands the process which is going on in South America and respects it, and seeks better relations, as between equals, with the countries of the South.’ He doesn’t sound too hopeful. McCain, we know, is already involved in financing far-right groups, while Obama has described Chavez as a ‘destructive force in the region’ and expressed his support for Plan Colombia. Don’t expect any goodwill from either candidate, but it may be that the mighty wave of Latin America’s second liberation struggle will be too much for the empire to handle, whoever is in charge.

The imperial strategy is to build a middle class backlash against the movement of the masses. The oligarchy knows and the middle classes believe that their way of life is threatened. Democracy as they know it cannot survive if the poor majority actually participate in it. It is, for them, like the ending of apartheid. The US has had some success in this in the four countries discussed in this article. The Colombian death squads and the openly fascist Juvenil Cruceñista show it is not too fussy with whom it allies itself. We can certainly not rely on the embedded press for information, so getting out the news from Latin America is an important task of solidarity.

Some useful websites in English:

Contact the Venezuela-Ireland Network c/o LASC, 5 Merrion Row, Dublin 2.

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