Book excerpt: 'Latin America's Turbulent Transitions: The future of 21st century socialism' (Zed Books)

Latin America's Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism
by Roger Burbach, Michael Fox & Federico Fuentes
Zed Books, 2013.

Below is the Introduction to Latin America's Turbulent Transitions. For more information about the book or to purchase a copy please visit:

May 8, 2013 -- Alborada, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Federicio Fuentes' permission -- Latin America today is largely relegated to the back burner of global affairs. The conflicts in the Gulf and the Middle East, the economic crisis gripping Europe, China’s march onto the world scene, and the political dysfunctionality of the United States are the broad trends that shape our headlines. When Latin America does break into the news it is usually over the drug wars or immigration issues.

It goes virtually unnoticed that Latin America is caught up in a turbulent transition, the outcome of which will have significant repercussions for the unfolding of world history. This book examines two central and conflicting processes that are driving this transition: one is the demise of the United States as the hegemonic power in the hemisphere, and the other is the rise and renewal of socialism in Latin America.

The Pentagon apparently does have an inkling of the unstable and turbulent state of affairs in Latin America. General Douglas Fraser, the head of the US Southern Command, told the US Congress in early March 2012 that he was concerned with ‘geopolitical turbulence’ in Cuba, Haiti, Bolivia, and Venezuela. Haiti, he said, ‘remains vulnerable to natural disasters and economic hardship,’ but he saw turbulence in the other three countries as stemming from the shortcomings of their leaders and the domestic opposition. Going on to acknowledge in his congressional testimony that Central America has become the most violent region in the world, the four-star air force general painted an upbeat picture, saying ‘we will focus our efforts on strengthening the security capabilities of our partners in Central America,’ mentioning specifically the militaries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

What constitutes turbulence in today’s world is clearly in the eye of the beholder. In his statement, General Fraser completely failed to acknowledge the central role the United States plays in this tumultuous phase of history. It is the perspective of the authors of this book that we are entering an interregnum, a period of turbulence and transition in the world at large. The old order is breaking down with the decline of the United States as the planet’s hegemonic power and the eruption of the global economic crisis in 2008 that has darkly danced from continent to continent, destabilizing countries and entire regions.

At the same time the shape of the world to come is unclear and undefined. New, anti-systemic forces appeared on the scene in 2011 with the Arab Spring, the rebellion of the indignados in Europe, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States. But these upsurges, other than rallying around the call for authentic democracy, have not defined a clear vision of the future world they are struggling for.

Latin America is part of this global upheaval. On the one hand we see the demise of the old order with the decrease of US influence in the Americas, particularly in the unraveling of the neoliberal model that was implanted more firmly in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s than in any other region of the Global South. On the other hand, anti-systemic forces in the hemisphere began to challenge this order early on with the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico in 1994 and the rise of the indigenous movements, especially in the Andean countries of Ecuador and Bolivia. Then, in late 1999, the struggle against neoliberalism took on an inter-American character with the Battle of Seattle that shut down the conclave of the World Trade Organization. Zapatistas, indigenous groups, and trade unionists from Latin America marched alongside Teamsters, turtles (environmentalists), and farm organizations in the streets of Seattle.

In the wake of 11 September 2001, the US global offensive muted this growing opposition movement, particularly in the United States. But in much of Latin America, the left and progressive forces recovered quickly, making significant advances. Already before September 11, Hugo Chávez in 1999 had assumed the presidential office in Venezuela on an anti-neoliberal platform, and then at the turn of 2001/02, the
Argentines rebelled against their neoliberal regime, sacking four presidents in the space of two weeks. As the first decade of the new millennium unfolded, the social movements in Latin America expanded. It is this popular upsurge that accounts in large part for the rise of the ‘pink tide,’ the left and left-of-center governments that were led by the likes of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay.

Preoccupied with the war in the Middle East, US efforts to control events in Latin America came up short. In Venezuela in April 2002, a coup led by the head of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce and backed by the United States collapsed in less than forty-eight hours. Later that year, when the United States sought support from the United Nations (UN) Security Council for its war against Iraq, Brazil and Chile – then members of the Council – opposed the US war. In 2005 George W. Bush went to Buenos Aires to push the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Bush was greeted by massive demonstrations in the streets of Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata, and his plan was overwhelmingly rejected owing to the opposition led by the governments of Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela.

The US grip on the region also weakened as China entered Latin American markets in search of raw materials to supply its booming economy. By 2010, China had become the largest trading partner of Brazil and Chile. Chinese trade with Latin America as a whole stood at $180 billion in 2010, an eighteen-fold increase since 2000. Meanwhile, US exports to Latin America dropped from 55 percent of the region’s total in 2000 to 32 percent in 2009. The global economic crisis has had only a limited impact on Latin America because of the surge in Chinese demand for Latin American commodities. The old phrase, ‘when the US economy catches a cold, Latin America gets pneumonia,’ is no longer true. China is also moving to displace the US dollar with the Chinese yuan in a region where the dollar once stood as the paramount currency in trade transactions.

Another strand in the growing independence of Latin America is the formation of regional trade organizations. The Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR, Union of South American Nations), launched in May 2008 as a trade and policy organization modeled on the European Common Market, proved its mettle just months later when at a special meeting held in Santiago, Chile, it endorsed the government of Evo Morales in its efforts to stop a coup attempt by the separatist
opposition based in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. UNASUR is also moving to establish a customs union that would subsume two other trade blocs, the Mercado Común del Sur (MERCOSUR, Common Market of the South) and the Comunidad Andina (CAN, Community of Andean Nations).

Founded by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004, the Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA, Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our Americas), encourages ‘fair trade’ not free trade, and promotes integration through complementarity and solidarity. Bolivia joined in 2006 and later Nicaragua, Ecuador, and five Caribbean countries. The sucre (short for Sistema Único Compensación Regional or Unitary System for Regional Compensation) aims to be the currency of ALBA and is used in many of its trade transactions. An ALBA Bank, with 1 percent of the currency reserves of the member countries, funds people-centered regional projects and provides support for sustainable social and economic development in its member countries.

This is the context for the ascent of twenty-first-century socialism in Latin America. The weakening of the US empire, the eruption of anti-neoliberal social movements, the rise of the new left governments and the growing integration of the region on its own terms have created a space for the rejuvenation of socialism after the dramatic setbacks of the last century.

As nearly every president in the region has highlighted, Latin America is truly undergoing a second independence. In Venezuela, this movement is referred to as Bolivarianismo, and it calls for fulfilling the South America Liberator Simón Bolívar’s dream of a unified Latin America to fend off the new United States. Today Bolivarianismo stands for the expansion of democracy and national sovereignty to the fullest extent possible without necessarily going beyond capitalism. However,
the rise of twenty-first-century socialism is also intertwined with this second independence movement. The socialist project builds on this foundation, striving to construct deeper, more egalitarian democratic societies by transforming the economic order. Both of these projects are continental in character; neither can advance effectively unless they are part of a broader transition and narrative in Latin America.

The rise of twenty-first-century socialism must also be located within the context of the collapse of the traditional socialist project. In rejecting authoritarianism, bureaucratic centralized planning, state capitalism, and the lack of democracy, it has distanced itself from those traits so common to the failed projects of the twentieth century. A critical attribute of twenty-first-century socialism is that it is built by social movements and by people organizing from below; it does not arise from government fiats nor from self-defined vanguard parties. By transforming circumstances, the people transform themselves. Moreover, twenty-first-century socialism is rooted in democratic processes and procedures. It is notable that the three countries that have raised the banner of socialism – Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador – have all used the ballot box extensively to advance their policies and efforts to transform their societies.

Drawing on the wide-ranging discussions of twenty-first-century socialism taking place in the hemisphere, social and political theorist Marta Harnecker outlines five key components of what constitutes socialism. First, socialism is ‘the development of human beings,’ meaning that ‘the pursuit of profit’ needs to be replaced by ‘a logic of humanism and solidarity, aimed at satisfying human needs.’ Secondly, socialism ‘respects nature and opposes consumerism – our goal should not be to live “better” but to live “well,”’ as the Andean indigenous cultures declare. Third, borrowing from the radical economics professor Michael Lebowitz, Harnecker says, socialism establishes a new ‘dialectic of production/distribution/consumption, based on: a) social
ownership of the means of production, and b) social production organized by the workers in order to c) satisfy communal needs.’ Fourthly, ‘socialism is guided by a new concept of efficiency that both respects nature and seeks human development.’ Fifthly, there is a need for the ‘rational use of the available natural and human resources, thanks to a decentralized participatory planning process’ that is the opposite of Soviet hyper-centralized bureaucratic planning.

To fully achieve these objectives will be a long process, taking decades and generations. The tangible advances toward twenty-firstcentury socialism are limited. The three countries that have put twentyfirst-century socialism on the agenda have had decidedly different results, as the following chapters reveal.

Moreover, the consolidation of the radical left in political power has led to the emergence of new tensions between governments and social movements, a situation further complicated by US interference in the region. And yet the quest for a socialist utopia persists in Latin America unlike any other region of the world.

The deep roots of socialism in the Latin American historical experience help explain its vitality. Socialism first appeared in the early decades of the twentieth century with the formation of socialist and communist parties around the hemisphere. Providing leadership for the trade unions and participating in coalitions and popular front governments, these parties bore the brunt of US intervention in the post-World War II era, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean.

The ideological landscape of Latin America was forever transformed with the establishment of a socialist society in Cuba less than two years after the revolutionary triumph in 1959. For the next half-century, socialism, with all its ups and downs, would be at the core of political debates and discussions of strategies for transforming societies. The Cuban revolution also touched off a chain of guerrilla movements committed to anti-imperialism and socialism that extended from Bolivia and Peru in the south to Venezuela, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic in the north. The defeat of Che Guevara and his band of guerrillas in 1967 in Bolivia temporarily stymied the strategy of using armed struggle in the countryside to seize power.

Chileans attempted a different approach. Believing that elections and formal democratic institutions could be used to advance socialism, the Popular Unity government led by President Salvador Allende (1970–73) began implementing a socialist program that called for nationalizing
the country’s copper mines and expropriating the largest manufacturing enterprises. But seizing control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy and only the executive branch of the state apparatus was not sufficient to advance socialism. The Chilean military, backed by the Chilean bourgeoisie and the United States, staged a coup that toppled the only elected socialist democracy in the world.

To uproot the deeply embedded Chilean socialism, the repression was severe and bloody. The ruling class, under the dictator General Augusto Pinochet, carried out a ruthless campaign against the popular classes and the left political organizations in an effort to purge the vision of a socialist society from the popular consciousness. The Pinochet regime lasted seventeen years.

The Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua resurrected the armed strategy of the guerrilla and seized power from the Somoza family dictatorship in July 1979. The revolutionary government replaced the Somoza National Guard with its own Sandinista army and took control of key sectors of the economy. But it never proclaimed that it was attempting to construct socialism in Nicaragua. Even Fidel Castro advised the Sandinistas to go slow in their takeover of the economy. Given that Nicaragua, unlike Cuba, had porous borders through which commodities could move as well as counter-revolutionary bands (the Contras), the Sandinista government attempted to form the broadest coalition possible, including sectors of the bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie. However, even this approach could not stave off the counter-revolution. In February 1990, a majority of Nicaraguans voted against President Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas largely because they recognized that there would be no end to the violence unless the US-backed candidate, Violeta Chamorro, was installed in the presidency.

The Sandinista electoral defeat coincided with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991. State socialism was crumbling. Jorge Castañeda, in his 1993 book Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War, presented the argument that the best the left could do in Latin America would be to adopt social democratic policies. Isolated and devoid of its international allies, Cuba entered a ‘special period’ of economic austerity. In this void neoliberalism consolidated its grip on Latin America, devastating the traditional worker and peasant social bases of left and socialist forces. The Brazilian political scientist Emir Sader, in his 2011 book The New Mole: Paths of the Latin American Left, argues that the setback for socialism was so severe that it is still recuperating to this day. Socialism can be part of the agenda, but the priority must be on forming governments and political coalitions to dismantle neoliberalism, even if that means accepting the broader capitalist system for the time being.

This in part explains why the construction of socialism in the coming years and decades will be a diverse process – differing widely from country to country. There is no singular definition or model. However, it is widely recognized that a crucial task in the construction of twentyfirst-century socialism is to break with twentieth-century state socialism by reconceptualizing the role of the state in the transition process.

A groundbreaking perspective on this theme comes from Katu Arkonada and Alejandra Santillana in their 2011 article from Le Monde Diplomatique, ‘Ecuador and Bolivia: the state, the government and the popular camp in transition.’ They assert that the state should be viewed as ‘an historic aspiration of the popular organizations and the indigenous peoples, and as a space open to political dispute.’ In recent years the popular movements have sought to alter the state, to make it responsive to their interests and needs. With the ascent of the new left governments, the contest over who will control the state is becoming even more intense. Arkonada and Santillana assert that ‘the construction of hegemony comes out of civil society,’ meaning that the ‘popular camp’ in this period of transition is presenting its projects and interests, hoping to capture ever more space within the state. The popular forces will become hegemonic, they believe, as the state becomes an instrument of ‘collective interests,’ and ‘a universalizing political project.’ The constituent assemblies and the subsequent constitutions drafted in Bolivia and Ecuador (as well as
Venezuela) are examples of how popular forces have advanced their interests and opened up new space within the state.

A related issue facing the popular forces in Latin America is the type of democracy that should be constructed. There is a growing disenchantment with traditional representative democracy. Given the power of capital, the state is manipulated by the dominant economic interests. The result is controlled democracy, in which the people are allowed to vote every few years for candidates that by and large do not question the capitalist order and the centrality of the marketplace.

The popular forces are envisioning a democracy that is more substantive, integral, and participatory, starting at the local level. Like never before, communal self-rule is being embraced in Latin America by Bolivia’s indigenous communities, Mexico’s Zapatistas, and the Oaxacan activists during their 2006 uprising. Hundreds of Brazilian municipalities have launched participatory budgeting to engage local communities in the allocation of city funds. Venezuelan communities have founded thousands of neighborhood-organized communal councils. And, first in Venezuela, then in Bolivia and Ecuador, constituent assemblies have drafted new constitutions that allow for greater popular participation and full citizenship for all the ethnic groups that have been marginalized in the past.

But these processes would not be in motion if not for the inspiration of movements and experiences throughout the twentieth century. As mentioned above, Cuba and Cuban socialism deserve particular credit. The revolution in its early years was particularly inspirational with its commitment to an egalitarian society with free education and healthcare for all.

However, with its roots in twentieth-century socialism, the Cuban Communist Party exercised complete control of the state and the economy, leading to the dismal results in economic performance and development that we see today. The recent reforms in housing, agriculture, and self-employment are designed to place many of the smaller enterprises and economic activities – ranging from taxis and barber shops to restaurants and small farms – in the hands of independent owners and producers. The success or failure of this economic transition will have an impact on the evolution of socialism in the rest of Latin America.

Where Cuba is not embracing the challenge of twenty-first century socialism is in the role of the Communist Party, which is set on retaining control over the direction of the state and the political system. This differs from the emerging socialist societies in the rest of Latin America, which are committed to holding multiparty, national elections to advance their struggles.

What is important is that Cuba is now an integral part of Latin America. It is a leading member of the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (CELAC, Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) that was founded in Caracas, Venezuela, in December 2011. And at the Sixth Summit of the Americas held in Cartagena, Colombia, in March 2012, Barack Obama found himself isolated because the United States refused to end the half-century embargo of Cuba and to accept Cuban participation in hemispheric forums such as the summit.

The Colossus of the North is floundering – economically, militarily, and politically – but by no means will it abdicate its interventionist policies. Instead, the United States has defiantly expanded its military presence in the region. The resurrected US 4th Fleet plies the coastal waters of the Americas while the Drug Enforcement Administration disperses agents throughout the region, stirring up the drug wars and often engaging in covert and armed activities that once fell under the
purview of the CIA. Other forms of intervention have also gained currency: US government entities such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have become powerful instruments used to fund opposition forces and promote destabilization campaigns.

The June 2012 Paraguayan coup against pink tide president Fernando Lugo provided the United States with a new opportunity to bolster its declining influence in Latin America. Paraguay’s location, nestled between South America’s two largest economies (Argentina and Brazil) and its membership in regional integration bodies such as UNASUR and MERCOSUR, make the nation strategically important for US interests in the region. The new regime moved immediately to reopen negotiations over a new US military base that would, according to right-wing parliamentarian and head of the parliamentary defense committee José López Chávez, help Paraguay ‘liberate itself from the pressures, the threats from Bolivia, and even more so the threats that are constantly emerging from the Bolivarianism of Hugo Chávez.’

The ousting of Lugo was a signal to other countries that the United States and its allies would use any means available to reassert their power. It was reminiscent of the coup three years earlier in Honduras that toppled the elected government of Manuel Zelaya. Initially voting with the other governments in the Organization of American States (OAS) to oppose the coup, the United States shifted gears and backed faulty elections in late 2009 in which Porfirio Lobo won the presidency under conditions of conflict and strife. A popular movement has emerged calling for his dismissal and the convoking of a constituent assembly to refound the nation, a step that has led other nations to place socialism on the agenda.

Socialism is making an appearance in other countries through a variety of social actors. In Chile the 2011 student rebellion ignited Chilean social movements, which are now rethinking the country’s socialist legacy. In Brazil the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST, Movement of Landless Rural Workers), the largest social organization in the hemisphere, continues to espouse socialism in its platform and in the daily practices of its land reform settlements. Socialism is indeed like the mole that Emir Sader describes. At times it burrows underground and is seemingly invisible, only to pop up at unpredictable times and in unforeseen locations.

There are three overarching and interrelated themes in this book: confronting US hegemony, social movements, and socialism – themes that are at the same time exciting, challenging, and perplexing.

The three chapters that follow lay out the broad sweep of political, economic, and social forces at work in the Americas that make this a turbulent period in history. In the first chapter we discuss the rise of the social movements and their resistance to neoliberalism and US dominated globalization. Chapter 2 focuses on the challenges to US hegemony that emerged with the new left governments and imperial overstretch as the United States spent its resources on the Iraqi and Afghan wars. In Chapter 3 we look at the complex and contradictory currents at work in Latin America with the rise of twenty-first-century socialism and the reliance on extractive exports in mining, energy, and agriculture that ravage the environment and marginalize regional populations.

The next four chapters are country studies of what is happening in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil, four of the most dynamic and turbulent countries in the Americas. They illustrate the specific processes at work that are discussed in the earlier chapters. The last country study is of Cuba, a country that is fighting to transcend its economic difficulties and the legacy of twentieth-century socialism to become a vibrant socialist society in the current century. In the Conclusion we will discuss the profoundly democratic character of twenty-first century socialism and why it offers hope for a world afflicted by economic crises and wars.