Is Venezuela the New Cuba?

Ballvé argues, in many ways, the answer is yes. Venezuela has become a regional spokesperson for opposition to Washington. Chavez has invited Venezuelans to join him in constructing “a socialism for the twenty-first century”—presumably as opposed to Cuba’s. Isaac Saney replies that Cuba continues to play a key role in the opposition to the U.S. and to capitalism.

In many ways, the answer is yes. Venezuela has become a regional spokesperson for opposition to Washington. It has attempted to unite progressive forces throughout the hemisphere in the construction of a regional alliance that would challenge the prevailing vision of U.S.-dominated inter-American “cooperation.” Within the Americas, the Venezuelan government also stands out in its attempts to aggressively dismantle the historic social injustices still rampant throughout the region. Venezuela is now watched closely by policymakers, intellectuals, academics, journalists and activists of all political persuasions, inspiring heated debate on everything from anti-imperialism and human rights to democracy and socialism. Venezuela has supplanted Cuba as Washington’s preponderant variable in its Latin America foreign policy calculus.

On a governmental level for Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuba was to the Cold War as Venezuela now is to the current pattern of global confrontation over the ideologies and practices of neoliberalism. Like Cuba, Venezuela has elicited a strongly antagonistic response from Washington for playing this honorary role.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently stated, what U.S.-Venezuelan relations comes down to, is “what kind of hemisphere is this going to be? Is it going to be a hemisphere that is democratic and that is prosperous and where neighbors get along, where neighbors don’t interfere in each other’s affairs, where people fight drug trade and fight terrorism together actively?”

Immediately, we can dismiss Washington’s “concern” for democracy as the basis for its hostility. The history of U.S.-Latin American relations makes this much abundantly clear. And the Bush Administration’s behavior regarding the fight against terrorism, the drug trade and other people’s prosperity is so riddled with contradictions that those “concerns” can also be dismissed. What remains is the accusation that Venezuela meddles in the affairs of other nations.

U.S. officials have repeatedly accused the Venezuelan government of supporting Colombian rebels and of funding the Bolivian coca-growers movement, but these allegations have been resoundingly rejected for lack of evidence. What Rice really means by Venezuela’s “interference” in regional affairs—a charge the State Department tags onto all its public comments on Venezuela—is more honestly stated as “influence.”
For decades, Cuba held considerable sway in the Americas, but now Venezuela has taken center-stage in hemispheric relations. At her confirmation hearing, Rice thus characterized Venezuela “a negative force in the region.”

Latin America stands poised at a historic crossroads. Left-leaning governments are consolidating power amid the hemisphere’s evisceration by Washington-backed military and economic policies. The moment is ripe for a profound, continental transformation, and that Venezuela is trying to be the progressive locomotive driving this process makes Washington (and Wall Street) nervous.

Within the community of American governments, Venezuela has taken a prominent role in mapping out a future course for the Americas. President Hugo Chávez’s words, and in many cases his actions, resonate deeply with Latin Americans struggling to escape poverty, inequality, exclusion and the yoke of neoliberal domination.

It is Chávez’s efforts, along with those of neighboring leaders, to create a “counter-hegemonic bloc” that has more potential bite than bark. Although substantive steps toward greater and deeper regional economic and political integration have been largely led by Brazil, it is Chávez’s emotive billing of integration under an anti-neoliberal banner that gives the process widespread support throughout the region. Helped by Brazil, he has also sought regional economic cooperation with Asian countries, particularly China, in an effort to diversify his country’s U.S.-dominated trade and investment portfolio. Instead of perceiving Latin America’s integration projects as sure-fire ways of ceding sovereignty, he understands regional integration, bloc-building and South-South solidarity as vehicles for attaining national sovereignty amid coercive U.S. power.

Of course, there are more radical forces at work in the region, notably in Bolivia, but none have yet achieved state power. Undoubtedly, Chávez is attempting a state-sponsored transformation of Venezuela, and by extension the hemisphere. He has invited Venezuelans to join him in constructing “a socialism for the twenty-first century”—presumably as opposed to Cuba’s. But in today’s context, what the Venezuelan government is carrying out is almost as radical as what the bearded revolutionaries achieved in the Caribbean. In both cases, immediate efforts focused on the radical inclusion of the nations’ poor, darker-hued majorities, and the chipping away of elite power.

Much ink has been spilled about Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” his policies, his ideas and his style— especially by those questioning his “democratic credentials.” It seems the stagnation of the Cuban predicament has given way to a new crucible of debate and critique around questions of social justice, anti-imperialism, neoliberalism, socialism, democracy and, ultimately, the liberation of a hemisphere.

Teo Ballvé is a NACLA editor and a contributing news editor for the Resource Center of the Americas http://www.americas.org.

(NACLA Report on the Americas Vol. 39, No. 1)

Isaac Saney

While in some ways this seems to be a very progressive essay, it is one among a plethora of musings on the so-called “left” that seek to subtly denigrate the crucial role the Cuban Revolution has played AND CONTINUES to play in the world, in general, and Latin America, in particular.

Ballvé talks of Chavez’s call to construct “a socialism for the twenty-first century,” asserting that this “socialism” is “presumably opposed to Cuba’s.” Furthermore, he relegates the Cuba Revolution to irrelevancy by casting it as a relic of the Cold War. He contrasts Venezuela, the new wave of regional social movements and rich debates that have erupted in their wake with “the stagnation of the Cuban predicament.” Ballvé endeavors to establish a false dichotomy between Venezuela and the new upsurge of Latin American struggles, on one hand, and Cuba, on the other.

By sleight of hand, by turn of phrase, Ballvé seeks to de-legitimize the Cuban revolutionary socialist project.

What Ballvé does not mention is:

1. It was Cuba – and Cuba alone – that launched a series of initiatives to in the middle 1990s challenging the present world economic and political order. The Cuban government, various mass organizations and professional associations have convened numerous international symposia to discuss, debate and oppose the consequences of neoliberal globalization.

This is a continuation of the Cuban struggle for a New International Economic Order that was carried out in the 1970s and 1980s. Several international gatherings of social, political and trade union activists from across the world and, in particular, Latin America have been held on the island.

For example, in 1997 and 2001 Havana hosted the International Meeting of Workers Against Neoliberalism and Globalization. In 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005 the Hemispheric Meeting Against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was convoked. These conferences brought together hundreds of activists with the goal of forging a common program of action to confront the neoliberal agenda. Thus, Cuba has been an active and dynamic force for unity in the South.

The launching of these initiatives preceded the Bolivarian Revolution now unfolding in Venezuela. Indeed, it was Cuba that first recognized the significance of the Venezuelan developments. This is reflected in Cuba’s commitment to the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA). ALBA, conceived by Hugo Chavez, is a direct challenge to the FTAA. It aims to create an integrated Latin American economic unit that respects national sovereignty and promotes cooperation, development and social justice. ALBA constitutes a challenge to U.S. imposed and dominated arrangements in the region.

2. The Venezuelan Revolution, which so many on the “left” have so suddenly discovered – while driven by its own internal dynamics HAS BEEN greatly assisted by the Cuban Revolution. The more than 25,000 Cuban volunteers working in Venezuela – especially, in the areas of healthcare and education – have made NOT ONLY a crucial contribution to Venezuelan social growth, but also critically augmented the ongoing deepening of revolutionary consciousness and culture – the human factor – that has been essential basis for the political advances that are being made in that South America nation.

3. Chavez has never described the Bolivarian Revolution and the “socialism of the 21st century” as a project that is conceived as a counter-project or alternative to the Cuban Revolution. What he has insisted on is the reality that Venezuelans are creating a new society on their own terms; a revolution that, while drawing on the accumulated historical experience and thinking of others, is firmly based on its own authentic thought material. However, he also envisions a Latin American-wide project; a project in which he sees the Cuban Revolution as a member of the ‘vanguard’ not as an anachronism.

4. The Cubans have never held up their Revolution and their socialist project as a template for others. They have always insisted that “revolution cannot be exported,” that it can only be constructed within the concrete conditions of each country. In fact, long before Chavez’s declaration of the need to build the “socialism of the 21st century,”

Cuba hosted several conferences whose aim was to reflect on the contours of 21st century socialism. Among others, Cuba hosted the international gatherings: On the Continuing Validity of Classical Marxism, from September 1995; Social Emancipation 150 Years After the Manifesto, February 1998; International Conferences On Marxism and the Challenges of the 21st Century, June 2003 and June 2004. Also, since the 1980s, the University of Havana hosts the annual Conference of North American and Cuban Philosophers and Social Scientists.

5. Faced with very potent challenges to its hegemony in Latin America in the form of new social movements and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela (particularly Chavez’s open embracing of socialism), U.S. imperialism is confronted with a very serious crisis. While, it is doubling and re-doubling its efforts to undermine the Venezuelan Revolution, the U.S. ruling class understands that the Cuban Revolution has been both the symbolic and concrete anchor for the development of this new wave of Latin American struggles.

If U.S. imperialism had been successful in crushing the Cuban Revolution in the 1990s, then the present upshot of Latin American libratory and emancipatory movements would not have been able to attain the potencies and dimensions that it now demonstrates. Just as the very existence of the Russian Revolution triggered revolutionary activity across Europe and the world, the Cuban Revolution’s survival was an objective force against imperialism.

Moreover, the Cuban Revolution was doing more than “just surviving” it was also a very active agent in carrying on the ideological and political struggle against imperialism: it was the most active force for building unity of awareness, unity of consciousness, and – now what seems to be the beginning of – unity in action.

Thus, the Cuban Revolution does not stand outside the Latin American struggles; it is an integral and organic part. Attempts, such as Ballvé’s, to set up false antimonies, with Cuba socialism on one side and the Venezuelan Revolution on the other, are refuted by the history and the reality of what is transpiring before our eyes.

Isaac Saney is the author of Cuba: A Revolution in Motion, a recent study of the Cuban Revolution.