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Opinion and Analysis: International | Politics

Latin America’s Progressive Governments: Their Origins, Nature and Challenges

In the following essay, Pablo Stefanoni, an Argentine journalist, thoughtfully explores some of the distinctive features of the politics of the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Stefanoni argues that a “left vs. right” reading of the processes now under way in Latin America does not adequately capture the origins and nature of the new governments purporting to go beyond neoliberalism; a satisfactory analysis must encompass a long-existing national-popular and anti-imperialist tradition as well as a newer indigenista current building on post-colonial and subalternist readings that in turn complicate our understanding of the trends and challenges. But his central thesis is that a “left agenda” can contribute themes and proposals to the current debates that neither nationalism nor indigenism can adequately address.

Pablo Stefanoni is the former editor of the Bolivian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique and is currently the editor of the bimonthly journal Nueva Sociedad, published in Buenos Aires. He is the author of many books and articles on Bolivia and developments in Latin America. This article, dated September 8, 2012, has been widely reproduced; my translation follows the text published in Viento Sur. Thanks to Federico Fuentes for drawing my attention to it and for revising my draft translation.

Richard Fidler

Venezuelanalysis.com note: Although this article was written in 2012, six months before President Hugo Chavez passed away, we have decided to re-post this translation in the hope that its arguments and analysis prove to be of interest to our readers. All views expressed are the author’s own.

* * *

Libertarian left and ‘people’s governments’: some bridges, and a fair number of precipices

By Pablo Stefanoni

The quantity of adjectives used to characterize the Latin American governments proposing to abandon neoliberalism — progressive, left, nationalist and even post-neoliberal (to add a prefix to a prefix!) — themselves reflect the difficulty in encompassing in a single bloc a set of dissimilar experiences produced by widely differing trajectories, situations and political cultures but nevertheless traversed by a certain ideological solidarity.[1] However, the left-right cleavage has always been complicated in the so-called “Third World,” where the antagonism between nation and imperialism has served to destabilize, and often marginalize, simple class-based visions and to define paths in which the successful lefts were often “nationalist lefts.”

As the Sovietologist Sheila Fitzpatrick has noted, the developmentalist aspect of Marxism (where abandoning capitalism is viewed as a prerequisite to catching up to the developed countries) has predominated to a great extent over its emancipatory aspect.[2] Indeed, while the “soviets” as a form of semi-direct popular democracy quickly fell from favour, “electrification” — as a virtual synonym for often disproportionate industrial projects — has up to now largely retained currency.

Obviously, the links between the left, development, and anti-imperialism determined a path in which Lenin clearly prevailed over Marx, and the geopolitics overdetermined, and blocked, other, more libertarian and emancipatory perspectives which often were deemed expressions of “petty-bourgeois weakness” in the face of the major battles in the war between the socialist and capitalist camps.

Simplifying to “ideal types,” in Latin America a sector of the left defended the marriage with (populist) nationalism — the “national left” was the clearest expression of this — as a possible road to post-capitalism through the deepening of national-popular reforms (strengthening the state, gradual nationalization of the economy, Latin American integration, etc.), while a more “social-democratic” or “revolutionary” Marxist variant considered that populism closed the way to socialism instead of opening it. The first group pointed to the state-centered and antipluralist (organicist) nature of populism, while the second noted that in the last analysis the “populist” regimes were the expression of a national bourgeoisie that simply was willing to advance in a limited way in the mobilization of the masses and would accept a limited and ambivalent series of reforms that included more rights combined with high levels of state regimentation. As we know, the Communist parties positioned themselves in these discussions according to the international guidelines decided in Moscow — after characterizing the national-popular governments of the 1940s as “neo-fascist” (for example, in Argentina with Juan D. Perón, and in Bolivia with Gualberto Villarroel), they went on to consider Peronism, for example, as an ally of the left in the struggle for national and social liberation.[3]

After this brief introduction, perhaps it is worth asking how many of these tensions persist today in the relation between what we could designate generically a left ideology and the actually existing governments of the bloc of change in its national-popular variant? Is it possible to continue reading the reality in terms of right and left?

An initial observation about the present process of change on a South American scale since the neoliberal hegemony — especially during the 1990s — is that the regimes considered most radical by both the left and the right are those that came to power through political organizations that do not stem from the traditional lefts (Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia) and those that originate in a left tradition are the ones that are considered “moderate” (Brazil, Uruguay and even Chile). This merits a closer look, to see if we can advance some preliminary hypotheses.

1. The radicalism of the South American processes depends not only on the ideological options of the governments (“carnivores” or “vegetarians,” according to Álvaro Vargas Llosa), but on a series of received political and institutional trajectories, including the levels of political distrust. Where the party system imploded and the political system itself was questioned as a democracy of exclusive elites (Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador), demands arose for a refoundation of the country, expressed in the call for constituent assemblies. These proposed, inter alia, to end the “internal colonialism” that in the case of Bolivia and Ecuador, but also in Venezuela, excluded the Indigenous, Afro or Mestiza majorities both materially and symbolically.

2. The organized left that came to power (the Brazilian Workers Party, the Uruguayan Broad Front and in part the Chilean Socialist Party, to which we could now add the FMLN in El Salvador), which suffered directly the impact of the post-1989 crisis, pursued their transition to the centre-left (an evolution that in Latin America had been initiated during the processes of democratic restoration in the 1980s, encouraged as well by the self-criticism of the violence in the 1970s). That did not occur, or occurred to a lesser degree, with the weaker and more dispersed lefts that sought a last resort in nationalism and indigenism (the real and submerged country confronting the visible and formal country), as well as in anti-partyism. It provided new sources of ideological radicalization: defense of the fatherland, vindication of the indigenous, rejection of the partidocracia, the party-corrupted democracy. The principal signifier of the refounding processes, the axis of anti-neoliberalism, is that now “there is a homeland for everyone.”

3. Indeed, if we observe in greater detail the most “radical” processes, it is possible to conclude that the source of this radicalism is found in the nationalist template: anti-imperialism, polarization between people and oligarchy, nationalizations, new change in the power elites, etc., and if socialism (“of the 21st century”) has returned to the agenda, it is reconceived as a linear extension of nationalism (not accidentally, neither Chávez nor Evo nor Correa tend to speak of the class struggle). Including, to a large degree, given the extractive nature of the Venezuelan, Ecuadorian and Bolivian economies, a kind of geological socialism or nationalism.[4] The novelty in any case is that the new nationalism no longer oscillates between right and left (like Vargas, Perón or Paz Estenssoro) and has lost its anticommunist facet; in fact, there is a strong geopolitical/affective link with the Cuban regime.

If we look to the ethical/moral sensibilities, it is not hard to notice that those processes not only lack radicalism but that they can (at least in their hegemonic fractions) be overtly conservative in terms of reproductive rights or rights for the so-called sexual and gender minorities. A case apart is Kirchnerism, which has flagged these issues as an axis of its politics, demonstrating the almost infinite capacity of Peronism to incorporate very diverse claims and demands, in this case foreign to its history, including the most recent.

4. Furthermore, the left-right cleavage today is theoretically challenged not only by the national-popular tradition (which proposes the alliance of the national classes, although it now makes little use of that terminology), but also by Indianism and various post or decolonial and subalternist readings that pose an alternative cleavage between modernity/colonialism and decolonization/“other view.” This is happening especially in Bolivia and Ecuador, where the indigenous peoples, with a majority or significant presence, serve to construct a series of readings in terms of radical otherness challenging modernity/colonialism under the influence of US academics. Mignolo, for example, argues that to speak of an “indigenous left” in characterizing the Movimiento al Socialismo of Evo Morales is proof of “left-wing imperialism,”[5] and Simón Yampara, an Aymara intellectual and opposition leader, argues that anyone who continues talking about left and right still has the “colonial chip” in his brain.

There is no doubt that in countries like Bolivia a part of the left has had colonial attitudes toward the indigenous peoples. The problem is that if the reading in terms of left/right fails to capture all the elements at play in the present processes of change, the least one can say is that posing things in terms of modernity/decoloniality does not exactly simplify things and adds a new series of problems, especially if we go beyond what the actors are saying about themselves and complement interviews with the spokespersons with observations in the field, and detailed (including ethnographic) descriptions concerning the actually existing subalterns.

5. In reality, the problem of the currency of the term “left” is unrelated to its capacity to reinforce a “major cleavage” in the political arena against the right (although, to be sure, the new popular governments have reactivated a reading of the existing disputes in those terms). Its potentiality is linked to more limited but no less potent objectives: a left agenda can raise themes for debate that neither nationalism nor indigenismo are going to raise, in pursuit of a radical democratization of the society. In addition to the aforementioned anti-conservative agenda in the ethical-moral terrain, the left should re-pose socio-economic readings of the social conflict that the binary visions of nationalism simply read in political terms (with the revolution or against it). This applies as well to discussions on possible articulations between state and market — which the indigenistas reduce to trivialized versions of complementarity[6] and the nationalists to politicized readings (“patriotic” or “unpatriotic” businessmen, for example) or developmentalist illusions framed in the language of the 1950s. In this regard, a real critical balance sheet is needed on the experiences of 20th century socialism, including that of Cuba. The argument that the currency of the term “left” is no longer relevant often tends to result in silence about that agenda, which is crucial when thinking about political, social and cultural change.

In light of the present processes, it is not a question of claiming ontological priority for the left over other models and traditions, but of thinking about the possible articulation between the left, popular and democratic nationalism, and Indianism/decolonization, to conceive of an emancipatory project that takes into account a plurality of oppressions and struggles against them. There is nothing particularly new in this; what is new, in any event, is that now we are dealing not only with a theoretical debate in a university auditorium but with a discussion that defines concrete positions taken in relation to the actually existing “popular” governments.

Based on these general comments, it is possible to outline some aspects of the experiences in which these tensions between nationalism and the left are becoming more visible: Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and — due to the “1970ish” evolution of Kirchnerist Peronism — Argentina.

Political crises and plebeian emergence

Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have been the countries where the crisis of the party system had the greatest impact and where the dynamics of the social mobilization generated processes of political renovation and a change in elites that have led political analysts as well as activists and leaders in the social movements, both in the region and beyond, to the view that those three processes constitute the radical wing of the South American turn to the left. Although it may be debatable, especially in light of an analysis of the public policies actually applied and the range of the utopias involved, it is certainly in this bloc of countries that the discourses of refoundation have had the greatest importance. In response to popular demands, Constituent Assemblies met not only to reform the existing constitutions but to redesign the institutional framework.

Argentina presents an intermediary situation. The crisis of 2001 opened the way to a sui generis post-neoliberal agenda that did not include nationalization of natural resources (at least until the state takeover of YPF in 2012) but did include, for example, progressive demands such as equal marriage rights that are lacking in the other three countries. But the decisive factor was that the capacity of Peronism to recycle itself ideologically severely limited the political renovation, which ultimately ended as a dispute within the party, now a sort of federation of provincial Peronisms (as Néstor Kirchner himself said) or, to put it another way, a front of regional governors. Thus it is not a renovation of the elites but a self-regeneration of Peronism, which in the 1990s was neoliberal and today is again national-popular. Strictly speaking, Kirchnerism is progressive in the city of Buenos Aires and ultrapragmatic in the interior of Argentina; its national hegemony is based on agreements with Peronist governors that so far have proceeded through Menemism and Duhaldism and now adhere to Kirchnerism.[7]

Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales (and to a much lesser degree Néstor and Cristina Kirchner) are the result of this combination of an implosion of the old political system with the emergence of renewed electoral alternatives, but nevertheless these crises — linked to a growing questioning of the Washington Consensus — have proceeded differently in each country, so it is worth taking a closer look at each of the concrete processes of crisis and renovation of politics.

In the Venezuelan case, the Caracazo was a cold bath of reality illustrating the instability — and narrow limits — of the democratic consensus established on the basis of the Punto Fijo Pact of 1958, while in Bolivia and Ecuador, the overthrow of a series of presidents marked the exhaustion of a type of “political grammar” that had characterized the democratic cycles beginning in 1982 and 1979 respectively. But in both cases there was one element in common: the discourse that would prevail was the one that appealed to a section of the society that for ethnic and socio-economic reasons feels excluded from the political system. It was expressed later in slogans that emphasized that through processes of change the Homeland (and the strategic natural resources) were finally to be, as we mentioned earlier, for everyone. In other words, transforming the state as guarantor of “effective access of the most under-privileged to the rights and material and spiritual benefits (in terms of status and symbolic power, for example) of relevance to the national collectivity.”[8]

To a large degree there is a return today to the idea of the existence of a “party of the nation” in opposition to the anti-nation, which brings with it a “politicization” of conflicts of interests (it is common to accuse this or that protest struggle, including those led by allied social or political groups, of “playing the game of imperialism”), a certain unstated organicism, and a sui generis idea of pluralism: as Bolivia’s vice-president García Linera suggests, pluralism is to be expressed in Bolivia within the governing party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS).

An additional fact is the entry of soldiers into politics in the Venezuelan case. According to the Asociación Civil Control Ciudadano, more than 200 officials of the National Armed Forces occupy senior positions in the government and 2,000 officers hold middle and subordinate posts in the public administration.[9] This is a difference with Bolivia, Ecuador, and much more so with Argentina, where progressivism cannot be anything less than antimilitarist.

Types of leadership and new parties

Hugo Chávez is in many senses the classic populist leader that Ernesto Laclau described:[10] the leader who has to “construct” the people as a political subject. Evo Morales has gone the reverse route: a union leader, he is the product of a process by which a series of agrarian unions and neighborhood and workers organizations spilled into the political arena, going beyond their corporatist nature. Hence in the case of Chávez the charismatic/affective dimension predominates in his leadership, as opposed to the self-representation in the case of Evo Morales (“now we are presidents,” “I am going to lead by obeying,” etc.), a leadership accompanied by a strong “ethnic identity.” Rafael Correa, for his part, appeared as a political outsider amidst a crisis of the political system and declining levels of social mobilization. And Néstor and Cristina Kirchner came from a traditional political career that began in the far south of Argentina, after a passage in their youth through left Peronism, in which its major utopia (at least until 2003) was to expand personal fortune in order to allow greater scope for political action in line with its definition of politics as “cash más expectativas [cash plus expectations].”[11] While Carlos Menem made a liberal turn consistent with the state of the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Kirchners made a turn to the center-left in the new situation created by the popular uprising of 2001 in Buenos Aires.

The new parties also differ quite markedly in their situations. In Bolivia the governing party (although it does not define itself as such) was created in 1995 as the “political instrument” of the peasant unions and organizations. In Ecuador Alianza País was hurriedly cobbled together around Correa and a group of progressive intellectuals. In Argentina the “infinite Peronism” (as Maristella Svampa puts it) remained in power through internal reconfigurations, while in Venezuela the United Socialist Party (PSUV), in the wake of the MBR 200 and the Movement of the Fourth Republic (MVR), was built from within the state after 2007.

The sociologist Edgardo Lander argues that “the PSUV is a site of tension: it does not represent the full exercise of democracy from the grassroots, nor is it a space that can be completely controlled from above.” However, alluding to the PSUV slogan after the 2010 election, “We are millions, with a single voice,” he adds that the deepening of the tendency to personal leadership has been eroding the first term in that equation, a process unambiguously expressed by Chávez himself in the mass rally held on January 13, 2010 to mark the 53rd anniversary of the fall of the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez:

“I demand absolute loyalty to my leadership… I am not an individual, I am a people. I am obliged to ensure respect for the people. Those who want a homeland, come with Chávez… Here, in the revolutionary ranks of the people, I demand maximum loyalty and unity. Unity, free and open discussion, but loyalty… anything else is treason.”

Which for Lander leaves the unanswered question: How to process the permanent tensions that exist between the impetus of the rank and file social web that has been strengthened in these years, the organization and democratic participation from below, and a hierarchical and vertical model of leadership and decision-making?[12]

In the Bolivian case, as we have noted, the organizational density of the popular sectors frames or places limits on the charismatic leadership of Evo Morales. But only to a certain point. Moira Zuazo asks, in an article published in Nueva Sociedad that paraphrases Vice-President García Linera,[13] “What happens when the soviets retreat?” Clearly, the MAS today is unable to construct spaces of internal debate and place issues on the public agenda. Indeed, the idea of a “government of social movements” or of “governing by obeying” the organizations is not easy in practice, when the corporate retreats undermine the more universalist outlooks. Hence the state appears as the custodian of the universal as opposed to the movements as agents of particularistic interests. What would happen if “the organizations” were to distance themselves from the government? For example, when the peasant federation Túpac Katari of La Paz requested changes of ministers, Evo Morales became annoyed and pointed out: “I don’t appoint union leaders, you are not going to appoint the ministers.” Or when the vice-president rejected the indigenous organizations that opposed oil exploration in the Amazon, accusing them of placing their particular interests above those of the country.

What we have, then, is a complex combination of charismatic leadership and social self-representation, which in the Bolivian case appears as complementary more than contradictory, as might be expected a priori. The weak point of these organizing logics is the formation of cadres and unstable processes of learning, and notwithstanding efforts to put together a cadre school they have not managed to overcome the deficits in political and technical training of the MAS membership.

In the case of Ecuador, Rafael Correa — who, as we mentioned, served briefly as Minister of the Economy during the government of Alfredo Palacio — ran successfully “on the outside” of the political system, with a strong dose of extroversion, a mixture of youthful charisma, an aura of technocratic competence and a certain Messianic arrogance. In a sense, his form of “authoritarianism” is very “executive,” mixed with a kind of narcissism characteristic of public intellectuals. Thus, in the debates he was characterized by his great effectiveness at disarming the arguments of his adversaries. And later he would develop these features even further on his Saturday radio and television program, where he tends to play the role of the “great teacher of the nation.”[14]

As Ramírez notes,

“Correa’s candidacy actually went further than any other ever before in its attempt to take advantage of the deep-rooted citizen opposition to the party system. On the one hand, and in contrast to the outsiders of the past, Correa disconnected his candidacy from any anchorage in the party system and founded a citizens’ movement, Alianza País…. With the image of the “citizens’ movement,” there has been an attempt to underline the social origin of the new electoral formation. At the same time, AP took the risky and unprecedented decision not to accompany its presidential campaign with a slate of parliamentary candidates. It delineated the original identity of the (anti-party) movement, awarded it an antisystemic character, and prefigured the strategy of radical political change that Correa would from then on drive forward.”[15]

In Ramírez’ view, marketing occupies an important place in the construction of Correa’s politics.

“[T]he implacable realism of government power is thereby complemented by a subtle sociological realism: there is no sense in procuring the mobilization of a society that is sick and tired of politics. Rather, what is needed is to appeal to it as public opinion and to make it see, through television, the achievements of the government. There is nothing more effective at reaching a mass of lethargic and disorganized citizens than a media campaign… The impersonation of organized construction and democratic deliberation through marketing and the procurement of ample audiences is not enough, however, to generate political links or real spaces for participation and dialogue with actually existing actors.”[16]

Finally, Kirchnerism has various birthdates as the hegemonic movement within Peronism. One might be 2003, when Eduardo Duhalde, lacking candidates and after renouncing his own candidacy, appointed the governor of Santa Cruz as his candidate. Another might be 2005, when Cristina Kirchner won the senate seat for the province of Buenos Aires against Chiche Duhalde and denounced Eduardo Duhalde as a “mafia don.” A third might be 2008 when, after losing the conflict with the agrobusiness exporters, [Néstor] Kirchner decided to radicalize the discourse and embarked on a war with [the daily newspaper] Clarín, promulgating the media law, and with the Church, himself organizing as a member of parliament the approval of equal marriage. And a fourth stage is the one following the death of Néstor Kirchner in 2010, when the former president became a mobilizing myth of a “new subject,” the youth, whose more official expression, La Cámpora, drew the link with the “glorious youth of the Seventies”[17] and with a left-wing Peronism quite removed from the “official history” of the movement — a symbolic political operation enthusiastically joined in by Cristina Fernández.

Welfarism or equality: What kind of social inclusion?

The will to end dependency on resource rents was expressed in Venezuela in the formula of Arturo Úslar Pietri: sembrar petróleo [“to sow (or spread) petroleum”], which aimed to reinvest the resources from the petroleum rent in productive sectors of the economy, especially agriculture; and this agenda continues to be the pillar of the nationalism in Ecuador and Bolivia, too, where it would suffice to replace oil with gas. But, as history demonstrates, it is not easy to end extractivism and presidential will alone is not enough. Many forces are arranging themselves around the interests it expresses. Venezuela is today one of the biggest importers of food in all of Latin America (in the amount of more than $5 billion).[18]

Bolivia and to a large degree Ecuador, whose economy is still dollarized, also suffer from this “neocolonial disease.” In Argentina, as well, the rise of mega-mining has been impressive in recent years, promoting accumulation by dispossession.[19] But in contrast to the other cases, Argentina has major industrial diversification, albeit with high levels of concentration and foreign ownership,[20] which has now combined with a recovery of the capacity of the trade unions to engage in wage negotiations in a context of reduced unemployment and expansion of social policies (especially through the innovative Seguro Universal por Hijo, or Universal Child Security), but also of very high inflation.

It is in Venezuela where more policies have been tried, although it is also, of the three, the country in which those undertakings have been less articulated with the existing institutional structure. This is worth a closer look, as Bolivarian socialism is often considered the most radical experience on the continent. In more than a decade, the Chávez government has tried various mechanisms — in the initial stage these were characterized as “civilian military operations” — in order to advance “massive and accelerated processes for inclusion” through “a fairer distribution of the petroleum rent.” The critics of rentism talk of the “encampment culture” in Venezuela, where extraordinary operations predominate without continuity in time.[21] But it was Chávez himself who, admitting implicitly the failure of a post-hydrocarbons development agenda, defined the ongoing project as socialismo petrolero (“oil-based socialism”).[22]

In this context, the most successful recipe for this purpose has been the social missions, which began in 2003 and have resonated widely within and beyond Venezuela. The reasons for their implementation were related to the political conjuncture and Chávez himself related their implementation to the opinion polls that were predicting his defeat in the recall referendum initiated by the opposition in 2004; faced with these polls, he sought Fidel Castro’s help in mounting a large-scale social policy.[23]

Although even the critics acknowledge the positive effects of the missions, some question the ad hoc nature of their institutional standing (generally, they are funded by the state oil company PDVSA). This is justified by official spokespeople by the need to avoid bureaucratic obstacles and ensure speedy responses (the old state often appears as an obstacle to the revolution that is resolved by creating parallel institutionalities with a certain instability in terms of continuity).

At the same time, the formal health system encountered its worst crisis between 2008 and 2009 and the authorities themselves acknowledged the functional collapse of the healthcare system (including some closures when medical personnel left the country, the poor state of the infrastructure and the lack of cleanliness and safety.)[24] To which are added very high levels of crime that affect the popular sectors above all.

And in Ecuador and Bolivia the model could be defined as a combination of extractivism with a major state presence via nationalizations,[25] moderate developmentalism (above all in highway infrastructure) and democratization in the distribution of the hydrocarbons rent. In general, including in Argentina, the emphasis is on policies of direct transfers of rent (conditional cash transfers) and social infrastructure spending on health, education, low-cost food, etc. But despite the discourse, which conveys a lot of developmentalist/industrialist illusions, and some more heterodox development plans (above all in Ecuador, at least on paper) there are few advances in the development of a post-extractivist agenda in the medium or even long term.

* * *

As this quick overview indicates, there are no doubt some bridges between a libertarian left and the present processes of change, but there are also some precipices. It is clear that the lefts are part of the popular movements that have weakened neoliberalism in the streets, and that in Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and — in a much less direct and more complex way — in Argentina have paved the way for new progressive governments. If those governments fall, what comes after them will be not “more left” but tendencies aiming at restoration of the old order (although in some countries renovated centre-left oppositions have emerged that may modify this statement somewhat). Undeniably, the new governments must be credited with the return of the state, more consistent levels of national independence and support for Latin American integration, and the lefts should break from the “anti-populist” readings: politics has returned to centre-stage and that is a positive thing.

It is clearly possible to observe a process of democratization in its broad sense — as Tilly argues, in the development of political confidence, the decline in autonomy of the independent power centres (the actual powers) in relation to the production of public policies, and the increase in political equality.[26] But that must not prevent us from confronting effective tendencies in opposition to social autonomy derived from organicist logics or processes of judicialization of politics, nor should we fall for “facile” polarizations aimed at enemies chosen by the governments in accordance with objectives that are often conjunctural.

Similarly with regard to the economy. While advances have been made in the area of broader social policies, it is no less certain that a left project would have to go beyond compensatory perspectives and place redistribution on a plane tied more closely to a consistent reform project (it is no accident that tax reform continues to be a pending task, with the exception of Ecuador). And that applies as well to values. In Venezuela the so-called “bolibourgeoisie” or “Bolivarian bourgeoisie” has formed in a context of extreme corruption and equally worrisome levels of impunity, while in Argentina Kirchnerism (through its own trajectory and form of political construction) has allowed levels of political pragmatism that are incompatible with a genuine intellectual and moral reform of politics. There it must be said that to criticize the idea that “politics means not doing anything disgusting” (Néstor Kirchner) is synonymous with mere intellectual candour. We must not lose sight of the fact that the dark side of the “return of politics” — and this applies especially in Argentina — is crony capitalism, a “political” measuring of inflation and the consolidation of a cliquish vision of power.

A separate matter is geopolitics. The more or less explicit support of the “national and popular” bloc to Khadafi or the Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad has placed the governments of Chávez, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega and Correa in a position of hostility toward the Arab democratic revolution. The fact that Chávez initially admitted that it was through Khadafi and Assad that he was informed of the situation in Egypt and Tunisia says much about the purely “geopolitical” vision of nationalism in power, in opposition to an effective internationalist solidarity with the peoples who are fighting. At the same time, Chávez’s abrupt turn to Colombia, to whose government he now delivers captured leaders of the FARC,[27] indicates the need to maintain critical and independent positions and not to engage in tailism.

Obviously, critical support is not a simple thing in practice, when it is often difficult to position oneself between acritical officialism and the ultra-critical opposition without feigning neutrality or presenting an image of intellectual purism. As we know, any position taken in politics has consequences that cannot be controlled by those who articulate it. But between uncritically “getting one’s feet dirty” in order to “be with the people” and remaining in a comfortable ivory tower there is a variety of possible positions to be taken in both political and intellectual terms, and without accepting a binary view that in the mouth of a Bush or a Chávez points to the same result: stifling critical thinking. Or, as Guillermo Almeyra notes, reducing politics to an instruction that appears alongside bus drivers in Argentina: “No molestar al conductor” — Do not disturb the driver.


[1] As illustrated when the “moderate” Lula Da Silva supported the “radical” Hugo Chávez during the 2002 coup in Venezuela, or when Michelle Bachelet, following UNASUR, supported the process of change in Bolivia during the attempted coup by some governors and police in 2008.

[2] Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[3] See Carlos Altamirano, Peronismo y cultura de izquierda, (Buenos Aires: Temas, 2001).

[4] Fernando Molina, El pensamiento boliviano sobre los recursos naturales ((La Paz: Pulso, 2009).

[5] Walter Mignolo, La idea de América Latina (Madrid, Gedisa, 2007). See Afterward to the Spanish edition.

[6] For example, Yampara has said that the transnational corporations ought to “complement” the Bolivian state, without undoing the logics of capitalism, profit and power relations.

[7] Sometimes the most bizarre aspects of reality shed some light. In 2010, in a debate between Alberto Samid, an eccentric personality who owns a meat-packing business, and an agricultural producer around the Socialist Party in Santa Fe, on the television program of Luis Majul, the following pitched exchange could be heard:

Samid: “I am a Peronista; I supported Menem, Duhalde and now I am with Kirchner.”

Rural leader: “But how can you be with those who privatize and with those who say that we have to go back to the state?”

Samid: “Shut up, vendepatria! [traitor].”

[8] Marc Saint-Upéry, “¿Hay patria para todos? Ambivalencia de lo público y ‘emergencia plebeya’ en los nuevos gobiernos progresistas,” in Íconos, Revista de Ciencias Sociales, No. 32 (Quito: Ecuador office of FLACSO, September 2008).

[9] Venessa Cartaya and Flavio Cartucci, Report for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 2010.

[10] Ernesto Laclau, La razón populista, (Buenos Aires: FCE, 2005).

[11] Walter Curia, El último peronista: La cara oculta de Kirchner (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2006).

[12] Edgardo Lander, “Quién ganó las elecciones parlamentarias en Venezuela? ¿Estamos ante la última oportunidad de discutir el rumbo des proceso bolivariano?,” Rebelión, 5-10-2010.

[13] Moira Zuazo, “¿Los movimientos sociales en el poder? El gobierno del MAS en Bolivia,” Nueva Sociedad, May-June 2010.

[14] Something similar is attributable to García Linera in his more sporadic appearances on the state television channel, where he literally schools the country on the government project. Although Chávez engages in pedagogy on his Aló Presidente program, often with pencil and maps in hand, it is far from a classroom exercise and aims for a pedagogic/affective link and mobilization of emotions with the ranks, combining government affairs with a much more multifaceted show that in terms of argumentation is fairly chaotic.

[15] Franklin Ramírez Gallegos, “Participación y desconfianza política en la transformación constitucional del Estado ecuatoriano,” presentation in the seminar on Reform of the State in the Andean-Amazonian countries, IFEA-PIEB, La Paz, June 2009.

[16] Franklin Ramírez G. “Post-neoliberalismo indócil. Agenda pública y relaciones socio-estatales en el Ecuador de la Revolución Ciudanana”, 40 Revista Temas y Debates 20, October 2010, Universidad Nacional de Rosario-CLACSO.

[17] That should not lead us in any way to think that there is some point of biographical comparison between those young officials and the fighters of the Seventies.

[18] http://www.americaeconomia.com/negocios-industrias/importaciones-de-alimentos-en-venezuela-ascenderan-us6500m-en-2011.

[19] Maristella Svampa and Mirta Antonelli (eds.), Minería transnacional, narrativas del desarrollo y resistencias sociales, (Buenos Aires: Biblos, 2009).

[20] Daniel Aspiazy Martín Shorr, “La recuperación salarial en la Argentina posconvertivilidad,” Nueva Sociedad, January-February 2010.

[21] Rafael Uzcátegui, La revolución como espectáculo. Una crítica anarquista al gobierno bolivariano, El Libertario- La cucaracha ilustrada- Malatesta- Tierra del Fuego (Buenos Aires, 2010).

[22] During Aló Presidente 288, the Venezuelan president explained that “we are starting to build a socialist model quite different from what Marx imagined in the 19th century. This is our model, to rely on this petroleum wealth.” And he stated that “Socialismo petrolero cannot be conceived without petroleum activity” and that this resource “gives it a peculiar configuration in our economic model.” (“Chávez: Estamos construyendo un socialismo petrolero muy diferente del que imaginó Marx,” Prensa de PDVSA, 29-7-2007, http://www.aporrea.org/ideologia/n98719.html)

[23] “You must remember that in the wake of the coup and all the erosion of support, the high state of ungovernability we were reaching, the economic crisis, our own errors, there came a moment in which we were neck and neck [with the opposition forces], or in danger of falling behind. There was an international polling firm recommended by some friends that came in the middle of 2003, spent two months here and went to the Palace [Miraflores, the Presidency] and gave me the bombshell: “Mr. President, if the referendum were held right now, you would lose it.” I remember that that night was for me a bombshell… So that was when we began to work with the missions, we are referring here to the first, and I went to ask Fidel’s help. I told him: “Look, I have this idea, to attack from below with full force,” and he told me: “If I know something, it is this, you can count on my full support.” And they began to send [Cuban] doctors by the hundreds, an air bridge, planes go, planes come, and to look for resources… And we began to invent the missions… and then we began to go up again in the polls, and the polls were not wrong….” Quoted in Marta Harnecker, “Intervenciones del Presidente,” November 12, 2004 (Aporrea), quoted in Uzcátegui, op. cit.

[24] Cartaya and Cartucci, op. cit.

[25] Nevertheless, some sectors accuse Chávez of undermining the nationalization of the 1970s with the contracts of partnership with transnational enterprises (see the web site www.soberania.org).

[26] Charles Tilly, Democracia (Madrid: Akal).

[27] “¿Qué significa la deportación del director de Anncol a Colombia?”, La semana, 26-4-2011, http://www.semana.com/nacion/significa-deportacion-del-director-anncol-colombia/155717-3.aspx.