Latin America’s Pink Tide

Many commentators dismiss the declarations of Chávez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia as mere rhetoric, and point to the absence of real socialist measures and the continuing predominance of international capital in these countries to prove their point. But recent developments provide evidence to question this scepticism.

Socialism! For most of us it is still the ideal, but with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the defects of China and other neo-Stalinist regimes, and the sell-out of the Labour Party, it seems more distant than ever. If there is to be a new model, a real alternative to globalised capitalism, what will it look like and how do we get there?

The Left in Power

Until recently such musings were confined to Trotskyists, anarchists, anti-globalisation activists and Red Pepper contributors who were easily dismissed by the mainstream (and, let’s face it, by most working people) as irrelevant. But with left-wing victories in Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, social and economic recovery in Cuba and popular advances elsewhere in the region, journalists are talking about “Latin America’s pink tide” and the region itself has become the forum for passionate debates on “Socialism of the 21st Century”.

The phrase was first coined by Hugo Chavez at an international meeting of intellectuals in Caracas in December 2004, and since then it has been taken up by popular movements across the region and is increasingly discussed by intellectuals and by public officials in those countries which have left-inclined governments.

Many commentators dismiss the declarations of Chávez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia as mere rhetoric, and point to the absence of real socialist measures and the continuing predominance of international capital in these countries to prove their point. But recent developments provide evidence to question this scepticism.

Venezuela has not only in effect re-nationalised its oil company (PDVSA), it has established exchange controls, initiated major state-run infrastructure projects in railways, ports and telecommunications, introduced workers’ co-management in some of the nationalised industries and promoted thousands of cooperatives and worker-controlled enterprises. Private capital still predominates in wholesale and retail commerce and many other industrial and agricultural sectors and a US-style consumer society continues to flourish in upper- and middle-class areas; but different forms of social enterprise now account for well over half of Venezuelan GDP and a smaller but growing percentage of employment. With Chávez’ dramatic announcement in January of his intention to nationalise the electricity, water and telecommunications industries and to end Central Bank autonomy, Venezuelan socialism seems to be advancing fast.

In Bolivia Evo Morales has been in office for less than a year but has already nationalised the all-important oil and gas industry and (like Venezuela) proclaimed an agrarian reform. In Brazil progress has been much more limited since Lula’s government, under heavy international pressure, adopted orthodox financial policies. But a few key social programmes such as the bolsa família subsidy for the poorest sectors have sustained hope and made possible Lula’s recent massive re-election victory, and there is now talk of a new and more radical direction for his second term.

Similar policies directed at social justice and economic sovereignty have also been implemented, at least to some extent, in Argentina and Uruguay, and are now being coordinated at regional level through the ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) promoted by Venezuela and supported by Cuba and the Mercosur (South American Common Market) countries. ALBA is not explicitly socialist but its emphasis on endogenous (self-sufficient) development, equitable exchange and social solidarity represents a major challenge to neo-liberalism and to the US-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA in Spanish). It provides a protective umbrella under which socialist initiatives at least have a chance to develop.

Theory and Practice

Is there a coherent ideology, a theoretical foundation for these initiatives? No-one has formulated a comprehensive doctrine, but in any case most Latin American activists and leaders are clear that the last thing they want is a dogmatic formula, a model to be imposed like the fossilised “Marxism-Leninism” which plagued the international Communist movement for so long. This does not mean, however, that they are devoid of creative ideas.

In Cuba – which, without being a model to copy, remains an inspiration for its defence of socialism and resistance and its assistance in health and education programmes – the leadership has insisted that socialism will not be abandoned but maintained and perfected, despite Fidel’s illness and US speculation about “transition”. The recent 19th Congress of the Cuban trade-union federation (the CTC) declared that “in Cuba, the only transition will be toward more revolution, social justice and socialism”. Significantly, a leading Cuban official recently affirmed that Cuba would not adopt the Chinese model of rampant capitalist enterprise within a state-supervised system, but would continue to limit the private sector to small-scale “self-employment” and joint ventures between multinationals and the state.

But Cuba has not yet formulated any new approaches for “21st-Century Socialism”. It is in Venezuela and elsewhere that, in Mao’s phrase, “a thousand schools of thought contend”. Roland Denis, a former guerrilla leader who was briefly a minister under Chávez, declared that the goal of Venezuelan popular movements is “to construct a new democracy, a new order, a new hope” in which the people would control natural resources, water, industry, education and social services, and everything “would be articulated by the collective assembly, the assembly of all, through councils, delegates subject to recall and spokespersons subject to the power [of the assembly]”; and he insists that “It is necessary to go beyond the existing Bolivarian Constitution”.

Following Chávez’ dramatic re-election victory in December (63%, with reduced abstention and an expanded electoral register) there is increasing talk of the need to revise the Constitution to reflect the goal of socialism. Chávez himself has spoken of the need for a single party (not a one-party state, but a single party of the Left or the chavistas), and has insisted that this new party must not be cobbled together by existing politicians but must be built by the people from the bottom up.

Social Production Enterprises

Perhaps the most coherent vision of a new socialist alternative was formulated by another former guerrilla leader who has also held various positions under Chávez, Carlos Lanz. For a time Lanz was in charge of the “Vuelvan Caras”Mission, described by many observers as the “employment mission”. But the real aim of this programme goes far beyond generating employment; it is intended to support alternative development projects of all kinds, “to change the socio-economic, politico-cultural model” on the basis of education and employment, de-bureaucratisation of the state and democratic planning.

The goal, says Lanz, is to create “a new productive structure” in which the profit motive is replaced by “the satisfaction of collective needs”, but within a transitional, mixed economy combining state, mixed and private property and collective self-managed property; this requires social control and regulation, including price and exchange controls.

For Lanz this new strategy will necessitate a “strategic alliance between State enterprises, the associative economy, the non-monopolistic sector of national capital, and small and medium enterprises in both the countryside and the city”, and in socio-political terms “the construction of a Social Revolutionary Bloc”.

That this is not just rhetoric has been demonstrated by the government’s actions in the last eighteen months. As the government expropriated a number of abandoned factories and turned them over to the workers, it also accelerated the agrarian reform and the creation of cooperatives of all kinds. In July 2005, as Chávez inaugurated the “United Agro-Industrial Cacao Cooperative” in the poor eastern state of Sucre, he declared it to be an example of a new productive structure, the Empresas de Producción Social, (EPSs or Social Production Enterprises), “which are at the centre of an economic turning-point towards the socialism of the 21st century”.

Chávez went on to explain that the EPSs are not meant to be just cooperative production units but should be completely integrated into local society, providing social services and responding to community needs and not just those of the actual cooperative workers. Thus the Cacao Cooperative already had a canteen which provided meals for local children, and financed an “Into the Neighbourhoods” medical clinic for the local community. The workers’ productive functions should be integrated into community life, said Chávez, and he suggested creating a common labour fund, communal services and distribution networks, and a micro-bank financed by enterprise profits.

“Let no-one think that we are improvising”, concluded Chávez, “We have had a strategic plan for some time past and we are developing, promoting and consolidating it”.

Community Self-Government

In Venezuela the institutional expression of popular participation and protagonism (decision-making) is often very confusing: whenever one type of organisation fails, Chávez and his advisors try something else, and indeed the people themselves create new structures which are later accepted and made official. First there were the Bolivarian Circles, then the Local Public Planning Councils, and now the Community Councils. This in addition to a variety of bodies with more specific functions: the Units of Electoral Battle (which then turned into Units of Endogenous Development), the Community Water Boards, the Electricity Committees and the Urban Land Committees, which continue to function alongside the more global institutions of communal self-government.

The Venezuelans have also begun to adopt the Brazilian PT’s model of the Participatory Budget and have tried to extend its principles of popular decision-making to other aspects of local government. This is reflected in the Community Councils which set local priorities and implement the Missions at local level; they represent small neighbourhoods of about 1,000 – 2,000 inhabitants, making direct participatory democracy a reality.

On a recent visit to Caracas I attended a Community Council meeting in Antímano, a vast hillside barrio on the outskirts of the city. “Here we run our own affairs”, said Eluz. “We want nothing to do with the professional politicians”. Her partner Francisco added that this was the basis for the new socialism, as the people at grass-roots level take control of all aspects of social and economic life.

In Bolivia too, grass-roots social movements are taking control of everything from land to water distribution and local commerce, at the same time that Evo Morales’ government nationalises oil and gas and invites Cuban and Venezuelan assistance to promote free health care and education programmes. Also at the Mercosur summit last July, when Venezuela’s full membership of the bloc was confirmed and Cuba for the first time expressed a desire to join, it was agreed to seek coordination of social programmes and economic equalisation between the members, so that Mercosur will no longer be just a customs union but will promote real regional integration.

Rafael Correa’s victory in Ecuador promises to consolidate the new trend. He immediately rejected the idea of a free-trade agreement with the US, visited Venezuela to talk with Chávez and suggested that Ecuador may follow the Venezuelan initiative of withdrawing from the Andean Pact and joining the Mercosur. He has also promised to convene a Constituent Assembly.

It is still too early to judge the results, but these initiatives which seek to coordinate an anti-neoliberal strategy regionally, combined with efforts in Venezuela and Bolivia to undermine capitalism from above and below simultaneously, may yet prove more effective than either the old bureaucratic and top-down methods of imposing socialism or the anarchist reliance on grass-roots autonomy and spontaneity alone. “21st-Century Socialism” may really be on the agenda in Uncle Sam’s backyard!

Diana Raby’s book, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today (Pluto Press) is out now. To purchase the book click here. To read the book’s first chapter click here.