By Chris Harman
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Revolution in the Air

This article is over 18 years, 6 months old
Chris Harman analyses critical choices facing the Latin American left.
Issue 302

‘The US has lost the plot in Latin America.’ So said at least one commentator during last month’s Summit of the Americas in the Argentinian city of Mar del Plata. Not only was Bush faced with a big and militant demonstration outside led by former football star Diego Maradona, but his plans for a Free Trade Area of the Americas got the thumbs-down from the government leaders assembled inside.

It was symptomatic of a swing to the left throughout South America in the last five years. But how deep is this swing, and where is it going?

The origins of the swing lie in mass popular revulsion against the neo-liberal policies that did so much damage to the workers, peasants and urban poor in the 1990s. This has expressed itself most directly in the six more or less spontaneous uprisings – those that drove out presidents in Argentina, Ecuador (twice) and Bolivia (twice), and that which broke the coup which attempted to overthrow Chavez in April 2002. It has also been expressed more tamely with a series of electoral victories for presidential candidates seen by voters as critical of neo-liberalism.

But it is a mistake to confuse the governments which felt it convenient to spurn Bush’s advances in Mar del Plata with the popular wave which brought them to power.

Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay

Kirchner of Argentina was, according to press reports, one of the most outspoken against Bush. But in Argentina itself his policy has been one of trying to rehabilitate capitalism and the state after the crisis and uprising that came close to putting both into question four years ago. That has involved certain token gestures to the left, like action against some of those involved in the horrors of the military dictatorship that took power 29 years ago, and hard bargaining over the terms for payment of foreign debts. But it has also involved economic policies that leave about a third of the population living below the poverty line, and using the forces of the state against those who fight back – as with the current attempt to evict workers from an occupied hotel in Buenos Aires.

With Lula in Brazil the picture is even clearer. He signed an agreement to abide by IMF terms before even coming to office, has cut public sector pensions to keep within those terms, and has distributed even less land to the landless than did his centre-right predecessor, Cardoso. The recently elected Frente Amplio government in Uruguay is following closely in his footsteps.

None of this, however, precludes any of them making certain nationalistic gestures against the US. Providing they do not go too far, they are an easy way of diverting attention away from unpopular measures on the home front. And they can also coincide with the interests of certain sections of local capitalism. Groups like the big agrarian capitalists of Brazil and Argentina – the sugar, soya bean and cattle barons – have no desire to challenge the global system and the US position at the head of it. But they do want to advance their own position within it. Big capitalists everywhere are always a bit resentful of bigger capitalists. And so they are quite happy for their governments to play up the theme of national independence if that helps them squeeze more profitable trading terms from the US. This is, after all, a time when increasing demand for their output from China makes Latin American primary producers less dependent on the US than before.

So, at least as far as Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are concerned, the game played in Mar del Plata need not be taken too seriously. However, there are other parts of Latin America where the stakes could be much higher.


Elections are due on 18 December in Bolivia. The front-runners in the opinion polls are Evo Morales, of the Cocaleros (coca growers) movement, an important component of the popular uprisings of the last two years, and a conservative ex-president, Jorge ‘Tuto’ Quiroga, with a supposedly ‘centre’ candidate, the cement boss Samuel Doria Medina, trailing behind them.

Morales managed to bring June’s movement to an end by persuading many activists that there was a peaceful way forward through his capacity to win electorally. He has managed to pull almost all the popular forces into support for his campaign, and his victory will be seen across the world as a victory for the far left. But many Bolivian activists distrust him because of his role in June – and for giving a degree of support before that to the Carlos Mesa presidency that was overthrown by that rising.

Morales’s election campaign is based on trying to tap the bitterness of the popular masses while keeping within the existing institutional framework. So on the one hand he refers to Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro as the ‘comandantes of the forces for freedom in the continent’, but on the other his running mate, Alvaro Garcia Linera, says that ‘we have to accept that Bolivia will be capitalist for the next 50 or 100 years’, and that if Morales wins ‘the interests of those defeated will be recognised’.

But the opposed forces that created June’s crisis are not going to go away. The mass of workers and peasants want to see the country’s massive oil and gas reserves nationalised and use them for their own benefit. The bourgeoisie in the Santa Cruz region where the reserves are located are determined to keep control of them for themselves, and the US, British, Argentinian and Brazilian oil companies they work with. They have threatened the secession of Santa Cruz from Bolivia – that is, civil war – if any national government challenges their hold over the oil wealth. They have formed shock groups like the Union de Juventud Cruceista, who beat up Morales supporters who tried to demonstrate last June and blockaded him in his hotel recently.

So the election could be explosive – and the aftermath also. Under the Bolivian constitution, the front-runner does not automatically become president unless he gets over 50 percent of the votes. In other cases, the congress decides who the winner is to be, and the opinion polls suggest the right will dominate the congress.

If Morales loses there must be a strong likelihood of a new upsurge from a popular movement that feels it has been robbed of victory. But if he wins he will have a very difficult job trying to keep his own supporters happy on the one hand and placating oil interests on the other.

Not for the first time in history, the ‘peaceful road’ could culminate in civil war – and civil war which would have massive ramifications elsewhere.


There is a tendency in the media of both right and left to see everything in Venezuela in terms of one man, Hugo Chavez. In fact more deep seated forces are at work. Chavez’s original election in 1998 is best seen as a delayed repercussion of the great Caracazo uprising of the poor nine years earlier. The forces of the state crushed the rising mercilessly, but it so undermined the legitimacy of the old political establishment that they did not have a candidate capable of winning in 1998.

Chavez, a middle ranking military officer who had tried to overthrow that establishment in an abortive coup in 1992, came in as a symbol of change – but with a very moderate programme of political democratisation backed by a network of similarly disenchanted officers and fragments of the old reformist political parties. He now says that at that time he was attracted to ‘third way’ ideas.

Real radicalisation did not take place until the reforms (particularly attempts to subject the source of much of the country’s wealth, the state oil company PDVSA, to the elected government) prompted the two attempts to overthrow Chavez by the country’s capitalist interests and the enormously privileged and arrogant upper middle class – the coup of April 2002 and then the bosses’ lockout at the end of that year.

What thwarted the coup was a spontaneous pouring into the city centre of the poor from the shanty towns on the hills that surround Caracas. What thwarted the lockout was the more or less spontaneous determination of workers to keep industry operating, particularly the oil industry, in defiance of their bosses and privileged layers of management and technicians. The country split down the middle along class lines, with weekly rival demonstrations of hundreds of thousands from the poor areas of western Caracas and the rich areas of eastern Caracas, and an atmosphere close to that of civil war. The Venezuelan ruling class had miscalculated. Even the US, which had initially conspired with it, did not want oil imports threatened as it prepared for war against Iraq. The lockout collapsed, just as the coup had collapsed.

In the aftermath came demands for more reform from the shanty towns and the factories – and Chavez responded with radical talk such as he had not used before. He was pulled to the left by the movement that had grown up to defend him against the right. And he used the huge revenues coming from the rising world price of oil to set up new welfare programmes, known as misiones, operating outside the old state structures.

A third attempt by the Venezuelan elite and the US government to get rid of him, a referendum in the middle of 2004, backfired as people mobilised. It was in response to this mobilisation that Chavez’s speeches became explicitly anti-imperialist and then, at the beginning of this year, began to make references to ‘socialism of the 21st century’.

But in all this there is an ambiguity. The predominant language of the ‘Bolviarian Revolution’ is that of things being handed down to the masses from enlightened reformers at the top. Yet these operate within a framework over which they are far from having control. This is recognised by some of those close to Chavez, like the Chilean journalist Marta Harnecker. Speaking in London recently both she and her fellow speaker, the US academic resident in Caracas Michael Lebowitz, spoke of the problems of implementing reforms through a civilian state machine still heavily staffed by appointees of the corrupt pre-Chavez political establishment. Such elements are demoralised, but they cannot in any sense be relied on to push ahead with progressive changes.

Harnecker claims that the armed forces are different. But although right wing generals were weeded out of the armed forces after the coup three years ago, there will be many middle ranking officers whose privileged social position and ties with the upper middle classes mean that they hate what is happening. They are a danger for the future and certainly cannot be relied upon to try to make radical reform work even in the short term.

The overall result is that at best the state machine operates half-heartedly to implement reform, and at worst it sabotages it. In some places ministers are able to get it to give way to workers or peasants taking action. In other places, as with a demonstration of bus drivers in the city of Caracaibo in early November, there is repression, even if it is still relatively mild repression.

Meanwhile, the bourgeois opposition may be defeated for the time being (it expects to do very badly in this month’s elections), but the bourgeoisie itself is very much intact, its wealth untouched by reforms financed out of new oil revenues. Even the two media combines that spearheaded the plots to overthrow Chavez (one owned by a fishing partner of George Bush Sr) continue to operate freely.

When the workers, urban poor and peasants want things from such a bourgeoisie they have to fight for them. So every day there are strikes, occupations of factories that have shut down, demonstrations for higher pay, hunger strikes over union recognition, and small-scale land occupations. A popular movement that is going forward can win important gains from a state machine that is in disarray and from a bourgeoisie that has lost battles through making disastrous miscalculations. But a revolution cannot go to completion by relying on such a state machine.

Regrettably, many of those who talk loudest about the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ urge such a course. Harnecker, for instance, praises Chavez for operating ‘within the existing balance of forces’ and says that Fidel Castro holds the same view. That, for her, means leaving most of Venezuelan capitalism intact for the indefinite future, endorsing Chavez’s regular meetings with the employers’ Fedecamaras organisation, accepting the role of US multinationals in developing oil reserves, and welcoming the plans for business deals between Venezuelan industry and multinationals operating out of other Latin American countries (such plans even involve working with Argentina to build a nuclear power station). It also means backing him when he relies on those elsewhere in Latin America, like Morales and even Lula, who have made it clear they do not want to break with capitalism.

This is a recipe for stalling the revolutionary process. It is to give the go-ahead to collaboration with capitalism by a state machine designed originally in the interests of capitalism and permeated with its supporters. At best this would leave a half-baked ‘mixed economy’ in which the rich remain immensely rich while the workers and the poor live off reforms from the misiones until the world price of oil falls and with it the revenues that pay for the reforms. At worst it would provide the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and US imperialism with the freedom and time to regroup their forces for yet another attempt to re-establish their total grip on the country.

The ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ can only go forward by becoming a real revolution – that is by those at the base of society organising themselves in opposition to capital and the state. This does not mean instant insurrection. But it does mean drawing together the popular forces that have arisen in recent years so as to take action in support of each other regardless of what those at the top might say. And it means taking steps to draw into active involvement in the movement the rank and file of the armed forces.

In these ways a counter-power can be built to the old state and the hold of capital, with the potential to overthrow both. And no revolutionary process has ever culminated in a lasting revolution without taking this final step. History is marked by the piles of corpses of those who thought it unnecessary. Fortunately there are activists on the ground in Venezuela, like some of those leading the new UNT union, who recognise this.

US imperialism has been taken by surprise by the upsurge of struggle in its own backyard over the last six years. Arrogant proclamations about ‘the end of history’ prevented it ever expecting such a thing, and its adventure in Iraq leaves it ill equipped to intervene militarily anywhere for the time being. But it is not just going to sit back and watch its influence slide away. It will be working out ways to organise all the reactionary forces in the continent, as it eventually did successfully when faced with the last waves of popular insurgency in the continent in the 1970s and early 1980s. The rhetoric of Mar del Plata won’t stop it doing so. That is why the degree to which talk of revolution turns into real revolution in Venezuela and Bolivia is so important.

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