Venezuela: ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ by Tariq Ali

There is great interest in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Eva Morales’ Bolivia and Fidel Castro’s Cuba among workers and young people, worldwide.

Pirates of the Caribbean, by Tariq Ali, is informative on the processes under way in all three countries. It sometimes strikes a critical note but, unfortunately, Tariq Ali’s analysis does not draw all the necessary and urgent conclusions.

The first part is highly entertaining in its invective against all those intellectuals and former lefts who have gone over to the ‘Washington consensus’; the capitalist neo-liberal project, of the last 20 years. They have “matured” or “crumbled”…“sold out”. In a telling phrase, Ali sums up their position: “If you can’t relearn, you won’t earn.”

Singled out for special treatment are the New Labourites, like Dennis McShane MP, correctly described as a ‘toad’, who “supported the coup [in Venezuela against Chávez] in public”. Later, he said that “Tony Blair is very disturbed about the turn to the left in Latin America”. The author is probably right in stating that in Latin America, unlike other continents, some of the left intelligentsia clung to part of their old socialist ideas, but not all did. Humberto Ortega, a “senior Sandinista commandante in Nicaragua”, justified inequality with a comparison of “society as a soccer stadium”. He stated: “There’s a hierarchy. One hundred thousand people can squeeze into the stadium, but only 500 can sit in the boxes. No matter how much you love the people, you can’t fit them all in the boxes.” This does not bode well for the workers and poor in Nicaragua, where Sandinista, Daniel Ortega, recently returned to office, particularly if the Sandinistas perceive they cannot go further than the boundary of the ‘soccer stadium’, in other words, capitalist society. Tariq Ali holds out much greater hope for Venezuela and Bolivia, and for Latin America, as a whole.

In so doing, he draws a comparison of the “new forces and faces… emerging in the world of Islam…” Moqtada [al-Sadr], Nasrallah [in Lebanon], and the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are cited as indicating a “radical wind”. This is an exaggeration. The movements around these figures are still trapped in what Tariq Ali correctly describes as “communal divisions”. He urges them to adopt an “egalitarian, redistributive, socio-economic strategy”, which he claims is that of Chávez and Morales. However, the latter two figures have not yet provided a sustained alternative to neo-liberal capitalism. Ali correctly describes the movement around these figures as essentially “social-democratic”. On a recent BBC Radio 4 panel discussion, he described the radical wave in Latin America and, particularly, the policies of its leaderships, in general, as having some similarities to ‘Old Labour’, when the Labour Party in Britain was at bottom, a workers’ party, and demanded reforms. There is much truth in this, and figures like Chávez undoubtedly represent a step forward when compared to all of the apostles of neo-liberalism in Latin America and elsewhere.

Venezuelan army

The author’s analysis of the coup attempt against Chávez, in 2002, is also informative, particularly on the processes among the rank and file of the Venezuelan army and the lower levels of the officer corps. This is useful for people unfamiliar with the processes of the Venezuelan situation. Ali writes that in the past, “The only institution that they [the capitalist parties] could not completely control was the army.” The masses were sympathetic to the radical officers, even attempting to join Chávez’s failed 1992 coup; 60% of the country were sympathetic to them. However, the absence of an independent movement of the working class and the identification of radical officers as their ‘saviours’, can produce a certain dependency among the working class. This, in turn, can affect the consciousness of the working class, with it looking towards forces other than its own strength and organisation to effect change. As a result of the attempts at counter-revolution, the masses were radicalised, and Ali describes this in some detail. But the Venezuelan revolution still bears the imprint of the previous period, with top-down bureaucratic features.

The author shows the limitations of ‘Bolivarianism’, when he writes: “It combines continental nationalism on social democratic reforms fuelled by oil revenues.” Tariq Ali believes this is all that is possible in Latin America, in general, and even in its most radicalised sectors, such as Venezuela. He writes: “The Bolivarians were triumphant, but cautious. They did not change the foundations of the system. This was deliberate, as Chávez explained publicly on many occasions. We were no longer in the 20th century. This was not the epoch of proletarian revolutions, but the beginning of a process of ‘rethinking socialism’.”

But surely the history of the 20th century is that half measures – a quarter or half of a revolution – which do not “change the foundations of the system”, will inevitably lead to setbacks and defeats. There can be no successful quarter or half revolutions. This is true even when the capitalists do not resort to armed force to suppress the danger of revolution, as they did in Chile, in 1973, or in Spain, in the 1930s. Unless a complete rupture with landlordism and capitalism is carried through, previous gains can be systematically undermined. Wasn’t this the case in Portugal, where a failure to take power by a democratic, socialist, workers’ and peasants’ movement led to the rolling back, over time, of the revolution, resulting in the catastrophic Portuguese neo-liberal capitalism which exists today? The same applies, only more so, to Nicaragua (see previous article on the CWI website:

Yet Tariq Ali, who held a Trotskyist position in the past, writes that in Venezuela: “The transition to a different type of state has begun, but its future will rest on its ability to transform the living standards of the poor and by inaugurating the process of economic redistribution at the level of the economy.” His timescale for this? “The next ten years will be decisive.” He seems to believe that a gradual transformation of the state and society through reforms is possible over a ten-year period!

How can the revolution succeed?

Despite the rich natural resources of Venezuela – Castro did not have such a safety net at the time of the Cuban revolution in 1959-60 – this is not a sufficient guarantor against successful counter-revolution. The author gives sufficient examples, both domestic and international, of the forceful attempts to overthrow Chávez, including remarks by the US Christian fundamentalist preacher, Pat Robertson. He urged, in 2005, that Chávez should be “taken out”. He said: “I think we really ought to go ahead and do it [assassinate Chávez]. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war…and I don’t think any oil shipments will stop. The man is a terrific danger, and this is in our sphere of influence.”

At this stage, even social-democratic reforms, and governments who pursue this policy, will not be tolerated by US imperialism and its local Latin American allies. It is unlikely that US imperialism would be capable of militarily intervening against Venezuela after the Iraq debacle. But the attempts to mobilise the forces of counter-revolution internally, in Venezuela, could prove successful if the process of change in Venezuela is stalled. Chávez has been fortunate with the financial benefit which accrued to him due to the rise in the price of oil. However, a world economic recession or slump could have the opposite effect.

Chavez, after his resounding electoral victory, now says he plans to nationalise the country’s main energy and telecommunications companies. He spoke of achieving “socialism in the 21st century” and indicated support for Trotsky’s ideas of permanent revolution. If Chávez keeps his promises, this would be a big step forward for the Venezuelan revolution. But a decisive blow against the capitalists and landlords – by taking over the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ together with workers’ democracy – is still necessary to avert the danger of counter-revolution.

In order to defeat the international and domestic attempts to overthrow Chávez and the revolution, it is necessary to mobilise mass support for real socialist change. This would involve setting up of democratic committees of the workers and the poor, as well as the farmers, and creating democratic committees in the army and the state, allied with a programme for the socialist transformation of Venezuela. This includes taking over the majority of the commanding heights of the economy, which are still in the hands of the capitalists.

A democratic and socialist Venezuela, acting as a beacon to the whole of the Caribbean and Latin America, is the only way out. Unfortunately, despite the very useful information in the Pirates of the Caribbean, the book does not provide a clear programme for the victory of the Venezuelan revolution. Nevertheless, it should be read by all of those wishing to have an inside track on what is happening in Venezuela, what happened at the time of the attempted coup against Chávez, and the outlook of the Bolivarians about the future. The same applies to the sections of the book dealing with Bolivia and Cuba, which this review cannot fully go into.

Criticisms of Cuba

While supporting the gains of the revolution, Tariq Ali is not uncritical of Castro and the Cuban regime; for instance, on suppression of artistic freedom in the past, the execution of the former revolutionary hero and head of the army, Ochoa, which Tariq Ali claims is a “mystery”. He describes these as “unpleasant side-effects, which should not be ignored or downplayed”. In an implicit criticism of the lack of democracy in Cuba, he states: “Public debate, criticism, the exchange of conflicting opinions will strengthen Cuba and empower and arm its citizens, already among the best educated in the world. This is now a political necessity and should not be indefinitely delayed.”

Unfortunately, these generally correct statements are not rounded out, even in outline, with suggestions about how this could be achieved and what kind of programme or state is necessary in Cuba today, both to defend the gains of the revolution and enhance its appeal internationally. There is no call for the ideas of workers’ democracy, the election of officials with the right of recall, no official to receive more than the average wage of a worker, etc. This book is interesting. Its attempt to popularise, by borrowing the title from the recent Johnny Depp film of the same name, is innovative. However, it goes a little far to suggest that on demonstrations the chant should be: “We are all pirates.”

The fate of Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia is vital, not just for Latin America, but for the world. We should do all in our power to defend everything that is progressive in these movements. But we also need to raise criticisms and put forward suggestions on how the planned economy in Cuba can be saved, and how the revolution in Venezuela and Bolivia can now be completed on democratic and socialist lines.

Pirates of the Caribbean by Tariq Ali. Published by Verso. £14.99

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