cwi: world congress 2007 – Socialist ideas back on the agenda in Latin America

One of the most important and interesting discussions at the CWI 9th World Congress was the unfolding continental wide uprising against neo-liberalism in Latin America.

The ninth world congress of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) took place in Belgium in mid-January.

Delegates and visitors from 25 of the 36 countries in which the CWI organises, came together against the background of a worldwide increase in struggle against the effects of brutal 21st century capitalism.

world congress 2007 – Socialist ideas back on the agenda in Latin America

This session was introduced by André Ferrari from the Brazilian section of the CWI and the conclusion was by Karl Debbaut from the CWI. Delegates and visitors from Brazil, Venezuela and Chile made important contributions to the discussions as did speakers from other CWI affiliated sections.

The discussions in this session showed that there were two different paces of development on the continent: the mass struggles and radicalisation in the Andean cone countries like Bolivia and Venezuela and the slower tempo in the rest of Latin America.

One of the main discussions focused on the new situation in Venezuela since Chávez called for a deepening of the revolution in a socialist direction. Other important parts of the discussion explored the growing tensions in Bolivia including the possible perspective for civil war, and what could happen in Cuba should Fidel Castro die.

Latin America stands at an important juncture of developments. The outcome of struggles in Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba will have important effects on struggles in the rest of the continent and worldwide. The session emphasised the need for socialists internationally to take time to carefully examine these developments, and take part in the struggles as they unfold. Another important task is to assist, where possible, in helping to build movements, both politically and organisationally, by raising demands that connect with the consciousness today and link it up to the need for a socialist transformation of society.

One of the conclusions of the CWI World Congress was that the 21st century would in all likelihood be marked by a huge upsurge in the struggle against the conditions of life under capitalism and the search for alternatives. This struggle is politically and socially the most developed in Latin America. What marks the movement out here is that the struggle against neo-liberalism has developed to such an extent that alternative ideas and ideologies are being raised as an answer to free market orthodoxy. An example of this is the popularity of the demand for nationalisation of natural resources and the increasing interest in socialist ideas. This development could be seen in other parts of the world where neo-liberalism is being tested and could be thrown on one side by the masses as has happened in Latin America over recent years.

The fact that Chávez has clearly used the phraseology of socialism is significant. Given the radicalisation that exists amongst sections of the working class and poor peasantry in Venezuela and beyond, it could open up a new stage in the development of consciousness. This can contribute towards popularising the ideas of socialism on the continent and also even internationally. Workers and young people are more likely to discuss the ideas of socialism amongst themselves as a result. Socialist ideas will be increasingly part of public debate in the media, workplaces and colleges.

From ‘humane’ capitalism to socialism

When he came to power in 1998, Chávez did not use the phraseology of socialism. He was in favour of a ‘humane’ capitalism and now, 9 years later, he is the first president speaking of achieving socialism in the 21st century. Of course we have to see what is really meant by this. The fact that he has described himself as a Trotskyist and a follower of the theory of the permanent revolution is an important development but we have to look what is behind these statements and in what context they were made. At different moments he called for the nationalisation of companies but only a few have been nationalised! What he says sounds extremely radical. He talks about an end to inequality, and the need for a new party to be built from below. The CWI, of course, supports every step in the direction of a fundamental change leading to a democratic socialist society based on workers control and management of the economy. The nationalisation of the electricity and the telecom industry for example, as proposed by Chávez, if carried out, would signify an important step forward.

But the socialism put forward by Chávez has not necessarily clashed with the interests of Venezuelan capitalism up until now. In the same speech in which he said he was a Trotskyist, he repeated his call to the Venezuelan businessman to join the revolutionary process in the name of “love for Venezuela”. And it is clear that huge profits by the rich elite have been made in Venezuela under Chávez. A recent article in the US newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, had the following title: “A peculiar product of Chávez, the Bolivarian bourgeoisie”. There is a clear attempt, despite recent announcements by Chávez, to stay within the boundaries of capitalism and to try to come to a compromise between the demands of the masses and the capitalist class.

US imperialism and the right wing elite are for the moment not seeking a direct confrontation with the Chávez regime. The right wing opposition learnt some lessons from the failed coup attempt in 2002, when a mass movement swept away the forces who wanted to overthrow the Chávez regime. As a result they are more careful but they have not given up their aim of getting rid of Chávez. Paramilitary forces are still present at the frontier between Venezuela and Colombia. However, the right-wing is limited in what it can do because it is still recovering from the setbacks it faced after the defeated coup attempt, the failure of the bosses lock-out of 2002-2003, and Chávez’s victory in the recall referendum. It only radicalised the movement further and reinforced Chávez immensely. The factor they have to take into account is not so much Chávez, but what he represents to the masses and their willingness to defend the gains they have made since he came to power. This was demonstrated by the high turn-out of 75% for the presidential elections in December 2006 and Chávez’s subsequent election victory. Chávez did not get the 10 million votes he wanted, but the nevertheless obtaining the support of 7 million Venezuelans represented a big victory, particularly because he won in all 24 states, and in more then 90% of the cities.

Alarming for the pro Chávista camp, however, is that, despite everything, Rosales, the candidate of the unified right-wing camp, was able to get 37% of the votes. It shows that the opposition has rebuilt a sizeable electoral base. This along with other reasons, might have led to the recent left turn of Chávez. One of his recent calls is for a united revolutionary party encompassing all the pro-Chávista forces. Chávez criticised the old Stalinist parties and their lack of democracy when he outlined the need for a new party. However, Chávez’s words are one thing – what he does in practise is another. This is why the CWI in Venezuela calls for such a new revolutionary party to be socialist and democratic, with rank and file control over the leadership, public representatives who are accountable to the membership, an independent working class policy and independence from governmental and state structures and influence.

Morales between a rock and a hard place

Chávez has certain room for manoeuvre. State receipts from oil production has allowed a certain economic breathing space. However, Evo Morales, the new president of Bolivia, does not have the same luxury. Since he came to power on a wave of mass discontent, he was pushed under mass pressure to announce the ‘nationalisation’ of hydrocarbons by imposing new contracts on the multinationals. But the new contracts with the multinationals ended up being less radicalmuch more favourable to multinationals than imagined despite big protests from more radicalised sections of the working class and poor peasantry.

The main flashpoint of conflict however, is around the question of autonomy. The right-wing reactionary elite based mainly in the rich gas and agricultural south eastern region around Santa Cruz have raised the threat of declaring autonomy as a first step to splitting away from the rest of Bolivia leading to the break up of the country. The right-wing opposition want to insist on a two-thirds majority in the constituent assembly for any changes to the constitution. The working class together with the social movements have kept up the pressure which has ensured up to now that Morales and his governing MAS party have been firm in their demand for a simple majority for constitutional changes.

The last few months has seen a continuous escalation of tensions taking place in the region with particularly right-wing paramilitary forces increasingly arming themselves. A popular assembly in Cochabamba announced a march on Santa Cruz if the right wing forces do not retreat from their threats to split up the country. There is very little space for compromise, although Morales is doing everything to come to an agreement. Also it is likely that Lula and others will try to intervene to calm things down and pressure from the ruling class of other countries in the region to prevent a deterioration or even a civil war, is likely. An open war or break-up of the country would have immediate consequences for the rest of Latin America. Under these circumstances Morales could be pushed further to the left and a victory over the right-wing oligarchs would set the tone. However, a victory for the forces of reaction would also have a negative effect on the masses of the continent.

Cuba after Castro

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba lost many of the favourable contracts it had with the Stalinist bloc countries and suffered a severe economic crisis. However, more recently the economy has recovered because of favourable agreements with the Chavez regime, and its oil wealth. But social contradictions inside the country have grown despite the improvement in the economy. While unrest, especially amongst the youth, was kept under control, because of the big authority of Fidel Castro, this is not that likely under the regime of Raoul Castro, Fidel’s nominated successor.

There are many scenarios possible, if Castro’s health does not hold up and he dies. Internationally large demonstrations in recognition of his role could take place. Cuba under Castro, which has a certain reputation for its very good welfare system, thanks to the planned economy, has a big authority amongst youth and workers all over the world and particularly serves as an alternative model to US imperialism’s neo-liberal one in the neo-colonial world. The anti-imperialist and anti neo-liberal movement especially in Latin America, and the political crisis of the Bush administration, has reinforced the confidence of the anti-capitalist camp. But, it is also true in Cuba that there are increasing pressures for more democratic rights, access to new technology, a desire amongst the working class to travel and a general discontent about the economic situation. There are many pressures acting on the regime. In Raoul Castro’s speeches he speaks about defending the gains of the regime, but at the same time he has indicated a certain openness towards negotiations with the US. There are sections of the military who are the most open to allowing more market relations because they have the most to gain given their position in society and therefore the economy.

The key issue could be the threat posed by the Cuban exile population in the US who want restoration of market relations so that they can pursue their claims to property in Cuba. This threatened reactionary provocation could polarise the situation. A fast track restoration of market relations is not the most likely possibility under present conditions. A struggle to defend the gains of the revolution will take place. How successful this is will in big part depend on developments in the rest of Latin America, and particularly on the development of independent socialist and revolutionary working class organisations.

New struggles in Mexico and Chile

The huge struggles that took place in Mexico in the last year were another sign of the process of radicalisation that is sweeping the continent. A teachers strike for increased pay led to an semi-insurrectional situation in the state of Oaxaca. In addition a nationwide movement against the election fraud of the right-wing to prevent the popular mayor of Mexico City, Manuel Lopez Obrador, from becoming president, paralysed Mexico for months.

In Venezuela the impact of left (and right) populism with the larger than life role of people like Chávez has a bigger effect because of the lack of a strong and developed industrialised working class with its own traditions of struggle. In Mexico, Brazil and Chile the situation is different because these two countries are amongst the most industrialised and developed in the region. As a consequence they also have the biggest and best organised working class organisations and traditions, which have been demonstrated in the struggles that have taken place recently. Large trade unions have existed for a whole period in these countries. The building of these unions laid down a tradition of independent working class action. This tradition is important for the development of new independent working class based organisations and a more developed class consciousness. Nowadays the leaders of these unions are mostly very corrupt and closely linked to government parties which often acts as a break on working class struggle. Although the movement in Mexico has receded, it is likely to burst out later on a higher level, when the new government moves onto the attack against the sh;Mexican working class.

The same perspective of struggle is also on the agenda in Brazil and Chile. In Brazil it is now already clear that Lula will have much less of a honeymoon than he did last time. Even then, after his first election victory the situation was not exactly calm with a mass struggle against Lula’s attacks on the pension rights of public sector workers and the setting up of the Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL). However, it was the case that big illusions did exist amongst the broader working class that Lula was different and important changes would come about as a result of his election victory. However, those illusions no longer exist on a mass scale, particularly amongst the rank and file of the MST (landless movement), and the new left trade union federations. These new federations plan to have a meeting to discuss a united response and programme of action against the new neo-liberal plans of Lula’s new government.

Despite the more pronounced electoralist approach by the PSOL leadership in the period leading up to the elections, the vote achieved by Heloisa Helena in the Presidential elections shows the possibilities of building a mass left socialist party in the country.

In Chile in the last year there has been a turning point in the class struggle. When the assassin and dictator Pinochet died there were mass demonstrations and street parties celebrating this in the working class areas of the main cities. It means a symbolic weight has fallen from the necks of Chilean workers and youth. A mass movement of school students rocked the country which had huge support in society. This militant generation of young people will soon enter the workplaces and factories and make their mark through challenging capitalism in this once most “stable” of Latin American countries.

For the building of independent working class organisations

The building of independent working class organisations and revolutionary parties will be crucial for the future of working class of the continent. Many of the ingredients for a victorious class struggle against capitalist exploitation are present in the continent. But the working class has to be conscious of its own role and power and must take society in its hands. The role of the CWI is to help to develop these forces.

The development of mass semi-insurrectionary struggles in Latin America will have an important positive effect on the consciousness of those workers and young people internationally who will move into struggle in the near future. The CWI will be part of these struggles and fight for the ideas of democratic socialism and the overthrow of capitalism in Latin America and on a worldwide scale.

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February 2007