Tuesday, July 22, 2008

New Latin American review seeks to revitalize progressive social science theory

The Latin American Social Sciences Council (CLACSO in its Spanish acronym) is an international NGO, linked to UNESCO, that promotes research in sociology, political science, history and anthropology through publications, seminars, and exchanges among scholars. Its membership includes 195 university and investigative research centres in 22 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, from Cuba to Argentina. Many of their publications are on line at http://www.biblioteca.clacso.edu.ar/.

The CLACSO recently launched the first issue of a new theoretical journal, Crítica y Emancipación, the contents of which can be downloaded at http://bibliotecavirtual.clacso.org.ar/ar/libros/secret/CyE/. Its editorial board includes a broad range of scholars from many Latin American countries as well as Perry Anderson, an editor of New Left Review. A leading item in the first issue, an interpretation of the political and social confrontation in Bolivia today, is a lecture given by the country’s vice-president, Álvaro García Linera, and is available in my English translation at http://links.org.au/node/484#comments.

Another leading article, by sociologist Raúl Prada Alcoreza, analyzes Bolivia’s new Political Constitution, adopted in draft form by its Constituent Assembly but not yet put to a popular vote for final adoption. Prada emphasizes the innovative ways in which the constitution recognizes and protects the plurinational reality of Bolivia with its indigenous majority.

Crítica y Emancipación

In the editorial, “Dos momentos del pensamiento social latinoamericano”, CLACSO’s executive secretary Emir Sader traces some of the major features of Latin America’s evolution over the last three decades. Latin America was the site of the first major experiments in neoliberalism, carried out with great ferocity by military dictatorships counseled by U.S. right-wing economists. This brutality was necessary, Sader explains, because neoliberal policies required that the militant organized working class movements, especially in Brazil and the Southern Cone (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay), had to be smashed in order to radically alter the relations between social classes and between the political left and right.

During the 1980s the generals retired, their job done, and a democratic interlude opened up. But it was at best a formal, neoliberal democracy, devoid of social content. And “socialism had been virtually transformed into a taboo word in Latin American politics,” Sader writes. For example, “the newest and boldest left force in the region — the Brazilian PT (Workers Party) — did not seriously invoke socialism in its political discourse.”

The overall scenario today is quite different, Sader writes, and not least because many of the social movements to some degree survived the repression and have re-emerged, often in new forms, to re-engage in profound social struggles. However, the transformations of the last two decades have not spared social thinking. The neoliberal hegemony “imposed as well certain dogmas that came to the forefront as determinants of the newly established theoretical terrain”. The new review, Crítica y Emancipación, aims therefore, to provide a vehicle for the new critical thinking now re-emerging in Latin America and the Caribbean to challenge those dogmas.

The following are major excerpts from this editorial. My translation.

-- Richard Fidler

"Two moments in Latin American social thought"

[ . . . ]

Overall, the defeat was not definitive. Neoliberalism, with its shock therapy, generated its own detractors. During the last decade, the principal space of resistance to neoliberalism has been Latin America. In 1994, the Zapatistas uttered their cry of opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Since then, the continent has witnessed a series of successive victories of the left or centre-left — Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Lula da Silva in Brazil, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Tabaré Vásquez in Uruguay, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and, most recently, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay — as well as the resurgence of social movements, some of them led by campesinos and indigenous peoples, from Chiapas to El Alto, from the piqueteros to the landless workers.

Over the last 15 years, 11 Latin American presidents have fallen before reaching the end of their term of office, not through the traditional process of military coups supported by the United States but through the action of popular movements in opposition to the neoliberal policies of their governments. During this period, the only attempted coup — against Hugo Chávez in 2002 — was defeated. Governments such as those of Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa are setting out to refound the state structures of their countries with constitutions that are more advanced than the existing liberal-democratic models.

These countries have set out to build an experiment in what the World Social Forum calls “fair trade”, with exchanges responsive to the needs and possibilities of each country, independent of market prices. The various advances made by the ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin American and the Caribbean), such as the end of illiteracy in Venezuela and its impending end in Bolivia this year and soon in Nicaragua, to mention only those initiatives, reveal that democratization means decommercialization, abandoning the market regime in favour of a regime of rights in the public sphere. That is what ALBA does, based on solidarity among the governments and peoples of the continent, and what Mercosur, the Bank of the South, the continental gas pipeline, Telesur and Petrocaribe propose to do albeit in a different form.

The more important reason why Latin America has been transformed into a sort of weak link in the neoliberal chain is precisely that it was the laboratory for experiments in that model, the region of the world where neoliberalism was given its most extensive and extreme expression. The model applied by General Augusto Pinochet in Chile and by Martínez de Hoz, the senior minister in the Argentine dictatorship, supported by the Chicago school, was similar to the model the nationalist leader Paz Estenssoro had implemented in Bolivia, years before it was adopted as a global formula by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Introduced by the right, the neoliberal model ended up being adopted by forces of nationalist origin — like Peronism under Argentine president Carlos Menem or the PRI in Mexico — as well as by Social Democrats and Socialists such as Chile’s Socialist Party, Venezuela’s Acción Democrática and Brazil’s PSDB, ultimately becoming hegemonic throughout the continent.

The continent then turned to modelling its policies on the Washington Consensus: development would be directed by foreign capital, attracted by the privatizations of public enterprises and the abundance of natural resources, by the liberalization of imports, the high interest rates, the fiscal austerity and, in some cases by the mechanical link to the exchange rate. As could be anticipated, after a short initial period of euphoria, serious economic and social crises erupted in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Imports grew precipitously as a result of the tariff reductions; in the end, the overvalued currency discouraged exports; current account deficits and debt payments rose; and the high interest rates stifled national investment and consumer demand, resulting in a recession. In the mid-Nineties, the rise in U.S. interest rates made the external debt unbearable, provoking the collapse of currencies in the continent’s three major economies: Mexico in 1994, Brazil in 1999 and Argentina in 2001.

However, unlike Southeast Asia and Africa, in Latin America the open crisis of the neoliberal model intersected with the old tradition of militant mass movements and political uprisings. During the last half century, the continent has experienced three important cycles of mass mobilizations and major left-wing strategic initiatives. The first was nationalist, between the 1930s and 1950s. The second was expressed in the guerrilla movements, from the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 to the end of the 1970s. And, since the late 1990s and increasingly during the initial years of this century, the continent has been experiencing a third cycle of rising struggles, this time anti-neoliberal in character.

Critical thought had retreated to a defensive position, especially during the Nineties, when the fully established ideological consensus assumed the initiative in the realm of theory as well, redefining the terms of the debates. The very slogan of the World Social Forum, which first met in 2001 — Another World is Possible — revealed just how defensive the alternative movement had become, fighting simply to affirm that history had not ended, that alternatives still existed and the future remained open.

The combined force of the neoliberal campaigns — orchestrated with the broadcast potential of the major publishing networks, the television, radio and other media chains — and the appeals of liberalism, with their campaigns against “Soviet totalitarianism” and in celebration of its defeat, were to radically alter the theoretical space that had existed prior to the Nineties.

[. . . ]

Today, as we commence publication of Crítica y Emancipación, the continent’s physiognomy has changed a lot. If, during his first term, the then president of the United States, Bill Clinton, felt no need to travel around Latin America, a continent behaving in accordance with Washington’s designs, the current president, with only a few isolated allies in the region, is almost unable to come. The processes of regional integration include a fair share of our countries, among them some of the largest economies, such as Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, which have opted out of the free trade treaties proposed by the United States. The countries that have opted for regional integration processes — in addition to those just mentioned, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Cuba — have diversified their international connections and strengthened their trade relationships within the area and among the countries of the international South.

New political forces are emerging, such as the MAS in Bolivia, while attempts are being made to build new parties in Venezuela and Ecuador that are suitable to the new social and political subjects. Other countries are governed by parties that were in opposition a decade earlier, such as the PT in Brazil, the Frente Amplio in Uruguay and the Frente Sandinista in Nicaragua. The central topics of debate are no longer about fiscal adjustments; they are now devoted to the new forms of development integrated with redistributive social policies and major projects for regional integration.

The political and ideological climate is different. The one country in the region that is the setting par excellence of the “unending wars” of the empire, Colombia, is completely isolated in the continent although its government enjoys substantial support internally. True, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica and Peru have opted for bilateral free trade agreements with the United States, but at the price of internal questioning and without the enthusiasm that existed in the previous decade. Neoliberalism has lost its economic and ideological momentum. Latin America is the setting for a struggle between the old, which insists on surviving, and the new, which is experiencing difficult birth pangs. Hence its instability, amidst an immense hegemonic crisis, in the search for a post-neoliberal model and the construction of a new bloc of forces and strategies for its implementation.

The hope for a new Latin American school of thought that comes to exercise a similar political attraction in the present period cannot be limited to a discussion within the prevailing democratic paradigm of the Eighties and Nineties, nor can it simply turn to the intellectual horizon of the Sixties and Seventies. Faced with the complexity and diversity of the continent’s reality, and in an international context that has been profoundly reconfigured during the last decade, with the emergence of new subjects, identities and demands, a difficult job of theoretical re-elaboration is needed.

[ . . . ]

The image of the intellectual — or the supposed intellectual — in the media has come to occupy an essential place in the new strategy of trivialization of theory and, at the same time, of the discrediting of critical theoretical work as well as its privileged spaces, in the first place the public universities. Underlying this is a notable decline in reading habits and in the availability of books for purchase, and some of the best publishing houses on the continent are in crisis, as are the public universities — not only in their functioning but also in their mission.

In this context, this crisis of Latin American social thought refers to new forms of theoretical production, a new mode of hegemony that redefines not only concepts and values but also the place of theory, forging a particular type of common sense closely articulated around a form of life centered on the commercialization of social relations, a focus on the individual as consumer.

Latin America has entered the new century convulsed anew amidst one of its most profound hegemonic crises, with the premature exhaustion of its recent past and a future that has yet to be invented. While we are well aware of the old — albeit not necessarily in all of its dimensions and the depth and extent of its influence — it is the new that demands our reflection, and the dedication of our greatest energy and capacity for theoretical elaboration.

Let us reaffirm our deepest democratic and pluralistic conviction. We are nevertheless aware that what the continent needs is not just the restoration of the standards of formal democracy; these have to a large degree been restored, but without touching the deepest structures of power (land, money, social communication, etc.). Those structures have not been democratized; on the contrary, they have been concentrated even more in the hands of a few companies, largely international or internationalized. The refoundation of Latin American states is a project that points precisely to much broader and deeper forms of democracy that are compatible with and capable of strengthening projects for emancipation instead of imposing limits on them and making them impossible. A democracy that does not point toward social, political, economic, cultural, ethnic, gender and ecological emancipation will tend to be an empty shell and produce apathy instead of increased mass participation, and to be an instrument of old elites instead of expanding the spaces of citizenship and struggle for democracies with a social vocation consistent with the old dream of the barricades of 1848.

The new political processes in the continent point to that: to rearticulating the social forces with new forms of doing things, constituting and organizing the political sphere. They point to the overcoming of the reform or revolution dichotomy, incorporating popular rebellions that lead into political departures but are not resigned to transforming society with the old instruments of power of the elites and instead seek to refound the state.

These are new theoretical challenges for us all: rethinking the recent trajectory of our countries from the perspective of overcoming the crisis of accumulation and the exhaustion of the existing type of state, affirming the many cultural, ethnic and gender identities, and strengthening and renovating the actually existing democracies. The Latin American crisis is not a theoretical crisis but then again it is a crisis of theory, of a search for new theoretical horizons in order to conceive of new practices and point to possible futures of critique that underscore the different forms of emancipation on the continent.

[. . . ]

Friday, July 18, 2008

Hugo Chávez Spearheads the South American Revolution

I am indebted to Alex Grant of Hands Off Venezuela for drawing my attention to the following interview with Maria Paéz Victor, which appears in the July-August issue of The Monitor, published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (not yet on line).

Dr. Paéz Victor is a sociologist of Venezuelan origin currently residing in Toronto. She has taught health and environmental policies at York University and the University of Toronto. She is associated with the Center for Health Studies at York University. She is also an active member of the Louis Riel Bolivarian Circle in Toronto.

Hugo Chávez Spearheads the South American Revolution
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor,
July-August 2008

Interview with Dr. Maria Paéz Victor
By Asad Ismi

While European and North American governments wallow in right-wing militarism, Latin American states are leading the world in implementing progressive social change. They are doing this not just within countries, but also on a continental level now that 10 left-wing Latin American governments are in power: in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Chile and Cuba.

On May 23, at a summit in Brasilia, Brazil, 12 South American countries formally constituted the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a regional integration initiative which includes a parliament, a presidential forum and a secretariat. The countries are Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam, and Uruguay.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a main force behind UNASUR’s creation, stated at the summit: “Some kick and yell, but will not be able to stop the South American revolution...[UNASUR is] a project of the change unleashed in this last decade--which could be the driving force of changes around the world.”

UNASUR’s main tasks are eliminating poverty and illiteracy. The UNASUR member states (except for Colombia) also agreed to the formation of a South American Defense Council aimed at ensuring that the countries’ armed forces “are committed to the construction of peace.”

For Chávez, UNASUR is the culmination of Latin America’s two-century-long search for unity. “Only in unity will we later have, progressively, complete political, economic, cultural, scientific, technological, and military independence,” Chavez explained. UNASUR instutionalizes a revolutionary process of South American integration that is becoming a model for the world.

I spoke to Dr. Maria Paez Victor in Toronto about this process. Dr. Paez is a Venezuelan-Canadian sociologist who recently returned from Venezuela, where she observed firsthand the sweeping changes that continue to be brought about by Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution. Paez is now retired after teaching sociology at the University of Toronto and working as a consultant.

Q: Simon Bolivar, who liberated South America from Spanish colonialism, wanted its countries to unite partly to prevent another imperial power, the United States, from dominating them. It appears that today his vision is becoming a reality to some extent and Chavez is behind much of this significant transformation. Tell us about this integration.
Maria Paéz Victor
Paez: It is truly amazing what Chavez has done. The political and economic integration of South America is definitely underway. In addition to UNASUR and the South American Defense Council, it includes the setting up of Banco del Sur (the Bank of the South), PetroAmerica, and Telesur. UNASUR represents 377 million people with a GNP of $1.5 billion, and it signals to the world that South America is ready to control its own destiny.

The formation of UNASUR is a historical event that creates structural pillars for South American unity: it includes an Energy Security Council to diversify and conserve energy and the environment. The South American Defense Council is aimed at creating a military alliance without the United States--an absolutely unprecedented event.

UNASUR emerges as a solution to the imbalances and inefficiencies of the Organization of American States (OAS) and a response to the not-so-veiled threat of Washington which has slapped the sub-continent in the face by reactivating its Fourth Naval Fleet to intimidate South America.

With Banco del Sur (the Bank of the South) and PetroAmerica, an entirely new economy is being created. Latin American countries now have an alternative source of credit, and this means the end of 25 years of U.S.-imposed neoliberalism that reduced these nations to beggars through enforced privatization, free trade, and structural adjustment programs (SAPs).

Whenever they wanted a development project, the countries had to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and/or the World Bank (both U.S.-dominated) which would offer loans at usurious interest rates that the states could not afford. When the countries could not pay back the loans, they had to carry out the IMF’s SAP conditions, which included selling whatever valuable national assets they had to multinational corporations that then controlled their economies. This was known as “the Washington Consensus,” and from 1980 to 2005 it created immense poverty in Latin America.

Then Chavez comes along and says to the Latin American countries, “We’ve got money and we will help you pay these debts.” As you know, Venezuela is the fifth largest exporter of oil to the U.S. Chavez gave money to Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Ecuador then threw the representatives of the World Bank out of the country, and Bolivia let its loan agreement with the IMF expire. Argentina got $5.1 billion from Venezuela, funding that rescued it from the ravages of the IMF that had destroyed its economy. With the money, Argentina was able to pay off its debt to the IMF.

Chavez has not given away this money. It has to be paid back, but only little by little at a reasonable interest rate that the countries can afford. That is one of the reasons why the financial powers-that-be want to get Chavez: because he hit them where it really hurts, to the point that the World Bank now is in a crisis; it’s downsizing, and the IMF doesn’t know what it’s going to do because nobody wants its loans. This has been absolutely wonderful because it has struck a big blow against this international extortion that these U.S.-controlled organizations are practising.

[Author’s Note: The worth of loans given by the IMF fell to $20 billion in 2008 from almost $100 billion in 2004. According to the U.S. magazine ‘In These Times’, “The IMF has lost almost all influence in Latin America, with lending there plummeting to a paltry $50 million, less than 1% of its global loan portfolio. As recently as 2005, the region had accounted for 80% of its outstanding loans.”]

Q: How does Banco del Sur (the Bank of the South) work?

Paez: Chavez and the Latin American countries have replaced the Washington extortion racket with the Bank of the South, which will finance true development in Latin America by providing loans which, unlike those of the World Bank and IMF, will have no strings attached. The Bank of the South has been formed by Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, and very soon Uruguay will join as well. Each country gives a portion of its GNP to the Bank, which now has assets of $7 billion. This capital is going to be used to promote cooperative development between these countries. For example, for the first time, Venezuela and Brazil are building a refinery in Brazil. Venezuela has oil and Brazil has the expertise to set up refineries, so what do they need the U.S. for?

In the same spirit, Chavez arrived at the empty dockyards of Buenos Aires, Argentina, after its economy had been devastated by the IMF, and gave an order for three oil tankers to be built there. He could have ordered the tankers from the U.S. or Europe, as would have happened in the past under Northern domination. The élites of Latin America had traditionally looked towards their “betters,” the élites in the U.S. So each country thought that whatever they needed had to come from the U.S. or Europe. Never did they think: why don’t we have our ships built by the Argentinians? They never considered each other to be good enough for advanced projects.

Q: In September 2005, Energy ministers from 11 Latin American countries--Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela--agreed to move towards regional integration in the energy field by consolidating the PetroAmérica energy project promoted by Chávez. Rafael Ramírez, the Venezuelan Minister of Energy and Oil at the time, called this agreement the “axis of continental integration.” Can you explain PetroAmerica?

Paez: PetroAmerica is a multinational oil company formed by the state oil companies of Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Cuba, and Trinidad. The joint company will control 11.5% of world oil reserves. PetroAmerica is aimed at achieving full energy cooperation within Latin America so that its oil can be used for the development of its people rather than that of Northern countries. As Chavez says, “Petroleum is going to run out eventually, so why are we selling it for the development of countries that are already developed?” We need the oil to develop our own countries, to create a diversified economy that includes an industrial sector and viable agriculture so we can feed and employ our own people. Until now, oil has been Venezuela’s only resource. We have to import most of our food.

Within PetroAmerica, Latin American countries will exploit oil and gas together, help each other set up refineries and petrochemical plants, and carry out conservation plans. PetroAmerica also involves Venezuela sharing its oil with countries that do not have any. Venezuela has given 14 Caribbean countries cheap financing for oil purchases, to be repaid over 25 years. These are countries that often find it difficult to buy oil. Venezuela has also promised $50 million for social programs in the Caribbean and pledged to invest $2 billion to increase refining capacity in Jamaica, Cuba, and Uruguay.

For Chavez, the relationship between Cuba and Venezuela is an important example of what relations should be like between sister nations. Venezuela gives Cuba 90,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for the 20,000 Cuban doctors who are working in the poorest areas of the Venezuela. In every indigenous village in Venezuela, a Cuban doctor is providing primary care that Venezuelan doctors refuse to give because they favour private medicine.

Similarly, Venezuela is exchanging oil for cattle with Uruguay. Such South-South cooperation means a new economic focus on serving the needs of the Southern people, not the greed of multinational corporations and Northern governments.

Q: Tell us about Telesur (which stands for “The New Television Station of the South”).

Paez: Telesur is a television channel formed by the state television broadcasters of Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Its function is to allow these countries to communicate directly with one another, and not through CNN. For the first time, Telesur gives Latin Americans a clear vision of each other which is crucial for creating an integrated community. South American integration cannot succeed if we learn about each other through international media that are hostile to us and distort our self-image.

How did we learn about each other’s countries until recently? Through CNN, which, as you know, is part of a media campaign directed against Chavez. We got the news about ourselves through Northern channels, so we looked at ourselves through Northern eyes. How could we change our societies then? Chavez got the Latin American countries together and said, “Let us launch Telesur by combining the state televisions of our countries.” When I was in Cuba, I turned on the TV: there’s Telesur and I’m watching something that’s going on in the Congress of Argentina. I had never seen that before. It was remarkable.

Q: Simon Bolivar in the past, and now Chavez and other Latin American leaders, wanted South American countries to unite partly to prevent the United States from dominating them. What has been the U.S. reaction to this process of Southern integration?

Paez: U.S. imperialism has long been the main impediment to South American integration. It operates through a divide-and-conquer strategy. The U.S. tried to overthrow Chavez in 2002 and then attempted to destabilize Venezuela by crippling PDVSA, the public oil company. When all this failed, the U.S. tried to divide Venezuela by promoting the secession of Zulia state, which has the most oil. This also failed, so now the U.S. is trying to use Colombia to spark a regional war and thereby stop integration.

On March 1, the Colombian army and air force invaded Ecuador and killed 24 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a guerrilla movement that is fighting in Colombia for land reform. This was a blatant violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty and threatens all the countries in the region. Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s President, was outraged.

Clearly, Colombia was encouraged to invade Ecuador by the U.S., which may also have participated in the raid. Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt. Colombia also has the worst human rights record in the hemisphere, and its President, Alvaro Uribe, is an international criminal linked to drug traffickers and death squads. Chavez reacted to Colombia’s invasion of Ecuador by rushing battalions to the border Venezuela shares with Colombia, and warning Uribe that, if his troops entered Venezuela, it would be cause for war.

The Latin American Presidents met in the Dominican Republic two days after the raid, and resolved the crisis. They met without the presence of the U.S. or Canada. Chavez was lauded by all the leaders as the main peacemaker. He said to Uribe: “Are you part of us, the Latin Americans? Your history, your culture is also ours. Or are you just a lackey of the U.S.? Because if you are, then you’re excluded from our club.” Uribe saw himself isolated and knew that, if he continued in this way, there would no support for him in Latin America. So he backed down, apologized to Correa, and promised never to violate the sovereignty of any other nation.

All the Presidents agreed that, if war were to break out in South America, the only country that would win would be the United States. You can see how perilous the situation was: the Colombian raid was to be the first in a domino process. If Colombia, as an arm of the U.S., had got away with invading Ecuador, then it would have done the same to Venezuela, and a major war would have followed, destabilizing the entire region.

Latin Americans were proud of their Presidents because they resolved an explosive issue through dialogue and cooperation amongst themselves. It showed that, if Latin Americans work together, they can solve their own problems and defeat the machinations of the U.S. empire.


Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor's international affairs correspondent. He is author of the highly acclaimed radio documentary, "The Ravaging of Africa" which is about the destructive impact of U.S. imperialism on that continent. For his publications visit http://www.asadismi.ws/.