Friday, June 21, 2013

Quito declaration on ecosocialism and ‘buen vivir’

On June 10-12, Ecuador’s National Institute of Advanced Studies (IAEN, Spanish acronym) held an international symposium on Crisis of civilization, ecosocialism and ‘buen vivir’ . (“Buen Vivir” is usually translated as “living well,” but its meaning is closer to “living appropriately.”)

Over three days, the participants debated among themselves and discussed issues with the organizers and government representatives, focusing on the potentials, challenges, difficulties and ambiguities of the “citizens’ revolution” that is being led by President Correa and his team.

The following declaration, adopted by the participants on the final day, has been translated from Spanish for Climate & Capitalism by Richard Fidler.

* * *

As militants, activists, teachers and professors in various American, African and European countries, we have met in Quito from June 10-12, 2013, in three intense days of debate and collective work on the theme: “Crisis of Civilization, Ecosocialism and ‘Buen Vivir’.” We express our appreciation to the Instituto de Altos Estudios Nacionales (an Ecuadorian institution that is in the midst of refounding itself in order to contribute more effectively to the transformations pursued by the Citizens’ Revolution in Ecuador) for this opportunity to meet, which we have tried to use to share what we have learned and to deepen our understanding through mutual dialogue.

We appreciate very much the rapprochement between ecosocialist proposals and the developments linked to “Buen Vivir” (or similar notions). We are convinced that these are very closely if not directly related responses to the catastrophic ecological and social crisis of modern global capitalist civilization.

It is important that this international seminar was held in Latin America, a continent in which popular, indigenous, peasant, ecologist and women’s resistance to the destructive expansion of the capitalist multinationals has greatly advanced. And a continent in which the ideas of Buen Vivir and ecosocialism have developed notably among many left-wing forces in the region, with the support and participation of the social movements.

We think it is also significant that this international seminar was held in Ecuador, a country that has adopted an exemplary world-scale initiative to illustrate the appropriate strategy for fighting greenhouse gas emissions and global warming: leave the oil and other fossil fuels in the ground out of respect for the local settlements while guiding the society toward the post-carbon era. We are referring to the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which, we believe, should go further, be strengthened and imitated in other locations as an ecosocialist public policy.

We are fully aware of the huge obstacles that the social and ecological struggles in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia or Ecuador have had to overcome — through slow processes that have often been spread over several decades — and still have to overcome in order to modify the relationship of forces and ultimately reduce the power of the oligarchies linked to neoliberal capitalism, thereby arousing great hopes around the world.

We believe that in order to support and strengthen the ecosocialist initiatives of the left governments (sometimes more ambiguously termed “progressive”) in Latin America, the key questions of course pertain to overcoming the post-colonial situations of poverty and exclusion.

However, we argue that confronting these huge social needs cannot justify an extractivist neodevelopmentalism that ignores other fundamental challenges:

  • Building a constructive relationship, respectful of their autonomy, with mass struggles and social movements demanding protection of the commons, the sphere of the public, survival and emancipation;
  • Encouraging common and communitarian initiatives on a local, national and regional scale (some inspiring examples are the advances in the construction of the communal state in Venezuela, the Brazilian Environmental Justice Network, the Transition Towns movement in the British Isles or the ecovillages in Europe and elsewhere);
  • Accepting the biophysical and ecosystemic limits to material production;
  • Fighting against the commodification of nature, ecosystems and the commons;
  • Protecting biodiversity and directly confronting the corporate mechanisms designed to appropriate it through genetic manipulation, patents and other forms of privatization of knowledge;
  • Developing the strategy for overcoming predatory extractivism, with concrete plans to change the energy matrix based on fossil hydrocarbons and to reduce the wasting of resources;
  • Achieving the regional integration of Latin America (with such initiatives as CELAC, UNASUR, the Banco del Sur, ALBA-TSP, Petrocaribe, etc.) for common insertion in the world economy within a veritable ecosocialist internationalism that promotes South-South cooperation and helps to alter the inequality of North-South relations;
  • Recognizing and reinforcing the role of traditional knowledges; and
  • The fight against consumerist models, the construction of antagonistic subjectivities, and the concretization of Buen Vivir in day-to-day practices.

We wish to reaffirm our commitment in support of the efforts being made worldwide, and especially in Latin America, to implement the principles of Buen Vivir, ecosocialism, ecofeminism, radical political ecology, environmental justice and the other emancipatory currents.

We call for respect for the self-determination of the peoples and the integrity of their territories, to achieve and strengthen the conditions for peace and harmony that ought to exist among associated peoples.

We recommend that a particular effort be made to create the conditions propitious for the exercise of long-term planning and foresight. And we reaffirm our determination to devise the international networks that will enable us to reinforce all of these efforts.

Quito, June 12, 2013

The participants in the international seminar on the crisis of civilization, ecosocialism and Buen Vivir

  • Carlos Prieto, IAEN, Ecuador
  • Michael Löwy, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France
  • Joel Kovel, International Ecosocialist Network, USA
  • Joao Alfredo Telles Melo, PSOL, Brazil
  • Matthieu Le Quang, IAEN, Ecuador
  • Tamia Vercoutère, proyecto Yachay, Ecuador
  • Ximena Gonzáles Broquen, Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas, Venezuela
  • Fabio Grobart, Universidad de La Habana, Cuba
  • Daniel Tanuro, International Ecosocialist Network, “Climat et justice sociale,” Belgium
  • Terisa Turner, University of Guelph, Canada
  • Guido Galafassi, Universidad de Quilmes, Argentina
  • Jorge Riechmann, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain
  • Miguel Ruiz, IAEN, Ecuador
  • John Fagan, Earth Open Source, USA
  • Gian Carlo Delgado, UNAM, Mexico
  • Miguel Angel Núñez, Instituto Universitario Latinoamericano de Agroecología “Paulo Freire,” Venezuela
  • Christopher Kay, International Institute of Social Studies, Netherlands
  • Francisco Caporal, Universidade Federal Rural de Pernambuco, Brazil
  • Pablo Bertinat, Universidad Tecnológica Nacional, Argentina
  • Patrick Bond, University of KwaZulu, South Africa
  • Esquisa Oman, Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas, Venezuela
  • Antonio Salamanca, IAEN, Ecuador
  • Fernando Gomez, Fundación Nueva República, Colombia

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Does Quebec need a ‘charter of secularism’?


The latest incident of official harassment of ethnic minorities in Quebec — the so-called “turban” ban[1] issued by the Quebec Soccer Federation (QSF) — has now passed into history, but it is worth revisiting the lessons as well as examining some of the reactions on the left.

Predictably, the ban was yet another occasion for denunciation of Quebec nationalists in the Canadian (and some international) media. It must be said that the QSF and its defenders starting with Quebec premier Pauline Marois played right into the hands of these enemies of Quebec self-determination and independence.

Briefly, in early June the QSF issued a ban on the wearing of “turbans” by Sikh youths under the Federation’s jurisdiction, claiming it would make the playing field “unsafe” for all concerned. However, it cited no evidence in support of this assertion, and in fact there is none, anywhere. The Quebec ban was soon afterwards denounced by the Canadian Soccer Association, which then suspended its Quebec affiliate. At least 20 teams from Ontario had to cancel plans to play at a tournament in Montréal in mid-June, in accordance with CSA rules prohibiting member associations from competing with suspended teams. However, in a notable exception, an under-14 boys’ soccer team in Brossard, a Montréal suburb, wore orange head scarves to a game in protest of the QSF ban.

The Parti québécois government, in an overwrought reaction, denounced the QSF suspension as a violation of Quebec “autonomy,” as did its federal counterpart the Bloc Québécois. Wiser minds attempted a compromise. For example, the federal NDP wrote the FIFA, the soccer world’s governing body, asking it to find a solution; the FIFA soon issued a statement confirming that soccer players may indeed wear turbans in official matches. The QSF then reversed its ban.

As Benoit Renaud explains in the article below, the PQ government was quick to defend the Quebec ban on the “turban” because it is seeking increasingly to shore up its sagging popular support by stoking xenophobic fears of threats to “Quebec identity” supposedly posed by minority religions and cultures, especially those of recent immigrants to Quebec. These divisive tactics now take the form of promoting a Quebec “identity” and “values” that would exclude public display of “otherness” — for example, by banning the wearing of “ostentatious” signs of religious belief like the Muslim headscarf or the Sikh turban or ceremonial sword, the kirpan.

An initial step was taken by the previous Liberal government headed by Jean Charest when it tabled Bill 94, which would deny access to public services for women wearing the Muslim niqab or other coverings that conceal much or all of their face. The bill failed to come to a vote before the government was defeated in the September 2012 election.

During the recent election the PQ promised a Charte québécoise de la laïcité, or charter of secularism, among various measures “to affirm our identity and our values,” including “equality between women and men and secularism of public institutions.” Now the PQ government has renamed its project a Charter of Values, although it has not yet revealed its content.

The left party Québec solidaire did not support a charter of secularism in its election platform, nor is there any such proposal in its overall program. When it last debated the question, at its November 2009 program convention, the delegates adopted what they termed a “model of secularism,” also referred to as “open secularism,” that distinguished between the need for state neutrality toward religious belief or lack of belief and the freedom of individuals “to express their own convictions in a context that favours exchange and dialogue.”[2] And in a 2010 article published in the Montréal daily Le Devoir, the then general secretary of Québec solidaire, Benoit Renaud, argued strongly against a “charter of secularism,”[3] noting how it would be used against Muslims and other religious and cultural minorities.

However, QS parliamentary spokesperson Françoise David, the MNA for Gouin riding, in a June 11 media briefing criticizing the turban ban, called on the PQ to “get back to essentials” and went on to say:

“We have to discuss secularism in Quebec… Do we want a charte de laïcité? We say yes, but we go further: to include in the [Quebec] Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms some articles stating clearly that secularism is a Quebec value….”

David explained that she had supported two motions in the National Assembly. “One by the Liberals, urging the Quebec [soccer] federation and the Canadian federation to dialogue to settle the issue,” and another “by the PQ government denouncing the decision of the Canadian [soccer] federation which basically does not recognize any autonomy to the Quebec federation.”

Do these positions signify a retreat from the programmatic clarity of the QS positions adopted in 2009? Françoise David and QS have certainly been the target of unrelenting and vicious personal attacks from narrow nationalists in the past when she has come out strongly in support of “open secularism” and “reasonable accommodation” of individuals’ right to the public expression of cultural and religious practices. Some of the most egregious attacks are featured regularly in the web and print newspaper L’aut’journal, the organ of “left” péquistes, which has long argued in favour of a Charte de la laïcité in articles redolent of Islamophobia.

There have been other indications of slippages on these issues by the QS leadership. For example, the QS brief on Bill 94 gave it critical support while objecting to deprivation of services to women wearing the niqab or voile intégral. When some Sikhs were prohibited entry to the National Assembly to present their brief on Bill 94, on the spurious ground that their ceremonial kirpan was a “weapon,”[4] QS MNA Amir Khadir voted to support a PQ emergency motion to support the ban, making the Assembly’s vote unanimous – and letting slip an excellent opportunity for the QS spokeperson to publicly clarify the party’s position on reasonable accommodation, open secularism, and freedom of personal religious belief.

In the article below, Benoit Renaud argues strongly in opposition to focusing the debate on these issues around a “charter of secularism.” I am less sanguine than he is, however, that a broader debate on “values,” as now proposed by the PQ government, can be used effectively to promote the kind of open secularism favoured by Québec solidaire. As he notes, the PQ shift from “laïcité” to “values” in their proposed charter may be prompted by fears that an exclusive focus on “secularism” as defined restrictively by the PQ will be subject to court challenges. I would add that the PQ charter will likely include its narrow concept of “laïcité” as a “Quebec value,” possibly linked with a “secular” reading of “feminism” as a value that would impose public dress codes on religious minorities and trump reasonable accommodation of individual religious and cultural beliefs in the public sphere.

In fact, while the “turban” ban was clearly a “bad decision” based on ignorance, prejudice or xenophobia, as Benoit says, the fact is that most of the incidents that have aroused hostile media comment in recent years in Quebec have involved attempts at reasonable accommodation. The report of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences listed dozens of such incidents, described them in detail, and concluded that in almost every case they were reasonable attempts to accommodate individuals with minority religious beliefs in ways that do not conflict with collective values already represented, for example, in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights.

The whole purpose of reasonable accommodation is to find ways to adjust institutional practices so as not to offend the religious and/or cultural beliefs of minorities, with the ultimate goal of helping the latter to be part of, or integrate into, civil society, the “Quebec nation” as broadly defined (territorially, juridically). The purpose of a “charter of values” (or of laïcité, for that matter) is to set limits on accommodation; it flies in the face of interculturalism as generally understood in Quebec.

However, as the “turban” ban shows, the dynamic of these debates goes beyond the issue of reasonable accommodation within public institutions and inevitably encompasses private activities like the imposition of a dress code on a kids’ soccer team. Thus I see little likelihood that a debat on “values” in this charged atmosphere in Quebec will in fact result (as Benoit Renaud hopes) in a “simple policy based on existing rights.” After all, if it did, that would suggest that there was no need for the debate in the first place!

A Charter of Values, unlike a Charter of Human Rights, which is aimed at the suppression of concrete manifestations of discrimination and oppression, has the opposite effect: it must necessarily be vague enough to cover all kinds of “values” and standards of conduct. And as we know, in the last analysis the dominant ideas in any class society are those of the hegemonic ruling class, not our class. Not to mention how even a value as basic as “the right to life” has been interpreted by the Catholic Church.

At the conclusion of this article, I have linked to other articles by Benoit Renaud addressed to these issues, including several that correctly place the question in the larger context of the Quebec national question and how these issues reflect the problem of the cultural insecurity of Québécois as a minority in a state that refuses to acknowledge their national character – which of course then points to the need to develop a strategy for independence, the creation of a state that can adequately defend French as the public language and develop an intercultural, open secular approach to immigration, education, human rights, etc. Which will not be done by centering the debate on abstract values.

The article was first published by Benoit on June 13, 2013, on Le blogueur solidaire. It has been slightly revised by him for my English translation, which was first published on The numbered notes (5 to 10) are by him.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

The Marois government, identity secularism and ‘Quebec values’

By Benoit Renaud

Bernard Drainville, the minister of Democratic Institutions in the Parti québécois government, announced May 22 that the Charte de la laïcité, or Charter of Secularism, promised by his party in last year’s general election, would become a Charte des valeurs québécoises, or Charter of Quebec values, and be tabled as a government bill this fall. What does this shift in the government’s rhetoric mean, and how should the left react?

This new maneuver, aimed at expanding the identity front in the hope of gaining (electoral) ground, is complex and risky. We should take advantage of it to make some headway in favour of pluralism and human rights, and put an end once and for all to the proposed Charte de la laïcité, a project that is at best unnecessary and potentially a threat to our freedoms; and we should reaffirm as “Quebec values” a respect for difference, intercultural convergence, and solidarity in opposition to discrimination and oppression.

As the report of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission clearly demonstrated, there is no crisis in Quebec in the relations between different communities of belief, except in the heads of the xenophobes, the speeches of the right-wing demagogues who fuel this xenophobia in order to make political capital, and the dishonest coverage of some sensationalistic media. When incidents are blown up in the media, it is because some people make bad decisions based on ignorance, prejudice, xenophobia or by overlooking certain rights. We saw this recently in the decision of the Quebec Soccer Federation to exclude young Sikhs wearing turbans. There was no problem until a few individuals decided to create one out of nothing.

The solution to these minor problems is not to create a new law with an assimilationist and anti-religious definition of secularism (contrary to the spirit and the history of this idea, which originated on the left) and over and above the rights of individuals and minorities. Rather, the task is to commit ourselves to firm defense of the rights of religious minorities in the face of discrimination and exclusion, and in a spirit of integration. And to improve the training of those administering public services in order to prevent the kinds of incidents that our sensationalistic media and national demagogues enjoy so much. A policy on secularism and accommodation, under the existing laws, notably the Québec Charter of Rights and Freedoms, would be entirely sufficient.

Is secularism an overriding value?

What does the PQ mean by “Quebec values”? Are these values invented in Quebec before being disseminated elsewhere? Are they values found only in Quebec? Are they values that have always been shared by the people of Quebec, from New France to our day? We need to be clear. The debate has to address the values that Quebec decides to adopt collectively and democratically as a society, for now and for the future.

What are these values? Can we identify some that are more fundamental and more essential than others? To what extent can we accept that not everyone in Quebec shares the same values?

This could be an interesting debate, although hard to translate into laws and regulations. But in fact the government’s purpose is not to contribute to the debate but rather to develop a new strategy to counter the decline in their popular support, a logical consequence of their neoliberal governance. Like other Western governments on the ropes in the recent past (for example, Sarkozy’s in France), the Marois regime hopes to rally support around xenophobic panic disguised as a fight for secularism and/or national identity.

This new positioning is both a retreat and an offensive. A retreat, in that it dilutes the issue of secularism as understood by the ethnic nationalists and the anticlerical militants (two distinct groups that sometimes overlap). Their demand for a charter of secularism seeks to set aside the policy of intercultural integration adopted by Quebec in the years when Gérald Godin was in the government[5] and replacing it with a new policy of assimilation asking minorities to make themselves invisible. This assimilative policy logically leads to justifying discrimination and marginalization for persons who refuse to dissolve into the model determined by the majority.

The strategic retreat toward “values” in general is both a concession to those who reject secularism out of attachment for Quebec’s Catholic heritage (like the mayor of Saguenay) and a logical consequence of the identitarian slippage in the very concept of secularism, which is increasingly instrumentalized for the purpose of marginalizing minorities. This is contrary to the meaning of secularism in its historic sense.[6]

But raising the question of “Quebec values” in general opens the door to recognition of more important values than secularism. Secularism should be understood as a means of achieving equality, freedom and solidarity: equality among the members of society independently of their spiritual and philosophical beliefs; freedom for everyone to believe or not to believe, and to build their own vision of the world; and solidarity with minorities in the realms of philosophy (e.g. atheists) or religion (Jews, Muslims, etc.) in the face of persecution or mere contempt on the part of the majority. Thus, if we were to re-examine the secular project in light of more fundamental values, we could fight its identitarian slippage and reinforce an intercultural and evolutive vision of the Quebec nation..

The PQ leaders are promoting a charter of values as a means of shoring up their nationalist credentials, which have been undermined by their inability to revive the struggle for Quebec sovereignty and their servility to the petroleum and mining multinationals, and more generally to the interests of transnational capital as manifested in their support to the Canadian free trade deal now being negotiated with Europe. Since the fight against the powerful is no longer on their agenda, why not embark on an operation that will further oppress people who are already marginalized? They didn’t hesitate to do that to the social assistance recipients, so why not go after the “ethnics” as well?

One of the problems with this approach is that its premise — that immigrants, particularly those of the Muslim religion, have values that differ appreciably from those of the French-Canadian majority — is an outright myth.[7] In fact, the values professed by the adherents of various minority religions are surprisingly similar to those of the average Catholic. Not to mention the people who come to Quebec precisely in order to escape Conservative and authoritarian regimes, or the members of minority groups that have long been established in our communities. Mixing the issue of religious affiliation and secularism with the issue of values is therefore at best breaking down an open door and at worst an operation that will fuel prejudice against minorities.

Prohibiting religious signs is not secularism

I know from my experience in Québec solidaire as well as elsewhere that the heart of the debate, its most important practical application, will once again concern the wearing of signs of religious (or cultural) adherence by workers in the public services. And that’s just for starters…

Let’s say, first, that there is no legal tradition that protects us from knowing another’s religion. That’s an invention of French anticlerical and/or Islamophobic philosophers.[8] Simply being informed of another person’s religion is in no way an infringement of my own freedom to believe or not to believe, or an attack against the secular nature of public institutions. And the idea that we can only know the religion of others if they are wearing some visible indication of it makes no sense.

If we recognized this right, how far would we have to go to enforce it? To get an idea, we need only think of the recent French moves to ban the headscarf for mothers accompanying kids on school outings, or for women working in the private sector, etc.

What if a man of Jamaican origin has dreadlocks, like Bob Marley? I might conclude that he adheres to the Rasta religion. So if he applied for a job as a teacher, I could require that he cut his hair. By doing so, I would prevent him from displaying his identification with his slave and African ancestors and their struggles. Would that decision be progressive?

Also, our thinking should be based on an analysis of the context. There is no systemic discrimination against atheists or Christians in our society. But there is indeed against the Arabs, the Muslims, the Africans, etc.[9] Banning personal religious insignia in general may seem fair at first, but in reality it means targeting minority religions, and the effect is to fuel prejudice.

Furthermore, a law banning the wearing of religious signs would probably be overthrown by the courts on the basis of the Quebec or Canadian charters of human rights. And some writers who favour such a ban recognize the problem. That’s where the bad idea of a Charte de la laïcité comes from. It’s a way to put so-called secular principles (actually anti-religious principles, which is quite different) above human rights in order to immunize them from potential court decisions. The last thing to do in this situation would be to pressure the PQ to return the discussion toward a Charte de la laïcité. On the contrary, we should take advantage of the semantic fuzziness introduced by the invocation of “values” to reverse this trend and argue for a simple policy based on existing rights.

If the PQ wants to return to this question this fall, it will be in the context of its inability to renew the strategy of the independentist movement and the decline in support for the government because of its neoliberal policies. What, then, is the political content of their project concerning “Quebec values”? It is an identitarian retreat to the NOUS of a Jacques Parizeau, the NOUS of the “secularized,”[10] the NOUS who don’t wear bizarre or sexist clothing, etc. aimed at THEM and their customs, their habits, their beliefs. If Québec solidaire (and the left in general) do not come out in strong opposition to this populist right-wing slippage worthy of a Mario Dumont, we will collectively be accomplices of a tendency to caricature minorities that will be used to justify any and all discrimination. This would be unworthy of an internationalist left opposed to all forms of oppression.

Other articles by Benoit Renaud (in English) on these issues may be found at Life on the Left and Socialist Voice. Just type his name in the respective Search spaces, then press Enter.

[1] As Gurcharan Singh, president of the Federation of Sikh Societies of Canada, noted in a letter to the Ottawa Citizen, published June 11, the clothing in question is a patka: “a turban is generally six to eight metres; a patka is less than one square metre.” It is “part of the uniform of every male Sikh athlete universally.”

[2] And they opposed demands frequently advanced in Quebec nationalist circles for a ban on the wearing of religious signs by “state agents” (employees and officials) — while providing some loopholes for potential exceptions: “provided they are not used as instruments of proselytism” and do not interfere with their duty of discretion or “impede the performance of the duties or contravene safety standards.” (For a detailed account see my article “Quebec left debates independence strategy.”)

[3] For an English translation of extensive excerpts from Renaud’s article, see “Quebec needs workers’ unity, not a ‘charter of secularism’ – Québec solidaire.”

[4] The courts had already held that the kirpan is not a “weapon,” in a case that vividly demonstrated some of the ways in which accommodation of religious minorities could actually aid the national cause in Quebec. See my article, “The Kirpan Ruling: A Victory for Public School Integration.”

[5] Godin was Minister of Cultural Communities and Immigration in the early 1980s.

[6] In France, in a period when Europe was still experiencing democratic revolutions, the goal was to defend equal rights for all citizens, including Protestants, Jews or agnostics, in the face of domination by the Catholic Church of the majority.

[7] Paul Eid, “La ferveur religieuse et les demandes d’accommodement religieux, une comparaison intergroupe,” in Eid, Bosset, Milot & Legro (ed.), Appartenances religieuses, Appartenance citoyenne, un équilibre en tension (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2009).

[8] I am thinking here of Catherine Kintzler and Henri Pena-Ruiz, in particular.


[10] An individual cannot personify laïcité; it is a neutral terrain, not a specific vision of the world. Laïcisation is an evolution of institutions, secularization affects civil society.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Latin America’s progressive governments: their origins, nature and challenges

 An informed view from the South

In the following essay, Pablo Stefanoni, an Argentine journalist, thoughtfully explores some of the distinctive features of the politics of the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Stefanoni argues that a “left vs. right” reading of the processes now under way in Latin America does not adequately capture the origins and nature of the new governments purporting to go beyond neoliberalism; a satisfactory analysis must encompass a long-existing national-popular and anti-imperialist tradition as well as a newer indigenista current building on post-colonial and subalternist readings that in turn complicate our understanding of the trends and challenges. But his central thesis is that a “left agenda” can contribute themes and proposals to the current debates that neither nationalism nor indigenism can adequately address.

Pablo Stefanoni is the former editor of the Bolivian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique and is currently the editor of the bimonthly journal Nueva Sociedad, published in Buenos Aires. He is the author of many books and articles on Bolivia and developments in Latin America. This article, dated September 8, 2012, has been widely reproduced; my translation follows the text published in Viento Sur. Thanks to Federico Fuentes for drawing my attention to it and for revising my draft translation.

Richard Fidler

* * *

Libertarian left and ‘people’s governments’: some bridges, and a fair number of precipices

By Pablo Stefanoni

The quantity of adjectives used to characterize the Latin American governments proposing to abandon neoliberalism — progressive, left, nationalist and even post-neoliberal (to add a prefix to a prefix!) — themselves reflect the difficulty in encompassing in a single bloc a set of dissimilar experiences produced by widely differing trajectories, situations and political cultures but nevertheless traversed by a certain ideological solidarity.[1] However, the left-right cleavage has always been complicated in the so-called “Third World,” where the antagonism between nation and imperialism has served to destabilize, and often marginalize, simple class-based visions and to define paths in which the successful lefts were often “nationalist lefts.”

As the Sovietologist Sheila Fitzpatrick has noted, the developmentalist aspect of Marxism (where abandoning capitalism is viewed as a prerequisite to catching up to the developed countries) has predominated to a great extent over its emancipatory aspect.[2] Indeed, while the “soviets” as a form of semi-direct popular democracy quickly fell from favour, “electrification” — as a virtual synonym for often disproportionate industrial projects — has up to now largely retained currency.

Obviously, the links between the left, development, and anti-imperialism determined a path in which Lenin clearly prevailed over Marx, and the geopolitics overdetermined, and blocked, other, more libertarian and emancipatory perspectives which often were deemed expressions of “petty-bourgeois weakness” in the face of the major battles in the war between the socialist and capitalist camps.

Simplifying to “ideal types,” in Latin America a sector of the left defended the marriage with (populist) nationalism — the “national left” was the clearest expression of this — as a possible road to post-capitalism through the deepening of national-popular reforms (strengthening the state, gradual nationalization of the economy, Latin American integration, etc.), while a more “social-democratic” or “revolutionary” Marxist variant considered that populism closed the way to socialism instead of opening it. The first group pointed to the state-centered and antipluralist (organicist) nature of populism, while the second noted that in the last analysis the “populist” regimes were the expression of a national bourgeoisie that simply was willing to advance in a limited way in the mobilization of the masses and would accept a limited and ambivalent series of reforms that included more rights combined with high levels of state regimentation. As we know, the Communist parties positioned themselves in these discussions according to the international guidelines decided in Moscow — after characterizing the national-popular governments of the 1940s as “neo-fascist” (for example, in Argentina with Juan D. Perón, and in Bolivia with Gualberto Villarroel), they went on to consider Peronism, for example, as an ally of the left in the struggle for national and social liberation.[3]

After this brief introduction, perhaps it is worth asking how many of these tensions persist today in the relation between what we could designate generically a left ideology and the actually existing governments of the bloc of change in its national-popular variant? Is it possible to continue reading the reality in terms of right and left?

An initial observation about the present process of change on a South American scale since the neoliberal hegemony — especially during the 1990s — is that the regimes considered most radical by both the left and the right are those that came to power through political organizations that do not stem from the traditional lefts (Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia) and those that originate in a left tradition are the ones that are considered “moderate” (Brazil, Uruguay and even Chile). This merits a closer look, to see if we can advance some preliminary hypotheses.

1. The radicalism of the South American processes depends not only on the ideological options of the governments (“carnivores” or “vegetarians,” according to Álvaro Vargas Llosa), but on a series of received political and institutional trajectories, including the levels of political distrust. Where the party system imploded and the political system itself was questioned as a democracy of exclusive elites (Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador), demands arose for a refoundation of the country, expressed in the call for constituent assemblies. These proposed, inter alia, to end the “internal colonialism” that in the case of Bolivia and Ecuador, but also in Venezuela, excluded the Indigenous, Afro or Mestiza majorities both materially and symbolically.

2. The organized left that came to power (the Brazilian Workers Party, the Uruguayan Broad Front and in part the Chilean Socialist Party, to which we could now add the FMLN in El Salvador), which suffered directly the impact of the post-1989 crisis, pursued their transition to the centre-left (an evolution that in Latin America had been initiated during the processes of democratic restoration in the 1980s, encouraged as well by the self-criticism of the violence in the 1970s). That did not occur, or occurred to a lesser degree, with the weaker and more dispersed lefts that sought a last resort in nationalism and indigenism (the real and submerged country confronting the visible and formal country), as well as in anti-partyism. It provided new sources of ideological radicalization: defense of the fatherland, vindication of the indigenous, rejection of the partidocracia, the party-corrupted democracy. The principal signifier of the refounding processes, the axis of anti-neoliberalism, is that now “there is a homeland for everyone.”

3. Indeed, if we observe in greater detail the most “radical” processes, it is possible to conclude that the source of this radicalism is found in the nationalist template: anti-imperialism, polarization between people and oligarchy, nationalizations, new change in the power elites, etc., and if socialism (“of the 21st century”) has returned to the agenda, it is reconceived as a linear extension of nationalism (not accidentally, neither Chávez nor Evo nor Correa tend to speak of the class struggle). Including, to a large degree, given the extractive nature of the Venezuelan, Ecuadorian and Bolivian economies, a kind of geological socialism or nationalism.[4] The novelty in any case is that the new nationalism no longer oscillates between right and left (like Vargas, Perón or Paz Estenssoro) and has lost its anticommunist facet; in fact, there is a strong geopolitical/affective link with the Cuban regime.

If we look to the ethical/moral sensibilities, it is not hard to notice that those processes not only lack radicalism but that they can (at least in their hegemonic fractions) be overtly conservative in terms of reproductive rights or rights for the so-called sexual and gender minorities. A case apart is Kirchnerism, which has flagged these issues as an axis of its politics, demonstrating the almost infinite capacity of Peronism to incorporate very diverse claims and demands, in this case foreign to its history, including the most recent.

4. Furthermore, the left-right cleavage today is theoretically challenged not only by the national-popular tradition (which proposes the alliance of the national classes, although it now makes little use of that terminology), but also by Indianism and various post or decolonial and subalternist readings that pose an alternative cleavage between modernity/colonialism and decolonization/“other view.” This is happening especially in Bolivia and Ecuador, where the indigenous peoples, with a majority or significant presence, serve to construct a series of readings in terms of radical otherness challenging modernity/colonialism under the influence of US academics. Mignolo, for example, argues that to speak of an “indigenous left” in characterizing the Movimiento al Socialismo of Evo Morales is proof of “left-wing imperialism,”[5] and Simón Yampara, an Aymara intellectual and opposition leader, argues that anyone who continues talking about left and right still has the “colonial chip” in his brain.

There is no doubt that in countries like Bolivia a part of the left has had colonial attitudes toward the indigenous peoples. The problem is that if the reading in terms of left/right fails to capture all the elements at play in the present processes of change, the least one can say is that posing things in terms of modernity/decoloniality does not exactly simplify things and adds a new series of problems, especially if we go beyond what the actors are saying about themselves and complement interviews with the spokespersons with observations in the field, and detailed (including ethnographic) descriptions concerning the actually existing subalterns.

5. In reality, the problem of the currency of the term “left” is unrelated to its capacity to reinforce a “major cleavage” in the political arena against the right (although, to be sure, the new popular governments have reactivated a reading of the existing disputes in those terms). Its potentiality is linked to more limited but no less potent objectives: a left agenda can raise themes for debate that neither nationalism nor indigenismo are going to raise, in pursuit of a radical democratization of the society. In addition to the aforementioned anti-conservative agenda in the ethical-moral terrain, the left should re-pose socio-economic readings of the social conflict that the binary visions of nationalism simply read in political terms (with the revolution or against it). This applies as well to discussions on possible articulations between state and market — which the indigenistas reduce to trivialized versions of complementarity[6] and the nationalists to politicized readings (“patriotic” or “unpatriotic” businessmen, for example) or developmentalist illusions framed in the language of the 1950s. In this regard, a real critical balance sheet is needed on the experiences of 20th century socialism, including that of Cuba. The argument that the currency of the term “left” is no longer relevant often tends to result in silence about that agenda, which is crucial when thinking about political, social and cultural change.

In light of the present processes, it is not a question of claiming ontological priority for the left over other models and traditions, but of thinking about the possible articulation between the left, popular and democratic nationalism, and Indianism/decolonization, to conceive of an emancipatory project that takes into account a plurality of oppressions and struggles against them. There is nothing particularly new in this; what is new, in any event, is that now we are dealing not only with a theoretical debate in a university auditorium but with a discussion that defines concrete positions taken in relation to the actually existing “popular” governments.

Based on these general comments, it is possible to outline some aspects of the experiences in which these tensions between nationalism and the left are becoming more visible: Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and — due to the “1970ish” evolution of Kirchnerist Peronism — Argentina.

Political crises and plebeian emergence

Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have been the countries where the crisis of the party system had the greatest impact and where the dynamics of the social mobilization generated processes of political renovation and a change in elites that have led political analysts as well as activists and leaders in the social movements, both in the region and beyond, to the view that those three processes constitute the radical wing of the South American turn to the left. Although it may be debatable, especially in light of an analysis of the public policies actually applied and the range of the utopias involved, it is certainly in this bloc of countries that the discourses of refoundation have had the greatest importance. In response to popular demands, Constituent Assemblies met not only to reform the existing constitutions but to redesign the institutional framework.

Argentina presents an intermediary situation. The crisis of 2001 opened the way to a sui generis post-neoliberal agenda that did not include nationalization of natural resources (at least until the state takeover of YPF in 2012) but did include, for example, progressive demands such as equal marriage rights that are lacking in the other three countries. But the decisive factor was that the capacity of Peronism to recycle itself ideologically severely limited the political renovation, which ultimately ended as a dispute within the party, now a sort of federation of provincial Peronisms (as Néstor Kirchner himself said) or, to put it another way, a front of regional governors. Thus it is not a renovation of the elites but a self-regeneration of Peronism, which in the 1990s was neoliberal and today is again national-popular. Strictly speaking, Kirchnerism is progressive in the city of Buenos Aires and ultrapragmatic in the interior of Argentina; its national hegemony is based on agreements with Peronist governors that so far have proceeded through Menemism and Duhaldism and now adhere to Kirchnerism.[7]

Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales (and to a much lesser degree Néstor and Cristina Kirchner) are the result of this combination of an implosion of the old political system with the emergence of renewed electoral alternatives, but nevertheless these crises — linked to a growing questioning of the Washington Consensus — have proceeded differently in each country, so it is worth taking a closer look at each of the concrete processes of crisis and renovation of politics.

In the Venezuelan case, the Caracazo was a cold bath of reality illustrating the instability — and narrow limits — of the democratic consensus established on the basis of the Punto Fijo Pact of 1958, while in Bolivia and Ecuador, the overthrow of a series of presidents marked the exhaustion of a type of “political grammar” that had characterized the democratic cycles beginning in 1982 and 1979 respectively. But in both cases there was one element in common: the discourse that would prevail was the one that appealed to a section of the society that for ethnic and socio-economic reasons feels excluded from the political system. It was expressed later in slogans that emphasized that through processes of change the Homeland (and the strategic natural resources) were finally to be, as we mentioned earlier, for everyone. In other words, transforming the state as guarantor of “effective access of the most under-privileged to the rights and material and spiritual benefits (in terms of status and symbolic power, for example) of relevance to the national collectivity.”[8]

To a large degree there is a return today to the idea of the existence of a “party of the nation” in opposition to the anti-nation, which brings with it a “politicization” of conflicts of interests (it is common to accuse this or that protest struggle, including those led by allied social or political groups, of “playing the game of imperialism”), a certain unstated organicism, and a sui generis idea of pluralism: as Bolivia’s vice-president García Linera suggests, pluralism is to be expressed in Bolivia within the governing party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS).

An additional fact is the entry of soldiers into politics in the Venezuelan case. According to the Asociación Civil Control Ciudadano, more than 200 officials of the National Armed Forces occupy senior positions in the government and 2,000 officers hold middle and subordinate posts in the public administration.[9] This is a difference with Bolivia, Ecuador, and much more so with Argentina, where progressivism cannot be anything less than antimilitarist.

Types of leadership and new parties

Hugo Chávez is in many senses the classic populist leader that Ernesto Laclau described:[10] the leader who has to “construct” the people as a political subject. Evo Morales has gone the reverse route: a union leader, he is the product of a process by which a series of agrarian unions and neighborhood and workers organizations spilled into the political arena, going beyond their corporatist nature. Hence in the case of Chávez the charismatic/affective dimension predominates in his leadership, as opposed to the self-representation in the case of Evo Morales (“now we are presidents,” “I am going to lead by obeying,” etc.), a leadership accompanied by a strong “ethnic identity.” Rafael Correa, for his part, appeared as a political outsider amidst a crisis of the political system and declining levels of social mobilization. And Néstor and Cristina Kirchner came from a traditional political career that began in the far south of Argentina, after a passage in their youth through left Peronism, in which its major utopia (at least until 2003) was to expand personal fortune in order to allow greater scope for political action in line with its definition of politics as “cash más expectativas [cash plus expectations].”[11] While Carlos Menem made a liberal turn consistent with the state of the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Kirchners made a turn to the center-left in the new situation created by the popular uprising of 2001 in Buenos Aires.

The new parties also differ quite markedly in their situations. In Bolivia the governing party (although it does not define itself as such) was created in 1995 as the “political instrument” of the peasant unions and organizations. In Ecuador Alianza País was hurriedly cobbled together around Correa and a group of progressive intellectuals. In Argentina the “infinite Peronism” (as Maristella Svampa puts it) remained in power through internal reconfigurations, while in Venezuela the United Socialist Party (PSUV), in the wake of the MBR 200 and the Movement of the Fourth Republic (MVR), was built from within the state after 2007.

The sociologist Edgardo Lander argues that “the PSUV is a site of tension: it does not represent the full exercise of democracy from the grassroots, nor is it a space that can be completely controlled from above.” However, alluding to the PSUV slogan after the 2010 election, “We are millions, with a single voice,” he adds that the deepening of the tendency to personal leadership has been eroding the first term in that equation, a process unambiguously expressed by Chávez himself in the mass rally held on January 13, 2010 to mark the 53rd anniversary of the fall of the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez:

“I demand absolute loyalty to my leadership… I am not an individual, I am a people. I am obliged to ensure respect for the people. Those who want a homeland, come with Chávez… Here, in the revolutionary ranks of the people, I demand maximum loyalty and unity. Unity, free and open discussion, but loyalty… anything else is treason.”

Which for Lander leaves the unanswered question: How to process the permanent tensions that exist between the impetus of the rank and file social web that has been strengthened in these years, the organization and democratic participation from below, and a hierarchical and vertical model of leadership and decision-making?[12]

In the Bolivian case, as we have noted, the organizational density of the popular sectors frames or places limits on the charismatic leadership of Evo Morales. But only to a certain point. Moira Zuazo asks, in an article published in Nueva Sociedad that paraphrases Vice-President García Linera,[13] “What happens when the soviets retreat?” Clearly, the MAS today is unable to construct spaces of internal debate and place issues on the public agenda. Indeed, the idea of a “government of social movements” or of “governing by obeying” the organizations is not easy in practice, when the corporate retreats undermine the more universalist outlooks. Hence the state appears as the custodian of the universal as opposed to the movements as agents of particularistic interests. What would happen if “the organizations” were to distance themselves from the government? For example, when the peasant federation Túpac Katari of La Paz requested changes of ministers, Evo Morales became annoyed and pointed out: “I don’t appoint union leaders, you are not going to appoint the ministers.” Or when the vice-president rejected the indigenous organizations that opposed oil exploration in the Amazon, accusing them of placing their particular interests above those of the country.

What we have, then, is a complex combination of charismatic leadership and social self-representation, which in the Bolivian case appears as complementary more than contradictory, as might be expected a priori. The weak point of these organizing logics is the formation of cadres and unstable processes of learning, and notwithstanding efforts to put together a cadre school they have not managed to overcome the deficits in political and technical training of the MAS membership.

In the case of Ecuador, Rafael Correa — who, as we mentioned, served briefly as Minister of the Economy during the government of Alfredo Palacio — ran successfully “on the outside” of the political system, with a strong dose of extroversion, a mixture of youthful charisma, an aura of technocratic competence and a certain Messianic arrogance. In a sense, his form of “authoritarianism” is very “executive,” mixed with a kind of narcissism characteristic of public intellectuals. Thus, in the debates he was characterized by his great effectiveness at disarming the arguments of his adversaries. And later he would develop these features even further on his Saturday radio and television program, where he tends to play the role of the “great teacher of the nation.”[14]

As Ramírez notes,

“Correa’s candidacy actually went further than any other ever before in its attempt to take advantage of the deep-rooted citizen opposition to the party system. On the one hand, and in contrast to the outsiders of the past, Correa disconnected his candidacy from any anchorage in the party system and founded a citizens’ movement, Alianza País…. With the image of the “citizens’ movement,” there has been an attempt to underline the social origin of the new electoral formation. At the same time, AP took the risky and unprecedented decision not to accompany its presidential campaign with a slate of parliamentary candidates. It delineated the original identity of the (anti-party) movement, awarded it an antisystemic character, and prefigured the strategy of radical political change that Correa would from then on drive forward.”[15]

In Ramírez’ view, marketing occupies an important place in the construction of Correa’s politics.

“[T]he implacable realism of government power is thereby complemented by a subtle sociological realism: there is no sense in procuring the mobilization of a society that is sick and tired of politics. Rather, what is needed is to appeal to it as public opinion and to make it see, through television, the achievements of the government. There is nothing more effective at reaching a mass of lethargic and disorganized citizens than a media campaign… The impersonation of organized construction and democratic deliberation through marketing and the procurement of ample audiences is not enough, however, to generate political links or real spaces for participation and dialogue with actually existing actors.”[16]

Finally, Kirchnerism has various birthdates as the hegemonic movement within Peronism. One might be 2003, when Eduardo Duhalde, lacking candidates and after renouncing his own candidacy, appointed the governor of Santa Cruz as his candidate. Another might be 2005, when Cristina Kirchner won the senate seat for the province of Buenos Aires against Chiche Duhalde and denounced Eduardo Duhalde as a “mafia don.” A third might be 2008 when, after losing the conflict with the agrobusiness exporters, [Néstor] Kirchner decided to radicalize the discourse and embarked on a war with [the daily newspaper] Clarín, promulgating the media law, and with the Church, himself organizing as a member of parliament the approval of equal marriage. And a fourth stage is the one following the death of Néstor Kirchner in 2010, when the former president became a mobilizing myth of a “new subject,” the youth, whose more official expression, La Cámpora, drew the link with the “glorious youth of the Seventies”[17] and with a left-wing Peronism quite removed from the “official history” of the movement — a symbolic political operation enthusiastically joined in by Cristina Fernández.

Welfarism or equality: What kind of social inclusion?

The will to end dependency on resource rents was expressed in Venezuela in the formula of Arturo Úslar Pietri: sembrar petróleo [“to sow (or spread) petroleum”], which aimed to reinvest the resources from the petroleum rent in productive sectors of the economy, especially agriculture; and this agenda continues to be the pillar of the nationalism in Ecuador and Bolivia, too, where it would suffice to replace oil with gas. But, as history demonstrates, it is not easy to end extractivism and presidential will alone is not enough. Many forces are arranging themselves around the interests it expresses. Venezuela is today one of the biggest importers of food in all of Latin America (in the amount of more than $5 billion).[18]

Bolivia and to a large degree Ecuador, whose economy is still dollarized, also suffer from this “neocolonial disease.” In Argentina, as well, the rise of mega-mining has been impressive in recent years, promoting accumulation by dispossession.[19] But in contrast to the other cases, Argentina has major industrial diversification, albeit with high levels of concentration and foreign ownership,[20] which has now combined with a recovery of the capacity of the trade unions to engage in wage negotiations in a context of reduced unemployment and expansion of social policies (especially through the innovative Seguro Universal por Hijo, or Universal Child Security), but also of very high inflation.

It is in Venezuela where more policies have been tried, although it is also, of the three, the country in which those undertakings have been less articulated with the existing institutional structure. This is worth a closer look, as Bolivarian socialism is often considered the most radical experience on the continent. In more than a decade, the Chávez government has tried various mechanisms — in the initial stage these were characterized as “civilian military operations” — in order to advance “massive and accelerated processes for inclusion” through “a fairer distribution of the petroleum rent.” The critics of rentism talk of the “encampment culture” in Venezuela, where extraordinary operations predominate without continuity in time.[21] But it was Chávez himself who, admitting implicitly the failure of a post-hydrocarbons development agenda, defined the ongoing project as socialismo petrolero (“oil-based socialism”).[22]

In this context, the most successful recipe for this purpose has been the social missions, which began in 2003 and have resonated widely within and beyond Venezuela. The reasons for their implementation were related to the political conjuncture and Chávez himself related their implementation to the opinion polls that were predicting his defeat in the recall referendum initiated by the opposition in 2004; faced with these polls, he sought Fidel Castro’s help in mounting a large-scale social policy.[23]

Although even the critics acknowledge the positive effects of the missions, some question the ad hoc nature of their institutional standing (generally, they are funded by the state oil company PDVSA). This is justified by official spokespeople by the need to avoid bureaucratic obstacles and ensure speedy responses (the old state often appears as an obstacle to the revolution that is resolved by creating parallel institutionalities with a certain instability in terms of continuity).

At the same time, the formal health system encountered its worst crisis between 2008 and 2009 and the authorities themselves acknowledged the functional collapse of the healthcare system (including some closures when medical personnel left the country, the poor state of the infrastructure and the lack of cleanliness and safety.)[24] To which are added very high levels of crime that affect the popular sectors above all.

And in Ecuador and Bolivia the model could be defined as a combination of extractivism with a major state presence via nationalizations,[25] moderate developmentalism (above all in highway infrastructure) and democratization in the distribution of the hydrocarbons rent. In general, including in Argentina, the emphasis is on policies of direct transfers of rent (conditional cash transfers) and social infrastructure spending on health, education, low-cost food, etc. But despite the discourse, which conveys a lot of developmentalist/industrialist illusions, and some more heterodox development plans (above all in Ecuador, at least on paper) there are few advances in the development of a post-extractivist agenda in the medium or even long term.

* * *

As this quick overview indicates, there are no doubt some bridges between a libertarian left and the present processes of change, but there are also some precipices. It is clear that the lefts are part of the popular movements that have weakened neoliberalism in the streets, and that in Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and — in a much less direct and more complex way — in Argentina have paved the way for new progressive governments. If those governments fall, what comes after them will be not “more left” but tendencies aiming at restoration of the old order (although in some countries renovated centre-left oppositions have emerged that may modify this statement somewhat). Undeniably, the new governments must be credited with the return of the state, more consistent levels of national independence and support for Latin American integration, and the lefts should break from the “anti-populist” readings: politics has returned to centre-stage and that is a positive thing.

It is clearly possible to observe a process of democratization in its broad sense — as Tilly argues, in the development of political confidence, the decline in autonomy of the independent power centres (the actual powers) in relation to the production of public policies, and the increase in political equality.[26] But that must not prevent us from confronting effective tendencies in opposition to social autonomy derived from organicist logics or processes of judicialization of politics, nor should we fall for “facile” polarizations aimed at enemies chosen by the governments in accordance with objectives that are often conjunctural.

Similarly with regard to the economy. While advances have been made in the area of broader social policies, it is no less certain that a left project would have to go beyond compensatory perspectives and place redistribution on a plane tied more closely to a consistent reform project (it is no accident that tax reform continues to be a pending task, with the exception of Ecuador). And that applies as well to values. In Venezuela the so-called “bolibourgeoisie” or “Bolivarian bourgeoisie” has formed in a context of extreme corruption and equally worrisome levels of impunity, while in Argentina Kirchnerism (through its own trajectory and form of political construction) has allowed levels of political pragmatism that are incompatible with a genuine intellectual and moral reform of politics. There it must be said that to criticize the idea that “politics means not doing anything disgusting” (Néstor Kirchner) is synonymous with mere intellectual candour. We must not lose sight of the fact that the dark side of the “return of politics” — and this applies especially in Argentina — is crony capitalism, a “political” measuring of inflation and the consolidation of a cliquish vision of power.

A separate matter is geopolitics. The more or less explicit support of the “national and popular” bloc to Khadafi or the Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad has placed the governments of Chávez, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega and Correa in a position of hostility toward the Arab democratic revolution. The fact that Chávez initially admitted that it was through Khadafi and Assad that he was informed of the situation in Egypt and Tunisia says much about the purely “geopolitical” vision of nationalism in power, in opposition to an effective internationalist solidarity with the peoples who are fighting. At the same time, Chávez’s abrupt turn to Colombia, to whose government he now delivers captured leaders of the FARC,[27] indicates the need to maintain critical and independent positions and not to engage in tailism.

Obviously, critical support is not a simple thing in practice, when it is often difficult to position oneself between acritical officialism and the ultra-critical opposition without feigning neutrality or presenting an image of intellectual purism. As we know, any position taken in politics has consequences that cannot be controlled by those who articulate it. But between uncritically “getting one’s feet dirty” in order to “be with the people” and remaining in a comfortable ivory tower there is a variety of possible positions to be taken in both political and intellectual terms, and without accepting a binary view that in the mouth of a Bush or a Chávez points to the same result: stifling critical thinking. Or, as Guillermo Almeyra notes, reducing politics to an instruction that appears alongside bus drivers in Argentina: “No molestar al conductor” — Do not disturb the driver.

[1] As illustrated when the “moderate” Lula Da Silva supported the “radical” Hugo Chávez during the 2002 coup in Venezuela, or when Michelle Bachelet, following UNASUR, supported the process of change in Bolivia during the attempted coup by some governors and police in 2008.

[2] Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[3] See Carlos Altamirano, Peronismo y cultura de izquierda, (Buenos Aires: Temas, 2001).

[4] Fernando Molina, El pensamiento boliviano sobre los recursos naturales ((La Paz: Pulso, 2009).

[5] Walter Mignolo, La idea de América Latina (Madrid, Gedisa, 2007). See Afterward to the Spanish edition.

[6] For example, Yampara has said that the transnational corporations ought to “complement” the Bolivian state, without undoing the logics of capitalism, profit and power relations.

[7] Sometimes the most bizarre aspects of reality shed some light. In 2010, in a debate between Alberto Samid, an eccentric personality who owns a meat-packing business, and an agricultural producer around the Socialist Party in Santa Fe, on the television program of Luis Majul, the following pitched exchange could be heard:

Samid: “I am a Peronista; I supported Menem, Duhalde and now I am with Kirchner.”

Rural leader: “But how can you be with those who privatize and with those who say that we have to go back to the state?”

Samid: “Shut up, vendepatria! [traitor].”

[8] Marc Saint-Upéry, “¿Hay patria para todos? Ambivalencia de lo público y ‘emergencia plebeya’ en los nuevos gobiernos progresistas,” in Íconos, Revista de Ciencias Sociales, No. 32 (Quito: Ecuador office of FLACSO, September 2008).

[9] Venessa Cartaya and Flavio Cartucci, Report for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 2010.

[10] Ernesto Laclau, La razón populista, (Buenos Aires: FCE, 2005).

[11] Walter Curia, El último peronista: La cara oculta de Kirchner (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2006).

[12] Edgardo Lander, “Quién ganó las elecciones parlamentarias en Venezuela? ¿Estamos ante la última oportunidad de discutir el rumbo des proceso bolivariano?,” Rebelión, 5-10-2010.

[13] Moira Zuazo, “¿Los movimientos sociales en el poder? El gobierno del MAS en Bolivia,” Nueva Sociedad, May-June 2010.

[14] Something similar is attributable to García Linera in his more sporadic appearances on the state television channel, where he literally schools the country on the government project. Although Chávez engages in pedagogy on his Aló Presidente program, often with pencil and maps in hand, it is far from a classroom exercise and aims for a pedagogic/affective link and mobilization of emotions with the ranks, combining government affairs with a much more multifaceted show that in terms of argumentation is fairly chaotic.

[15] Franklin Ramírez Gallegos, “Participación y desconfianza política en la transformación constitucional del Estado ecuatoriano,” presentation in the seminar on Reform of the State in the Andean-Amazonian countries, IFEA-PIEB, La Paz, June 2009.

[16] Franklin Ramírez G. “Post-neoliberalismo indócil. Agenda pública y relaciones socio-estatales en el Ecuador de la Revolución Ciudanana”, 40 Revista Temas y Debates 20, October 2010, Universidad Nacional de Rosario-CLACSO.

[17] That should not lead us in any way to think that there is some point of biographical comparison between those young officials and the fighters of the Seventies.


[19] Maristella Svampa and Mirta Antonelli (eds.), Minería transnacional, narrativas del desarrollo y resistencias sociales, (Buenos Aires: Biblos, 2009).

[20] Daniel Aspiazy Martín Shorr, “La recuperación salarial en la Argentina posconvertivilidad,” Nueva Sociedad, January-February 2010.

[21] Rafael Uzcátegui, La revolución como espectáculo. Una crítica anarquista al gobierno bolivariano, El Libertario- La cucaracha ilustrada- Malatesta- Tierra del Fuego (Buenos Aires, 2010).

[22] During Aló Presidente 288, the Venezuelan president explained that “we are starting to build a socialist model quite different from what Marx imagined in the 19th century. This is our model, to rely on this petroleum wealth.” And he stated that “Socialismo petrolero cannot be conceived without petroleum activity” and that this resource “gives it a peculiar configuration in our economic model.” (“Chávez: Estamos construyendo un socialismo petrolero muy diferente del que imaginó Marx,” Prensa de PDVSA, 29-7-2007,

[23] “You must remember that in the wake of the coup and all the erosion of support, the high state of ungovernability we were reaching, the economic crisis, our own errors, there came a moment in which we were neck and neck [with the opposition forces], or in danger of falling behind. There was an international polling firm recommended by some friends that came in the middle of 2003, spent two months here and went to the Palace [Miraflores, the Presidency] and gave me the bombshell: “Mr. President, if the referendum were held right now, you would lose it.” I remember that that night was for me a bombshell… So that was when we began to work with the missions, we are referring here to the first, and I went to ask Fidel’s help. I told him: “Look, I have this idea, to attack from below with full force,” and he told me: “If I know something, it is this, you can count on my full support.” And they began to send [Cuban] doctors by the hundreds, an air bridge, planes go, planes come, and to look for resources… And we began to invent the missions… and then we began to go up again in the polls, and the polls were not wrong….” Quoted in Marta Harnecker, “Intervenciones del Presidente,” November 12, 2004 (Aporrea), quoted in Uzcátegui, op. cit.

[24] Cartaya and Cartucci, op. cit.

[25] Nevertheless, some sectors accuse Chávez of undermining the nationalization of the 1970s with the contracts of partnership with transnational enterprises (see the web site

[26] Charles Tilly, Democracia (Madrid: Akal).

[27] “¿Qué significa la deportación del director de Anncol a Colombia?”, La semana, 26-4-2011,

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Álvaro García Linera: ‘There is no exclusive model’

First published in English in Bolivia Rising, June 4, 2013

The following interview with Álvaro García Linera, Bolivia’s Vice-President, conducted during his visit to Argentina last October, only recently came to our attention. Conducted by Martín Granovsky,  the interview was published in the October 7 issue of the Buenos Aires daily Página/12. The interview is of particular interest because of García Linera’s explanation of how he sees the respective role of state and social movements in the play of “creative tensions” within Bolivia’s “revolutionary process.” Translated from the Spanish by Richard Fidler, from Página/12.

As we approach the presidential election in Venezuela, is there a common project in South America?

The interesting thing is that our processes are not tied to an exclusive model. They are plural searches, with differentiated speeds and degrees of intensity, to dismantle the neoliberal machinery that accumulated by expropriating the public sector. I respect what they can do in Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela…. In Bolivia we working on the basis of our material possibilities, our reality. At first each process was a trickle of water. Now they are joining each other to form a converging torrent.

In the short run, how is the democratic path to the socialism that you proclaim being constructed?

Let’s think about the empowering of the state, which has managed to retain economic resources, scope for intervention in the economy, and let’s think about the community. Conversion of state property into public property: the key is the reinforcement of what is common, the direct participation of the people in decision-making. Without this it is impossible to imagine that the state will yield to the public and be overtaken, as we hope, by the commons. What I am saying is based on Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the integral state. As the indigenous, the trucker, the farmer do, to intervene in the decision about what is to be done with the surplus, with the property, with the minerals, with the water. State property alone is not socialism. It is a good tool for centralizing, for controlling, for keeping track of things.

And the concrete management?

I am reminded of Michel Foucault’s concept of governance. A flexible and negotiated solution of state and non-state structures, sometimes without a centre. Let’s look at the mining sector. It’s a resource with good prices. How were decisions made in the past? Without conflicts, because there were no miners, no cooperativistas, no industrialists. The World Bank, the company, the president and of course the [US] embassy decided what would be done with the ore, undemocratically, and neither Bolivia nor the businessman benefited. Now the workers want higher incomes, a larger workforce. The state wants the surplus to be redistributed among everyone. The cooperativistas, the self-employed miners, say that not everything should go to the wage-earners or the state. You have to argue over it. In plebeian language, it is work stoppages, marches, threats, reconciliation. And it produces a more complicated, more conflictive, riskier outcome but it is the people deciding about a common resource.

At what point in this synthesis is Bolivia?

In the first period there were two opposing projects regarding the economy, the state and society. As in a war of position strategy, there were two blocs, even territorially divided, and two social agendas. This ended later with the violent attempted coup d’état, an plot to assassinate Evo that was foiled, and the political and moral defeat of the conservatives. This will probably change within five years, a decade, but today there is only one horizon in time, including for the opposition, which imagines the future around this scenario. So the tensions come not from the opposition but from the usufruct within the hegemonic project, and in the most important cycle of expansion Bolivia has had in the last 50 or 60 years. We have reduced unemployment to 2 percent in a beaten-down and very poor country. The internalization of the wealth is generating a reduction in poverty and a gradual [increase in] welfare of the population. These are still modest figures, but they are significant for us as Bolivians. In this framework the state must see to it that the surplus has a universal, not corporate character.

Isn’t there the paradox of an indigenous movement that triumphs, because it has come to control the state, and loses force as such?

Brother, these are creative tensions in the revolutionary process. It has happened with the miners. Some ask us to intervene militarily. The conflicts, even if it takes us one month, or six months, even when there’s dynamite being exploded, have to be resolved democratically. The same with the oil industry. Similarly with the electricity industry. Revolutionary societies cannot let themselves be frightened by conflict and dissention. It is more complicated and risky, but that is how we give more life to democracy.

Doesn’t this conflict frighten national business sectors that the Bolivian government wants to encompass?

There are rules. The state is going to intervene in certain areas: hydrocarbons, electrical energy, mining to some degree and key sectors of mining and hydrocarbon industrialization. And that’s it. It has agreed to allow some participation for private national and foreign activity. The private sector benefits if the surplus that is generated in the country stays within it. It can provide services, improve its investments, get contracts from the state. There are moments in which the businessman’s interest intersects with that of the worker. Between the foreign businessman and the worker, the state opts for the worker. When the conflict is between the worker and the Bolivian businessman, we look for procedures for dialogue in order to allocate areas or conciliate between the interests of both.

How is South America key for Bolivia?

We have never lived through such an exceptional time to build a material basis for integration. In the last ten years intraregional trade has almost doubled. Bolivia sells 50 per cent of its exports to Latin America — not only gas but manufactured products, lumber, soy. Brazil and Argentina are cooperating in automobile production, aren’t they? Each of our countries has adopted post-neoliberal plans with greater or lesser radical content. Not only are there progressive and revolutionary governments as never before in history. Their methods reduce the effects of the crisis on the region, which will grow this year at a rate of between 3 and 5 percent while the developed world will at best achieve 1 or 2 percent. We have CELAC, UNASUR, ALBA, as initiatives of common construction. We have stopped looking at ourselves with illusions in Europe, when the prize thing was to send one’s children there. Now change includes the ideology of what is desirable for the middle class.

Argentine university students take vacations in Bolivia.

When the president leaves the Palace [of Government, popularly known as el Palacio Quemado], they call out to him for a photo: “Evo, from Argentina!” This is an exceptional time. What is driving us forward is the society. The state has to know how to keep the focus on the universal. But the society gives you a push, gives you a smack. There is no other way to advance. The state cannot substitute for society.

How do you intend to make this Bolivian state?

That’s one of the great contradictory features of a revolutionary process. The president has explained it quite nicely. In the past, the trade union was the state. The state gave you nothing and took everything from you. It seemed to be there to kill you. Invading, looting, destroying you and then withdrawing. There remained the union. I don’t have a school; it’s the union. I don’t have a road; let’s go with the union and make a road, a gravel path. A comrade has died and left five orphans; the comrades provide the casket and care for his children. In the countryside and the popular neighborhoods shortages are overcome collectively through associative relationships. Then comes this revolutionary process. We nationalize, the surplus increases and we build schools, we put grass in the schoolyard; the herbalist attends at the birth, but the health clinic comes. The union has to reconsider what it does. It mobilizes to demand that the state satisfy basic needs. That is, the social movement is weakened by the increase in the social state. So we debate the matter with the comrades. The union has to build local or regional economic power, in the development of the resources.

Does economic power include participating in management?

The union must lead in the state and private sectors. After the discussion on the surplus, it’s in the management of the economy that the socialism of the future is going to be defined, after all. There are positive and negative experiences. In the Aymara area, around the lake [Lake Titicaca, near La Paz], the comrades work the land, tend their cattle and still sold their milk to the transnational company. They don’t want to be exploited, they want to be able to culminate their efforts by forming a small dairy business to distribute the milk in the school attended by their children in the town governed by the mayor they elect. It’s a loop. Fine. In the Chapare, they opened a factory and it didn’t work. They wanted to build some economic power, but they know now the limits of managing the economy communally. They organize on a community basis for water and pasture lands, but it’s hard to organize on that basis for the processing. There is still a limit that we have to learn to go beyond.

I’ll give you another example: Huanuni. A mine with five thousand workers. Formally, the government appoints the manager, but in reality it is managed by the union. They determine the management, investments, wages, the pace of the work. State property and worker management. This is the most advanced experience and at the same time it has a limit that shows you how far you can go in the management of what is communist. The surplus that is generated is not universalized. You have comrades among the miners who are earning 50,000 Bolivianos, 10,000 dollars. The president earns 1500 dollars. Only 10 percent of the profits go to the state. The victory is worker self-management. The limit is that we are not universalizing the surplus.

What is meant by communist?

The community organization of production. Self-management tends to corporatize the resources that are generated. The goal is to universalize the resources that are generated. And you don’t have books for those tensions. Lenin didn’t put his mind to it.

What is the significance of Evo’s role in this process?

The collapse of the old party system was due to the emergence of popular sectors. I imagine that by the dynamics of the crisis, when there is a failure of the mechanisms through which those who are governed support the government the need arises for new leaders. Evo’s appearance was not predestined. But clearly he was, at the precise moment and in the precise circumstances, the right person for the society for what is happening and what is emerging. Farmer, fighter, anti-imperialist, indigenous, a unifying force. Every rebel can say, about Evo, “That’s me.”