Saturday, October 20, 2018

Québec solidaire prepares to confront a new government of austerity and social and ethnic polarization

QS caucus 2018

By Richard Fidler

Québec solidaire’s 10 members of the National Assembly, elected October 1, took their oath of office on October 17 in two parts.

The oath of allegiance to the Queen, required by the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act) in order to take their seats in the Assembly, was conducted behind closed doors, presided over by the secretary of the Assembly.

In a public ceremony held in the former chamber of the Legislative Council (the appointed upper house abolished in the 1960s) the 10 MNAs pledged their “real” loyalty “to the people of Quebec.” Then, to the acclaim of many supporters of Quebec sovereignty, both QS and non-QS, they promised to introduce a bill to abolish the oath to the Queen, described by the party’s co-leader Manon Massé as “anti-democratic” and “archaic.”

Although symbolic, it was an auspicious gesture reflecting Québec solidaire’s determination to present a real progressive alternative to the new government of the Coalition Avenir Québec, sworn into office the following day.

A repositioning of Quebec’s economic elite

Winning 37.4% of the popular vote — 25.8% of the eligible electorate, given the high abstention rate — the Coalition Avenir Québec holds 74 seats, a comfortable majority of more than 60% of the 125 in the National Assembly. Once again, the undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system produces a result quite unrepresentative of the voters’ choices. Doubts are widespread, therefore, that the CAQ will adhere to its pre-election pledge to institute some form of proportional representation which, had it applied to the October 1 results, would have held it to minority government status. There is less doubt, however, about how the CAQ will use its parliamentary majority to implement its unabashedly pro-business and ethnically divisive program.

Founded seven years ago, the party is an amalgam of former Liberal and PQ supporters assembled around a core element, the former right-wing Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), which split from the Quebec Liberal party in the early 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Meech Lake attempt at constitutional reform. It supports some vaguely articulated form of Quebec autonomy but not independence. The CAQ is very much the instrument of François Legault, a former Parti québécois minister and before that a prominent businessman, founder and CEO of Air Transat. He personally selected the party’s candidates. At least 32 of the party’s deputies — 43% of its caucus — are from the business and managerial milieu.[1] And well over half of Legault’s cabinet, announced October 18, are business people or journalists in mainstream or business media.

The party is the product of a repositioning of the nationalist sector of Quebec’s economic elite after the narrow defeat of the 1995 referendum on sovereignty, writes Bernard Rioux, an editor of the left-wing on-line journal Presse-toi à gauche. Successive PQ leaderships led the way, postponing their hopes for a sovereign Quebec to an indefinite future while aligning their party increasingly with neoliberal globalization, support of free trade and privatization of public enterprises, establishment of fee-based public services, reduced taxation of the wealthy, continued exploitation of fossil fuels and concentration of media ownership. Legault, having abandoned the PQ, simply aligned his new party with the federalism of the vast majority of the Québécois bourgeoisie, which sees the Quebec government as its prime instrument for gaining a strengthened role within the Canadian ruling class and through it with global capitalism.

Rioux summarizes the CAQ’s agenda for its four-year mandate. Among promised measures:

  • Privatization of public services, especially in education and health care, for example by continuing the expansion of private clinics allowed by both PQ and Liberal governments.
  • Greater inequality in the distribution of wealth through tax reductions for business.
  • Support for gas and oil exploration and exploitation, and rejection of any plan for environmental transition to renewable energy sources. Legault supported the Energy East pipeline project, cancelled for now following mass protests.
  • Regressive nationalism that caters to white male identity. During the election campaign Legault promised a 20% reduction in immigration quotas and threatened to expel applicants for citizenship who failed to pass tests on language skills and Quebec “values” within three years. Since the election he has promised to prevent state employees in “positions of authority,” including teachers and not just cops, prison guards and judges, from wearing signs denoting religious belief. In this he expands the scope of the Liberal government’s Bill 62, which prohibited citizens from wearing face coverings when receiving or dispensing public services — a measure clearly aimed at Muslim women in particular. (Now law, it has yet to take effect pending a constitutional challenge.)

Bon débarras (indigenous offload white settlers)

‘Good riddance… After three years, they have not learned our language and they have not adopted our values!’  (André-Philippe Côté, Le Soleil).

The CAQ promises a pro-business orientation that will wean Quebec off federal “equalization” payments that offset relatively low government revenues with income derived from higher-income provinces such as the petro-province Alberta. At present Quebec gets the lion’s share of such payments, almost $12 billion or about 62% of the total Ottawa gives the six have-not provinces. Overall federal transfer payments, including cash for health care and social programs, total $24.3 billion, or 22% of Quebec government revenues in the current fiscal year. However, the CAQ’s fiscal framework, tabled during the election campaign, projected federal transfers of $25.6 billion in 2022-23, the final year of the CAQ’s mandate. Indeed, it is hard to see how significant progress in reducing this dependency on federal transfers can be achieved without huge cutbacks in government expenditures. The CAQ promises to cut at least 5,000 employees from the public payroll, but that might be only a beginning.

The CAQ’s right-wing anti-immigrant populism has some parallels with the new parties that have emerged in Europe in recent years, as well as with the Trump conquest of the Republican party. These formations are most successful in channeling working-class voters’ discontent over their declining economic status toward a scapegoating of immigrants and other vulnerable populations that distracts from the deepening capitalist austerity they implement. Their electoral success reflects the failure of the old reformist and social-democratic left to present a credible alternative to the rightward drift of capitalist politics.

However, the CAQ does differ somewhat from other right-wing populist formations in Canada such as Doug Ford’s “Progressive Conservatives” in Ontario or Jason Kenney’s merging of Wild Rose with his Conservatives in Alberta. These parties are known more for their virulent rejection of environmental regulation, verging on climate change denialism, than for attacks on immigrants and ethnic minorities. Canadian capitalists generally encourage limited immigration in order to compensate for the shortages in skilled and low-wage labour they face. The CAQ’s seeming indifference to climate change resonates with its Ontario and Alberta counterparts, while its focus on ethnic identity and immigration issues is its main difference with the Quebec Liberals. The Canadian ruling class as a whole can congratulate itself in any case on the emergence for the first time since the Parti québécois was founded 50 years ago of a new party of governmental alternance that is not “separatist.”

As for the Quebec Liberal party (PLQ), the other party of alternance, it suffered the worst election defeat in its 151 year history. Although the party won 25% of the popular vote, it won only 12% of the vote among the Francophone electorate. It finished fourth in 33 of the 125 ridings and behind Québec solidaire in more than 40.[2] Almost all of its 29 MNAs represent predominantly Anglophone and Allophone (immigrant) ridings on the island of Montréal. Ironically, the main cause of voter hostility to the party related to the harsh austerity program it applied, particularly in the first three years of its mandate. Since Legault’s CAQ promises much the same, popular discontent may rise before long.

Shift to the left within the pro-sovereignty spectrum

The combined PQ-QS share of the popular vote (respectively 17% and 16%) was roughly equivalent to the percentage of Québécois supporting independence in recent years, and about the same as in the previous election, in 2014. But it represented a sea change within the movement.

For the PQ it was the worst result since the party was founded 50 years ago; for QS, it was a major breakthrough. QS gained 7 seats, 4 at the expense of the PQ and the other 3 from the PLQ. The PQ was wiped off the map in Montréal, while QS is not only the second party there but won four seats outside the metropolis: two in Quebec City, one each in Sherbrooke and Abitibi. Although the two parties each have ten seats (the PQ picked up one on a recount, and will rank third in the National Assembly ahead of QS because its popular vote is larger) the PQ is still a major force within the pro-sovereignty movement. It boasts 80,000 members compared with QS’s 20,000. The PQ ranked second in the popular vote in 34 ridings, QS was second in 14.

However, QS was stronger among voters under the age of 35, according to exit polls. And when the Quebec Electoral Officer sponsored a mock vote during the campaign in more than a thousand high schools and youth organizations, QS won the most support among the 81,375 young people who voted: 26.15%, followed by the PLQ and CAQ (just over 22% each) and the PQ (15.37%).

Some PQ leaders, realizing the party’s error in its venomous attacks on QS during the election campaign, are now openly suggesting their party should seek “convergence” with QS. And they are not alone.

Claudette Carbonneau, a former president of the CSN union central and now chair of OUI Québec, a united front of sovereigntist parties and trade unions, said an exploration of prospects for convergence should be high on the agenda of the Assises nationales de concertation (national joint-action conference) the coalition plans to hold soon on the future of the independence project:

“If QS and the PQ don’t find an original way to combine their efforts around some essential issues, they will condemn themselves to a certain marginality with respect to climate change, the urgency of a massive reinvestment in our public services, without overlooking their responsibility to bring about independence, indissociable from these objectives.”[3]

Pierre Dubuc, editor of the left publication L’aut’journal, goes further. Acknowledging “the strategic adroitness of QS” in bringing independence to the fore and giving it substance through the fusion with Option nationale last year,[4] Dubuc deplores the fact that once again the division of the independentist and progressive vote paved the way to putting the Right in power. Failing the advent of proportional representation, he says, “it is overridingly important that independentists and progressives unite within a single party,” albeit one that “allows the expression of different tendencies.” Dubuc thinks the PQ decline began when Pauline Marois in 2010 banned the presence of a left-wing “political club” within the PQ, the SPQ Libre, which he founded and led as its Secretary. Dubuc has operated politically for almost two decades as a harsh critic of Québec solidaire and its predecessors for “splitting the independence vote.” He still cannot bring himself to acknowledge the futility of his own attempts to reform the Parti québécois.

The election results reopened a deep division within the Bloc Québécois, the pro-sovereignty party in the federal Parliament. The call by the party’s MPs to support the PQ candidates, and not QS,[5] led one member of the BQ national bureau to resign. Jocelyn Beaudoin, the membership representative on the bureau, charged in a letter to the party’s executive that the Bloc had decided not to choose between the parties in the election “knowing that if it did it would divide the members.” It was a major lack of political judgment, he said. “At the first opportunity we might have had… to adopt a constructive approach, the party shoots itself in its foot.”

The Bloc’s vice-president Gilbert Paquette, for his part, charged that the MPs had committed a “strategic error” in not first consulting the party’s leadership bodies before issuing their statement. That statement, and Gilles Duceppe’s attack on Manon Massé, had “reinforced the impression that the Bloc sees itself as a kind of appendix of the Parti québécois,” Paquette charged in a letter to the BQ executive and MPs. Both Paquette and Beaudoin, the latter a former president of Option nationale, were strong supporters of Martine Ouellet, the BQ leader forced out by the party’s MPs earlier this year because of her insistence that the MPs fight for Quebec independence and not be content with defending “the interests of Quebec” in the federal Parliament.

The Bloc is currently trying to refound itself in a process due to conclude in January that was seen as a first stage toward a reunification of sovereigntist forces both federally and provincially.[6]

No doubt pressure will continue to build on QS to coalesce with the PQ. But for now QS is focused on constituting itself as “the real official opposition” to the CAQ government. “We are a new political movement… and that can’t be reduced to inter-relations with the PQ,” said QS spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. “QS is not a sub-category of the PQ,” he told a press conference. “So all the mathematical calculations where you try to add the votes are without foundation.”

André Frappier, a prominent QS member and former president of the Montréal postal workers (CUPW), puts the issue of QS-PQ relations in historical context:

“In 2017 we decided as we had done two times previously to run candidates in all the ridings because what we defend is based on the peoples’ struggles for social justice and control of their destiny, and for a Quebec that belongs to those who inhabit it.[7]

“The PQ abandoned this terrain a long time ago, and has proved this a hundred times. Its anti-union laws in the 1980s, the neoliberal austerity of [PQ premier Lucien] Bouchard in 1999, the secret contracts [PQ premier Pauline] Marois’ government signed with [the oil company] Petrolia on Anticosti Island and the return to zero deficit of [PQ finance minister] Marceau, the cuts in social assistance by [PQ minister] Agnès Maltais, the total abdication of that government when dealing with the mining companies, and its continuation of [Liberal premier Jean] Charest’s Plan Nord. And to complete things, the charter of Quebec values that divided Quebec in order to win votes, and stigmatized an entire part of the population and Muslim community in particular.”

Talk about a convergence between the PQ and QS is essentially a false debate, Frappier argues.

“The change in alternance of the neoliberal parties with the election of the CAQ and the failure of the PQ in relation to the project of Quebec sovereignty presents us with an inescapable observation. The future of Quebec society can only proceed through a political party that is linked to social mobilization for control of its fate and in opposition to right-wing policies. The only party in the running is now Québec solidaire.

“The social change needed to fight against control by the oil companies, multinationals, financial institutions, against corruption and tax evasion, can only be realized by a left party like Québec solidaire. It requires as well the mobilization of the population conscious of the role it must play, of the trade unions, of the women’s movements, the ethnocultural communities, environmental groups and other social movements….

“We must emerge from the cycle of defensive struggles and defeats that have characterized politics for decades.”

And ‘a party of the streets’?

With its ten MNAs, Québec solidaire will be focused very much in coming months on shaping its parliamentary intervention, developing expertise in various policy fields, and learning how to make its principles and program relevant and understandable to a much wider audience. However, as Frappier argues, the party also faces a huge challenge in developing the other component of “a party of the ballot box and the streets.” Much can be said about this, but here I will simply draw attention to three texts, available on line, that can help to orient this needed debate in QS.

Parliamentary action and social struggles – The experience of the Portuguese Left Bloc” is an important contribution by a founding leader of a party that has many similarities to Québec solidaire in a country not much larger than Québec. Francisco Louçã is a Left Bloc member of the Portuguese parliament and a former Bloc candidate in the 2005 presidential election. With just over 10% of the popular vote, the party has 19 seats in the Assembly of the Republic under a system of proportional representation.

By electing MPs, Louçã writes, “the Bloc has taken a leap forward, becoming a reference party for the popular struggle.” Institutional representation requires close attention to developing technical skills and professional teams to support the party’s parliamentary work, which now includes municipal action. But “this has a significant cost: a significant part of our most experienced activists are taken up in institutional involvement.”

“These institutional machines therefore absorb much of our activist capacity. It is never clear in advance whether or not this will lead to adaptation to the system, but this institutional standardization generates pressure in this direction. These possible forms of adaptation may be varied: resignation to very limited measures in the name of maintaining the positions acquired; refusal to criticise the institutions or their management in the name of possible future agreements; the idea that politics advances in small steps; fear of public opinion which leads to not presenting a socialist alternative which leads to other institutional forms; desire to avoid the risk of conflict for fear of losing. All these forms of adaptation distort a left-wing policy based on popular representation.”

The Bloc has made little progress on representation within the social movements, he adds. It needs to build organized forces in the unions and workplaces, and figure out how to get young people to “join us and find ways of training and political action.” And Louçã explains the relation between this question and the struggle for socialism, which the Bloc sets as its goal.

“Capitalism is a mode of production, of reproduction of the conditions of production and of representation of the conditions of production and reproduction. This definition underlines the essential point: there is no capitalist production without the system reproducing itself and for this reason it mobilizes its representation, which is based on the alienation of work, social relations, life, relations with nature, but also in the alienation of electoral representation and voting. The separation of the worker from the product of their work, from the control of their life, from their social and even electoral power is the foundation of the conformism on which bourgeois hegemony is based. That is why left-wing politics is a social movement and aims to strengthen itself in the perspective that its ideas and proposals also have an impact on elections; that is why it does not give any ground in the dispute over hegemony; that is precisely why the socialist strategy can only triumph in the social struggle….

“[T]he success of this electoral option does not demonstrate that representation is a sufficient condition for socialist politics. Designed as an instrument to accumulate forces, it is useful. Conceived as a form of conditioning and loss of critical sense and social alternative, it fails. The left only exists through social protagonism, through conflict or strategic intervention in class struggle. In other words, it needs to be part of the class movement. This is how it always measures its strengths.”

What this can mean in terms of Québec solidaire is discussed in a recent article by Alexandre Leduc, a staff advisor to the Quebec Federation of Labour and a leader of QS in the Montréal riding of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve who was elected to the National Assembly on October 1. Leduc identifies two major aspects to the work of a QS riding association: support and animation [which can be translated as initiation].

“The role of support,” he writes, “is aimed essentially at publicizing and participating in actions already organized by groups or citizens’ coalitions. This requires little organizational effort but it does not help to put the party up front.” However, the examples of support he presents later in his piece include such activities as preparing briefs on local issues; calling on party members to support artists fighting eviction from their loft studio; joining in the massive protests of parents who formed human chains around public schools to defend their facilities against government cutbacks and urging these citizens to continue the fight in other areas such as health care and culture; and joining with workers facing factory closures in a fight to reopen them as worker cooperatives. It is unclear why Leduc thinks the party as such gains little credibility or support from such efforts.

“The role of animation,” he writes, “allows an association to organize political action on its own basis and subsequently reap the benefits. In this way, the association builds its credibility among the groups and citizens in its neighborhood or region.” As an example, he cites the association’s circulation during the 2012 provincial election campaign of a petition to get the public transit agency to improve service on two bus routes, an action undertaken in the absence of any mobilization on this issue by others. The petition was successful, and the service was improved.

The distinction between support and animation seems a bit formal to me. The common ingredient in both is the party’s identification of a goal that advances or defends social policy or a public service, a willingness to work towards that goal, and wherever possible to work with others in fighting for it. Where other forces are involved, the party can also link the immediate goal with its broader program of fundamental social change.

Finally, I think QS would benefit greatly by reviving and debating a draft proposal on “Québec Solidaire and the social movements” that was submitted by the QS Policy Commission for discussion at a party convention a few years ago; it was then withdrawn from the convention agenda ostensibly for later debate but since then shelved indefinitely. I think it presents some valuable ideas on how the party might structure its intervention in the social movements, including the trade unions. It is appended to the following article: “Quebec election: A seismic shift within the independence movement?

Program development

On two key programmatic issues, in my view, Québec solidaire needs to give further thought. One is its strategy for Quebec independence. While progress has been made on the linkage between the party’s program —its projet de société — and Quebec sovereignty, and with it the mandate of its proposed Constituent Assembly, there is still no thinking about the strategic issues facing the movement during the Assembly’s proceedings and following a successful referendum ratifying the draft constitution elaborated by the Assembly. QS needs to confront the reality of a federal state determined to thwart any moves that challenge its integrity. This is a complex issue and I will address it in a subsequent article. It should be on the agenda in the general review and updating of the QS program that the party plans to carry out in 2019.

An immediate issue however is the need to correct the party position on secularism.

Quebec’s new premier, François Legault, threatens to implement as a priority the CAQ’s plans to prohibit the wearing of “religious signs” among state-employed persons in positions of “coercion” (cops, prosecutors, judges and jail guards) or “authority” (including elementary and secondary school teachers, and perhaps others).

Québec solidaire has waffled on this issue for many years. The party claims to adhere to the principle of separation of church and state. In 2009, the resolution adopted at the party’s first convention on program stated that the party distinguishes 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.” As I reported at the time:

“Delegates voted in favour of allowing ‘state agents’ (employees and officials) to wear religious insignia (a crucifix, hijab, whatever), but added some caveats that leave much to subjective interpretation and enforcement by employers: ‘provided they are not used as instruments of proselytism’ and do not interfere with their droit de réserve (duty of discretion), or ‘impede the performance of the duties or contravene safety standards.’ Delegates rejected other resolutions that would impose no such restrictions or, alternatively, would impose secular dress codes on civil servants, and they rejected as well a proposal to refer the whole issue for further decision at a later convention.”[8]

While these caveats were problematic, QS leaders in subsequent years went further and began adapting to other parties’ attempts to impose dress codes not only on state employees but on citizens from minority ethnic communities.

In 2011, the sole QS member of the National Assembly, Amir Khadir, voted with the other parties for a PQ motion to ban Sikhs from entering the legislature because their ceremonial kirpans were to be deemed “weapons.” Ironically, the motion was prompted by an incident a month earlier when four members of the World Sikh Organization were turned back by security guards when they came to testify to a parliamentary committee in favour of the right of Muslim women to wear face coverings when receiving government services — which a Liberal government bill then under debate would have denied.

In 2013, when the National Assembly was again debating the PQ government’s now-infamous Charter of Values, QS leader Françoise David tabled a bill that if adopted would have enacted a “charter of secularism” that banned “state agents” from wearing signs indicative of personal religious belief. David described this as an “historic compromise.”

Although in 2017 the three QS MNAs voted against the Liberal government’s bill 62 prohibiting citizens from wearing face coverings when receiving or dispensing public services, they called instead for adoption of a “genuine” charter of secularism. QS leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said their position was a “compromise” that takes a harder line than the Liberals in that it would bar people who wear overt religious symbols such as turbans and hijabs from working as judges, jail guards and cops.

These positions, which clearly violate the QS program adopted by the membership, have prompted a number of protests from defenders of civil liberties, including a very strong “Open Letter” addressed to the party by a number of QS members including prominent human rights lawyers.

Unfortunately, during their swearing-in on October 17, the new QS MNAs told reporters that they intend to support the “compromise” that would ban religious signs for persons in authority. But at least one — Catherine Dorion, representing Québec-Taschereau — said later she was not really sure what her position would be.

These issues should be on the agenda of the QS National Committee meeting, now scheduled to take place December 7-9. The party’s reaction to Legault’s forthcoming legislation will be an early test of the adherence to basic democratic principles of its new parliamentary deputation.

October 20, 2018

[1] Shannon Pécourt, “Un gouvernement de ‘patrons’,” Le Devoir, October 15, 2018.

[2] Konrad Yakabuski, “Quebec’s Liberals contemplate a future on the fringes,” The Globe & Mail, October 18, 2018.

[3] “Leçons et perspectves pour indépendantistes,” Le Devoir, October 6, 2018.

[4] See “Québec solidaire clarifies its support for independence but new debates lie ahead,” Life on the Left, December 12, 2017.

[5] See Richard Fidler, “Solidaires Score Important Breakthrough in Quebec Election,” The Bullet, October 2, 2018. When former BQ leader Gilles Duceppe attacked QS leader Manon Massé, the Quebec City BQ endorsed two QS candidates who were former leaders of Option nationale, now a part of Québec solidaire. The Bloc’s MPs then issued an endorsement of the PQ candidates.

[6] Marie Vastel, “La bisbille au Bloc continue,” Le Devoir, October 5, 2018 : “The Quebec election revealed that the cleavage between the two camps that opposed the BQ old guard to Martine Ouellet and her allies — closer to the ON legacy with their desire to do more in promoting sovereignty — had not completely disappeared.”

[7] See “Québec solidaire: No to an electoral pact with the PQ, Yes to a united front against austerity, for energy transition and for independence,” Life on the Left, May 28, 2017.

[8] “Quebec left debates strategy for independence,”

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Speaking out against Nicaragua’s pain

Claudio Katz, Argentine author, activist and member of the Economists of the Left collective, assesses the crisis in Nicaragua, where a pro-democracy movement has faced unrelenting repression by the Ortega government. The article, first published on Katz’s web site, was translated from the Spanish by Fred Murphy and published in New Politics.

* * *

Nicaragua in Pain

by Claudio Katz

Writing about Nicaragua is as painful and sad as it is indispensable. Memories of the Sandinista Revolution are still alive for the generation that lived through it. To remain silent would be an affront to those who took part in that memorable insurrection against Somoza.

Events of recent months leave little room for doubt. A series of social protests has been brutally repressed. Some 350 from only one side have died at the hands of police or paramilitary forces. In all cases there was gunfire against unarmed demonstrators, who responded to or escaped from the onslaught as best they could.

Information from numerous sources concur in describing an escalating barrage of gunshots at point-blank range, producing at first a handful of deaths and then nearly 60 by the end of April. This tragedy was not interrupted when negotiations began. To the contrary, the dialogue was marked by a further 225 such crimes.

There is no justifying such savagery. Official statements (and the voices raised in their support) provide no proof of the “terrorist actions” that they impute to the victims. Nor have there been any significant losses on the government side, and no evidence of the use of firearms on the part of the opposition.

These events have not only been denounced by supporters of the fallen. A vast range of witnesses and a broad gamut of journalists have corroborated the accounts. But most important are the authorized voices of former Sandinista commanders and leaders, who have verified what has happened with on-the-scene reports. Their denunciations have great credibility and coincide with the outlook of foreign participants in the revolution. Their judgments have added importance in light of their deep knowledge of the actors in conflict.

The bloodshed unleashed by Ortega’s government parallels the reaction of any right-wing president. It has been the typical state violence against the discontented. In face of such atrocious behavior, a movement that had begun with some basic demands was quickly transformed into democratic resistance to repression. The original demands about social-security reforms were sidetracked in face of the Dantesque spectacle of hundreds gunned down by the regime’s gendarmes.

To raise one’s voice against this crime and demand an immediate end to the repression and the prosecution of those responsible is the first duty in face of these events.

Endless Involution

The initial protests against a social-security tax increase found great support among the population. This reaction pointed up the discontent brewing in diverse sectors. People were becoming annoyed at how official policies were diverging from the government’s revolutionary past.

Orteguismo (“Ortega-ism”) bears not the least affinity with its origins in the Sandinista movement. Ortega has made strategic alliances with the business class, adopted economic measures demanded by the IMF, and strengthened ties with the Church after imposing an outright ban on abortion. He has consolidated his bureaucratic hold over business enterprises that originated in the appropriation of public goods.

Under Ortega’s direction a clientelist electoral system has been put in place. Continued use of old Sandinista emblems and discourse obscures this qualitative change, which reproduces the involution that other such progressive processes have undergone.

Long before its evolution into a simple network of gangsters, the Mexican PRI had already buried its legacy of agrarian transformation and nationalist traditions. The same occurred with the MNR in Bolivia, which for many years behaved as a reactionary party despite its origins. Such examples of political regression – now reprised by Ortega – extend to other Latin American parties that have completely discarded their original socialist or anti-imperialist aspirations.

But repression consummates a still more irreversible turn. It transforms a bourgeoisified formation into an outright enemy of the left. Cold-blooded killings by its police apparatus mark the final break with any progressive outlook. Such a regression has occurred in Nicaragua in the last few months.

There are significant differences with the Venezuelan case, which is rooted in the persistence of a Bolivarian process that confronts the right wing and defends sovereignty in a context of unheard-of adversity. Facing an interminable succession of guarimbas,[1] Chavismo has done battle against coup attempts, paramilitary incursions, and provocations by groups trained by the CIA. It has committed many injustices and harassed certain popular fighters, but its principal problem has been the destabilization promoted and financed by imperialism.

What is happening in Nicaragua is quite different. The protests were not stage-managed from Washington but arose from below against reforms demanded by the IMF and took shape thereafter in a spontaneous way to defend rights that were under attack. Nor did the principal conservative figures – who have forged any number of pacts with the regime – provoke the rebellion. The demonstrations have gathered up a wide gamut of the discontented, under the guidance of students and the Church. The various currents among the latter are not following a uniform playbook, and the students are grouped in a number of different factions, some led by the left and others by the right.

This movement originated with a low level of politicization but began to adopt clearer positions in face of the repressive attacks. Its positions were solidified upon the collapse of the dialog that the government first accepted verbally and then boycotted in practice.

Seeing the Whole Picture

Among all the statements distributed in recent weeks, the approach adopted by Manuel Cabieses Donoso, a well-known Chilean revolutionary leader, has some unique merits.

Cabieses Donoso upholds the legitimacy of the protests, denounces Ortega’s betrayal, and challenges the complicit silence on the part of many progressive currents in face of the repression. But he calls attention as well to the way right-wing forces are trying to utilize the protests and points out that the United States will take advantage of the conflict to undermine the Ortega regime. He affirms as well that a section of the population continues to support the government, and therefore calls for a peaceful solution in order that the local bourgeoisie and its imperialist master not be the beneficiaries of Ortega’s eventual downfall.[2]

This approach synthesizes quite well moral outrage at the massacres with recognition of the complex situation that has arisen in the country. While Ortega has not hesitated to make pacts with all the reactionary forces, the United States still seeks his ouster. It cannot tolerate the autonomy Nicaragua has maintained in its foreign policy. The country not only belongs to ALBA and has close ties to the Venezuela government. It has also sought to build an inter-oceanic canal with Chinese financing – right in the “backyard” of the region’s principal imperialist power.

As shown during the coup against Zelaya in Honduras, and more recently in Guatemala, the United States treats the small Central American countries as second-class colonies. It won’t accept the slightest indiscipline from these nations. For that reason it has already begun reaching out to coopt the leaders of the protests and line them up behind a future imperialist puppet that would replace Ortega. The meetings that several student leaders had in Washington with ultra-right anti-Castro legislators (along with similar meetings in El Salvador) mark the most visible episodes of Trump’s latest operation.

Failure to recognize the preparations for aggression would amount to inadmissible naivete. The same Ortega who is brutally attacking the people is viewed by the State Department as an adversary to be buried. Such contradictions have been frequent in history and need to be taken seriously by the left when it comes to taking a position. It is vital to avoid joining the campaigns of the OAS or Vargas Llosa’s calls to involve the US Southern Command.

Dangers and Definitions

That Ortega’s FSLN still enjoys the support of a section of the population is evident from the results of the last election. But Cabieses Donoso does not base his argument for a peaceful solution on that fact alone. Negotiations would make it possible to avoid transforming the current revot into a wider confrontation, with terrible consequences in the number of victims as well as on the national and geopolitical level.

Events in two Middle Eastern countries provide grounds to fear such an outcome. In both Libya and Syria governments were in power that had progressive origins but had degenerated to the point of unleashing repression against militants and their populations. Qaddafi jailed Palestinians and Assad fired on his people indiscriminately. In each case the prospects for extending the Arab Spring ended in major tragedies. The Libyan state practically disintegrated amid greedy disputes between rival clans. Syria had a still more dramatic outcome in that first the protests were co-opted by Jihadists and then the country suffered the worst humanitarian disaster in recent decades.

The historical realities and the political situation in the Middle East and Central America are quite different. But imperialism acts with the same objectives of domination in both regions. It destroys societies and dismantles countries without a second thought. Had it won the contest in Venezuela, the country would be a cemetery comparable to Iraq, and the oil wealth would be in the hands of the big US energy companies.

For these reasons it is crucial to not forget at any moment who is the principal enemy. A peaceful solution in Nicaragua is the best way to avert the danger that the imperialists will make use of the conflict. The mechanism for such an outcome is quite available in the calls for dialog and negotiation of early elections. This approach avoids equating the government with a dictatorship and demanding its fall.

In recent weeks tensions seem to have diminished, not because of steps forward in the negotiations but rather due to deepening repression. Ortega has managed to achieve a respite by means of the whip. But his conduct has created an unbridgeable gulf with the rebellious youth. His divorce from the left is definitive. The revolutionary traditions of Sandinismo will rise again, but on the side opposite from Orteguismo.

July 27, 2018

[1] Disruptive street actions by right-wing crowds. See

[2] Manuel Cabieses Donoso, “La lección de Nicaragua”, July 17, 2018.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Solidaires score important breakthrough in Quebec Election

By Richard Fidler

The October 1 general election campaign in Quebec unfolded as two distinct contests. One was the competition between the Liberals and Coalition Avenir Québec for control of the government. The other was a battle between the Parti québécois and Québec solidaire for hegemony within the pro-sovereignty movement.

In the end, the CAQ replaced the Liberals in government on a platform that claimed to offer “change” but in substance promises even more of the same capitalist austerity inflicted on the Québécois under successive governments since the mid-1990s. PLQ support is now heavily concentrated in its minority Anglophone enclaves of western Quebec.

The real change, however, was registered in the surge of support for Québec solidaire, which more than doubled its share of the popular vote and elected 10 members to the National Assembly, one more than the PQ’s total under the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system. Although the PQ received slightly more votes, it was a crushing defeat for the party founded 50 years ago by René Lévesque that as recently as 2014 had governed the province. Jean-François Lisée, defeated in his own riding by the QS candidate, immediately announced his resignation as PQ leader.

In part, this split in popular support reflected a generational shift; pre-election polling showed QS in advance of the PQ among voters under the age of 35. But it also reflected to some degree a class divide, a rejection among younger voters of the PQ’s record as itself a party of capitalist austerity and its regressive catering to white settler prejudice in sharp contrast with Quebec’s increasingly pluricultural composition, as well as a growing determination among many that Quebec sovereignty, to be meaningful, must be integrally connected with the quest for fundamental social change.

QS: A Political Force in Contention

Throughout the campaign, the mainstream media featured the argument that this was the first election in which Quebec sovereignty was not at issue. But they largely missed the significance of these shifts within the pro-sovereignty movement as it continues to radicalize.