Latinoamerica Unida: The significance of electoral victories in Latin America

44702703.jpg I finally watched The Motorcycle Diaries.  Maybe you've seen it too.  It's that Focus Features indie where a very fresh-faced, hot, Gael Garcia Bernal-looking Che Guevara rides a shitty motorcycle through South America in 1945.  Along the way he crashes in the mud a lot, shares campfire testimonios with an indigenous mining couple, tangoes with equally hot women, swims the Amazon,  plays soccer with lepers, and learns about colonialist injustice.  It was a good movie, not least for the fact that no matter how many brushes with death Che encounters in those 137 minutes, you at least know he's going to survive them.

Unfortunately, imperialists who rejected this inspiring line murdered Che in 1967 in Bolivia.  Forty-two years later, the nation where Che spent his last days has approved a new constitution that approaches the vision of socialist democratic power and indigenous unity.  Last weekend, Venezuela approved a constitutional referendum eliminating term limits for all politicians.  Something exciting is happening in Latin America.  The electoral victories achieved by the Left throughout the region are making enough waves for capitalist elites and media to feel the ripples and respond with their own petulant splashbacks.  U.S. dailies have been quick to condemn Bolivia’s new constitutional move towards socialism, and even Obama has invoked Chavez as the all-purpose Latin bogeyman who loves to spread instability.  That’s where we Norteamericano allies have to step in to defend the revolution as it unfolds.

Venezuelan Constitution And in order to defend the revolution, we must work towards understanding it.

One of the amazing parts of the Latin American revolution is the way it combines social movement forces with electoral politics.  That’s something we in the U.S. Left could learn from our southern hemisphere comrades.  Some of us nortemaericanos have a tendency to dismiss electoral campaigns or, at best, to jump on the boat too late to make a difference.  That’s due at least in part to the political machinery of empire, right?  In nations with a tumultuous colonial past like those in Latin America., there’s a stronger drive to organize a revolutionary wave towards the centers of political power.  Perhaps it’s more difficult here at the seat of that colonial power.

Three ways of looking at state power

Revolutionaries have experimented with dozens of methods for seizing state powers, to varying degrees of success.  Latin America alone has seen at least three of these strategies unfold in the 20th century.  Among them is the Guevarist model, which relies on a small guerrilla force to radicalize the countryside and overthrow the capitalist government.  We can find echoes of this strategy in the FARC of Colombia, the Zapatistas of Mexico and Sendero Luminoso of Peru, among others.  This strategy, usually combined with a drive to sow the seeds of socialism “outside the system,” has had mixed success.  On one hand, building an armed militia of the rural working class offers protection to some of the most vulnerable citizens, while also providing basic services such as education, and health care.  On the other hand, these guerrilla armies are often no match to state military power and right-wing paramilitaries.

Social ForumThen there’s the seizing of state power through purely “legitimate” means, or means that fit within the paradigm of the existing political system.  This was the strategy used in Chile by Salvador Allende.  Unfortunately, that kind of ruling-class sanctioned method of securing power can’t guarantee a revolution’s security.  We saw this when Allende was toppled by the U.S.-backed coup that exalted General Pinochet.

What we’re seeing in much of Latin America now is a combination of broad-based social movement Left coalitions and electoral parties building the revolution.  Morales could not have gotten elected without the support of the indigenous communities and coca growers who have been advocating for social justice for years.  Chavez would not be President today, or possibly even alive, were it not for the pueblo’s impassioned outcry after the attempted coup of 2002. 

Possibly the most important observation we can make about the “pink tide” in South America is the movement towards Pan-Americanismo.  With each election of a socialist or leftist candidate, talk grows of forming a unified Latin American socialist coalition.  It’s inspiring to see this solidarity being forged, not only as a counterweight to imperial hegemony, but as the most profound rejection of the original colonial paradigm that partitioned the continent and its people.

Keeping the Revolution on the Road, a la Che’s “The Mighty One”

Of course, it isn’t enough to have Mercosur and Unasur trade pacts as a counter to the U.S.  It isn’t enough to have a coalition of progressive heads of state all leaning towards their diverse definitions of “Left.” And, though it’s a huge step, it isn’t even enough to draft a revolutionary constitution.  When the forces of imperialism are pressing in from all sides, no victory is absolutely secure.  Trade blocs can be weakened and dissolved.  Elections can be lost and stolen.  Laws can be rewritten.  And revolutions can be crushed.  We’ve seen these kinds of victories before in Latin America.  There’s a whole roster of U.S.-sponsored killers like Pinochet who destroyed all the beautiful and good work that had been done.

af.reuters.jpgThere’s also the question of reactionary forces in Latin America.  The elites from Media Luna in Bolivia to Merida in Venezuela have worked tirelessly and from a variety of angles to halt progressive change, trying everything from referendums to coups to gang warfare.  And it’s worth considering how contingents so backward can be neutralized, or even converted.  And I remember Che again, a light-skinned son of Argentina’s aristocracy.  Experience can radicalize the wealthy misguided college students of Caracas just as it radicalized the young doctor from Buenos Aires.  The commotion created by the indio underclass of the southern cone and Orinoco basin is the driving force in the region’s leftward sweep.  Those advocating international solidarity and environmental justice need a strong voice from within the empire backing them up.

How do we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of Latin America to protect, nurture, and challenge the revolution at every step?  I have a few ideas.

1. Connect Pan-Americanismo struggles with North American struggles.
2. Create media blitzes and counter-demonstrations to challenge mainstream understandings of Latin America’s political situation.
3. Build an international network of support for the political social movement base in Latin America.

We need to be making more noise.  Any U.S. plan to bring down Bolivia or Peru or Venezuela needs to be met by even louder public outcry here.

Saoirse Bell is a writer and Northern California activist who hopes to travel through South America one day.  Preferably not on a motorcycle.
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