Bolivarian broadside

Tariq Ali takes no prisoners in his latest voyage on the high seas of social justice


Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope
Tariq Ali
2006, Verso
244 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

WITH CHEEKY images of Evo Morales portrayed as Will Turner, Hugo Chávez as Jack Sparrow and Fidel Castro as Captain Barbosa on its cover, one might be forgiven for thinking this book is about the Hollywood blockbuster of the same name, but despite the clever montage its subject matter is deadly serious.

Although it sounds strange that the latest book by the prolific Tariq Ali is named after a best-selling film, the reason can be found in his eulogy about pirates. Ali quotes a line by Captain Charles Johnson from 1724 referring to these rascals as “marine heroes, the scourge of tyrants and avarice, and the brave asserters of Liberty”.

The analogy is fitting, not least because it befits Ali himself – a swashbuckling, street-fighting internationalist and veteran of progressive dust-ups who, perhaps more than any other writer on the British left, has stood cutlass in hand at the helm of his own vessel sailing defiantly outside the calm waters favoured by the white, liberal fleet.

Confronting the powerful

His books have often employed unorthodox and witty ways of confronting the powerful. Ali’s Bush in Babylon (2003), for example, mounted a highly innovative ambush on Washington’s Iraq policy by employing poetry as a knuckleduster with which to mug the US president. Ouch.

Pirates of Caribbean is the result of the author’s numerous trips to Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Cuba and gives us his insights into why in South America a social alternative to neoliberalism is shaping politics. Its publication is, in some ways, another example of the enduring popularity of the European leftwing travelogue in which well known radical writers take an itinerant dip into the volatile waters of Latin America under a crimson sunrise, although Ali’s own links with the region go back decades.

This incursion on the high seas of justice begins with members of the press being forced to walk the plank in chapter one, in which the author slams what he regards as the ill-informed and biased journalistic coverage of Latin American issues on both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Times, Miami Herald, CNN, our own BBC and individual correspondents such as Andrew Webb-Vidal and Richard Lapper of the Financial Times and the roving Phil Gunson all get pricked with Ali’s sabre.

A self-defined “Red Indian”, Ali reaches shore and treks into the jungle of his own memories, recounting his visit to Bolivia in 1967 and asking “What was this country that had been named after the Liberator?” He skips to the ascent of first indigenous president, Evo Morales, giving us his own brief but well-stacked analysis of the reasons why Che Guevara picked Bolivia as a possible insurrectionary site in the mid-Sixties. It must be said that some biographers suggest Guevara himself dreamed of sparking a revolution in Argentina, and that he may have believed he was only temporarily in Bolivia.

Ali points out that the revolutionary traditions and historical memory of Bolivia, where a poverty-stricken indigenous majority that has endured 500 years of oppression rubs shoulders with a politically aware working class, favoured an uprising. Despite the brutal crackdown, the revolutionary tradition did not die and, he argues, its causal factors persist 37 years later.

The author argues that the conditions of deprivation in other Latin American countries explain why radical social democracy is emerging as an alternative to a Cuban-style revolution. He also mulls over what will happen after Fidel is gone, and whether Chávez’s Bolivarian momentum in Venezuela is simply having a Viagra-effect on the drooping Cuban revolution.

Ali analyses the life of Bolívar himself, fires a broadside at the man-for-all seasons and editor of the evening newspaper Tal Cual (As It Is) Teodoro Petkoff – a one-time opposition candidate – and recruits to his crew interviews by Rosa Elizalde and Luis Baez of Luis Reyes Reyes, the governor of Lara state in Venezuela, and Jorge García Carneiro, the chief of the country’s defence staff, in an effort to give us an insight into how they became involved in the rebellion that brought Chávez to power.

Chávez’s address to the United Nations in October 2005 and Morales’s speech “In Defence of Humanity” of October 2003 leave us with his clear message that until the issues of discrimination, marginalisation and the failures of neoliberalism are addressed, humanity is in for more piracy on the high seas.

Given fair winds, dry powder and a shot or two of rum, Ali hopes that, by the end of his book, “We are all pirates” has become the regular chant on marches for global justice.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican journalist