Seeing red

COVER Latin Americas Turbulent TransitionsLatin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism
Roger Burbach, Michael Fox and Federico Fuentes
2013, Zed Books
208 pages

TWO COUNTRIES continue to dominate arguments about the future of the left in Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuba and Venezuela, in an ironic form of dialectic.

Whereas debates about the former appear to focus wearily on how revolutionary socialism is being – or certainly among its enemies, should be – dismantled, discussions about the latter tend to take the more refreshing form of how best to ensure the continuity and survival of socialism, mindful that the days of Hugo Chávez are sadly numbered.

These examples reveal starkly that socialism in Latin America has never been a regional project, despite the internationalist or pan-Latin ambitions of every major leftwing leader or aspirant, and has always had a contradictory character informed more than anything else by local nationalisms and states.

Nonetheless, the left remains in, if not on, the ascendant with the recent re-election to a third term in office of Rafael Correa in Ecuador with nearly 60 per cent of the vote just the latest example of how socialism has successfully turned electoral politics to its advantage.

Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions explores the character of socialist movements and moments in the region with valuable candour, accepting that socialism as a state project is clearly on the wane but throwing a lifeline to the left by exploring the real movement that has been going on at the grassroots and among social organisations that exert their influence beyond and from below the realms of state power.

Cuba exemplifies this development, and it seems no surprise that it is the focus of the book’s penultimate chapter prior to the conclusion, which talks about the effort to “update” twenty-first century socialism.

A momentous transformation has been led by Raúl Castro since 2006 by which the state-centric economic model which has hitherto always been at the forefront of socialist ambitions is being transformed through complex processes of decentralization and a new democratic dialogue with the people is being nurtured.

What this means for the term “socialism” cannot be applied to other countries in the region: as the authors point out, Cuba’s renewal starts from within a society already shaped according to socialist principles, where the enemy is the bureaucracy and not an existing oligarchy and its allies in the US, and within an historical trajectory informed more by countries such as China and Vietnam than those closer to home.

The introduction of an efficient market is playing a key role in this process, and the many enemies of Cuba will be disappointed to learn that, like their Asian comrades, the Cubans share the belief that markets do not have to be associatred with capitalism. Markets, they point out, functioned in feudal societies and can help distribute resources in an efficient manner in socialist societies.

In their determination to avoid the rise of a new bourgeoisie, the Cubans insist they have been learning from their counterparts and can both avoid the large-scale private accumulation of capital and maintain their traditional revolutionary goals of equality and economic justice. One component of this strategy is the maintenance of the one-party state: Havana understands all too well that US discourse exhorting other states to adopt its competitive party model has, in Latin America at least, merely served as a pretext for constant neo-colonial interventions in electoral politics.

Reading Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions, we are given a powerful sense of how socialists once fearful of change are learning to embrace it and make it work towards leftwing goals – a dramatic development that comes at a crucial moment in regional and international relations.

As the authors point out, the US is a shadow of its former self, unable to exert the same levels of control over Latin America and the Caribbean that it enjoyed for most of the 20th century and struggling to come to terms with the rapidly emerging economies of the Far East and Latin America itself. One reflection of this process has been the consolidation of China as the major merchandise trade partner of Cuba and, increasingly, other countries in the region.

But Venezuela – where the term “twenty-first century socialism” was coined – must also be considered if we are to get a sense of the direction in which the Latin American left is heading, not least because of the likely end of the Chávez era in the days to come. Battling cancer and critically ill, the president has engineered a de facto succession aimed at ensuring the continuation of chavismo for the foreseeable future at least.

The authors point out that the health of Chávez is not the only factor that will continue to impact upon the ability of socialism to advance in Venezeula, which will also have to grapple with ongoing US intervention, the process of regional integration and an intensifying domestic class struggle.

Again a message of hope arises from the authors of Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions, who point out that Chávez – like his Cuban counterparts – has been mindful of the threat to socialism posed by bureaucratism as much as the US-backed Venezuelan right. This notion has been paramount in his efforts to support self-organization of the people to ensure they maintain control over their destiny against class enemies with powerful allies, and was at the forefront of his efforts to unite the left in order to win the 2012 presidential elections. These foundations are the only real hope for building socialism in Venezuela.

If the departure of Chávez will represent a serious blow to the Bolivarian revolution, he has at least empowered a disenfranchised majority and given them an appetite for a form of socialism that is constructed from below and aspires to transcend the corrupt party politics that excluded them in the past and that has consistently undermined the socialist project.

Latin American Review of Books – Latamrob

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