(Contribution to the seminar organized by the Movement for Social Justice, Trinidad and Tobago, May 12 and 13, 2011)
Por Valter Pomar*
If the Latin American and Caribbean left wishes to increase its strength without getting off course, it will have to focus on the debate on 21st century capitalism, on the review of 20th-century socialism and on strategy. Including resolving the relation between political line, social base, party, government and State.
Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC) played an important role in the development of capitalism and, more specifically, toward the enrichment of powers still dominant today: the United States and some European countries.
The plunder and exploitation of LAC contributed to the accumulation of wealth that preceded the capitalist industrialization of the European metropolises.
Subsequently, LAC countries were instrumental not only as suppliers of raw materials, but also as consumer markets for industrial products and recipients of capitals exported by the metropolises.
This relation of exploitation remained throughout history, whatever the metropolitan hegemon should be: Portugal, Spain, Holland, France, England, or the United States.
Exploitation by the metropolises did not preclude the development of Latin America. However, it generated a kindof development that reproduces the conditions generatingexploitation, foreign dependence, and inequality.
Eventually, the metropolises accepted and even encouraged development, provided it was associated, subaltern, dependent, peripheral.
Both exploitation and development were shaped differently depending on: a) the natural conditions; b) the characteristics of the pre-Columbian societies and respective metropolises; c) the diverse types and levels of exploitation, thus on the general attitude of the dominant classes and the behavior of the social groups exploited.
Differences – national, sub-regional, social, ethnic, cultural and linguistic – are often claimed to question the existence of a single Latin America and Caribbean. It was thus in the early nineteenth century and is still thus in the early twenty-first century, as we can find in the speech of those sectors contrary to integration policies, especially those policies that have been furthered since 1998 and have found their expression in institutions such as the Alba, the Unasul, the Celac etc.
There is no denying or downplaying the profound differences that exist between LAC countries, especially because part of these differences stem from the action of the metropolises and their allies in the region.
What is important is to realize that, since the colonial period, the region has manifested a twofold potential: a) on one hand, a potential for subordinated integration, more precisely, for disintegration into autonomous national units, sometimes at odds with each other, yet equally subordinated to metropolitan centers; b) on the other, a potential for autonomous integration.
Both destinies are among the possible futures of Latin America: either to become an integrated region from the outside, based on the interests and necessities of the central powers; or to become an integrated region from within.
In this second possible future a gamut of alternatives is embedded, ranging from integration under the hegemony ofone of the region’s nation, for the benefit of the interests of its own ruling class; and even to a socialist-driven integration.
Over the past five centuries a dependent, associated andperipheral integration variant has prevailed, combined with national developments marked by inequality and limiteddemocratic liberties.
Throughout these centuries, owing to the aforementioned connections, each time a crisis broke out in the metropolises,dispute escalated in the region over the nature of national development, regional integration, and relations with the rest of the world.
Between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century the cycle of bourgeois revolutions in Europe created a context favorable to the Latin American independences. Notice must be taken that part of the independent republics, including the Brazilian monarchy, escaped Iberian hegemony to fall into British hegemony.
In the first half of the twentieth century the inter-imperialist conflict helped open the doors to rising industrialization, a process which in turn was at the core of the revolutionary and populist cycle of the 1930s-50s, as well as of the cycle of coups and dictatorships starting in the 1960s.
This industrialization phase was simultaneous with the decline of British hegemony and the consolidation of the United States (USA) regional and world hegemony.
The international crisis of the 1970s, more precisely the attitude of the USA in confronting that crisis, triggered arecession that spread throughout the world and in the LAC region, characterized by the collapse of the European social democracy, African nationalisms, Latin-American‘developmentalisms’ and Soviet-styled socialism; and marked, also, by the foreign debt crisis and the rise of neoliberalism.
In the 1980s and 1990s, neoliberalism became hegemonic in Latin America, accentuating the dependence, inequality and political conservatism characteristic of the previous period.
In Latin America in the 1990s, defense of national, popular, democratic and socialist interests entered into a stage of strategic defensive. In other words: in a context marked by the crisis of socialism and by the neoliberal offensive, all that mattered was defending the previous stage’s conquests.
As from the mid-1990s, this situation of strategic defensive by the people’s forces coincided with a period of great international instability, derived from a combination between two phenomena: the crisis of capitalism and the decline of the US hegemony.
On the one hand, there was a crisis of accumulation that directly or indirectly manifested itself in every terrain: financial, trade, foreign exchange, energy, food, environmental.
On the other, we a have a geopolitical reshuffling stemming from: a) the difficulties faced by the United States to keep world hegemony; b) an escalation of intercapitalist contradictions, increased after the defeat of the Soviet bloc;and c) the strengthening of competing powers, especially China.
This period of great international instability, caused by the combination between the aforementioned geopolitical and macroeconomic phenomena, is and will continue to be marked by crises, wars, and social uprisings.
It is not possible to know how long this period of international instability will last. This, as well as the world that will later emerge, will depend on the interplay between political struggle in each country and the struggle acrossStates and regional blocs.
The struggle across States and regional blocs is polarizedtoday between the United States and its European and Japanese allies on one part and, on the other, the BRICS and its allies.
Unlike what happened prior to 1945, today we have a contest between States of the (quasi) old periphery and States of the (quasi) old center. And, unlike what happened prior to 1990, today the contest takes place within the framework of capitalism.
Latin America is one of the fields of this contest between the United States and the BRICS. From the geopolitical stance, considering the medium and long term, there are at least three possible scenarios. In the first one, the United States holds on to its condition as world and regional hegemon. In the second, the United States loses its condition of world hegemon, yet keeps its regional hegemony. In the third scenario, the most favorable one for LAC, the United Statesis no longer either a world or regional hegemonic power.
The USA/BRICS dispute is waged within capitalism. But in LAC there is an eccentric variable that must be taken into account: stemming from a process that began in 1998, the left started to exert strong influence in the region.
According to the core document of the 17th Meeting of the São Paulo Forum (www.forodesaopaulo.org), leftist partiesare backing, participating in or running the governments of Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic.
Except for Cuba, whose government is the result of revolutionary armed struggle, in a process that in April 1961 took on a socialist path, the remaining governments stem from electoral wins, in a wave started in 1998 with Hugo Chávez (Venezuela) that extended until 2009, with Maurício Funes (El Salvador).
The governments the left takes part in have important differences one from the other, ranging from those caused by nature and geography, to those historical and social, to those produced by different political lines, whether by the left that reached the government or the right that became opposition.
The political differences do not necessarily constitute a negative aspect. Rather, if it were just one, if it followed a single model, the Latin American left would have not been able to win elections in such diverse countries.
Yet, despite the diversity, all of the various LAC’s lefts face common problems: a) the historical legacy of neoliberalism, of conservative and colonial developmentalism (such as racism in Bolivia and Brazil); b) the radical opposition that the majoritarian sector of the Latin-American bourgeoisie (and allied middle sectors) makes against any form of redistributive policy, be that of power, wealth, or access to social rights; c) the belligerent attitude of the former metropolises against the Latin-American governments thathave elected regional integration processes as their priority.
There are different integration processes. Some had their start before the wave of progressive and leftist governments. That is the case of the MERCOSUR and other sub-regional trade agreements, which responded to integrationist purposes, yet were also addressed as intermediate steps toward the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Other integration processes appeared recently by initiative of governments the left takes part in: it is the case of the Unasul, the Alba, and the Celac.
The Alba is a cooperation-focused institutional framework between ideologically aligned governments. The Unasul and the Celac, in turn, are regional integration projects that seek to include all the countries of the respective region, regardless of the political-ideological orientation of their governments.
Earlier we said that the USA/BRICS dispute takes place within the framework of capitalism; that LAC is one of the settings wherein this dispute is being waged; and that in the LAC region there is an eccentric variable to be taken into account: the strong influence of the left.
This influence of the left renders it feasible for LAC to become, not a passive setting but, rather, one of the focal points of the geopolitical combat underway in the world. In addition, it also renders it feasible for the region to becomeone of the spaces for the reconstruction of a socialist alternative to capitalism.
To transform these two possibilities into reality, the LAC left will have to face several theoretical, strategic, and tacticalchallenges.
The first of these challenges is to defeat the counterattackstaged by the Latin-American right and its metropolitan allies.
This counterattack includes: a) a permanent media campaign against the left; b) the attempt to draw a wedge between the region’s leftist governments, dividing them into “moderates” and “radicals” and throwing one against the other; c) the promotion of de-stabilization campaigns including coups d’état, of which so far only the one in Honduras hassucceeded; d) the launching of electorally competitive candidacies, a tactic which succeeded in Panama, Costa Rica,and Chile; d) military pressure, through the relaunching of the 4th Fleet and the enlargement of the number of USA and European allies’ military bases in the region.
This counterattack by the right is favored by two factors: on one hand, the Obama administration; on the other, the regional impacts of the international crisis.
Obama’s election generated great expectations in the population of the world periphery, expectations that afforded the US head of state a political capital that eluded Bush. Although the Obama administration has not altered the core of the US foreign policy, this political capital is still active, albeit considerably weakened.
On the other hand, the international crisis brought about huge difficulties to several countries in the region, especially those heavily dependent on exports, cases of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.
The second and third challenges posed to the LAC political-social left consist in: a) not losing the national governments won thus far; and b) winning new national governments.
The next elections in the region are in Peru, Guatemala, Argentina, and Nicaragua. Therefore, three countries run by the left-of-center and one country governed by the right. Later on, there will be two other key elections: in Venezuela and Mexico.
The fourth challenge for the political and social left is, in the countries where it controls the national government, pressingfor structural changes of a democratic-popular nature. In thisregard one must take into account some constraints:
a) at the world level, the left is still in a stage of strategic defensive, which creates objective and subjective difficulties for structural changes;
b) pushing for structural changes building on an elected government is something quite different from doing the same building on revolutionary governments;
c) making structural reforms requires greater political support that that needed to win an election;
d) the governments the political and social left participate in, in LAC, are generally political (with center and even right-wing parties) and social (with sectors of the bourgeoisie) coalitions, acting within the framework of capitalism and which, to a greater or lesser extent, adopt policies that also benefit sectors of the bourgeoisie;
e) hence, besides the opposition from the right, the LAC governments backed by the political and social left face a leftist opposition contrary to agreements with sectors of the political center and of the bourgeoisie, as well as to capitalist-driven policies.
Brazil is a good example of how complex and difficult it is to, drawing on a national government, push for structural changes of a democratic-popular nature.
Throughout all of the twentieth century, the Brazilian history was marked by the struggle between two major development alternatives: the conservative and the progressive.
The conservative alternative is that in which capitalism develops without structural reforms, with low levels of democracy, and keeping Brazil aligned with the interests of the metropolises (first England, then the USA).
The progressive alternative is that in which capitalist development is combined with reforms, redemocratization, national sovereignty, and an autonomous foreign policy.
Throughout a great part of the twentieth century the conservative alternative was hegemonic, which explains the coexistence of fast growth in an environment of dictatorships and rising social inequality.
During most of the twentieth century, the progressive alternative, in addition to being the minority was under the hegemony of the capitalist forces, with some socialist forces as allies.
However, in the late 1980s the socialist forces, led by the Workers Party, came to steer the bloc of political and social forces that defended the progressive alternative.
For a brief moment it seemed we would come to have, in Brazil, a struggle between two major alternatives: the capitalist-conservative and the democratic-popular & socialist.
Yet that moment lasted little: in an international and national environment marked by the crisis of socialism and the neoliberal offensive, the Workers Party and great part of the Brazilian left changed, little by little, their programmatic and strategic goals in order to adopt a line in which progressivismwas hegemonic (capitalist development with social policies, democracy, sovereignty, and integration), though still holding socialism as a long-term goal.
Thus, the 1990s were still marked by the dispute between the conservative alternative (now under neoliberal hegemony) and the progressive (now led by the PT).
The neoliberal period accentuated the more conservative trends of the Brazilian traditional development pattern to such an extent that there were schisms within the hegemonic bloc. Dissidence within the upper, middle, and lower bourgeoisie were of key importance for the election of Lula to the presidency of the Republic, in 2002.
Once the presidency of the Republic had been won, the great national political theme (and the great tactical challenge for the Brazilian left) continued to be overcoming the neoliberal heritage. In 2011, despite another eight years of PT-led governments, this neoliberal heritage is still extremely influent.
On the other hand, the great strategic challenge consisted in, and still does, keeping control over the national government and upholding the PT hegemony over the progressive forces,to enable the socialist alternative to once again become a contending force (as occurred in the late 1980s). This strategic challenge is hindered, in turn, by the growing material, political, and ideological influence that different sectors of the bourgeoisie have over the PT.
The practical linkage between tactical challenge and strategic challenge depends on accomplishing the so-called democratic-popular structural reforms: reforms that aim to alter the concentration of wealth, property, and power. More concretely, we refer to the tax reform, the land reform, the urban reform, the financial system reform, the political reform, democratization of broadcasting etc. The political reform is of major importance whether to reduce the influence of capital over the left, or to enable the achievement of a parliamentary majority indispensable to the structural reforms, at least within the strategic framework currently implemented by the left.
If the left in the government is unable to carry out or at least take the first steps towards the reforms, it holds no strategic meaning however important its contribution to improve the lives of the people may be. And not carrying out such reforms may disappoint and divide the supporters of the left, as partly occurred in Chile, with the Concertación.
But to carry out structural reforms (or at least to accumulate forces towards that end), a leftist government needs political support, without which it can be toppled, as happened with the government of Honduras.
To address the fourth challenge, therefore, the political and social left cannot go too fast, nor can it go too slow. For that, it needs to consider adequately the correlation of forces, through concrete analysis of the concrete situation. We must resume the strategic debate triggered by the experience ofChile’s Popular Unity.
The fifth challenge for the LAC political and social left is to expedite the integration process, critical to leverage the region’s potential and also to reduce imperialist meddling.
A sixth challenge is to make Latin-American and Caribbean popular culture hegemonic in the region. For the truth is that the American way of life is still culturally hegemonic, even though the US is questioned from the political point of view.
The seventh challenge is about enlarging the theoretical and political capability of the Latin-American lefts, in particular the need to broaden coordination between governments, parties, and social movements. Without that it will become increasingly difficult to, both, confront the right at the national level, and to confront the challenges of hemispheric integration and world instability.
The theoretical reflection must confront and overcome three negative factors that generate systemic deformities in world view and the formulations of the different leftist families in LAC:
1) the crisis of the nationalist, developmentalist, social-democratic and socialist alternatives, combined with the influence of neoliberalism;
2) the importance acquired by the electoral processes and participation in state institutionality; and
3) the necessary construction of multi-class fronts, within a context of the weakening of the working class, as a class in itself and for itself.
These negative factors operated differently on each leftist family and on each organization in particular. We can identify, however, three trends that were present in all the families and parties: centrism, utopianism and‘movementism’.
In the 1990s juncture, making concessions (political and programmatic) was inevitable, save the fanatical leftism. Therefore, when we speak of (and make the critique of) centrism, we are referring to organizations which have mademore profound concessions, by shifting their programmatic goals, social base, or simply by adopting a strategically subaltern stance with regard to the interests of sectors of the bourgeoisie. A stance that was predominant among those who adopted the so-called left-of-center.
Whatever the setting, a leftist organization needs a certain amount of romantic voluntarism (or utopianism, in the current sense of the word) to strengthen scientific and rational convictions, while helping to recall long-term goals. Thus, when we speak of (and make the critique of) utopianism, we are referring to organizations that, at the strategic level, adopt pre-capitalist paradigms. This second characteristic issignificantly present in the Bolivian and Ecuadorean left, though not only.
A leftist party that swaps organized social bases for electoral bases is doomed to ideological, political, and even electoral defeat. That is why the left, necessarily, has to both support and encourage the mobilization and organization of its social bases. Thus, when we speak of (and make the critique of)‘movementism’, we are referring to a crypto-anarchist conception that underestimates the importance of the electoral struggle and participation in governments, in this historical period; that mystifies and mythicizes the so-called social movements; and that tends to convert, at the level of the ideas, social movements in the avant-garde of the struggle against capitalism.
Hence, the LAC left currently faces great difficulties to accomplish two core tasks if it is willing to alter the status quo: offer a roadmap and coordinate the various engagement fronts.
Surely the aforementioned statement might not be adequate with regard to some organizations and/or some sectors existing within each party. But on the whole, we consider it to be an adequate description.
Specifically in the case of government parties, it is equally necessary to take into account that winning elections and managing countries so completely unlike, with populations strongly influenced by the mass media, requires mobilizing the support of popular strata that are more susceptible to following charismatic leaderships, thus going counter to the indispensable collective boards.
It requires, too, a great amount of financial resources, indispensable in electoral processes in which the programmatic debate is hampered by “vote trading”. That generates a relationship with the State and business that may alienate, even if partially, these parties from their original social bases.
It requires, lastly, acting within and without the State apparatus, attempting to be at the same time a hegemonic and counter-hegemonic force, capable of running in elections and governing as integral to the road to power, that is, toward a political and social revolution. That is easier said than done, especially when we are lagging in terms of a strategic debate on the Chilean way, that is, on the strategic path that the Popular Unity of 1970–1973 attempted to take.
The negative factors commented above affect all political parties in government, regardless of the radicalness exhibited by the administrations they make up or support. Yet there are relevant differences to be considered.
In those countries where neoliberalism was more destructive, it undermined the cornerstones of the clientelistic right and dissolved the entire political spectrum, including the left.
For that too, when the neoliberal hegemony wears out and the opposition wins the election, the new presidents are an integral part of relatively recent political organizations, as in the case of the Venezuelan MVR, the Bolivian MAS, and the Ecuadorean PAIS.
Moreover, the new rulers find the need and at the same time have the means to call constitutional processes, radicalizing the process from the rhetorical, political, and institutional point of view.
This radicalization is, partly, a reaction against the colossal structural inequalities; on the other hand, it constitutes a response to the radicalness of the opposition made by the right, with its smear campaigns, destabilization, and coups.
Nevertheless, the political radicalness does not imply that, in these countries, the macro and microeconomic conditions are the most favorable to the building of a post-neoliberal economic model, much less that of a post-capitalist model.
The contradiction between the subjective and objective conditions is at the heart of a rising conflict between a part of these governments’ original social bases and some of the developmentalist policies that these same governments are obligated to put in place. We say obligated because there is the need to both meet accumulated social demands and to correspond to medium- and long-term future needs.
As the really existent developmentalism is of a capitalist nature, this generates reactions that are centrist (strategic alliances with capital), ‘movementist’ (sector reactions against certain policies) and utopist (leftist rejection to development) inside the various leftist families. Such divisions in the governments’ political and social base, in a setting of hardships caused by the international crisis, may generate a favorable electoral scenario for the rightwing opposition.
In other countries in the continent where there used to be a diversified industrial economy and the political and social resistance managed to impose more limits on neoliberalism, the State and the political spectrum were better preserved.
In these countries, the anti-neoliberal parties that win the elections are many years old, as is the case of Brazil’s Workers Party (1980) and Uruguay’s Broad Front (1971). For similar reasons, the right that loses the elections is still very powerful and influential, stalling constitutional processes and structural reforms.
No wonder that, in these countries, centrist pragmatism is strong, whereas utopianism and ‘movementism’ are relatively marginal.
Paradoxically and counter to this relative political moderation of the various processes, in these countries macro and microeconomic conditions are (at least potentially) more favorable to the building of a post-neoliberal economic model; and even to the construction of socialism.
Despite this schematic description, the contradiction we pointed out, among other objective and subjective conditions, only finds a theoretical and practical solution within the context of a hemispheric strategy. That is why the issue of integration is a watershed concerning the LAC left’s political debate.
Integration does not guarantee a socialist future for each of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. And not every integration process is consistent with a socialist strategy. Yet, in the present international situation, for most of the LAC countries only integration will enable socialism (or even progressive, capitalist development) to become a realistic alternative.
Thus, if the Latin American and Caribbean left wishes to increase its strength without getting off course, it will have to focus on the debate on 21st century capitalism, on the review of 20th-century socialism, and on strategy. That includes resolving the relation between political line, social base, party, government, and State. Plus resolving the relation between national transformation and regional integration.

*Valter Pomar is a member of the Workers Party National Board.