The major element missing from Latin American politics in recent decades has been, with rare exceptions, the traditional workers’ movement, beaten down by flexibilization, subcontracting, and other neoliberal measures.… The fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of Soviet socialism left the parties and social organizations of the left inspired by that model seriously weakened. At the same time, trade unions were hit hard by the weakening of the working class, part of the larger social fragmentation produced by neoliberalism. In that context, it was new social movements, and not the traditional parties and social organizations of the left, that rose to the forefront of the struggle against neoliberalism, in forms that varied widely from one country to another.… The situation in the 1980s and ’90s in Latin America was comparable in some respects to the experience of pre-revolutionary Russia in the early twentieth century.… [M]any of the region’s peoples said “enough” and started mobilizing, first in defensive resistance, then passing to the offensive. As a result, presidential candidates of the left or center-left began to triumph, only to face the following alternative: either embrace the neoliberal model, or advance an alternative project motivated by a logic of solidarity and human development.… [Consequently,] a major debate has emerged over the role that new social movements should adopt in relation to the progressive governments that have inspired hope in many Latin American nations.
Over the last few decades Marta Harnecker has emerged as one of Latin America's most incisive socialist thinkers. In A World to Build, she grapples with the question that has bedeviled every movement for radical social change: how do you construct a new world within the framework of the old? Harnecker draws on lessons from socialist movements in Latin America, especially Venezuela, where she served as an advisor to the Chávez administration and was a director of the Centro Internacional Miranda.
Twenty years ago, left forces in Latin America and in the world in general were going through a difficult period. The Berlin Wall had fallen; the Soviet Union hurtled into an abyss and disappeared completely by the end of 1991. Deprived of the rearguard it needed, the Sandinista Revolution was defeated at the polls in February 1990, and Central American guerrilla movements were forced to demobilize. The only country that kept the banners of revolution flying was Cuba, although all the omens said that its days were numbered. Given that situation, it was difficult to imagine that twenty years later, left-wing leaders would govern most of the Latin American countries.
Latin America was the first region in the world where neoliberal policies were introduced. Chile, my country, was used as a testing ground before Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government implemented them in the United Kingdom. But Latin America was also the first region in the world where these policies came to be rejected as policies that only served to increase poverty, aggravate social inequalities, destroy the environment, and weaken working-class and popular movements in general.…It was in our subcontinent that left and progressive forces first began to rally after the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. After more than two decades of suffering, new hope was born. At first, this took the shape of struggles to resist neoliberal policies, but after a few years, people went on the offensive, conquering arenas of power.
“Why talk of socialism?” we may ask. After all, “socialism” has had such negative connotations since its collapse in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries. For many years after Soviet socialism disappeared, intellectuals and progressive forces talked more of what socialism must not be than of the model that we actually wanted to build. Some of the facets of Soviet socialism that were rejected—and rightly so—were: statism, state capitalism, totalitarianism, bureaucratic central planning, the kind of collectivism that seeks to homogenize without respecting differences, productivism (which stresses the growth of productive forces without being concerned about the need to protect nature), dogmatism, atheism, and the need for a single party to lead the transition process.
My reflections on the kind of political instrument needed to build twenty-first century socialism are intended to contribute to a larger body of thought about the horizon toward which a growing number of Latin American governments are moving. I conclude by emphasizing the need for a new left culture, a tolerant and pluralist culture that stresses that which unites us rather than that which divides us. A culture that promotes unity around values—such as solidarity, humanism, respect for difference, and protection of the environment—and turns its back on the view that hunger for profit and the laws of the market are the guiding principles of human activity.
This article is excerpted from Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez Talks to Marta Harnecker to be published by Monthly Review Press in September. The book covers a wide range of topics, including Chávez’s political formation, the transformation currently taking place in Venezuela, and its place in the global context. In what follows, Chávez recounts the events of the failed coup d’etat of April 11, 2002.—Eds
Alcasa, a state-owned aluminum processing plant in the southeastern state of Bolívar, has long been an important employer in a region where the lion’s share of Venezuela’s mining and processing plants are located. Yet since the mid-1990s it has been plagued by inefficiency and corruption. According to Trino Silva, secretary general of the union, Alcasa’s production has been in “the red” for the past sixteen years. Though the aluminum they produce is in high demand and despite considerable production increases over the past few years, the company has been unable to turn a profit. Silva blames a corrupt factory management that used Alcasa as its piggy bank throughout the 1990s, all the while holding the threat of privatization over workers’ heads. It was no idle threat. A few miles down the road, SIDOR, one of Latin America’s largest steel plants and long the pride of the state Venezuelan Corporation of Guyana (CVG), was privatized in 1997. From a workforce approaching 20,000 full-time direct employees (with several thousand more contract and temporary workers) in the late 1980s, SIDOR has downsized to only 4,000 direct employees and approximately 6,000 contract workers
With President Hugo Chávez’s victory in the August 15 referendum, the Venezuelan opposition suffered the third great defeat in its struggle to end his government. The unprecedented recall referendum ratified Chávez’s presidency by a margin of two million votes and was declared valid unanimously by the hundreds of international observers who scrutinized it
Marta Harnecker’s interviews with Hugo Chávez began soon after one of the most dramatic moments of Chávez’s presidency—the failed coup of April 2002, which ended with Chávez restored to power by a massive movement of protest and resistance. In the aftermath of the failed coup, Chávez talks to Harnecker about the formation of his political ideas, his aspirations for Venezuela, its domestic and international policies, problems of political organization, relations with social movements in other countries, and more, constantly relating these to concrete events and to strategies for change.