Monday, February 9, 2009

Lessons Learned: Latin American Left has much to teach Obama supporters

Lessons Learned: Latin American Left Has Much to Teach Obama Supporters
Written by Daniel Denvir
Tuesday, 27 January 2009
Source: The Indypendent

QUITO, Ecuador–Barack Obama’s rise to power leaves progressives in the U.S. to grapple with questions familiar to many Latin American leftists: how do we interact with an ally once he takes office? And is he really an ally after all?

During the U.S. presidential campaign, the right wing exhausted itself in an effort to sow fears over the identity of the “real Barack Obama.” It seems, however, that it is Left-liberals’ hopeful imaginings of Obama that endures. Anything that Obama does that might be disagreeable to the Left—say, support for a “surge” in Afghanistan—is read as smart pragmatic Obama. The President is a self-described Rorschach Test.

This contradiction between promises of change and status quo reinforcing actions creates space for social movements to demand accountability.

In Latin America, it is in Bolivia and Venezuela where social movements most clearly feel they have some sort of ally in their president. But as Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson note, “the election of Evo Morales did not bring about a revolution. It was a revolution that brought about the government of Evo Morales.” In Venezuela, however, President Hugo Chávez brought about the revolution. He did so by appealing to broad popular opposition to free market fundamentalism and yearnings for social justice. As Roland Denis, activist and former Vice Minister of Planning and Development under Chávez, writes, there is a major weakness in “a social movement that is often created within the government’s bureaucracies (Land Committees, Communal Councils, Health, Energy and Water Committees)”.

In both Bolivia and Venezuela, the governments face very real domestic and external challenges. In Bolivia, an opposition led by white racist elites has deployed violent mobs to destabilize the government. And it bears noting that the rightists drew their line in the sand at the very doorstep of modest reform—increased central government shares of natural gas royalties to fund a universal social security program. The political polarization between Morales and the right wing has put the movements to Morales’ left in a difficult position. Oscar Olivera, who led the 2000 Cochabamba water wars against privatization, told Argentinian news site La Vaca that “the real difficulty is that social movements have in large part lost their voice and space for action in the face of this state apparatus.” Olivera, who supported Morales’ 2005 candidacy, also says that the Morales has not done enough to protect citizens against the right wing violence.

In Venezuela, while Chávez still enjoys popular support, problems are surfacing—as evidenced by recent electoral setbacks. Although there is still broad support for Chávez, voters held local politicians responsible for persistent violent crime, unpopular party leaders and problems with basic municipal administration like garbage collection. And as Denis notes, the misleading idea that Chávez is perfect and that all problems can be sourced to corrupt bureaucrats surrounding him, “has become ‘popular’ in every sense of the word.” He says that Venezuela is living a moment of “maximum confusion,” which requires a “qualitative leap forward, to take us to the edge of a new situation in which the relations between the Government and the ‘non-administered’ popular movement is radically changed.”

A similar dynamic is evident in countries where the Left has not taken power. On Mexico’s Left, a struggle rages between the opportunist and more progressive wings of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) as well as the non-electorally inclined Zapatistas. And in Colombia, the Democratic Pole (PD) is an always-difficult coalition of parties ranging from social democratic to Communist. What is important in all of the countries, including our own, is serious strategic thinking. I supported Obama’s candidacy because I thought that the Left would be better positioned under his administration than under a McCain presidency—but what is the strategic rationale for defending his unnecessary rightward moves?

For some people, Obama’s actions demonstrate that he is a sober political pragmatist. I imagine that these defenses of Obama are becoming more difficult now as Robert Gates continues on as Defense Secretary, and agribusiness representative Tom Vilsack takes over the Department of Agriculture while Obama focuses his first comments on the recent war in Gaza on Israel’s “right to defend itself”.

Circling the Wagons

In Latin America, the very real threats (and realities) of U.S. military, political and economic intervention push social movements to rally around their leaders. Attacks by right-wing forces against government reforms also keep activists on the defensive. In Venezuela and Bolivia, the U.S. government has sided with a violent, wealthy elite against Presidents Chávez and Morales. In Ecuador, the debate around adopting a new constitution was dominated by the Catholic Church’s homophobic and anti-abortion campaign, which limited space for criticism from the Left before the document was overwhelmingly approved last September in a nationwide referendum. With the new constitution approved, social movements have taken the new environmental and social protections enshrined therein to organize national mobilizations against President Rafael Correa’s
support for large-scale mining.

In the U.S., the right wing and the Republican Party pose a similar dilemma. When conservatives suggest that Obama is a Manchurian candidate, intent on refounding the Caliphate, persecuting Christians and overthrowing capitalism—how can you not defend the guy? How do we celebrate this victory against a racist, far right while simultaneously mobilizing to deal with an Administration that is increasingly looking like Bill Clinton’s third term?

The relationship between Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and the country’s social and indigenous movements has shifted from strained to downright oppositional. Correa began his office with the Left’s cautious support, hitting applause lines with promises to kick the U.S. out of the coastal military base in Manta and criticizing the foreign debt. While he is following through on these two commitments—the U.S. military is leaving in 2009 and Ecuador just defaulted on some of its foreign commercial debt—large-scale mining, oil and other natural resource issues have led to sharp disagreements.

In Brazil and Chile, the Left is also engaged in raucous fights with their governments. In regional economic heavyweight Brazil, now considered “subimperialist” by many social movements throughout Latin America for its aggressive natural resource grabbing, President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s support for agribusiness and biofuels has raised the ire of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) and his dam building initiatives have angered many indigenous peoples. At the same time, Brazilian social movements supported Lula’s reelection in the second round of voting, in part due to increased spending on social programs. In Chile, on the other hand, Democratic Concertation President Michelle Bachelet has maintained the basic contours of anemic social protections passed down by the Pinochet dictatorship, sparking mass student protests in 2006.

In this context of ambiguous electoral victories, movements throughout the hemisphere have come to the conclusion that despite the importance of electing and defending progressive governments, real change cannot come without struggles in the workplaces, schools and streets. Workers making windows and doors in Chicago and landless farmers occupying oligarchs’ landholdings in Brazil and Bolivia legislate their own reality. While social movements in the U.S. should fight to hold Obama accountable for his business friendly tendencies, we must also fight to transform the political landscape from below. After all, it was the massive social movements of the 1930s and not the president’s ideological disposition that pushed FDR to
enact his New Deal reforms. But an “inside-outside strategy” holds both promise and pitfalls, as movements navigate the blurry line between critical engagement and cheerleading. As Uruguayan writer Raúl Zibechi writes, “In love as in cooptation, you need two.” The same goes for social change.

Daniel Denvir is a Quito, Ecuador based journalist and a 2008 recipient of NACLA’s Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Grant. He is an editor at

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