Sao Paulo Forum: 25 years later….
At the beginning of August the Sao Paulo Forum, the multi variegated assembly of the Latin American left, met in Mexico City. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since 1990, when this significant forum was founded by a small group of parties and movements. At that time, there was only one left party in government and power, across the entire continent, the Communist Party of Cuba. Today, 25 years later, parties belonging to the forum form part of the governments in more than 10 countries.
Moreover, the regular meetings held by the continental left to discuss and develop common strategies have led to significant progress in the direction of major social and political transformations. The situation is not, however, a bed of roses. The counter-offensive of the continental right and the United States is ever present and increasingly insidious. Thus, without detracting in any way from the many positive achievements obtained so far that have significantly changed the material conditions of life of millions of people, it seems useful here to seek to identify some problematic areas for the immediate future.
Low intensity Coup
The counter-offensive assumes different forms, voices and players according to the differing conditions and cultural features of the different countries, but there is a common thread running through the whole continent. In Greece the former finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has said that the banks have replaced the tanks. Something similar is at work here where the present strategy appears far more sophisticated and refined in relation to the more overtly brutal methods of the past .
The repressive days of civic-military dictatorships imposed by bloody coups and maintained by terror, now seem distant. The new brain child of the Washington “think tanks” is the strategy of “Golpes Blandos”, the ” low intensity coup “, which has been evident in recent years in both Honduras and Paraguay (where the institutional coups succeeded), as well as in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador (where they failed). Although no doubt provisional and subject to recursive modification “in progress”, this policy is still operative, as we have seen in recent months.
Today, to paraphrase an expression dear to the left in the old times, the right-wing has adopted an incremental utilization of a “combination of forms of struggle”. Contemporary fire power is made up of an assemblage of financial capital (vulture funds against Argentina, speculation and manipulation on the currency in Venezuela, etc.), diplomatic pressure, strengthening of the military presence under the pretext of the “war on drugs” and “narco-terrorism” ( Mexico and Colombia), operations of “psychological warfare”, articulated with selective assassinations of political and social leaders (Venezuela, El Salvador), with the use of common crime (El Salvador) and paramilitary groups (Honduras, Venezuela) to strike terror, street mobilization (Brazil, Ecuador), economic sabotage and hoarding of essential goods to provoke discontent in the population (Venezuela), claims for autonomy (Bolivia), and attempts of institutional fractures.
Tribunals versus government
The “low intensity coup” also has a legal office, with almost the entire judiciary still dominated by the usual “big powers” actively onside, overtly or covertly according to the specific scenarios (El Salvador, Brazil). In El Salvador, for example, the erstwhile judges of the Constitutional Division of the Supreme Court of Justice are trying to strangle the government financially, by declaring unconstitutional the issuance of Treasury bills to cover social policies. At the same time they have solemnly defended the “freedom of expression” of a dozen soldiers arrested because they wanted to march heavily armed on parliament to demand a salary increase.
The so called “fight against corruption” has also been transformed into another instance of the courts working at the service of the political and economic right, with the added irony of Washington dispensing lessons of “transparency and morality”. The case of Brazil is the most obvious, but not the only one. Progressive governments are accused of corruption, often without a shred of evidence, thanks to the operations of spectacular mediatic trials, conducted in parallel to the real courts, which celebrate premature convictions and thus prepare the terrain for the attacks of the judiciary. This is not to deny cases of corruption in the left (which must be prosecuted and condemned in the strongest terms), but to warn against naivety about the instrumental use that is made of such a sensitive issue.
Memory is short, and so corruption becomes a problem of today, and not as it is a physiological issue, a structural feature of the capitalist scene. Past corruption vanishes, as do the perverse intrigues and complex ties linking economic, political and judicial power that characterized, among others, the years of the neo-liberal orgy and of the assault on diligence, with the privatization of public enterprises. Pinochet’s Chile is only the most brazen case, where a dozen oligarchic families further enriched in the shadows of the dictatorship, are still unpunished thanks to the “pact of transition” to democracy.
Colombia: a never-ending conflict
The Latin American left is deeply concerned about the conflict in Colombia, which has been going on for over half a century. Despite hopes of the ongoing dialogue between the government and the FARC-Ep guerrillas (and its possible extension to the other guerrilla group ELN), the picture emerging from this social and armed conflict is dramatic. Colombia has about six and a half million internally displaced people due to land theft, carried out by murders, threats and pressures of different kinds. The data of the Fiscalía (State Prosecutor), a state institution, show at least fifty thousand detainees desaparecidos, almost the double of those that we know to be victims of the Argentine dictatorship.
There are almost half a million exiles and more than 9,000 t political prisoners. There have been more than 5,500 extra-judicial executions carried out by the Armed Forces from 2002 to today (over only 10 years). They concern innocent civilians killed and then passed off as guerrillas to demonstrate the effectiveness of the military action. We know them as falsos positivos, and is one of the types of forced disappearance.
The media war
The overriding element in this ongoing war is the unscrupulous and shameless use of media artillery, highly effective and noted for taking no prisoners.
Much has been written about the role of the “party of the media” as important opposition force to “progressive” governments in the region. The discursive construction of “common sense” according to the requirements of the hour, the extreme concentration of news power, the “media’s landlords”, the role of the corporations and their spin doctors in the strategy of supranational destabilization, the modern use of “social networks” are all structural elements of power and its continental counter-offensive. Malcolm X’s 1960’s warning comes to mind. “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing”.
Media power has also been responsible for significant political gains for the right against Venezuela government (and not only), able to form alliances with some sectors of the former global Social-democracy (including the Brazilian Fernando Enrique Cardoso, the Chilean Ricardo Lagos, the Argentine Hermes Binner, the Spanish Felipe Gonzales). Even Isabel Allende, (President Salvador Allende’s daughter and actually president of the Chilean PS) sensationally defined the Venezuelan process a “military dictatorship” and demanded the release of coup plotters as “political prisoners”.
Errors, developmentalism and technocracy
Though, it’s not all their merit…..
To this multifaceted offensive, we have to sum the errors made, and some “criticalities” of several progressive governments, which, by the way, suffer a reduction of economic resources at their disposal due to the global economic crisis.
The first critical element is a kind of inertia, fatal to the process of change, and affecting different spheres of political, economic, social and cultural life. At times it appears almost as a form of resting on the laurels of the many and undeniable social achievements.
However this inertia demobilizes and weakens political participation. Although it’s true that since the beginning of the cycle of electoral victories, the Left has never lost in any of the countries, today the conditions are very different from the past and the future electoral challenges are anything but downhill.
Another extremely important challenge lies in elaborating an adequate response to the impact of the global crisis and the contraction in Chinese (and European) demand, in a region where the presence of the Asian giant has been significantly entrenched for some time.
The collapse in the prices of “commodities” (starting from oil, whose market value has fallen almost by half in the last twelve months) has also dramatically reduced the resources available for social policies.
Another element is the continental integration process, which is still far too slow. Just think about the “Bank of the South”, launched back in 2008, when both Hugo Chavez and Nestor Kirchner were still alive, and still clearly having difficulty getting off the ground. There is awareness, in the debate, of the vital necessity of integration as a shield, as a form of self-defence in the face of the international crisis. However, at the same time, there is a lack of a program of integration and the necessary complementary action from below, which is not only economic, but also social, cultural and within the trade unions. Although this debate is beginning within the inter governmental arena, it is still too hesitant in the organizations of the left and within the social movements.
Some governments also manifest a rather technocratic top-down vision, which does not help dialogue with sectors that, as a result, are more likely to end up in the arms of the opposition. It gives the right-wing greater possibility to co-opt some social movements without adequate responses from governments. Apart from the old-fashion fascist organizations, this modern right-wing is determined and ruthless, and is adept in adopting instrumental and chameleonic positions. It takes on the language of the moderate left and, if necessary, even forms alliances with sectors of the “ultra-left” which often tries to radicalize. Cynically espouses environmentalism and the cause of “indigenous people”, and fills its mouth with human rights and freedom of expression.
In Mexico City there was evident concern for the crisis in the European Union, for its impact on the European populations and on the economies of Latin America and the Caribbean. There was as well a renewed interest in the fortunes of the left in the old continent, with a focus on the Greek situation and the upcoming elections in Spain, Portugal and Ireland.
However, back in Latin America, the main focus remains on the “development model”, still based on the extractivism of natural resources, (resulting in “re-primaryization” of the economy, without significant capacity of added value) and on some kind of “developmentism”. Certainly the impact of the crisis on the budgets of progressive governments makes the need to “fulfil national budget” more urgent, and thus finding resources to develop public policies to meet the enormous social needs is often in conflict with other social and environmental concerns.
It is very easy to criticize right-wing and moderate governments for their uncontrolled environmental depredations. It is more difficult to express the “right to criticize” the post-neoliberal, “progressive” or “friendly” governments. Conversely, it is easier to be in opposition than in government (in many cases not in power) having to act effectively in adverse conditions, organizing grassroots participation.
But environmental sustainability and a harmonious relationship between human presence and nature has nothing to do with forms of borrowed “ecological fundamentalism”. It ‘s too easy to dismiss the demands of social movements and the left who maintain their autonomy, as being instrumental or in the pay of the reactionary right. And despite the years, the social base of the processes of change does not always count on a stable, solid, and mass organization.
The current debates (and especially the concrete practices) are still insufficient, particularly regarding the contradiction capital-nature, or the “sustainable” use of the underground resources (and others), or productive diversification. In other words regarding the content of the “socialism of the 21st century” as an alternative to this development model.
An urgent debate is necessary, without possible shortcuts.