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The End of History? Revolutionary Politics in Latin America

While the persistent illusion that definitive change in Latin America is just around the corner is now clearly destroyed, the potential for political struggle and radical social transformation is far from having evaporated.
Jim Cane

Issue #30, February 1997

I had the bad luck of entering the graduate program in Latin American History at UC-Berkeley shortly after History came to an end. My original hope was to study and teach the specifics of how oppression has been historically organized, as a means of both contributing to the development of a critique of the current political situation and informing the action of continuing struggles. This, it would seem, is now pointless. Instead, since history has ground to a halt, I should simply catalogue the blunders and the glories of the past, so that we all might better appreciate just how good we have it in the present. Sure, the few minor adjustments that are to come before the world finally settles comfortably into its predestined and permanent liberal-democratic configuration might prove interesting to chronicle; but, ultimately, I will have nothing relevant to say beyond some vague characterizations of "human nature" illustrated by historical examples.

While such a conclusion may seem just as overly pessimistic as my initial hopes were naive, many of us in the academic and intellectual left find ourselves in similar situations. We have, in fact, subconsciously bought into many of the proclamations of the right: capitalism, unfortunately, corresponds closest to human nature; socialism might be a great ideal, but not only is it not really a viable option anymore, it can too easily become authoritarian; only the market, as imperfect as it might always be, can bring us the aesthetic novelty and technological advance that we have come to demand; there is, in fact, only one path that the future can take, and it has the word "market" written on the signposts. Besides, you can vote, can't you?

Ironically, these notions were becoming accepted as common sense in the United States at the same time that they were most forcefully questioned in Central America. For many of us who became radicalized during the Reagan Reaction of the 1980s, it was the armed revolutionary movements in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala that inspired us. Sure, we knew of the persistence of injustice nationally, locally, or personally, but the conflicts in Central America seemed so much clearer. In the US, it remained possible to argue that one could and must work through the two-party system to address social issues — even in the midst of the semi-authoritarian Reagan years — no matter how futile it might seem. After all, in contrast to Central America, labor unionists were not regularly tortured and shot, religious leaders were not assassinated, and protesters were not run like bulls through the streets of our capital with Army snipers strafing the crowds. Injustice here seemed more complex, government and media propaganda more all-encompassing, and actions against an amorphous "system" much more boring than the romantic notion of heading to the hills with a guerrilla band.

Yet, the victory of the Sandinistas and the progress they made in areas of health, education, and income and property distribution also went beyond the negative view of a fight against an oppressive regime. The Nicaragua of the 1980s seemed to reveal the very real potential for transforming society and the economy to meet human needs — and dignity — rather than technical market "laws." The clear influence of Liberation Theology on the Sandinistas, the Salvadoran FMLN, and the Guatemalan guerrillas also made it much easier for those of us raised in good midwest Catholic homes to see that the Church could actually do some good, and that priests and Church workers could be sincere, progressive, and inspiringly brave. Since in Central America the dreaded "communists" — blood-thirsty mercenaries of the Evil Empire — and "socialists" — liberals duped by blood-thirsty mercenaries of the Evil Empire — were in alliance with the Catholics (and often were Catholic), suddenly the validity of all Cold War era characterizations seemed questionable. If Central America in the 1980s was a repeat of the Spanish Civil War, clearly this time God was a Red. But perhaps more ominously, if "socialism" meant freedom from state terror and coercion, and the freedom for ourselves and others to be healthy, educated, and comrades as well as citizens, many of the children of the Reagan years, myself included, thought "I'll have some of that, please."

Clearly, other factors also contributed to my politicization, ranging from Bobby Sands and Nelson Mandela to Indian treaty rights and my agricultural and factory work experiences. But Central America was pivotal, both for the bravery in the face of incomprehensible brutality of the Salvadorans and Guatemalans, and the example of human potential given by the Sandinistas. That the wars in the region reached their peak at the same time that Reaganism and Thatcherism were consolidating as common sense only made the end of the decade that much more painful. To leftists who felt no particular attachment to the Soviet model, the Sandinista defeat in the 1990 elections seemed a debilitating "Told you so" from the right. Those of us who shouted "Fake socialism is dead! Long live true socialism!" at the television screen at the sudden fall of the Berlin Wall, sadly (and wrongly) felt that we had nothing much left to say.

The illusion that the collapse of the Soviet Union would magically usher in some form of democratic — but not soft — socialism is now pretty much dead. Even the rush of Latin American democratization well underway by the end of the decade that we could not help but celebrate had an ominous corollary: if genuinely democratic political systems of varying solidity were now in place in Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, and even El Salvador (and South Africa), it was because democracy was no longer a threat. Faced with the apparent non-viability of any option that did not embrace at least the central tenets of market-based economics and political liberalism, most leftists in the region suddenly dropped demands for any substantive form of socialism. Instead, they began to portray themselves as the most worthy administrators of capitalism. Democracy, the Latin American militaries and elites soon recognized, was no longer subversive.

Utopia Unharmed?

I exaggerate. Actually, through the course of the 1980s, most leftist movements in the region saw the establishment of a functioning liberal democracy as a prerequisite for any radical transformation of their nations' economic and social systems. This is true for no other reason than that the left in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Guatemala, and even El Salvador had been nearly destroyed by the state terrorism so common in the 1970s and 1980s. No longer could the left take seriously the Argentine ERP strategy of provoking repression and military rule, thus leading to and legitimizing a general uprising ending with the full seizure of power. Even in Colombia, where the strategy has failed to produce an overt military take-over, the government has managed to create a very convincing democratic facade to cover state terrorism. With a military and death-squad campaign against labor, the left, and "undesirables" such as gays and street children, the repression in Colombia — the largest recipient of US aid in the hemisphere — now outstrips even that faced by the Chilean, Uruguayan and Argentine populations in the 1970s. In addition, the use of demonstration elections, such as those orchestrated in El Salvador in the 1980s, showed that military attacks, even against what is clearly a sham democracy, could undercut the local and international public relations efforts of almost any guerrilla movement.

A functioning multi-party, liberal democracy, then, has been recognized by the vast majority of the left in the region (the most important exceptions being the Cuban Communist Party and Sendero Luminoso — and this is probably their only commonality) as imperative both for the daily operation of any progressive movement and as an undeniable source of legitimation for any political project. It should not surprise us that the left was the key actor in forcing the resurrection or implantation of liberal democratic practices in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala and — some would say this is the Sandinista's greatest legacy — Nicaragua. With the insurrectionary and military options either bloodily defeated or caught in an extremely draining stalemate, the freedom to openly organize provided by constitutional rule seemed worth the programmatic sacrifices that the right and center demanded. The armed path to power has been so discredited, in fact, that even when constitutional guarantees of freedom of association are severely undermined by right-wing paramilitaries — witness the almost total decimation of the now unarmed M-19 and Unión Patriótica in Colombia, and the continued assassination of FMLN activists even after the peace accords — the resort to guerrilla warfare à la Che Guevara is overwhelmingly rejected.

Of course, the definitive end of the age of Latin American armed revolutionary movements, proclaimed by Jorge Castañeda in his much-publicized Utopia Unarmed, has certainly not arrived. Shortly after that book's publication, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) seized and held several municipalities in the Mexican state of Chiapas, and then organized an orderly retreat. The Zapatistas, however, are not Sendero Luminoso, or even the FSLN. Instead, what at first appeared to be an anachronistic outbreak of guerrilla warfare in a country largely immune to the devastation of armed struggle in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, has proven itself a movement well-aware of the post-Cold War circumstances. Not only have the Zapatistas avoided armed engagement, but, following a consultation with "civil society," they also made initially rapid moves to become a purely political force. The primary demands of the EZLN are also much more modest than those of traditional guerrilla organizations: genuinely multi-party, fair elections; and greater regional autonomy. Significantly, the recent conference of activists sponsored by the Zapatistas was called not to discuss programs and strategies for movements that are "for socialism", or even "against capitalism and imperialism," but very modestly "against neo-liberalism."

Likewise, the URNG, the Guatemalan guerrilla coalition that emerged in the 1980s during one of the longest and bloodiest civil wars/genocides of the hemisphere, has recently agreed to lay down its arms and become a purely political force. Among the concessions achieved by the URNG is the declaration of Guatemala as a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, and the recognition of several languages as legitimate in the functioning of the government and legal systems. In Guatemala, the move is, in fact, much more far reaching than similar declarations in, say, Canada; for in Guatemala, land tenure and labor recruitment in essential sectors of the economy are overwhelmingly tied to ethnicity. For this reason the world witnessed the massive genocidal sweeps of Guatemala's rural areas in the 1980s, which were directed as much at aiding the coffee export economy as at defeating the insurgents. Such limited gains revolving around ethnicity and culture — rather than the class issues that are the primary organizing issues of traditional Marxist organizations — thus have great potential for undermining at least the form of capitalism that has emerged in Guatemala. Similarly, the Zapatistas' mobilization of political action around ethnic issues, and M-19's success in bringing indigenous peoples' rights to the fore in the new Colombian constitution, would correspondingly seem to legitimize armed action for limited goals in the same way that the success of Fidel Castro legitimized the use of arms for the direct seizure of power. In addition, now that the URNG has managed to get firm government declarations recognizing the multi-ethnic character of Guatemalan society, a new faultline in the state reveals itself: should the Guatemalan government fail to live up to its own rhetoric of respect for the rights of local ethnic groups, it seems logical that it be challenged not only in the courts, but, if necessary, through the mechanism that achieved those rights in the first place. Armed struggle for limited ends, then, may not disappear any time soon.

Thus, if we assume that the struggle for democratization in the political sphere is more than simply a tactic for achieving other ends, what appears to have changed for most of the regional left is the very meaning of the word "Revolution." Since the 1920s, when local Communist Parties largely replaced the anarchists as the most dynamic political force on the left proper, leftists of varying stripes have seen all gains on the social and political front, as revolutionary as they might portray themselves, as simply a prelude to the final, necessarily socialist, Revolution. When Fidel Castro triumphantly entered Havana in 1959, it also appeared to much of the regional left — the major exception being the Chilean left — that the "Revolution" would not come about through the usual Communist tactic of participating in the existing political process. Center-left governments that did emerge in the region in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as traditional Communist Parties, came to be seen as inherently compromised and largely undeserving of even loyal opposition by much of the left. Where the majority of the region's Communists remained committed to the strengthening of liberal democracy as a necessary stage in the controlled advance toward the inevitable — and total — Revolution, the guerrilla movements that soon came to dominate the left largely saw anything short of the immediate seizure of power as betrayal.

sizzle The current rejection of the goal of a total seizure of power, then, does indeed mark a new turn for the regional left. The Leninist organizational principles that had dominated leftist thinking since the 1920s, and which reached their peak in the 1960s, have now fallen by the wayside. The reasons for this extend beyond the collapse of the Eastern European socialisms, the economic/political crisis in Cuba, and the disenchantment of many Latin American exiles as they saw Soviet-style socialism first hand. In fact, the rejection of Leninism has occurred in Latin America for many of the same reasons that it has occurred in the North: the last three decades have seen a marked increase in the complexity of Latin American societies, and a corresponding emergence of social justice struggles that are not directly presented as class issues. Indigenous peoples' rights, gay and lesbian rights, gender equality, environmental issues, and human rights can be addressed — and with a certain degree of success — without pushing the much trickier and more dangerous issue of the injustice inherent in the current social relations of production. Any coherent left organization, then, must be able to reconcile these often conflicting struggles not only with each other, but also with the bread and butter economic issues that the left is expected to address. Too often such issues were viewed simply as distractions from the more serious issue of advancing toward socialism; they were, at best, questions that were to be addressed after the seizure of power. Revolution, implicitly, is no longer a glorious flash of red banners — like the entrance of Fidel into Havana or the FSLN into Managua — but rather a long and uneven struggle for social equality carried out on many fronts and, at least for the foreseeable future, within the context of capitalist democracy, with all the limitations that this entails.

"Yes, Your Holiness"

The rejection of Leninism does leave a certain gap in the region's left due to the relative dearth of non-Leninist Marxist groupings. This does not mean, however, that Latin American left politics has been reduced to the hit-and-miss maneuverings of amorphous "new social movements." Actually, several political parties in the region have managed to act as just the kind of clearing house of social justice struggles that the new situation seems to demand, while other social movements have managed to organize themselves electorally. In El Salvador, Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile, the left actually appears to be surprisingly healthy, given the combined blows of physical and ideological devastation brought about by government repression and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the evolution of the Cuban Revolution may yet hold surprises for the future.

Perhaps the most impressive organization of disparate social movements actually occurred before the end of the Cold War. The Salvadoran FMLN emerged not only as a coalition of active guerrilla armies, but also of significant and diverse popular organizations. It remains to be seen whether the post-civil war FMLN will manage both to demilitarize totally its operational structure and reconcile its many internal currents now that the common threat of annihilation no longer holds them together. Yet, if it should endure as a coherent force on the left — albeit now a social-democratic one — its revolutionary history may one day re-manifest itself should local and international circumstances change.

For those of us in the North American left, long accustomed to working within what are often single-issue, disjointed social groupings, the FMLN shows that it is in fact possible to find a midpoint between the democratic functioning of the social movement model and the direction and coherency provided by the political party. In addition, FMLN participation in the imperfect electoral process — a process which surely would not exist with anything close to probity if it were not for the FMLN — has yielded an additional benefit: concrete experience in public administration. In Brazil, similarly, the Workers Party (PT) — which emerged as a coalition of grass roots unionists, intellectuals, environmentalists, students, and Catholics that contains a very significant Marxist current — has controlled the mega-city of São Paulo. The PT has even bridged some of the gap between rural and urban areas, and overcome traditional Brazilian political regionalism to become a truly national political force: the head of the party, the metal worker Ignacio "Lula" da Silva, has twice now come close to capturing the Presidency, and may yet take it. The victory of the Christian Democrat-dominated Concertación coalition in Chile also allowed the left to re-emerge into political office when a former member of the far-left MIR, Carlos Ominami, became Minister of the Economy, and Socialist Ricardo Lagos was appointed Minister of Education. Now, for the first time since 1970, when Salvador Allende became the first elected Marxist president in the hemisphere, the Chilean Socialist Party has the most viable candidate for the presidency in the coming elections: Lagos.

That none of these political forces has continued to embrace a statist form of socialism as its ultimate goal goes without saying. In fact, as mentioned earlier, most of the bite has been taken out of the political programs of these organizations, to the point where it is not entirely clear that they pose any significant menace to the fundamental basis of their countries' social and economic systems. Plans for any transition to socialism are clearly not in the making. Just how threatening is it when Carlos Ominami, a former member of a guerrilla organization that stood well to the left of both the Chilean Communists and the Socialists in the 1970s, can manage an economy designed for the IMF by disciples of Milton Friedman ("los Chicago Boys") without frightening local and foreign investors? Yet, the participation by the left in electoral politics has allowed for two things that should not be underestimated: democratic legitimacy and administrative experience. This has allowed the Latin American left to prove that it has learned at least one important lesson from the experiences of the 1960s and 1970s: social gains that fall short of the seizure of power and the construction of socialism do matter. In addition, by operating creatively within the constraints of a particularly vicious form of capitalism (Lagos' period as Minister of Education is a perfect example), the left is crucial in helping to reverse much of the damage done by the terrorist states of the 1970s and 1980s in the cultural sphere. Perhaps more importantly, it is also becoming better prepared for more autonomous political action within an international context that does not bode well for left-wing social "experiments."

In Cuba, the only country in the hemisphere where the left has captured and maintained power, similar changes are underway. Since the collapse of the Eastern European socialisms set Cuba adrift economically, the Communist government has begun what is tempting to describe as a "transition to capitalism." Cuba has had surprising success in attracting foreign investors in the tourist and mining industries, gaining access to the hard currency without which the nation could not survive. For all the ugliness of the transition, ranging from the re-emergence of prostitution to growing social inequality, Cuba is clearly not traveling the same route as Eastern Europe. The government has maintained controlling shares of joint-venture enterprises, and has also entered by itself into the lucrative tourist industry. In fact, arguments that the Cuban Revolution is now being fully reversed do not hold, in large part because of the continued US blockade of the island. Instead of the pre-1959 panorama in which US capital and political power totally dominated the island, a Cuban economy is emerging that is not only diversified as far as the geographical origins of foreign capital is concerned, but one that contains (at least legally) no US capital. Thus, despite the clear devastation wrought by the US economic blockade, should the Cuban government survive the current (improving, but still deep) crisis, it will have successfully avoided falling back into the US orbit.

To dismiss the new Cuban involvement with foreign capital as simply retracting the process of Cuban socialism, then, would be overly hasty. The government has successfully maintained the most significant achievements of the Revolution relatively intact — health care, child care, housing, significant moves toward gender and racial equality — to the degree that even in the midst of this crisis, the country continues to appear a developed nation in most quality-of-life indicators. That the government has held the reins of foreign capital tightly while successfully maintaining political and economic sovereignty means that proclamations to the effect that the socialist path has not been abandoned, but is simply taking a (long and exceedingly complicated) detour, actually do carry some weight. It is also important to remember that, unlike most of Eastern Europe, Cuban socialism is the result of local revolution, while US domination is an actual historical memory, rather than a Hollywood-esque dream. Cuban socialism and Cuban autonomy, while not synonymous, are very closely related in the minds of many Cubans, allowing for a powerful linking of the motivational power of nationalism with the ideals of social solidarity.

If the Cuban Revolution continues to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in its path, it may again present itself as an inspiring model for the rest of Latin America, but with a new twist: instead of the 1960s and 1970s model of a particularly creative version of statist socialism, Cuba may show a more modest path toward integration into the world market without abandoning goals of social justice. Praise for this alternative to the neo-liberal model has even come from the unlikely mouth of John Paul II, who now seems to be performing a partial reversal of his silencing of Liberation Theology by denouncing the excesses and corruption of savage capitalism. The Pope's visit to the land of tropical socialism in January of 1998 should prove decisive, as Fidel may be able to use the opportunity not only to gain further recognition from John Paul II of the achievements of the Revolution precisely in those areas where neo-liberalism has taken its toll on the continent — health, education, and income distribution — but also to undermine US claims of Cuban intransigence on the independence of civil society. The Pope's denunciation of the Helms-Burton Law and praise of Cuban social services seems to point away from the notion that his visit will be a repeat of the visit to Poland, causing Cuban society to reject socialism both in name and practice. With Fidel granting the desired concessions — mainly the now outdated ban on foreign clergy, which was originally designed to keep pro-Franco Spanish priests off the island — the head of the Church and the head of the Revolution may be forming an alliance of convenience. Fidel would receive, instead of the direct blessing of the IMF, the blessing by association of a key ideological figure: God Himself. John Paul II may use the alliance to mend the rift in the Church caused by his continuing suppression of Liberation Theology and to renew Church legitimacy as, if not champion of the poor, at least not their oppressor.

One Market, Under Dog

bugs Cuba, of course, is not Utopia. Yet, by all accounts Fidel Castro seems once again to be doing wonders with the cards he has been dealt. In fact, his negotiation of Cuba's entrance into the world market on such favorable terms for the average Cuban would seem to present an example to the left in general: that concessions to the market and international capital should be presented precisely as concessions, rather than abandonment of principle; and that an alternative to the neo-liberal route of privatization and the gutting of state services is, in fact, still possible. In addition, while other Latin American leftists shy away from their more radical past, even in a Cuba that at times appears hauntingly like Club Med Fidel "good socialist" — not "social democrat" — remains the highest compliment. Perhaps more importantly for those of us living outside of Cuba, should the Cuban Revolution continue to evolve creatively and prove its ability to maintain social gains both in the face of extreme isolation and a subsequent deluge of capital, Cuba may once again make both socialism and utopia imaginable.

If the possibility of social revolution in Central America seemed important to so many of us in the US in the 1980s, any future moves toward growing radical politics in the region will surely concern us even more. Moves toward market integration (NAFTA and Mercosur), which have until now meant the more fluid movement of capital and consumer items, may also have the potential of allowing any renewed labor militancy to become truly international. After all, we are talking about a single market. In such an event, shifts to the left in, say, Brazil, may more easily push forward moves to the left in Argentina. In the case of Mexico, should the EPR, Zapatistas, or some new radical political force become truly national, social revolution may take place not just in Uncle Sam's "backyard," but in a nation whose economy and people are increasingly inseparable from those of the United States. "Workers of the world, Unite!" may eventually be facilitated, as Marx had imagined, by the logic of capital — and people — unfettered by geographical and political barriers.

To speak of such scenarios is, of course, radically optimistic. But no more so than the delusions of liberal ideologues that history has ended. The causes of radical social transformation in Latin America — poverty, individual and collective economic uncertainty, imperialism, and unmet expectations — have not only not vanished, they are deepening. With neo-liberal reforms in both Argentina and Mexico enacted under the Peronists and the PRI, respectively, a traditional safety-valve for the radicalization of labor and the middle-class — the populist political machine and state patronage network — is being dismantled. Similarly, with the razing of the welfare state, the state once again looks increasingly transparent as the "executive committee of the ruling class," limiting its functions to securing stable markets for local and foreign investors. We may very well see, then, central elements of Marxist state and economic theory revived after their dissociation with the Soviet and Chinese systems has run its course. All of this may sound vaguely familiar to those of us in the United States if we substitute the Democrats for Peronists and the PRI. Any new Latin American leftist alternatives that might emerge, then, will have even greater relevance for us as potential models than previously was the case.

Events in Latin America will also likely continue to inspire and radicalize many in the US, and I, as a radical historian, can still find meaning in my work. While the persistent illusion that definitive change in Latin America is just around the corner is now clearly destroyed, the potential for political struggle and radical social transformation is far from having evaporated. More importantly, capitalism in Latin America as elsewhere remains an affront to human dignity, based upon forced competition and driven by conflict. But we should keep in mind that it is also an historical system, created by, and subject to, the continually changing interactions of concrete human beings. Maybe, some generations after the end of the Cold War, people will forget that "socialism doesn't work" and give it a shot. Better still, maybe the mistakes of the past won't be repeated.

Jim Cane is one of five Wisconsinites currently residing in Buenos Aires. You can reach him at

Copyright © 1997 by Jim Cane. All rights reserved.