Archive for ‘Latin America’ Category
Fidel Castro celebrated his 90th birthday a few days ago. During the public celebration of his milestone he sat in a specialised wheel chair between his brother Raul and Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela. He is physically frail but his mind is still sharp, as evidenced in a (rather self-serving) editorial he wrote in which he praised his revolution and denounced US president Obama and the thawing of relations between the US and Cuba (which his brother, now president of Cuba after Fidel’s abdication due to illness, helped engineer). As part of the month long celebrations of his birth, he is being gifted a 90 meter long cigar, a world record for “puros” of any type. Bill Clinton should be so lucky.
Yet, I felt sadness and some pity at watching Fidel in his autumn years. Like Garcia Marquez’s Colonel, he is a man of the past wrapped in memories of what could have been. A man who once was an icon of the Latin American Left, worthy successor to Jose Marti, comrade-in-arms of Che Guevara, patron of the Angolan and Mozambiquian revolutions, inspiration to insurrectionists world-wide, cunning adversary of the US for over five decades and arguably the best poker player the world after he bluffed the US into thinking that he would rather be incinerated rather than relent to US demands during the Cuban Missile Crisis (the USSR eventually agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba over Castro’s objections in exchange for a US withdrawal of surface to surface missile batteries in Turkey).
But rather than the imposing physical specimen that towered over so many of his emulators both in height and intellect and who attracted the attention of the rich, famous and powerful during his heyday, here sat a stooped, gaunt, hollow faced elder with visible hand tremors and a certifiable fool sitting on his left side. In fact, if Fidel represented the best hopes and aspirations of a previous generation of revolutionaries, Nicolas Maduro represents the terminal decline of the contemporary “Pink Tide” of elected neo-socialists that emerged during the 2000s and who, with few exceptions like the Frente Amplio governments of Uruguay, have been proven to be no less authoritarian, no less corrupt, and equally if not more incompetent than their capitalist predecessors. In some cases, these Pink Tide regimes were not so much socialist as they were kleptocratic, populist-corporatist or sold-out to the corporate interests they ostensibly opposed. And like Fidel, they have fallen on hard times.
Other than Maduro, no foreign leaders of note attended Fidel’s birthday party (even the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, a country in which many Cubans spilled blood in the overthrow of Somoza and defense of the Sandinista Revolution, did not send a high level delegation). The rich and powerful were absent. In a sense, Fidel’s decline mirrors the struggles of the Cuban Revolution after the USSR withdrew its economic support for it. More tellingly, it symbolises the squandered opportunity of the Pink Tide.
The emergence of elected Left regimes in Latin America during the 2000s was a moment of great hope for progressives in the hemisphere. It followed a wave of so-called neoliberal, market-friendly economic reforms undertaken by a variety of right and populist regimes such as those of Menem in Argentina and Fujimori in Peru during the previous decades. As the negative consequences of neoliberalism began to impact on basic social indicators such as income inequality and child poverty, and could no longer be hidden by creative accounting and statistical manipulation, a window of ideological opportunity opened for the Latin American Left. They were the earliest and fiercest critics of the so-called “Washington Consensus” behind the adoption of neo-liberal reforms. They were the academics, activists, organisers and politicians who marshalled protests, demonstrations and other forms of passive and active resistance to the implementation of market-driven edicts. They were the outlets through which the dislocating effects and social impact of the “more market” approaches were highlighted. And they had one more thing: structural opportunity in the form of a global commodities boom.
With the rise of China as an economic powerhouse in competition and/or concert with other established and new powers (e.g. the US, India), the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the demand for commodities–primary goods, raw materials and especially minerals, metals and fossil fuels–skyrocket. As prices soared on the back of increased demand previously unexploited regions became the subjects of concerted interest by Chinese and other investors. What already existed in terms of commodities–oil in Venezuela and Ecuador, natural gas and oil in Brazil, copper in Chile, even soy, maize and beef in Argentina and Uruguay–saw redoubled investment in extractive export industries. A boom time ensued.
At the turn of the century Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela elected or re-elected neo-socialist governments (El Salvador, Honduras, Paraguay and Peru did as well but their tenures were short-lived). Every one of these countries benefited from the commodities boom. The question was not so much how to generate public money surpluses but in what measure and how to make use of them. But, just like Soviet subsidies gave Fidel’s Cuba an unnatural sense of comfort and inflated standard of living, the commodities boom was a temporary boost rather than a long term panacea for the region’s problems, depending on what was done with the surpluses generated by the golden moment.
With the exceptions of Chile and Uruguay, pretty much everywhere else the preferred combination was public spending on popular projects mixed with epic corruption, graft and theft. To be sure, health, education, welfare and housing services improved in the early years of these regimes and social indicators improved relative to the neo-liberal baselines. Income redistribution downwards was accomplished via generous benefits packages provided to the lower classes. Public services such as transport, electricity and gas were heavily subsidised by the State. So were basic food staples. Public works schemes generated employment. But after a while the money provided for such projects began to run out as the demand for commodities stabilised and prices began to drop.
Worse yet, what most of these regimes did not do was invest constructively in long-term productive capacity and infrastructure. Instead, they threw money at popular short term projects and grandiose schemes such as building sports arenas and stadiums. They pushed increased export commodity dependency rather than diversification of the productive apparatus. In parallel, they siphoned off millions in public funds to friends, cronies and family of government officials, when not to themselves. The combination was one of immediate gain (for them and their supporters) at the expense of long-term sustainability, and now those chickens have come home to roost.
In places like Argentina under Cristina Fernandez de Kichner, corruption was elevated to an art form (in a country where it was already a highly developed practice). In places like Brazil and Ecuador corruption was an integral part of the public-private nexus in construction and fossil fuel exploration. But it is in Venezuela where the full depths of the decline are seen. Even before Hugo Chavez died, his “revolution” had turned into a feeding trough for the Boliviarian elites. Billions of dollars were provided to creating anti-imperialist alliances such as ALBA, the anti-capitalist trading bloc that was supposed to counter MERCOSUR and which never got off the ground. Billions in subsidised oil was sent to Cuba to prop up the Castro regime as a form of anti-US solidarity. After Chavez died, under Maduro, Venezuela has become an economic basket case where shortages of basic staples and power outages are the norm and where both government services and private industry have nearly ground to a halt (in a country with one of the world’s largest oil reserves). In Venezuela and elsewhere there was a conspicuous lack of foresight or public planning. Few sovereign wealth funds were created to save during times of plenty for the inevitable lean times that come with the boom and bust cycles of the commodities trade. Once the lean times came, the response of the neo-socialist Left was to blame anyone but themselves and to grab as much of the dwindling public reserves for their own benefit.
In some cases, the actions of disloyal oppositions and foreign powers hastened the authoritarian response and increased self-enrichment of Leftist leaders. This was very much true in Venezuela. In other cases the sheer weight of historical patterns of political patronage and private nepotism wore down the resolve of Left politicians to resist the temptation to do things “as usual.” That was and is the case of Brazil. In Chile the strength of the military-business network has impeded anything but incremental reform by the most determined Left governments. In some cases (Bolivia and Ecuador) long tenures in power slowly insulated Left governments from the masses and allowed for the development of cultures of impunity in which public officials were no longer responsive to the commonweal and instead focused on maintaining themselves in power. In virtually all cases, again with the exceptions of Chile and Uruguay, public officials treated national treasuries as individual and collective ATMs.
In some countries Left governments have been electorally replaced by Right ones (Argentina and Peru). In Brazil the Left PT government has crumbled under the weight of corruption scandals and succumbed to what amounted to a constitutional coup carried out by no less corrupt right-wingers. In several others such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the Left continues to rule, however sclerotically and increasingly autocratically. In Chile the Concertacion government of Michelle Bachelet that preceded and replaced the one-term Right government of Sebastian Pinera is more establishment-friendly centrist than anything else (because it has to be in order to keep the coup plotters at bay). Only in Uruguay has the Left, in the form of the Frente Amplio governments of Tabare Vazquez and Jose Mujica, been true to its socialist and democratic principles.
This is just an broad overview. The extent of mismanagement, incompetence, ineptitude and outright criminality undertaken by the neo-socialist Left when governing in Latin American during the last decade and a half has been astounding. The hard truth is that the Latin American Left had its golden windows of opportunity in the 2000s and with some notable exceptions squandered it all.
In a sense, that is a fate they share with Fidel. Had he passed from the scene in the 80s or even 90s he would still be revered in many progressive circles. But he has lingered too long, well after the contradictions and frailty of his revolution have been exposed. In fact, an entire generation of Cubans have been raised in the “special times” of austerity and deprivation that have marked the last 25 years of Communist rule in Cuba and which has forced his brother to open the national economy and seek rapprochement with the US. This has made that generation much less committed to revolutionary ideals and much more committed to materially improving themselves. As an old friend said to me upon returning from Cuba: “Ideology goes out the window when you are hungry.”
Worse yet, it now appears true that Fidel was less a committed revolutionary as he was a Cuban nationalist who used the context of the Cold War to bolster his rule and burnish his credentials as a committed internationalist. Mutatis mutandis, that is a trait shared by many neo-socialists of the Pink Tide: they were and are socialists more in name than in deed, and are more interested in enshrining their rule than in truly re-making their countries into viable socialist (or social democratic) societies in which political power is exercised by the people for the people. Revolutionary rhetoric is no substitute for revolutionary praxis and is a poor cover for political and economic mismanagement.
I say this with much regret. One never expects the Latin American Right (or pretty much any Right) to do anything other than enrich themselves and their cronies. But one certainly expects that self-professed socialists will behave differently, especially more fairly and less venally, when in power. Many people, myself included, wanted to believe in the promise of the Pink Tide just as we previously wanted to believe in the transformational impact of the Cuban Revolution. And yet, like the neo-liberals before them, the majority of Pink Tide neo-socialists have been exposed as charlatans, thieves and frauds.
On those grounds Fidel has one thing over them. He may not have accomplished all of the things that he promised that he would, and his “revolution” may have been much less than he promised and more dependent than he admits, but at least he has remained true to himself in his declining years. That cannot be said for the likes of the Boliviarians and their erstwhile regional comrades.
That is why I felt sadness when I watched his birthday celebrations. In the autumn of his life, el Comandante is condemned to the unique solitude that goes with being the last of his kind.
PS: Looks like I am not the only one who thinks that the Pink Tide failed to deliver on its promise (although this author puts a more positive and hopeful spin on things).
Posted on 10:50, March 13th, 2015 by Pablo
EveningReport.nz is a new NZ-based online media outlet that among other valuable things offers in-depth interviews on matters of public interest. As such t is a welcome addition and antidote to corporate media soundbites and frivolities.
I was fortunate to feature in one such interview (there is also one by Nicky Hager), which explores the latest revelations that the GCSB does a heck of a lot of spying on New Zealand’s friends and partners as well as on so-called rogue states, and it does much of this on behalf of the the US and other Five Eyes partners rather than as a matter of national security. The ramifications of the revelations about NZ’s role in 5 Eyes are one subject of the discussion, but there are other items of interest as well.
The discussion, hosted by Selwyn Manning, can be found here.
Posted on 14:55, December 19th, 2014 by Pablo
In a previous life one of the US government roles I played was as co-team leader of the OSD/JCS Cuba Task Force. That was a combined team of officials and officers from the US Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) tasked with exploring contingency scenarios for Cuba, including refugee flows (then ongoing) as well as possible civil unrest and regime transition scenarios in the wake of the withdrawal of Soviet aid to the island nation and the increasingly geriatric nature of its original leadership. My co-team leader was a Cuban American political appointee, with the idea being that my academic experience studying authoritarian regime transitions and knowledge of the Cuban approach to irregular conflict would be balanced by his sensitivity to the domestic political implications of any moves we proposed to undertake.
Although I cannot reveal much of what we did, I can say a few things about the process that has now led to a normalisation of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba.
First, almost everyone in the US government realised that the embargo was a failure. However, the Cuban lobby is on a par with the gun and Israel lobbies when it comes to single issue fixation and willingness to spend money for the cause. This made Cuba a thorny political problem for any US government trying to improve relations with it, as the usual suspects would (and still do) immediately hurl the “soft on communism” and “appeasing dictators” invective as part of their negative electoral campaigning. This placed the issue in the “too hard” basket as far as most politicians were concerned, especially given the myriad of other issues at play and the trade-offs they involved. As a foreign diplomat said in my presence when asked about the US approach to Cuba: “That is a domestic matter, not a diplomatic one.”
Secondly, from the 1980s to the present day, every former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Chamber of Commerce have repeatedly called for an end to the embargo and resumption of full diplomatic relations. One would have thought that the weight of conservative military leaders and the leading business organisation in the US would hold some sway, but in fact their views were trumped by the lobbying efforts described above. Episodic attempts have been made to launch US business initiatives in Cuba (for example, in agricultural machinery), but the legal and monetary costs of circumventing the embargo by using off-shore subsidiaries, etc. simply proved too much given the limited nature of the potential returns.
Third, as of the early 1990s the Castro brothers increasingly delegated authority to second generation leaders, who now have been replaced in large measure by third generation revolutionary cadres (people in their 40s and 50s). In fact, both the Cuban exile community as well as the revolutionary leadership have seen the physical decline of the so-called “dinosaurios” (dinosaurs) and their replacement with younger, often more moderate leaders who were not present during the revolution and who therefore do not all have personal scores to settle stemming from it. My co-team leader was second generation and not fuelled by the rabid thirst for revenge exhibited by many of his parent’s generation (some of whom I got the dubious pleasure of meeting). Now that second generation’s children are coming to the fore. This has opened the door for initiatives focused on normalising relations.
But the issue remains complex. The end of the Cold War and fall of the USSR actually reinforced the view in some US policy circles that an embargo could, given the withdrawal of Soviet aid to Cuba, bring the Castro regime to its knees. On the other hand, the increase in non-US foreign investment in Cuba after the Cold War (mostly but not exclusively in tourism) was seen by some in the US as making the embargo counter-productive when it came to promoting US business interests in its near abroad. Overlying these views was a persistent belief that Cuba continued to logistically and intellectually support Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups in Latin America (including those that drug trafficked) as well as rogue regimes such as North Korea, Libya, Syria and Iran (to say nothing of Nicaragua and Venezuela). As a result, foreign policy opinion in the US after the Cold War remained very divided on the question of what to do with Cuba given the embargo and rudimentary diplomatic relations.
Yet given the demographic changes mentioned earlier, the question about Cuba the last twenty years has mostly been one of political timing: when is the opportune moment to make the move towards restoring normality to the bilateral relationship? Conventional wisdom on US presidential politics states that only during second terms can presidents get away with bold foreign policy initiatives, and even then they have to be popular and presiding over a strong economy in order to do so (since voters tend to ignore foreign policy issues when their pockets and bellies are full). However, owing to the perverse ideological evolution of the Republican Party, only Democrats would even contemplate doing so after 1990, which meant that it was left to Clinton or Obama to be bold (recall that Nixon opened the relationship with China and Reagan encouraged glasnost and perestroika, even if both Republican presidents did so for self-interested reasons).
I have little doubt that Clinton would have normalised relations with Cuba in his second term if he had not been hamstrung by the Lewinsky scandal, which helped turn the Elian Gonzalez saga into a Republican battle cry (Elian Gonzalez was a little Cuban boy who washed up on US shores in a raft in which his mother died. After weeks of to- and fro-ing between the US government and exiled members of the boy’s family, he was forcibly repatriated to Cuba to live with his divorced father. Sensing that Clinton was wounded by the Starr investigation into Cigargate, the GOP turned the boy’s ordeal into an anti-communist political circus, which effectively ended the quiet efforts Clinton’s administration had initiated with an eye towards opening up the Cuban relationship).
Now it appears that Obama has seized the moment to undertake a little glasnost of his own, perhaps because he senses that he has little to lose given the disloyal nature of the opposition (which will rant and rail at anything he does), perhaps because the US economy is doing well enough for him to feel immune on some aspects of foreign policy even after the adverse results of the midterm elections, and perhaps because, like gay marriage and medical marijuana, the US public has simply changed its views on Cuba over the years. In fact, it is likely a little bit of each, as the GOP and Fake News blowhards may not want to waste political capital on a dead issue that will gain the GOP no electoral traction. As it turns out, with the exception of some posturing clowns like Marco Rubio and the braying jackasses on conservative media outlets, the reaction from the political Right has been fairly muted.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years. Back when I was dealing with Cuba, the word from their side was that everything was negotiable except for two pillars of the revolution: health and education. That is to say, the vaunted Cuban health and educational systems were sacrosanct and could not be touched in any post-Castro environment. Beyond that, market forces could dictate how Cuba would re-insert itself in the global economy. With an extremely literate, healthy and underemployed work force, it would seem that Cuba would be ideal for any number of value-added export commodity production ventures (textiles and pharmaceuticals have already become targets of foreign investor interest).
The other issue, left unresolved during my time working that beat, was the role of the Communist Party. It is clear that the Cuban political elite have been watching the transitions in the former socialist world, be it the USSR, China, Vietnam or Eastern Europe. They have also watched the experiments in indigenous socialism in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. It is pretty clear that they would prefer to do a China-style transition to state capitalism under one party rule.
The trouble with that preferred picture is that it is only a partial transition, with the political regime remaining largely the same while the economy changes. That may be possible in a huge country like China but is problematic in a small country like Cuba, especially when it is so proximate to a formerly adversarial super power and has a number of expatriates with ideas about Cuba’s future that do not include a dominant role for the Communist Party, much less its continued sole rule.
Thus the conundrum for the second and third generation Cuban Communist Party leadership is whether to embark on a sequential transition (first changing the economy then the political system, or, less likely, vice versa), or to go all in and mount a simultaneous transition of the economic and political systems. From the standpoint of keeping things peaceful and orderly, the best hope scenario is a sequential transition in which economic change precedes political change. Opening Cuba for business will present a formidable challenge for the Communist Patry, and the social and cultural influences that will come with diplomatic normalisation and economic opening will be hard to contain, much less stop. So whether by design or by the forced pace of change, it is likely that the Cuban political system will open up as a result of the economic transition and its superstructural ramifications.
The key is for the Cuban political elite to realise that the Chinese transition model is not possible for them given the circumstances, and that the days of one party rule will either come to a natural end or be overturned by force. In that light the best thing to do is to prepare a timetable leading up to multiparty competitive elections somewhere down the road, with appropriate guarantees put in place to preserve key revolutionary gains and to safeguard the institutional position of entities like the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR). That will take some doing, and could well take a fair bit of time given the current makeup of the Communist Party leadership (in which Fidelistas still hold significant influence along with Raulistas).
The question remains as to what will happen with the two pillars of the revolution in a market-driven economy. It also remains to be seen as to how Cuban society will respond to the introduction of full market logics on the island. Things like the elimination of food subsidies and introduction of merit-based employment criteria in and outside the public serve could prove painful for Cuban society. It could also lead to criminal opportunism in what some observers have already characterized as an increasingly amoral and feral civil society no longer wedded to the revolutionary ethos of the original 26th of July movement. If one thinks of where Cuba is spatially located in relation to drug trafficking corridors, the downside possibilities should be obvious.
Even so, the resumption of full diplomatic relations is a welcome development and hopefully followed by a formal end to the US embargo (not a certain thing, given opposition by GOP majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives). There still will be many hard days ahead as Cuba comes to grip with its post-revolutionary future, but at least the range of potential outcomes will be expanded relative to those extant up until a few days ago. As for the US, it demonstrates that sometimes diplomatic face-saving on foreign policy is a waste of energy and the better self-interested choice is to admit mistakes and move on. As the old Korean saying goes: a rich uncle can afford to be generous.
Whatever its motivations, Uncle Sam just was.
In 1995 I published a book that explored the interaction between the state, organised labor and capital in the transitions to democracy in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. The book was theoretically rooted in neo-or post-Gramscian thought as well as the vast literature on collective action and the politics of the case studies. In it I explained how democratic transitions were facilitated by class compromises between labour and capital brokered by the state, which acted as an institutional mediator/arbitrator in resolving conflicts between the two sides of the labour process. I noted the importance of neo-corporatist, tripartite concentrative vehicles for the achievement of a durable class compromise in which current wage restraint was traded for increased productivity in pursuit of future wage gains under restrained rates of profit-taking, all within state-enforced workplace, health, safety and retirement frameworks negotiated between the principles. That way the relations in and of production were peaceably maintained.
One of the things I discovered is that labour or working class-based parties were served best when they had union representation in the leadership. That is because, unlike career politicians, union leaders were closest to the rank and file when it came to issues pertinent to those relations in and of production. As a result, they translated the needs of the rank and file into political imperatives that determined working class political praxis under democratic (read non-revolutionary) conditions.
In contrast,Left politicians tended to be drawn from the intelligentsia and were prone to compromise on matters of principle in pursuit of strategic or tactical gain. Many did not have working class backgrounds, and some spent their entire careers, if not adult lives, currying favour in the pursuit of office and the power that comes with it. More than a few have never held a job outside of the political sphere, which led them to hold an insular view of how working class politics should be conducted. As a result, they were often disinclined to put the material or political interests of the working classes first, preferring instead to pursue incremental gains around the margins of the social division of labour within the system as given.
For those reasons, I found that working class interests were best represented when the union movement dominated the working class party, not the other way around.
But there was a caveat to this discovery: unionists only served as legitimate and honest agents of working class interests if they adhered to a class line. In other words, they had to be genuine Marxists or socialists who put the working class interest first when it came to the pursuit of politics in competition with the political agents of capital. “Class line” was broadly interpreted to include all wage labour–blue and white collar, temporary and permanent, unionised or not. That made them honest interlocutors of the people they represented (the ultimate producers of wealth), since otherwise they would be conceding the primacy of capital and business interests (the appropriators of surplus) in the first instance.
Since the system is already stacked in favour of capital in liberal democracies, it was imperative that the agents of the working class in post-auhoritarian contexts wholeheartedly and honestly embraced ideologies that a minimum rejected the unquestioning acceptance of market directives as a given, much less the idea that capitalism as a social construct was the best means by which societal resources were organised and distributed. The post-transitional moment was an opportune time to press the critique of capitalism, as the authoritarian experiments had demonstrated quite vividly the connection between political oppression and economic exploitation. It was a moment in time (the mid to late 1980s) when unions could impose working class preferences on the political parties that purported to represent the rank and file, and where working class parties could genuinely speak truth to power.
As it turns out, the record in the Southern Cone was mixed. Where there was a Marxist-dominated national labour confederation that dominated Left political representation (Uruguay), the political Left prospered and the working class benefitted the most. In fact, after two decades of failed pro-business government by the centre-right Colorado Party, the union-backed Frente Amplio coalition has now ruled for over a decade with great success and Uruguay remains Latin America’s strongest democracy.
On the other hand, where the union movement was controlled by sold-out opportunists and co-opted bureaucrats (Argentina), who in turn dominated the majority Left political party (the Peronists), corruption and concession were the norm and the working classes benefited the least. In fact, in a twist on the New Zealand story, it was a corrupt, sold-out and union-backed Peronist president, Carlos Menem, who used the coercively-imposed market driven economic reforms of the military dictatorship as the basis for the neoliberal agenda he implemented, by executive decree, in Argentina in accordance with the so-called “Washington Consensus.”
In Brazil the union movement was divided at the time of the transition between a Marxist-dominated militant confederation (the CUT), led by Luis Inganicio da Silva or “Lula”as he was better known, and a cooped confederation (the CGT) that had emerged during the military dictatorship and which was favoured by business elites as the employee agent of choice. The CUT dominated the politics of the Workers Party (PT), whereas the CGT was subordinated to the logics of the political leadership of the right-center PMDB.
As things turned out, although the PMDB won control of the national government in the first two post-authoritarian elections, and the subsequent governments of social democrat Fernando Henrique Cardoso began a number of social welfare projects designed to reduce income inequality and enforce basic human rights, working class interests did not fully proposer until the PT under Lula’s leadership was elected in 2002 (the PT just won re-election for the fourth consecutive time under the presidency of Lula’s successor Dilma Rouseff). In the PT Marxist unionists have dominant positions. In the PMDB and Cardoso’s PSDB, the sold-out unionists did not.
That brings me to the the election of Andrew Little as Labour Party Leader. Leaving aside the different context of contemporary New Zealand relative to the subject of my book and the question as to whether the union movement truly dominates the Labour Party, consider his union credentials. His background is with the EPMU, arguably the most conservative and sold-out union federation in the country. In fact, he has no record of “militancy” to speak of, and certainly is not a Marxist. Instead, his record is that of a co-opted union bureaucrat who likes to work with the Man rather than against Him. The fact that business leaders–the same people who work incessantly to strip workers of collective and individual rights under the guise of employment “flexibilization”– find him “reasonable” and “thoughtful” attests not only to his powers of persuasion but also to the extent of his co-optation.
But maybe that was just what he had to do in order to achieve his true calling and show his true self as a politician. So what about his credentials as a politician? If winning elections is a measure to go by, Mr. Little is not much of one, having never won an election outside his unions. Nor has his tenure as a list MP in parliament been a highlight reel of championing working class causes and promoting their interests. As others have said, he smacks of grey.
Which brings me to the bottom line. Does he have a class line?
I am sure that there will be plenty of eulogies, some fawning and some harsh, for Hugo Chavez. Since I spent a good part of my academic career writing about Latin American politics, to include the nature of national populists such as Chavez and a bit about his regime itself, I am well aware of his shortcomings and strengths. It is in the nature of national populism to be redistributive, mass mobilizational and increasingly authoritarian. As a left-wing variant, the Chavez regime was all of those things, and the fact that the US supported the 2002 coup against him only cemented the increasingly authoritarian direction of the regime. But his authoritarianism was mass rather than elite-based, and it was this mass support that carried him through three terms and four elections. He was no tin pot despot. His rule was a bit more complicated than that of, say, Robert Mugabe, who took a popular national independence movement and turned it into an armed clan-based kleptocracy.
The Achilles heel of national populism is the personalist nature of executive rule. Peron, Vargas, Cardenas and Chavez–all increasingly concentrated power in their own hands, thereby removing institutional checks and balances as well as clear lines of authority and succession. That could be the undoing of the Boliviarian experiment.
After the 2002 coup Chavez purged the military and civilian state bureaucracy of professionals and populated the upper ranks with acolytes. This decreased the efficiency and capabilities of state agencies, both armed and unarmed. He increasingly relied on Cubans for behind the scenes leadership of his internal security services, including his personal bodyguards. He played divide and conquer with his parliamentary counterparts at the same time that he re-jigged the constitution to increase the length of his presidential terms as well as the electoral prospects of his political party. He populated the judiciary with supporters and increasingly restricted freedoms of public expression and the press. He trained and armed supporter militias organized along the lines of the Cuban Auto-Defense Committees. Some of these have been accused of intimidating and assaulting members of the political opposition.
He used inclusionary state corporatist mechanisms of interest group administration that bestowed favor and patronage on supportive groups and excluded or punished non-supportive groups (which thereby polarized civil society organizations). This allowed for top-down direction of the thrust of state policy and funding directed at civil society, but it also gradually surpressed independent and autonomous expressions of grassroots interest.
All of this was justified on the grounds that he faced a disloyal opposition aided and abetted by hostile foreign powers, the US in particular. Although there is an element of paranoia in those claims, there is also a large grain of truth to them. The hard fact is that just the appearance of socialist inclinations on Chavez’s part sent the US into knee-jerk opposition, something that was particularly acute under the Bush 43 administration and was not undone once Obama was elected.
Chavez did much good for Venezuela, particularly in the fields of health, education, welfare and community organization. During his time in power infant mortality rates dropped and literacy rates increased dramatically. The percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty dropped from 50 percent to below 30 percent in ten years. Rural hospitals and schools were built where there previously were none. His regime kept the price of domestic petrol cheap (as it could as a major oil-producing and refining nation), which allowed the poorest segments of the population to weather rises in the price of imported commodities.
In spite of the claims of his detractors, he won four elections handily and relatively cleanly in the eyes of most international election observers. His tenure marks a major historical moment in Venezuelan life, and his legacy will be indelible on it. Whatever his authoritarian tendencies, he was no Pinochet or Somoza. Although his regime selectively repressed the opposition, it did not systematically torture or kill. Nor did it expropriate all private wealth, although it did seek to raises upper-income taxes, nationalize some strategic assets and prevent capital flight via financial controls. Needless to say, this earned him the emnity of Venezuelan elites and their foreign supporters.
He was a close ally of the Cuban regime, but given the common hostility of the US, that was born as much out of necessity than it was out of ideological affinity (truth be told, Raul Castro always thought of Chavez as a buffoon but Fidel was flattered by his attention and both were grateful for his cheap oil supplies. The Cubans worried that he would provoke a confrontation with the US that would suck them in and destabilize them).
He expanded Venezuela’s diplomatic, economic and military relations (towards China, Russia and Iran in particular, but also with other Latin American states) so as to counter-balance the traditional US-focused obsequiousness of his predecessors. He was the motor force behind the solidarity market Latin American trade bloc known as the Boliviarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which among other things rejected IMF and World Bank financial prescriptions. He had significant Latin American popular and governmental support, which was mirrored in international media coverage.
He is alleged to have cultivated relations with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
He presided over the deterioration of Venezuela’s core infrastructure, to include its oil production facilities (in which foreign investment dried up in response to his nationalization policies), as well as a dramatic rise in violent crime (Caracas has one of the highest murder rates in the world). He did not stop corruption but merely shifted it in favor of those who wear red berets. Venezuelan consumption of Scotch whisky, already the highest in the world when he assumed power in 1999, increased steadily from then on. He was unable to curb the Venezuelan obsession with female plastic surgery and beauty queens. So not all is well in the Boliviarian Republic. I shall leave it for others to debate the trade-offs involved and the pros and cons of his regime.
On balance, in the Latin American scheme of things Hugo Chavez was a relatively moderate caudillo (strongman) with a staunch independent and redistributive streak and majority popular support until the end.
The real problem at the moment is that his movement has no natural leader to succeed him. Moreover, he was the ideological glue of the regime: it was his vision, his praxis, the drew the course of events. With him gone the ideological basis of the regime is subject to interpretation by contending personalities and factions within the Boliviarian movement. His designated Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, has no independent power base, much less broad support within the Party. He has a serious rival in Diosdado Cabello, a former Army colleague of Chavez’s who is the head of the National Assembly. Cabello has support within the military, whereas Maudro’s support comes from within the union movement and public bureaucracy. Yet neither is visibly stronger than the other, so the backroom maneuvering and in-fighting has begun in earnest (and in fact began when Chavez returned to Cuba for surgery last December).
To this can be added the opposition, which rallied around the figure of Henrique Caprilles Radonski in the October 2012 elections that saw Chavez elected for the fourth time. A presidential election is supposed to be held 30 days after the public announcement of Chavez’s death (March 5). Riding a wave of grief, unity and solidarity, Maduro is the favorite to win that election if he is a candidate. It will be interesting to see if Maduro can maintain his grip on power before or after the elections in the absence of support for his mandate, however electorally affirmed. One thing is certain: Maduro is no Chavez, and everyone knows that.
Caprilles might not run in the immediate elections so as to delegitimize them and allow the Boliviarian in-fighting to proceed unimpeded and without a common political enemy to focus on. Whatever happens over the short-term, the bigger question is whether the Boliviarian experiment can outlive its creator. Can there be Chavismo without Chavez? Given the dynamics at play within and without the Boliviarian regime, the odds are not entirely favorable.
For the time being we will be treated to the grand spectacle of a Venezuelan state funeral, where the streets will be awash in red and the dignitaries will include a who’s who of US adversaries and critics, Hollywood leftists and very few heads of state from the developed capitalist world. As for Chavez–will his afterlife smell of sulphur or of something more pleasant?
Bashar Assad has likened the civil war in Syria to a surgeon performing messy emergency surgery. Much blood is spilled but it is in the best interest of the patient’s survival that it do so. In this case the patient is purportedly Syria (but in actuality the Alawite regime), and the surgery is required because of the gangrenous actions of foreign-backed “terrorists” and extremists.
That comment brought back some unhappy memories. On March 24, 1976 the military dictatorship known as the “Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional” (Process of National Reorganization) was installed in Argentina. Over the next seven years it killed over 30,000 people and tortured, imprisoned and exiled at least that many more. It refined the concept of “disappearing” people without a trace (although it was later revealed that many of the disappeared were sedated and dumped from aircraft over the South Atlantic). It was a very bad moment in Argentine history, and the psychological and social scars of that sorry time are still evident to this day.
Assad’s surgical analogy struck an unpleasant chord with me because that is exactly the language used by the “Proceso” to justify its actions. In one of its first proclamations the Junta spoke of the need to rid Argentina of the “malignancies” of subversion, economic instability, social disorder and moral decay, and that in order to do so it would have to “extirpate without anesthesia” the cancers afflicting the Argentine body politic (on this see “Acta fijando el proposito y los objectivos basicos para el Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional,” Republica Argentina, Boletin Oficial, 29 March 1976 and Republica Argentina, Documentos basicos y bases politicas de las fuerzas armadas para el Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional. Buenos Aires: Junta Militar de la Nacion, 1980). It seems that when it comes to “organic” parallels between the state and society, Arab and Argentine dictators think alike.
It might behoove Mr. Assad to remember the fate of his Argentine counterparts. Their regime collapsed under the double-barreled weight of popular unrest and foreign conflict (the Falklands/Malvinas War, which was staged by the Junta as a diversion from its internal problems). The generals who commanded that regime were all eventually tried and convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, where several have died. Argentine justice certainly was not swift or completely fair, but in the end the self-professed “surgeons” were found guilty of homicidal malpractice rather than lauded as the triage medics of the country.
Assad has that double-barreled weight now resting upon his regime. His conflict is internal rather than external, but the involvement of external actors is substantial and not limited to UN proclamations, jihadist infiltration or covert military assistance to the Syrian Free Army. He is therefore well on the path to following his Argentine counterparts down the road to collapse and overthrow, and it is now more a question of whether he will die in a prison cell or on the street rather than if he will fall. After all, once the dictator starts talking about emergency surgery on the body politic, it may be the case that he is the worst tumor of them all.
Although the golden age of imperialism is long past, the early 21st century has seen a resurgence or perhaps a new form of imperialism in the guise of US-led expeditionary wars to “bring democracy” to rogue or failed states. Besides the wars of occupation waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the not so covert intervention in Libya and ongoing US military activities in places like Somalia, the Sudan, Colombia, the Philippines and Nigeria suggests that far from being an outmoded concept, the notion of neo-imperialist supremacy is alive and well.
A lesser known aspect of imperialism is the role of servitor imperialists. Servitor imperialist were the colonial troops that deployed and fought for their imperial master. The Scots, Welsh, Australians and New Zealanders all played the servitor role for the British Empire, fighting and dying in places like Gallipoli where none of their core national interests were at risk. Unlike mercenaries, these servitor troops fought out of loyalty to the Crown rather than for money. Today the Gurkhas continue to do the same.
Other former great powers such as the French, Spanish and Portuguese also drew troops from their colonies as they attempted to hold on to their global possessions, albeit with mixed success.
In the 20th century the great wars can be seen as existential threats to the way of life of the servitor former colonies and colonial possessions. The Korean conflict and Vietnam war were less so, but the argument was made the global communism was an existential threat to Western capitalist societies and their allies in the developing world. So the servitor troops stumped up in them as well.
Today, it seems that the role of Imperial hegemon is played by the US, but the twist is that its servitor forces are drawn from allied militaries with UN backing and retain relative command autonomy in the field. Australia and New Zealand again are playing their historic role in fighting in conflicts which, if one removes the idea that the conflicts are about eliminating global terrorism, have little to do with their core national interests (and truth be told, while terrorism is a nasty tactic in an unconventional warfare strategy, it poses no existential threat to any but the most fragile of states, so using the threat of global terrorism as an excuse to join foreign conflicts is a bit of a stretch). Here too, the deployment of servitor imperialist troops is done out of allegiance rather than money: Australia and New Zealand perceive that there is an alliance obligation to help the US in its military adventures, one that may or may not be rewarded not so much in kind (as neither OZ and NZ face physical threats to their territorial integrity) but in other areas of bilateral endeavor such as trade or diplomatic negotiations more central to the servitor’s concerns such as climate change or arms control.
In this era the term “imperialism” is fraught. But just because it has become a dirty word in some circles does not mean that it does not exist, or that the practice of playing servitor imperialists to other great powers is not ongoing. What has changed is the guise in which servitor imperialism occurs, with less Imperial ordering and more multinational cover given to the actions of less powerful countries who send troops to fight in the conflicts instigated by their Great Power allies. It as if there is a cultural disposition in some former colonies to want to serve the Master even if there is no longer a colonial leash tying them together.
Thus, for purposes of definition (there is a good body of scholarly literature on the subject), servitor imperialism is a situation where the natives and descendants of subjugated or colonized nations and sub-national political communities pledge fealty and serve in the wars of their Imperial masters even though no core interest of their homeland is at stake or in jeopardy. In the modern servitor neo-imperialist version, former colonies or subjugated nations send their citizens to fight in wars of the new Imperial hegemon when no core interest is at stake. The difference between this syndrome and a proper military alliance is that in the latter there is a common recognized existential threat that militarily binds countries together, whereas the servitor imperialist approach sees benefit in joining non-essential foreign conflicts instigated and prosecuted by neo-imperialist powers for reasons of their own and without regard to the core interests of the servitors. The syndrome is rooted in a cultural disposition to “serve” the master, whether it be old or new. Leninists might say that is playing the role of useful fool in international security affairs, but whatever the case the syndrome appears alive and well in some parts of the world.
I reflect on this because I have noticed a lot of pro-British chicken hawk rhetoric in rightwing NZ blogs about the current tensions with Argentina over the Malvinas/Falklands islands. For those unaware of the issue, in April we will reach the 30th anniversary of the 6 week war between the UK and Argentina over the islands. Although most Argentines have no interest in renewing hostilities and the Argentine military has made no moves to suggest a desire to retake the islands by force, right-wing Nationalists within Argentina have stepped up their bellicose rhetoric. Even thought the Argentine Right fringe is small, it has influence in some political circles, including with the governing Peronist Party. That has forced the government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and some provincial authorities (since Argentina is a federal republic) to attempt to placate that part of the electorate with public and diplomatic complaints about the ongoing UK military presence in the archipelago (since the UK controls the South Georgia islands, also re-taken in the 1982 war). For its part the UK media has jumped on tits own Nationalist bandwagon, seeing such things as the Crown Prince’s search and rescue deployment to the Falklands as a reaffirmation of the glory days of Pax Britannica.
Truth be told, although Argentina was ceded the Malvinas after its independence from Spain in 1810 (as Spain had control of them until then), the British presence extends back to the 1830s when the few Argentine whalers and sealers resident on the islands were forced off and the territory proclaimed British. British settlers have had a continuous presence since then and their descendants (now into their eighth generation) consider themselves British subjects. Since possession is 9/10th of the law and the “kelpers” as they are called consider themselves to be part of the UK, it is extremely unlikely that the islands will ever be returned to Argentina.
Argentines know this and except for the Right fringe, accept the verdict of history. In fact, the reason for Argentina’s continued diplomatic protestations about the Malvinas/Falklands is that there are vast oil and natural gas deposits in the seabed around the islands, as well as the fisheries in adjacent waters. Now that technology allows for the exploitation of these resources, Argentines want part of that action. Extending Argentine territorial claims out to the islands (600 nautical miles off shore) allows the Federal Government to negotiate the commercial aspects of these potentially lucrative resource deposits, and for that to occur Argentina needs diplomatic backing for its claims. Needless to say, the UK has no intention of allowing that to happen.
Thus, while the kelpers are clearly disposed to play the role of servitor imperialists for the UK, it is a bit odd to read all the bluster and anti-Argentine rantings coming out of certain NZ rightwing circles. It is as if they retain their servitor attitudes long after the Empire has faded, something that, with a slight change in orientation, the National government appears to hold as well.
The Fijian military-bureaucratic regime fronted by Commodore “Frank” Bainimarama has promised elections for September 2014, these having been preceded by a constitutional consultation process that is to produce a new Charter in September 2013. The timetabling of the elections will follow ratification of the new Constitution.
The Commodore has already said that he intends to stand for Prime Minister in the 2014 elections. This presumably means that he will retire from active service and lead a military-backed party in them while allowing for open party competition. To date there is no sign of either milestone happening. Nor, for that matter, have the terms of the constitutional consultation process been detailed, which is of import because the presumed stakeholders in the re-making of the foundational document would have to include groups that are currently banned, dismantled, in exile or subject to legal and physical restraints on their activities.
On the other hand, the Bainimarama regime has, under the de facto state of emergency it has ruled by since 2006, used executive decrees to reshape the legal context in which these actors will need to operate. That includes the Essential Services Bill, which outlaws strikes and imposes serious restrictions on union activities in violation of International Labour Organisation standards. This exclusionary state corporatist approach to labor relations has been paralleled by similar efforts to control the media (to include provisions that media outlets have to be majority owned by Fijian citizens, which forced out foreign-controlled news agencies). In fact, there has been a militarization of the Fijian state apparatus as a whole under the Commodore’s rule, as active duty, retired, reservists and relatives of military personnel are given privileged access to civil service jobs. This form of patronage is designed to maintain loyalty as well as promote a military perspective on policy-implementation within the public bureaucracy. Given that the regime’s “Peoples Charter for Change, Peace and Progress” proposes a profound transformation of cultural mores, social structures, political institutions and economic practices as part of a project of national rebirth overseen by the Republic of Fijian Military Forces, it seems that military colonization of the state apparatus is being used as a pre-requisite for the pursuit of those goals.
Such ambitious objectives cannot be achieved within the timeframe currently outlined for the constitutional re-draft and elections. That means that either Bainimarama and his colleagues have no intention of relinquishing control in 2014, or at best plan to use the elections as a procedural fig leaf with which to legitimize a military backed “civilian” government led by the Commodore that will continue to pursue the transformational objectives of the Peoples Charter. Since those objectives will be resisted, the elections will have to be rigged and dissent suppressed after they are over. What is envisioned, in other words, is what in Latin America have been called “guarded” or “protected” democracies, or for those who know Spanish, “democraduras” (“hard” democracies).
The Latin connection may in fact be stronger. The Pinochet regime in Chile held a constitutional referendum five years after it came to power in which it re-drew the foundational principles of the nation so that challenges to private control of the means of production and elite domination of the political system were made near impossible. Pinochet also colonized the state apparatus with military personnel (although in his case the appointments were designed to promote ideological uniformity within the public bureaucracy rather than as a form of personal patronage). His timetable for the foundational elections of 1989 was established by the 1978 constitution and included Pinochet as the leader of a civilian party after his retirement. It had provisions for conservative control of the Senate (including the appointment of “Senators for life” by the Pinochet regime before its departure) and for military veto of legislation deemed inimical to national security or the national interest. Popular resistance eventually forced Pinochet to abandon his plans to rule in civilian guise after 1989 (in exchange for other conservative guarantees like those listed above), but the model for an orderly transition to a “guarded” democracy after a major constitutional reform was established by his regime. It will therefore be interesting to see what materializes in the constitutional reform process set to get underway in Fiji next year.
Given Chile’s market-driven economic “success” and the elimination of serious threats to the socio-economic and political status quo resultant from the authoritarian episode and its constitutional revisions, it seems possible that the Bainimarama regime has taken more than passing interest in it. In fact, it appears that mutatis mutandis, the Commodore and his clique have emulated the Pinochet experiment, Fijian style. The objective, as far as can be determined at this point, seems to be to establish the bases by which a “protected” or “guarded” elected civilian regime can be installed that will continue the transformational objectives outlined in the People’s Charter. Or, it could just be the best way for the regime and its supporters to continue to feed at the public trough. Either way, it is likely that the 2014 elections will not be an honestly contested affair, if they are held at all.
The second alternative (military colonization of the state as a source of patronage and rent-seeking) is not a frivolous aside. Corruption is rife in the Fijian public service, and military appointments to it on non-meritorious grounds exacerbates the problem while diminishing the organizational efficiency (such as it is) of public services. Moreover, it has been demonstrated in Latin America and elsewhere that military colonization of the civil service leads to a deterioration of operational readiness and command authority the longer soldiers are seated at desks in civilian Ministries. This is a problem for the Fijian military, which prides itself on its professionalism (mostly related to its long history of UN peace-keeping service), and which sees itself as the guardian of the nation (it should be noted that the Fijian military swears allegiance to the nation, not the constitution–as the suspension of the 1997 constitution clearly shows).
The more the Bainimarama regime colonizes the Fijian state with soldiers (however smart it may be as a tactical move given his objectives), the more likely that divisions will emerge in the ranks over the proper military role and adherence to corporate standards of conduct. It is one thing to be an arbitrator or mediator military in a praetorian civil-military relations context that intervenes in politics when civilian governments prove too inept or corrupt to govern (as has been the case in Fiji since independence in 1970). It is another thing for the military to try to rule as an institution over the long-term, especially when kleptocratic tendencies are encouraged by the use of military sinecures as sources of patronage. The downside of the latter is great on several levels.
Needless to say there is much more to the Fijian transitional picture, if that is in fact what we are observing. The praetorian nature of Fijian society, evident in zero-sum approaches to politics and economics that results in an impossible game of mutual vetos between contending interest groups divided by ethnicity and class, has continually “pulled” the military into intervening (in 1987, 2000 and 2006). The incompetence of civilian elected governments, the nepotistic and opaque ways in which business is conducted, and the general malaise of civilian institutions accentuate the military urge to put things right. Having failed in its arbitrator role, it now seems that Bainimarama and his colleagues want to perpetuate military rule, even if under civilian guise after 2014, so as to continue the process of national transformation in order to eventually “put things right.”
All of this is set against the backdrop of Fiji re-orienting its “Looking North” foreign policy from West to East in response to the sanctions imposed by its traditional allies and partners (Fiji has been suspended from the Pacific Island Forum, seen the suspension of financial aid from the EU and Asian Development Bank and downgraded its diplomatic ties with Australia and New Zealand as a result of their criticism of the coup and its aftermath). The Commodore has emphasized the need for a “re-balancing” of Fiji’s foreign relations, and to that end has encouraged closer trade, investment and/or military ties with Asian nations (particularly China) and the Middle East. Although these new ties have not brought Fiji out of its economic doldrums as of yet (net growth has been negligible for the last five years even though tourism is at all-time highs in terms of visitors and contribution to GDP), they do allow the Bainimarama regime some room for maneuver as it works to reconcile the constitutional reform and election timetables with its long-term objectives.
All of which is to say, if I were a bettor or a futures forecaster, I would hedge against uncertainty and assume that the 2014 elections will be delayed, manipulated or even canceled. As for the longer-term future–that ultimately will be for the Fijian military to decide.
Today (March 24) is the 35th anniversary of the coup that ushered in the “dirty war” in Argentina that cost 30,000+ lives, more than 10,000 “desparecidos” (“disappeared,” or those who were last seen in custody but whose bodies have never been discovered), with tens of thousands tortured and exiled. Never has the dark side of the Argentine psyche been on worse display than during the so-called “Proceso de Reorganisacion Nacional” (“Process of National Reorganisation”), and hopefully the bitter lessons learned will prevent a repetition of that wretched episode in Argentine history. The hard truth is that although the September 11, 1973 golpe that ousted Salvador Allende in Chile is more well-known (as was the dictator Pinochet), and the Argentine coup followed others in Uruguay (1973), Bolivia (1974), Peru (1968), Brazil (1964) and several previous ones in Argentina itself (1962, 1966, with an internal military coup in 1970), the dictatorship installed in 1976 was the most sadistic, murderous and cruel of them all. In its brutality and efficiency it was the exemplar of South American authoritarianism.
For people like me–raised in Argentina and directly exposed to the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s–the horrors of those days do not go away easily. For a generation of Argentines, to say nothing of their counterparts in Chile and elsewhere such as in Central America, the traumas of those years will linger forever, and it is only now, with the birth of a generation completely unaffected by the dictaduras, that the process of psychological healing can begin in earnest. While people who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s continue living, it will be impossible to erase from the collective memory the pervasive climate of fear that characterised life during those times.
The immediate result of the climate of fear was known as “atomizing infantilisation:” the body politic is forcibly stripped of its horizontal solidarity networks by the imposition of state terror, which paralyses resistance and reduces the individual social subject to the level of a child’s nightmare. Just as children fear the monsters under their beds and are powerless to stop their depredations, so too a society subjected to a systematic campaign of state terror is reduced to a sense of utter helplessness and vulnerability. After all, in the case of the dictatorships, the monsters were real and death or torture could occur at any time, for seemingly any reason. Terror appeared arbitrary but was in fact systematic, with the objective being to break the will of anyone who might oppose the dictatorial project.
The result was a condition of survivalist alienation: people just tried to go about their personal business, retreat into their immediate private lives and avoid trouble by relinquishing public commitments. The Argentines had a phrase for this: “de la casa al trabajo y del trabajo a la casa:” From the house to work and from work to home. Under such conditions there is no collective social subject. There is just submission.
It was under these conditions that the beginnings of the neoliberal macroeconomic experiments began in the Southern Cone. It was not just a matter of outlawing unions and political parties. It was about “cleaning the slate” of all those who could thwart the laboratory experiment that was the imposition of monetarist policies in South America. It was about using the climate of fear to reforge collective identities so that the working classes would never challenge the primacy of capital again. It was about elites taking advantage of the window of opportunity provided by dictatorship to restructure the economy in a more favourable image, setting in place structural changes that would fundamentally alter class relations and the relationship of the state and society to capital in a way that the latter would always have the dominant say in social life. It was about, in the language of the time, “forcibly extirpating without anesthesia the malignancies of communism, atheism, feminism and homosexuality from the body politic” (the phrase is attributed to Argentine General Benjamin Menendez, who was one of the dictatorship’s most bloodthirsty leaders). In sum, the project was about using systematic application of state terror to sow the seeds of fear, alienation and despair in which market-driven projects could be imposed. Above that, the use of state terror was focused on social cleansing–in Chile it was about eliminating class challenges to capatilist rule. In Argentina it was about preserving an elite way of life. In either case, the dictators stopped at nothing to make their point.
These are the projects from which Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Ruth Richardson, John Key and the Business Roundtable take inspiration. These are the models upon which the NZ economic reforms are based. And if we think of the way in which NZ macroeconomic reform and other aspects of social policy have been “reformed,” we can see that the authoritarian example has been emulated in more than the economic realm. In other words, the NZ market “model” is a softer version of the Southern Cone dictatorial projects, absent the repression but with the same thrust.
We should also remember the climate of fear when we observe the Middle East. Populations that have been victimised, brutalised and traumatised by long-standing dictatorships are unlikely to have forgiveness and conciliation on their minds as the dictators begin to tremble. But the dictators and their allies know this, which stiffens their resolve to not suffer the retributions that they richly deserve. That does not easily make for a democratic “spring.”
All of which is to say, when it comes to contemplating the virtues of dictatorial regimes because they provide economic models or security partnerships, the answer in the first instance should be the rallying cry of the heroic Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: “Nunca Mas!!”
NB: The title of this post comes from Argentine author Miguel Bonasso, who wrote a book by that name.
Although the NZ media did not pay much attention to them, Argentina and Mexico celebrated the bicentennials of their independence from Spain this year (Argentina on May 25 and Mexico on September 16). Much fanfare and parading happened in both nation’s capitals, and a wide array of patriotic rhetoric was heard. But the sad truth is that both states are disappointments and long time failures. They certainly are not in the same league as Somalia or Yemen, but for the majority of citizens in each country the hallowed promise of independence has come up short. The failure in both instances rests not with foreign imperialists but with the respective political and economic elites.
Argentina and Mexico are the fourth and fifth largest countries in the Western Hemisphere and blessed with abundant natural resources, a variety of climates and geography, extensive coastlines and close commercial ties to greater Europe dating to 1810. They have well defined borders and are peace with their neighbours (even if those borders are permeable and historic resentments occasionally arise–but none of this compromises trade or good relations with neighbours big and small). The strategic sectors of their economy are under state or domestic capitalist control (or both). They both exhibit considerable foreign policy independence.
Yet, 200 years after independence, neither has fulfilled its promise. Mexico is in the midst of a vicious civil war between a variety of drug cartels and the state that poses the risk of it disintegrating into neo-feudal enclaves and autonomous regions barely under the nominal authority of a failed central state apparatus. Argentina, although not the financial basket case that it was in 2001-02 or the state terrorism experiment that it was from 1976-82, remains a nation in which corruption at all levels of society is an art form and in which patronage and nepotism are the hallmarks of political life.
This really should not be. Both countries have produced, among many other lines of contribution, Nobel laureates, writers, artists, musicians, actors, medical pioneers, legal scholars, diplomats, human rights champions, renown architects and more than a few good political scientists. The number of such luminaries is disproportionate to the total population of each country, so it is clear that the talent pool runs deep in each case. Yet time and time again, year after year, decade after decade, the tides of national fortune ebb and fall so that neither country has come close to fulfilling the promise of its naturally-given and human potential. That is a pity, and a waste.
I grew up in Argentina and have spent a fair amount of time, both personal and professional, in Mexico. In my younger years, when my leftward tilt was more pronounced, I joined those who blamed the US and imperialism in general for the woes of these and all other countries in the region. Dependency theory was my theoretical crutch and, as a prescription, revolution was to me the best answer to the region’s problems.
I was wrong. Mexico had its revolution in 1917 and although the nature of its authoritarianism changed, the fundamental socio-economic and political problems underpinning it did not (the 1994 Zapatista rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas was a reminder of that). Although a looming presence, the US is not the primary source of Mexico’s ills (although its drug consumer market is certainly a part of it). Although nominally democratic for a decade, Mexican politics remains infested with cronyism, corruption (now often drug related) and a lack of transparency. Socio-economic actors of all types see the state as a trough from which to feed when in power or in favour rather than as a neutral mediator in redistributive conflicts.
Argentina has not had a revolution but not for lack of trying. I was personal witness to the Montonero/ERP campaigns of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the last gasp of the Peronist mythos in person (Peron died in1974 after returning from exile the year before). That only precipitated the state terror experiment and the return to shallow consumerism for which Argentines–or least those living in Buenos Aires–are famous. The attitude towards holding power is similar to that of Mexico, and the “state-as-money bag” approach is also endemic amongst the Argentine elites.
After the neo-liberal experiments in both countries, the gap between rich and poor is worse now than it was 50 years ago. Working class dissent remains a simmering pool that remains unmitigated in each case. Crime haunts the streets (more in Mexico than in Argentina, but both at much higher rates than before 1960 or even 1990), and uncertainty about the future is rife amongst all but the upper ten percent of society. Even the national soccer teams have failed to live up to popular expectations, which in of itself is symptomatic of the larger malaise each is living through. And yet the politics of elite greed continues unabated in both countries, now under ostensibly democratic aegis.
All of which is to say that as much as it is nice to celebrate longevity, it is human folly that has prevented these two countries from developing into fully mature states that are nourishing and representative of their citizens. My hope is that the younger generation of citizens exposed to the excesses of the past 25 years in both places will work harder than their parents and ancestors at giving them the political leadership that they so rightly deserve and which was sorely missing from the official grandstands during the celebrations.