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Latin America: socialist perspectives in times of cholera (preliminary notes for a necessary debate).

I would like to develop this article by picking up on some ideas I formulated several years ago regarding certain characteristics, achievements, and contents of the processes of popular political and social transformations in the underdeveloped world. These processes refer basically to three principal questions or dimensions: national independence, development, and democratization. The ways in which these dimensions meet and articulate reciprocally are ultimately a result of the social groups that lead each process in particular and of the insertion of each process in the international system.(1) I think that focussing on the topic from this perspective will help give us an idea of the conditions that must be taken into account by any socialist project in Latin America today.

1. National Independence

Any reflection on socialism and its prospects in Latin America must obviously consider the impact of the disappearance of the "East" as even a hypothetical alternative to the international capitalist system. Independent of one's opinions about the former regimes of the East, it is undeniable that this variation of socialism -- or that of the Chinese experience -- was an explicit referent for the socialist projects of most political forces in the Latin American Left. Closely linked to the above, these regimes, particularly the economically most advanced such as the former USSR and the now-defunct German Democratic Republic, constituted an important source of economic and military aid for some Latin American countries -- such as Cuba -- which opted for socialism, or others -- such as Nicaragua during the decade of the 1980s -- which at least attempted profound, popular socioeconomic transformations. This aid helped these regimes to negotiate some of the rougher passages of underdevelopment and, above all, to defend their national sovereignty.

Whatever the particularities of each case, there is no question that Latin American resistance to imperialist aggression received often-decisive support from the Eastern bloc. To establish counterpoints between how much national independence is due to the cooperation of the East and how much to the efforts of the peoples themselves is to pose the issue badly, or in bad faith. Popular efforts to maintain and consolidate national independence in the various Latin American and Third World countries that were engaged in processes of profound social transformations obtained decidedly significant support from the East before its collapse. Economic and technical cooperation assumed subsidy-like characteristics, given the proverbial limitations of the countries receiving the assistance. The effectiveness of such cooperation in helping the receiving countries down the road of development has been limited, to put it mildly. However, the availability of economic aid is only one of the aspects to be considered in this regard; equally important is the capacity of the receiving countries to convert the aid into development, and this is a question that depends above all on the strategies, policies, and actions, that is to say, the decisions, adopted by the respective governments.

In the international arena, the possibilities for a socialist option were tied to the competition between the capitalist system and the socialist bloc and to the capacities of the popular and national regimes to receive aid from the latter so as to check the pressures of the former. Today, the socialist bloc no longer exists, and there is little sense in crying over spilled milk.

The international order that is being formed in the aftermath of the debacle in the East and, above all, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, is a politically unipolar and economically multipolar order, but in any case it is an indubitably capitalist order. The Soviet Union [until its recent demise -- Eds.] and China still hold socialism high on the official scale of values, but their relegation to secondary positions in international politics is beyond doubt. In some regards, the "new" international order announced by then-President George Bush frighteningly resembles the old pre-world War I international order: on one side, the colonial powers and on the other, the colonies and semicolonies. Germany dominated in Europe, Japan was decisive in the Pacific, and the United States was doing its thing in Latin America. The 20th century, which began with what some people hoped and others feared would be a socialist future, is ending with the prospects of a modernized recreation of the Holy Alliance.

The necessity of relying on advanced socialism to make the socialist option viable in the context of underdevelopment was at the center of discussions between Marx and Engels and the Russian populists. Yet the question goes beyond the choice of a particular form of social organization and political regime. The historical experience of Latin American countries teaches us that the very existence of those countries as independent entities was decisively linked to the ability to articulate the drive for independence with the realities of international competition among rival powers. For instance, winning independence from Spain rested on gaining the support of Great Britain, just as the possibilities of preserving autonomy vis-a-vis the United States occasionally involved the search for alliances with the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc and at other times with Western Europe. The disappearance of competition among powers and the entrance into a politically and militarily unipolar world clearly complicate matters.

2. Development

At the beginning of the 1990s, Latin America has a combined foreign debt in excess of $425 billion -- $100 billion more than at the beginning of the 1980s -- the equivalent of $1,000 per inhabitant, including those just born. In the 1980s, for the region as a whole, the gross national product per inhabitant declined by nearly 10%, while in Central America it declined by more than 17%; in Peru, the decline was 30%, in Argentina, more than 24%, in Bolivia, 23%, and in Venezuela, 20%. The marginalization of the region in the international economy increased; the participation of Latin America in world trade, which stood at 12.4% in 1950, had fallen to 5.2% by the end of 1970 and represented only 3% at the end of the 1980s. The price index of the main basic export products deteriorated by nearly 30%. During the 1980s, Latin America sent the rest of the world nearly $161 billion more than it received in new credits (CEPAL, 1990; World Bank, 1990).

The deterioration of public finances strangled the social security systems and blocked investments in infrastructure, a traditional prerogative of the state. The decline of public services affected above all the low-income groups, the rural population, women and children, and the ethnically subordinate populations. According to CEPAL, 183 million Latin Americans, i.e., 44% of the total population, live in poverty. This figure represents 71 million people more than in 1970; of those 183 million, 88 million live in conditions of indigence. The estimates of the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) are even more overwhelming: they calculate that two-thirds of the total population of Latin America live in conditions of poverty.

Clearly, there has been a very unequal distribution of this economic and social deterioration. The crisis framed the transfer of income from the poorest groups to the most wealthy, and from Latin America to the developed world. The refusal of Latin American governments in the mid-1980s to collectively negotiate the foreign debt meant abandoning their only instrument of pressure over the capitalist financial system and accepting as a guide for economic policy the good-debtor manual written by the creditors.

To pay the interest on the foreign debt, Latin American governments have resorted to the sale, at bargain prices, of important segments of the economic patrimony of their respective countries. The arguments about modernizing the state and the economy and strengthening civil society don't hide the fact that these decisions are being taken not to achieve development, but rather to pay their debts. The rise of the poverty indicators signals in any case that civil society is developing to the benefit of only some of its members. Moreover, newspaper accounts document the capacity of some groups -- those linked to the governments promoting the privatization of public enterprises -- to advance rapidly in their own process of accumulation.

The paring back of the state's functions further undermines the possibilities for development of the region, possibilities that historically have been tied to the dynamism of the public sector and its ability to create conditions for investment and accumulation by the private sector.

3. Democratization

In contrast with the ongoing deterioration of both the living standards of the people and the decision-making capacity of the states, the electoral process that developed during the 1980s buried the military dictatorships that had pillaged the region from the early 1970s, or, in the case of Brazil, from 1964. Consequently, there has been a notable, although very uneven, improvement in terms of human rights. The margin of options open to electoral contests varies greatly from country to country, and in recent years there has been a marked deterioration in the enforcement of human rights especially in Colombia and Guatemala.

In the continental context, Cuba is the only exception to an increasing political and ideological homogenization toward the center and the right. In Cuba, high growth rates in the first years of the 1980s combined with the highest levels of social development in the region and the maintenance of a political system lacking points of contact with the rest of Latin America. However, the crisis in the East damaged the external articulation of the Cuban economy and society and reduced the scope of its international alliances.

The situation of the region, then, is delicate. The process of electoral democratization that began in the 1980s was spurred in part by the explosion of the debt crisis and by the inability of the military regimes and the ruling groups to manage it. The resort to elections was as much a result of popular and citizens' mobilizations as of the decision by the military to step aside. The debt crisis fertilized the ground for the so-called democratic transitions, but at the same time it limited their scope and depth, and today there are many questions about how solid these processes are, about their real content, and about their future. Without judging their intentions, the inability of the elected governments to find even a minimal solution to the most urgent problems of the people or to improve the conditions for external negotiation casts a long shadow over any real consolidation of the democratizing processes in the region.

One of the most notable aspects of this marriage of deep and extended crisis with electoral processes is the backing away from a reformist perspective not only by Latin American governments, but also by a good many intellectuals. Generally speaking, one must admit that the replacement of dictatorial regimes was not accompanied by a recovery of the school of thought that emphasized profound structural reforms in order to achieve development, democracy, and equity. On the contrary, after a decade of repression, persecution, and censorship, the abdication of what was once called Latin American "critical thought" is overwhelming. Furthermore, the crisis of the East has been used by many as an excuse to turn their backs not only on Marxism's contributions to understanding Latin American reality, but also on what was learned from the debates of earlier decades and their contributions to a better understanding of our reality: both the Leninist theory of imperialism and the contributions of Raul Prebisch (which have nothing to do with Leninism) are mocked.

The reformist spirit has disappeared from the governments of Latin America; past attempts to regulate the market so as to wed democracy to development and equity are condemned today and are blame for the current ills. Supported by mobilizations of the masses and the middle classes, electoral regimes nevertheless reproduce the vision of the ruling elites. It is undeniable that the short-term exigencies created by the economic crisis allow no space for reform projects aimed at the structural configuration of our societies. Yet this shouldn't cloud the fact that the way in which the crisis is confronted is not politically neutral, and that small, traditionally powerful groups have managed to profit from the crisis and from the measures taken to deal with it.

There is a notorious homogeneity in the approaches taken toward the crisis: Alfonsin and Menem in Argentina, Ortega and Chamorro in Nicaragua, Arias and Calderon in Costa Rica, Fujimori in Peru, Collor de Mello in Brazil, Carlos Andres Perez in Venezuela, and Alberto Lacalle in Uruguay.... With differences only in details, the governments that emerged from electoral processes all appeal to adjustment policies designed according to a common model, with proven ineffectiveness in resolving the problems they try to confront and with a disastrous impact on the conditions of fife of those with the lowest income and the fewest resources.

The fact that these policies are being carried out by elected governments endangers the very processes of democratization. On the one hand, popular protests -- many of which have taken an extremely violent form -- indicate that these policies are not what the electorate has in mind when it goes to the polls. The cases of Menem and Fujimori are particularly illustrative: people voted for them because they said they opposed the policies that they later implemented. On the other hand, attempts to improve the image of these policies by appealing to the civically elected character of the governments promoting them go against the evidence of popular ire. The people's sense of having been mocked and deceived is undeniable and presents a situation that contributes little to the consolidation of democratic institutions.

4. Items for an Agenda

Stable access to food, employment, health, and education apparently remains an unattainable goal for one-half to two-thirds of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean. Independent of the crisis of the East, capitalism, whether authoritarian or democratic, has thus far clearly been unable to create conditions for meeting such a basic goal; the continued increase in the dispossessed masses makes it difficult to conceive, in good faith, that things can change in future.

The question of socialism in Latin America retains its currency, if for no other reason than the renewed ineffectiveness and inability of capitalism, as it has developed in practice in the region, to take responsibility for the fundamental problems of the people, starting with the basic problems of food, employment, education, and health. That socialist efforts to respond to these problems have not always been successful should not distract us from the failure of capitalism.

Path and Scenarios

The limitations of recent democratization processes do not prevent us from recognizing that they define a given institutional framework. In the past, there was a tendency to reduce the content and achievements of popular political projects to the paths and strategies of struggle adopted by them and, in particular, to glorify armed struggle as almost synonymous with the revolutionary project.

The choice of particular forms of struggle depends on a broad combination of factors, among which the will of the actors is only one. The masses respond to calls for revolution when they find the institutional channels explicitly or implicitly closed -- in situations of full-blown dictatorship, electoral fraud or manipulation, or repression of the popular opposition, among others. Under these circumstances, the issue that tends to mobilize the population is more often the democratizing content of the struggle than it is socioeconomic transformations per se. In any case, access to more decent conditions of life appears to be linked, in the collective conscience, to the elimination of repression and the transformation of political relations and institutions. The recent support for electoral processes shown by the U.S. government and dominant groups in Latin America expresses the recognition that at the root of popular acceptance of calls for revolution is an unavoidable democratic demand.

The unfolding of popular struggles for social changes and the deepening of democracy in the framework of constitutional political institutions increase the explicitly political content of those struggles. The paradigm inherited from the French Revolution and continued by the Russian and Cuban Revolutions -- which posits class enemies who cede terrain and leave the country, or who are submitted to revolutionary justice -- does not work. The class enemy remains and continues its struggle to conserve its institutional positions and to block the advance of the popular project. This situation reminds us very clearly of the Popular Unity in Chile and, to some extent, of Sandinismo in Nicaragua. The institutions, the state apparatus, are turned into so many contested trenches. Gramsci's image of the war of positions is essential.

Does this mean that we are dealing with a slower process? If by socialization we understand the "state-ization" of society and the economy, the armed path to power is clearly much faster. Yet it is, above all, a path that depends on a broad and complex combination of conditions and not only on the will of the revolutionaries. It is not by chance that revolutionary processes represent exceptional moments in history. A revolution is something in which the people become involved when they see no other alternate way to better their conditions of life and to recover a sense of dignity, or to defend what little hasn't already been illegitimately taken from them.

On the other hand, what previously was not revolutionized from below, from society, must subsequently be revolutionized by the state, and this is a prolonged process that unfolds over time, given that it implies transformation of habits and styles that are deeply embedded in the minds and the hearts of people. The contradiction between the time frame of the state and that of society reveals itself and is sharpened by external pressures; the disarticulation of the old institutions takes place more rapidly than the creation of new ones; old practices and styles are mimicked and reproduced under the new forms; culture changes more slowly and over a longer period than do laws and decrees. The idea that by definition a society advances more rapidly by revolutionary means should be examined, therefore, in light of specific experiences.

The political panorama in Latin America today emphasizes the necessity of a popular strategy of institutional struggle and of struggle for the institutions. The institutional terrain is not politically neutral; the state has a class content and meaning, and it expresses and reproduces relations of external subordination. However, only the exhaustion of institutional spaces legitimizes for the masses the recourse to other forms of struggle.(2)

The Subjects

That which is popular, or of the people, has a class referent, yet class does not explain it all nor can the reduced to class. Until recently, characterizing the people in terms of socioeconomic, ultimately occupational determinants put aside recognition of the specificity of other criteria of social differentiation and hierarchization and also of the way these specificities are projected in the contents and achievements of popular struggles. Many processes of social change experience problems when they try to project democratization toward spheres that are related to socioeconomic factors, but that also possess a marked autonomy: ethnicity, gender relations, or the articulation between the public and the private. These dimensions are not independent of the dynamic of classes, but they cannot be reduced to class. The processes of democratization above all tend to be associated with and circumscribed by the creation and development of political institutions by groups whose identities are constituted primarily on the socioeconomic plane. To marginalize the specificities imposed on class by, for example, gender and ethnicity, is in reality to privilege the perspective and interests of those gender and ethnic groups that are dominant within the class: men and whites or mestizos.

The renovation of Latin American critical thought spurred by the Central American revolutionary processes and by the rise of South America's "new social movements" permitted an advance over the limitations stemming from a predominantly socioeconomic focus within the popular camp and identified a broad spectrum of social subjects in the transformation processes. In some cases, the affirmation that class did not fully explain the identity of the subjects was understood to mean that class identity was irrelevant to the formation of collective behavior; on other occasions, the protagonists of the "new movements" paid no attention to the elements of continuity, in new contexts, that exist between these and previous forms of popular mobilization and political protest. Nonetheless, the perspectives held today by Latin American critical thought concerning the popular camp are undeniably broader and more accurate than those of the recent past.

Managing the Economy

The magnitude of the crisis has made the economy the center of the current problematic. Paradoxically, this is where Latin American critical thought is most vulnerable. The trivial affirmation that there are no alternatives to adjustment policies, formulated by more than a few leaders and intellectuals of the popular camp, is the best proof of this. It is the weakness of the popular forces -- not certain technical requirements -- that explain the recourse to adjustment policies, which make the people pay the cost of these economic policies. The pressure is placed on those with the least capacity to react and defend themselves.

At the same time, it is obvious that on the economic front, Latin American critical thought has generally not moved beyond generic proposals favoring fuller "state-ization" of the economy. A large part of what we traditionally consider as socialist-oriented economic policy in the underdeveloped world was simply a kind of left developmentalism. The greater or lesser failure of these proposals has disarmed critical thought -- and the organizations and forces that were in some way inspired by it -- in the face of the renewed onslaught of neoliberalism. This deficiency was dramatically illustrated by the application of a drastic program of adjustment in the last years of the Sandinista regime, which was at the expense of those who had carried out efforts to defend the regime against the counterrevolution and who had contributed the majority of the counterrevolution's victims.

From a popular political perspective, the problem is not whether an adjustment policy is inevitable, but whether it is inevitable that the social cost of the adjustment policies fall exclusively, or primarily, upon the popular camp. The adjustment may be inevitable, but the distribution of its social cost is a product of policy decisions and, in the end, a class orientation.

It is undeniable that, thus far, Latin American popular organizations have paid more attention to denouncing the negative effects of the adjustment than to designing alternatives. More generally, little work has been done in terms of development strategies. The hypothesis of turning the satisfaction of popular demands for food, work, health, and education into a strategy of accumulation and change has been considered only sporadically by Latin American economists of the Left.(3)

To emphasize meeting the basic demands of the popular majorities, and, on that basis, to design a new matrix of articulations and interconnections of production, accumulation, investment, and consumption, does not necessarily imply subscribing to a strategy of "delinking" or of "forgetting" the external sector.(4) Rather, it requires reformulating the dimensions of the external sector, and concretely of export capacity, in terms of import needs linked to a refocusing of the economy based on the basic demands of the popular masses. Such a refocusing involves profound alterations in the relations of power and, undoubtedly, a profound democratization of the economy and of development policies and strategies.

5. Final Considerations

Popular forces are on the defensive today because of the magnitude of the crisis, the weight of the repression that disarticulated many popular organizations and eliminated leaders and cadre, and the abdication of broad sectors of intellectuals. The current conjuncture is not one of advance; rather, in the best of cases, it is one of recomposition.

The decade of the 1990s is witnessing in several Latin American countries the close of a cycle of revolutionary struggles that began after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Yet the socioeconomic conditions that spurred the opening of that cycle still exist and are even more pressing now than they were then. The electoral democracies thus far have shown themselves to be more concerned with satisfying their external creditors than with their own voters. According to a recent document of the World Health Organization, between 90 and 120 million Latin Americans could be affected by the current cholera epidemic: a medieval tragedy in the middle of the postmodern era.

Socialism is the name that has been given, since the 19th century, to popular aspirations for a life of dignity, justice, and liberty. These aspirations have not disappeared with the Berlin Wall or the statues of Lenin. Yet the deepening of the crisis and new international conditions force us to search for new paths, ideas, and contents. The vitality and the staying power of the ideal of justice, liberty, and dignity are rooted, above all, in their capacity to adapt to these changing realities and to accept the challenges of the new times.


(1.) See Vilas (1984), Chapter 1. (2.) "That is why I express my conviction -- and I think it would be the conviction of any authentic revolutionary -- that violence is the last recourse, when there is no other road, when there is no o possibility of change." Fidel Castro, statements made in Quito (Granma, August 16, 1988). (3.) See Thomas (1974) and Vilas (1989), Chapter III. (4.) Proposals for "delinking," such as those of Samir Amin (1990), do not seem to recognize that what they recommend as a development strategy is really an effect of the imperialist aggression agai the processes of national liberation and social revolution in the underdeveloped world. See Vilas 1990).


Amin, Samir 1990 Delinking. London: Zed Books. CEPAL 1990 Balance preliminar de la economia de America Latina y el Caribe. Santiago de Chile: CEPAL. Thomas, Clive 1974 Dependence and Transformation. New York: Monthly Review Press. Vilas, Carlos 1990 "Is Socialism Still an Alternative for the Third World?" William K. Tabb (ed.), The Future of Socialism. Perspectives from the Left. New York: Monthly Review Press. 1989 Transicion desde el subdesarrollo. Caracas, Venezuela: Nueva Sociedad. 1984 Perfiles de la revolucion sandinista. Havana, Cuba: Casa de las Americas. World Bank 1990 Informe sobre el desarrollo mundial. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

Carlos Vilas, an Argentine, is a researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias o the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico (Torre II de Humanidades, 4 [degrees] Piso, Cd. Universitaria, D. CP 04510, Mexico). He is the author of Transicion desde el subdesarrollo and Perfiles de la revolucion Sandinista, among other works. This article was presented at the Latin American Sociology Congress in Havana in 1991. Translated by Ed McCaughan.
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Title Annotation:Latin America Faces the 21st Century
Author:Vilas, Carlos M.
Publication:Social Justice
Date:Dec 22, 1992
Previous Article:Democracy and revolutionary movement.
Next Article:The continental development and trade initiative.

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