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The southern cone: socialism fades out of fashion.

Sir Thomas More set his sixteenth-century Utopia in America, a New World free from the corruptions of Old England, where an ideal society might be constructed on firm foundations. The realities of the Western Hemisphere disappointed the early utopian thinkers, and their modern descendants have not fared much better. This disappointment of utopian dreams is especially poignant in the "Southern Cone" countriesChile, Argentina and Uruguay -a region of European immigrants and pretensions, united as well by the recent defeat of promising leftist bids for political power.

It was less than two decades ago that Salvador Allende was constructing a democratic form of socialism in Chile, a society in which "only children would be privileged," via a democratic revolution without sacrifice. Across the Andes in Argentina, the Peronist faithful were awaiting the second coming of their legendary populist leader, who would return after eighteen years of exile to pursue his "revolutionary" middle way between capitalism and communism. In Uruguay, on the other side of the muddy Rio de la Plata estuary, Tupamaro guerrillas played Robin Hood with dash and ingenuity, shaking that country's corrupt oligarchy and ossified politics with their egalitarian demand of "a fatherland for all." This demand was taken up by the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), a political alliance that ranged from Christian Democrat to Communist, whose initial electoral success threatened Uruguay's two -party system and whose radical program challenged its stagnant status quo. The harsh military dictatorships that seized power in all three Southern Cone countries during the mid-1970s, with business and middle-class support, revealed these projects to be as utopian as that of the martyred Thomas More. Yet, the scope, ferocity and duration of the military repression attested to their broad appeal.

Today, political democracy has been restored in Argentina and Uruguay, bringing with it the revival of leftist politics and labor unions, and a similar transition is now under way in Chile. But it is a different left that has emerged from years of harsh repression and European exile - a more pragmatic left perhaps, but also one shorn of its revolutionary message and transforming zeal. Socialism has gone out of fashion in the Southern Cone.

The "planation for this dramatic change in the political landscape is both complex and instructive. Socialism in retreat elsewhere in the world, has ceased to inspire leftist intellectuals in the region. One reason for this is the similar trend in Western Europe, where many South American leftists spent their years in exile, a reflection of both the fading of Eurocommunist hopes and the confessed failures of state socialism in the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe. But the deficiencies of Cuban communism and Sandinista socialism have also taken their toll on the "revolutionary left" in the Southern Cone, including those who have observed these revolutions up close. As a result, there are no credible socialist models to emulate.

To this disillusionment with socialism has been added the seeming success of market capitalism. The prosperity and power of Western Europe has left its mark on a region that has traditionally looked to Europe for models. The emergence of a dynamic, industrialized East Asia out of the underdeveloped Third World offers an example of capitalist development that leftist theory has been unable to accommodate. Equally important has been the revival of capitalism closer to home after the crisis of the early 1980s. In Uruguay free-market capitalism has enjoyed a modest success; in Argentina itexperienced fitful growth before its recent collapse under the weight of a lame duck govermnent, galloping inflation and soaring budget deficits. But in Chile, where the neoliberal model was imposed most consistendy, five years of stable growth have generated claims of an "economic miracle" and inspired the envy of its neighbors. These claims are exaggerated, and the recent proclamation by the conservative daily El Mercurio that Chile is about to bid "Adios to Latin America" and join the Pacific rim of newly industrialized countries is misplaced. Even so, Chicago school economics and authoritarian social control have created new agricultural export industries that can compete internationally, a dynamic entrepreneurial class and steady economic growth with low inflation and increasing employment that contrast favorably with the disarmy across the Andes. This economic "success" has come at a high social cost, including lowered real wages and a regressive redistribution of income, which has left almost half the population poor and a quarter indigent. But dynamism and stability in a region notorious for their absence has given the idea of capitalism an ascendancy that is particularly strong in Chile, where few Socialists still talk of socialism.

This capitalist carrot comes, of course, with a military stick, the authoritarian politics that underhe the freemarket model. The military remains largely unrepentant and unpunished for its dictatorial rule and human rights abuses, with its definitions of national security and its mission intact. The armed forces have also retained a political influence and a degree of control over the terms of the transition process that suggest an enduring poHtical presence for them, even within a formally democratic landscape. For the left, these are ominous signs.

Years of military repression have left their mark upon the left and its largely working-class supporters, teaching them the dangers of socialist dreams or revolutionary demands. This military tutelage has been internalized, its lessons learned perhaps too well. Few are ready to tempt the same fate again. The regressive impact of the military's social and economic policies and the loss of jobs as a result of economic modernization and capitalist crisis have been equally traumatic. As a consequence, leftist political and labor leaders are now willing to settle for far less than their precoup programs, while workers have lowered their sights to securing a steady job and a living wage. Economic democracy and political empowerment are now viewed as utopian, even if social pads between capital and labor remain on the agenda.

All this has combined to produce a "social democratizadon" of the once-revolutionary left in the Southern Cone, a development that has been actively promoted by the Socialist International in general and Spain's Felipe Gonzalez in particular. They have pressed leftist leaders (many of them in Western European exile) to adopt "more pragmatic" positions and have financed parties, unions and think tanks that reflect their social democratic politics. Although the success of these efforts has varied, and although each Southern Cone country has retained its unique political character, the ideological trend is clear.

In Argentina before the 1976 military coup, Peronism held almost total sway over the working class - and the Socialists and Communists remain minor political forces today. "Revolutionary Peronism," always an ambiguous construct, retains its adherents, but most of its social support has faded into President-elect Carlos Saul Menem's anachronistic revival of the populism of the dead caudillo, Juan Domingo Peron. Menem's victory in the Peronist Party primary may have reflected a blue-collar revolt against the "responsible" reformism of his rival, Antonio Cafiero. But Menem's elecdon victory returns to power the corrupt labor bosses and rightist thugs who set an example in repression of the left from 1973 to 1976, which the military soon followed. The presence of a few former Montoneros in Menem's entourage raises more questions about the politics of those "leftist" Peronist guerrillas than it answers about Menem's own credentials.

The remnants of the other guerrilla movement of the precoup period, the Trotskyist E.R.P. (People's Revolutionary Army), surfaced briefly in January in an ill-fated attack on the La Tablada army barracks, which demonstrated just how out of touch the remaining Argentine revolutionary left is with its country's realities [see Martin Edwin Andersen, "Dirty Secrets of the 'Dirty War,'" The Nation, March 13]. As for the human rights groups that emerged as centers of resistance and alternative thinking under the dictatorship, these have survived as political lobbies but haven't the capacity to transcend their single issue or special interest.

What is striking is the weakness of the Argentine left in the face of an economic collapse and political vacuum that detonated the recent social explosion, with food riots in the major cities testifying to the desperation and rebelliousness of the working class. Althoughthe dramatic failure of President Raul Alfonsin's centrist Radical Civic Union to solve the country's deepening economic crisis has created an opening for more radical alternatives, there is no left with the vision, leadership and credibility to take advantage of the opportunity. As a consequence, the Peronists will dominate the poliical stage by default -with the military waiting in the wings.

The Uruguayan left is more vocal and visible than the Argentine, but it is equally lacking in vision and viability. The surviving Tupamaros have been given amnesty from prison and been allowed to return from exile, and many of them have re-entered political fife. But it is a very different politics than they practiced two decades ago. For now, after trenchant self-criticism, the former guerrillas seem willing to give Uruguayan democracy a chance. The Tupamaros, who spawned some successful entrepreneurs while in European exile, today run the best restaurant on Montevideo's main street and imaginative social programs in the city's spreading cntegriles (shantytowns). They also lead a "combative tendency" among Uruguay's workers, which has been challenging an accommodationist Communist Party for control of the country's labor movement. Politically, the Tupamaros' 25th of March Party remains a tiny faction that has been unable to gain admission to the Frente Amplio alliance or attract substantial popular support.

On the surface, the Frente Amplio seemed in reasonable shape until recently, with a good chance of winning the Montevideo mayoralty, the second most important political position in Uruguay, in the November 1989 elections-had they nominated a charismatic candidate. But there's the rub. Although the populist Hugo Batalla was probably the Frente Amplio's best vote -getter, he wanted to run for president, not mayor. So did refired Gen. Liber Seregni, the coalition's standard-bearer in 1971, who paid for that indiscretion with years in prison and torture at the hands of his former military colleagues. Both felt that they had earned the right to run for president: Batalla because of his popularity, Seregni because they owed it to him. Both had major political forces within the Frente Amplio behind them: Batalla his own faction, Seregni the Communist Party. The dispute is as much ideological as personal, and it has now divided the Frente Amplio into its social democratic and Marxist-Leninist parts.

The Frente Amplio had been altering the traditional split voting pattern of Uruguayan workers, who have long supported Communist candidates for union office but the centrist Colorados in national elections. The dissolution of the affiance, however, could provoke a reversion to former voting patterns, condemning the Communists to political marginality but at the same time consolidating their labor leadership. Whatever the outcome, the Uruguayan left seems destined either for social democracy or political iff elevance.

It was in Chile, however, where the left has traditionally been strongest, that socialism came closest to realization in the 1970s. It is in Chile, too, that armed struggle and revolutionary rhetoric seem to have survived the years of political repression. This exploded in a fury of popular resistance from 1983 to 1985 and shantytown support for the Communist guerrilla group, the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (F.P.M.R.), which tried to assassinate Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1986. Moreover, it is in Chile that the socially regressive character of neoliberal capitalism has been exhibited most clearly and that military dictatorship and authoritarian social control have been most rigid. Thus, Chile is the left's best case in the Southern Cone and the place where its regional destiny will be decided.

At first glance, the prospects seem good. The parties of the left have survived fifteen years of repression with their organizations functioning, their constituencies intact and enough veteran leaders to provide experience and continuity. During this decade and a half, a new generation of cadres has been formed and some dynamic new leaders have emerged. Moreover, leftist parties and leaders played a major role in the successful campaign to defeat Pinochet in last October's presidential plebiscite, and are likely to form part of the center-left coalition govermnent expected to be elected in December and take office in March 1990.

A closer look reveals a more disconcerting picture. The Socialist Party, the axis of any leftist coalition, is fragmented into factions that are grouped in rival "instrumental parties," electoral alliances registered under Pinochet's 1980 Constitution. The more dynamic and promising of the two is the P.P.D. (Party for Democracy), led by Ricardo Lagos, a charismatic econoniist who is one of the few Chilean politicians who knows how to use television effectively. Lagos, a social democrat who emerged as the left's rising star during the plebiscite campaign, represents that large number of Chilean leftists, many of them selfconsciously "revolutionary" during the Allende era, who today see Spain's Felipe Gonzalez as their hero and his defanged P.S.O.E. as their model of a "modern" Socialist Party. The other electoral alliance, PAIS, is made up of roughly the same constituent parties as Allende's Popular Unity. It is headed by Luis Maira, a talented leader of the small Christian left party. The members of PAIS range from centrists of the Radical Party to traditional Communists, but the core of the alliance is the Socialist Party, led by former Allende minister Clodomiro Almeyda, an intellectual with more character than charisma. The Almeyda Socialists have retained their Marxist rhetoric, Communist alliance and working-class support, but they are being wooed by the center-left and tempted by the prospect of government ministries and congressional seats. In fact, despite their talk of "completing the work of Allende," not one of the Socialist factions has socialism on its political agenda; nor would the reunified Socialist Party that they are considering re-creating. Significantly, the rhetoric of class conflict and the goal of socialism are also missing from the newly recreated national labor confederation, the CUT, which is led by Christian Democrat Manuel Bustos.

What suggests that this new look of the Chilean left is more than a passing fad is that it confirms opinion polls that show majority support for reform but offly slender support for revolution. As a result, the most likely political outcome is a center-left transition government led by a conservative Christian Democrat, Patricio Aylwin, with an economic policy that will not differ markedly from that of Pinochet's "Chicago Boys." Moreover, should a Lagos-led left come to power in the future, the result would be a mild social democracy very different from Allende's democratic socialism.

Paradoxically, while Chile's Socialists were inching toward the political center, its Communists were moving left. Chile's Communist Party, denounced as "reformist" by the revolutionary left of the Allende era, abandoned its historic "Popular Front" line in 1980 in favor of armed struggle, creating a guerrilla arm at a time when no electoral solution seemed imminent. The Communists regarded last year's plebiscite as a fraud that could not be won and were ambivalent about it to the end, although at the eleventh hour the party instructed its supporters to vote against Pinochet. But despite the opposition victory, the opening of an electoral road to the restoration of democratic rule and the failure of its guerrillas to create a credible revolutionary alternative, the Communist Party affirmed its support for "all forms of struggle." This transformation of the "moderates" of the Popular Unity into the "hard-liners" of today reflects the emergence of a new generation of leaders formed in the underground struggle against a brutal dictatorship, which made the Communist Party its main target and Communist activists its preferred victims. It also reflects a reaction against an electoral line that led to this trauma and an admiration for the successful example of armed struggle in Nicaragua. Its more revolutionary line, moreover, has enabled Chile's Communist Party to build a following among the angry unemployed youth of the country's shantytowns, a social base that it is reluctant to abandon. Yet there are now signs that the Communists too are having second thoughts, in large part out of a concern that they will become isolated politically. The issue was hotly debated in the party's recent semiclandestine congress, which revealed deep divisions over strategy and tactics. The result was an ambiguous line that retained a rhetorical commitment to "popular rebellion" but also endorsed Aylwin's presidential candidacy and running candidates on the opposition's congressional list. These steps seem more straws in a wind that is blowing the Chilean left toward the center.

Throughout the Southern Cone, dreams of socialist revolution are giving way to the pragmatic politics of democratic reform. This new leftist politics may well be more realistic, but it leaves the left without an alternative societal project or an inspiring political vision. Only time will tell whether this "renovated" left, with its "modern" socialism, will have greater electoral appeal or, if it does, whether its election will represent anything more than a mild shift within an enlarged political center. One thing is clear: both Thomas More and Karl Marx can be forgiven for rolling over in their graves.
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Author:Winn, Peter
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jun 26, 1989
Words:2850
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