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Home > 2021 > One dream, different dreaming | Ash Narain Roy

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 33, New Delhi, July 31, 2021

One dream, different dreaming | Ash Narain Roy

Friday 30 July 2021


by Ash Narain Roy

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir visited Cuba only months after the January 1, 1959 Cuban Revolution celebrated its first anniversary. Fidel Castro wined and dined the intellectual power couple of the 20th century during their stay in the island-nation. Sartre wrote about Castro’s revolution saying, “for the first time in our lives, we were witnessing happiness that had been attained by violence.”

Sartre was rebuked by many as a “fellow traveller” for his lavish commendation of the Castro regime. Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante was trenchant in his criticism. He said that Sartre was duped by “chic Guevara.” A year later when Sartre visited Cuba again, he rejected Castro’s socialist dream. In 1971, Sartre signed an open letter along with Mexican poet Octavio Paz, Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and others, denouncing Castro for the arrest of Cuban poet Heberto Pedilla. It broke up the love affair between the Cuban Revolution and literary figures of international renown.

The Cuban Revolution attracted global attention and Castro a fulsome praise for bringing about a revolution which was born from its own soil. As Castro said, “our revolution is neither capitalist, nor communist. It is not red, but olive green, the colour of the rebel army that emerged from the heart of the Sierra Maestra.” Che Guevara also echoed similar sentiments when he said, “In Cuba the Communist Party did not lead the revolution. It did not properly understand the methods of struggle...”

Castro combined Marx with Marti. It was Marti, hero of Cuban independence, who had defined the ideas upon which Cuban revolution was built.

Castro never established a purely Communist state in Cuba, wrote Anthony DePalma in the New York Times, nor did he adopt orthodox Communist Party ideology. Rather, what developed in Cuba was “less doctrinaire, a tropical form of communism that suited his needs.”

The Cuban Revolution was a “new left”. C Wright Mills, who popularised the term “new left” wrote that the Cuban government was "not communist in any of the senses legitimately given to this word”. And yet, as American author Norman Mailer, who loomed over American letters longer and larger than any writer of his generation, said of Castro that he was “the first and greatest, hero to appear in the world since the Second World War".

No wonder, Castro’s revolution had a longer-lasting impact throughout Latin America than that of any other 20th-century Latin American insurrection, with the possible exception of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The Mexican Revolution, which preceded the Bolshevik Revolution, was one of the greatest revolutionary upheavals of the 20th century. It continues to be an important reference point in Latin American politics.

In the two-volume, 1,000-page memoir, Fidel Castro Ruz: Guerrillero del Tiempo (Warrior Across Time), Castro says that he had not chosen Mexico as his launch pad “merely for geographical convenience. Every other nation in the region was ruled by a tyrant.” Castro recognised the greatness of the Mexican Revolution “that had a lot of prestige and left behind a lot of progressive thinking.”

The new left, currently ruling in several Latin American countries and others who won power in Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay and Chile earlier were greatly inspired by another Mexican revolution, the Zapatista rebellion of 1994 which captured the imagination of academics and social movements across the region. Mexican historian Lorenzo Meyer described it as the “first post-modern rebellion of Latin America”, first that “is born not only in post-communism but also post-anticommunism.”

It is Latin America’s uniqueness that explains the limitations of international left in dealing with the region. The region is not quite colonial and not quite modern. Is Latin America Western, non-Western, developing, third world or neither? Simon Bolivar, liberator of four South American countries, once asked. “If we are not Indians, nor Negroes, non-Europeans, who are we?”

Why the flurry of new left governments in Latin America? Social movements have created new terrain of struggles in the region. Besides, the new left views developments in a new cultural and political economy context. As Argentine sociologist Ronaldo Munck explains, revolutionary currents —from feminism to ecology and from indigenous to post-structuralist thinking —“have enriched the theory and practice of social transformation, nowhere more so than in Latin America.”

 Globally, the orthodox left saw the sunset long ago. It never tasted parliamentary success in Latin America. Despite his Marxist credentials, Salvador Allende was quintessentially a Chilean nationalist. Hugo Chavez publicly declared that he was neither a communist not an anti-communist.

The revolutionary fires of yesteryears may not be burning in the 21st century Latin America but the revolutionary embers haven’t died out. Even though the new left lacks definitional breadth, the 21st century socialism glimmers across Latin America.

The region witnessed the emergence of leftist governments in several countries beginning with Hugo Chavez in 1998 and many others in the early decades of the 21st century. What was even more remarkable was that such alternatives appeared available even in countries where leftists did not capture the presidency like Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Costa Rica. Consequently, a series of new policy experimentations began with varying success in Latin America.

 As Steven Levitsky and Kenneth M. Roberts maintain, the left turn “changed not only who governed in Latin America, but also how they governed.” The new left governments pursued diverse agendas, some more successful than others, but they all committed themselves to greater egalitarianism and social transformation.

The new left in Latin America is not building “utopian socialism”. Chavez, Lula, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa sought to build 21st century socialism in their own imaginations and in their own national contexts. Their utopian visions were not “breeders of illusions” as Immanuel Wallerstein had warned; their utopian thinking was what political scientist Lyman Tower Sargent describes as “social dreaming”. The new left governments have a common vision of keeping hope of a better society alive. Revolution only needs good dreamers who remember their dreams. Those who don’t, bite the dust.

 The reason why the new left has swept parts of Latin America is its new plank and new positioning. The Zapatistas, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and other autonomist groups have provided political innovation and what Zapatistas call social transformation “from below and to the left” that the left needed after the collapse of socialism. John Holloway describes the Zapatista movement as an “uncertain revolution” as it has deliberately avoided clear definitions and programmes. That the Zapatistas move “at the pace of the slowest” may very well be part of a strategy.

There are major challenges ahead. Currently, while some new left leaders are traversing varying trajectories, others are still navigating in the fog. The new left governments benefited from the commodities boom. While the economy expanded, the period also witnessed sharp reduction in poverty. That boom has now ended. Latin American economy is unlikely to recover till 2023. According to IMF, the average growth in 2018 was 1 % and 0 % in 2019. The economy contracted by 8% in 2020. Latin America also faces a huge Covid death surge. A quarter of Covid deaths have been in Latin America.

And yet, in the midst of grave economic crisis and Covid surge, Pedro Castillo, a radical outsider, will take over power in Peru. Luis Inacio Lula da Silva also appears to be on a comeback trail in Brazil.

In Chile, the citizens’ assembly is writing the new constitution, the first anywhere in the world with an equal number of men and women engaged in the exercise. Chile has achieved a rare-sweeping institutional change through a social movement. The left is expected to win elections in November this year. The right-wing Colombian government has witnessed massive protests against inequalities and repression. It is unlikely to return to power in 2022.

Latin America may very well be on the cusp of another pink tide. The new left is now a credible political alternative. Its strength is its diversity. It is not dogmatic or monochromatic. While Chavez described the new left as “21st century socialism”, Bolivians pursue “communitarian socialism.” To others, it is “new developmentalism” and “neo-extractivism.” Latin America may very well be following “Mariateguismo.” After all, Jose Carlos Mariategui, Peruvian Marxist intellectual, had written way back in 1928 that revolution in Latin America should be based on the realism of local conditions. New left leaders may share one dream but they dream differently.

(The author is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)

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