Wednesday, May 23, 2007

USA vs South America

IRC Americas Program Commentary

Chomsky, Touraine, Petras: Opinions on the South
Raúl Zibechi | May 18, 2007 --
Translated from: Intelectuales del Norte opinando sobre el Sur

On both the right and the left, First World academics usually dispense analysis and forecasts, critiques and apologies on different socio-political aspects of Latin America. Among those that align themselves on the left, simplifications and straightforward explanation abound as to what those on the left-wing and social movements should do.

Among First World academics, quasi common ground has arisen around the belief that the pendulum in Latin American is swinging toward the left. It has been suggested that today our continent is a type of laboratory of alternatives, that more than a few regard with both enthusiasm and hope, perhaps as compensation for the less than attractive situation that they are experiencing in their own countries, where once powerful movements—such as the one that took to the streets in opposition to war in Iraq—now languish in a state of disarray and lethargy.

Without in any way claiming to exhaust the subject matter, a brief review of recent articles by a handful of academics—the U.S. writers Noam Chomsky and James Petras, the Frenchman Alain Touraine, and the authors of the book Empire , Michael Hardt and Toni Negri—is sufficient in order to reveal the predominance of a simplified analysis that avoids both the complexities that pierce Latin America and the distant realities of the domestic problems of the First World.

Reducing the complex to the simple

In a recent article, "Latin America: Four Blocs of Power," Petras maintains that at the organizational level, the continent's "radical left" can be reduced to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or FARC). In this same bloc, he includes sectors of the urban and rural movements in Venezuela and El Alto (Bolivia), Brazil's Landless Workers Movement together with certain strata of the social movements in Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Argentina. The second bloc comprises what Petras refers to as the "pragmatic left," among which he highlights Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Fidel Castro, together with great left-wing parties of Central and South America, the leaders of Brazil's Landless Workers Movement, Argentina's CTA trade union head office, Mexico's PRD party, and Bolivia's MAS. The author considers them pragmatic because "they neither appeal for the expropriation of capitalism nor debt cancellation; nor do they consider any breaking-off of relations with the United States."

It is surprising, for example, that Petras puts the Cuban president and Mexico's PRD, one of the most moderate left-wing parties on the continent, in the same group. Moreover, the author believes that Chávez is a pragmatic radical that the United States "is able to accommodate" and maintains that Cuba is no longer the radical it once was given that the country "extended a diplomatic hand to Uribe (president of Colombia), rejects the revolutionary leftism of the FARC, and publicly supports neoliberals such as Lula de Silva, Néstor Kirchner, and Tabaré Vásquez." Petras places these three leaders in the "pragmatic neoliberals" bloc, together with the current Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, although he is not mentioned by name by the author. Petras places the presidents of Chile, Mexico, and Colombia (Michelle Bachelet, Felipe Calderón, and Álvaro Uribe) in the fourth bloc, the "neoliberal doctrinarians" because "they follow the dictates of Washington to the letter."

In an article entitled "Between Bachelet and Evo Morales: does a left-wing exist in Latin America?" published in the Nueva Sociedad journal, Touraine attempts a more ambitious interpretation. He begins, however, with an uncomfortable statement:

"The left and the right in Latin America are losing their way." Dismissing this language, the author maintains that the challenge that faces the continent lies in "locating the social struggles within an institutional and democratic framework" as is the norm in Europe and the United States. Touraine follows this with another surprising statement: "Today Latin America appears further away from finding a solution to its social problems than it did 30 years ago."

For Touraine, the left's main problem is that it has not tied a "knot" between social movements and political parties, which would be the key to achieving Touraine's longed for institutionalization of the "social." In a stroke, he dismisses the broad spectrum that ranges from Zapatismo to Lula. Of the former the author says that the "hope born of the Zapatista uprising has vanished." Furthermore, he reveals himself to be disappointed by Lula for his "refusal to elaborate a venture for change which is both political and social." The conclusion is simple: "This compels us to discuss a fundamental failure of the solutions of what could be called the left-wing throughout the whole continent."

Just as Petras insists on categorizing, out of necessity, the complicated network that is the socio-political left into four categories that appear to be unpredictable, Touraine extrapolates from our continent a reality that works well in his own, despite the fact that it presupposes that everyone has to assume a European path. It does not, however, appear to be the most suitable direction urbi et orbi. The questions arising from such positions come thick and fast. Do both analysts believe in the central importance of the political supporter/political party when everything seems to indicate that in Latin America, civil society exceeds such political institutions? Can the reference to imperialism and the attitude toward the external debt be the key to understanding the winding course of the movements? In recent history, has the "knot" that ties movements and parties, as defended by Touraine, in fact been the best way of training the former to be the subordinates of the latter?

Petras, who has distanced himself from the MST on account of its "pragmatism," appears not to want to assume that Lula's triumph is a positive outcome for the landless movement, even knowing that he is not going to announce agrarian reform. For this movement, that comprises two million people in 5,000 rural settlements, not everything can be reduced to the break away from capitalism and the non-payment of the debt, since, among other obligations, it has to secure a minimum amount of food for its members, day-in, day-out. And, above all, because its anti-systemic nature does not tolerate the "calling for the expropriation of capitalism" except for survival—in spite of and because of the system—it tries not to reproduce it. This involves encouraging new forms of working, self-education, health provision, and no end of questions regarding daily life. And that has little to do with the discourse. One key point of classic revolutionary theory, above all, has been called into question by the practice of a few movements, especially the indigenous movements of Chiapas and Bolivia, the landless movement and, increasingly, by feminists and other supposed "minorities." The key point in question is the requirement that there be a "rupture" with the ancient regime as an axis around which the changes should turn: the binary logic that advocates reform-revolution ceased functioning a long time ago as a way of explaining the nature of social processes.

The Eurocentric View

Touraine maintains that "in the majority of Latin American countries inequality has transformed itself into a structural dualism in such a way that the continent appears incapable of achieving what Great Britain and other countries, including the United States and France, did. In other words they are unable to create something that goes beyond political democracy, that doesn't destroy it but even strengthens it. That is to say they are unable to create a social democracy that has been founded, by law or by collective negotiation, on the recognition of workers' rights." It might appear derisive holding up the First World as an example of social democracy, for two fundamental reasons. Firstly, each continent, and each country, will create what it can based on its own resources, without resorting to models that would be difficult to adapt to these realities. And it would appear to be difficult to speak of "workers' rights" in relation to a continent where at least two thirds of the workforce have precarious and informal work situations.

Secondly, the French sociologist leaves to one side something fundamental for anyone who claims themselves to be left-wing. To what extent have the European "social democracies," built in the era of benefactor states, been oiled by capital export processes, or, in other words, imperialism? Everything seems to indicate that in the majority of Latin American countries the first step toward democracy has to be decolonization and the cutting of cultural ties, a clear colonial legacy, whichever way it is regarded. Was it not indeed the countries in the North and their transnational corporations that impeded the functioning of a welfare state in this part of the world? And who was it who supported the local elites each time that they ran the risk of losing the upper hand?

At this point in history, no time should be dedicated among left-wingers to explaining that "the struggle against inequality" that Touraine appeals for, and that certainly is far from making progress, requires the rupture from those that have benefited from such inequality. Such beneficiaries include big First World corporations, a good number of which are European, French, and Spanish. Development and the process of export substitution collapsed as a result of, among other reasons, the attitude of these corporations and the governments that supported them. And this is the common ground that should not be avoided by left-wing intellectuals in the North.

While Petras believes that the FARC, and others sharing the same ideology, are the nucleus of the Latin American revolution, Touraine, for his part, maintains that currently "the political future of the continent depends on Bolivia's chances of building and turning into reality a model of social transformation while, at the same time, gaining independence from the rhetoric of Chávez." In Touraine's opinion, it is the government of Evo that is best placed to link the struggle against inequality and the struggle for democracy. However, it does not appear that this government can do both, or either of them, without dismantling the colonial state that currently excludes two thirds of the Bolivian population and that supports the interests of Northern corporations. The difficulties that Evo faces in achieving an effective nationalization of the hydro-carbon industries demonstrate a three-way alliance between the multinationals, the governments of the states where these corporations are registered, and the local elites. Without overcoming this, the initiation of the struggle against inequality appears unthinkable.

The Role of Criticism

All too often the glances of the left-wing academics in the North define an agenda that is not exactly routed in the necessities, problems, or emergencies of the South. That is the case with Negri and Hardt who demonstrate their sympathy for the progressive left-wing governments of the continent. They do this, however, from a fairly removed position vis-à-vis the region. In an interview granted to BRECHA, Hardt defends the thesis that the importance of these governments is that the "alliances of these countries can provoke changes in the internal relations of the empire, that do not make them disappear but rather achieve a new relation of strength." In short, they are important in terms of putting the brakes on George W. Bush and strengthening the multilateralism that so many analysts defend. This ought to be very positive for the health of humanity and even for the peoples of Latin America. But the reality is much more complex: the people have not spent decades struggling to resolve the contradictions of the empire, even though that could indeed be the result.

Even someone as measured and reasonable as Chomsky often falls down when describing the reality in black and white. In his article "Latin America declares its independence," he hails the fact that "from Venezuela to Argentina, the region is rising up in order to overthrow the legacy of external domination of the last few centuries." Based on this he concludes that "the new programs that are being carried out in Latin America are reversing the models that have their roots in the Spanish conquest and that are characterized by the relationship between the Latin American elites and the imperial powers." The assertion reflects more a desire to see the empire defeated than an observable reality.

Even a publication as reliable and reasonable as Le Monde Diplomatique, edited by Ignacio Ramonet, often celebrates the processes of change like the one in Venezuela. Ramonet's support of the government of Chávez, and of the Cuban revolution, constitutes a healthy commitment on the part of the intellectuals of the First World. This positioning, however, is most of the time made at the cost of omitting the criticisms or ignoring the negative aspects like those exposed by the current debate concerning the "the 21st century socialism" as launched by the Venezuelan president. On this topic, it is precisely the European academics who are in a better position to stage necessary and urgent debate, on the basis of the experience of "real socialism" and the avalanche of the sound studies carried out in the "old continent."

It is true that the European and U.S. academics were, and are, sources of unavoidable inspiration for those on the political, social, academic, and cultural left in Latin America. But, today, this continent has the capacity to carry out its own analysis and diagnosis and could even suggest solutions, more often than not supported by studies originating in the North, even if a growing "epistemological autonomy" is developing. Intercultural relations, as is the case here, are a challenge that we are barely starting to overcome. And one of the most negative effects that simplifying analyses, like those of Petras and Touraine, have is to promote among their followers a set of certainties that do not contribute to the promotion of a debate nor to the opening up of the issue to the diversity of opinions that include all those involved in social change.

Translated for the IRC Americas Program by Charlotte Elmitt.

Raúl Zibechi is a member of the editorial board of the weekly Brecha de Montevideo journal and a teacher and researcher of social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina. He also works as an adviser to various social groups. He is monthly collaborator of the IRC Americas Program ( Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Elmitt

For More Information

Noam Chomsky, "Latin America Declares Independence," International Herald Tribune, October 3, 2006.

James Petras, "Latin America—Four Competing Blocs of Power,"

Alain Touraine, "Two Opposing Solutions to Latin America's Two-Sided Problem," Revista Envio:

Alain Touraine, "Entre Bachelet y Evo Morales, ¿existe una izquierda en América Latina?", Nueva Sociedad:

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 189.

Latin America and Asia Are at Last Breaking Free of Washington's Grip
Noam Chomsky --The Guardian, March 15, 2006

The prospect that Europe and Asia might move towards greater independence has troubled US planners since the second world war. The concerns have only risen as the "tripolar order" - Europe, North America and Asia - has continued to evolve.

Every day Latin America, too, is becoming more independent. Now Asia and the Americas are strengthening their ties while the reigning superpower, the odd man out, consumes itself in misadventures in the Middle East.

Regional integration in Asia and Latin America is a crucial and increasingly important issue that, from Washington's perspective, betokens a defiant world gone out of control. Energy, of course, remains a defining factor - the object of contention - everywhere.

China, unlike Europe, refuses to be intimidated by Washington, a primary reason for the fear of China by US planners, which presents a dilemma: steps toward confrontation are inhibited by US corporate reliance on China as an export platform and growing market, as well as by China's financial reserves - reported to be approaching Japan's in scale.

In January, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah visited Beijing, which is expected to lead to a Sino-Saudi memorandum of understanding calling for "increased cooperation and investment between the two countries in oil, natural gas and investment", the Wall Street Journal reports.

Already much of Iran's oil goes to China, and China is providing Iran with weapons that both states presumably regard as deterrent to US designs. India also has options. India may choose to be a US client, or it may prefer to join the more independent Asian bloc that is taking shape, with ever more ties to Middle East oil producers. Siddharth Varadarjan, the deputy editor of the Hindu, observes that "if the 21st century is to be an 'Asian century,' Asia's passivity in the energy sector has to end".

The key is India-China cooperation. In January, an agreement signed in Beijing "cleared the way for India and China to collaborate not only in technology but also in hydrocarbon exploration and production, a partnership that could eventually alter fundamental equations in the world's oil and natural gas sector", Varadarjan points out.

An additional step, already being contemplated, is an Asian oil market trading in euros. The impact on the international financial system and the balance of global power could be significant. It should be no surprise that President Bush paid a recent visit to try to keep India in the fold, offering nuclear cooperation and other inducements as a lure.

Meanwhile, in Latin America left-centre governments prevail from Venezuela to Argentina. The indigenous populations have become much more active and influential, particularly in Bolivia and Ecuador, where they either want oil and gas to be domestically controlled or, in some cases, oppose production altogether.

Many indigenous people apparently do not see any reason why their lives, societies and cultures should be disrupted or destroyed so that New Yorkers can sit in their SUVs in traffic gridlock.

Venezuela, the leading oil exporter in the hemisphere, has forged probably the closest relations with China of any Latin American country, and is planning to sell increasing amounts of oil to China as part of its effort to reduce dependence on the openly hostile US government.

Venezuela has joined Mercosur, the South American customs union - a move described by Nestor Kirchner, the Argentinian president, as "a milestone" in the development of this trading bloc, and welcomed as a "new chapter in our integration" by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president.

Venezuela, apart from supplying Argentina with fuel oil, bought almost a third of Argentinian debt issued in 2005, one element of a region-wide effort to free the countries from the controls of the IMF after two decades of disastrous conformity to the rules imposed by the US-dominated international financial institutions.

Steps toward Southern Cone [the southern states of South America] integration advanced further in December with the election in Bolivia of Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president. Morales moved quickly to reach a series of energy accords with Venezuela. The Financial Times reported that these "are expected to underpin forthcoming radical reforms to Bolivia's economy and energy sector" with its huge gas reserves, second only to Venezuela's in South America.

Cuba-Venezuela relations are becoming ever closer, each relying on its comparative advantage. Venezuela is providing low-cost oil, while in return Cuba organises literacy and health programmes, sending thousands of highly skilled professionals, teachers and doctors, who work in the poorest and most neglected areas, as they do elsewhere in the third world.

Cuban medical assistance is also being welcomed elsewhere. One of the most horrendous tragedies of recent years was the earthquake in Pakistan last October. Besides the huge death toll, unknown numbers of survivors have to face brutal winter weather with little shelter, food or medical assistance.

"Cuba has provided the largest contingent of doctors and paramedics to Pakistan," paying all the costs (perhaps with Venezuelan funding), writes John Cherian in India's Frontline magazine, citing Dawn, a leading Pakistan daily.

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan expressed his "deep gratitude" to Fidel Castro for the "spirit and compassion" of the Cuban medical teams - reported to comprise more than 1,000 trained personnel, 44% of them women, who remained to work in remote mountain villages, "living in tents in freezing weather and in an alien culture", after western aid teams had been withdrawn.

Growing popular movements, primarily in the south but with increasing participation in the rich industrial countries, are serving as the bases for many of these developments towards more independence and concern for the needs of the great majority of the population.


AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by Michael Parenti, who has taken these large issues on. He is the author of many books, and his latest is called “The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome.” It has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Welcome to Democracy Now!.


AMY GOODMAN: I would like to try to look at where we stand today, the state of the world, and why at this point you have decided to write this book about ancient Rome. How do you see the two fitting together?

MICHAEL PARENTI: Well, I discovered that ancient history is not so ancient. Many of the same issues attain an overweening, ruling aristocratic class that believes that everything belongs to them. They have an entitlement to the resources and labor of society. They have a right to plunder the rest of the world for self-enrichment, and I think we see the same thing today. I'm not one of those critics that believes U.S. foreign policy is confused, or stupid, or misinformed, or well-intentioned but it goes awry. I think it's a brilliant policy filled with many brilliant, terrible, horrible victories. And that's what we're describing now. It's systematically undermines any movement, any country, any leadership, any popular group that tries an alternative way of self-defining, self-developing, using the resources, the markets, the labor of their society for their own needs, rather than for a multi-corporate global system, a neo-liberal system, which seems to be the goal of this reactionary clique in office today.

AMY GOODMAN: Can I ask you what you think about Ralph Nader running for President of United States?

MICHAEL PARENTI: More than 20 years ago I coined – I believe I coined the phrase, “two-party monopolies” in my early edition of “Democracy For the Few.” Ralph Nader is right; it is a two-party monopoly. Everything he says it about the influence of corporate America is true. I believe his presence will move the center of political gravity a little further to the left. I voted for him last time. I wouldn't vote for him this time. I wish wasn't do it being it, despite everything I say. I believe we are at a pivotal point, a very crucial pivotal point, and there are times when you have to pursue coalition politics against the forces like the kind we're facing in the white house today. These guys are playing for keeps. They're breaking every rule in the book. They carry out role call votes where they'll a vote open for 15 hours to shift it over it their way. They're redoing census and gerrymandering in states at any time they want. They're stealing elections. So, we're really facing a very crucial, and very dangerous enemy. And I think Ralph's presence, the use of scarce resources, volunteers and all of that, I think that is not what we need right now.

AMY GOODMAN: You said we're facing…

MICHAEL PARENTI: It hurts me to say it, because I really admire Ralph Nader and I consider him a friend. I don't think I'm going to vote for him this time.

AMY GOODMAN: You said we're facing a dangerous enemy. Would you say George Bush is the enemy?

MICHAEL PARENTI: That's exactly who I had in Mind. George Bush, his associates, and the ruling clique he represents. The national security state is being totally unleashed to go on out there. In fact, the C.I.A. sounds more reasonable than George Bush. That’s got to be something when you can make the C.I.A. sound more balanced than Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you write a book today, at this period which you consider extremely grave, write a book on ancient Rome?

MICHAEL PARENTI: It's a fascinating time, and it's very relevant. It's about the very same kind of struggle. John Edwards talks about the two Americas, you could talk about the two Rome’s. It was the same thing. What has come down to us in history is a view of ancient Rome that is totally indebted to the roman ruling class. Most historians today accept the view of Rome that the assassins had, the view of the rich aristocracy, which was to denounce any reformer as a demagogue, and to denounce the agitations of the people as the expressions of a mob and a rabble. And my investigation shows that the roman people weren't a mob or a rabble. They were masons and carpenters, construction workers and dockers, teamsters and shopkeepers- all sorts of hard working people fighting for things like overthrowing a Kingship, instituting a republic, calling for debt cancellations against usury, calling for decent rents, rent and land controls, and land redistribution... Issues that are very much alive today. So it would be a good journey through time to see these same kinds of very vital issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was Julius Caesar, Michael Parenti?

MICHAEL PARENTI: Julius Caesar was an aristocrat who sided with the Roman people. He's not my hero, but he was one of a long line of what we'll call populare's, which were popular leaders who tried to institute these reforms that the people were fighting for. The Gracchi brothers, Claudius and others. Caesar was the last. All of them were assassinated. That's the way ruling classes work. If the elections don’t go their way, they will just assassinate the winner and escalate. We see the same things happening in Haiti today.

AMY GOODMAN: How was Julius Caesar assassinated?

MICHAEL PARENTI: He was assassinated by Brutus and Cassius, who were not very nice people; I examine them further. Brutus was a ruthless money lender who charged 45% interest, destroyed a whole community that couldn't meet its debts, and extorted money from others. They killed Caesar because he was making these kinds of reforms: Imposing luxury taxes on the filthy rich, demanding that they use at least one-third of their labor force to be free labor, instead of slave labor. Trying to roll back slave labor and use free labor. He was doing things like this, and any ruling class in history, when it's faced with reforms, defines these reforms as thievery and dangerous leveling, and sees them as undermining society. And they will go after the reformer, usually by demonizing him/her, calling him/her power hungry, usurper, this, that, and eventually resorting to acts of violence to settle the issue. May I also say that Rome is just fascinating on its own terms. Not just the parallels to today. These people were interesting to deal with…

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to be done?

MICHAEL PARENTI: …a lot more interesting than John Kerry or George Bush…go ahead

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Parenti, what do you think has to be done this year? What do you think needs to be done to turn this country around, since clearly that's what you would like to see?

MICHAEL PARENTI: Massive demonstrations, agitations at all levels on all of these basic issues, and more and more pressuring of the mainstream media to expose the kinds of nefarious things that are being perpetrated by the white house, which not only are bad for the country, but as one of your opening reports pointed out, may even jeopardize the very survival of our globe with global warming. I also believe electoral strategy is not irrelevant. Elections do matter. It does matter who gets elected, contrary to what some people on the militant left will say. It does matter who gets elected. And…

AMY GOODMAN: You might have been described in that place before, the militant left?

MICHAEL PARENTI: Yeah. I think of myself as a militant leftist, and I disagree with other people on the militant left who say it doesn't matter who gets elected. I mean, I have heard people in A.N.S.W.E.R. say this.

AMY GOODMAN: Do those who say that John Kerry voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, supported NAFTA, supported…

MICHAEL PARENTI: He still does.

AMY GOODMAN: …supported the USA Patriot Act.

MICHAEL PARENTI: Ralph Nader said it correctly. He is better than Bush, but there's a lot wanting. As a candidate, I think he will be a very poor candidate. I have never seen John Kerry give anything but an engineered response. “Hello, New Hampshire.” The guy is wooden. He's another Al Gore.

AMY GOODMAN: John Edwards?

MICHAEL PARENTI: John Edwards is vastly better. I have been supporting Dennis Kucinich. If Dennis pulls out of the race, I will definitely go with John Edwards, yeah. I think he would actually make ultimately a stronger candidate than John Kerry.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your plans for this year? How do you plan to be engaged?

MICHAEL PARENTI: Doing the things I do. Going around the country speaking, organizing, agitating, endorsing, doing fund-raisers for groups, going out on demonstrations, writing letters and making phone calls, and listening to Amy Goodman's Democracy Now!.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you be outside the Republican convention protesting this summer?

MICHAEL PARENTI: Probably not. Ralph Nader is not the only one who is 70 years old, so am I. And I have been arrested and beaten up about four times by the police now. You never know, maybe my son might persuade me to go with him there.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Parenti’s son is Christian Parenti. Well I want to thank you for being with us. Michael Parenti is the author of “The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome.” Among his other books. That does it for today's program.

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