On Tuesday 10 January 2006 the SACP had the honour of meeting with President-elect of Bolivia, Cde Evo Morales. Cde Morales was on a brief visit to our country, as part of an international trip to several progressive countries, prior to his official inauguration on 22 January 2006. The SACP used this opportunity to warmly congratulate Cde Morales for his historic victory in the Bolivian elections, and we expressed SACP solidarity with his movement, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), and the people of Bolivia as a whole.
We used the opportunity to discuss South Africa’s constitution-making process prior to the adoption of our new constitution in 1996, and perspectives on general political developments since then. Interestingly, we found we shared many common convictions with Cde Morales on the fundamentals of developing a progressive democratic constitution that will advance the interests of the overwhelming majority of the working people and the poor in our respective countries.

‘You cannot win on the table what you have not won on the ground’

One fundamental agreement was the absolute necessity of convening a democratic constituent assembly that will be driven by the interests of the overwhelming majority of the people, rather than protecting the interests of elites. This concern is critical for both our countries sharing a legacy of denial of basic human and democratic rights for the overwhelming majority of our respective indigenous populations. In the case of Bolivia, 63% of the population is made up of indigenous Indian people, who, according to Morales, “have never been treated as human beings with dignity, and have never been able to participate in the political and economic life of Bolivia as equal citizens”. Despite being a majority, indigenous Bolivians are still today virtually absent in all key economic and political centres of power.

In our discussions, another point of convergence on constitution-making was that revolutionary movements cannot win at the negotiating table what has not been won on the ground, thus emphasising the importance of progressive mass mobilisation as an essential component of the constitution-making process itself. Similarly, particularly when progressive forces are in government, it is possible to lose on the table what has been won on the ground, underlining the dangers of divorcing governance (or more specifically government) from ongoing mass mobilisation. A progressive constitution on paper without active popular participation in all aspects of life is a dead document. The first step towards decadent revolutions is the periodic mobilisation of the masses solely for elections, whilst effectively neglecting them between election periods.

The electoral victory of Cde Morales in Bolivia marks a welcome and continuing shift of Latin American politics towards the left. As we have argued before, this leftward shift also marks a powerful popular rejection of and challenge to capitalist neo-liberal policies. It is for this reason that the progressive developments in Latin America are not only significant for the Latin American people, but for the peoples of the developing world, whose rights and economic opportunities have been rolled back by neo-liberalism. These developments are therefore also of immense significance to South Africa, especially to all the progressive forces in this country, and they therefore require closer scrutiny.

Morales’ victory has come in the wake of similar victories by Lula of Brazil, Chavez of Venezuela, and this week’s important victory of the socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet of Chile, the first woman president in that country. While the political parties, movements and programmes of these different leaders, and other left-leaning governments as in Uruguay, each have their own national specifics (and some are more left-leaning than others) — all have been swept into power by powerful popular waves of anti-neoliberal mobilisation. Clearly the tide is turning in this part of the world, in favour of the workers and the poor.

An end to the era of US dominated, capitalist ‘democratic transitions’?

Obviously there are important differences between South Africa’s recent history and that of much of Latin America, but there are also some important parallels. Heightened popular mobilisation after World War 2 in both South Africa and many Latin America countries was crushed by authoritarian and (in Latin America) usually military regimes. There was widespread torture, disappearances, assassinations, and the targeting of Communist Parties, trade unions and guerrilla movements.

In the midst of the Cold War, US imperialism actively supported these reactionary forces, just as it supported white minority regimes in Southern Africa. In Chile, democratically-elected president Allende was overthrown and murdered in a military coup in 1973. Not unlike the strategic defeat of the ANC-led liberation movement in the mid-1960s, jost of the traditional left in Latin America found itself badly destabilised in the decades of the 1960s and 70s.

Again, with many similarities with South Africa, in conditions of severe repression, the popular movement began to stir again in the 1970s and 80s — often in the shape of social movement (“UDF”-type) activism — trade unions, civil rights groups, civic and student movements, progressive journalism, progressive faith-based formations influenced by liberation theology, etc. The trade union movement in Brazil, which went on to be the core formation for President Lula’s Workers’ Party, emerged roughly at the same time as the re-emerging progressive trade union movement in South Africa.

In other Latin American countries, particularly among the least developed (like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru and Colombia) rural-based guerrilla struggles against US-backed authoritarian regimes proved to be more durable.

In the course of the 1980s and early 1990s, there was an important (if partial) shift in imperialist policy towards authoritarian regimes in such diverse places as South Africa, the Philippines, and key Latin American countries like Chile, Argentina and Brazil. These regimes were increasingly seen as a liability, and negotiated elite-pact transitions to “democracy” were now encouraged by influential think-tanks in Washington. This shift was partly a pre-emptive response to popular challenges to authoritarian regimes. It was also partly because the diminished power and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union rendered unpopular, pro-imperialist regional gendarmes in Southern Africa or in Latin America less useful to imperialist purposes than previously.

As a result of a combination of factors military rule ended and there were elite pact transitions to multi-party “democracy” in a number of key countries. However, where the guerrilla struggle proved to be victorious (Nicaragua) Washington’s policies continued to focus on active economic and military destabilisation — the people were to be given “democracy”, but if they voted “wrongly”, they had to be given lessons.

In many key Latin America countries (including Chile, Brazil and Argentina) there were indeed transitions to civilian rule and some degree of liberal democracy in this period. Obviously, these democratisation processes were generally welcomed. However, with few exceptions, the new civilian governments used their electoral “mandate” to push through harsh neo-liberal social and economic policies — macro-economic stabilisation at the expense of popular classes, whole-sale privatisation, etc. The brutality of the torture room was replaced by the faceless brutality of the market.

In Washington in the 1980s and 1990s the “democratic transitions” in Latin America, Eastern Europe and South Africa were heralded as the “third wave of democracy”, the fruits of a new post-Cold War globalisation. What we are now witnessing, at least in many parts of Latin America, is the popular rejection of this “third wave”. Just as in South Africa, so throughout South America people are asserting that democracy is not just periodic elections and formal constitutional rights (as important as they are), democracy must also involve social and economic justice if it is to have any real meaning for the majority.

The working class taking direct charge of, and responsibility for, advancing the national democratic revolution

Perhaps what marks the possibilities of a new era in Latin America is that the workers and the poor, principally through mass movements, have made it possible to more directly take charge of democratic revolutions without class mediation from the petty bourgeoisie, or the “patriotic” bourgeoisie. Also, more than in the previous two decades, popular revolutionary formations are beginning to master the electoral terrain as an important platform, in the current conjuncture, to advance revolutionary goals.

Of significance in some of the left advances in Latin America is a direct challenge to the otherwise dominant neo-liberal discourse of an ‘end of history’ and that ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) to imperialist global policies. These advances are also challenging the familiar reformist arguments that “we need to understand the bigger picture”, that popular mobilisation is “populist”, “ultra leftist” and “adventurist”. These reformist positions are TINA with a bad conscience.

Another important lesson from the Latin American left advances, not least in Venezuela, is that of the necessity of ongoing popular participation and mass mobilisation, not only during election campaigns, but as a permanent feature of consolidating progressive revolutions. It must be mass mobilisation based on popular participation in the daily struggles around issues facing ordinary people. It must be mobilisation based on the ‘lived experiences’ of ordinary workers and the poor, not on some ‘feel-good’ opinion surveys, predominantly measuring the confidence or otherwise of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes. This was an appropriate lesson that Chavez taught the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and middle classes in last year’s referendum.

In our discussions with Morales we were heartened by his commitment to the re-nationalisation of the gas industry and other resources and assets of the Bolivian people. His electoral victory also rested on this long-standing demand, which led to the toppling  of three presidents within four years, by the mass movements and the trade union movement in Bolivia. Chavez in Venezuela is embarking on similar programmes whilst not entirely terminating partnerships with the private sector where necessary, but where such partnerships continue the objective is that they should be dominated by a state-led developmental agenda, and not the market.

Potential fault-line: political parties, mass movements and the state

As Marxist-Leninists, we should note, welcome and seek to build on the very important advances made by the Latin American people in fighting against neo-liberalism and seeking to build a new order, with and for the workers and the poor of those countries. In much of the recent advances it is also noticeable that mass movements (referred to as ‘social movements’ in Latin America) have played a crucial, and sometimes even determining, role in some of the recent electoral advances and victories.

We have noted above the important parallels between our own recent struggle history and that of many Latin American countries, particularly the re-emergence of popular struggle through the mass movement current often in a situation in which older political parties had been defeated. The South African organisation experience is, however, somewhat different from many key Latin America countries, in that through the 1970s and 80s, despite the fact that much of the leadership of the ANC and SACP were in prison or in a relatively distant exile, our historic formations (the “old left”) succeeded in providing leadership and coherence to (while also learning from) the “new” broad mass movement.

This was not generally the case in countries like Brazil or Uruguay or Bolivia. There are many reasons for this, both subjective and objective factors — but the jost important is, no doubt, the viciousness with which the United States backed the weakening and, where possible, annihilation of Communist parties and movements. No resources were spared in this crusade in what the US regards as its own back-yard, its own “special sphere of interest”. Hence the obsessive viciousness of the campaign and blockade against Cuba, a country ruled by a Communist Party for close to five decades now.
However, the weaknesses of Communist Parties in many Latin American countries (and the same applies even more forcefully to much of Africa) can also be attributed to a tendency to become ‘vanguardist’, sometimes dogmatic (which is often the direct result of operating in conditions of harsh repression), seeking to be parties of the working class in a purist manner, in a context where the broad working class, let alone its organised sections, is a tiny proportion of many Latin American populations.

Cde Morales, during our discussions, raised his concerns about what he saw as a very factionalist and vanguardist approach of the Bolivian Communist Party. In the case of Bolivia, Morales’ electoral victory has been based essentially on mass movements principally combining labour, rural and indigenous movements. This raises a very fundamental question for the left. How sustainable is an electoral victory, like that of Morales, based as it is on the support of a mass movement without any cohesive revolutionary political party? This question is important, given the often fractious nature of mass movements. Oppositional struggles can often unite diverse social movements, but sustained electoral politics and especially the effective exercising of state power pose additional challenges. Chavez in Venezuela seems to have acknowledged the challenge and is engaging in a project to build a cohesive political movement of the workers and the poor.

To argue the need for left and especially communist parties in revolutionary struggles is not to be blind to the inherent danger of bureaucratisation of left political parties and liberation movements once in power. This was particularly the case in the Soviet socialist bloc in Eastern Europe and in the case of many of the former liberation movements in our Southern African region, where, once in power, the party or movement distances itself, and even develop a hostile attitude towards independent mass and trade union movements.

These are indeed very fundamental questions for any revolutionary movement. At the heart of revolutionary struggles is always the often fraught relationship between political parties, mass movements and the state. The route to consolidating left victories in Latin America, and indeed in our own situation, is a correct grasp of this relationship.
The strengths and weaknesses of the electoral terrain of struggle

A perennial question for revolutionary movements is that of the place of elections and representative democracy in advancing the revolutionary objectives of the workers and the poor. Electoral sites of struggle are very important in the contemporary period, but they are always subject to the unequal power relations in society. Electoral victories of the mass of the people are always susceptible to reversal by those who control wealth and the major ideological institutions in society.

In class societies there is also always the reality that the propertied classes have the capacity to subvert electoral gains, even in many instances through the co-option of the new elite. It is for this reason that electoral and representative democracy must always be buttressed by ongoing mass mobilisation. This is going to be an important test for the advances currently being made by the left in Latin America, and indeed in our own situation.

* * * *

The SACP congratulates Cde Morales on his forthcoming inauguration. We pledge our solidarity with his movement and government.