Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions – The Future of Twenty-First-Century Socialism (2013) 208pp $29.95
by Roger Burbach, Michael Fox, Federico Fuentes. Fernwood Publishing, Halifax, Winnipeg; Zed Books, London, New York
Reviewed by Stan Smith, Chicago Committee to Free the Cuban Five
Latin America’s Turbulent Transition is a well-written and highly informative book for understanding the new Latin America, though it still remains incomplete in certain aspects – in part reflecting the nebulous nature of 21st Century Socialism itself.
Written more for academic than activist audiences, Turbulent Transitions is a valuable resource, referring to most every worthwhile book written on the Latin American upsurge – every important work not of a class or Marxist perspective. This may explain its hesitation to frankly discuss the conflicting class interests and alliances in the leading ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our Americas) countries and governments, – Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador – a necessary task for clarifying 21th Century socialism.
In these “turbulent transitions” these ALBA governments has “shift[ed] the balance of power away from US hegemony and in favor of the popular movements” (43). They have rejected the neoliberal model and are seeking to build socially just societies. The peoples of Latin America are now more organized, more equipped than at any time in their brutalized history to assert their independence from US hegemony.
The first chapters review the history of Latin America’s struggle against neo-liberalism, leading to the rise of the ALBA movement, initiated by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in 2004. These countries, along with Brazil, are dealt with in this book, as the exemplars of 21st Century Socialism.
Slighted is the role Cuba’s leadership played organizing the Third World struggle against neoliberalism the 1980s and 1990s. At least since the time of Castro’s 1979 UN speech as President of the Non-Aligned Movement, he had continued to make a number of important speeches, and wrote The World Economic and Social Crisis (1983). Cuba called several conferences for Latin American political movement and trade union leaders to coordinate Third World fightbacks against neoliberalism, all unmentioned in the chapters on the anti-neoliberalism struggle. 21st Century socialism vs. “state socialism”; “social movements” and “neo-extractivism”
“21st Century socialism” is an ill-defined term, first used by Hugo Chavez. Thus we cannot fault the authors for not providing a concrete definition. Yet they remain vague on some key terms they use: “state socialism,” “social movements,” “neo-extractivism.”
They refer to “state socialism” without clarifying what they mean by it. In socialism the key engines of national production, control over imports and exports, financial institutions, networks of distribution, and the lands are taken from the control of private capitalist owners and placed in the hands of the working class and peasants, who control the state, more or less in their own direct interest. The economy is operated according to a national plan of production, centered on meeting peoples’ needs, not that of private profit. This requires removing the capitalist class from both economic and political power, replaced by working people who collectively own the productive system, with a new state administered by their representatives.
How “20th Century” or “state socialism” differs from this is not made clear. Nor are the key differences between 21st Century and 20th Century socialism. Even Ecuador’s Correa said traditional socialism slighted gender justice, ethnic equality, and the ecosystem. (39) Yet Cuba is a 20 Century socialist country, a world model of gender and ethnic equality, and is recognized as having a model sustainable economic system. It is a so-called “state socialism” country with a well-developed form of participatory democracy.
The authors do point out that Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have not eliminated the rule of capital (40), and question whether they have actually moved beyond a post-neoliberal society. Even post neoliberal societies are still tremendous strides forward for the peoples of Latin America. There, “the state has been used to regulate multinational and national corporate interests, to secure the best possible terms for new investments, and to expand the role of state enterprises” and have used revenues for social programs. (42) The governments, growing out of mass movements, have raised their standard of living, educational level and encouraged people’s self-organization so they become a powerful social force in society. Yet this remains a far step from socialism.
The book uses the term “social movements” without definition, though we are given to assume social movements are “good.”In reality, social movements can be progressive or reactionary, both being sharply on display in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The authors fail to explain that any social movement represents one or more classes and advocates their class interests.
The authors refer to “neo-extractivism” without explanation, but it is meant to be “bad.” With the Western powers blocking their industrial development, the most feasible path to improve the living conditions of the exploited masses for Venezuela, Bolivia or Ecuador was export of natural products, whether oil, gas, minerals or agricultural goods. To condemn them for relying on “extractivism,” neo or not, relegates them to perpetual neo-colonial impoverishment. Fred Fuentes makes this point in his chapter in the book Latin America’s Radical Left.
Venezuela and Chavez belong in the vanguard of the mobilization against neo-liberalism. The chapter on Venezuela is a thorough and concise summary of Chavez’ role in changing the face of Latin America, leading it from a region of subservience to US interests to being the loudest opponent in the world to US interventionism.
Relying on oil wealth, Chavez instituted a variety of social programs that markedly raised the standard of living, health and educational level, and the human rights situation of Venezuelans. One of the most admired accomplishments of the Bolivarian process is its fostering participatory democracy by the people, involving them in the administering of the country. Other key achievements, only partially successful, were to build an alternative economy of cooperatives and of community councils, “a fundamental building block of the new state.” (73). The book presents a thorough historical review of these gains, along with Venezuela’s unresolved problems.
Chavez stated that 21st century socialism did not want to repeat the errors of 20th century socialism, and “fundamental to this was ensuring direct worker participation in the management of the economy and community participation in distribution.” (69) His vision of socialism was based on social property, social production, and social distribution, production to meet social needs, not profit. social ownership over the means of production so that social wealth remains in the hands of society as a whole, and social needs, not profit drive production. (49-50).
Venezuela still has a very long way to go to implement these aims. How can this be institutionalized without a socialist state (“state socialism”)? Bolivarian Venezuela’s desire for 21st century socialism still must face the same reality of building a new state, just as the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam faced, and confront the problems of bureaucracy, corruption, top down control.
“History will record that the Bolivarian revolution succeeded in rolling back neoliberalism and laying the foundations for transition to 21st century socialism…. At each step [in building the revolution] Chavez has launched initiatives to encourage the self-organization of the people… the Venezuelan people have increasingly taken the destiny of their country into their hands.” (76)
I assume Federico Fuentes who helped found and operate the politically educational website, Boliviarising.blogspot.com, writes the Bolivia chapter. In Bolivia before Evo Morales, international corporations appropriated 82% of gas royalties, while now the government retains 80-90%. As in Venezuela, this wealth is used to stimulate national production, and over a half million jobs have been created, reducing unemployment to 5.7% by 2010.
Between 2006 and 2010 over 35 million hectares of land (1/3rd of Bolivia) was handed over to peasant communities to be run communally, and 21 million hectares (1/5th of Bolivia) of illegally occupied large landowner land has been mostly converted to protected forest lands. “Today, most of Bolivia’s wealth stays in Bolivia and is used to expand the internal market, promote industrialization, and stimulate the communitarian sector.” (86)
The authors recognize “the Morales government has confronted powerful obstacles, especially an inherited capitalist state apparatus that remains largely intact and ill-equipped to implement progressive reforms.” (92)
They do note the US attempted overthrow of Chavez in 2002-2003 and of Evo in 2009, which included USAID funding of opposition groups and indigenous organizations. Yet they do not refer to the similar U.S. attempts in Cuba (2003) and Ecuador (2010). Ecuador
Marc Becker, an American academic hostile to Correa, writes the chapter on Ecuador. He masks US interference in Ecuador and explains away the failed 2010 coup against Correa as a “police protest,” avoiding mention of the US role. His chapter says not one word of the continuous U.S. hostility towards Correa..
He sharply criticizes Correa for pursuing “extractivism,” meaning mining and oil drilling, to build the economy. Becker claims “Correa appeared determined to destroy any independent social movement organizing that could potentially raise opposition to his government.” (109) Left unsaid in this wild claim is the role that USAID funded NGOs played in fomenting opposition to Correa, often using these so-called “independent social movement organizations.”  Becker asserts, “In Ecuador the social movements are denouncing President Rafael Correa for moving to exploit the country’s petroleum and mineral resources at the expense of local communities.” (156-7) Actually, some indigenous groups, not “social movements,” are opposed, while others support it.
Becker alleges an “insurmountable gap between Correa and social movements” (110) and has claimed Alberto Acosta speaks for the ‘social movements.” Yet in the last presidential election Acosta received 3.7% of the vote to Correa’s 57%. Any unprejudiced person can easily determine where the “insurmountable gap” lies. Much of the chapter continues in this manner of putting a negative spin on Correa’s actions.
Yet Becker grudgingly admits Correa reduced the number living in poverty, that he expropriated 195 companies of the Isaias Group to pay its customers who lost their assets through corruption, that he renounced $3 billion in foreign debt as illegitimate, saying it is preferable to cutting social investment, and took action to make state companies less bureaucratic, more efficient and profitable.
Correa raised taxes on the wealthy, taxed oil profits, tripled spending on education and health care, provided subsidies to the poor, shut the US military base. Ecuador was the only OAS country to reject readmitting the Honduras coup government, the sole country to boycott the Summit of the Americas in Colombia in 2012 over Cuba’s exclusion, and the only country to give asylum to Julian Assange.
These are the reasons for Correa’s popularity – the working poor have seen their standard of living increase, the economy is doing well, and Ecuador has more respect in the world. Yet Becker tries to explain Correa’s popularity as his having learned from Chavez “how to use electoral contests to consolidate his grasp on power” (101) sounding a little too similar to US officials’ explanations how Chavez was a dictator in spite of repeatedly winning fair elections.
Cuba, a key ALBA country, gets the shortest chapter of the five countries. It amounts to 9 pages, with 26 for a valuable chapter on Brazil, which is not an ALBA country, nor one advocating 21st Century socialism. Yet Cuba not only led the Latin American struggle against neo-liberalism, but is clearly an example of democratizing “state socialism.”
“The Cuban process today is an attempt to advance the socialism that triumphed in the 20th century while in Latin America at large the left is in a protracted struggle with the oligarchy to construct a new socialism of the 21st century.” (145)
The chapter doesn’t bring out the daily suffering imposed by the US blockade, making Cuban economic life focused on surviving an all-embracing, internationalized blockade. The present economic changes are more attempts to survive under the vindictive blockade’s effects than to combat bureaucracy.
Fostering foreign tourism was instituted as the result of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Cuba, possessing scant natural resources for “extractivism,” used tourism revenue to fund the people’s social safety net. The authors call this “apartheid tourism,” showing both little understanding of apartheid, and of Cuba’s reasons for foreign tourism. Cuba had no more “apartheid” tourism than the US does with Hilton Hotels and Sacks 5th Avenue: if you can’t afford it, you can’t get in.
In 2005 Raul Castro called for a national consulta, a series of nationwide grassroots meetings, to discuss economic changes to deal with the country’s problems. By 2007 over 5 million people took part in these workplace, school and neighborhood meetings. In 2010-12, with the Communist Party Congress, 8 million took part in a massive display of participatory democracy.
The people called for decentralizing the administration and the economy, more local input to state economic plans, more self-employment, more rural and urban cooperatives, and distributing unused land rent-free to individuals for farming.
Turbulent Transitions does not mention the Workers Parliaments, called by the mass organizations in 1994. Hundreds of thousands of workers voiced views and made proposals on improving the dire economic situation brought about by the Soviet bloc’s collapse and U.S. blockade’s new restrictions.
The book should have referred to the 1980s Cuban Rectification Campaign, aimed at correcting significant problems of their Soviet style Economic Planning and Management System. Castro’s 1986 speech to Communist Party Congress and his July 26, 1988 speech criticizing this system can be regarded as one of the most thorough critiques of 20th Century socialism. [As was his speech on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia]
While the book criticizes the anti-environmentalism of “neo-extractivism” it does not discuss Cuba’s community gardens and organic farming revolution, nor Cuba’s environmentally sustainable economic system. The World Wildlife Fund recognizes Cuba as the one and only country in the world with an environmentally sustainable economic system. If the essence of 21st Century socialism is socialism and participatory democracy, in cooperation with Mother Earth, then its most developed form exists in Cuba.
That the book avoids recognizing these accomplishments of Cuba, that it misrepresents Cuba’s central role in the new Latin America, its rejection of “state socialism,” gives the book a certain anti-communist feel. Together, the four ALBA countries show A New World is Possible. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have taken control of natural resource wealth, strengthened the organization of working class and communal forces, and use national wealth for modernization and social programs for the oppressed. These are achievements we should all fight for and defend, but they do not constitute socialism, and we should admit they have been accomplished under a form of capitalism.
A new more humane world, prioritizing the needs of the poorer classes, in tune with Mother Earth, fostering cooperation and unity against imperial hegemony, is required for our survival, and that this new world is being built in Latin America under the name of 21st Century Socialism. Given the additions here, Turbulent Transitions presents highly an informative and thought-provoking overview of these progressive developments.
1. “We Aspire to a New World Order,” October 12, 1979 http://lanic.utexas.edu/project/castro/db/1979/19791012.html
2. Books of Fidel Castro’s speeches on neoliberal globalization:
Tomorrow Is Too Late: Development and the Environmental Crisis in the Third World Ocean Press (1993);
Capitalism in Crisis: Globalization and World Politics Today, Ocean Press (2000);
War, Racism and Economic Injustice: The Global Ravages of Capitalism, Ocean Press (2002);
Fidel Castro On Imperialist Globalization, Zed Books(1999)
3. For an account of the coup, see www.alternet.org/world/how-america-does-latin-american-coups-new-political-era?paging=off¤t_page=1#bookmark
4. See Eva Golinger’s October 2010 entries in www.chavezcode.com.
5. http://lanic.utexas.edu/project/castro/db/1986/19861203.html; Fidel Castro: Cuba will Never Adopt Capitalist Methods, Pathfinder Press (1988)
6. http://lanic.utexas.edu/project/castro/db/1968/196808 By Stan Smith, Chicago Committee to Free the Cuban 5