Latin America and socialism of the 21st Century

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By Stephen MacAvoy

The most advanced political struggles in the world today are taking place in Latin America, specifically in Cuba and Venezuela where forces representing the working class have conquered state power, broken with imperialism and continue to consolidate their own revolutions and assist the leftward advance across the continent.

Socialists should wholly identify with the leadership of the Cuban revolution, with Fidel Castro in particular, and with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela which are leaderships that seek to represent the interests of the working class and oppressed worldwide.

First upturn in world politics for 30 years

The advance of the class struggle in Latin America over the past decade was the first indication of an up-turn in the world political situation after the 1990s period of retreat following the destruction of the Soviet Union, the advance of capitalism into Eastern Europe and in Latin America including the defeat of the Nicaraguan revolution.

At its most advanced level this is reflected in revolutionary forces taking power in Venezuela and Bolivia, joining those already in power in Cuba. Additionally other left currents have made advances in Ecuador, Brazil, Nicaragua, Argentina, Peru and other countries, all willing to various degrees to stand up to the demands of imperialism and try to improve their population’s living standards.

Breaking with imperialism is a necessary requirement for advancing the living conditions in Latin American, where political, social and economic development has been subordinated to the United States for over a hundred years and before that to the demands of Spain and Portugal, whose empires had carved up the continent from the 16th century. 

By 1998, when Hugo Chávez was first elected President in Venezuela, US domination of the continent meant over 40% of the population of Latin America – more than 200 million people – were living in poverty and the continent was going backwards. As US economist Mark Weisbrot has explained, Latin America was experiencing a sharp slowdown in economic growth. The neo-liberal shock therapy – first tried and tested in Chile following the US-backed military coup against its elected left government in 1973 – had been extended throughout the continent. As a result, from 1980 to 2000, Latin America per capita growth was only 9% compared to 82% during the preceding 20 years. To find a growth performance of Latin America that is even close to that level of failure, one has to go back more than a century, and choose a 25-year period that includes both World War I and the start of the Great Depression.

Left shifts

This period of economic stagnation ended around the year 2000 as a series of countries broke from the IMF and World Bank imposed neo-liberal policies that primarily served the economic interests of the United States. This has led to big improvements in living standards over the past decade, with the greatest improvements being in the countries most prepared to resist imperialism’s demands – Venezuela and Cuba.

In Venezuela the defeat of the 2002 US-inspired coup against Hugo Chávez gave new momentum to the Venezuelan revolution in decisively smashing the forces of the old regime. This allowed the revolution to concentrate on delivering spectacular gains for the population – extensive health care and education and other social support, in particular. This has been accompanied by a strong anti-imperialist stand both in relation to defending its own sovereignty and in standing up internationally against imperialism’s efforts to impose its will on other semi-colonial countries.

Linked to this forward momentum in Venezuela was the victory for Evo Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism in Bolivia, re-affirmed in subsequent elections and in the defeat of a number of pro-imperialist, right-wing mobilisations and attempted civil conflicts. In South America’s poorest nation, revolutionary forces led by Morales draw their support primarily from the two-thirds of the population who are indigenous. A small white elite had previously enriched itself and foreign companies through control of Bolivia’s vast gas wealth – the second largest in Latin America – whilst the indigenous majority lived in deep poverty, denied basic education and medical services. Morales has nationalised natural resources and, with Bolivia’s economic growth in the last four years higher than at any time in the last 30 years, Morales has used this to initiate social programmes for the poor, including free medical care, social security for new mothers and the elderly and a massive programme for literacy that includes payments to low-income families to make sure their children can attend school.

In Ecuador, the election of Rafael Correa led to the scrapping of a major US military base (demanding one in return in Miami “If there’s no problem having foreign soldiers on a country’s soil”) as well as a major increase in social spending, guaranteed rights to indigenous communities and other progressive measures such as same sex partnership rights through a new constitution. In Nicaragua, the re-election of former leader of the revolution Daniel Ortega in 2006 has also seen a number of social advances including the introduction of free healthcare and eradication of illiteracy through close collaboration with Cuba and Venezuela. However its progressive character is undermined somewhat by measures such as the ban on abortion introduced under pressure from the Catholic Church.

While less advanced politically, the 2002 decision by Argentina to default on its debt, in the context of rising mass struggle against the impact of austerity, and its refusal to give into the IMF’s demands for an immediate hugely expensive debt-restructure and then its 2005 withdrawal from the IMF was an important defeat for the US-run neo-liberal international economic order imposed on the semi-colonial world through its agents in the IMF and World Bank.

In Brazil, following his election in late 2002, Lula and his Workers’ Party (PT) avoided a similar line of confrontation with the IMF, but its sabre-rattling did force concessions. At the same time, Lula took a left line on a range of international issues, attacking Bush’s ‘private war’ in Iraq and, most decisively, distancing Brazil from the US-driven demonisation of Iran. In 2010, Brazil and Turkey spearheaded an attempt to prevent a further round of UN sanctions on Iran by negotiating a compromise agreement with the Iranian government on its nuclear development. Brazil has also diversified itself away from economic dependence on the United States, and in 2010 China overtook the US as the main recipient of Brazilian exports.

The victory for Dilma Rousseff in the October 2010 presidential elections compounded the defeat for the right in the elections to the Brazilian Congress and State legislatures earlier in the year. In the latter elections the Workers’ Party with its coalition partners increased their representation, including taking firm control of the Senate for the first time.

Most recently, in June 2011, was the victory of Ollanta Humala in Peru’s presidential election marking a further consolidation of the left in South America, a defeat for the right-wing current cited as the alternative by those opposed to the continent’s leftwards shift and a further weakening of the United States’ influence in the region, electing and rejecting the pro-US and free market party that has governed that country (see article here). 

Uniting against US domination
The process of greater resistance to US domination being expressed in the region has not just occurred on a country by country basis: there are attempts at creating greater regional integration. A Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has been set up to better withstand the United States’ ability to divide and rule in the region.

A South American Defence Council has also been established “based on the principles of non-intervention, sovereignty and territoriality” and its anti-imperialist character was underlined with Brazil’s foreign minister making clear last year that “a NATO presence in the South Atlantic would be inappropriate”.

Furthermore a Community of Latin American and Caribbean States is currently being established including all the sovereign countries of the Americas, except for Canada and the United States. The significance of this can be best understood by contrasting it with the Organization of America States, the main political body of the Americas over the past 50 years, which was headquartered in Washington and which expelled Cuba in 1962 reflecting its US dominance. 

No to US interference

The United States has responded to these progressive developments by strengthening its military presence in the region. US domination of the continent has often relied on military intervention, both overt and covert, or through military support to reactionary local allies – with at least 50 such interventions in the past century. This includes the overthrow of the progressive Chilean government of Salvador Allende in 1973 (see video) and support for a murderous regime in Argentina that killed tens of thousands; billions of dollars of military assistance to a death-squad backed regime in El Salvador; organising Contra mercenary forces in Nicaragua to defeat its revolution; invading Grenada in 1983; the Bush Administration’s role in the 2004 coup d’état of Haiti and US backing for the coup attempts in Venezuela, Ecuador and Honduras over the past decade.

With the US militarily currently bogged down in Afghanistan and still deployed in Iraq, Latin America has had some breathing space. Despite this the US has re-established its Fourth Navy Fleet for the first time in 50 years. This patrols the waters surrounding Latin America and the Caribbean and includes nuclear submarines. It has been pursuing military bases in Colombia that US Air Force documents make clear are for “mobility operations… on the South American continent” and against the “constant threat” from “anti-US governments” and “radical populism” (though these bases are now stalled after the Colombian Supreme Court ruled them illegal). Last year the US military sent 7,000 marines, five planes and 46 warships to Costa Rica under the cover of ‘counter-narcotics’, the same basis on which the US has provided more than $7bn mainly in military aid since 2000 to Colombia to build up a reliable dominant regional military force much as the US did with Egypt and Israel in the Middle East. The funds continued to flow despite the increasing human rights claims against Colombia’s military, including thousands of non-combatant related deaths following Uribe taking office in 2002.

The US also continues to fund right-wing oppositions, often under the hypocritical claim of “democracy promotion”. The sums are often colossal. For example the US State Department acknowledges channelling over $40 million to the Venezuelan opposition in the past three years alone, primarily to electoral campaigns against President Chávez. This would be the equivalent of giving over £200m to an opposition party in Britain and funding is being increased ahead of Venezuela’s 2012 Presidential election! Last year a coup attempt against President Correa in Ecuador was backed by groups which have received US funding.

However, so far the US has made only limited gains in turning back the progressive direction of events in the continent; namely in Honduras where a US military base was used during a coup in 2009 to illegally remove the progressive President, Manuela Zelaya, from the country. The Obama administration’s subsequent refusal to oppose the military ousting by cutting off its vast military aid allowed the coup d’état to succeed but even the military coup government has suffered opposition and setbacks with Zelaya returning to the country in June 2011 and the National Resistance Front becoming a legal party.

Given the progressive role these struggles in Latin America play internationally, solidarity with them is a priority for all socialists.



What is taking place in Venezuela is the first self-defined and conscious attempt to create a socialist society since the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.

Venezuela was also the first offensive struggle at a state level for nearly 30 years. That is already momentous. After a quarter of a century the working class is waging a direct struggle for state power.

Furthermore the Venezuelan Revolution has the specific form of being the first successful taking of state power essentially through urban insurrection since the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its immediate aftermath.

Its decisive point arose from defensive action taken to defeat the coup against Chávez in April 2002, but form is not decisive. The essence of the issue is that over one million people descended onto the streets, a number of them armed. The rank and file soldiers joined the insurrection, resulting in the top echelons of the army supporting the coup being isolated and crushed as is so powerfully seen in the film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

Imperialism and its allies in the Venezuelan oligarchy then tried to oust Chávez though sabotaging the oil industry – the country’s main source of revenue with Venezuela home to some of the largest oil reserves in the world. Petroleum output fell a third, the economy shrank by 25% in just a few months and poverty soared, the hope being to create sufficient economic hardship that the population would turn against Chávez. The sabotage continued for two months, but mass support for Chávez, including millions of people taking to the streets of Caracas to defend the government, resulted in the lock-out being defeated.

These events created the unique opportunity of the Venezuelan Revolution; the core of the capitalist state power, the military reaction, was defeated and key elements of the economy were under government control.

Many difficulties remain, with the counter-revolution still maintaining some grip on parts of the state apparatus, outside of the army, including in large parts of the civil service, the police, the private media, (which despite propaganda claims to the contrary is overwhelmingly in the hands of an opposition that regularly calls for the overthrow of Chávez) and in capitalist-owned sections of the economy. They are also able to organise some bases of opposition to Chávez amongst the masses in the slums and in working class areas.

However, since the insurrection of April 2002 revolutionary power has spread into wider and wider layers of society. Control of the oil sector has enabled the government to invest tens of billions of dollars towards improving the living standards of the population, with notable achievements in healthcare and education.

In just over a decade, free health care has been extended to 20 million people, saving 100,000s of lives. Infant mortality is significantly down and life expectancy has increased. Government policies have halved extreme poverty and malnutrition. By creating free education for all, millions have learnt to read and write for the first time and there has been a three-fold increase in the numbers of students attending university.

The urban character of the Venezuelan Revolution reflects that it was a much more economically advanced society than China or Vietnam at the beginning of their more rural-led revolutions. This means it is also able to rapidly integrate the economic and social needs of the Venezuelan people with more advanced ideas of universal human liberation. The Chávez government has placed the position of women, the fight against racism and anti-imperialism at the centre of the revolution, as well as advancing disability rights and tackling homophobia. 

Decades of social chaos under the Venezuelan opposition

Whilst undoubtedly impressive, the very fact that the Chávez-led government has had to focus on dealing with the population’s most basic needs brings into sharp focus how the imperialist domination of Venezuela, in collaboration with the Venezuelan oligarchy, led to huge social and economic underdevelopment.

For example, in the half century prior to Chávez coming to power, Venezuela’s average annual growth rate was just 0.4% – less than a quarter that of Latin America’s other major economies. Worse still, income per head in the country was actually falling for a quarter of a century until Chávez broke the Venezuelan opposition’s stranglehold over the oil industry in 2003. World Bank figures show that income per head in Venezuela was $3,966 in 2003 down from $6,521 in 1977, a previous high point until a neo-liberal programme of mass privatisation was imposed in the 1980s caused economic and social chaos.

As a result, by 1996 poverty hit 70% and extreme poverty reached 40% of households despite the country’s vast oil wealth! Public spending fell from a high of 37% of GDP in 1982 to 16% in 1998 and Venezuela’s human development index was falling.

Protests against these disastrous policies were met by attacks on democracy and human rights. Infamously, on 27 February 1989, a bloody massacre by state security forces left 276 dead according to official figures, and up to 3,000 according to unofficial sources following the discovery of secret mass graves.

In contrast, the social transformation of Venezuela under the Chávez government has been able to proceed while extending democratic rights. In fact more elections have been held under Chávez than in the previous 50 years of opposition rule. Today the main threat to democracy comes from external military intervention, civil war and the opposition. A process is therefore unfolding in Venezuela which combines social progress and democracy – a deeply attractive model in all countries.

International Solidarity

Venezuela has been at the core of developing new Latin American bodies to increase collaboration and weaken US domination mentioned previously. Chávez has also sought to use the oil wealth of Venezuela to extend social progress globally.

Across Latin America, it is working with Cuba to extend free healthcare, for example through free operations to restore sight to more than one million people with treatable eye conditions. Venezuela is also providing discounted fuel to Caribbean nations to aid their social development.

Hugo Chávez has also taken a strongly anti-imperialist stand internationally, underlined by his early and consistent opposition to the current imperialist offensive in Libya.  Chávez was the only world leader to expel Israel’s ambassador over its war on Gaza and withdrew his senior diplomats from Israel in response to its 2006 invasion of Lebanon.

This course allows a clear identification of the character of the forces leading the social transformation in Venezuela. This is not a process where one fights on the same side as other forces against imperialism despite fundamental disagreement and contradictions with them – as was the case for example with the unequivocal necessity to fight on the same side as Stalin against the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union or Khomeini against the Shah of Iran. The current leading the Venezuelan Revolution today is a political current that we are part of, that we identify with.

Does the character of the Venezuelan leadership mean that victory is certain? Not remotely: defeat is always possible. However, the main challenge facing Venezuela is not the political character of its leadership, it is the difficult matter of how to continue to build a society that meets the material interests of its people.

The huge increase in social investment that has transformed health and education, which contributed to the enormous margin of victory in the 2006 presidential election, now needs to be applied to ensuring a continuing improvement of living standards and to finding solutions in the massive shanty towns to the problems of crime, traffic congestion, waste and inadequate public transport, which have affected Chávez’s levels of support in some of the big cities.

The inadequate economic policies proposed by some within the government in the wake of the international financial crisis unnecessarily weakened the economic situation through too small a stimulus programme and allowed some strengthening of the Venezuelan opposition, which made some gains in the September 2010 legislative elections. Stimulus like those underway in China and Bolivia which have boosted growth should be adopted.

There is time to turn this around before the 2012 presidential elections but it requires a more decisive economic policy focused on investment to boost growth and productivity, to create jobs and continue lifting living standards.

However not withstanding this, the overall trajectory means that there are now two places, and one political current, that socialists should be part of and identify with – in Cuba and Venezuela.


The recent advances in Latin America have been greatly aided by the Cuban revolutionary leadership, the most politically advanced leadership in the world today.

It has both learnt from and contributed greatly to the international Marxist movement. Cuba has adopted lessons from Marx to the Chinese Revolution, from Lenin to the anti-colonial struggle in Africa. The Cuban Revolution is able to draw upon its vast experience including its own revolutionary victory in the context of the Cold War, US interventions and blockade, dirty tricks and assassination attempts on its leaders and dealing with a brutal US blockade.

Despite this it has not only raised the living standards of its own people but has played a remarkable revolutionary and anti-imperialist role internationally. Its fundamentally correct starting point is that the main enemies of humanity today are the imperialist ruling classes and their imperialist domination of the world, and that the main task of the international proletarian movement is to support every struggle against this. The Cuban Revolution has championed women’s rights, has an exemplary record on anti-racism and its earlier backwardness on lesbian and gay rights has been reversed.

Achievements of the Cuban Revolution

Prior to the Revolution in 1959, three quarters of the land was in the hands of a tiny handful of the population and most of the sugar cane production – the main industry – was controlled by the US which also dominated most of the islands trade. Cuba was a playground for wealthy US bankers and businesses who visited the island for its casinos and brothels.

In contrast huge numbers lived in poverty – over a quarter of the population was fully unemployed and many more faced seasonal unemployment. Only one-third of Cubans had running water and less than one in ten had free health care. In the countryside, where 40% of the population lived, it was even worse. Only 4% of Cuban peasants ate meat or fish regularly; less than 2% eggs, 3% bread, 11% milk and fewer than one in ten had electricity. Over half the population could not read or write and 61% of the children did not go to school.

Following the revolution, priority was given to raising the living standards of the people. Land was transferred to small farmers and landless rural workers. Free education was expanded and a literacy campaign was launched that eradiated illiteracy within a year despite a quarter of the population previously being unable to read and write. Today all Cubans are guaranteed cheap food, social security, and education up to and including university level.

Cuba also has free and universal healthcare and the highest doctor-to-population ratio in the world. As a result life expectancy has increased since the revolution from 58 to 78 – higher than in the US. The previously widespread problem of child mortality today is lower than in the US. As Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs to the UN Human Rights Council said earlier this year:

“Every day, 29,000 children die of hunger and preventable diseases and 100,000 deaths a day from causes related to malnutrition… If the developing countries had infant and maternal mortality rates like those of Cuba, 8.4 million children and 500,000 mothers would be saved annually.”

Today Cuba is seeking to further raise living standards by adopting new economic policies similar to those of the Chinese economic model which have delivered historically high levels of growth.

Cuba has made internationalism central to its revolution, demonstrating in its actions that it seeks to do everything possible to advance the interests of humanity. Che Guevara became a symbol of this international solidarity through assisting a number of struggles against colonialism and oppression in the 1960s.

Cuba’s greatest act of revolutionary solidarity was its military and medical support for Angola following the invasion by Apartheid South African troops backed by Washington, in 1975. In total 375,000 Cuban’s volunteered, and over 2,000 lost their lives, against Apartheid forces.

The defeat of the Apartheid army in the decisive Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987 – at its time the largest military engagement in Africa since the North African battles of the Second World War – became the turning point in the struggle against Apartheid. The crushing blow for South Africa troops in Angola meant the regime was decisively weakened at home, leading to its subsequent downfall. It is for this reason Nelson Mandela thanked Cuba and has said “If it was not for Cuba, I would not be a free man today. If it was not for Cuba, Apartheid would never have been defeated” and Cuba was the first country he visited on his release from prison, a moment recorded in this video.

Cuba today provides extensive international medical aid which benefits millions of people every year in Africa, Asia and Latin America and is estimated to have saved more than 4.4 million lives. There are more than 30,000 Cuban medical personnel working in 70 countries across the globe and over 10,000 students from developing countries receive scholarships to learn at Cuban medical schools. Cuban doctors were the first on the scene in Haiti after its 2010 earthquake, treating more than 250,000 people and unlike aid from many other countries they remain there today; Cuba sent 2,500 doctors, nurses and technicians to assist the victims of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. Cuba has even restored the sight of the soldier who shot dead Che Guevara!

The Cuban leadership has kept its socialist revolution moving forward and maintained the support of its population through 50 years of blockade, economic isolation and frenzied opposition from the most powerful state in the world located just 90 miles away. That is why Fidel Castro and Che Guevara have inspired so many across the globe.

Today in the world, Cuba and Venezuela are central to the advance of socialism. Socialists should do all they can to defend the revolutionary gains made by these two countries by helping to build up international solidarity.