Naeem — Tariq Ali on anti-neoliberalism in Latin America

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Compliments of Shobak
From Green Left Weekly
August 11, 2004.
Claudia Jardim and Jonah Gindin spoke to veteran political activist and author Tariq Ali, during his recent trip to Caracas, about Venezuela and Latin
American resistance to US neoliberalism.
How do you explain the explosion in social movements against neoliberalism in Latin America?
I think the reason for this is that Latin America was used as a laboratory by the United States for a long, long time. When Washington wanted to crush popular
movements by unleashing military dictatorships, it did it in Latin America first: in Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Then, [the US government] got Latin America in
a grip economically, and said “this is the only way forward”. The laboratory of the American Empire is the first to rebel against the empire.
Chile under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet, then Brazil under President Fernando Cardoso and Argentina under successive governments, were de-industrialised. [These rulers] thought that their countries could function in an economic bubble created by a false boom, largely fuelled by foreign money coming into banks where there were low interest rates.
Whenever the investments got risky, [international investors] would pull out. They had absolutely no motivation for building Brazil or Argentina — so you
gradually began to have the rise of new social movements from below: peasant movements, landless peasant movements, unemployed working-class movements that began to challenge this, initially in villages, in one town, in one locality, in one region. And then gradually it began to spread. The result was continent-wide protests.
You had an uprising in Cochabamba in Bolivia against the privatisation of water. You had a struggle of the peasants of Cuzco in Peru, against the privatisation
of electricity. On both struggles, the government made repression its first response, and then had to retreat. Then you had an unbelievable collapse in Argentina, where within three weeks four or five presidents came and fell. That began to demonstrate very graphically the crisis of neoliberal capitalism. In Brazil, Cardoso had de-industrialised the country completely. There was no national bourgeoisie left, there were no national traditions within the capitalist sphere left, and the country began to suffer.
Do you see the US empire absorbing this energy by
proposing a softer version of neoliberalism?
I don’t think [US rulers], at the moment, are prepared
to do that. They will only do that if they feel
threatened. And they don’t feel threatened at the
moment. And one reason — I have to be very blunt here
— they don’t feel threatened is because there is an
idealistic slogan within the social movements, which
goes like this: “We can change the world without
power.” This slogan doesn’t threaten anyone; it’s a
moral slogan. The Zapatistas — who I admire — when
they marched from Chiapas to Mexico City, what did
think was going to happen? Nothing happened. It was a
moral symbol, it was not even a moral victory because
nothing happened.
I think that phrase was understandable in Latin
American politics, people were very burnt by recent
experiences: the defeat of the Sandinistas, the defeat
of the armed struggle movements.
>From that point of view, the Venezuelan example is
most interesting one. It says: “In order to change the
world you have to take power, and you have to begin to
implement change — in small doses if necessary — but
you have to do it. Without it nothing will change.”
Without adequately addressing state power, what
alternative to neoliberalism is the global social
justice movement offering?
It has no alternative! [These activists] think that it
is an advantage not to have an alternative. But, in my
view that’s a sign of political bankruptcy. If you
no alternative, what do you say to the people you
mobilise? The MST [Landless Workers Movement] in
has an alternative, it says, “take the land and give
to the poor peasants, let them work it”. But the
of the Zapatistas, is a thesis for cyberspace: let’s
imagine. But we live in the real world, this thesis
isn’t going to work. Therefore, the model for me of
MST in Brazil is much much more interesting than the
model of the Zapatistas in Chiapas.
In Colombia there has been a huge militarisation that
is very similar to Cold War US strategy in Latin
America. Where does this fit in with a new strategy
that, as you have pointed out, is largely economic?
Colombia is exceptional at the moment, and of course
Venezuela where [Washington] tried to push through a
new coup d’etat that failed. [US rulers] will do that
if nothing else succeeds. Where they feel democracy
doesn’t serve their interests they will return to the
military — that’s obvious.
But at the moment the problem is how to devise a
society in which you can push through
projects for the poor. That’s why Venezuela is very
important. Before President Luiz “Lula” da Silva was
elected, a possibility emerged, [given that] Argentina
had collapsed and in Venezuela there was President
Chavez. If you had a Bolivarian federation, of Brazil,
Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba, it
could produce a completely different way of looking at
the world and a different form of society, which would
not be repressive, which would not be vicious, which
would transform the everyday lives of the poor.
That has not happened. Argentinian President Nestor
Kirchner, in my opinion, is better than Lula. The big
disappointment has been the Brazilian Workers Party.
But that doesn’t mean we stop thinking [about the
possibilities]. Ten thousand Cuban doctors [are
in Venezuela], thousands of poor Venezuelan kids are
going to Cuba to learn to be doctors. Here you take
advantage of each other’s strengths, not each other’s
weaknesses. So it’s very good that Venezuela and Ch
are taking advantage of the strengths of Cuba, rather
than its weaknesses. The social structure they have
created, health, education that’s something that
could do as well, but it doesn’t do it.
The global justice movement is wary of Ch vez’s
populism, his military background, and what they fear
may become a top-down “revolution” that excludes the
grassroots. How do you think this movement and Ch vez
can be reconciled?
As long as the poor in Venezuela support this
government it will survive, when they withdraw their
support it will fall. But I think it will be useful if
the Global Justice Movement — and there are many
different strands in it — came and saw what’s going
here. What’s the problem? Go into the shantytowns, see
what the lives of the people are, see what their lives
were before this regime came into power. And don’t go
on the basis of stereotypes.
You cannot change the world without taking power, that
is the example of Venezuela. Ch vez is improving the
lives of ordinary people, and that’s why it’s
to topple him — otherwise he would be toppled. So
something that people in the Global Justice Movement
have to understand, this is serious politics. It’s
pointless just chanting slogans, because for the
ordinary people on whose behalf you claim to be
fighting getting an education, free medicine, cheap
food is much much more important than all the slogans
put together.
What do you think of the Venezuelan example of
participatory democracy?
I think it needs to be strengthened. I think it’s
I think the movement here needs to institutionalise on
every level — the level of small pueblos, the level
the towns, the level of different quarters —
organisations,, Bolivarian Circles, whatever you want
to call them, which meet regularly, which talk with
each other, which discuss their problems, which aren’t
simply a response to calls from above. It’s very very
important, because Chavez is an unusual guy in Latin
America — very special — and he is young and long
he live, but he has to create institutions which
outlast him for the future of this country.
What is at stake in Venezuela? Whose interests? Can
Venezuela survive alone? What does Venezuela mean to
the US?
Venezuela is an example which the US wishes to wipe
out. Because if this example exists, and gets stronger
and stronger and stronger, then people in Brazil, in
Argentina, in Ecuador, in Chile, and in Bolivia will
say “if Venezuelans can do it, we can do it”. So
Venezuela, from that point of view, is a very
example. That’s why Washington pours in millions of
dollars to help the stupid opposition in Venezuela; an
opposition which is incapable of offering any real
alternative to the people, except what used to exist
before: a corrupt, a servile oligarchy.
I think that one weakness, until recently, of the
Bolivarian revolution has been that it has not done
more towards the rest of Latin America, because it’s
been under siege at home. But I think, once Chavez
the referendum [on whether to recall him, held on
August 15], and then [there are pro-Chavez victories
in] the local elections, and the mayoralty of Caracas
in September, I hope then a big offensive is made for
the rest of Latin America too.
>From that point of view, the model of the Cuban
is a very good one. I mean, a Venezuelan doctor — in
five years Venezuelans will come back [from Cuba] as
doctors, they can help both their own country, and
can go to other countries to work in the shantytowns.
They are small things, but in the world in which we
live they are very big things.
Fifty years ago they would have been small, today they
are very big. And that’s why we have to preserve and
nurture them.
The mainstream private media plays an important
political role in Venezuela. How can this
disinformation be combated?
What we lack in Latin America is means of
communication, we need a satellite channel like Al
Jazeera, and I said we’ll call it ‘Al Bolivar’ if you
want. But you need one which reports regularly — what
the right is saying, what the left movements are
saying, which gives an account of what it is the MST
wants, which challenges Lula, but which does it quite
independently, without being attached to any state.
I think this satellite channel could be very important
for the whole of Latin America, to challenge the BBC
World, and CNN and have a Latin American channel.
What do you think opposition and US strategy will be
the event of a Ch vez victory on August 15?
Well, I think the only strategy left is to try and
overthrow him by a military coup. But the military
seems to be supporting him. The previous coup was a
warning to him as well: you can’t simply rely on the
military without educating people. I think without the
military in Venezuela, they can’t do anything — they
cannot topple him.
This referendum has been the big demand [of the
Venezuelan opposition] for years, as they claimed “oh,
he’s not allowing a referendum” — forgetting that
without [Chavez’s] constitution you couldn’t have had
this referendum. So if Chavez wins this referendum,
opposition will be fractured, I think it will be
completely demoralised, it’s foolish.
Do you think opposition might claim there was fraud in
order to deligitimise Chavez s victory?
Well, look, we have to fight that when it happens, but
I think this is why the process should be transparent,
and I think lots of observers will be coming. And if
that happens, the government has to go immediately on
the offensive, and say “this was a clear victory, you
want you go into the whole country and talk to every
single voter”. Go completely on the offensive and say,
“this isn’t Florida”.
In any case, one shouldn’t worry permanently — you
know one should depend on the strength of the people.
If the people vote him in, and he wins the referendum
they will be big celebrations all over the country.
it will be obvious, what has happened.