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An Interview with Tariq Ali

What’s at Stake in Venezuela

by CLAUDIA JARDIM And JONAH GINDIN

talked with him during a recent trip of his to Caracas, where he participated in the presentation of a statement of solidarity from numerous Brazilian intellectuals. This interview originally appeared in Venezuelanalysis.com

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. Everything the US wanted was experimented in Latin America first. When they wanted military—on the political level—when they wanted to crush popular movements by unleashing military dictatorships they did it in Latin America first: Brazil, Argentina, Chile; three of the most brutal dictatorships we have seen. Then, after the collapse of the communist enemy, they relaxed on the political front but they got Latin America in a grip economically, and they said ‘this is the only way forward.’ We can summarize it like this: the laboratory of the American Empire is the first to rebel against the Empire. So many many different and interesting processes are happening in Latin America and I think where the left is weak is in its inability to bring these together and to refound the Latin American left.

What began to happen in Latin America is a process of de-industrialization; foreign investments coming in. In the most classic examples were Chile under Pinochet, then Brazil under Cardoso and Argentina under successive governments. They de-industrialized the country, they thought that the country could function in a bubble—an economic bubble created by a false boom, a boom which was largely fuelled by foreign investment, foreign moneys coming into banks where there were low interest rates. So people used to use this to invest, but whenever the investments got risky they used to take them out—international capital. They had absolutely no motivation for building Brazil or Argentina so you gradually began to have the rise of a new social movement which arose from below: peasant movements, landless peasant movements, unemployed working class movements which began to challenge this initially on a micro-level, in villages, in one town, in one locality, in one region. And then gra! dually it began to spread.
The result was continent wide protests…

You had an uprising in Cochabamba in Bolivia against the privatization of water. You had a struggle of the peasants of Cuzco in Peru, against the privatization of electricity. On both struggles the government made repression first and then they had to retreat. Then you had an unbelievable collapse in Argentina, where within three weeks I think 4 or 5 presidents came and fell. That began to demonstrate very graphically the crisis of neoliberal capitalism. Then you had Brazil. In Brazil you had a situation where Cardoso had de-industrialized 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 trying to propose a softer version of neoliberalism?

I don’t think they are, at the moment, 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 taking power.’ This slogan doesn’t threaten anyone; it’s a moral slogan. The Zapatistas—who I admire—you know, when they marched from Chiapas to Mexico City, what did they think was going to happen? Nothing happened. It was a moral symbol, it was not even a moral victory because nothing happened. So I think that phase 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, the victory of the military, etc., so people where nervous. But I think, from that point of view, the Venezuelan example is the most interesting one. I! t 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.’ So, it’s an interesting situation and I think at Porto Alegre next year all these things will be debated and discussed—I hope.

Without adequately addressing state power, what alternative to neoliberalism is the Global Social Justice movement offering?

No, they have no alternative! They think that it is an advantage not to have an alternative. But, in my view that’s a sign of political bankruptcy. If you have no alternative, what do you say to the people you mobilize? The MST[1] in Brazil has an alternative, they say ‘take the land and give it to the poor peasants, let them work it.’ But the Holloway[2] thesis of the Zapatistas, it’s—if you like—a virtual thesis, it’s a thesis for cyber space: let’s imagine. But we live in the real world, and in the real world this thesis isn’t going to work. Therefore, the model for me of the MST in Brazil is much much more interesting than the model of the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Much more interesting.

Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) has been pressuring the Workers Party (PT) to deliver on its promises of delivering land to Brazil’s poor. What do you make of the impasse that has been reached between the grassroots and the government in Brazil?

I think the problem in Brazil is the following: the PT[3] captured the aspirations of the people, especially the poor. They captured them, but they couldn’t deliver anything—so far, they have delivered nothing. In fact, the repression against the MST in the first year of Lula has been much higher than in any single year of the Cardoso government. The farmers and the police have victimized and killed far more MST militants. Now, this will end badly. Why has it happened? It’s happened because, in my opinion, the PT had not prepared itself in a serious way to even think about any real alternatives. Publicly they said, ‘yes we’ll give land to the landless, yes will do this, yes we will do that,’ but they had not made any real preparation. And Lula, I’m afraid, is a weak leader. A weak leader who is so excited at being in power, that he forgets why he is. The same thing happened to Lech Walesa in Poland when the big mass movement Solidarnosc threw him up and he finally was electe! d. What did he deliver? Nothing. And he was voted out by the people, and that will happen to Lula.

Refounding the Brazilian left…

I think that, in my opinion, what we need in Brazil is a movement to refound the Brazilian left. And this movement must include, broadly speaking, those people inside the PT including many members of parliament and senators and grassroots members, a very key component that should include the MST and it should include that layer of Brazilian socialist intellectuals who are now very disillusioned. These three components are very important to refound the Brazilian left, it’s foolish to do it by just a few people walking out and declaring ‘we’re a new party.’ You need a new different sort of a movement and a different sort of a party than the PT. In these conditions the bulk of the Brazilian working class is now an informal working class—it’s not the case as it was when the PT was founded. And so you have different priorities. You have to refound a Brazilian left which is in accord with these new priorities and realities of Brazil today, not some mythological picture of the past.

Before the elections in Brazil, I was in Ribeirao Preto at a festival, and they asked me ‘if you were a Brazilian, who would you vote for?’ And I said I would vote for Lula with the majority of the poor of Brazil. But I said my big worry was that Lula will forget who has voted him into power and he will cater to the policies of those who did not vote for him—the IMF and the World Bank and the international financial institutions. They did not vote for Lula, but they’re the people who’s policies are being carried out. And I said that would be a tragedy, and people gasped but that’s exactly what’s happened. And for me the relation between Lula and Cardoso is the relation between Thatcher and Blair. Blair followed Thatcher, Lula is following Cardoso. It’s intertwined, and this is the tragedy of Brazil and in four or five years time there will massive disillusionment; the right will probably win again and we will have to start the fight from the beginning.

In Colombia, for example, there has been a huge militarization that is very similar to cold war U.S 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 they tried to push through a new coup d’état which failed.

They 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, social-democratic projects for the poor. That’s the key in my opinion, that’s why Venezuela is very important. Before Lula was elected a possibility emerged, an image emerged of the following: Argentina had collapsed, in Venezuela there was Chávez that if you had a Bolivarian federation, of Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba, together you 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 because…Kirchner, in my opinion, is better than Lula; he’s trying to resist on some levels. The big disappointment has been the Brazilian PT, big disappointment. But that doesn’t mean we stop thinking like that because in a small way it’s what I said at the press conference today: 10,000 Cuban doctors, thousands of poor Venezuelan kids 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 Chávez are taking advantage of the strengths of Cuba, rather than their weaknesses. The social structure they have created, health, education that’s something that Brazil could do as well, but they don’t do it.

In the wake of strong opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas might the US use bilateral trade agreements to achieve its economic goals in Latin America?

I think the United States, you have to understand, always acts in its own interests, and its own interests are to stop a regional force from emerging in Latin America without the presence of the United States; to stop a regional force emerging in the far east—China, Japan, Korea, without the presence of the United States; to stop Europe from becoming a strong political economic power. So, the United States will permit concessions where it suits their interests, as long as they feel that this doesn’t threaten them politically or economically. They can make many concessions, but by and large they prefer bilateral deals. ‘Deal with us. Don’t deal with us as a collective, deal with us one-to-one. That’s what suits us.’ That’s always been their policy.

The Global Justice Movement is wary of Chávez’ populism, his military background, and what they fear may become a top-down ‘revolution’ that excludes the grassroots. How do you think the GJM and Chávez 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 on 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. Chávez is improving the lives of ordinary people, and that’s why it’s difficult to topple him—otherwise he would be toppled. So it’s 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 weak, I think the movement here needs to institutionalize on every level—the level of small pueblos, the level of the towns, the level of different quarters—organizations, which can be very broad: 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 you know, Chávez is an unusual guy in Latin America—very special—and he is young and long may 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? And can Venezuela survive alone? What does Venezuela mean to the US?

Venezuela is an example which the Americans wish 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, in Bolivia will say ‘if Venezuelans can do it, we can do it.’ So Venezuela, from that point of view, is a very important example.

That’s why they’re so worked up. That’s why the Americans pour in millions of dollars to help this stupid opposition in this counry; an opposition which is incapable of offering any real alternative to the people, except what used to exist before: a corrupt, a servile oligarchy. That’s what Venezuela means, and I think that one weakness, till 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 Chávez wins the referendum, and then the local elections I hope, and the mayoralty of Caracas in September, I hope then a big offensive is made for th! e rest of Latin America too. From that point of view, the model of the Cuban doctors 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 they 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. And 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. And the Venezuelans, and the Argentineans, etc. it’s in their own interests to do it.

What do you think opposition and US strategy will be in the event of a Chávez victory come A-15?

Well, I think the only strategy left then is to try and overthrow him by a military coup. So the fact that the military seems to be supporting him, and after the previous coup it 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. I think the opposition, quite honestly, if they lose this referendum—which was their big demand for years, ‘oh, he’s not allowing a referendum,’ forgetting that he has given you a constitution according which you want this referendum, without this constitution you couldn’t have had this referendum—so if he wins this referendum the opposition will be fractured, I think they will be completely demoralized, it’s foolish.

Do you think opposition strategy might be to claim there was fraud in order to deligitmize Chavez´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.’ One hasn’t got to be defensive about that. Go completely on the offensive and say, ‘this isn’t Florida.’

In any case, one shouldn’t worry permanently, be paranoid, 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. And it will be obvious, what has happened.

[1] Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Tera—Landless Rural Workers Movement, Brazil.
[2] John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, Pluto Press: 2002.
[3] Partido dos Trabalhadores—Workers Party, Brazil.