The endless rhetorical vaporing about “civilizational”, “epochal”, “global” changes and “world-historical” century-long projections are at best based on anecdotal selective data. The practitioners of this style of rhetoric are what we might call ‘ideological charlatans’. Most of their sweeping rhetoric is largely inspirational to give its readers and listeners a sense that they are witness to or participants in a grand all-inclusive process, which, if they follow the precepts of the ideological charlatans, they are capable of understanding and engaging. The mighty images rolling off the flapping tongues of the charlatans demolish all contingencies, all time and place-bound conditionalities because, we are assured by the charlatans, these contradictions, exceptions, counter-trends are unimportant faced with the mystical ‘Great Historical Perspective’.
Long-term, large-scale changes across continents seldom take place without processes of cumulative, heterodox changes at the level of class relations at the local, regional, and national level. The spread of new ideas, organizations, struggles and policies across national boundaries is similarly not merely a process of a ‘communication’ or a ‘technological revolution’ but the consequence of emerging political organizations which already share basic outlooks and interests with the ‘lead actors’.
“Globalization” or imperialist expansion, is not merely the “spread” of an ideology and its imposition by force or persuasion. There is a prior condition the existence of political and bureaucratic elites and important sectors of the ruling class who have a common political and economic interest and capacity to articulate the ideology and implement pro-imperial policies.
The link between the ‘global’ or imperial power and its control of national economies, natural and financial resources, markets and treasuries is through the ascendancy of national political-economic configurations of power. The basic ‘link’ in the imperial chain what now is mistakenly called “globalization” is based fundamentally on the outcome of class struggle. Without a successful outcome to the class struggle, there is no political elite or dominant class capable of linking to the imperial drive. Without a national ‘link’ the imperial powers cannot expand, or “globalize” the world. Unable to globalize or expand, the imperial powers must intervene directly, that is, militarily to shift the balance in the national class struggle, via invasions, coups and colonization.
Imperialist expansion, almost everywhere, takes place in the first instance through force. The imperial imperative is to conquer the national resistance, in order to destroy the class adversaries of their imperial-linked dominant class. Subsequently force is used to impose and defend the dominant class ruling families, political clients, financial groups, etc, who form the political elite. Force is used to defend military and paramilitary formations, police and judicial officials who will be defenders of the economic linkage groups to the empire.
Imperial ‘hegemony’ is established over the ruling class and its state apparatus not simply through ideological persuasion as most so-called ‘Neo-Gramscians’ argue, but through shared economic interests and common enemies. Without the economic rewards and privileged access to the public treasury and financial loans, it is questionable how effective imperial ideology would be in influencing ruling class behavior. Given the historical violence and exploitation induced by imperial intervention and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the imperial collaborators, imperial ideology does not exercise hegemony over the masses of the people. In every instance the introduction of imperial policies privatizations, structural adjustment policies, “free markets” is rejected by the great majorities of the populace. The exercise of imperial power is not based on “hegemony” but rather on ‘force’ and ‘political-organizational’ control and manipulation by the local imperial-linked political-economic elites.
If the imperialist powers in our time the US and the European Union are incapable of establishing direct hegemony, strictly speaking, over the masses in Latin America, they rely on the collaborator elites with whom they share interests, property and riches. Given increased polarization, and deepening political and economic crises the collaborator ruling class’s influence over the masses has become very tenuous. In this context the crucial political-social class which enters to exercise power is the petit bourgeois via its electoral party apparatus, its role in the state bureaucracy and in civic organizations, its close ties with the trade union bureaucracy, NGO’s and ‘social movements’. Combining a ‘populist rhetoric’ attacking “neo-liberalism” and “globalization” with an unquestioning servility to electoral politics, and the institutional and legal order, this class does exercise hegemony over important sectors of the masses for longer or shorter time spans.
The workers and peasants’ struggles for political power encounter their most serious obstacles to advancing toward a social transformation in the organized electoral parties of the petit bourgeoisie. Through “political alliances”, co-optation, clientele relations and diverse ideological diversions, the petit bourgeois electoral class and their affiliated organizations subordinate mass direct action to electoral politics, via demagogic promises and deceptive “democratic” phrase mongering. At the same time the petit bourgeois political class is drawn to pacts with the dominant class in which it accepts its subordination to ruling class interests both ‘national’ and ‘imperial’. Petit bourgeois politicians pact with the ruling classes in order to secure ‘political legitimacy’, opportunities to hold political positions, (without overt destabilization, threats of coups, etc.), access to the public treasury (for personal, family and network enrichment), and the possibility of ascent into the upper-middle class or ruling class. In exchange the ruling class secures protection of class and property relations, prompt debt payments and a range of favorable economic policies.
The typical sequence of petit bourgeois ascent begins with engagement in mass struggle ( as labor lawyers, advisers etc..) and gaining political capital through mass appeals and organization. This political ‘capital’ is invested in running for electoral office (rationalized as “combining many forms of struggle”). Once elected to office the ‘popular leader’ of humble origins begins a series of transactions with the ruling class, trading voting popularity for political recognition and accommodation. This is rationalized by the upwardly mobile petit bourgeois with the rhetoric of ‘realism’, ‘pragmatism’, ‘possibilism’ and the “need to broaden the electoral base” to gain higher office (the presidency). The “double discourse” becomes dominant in this phrase. The upwardly mobile petit bourgeois make discreet visits to the imperial embassies and capitals providing “guarantees” to imperial interests, promises of prompt debt payments, promotion of privatizations and free markets and appointments of neo-liberal ministers. These commitments are given in exchange for imperial certification.
The petit bourgeois, once elected head of state, becomes embedded in the ruling class periphery. The designated ruling class ministers design and promote imperial interests while the newly elected President proclaims a policy of fiscal discipline, export growth, wage constraint and ‘reforms’ of welfare, labor and social legislation. The “people’s candidate” guarantees prompt and full payments to foreign and local creditors, subsidies for agro-mineral and manufacturing export elites and reduces wages, increases unemployment and eliminates social welfare programs for the working class. The petit bourgeois electoral organizations co-opts labor bureaucrats to oppose collective action, and “discipline” labor. From the state apparatus they create “anti-poverty organizations” to build a clientele electoral base to replace the loss of disenchanted class-conscious workers.
The “left-wing” of the petit bourgeois electoral machine neutralizes the critical mass social movements, arguing that the regime has “two plans”: The government will shift from ‘Plan A’ (neo-liberalism) to ‘Plan B’ (social welfare) when it recognizes the “failure” of its original policy. This is a sham and deliberate deception designed by the “left” electoralists to justify their continued positions in secondary offices while retaining party affiliation in order to be re-elected. The “left” electoralists are in constant dialogue with “critical” leaders of the social movements, pressuring the latter to refrain from building a powerful political alternative to the pro-imperialist ruling class “People’s President”.
The petit bourgeois leadership, politically integrated into ruling class politics and economics, converts political positions into private economic wealth beginning the transition from a petit bourgeois to bourgeois class position. The final step in the ascendancy of the petit bourgeois politicians is their acceptance into the social circle of the upper class, the invitation to the big plantations, the parties with all the celebrities and ‘famous people’, the dinners on Wall Street, the big political and diplomatic receptions.. The petit bourgeois has arrived, though occasionally they change clothes, put on a baseball cap and visit a poor urban slum or a landless village for photo opportunities. Being a leader in perpetuating poverty, “Peoples President” expounds in international forums and the UN on the need to struggle against “world poverty” and calls on the wealthy nations to co-operate, which evokes public applause and private cynical chuckles among knowledgeable investors.
Imperialism rules through a chain of political linkages that bring together ruling class elites and authoritarian technocrats at the top who design the strategies and policies to be implemented by the petit bourgeois electoralists. The elite establish the national institutional parameters within which the upwardly mobile electoral petit bourgeois political class mobilizes and demobilizes the masses. The imperialist class establishes hegemony over the ruling class; the ruling class exercises hegemony over the petit bourgeois and the petit bourgeois maintains influence over sectors of the leadership of the mass social movements. The theoretical point is that imperialism rules via indirect hegemony. Their interests are articulated by subordinated petit bourgeois politicians via ideologies ‘modified’ to accommodate the demands of those below. For example, the imperial ruling class speaks to the collaborator ruling class of free markets, easy credit, loans, reciprocal benefits in free trade and joint ventures. The ruling class speaks to the petit bourgeois of ‘democracy’, ‘elections’, ‘parties’, ‘power sharing’, economic opportunities, ‘commissions’ and upward mobility. The petit bourgeois electoralist bellow to the masses against ‘neo-liberalism’, ‘globalization’, the need for ‘alternatives’ and the corruption and venality of the ‘old order’. The left electoralists mouth the rhetoric of a ‘new model’, of ‘pressuring the elites’ and of ‘recapturing the party’. The social-movement leaders who are linked to electoralists tell their mass bases that “circumstances are not ripe for a break”, “we need to return to the bases” and “we have to focus on sectoral reforms”. The petit bourgeois convinces social movement leaders to refrain from independent class struggle for political power.
Imperial Strategies in Time of Crises
When imperialist power faces mass conscious opposition, or where it has suffered a major electoral defeat which has ‘disarticulated’ the normal political-economic structures, imperialism cannot operate the through electoral framework.
The imperialist strategists rely on several non-electoral, violent and illegal approaches. First and foremost is to divide the opposition or potential opposition into warring factions the classic imperialist divide and rule tactics. In Iraq, Washington and Israel are deeply involved in the process of dividing Iraq into 3 mini-states: the north to the Kurds, the center to the Sunnis and the south to the Shias. Israel and the US have heavily armed the Kurds, established a de-facto Kurd regime, forcible purged non-Kurds from the region and organized the biggest and best armed militias in Iraq with the promise of virtual independence. In the center they have established the Allawi regime made up of ex-Saddamist secret police bolstered by the US military. In the south, Washington seeks amenable Shia clerics to fuse with former exiles to administer oil depots and oil wells for US investors.
The principle weapon in fomenting partition is political provocations organized by the secret services: beheading Kurds and claiming it is by Iraqi Arabs; murdering Sunni clerics and dumping the bodies in Shia neighborhoods; placing bombs in Shia mosques. Unable to defeat a unified Iraqi national liberation movement, the US and Israeli strategy is to create weak mini-states warring among themselves and weakening each other, lending themselves to becoming imperial collaborators.
In the case of Venezuela, the US has failed four times to overthrow the Chavez government from the “inside” via a military coup, a bosses’ lockout, a referendum and via the infiltration of scores of Colombian paramilitary terrorists. The next move is to provoke a frontier war with Colombia. The Pentagon encourages border crossing by Colombian paramilitary forces ambushing Venezuelan soldiers. They promote the Colombian government’s claims on Venezuelan offshore oil sites. As in the past, imperial policy involves rearranging frontiers, re-defining clans, ethnic groups, and tribal entities as “nations”, while destroying existing nations that oppose imperial domination.
Imperial violence, not hegemony, plays the central role in the break-up of nation-states and the creation of client mini-states of the empire. The result of these mini-entities is the extension of military outposts for the empire, new secure pipeline and transport routes to move oil and gas and control over resource-rich enclaves.
The key link the forward shields of this imperial expansion are the separatist warriors, clerics, politicians and intellectuals, usually upwardly mobile petit bourgeois, whose road to riches, recognition and local influence is based on their utility to the imperial strategists. An entire army of imperial pundits, neo-conservative ideologues and liberal humanitarian imperialists provide the ideological cover for imperial-sponsored separatist. They repeat the same libertarian slogans, they ridicule when claimed by authentic national liberation movements. Their purpose is to discredit regimes opposing imperialism and defending the cohesion of their nations. The imperial tactic is to pressure nation states to enter ‘negotiations’ with the pro-imperialist separatists while providing diplomatic and political backing to the civilian separatists and military support to their armed counterparts.
Imperial strategies of divide, fragment and conquer, receive strong moral and political support from the libertarians and sectors of the progressive left. The latter joins in the chorus supporting the separatists, calling for negotiations, “self-determination” and the recognition of the “legitimate” claims of the empire’s progeny.
The theoretical point is that empire-building tactics combine direct wars of colonial occupation for oil and political control of strategic regions, with indirect conquest via surrogate separatist and client leaders who disintegrate and weaken the national cohesion of anti-imperialist nation-states.
The purpose of empire building is not merely to secure monopoly control over world energy sources but to build a worldwide network of military bases and political clients to secure transport and communication routes. Empire building involves the disintegration of real or potential anti-imperialist nation-states and the integration of the ‘separatist’ entities into the empire.
A theory of empire building must take account not only of the role of the imperial state and multinational corporations and banks the moving forces at the center of the empire but the separatist terrorists, gangsters, pious democrats and unholy clerics who operate at the “bottom” of the empire. In the “middle” there are the international functionaries, politicians, globalist and anti-globalist ideologues who debate questions of wars and self-determination in inconsequential forums. The ‘social forums’ are “inconsequential” because the resolution of the question of whether Washington or Europe will extend their empire or not is resolved on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and Colombia, in the shanty-towns of Venezuela and Palestine, in the villages and towns of the Caucuses. In the Middle East the Kurds, the Israelis, the Hashemite monarchs and the wealthy expatriates line up behind the empire against the vast majority of impoverished, downwardly mobile Arab workers, farmers, merchants and uprooted youth with no future.
We are living in a time of imperial wars, not civil wars. Entire societies are pillaged and all the national resources are seized or “privatized”. In the midst of imperial-induced desperation and absolute misery, the imperial leaders recruit soldiers and police from among the impoverished masses. These ‘national’ recruits are merely imperial mercenaries, foreign legionnaires in their own country. They do not fight for a civil order; they defend an imperial order. They are not linked to a ‘dominant’ class; they are directed and financed by the imperial state defending an illegitimate colonial puppet regime. The idea of a “civil war” is an imperial ideological invention to divert attention toward ethnic-religious divisions fomented by Washington.
The break-up of Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Chechenya, and the Caucuses are transitional tactics designed to secure the strategic goal of re-integrating the new entities into a US-dominated Greater Mid East- South/Central Asian Empire.
The US failed to ‘fragment’ Iraq via war and separatism in the First Gulf War, though it tried in the north and south. In the Second Gulf War it seeks to form a “federated” colony based on a puppet regime in Baghdad, a Kurd war-lord regime in the North and a Shia clerical regime in the South. This strategy has only succeeded in the North. The Kurds figure prominently in imperial expansionist policy in the Middle East with Kurdish separatists active in Syria, Iran, Turkey and Russia. Both Washington and Israel promote the idea of Greater Kurdistan to use the Kurds as weapons to destabilize their adversaries and potential critics in the adjoining countries. The irredentist ‘vision’ of Greater Kurdistan would become a vassal kingdom of the US imperium.
Imperialism and Revolution in Latin America
The advance of imperialism and the emergence of revolutionary movements are constant political processes in Latin America. But they are not linear processes: there are longer or shorter periods of retreat and consolidation in an unstable relationship. Nor is the relationship between imperial expansion and revolutionary politics always inversely related: there are moments when in different times and places both advance or both retreat and, at least temporarily, a “third force” emerges. The uneven development of imperialism and revolution means that broad generalizations covering continent-wide activities over long or even short-term time spans are imprudent.
The optimal economic conditions for imperial expansion are ‘open’ economies that permit unrestricted flows of US capital, commodities, profits and interest payments. The best political conditions are regimes which facilitate the privatization of public enterprises, denationalization of foreign trade, denationalization of lucrative sectors of the economy and public infrastructure. Foremost from the perspectives of imperial investors are countries which have a reliable and cohesive political apparatus (military-dictatorial or electoral-civilian) which controls potential adversarial social classes. Imperialist investors prefer ‘honest’ electoralists who work full-time for their class interests over corrupt dictators who extort privileged positions for themselves, families and friends. However faced with a choice between an honest populist, socialist or nationalist or a murderous free-market dictator, Washington always supports and promotes the latter. Washington only accepts the fall of dictators when a revolutionary crisis emerges which threatens its strategic interests (the client state apparatus, US investments, automatic international alignment with the US) at which point it supports and promotes ‘regime change’, the election of a conservative civilian regime.
Imperial Strategies in Historical Perspective
Between 1946 to 1958 Washington backed dictatorial and authoritarian liberal regimes throughout the Caribbean and Latin America and worked to undermine ‘national-populist’ regimes in Guatemala, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina. Imperial strategists backed the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, Batista in Cuba, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Perez Jimenez in Venezuela, Duvalier in Haiti, Odria in Peru, Armas in Guatemala, Stroessner in Paraguay and the authoritarian civilian Videla and Ibanez regimes in Chile.
This dictatorial-neo-liberal period was a ‘perfect fit’ to US imperial needs in terms of trade, investment and international diplomatic and political alignment against the advance of socialism and nationalism in the rest of the world. The post-World Wad II counter-revolutionary wave faced counter-forces from the nationalists in Brazil under Vargas, Argentina under Peron, Guatemala under Arbenz and in Bolivia after the 1952 revolution from the armed revolutionary socialist miners.
These nationalist challenges were partially defeated by an alliance of US intelligence agencies, working with the local military and ruling class: Arbenz was overthrown in a CIA coup in 1954, Peron in a military coup in 1955, Vargas succumbed to pressure and committed suicide. In Bolivia, Washington was able to co-opt the petit bourgeois nationalists of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR). While Washington advanced in undermining its adversaries in the mid to late 1950’s, its clients in turn increasingly faced new revolutionary challenges culminating in the revolutionary overthrow of Batista in Cuba, and Perez Jimenez in Venezuela, and the exit of Odria in Peru and Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.
The “simultaneous revolutionary upsurge” from the late 1950’s to the middle of the 1960’s reflected several important new characteristics in relation to the nationalist opposition of the late 1940’s and 1950’s. The revolutionary upsurge had a strong radical socialist component which went beyond the earlier national populism of Peron, Vargas, the MNR and Arbenz. Secondly it relied on extra-parliamentary struggle guerrillas, insurrections and general strikes. Third it called into question the earlier alliances with the petit bourgeois electoralists like the MNR in Bolivia. Fourthly, the new revolutionary movements were a challenge to the rapacious authoritarian liberal export regimes of Central America and the Caribbean and the stagnation of the import-substitution ‘national populist regimes of South America. Fifth, while the origins of this revolutionary wave were rooted in the specificities of each nation, the regional similarities imposed by US counter-insurgency tactics and the common revolutionary ‘reference point’ in the Cuban Revolution created a point of convergence among the various revolutionary movements. The Cuban Revolution’s eminent success in achieving equality, sovereignty, popular power and in defeating US intervention tended to create a common pole of political struggle throughout sectors of the revolutionary left. This new context led Washington to fashion a new program (Alliance for Progress) which was tactically oriented toward allying with the reformist petit bourgeois parties to prevent new social revolutions and defeating popular insurgents and mass movements. These temporary alliances were designed to secure the strategic goal of establishing pro-US regimes. Strategically Washington sought to ‘roll-back’ the nationalist, socialist and populist gains of the 1950′ and early 1960’s and re-establish and extend the Central American/Caribbean liberal ‘model’ to all of South America.
Tactically, Washington adopted a multi-track policy the promise of reforms via the Alliance for Progress, the practice of direct armed intervention (Cuba, Dominican Republic) and a high profile military strategy involving counter-insurgency, military coups, overseas military missions and military aid and indoctrination programs. A big role in this effort at imperial containment of revolution was played by the local petit bourgeois electoral leaders in Venezuela (Betancourt), Colombia, Peru (Belaunde), Chile (Frei), Bolivia (Paz Estensoro), Argentina (Frondizi), and Brazil (Quadros), who followed Washington’s lead in co-coordinating counter-insurgency, reversing nationalist gains or promising “reforms” instead of revolution. This period of multi-track tactics, however, was eventually reduced to the primacy of the military option. The shift in tactics reflected Washington’s doubts about the effectiveness of the civilian electoral regimes and the reforms in containing the emerging revolutionary wave. Washington turned toward backing a series of military coups Dominican Republic in 1962, Brazil 1964, Argentina 1966, and Bolivia 1964 to eliminate the emerging revolutionary forces and set the stage for a ‘roll-back’ of nationalist populist reforms and to isolate revolutionary internationalist Cuba.
In the conjuncture of the late 1960’s the imperialist rollback strategy did not succeed in securing Washington’s control. In Brazil there was a popular upsurge in 1968-69, in Argentina there were national insurrectional uprisings in 1969 (including the famous Cordabazo), in the Dominican Republic a massive popular-military insurrection which toppled the client regime in 1965. In the late 1960’sand early 1970’s in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador nationalist military officials allied themselves with the populace to replace the pro-US electoral regimes. In Chile the electoral left won the election of 1970. In Cuba, the revolutionary regime consolidated power. All this demonstrated that US military and electoral policy could be temporarily defeated; that social programs beyond ‘nationalist-populism’ could be implemented; that new forms of popular representation could be realized.
Washington’s response to these defeats was to rethink its options and to proceed to radicalize its military, political and economic tactics in order to move forward to its strategic goal of imposing a continent-wide neo-liberal regimes under US imperial control. In Brazil Washington backed the bloody repression of the Costa Silva dictatorship; in Argentina Washington worked via Peronist death squads (The TripleAAA) and, after the coup of 1976, the terrorist dictators (1976-82) which murdered and disappeared 30,000 Argentines. In Chile, Washington promoted a military coup backed by the economic elite and the Christian Democrats, putting Pinochet in power for over 16 years. Similar processes operated in Uruguay and Bolivia in the early 1970’s. Washington supported long-term dictatorships in order to totally re-structure the legal, economic, political system to finally achieve its strategic goal the ‘neo-liberal state’ integrated in the empire.
Dictatorships of Long Duration and Bi-Party Clients: 1964-1980’s
The beginning of US-backed dictatorships of long duration in South America was accompanied by the defeat and challenge of US client dictators in Central America. In Nicaragua, the Somoza dictatorship whose family tyrannized the country for nearly a half-century — was overthrown by a popular insurrection. In El Salvador and Guatemala mass-based popular guerrillas challenged US-backed terrorist regimes and their liberal economic policies. In contrast, in South America “durable dictatorships” backed by the US took power. There has been little analysis of the specificity of the dictatorships of long duration (DLD), especially in terms of US strategic interests. DLDs required the total dismantling of the representative institutions, popular organizations of civil society, the physical assassination of mass leaders and the displacement, exile and incarceration of electoral politicians of the center-left and center. This massive, systematic repression was carried out with US military and civilian advisers, financial assistance and political backing. The purpose of massive repression was to allow the new dictatorial regimes time and a free hand in imposing large-scale, long-term transformation of the state, economy and society. These changes were in line with US strategic interest in establishing a new liberal or ‘neo-liberal’ order under US domination. The process began under the military regimes: trade barriers fell, privatizations of public enterprises began, foreign investment was encouraged, budgeting and fiscal policies favored local and US investors and the financial sector was deregulated. The scope and depth of the changes required to reverse almost 50 years of national popular legislation and institutions went beyond the time frame of military regimes. What Washington achieved during the military dictatorships was the creation of the legal, ideological and institutional foundations for the neo-liberal economy. The political-economic parameters for US domination were set in place by the time the military regimes began to deteriorate in the early 1980’s faced with a new upsurge of popular socio-political movements. Washington and European imperialism, however, did not simply rely on the single track of military rule but also cultivated political exiles and displaced politicians from the traditional populist, social democratic, and socialist parties, especially those who claimed to be ‘renovated’, that is, to have rejected their ‘statest’ past in favor of ‘market solutions’. Washington and Europe subsidized the future electoral parties, provided lucrative professional positions and fellowships to ‘exile’ electoral leaders, and prepared them ideologically for a return to electoral politics when mass popular direct action put the military regime in a crisis mode.
The key theoretical point is that the return of the electoralist “center-left” and “center-right” took place within the neo-liberal parameters established by the imperialist-military state. The purpose of the ex-populist, ex-socialist and ex-nationalist electoral elites was to demobilize the anti-dictatorial movement and channel it into electoral channels while deepening and extending the liberal policies of the dictator. If the military laid the foundations of the neo-liberal regime, the civilian electoralist constructed the structure through massive privatizations of all strategic sectors, total de-regulation, perpetual debt payments, and redistribution of wealth upward and outward.
The petit bourgeois electoralists succeeded in realizing the strategic interests of the US Empire a continent-wide liberal economy.
Between the 1980’s and 2004 the liberal onslaught continued despite the revolutionary upsurge during the 1990’s and early in the new millennium. The breakdown of the neo-liberal model in Argentina (2001) and Bolivia (2003) and the severe crisis in Brazil (1997/8) were temporary detours en route to complete US colonization.
Rise and Fall of the 1990’s Popular Upsurge
During the 1990’s the US-sponsored neo-liberal regimes and economies in Latin America experienced a series of breakdowns, severe crises and chronic stagnation. The economic failures of neo-liberal regimes generated a mass base for a new wave of radical social movements, who replaced the previous generation of electoral center-left and ex-radical parties of the 1980’s as the principal opposition to US imperialism. CONAIE in Ecuador, MST in Brazil, the Cocaleros in Bolivia, the unemployed piqueteros in Argentina, and the Zapatistas in Mexico each joined with urban-based movements to challenge the neo-liberal policies and in some cases to topple regimes. These movements and their politics of extra-parliamentary direct action detonated support within the cities among a minority of militant trade unionists.
In addition to the new mass direct action movements, the Colombian guerrilla (FARC and ELN) increased their territorial control and influence, surrounding the capital of Bogotá. In Venezuela, a new kind of nationalist politics which combined mass mobilization and class polarization with electoral politics headed by Chavez won the Presidency in 1998 on the basis of opposition to US imperialist policies. The high points of these movements occurred at different moments of the 1990’s peaking about 2001.
In response, Washington accelerated its militarization program on the one hand, and, on the other hand, adjusted its political strategy to promoting and co-opting a new generation of center-left politicians to serve its neo-liberal agenda.
Militarization includes a broad repertoire of tactics even in the same country. In Venezuela, Washington pursued a range of policies from promoting a military coup, a civilian-military coup, an employers’ lockout, a fraudulent referendum and the contracting of Colombian paramilitary forces for cross-border terrorist activity. Washington’s offensive tactics were in each instance defeated by an alliance between the urban poor and constitutional military forces. The conflicts radicalized the mass base of the Chavez movement, increased the level of grass roots organization, leading to expanded social programs but did not radicalize the regime’s policies toward bankers, industrialists or the owners of the mass media.
The US vastly increased its military aid to the Colombian regime and paramilitary forces under Plan Colombia and expanded its military bases throughout the Andean region. As a result of a scorched earth policy, the guerrilla encirclement of the major cities was weakened and the US-backed Uribe regime survives. However Plan Colombia has failed to inflict any strategic defeats on the guerrillas, and the level of urban and rural social discontent and social organization has increased.
Paradoxically, while the heightened militarization tactics of the US have failed to achieve strategic targets, its political tactics have been successful: Washington’s support of center-left electoral politicians has produced a number of strategic victories in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and most likely in Uruguay in the near future.
In each of these countries powerful social political movements have been fragmented, isolated, divided and weakened through the rise to power of ex-leftist parties formerly considered allies of the movements. The most striking case is the Lula regime in Brazil, the largest and most important economy in Latin America. Da Silva has provided the US with a “dream regime” setting aside a budget surplus of over 4.25% to pay foreign creditors, slashing pensions, reversing labor legislation, negotiating in favor of AlCA, heading up the military occupation of Haiti to prop up the US imposed puppet regime. Lula has virtually frozen the minimum wage below the level of inflation and expanded privatization to include basic infrastructure. Similar policies have been implemented by the pseudo-populists Gutierrez in Ecuador, Toledo in Peru, and Mesa in Bolivia. In Argentina the moderate conservative Kirchner regime has neutralized and divided the piquetero movement, retained the radical privatization and free trade policies implemented by his predecessors, while providing subsistence doles for the vast army of unemployed and providing small increases for impoverished pensioners.
The Dynamics of Petit-Bourgeois Electoralists and the Leaders of Social Movements
The relationship between petit bourgeois electoralists and social movements is a changing one highly dependent on the political conjuncture. In the run-up to taking electoral office, particularly in moments of deep social and political conflict, the electoralists seek out the ‘radical’ social movement leaders for political support to sustain the electoral system against the threat of a popular uprising. The electoralists utilize popular demagogy to deceive the popular movement and even promise a calendar to implement progressive and even nationalist social-economic reforms. To the leaders of the social movements they offer a “social pact” and the promise of future electoral opportunities. The purpose is clear: to encourage the social movement leaders to serve as “firemen” to demobilize the masses, to divide the movement and to oppose any large-scale protests. This tactical “left-turn” during the time of crisis allows the petit bourgeois electoralists to consolidate their control over the state and their relationship with the US embassy prior to proceeding to implement the neo-liberal program. Once de-mobilization has taken place and the movement has been divided, the petit bourgeois electoralists have a free hand to first repress those popular leaders not co-opted and then to move against the social base of their collaborator movement leaders. Subsequently the electoralists launch their neo-liberal offensive, discarding their “social partners” like used condoms.
This is perfectly exemplified in Bolivia under President Carlos Mesa in his relation to Evo Morales. First President Mesa secured Morales support to consolidate his regime with the promise of future presidential elections and a truce on coca eradication. Morales loyally fulfilled his tasks for Mesa: his cocalero movement, trade unions and political party opposed a general strike, supported Mesa’s referendum in favor of the private petroleum companies, and aligned with the President in Congress, even as Mesa explicitly put his regime under the supervision and direction of the US Ambassador, John Greenlee. With the full backing of the US Ambassador, Mesa launched a violent military campaign against the coca farmers and their union under Morales ‘leadership’, killing and injuring dozens and destroying thousands of cultivated acres. Morales facilitated this repression by decentralizing opposition to each local union, and refusing to organize a regional blockade of highways. To cover his failed policies he verbally threatened to withdraw congressional support, still holding onto the last threads of hope for the presidential elections three years in the future.
Mesa, backed by the military, the embassy and the economic elite was no longer in need of Morales, discarded Evo, who has been discredited nationally and even among some sectors of the coca unionists..
Imperialists oil multi-nationals and US imperial power were faced with an insurrectionary challenge in October 2003. They were able to reconsolidate control because of the political link with the petit-bourgeois electoralists and their political ability to recruit, utilize and discard social movement leaders according to the changing political conjuncture.
Empire Building: The Iron Linkages
Imperialist power is exercised through a chain of economic and political linkages, which are sustained by tactical adaptations to specific political conjunctures in order to sustain strategic interests. The key theoretical point is that this new wave of electoral neo-liberal politicians, formerly aligned with the major extra-parliamentary movements, has been able to temporarily channel political support behind regimes, which embrace the imperial agenda. The result is a deep disenchantment of the mass base of these movements (as in Ecuador), the political co-optation of some movement leaders (Bolivia), the division of the movements (Argentina) and a serious temporary decline in movement capabilities. No major national confrontation has taken place since the ascendancy of these new neo-liberal regimes took power though, over time, sectoral strikes and major demonstrations have re-started everywhere, and a new wave of uprisings especially in Bolivia is likely. While the US works with Latin American generals, the commanders of paramilitary groups, and agro-business and banking elites, its most significant political victories have accrued thanks to its linkages with the petit bourgeois electoral parties and politicians. They have been far more effective in demoralizing the masses than all the mass media propaganda outlets; they have been more effective in dividing and weakening the movements than all the “counter-insurgency” programs; they have been more effective in co-opting leaders and beheading movements than all the para-military death squads.
One should neither underestimate nor overestimate the significance of this imperialist-electoral petit bourgeois link. The ‘link’ is not a simple imposition on the ex-center-left, but a result of the internal dynamics of a rightward shift of these parties and leaders as they strive for greater social mobility, family wealth, political influence and social status. The “pressures of imperialism” reinforce reactionary tendencies inherent among upwardly mobile petit bourgeois electoralists.
The link however is not sustainable over the medium run as the neo-liberal policies erode initial popular support; disillusionment with some movement leaders leads to the emergence of new leaders and new movements; and some movement leaders, who are compromised with the failed electoral policies, return to the bases and revive the politics of direct action. A new cycle of mass mobilization extends throughout Latin America was visible by mid-2004 in several countries (Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil). However, these emerging struggles are mostly focused on short-term demands, through they could escalate in the near future.
Globalization or Imperial Re-Division of the World
The large-scale, long-term movement of capital into every region of the world has led many writers to speak of “globalization” a phenomenon which is said to describe a new historical phase in capitalists or imperialist development. A few writers even speak of an ‘interdependent’, post-imperial world. The magnitude and deepening of social economic inequalities of nations, classes, races and gender however and the enormous concentration of military power (and its use in wars of conquest) has led to an increasing number of writers to turn to the theory of imperialism. This is a theoretical and empirical advance in clarifying the nature of inter-state and class relations. While the recognition that imperialism is the driving force of the current epoch and conversely, anti-imperialist movements are the major challenge there is little clarity on the significance and principle impact of imperialism.
The single most significant fact about imperialism (in all of its manifestations, whether old US imperialism, revived European and Japanese imperialism or newly emerging Chinese imperialism is the re-division of the world. We are in the midst of a major struggle among the major and minor, old and new imperialisms, to seize control of regions, regimes, energy and strategic resources, through wars (unilateral and multilateral), “regional or bilateral free trade agreements”, military alliances and economic associations.
The several imperial powers are engaged everywhere in incorporating former communist and nationalist countries within their empires. Eastern Europe is incorporated into the European Union economic empire while the US incorporates the same countries under its tutelage via NATO and wartime “coalitions” as mercenaries in their empire. In Latin America, the US works to incorporate liberalized economies and regimes into its empire via trade and investment agreements, while European investments and buyouts of privatized enterprises enters to carve up sectors of the economies. Europe seeks to seize sectors of the Mercosur market via a new trade/investment pact, while the US advances its colonial scheme via ALCA.
In the Caucasus, Europe and the US compete to carve out enclaves of control: the US via client regimes and military bases and the Europeans via corporate buyouts of energy resources and bribes to corrupt rulers.
In the Middle East, Europe aims for investment/trade enclaves with comprador and rentier regimes, while the US moves toward direct military-colonial conquest to establish colonial regimes. The difference between US and European tactics in the Middle East is greatly influenced by Israeli influence over US Mid East policy, especially through its Zionist agents in the Pentagon.
In Africa, the Great Powers compete to carve up the oil and mineral rich states, fomenting regional wars in Sudan, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and elsewhere. Religious, tribal and ethnic identities are instrumentalized by each imperial center to undermine central governments and create mini-states, run by clients for major corporate interests.
We are in a period similar to the Great Re-division of Africa in the 1870’s and 80’s when the major European powers carved out their colonial territories. Today, on a much grander scale, we are witnessing a similar process accelerated by the forced disintegration of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and the Pan Arab movement. Russia is being divided through imperial-sponsored “separatist movements”. The aggressive military moves by the US in the Middle East are abetted by the Zionist sub-imperialist vision of a co-prosperity sphere. The aim is to monopolize strategic oil countries. This has led to the opposition of excluded European imperial powers. Carving up nations and regions, and the need to consolidate the newly incorporated clients into their respective empires requires an expanded military presence, and a more or less rapid deployment military force. Subsequently it is essential to fix an ‘election’ of a puppet regime to satisfy the ‘citizens’ of the imperial country and to quiet the noisy but inconsequential dissident social democrats and liberals. Insofar as the US and Europe are electoral systems, the citizens who vote for the imperialist regime are also responsible for imperialist genocide.
The ‘carving up of the world’ is the dominant characteristic of empire expansion in the contemporary period. It is carried out by agreements among the imperial powers (multi-lateral consultations, Security Council agreements, and ‘coalitions’), and with the active and passive acquiescence of a majority of its voters. Imperial agreements, however, do not preclude competition over regional spheres of influence, colonial reconstruction contracts, oil exploitation permits and takeovers of privatized state resources.
Carving up the world by unilateral force maximizes the potential advantages to the imperial power (it monopolizes the client relationships and resources) but it increases the risks of political isolation, prolonged and costly colonial wars. This may weaken imperial capacity to act in other regions of the world. This is best illustrated today by the US colonial power grab in Iraq.
Each imperial country attempts to weaken its rivals by characterizing their activities as “imperialist”, “illegitimate” and against “international law” especially in times of unilateral colonial occupation. Thus the high moral position adopted by Europe in relation to the US colonial war in Iraq. However in the case of Haiti, Afghanistan, and Sudan where both major imperial centers decided collectively to share influence, they issue joint solemn declarations of high moral principles in favor of colonial wars.
Carving up the World: Latin America
The imperial struggle to “carve up Latin America” has several particularities. One is the long-term imperial presence of the US in the region and the consequent long-standing and deep ties to the ruling class and military. The re-entry of Europe over the past two decades, particularly but not exclusively Spain, has led to competitive but not highly conflictual rivalries over control of strategic sectors of the privatized economy. The prolonged and inconclusive negotiations between the European Union and MERCOSUR are less the result of US obstruction and more the result of European refusal to sacrifice minority agricultural sectors to gain access to Latin American industrial, service, financial and commercial sectors. Similar problems have emerged in negotiations between the US and Latin America over ALCA.
The carving up of Latin America takes place among some countries which have a substantial industrial base or a large peasant and Indian subsistence agricultural sector all of which are obstacles to colonial exploitation based on maquiladora export platforms, financial pillage via debt payments and large-scale agro-exports based on agro-business corporations linked to giant imperial trading corporations.
The consequences of successfully ‘carving up’ Latin America will be to convert the region into an agro-business, agro-mineral, cheap labor manufacturing export platform capable of sustaining perpetual debt payments. This is a huge task that requires sustained efforts by the political class of electoralist politicians capable of deflecting and fragmenting inevitable popular resistance to this “roll-back” of 100 years of history. From the imperial perspective there are numerous positive signs the New Right politicians headed by Lula have taken important steps toward integrating Brazil into ALCA, while moving toward an agreement via MERCOSUR with the European Union. In a sense Brazil will be the first joint colony of the two major imperial powers. Similar processes are at work in the Andean countries of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. Venezuela’s opposition to the ‘carving up’ process has resulted in joint US and European support for a violent colonial restoration.
So far the carving up of Latin America proceeds through the “legal channels” of elected petit bourgeois politicians, not through wars or ethnic separatist movements. The principle obstacles to the re-division of Latin America are the class-based national resistance movements and the insurrectionary potentialities of class-based popular movements, as well as revolutionary socialist regimes like Cuba and nationalist governments like Venezuela.
Latin America’s carving up does not occur in the midst of severe inter-imperial conflict but via joint and competitive activities of US and European corporations and governments. The major strength and weakness of the imperial “carving up” process is found in the political link facilitating the process. The petit bourgeois electoralists promote colonial re-division but become severely compromised and rapidly deteriorate faced with mass opposition and uprisings. Unlike other regions, colonial carving up has led to heightened class warfare which links vital class issues of social-economic transformation with anti-imperialist struggles. In that sense Latin America provides a powerful reference point for the toilers of the world suffering from the imperial re-division of their countries.
JAMES PETRAS, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50 year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in brazil and argentina and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed). He can be reached at: email@example.com