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In Bolivia, Evo Morales has swept into the presidency after years of popular mobilization; the long-suffering indigenous and poor majority is demanding an alternative economic and social order.
In Venezuela, seven years after Hugo Chavez first won power, the Bolivarian Revolution is demonstrating an alternative path, powered by a people awakened to political action and in the process of transforming their society.
Part of the reason for the resurgent radicalism in Latin America is the fact that the United States government — for all their efforts at sabotage and asphyxiation — has never been able to fully eliminate the Cuban Revolution. Immediately following news of his massive election victory, Morales passed on this unsubtle message via Cuban television:
I want to tell the Cuban people, its government and its leaders: thank you, for showing how to govern, to Latin America and the rest of the world, and for defending its dignity and sovereignty. (Morales Praises Castro in Cuban TV Interview,, Agence France-Press, December 20, 2005)
Back in 1999, the year Chavez was inaugurated as Venezuela,s President, capitalism was still at the height of its triumphalism (until late in the year, at least, when the twin specters of a raucous protest in Seattle and Y2K paranoia intervened).
In addition to the bombast of fashionable neo-liberal intellectuals, and the scolding insistence of right-wing politicians, we would do well do recall that the deans of social democracy had also, by the 1990s to be sure, fallen in line to prostrate themselves before the market and justify the rule of capital. The Left, in power, at least in the form that Canada and Europe had known it as mass social democratic parties, has seemed all too willing to impose, or all too impotent to oppose, neo-liberal measures and legislation.
A remarkably colourless (in terms of both the pigmentation and the style of the writers) and vapid collection of essays — published the same year that Chavez came to power in Venezuela — outlined the perspectives of social democracy,s statesmen as of the late 1990s. The Future of Social Democracy (Russell, 1999) includes contributions from noted leftists, like Shimon Peres, who recently formed a new political party in Israel with Ariel Sharon, and Bob Rae, the dismal former New Democratic Party (NDP) premier of Ontario who used a column a few years ago in the ultra right-wing National Post to formalize his defection (Parting Company with the NDP,, April 16, 2002). Rae,s essay is the book,s concluding one and includes, believe it or not, a sentence analogizing Tommy Douglas, Marin Luther King Jr. and Tony Blair!
Without dwelling on this dry little book too long, it is worth noting the rigid and sectarian line explicitly laid-out by editor Peter Russell in his introduction:
- "the social democracy advocated here must be and is reformist, not revolutionary social democratic, not democratic socialist.
- "Social democracy,s mission has become not replacing capitalism with an alternative economic system but humanizing capitalism both nationally and internationally.
- "capitalism is the only economic system capable of producing the wealth needed to sustain a full and rewarding life for all citizens. (Rusell, PP.8-9)
None of the essays — including the one by Canada,s former NDP leader and outgoing Member of Parliament Ed Broadbent strays from Russell,s narrow confines. In an era of rampant privatization, respectable, social democracy has prostrated itself before the market as just another shade of liberalism.
Many prominent social democrats have in fact formally become liberals. Taking just a couple of recent Canadian examples, former British Columbia N.D.P. premier Ujjal Dosanjh is now the federal Liberal Minister of Health, while Rae is a darling of Liberal governments at both the provincial level as well as in Ottawa. Last year, for instance, the former Rhodes scholar angered student groups by recommending that the Ontario Liberal government further deregulate university tuition fees.
The Future of Social Democracy also makes almost no mention of any of the organizations in the Global South that have continued to emerge to challenge neo-liberalism. Despite the stated global outlook, the myopic vision of the leaders of the West,s major social democratic parties is startling. The lionization of capitalism,s efficiency and productivity seems all the more absurd, of course, from the perspective of the impoverished majority in the neo-colonial world, where for centuries labour and natural resources have produced the wealth of Western Europe and North America.
Today, global capitalism is being challenged most directly in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez,s own discourse has sharpened dramatically against international capital in recent months and years. The Bolivarian leader has made repeated calls for the building of socialism for the 21st century,.
The Bolivarian Revolution is carrying out a transformation of both the reality of Venezuela and of the global alignment of political forces. The gains of el proceso are preciously concrete, as seen in rising rates of literacy and education, mass expansion of health care services, land reform, new housing for the poor, and an explosion in cooperative worker co-managed enterprises. These reforms are part of a revolutionary process with a continental and global dynamic.
Regardless of what we are told by the guardians of economic and political power, there is an alternative. All progressive-minded people would be wise to look closely at Venezuela, Bolivia, and at the social movements of Latin America, where the people are leading the way towards a future beyond neo-liberalism.
DERRICK O’KEEFE is co-editor of Seven Oaks.