By now, much of the world is familiar with the Disney produced Pirates of the Carri bean films starring Johnny Depp as the pirate Jack Sparrow. These films portray pirates as men with humor and a desire for freedom and a sense of honor. Tariq Ali’s newest book borrows the title of these films, while utilizing a more politicized definition of the term pirate. The most succinct definition of Ali’s view of piracy can be found in the footnote he provides during a discussion of Simon Bolivar. In that note he quotes the author William S. Burroughs on the pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries from the introduction to his Cities of the Red Night trilogy: “Imagine such a (pirate) movement on a worldwide scale,” writes Burroughs. “Faced by the actual practice of freedom, the French and American revolutions would have to stand by their words…..” At the same time, Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope elucidates the perception of Chavez, Morales and Castro held by the capitalist nations–that these men and their followers are thieves, stealing what rightfully belongs to the already wealthy.
Throughout this short work, Ali acknowledges the connection between the states and movements in the Arab and Muslim world opposed to the one-world-under-US-capitalism project and the so-called Prates of the Caribbean in his book’s title: Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba. He is also quite careful to note that there are major differences between the two forms of opposition, the most important difference being that the Latin American movements represent a socialist and democratic movement that looks towards the future, while the Muslim movements have certain millenarian and capitalist urges that limit their abilities to transform the future for the hopes of those groups both movements claim. Those groups being, of course, the poor and disenfranchised of the planet.
The sections dealing with today’s Venezuela and Bolivia are essentially brief political histories with a particular emphasis on the hopes raised by the Bolivarian revolution after decades of betrayal by local politicians, the national bourgeoisies, and Latin America’s overly powerful northern neighbor. The section on Cuba is a pleasant travelogue cum history of that country’s revolutionary staying power. No sycophant, Ali points out the lack of various civil liberties and rights at certain times in revolutionary Cuba. However, unlike the western former radicals turned neoliberal apologists that he castigates throughout the book, Ali correctly points the finger at the hypocrisy of those who would criticize Cuba. The only detention without charges taking place in Cuba, Ali reminds us, is taking place in the US version of Great Britain’s H-Block–the detention center at Guantanamo Bay Navy Base.
The questions Ali asks regarding the governments Chavez and Morales defeated have a relevance to nations once referred to as first world nations–the US, UK, Germany. Indeed, the remarks scattered throughout regarding the bankruptcy of what Ali calls consensual diarchies has extreme relevance (Democrats-Republicans , Labor-Conservative, et al) to the ongoing bourgeois politics in those countries. Underlying this is the overriding success of the neoliberal capitalist globalization project–a project Ali calls the WC (or Washington Consensus) which many believe has made these parties the only game in town and simultaneously pushed the poor, young, indigenous and other disenfranchised further out of the circle they run. A circle which is shrinking, thanks in no small part to the successes of the popular movements symbolized by the victories of Morales and Chavez.
As I write this, it appears that Rafael Correa of Ecuador will be joining the cadre of Latin American leaders in the fleet determined to undermine the Washington Consensus on their continent. Meanwhile, reports are coming out of Venezuela of a huge rally supporting Chavez’s opponent in the December 3, 2006 election, while US polling companies continue to show Chavez with a 30 percent lead. Although Correa, Chavez and Morales all ran democratic campaigns and won through elections considered among the fairest ever seen by all non-aligned observers, the pro-WC media continues to cry foul and, in some instances, actually seem to instigate violence against these popular governments.
Ali saves some of his bitterest sarcasm for those former revolutionaries who jumped ship and joined the imperial forces represented by the WC. This doesn’t mean he is sycophantic in his reportage of those that didn’t. Indeed, the section on Cuba does not spare that country’s government from its Stalinist excesses and paranoid overreaction to homosexuality and criticism of its polices. But his real wrath is for men like Venezuelan newspaper publisher and politician Teodoro Petkoff, a former guerrilla and socialist whose hatred of Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution led him to support–editorially and otherwise– the 2002 coup against Chavez. Prior to this, Petkoff supported every neoliberal economic measure that has come Venezuela’s way since the early 1990s, including those policies that ensured most of the country’s oil profits went to foreign companies and wealthy Venezuelans.
The writing is vintage Ali. Acerbic and even caustic at times, funny and witty at others, a sentiment of hope underlies it all. The primary drawback to this book is its brevity. ON the other hand, this is exactly what makes it a good introduction to the tortuous history of the nations discussed and the positive aspects of those nations’ current governments. If one is familiar with the radical movement represented by Morales and Chavez, and aware of the inspiration Cuba has provided to revolutionaries throughout Latin America, then this text is interesting for its language and the various threads and literary inspirations Mr. Ali pulls together. There are other books on this subject written from a perspective similar to Ali’s that contain more information and analysis, but there none that are written in a manner as lively as this one. Besides the writing style to recommend it, Pirates of the Caribbean is highly recommended reading for one who is just developing a curiosity about these nations and their politics.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is forthcoming from Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com