George Cicciarello-Maher’s latest book examines the rise of community self-governance in Chavéz’s Venezuela.
Few political imaginaries hold such romantic traction as the ‘commune’. Looming large in social memory is the Paris Commune, formed in 1871 when workers and revolutionaries seized the city of Paris and organised on radical socialist principles. Though short-lived, the Paris Commune emerged as a benchmark for later revolutionary movements which sought to emulate direct democracy.
Premised on the belief that people should have direct control over their own lives and that the collective spirit trumps the individual, the communal ethos has also inspired what might be the boldest ambition of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution; to re-build Venezuela as a ‘communal’ state. In his famous El Golpe de Timón (Strike at the Helm) speech delivered in 2012, Chávez implored a speedier implementation of communes as part of Venezuela’s transition to socialism from below. With Venezuela crippled by triple-digit inflation and chronic shortages of food and medicine, George Cicciarello-Maher’s latest book stands as an optimistic and timely defence of some core facets in the Venezuelan political model.
Elegant and highly accessible, Building the Commune documents the thorny process of establishing communes in Venezuela, as well as the political challenges facing the Bolivarian Revolution more generally. He draws on interviews with policy high-ups and grassroots comuneros to convey a complex picture of a political experiment in motion. Cicciarello-Maher centres these Venezuelan communal developments in the recent context of worldwide protest, from Occupy to the Indignados, all part of what he enthusiastically labels ‘the age of riots and rebellions’.
Venezuela’s communal councils, established in a 2006 law, allow small communities to group together and self-govern on local issues and collective needs. Communes are officially recognised institutions for directly democratic self-government at local level: ‘No two communes look exactly alike,’ Cicciariello-Maher observes.
Cicciariello-Maher explains that to form a commune, participants from communal councils come together and vote in a referendum. If the commune is approved, each council then sends an elected delegate to this communal parliament. All those elected are subject to citizen oversight and can be recalled from power. For Chávez, communes were the building blocks of socialism; currently there are 45,000 communal councils, incorporated into 1,500 communes.
But as Cicciarello-Maher emphasises, although Chávez created the constitutional apparatus for communes, their beginnings emerge in the 1980s when barrio residents in urban areas began forming networks of barrio assemblies. Ever anxious to stress the movement’s bottom-up impulses, Cicciariello-Maher identifies the presence of traditional indigenous modes of organising, as well as the legacy of maroon communities (fugitive slaves) in the Venezuelan communal tendency.
Over 90 per cent of Venezuelans live in the cities, drawn there in recent decades by the lure of the oil economy. Cicciarello-Maher nods to the interesting dynamics this produces, as elements of rural modes of behaviour carry through in the urban setting. Closer analysis of rural and urban differences in communal organising would be an interesting off-shoot of this observation.
Cicciarello-Maher broadly sketches the spatial politics of Venezuela’s cities, noting how urban space and land redistribution
A concise history of United States interventions by Alan McPherson.
In A Short History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, Alan McPherson provides a potted account of US involvement and interference in Latin America through a number of cases from 1811 (continental expansion) to 2016 (drug wars). In each case he examines the ‘Five Cs’: causes, consequences, contestation, collaboration and context and provides troop and casualty figures as well as revealing quotes from those involved.
McPherson’s primary focus is on the ‘Banana Wars’ during the first third of the 20th century, with only three of the nine chapters covering the Cold War and later. The book further focuses on military interventions; while, for McPherson, military training and ‘diplomatic arm-twisting’ qualify as US pressure, they ‘nevertheless do not rise to the definition of an intervention.’
This is the principal reason why McPherson’s history, while balanced, falls short. For instance, while noting that during the Cold War, the majority of Latin American governments, with US arms and training ‘became the worst abusers of human rights’, he fails to mention that the ‘fiercely anti-Communist’, ‘often fascist’ ideology of the highly-repressive national security doctrine which characterised the regimes was imparted via, and a crucial component of, the counterinsurgency doctrine which ran through US military training.
Similarly, turning to the 21st century, whilst US intervention in Haiti in 2004 is recounted, US funding of opposition groups and diplomatic support for coups in Venezuela (2002), Honduras (2009) and Paraguay (2012) falls outside the scope of the study and receives no mention. This is perhaps understandable considering the remit, but remains disappointing. Returning briefly to the Cold War, it is remarkable that extensive US involvement in El Salvador’s civil war is reduced to simply ‘a U.S.-supported right-wing regime.’
Whilst this short history leaves more to be desired, particularly with regards to contemporary relations, its focus on the Banana Wars is welcome. McPherson’s book is a useful and informative introduction to US-Latin America relations.
A Short History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean
Alan McPherson (Wiley Blackwell, 2016)
This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue three (Winter 2016/17)
Noam Chomsky’s fierce critique of United States policy in Central America,
In 1985, as Central America was being torn apart by increased militarisation and civil wars rife with US-armed death squads, Noam Chomsky published Turning the Tide, which offered a searing indictment of US policies towards the region. The book showcased Chomsky’s ability to pull together a variety of sources to present ‘a world that is much uglier’ than ‘the one presented to us by a remarkably effective ideological system’ – indeed, one that is ‘often horrifying’.
In the second chapter Chomsky recalls the ‘Four Freedoms’ pronounced by Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1941, but adds a fifth: ‘the freedom to rob and to exploit’. This is the ‘most important’ Freedom and ‘the one that really counts’. ‘A careful look at history and the internal record of planning’, he contends, ‘reveals a guiding geopolitical conception: reservation of the Fifth Freedom, by whatever means are feasible’, and for Chomsky ‘Much of what US governments do in the world can readily be understood in terms of this principle’. With this in mind he explores the exercising of this ‘Freedom’ by the United States, with particular focus on ‘the gruesome record of Reaganite state terrorism in Central America’, as he describes in the preface accompanying a new edition of the book published this year.
Indeed, such is the record in what Chomsky describes as ‘one of the world’s most awful horror chambers’, that even for those familiar with the style and content of his work, the text makes for deeply unsettling reading. The book includes countless accounts and testimonies of barbarity including torture and massacre, mass rapes, mutilation and dismemberment – to name but some methods employed by US-trained terrorists. In fact, possibly more shocking is not the nature of the violence, but that with every subsequent account – and there are many – they increase in brutality, and never fail to shock and appal.
Chomsky considers possible answers to the question of what lay behind this violence, framing his enquiry around a 1948 document by George Kennan, head of the State Department policy planning staff, which advised ‘ceas[ing] to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratisation’. Multiple studies Chomsky reviews show an overwhelming proportion of US aid going to the most repressive regimes and he argues that the primary concern of US policy is to develop desirable conditions for investment. ‘[I]n the Third World’, he writes, an ‘improvement in the investment climate is regularly achieved by destruction of popular organisations, torture of labor and peasant organizers, killing of priests engaged in social reforms, and general mass murder and repression’. It is such aims which lead the CIA to recruit former-Nazis in subversive and repressive activities, as detailed in the book.
Turning the Tide was published three years before Chomsky and Edward Herman’s influential critique of the mainstream media, Manufacturing Consent. Here, he foreshadows that work by similarly excoriating the press, accusing it of ‘a sordid display of moral cowardice’
Sounds and Colours publish their third Latin America country guidebook.
The people behind the online magazine Sounds & Colours have published their third impressive guidebook on Latin American culture. Their first two releases were detailed forays into the threads of contemporary art and music in Brazil and Colombia. This third book focuses on Peru, and the editors have sourced a series of independent essays from an eclectic array of individuals whose knowledge about their particular topic is conveyed in a well-designed and accessible book.
An inescapable difficulty with writing about music is how words alone fail to capture the sensory reaction and stimulation of simply listening to the music itself. Fortunately the editors have circumnavigated this potential shortcoming by compiling a CD of Peruvian sounds. As if to make a vivid point, the CD opens with two punchy rock tunes, and goes on to highlight the diversity of modern Peruvian music, from tropical bass to psychedelic folk.
The eye-catching cover artwork by Mara Mantari Ramos that adorns this 200-page tome pulls the reader in from the outset. Inside, the information-rich and at times dense chapters cover diverse areas from Afro-Peruvian culture to the life and dreams of the poet Enrique Verástegui. The text is interspersed with illustrations and photography that eschew the clichés of a Lonely Planet style touristic outlook. The photos of Carlo Rodrigo Rojas bring to life rural celebrations in the small town of Huaylas while the humanistic photography of Paccarik Orue tells the urban story of the Andean city of Cerro de Pasco, where folkloric and cultural traditions are threatened by the expansion of the mining operations which sustain the city.
A surrealist highlight is the chapter on music and ayahuasca by the French filmmaker Vincent Moon, an avid documenter of traditional and present day musical styles. His time spent in the Amazon has been captured in the short film Sonidos del Perú: Justina, which is included as a DVD.
For anyone that thinks that Peru is mainly about Machu Picchu, llamas and poncho adorned, Sounds and Colours Perú shows another side to the country. Home to a vibrant scene of electro, beat poetry and political documentary, this is an indispensable guide to the modern nation.
Sounds and Colours Perú
Various authors (Sounds and Colours, 2015)
This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue two (Winter 2015)
The internationally-renowned history of colonial exploitation of Latin America
Barack Obama looked bemused when, during his first visit to Latin America as US President in 2009, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez thrust a book into his hands. Within days, the book, Open Veins of Latin America by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, had become a bestseller.
Obama thought he was being given a sort of ‘little red book’ of Chávez’s sayings, but Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America was a book that had been cherished by the left in Latin America for decades. It was one of only two books novelist Isabel Allende hurriedly packed in her suitcase when she fled Chile, after her cousin, the democratically-elected President Salvador Allende, was overthrown in Pinochet’s coup in 1973. Galeano himself was most proud of the impact it had on the streets. He recalled a young woman quietly reading it to her companion on a bus in Bogotá, and then standing up to read it aloud to all the passengers. As Chávez told reporters after meeting Obama: ‘This book is a monument in our Latin American history.’
First published in 1971, Galeano’s work is a devastating account of the impoverishment of Latin America by foreign powers and multinational companies. Written deliberately in the ‘style of a novel about love and pirates’, the author explained: ‘I confess I get a pain from reading valuable works by certain sociologists, political experts, economists and historians who write in code.’
Galeano’s story-telling powers are used to conjure up vivid images of colonial Latin America: how the Spanish stripped the veins of white silver from Bolivia’s Cerro Rico, a mountain of ‘reddish hues, slender form and giant size’, leaving Potosí one of the most impoverished cities in the world, and how European hunger for sugar left the humid coastal fringe of north-eastern Brazil a dry scrubland. The colonialists built churches that ‘glistened with pure gold on their altars’ and squandered their riches on spectacles, ‘processions in triumphant mother-of-pearl, silk and gold chariots, with fantastic costumes and dazzling settings’.
Open Veins of Latin America relies heavily on the work of the dependency theorists of the 1960s, particularly the US-German Marxist Andre Gunder Frank, and the early works of the Brazilian sociologist Celso Furtado. Dependency theory grew out of frustration at the failure of post-war industrialisation, by populists such as Argentina’s Juan Perón and Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas, to free the region from underdevelopment. Industrialisation benefited foreign multinationals, which acquired cheap labour and captive markets, and exported the profits, while Latin American economies were left reliant on importing high-tech capital goods.
Dependency theorists wanted radical popular action to change society. Many were inspired by the Cuban revolution of 1959, and a cautious enthusiasm for the Cuban revolutionary experiment ripples through Galeano’s pages. The 1960s and early 1970s were an exciting period for the left. Che Guevara left Cuba to foment revolution on the mainland and many guerrilla organisations were formed: the Sandinistas (Nicaragua), Montoneros (Argentina), Tupamaros (Uruguay) and FPL (El Salvador). A seminal moment was the election in
Jasmin Hristov’s startling examination of the role of paramilitaries in expanding neoliberalism in Colombia.
For Jasmin Hristov, the paramilitarism and violent dispossession that persists in Colombia long after paramilitaries were claimed to have been demobilised back in 2006 presents ‘no better opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of Marx’s description of capital as “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt”‘. ‘[H]ow can we desist from the struggle for social justice’, asks Hristov, ‘when the faces of poverty and the forces that sustain it are horrifying?’
In this important and informative study, Hristov utilises Marx’s theory of ‘primitive accumulation’ to dissect the relationship between neoliberalism and paramilitarism, exploring the dynamics in depth and using Colombia as her backdrop. Such a framework of analysis is critical, she explains, because ‘with its attention to the material foundations of social relations, [it] can help us in understanding the causes of human rights violations in a more comprehensive way’.
In Colombia, we read, ‘The growth in paramilitary activities and the territorial expansion of such organisations between 1990 and 2005 was in parallel to the onset of neoliberalism.’ Indeed Hristov quotes the observation of one paramilitary: ‘Business needs security’.
Though the book is short, its content is comprehensive and Hristov is convincing in her explanation of the serviceability of paramilitarism in the interests of neoliberal capital accumulation. She furthermore emphasises the importance of the Colombian example – beyond its own borders – by pointing to the activity of Colombian paramilitaries in other Latin American countries. Hristov’s theorisation is also complemented by helpful differentiations between paramilitaries, death squads, vigilante groups and warlords, as well as the activities of paramilitaries in multiple states across Latin America.
In short, Hristov’s Paramilitarism & Neoliberalism: Violent Systems of Capital Accumulation in Colombia and Beyond not only offers a lucid account of the relationship between neoliberalism and paramilitarism, but places it within the context of Colombia’s ‘history of dispossession’ with passion and precision. Her book is an essential text in understanding the violence that continues to ravage Colombia to this day.
Paramilitarism & Neoliberalism: Violent Systems of Capital Accumulation in Colombia and Beyond
Jasmin Hristov (Pluto, 2014)
This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue one (Spring/Summer 2015)
Óscar Martínez reports on the vortex of violence between Central America and the United States.
In 1938 Graham Greene wrote a cantankerous account of his travels in southern Mexico and its revolutionary anti-clericalism entitled The Lawless Roads. Nearly 80 years later, the roads across Mexico are still lawless and steeped in blood, but now the blood belongs to migrants not priests.
The bodies of 70,000 lie buried along the ‘death corridor’ of the migrants’ trail which links Central America with the US border. Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (originally Los Migrantes que no Importan – ‘The Migrants who Don’t Matter’) is an astonishingly powerful and courageous depiction of the inexplicable savagery and grotesque violence that accompanies migrants on this journey north. In gripping and colourful prose, each chapter documents the migrants as they edge ever closer to El Norte and the possibility of ‘una vida mejor’ (a better life).
The Beast (La Bestia) is the name of the freight trains that snake through Mexico to the US border. Every day around 1,500 Central American migrants climb on to it, risking death through falling (‘Just today I learned that a boy named José lost his head under that train’), amputation, and extortion and kidnapping from gangs. More than a quarter of a million Central Americans make this perilous journey each year.
It is the desolate rural territory, and especially La Arrocera ― ‘stained red by the blood of migrants, some say’ ― which is most dangerous. Women migrants face the additional threat of sexual assault, rape and mutilation. Martínez reveals that an estimated eight out of ten migrant women who attempt to cross Mexico suffer sexual abuse along the way. ‘En route to El Norte I saw, and began to understand, that the bodies left here are innumerable, and that rape is only one of the countless threats a migrant confronts.’ There are ‘bra trees’ whose only fruit is the underwear of assaulted women, inexplicably discarded as trophies.
In the fourth chapter Martínez narrates the plight of Central American women migrants who are trapped in southern Mexican prostitution rings. Many, like ‘Erika’, came to Mexico – on their way to the US – as children fleeing slavery, physical and sexual abuse, and systemic gang violence. According to The National Institute of Statistics and Geography, there are an estimated 20,000 boys and girls enslaved or being exploited by sex traffickers throughout Mexico.
Martínez, a consummate reporter, ensures that the voices of the customarily voiceless permeate as he tugs his invisible protagonists out of the shadows. Although much of the slang is lost in translation, the speech he relays is gritty and lively, and his descriptions are lyrically evocative ― ‘I don’t have a clue which sons-of-bitches are threatening us.’ He recounts how Jaime, a migrant who falls from La Bestia, ends up with a mutilated leg constituting ‘bone and ground skin and a barely attached, macerated, bluish hunk of foot,’ while in the Rio Grande dead bodies
Combining academic research and extensive fieldwork, Jeffrey Webber sets out to explain the underlying dynamics of a decade long political process in Bolivia
The election of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, on the back of a mass rebellion that overthrew successive governments has stirred great interest in this small Andean nation. Given that the Evo Morales government recently celebrated its 2000th day in power – a feat in its own right for a country that has had around 180 coups since 1825 – any serious attempt to explain the underlying dynamics of this decade long political process should be welcomed.
Combining his academic research and extensive fieldwork in Bolivia, Jeffrey Webber sets out to do exactly that in From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia. Unfortunately, the end result leaves a lot to be desired.
The purpose of Webber’s book is to convince readers that the election of the Morales government actually represented a leap backwards that ‘steered the political conjuncture away from the radicalism of the streets towards the tamer terrain of electoral politics.’ Furthermore, Webber attempts to argue that in place of moderate change, the Morales government has presided over a period of ‘reconstituted neoliberalism’ that has brought about ‘almost no change’ in the conditions of ordinary Bolivians.
Such an argument definitely goes against the grain of the overwhelming bulk of literature dedicated to the Morales government. But Webber defends his view as superior to those that ‘replace careful examination of empirical reality with the casual celebration of press releases issued from the presidential palace.’ Only those that oppose the MAS government, says Webber, hold ‘a responsible perspective, authentically in solidarity with the popular struggles for socialism and indigenous liberation.’
Given the hostile tone of his sweeping attacks on the government and its supporters, one would expect a thorough and detailed analysis that patiently explains where it all went wrong. Instead we get a litany of errors and misleading statements. A classic example is Webber’s attempt to prove ‘the regional successes enjoyed by the [right-wing] autonomist movement in the early years under Morales’ by pointing to two rallies ‘of great importance’ that occurred in June 2004 and January 2005. … a year before Morales was even in power! But the biggest problem is not his inability to use facts that back up, rather than contradict his arguments. Rather, it is his failure to deal concretely with opposing viewpoints, the relationship between the government and social movements, and the achievements of the Morales government.
Straw Man Arguments
A constant attempt to confuse, rather than clarify, the key issues in debate runs right through Webber’s book. Anyone who expresses any sympathy with the Morales government is brandished as a ‘loyalist’ and an advocate of reformist change through parliament rather than independent mobilisation from below. Yet everyone agrees that Morales’ election was only possible due to the preceding five years of social struggle. Similarly, a consensus exists regarding the importance of the constant mobilisation of social movements in defense of their government or defeating successive attempts to overthrow Morales. Given the
A scholarly work on the Venezuelan people, their cultures and struggles
It is a sad fact that most Chávez-era commentators on Venezuela have forgotten Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that in order to understand a nation’s politics, we must first understand its people. Despite a steady stream of journalists, academics, filmmakers and solidarity activists to the country since the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998, the everyday experiences, attitudes and struggles of the Venezuelan people have remained more or less unexamined in most accounts of the Bolivarian Revolution. Faced with a concerted anti-Chávez campaign waged through the Venezuelan and international corporate media, most commentators on the left have largely concerned themselves with histories of the Venezuelan state and its politics since 1958, profiles of Chavez the man and descriptions of his administration’s policies over the last decade.
Sujatha Fernandes’s Who Can Stop The Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela is a timely break with this trend. Drawing on ethnographic research carried out in several of Caracas’s most well-known and politically active barrio communities – La Vega, 23 de Enero and San Augustin – Fernandes places the social histories, personal narratives and everyday experiences of barrio inhabitants at the centre of her analysis. Arguing that the agency of ordinary people has been neglected in both top-down political science accounts and pro-Chávez accounts that celebrate projects such as the social missions and communal councils, Fernandes instead emphasises the importance of the grassroots social movements that pre-dated Chávez, the role of the Chávez era in allowing these movements to flourish, and the complexities and contradictions that activists face as they interact with state institutions and functionaries. As she writes, ‘To see Chávez as an independent figure pontificating from above, or popular movements as originating in autonomous spaces from below, would be to deny the interdependencies between them that both constrain and make possible each other’s field of action.’
Paying close attention to the relationship between the formation of the barrios and the evolution of popular politics, Fernandes traces the history of political organising in the barrios, describing how resistance to the Perez-Jiménez dictatorship in the 1950s helped establish political organisation in the barrios, principally through juntas linked to Accion Democratica (AD) and the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV). After the fall of Perez-Jiménez and the establishment of Venezuela’s ‘pacted democracy’ in 1958, barrios such as 23 de Enero saw the emergence of a guerrilla movement, which took inspiration from the Cuban Revolution and sought to challenge the diffusion of reformist, clientelist politics. Though the guerrilla movement had largely dwindled by the 1970s, Fernandes shows how its history contributed to the presence of a political consciousness that became integral to barrio social life through the coming decades.
Drawing on the oral histories of activists, Fernandes describes how this political consciousness has passed through a series of different phases as it has responded to historical shifts in Venezuelan society. During the 1970s and 80s the influence of Liberation Theology saw a greater focus on local issues and the emergence of grassroots sporting, cultural