But the story of 21st century resistance is not just about countries, alliances, new economic institutions that mimic the old. Grassroots social movements have been spreading like wild fire all across the face of the globe. The story can begin in many places and at various times: the new social movements of the 1980s; the Zapatistas of the 1990s; the anti-globalization/anti-IMF campaigns going back to the 1960s and continuing off and on until the new century; or repeated mass mobilizations against a Free Trade Agreement for the Americas. (Harry Targ, “The Empire in Disarray: Global Challenges to the International Order,” The Rag Blog, April 10, 2013).
On Imperialism and Resistance
Theories of imperialism emphasize the role of capital accumulation, the drive for ever larger profits, the exploitation of workers and peasants, and the expropriation of land. The needs of the economic system are typically served by military force when profits cannot be gained through other means. Also social control in poor countries is achieved by building alliances between ruling classes in rich and poor countries.
This story of imperialism explains much of human history. But the pursuit of profit, the capacity to exploit, the conquest of land, and the institutionalization of policies that maximize the interests of the powerful generate resistance. That too is part of the story. In the twenty-first century, countries such as China, India, and Brazil are demanding that some of the rules of economic exchange be rewritten. Groups of marginalized nation-states have joined together to form political and economic organizations on every continent. Most importantly, social movements have emerged all across the globe around critical issues. And because of new technologies, movements in one geographic space are now visible to all.
Latin American Resistance and Counter-Resistance
Perhaps the most interesting and inspiring forms of resistance over the last 25 years have been observed in Latin America. Cuba, the long-isolated nation which has inspired revolutionary ferment in the Global South, has been joined by political regimes throughout the continent. In this century resistance has come from grassroots organizing and electoral processes. These have led many countries in the region to adopt radical reforms, economic populism, and visions of twenty-first century socialism. The Bolivarian Revolution, so named by Hugo Chavez, spread from Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, to Nicaragua. Modest adaptations of radical reform surfaced in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and for a time Paraguay and Honduras. These countries embraced some or all of the following:
- the construction of socialist parties to run candidates for local and national office.
- cooperation in the establishment of regional international organizations such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), The Bank of the South, The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), The Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR), and various bilateral agreements including Cuba’s exchange of medical practitioners for Venezuelan oil.
- the articulation of common Latin American responses to traditional United States and European global hegemony. This includes demands for change in European and North American control of voting power in international organizations such as the IMF, opposition to the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas proposed by the United States, and demands that the United States normalize relations with Cuba.
- the establishment of alternative forms of local political power.
- the construction of agricultural and industrial cooperatives.
- the emergence of grassroots organizations.
- the recognition of indigenous rights.
- the realization that the distribution of wealth and power between and within countries needs to be changed.
In sum, theories of imperialism, hegemony, dependency need to be complemented by an understanding of the theory and practice of resistance. Mobilizations as varied as the thousands of groups attending the World Social Fora to the politics of the Bolivarian Revolution, to Arab Spring, to Occupy are all part of the story of the twenty-first century. However, narratives of imperialism and resistance must also be sensitive to “counter-resistance.” History does not move in a steady course. Conflict and struggle are experienced all along the way. And therefore theorists and advocates of twenty-first century socialism must be cognizant of and be prepared for counter-resistance and reversals in the progressive flow of history.
Counter-Resistance and Defeat in Venezuela
Recently peoples’ movements suffered defeats in elections in two countries: Argentina and Venezuela. In Argentina, a neoliberal opposition party candidate, Mauricio Macri, defeated the hand-picked choice of incumbent president Christina Kirchner in October. And, in parliamentary elections in Venezuela on December 6, the Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD) won two-thirds of the legislative seats over the incumbent Chavista party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). This latter defeat in particular will have significant consequences in the near-term future for policies, programs, and left movements throughout the region.
Why did the PSUV incur this first major loss since the rise to power of Hugo Chavez in 1998? The answer to the question involves both external and internal causes. Externally, the loss was influenced by United States programs initiated years ago to intervene in the internal affairs of Venezuela. The United States trained and funded opposition political forces, encouraged a military coup to oust Chavez from power, and gave support to the wealthy class, to do whatever would bring down the Bolivarian Revolution.
In addition, U.S. policy has pressured Latin American governments to resist collaboration with its Venezuelan nemesis. Its policy tilted more toward Venezuela’s historic adversary, Colombia. In 2010 the U.S. constructed seven new military bases in Colombia to exacerbate tensions between those two countries.
Finally, the price of oil on the world market has dropped precipitously over the last four years, thus depriving the Venezuelan economy of its most lucrative export-earning commodity.
Along with the 17-year United States campaign to overthrow the Bolivarian Revolution throughout the region, internal forces impacted significantly on the December 6 election defeat of the PSUV. Although the Chavez/Maduro regimes have prioritized new grassroots political institutions and have encouraged the expansion of cooperatives, particularly in the rural areas, Venezuelans in some communities were frustrated by bureaucratic stifling of local initiatives and political corruption. Also, while there has been a radical redistribution of the right to healthcare and food, in recent years these benefits have become scarce and accessing them has become more time consuming. Finally, as a result of economic crises, inflation has skyrocketed and basic consumer goods have become unavailable or unaffordable. Venezuelan voters were frustrated by current economic crises even though the 17 years of Chavista rule has led to substantial declines in poverty and the Cuban doctors have made health care readily available to those who formerly did not have access to it.
Finally, PSUV victories and the passion for Venezuela’s peaceful revolution drew substantial support from its charismatic leader, Hugo Chavez. With his death, a less appealing Nicholas Maduro was not able to maintain the authority of his predecessor.
What are some of the lessons to be drawn from the defeats in Latin America, particularly in Venezuela?
First, history reveals that successful resistance over imperialism and domination often leads to reaction, or what might be called “counter-resistance.” Activists should be aware that reversals in the face of organized reaction are likely and they therefore should not despair.
Second, progressives in the United States should continue to oppose militarism, subversion, and economic strangulation targeted against regimes that challenge traditional hegemony. In addition they might more effectively explain how communities and nations in Latin America are constructing alternative institutions such as workplace and agricultural cooperatives and alternative organizations of peoples’ power.
Third, the consequences of the election for Venezuela itself are unclear. But it can be assumed that MUD will use its two-thirds majority in the parliament to reverse the policies of economic populism, political change, and Venezuela’s positive relationships with other countries, particularly Cuba. Maduro, however, is still president and he will resist efforts to reverse the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Fourth, ultimately the future course of the country will be determined by the grassroots formations already created by the Bolivarian Revolution. If the people stand up to protect their cooperatives, their alternative local decision-making bodies, their new lives, then MUD (a fractious coalition of center-right and right-wing forces) will have limited powers to reverse the last seventeen years of the construction of twenty-first century socialism. And the level of intensity of the defense of the Bolivarian Revolution is relevant to observe throughout Latin America as well.
Fifth, MUD will probably prioritize a reversal of Venezuelan/Cuban relations and the other agreements Venezuela has made to provide oil for resource poor nations. The ramifications for the economies of these countries might be large, as would the loss of Cuban doctors to the Venezuelan people.
Sixth, and of more long-term consequence, poor countries have to figure out ways to constructvibrant and diverse economies that do not depend on a single temporarily valuable natural resource for export. History is replete with accounts of countries which gained temporary wealth because of gold, silver, nickel, or singular agricultural commodities such as sugar or tobacco. They then became victims of conquest and vulnerable to declines in global demand. In the case of oil, extraction means environmental devastation. In countries such as Ecuador and Brazil oil exploration, even if the profits derived from it are shared with the population at large, generates justifiable anger among indigenous people who object to policies that destroy local communities and their ecology.
Finally, most regimes that have come to power through struggle have gained legitimacy from charismatic figures. In Latin America, Simon Bolivar, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and most recently Hugo Chavez, for example, have excited the imagination and enthusiasm of their people. Charismatic authority has been both a blessing and a curse as people struggle to build a better future. Twenty-first century socialism will be built on passion and enthusiasm but it is more likely to endure if that passion and enthusiasm is based on all those who construct it, not a small number ofleaders.