ON October 15, 2017, the Venezuelan people went to the polls to elect their regional governors. Tensions swept through not only Venezuela, but across Latin America. Would the attrition of the Bolivarian project in Venezuela now be complete? Would this presage the defeat of the government of Nicolas Maduro in the presidential elections to be held in October 2018? US President Donald Trump waded into the Venezuelan elections, calling for the defeat of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the party led by Maduro. He failed. The alliance led by the PSUV won 18 of the 23 governorships. ‘Our people have sent a blunt message to the imperialist government of Donald Trump, his regional allies and the local right’, Maduro said a week later. Trump threatened deep economic sanctions, but Maduro countered, ‘No economic war nor inflation inflicted on us will ever make the country surrender’.
Across the hemisphere, Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua stand as sentinels of the Left - countries that have against the odds held fast to a socialist project. Under immense pressure from the governments of the West and of the regional bourgeoisie, these countries remain wedded to the idea that the well-being of their people must come before the well-being of capitalism. In sum, the heritage of the October Revolution of 1917 is not a memory in Latin America. It is a living reality.
News of the October Revolution came slowly to Latin America. When it did, it enthused the many currents of the Left – the workers and peasants in the unions and small left parties, the anarchists and the social democrats, the intellectuals of one kind or another. In Mexico, the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata recognised immediately that this Revolution in Russia – a peasant and workers revolution – was related to the Mexican Revolution of 1911 – largely a peasant revolution led by peasant leaders such as himself. ‘We would gain a great deal’, he wrote in 1918, ‘human justice would gain a great deal, if all people of our America and all the nations in old Europe understood that the cause of the Mexican Revolution, like the cause of unredeemed Russia, is and represents the cause of humanity, the supreme interest of the oppressed’. One of the military chiefs of the Mexican Revolution, in 1919, put the linkage clearly, ‘I don’t know what Socialism, but I am a Bolshevik, like all patriotic Mexicans. The Yankees do not like the Bolsheviks; they are our enemies; therefore, the Bolsheviks must be our friends, and we must be their friends. We are all Bolsheviks’. The Mexican poet Manuel Maple Arce sang, ‘Russia’s lungs blow the wind of social revolution toward us’. Maple Arce had two revolutions to celebrate. The one – nearby – had raised the possibility for the creation of people’s state and the other – far away – echoed his Mexican reality. It appeared as if the entire world would now go towards real democracy. The crowds ‘flood the public squares’, Maple Arce wrote, and their ‘triumphant shouts’ for socialism ‘reflect the sun from the facades’.
In Peru, the Marxist intellectual Jose Carlos Mariategui understood that the Latin American revolution had to be true to its own roots. ‘We do not wish that Socialism in Latin America be a tracing and a copy. It must be a heroic creation’. The question of the Amerindian population had to be on the table; they had to be seen as agents of revolutionary change as much as the workers and peasants. The Communist International (Comintern) organised the First Latin American Communist Conference in Buenos Aires (Argentina) in June 1929. Fierce debates broke out here, such that this was also the only Comintern conference of its kind to be held in the hemisphere. The Comintern was eager to solve the Amerindian Question by calling for an Indian Republic to be created in the Andean region. Mariategui, who believed fundamentally in the liberation of the Amerindian people, opposed this idea. Such a republic, he argued, would create an ‘Indian bourgeois state with all the internal and external contradictions of other bourgeois states’. What was needed was for a revolutionary project that liberates workers and peasants as well as the indigenous communities from capitalism and racism. ‘The indigenous proletariat await their Lenin’, Mariategui wrote.
The wait would be long. Disagreements amongst the Left – along familiar European lines (Stalinism vs. Trotskyism; Communism vs. Anarchism) – failed to deliver the kind of Left unity needed by the workers and the peasants to challenge American imperialism and the domestic bourgeoisie with its feudal landholdings. Communist parties remained small, although their influence in the cultural arena was outsized. Mexican socialist art – from the murals and paintings of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the photography of Tina Modotti – had a major impact on the imagination of Latin American artists and intellectuals, including the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and the Colombian journalist and novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is worth pointing out that the socialist character of the Mexican revolution in the era of Alvaro Obregon attracted the Indian communist agronomist Pandurang Sadashiv Khankhoje to move to Mexico and make his career there working on corn (he was appointed director of Mexico’s department of agriculture).
Where the Communists had an important role – such as in Chile – led to great repression. The Communist Party of Chile, founded in 1922, built on the socialists’ work amongst the working-class in urban Chile. The party, with modest electoral strength but power in working-class areas, helped give backbone to the Popular Front (1937-1941) and Democratic Alliance (1942-1946) governments. In 1948, the party was banned for a decade. It would return in strength and go into government in alliance with the socialist party in 1970. When the coup against that Popular Unity government came in 1973, the party went underground. General Augusto Pinochet, with the United States nearby, decimated the party’s rank by mass murder and imprisonment. Many of its most dedicated cadre were thrown – alive – from helicopters into the Pacific Ocean, while others were dismembered by being blown up with dynamite.
Similar levels of violence were visited upon the Communists and other Left-wing militants in Argentina. The Argentine Anticommunist Alliance, which included sections of the military, was brutal in its assault on the various Marxist and anarchist groups. Between 13,000 and 30,000 people are said to have been killed in the space of a decade. That the Left survived in these countries is almost miraculous.
Matters would shift rapidly in the early 1960s after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Led by Fidel Castro, the armed and political struggle overthrew the US-backed dictator to launch a new era for the hemisphere. Castro was not instinctively drawn to the USSR, but his circle had several Communists – such as Che Guevara. The US economic and political attack on Cuba, launched almost immediately after the Revolution, drew Cuba towards the Soviet Union. It was the Soviets who provided Cuba with military, agricultural and political assistance in the early years. Cuba paid for its economic services with the export of its sugar. Castro went to Moscow in June 1963, where he said that the Soviet people ‘expressed their deeds, their love for and solidarity with Cuba’ through their relationship with the small island. The relationship was not without tension, as the Cubans cavilled at the pressure put on them by the Soviets. In 1965, Che went to the Afro-Asian Conference in Algeria, where he pointed out that trade relations between socialist states should not be based on the capitalist law of value but through fraternal relations. ‘The real task consists of setting prices that will permit development. A great shift in ideas will be involved in changing the order of international relations. Foreign trade should not determine policy, but should, on the contrary, be subordinated to a fraternal policy toward the peoples’. The Cuban-Soviet relationship, despite the arguments and the disagreements, would be fundamental to Cuba’s survival against the embargo.
Without Soviet protection, Cuba would have been invaded by the United States. That Castro knew early into the life of the new state. It was also Soviet military and political support that enabled the liberation struggles of Central America to bear fruit in Nicaragua and Grenada – both in 1979. When the US tried to strangle Nicaragua, the USSR provided economic aid and military supplies. Aid from the Eastern bloc and assistance from Cuba allowed Grenada’s revolution to thrive for its short life. It is remarkable that illiteracy dropped from 35 per cent (1979) to 5 per cent (1983) as a result of the deep democratisation of society and the increase in the public health infrastructure. Neither the Soviet Union nor Cuba could protect Grenada when the revolutionary factions began to fight each other, which gave the opening for a US invasion of the island in 1983. The legacy of that brief revolution remains alive in Grenada. Its international airport is named for Maurice Bishop, the leader of the uprising.
Soviet books flooded the hemisphere. Students from Venezuela to Chile, from Cuba to Mexico City could be seen with their Soviet editions of Lenin and Marx, with the Russian novelists but also with volumes about other parts of the world. The impact of these books is incalculable, since they allowed generations of Latin Americans to study Marxist ideas and to read from the rich literary traditions of Russia and Central Asia. Latin American went in large numbers to the Eastern bloc to study. They were a familiar sight at the Patrice Lumumba University (Moscow) and the Moscow Institute for International Relations (MGIMO). The USSR and East Germany became a refuge for communists and other Left sympathisers who fled when one country after another fell to the dictatorships.
The fall of the USSR hit Cuba very hard, since its economy had come to rely upon trade with the Eastern bloc. The Cuban leadership watched with alarm as the USSR removed its troops from the island and as the USSR backed off from its commitments in Nicaragua and Angola. It seemed that the new government in the USSR – led by Gorbachev – was rolling back Soviet power in anticipation of a surrender to the West. This is precisely how Castro articulated it in 1991. In an interview with the Mexican journal Siempre, Castro offered his assessment of what was happening to the USSR – seventy years after the revolution. It is worthwhile to read the entire answer he gave when asked if the dissolution of the USSR was inevitable: “ I do not think that those changes were historically inevitable. I cannot think that way. I cannot adopt that fatalistic approach, because I do not think that the return to capitalism and the disappearance of the socialist field was inevitable. I think that subjective factors played an important role in this process. There were all kinds of mistakes, for example, the divorce from the masses. If we were to delve deeply into this subject, we would say that there were large ideological weaknesses because the masses moved away from the ideals of socialism, among which human solidarity is primary. The real values of socialism were being neglected, and the material questions received more attention as time went by. The ideological part of this kind of process was being neglected, while the materialistic part was being stressed. It suddenly appeared as if the objective of socialism, according to the statements, speeches, and documents, had focused only on improving the standard of living of the population every year: A little more cloth fabric, a little more cheese, a little more milk, a little more ham, more material stuff. To me, socialism is a total change in the life of the people and the establishment of new values and a new culture which should be based mainly on solidarity between people, not selfishness and individualism.”
Cuba – resilient and resourceful as ever – went into its Special Period and then recovered. It remains a small symbol of the spark of 1917, a spark that continues to inspire from Chile to Mexico.