log in

A World To Build shows us alternatives to neoliberalism in recent movements in Latin America, where political strategies have claimed important victories, argues Ian Richardson

book cover

Marta Harnecker, A World to Build: New Paths toward Twenty-First Century Socialism (Monthly Review Press 2015), 224pp.

The reason for socialists to have an interest in the situation in Latin America today is simple; the most significant political advances in the world today are taking place in Latin America. The Chilean revolutionary Marta Harnecker’s book A World to Build is perhaps the most important English language attempt so far to analyse and to move forward the discussion on the left internationally around these changes.

On a daily basis we are told ‘there is no alternative’. Yet, for those of us struggling for an alternative to poverty, injustice, racism and war, some of the most inspiring political struggles in the world today are taking place in Latin America. Harnecker looks at a number of these, from what she sees as the more advanced struggles in countries such asVenezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, to the struggles in other countries such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and elsewhere that have also progressed, albeit in a different context. A common framework in all these countries is that all are willing to various degrees to stand up to US domination.

This detailed analysis shows how whilst none of these struggles provides a blueprint that can be copied, all provide many important lessons, and from this different concepts of twenty-first century socialism are emerging as an alternative reference point in the discussion. Before I move on to some of the more in-depth materials in Harnecker’s analysis, I think it’s worth looking at two quick, illustrative examples of these changes in terms of two countries Harnecker refers to in this tour de force, two countries that have perhaps not been given enough attention on the British and European left.


Firstly, Ecuador is today being transformed by a profound change that is known as the Citizen’s Revolution. This is tackling the deep crisis caused by years of extreme and devastating free-market policies that were forced on Latin America. Correa was first elected in 2007 in the aftermath of huge turbulence. Seven different presidents had been replaced in a decade by mass struggle. A massive banking crisis caused economic collapse. Unemployment rocketed and one in ten Ecuadorians left their country to escape the crisis. This was what neo-liberalism has done in so many places in the world. Yet today Ecuador’s key achievements are awe inspiring:

  • An expanding economy, reducing economic inequality faster than any other Latin America country.
  • There is huge public investment; up three fold to 15% of GDP.
  • The government is also clamping down on tax evasion: Ecuador now raises three times more in taxes than in 2006.
  • Furthermore, eradicating poverty is now a priority: over 1.1m have been taken out of poverty.
  • Free education and healthcare for all: all children now get to go to school for free. University student numbers have also soared thanks to free university education being guaranteed. Under the current President Rafael Correa, public-health investment has totalled $9bn – three times more than spent by the previous four governments combined!

Profound social change in Bolivia

In Bolivia, Evo Morales last year won re-election by a landslide, as a result of his extraordinary reforms, which – according to the New York Times no less – have transformed Bolivia from a ‘basket case’. Indeed, Bolivia has grown much faster over the last eight years than in any period over the past three and a half decades. The benefits of such growth have been felt by the Bolivian people: under Morales, poverty has declined by 25% and extreme poverty has declined by 43%; social spending has increased by more than 45%; the real minimum wage has increased by 87.7%; and the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean has praised Bolivia for being ‘one of the few countries that has reduced inequality’.

These are just some concrete examples of change from two of the countries at the centre of change in Latin America, of which Harnecker’s account is littered with further examples and indeed with examples of some of the challenges still to be faced.

Breaking with imperialism

Harnecker sets the international and regional framework to these changes in such a way that enables us to understand just how far the continent has moved from US domination in recent years. Indeed, a key reason for these changes in the first place is that breaking with imperialism is a necessary requirement for improving the living conditions in Latin America.

Previous to this century, with the exception of Cuba since the 1960s, development was subordinated to the US for over a hundred years and before that to Spain and Portugal. This meant that by 1998, when Hugo Chávez was elected in Venezuela and the shift to the left electorally started across the region, over 40% of the population – more than 200 million – were in poverty. From 1980 to 2000, Latin America per-capita growth collapsed. It was only 9% over this twenty-year period compared to 82% during the preceding twenty years.

This period of economic stagnation ended as a series of countries broke from the IMF and World Bank from 2000. This has led to one hundred million fewer people in poverty. Today therefore, despite many difficulties, Latin America looks very different and this is where we can see Harnecker’s ‘new world’ start to emerge, despite the many contradictions and difficulties.

A central point to understand from Harnecker’s analysis is that this total human disaster of neoliberalism led to significant uprisings and moments of great historical significance in Latin America. She argues cogently that it is very important that we understand that it was these struggles to defend the population against neoliberalism, and of course US domination, that became the springboard for many of the profound, political, changes now taking place. These have been most successful when mass social movements have been combined with political leadership that itself is immersed in these movements, such as in Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, but also representing massive steps forward elsewhere, such as in Argentina.

It is also important to understand with relation to discussions in Greece, Spain, Ireland and elsewhere today that neo-liberalism was first ‘tested’ in Latin America and was a resounding failure, and, as in countries such as Greece today, it was met with mass resistance. On this point, Harnecker argues that initially: ‘We can say that in each and every country, albeit in different ways, popular movements and not political parties were at the forefront of the struggle against neoliberalism,’ adding that ‘these movements developed in the context of the neoliberal model’s crisis of legitimacy and the crisis its political institutions were facing,’ and, ‘they grew out of the dynamics of resistance’ (p.14)

But, as we know, resistance in itself is not enough. It is also important to look at how and why these eruptions against neoliberalism were successful. In this regard, Harnecker argues that one of the most important lessons of the key struggles she lists is that they have ‘proven the validity of a strategy of a broad coalition of forces that seeks to unite all those who can be united’, and that in each of these cases, especially those that have advanced the furthest, ‘the concrete objectives for the struggle are to elicit understandings among all these diverse groups, all with their own very different traditions and political practices’ (p.25).

United fronts and successful resistance

This kind of non-sectarian focus on meaningful united fronts is definitely something we need to emphasise here in Europe. So what are just a few examples of successful resistance in Latin America that then moved the situation further forward, on to the offensive?

In reverse chronological order:

  • Firstly, the Chilean student revolt in 2011, which started in universities and soon became a national movement for social, constitutional and political change, also greatly contributing in terms of consequences, to the Chilean socialist party returning to power. At its peak, 100,000 came out to the streets in solidarity with the student movement and its demand that education’s central focus should not be profit making. A key achievement was that this movement accepted differences on some questions as its core understood that it was not only necessary, but the priority, to unite in order to strike together. The final outcome of this movement is still too early to tell, but it has already secured free education, and a national discussion on changing the constitution, which was a precursor to more profound changes in countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.
  • Secondly, popular mobilisations that brought down four presidents in Argentina up to 2002. Mass movements, led by unemployed workers, ended up not only bringing down these presidents, but led to Argentina rejecting the IMF, a historic break in that institution’s grip on the continent. Whilst Argentina has not had a revolutionary government, it has reaffirmed its national sovereignty over recent years.
  • Thirdly, the struggle known as the ‘Water War’ in Bolivia that exploded in 2002. Until this point, Bolivia had been the most faithful implementer of neoliberal structural adjustment. Here, following a series of privatisations of public companies, the city of Cochabama, the third largest in Bolivia, rose up against water privatisation. According to a Mexican journalist: ‘Within a short timeframe, the entire city had organised a revolt which brought together all social sectors’ (p.20). This rebellion was not only initially successful in achieving a concession, but was the first in a wave of broad popular mobilisations that also included indigenous uprisings, protests in defence of the coca growers led by Evo Morales himself, a similar ‘gas war,’ strikes and campesino protests. These mobilisations directly culminated in Evo Morales (a union leader and leader of the Movement Towards Socialism) becoming president, with the amazing changes taking place we have already reflected on.
  • Finally in the list, but first chronologically, it was in Venezuela, perhaps most significantly, that in a sense this new wave started, with the ‘Caracazo’, the 1989 popular rebellion which saw Venezuela's poor and excluded majority rise up against the IMF (International Monetary Fund) structural adjustment package imposed by President Carlos Andres Perez. The struggles that followed this included Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998, the defeat of the US-backed coup in 2002 and the ensuing radicalisation of the country’s change.

The example of Venezuela

The example of Venezuela illustrates well the key themes of Harnecker’s book. In this country, neoliberalism had meant that by 1998 income per head was at the levels of the 1950s. Poverty peaked in 1996 at 70% with extreme poverty at 40%. Against this economic collapse, the old regime and state structures began to break down.

In 1989 the population could take it no more. Venezuela exploded with the Caracazo; a mass uprising. Sparked by the 100% overnight increase in bus prices, it lasted a week and took place in every city. The military was ordered to suppress it by any means necessary and three thousand people were killed in Caracas alone. This discredited not just the president but the whole system and so, to use a famous Marxist phrase, a ‘social and economic crisis became a crisis of regime’.

The old order began to crack, reminding us of Lenin's words that:

‘Oppression alone, no matter how great, does not always give rise to a revolutionary situation in a country. In most cases it is not enough for revolution that the lower classes should not want to live in the old way. It is also necessary that the upper classes should be unable to rule and govern in the old way.’

Whilst Hugo Chavez had been organising with others to overturn the oligarchy for years, it was ‘El Caracazo’ that became a key catalyst, not just because of the state repression but also due to the popular rebellion it represented, as a start of a process ending up with Hugo Chavez’s election on revolutionary national programme in 1998, then radicalising into discussions later on the need for a twenty-first-century socialism.

Harnecker is therefore right to also emphasise that despite the difficulties the ‘Bolivarian Revoluton’ in the country faces, Venezuela is therefore vital to understanding why the continent looks so different. Itended Cuba’s isolation and then provided a key inspiration for the many progressive movements and governments to sweep the region since Hugo Chavez was elected. It also matters that the Caracazo erupted just as people were boasting about the so-called ‘end of history.’

The ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, of course, faces many challenges, but it has made impressive social gains that we must recall and not forget in the face of media misrepresentation and the current economic difficulties. The key reason that Venezuela has been able to do this is that it has reclaimed its oil wealth; Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. The government has used its political power to weaken the economic power of the bourgeoisie and to advance the interests of the working class, including organising new state structures and the poorest people, through bodies such as the community councils and communes, which Harnecker regards as particularly important.

State control of the oil sector has enabled the government to improve living standards. In a decade, free health care was extended to twenty million people, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Policies halved extreme poverty. By creating free education, millions have learnt to read and write and there has been a three-fold increase in university students.

Solidarity against imperialism

Harnecker’s analysis of change in Latin America should remind us why it is important for us to prioritise solidarity with Latin America and to remember that the US will do anything to stop this, and so we have a key role here, in the belly of the beast that is US imperialism’s junior partner. Whilst militarily the US has been bogged down, giving Latin America some breathing space,nonetheless, the US State Department acknowledges channelling over $50 million to Venezuela’s opposition in four years, which if scaled up to the size of the British population and economy would equate to $200m being allocated to influence an election here.

We need to be clear that the ultimate aim of this intervention goes much further than to remove the governments of countries such as Venezuela; it is to remove every trace of revolutionary fervour, which could only be done by huge repression, violence and reaction. The US’ tactics may change but its ultimate aim of re-asserting its domination, and the accompanying domination of the multi-nationals, remains the same.

I will conclude this review by pointing to the key pointsidentified by Harnecker concerning this Left in Latin America one can learn from here. These include:

  • We need a Left that understands the importance of hegemony and creating alliances for change.
  • Linked to this, we need a left that begins to realise that being radical does not consist of raising the most radical slogan or carrying out the most radical actions, which only a few agree with and which scare off the majority. It is instead about being capable of creating spaces for bringing together the broadest possible popular sectors where not only can minds meet but people can join in struggle. Realising there were many in the struggle, made these movements strong, and often radicalised them. What is needed are strategies and tactics that allow for unity in action to deal blows most effectively at the enemy at the decisive moment, as we saw in Bolivia for example. Furthermore, how to advance quicker is not as simple as wishing for it: the relationship of forces internally and internationally are real factors. The material forces, the movement of working people, needs to be in position to impose its power. The struggle to do this is not as simple as saying it needs to happen.
  • Finally and importantly, we need to understand that the breaking down of the dominance of neoliberal ideas does not necessarily mean a new popular hegemony will spontaneously emerge in its place. As well as mass, broad movements in struggle, we need a political instrument. Through history, we have seen many examples of multitudes rebelling and creating mass assemblies, and even bringing down governments. Yet, unlike in some of the countries we have been discussing, they have not been capable of conquering power in order being deep social transformation. The history of successful movements for change, including those in Latin America today, shows that in order not to waste popular energy, and instead transform it into a force capable of bring about change, political organisation and leadership is needed.

To conclude, Harnecker’s book explains not only why we need to stand clearly with social progress, democracy and self-determination throughout Latin America, but also learn the lessons for ourselves.


Log in or create an account