President Evo Morales and Vice President Álvaro Marcelo García Linera (both on the left) with Nicaragua's Vice President, Moses Hallesleves, Minister of Communication of Venezuela, Ernesto Villegas. Demotix. All rights reserved.
The Latin American Progressive Encounter 2015 (ELAP 2015) took place in Quito on September 29-30. Under a blazing equatorial sun, at 2,800 meters above sea level, and surrounded by volcanoes - one of them, the Cotopaxi, has been active for the last few months - the discussions were held in a calm and friendly atmosphere. Political leaders, officials and scholars attended the meeting.
Two presentations - by Atilio Borón, the Harvard-educated Argentine sociologist and political scientist, and Álvaro García Linera, vice-president of Bolivia -, stand out for their straightforward response to an issue that has become fashionable of late: the alleged "end of cycle" situation of the progressive governments in Latin America. Both speakers chose this as a starting point for their contributions, which comes to show the crucial importance the issue has at present.
Atilio Borón noted that the end-of-cycle omens stem from a "knowledge position" (that is, from analysts who supposedly know what Socialism is) and quoted Fidel Castro: "Among the many mistakes we made, the most important one was to believe that someone knew about Socialism, and how to build Socialism".
He also quoted Salvador Allende, who argued before critics that the Chilean process was a transition to Socialism. Reflecting on the two leaders’ considerations, Borón stated that the end-of-cycle forecasters are making a cardinal error in accusing progressive governments of "capitalist modernization." Capitalist modernization, he said, is what Rajoy is doing in Spain, Cameron in Britain, and the Troika in Greece.
The progressive governments in Latin America have reduced poverty and social inequality. The modernizing of capitalism is not done through social reforms as those made by progressive governments, but through the shrinking of the State, the reduction of government spending and privatization of public goods and services.
Borón reminded the audience that a deep economic crisis, a financial, environmental, energy and water crisis which is described by some economists as "the worst ever", is hitting Latin America too. And he warned that "the progress in the political consciousness of Latin America" - as shown by the mass mobilization of indigenous peoples, youth, and women – should not be underestimated. He stressed that this shift in consciousness is impressive and undeniable and in no way comparable to what happened in the 90s.
Some authors, he claimed, mercilessly pick on progressive governments which, he admitted, have certainly made mistakes and have in some cases fallen into technocratic and bureaucratic deviations, insufficient planning or tactical mistakes. But they have also achieved a fair number of historical successes such as the nationalization of major natural resource companies, the passing of advanced social legislation and the devising of a foreign policy based on the defense of national sovereignty.
He added that some of these changes were irreversible, and that if the restorers of neoliberalism were to win the next elections, they would have to confront the demands of a citizenry that is much more aware of its rights.
Álvaro García Linera began his presentation by taking stock of the last fifteen transformative years, highlighting the achievements of the progressive governments as well as the difficulties and complexities involved, quite typical of countries in transition. His answer to the end-of-cycle soothsayers was, simply, that they are wrong: progressive governments are not coming to an end, he said, quite the opposite; their future lies in the people who are struggling to transform society and raising their awareness.
Both speakers mentioned criticism of the "extractive model" of development. Borón claimed that said it is a "huge irresponsibility" to ask progressive governments to leave natural resources untouched. What else, he asked, can feed the population of countries with high indexes of population growth, such as Ecuador and Bolivia?
García Linera referred to the "tension that exists between generating economic welfare and protecting Mother Earth." He explained that extractivism in Bolivia dates back to almost 450 years, ever since mining began in Potosí in 1570. And he added that this heritage comes together with another one, which is the poverty of the region, one of the most unequal on earth. These two components, the extractivist condition and extreme poverty, leave no alternative but to keep on producing in order to reduce poverty - but to do so respecting the indigenous peoples and listening to the indigenous wisdom of dialogue with Nature: "You do not kill Nature, because that means killing yourself".
He said he agreed with Castro: "If we only devote ourselves to producing, we shall miss the future; there is only one future and that is an ecological future.”
Going back to the critics, García Linera made a distinction between two types of environmentalists: the revolutionary environmentalists and the colonial environmentalists, who call on Southern countries to freeze their living conditions while Northern countries get on with their "consumerist orgy". In many cases, the latter’s organizations are generously funded by the US and Europe.
The government of Bolivia, he said, will not fall into the trap of putting an abrupt end to extractivist activities after 450 years: it takes a bridge, a transition period, to meet the needs of the people while a new knowledge and culture society is being created. Extractivist practices need to be abandoned without freezing production and ushering a return to the stone age, and this means temporarily using extractivism to create the conditions enabling the leap to the knowledge economy.
García Linera fustigated "the café leftists, perfumed and well-paid, who feel uncomfortable with the roar of the battle but who nevertheless denounce progressive governments for failing to immediately establish Buena Vida (Good Living) by decree”. He concluded that these "radicals by word and prudish by spirit" who have become "the prophets of the failure of progressive governments" are in fact "the mediocre Pharisees of the reactionary offensive", incapable of mobilizing the masses and thus useful only as collaborators of the neoliberal restoration.
Both presentations were made to packed audiences. Sustained enthusiasm peaked in both cases when the speakers referred to the need to amend bureaucratic tendencies and to expand citizen participation, as well as when they lashed the "prophets of the end of the progressive cycle".
The debate continues. And so does the hope for new transformative proposals that can encompass the views of workers, social movements – native peoples, environmentalists, women - and all the social sectors that are pursuing a more just and participatory society in each country of the Patria Grande (Great Fatherland) in their struggle for national sovereignty and against imperialist interference.
This article was previously published by La Rebelión.