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Latin America Report


On his tour of Latin America, Seán Edwards (National Executive Committee, CPI) sent these reports from Paraguay, Bolivia, and Venezuela.

Asunción, 1 December 2008

If you look at a map of South America you will find Paraguay between the rivers Paraná and Paraguay. Here the Guaraní people lived and cultivated the land. They had no unified state but a strong cultural identity and a rich and expressive language and culture. It has been described (in 1793) as “having no reason to envy Greek or Latin in art or elegance.”
     When the Spanish arrived and founded the port of Asunción, the Guaraní, being at war with their neighbours, formed an alliance with them. The two groups intermarried, and, the mother tongue being the mother’s tongue, Paraguay became the only country in Latin America where the colonisers adopted the language of the colonised. Still today the population is bilingual.
     From the earliest days Paraguayans were very proud of their independence, and their unique culture. At the time of the anti-Spanish wars in Latin America this was expressed by José de Francia when he put two pistols on the table in the Congress. One, he said, was for the Spanish king, the other for Buenos Aires.
     According to The Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano (available from Connolly Books), the emergent Latin American bourgeoisie was only too eager to ally itself with the Imperial powers, Britain and France––the exception, he says, was Paraguay, which made a serious and largely successful attempt at independent economic development. This came to an end with the war of the triple alliance (1865–1870), when Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay united against Paraguay, inflicting a crushing defeat on the country, whose population went from 1.3 million to 300,000. After that war Paraguay suffered the same neo-colonial status as the rest of the continent. According to Galeano, Britain was the real instigator of the war, making Paraguay the only South American country to resist the British Empire.
     After the disaster of losing a war in the nineteenth century, the Chaco War with Bolivia was over the dry plateau of the Chaco, shared by the two countries. On the Bolivian side was Standard Oil, on the Paraguayan side, Shell. The victory fuelled Paraguayan militarism, which was increasingly fascist in ideology, leading to the 1940 coup of the Nazi Higinio Morinigo. An attempted revolution in 1947 failed, largely through the support given to the government by Perón and, in the background, the United States.
     A fragile attempt to restore democracy was ended by the fascist coup d’état of Alfredo Stroessner in 1954. That was the year the United States overthrew the progressive government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, so Stroessner was acceptable to the United States.
     His regime was one of consistent state terrorism, directed against all opposition: liberals, social democrats, but especially the communists. Yet, according to Anibal Miranda (in Partido Colorado: La Máxima Organización Mafiosa), he was as much a mafioso as a fascist, as he, his family and his associates consistently robbed the state and benefited from organised crime, ranging from car theft to drug trafficking.
     Stroessner fitted in well with the military-fascist coups in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. After he had outlived his usefulness to US imperialism, Stroessner was removed in 1989 and went into comfortable exile in Brazil. A similar soft landing was arranged for Pinochet, and both eventually died in their beds.
     However, as Anibal Miranda put it, “the dictatorship died, but organised crime did not.” The mafia state continued.

5 December 2008

The victory of Fernando Lugo, liberation theologian and former bishop, was a major achievement of the popular movements in Paraguay, bringing to an end the seventy years of robbery and destruction perpetrated by the Colorado party. It is another step in the second liberation of Latin America.
     President Lugo leads the Patriotic Alliance for Change, which is very much influenced by his own left social Christian way of thinking and includes also the liberal and social-democratic parties. He also has the support of the Patriotic Socialist Alliance, which includes the Communist Party.
     Lugo came into office in a country racked by poverty, unemployment, land hunger, and corruption. He has just called on the judges of the Supreme Court to resign, as they have ignored, as a group, massive fraud and theft. It would have been impossible to embark on an anti-corruption programme with the old guard still on the bench.
     Cleaning up government is only one of the many challenges facing Fernando Lugo. Of a population of 6 million, more than 2 million live in poverty and more than 1 million in extreme poverty, according to the official definitions. The majority of workers are in precarious employment, and most earn less than the official minimum wage of €200 a month.
     The part of the new government’s programme that people expect most of, however, is land reform. 75 per cent of the land is in the hands of 1 per cent of the population; generations have suffered from land-grabbers who have accumulated vast estates and driven peasants from the land to the margins of the cities, where they live in squalor. This land robbery has continued until recently, and the landowners’ (land-grabbers’) title to the land is often very suspect. The great estates (“latifundias”) are increasingly given over to the intensive growing of soya. The “modern” agricultural methods involve the massive use of agrotoxins, which poison the land, the water and the air and, of course, the workers. It involves less labour, so more peasants are driven from the land. When the land is exhausted, the agribusinesses will move on.
     Contrary to received opinion, these methods do not necessarily increase production per hectare, especially if compared with peasant agriculture provided with scientific and technical guidance and with credit. The reconquest of the land by the cultivators is a social, economic and environmental necessity.
     Cattle farming also drives people from the land, especially cattle farming for export. (The Irish Farmers’ Association may not have the interests of the Brazilian, Bolivian or Paraguayan landless in mind; nevertheless, its campaign might help.) The peasant movement is pushing for land reform—demonstrating, blocking roads, occupying stolen land. This is probably the greatest challenge facing the new government, as the landowners have the wealth, control of the press, and the support of the United States. The United States is represented here by the arch-conspirator James Cason, better known for his attempt to organise a dissident party in Cuba.
     The Paraguayan Communist Party, with a record of eighty years of struggle against the various dictatorships that have plagued the country, has suffered grievously from assassinations, torture, prison, and exile. In the new situation it calls for the maximum unity of all patriotic and democratic forces to advance the self-determination of Paraguay against US imperialism and the venal mafiosi who have been its agents and allies for sixty years. “If we don’t organise as a people,” it warns, “nothing will change, regardless of the good intentions of President Lugo. If we want to help this new government along a democratic and progressive path we must begin by organising ourselves against the small but powerful privileged and anti-national group that enriches itself at the cost of the poverty of the majority, serving as lackeys of North American imperialism, which has not ceased to conspire so that little changes in our country, so that in reality nothing changes.
     “Only a mobilised, united and organised people can win land for the peasants, fair and just wages for the workers, and the restoration and defence of national independence.”


Santa Cruz, 10 December

Santa Cruz might not be the best place to begin a tour of Bolivia, as it is the centre of the opposition to the process of change in the country. (See November’s Socialist Voice). The city is run by a coterie of wealthy businessmen, most of whom made their fortune in dubiously acquired land, mostly devoted to cattle and soya. To explain their role it is necessary to take a look at their history.
     Santa Cruz is in the lowlands east of the Andes and so—as they insist on telling you—has a different character from the mountainous west. Founded in 1561, it remained a relatively insignificant outpost of empire, and of the independent republic, until the rubber boom of the nineteenth century. The rubber barons of Santa Cruz proceeded to force the indigenous population to work for them. Roger Casement’s description of the forced labour, slavery and brutality that he observed in Putumayo would apply equally well to eastern Bolivia.
     This provoked revolts by the indigenous population, which were suppressed with great ferocity and brutality. In this instance, not uniquely, the independent republic proved far worse than the Spanish colonialists.
     Following the collapse of the rubber boom, Santa Cruz declined in importance until the 1950s, when the road to Cochabamba was built, linking the city with the main population centres of the west. This made large-scale agricultural development feasible, and it was supported both by the government and by aid from the United States.
     In 1950 small peasant producers occupied about half the cultivated land, most of the rest belonging to haciendas (large estates), and Santa Cruz remained a small town of about five thousand people. There followed an orgy of land-grabbing. In 1950 there were 950 haciendas, occupying 1.62 million hectares; by 2002 these had grown to 4,000 haciendas, occupying 18.9 million hectares, mostly devoted to cattle and soya. In the fifty years the city had grown to be the biggest and richest in the country. Santa Cruz is also the centre of the oil industry, as the oil and gas deposits are in the east.
     The ruling families control the government of the city and of the department of Santa Cruz. (Their allies were elected in four other departments of the east.) They have refused to accept the authority of the central government and attempted to establish a state within the state. Now they are campaigning for a No vote against the new constitution in the referendum to be held on 29 January—this in spite of many concessions made by the government in changes to the text of the constitution, including enhanced autonomy for the departments.
     They have created a myth of a “Camba Nation,” distinct from the Aymara and Quechua people of the Andes. They are more “pure Spanish,” they say, though now they pretend to include the lowland indigenous people.
     The violent shock troops of the Cruceñista Youth, who have been given the use of government buildings, make no attempt to hide their racism. “Bring down the Indian” is their slogan, meaning President Evo Morales. The leader of the Civic Committee for Santa Cruz—perhaps not so Spanish—is a Croat, Branko Marinkovich, perhaps the richest man in Santa Cruz.
     The right have support only in Santa Cruz and some other cities. In the countryside there is a fierce struggle for the land. The disposessed peasants have been marching, blocking roads, occupying land. They want their land back. The land question in the east is one of the biggest challenges facing Evo Morales’s government.
     The Cruceñistas, in spite of their defeat and isolation earlier this year, when they attempted a kind of coup d‘état, still retain hopes of destabilising the “process.” They have the money, they have the press, and they have the support of the United States.

* * * * *

Of the report prepared by the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) on the massacre in the department of Pando on 11 September last, the television commentators in Santa Cruz denied that the massacre took place, that the video showing people being shot at in the river was genuine—all matters confirmed scientifically in the report. Almost immediately the report was driven off the front pages by allegations of complicity in smuggling on the part of a government minister. Regardless of the truth or otherwise of those allegations (for which their seems to be little evidence), this is an obvious smokescreen. The evidence for the massacre, and the involvement of the Prefect of Pando, is overwhelming. The Bolivian right cannot evade its responsibility.

Caracas, 29 January

In Valencia, west of Caracas, I met comrade Douglas Gómez, who is a member of the Asamblea Nacional. He was giving blood for Palestine in the main square (Plaza Bolívar, of course). The Asamblea Nacional has organised a collection of blood for Palestine in all the main cities of Venezuela. People have been queuing up to give blood. There was yet another march for Palestine last night; poor Bush got booted and burned in effigy.
     The campaign for the constitutional amendment is involving all the parties that support the Bolivarian Revolution. All is sweetness and light between them, after a public embrace between Hugo Chávez and Oscar Figueroa, and the Communist Party is working very hard on the project. As Carolus Wimmer explained to us, the referendum was lost last time because Chávez was forming a new political party at the same time, and the new members of the new party were too busy manoeuvring for position to fight a proper campaign. The big emphasis Chávez makes to his followers is the level of abstention last time; there will be a lot of pressure to get the vote out on 15 February.
     The opposition is desperate, sending out students to create havoc on the street; but they are not very clever: they were caught with a lorry‐load of Molotov cocktails. The press lords want the police to attack them, to make propaganda about the “repressive Chávez regime.” Earlier they were filmed trying to set fire to the trees in the national park of El Avila (the mountain between Caracas and the sea).
     The chargé d’affaires of the US embassy held a meeting in Puerto Rico with the owner of Globovision and the leaders of the main opposition parties. It was meant to be a secret; now the Chavistas all refer to it as the Pact of Puerto Rico. Thank God for the incompetence of the Bush administration; I worry about Obama, he’s clever.
     Chávez has been warning people not to expect too much from Obama, though he is prepared to give him a chance. “If only,” he says, “Obama were prepared to look at Latin America in a new way, respecting our independence, our democracy, and the process of change in our continent,” adding that he does not expect him to do that.

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