I will not address the context or the ins and outs of José Martí’s best known essay written in 1891, entitled Our America, a term still used by those of us who aspire to the unity of this immense, rich territory, which stretches from the Rio Bravo to Patagonia. My intention is different: to reflect on the multiple challenges we face, and the role of the left and the revolutionary intelligentsia in Our America, in these times.
Michael Kozak, the United States’ acting assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, in an article on official website of his embassy in Havana, writes parodying Marx: “A specter is hanging over the Western Hemisphere: the specter of democracy.” In some twisted way, he is right (in the opposite sense to what he suggests): imperialism and its lackeys have unleashed a war to reverse the social gains made by peoples; a war not for democracy, but against democracy. The people also respond, at the ballot box (Mexico, Argentina, even Bolivia, because we cannot forget that Evo won the elections), and in the streets, where rapacious governments servile to the empire hold sway.
Never has it been more evident that the complex framework of bourgeois democracy exists to preserve bourgeois power. If it does not work as designed, it doesn’t work. And any place it does not work, in the perverse but intrinsic logic of the system, such places are declared undemocratic. They say there is no democracy in Venezuela, because representatives of transnational power cannot win elections, (without OAS inspectors), they are right.
But no one has respected the norms and tricks of that democracy more than governments of the left, as a means to bring about the birth of another democracy, one that defends and protects the oppressed. Meanwhile, the resources of bourgeois democracy are used by the oppressors to crush democracy: the military, trained to repress and kill; judicial power, corrupt and deceptive, ready to take the army’s place; financial power, to boycott rebel economies and organize subversion; media power, to spread lies and create confusing scenarios. The last 20 years have proven ad nauseam the insurmountable limitations of bourgeois democracy. And no one has despised and ignored it more than those who hold it up on a conceptual level, to discredit any more just model.
We must decolonize concepts and words, remove from our eyes “Yankee or French spectacles,” as Martí said, so that we can recognize ourselves. There is no such thing as a revolutionary left and a democratic left: revolutions are the greatest act of democracy that can be conceived. Socialism (I am speaking, of course, of anti-capitalist socialism, not one imagined as part of the system) is either democratic or not. But it aspires to another kind of democracy.
“Governor, in a new people, means creator,” said José Martí. We must create, as we did two centuries ago, our own paths to real emancipation.
The battle for decolonization is fought above all in the minds of the colonized: “The colony lives in the Republic,” Martí insisted, and he spoke of a devious enemy who awaits our errors. “The tiger,” he said, returns furtively: “You don’t hear him coming; he comes with velvet paws. When the prey awakes, the tiger is on his back.”
Anti-capitalism may have its best expression in societies that are moving along their multiple paths, in an act of heroic creation, but is also manifested – and should not be disregarded – in the social struggles of workers, women, youth, minorities of all kinds, and also, in societies that assert their sovereignty against imperialism. The struggle against imperialism and against neoliberalism today is the doorway to anti-capitalism.
The unity of our peoples, the shield that protects us as we advance through these openings. “Peoples, who do not know each other, must hurry to get to know each other, like those who will fight together,” Martí said, “… It is time for the reckoning, and to march united, in tightly closed ranks, like silver in the bedrock of the Andes.”
The centers of power know this, and they declare themselves enemies of any government that shows any desire for independence. Let us participate without theoretical prejudice in all fronts that dignity opens up, always alert to real intentions, but let us not give those who seek to divide us any opportunity. We must be flexible enough in our goals and necessarily firm in our principles, in our final objectives. Push forward together any emancipatory project, however limited it may be or seem, without losing the basic reason for our struggle: total justice. And to advance as much as possible (and sometimes the possible seems impossible), towards more far-reaching goals. It is not a question of moderating our discourse or scaling back objectives, not at all, the leap is over the abyss, we revolutionaries are realists, that is, we construct the impossible.
Of course, they are coming for us, those who advance the most, those who recover “the epic spirit” of independence, and sustain emblematic revolutions. They want our heads on the tips of their spears. Must we reiterate that we want peace? But not at the cost of betraying our glorious history, or our centuries-old dreams. Out of modesty, I will not speak of Cuba, which a few days ago commemorated its 61st anniversary, under a permanent, escalating blockade against our people – with 12 U.S. Presidents determined to overthrow our revolution – but rather of Bolivarian Venezuela which courageously resists all attacks: street violence, theft of financial resources, persecution of oil exports, electrical sabotage, slander campaigns.
There is no possibility whatsoever of negotiating a pact with imperialism and maintaining the viability of changes and the sustainability of justice. The reds will be shot immediately, but the pink will be shot later, as soon as possible. And it will be an undignified death.
We are functioning disjointed, post-modernly, amidst savage modernity, paying the price of decadent imperialism that has all its forces well-articulated, its clients and servants, its academics and hitmen, its symbols and dark arts, its technologies. It is imperative that we articulate: link the just demands of all sectors of society. It is not a question of subordinating one to another, according to the conceptions of any one, or one theory.
The revolutionary left is committed to total justice, which the times and circumstances already make visible, if only embryonically. Let all slogans that build bridges be welcomed. Articulate parties and social movements, in common causes, immediate or short-term, and when possible, reaching farther. To articulate different forms of struggle: those of parties, those of social movements, those from above and those from below, those at the grassroots level or the communes, and also those of the revolutionary vanguard, those of the conscious masses and those of their leaders. There are those who only admit one option, and see others as forms that deny their own existence.
The role played by revolutionary leaders in contemporary history has been great, sometimes decisive: from Bolivar and Martí, to Lenin, Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. Che Guevara left valuable notes on the relationship between individuals, leaders, and the masses in a revolutionary process.
But nothing replaces the unparalleled democratizing experience of a triumphant Revolution. It is true, leaders are nothing if they do not emerge as an expression of the virtues and desires of the people, and keep their feet on the ground, in close contact with those who support them: therein lies strength, without it, a leader loses everything. Imperialist interests are served if we are left without these great popular leaders, that we limit their leadership to four or five year periods. We do not believe their story of alternating, always within the system: those who seek to change or modify the status quo are not eligible.
Mario Vargas Llosa once wrote, proudly, a strange eulogy about democracy in Chile entitled “Chilean Sketches,” including this paragraph:
“In the debate between Michelle Bachelet and Sebastián Piñera, which took place a few days before the election’s second round came to an end, only a psychic or a rabbi could discern points on which the candidates of the left and the right clearly disagreed.”
He was unintentionally saying that nothing had changed in Chile since Pinochet handed it over bound and gagged. Pinochet’s dictatorship has lived on for 30 years. Now the people are demanding the repeal of a Constitution designed by the military, and Piñera is trying to trick them with promises and back-room deals. And Vargas Llosa declares himself perplexed: I don’t understand anything, he insists – and we believe him.
Obviously, it is not enough for a party or a movement to assume a left-leaning position on the political spectrum. We must advance demands to vindicate the oppressed, which will sooner or later affect the interests of imperialism and local elites, no matter how limited their scope. This, however, eventually creates new challenges: What happens when such policies are successful, and exhaust their possibilities? What do we do when reality demands a further step in the process of radicalization? What do we do when the reaction of affected or potentially affected oppressors forces governments to choose one of two alternatives: surrender or radicalization?
That is why it is essential that together we build the people’s knowledge and power, allowing the masses to become protagonists of their own destiny and aware of their history. The first great conquest of socialism is the conversion of the masses into collectives of conscious individuals, into protagonists (subjects) of their lives. But this is not enough. The cultural war being waged between two essentially opposite ways of life; that of having, which rates human beings according to the material objects they can hold, and that of being, which establishes the measure of success in social usefulness, in virtue, and which cultivates a type of realization that, without dispensing with material well-being, prioritizes the individual’s social participation. To say it in another way, the “good life” that native peoples teach us, as opposed to the “good life” of the capitalist who exploits other human beings and nature. Consumerism that generates a culture of having will put an end to everyone, rich and poor, oppressors and oppressed, with the planet. The ecology that can save us, that goes to the root, is necessarily anti-capitalist.
Sometimes anti-neoliberal uprisings are like forest fires. And the momentum of justice goes nowhere, with its legion of new martyrs. But ours, those of our America, the Chileans, the Colombians, the Ecuadorians betrayed, the Hondurans, have not been abandoned by the social welfare state, they do not belong to the rich world (the underdeveloping world, Roberto Fernández Retamar would say, based on unjust international economic relations); they know that neoliberalism and the small, selfish rich world of its underdeveloped countries are the building blocks of its poverty.
Not everyone knows, however, that behind this small power there is a larger one, which pulls the strings and tightens the noose around our necks. Imperialism must be mentioned by name. Martí warns us of the need to know our enemies and for them to know and respect us: “The disdain of the formidable neighbor, who does not know her, is the greatest danger to our America.”
Imperialism, which finances and leads the subversion of revolutionary and progressive governments, criminalizes the solidarity of the left with the oppressed. “I free Cuba from all responsibility, except that which emanates from its example,” declared Che Guevara. Let no one ever free Cuba or Venezuela from the responsibility that emanates from their example of victorious resistance, and of advancing towards new areas of justice. Let no one believe that we will stop shouting our embrace to those who give their souls and bodies in the struggle for social justice. We cannot put a stop to our solidarity, and continue to be revolutionary. And let no one think that our solidarity justifies imperialist support for the oppressors. The first act of violence is that of injustice, wherever it exists. We want peace, we need it in order to grow, so that justice can be achieved, a peace without violence, without interference, a peace of solidarity and dignity.
Only progressive and leftist governments are interested in the unity of the peoples of Our America. But ideas are not built in vain. “Trenches of ideas are worth more than trenches of stone,” wrote José Martí, “There is no prow that can cut through a cloud of ideas. A strong idea, emerging in time before the world, like the mystical flag of the final judgment, can stop a squadron of battleships.”
I would like to end with some words from Fidel, spoken on January 28, 1994. That day, as we all know, is José Martí’s birthday, and Fidel’s words echo those I have just quoted from the Apostle of Cuban independence. But the year was an important one, because the country was experiencing a deep economic crisis, caused by the coming collapse of the so-called socialist camp and the tightening of the imperialist blockade, and was resisting alone in the hemisphere.
Incredibly, Fidel expresses optimism, speaking before hundreds of Latin American and Caribbean delegates at a solidarity meeting in Havana:
“Awareness is needed; what you have been working on here, developing here, is needed: ideas are needed, those basic ideas that we must take to everyone else. …And we can say that the peoples are like grass in times of great drought, that they absorb ideas as they absorb water, and that they ignite as gunpowder can ignite.
“These ideas must be transmitted. These ideas already potentially exist in the minds of tens of millions – if not hundreds of millions – of Latin Americans and Caribbeans, and I think these concepts will be elaborated and perfected more and more, because peoples are learning what imperialism is, in the streets, what capitalism is, what neoliberalism is. It is not difficult to work on this foundation, and one day, from a certain distance, all of imperialism’s illusions will be visible, that when imperialism thought it had conquered the world, it was farther from being able to conquer it, and the peoples were more and more aware of their strength.”
This, I repeat, was stated in 1994. In 1998 Hugo Chavez was elected in Venezuela, and Fidel´s prediction began to come true in the first decade of the new century. We could repeat his words today, and assume our responsibility as intellectuals on this basis, but these are other times: we no longer need to wait that many years, The people know more, they are more aware. Our America is different, and the abandoned slogan of the 20th century – the people united will never be defeated – has reemerged in the streets. We can and must add a plural, because, without a doubt, the peoples united will never be defeated.
* Excerpts from the author’s speech at the International Seminar “Anti-neoliberal Rebellion in Our America,” in Caracas, December 19, 2019.