Invent the Future

"We must dare to invent the future" - Thomas Sankara

cabral

Amílcar Lopes da Costa Cabral, one of the greatest anti-colonial leaders of the twentieth century, was born on the 12th of September 1924 in Bafatá, a small town in central Guinea-Bissau. Today, ninety years later, let us take a moment to remember this brilliant revolutionary – the undisputed leader and architect of the struggle to liberate Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde from the yoke of Portuguese colonialism.

As a revolutionary theorist, as a guerrilla fighter, as an inspiring agitator, as an uncompromising internationalist, Cabral’s legacy continues to inform the global struggle against imperialism and for socialism.

From a base of almost nothing, he was able to lead the construction of the most successful guerrilla movement in Africa and a strong, disciplined political party: the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). Fidel Castro referred to him as “one of the most lucid and brilliant leaders in Africa, who instilled in us tremendous confidence in the future and the success of his struggle for liberation.”

130120_amilcar_cabral_0Cabral built close links with the liberated African countries (in particular Guinea, Ghana, Tanzania, Algeria and Libya) as well as the liberation movements fighting colonialism in Mozambique, South Africa and Angola. Furthermore, he located the PAIGC’s struggle against colonialism within the global struggle against imperialism and for socialism, and on this basis forged close ties with the entire socialist camp, including the Soviet Union, China, the German Democratic Republic, Cuba and Vietnam. (The PAIGC was one of the few movements in the 60s and 70s to successfully navigate the Sino-Soviet split and maintain close relations with both the Soviet Union and China).

Cabral was surely a man of action, but he was also an important and innovative political thinker who made an outstanding contribution to anti-imperialist, socialist, pan-Africanist and revolutionary nationalist ideologies. Tetteh Kofi writes that Cabral “charted a new ideological path, extending the works of Marx and Lenin to suit African realities. Cabral was the leading political theorist of the Lusophone leaders, until his assassination in 1973” (cited in Reiland Rabaka ‘Concepts of Cabralism: Amilcar Cabral and Africana Critical Theory’).

Portugal’s racist policy – along with its own backwardness – meant that very few people in its colonies had access to higher education. In Guinea Bissau at the time, there was only a handful of university graduates in the whole country. However, Cabral displayed exceptional academic ability, and this enabled him to study at the University of Lisbon, where he met people like Agostinho Neto and Eduardo Mondlane (who would go on to lead the revolutionary movements in Angola and Mozambique respectively). In Portugal, his fellow African students introduced him to socialist ideology, and they spent much of their time studying, discussing and strategising: how to end colonial domination of their homelands? How to inspire the broad masses of the people to engage in struggle?

Cabral returned to Guinea Bissau in 1951 and worked for some years as an agronomist – which experience provided him with ample opportunity to learn at first hand of the dire poverty and intense suffering of his people, especially in the countryside. His experiences made him more determined than ever to find ways and means of working for the freedom of his country and delivering his people from the yoke of colonial bondage.”

Living for a brief spell in Angola, he was a founder member of Angola’s preeminent liberation organisation, Movimento Popular Libertação de Angola (MPLA), along with his university friend Agostinho Neto. In the same year (1956), he and his comrades founded the African Party of Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Islands (PAIGC).

ANC and SACP stalwart Yusuf Dadoo writes: “Under his leadership the PAIGC mobilised the country’s patriots to struggle for the freedom of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Islands, created the people’s army and led the national-liberation war against the Portuguese colonialists. Cabral knew and understood his enemy well, and every phase of the struggle was carefully planned and action meticulously organised. The cadres of the PAIGC were given political education as well as military training and he stressed always ‘that we are armed militants and not militarists.’”

cabral-and-fightersIn 1963, after several years of careful planning, study and strategising, the PAIGC launched its military campaign, which over the course of a few years was able to win the support and loyalty of the Guinean and Capeverdian masses and which managed to shake the rotting colonial entity to its foundations. The first liberated zones were set up in 1965, and these continued to expand unstoppably until independence in 1974, by which time practically the entire country was in the hands of the revolutionary forces.

Sadly, Cabral did not live to see the final victory of the national liberation struggle, and Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde were deprived of the insightful leadership that he would doubtless have provided in the post-colonial period. On 20 January 1973, he was kidnapped and shot by disgruntled PAIGC members working in collaboration with the Portuguese secret police.

Nonetheless, the heroic people of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde stepped up their fight, with Amílcar Cabral’s name on their lips.

Piero Gleijeses notes that, “a few weeks after Cabral’s death, the PAIGC was decisively strengthened by the delivery of surface-to-air missiles from the Soviet Union. Until then, the rebels had not had an effective defense against Portuguese air power, but in late 1972, Luis Cabral recounts, ‘we learned about a Soviet anti-aircraft weapon that was light and very efficient. Amilcar made a special trip to Moscow to explain our needs to the Soviet authorities and to urge them to give us that precious weapon.’ The mission, in December 1972, proved successful. In March 1973 the Portuguese prime minister wrote, ‘surface-to-air missiles unexpectedly appeared in the enemy’s hands in Guinea-Bissau and within a few days five of our planes had been shot down.’ This meant that ‘our unchallenged air superiority, which had been our trump card and the basis of our entire military policy … had suddenly evaporated.’” (Conflicting Missions)

By mid-1973, the PAIGC had extended its liberated territory to cover more than two-thirds of the country. On 24 September 1973, the Popular National Assembly proclaimed the independent state of Guinea-Bissau. Full independence was finally granted a year later, on 10 September 1974. Portugal had, in the course of 11 years’ severe warfare, been well and truly defeated.

Meanwhile, the revolutionary anti-colonial wars had played a major part in bringing about the economic and political crisis within Portugal itself, and had been an inspiration for the most progressive elements within the Portuguese left. The overthrow of fascism in Portugal owes much to the heroic struggle waged by the people of Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique.

Patrick Chabal, in ‘Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War’, sums up Cabral’s legacy succinctly:

In less than twenty years of active political life, Cabral led Guinea-Bissau’s nationalists to the most complete political and military success ever achieved by an African political movement against a colonial power. At the time of his death in 1973, months before Guinea-Bissau became independent, his influence extended well beyond the Lusophone world and Africa. Friends and foes alike admired his political acumen and skills and saw in him a potential leader of the non-aligned movement. His writings have shown him to be a sophisticated analyst of the social, economic and political factors which have affected and continue to affect the developing world.

We publish below a selection of valuable quotes by (and a few about) Amílcar Cabral, which are meant to serve as an introduction to his ideological legacy. The quotes are followed by some suggestions for further reading.

Theory and practice

As someone born in a country where a foreign colonial power pointedly refused to allow the vast majority of the population access to learning, Cabral had little time for anti-intellectual strands within the progressive movement. Indeed he strongly felt that the existing anti-imperialist movements were much in need of greater ideological grounding.

The ideological deficiency within the national liberation movements, not to say the total lack of ideology – reflecting as this does an ignorance of the historical reality which these movements claim to transform – makes for one of the greatest weaknesses in our struggle against imperialism, if not the greatest weakness of all. (source)

On the connection between theory and practice, he strikes a similar chord to Mao:

Every practice produces a theory, and though it is true that a revolution can fail even though it be based on perfectly conceived theories, nobody has yet made a successful revolution without a revolutionary theory. (ibid)

Very early on in their struggle, and with hardly any resources at their disposal, the PAIGC founders set up a political school in order to create cadres.

The fact that the Republic of Guinea was next to us enabled our Party to install there, temporarily, some of our leaders, and this enabled us to create a political school to prepare political activists. This was decisive for our struggle. In 1960 we created a political school in Conakry, under very poor conditions. Militants from the towns – party members – were the first to come to receive political instruction and to be trained in how to mobilise our people for the struggle. After comrades from the city came peasants and youths (some even bringing their entire families) who had been mobilised by Party members. Ten, twenty, twenty-five people would come for a period of one or two months. During that period they went through an intensive education programme; we spoke to them, and night would come and we couldn’t speak any more because we were completely hoarse. (source)

In his celebrated directive ‘Tell no lies, claim no easy victories’, he urges:

Educate ourselves, educate other people, the population in general, to fight fear and ignorance, to eliminate little by little the subjugation to nature and natural forces which our economy has not yet mastered. Convince little by little, in particular the militants of the Party, that we shall end by conquering the fear of nature, and that man is the strongest force in nature. Demand from responsible Party members that they dedicate themselves seriously to study, that they interest themselves in the things and problems of our daily life and struggle in their fundamental and essential aspect, and not simply in their appearance. Learn from life, learn from our people, learn from books, learn from the experience of others. Never stop learning. (source)

Socialism

Cabral’s major focus as a revolutionary was to create maximum national unity against Portuguese colonialism, and therefore much of his thought is framed in terms of revolutionary nationalism rather than specifically socialism. Nonetheless, he was very clear about what he thought post-colonial Africa should look like. Furthermore, he established very close links with the existing socialist camp, including the Soviet Union, Cuba, the German Democratic Republic, China and Cuba.

In our present historical situation — elimination of imperialism which uses every means to perpetuate its domination over our peoples, and consolidation of socialism throughout a large part of the world — there are only two possible paths for an independent nation: to return to imperialist domination (neo-colonialism, capitalism, state capitalism), or to take the way of socialism. (source)

Further:

The essential characteristic of our times is the general struggle of the peoples against imperialism and the existence of a socialist camp, which is the greatest bulwark against imperialism. (source)

In response to the question of to what extent Marxism and Leninism as an ideology had been relevant to the national liberation struggle of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, Cabral stated:

Moving from the realities of one’s own country towards the creation of an ideology for one’s struggle doesn’t imply that one has pretensions to be a Marx or a Lenin or any other great ideologist, but is simply a necessary part of the struggle. I confess that we didn’t know these great theorists terribly well when we began. We didn’t know them half as well as we do now. We needed to know them, as I’ve said in order to judge in what measure we could borrow from their experience to help our situation – but not necessarily to apply the ideology blindly just because it’s very good. This is where we stand on this. (source)

Cabral’s writings on the class structure of Guinea-Bissaun and Capeverdian society are fascinating and deserve to be studied in detail. Here is a particularly interesting passage on the problem of trying to create a working class mentality in a country that only had a tiny working class:

We were faced with another difficult problem: we realised that we needed to have people with a mentality which could transcend the context of the national liberation struggle, and so we prepared a number of cadres from the group I have just mentioned, some from the people employed in commerce and other wage-earners, and even some peasants, so that they could acquire what you might call a working class mentality. You may think this is absurd – in any case it is very difficult; in order for there to be a working class mentality the material conditions of the working class should exist, a working class should exist. In fact we managed to inculcate these ideas into a large number of people – the kind of ideas which there would be if there were a working class. We trained about 1,000 cadres at our party school in Conakry, in fact for about two years this was about all we did outside the country. When these cadres returned to the rural areas they inculcated a certain mentality into the peasants and it is among these cadres that we have chosen the people who are now leading the struggle.” (source)

Speaking at a seminar on ‘Lenin and National Liberation’, held at Alma Ata, capital of Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan, in 1970, Cabral made the crucial connection between Lenin’s ideas and the national liberation struggles being waged across Africa:

“How is it that we, a people deprived of everything, living in dire straits, manage to wage our struggle and win successes? Our answer is: this is because Lenin existed, because he fulfilled his duty as a man, a revolutionary and a patriot. Lenin was and continues to be, the greatest champion of the national liberation of the peoples.” (source)

Yusuf Dadoo’s obituary of Cabral notes that “he had very close association with the Soviet Union which he visited on many occasions and made a major contribution to the promotion and strengthening of friendship and cooperation between the peoples of Guinea-Bissau and the Soviet Union, between the PAIGC and the CPSU.”

The socialist countries and the liberated African states were the major suppliers of weapons, training and finance to the PAIGC (as indeed they were to the MPLA in Angola, Frelimo in Mozambique, SWAPO in Namibia, ZANU and ZAPU in Zimbabwe, and the ANC and SACP in South Africa).

A socialist camp has arisen in the world. This has radically changed the balance of power, and this socialist camp is today showing itself fully conscious of its duties, international and historic, but not moral, since the peoples of the socialist countries have never exploited the colonised peoples. They are showing themselves conscious of their duty, and this is why I have the honour of telling you openly here that we are receiving substantial and effective aid from these countries, which is reinforcing the aid which we receive from our African brothers. If there are people who don’t like to hear this, let them come and help us in our struggle too. (source)

Further:

We want to mention the special aid given to us by the peoples of the socialist countries. We believe that this aid is a historic obligation, because we consider that our struggle also constitutes a defence of the socialist countries. And we want to say particularly that the Soviet Union, first of all, and China, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and other socialist countries continue to aid us, which we consider very useful for the development of our armed struggle. We also want to lay special emphasis on the untiring efforts – sacrifices that we deeply appreciate – that the people of Cuba – a small country without great resources, one that is struggling against the blockade by the US and other imperialists – are making to give effective aid to our struggle. For us, this is a constant source of encouragement, and it also contributes to cementing more and more the solidarity between our Party and the Cuban Party, between our people and the Cuban people, a people that we consider African. And it is enough to see the historical, political, and blood ties that unite us to be able to say this. Therefore, we are very happy with the aid that the Cuban people give us, and we are sure that they will continue increasing their aid to our national liberation struggle in spite of all difficulties. (source)

Anti-imperialist unity

badgeAmílcar Cabral was a consummate internationalist, who understood anti-imperialist unity not simply in abstract intellectual terms but as a matter of life and death for his movement. After all, the enemy has shown itself to be very capable of developing unity when it needs to:

The Portuguese government has managed to guarantee for as long as necessary the assistance which it receives from the Western powers and from its racist allies in Southern Africa. It is our duty to stress the international character of the Portuguese colonial war against Africa and the important and even decisive role played by the USA and Federal Germany in pursuing this war. If the Portuguese government is still holding out on the three fronts of the war which it is fighting in Africa, it is because it can count on the overt or covert support of the USA, freely use NATO weapons, buy B26 aircraft for the genocide of our people (including from ‘private parties’), and obtain whenever it wishes money. jet aircraft and weapons of every sort from Federal Germany where, furthermore, certain war-wounded from the Portuguese colonial army are hospitalised and treated. (source)

In a fiery opening address at the conference of the Conference of Nationalist Organizations of the Portuguese Colonies (CONCP) held in Dar Es-Salaam in 1965, we see the breadth and depth of his internationalism:

Our hearts beat in unison with the hearts of our brothers in Vietnam who are giving us a shining example by facing the most shameful and unjustifiable aggression of the US imperialists against the peaceful people of Vietnam. Our hearts are equally with our brothers in the Congo who, in the bush of that vast and rich African country are seeking to resolve their problems in the face of imperialist aggression and of the manoeuvres of imperialism through their puppets. That is why we of the CONCP proclaim loud and clear that we are against Tshombe, against all the Tshombes of Africa. Our hearts are also with our brothers in Cuba, who have shown that even when surrounded by the sea, a people is capable of taking up arms and successfully defending its fundamental interests and of deciding its own destiny. We are with the Blacks of North America, we are with them in the streets of Los Angeles, and when they are deprived of all possibility of life, we suffer with them.

We are with the refugees, the martyrised refugees of Palestine, who have been tricked and driven from their own homeland by the manoeuvres of imperialism. We are on the side of the Palestinian refugees and we support wholeheartedly all that the sons of Palestine are doing to liberate their country, and we fully support the Arab and African countries in general in helping the Palestinian people to recover their dignity, their independence and their right to life. We are also with the peoples of Southern Arabia, of so-called ‘French’ Somaliland, of so-called ‘Spanish’ Guinea, and we are also most seriously and painfully with our brothers in South Africa who are facing the most barbarous racial discrimination. We are absolutely certain that the development of the struggle in the Portuguese colonies, and the victory we are winning each day over Portuguese colonialism is an effective contribution to the elimination of the vile, shameful regime of racial discrimination, of apartheid in South Africa. And we are also certain that peoples like that of Angola, that of Mozambique and ourselves in Guinea and Cabo Verde, far from South Africa, will soon, very soon we hope, be able to play a very important role in the final elimination of that last bastion of imperialism and racism in Africa, South Africa. (source)

On Palestine:

We have as a basic principle the defence of just causes. We are in favour of justice, human progress, the freedom of the people. On this basis we believe that the creation of Israel, carried out by the imperialist states to maintain their domination in the Middle East, was artificial and aimed at the creation of problems in that very important region of the world. This is our position: the Jewish people have lived in different countries of the world. We lament profoundly what the Nazis did to the Jewish people, that Hitler and his lackeys destroyed almost six million during the last World War. But we do not accept that this gives them the right to occupy a part of the Arab nation. We believe that the people of Palestine have a right to their homeland. We therefore think that all the measures taken by the Arab peoples, by the Arab nation, to recover the Palestinian Arab homeland are justified. (source)

On Vietnam:

For us, the struggle in Vietnam is our own struggle. We consider that in Vietnam not only the fate of our own people but also that of all the peoples struggling for their national independence and sovereignty is at stake. We are in solidarity with the people of Vietnam, and we immensely admire their heroic struggle against US aggression and against the aggression of the reactionaries of the southern part of Vietnam, who are no more than the puppets of US imperialism. (ibid)

Visiting the US, Cabral met with representatives from a number of black liberation groups, and demonstrated a solid understanding of, and solidarity with, their struggle.

You can be sure that we realize the difficulties you face, the problems you have and your feelings, your revolts, and also your hopes. We think that our fighting for Africa against colonialism and imperialism is a proof of understanding of your problem and also a contribution for the solution of your problems in this continent. Naturally the inverse is also true. All the achievements towards the solution of your problems here are real contributions to our own struggle. And we are very encouraged in our struggle by the fact that each day more of the African people born in America become conscious of their responsibilities to the struggle in Africa.

We think that all you can do here to develop your own conditions in the sense of progress, in the sense of history and in the sense of the total realization of your aspirations as human beings is a contribution for us. It is also a contribution for you to never forget that you are Africans. (source)

He also makes an important point about the politics of non-alignment, specifying that this doesn’t mean “neither east nor west”, or “neither capitalism nor socialism”, but rather retaining independence of decision making:

Non-alignment for us means not aligning ourselves with blocs, not aligning ourselves with the decisions of others. We reserve the right to make our own decisions, and if by chance our choices and decisions coincide with those of others, that is not our fault. We are for the policy of non-alignment, but we consider ourselves to be deeply committed to our people and committed to every just cause in the world. We see ourselves as part of a vast front of struggle for the good of humanity. (source)

Cuba

cabral fidelIn his incredible book ‘Conflicting Missions’, Piero Gleijeses writes in some detail about the relationship between Cuba and Guinea Bissau:

In January 1966, Cabral made his first trip to Cuba when he led the PAIGC delegation to the Tricontinental Conference in Havana. He was ‘the most impressive African in attendance,’ U.S. intelligence reported, and he made a powerful impression on his Cuban hosts. ‘His address to the Tricontinental was brilliant,’ Risquet remembered. ‘Everyone was struck by his great intelligence and personality. Fidel was very impressed by him’…

Amilcar Cabral had decided that Cuba alone should send its fighters to Guinea-Bissau. He chose Cuba in part because he felt some cultural and ethnic affinity with the Cubans and, above all, because he respected the Cuban revolution. ‘I remember that when I was in Cuba, Fidel told me that Cuba is also Africa,’ he told a group of Cubans in August 1966. ‘I don’t believe there is life after death, but if there is, we can be sure that the souls of our forefathers who were taken away to America to be slaves are rejoicing today to see their children reunited and working together to help us be independent and free.’ Thirty years later, other PAIGC leaders echoed his words. ‘We greatly admired the struggle of the Cuban people. The Cubans were a special case because we knew that they, more than anyone else, were the champions of internationalism,’ one recalled. ‘Cuba made no demands, it gave us unconditional aid,’ said another.

It was the Soviet bloc whose help was decisive. It provided arms, educational opportunities, and other material and political support. The Soviet Union was, by far, the major source of weapons. Cuba, too, gave material help, in the form of supplies, military training in Cuba, and scholarships. This was a considerable and generous effort for a poor country. But Cuba did much more, and its role was unique. Only Cubans fought in Guinea Bissau alongside the guerrilla fighters of the PAIGC…

Luis Cabral (Amilcar’s brother) later stated: ‘We were able to fight and triumph because other countries and people helped us … with weapons, with medicine, with supplies… But there is one nation that in addition to material, political, and diplomatic support, even sent its children to fight by our side, to shed their blood in our land alongside that of the best children of our country. This great people, this heroic people, we all know that is the heroic people of Cuba; the Cuba of Fidel Castro; the Cuba of the Sierra Maestra, the Cuba of Moncada… Cuba sent its best sons here to help us in the technical aspects of our war, to help us wage this great struggle against Portuguese colonialism.’

Visiting Cuba in 1966, Cabral stated:

If any of us came to Cuba with doubts in our mind about the solidity, strength, maturity and vitality of the Cuban Revolution, these doubts have been removed by what we have been able to see. Our hearts are now warmed by an unshakeable certainty which gives us courage in the difficult but glorious struggle against the common enemy: no power in the world will be able to destroy this Cuban Revolution, which is creating in the countryside and in the towns not only a new life but also — and even more important — a New Man, fully conscious of his national, continental and international rights and duties…

We guarantee that we, the peoples of the countries of Africa, still completely dominated by Portuguese colonialism, are prepared to send to Cuba as many men and women as may be needed to compensate for the departure of those who for reasons of class or of inability to adapt have interests or attitudes which are incompatible with the interests of the Cuban people. Taking once again the formerly hard and tragic path of our ancestors (mainly from Guinea and Angola) who were taken to Cuba as slaves, we would come now as free men, as willing workers and Cuban patriots, to fulfill a productive function in this new, just and multi-racial society, and to help and defend with our own lives the victories of the Cuban people. Thus we would strengthen both all the bonds of history, blood and culture which unite our peoples with the Cuban people, and the spontaneous giving of oneself, the deep joy and infectious rhythm which make the construction of socialism in Cuba a new phenomenon for the world, a unique and, for many, unaccustomed event. (source)

Solidarity with the working class movement in the ‘first world’

Cabral never tired of highlighting the need for global solidarity and unity against imperialism – a unity that should include the oppressed classes within imperialist society itself. However, he understood from direct experience that the creation of a ‘labour aristocracy’ had the effect of vastly reducing the anti-imperialist sentiment of the working class in western Europe and North America. Frankly, he understood this phenomenon better than 90% of western leftists.

I should just like to make one last point about solidarity between the international working class movement and our national liberation struggle. There are two alternatives: either we admit that there really is a struggle against imperialism which interests everybody, or we deny it. If, as would seem from all the evidence, imperialism exists and is trying simultaneously to dominate the working class in all the advanced countries and smother the national liberation movements in all the underdeveloped countries, then there is only one enemy against whom we are fighting. If we are fighting together, then I think the main aspect of our solidarity is extremely simple: it is to fight…

We are struggling in Guinea with guns in our hands, you must struggle in your countries as well – I don’t say with guns in your hands, I’m not going to tell you how to struggle, that’s your business; but you must find the best means and the best forms of fighting against our common enemy: this is the best form of solidarity. There are, of course, other secondary forms of solidarity: publishing material, sending medicine, etc; I can guarantee you that if tomorrow we make a breakthrough and you are engaged in an armed struggle against imperialism in Europe we will send you some medicine too. (source)

Interestingly, Cabral saw imperialism as being a greater threat to the European working class than to the masses of the oppressed nations – while revolutionising the latter, it had pacified the former, ”encouraging the development of a privileged proletariat and thus lowering the revolutionary level of the working classes.”

As we see it, neocolonialism (which we may call rationalised imperialism) is more a defeat for the international working class than for the colonised peoples. Neocolonialism is at work on two fronts – in Europe as well as in the underdeveloped countries. Its current framework in the underdeveloped countries is the policy of aid, and one of the essential aims of this policy is to create a false bourgeoisie to put a brake on the revolution and to enlarge the possibilities of the petty bourgeoisie as a neutraliser of the revolution; at the same time it invests capital in France, Italy, Belgium, England and so on. In our opinion the aim of this is to stimulate the growth of a workers’ aristocracy, to enlarge the field of action of the petty bourgeoisie so as to block the revolution. (ibid)

In his overview of class society in Guinea Bissau, he notes that the settlers of working class origin are often the most reactionary. This is another manifestation of the success of the western ruling classes in brainwashing workers.

The European settlers are, in general, hostile to the idea of national liberation; they are the human instruments of the colonial state in our country and they therefore reject a priori any idea of national liberation there. It has to be said that the Europeans most bitterly opposed to the idea of national liberation are the workers, while we have sometimes found considerable sympathy for our struggle among certain members of the European petty bourgeoisie. (ibid)

Talking with a degree of frustration about the endless criticism meted out to the liberation struggles by left sects in Europe, he says:

The criticism reminds me of a story about some lions: there is a group of lions who are shown a picture of a lion lying on the ground and a man holding a gun with his foot on the lion (as everybody knows the lion is proud of being king of the jungle); one of the lions looks at the picture and says, “if only we lions could paint”. If only one of the leaders of one of the new African countries could take time off from the terrible problems in his own country and become a critic of the European left and say all he had to say about the retreat of the revolution in Europe, of a certain apathy in some European countries and of the false hopes which we have all had in certain European groups… (ibid)

Against dogmatism

amilcar22Amílcar Cabral is famous for his insistence on a concrete approach to concrete problems, rather than the dogmatic application of formulas. He was by no means against ideology, but he was adamant that no set of revolutionary principles could simply be transplanted wholesale from one situation to another. English historian, Africanist and the major chronicler of the Guinea-Bissau revolution Basil Davidson wrote that “if one had to define a single influential aspect of Cabral’s approach, perhaps it would be his insistence on the study of reality. ‘Do not confuse the reality you live in with the ideas you have in your head’, was a favourite theme in his seminars for party militants. Your ideas may be good, even excellent, but they will be useless ideas unless they spring from and interweave with the reality you live in. What is necessary is to see into and beyond appearances: to free yourself from the sticky grasp of ‘received opinions’, whether academic or otherwise. Only through a principled study of reality, of the strictly here and now, can a theory of revolutionary change be integrated with its practice to the point where the two become inseparable. This is what he taught.” (source)

After all, there were definitely no ready-made formulas ready for use in the context of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. These highly complex African societies, whose history had been diverted by centuries of oppression by a colonial power that was itself very backward and dependent, were hardly the revolutionary centres that Marx and Engels had in mind when they produced the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848. Mao Zedong’s groundbreaking application of Marxism to the conditions of semi-fuedal China provided a much closer analogy to the conditions prevailing in Guinea Bissau, but even then there were important differences that required concrete analysis.

Naturally, there are certain general or universal laws, even scientific laws for any condition, but the liberation struggle has to be developed according to the specific conditions of each country. This is fundamental. The specific conditions to be considered include economic, cultural, social, political and even geographic conditions. The guerrilla manuals once told us that without mountains you cannot make guerrilla war. But in my country there are no mountains, only the people. In the economic field we committed an error. We began training our people to commit sabotage on the railroads. When they returned from their training we remembered that there were no railroads in our country. The Portuguese built them in Mozambique and Angola but not in our country. (source)

The PAIGC made an extensive study of production relations in the countryside, which led them to a campaign of mobilising the peasantry that was decidedly different to what had taken place in other African and Asian countries.

It so happens that in our country the Portuguese colonialists did not expropriate the land; they allowed us to cultivate the land. They did not create agricultural companies of the European type as they did, for instance, in Angola, displacing masses of Africans in order to settle Europeans. We maintained a basic structure under colonialism – the land as co-operative property of the village, of the community. This is a very important characteristic of our peasantry, which was not directly exploited by the colonisers but was exploited through trade, through the differences between the prices and the real value of products. This is where the exploitation occurs, not in work, as happens in Angola with the hired workers and company employees. This created a special difficulty in our struggle – that of showing the peasant that he was being exploited in his own country.

Telling the people that “the land belongs to those who work on it” was not enough to mobilise them, because we have more than enough land, there is all the land we need. We had to find appropriate formulae for mobilising our peasants, instead of using terms that our people could not yet understand. We could never mobilise our people simply on the basis of the struggle against colonialism-that has no effect. To speak of the fight against imperialism is not convincing enough. Instead we use a direct language that all can understand:

“Why are you going to fight? What are you? What is your father? What has happened to your father up to now? What is the situation? Did you pay taxes? Did your father pay taxes? What have you seen from those taxes? How much do you get for your groundnuts? Have you thought about how much you will earn with your groundnuts? How much sweat has it cost your family? Which of you have been imprisoned? You are going to work on road-building: who gives you the tools? You bring the tools. Who provides your meals? You provide your meals. But who walks on the road? Who has a car? And your daughter who was raped-are you happy about that?” (source)

Class suicide

Given the near-absence of an industrial working class, and the prevalence of petty bourgeois (or middle class) elements in the leadership of the national liberation movement, Cabral talked of the need for the petty bourgeoisie to commit ‘class suicide’ in order that the gains of the revolution not be reversed.

To retain the power which national liberation puts in its hands, the petty bourgeoisie has only one path: to give free rein to its natural tendencies to become more bourgeois, to permit the development of a bureaucratic and intermediary bourgeoisie in the commercial cycle, in order to transform itself into a national pseudo-bourgeoisie, that is to say in order to negate the revolution and necessarily ally. In order not to betray these objectives the petty bourgeoisie has only one choice: to strengthen its revolutionary consciousness, to reject the temptations of becoming more bourgeois and the natural concerns of its class mentality, to identify itself with the working classes and not to oppose the normal development of the process of revolution. This means that in order to truly fulfill the role in the national liberation struggle, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong. (source)

Armed struggle

The people of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde fought for the independence – successfully – with guns in hand (and, thanks primarily to the Soviet Union, with sophisticated military technology). However, Cabral never romanticised the armed struggle and the loss of human life.

The past and present experiences of various peoples, the present situation of national liberation struggles in the world (especially in Vietnam, the Congo and Zimbabwe) as well as the situation of permanent violence, or at least of contradictions and upheavals, in certain countries which have gained their independence by the so-called peaceful way, show us not only that compromises with imperialism do not work, but also that the normal way of national liberation, imposed on peoples by imperialist repression, is armed struggle.

I am not a great defender of the armed fight. I am myself very conscious of the sacrifices demanded by the armed fight. It is a violence against even our own people. But it is not our invention – it is not our cool decision; it is the requirement of history. This is not the first fight in our country, and it is not Cabral who invented the struggle. We are following the example of our grandfathers who fought against Portuguese domination 50 years ago. Today’s fight is a continuation of the fight to defend our dignity, our right to have an identity – our own identity.

If it were possible to solve this problem without the armed fight – why not?! But while the armed fight demands sacrifices, it also has advantages. Like everything else in the world, it has two faces – one positive and the other negative – the problem is in the balance. For us now, it (the armed fight) is a good thing in our opinion, and our condition is a good thing because this armed fight helped us to accelerate the revolution of our people, to create a new situation that will facilitate our progress. (ibid)

African history and culture

The colonists usually say that it was they who brought us into history: today we show that this is not so. They made us leave history, our history, to follow them, right at the back, to follow the progress of their history. Today, in taking up arms to liberate ourselves, in following the example of other peoples who have taken up arms to liberate themselves, we want to return to our history, on our own feet, by our own means and through our own sacrifices. (ibid)

In his speech at the first Tricontintal Conference in Havana, 1966, Cabral questions the idea put forward in the Communist Manifesto that “all history is the history of class struggle”, noting that this cuts pre-class society out of history.

Does history begin only with the development of the phenomenon of ‘class’, and consequently of class struggle? To reply in the affirmative would be to place outside history the whole period of life of human groups from the discovery of hunting, and later of nomadic and sedentary agriculture, to the organization of herds and the private appropriation of land. It would also be to consider — and this we refuse to accept — that various human groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America were living without history, or outside history, at the time when they were subjected to the yoke of imperialism. It would be to consider that the peoples of our countries, such as the Balantes of Guinea, the Coaniamas of Angola and the Macondes of Mozambique, are still living today — if we abstract the slight influence of colonialism to which they have been subjected — outside history, or that they have no history. (source)

In place of class struggle as the driving force of all history, Cabral proposes instead the development of the means of production:

If class struggle is the motive force of history, it is so only in a specific historical period. This means that before the class struggle — and necessarily after it, since in this world there is no before without an after — one or several factors was and will be the motive force of history. It is not difficult to see that this factor in the history of each human group is the mode of production — the level of productive forces and the pattern of ownership — characteristic of that group. Furthermore, as we have seen, classes themselves, class struggle and their subsequent definition, are the result of the development of the productive forces in conjunction with the pattern of ownership of the means of production. It therefore seems correct to conclude that the level of productive forces, the essential determining element in the content and form of class struggle, is the true and permanent motive force of history…

Eternity is not of this world, but man will outlive classes and will continue to produce and make history, since he can never free himself from the burden of his needs, both of mind and of body, which are the basis of the development of the forces of production.

Through this logic, Cabral seeks to break the inferiority complex that is pushed onto the masses of the oppressed nations by colonial ideology, and reassert Africa’s place in history. He also uses this theory to situate the national liberation struggle within the movement of history toward socialism: colonial domination has actually retarded the development of the productive forces (this is especially the case for Portugal’s colonies) and is a block on progress.

Both in colonialism and in neo-colonialism the essential characteristic of imperialist domination remains the same: the negation of the historical process of the dominated people by means of violent usurpation of the freedom of development of the national productive forces.

The colonies must remove this block and, in the interests of rapid development, align themselves with the socialist states:

Whatever its level of productive forces and present social structure, a society can pass rapidly through the defined stages appropriate to the concrete local realities (both historical and human) and reach a higher stage of existence. This progress depends on the concrete possibilities of development of the society’s productive forces and is governed mainly by the nature of the political power ruling the society… A more detailed analysis would show that the possibility of such a jump in the historical process arises mainly, in the economic field, from the power of the means available to man at the time for dominating nature, and, in the political field, from the new event which has radically changed the face of the world and the development of history, the creation of socialist states.

He also notes the process of intense human development that takes place within the national liberation struggle itself:

Our national liberation struggle has a great significance both for Africa and for the world. We are in the process of proving that peoples such as ours – economically backward, living sometimes almost naked in the bush, not knowing how to read or write, not having even the most elementary knowledge of modern technology – are capable, by means of their sacrifices and efforts, of beating an enemy who is not only more advanced from a technological point of view but also supported by the powerful forces of world imperialism. Thus before the world and before Africa we ask: were the Portuguese right when they claimed that we were uncivilised peoples, peoples without culture? We ask: what is the most striking manifestation of civilisation and culture if not that shown by a people which takes up arms to defend its right to life, to progress, to work and to happiness? (source)

Cabral was also strongly focused on the role of cultural imperialism in suppressing the peoples of the oppressed nations, and the importance of culture as an element of resistance to imperialism:

A people who free themselves from foreign domination will be free culturally only if, without complexes and without underestimating the importance of positive accretions from the oppressor and other cultures, they return to the upward paths of their own culture, which is nourished by the living reality of its environment, and which negates both harmful influences and any kind of subjection to foreign culture. Thus, it may be seen that if imperialist domination has the vital need to practice cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture”

The value of culture as an element of resistance to foreign domination lies in the fact that culture is the vigorous manifestation on the ideological or idealist plane of the physical and historical reality of the society that is dominated or to be dominated. Culture is simultaneously the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of history, by the positive or negative influence which it exerts on the evolution of relationships between man and his environment, among men or groups of men within a society, as well as among different societies. (source)

Although he stressed the importance of African culture and identity, Cabral always made clear that this was not based on any type of discrimination or feelings of superiority.

We are not racists. We are fundamentally and deeply against any kind of racism. Even when people are subjected to racism we are against racism from those who have been oppressed by it. In our opinion – not from dreaming but from a deep analysis of the real condition of the existence of mankind and the division of societies – racism is a result of certain circumstances. It is not eternal in any latitude in the world. It is the result of historical and economic conditions. And we cannot answer racism with racism. It is not possible. In our country, despite some racist manifestations by the Portuguese, we are not fighting against the Portuguese people or whites. We are fighting for the freedom of our people – to free our people and to allow them to be able to love any kind of human being. You cannot love when you are a slave… In combating racism we don’t make progress if we combat the people themselves. We have to combat the causes of racism. If a bandit comes into my house and I have a gun I cannot shoot the shadow of this bandit. I have to shoot the bandit. Many people lose energy and effort, and make sacrifices combating shadows. (source)

Further reading

Needless to say, a selection of quotes can only serve as an outline of, and introduction to, the political, cultural and philosophical thought of Amílcar Cabral. Some other material that you may find useful:

Assata

The following book review first appeared in the Morning Star on 1 September, 2014. It is followed by a selection of important quotes from the book.


Assata Shakur’s autobiography – first published in 1988 and newly republished this year by Zed Books – has lost none of its relevance. It remains an essential text for understanding both the prison-industrial complex and the state of race relations in the US, as well as providing a profound insight into the successes and failures of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Born in 1947, Assata Shakur (then JoAnne Deborah Byron) grew up between North Carolina and New York, experiencing the intense racism that prevailed – and prevails – both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. As a black, working class female, she became acutely aware of the special oppression she and others like her faced. As a college student, she came across activists – especially students from newly-liberated Africa – who challenged her anti-communist prejudices and her internalised stereotypes, and encouraged her to get involved in the struggle for black power and against capitalism and imperialism. This led to her membership of the Black Panther Party and, later, the Black Liberation Army.

The larger part of the book is devoted to documenting Assata’s experiences with the ‘justice’ system, in courts and prisons, between her arrest in 1971 and her escape eight years later. Few readers would fail to be shocked at the extent to which this human being, whose real ‘crime’ in the eyes of the state was to be a loud campaigner for justice and equality, was tortured and abused in prison – often at the hands of openly fascistic prison officers.

Her account also serves as a crucial reminder that there remain many political prisoners in the US, languishing behind bars for decades on trumped-up charges. International pressure must be maintained and intensified until Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, Leonard Peltier, Oscar López Rivera, Kenny ‘Zulu’ Whitmore, Albert Woodfox and all political prisoners are freed. Furthermore we must maintain the fight against an phenomenally unjust prison system which disproportionately targets poor and non-white people (and this is not restricted to the US – a recent study showed that black people in Britain are seven times more likely than their white counterparts to be imprisoned).

Assata’s profound and thought-provoking reflections on the decline of the Black Power movement deserve to be studied and discussed, as they could help illuminate a path for the current generation of organisers and activists. Aside from the objective factor (the FBI’s large-scale covert assault on the Panthers and others), Assata gives a great deal of attention to the subjective factor, in particular an element of adventurism, sectarianism, amateurishness, failure to consistently raise levels of political consciousness, and alienation from the masses.

Assata’s continuing relevance is not lost on the FBI, which last year added her to its list of Most Wanted Terrorists (she is the first female to enjoy this honour – good to see US imperialism doing its bit for gender equality). Thankfully, she is safely in exile in Cuba, a country she describes as “one of the largest, most resistant and most courageous palenques (maroon camps) that has ever existed on the face of this planet.”

‘Assata: An Autobiography’ is essential reading.


Quotes

On the hypocrisy of the power structure

assata-quote They call us thieves and bandits. They say we steal. But it was not we who stole millions of Black people from the continent of Africa. We were robbed of our language, of our Gods, of our culture, of our human dignity, of our labor, and of our lives. They call us thieves, yet it is not we who rip off billions of dollars every year through tax evasions, illegal price fixing, embezzlement, consumer fraud, bribes, kickbacks, and swindles. They call us bandits, yet every time most Black people pick up our paychecks we are being robbed. Every time we walk into a store in our neighborhood we are being held up. And every time we pay our rent the landlord sticks a gun into our ribs.

They call us thieves, but we did not rob and murder millions of Indians by ripping off their homeland, then call ourselves pioneers. They call us bandits, but it is not we who are robbing Africa, Asia, and Latin America of their natural resources and freedom while the people who live there are sick and starving. The rulers of this country and their flunkies have committed some of the most brutal, vicious crimes in history. They are the bandits. They are the murderers. And they should be treated as such.

On the prison-industrial complex

[The prison-industrial complex] explained why jails and prisons all over the country are filled to the brin with Black and Third World people, why so many Black people can’t find a job on the streets and are forced to survive the best way they know how. Once you’re inprison, there are plenty of jobs, and, if you don’t want to work, they beat you up and throw you in the hole. If every state had to pay workers to do the jobs prisoners are forced to do, the salaries would amount to billions… Prisons are a profitable business. They are a way of legally perpetuating slavery. In every state more and more prisons are being built and even more are on the drawing board. Who are they for? They certainly aren’t planning to put white people in them. Prisons are part of this government’s genocidal war against Black and Third World people.

On liberalism

The Upper West Side, as the neighborhood was called, was supposed to be a “liberal” stronghold. I have never really understood exactly what a “liberal” is, though, since i have heard “liberals” express every conceivable opinion on every conceivable subject. As far as i can tell, you have the extreme right, who are fascist racist capitalist dogs like Ronald Reagan, who come right out and let you know where they’re coming from. And on the opposite end, you have the left, who are supposed to be committed to justice, equality, and human rights. And somewhere between those two points is the liberal. As far as i’m concerned, “liberal” is die most meaningless word in the dictionary. History has shown me that as long as some white middle-class people can live high on the hog, take vacations to Europe, send their children to private schools, and reap the benefits of their white skin privilege, then they are “liberals.” But when times get hard and money gets tight, they pull off that liberal mask and you think you’re talking to Adolf Hitler. They feel sorry for the so-called underprivileged just as long as they can maintain their own privileges.

On overcoming anti-communist prejudice

I continued saying the first thing that came into my head [in a debate over Vietnam]: that the u.s. was fighting communists because they wanted to take over everything. When someone asked me what communism was, i opened my mouth to answer, then realized i didn’t have the faintest idea. My image of a communist came from a cartoon. It was a spy with a black trench coat and a black hat pulled down over his face, slinking around corners. In school, we were taught that communists worked in salt mines, that they weren’t free, that everybody wore the same clothes, and that no one owned anything. The Africans rolled with laughter.

I felt like a bona fide clown. One of them explained that communism was a political-economic system, but i wasn’t listening. I was just digging on myself. I had been hooping and hollering about something that i didn’t even understand. I knew i didn’t know what the hell communism was, and yet i’d been dead set against it. Just like when you’re a little kid and they get you to believe in the bogeyman. You don’t know what the hell the bogeyman is, but you hate him and you’re scared of him

I never forgot that day. We’re taught at such an early age to be against the communists, yet most of us don’t have the faintest idea what communism is. Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is… It’s got to be one of the most basic principles of living: always decide who your enemies are for yourself, and never let your enemies choose your enemies for you.

On Marx and Lenin

Usually, after a disagreement, they [my comrades] suggested i read this or that, often Marx, Lenin, or Engels. I preferred Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung, Che, or Fidel, but i ended up having to get into Marx and Lenin just to understand a lot of the speeches and stuff Huey Newton was putting out. It wasn’t easy reading, but i was glad i did it. It opened up my horizons a hell of a lot. I didn’t relate to them as the great white fathers or like some kind of gods, like some of the white revolutionaries did. As far as i was concerned, they were two dudes who had made contributions to revolutionary struggle too great to be ignored.

On capitalism and communism

I wasn’t against communism, but i can’t say i was for it either. At first, i viewed it suspiciously, as some kind of white man’s concoction, until i read works by African revolutionaries and studied the African liberation movements. Revolutionaries in Africa understood that the question of African liberation was not just a question of race, that even if they managed to get rid of the white colonialists, if they didn’t rid themselves of the capitalistic economic structure, the white colonialists would simply be replaced by Black neocolonialists. There was not a single liberation movement in Africa that was not fighting for socialism. In fact, there was not a single liberation movement in the whole world that was fighting for capitalism. The whole thing boiled down to a simple equation: anything that has any kind of value is made, mined, grown, produced, and processed by working people. So why shouldn’t working people collectively own that wealth? Why shouldn’t working people own and control their own resources? Capitalism meant that rich businessmen owned the wealth, while socialism meant that the people who made the wealth owned it.

I got into heated arguments with sisters or brothers who claimed that the oppression of Black people was only a question of race. I argued that there were Black oppressors as well as white ones. That’s why you’ve got Blacks who support Nixon or Reagan or other conservatives. Black folks with money have always tended to support candidates who they believed would protect their financial interests. As far as i was concerned, it didn’t take too much brains to figure out that Black people are oppressed because of class as well as race, because we are poor and because we are Black. It would burn me up every time somebody talked about Black people climbing the ladder of success. Anytime you’re talking about a ladder, you’re talking about a top and a bottom, an upper class and a lower class, a rich class and a poor class. As long as you’ve got a system with a top and a bottom, Black people are always going to wind up at the bottom, because we’re the easiest to discriminate against. That’s why i couldn’t see fighting within the system. Both the democratic party and the republican party are controlled by millionaires. They are interested in holding on to their power, while i was interested in taking it away. They were interested in supporting fascist dictatorships in South and Central America, while i wanted to see them overthrown. They were interested in supporting racist, fascist regimes in Africa while i was interested in seeing them overthrown. They were interested in defeating the Viet Cong and i was interested in seeing them win their liberation. A poster of the massacre at My Lai, picturing women and children lying clumped together in a heap, their bodies riddled with bullets, hung on my wall as a daily reminder of the brutality in the world.

On left arrogance

allpower I had begun to think of myself as a socialist, but i could not in any way see myself joining any of the socialist groups i came in contact with. I loved to listen to them, learn from them, and argue with them, but there was no way in the world i could see myself becoming a member. For one thing, i could not stand the condescending, paternalistic attitudes of some of the white people in those groups. Some of the older members thought that because they had been in the struggle for socialism for a long time, they knew all the answers to the problems of Black people and all the aspects of the Black Liberation struggle. I couldn’t relate to the idea of the great white father on earth any more than i could relate to the great white father up in the sky. I was willing and ready to learn everything i could from them, but i damn sure was not ready to accept them as leaders of the Black Liberation struggle. A few thought that they had a monopoly on Marx and acted like the only experts in the world on socialism came from Europe. In many instances they downgraded the theoretical and practical contributions of Third World revolutionaries like Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Augustino Neto, and other leaders of liberation movements in the Third World.

Another thing that went against my grain was the arrogance and dogmatism i encountered in some of these groups.

A member of one group told me that if i was really concerned about the liberation of Black people i should quit school and get a job in a factory, that if i wanted to get rid of the system i would have to work at a factory and organize the workers. “When i asked him why he wasn’t working in a factory and organizing the workers, he told me that he was staying in school in order to organize the students. I told him i was working to organize the students too and that i felt perfectly certain that the workers could organize themselves without any college students doing it for them. Some of these groups would come up with abstract, intellectual theories, totally devoid of practical application, and swear they had the answers to the problems of the world. They attacked the Vietnamese for participating in the Paris peace talks, claiming that by negotiating the Viet Cong were selling out to the u.s. I think they got insulted when i asked them how a group of flabby white boys who couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag had the nerve to think they could tell the Vietnamese people how to run their show.

Arrogance was one of the key factors that kept the white left so factionalized. I felt that instead of fighting together against a common enemy, they wasted time quarreling with each other about who had the right line.

On white supremacy

Most of our fights [as kids] started over petty disputes like stepped-on shoes, flying spitballs, and the contested ownership of pens and pencils. But behind our fights, self-hatred was clearly visible… We would call each other “jungle bunnies” and “bush boogies.” We would talk about each other’s ugly, big lips and flat noses. We would call each other pickaninnies and nappy-haired soand-so’s…

Black made any insult worse. When you called somebody a “bastard,” that was bad. But when you called somebody a “Black bastard,” now that was terrible. In fact, when i was growing up, being called “Black,” period, was grounds for fighting.

“Who you callin’ Black?” we would say. We had never heard the words “Black is beautiful” and the idea had never occurred to most of us…

We had been completely brainwashed and we didn’t even know it. We accepted white value systems and white standards of beauty and, at times, we accepted the white man’s view of ourselves. We had never been exposed to any other point of view or any other standard of beauty. From when i was a tot, i can remember Black people saying, “Niggas ain’t shit.” “You know how lazy niggas are.” “Give a nigga an inch and he’ll take a mile.” Everybody knew what “niggas” like to do after they eat: sleep. Everybody knew that “niggas” couldn’t be on time; that’s why there was c.p.t. (colored people’s time). “Niggas don’t take care of nothin’.” “Niggas don’t stick together.” The list could go on and on. To varying degrees we accepted these statements as true. And, to varying degrees, we each made them true within ourselves because we believed them.

On black consciousness

In a country that is trying to completely negate the image of Black people, that constantly tells us we are nothing, our culture is nothing, i felt and still feel that we have got to constantly make positive statements about ourselves. Our desire to be free has got to manifest itself in everything we are and do. We have accepted too much of a negative lifestyle and a negative culture and have to consciously act to rid ourselves of that negative influence. Maybe in another time, when everybody is equal and free, it won’t matter how anybody wears their hair or dresses or looks. Then there won’t be any oppressors to mimic or avoid mimicking. But right now i think it’s important for us to look and feel like strong, proud Black men and women who are looking toward Africa for guidance.

On Abraham Lincoln

Little did i know that Lincoln was an archracist who had openly expressed his disdain for Black people. He was of the opinion that Black people should be forcibly deported to Africa or anywhere else. We had been taught that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves, and it was not until i was in college that i learned that the Civil War was fought for economic reasons. The fact that “official” slavery was abolished was only incidental. Northern industrialists were fighting to control the economy. Before the Civil War, the northern industrial economy was largely dependent on southern cotton. The slave economy of the South was a threat to northern capitalism. What if the slaveholders of the South decided to set up factories and process the cotton themselves? Northern capitalists could not possibly compete with slave labor, and their capitalist economy would be destroyed. To ensure that this didn’t happen, the North went to war.

On negative gender relations in the black community

Back then, when i was growing up, boys gang-banging or gang-raping a girl was a pretty common thing… If a girl was caught on the wrong side of a park or in the wrong territory or on the wrong street, she was a target. It was a common thing back then for boys to downgrade girls and cuss at them in the street. It was common for them to go to bed with girls and talk about them like dogs the next day. It was common for boys to deny they were the fathers of their babies. And it was common for boys to beat girls up and knock them around. And then the girls would get hard too.

“If the nigga ain’t got no money, I don’t want to be bothered.”

“If the nigga ain’t got no car, then later for him.”

The more i watched how boys and girls behaved, the more i read and the more i thought about it, the more convinced i became that this behavior could be traced directly back to the plantation, when slaves were encouraged to take the misery of their lives out on each other instead of on the master. The slavemasters taught us we were ugly, less than human, unintelligent, and many of us believed it. Black people became breeding animals: studs and mares. A Black woman was fair game for anyone at any time: the master or a visiting guest or any redneck who desired her. The slavemaster would order her to have six with this stud, seven with that stud, for the purpose of increasing his stock. She was considered less than a woman. She was a cross between a whore and a workhorse. Black men internalized the white man’s opinion of Black women. And, if you ask me, a lot of us still act like we’re back on the plantation with massa pulling the strings.

On partying and hedonism

This party is a lost cause. I get my beach towel and my book and ease on down the beach a little piece. Looking out at the ocean, i wonder how many of our people lie buried there, slaves of another era. I’m not quite sure what freedom is, but i know damn well what it ain’t. How have we gotten so silly, i wonder. I get back off into James Baldwin… Me and James Baldwin are communicating. His fiction is more real than this reality.

On political evolution

images No movement can survive unless it is constantly growing and changing with the times. If it isn’t growing, it’s stagnant, and without the support of the people, no movement for liberation can exist, no matter how correct its analysis of the situation is. That’s why political work and organizing are so important. Unless you are addressing the issues people are concerned about and contributing positive direction, they’ll never support you. The first thing the enemy tries to do is isolate revolutionaries from the masses of people, making us horrible and hideous monsters so that our people will hate us.

On unity

Some of the laws of revolution are so simple they seem impossible. People think that in order for something to work, it has to be complicated, but a lot of times the opposite is true. We usually reach success by putting the simple truths that we know into practice. The basis of any struggle is people coming together to fight against a common enemy… One of the most important things the Party did was to make it really clear who the enemy was: not the white people, but the capitalistic, imperialistic oppressors. They took the Black liberation struggle out of a national context and put it in an international context. The Party supported revolutionary struggles and governments all over the world and insisted the u.s. get out of Africa, out of Asia, out of Latin America, and out of the ghetto too.

On problems in the black liberation movement

panther One of the basic laws of people’s struggle was to retreat when the enemy is strong and to attack when the enemy is weak. As far as I was concerned, defending the office was suicidal. The pigs had manpower, initiative, surprise, and gunpowder. We would just be sitting ducks. I felt that the Party was dealing from an emotional rather than a rational basis. Just because you believe in self-defense doesn’t mean you let yourself be sucked into defending yourself on the enemy’s terms. One of the Party’s major weaknesses, i thought, was the failure to clearly differentiate between aboveground political struggle and underground, clandestine military struggle.

An aboveground political organization can’t wage guerrilla war anymore than an underground army can do aboveground political work. Although the two must work together, they must have completely separate structures, and any links between the two must remain secret. Educating the people about the necessity for self-defense and for armed struggle was one thing. But maintaining a policy of defending Party offices against insurmountable odds was another. Of course, if the police just came in and started shooting, defending yourself made sense. But the point is to try and prevent that from happening…

On the whole, we were weak, inexperienced, disorganized, and seriously lacking in training. But the biggest problem was one of political development. There were sisters and brothers who had been so victimized by amerika that they were willing to fight to the death against their oppressors. They were intelligent, courageous and dedicated, willing to make any sacrifice. But we were to find out quickly that courage and dedication were not enough. To win any struggle for liberation, you have to have the way as well as the will, an overall ideology and strategy that stem from a scientific analysis of history and present conditions.

Some of the groups thought they could just pick up arms and struggle and that, somehow, people would see what they were doing and begin to struggle themselves. They wanted to engage in a do-or-die battle with the power structure in amerika, even though they were weak and ill prepared for such a fight. But the most important factor is that armed struggle, by itself, can never bring about a revolution. Revolutionary war is a people’s war. And no people’s war can be won without the support of the masses of people. Armed struggle can never be successful by itself; it must be part of an overall strategy for winning, and the strategy must be political as well as military…

Revolutionary war is protracted warfare. It is impossible for us to win quickly. To win we have got to wear down our oppressors, little by little, and, at the same time, strengthen our forces, slowly but surely. I understood some of my more impatient sisters and brothers. I knew that it was tempting to substitute military for political struggle, especially since all of our aboveground organizations were under vicious attack by the FBI, the CIA, and the local police agencies. All of us who saw our leaders murdered, our people shot down in cold blood, felt a need, a desire to fight back. One of the hardest lessons we had to learn is that revolutionary struggle is scientific rather than emotional. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t feel anything, but decisions can’t be based on love or on anger. They have to be based on the objective conditions and on what is the rational, unemotional thing to do.

On COINTELPRO

Nobody back then had ever heard of the counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) set up by the FBI. Nobody could possibly have known that the FBI had sent a phony letter to Eldridge Cleaver in Algiers, “signed” by the Panther 21, criticizing Huey Newton’s leadership. No one could have known that the FBI had sent a letter to Huey’s brother saying the New York Panthers were plotting to kill him. No one could have known that the FBI’s COINTELPRO was attempting to destroy the Black Panther Party in particular and the Black Liberation Movement in general, using divide-and-conquer tactics. The FBI’s COINTEL program consisted of turning members of organizations against each other, pitting one Black organization against another. Huey ended up suspending Cet and Dhoruba from the Party, branded them as “enemies of the people,” and caused them to go into hiding, in fear for their very lives. No one had the slightest idea that this whole scenario was carefully manipulated and orchestrated by the FBI.

On anti-religious arrogance

After the resurgence of the Puerto Rican independence movement, Lolita Lebrón was visited by all kinds of people. Some were pseudorevolutionary robots who attacked her for her religious beliefs, telling her that to be a revolutionary she had to give up her belief in God. It apparently had never occurred to those fools that Lolita was more revolutionary than they could ever be, and that her religion had helped her to remain strong and committed all those years. I was infuriated by their crass, misguided arrogance.

On exposing oppression

Every day out in the street now, i remind myself that Black people in amerika are oppressed. It’s necessary that I do that. People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.

On nationalism and internationalism

It was also clear to me that without a truly internationalist component nationalism was reactionary. There was nothing revolutionary about nationalism by itself — Hitler and Mussolini were nationalists. Any community seriously concerned with its own freedom has to be concerned about other peoples’ freedom as well. The victory of oppressed people anywhere in the world is a victory for Black people. Each time one of imperialism’s tentacles is cut off we are closer to liberation. The struggle in South Africa is the most important battle of the century for Black people. The defeat of apartheid in South Africa will bring Africans all over the planet closer to liberation. Imperialism is an international system of exploitation, and, we, as revolutionaries, need to be internationalists to defeat it.

On life in Cuba

SHAKUR No 2 5.11.13 My neighbors ask me what the u.s. is like, and they accuse me of lying when i tell them about the hunger and cold and people sleeping in the streets. They refuse to believe me. How can that be in such a rich country? I tell them about drug addicts and child prostitutes, about crime in the streets. They accuse me of exaggerating: “We know capitalism is not a good system, but you don’t have to exaggerate. Are there really twelve-year-old drug addicts?” Even though they know about racism and the ku klux klan, about unemployment, such things are unreal to them. Cuba is a country of hope. Their reality is so different. I’m amazed at how much Cubans have accomplished in so short a time since the Revolution. There are new buildings everywhere — schools, apartment houses, clinics, hospitals, and day care centers. They are not like the skyscrapers going up in midtown Manhattan. There are no exclusive condominiums or luxury office buildings. The new buildings are for the people.

Medical care, dental care, and hospital visits are free. Schools at all educational levels are free. Rent is no more than about ten percent of salaries. There are no taxes — no income, city, federal, or state taxes. It is so strange to pay the price actually listed on products without any tax added. Movies, plays, concerts, and sports events all cost one or two pesos at the most. Museums are free.

On Saturdays and Sundays the streets are packed with people dressed up and ready to hang out. I was amazed to discover that such a small island has such a rich cultural life and is so lively, particularly when the u.s. press gives just the opposite picture…

I spent my first weeks in Havana walking and watching. Nowhere did I find a segregated neighborhood, but several people told me that where i was living had been all white before the Revolution. Just from casual observation it was obvious that race relations in Cuba were different from what they were in the u.s. Blacks and whites could be seen together everywhere — in cars, walking down streets. Kids of all races played together. It was definitely different. Whenever i met someone who spoke English i asked their opinion about the race situation.

“Racism is illegal in Cuba,” i was told. Many shook their heads and said, “Aqui no hay racismo.” “There is no racism here.” Although i heard the same response from everyone i remained skeptical and suspicious. I couldn’t believe it was possible to eliminate hundreds of years of racism just like that, in twenty-five years or so. To me, revolutions were not magical, and no magic wand could be waved to create changes overnight. I’d come to see revolution as a process. I eventually became convinced that the Cuban government was completely committed to eliminating all forms of racism. There were no racist institutions, structures, or organizations, and i understood how the Cuban economic system undermined rather than fed racism.

On tacit support for death and destruction

Too many people in the u.s. support death and destruction without being aware of it. They indirectly support the killing of people without ever having to look at the corpses. But in Cuba i could see the results of u.s. foreign policy: torture victims on crutches who came from other countries to Cuba for treatment, including Namibian children who had survived massacres, and evidence of the vicious aggression the u.s. government had committed against Cuba, including sabotage, and numerous assassination attempts against Fidel. I wondered how all those people in the states who tried to sound tough, saying that the u.s. should go in here, bomb there, take over this, attack that, would feel if they knew that they were indirectly responsible for babies being burned to death. I wondered how they would feel if they were forced to take moral responsibility for that. It sometimes seems that people in the states are so accustomed to watching death on “Eyewitness News,” watching people starve to death in Africa, being tortured to death in Latin America or shot down on Asian streets, that, somehow, for them, people across the ocean — people “up there” or “down there” or “over there” — are not real.

On the future

How much we had all gone through. Our fight had started on a slave ship years before we were born. Venceremos, my favorite word in Spanish, crossed my mind. Ten million people had stood up to the monster. Ten million people only ninety miles away. We were here together in their land, my small little family, holding each other after so long. There was no doubt about it, our people would one day be free. The cowboys and bandits didn’t own the world.

chavez

Traducción de este artículo en ingles

“Salvemos la raza humana, acabemos con el imperio”

En el curso de sus 14 años como Presidente de Venezuela, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías se convirtió en una figura muy admirada entre la izquierda internacional. Aunque cualquier liderazgo revolucionario real y palpable siempre atraerá las sospechas de los socialistas de tertulia occidentales (y ciertamente Chávez tuvo su buena dosis de detractores), este grandioso personaje conquistó los corazones con su inmenso amor por el pueblo venezolano y su voluntad de defender alto y claro los ideales socialistas en un mundo post-soviético del fin de la historia donde pocos tuvieron el coraje de exponer tal punto de vista.

Nadie podría negar el papel que Chávez ha tenido como líder latinoamericano de la reacción contra el dogma neoliberal; tampoco se podría negar la naturaleza progresista y a favor de los pobres de los programas sociales de Venezuela. Bajo el liderazgo de Chávez, la riqueza petrolera de Venezuela (acompañada de los préstamos sin intereses chinos) se ha empleado de un modo excelente. Con la ayuda de los conocimientos expertos cubanos, el analfabetismo ha pasado a ser un mal recuerdo en Venezuela. El acceso a la educación ha aumentado drásticamente a todos los niveles, y se considera un componente fundamental de la creación de la democracia. Son famosas las palabras de Chávez, cuando sostuvo que “si queremos acabar con la pobreza, démosle poder a los pobres. ¡El conocimiento y la conciencia son el principal poder!”

Una vez más, con la ayuda de Cuba, el programa Barrio Adentro acercaba una sanidad de gran calidad a las comunidades más pobres de Venezuela, la mayoría de las cuales no había tenido acceso de ningún tipo a asistencia sanitaria profesional. Muy a pesar de las multinacionales occidentales, un gran número de empresas han sido nacionalizadas y se han llevado a cabo numerosos experimentos con la gestión de los trabajadores y la propiedad colectiva. Se han creado consejos comunalesde base por todo el país para atraer a las masas y crear una democracia más significativa. El proceso político puesto en marcha por Chávez es un programa orientado al socialismo que da prioridad a las necesidades de millones de personas ordinarias: los habitantes de los barrios marginales, los trabajadores, los campesinos, los desempleados, los indígenas, los africanos, los excluidos. Mientras tanto, el gobierno de Chávez celebraba elecciones como si fuesen a pasarse de moda. Este profundo proceso en Venezuela es tan emocionante que incluso ha conseguido ganarse el apoyo de secciones de la izquierda liberal occidental, por lo general tan clara en su rechazo total a los estados antiimperialistas y socialistas, desde A(rgentina) hasta Z(imbabwe).

Pero si hay un aspecto del legado de Hugo Chávez que hace sentir incómoda a la mayoría de la izquierda occidental (y que enfurece a las clases gobernantes occidentales) es el inquebrantable antiimperialismo de Chávez, su tenaz insistencia en la unidad a toda costa contra el principal enemigo. A nadie le cuesta alabar un hermoso programa de alfabetización, pero qué incomodo es ver a Chávez alinearse con lo que la caverna mediática del planeta ha etiquetado hace tiempo como “brutales dictaduras” en Iràn, Irak, Siria, Zimbabue, Cuba, Libia, Bielorrusia, Vietnam y Corea del Norte: “¿Cómo se le ocurre a Chávez? ¿Por qué tiene que llevarse tan bien con Rusia y China, los abusadores en serie de derechos humanos?“ Podemos descubrir este tipo de juicio en muchos de los obituarios a Chávez emanando de la izquierda occidental.

Por ejemplo, la indomable Organización ‘socialista’ internacional se quejaba de que “el legado internacional del presidente venezolano … se ha visto empañado por su atroz apoyo a Gadafi, Assad, Ahmadinejad y al estado chino”. A Owen Jones, ganador en 2013 de Britain’s Got Left-Liberal Talent, le preocupaban las “desagradables asociaciones extranjeras de Chávez. Aunque sus aliados más cercanos fueron sus compañeros de centro-izquierda elegidos democráticamente en Latinoamérica, también apoyó a brutales dictadores en Irán, Libia y Siria. Esto ha mancillado sin duda su reputación” (debería señalar de paso que el aliado más cercano de Chávez era Cuba, que suponemos que Jones no considera “democráticamente elegido” ¡y que se aparta mucho del centro-izquierda!).

Esta pauta – celebrar la política nacional de Venezuela mientras se denuncia su postura internacional – es un útil recordatorio de los límites de la democracia social occidental y claramente de todo el concepto de “libertad de expresión” en las sociedades capitalistas. Básicamente, se acepta un punto de vista ‘alternativo’ – y puede que hasta se le dé voz en los medios de comunicación liberales – en la medida en que se mantenga en límites bien definidos, dentro de lo razonable. El estado británico está dispuesto a tolerar un punto de vista minoritario que fomente una versión menos perturbada del capitalismo, especialmente si es en un país que no tiene demasiada conexión con los intereses económicos británicos. Lo que las clases dominantes occidentales nunca tolerarán – y por tanto lo que la izquierda socialdemócrata no promocionará – es una unidad antiimperialista global; hablamos de un apoyo inequívoco y coherente a todos los estados y movimientos que luchan contra el imperialismo. Dicha unidad es precisamente lo que presenta una amenaza existencial contra el imperialismo; es precisamente lo que Project for a New American Century (PNAC, Proyecto para un nuevo siglo americano) busca destruir; es precisamente lo que las inagotables estrategias de divide y vencerás buscan subvertir; es, en resumen, la única esperanza de poner fin a la dominación imperialista y crear un mundo donde los pueblos puedan desarrollarse en paz y seguridad. Como el propio Chávez afirmó: “Salvemos la raza humana – acabemos con el imperio”.

Chávez apoyó sin fisuras al movimiento global hacia la multipolaridad; a la creciente coordinación entre la familia progresista de naciones. Apoyó los profundos vínculos económicos, políticos y culturales entre estos estados que desafían la hegemonía occidental. Este aspecto de Chávez es absolutamente central para su legado político, y es lo que las clases dominantes occidentales más desprecian de él (en sus ojos había “heredado el manto de Fidel Castro como principal fastidio de Washington en Latinoamérica”). Lo que pretendo mostrar con este artículo es que, en lugar de meter bajo la alfombra el internacionalismo revolucionario de Chávez, o verlo como una mancha en su reputación progresista, este legado antiimperialista tiene que explorarse, entenderse, defenderse y construirse sobre él.

“No hay fronteras en esta lucha a muerte. No podemos ser indiferentes a lo que sucede en cualquier parte del mundo, ya que una victoria sobre el imperialismo de cualquier país es nuestra victoria; así como la derrota de cualquier país es la derrota de todos nosotros” (Ernesto Che Guevara).

La construcción del frente antiimperialista mundial

El mundo actual puede resultar implacable, especialmente para aquellos países con ideas ‘extravagantes’ sobre hacerse con el control de sus recursos naturales, la redistribución de la riqueza, la redistribución de la tierra, la puesta en práctica de una política exterior independiente y todo ese tipo de cosas. Los países de América Latina que, en el siglo XX, intentaron ejercer su independencia y soberanía fueron castigados por sus “pecados” con golpes de Estado brutales y despiadadas dictaduras (Argentina, Brasil, Chile). La minúscula Cuba ha sido sometida a medio siglo de bloqueo económico implacable, desestabilización política, aislamiento diplomático y unos cuantos cientos de intentos de asesinato. Cuando Zimbabue transfirió tierras de los colonos blancos ricos a los trabajadores nativos, negros y pobres, las clases gobernantes de Gran Bretaña y EE.UU. dejaron bien patente su descontento poniendo en marcha una campaña feroz de desprestigio contra el ZANU-PF y contra Robert Mugabe, así como imponiendo sanciones, y canalizando grandes sumas de dinero al opositor Movimiento para el Cambio Democrático. Cuando el presidente de Ucrania, Viktor Yanukovich rechazó el paquete de préstamos de la UE, con toda la bateria de consecuencias desagradables que dicho paquete conllevaba, y optó en su lugar por la ayuda económica rusa, éste fue inmediatamente barrido del poder por una “revolución” apoyada por Occidente. Los intentos de Vietnam, Corea, Irak, Yugoslavia, Afganistán, Granada, Nicaragua, Libia, y otros países, para forjarse un camino independiente han tenido como respuesta guerras imperialistas sin cuartel.

Sólo hay dos opciones viables para sobrevivir en un mundo tan hostil: capitular, o unirse y luchar.

Hugo Chávez veía el mundo de una forma muy lucida, casi visionaria; ello gracias a su profundo conocimiento de la historia mundial, a haber sido capaz de identificar el imperialismo liderado por Estados Unidos como el principal obstáculo para la paz y el desarrollo, y a sus propias experiencias a la hora de tratar de ejercer la soberanía y construir el socialismo en Venezuela (en medio de intentos de desestabilización y de golpes de Estado respaldados por la CIA). Chávez veía a Venezuela como parte de un movimiento global que desafiaba medio milenio de colonialismo, imperialismo y racismo; un movimiento global que incluía a China, Brasil, Rusia, Zimbabue, Libia, Siria, Sudáfrica, Cuba, Bielorrusia, Vietnam, Irán, Ecuador, Bolivia, Corea del Norte, Nicaragua, Argentina y algunos más. Chávez era consciente de que el enemigo utiliza todas las artimañas existentes para socavar a aquellos países que se niegan a alinearse con el Consenso de Washington, y comprendió la necesidad urgente de una unidad muy amplia con el fin de resistir este ataque. Esta interpretación llevó a Chávez a ser totalmente coherente en su lucha contra el imperialismo. Si la unión hace la fuerza, entonces uno no puede quedarse de brazos cruzados viendo como el imperio va derribando uno a uno a nuestros aliados. Como él mismo dijo durante una visita a Sudáfrica en el 2008:

“No se puede perder ni un día, ni un segundo, en esa tarea de unirnos los países del Tercer Mundo, del Sur”

De ahí que las sólidas relaciones que Chávez y su equipo construyeron con todos los estados socialistas y antiimperialistas no fueran ni anómalas, ni resultado de algún desafortunado accidente, ni de error de juicio, sino el resultado de una postura ideológica y estratégica clara para el chavismo.

Siria

“La civilización árabe y la nuestra Latinoamericana están llamadas en este siglo que comenzó a cumplir un papel fundamental en la liberación y salvación del mundo contra el imperialismo, contra la hegemonía capitalista y neoliberal que está amenazando la supervivencia de la especie humana. Siria y Venezuela están en la vanguardia de esta lucha.” (Hugo Chávez, 2010 , en el transcurso de la visita de Bashar Al-Assad a Caracas).

chavez-assadAl inicio de su presidencia, Chávez identificó a Siria como un aliado clave – uno de los pocos países en el mundo árabe que habían mantenido siempre una posición firme contra el imperialismo y el sionismo (recordemos que Chávez fue un firme defensor de Palestina y enemigo de Israel).

Siria, orgulloso miembro del famoso grupo ‘Más allá del Eje del Mal’ de John Bolton, era despreciada por occidente por su liderazgo en el apoyo a la resistencia palestina a lo largo de cuatro décadas, por su alianza con el movimiento de resistencia libanés Hezbolá (en 2006, el apoyo sirio resultó crucial para Hezbolá a la hora de derrotar a Israel en el sur del Líbano), y por su alianza con Irán.

En una visita a Damasco en agosto de 2006, Chávez, tras una larga reunión con el presidente sirio Bashar al-Assad, declaró: “Hemos decidido ser libres. Queremos colaborar en la construcción de un nuevo mundo donde los estados y la autodeterminación de los pueblos sean respetados… Tenemos la misma visión política y vamos a resistir juntos la agresión del imperialismo norteamericano”. En una nueva visita a Siria, en 2009, para elaborar un plan de cooperación económica, Chávez describió al pueblo sirio como “arquitecto de la resistencia” al imperialismo, y apeló a la unidad de los pueblos del Sur Global, proclamando: “debemos luchar para crear una conciencia libre de la doctrina imperialista… luchar para derrotar el atraso, la pobreza, la miseria (…) para convertir a nuestros países en verdaderas potencias a través de la conciencia de la gente”.

En el 2011, cuando Siria se vio amenazada por un golpe de Estado, bajo la doctrina de “cambio de régimen”, Chávez y su gobierno se apresuraron a declarar su lealtad al gobierno sirio. “Esta es una crisis planeada y provocada… Siria es una nación soberana. La causa de esta crisis es solo una: el mundo ha entrado en una nueva era imperial”. Es una locura”. Tras haber dejado muy clara su postura política, Venezuela pasó de las palabras a los hechos, enviando combustible diesel gratis a Siria en múltiples ocasiones para ayudarles a superar la escasez causada por las sanciones.

No hace falta decir que la postura abiertamente antiimperialista de Venezuela no fue apreciada por buena parte de la izquierda occidental. La web “Counterfire”, entre otros, castigó a Chávez en términos inequívocos por su apoyo abierto al gobierno sirio: “La declaración de apoyo del presidente venezolano Hugo Chávez al ‘líder socialista y hermano Bashar al Assad’, diciendo que es el objetivo de una operación imperialista para derrocar a su régimen y culpando a los EE.UU. por los disturbios en el país, es un insulto a los manifestantes sirios y a los mártires que perdieron la vida en el levantamiento contra el régimen autoritario sirio”. Según Al-Jazeera (portavoz de la monarquía Catarí – principal proveedor de armas y dinero a los grupos rebeldes de Siria), “Chávez y otros se desacreditaron y, probablemente, anularon la posibilidad de cualquier alianza duradera entre los revolucionarios árabes y fuerzas simpatizantes en América del Sur.”

Chávez no se dejó influir por estas críticas; defendió a Siria en su lucha contra la campaña para derrocar a su gobierno, en un momento en el que hacerlo resultaba altamente impopular. ¿Cómo podría no apoyar a Assad? Él es el líder del pueblo Sirio.”

En el transcurso de tres años, la verdadera naturaleza de la crisis Siria se ha hecho cada vez más evidente. Al mismo tiempo, el mito de la oposición democrática-socialista-feminista-pacífica-secular se ha ido desvaneciendo para dejar paso a una realidad bastante menos de color de rosa: la de sectas fundamentalistas asesinas (armadas hasta los dientes por Arabia Saudita, Cátar y Turquía, con la aprobación tacita de Gran Bretaña y los EE.UU) que están arrasando el país. (Mi artículo ‘La Descriminalización de Bashar‘ aborda este tema en detalle). Ahora está claro para todos que el plan de Occidente era sacar a Siria del eje de la resistencia, pero no siempre ha sido el caso. Analizando la situación desde el punto de vista del antiimperialismo militante, Chávez fue capaz de entender el panorama global desde un principio, en un momento en que otros muchos se creyeron las campañas de mentiras y de demonización.

Libia

Hugo Chávez vio en el líder libio, Muammar Gaddafi, a un aliado importante en la lucha mundial contra el imperialismo: alguien que sacó a su país de la dependencia colonial, que construyó un avanzado sistema de bienestar social (con el índice más alto de desarrollo humano, la esperanza de vida más alta, la más baja mortandad infantil y la tasa de alfabetización más alta de África), y que apoyó sin fisuras a movimientos socialistas y antiimperialistas de todo el mundo, desde Irlanda hasta Sudáfrica, de Nicaragua a Palestina, de Dominica a Namibia. De hecho, Chávez visitó Libia en cinco ocasiones durante su presidencia. En Trípoli, durante la celebración del 40 aniversario de la revolución libia (2009), declaró que Venezuela y Libia “comparten el mismo destino, la misma batalla contra un mismo enemigo y vamos a ganarla”. A continuación, hizo un emotivo llamamiento a la unidad africana:

“El África es el África, y el África más nunca debe permitir que vengan países de más allá de los mares a imponer los sistemas políticos, económicos o sociales que el África y sus pueblos necesitan. África debe ser de los africanos y solo mediante la unidad África será libre y grande.”

Moammar Gadhafi, Hugo ChavezTan sólo unas semanas después, Gadafi llegó a Venezuela en su primer viaje a América del Sur. Durante la Cumbre África-América del Sur, celebrada en la Isla de Margarita, Chávez regaló a Gaddafi una réplica de la espada del héroe de la independencia de Venezuela, Simón Bolívar. Chávez declaro: “Gadafi es para Libia lo que Bolívar es para nosotros.” El objetivo común de Chávez y Gadafi fue el de de marcar el comienzo de una nueva era de cooperación a gran escala entre África y América Latina.

Al igual que en Siria, Chávez entendió desde el principio lo que el ‘levantamiento’ en Libia significaba. Mientras los iluminados de la izquierda británica, como Gilbert Achcar, pedían a gritos una zona de exclusión aérea para lograr deshacerse de Gadafi, Chávez salió en defensa de su amigo y compañero: “Se está tejiendo una campaña de mentiras con respecto a Libia. Yo no voy a condenar a Gadafi. Sería un cobarde si condenara a alguien que ha sido mi amigo.”

Venezuela encabezó los llamamientos por una solución pacífica a la crisis, ofreciendo sus servicios en varias ocasiones para mediar entre el gobierno libio y los rebeldes. “Vamos a tratar de ayudar, de interceder entre las partes. Un alto el fuego, sentados alrededor de una mesa. Ese es el camino en este tipo de conflictos.” Lamentablemente, los rebeldes y sus aliados de la OTAN no tenían el más mínimo interés en negociaciones.

Junto con sus aliados regionales, Cuba, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua y Ecuador, Venezuela denunció sin ambigüedades el salvaje bombardeo de la OTAN. “Libia está bajo fuego imperial. Nada lo justifica”, dijo Chávez. “Bombardeo indiscriminado. ¿Quién le dio a esos países el derecho? Ni Estados Unidos, ni Francia, ni Inglaterra, ni ningún país tiene derecho a lanzar bombas… Desearía que estallase una revolución en los Estados Unidos. Vamos a ver lo que harían.” Chávez resumió de forma muy clara y sencilla lo que era la “post estrategia del consenso de Washington” adoptada por la OTAN, al declarar: “El imperio se está volviendo loco y es una amenaza real para la paz mundial, el imperialismo ha entrado en fase de locura extrema”. Y en agosto de 2011, cuando Trípoli fue sometida a base de bombardeos, Chávez predijo, en lo que sería una profecia, que “el drama de Libia no termina con la caída del gobierno de Gadafi. La tragedia de Libia apenas está comenzando.”

Libia fue otro de los temas en los que el sólido antiimperialismo de Chávez chocaba frontalmente con el liberalismo primer-mundista de la izquierda occidental. Mientras que Alex Callinicos , principal teórico del vergonzosamente mal llamado “Partido Socialista de los Trabajadores” (Reino Unido), llamaba a sus seguidores a “_unirse a las celebraciones de los Libios por la desaparición del tirano*”, la noticia del asesinato de Gadafi orquestado por la OTAN afectó mucho a Chávez: *”Lamentablemente, se ha confirmado la muerte de Gadafi. Fue asesinado… le recordare toda mi vida como un gran luchador, un revolucionario y un mártir.”*

Si, hay un patrón de comportamiento. La izquierda occidental, casi invariablemente, ha optado por apoyar las campañas de demonización contra los Estados socialistas y antiimperialistas, orquestadas por la prensa de extrema derecha. Por su lado Chávez, incansable, vio más allá de la propaganda y se mantuvo fiel a su sueño de unidad mundial contra el imperio. En un mundo de cobardía e inconstancia, se alzo y dijo: Yo no soy un cobarde, yo no soy un veleta.

Chávez partía de una postura de desconfianza instintiva hacia la propaganda proveniente de occidente. Nunca se dejo arrastrar por los relatos simplistas sobre ‘dictadores diabólicos’, como Blofeld, el personaje malvado de la serie James Bond. Su trayectoria y su experiencia política le habían enseñado que los medios de comunicación no son de fiar; que los imperialistas manipulan cada noticia para satisfacer sus propios intereses. Los medios de comunicación en Venezuela siguen estando principalmente en manos de las elites, que odiaban a Chávez, al que sometían a ataques racistas y clasistas, a la par que propagaban mentiras y calumnias sobre él. Así las cosas, para Chávez estaba muy claro que lo que se decía sobre los otros países del ‘Eje del Mal Prolongado’ eran, con toda probabilidad, estupideces.

Mientras tanto, ¿qué países ayudaron a Venezuela, apoyando sus políticas, apoyando la integración regional de América Latina? ¿Qué países apoyaron los movimientos de liberación en todo el mundo? ¿Qué países apoyaban la liberación de Palestina -por ejemplo, suministrando armas para la defensa de Gaza? ¿Qué países se enfrentaron a EE.UU., Gran Bretaña, Francia e Israel?

Irán

Irán es otro de los países que viene siendo sometido regularmente a las campañas occidentales de calumnia y demonización, pero también es otro país con el que Hugo Chávez creó fuertes vínculos de amistad, con el consiguiente disgusto del imperialismo occidental. En un artículo fascinante por su estupidez publicado en marzo del 2007, el veterano republicano Bailey Hutchison vociferaba lo siguiente: “En su lucha contra el ‘imperialismo’ estadounidense, Chávez ha encontrado un aliado muy útil en el más importante patrocinador mundial del terrorismo – el gobierno de Irán. Es uno de los pocos líderes que se atreve a apoyar públicamente el programa de armas nucleares de Irán. Y los ulemas iraníes han recompensado la amistad de Chávez con lucrativos contratos, incluida la transferencia de tecnología y de profesionales iraníes a Venezuela. El mes pasado, el Sr. Chávez y el presidente iraní Mahmoud Ahmadinejad anunciaron planes para crear un fondo común por valor de dos mil millones de dólares, parte de los cuales será utilizado como un ‘mecanismo de liberación’ contra los aliados norteamericanos… Si no se ponen límites a esto, los Sres. Ahmadinejad y Chávez podrían convertirse en el nuevo tándem Khrushchev- Castro del inicio de este siglo XXI, canalizando armas, dinero y propaganda a América Latina, y poniendo en peligro una región de democracias frágiles y economías volátiles.”

Iran's President Ahmadinejad is welcomed by Venezuela's President Chavez in CaracasChávez visitó Irán en numerosas ocasiones, y de igual forma recibió a su homólogo iraní, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, en Venezuela varias veces. A pesar de sus diferencias ideológicas y de tener concepciones filosóficas distintas, los dos líderes crearon una sólida alianza basada en la unidad anti-imperialista. “Nosotros sabemos que Irán es uno de los objetivos que el imperio yanqui tiene en el punto de mira hace mucho tiempo”, Chávez dijo. “Cuando nos reunimos los diablos se vuelven como locos.” Ahmadinejad describió a Chávez como a “un hermano y compañero de trinchera” y calificó a Irán y Venezuela como piezas fundamentales de un frente revolucionario “que se extiende hasta el este de Asia” desde América Latina. “Si hubo un dia en que mi hermano Chávez y yo, junto a otros pocos, estuvimos solos en el mundo, hoy contamos con una larga lista de mandos de la Revolución y gente de a pie resistiendo codo a codo.”

Uno de los resultados de las estrechas relaciones de amistad que establecieron los dos países fue que la cooperación, a nivel práctico, se incrementó. El comercio se multiplicó por 100 desde el 2001 (se estima que el comercio bilateral supera los 40 mil millones dólares), y los dos países se embarcaron en empresas conjuntas en varias áreas, incluyendo la energía, la agricultura, la vivienda y la infraestructura. La experiencia iraní en el ámbito de construcción fue aprovechada para construir miles de viviendas para los pobres de Venezuela.

Chávez defendió el derecho de Irán a desarrollar la energía nuclear y señaló con mucha agudeza que la cuestión nuclear estaba siendo utilizada por occidente para movilizar a la opinión pública en favor de una guerra, “de la misma forma que usaron la excusa de las armas de destrucción masiva para hacer lo que hicieron en Irak.” Chávez manifestó el firme apoyo de Venezuela a Irán con respecto a la amenaza de guerra contra ellos: Deberí a aprovechar esta oportunidad para condenar esas amenazas militares que se están haciendo contra Irán. Sabemos que nunca serán capaces de ponerle límites a la revolución islámica de ninguna manera. Estaremos siempre juntos, no sólo resistiremos, sino que juntos saldremos victoriosos.”

Irak

Una de las prioridades de Hugo Chávez, en los primeros años de su presidencia, fue revitalizar la Organización de Países Exportadores de Petróleo (OPEP), a fin de asegurar un acuerdo que regulase la producción y aumentase los precios. Tras haber fijado una fecha para una cumbre de la OPEP que reuniese a todos sus miembros (se trataba de la segunda en la historia de la organización y la primera en 25 años), Chávez se embarcó en una gira para visitar los diez países de la OPEP con el fin de invitar personalmente a cada jefe de Estado. Este itinerario incluía necesariamente a Irak, miembro de la OPEP. La visita de Chávez a Irak, en agosto de 2000, produjo una oleada de controversia, indignación y ansiedad en todo el mundo occidental.

“Washington dijo que estaban en contra de mi visita a Bagdad, yo les dije que iba a ir de todas formas. Ellos argumentaron que había una zona de exclusión aérea y que no podría atravesarla sin riesgo de que me derribasen el avión. Pero fuimos a Bagdad de todos modos y hablamos con Saddam”. (Citado por Bart Jones en “La Historia de Hugo Chávez”).

chavez-saddamDe hecho, Chávez fue el primer jefe de Estado que visitó Irak tras la imposición de sanciones por la ONU en 1991. Para poder esquivar la prohibición de vuelos internacionales hacia Irak, Chávez y su equipo cruzaron desde Irán a Irak por tierra y después volaron a Bagdad en helicóptero. Allí fue recibido personalmente por Saddam Hussein, quien lo llevo a hacer una visita nocturna por Bagdad. En respuesta a las críticas de la “comunidad internacional”, Chávez declaró desafiante: “Lamentamos y denunciamos la injerencia en nuestros asuntos internos. Ni la aceptamos, ni la aceptaremos… Estamos muy contentos de estar en Bagdad, de oler el aroma de la historia y de caminar por las orillas del río Tigris.”

Los dos dirigentes mantuvieron largas conversaciones, descritas por Chávez como fructíferas. “Descubrí que era un hombre educado, que comprendía todo aquello relacionado con la OPEP”. Chávez y sus colegas también aprovecharon la oportunidad para denunciar el régimen de sanciones internacionales responsable de las muertes de cientos de miles de niños iraquíes. El vice ministro de exteriores, Jorge Valero, declaró: “El presidente Chávez reafirma la posición venezolana de apoyar toda iniciativa que ponga fin a cualquier tipo de bloqueo o sanciones unilaterales a Irak o a cualquier otro país del mundo.”

Uno de los resultados más impactantes de los esfuerzos de Chávez fue que, apenas unas semanas después de su visita a Bagdad, y en el marco de la cumbre de la OPEP en Caracas, Irán e Irak celebraron las conversaciones al más alto nivel desde la trágica y terrible guerra que tuvo lugar entre los dos países (que duró de 1980-1988 y que tuvo como resultado al menos un millón de muertes). El Vicepresidente iraquí, Taha Yassin Ramadan, dijo que las conversaciones con el presidente iraní, Mohammad Khatami fueron cordiales y francas. Hablamos de la cooperación entre los dos países y acordamos trabajar conjuntamente para la mejora de las relaciones entre los dos países.” Chávez comentó: “Estoy a su servicio para ayudarles … a la reactivación plena de las relaciones entre dos pueblos hermanos, dos países hermanos , que también son miembros de la OPEP, y que piden un impulso en la reunificación de todo el mundo árabe-islámico.”

El hecho de que Chávez estuviera dispuesto, y fuera capaz de facilitar este proceso, ya nos habla de su genialidad estratégica y de su visión a largo plazo. A pesar de ser plenamente consciente de la dolorosa enemistad entre Irán e Irak; a pesar de ser consciente de las dificultades que conllevaba el camino de la reconciliación, Chávez supo que aliviar la tensión entre estas dos grandes naciones significaba darle un impulso al frente anti-imperialista mundial. Los efectos secundarios podían conllevar la reconciliación entre Irak y Siria (Siria era un aliado muy próximo de Irán), entre Irak y Libia (quien había apoyado a Irán en la guerra Irán-Irak), entre Irán y el mundo árabe en general, y entre las diferentes facciones palestinas. Si este proceso de acercamiento hubiera logrado plasmarse, la región en su conjunto habría estado en una posición mucho más fuerte en su lucha contra el imperialismo y el sionismo. Se habría avanzado en la lucha palestina por la autodeterminación, y se podría haber evitado la desastrosa guerra de Irak, en la que más de un millón de iraquíes perdieron la vida. De hecho, la posibilidad de una unidad regional basada en la reconciliación entre Irán e Irak pudo haber sido uno de los factores que decidieron a EE.UU. y a Gran Bretaña a lanzar la invasión de Irak en el 2003.

Cuba

chavez castro 2El estado más difamado en el hemisferio occidental, Cuba, ha sufrido durante años un bloqueo económico y diplomático impuesto de forma brutal. Hasta hace pocas décadas, la mayoría de los gobiernos latinoamericanos evitaban a Cuba por temor a molestar a sus amos al norte de la frontera. Sin embargo, la situación ha cambiado significativamente en los últimos 15 años, desde que Chávez emprendio la Revolución Bolivariana en Venezuela.

Chávez nunca ocultó su afecto por Cuba, ni su admiración por el socialismo cubano y su internacionalismo militante, ni su respeto por Fidel Castro en tanto que revolucionario.

“Fidel para mí es un padre, un compañero, un maestro de la estrategia perfecta.” Hugo Chávez, 2005.

Durante su visita a Cuba en 1999, Chávez, dirigiéndose a la audiencia de la Universidad de La Habana, dijo que “Venezuela está navegando hacia el mismo mar que el pueblo cubano, un mar de felicidad, de justicia social y de paz verdaderas… Aquí estamos, más alerta que nunca, Fidel y Hugo, luchando con dignidad y valor para defender los intereses de nuestros pueblos y haciendo realidad el pensamiento de Bolívar y de Martí. En nombre de Cuba y Venezuela, quiero hacer un llamamiento a la unidad de nuestros pueblos y de las revoluciones que encabezamos. Bolívar y Martí, un país unido!” (citado en Richard Gott ‘Hugo Chávez y la Revolución Bolivariana’). En una de las ocasiones en que respondía a la acusación de que Cuba era una “dictadura”, Chávez señaló que Cuba tiene formas de democracia mucho más profundas y amplias que los países que vierten las acusaciones. “Mucha gente me ha preguntado cómo puedo apoyar a Fidel si es un dictador. Pero Cuba no es una dictadura… es una democracia revolucionaria.”

cuba-venezuelaEn el 2000 se firmaron una serie de acuerdos de ayuda mutua, que actuaron como un balón de oxigeno para la economía de Cuba y resultaron cruciales para el éxito de los programas sociales de Venezuela. El programa de salud comunitaria Barrio Adentro llevo el conocimiento médico cubano a millones de pobres venezolanos. Según estimaciones oficiales, “ha salvado la vida a 1,5 millones de venezolanos. Y otros 1,5 millones se beneficiaron también (sin coste alguno) de la cirugía ocular de la Misión Milagro, otro programa cubano de atención sanitaria, creado en 2004, para proporcionar cuidados oftalmológicos gratuitos a la poblacion”.

Además: “Otros 53,000 venezolanos con enfermedades crónicas han recibido atención sanitaria gratuita en Cuba, gracias a un Acuerdo bilateral firmado entre las dos naciones latinoamericanas que refuerza los servicios sociales y mejora la calidad de vida de la población Venezolana.” Por otro lado, Cuba proporcionó también profesionales y apoyo técnico al programa de alfabetización de Venezuela, que ha resultado un rotundo éxito al eliminar el analfabetismo del país.

Venezuela paga por estos servicios cruciales para la nación con petróleo gratuito o fuertemente subvencionado, lo que ha significado un enorme impulso a la economía cubana. Venezuela también ha ayudado a Cuba con prestamos e inversiones por valor de miles de millones de dólares. Ello significa que ha roto con pleno conocimiento y orgullo el bloqueo económico de los Estados Unidos contra Cuba. En una larga entrevista concedida a Aleida Guevara, Chávez decia: “Antes, Venezuela no vendía petróleo a Cuba. ¿Por qué no? Por una orden de Washington, por el bloqueo, y la Ley Helms-Burton. A nosotros eso no nos importa nada, Cuba es nuestra nación hermana y le venderemos a Cuba.”

Chávez recibió incontables andanadas de críticas desde los Estados Unidos por su relación con Cuba. No hace falta decir que no le afectaron en lo más mínimo.

“Nunca me cansaré de manifestar mi reconocimiento al fantástico apoyo de Cuba, de subrayar mi gratitud en público, donde sea que me halle, con quien quiera que este, en el foro mundial al que se dé la ocasión de dirigirme, sin importarme cuantos rostros ardan de rabia porque me este refiriendo a Cuba en estos términos… [En la Cumbre de las Américas de Monterrey en el 2003] me dijeron que Bush ardía de rabia. Yo no le estaba mirando, pero luego me contaron que se había puesto rojo y se quedó inmóvil, inexpresivo sentado en su sillón. Yo había mencionado a Cuba tres veces.. Había agradecido al pueblo cubano y a Fidel su ayuda. No lamento nada… Eso es lo que Gaddafi me dijo cuando le conté por teléfono lo que había ocurrido en Monterrey. Me preguntó porqué Cuba no estuvo en una cumbre que es para la totalidad del continente Américano. ‘Ah bueno! Es porque Estados Unidos excluyó a Cuba.’ Me respondió, ‘Escucha Hugo, en una ocasión aquí, en África, los británicos trataron de impedir que Mugabe, el presidente de Zimbabue, asistiera a una reunión de la Unión europea sobre África. Nosotros dijimos que si Mugabe no venia, nadie vendría. América Latina debería hacer lo mismo.’” (Citado en Aleida Guevara Chávez, Venezuela y la Nueva América Latina)

La mera mención de los nombres de Castro, Gaddafi y Mugabe en un mismo párrafo basta para sacar una mueca de dolor a los socialdemócratas de la Izquierda liberal -tan desmesurado es su afán por ser aceptados; tal su esclavitud a la máquina de propaganda imperialista occidental. Chávez, al contrario, no permitió a los imperialistas influenciar su juicio ni un átomo. Simplemente seguía adelante con el trabajo de construir un frente anti-imperialista global por todos los medios necesarios. Como la embajadora de Argentina en el Reino Unido lo expresó durante una reciente conferencia de la Campaña de Solidaridad con Venezuela:

“Chávez nos enraizó al tronco de la unidad, con la base más amplia que se pueda dar: la unidad con cualquiera que tenga la mas mínima posibilidad de unir sus fuerzas contra el Imperialismo.”

Multipolaridad: desmontando el imperio

Con el declive de la hegemonía política y económica de los EE.UU., el ascenso de China, la progresiva emergencia de América Latina, y el resurgimiento de Rusia a partir del fin de la era Yeltsin, el mundo se mueve inexorablemente hacia un modelo ‘multipolar’– “un patrón de múltiples centros de poder, todos con una cierta capacidad para influenciar cuestiones internacionales, dando forma a un orden concertado“ (asi define Jenny Clegg la multipolaridad en su libro, China’s Global Strategy). China ha sido especialmente dinámica en la promoción de la multipolaridad como un medio realista de contener el imperialismo, al tiempo que se trabaja por un orden mundial democrático y estable en el que los países antiguamente oprimidos puedan desarrollarse en paz. Hugo Chávez fue un firme defensor de este concepto, y lo conectó al pensamiento del héroe de la independencia de Venezuela, Simón Bolívar:

“Bolívar concibió un ideal internacionalista. Habló de lo que hoy nosotros llamamos mundo multipolar. Propuso la reunificación de América del Sur y Centroamérica en lo que llamó la Gran Colombia, para posibilitar negociaciones sobre una base de igualdad con las otras tres cuartas partes del globo. Eso ya era una visión multipolar.” (Citado en Bart Jones The Hugo Chávez Story)

Integración regional

Chávez persiguió enérgicamente la integración regional dentro de Suramérica, Centroamérica y el Caribe como medio para crear una fuerza unida y progresista que pudiese conectar “con igualdad con las otras tres cuartas partes del mundo”. Los analistas antiimperialistas nicaragüenses Jorge Capelán y Toni Solo afirman que “en Latinoamérica, es imposible participar en la construcción de alternativas socialistas y anticapitalistas sin luchar al mismo tiempo por integrar la región política, económica e incluso culturalmente… Ese es el legado de Bolívar, como fue el legado de Martí, Sandino, Mariátegui, Gaitán, Che, Fidel Castro y muchos otros revolucionarios latinoamericanos desde la Independencia. Esto es así porque los poderes coloniales e imperialistas necesitaban dividir la región en pequeños países para explotar sus recursos y mano de obra. No es algo que se haya inventado Chávez, es una perspectiva antigua en la región.”

chavez lula kirchnerSe ha perseguido este proyecto a través de la creación de diversas organizaciones de integración regional, en particular ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América ), CELAC (Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños) y UNASUR (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas), así como proporcionando apoyo a otras naciones latinoamericanas y caribeñas con visiones semejantes, por ejemplo, ofreciendo a los países más pobres de la región acceso al petróleo venezolano en condiciones preferenciales. En la era actual estamos siendo testigos del resurgir de una Latinoamérica que cada vez está más dominada por países progresistas y que está moviéndose con confianza hacia la integración y la solidaridad. El analista español Ignacio Ramonet comenta que “el ejemplo de Chávez se ha seguido, con diferentes matices, en otros países. En Brasil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, entre otros, se han dado una serie de procesos que, hasta cierto punto, han avanzado por la ruta abierta por la Revolución bolivariana.”

Con el liderazgo de Chávez y Lula en particular, Latinoamérica ha conseguido estar más cerca que nunca de la soberanía económica. En 2005, el plan de EEUU de una zona de libre comercio en las Américas (Área de Libre Comercio de las Américas (ALCA)) fue integralmente derrotada en la Cumbre de las Américas en Mar del Plata, Argentina. “Sin el liderazgo conjunto de Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Lula da Silva y el fallecido presidente argentino Néstor Kirchner, esta derrota estratégica del imperialismo en Latinoamérica no habría sido posible.”

La amistad con China

Más allá de Latinoamérica, Chávez puso muchos esfuerzos en crear firmes lazos con las principales potencias emergentes del mundo, especialmente con China y Rusia – naciones que Fidel Castro describió como “los dos países llamados a liderar un nuevo mundo que permita la supervivencia humana, si el imperialismo no desata antes una guerra criminal de exterminio.”

Bart Jones escribió, “la mayor iniciativa internacional de Chávez fuera de América Latina estuvo enfocada hacia China… El hambriento mercado energético de China era el candidato ideal para los planes de Chávez de distanciarse, lo máximo posible, de la esfera de influencia de Estados Unidos y de promover un mundo multipolar. Chávez llegó a un acuerdo para enviar petróleo a China. Comenzó con un compromiso en el 2005 de suministrar treinta mil barriles al día. En el 2007 saltó a trescientos mil, con una última meta de medio millón de barriles al día para el 2009 o 2010. Esto era parte de un plan para incrementar, desde el 15 por ciento al 45 por ciento, la cantidad de crudo y otros productos petrolíferos que Venezuela enviaría a Asia.”

Chávez vio claramente que China era un socio crucial en la batalla por un Nuevo Mundo, y la visitó seis veces a lo largo de su mandato, estableciendo estrechos lazos económicos, diplomáticos y políticos. En su primer viaje, en 1999, expresó su admiración por el modelo económico chino de socialismo de mercado, declarando: “Asistimos al triunfo de la Revolución china.” El modelo chino, con el Estado controlando las posiciones de mando de la economía, mientras apoya una economía privada regulada para los sectores menos cruciales, ha desempeñado un papel importante en la conformación de la propia política económica de Venezuela en los últimos 15 años.

En el 2006, Chávez sulfuró a imperialistas y liberales de todo el planeta al describir la Revolución china como “uno de los mayores acontecimientos del siglo XX”, y al decir que el Socialismo chino es “un ejemplo para aquellos dirigentes y gobiernos occidentales que argumentan que el Capitalismo es la única alternativa.” Durante el mandato de Chávez, Venezuela se convirtió rápidamente en uno de los aliados clave de China en América Latina, y Chávez fue considerado como un “gran amigo del pueblo chino”.

chavez huAl aclamar la emergencia de China como gran potencia mundial, Chávez planteaba la diferencia fundamental entre el papel de China – que se ha desarrollado mediante su propia diligencia y perseverancia – y el de las potencias colonialistas/imperialistas, que construyeron su riqueza a partir del saqueo, el genocidio, el golpismo, el terror y la explotación. “China es grande, pero no es un Imperio. China no atropella a nadie, no ha invadido a nadie, no va por ahí lanzando bombas a diestro y siniestro.” El sucesor de Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, abundó en este punto: “Las relaciones internacionales de China parten de una base de igualdad, demostrando así que, en este comienzo del siglo XXI , es posible construir nuevas potencias mundiales sin la práctica imperialista de la colonización y la dominación.”

Venezuela ha sido receptora de extensas inversiones en infraestructura, y de grandes préstamos amistosos de China que han sido cruciales para sostener los programas sociales y los avances en el proceso de industrialización. Al pagar con petróleo a China (por una cantidad aproximada de 600,000 barriles al día), Venezuela puede seguir trabajando en pro de su objetivo de diversificación del comercio exterior. Desde el 2001 Venezuela y China han firmado 480 acuerdos de cooperación y han participado en 143 proyectos conjuntos… Desde el 2005 al 2012 China prestó a Venezuela 47 mil millones de dólares, lo que equivale al 55% del crédito chino emitido a naciones sudamericanas en ese periodo.” La relación continua afianzándose, y la reciente visita a Venezuela de Xi Jinping produjo 38 nuevos acuerdos por un valor de 18 mil millones de dólares, incluyendo “un préstamo directo a Venezuela de 4 mil millones de dólares y otros 14 mil millones de dólares de financiación china para el desarrollo en proyectos de energía , minería, industria, tecnología, comunicaciones, transporte, vivienda y cultura” (ibídem).

La amistad con Rusia,

Por supuesto, las batallas para defender a Venezuela, para lograr integrar América Latina, y para construir un mundo multipolar no son sólo económicas o diplomáticas. La dominación militar preponderante de EE.UU. y de sus aliados requiere que las fuerzas anti-imperialistas sean capaces de defender sus logros con armas. Siendo el propio Chávez un militar, el Comandante nunca se cansó de afirmar que la Revolución venezolana es “pacífica, pero armada“. Si pensamos que en una amplia división del trabajo entre los constructores del mundo multipolar, China es la central motora económica, entonces Rusia tiene la iniciativa en las cuestiones militares.

chavez putinUna nota necrológica en en la web Russia Today señalaba que, desde el 2005, “Venezuela adquirió armas de Rusia por valor de 4 mil millones de dólares, incluyendo 100,000 rifles Kalashnikof. Además, los dos países organizaron varios ejercicios navales conjuntos en el Mar Caribe. En el 2010, Chávez anunció que Rusia iba a construir la primera planta nuclear de Venezuela y que el país había suscrito otros contratos petrolíferos con Moscú por valor de 1600 millones de dólares.” Nicolás Maduro, entonces ministro de Asuntos exteriores, tenía muy clara las implicaciones de esta relación de su país con Rusia: “El mundo unipolar está colapsando y despareciendo en todas sus facetas, y la alianza con Rusia es parte de ese esfuerzo para construir el mundo multipolar.”

Tras la compra a Rusia de una partida de misiles tierra-aire S300 en el 2009, Chávez declaró de forma contundente: “Con estos cohetes va a serle muy difícil a los aviones extranjeros venir a bombardearnos.” Visto el trágico destino de Libia solo dos años después, seria difícil aducir que el presidente de Venezuela sufría de paranoia.

A lo largo de la última década, el progresivo alineamiento de Rusia con el Sur Global ha supuesto un gran impulso para las fuerzas de la multipolaridad y del anti-imperialismo, especialmente cuando se compara con los oscuros días del clientelismo del bufón Yeltsin. Rusia ha aceptado este papel con aplomo, reconociendo que la continuidad de su independencia y de su desarrollo está estrechamente ligada al éxito de China, de África, y de América Latina. Algunos aseguran que Vladimir Putin le dijo a Chávez que su reelección en el 2012 fue “el mejor regalo que me podían haber hecho en mi 60 cumpleaños”. Unos meses después del fallecimiento del comandante Chávez, Nicolás Maduro presidió la ceremonia de dedicatoria de una calle de Moscú a Hugo Chávez Frías.

Avance en nombre de Hugo Chávez

La inoportuna muerte de este brillante ser humano fue un duro golpe para la humanidad progresista y deja un vacío que será muy difícil de llenar. Uno debe evitar caer en la adoración de héroes y la versión individualizada de la historia al estilo Hollywood, pero no se puede negar que ciertas personas, por su resolución, su comprensión, su determinación, su heroísmo, sus dotes de liderazgo, su genio creativo, su carisma, su devoción por el pueblo, desempeñan un papel destacado.

chavez2Hugo Chávez era así. Trabajó sin pausa en la consecución de su visión: por una Venezuela socialista; por una Latinoamérica unida y soberana; y por un orden mundial justo y multipolar, libre del dominio imperialista. Su visión era contagiosa y sirvió para inspirar a personas de todas partes del planeta. Dio vida a un proceso revolucionario global que se había manifestado muy poco desde el auge de la década de 1970 (Mozambique, Angola, Chile (1970-73), Guinea Bissau, Afganistán, Zimbabwe). En el período transcurrido fuimos testigos del declive y caída del “Bloque del este”, el surgimiento de economías neoliberales, la difusión del “ajuste estructural”, el impacto genocida del VIH/Sida y de una profunda desilusión entre la mayoría de la izquierda. La Revolución bolivariana, combinada con el ascenso de China y un mundo multipolar emergente, ha devuelto la esperanza.

Hablando recientemente en el Museo Histórico 26 Julio en Santiago de Cuba, Xi Jinping afirmó que: “Los mártires revolucionarios son tesoros espirituales preciados que nos han inspirado a continuar avanzando.” Que el trabajo, ejemplo e ideas de Hugo Chávez continúen inspirándonos y educándonos, y que su internacionalismo revolucionario siga siendo estudiado y respetado.

chavez

“Let’s save the human race – let’s finish off the empire”

In the course of his 14 years as President of Venezuela, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías became a much-admired figure among the international left. Although any actual-existing revolutionary leadership will always attract the suspicion of western coffee-shop socialists (and Chávez certainly had his fair share of detractors), this larger-than-life figure won hearts with his immense love for the Venezuelan people and his willingness to loudly stand up for socialist ideals in a post-Soviet end-of-history world where few had the courage to set forth such views.

Nobody could deny Chávez’s role in leading the Latin American backlash against neoliberal dogma; nor could they deny the progressive, pro-poor nature of Venezuela’s social programmes. Under Chávez’s leadership, Venezuela’s oil wealth (supplemented by Chinese soft loans) has been put to excellent use. With the help of Cuban expertise, illiteracy has become a thing of the past in Venezuela. Access to education has been vastly increased at all levels, and this is considered as a fundamental component of building democracy. Chávez famously said that “the only way of ending poverty is giving power to the poor. Knowledge and consciousness are the main power!”

Again with Cuba’s help, the Barrio Adentro programme has brought high quality healthcare to Venezuela’s poorest communities, most of which previously had zero access to professional healthcare of any kind. Much to the dismay of the western multinationals, a large array of businesses have been nationalised, and there have been numerous experiments with worker management and collective ownership. Grassroots communal councils have been set up across the country with a view to engaging the masses and building a more meaningful democracy. The political process set in motion by Chávez is a socialist-oriented programme that prioritises the needs of the millions of ordinary people: the slum-dwellers, the workers, the peasants, the unemployed, the indigenous, the African, the disenfranchised. Meanwhile, Chávez’s government held elections like they were going out of fashion. This profound process in Venezuela is so exciting that it has even been able to win support from sections of the western liberal-left, usually so reliable in its outright rejection of anti-imperialist and socialist-oriented states, from A(rgentina) to Z(imbabwe).

However, one aspect of Hugo Chávez’s legacy that makes much of the western left rather uncomfortable (and makes the western ruling classes furious) is Chávez’s uncompromising anti-imperialism – his absolute insistence on at-all-costs global unity against the main enemy. Everybody likes a nice literacy programme, but why oh why did Chávez have to go and align himself with brutal dictatorships in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Libya, Belarus, Vietnam and North Korea? Why did he have to be so friendly with serial-human-rights-abusing Russia and China? Such a sentiment could be found in more than a few Chávez obituaries emanating from the western left.

For example, the irrepressible International ‘Socialist’ Organisation complained that “the international legacy of the Venezuelan president … has been tarnished by his appalling support of Gaddafi, Assad, Ahmadinejad and the Chinese state.” Owen Jones, 2013 winner of Britain’s Got Liberal-Left Talent, was troubled by “Chavez’s unpleasant foreign associations. Although his closest allies were his fellow democratically elected left-of-centre governments in Latin America, he also supported brutal dictators in Iran, Libya and Syria. It has certainly sullied his reputation”. (I should point out in passing that Chavez’s closest ally was Cuba, which Jones presumably does not consider to be “democratically elected” and which is rather a long way “left-of-centre”!)

This pattern – celebrating Venezuela’s domestic policy whilst denouncing its international stance – is a useful reminder as to the limits of western social democracy and indeed the whole concept of ‘freedom of speech’ in capitalist societies. An ‘alternative’ viewpoint is basically accepted – and can even be given a voice in the liberal media – to the extent that it keeps within reasonably well-defined limits. The British state is willing to tolerate a minority viewpoint that promotes a slightly less deranged version of capitalism, especially if it’s in a country that doesn’t have much connection with British economic interests. What the western ruling classes will never tolerate – and therefore what the social-democratic left will never promote – is global anti-imperialist unity; is the unambiguous and consistent support for all states and movements fighting imperialism. Such unity is precisely what presents an existential threat to imperialism; it is precisely what the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) seeks to destroy; it is precisely what the endless divide-and-rule strategies seek to subvert; it is, in short, the only hope of putting a stop to imperialist domination and creating a world where peoples can develop in peace and security. As Chávez himself put it: “Let’s save the human race – let’s finish off the empire”.

Chávez gave his whole-hearted support to the global movement towards multipolarity; to the increasing coordination between the progressive family of nations. He supported deep economic, political, cultural and military ties among those states that challenge western hegemony. This aspect of Chávez is absolutely central to his political legacy, and is what the western ruling classes hated him for most (in their eyes he had “inherited Fidel Castro’s mantle as Washington’s main irritant in Latin America”). What I attempt to show with this article is that, rather than sweeping Chavez’s revolutionary internationalism under the carpet, or seeing it as a blot on his progressive copybook, this anti-imperialist legacy needs to be explored, understood, defended and built upon.

“There are no boundaries in this struggle to the death. We cannot be indifferent to what happens anywhere in the world, for a victory by any country over imperialism is our victory; just as any country’s defeat is a defeat for all of us.” (Ernesto Che Guevara)

Building the global anti-imperialist front

The modern world can be a very unforgiving environment, particularly for countries with eccentric ideas about taking control of their own natural resources, redistributing wealth, redistributing land, having an independent foreign policy, that sort of thing. Those countries of 20th century Latin America that attempted to exercise independence and sovereignty were punished for their sins with brutal coups and merciless dictatorships (Argentina, Brazil, Chile). Tiny Cuba has been treated to a half-century of ruthless economic blockade, political destabilisation, diplomatic isolation and a few hundred assassination attempts. When Zimbabwe transferred land from wealthy white colonisers to impoverished black indigenous workers, the ruling classes of Britain and the US made clear their dissatisfaction by orchestrating a vicious slander campaign against Zanu-PF and Robert Mugabe, imposing sanctions, and channelling large sums of cash to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. When Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych rejected the EU’s many-rather-unpleasant-strings-attached loan package, opting instead for Russian economic assistance, he was promptly swept out of office by a western-backed ‘revolution’. The attempts of Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Grenada, Nicaragua, Libya and other countries to forge an independent path have been answered with all-out imperialist war.

To survive in such a hostile world, there are only two real choices: capitulate, or unite and fight.

Hugo Chávez had a very clear and far-sighted worldview, informed by his rich knowledge of world history, his identification of US-led imperialism as the major obstacle to peace and development, and his own experiences of trying to exercise sovereignty and build Venezuelan socialism in the face of destabilisation and CIA-backed coup attempts. He saw Venezuela as part of a global movement challenging half a millennium of colonialism, imperialism and racism; a global movement that included China, Brazil, Russia, Zimbabwe, Libya, Syria, South Africa, Cuba, Belarus, Vietnam, Iran, Ecuador, Bolivia, DPRK, Nicaragua, Argentina and more. He recognised that the enemy used every trick in the book to undermine those countries that refused to go along with the Washington Consensus, and he understood the urgent need for a very wide-ranging unity in order to resist this onslaught. This understanding led Chávez to be totally consistent in his anti-imperialism. If unity is strength, then one can’t just stand by and watch the empire pick off our allies one by one. As he put it during a visit to South Africa in 2008:

“A day can’t be lost and a second can’t be lost in the work of uniting us, the countries of the Third World… Only united will we be free and only free will we be able to develop ourselves fully.”

Therefore the strong relationships that Chávez and his team built with all socialist and anti-imperialist states are no anomaly, no unfortunate accident, no error of judgement, but represent an ideological and strategic position with is central to Chavismo.

Syria

“Arab civilization and our civilization, the Latin American one, are being summoned in this new century to play the fundamental role of liberating the world, saving the world from the imperialism and capitalist hegemony that threaten the human species. Syria and Venezuela are at the vanguard of this struggle.” (Hugo Chávez, 2010, during Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Caracas)

chavez-assadEarly on in his presidency, Chávez identified Syria as a key ally – one of the few countries in the Arab world that had consistently taken a firm stand against imperialism and zionism (Chávez, let it be noted, was a staunch supporter of Palestine and opponent of Israel).

Syria, a proud member of John Bolton’s prestigious Beyond the Axis of Evil group, is despised by the west for its leading role in supporting Palestinian resistance over the course of four decades, its alignment with the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah (Syrian support was crucial to Hezbollah’s 2006 defeat of Israel in South Lebanon), and its alliance with Iran.

Visiting Damascus in August 2006, Chávez stated, after a long meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: “We have decided to be free. We want to cooperate to build a new world where states’ and people’s self-determination are respected… We have the same political vision and we will resist American imperialist aggression together.” Visiting Syria again in 2009 to put together a plan of economic cooperation, Chávez described the Syrian people as “architects of resistance” to imperialism, and called on the peoples of the Global South to unite, proclaiming: “We should fight to create consciousness that is free from imperialist doctrine… fight to defeat backwardness, poverty, misery… to convert our countries into true powers through the consciousness of the people.”

When Syria came under threat of regime change in 2011, Chávez and his government were quick to state their loyalty to the Syrian government. “This is a crisis that has been planned and provoked… Syria is a sovereign nation. This crisis has a single cause: the world has entered into a new era of imperialism. It’s madness.” Having made its political line very clear, Venezuela followed up by putting words into action, shipping free diesel fuel to Syria on multiple occasions to help it overcome shortages created by sanctions.

Needless to say, Venezuela’s unambiguously anti-imperialist position wasn’t appreciated by many on the western left. Counterfire, among others, chastised Chávez in no uncertain terms for his vocal support for the Syrian government: ”The statement of support of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to ‘the socialist leader and Brother Bashar al Assad’, claiming he is the target of an imperialist operation to overthrow his regime and blaming the US for unrest in the country, is an insult to the Syrian protesters and the martyrs who lost their lives in the uprising against the Syrian authoritarian regime.” According to Al-Jazeera (mouthpiece of the Qatari monarchy – a major supplier of arms and money to rebel groups in Syria), “Chavez and others discredited themselves and probably discouraged any lasting alliance between Arab revolutionaries and sympathetic forces in South America”.

Chávez was not swayed by such judgements; when it was deeply unfashionable to do so, he defended Syria from the regime change campaign it was (and still is) struggling against. How can I not support Assad? He’s the legitimate leader.”

In the course of over three years, the true nature of the Syria crisis has become increasingly transparent, as the myth of the democratic-socialist-feminist-peaceful-secular opposition has faded away and been replaced by the rather less rosy reality of murderous sectarian fundamentalists – armed to the teeth by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, with the open approval of Britain and the US – tearing the country apart. (My article ‘Decriminalising Bashar’ deals with this issue in detail). That the west’s plan is to remove Syria from the resistance axis is now clear for all to see, but that wasn’t always the case. Analysing the situation from a standpoint of militant anti-imperialism, Chávez was able to understand the big picture from the start when so many others fell for the campaign of lies and demonisation.

Libya

Chávez recognised Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as an important ally in the global struggle against imperialism: someone who had successfully led their country away from colonial dependency, developed an advanced social welfare system (with the highest human development index, highest life expectancy, lowest infant mortality and highest literacy rate in Africa), and tangibly supported socialist and anti-imperialist movements around the world from Ireland to South Africa, Nicaragua to Palestine, Dominica to Namibia. Indeed, Chávez visited Libya five times during his presidency. In Tripoli for the 40th anniversary of the Libyan revolution (2009), he declared that Venezuela and Libya “have the same fate, the same battle against a common enemy and we will win.” He went on to make an impassioned call for African unity:

“Africa should never again allow countries to come from across the seas to impose certain political, economic, and social systems. Africa should be of the Africans, and only by way of unity will Africa be free and great.”

Moammar Gadhafi, Hugo ChavezJust a few weeks later, Gaddafi arrived in Venezuela for his first ever trip to South America. At the Africa-South America Summit held on Margarita Island, Chávez presented Gaddafi with a replica of a sword used by Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolívar, stating: “Gaddafi is for Libya what Bolívar is for us.” It was Chávez’ and Gaddafi’s shared goal to usher in a new era of wide-ranging, meaningful cooperation between Africa and Latin America.

As with Syria, Chávez understood from the beginning what the ‘uprising’ in Libya was all about. While luminaries of the British left such as Gilbert Achcar were loudly calling for a no-fly zone to help get rid of Gaddafi, Chávez spoke out in defence of his friend and comrade: “A campaign of lies is being spun together regarding Libya. I’m not going to condemn Gaddafi. I’d be a coward to condemn someone who has been my friend.”

Venezuela led the calls for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, offering its services several times to help mediate between the Libyan government and rebels. “Let’s try to help, to intercede between the parties. A cease-fire, sitting down at a table. That’s the path when facing conflicts of this sort.” Sadly, the rebels and their NATO backers were not in the slightest bit interested in negotiations.

Together with regional allies including Cuba, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, Venezuela unamiguously denounced the barbaric NATO bombing. “Libya is under imperial fire. Nothing justifies this,” said Chávez. “Indiscriminate bombing. Who gave those countries the right? Neither the United States, nor France, nor England, nor any country has the right to be dropping bombs… I hope a revolution blows up on them in the United States. Let’s see what they do.” Summing up NATO’s post-Washington Consensus strategy in a very clear and simple way, he stated: “The empire is going crazy and it’s a real threat to world peace as imperialism has entered its phase of extreme craziness.” And in August 2011, when Tripoli was bombed into submission, Chávez predicted with remarkable prescience that “the drama of Libya isn’t ending with the fall of Gaddafi’s government. The tragedy in Libya is just beginning.”

Libya was another issue on which Chávez’s solid anti-imperialism was totally at odds with the first-world liberalism of the western left. Whereas Alex Callinicos, leading theoretician of the embarrassingly misnamed Socialist Workers Party (UK), called on his followers to “join the Libyan people’s celebrations of the tyrant’s demise”, Chávez was shaken by the news of Gaddafi’s NATO-orchestrated murder. Regrettably, Gaddafi’s death has been confirmed. He was murdered… I will remember him all of my life as a great fighter, a revolutionary and a martyr.”

Yes, there is a pattern here. Whereas the western left has almost invariably fallen for the demonisation campaigns orchestrated against socialist and anti-imperialist states by the right-wing press, Chávez unfailingly saw through the propaganda and stayed true to his dream of global unity against the empire. In a world of cowardice and fickleness, he stood up and said: “I am not a coward, I am not fickle.

Chávez started from a position of instinctive distrust for the propaganda that comes out of the west. Never did he fall for simplistic ‘evil dictator’ Blofeld-style cat-stroking-supervillain narratives. His whole life and political experience had taught him that the mainstream media is not to be trusted; that the imperialists spin every news item to suit their own interests. The Venezuelan media is still mainly run by the elite, who hate Chávez, who have always subjected Chávez to racism and classism, who have always spread lies and slander about him. It was easy enough for him to derive from that experience that what they said about the other countries in the ‘extended Axis of Evil’ was also probably nonsense. Meanwhile, which were the countries helping Venezuela out, supporting its policies, supporting regional integration of Latin America? Which were the countries supporting liberation movements around the world? Which were the countries supporting the liberation of Palestine – for example supplying the weaponry for the defence of Gaza? Which were the countries standing up to the US, to Britain, to France, to Israel?

Iran

Iran is another country that is routinely subjected to slander and demonisation in the west, and is another state with which Hugo Chávez built a lasting friendship, much to the dismay of western imperialism. In a fascinatingly silly article published in March 2007, senior US Republican Bailey Hutchison ranted: “In his struggle against US ‘imperialism,’ Mr. Chavez has found a useful ally in the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism — the government of Iran. He is one of the few leaders to publicly support Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, and the Iranian mullahs have rewarded Mr. Chavez’s friendship with lucrative contracts, including the transfer of Iranian professionals and technologies to Venezuela. Last month, Mr. Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad revealed plans for a $2 billion joint fund, part of which will be used as a ‘mechanism for liberation’ against American allies… Left unchecked, Messrs. Ahmadinejad and Chavez could be the Khrushchev-Castro tandem of the early 21st century, funneling arms, money and propaganda to Latin America, and endangering that region’s fragile democracies and volatile economies.”

Iran's President Ahmadinejad is welcomed by Venezuela's President Chavez in CaracasChávez visited Iran several times, and hosted his Iranian counterpart – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – in Venezuela on several occasions. Despite their differing ideologies and philosophies, the two leaders created a solid alliance based on anti-imperialist unity. “One of the targets that Yankee imperialism has in its sights is Iran, which is why we are showing our solidarity,” Chavez said. “When we meet, the devils go crazy.” Ahmadinejad talked of Chávez as “a brother and trench mate” and described Iran and Venezuela as being key parts of a revolutionary front “stretching all the way to East Asia” from Latin America. “If one day, my brother Mr. Chávez and I and a few other people were once alone in the world, today we have a long line of revolutionary officials and people standing alongside each other.”

As a result of the friendly relations established between the two countries, practical cooperation has blossomed – trade has increased more than a hundred-fold since 2001 (bilateral trade reputedly exceeds $40 billion), and the two countries have joint ventures in several areas including energy, agriculture, housing, and infrastructure. Iran’s construction expertise has been used to build thousands of homes for Venezuela’s poor.

Chávez stood up for Iran’s right to develop nuclear power, and correctly noted that the nuclear issue was being used by the west to mobilise popular opinion for war, “like they used the excuse of weapons of mass destruction to do what they did in Iraq.” He declared Venezuela’s firm support for Iran with respect to the threat of war against it: I should use the opportunity to condemn those military threats that are being made against Iran. We know that they will never be able to restrict the Islamic revolution in whatever way… We will always stand together, we will not only resist, we will also stand victorious beside one another.”

Iraq

One of Hugo Chávez’s priorities in the early years of his presidency was to revive the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), with a view to securing agreement that oil production should be reduced and the price should be increased. Having set a date for a full OPEC summit (only the second in the group’s history, and the first in 25 years), he went on a tour of all ten OPEC nations in order to personally invite each head of state to the summit. This itinerary necessarily included Iraq, an OPEC member. Chávez’s visit to Iraq in August 2000 sent waves of controversy, outrage and anxiety across the western world.

“Washington declared they were totally opposed to my visit to Baghdad. I told them I was going anyway; they argued there was a no-fly zone I couldn’t pass through or they might shoot down the plane. But we went to Baghdad anyway and spoke to Saddam.” (Cited in Bart Jones ‘The Hugo Chavez Story’).

chavez-saddamChávez was in fact the first head of state to visit Iraq since the imposition of UN sanctions in 1991. In order to side-step the international flight ban in place against Iraq, Chávez and his team crossed into Iraq from Iran by land and were then flown to Baghdad by helicopter. There he was received in person by Saddam Hussein, who drove him round Baghdad for a late-night tour of the city. Responding to criticism from the ‘international community’, Chávez stated defiantly: “We regret and denounce the interference in our internal affairs. We do not and will not accept it… We are very happy to be in Baghdad, to smell the scent of history and to walk on the bank of the Tigris River.”

The two leaders had extended discussions, described by Chávez as fruitful. “I found him an educated man who understands everything linked to OPEC.” Chávez and his colleagues also took the opportunity to denounce the sanctions regime responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. “President Chavez affirmed the Venezuelan position supporting any accord against any kind of boycott or sanctions that are applied against Iraq or any other country in the world,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Jorge Valero.

One fascinating outcome of Chávez’s efforts is that, a few weeks after his visit to Baghdad, on the sidelines of the OPEC summit in Caracas, Iran and Iraq held their highest-level talks since the bitter and horrific war between the two countries (which lasted from 1980 to 1988 and resulted in at least a million casualties). Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan said that the talks between him and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami had been cordial and frank. We discussed co-operation between the two countries and agreed to work jointly for the improvement of relations between the two countries.” Chávez commented: “I am at their service to help… the full reactivation of relations between two fraternal people, two fraternal countries, which are also members of OPEC, and which are calling for a boost of reunification of the whole Arab-Islamic world.”

That Chávez was willing and able to facilitate this process speaks to his strategic brilliance and his long-term vision. Fully understanding the painful history of enmity between Iran and Iraq; fully understanding how arduous the road of reconciliation was likely to be; he nonetheless recognised that diffusing the tension between these two great nations would be a significant boost to the global anti-imperialist front. Its side-effects might have included reconciliation between Iraq and Syria (the latter being a close ally of Iran), between Iraq and Libya (which had supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq War), between Iran and the Arab world in general, and among the different Palestinian factions. Had this process of rapprochement reached its logical conclusion, the region as a whole would have been in a much stronger position in its ongoing struggle against imperialism and zionism. It would have pushed forward the Palestinain struggle for self-determination, and it may have prevented the disastrous Iraq war in which over a million Iraqis lost their lives. Indeed, the prospect of regional unity based on Iran-Iraq reconciliation may well have been one of the factors that informed the US and Britain’s decision to launch their invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Cuba

chavez castro 2The most maligned state in the western hemisphere, Cuba has been hit hard over the years by an aggressively-enforced US economic and diplomatic blockade. Until recent decades, most Latin American governments steered clear of Cuba for fear of angering their paymasters north of the border. However, the situation has changed significantly in the last 15 years since the beginning of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution.

Chávez never made a secret of his affection for Cuba, his admiration for Cuba’s socialism and militant internationalism, and his respect for Fidel Castro as a revolutionary.

“Fidel to me is a father, a comrade, a master of perfect strategy.” Hugo Chavez, 2005.

Visiting Cuba in 1999, Chávez told the audience at the University of Havana that “Venezuela is traveling towards the same sea as the Cuban people, a sea of happiness and of real social justice and peace… Here we are, as alert as ever, Fidel and Hugo, fighting with dignity and courage to defend the interests of our people, and to bring alive the idea of Bolívar and Martí. In the name of Cuba and Venezuela, I appeal for the unity of our two peoples, and of the revolutions that we both lead. Bolívar and Martí, one country united!” (cited in Richard Gott Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution). Defending Cuba against claims that it’s a ‘dictatorship’, Chávez pointed out that Cuba has much deeper and broader forms of democracy than those countries making the accusations. “People have asked me how I can support Fidel if he’s a dictator. But Cuba doesn’t have a dictatorship… It’s a revolutionary democracy.”

cuba-venezuelaA series of mutually beneficial deals were signed in 2000 which have been an economic lifeline for Cuba and which have been crucial to the success of Venezuela’s social programmes. The Barrio Adentro community healthcare programme has brought Cuban medical expertise to millions of poor Venezuelans. According to official estimates, it has “saved the lives of 1.5 million Venezuelans. Another 1.5 million Venezuelans have also received free eye surgery from Mission Miracle, a similar health care programme founded in 2004 to provide cost free optical care to residents.”

Further: “More than 53,000 Venezuelans have received free health care for chronic diseases in Cuba thanks to a bilateral agreement signed between the two Latin American nations that has increased social services and improved the quality of life for residents of Venezuela.” Additionally, Cuba has provided expertise and support for Venezuela’s literacy programme, which has been successful in wiping out illiteracy.

Venezuela pays for these crucial services with free or heavily discounted oil, which is an enormous boost for the Cuban economy. Venezuela has also helped Cuba with billions of dollars’ worth of loans, investments and grants. In doing so, it has knowingly and proudly broken the US economic blockade of Cuba. In an extended interview given to Aleida Guevara, Chávez notes: “Before, Venezuela didn’t sell oil to Cuba. Why not? Because of a ruling from Washington, because of the blockade, and the Helms-Burton Law. We don’t give a damn about this, Cuba is our sister country and we will sell to Cuba.”

Chávez came under a great deal of criticism from the US for his relationship with Cuba. Needless to say, this didn’t affect him.

“I will never tire of acknowledging Cuba’s fantastic support, of highlighting it and expressing my gratitude in public, wherever I am and whoever I am with, in whatever world forum I happen to be addressing, regardless of how many faces burn with anger because I refer to Cuba in these terms… [At the Monterrey Summit of the Americas in 2003] they told me Bush was burning with anger. I was not looking at him, but afterwards I was told he turned red and sat motionless in his chair. I had mentioned Cuba three times. I had thanked the Cuban people and Fidel for their support. I have no regrets about that… That is what Gaddafi said to me when I told him by telephone what had happened in Monterrey. He asked why Cuba had not been at the meeting for the entire continent of the Americas. ‘Ah well! That’s because the US excluded Cuba.’ He said to me, ‘Listen Hugo, on one occasion here in Africa, the British tried to prevent Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, attending a European Union meeting on Africa. We said that if Mugabe didn’t go then nobody would. Latin America should do the same.’” (Cited in Aleida Guevara Chávez, Venezuela and the New Latin America)

The mere mention of the names Castro, Gaddafi and Mugabe in the same paragraph is enough to make liberal-left social democrats wince, such is their desire for acceptability; such is their enslavement to the western imperialist propaganda machine. Chávez, on the other hand, didn’t let the imperialists influence his thought one bit. He simply got on with the job of building the global anti-imperialist front by any means necessary. As Argentina’s ambassador to the UK, Alicia Castro, put it at a recent Venezuela Solidarity Campaign conference:

“Chávez rooted us in the basis of the widest possible unity – unity with anyone with the slightest chance of joining forces against imperialism”.

Multipolarity: breaking down the empire

With the decline of US economic and political hegemony, the rise of China, the emergence of progressive Latin America, and the resurgence of Russia since the end of the Yeltsin era, the world is moving inexorably towards a ‘multipolar’ model – “a pattern of multiple centres of power, all with a certain capacity to influence world affairs, shaping a negotiated order“ (Jenny Clegg, China’s Global Strategy). China has been particularly active in promoting multipolarity as a realistic means of containing imperialism and creating a democratic and stable world order in which formerly oppressed countries can develop in peace. Hugo Chávez was a strong supporter of this concept, linking it back to Venezuela’s independence hero Simón Bolívar:

“Bolívar engendered an international idea. He spoke of what today we call a multipolar world. He proposed the unification of South and Central America into what he called Greater Colombia, to enable negotiations on an equal basis with the other three quarters of the globe. This was his multipolar vision.” (Cited in Bart Jones The Hugo Chávez Story)

Regional integration

Chávez energetically pursued regional integration within South America, Central America and the Caribbean as a means of creating a united, progressive force that could indeed engage “on an equal basis with the other three quarters of the globe.” The Nicaraguan anti-imperialist analysts Jorge Capelán and Toni Solo write that “in Latin America, it is impossible to engage in the construction of socialist and anti-capitalist alternatives without at the same time struggling to integrate the region politically, economically and even culturally… That is the legacy of Bolivar, as was the legacy of Martí, of Sandino, Mariátegui, Gaitán, Che, Fidel Castro and many other Latin American revolutionaries since Independence. This is so because the colonial and imperial powers needed to split the region up into small countries in order to exploit its resources and labour. This is not something Chavez made up, it is an old insight down here.”

chavez lula kirchnerThis project has been pursued through the creation of various organisations of regional integration – in particular ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America), CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) and UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) – and through providing inspiration and practical support to other Latin American and Caribbean nations with similar visions, for example by providing the poorer countries in the region with access to Venezuelan oil on preferential terms. What we are witnessing in the present era is the emergence of a Latin America which is increasingly dominated by progressive countries and which is moving confidently towards integration and solidarity. Spanish analyst Ignacio Ramonet comments that Chavez’s “example has been followed, with different shades, in other countries. In Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, among others, there has been a series of processes which, to a certain degree, have advanced along the road opened by the Bolivarian Revolution.”

With the leadership of Chávez and Lula in particular, Latin America has been able to get closer to economic sovereignty than it has ever been. In 2005, the US plan for a free trade zone in the Americas (Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)) was comprehensively defeated at the Summit of The Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina. “Without the joint leadership of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Lula da Silva and late Argentinean president Néstor Kirchner, this strategic defeat of imperialism in Latin America would not have been possible.”

Friendship with China

Beyond Latin America, Chávez worked hard to establish firm friendships with the world’s major developing powers, in particular China and Russia – which countries Fidel Castro recently described as “the two countries called upon to lead a new world which will allow for human survival, if imperialism does not first unleash a criminal, exterminating war.”

Bart Jones writes that Chavez’s “biggest international initiative outside of Latin America involved China… China’s starving energy market made it a perfect match for Chávez’s plans to divest himself as much as possible from the United States and foster a multipolar world. He struck a deal to send China oil. It started with a commitment in 2005 to supply thirty thousand barrels a day. By 2007 that was to jump to three hundred thousand, with an ultimate goal of half a million barrels a day by 2009 or 2010. It was part of a plan to increase from 15 percent to 45 percent the amount of its crude and other oil products Venezuela sent to Asia.”

Chávez clearly saw China as a crucial partner in the struggle for a new world, visiting six times over the course of his presidency and forging close economic, diplomatic and political relations. On his first trip, in 1999, he expressed his admiration for the Chinese economic model of market socialism, declaring: “We are witnessing the triumph of the Chinese revolution.” The Chinese model, with the state controlling the commanding heights of the economy whilst encouraging regulated private enterprise for less crucial areas, has played an important role in informing Venezuela’s own economic policy over the last 15 years.

In 2006, Chávez angered imperialists and liberals the world over by describing the Chinese revolution as “one of the greatest events of the 20th century”, and saying that Chinese socialism is “an example for Western leaders and governments that claim capitalism is the only alternative.” During Chávez’s tenure, Venezuela quickly became one of China’s key allies in Latin America, and Chávez was considered as a “great friend of the Chinese people”.

chavez huCelebrating the emergence of China as a major world power, Chávez pointed out the fundamental difference between the role of China – which has developed through its own diligence and persistence – and the colonialist/imperialist powers, who built their wealth on the basis of plunder, genocide, coups, terror and exploitation. “China is large but it’s not an empire. China doesn’t trample on anyone, it hasn’t invaded anyone, it doesn’t go around dropping bombs on anyone.” Chávez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, follows up on this point: “China practises international relations on the basis of equality. It shows that, just starting the 21st century, it is possible to build a new world power without the imperialist practice of colonisation and domination.”

Venezuela has been the recipient of extensive infrastructure investment and large, friendly loans from China that have been critical for sustaining the social programmes and the development of industrialisation. By paying China in oil (to the tune of approximately 600,000 barrels a day), Venezuela is able to work towards its aim of trade diversification. Since 2001 Venezuela and China have signed 480 cooperation agreements and participated in 143 joint projects… From 2005 to 2012 China lent Venezuela US$47 billion, accounting for 55% of Chinese credit issued to South American nations in that period.” The relationship continues to deepen, with Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Venezuela resulting in 38 new agreements worth 18 billion USD, including “a US$4 billion direct loan for Venezuela and US$14 billion in Chinese financing for development projects in energy, mining, industry, technology, communications, transport, housing and culture” (ibid).

Friendship with Russia

Of course, the battles to defend Venezuela, to integrate Latin America and to build a multipolar world are not solely economic or diplomatic. The prevailing military dominance of the US and its allies means that anti-imperialist forces must be able to defend their gains with arms. Himself a military man, Comandante Chávez never tired of stating that the Venezuelan Revolution is “peaceful but armed”. If, in the broad division of labour connected with building a multipolar world, China is the economic powerhouse, then Russia is taking the lead on military matters.

chavez putinAn obituary on Russia Today noted that, since 2005, “Venezuela has purchased $4 billion worth of arms from Russia, including 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, and the two countries have held joint naval exercises in the Caribbean Sea. In 2010, Chavez announced that Russia would build Venezuela’s first nuclear power station, and that the nation had agreed to a further $1.6 billion in oil contracts with Moscow.” Nicolas Maduro, who was foreign minister at the time, was clear on the global significance of his country’s relationship with Russia: “The unipolar world is collapsing and finishing in all aspects, and the alliance with Russia is part of that effort to build a multipolar world.”

Speaking very plainly after the purchase of a consignment of S300 surface-to-air missiles from Russia in 2009, Chávez said: ”With these rockets it’s going to be very difficult for foreign planes to come and bomb us.” Given the fate of Libya just two years later, it would be difficult to argue that the Venezuelan president was suffering from paranoia.

Over the course of the last decade, Russia’s increasing alignment with the Global South has been a huge boost for the forces of multipolarity and anti-imperialism, especially when contrasted with the dark days of clientelism under the buffoon Yeltsin. Russia has taken on this role with poise, recognising that its continued independence and development is closely bound up with the success of China, Africa and Latin America. Vladimir Putin reportedly told Chávez that the latter’s re-election in 2012 was the “best present I could have for my 60th birthday”; and, a few months after Chávez’s death, Nicolas Maduro presided over the naming ceremony for Hugo Chávez Street in Moscow.

March forward in the name of Hugo Chávez

The untimely death of this brilliant human being was a terrible blow for progressive humanity to bear, and leaves a gap which is very difficult to fill. One has to guard against hero worship and the Hollywood-style individualised version of history, but there’s no denying that certain people – through their strength of purpose, their understanding, their determination, their heroism, their leadership skills, their creative brilliance, their charisma, their devotion to the people – play an outstanding role.

chavez2Hugo Chávez was such a person. He worked ceaselessly in pursuit of his vision: for a socialist Venezuela; for a united and sovereign Latin America; and for a fair, multipolar world order free from imperialist domination. His vision was infectious, and served to inspire people around the world. He breathed life into a global revolutionary process that had been little in evidence since the upswing of the 1970s (Mozambique, Angola, Chile (1970-73), Guinea Bissau, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe). In the intervening period we saw the decline and fall of the ‘Eastern Bloc’, the rise of neoliberal economics, the spread of ‘structural adjustment’, the genocidal impact of HIV/AIDS, and a deep disillusionment among much of the left. The Bolivarian Revolution, combined with China’s rise and an emerging multipolar world, has brought new hope.

Speaking recently at the July 26 Historical Museum in Santiago de Cuba, Xi Jinping said: “Revolutionary martyrs are precious spiritual treasures that have inspired us to continuously march forward.” May the work, example and ideas of Hugo Chávez continue to inspire and educate us, and may his revolutionary internationalism continue to be studied and honoured.

Humanitarian intervention

This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in the Morning Star on 16 June, 2014.


While a few books have been written about the 2011 Libya war from a critical, anti-imperialist perspective (the most important being Cynthia McKinney’s The Illegal War on Libya and Maximilian Forte’s Slouching Towards Sirte), Topping Qaddafi is the first attempt by a mainstream western political scientist to provide a retrospective justification for the war.

The author, Christopher Chivvis, works at a US government-funded think-tank (RAND Corporation) and is a well-connected analyst whose articles have been published in Foreign Policy, the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Times, Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. His book is, as you might expect, unashamedly pro-imperialist, and presents a more-or-less official narrative. As such it should be read critically. Nonetheless, it provides some useful insight into the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to the war, as well as revealing the full extent of NATO’s role.

The re-telling of tall stories

Chivvis starts by reiterating the official justification for going to war: that the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was engaged in a deadly crackdown on peaceful demonstrators calling for democracy. What’s interesting is that Chivvis doesn’t manage to introduce any new or convincing evidence, but instead simply recycles the various reports that appeared in the mainstream press at the time and which have since been comprehensively discredited. For example he cites “evidence of systematic rape by regime militias”, a story refuted three years ago by none other than Amnesty International. He further claims that “Qaddafi had reinforced it [the Libyan army] with mercenaries from Africa and Eastern Europe”, with no mention of the discovery that the only ‘mercenaries’ ever captured were not in fact mercenaries at all but rather “undocumented labourers from Chad, Mali and West Africa”.

Any far-fetched and unsubstantiated claims made by supporters of the uprising are treated as being uncontrovertibly true. Among the book’s sources is a Guardian article containing the following passage:

Reports from inside the country claimed pro-regime forces had deliberately aimed at protesters’ heads. A mass funeral for 35 people who died on Friday came under fire from pro-government snipers who killed one person at the procession and injured a dozen more, according to sources in the city. The shootings came amid credible reports of a round-up of government opponents who were taken from their homes in raids by security forces. The crackdown has been led by the elite Khamis Brigade, led by Gaddafi’s youngest son… Unconfirmed reports claim that force has been backed by African mercenaries brought into the country in five separate flights. A video on the Libya 17th February website appeared to show an injured African mercenary who had captured by anti-government protesters.

These few short sentences yield a particularly high-scoring game of spot-the-euphemism. We have “reports from inside the country”, “sources in the city”, “credible reports”, “unconfirmed reports” and “a video” which “appeared to show” something or other – but what we don’t have is any reliable evidence. Indeed, every single one of these “unconfirmed reports” turned out to be untrue.

Real reasons for the invasion

Chivvis goes into detail about the US’ initial reluctance to take military action, correctly pointing out that France and Britain were the main ‘hawks’ in the weeks leading up to the start of the bombing campaign. “As of early 2011, the chances NATO would go to war again seemed remote at best.” Indeed, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates stated on 24 February 2011 that “any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Chivvis notes that, in early March, “less than a third of Americans favoured helping the rebels militarily.”

It’s not that the US wasn’t convinced of the virtues of overthrowing the Gaddafi government – in spite of eight years of rapprochement and somewhat improved relations, the US remained decidedly uneasy about Libya’s resource nationalism, its increased economic ties with China and Russia, and its efforts toward African political, economic and military integration. Continued CIA support for covert anti-Gaddafi organisations like the National Front for the Salvation of Libya is well-known. Meanwhile, the US quickly saw in the ‘Arab Spring’ an opportunity to turn the situation to its own advantage – indeed, Chivvis suggests that one of the motives for intervention in Libya was that a failure of the uprising “could reverse a democratic surge expected to be in the US interest in the long haul”. Hillary Clinton was fairly explicit on the subject: ”The entire region is changing, and a strong and strategic American response will be essential.”

There were no shortage of motives for a NATO war on Libya. However, the Pentagon was hoping that the rebels might be able to conduct a successful coup without the help of the international high-tech-destruction community. Apart from anything else, there was a preference to avoid another unpopular war in the Middle East, especially in light of the hugely negative public perception of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. ”Secretary Clinton had favoured keeping all options on the table, while sometimes leaning toward the more cautious position of the Defence Department, largely in hope that Qaddafi might simply yield to the rebels without an intervention.”

When it became clear that a successful rebel uprising was not even a slightly likely outcome, we saw a swift metamorphosis in US foreign policy circles as doves turned into hawks. Chivvis tries to cover NATO’s tracks by claiming that “it was the imminent threat Qaddafi’s forces posed to the civilian population of Benghazi combined with the emergence of a military option that could save thousands of imperiled lives that led to intervention”. But it is common knowledge that the ‘imminent threat’ was massively and deliberately overstated in order to build a case for war – as Stephen M Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard, wrote back in April 2011, “the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.”

It is again common knowledge that it was armed insurgents that were under threat rather than the ‘civilian population’. The only meaningful change that occurred between the beginning of March and the middle of March was that the Libyan state had moved decisively to suppress a coup. ”The … most important change was Qaddafi’s rout of the rebel forces. Over the weekend, Qaddafi’s army began to make rapid progress, pushing rebels out of the oil port of Ras Lanuf on March 11 and crushing the uprising in Zawiyah.”

Beyond the removal of an inconveniently anti-imperialist and independent government, the possibility of NATO intervention had certain other attractive qualities in the eyes of western policy-makers. Perhaps the most important of these was the example an intervention would provide for other regional powers. Acknowledging that the level of violence went well beyond what was authorised in the UN Security Council’s resolution for a no-fly zone, Chivvis admits that it “was no doubt intended to demonstrate US capabilities to other regional powers – such as Iran and Syria.”

One subtle and often-overlooked factor in the US decision to join – and take charge of – the military campaign against Libya is that it was keen to reassert its dominance over a Europe that is no longer so unambiguously tied to the Washington Consensus as it once was. Implying (not entirely unfairly) that a British/French-led attack would be little more than a vanity project for Cameron and Sarkozy, Chivvis states his doubt that the EU forces would have been up to the job of regime change in Libya. “The outlook for the European Union’s decade-long effort to build an EU alternative to NATO was rather gloomy. Toppling Qaddafi was exactly the kind of operation the EU had originally aspired to with its security and defence policy, but it had proven totally useless for this purpose.” Chivvis goes on to gloat that “the United States was the ‘indispensable nation’ for these kinds of military operations. No other country – China, Russia, and India included – could have provided the capabilities that the United States did.” Thus, the regime change operation in Libya served as a message of US supremacy, directed not just to the baddies in Tehran and Damascus but also to the major west European powers.

For NATO, by NATO – a brutal colonial war

UN Security Council resolution 1973, approved on 17 March 2011, called for “a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians” and the seizing of Libyan state assets. The wording did not allow for a regime change operation, nor for direct assistance to anti-government groups in Libya, nor for wide-ranging attacks against targets on the ground. The no-fly zone was presented as being a very limited operation, not a massive aerial onslaught. In practice, as Chivvis is forced to admit, it was a NATO war on a similar scale to the brutal attack on Yugoslavia, fought and won by a western imperialist air force with the assistance of special forces on the ground.

All told, the operation would draw on more than 8,000 personnel, 21 warships, and some 250 aircraft flying more than 26,000 sorties. Nineteen countries contributed military forces, including four from the Middle East.

Chivvis notes a close level of tactical collaboration between the rebels and NATO, without which the overthrow of the Gaddafi government would not have been possible. “The thuwwar could never have won by themselves. Without NATO’s intervention, their uprising would most likely have been snuffed out by Qaddafi’s assault on Benghazi, and even if it had not, it would probably have become a low-level insurgency and dragged on for years… ‘I can’t say we dislike or like NATO,’ said one tha’ir on the eastern front, but ‘without them we would have been finished.’”

Although he is slightly cagey on the subject, the author also has to admit that there was direct military assistance on the ground – something that was strenuously denied at the time.

“It is now clear from official statements, news reporting, and other published sources that special forces from Britain, France, Italy, Qatar, and the UAE were on the ground at various locations across the country from the start of the conflict, and they became more and more engaged as the situation evolved. These forces were never more than a few hundred, of which Europeans figured only a small portion, but they were enough to make a significant difference on the course of the war.”

The role of these “few hundred” special forces was not limited to friendly advice. “Special forces were training thuwwar, providing advice at the tactical and strategic level to thuwwar commanders, deconflicting NATO air strikes with thuwwar movements, providing intelligence to them, and ultimately fighting alongside them as they took Tripoli and tracked down Qaddafi afterward.”

Chivvis denies that the rebels were “calling in air strikes”, but states that they “eventually learned where to go and not to go and would wait as NATO hit targets to clear a path for them to advance”. Further, “as the war progressed, special forces teams on the ground were doing this for the rebels, with greater and greater frequency, in a rough approximation of the ‘Afghan Model’”. The situation was summed up quite neatly by a rebel commander in June 2011: “we don’t move unless we have very clear instructions from NATO.”

The above sounds a lot more like a ‘war of regime change’ than a ‘no-fly zone’. NATO’s actions were so outrageous as to draw a complaint from Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa (in spite of the fact that the Arab League had been cheerleading for the NFZ): “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.”

In March, at the beginning of the invasion, the chief of the UK defence staff, General David Richards, told the BBC that targeting the Libyan leader was “not allowed under the UN resolution”. And yet Chivvis describes in some detail the crucial involvement of NATO forces in the capture and murder of a sovereign nation’s head of state: “On October 20, after several days of gradual rebel advances on Sirte, NATO planes spotted a convoy leaving the city. Before it was even two miles outside, a Predator that had been circling overhead fired a Hellfire missile that destroyed the leading vehicle. Two French Mirages then also attacked, scattering the convoy, and Thuwwar gave chase on the ground. Qaddafi leapt from one of the cars into a nearby drainpipe, where he attempted to hide. Nearby rebel fighters, however, converged on the spot and quickly pulled him out, beat him, and shot him in the head.”

There are some curious omissions in ‘Toppling Qaddafi’. Chivvis barely mentions, for example, the ferocious NATO onslaught on Sirte – perhaps because bombing a city “into the Dark Ages” is not entirely consistent with his overall narrative. Nor does he see the need to discuss the “compendious evidence of mass abduction and detention, beating and routine torture, killings and atrocities by the rebel militias Britain, France and the US have backed”. While it was apparently essential to protect anti-Gaddafi protestors in Benghazi, the victims of mass execution in Sirte are not worthy of so much as a passing mention in Chivvis’ book.

Another key element of the war ignored by Chivvis is the racist violence meted out by NATO’s ‘rebel’ mercenaries. Reports of widespread lynching and torture of black Libyans and sub-Saharan migrant workers by rebel forces were appearing as early as February 2011 – before the NFZ was even being discussed. Seumas Milne wrote a few months later that “African migrants and black Libyans [were] subject to a relentless racist campaign of mass detention, lynchings and atrocities”. NATO-backed forces were found to be caging black Africans like animals in a zoo; there were reports of black Libyans being forced to climb up a pole shouting ‘monkey need banana’. And yet the widespread ethnic cleansing, torture and murder of black Libyans and sub-Saharan migrant workers by rebel forces doesn’t make it onto Chivvis’ balance sheet when assessing the overall success of NATO’s war on Libya.

Give peace a chance?

Chivvis claims that the NATO bombing was necessary in order to avert a humanitarian crisis, but he almost completely fails to mention all the other options available for restoring stability and peace in Libya. The Gaddafi government offered a ceasefire immediately after the passing of Resolution 1973, including a full amnesty for rebels who had taken up arms. In late April, Gaddafi again offered a full ceasefire, stating: “We were the first to welcome a ceasefire and we were the first to accept a ceasefire… but the Crusader Nato attack has not stopped. The door to peace is open.”

Well before the NFZ declaration, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez offered to broker a ceasefire between the rebels and the government. The rebels – clearly confident that the west would come and wage war on their behalf – simply responded that they would “never negotiate with Gaddafi”. Tellingly, the Guardian noted that “reports that Chavez’s proposal was being taken seriously by Arab leaders has pushed down oil prices.” The implication of which is: the oil companies wanted war on Libya.

South African president Jacob Zuma led African Union efforts to design a comprehensive ceasefire, which was agreed to by Libya. However, this was rejected out of hand by both Washington puppet-masters and Benghazi puppets on the basis that a ceasefire would only be considered if Gaddafi agreed to leave the country. In fact, between March and September 2011 – including in June and July when government positions were looking extremely strong – Gaddafi consistently called for a ceasefire and his calls were consistently ignored. The attitude of NATO and the rebels was: “accept defeat and we’ll stop bombing you” – hardly a serious approach to the project of saving lives and restoring peace.

Another conundrum is that “Qaddafi’s air force and long-range surface-to-air systems were flattened in a matter of a few short days”. That is to say, the mandate of the NFZ was complete in less than a week. So why didn’t the bombardment end? Chivvis does not address this question.

Disaster for Libya and the entire region

“In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy or it could face protracted civil war, or it could descend into chaos. The stakes are high.” (Hillary Clinton)

So was it all worth it? In the eyes of Christopher Chivvis, yes. The toppling of the Gaddafi government was “ultimately just an opening toward a richer and more meaningful kind of freedom that might allow Libya’s new citizens to go about their lives with less fear and greater dignity.” He continues: “The results are far from perfect and postwar stabilisation has faltered, but ultimately the choice to intervene was the right one.”

Chivvis struggles to qualify the assertion of success, given the “faltering postwar stabilisation” – a pretty transparent euphemism for “complete and utter mess”. Seumas Milne notes that “three years after Nato declared victory, Libya is lurching once again towards civil war.” Patrick Cockburn concurs: “Libya is tipping toward all-out civil war as rival militias take sides for and against an attempted coup led by a renegade general that has pushed the central government towards disintegration”.

Furthermore, “Libya’s turmoil is acquiring continental significance”. One of Gaddafi’s major priorities was to promote regional stability and coordination. The post-Gaddafi power vacuum has created space for militias of every shape and size to create havoc across the region, from Mali to Chad to Syria to Nigeria.

However, ‘success’ depends on how you measure it. The key to Chivvis’ thinking can be found in the following passage:

“In general, Libya should remain a positive, if smaller-scale, antidote to the sense of helplessness and cynicism about American power setting in after the deeply trying experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is a good thing.”

This is a brutally honest statement about the role of the Libya war in the geostrategic context of the Project for a New American Century – the US’ desperate attempt to maintain its hegemony and prevent the emergence of a multipolar world order. According to Chivvis’ logic, the deeply unpopular, expensive and catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were damaging to US hegemony, but the Libya war furnishes new proof of the US’ role as the world’s policeman. The US maintains its “responsibility to take the actions that we can take, however imperfect, to uphold the values in which our model is grounded.”

NATO’s war on Libya was therefore a key part of an ongoing strategy to “divide and ruin” – violating national sovereignty, creating civil wars, and removing states that refuse to go along with its diktat, all serving to create an unstable global political environment that only the western powers (led by the US) have the military weight to control. The wars in Libya and Syria; the NATO- and EU-sponsored boiling pot in Ukraine; the ‘revolt of the rich’ in Venezuela; the CIA-funded social media campaigns in Cuba; Obama’s “Pacific Pivot”: these are all part of a wide-ranging strategy to maintain western imperialist hegemony. It is the duty of all progressive humanity to recognise and oppose such a strategy.

This is an expanded version of a speech given by Carlos Martinez at the event ‘STRIKE THE EMPIRE BACK: legacies and examples of liberation from neo-colonialism and white supremacy’


As far as most people are concerned, ‘ideology’ is a term of abuse, an insult you fling around: we accuse people of being “too ideological”, of being bookworms, of dividing people with “isms and schisms”, of “thinking too much” (I have to say I’ve never in my life met anyone who actually thinks too much, but I’ve met plenty of people who don’t think enough!).

The Cult of Activism

There is this view that ideology divides us, that it gets in the way of working together, that it’s not really relevant, and that we need to focus purely on ‘action’, on practical activity, on campaigning. We don’t have need to inform our activism with analysis and understanding, we need to do like Nike: just do it. Pickets are good, placards are good, campaigns are good, petitions are good, demonstrations are good, fundraising is good, concerts are good; debate, books, history, study, analysis: not so much. Inasmuch as we need to occasionally need to spread ideas, we do it in cute 140-character slogans on Twitter, or Lord of the Rings memes on Instagram.

In part, this is a reaction to what’s called “ivory tower syndrome” – academics and intellectuals, sitting up in their ivory towers, writing beautiful words but having neither the intention nor the ability to put theory into practice. And even the beautiful ideas the generate are very flawed because they’re so divorced from reality and from the masses.

That is a genuine problem. However, as the saying goes, you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If I bite into an over-ripe strawberry and it tastes rotten, I don’t conclude from that experience that I’ll never eat a strawberry again. If there are ivory tower ideologues who are over-ripe and rotten, let’s ignore them and develop the ideology we need, the ideology that serves us.

The state of the movement

As it stands, we as a movement (inasmuch as there is a ‘movement’ – here I am using it as a general label for the various individuals and groups who oppose the status quo and who want to build an alternative) are quite active. There’s quite of lot of activism around, and yet, if we’re honest, we’re getting nowhere.

We’re no more united than we ever were – in fact we’re less united. We’re no more effective than we ever were – in fact we’re less effective. We have meetings, demonstrations, campaigns, pickets and so on, but almost never win anything, and we don’t really play to win; we’re just out there flying the flag.

And yet oppressed and working class people are under attack. In the course of the last three decades, the ruling class have managed to smash the majority of the unions and the community organisations. They’ve privatised everything. They’ve gone to war, killing our brothers and sisters in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya in the hundreds of thousands. Benefits are cut, jobs disappear, wages are reduced, zero-hour contracts are introduced, bedroom taxes are introduced, banks are bailed out, student fees keep on rising, people are thrown in prison for protesting. Racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia are still prevalent with the dominant culture.

Meanwhile our political representation gets worse and worse, as the whole mainstream spectrum shifts to the right – as evidenced by UKIP’s success at the European election, and by the increasingly blurred lines between Tory and Labour politics.

As for the ruling class, the elite, the government, the police, the corporations, the 1% – they know what situation we’re in and therefore they know they can get away with pretty much anything they want. They know we are not in a position to fight the fight. That’s one of the main reasons we have whatever democratic rights we do have; that’s one of the main reasons they let us have the vote; that’s one of the main reasons they allow some level of freedom of speech: because they know full well we won’t use it to achieve anything meaningful.

Our ‘activism’ hasn’t prevented any of this. In some situations it’s even made it worse. To give a (thankfully) extreme example: when NATO was gearing up for its regime change operation against Libya, a sovereign African state, quite a few well-known activists thought the best thing to do would be to occupy Saif Gaddafi’s house in London, thereby totally playing into the mainstream agenda of demonising a state that the west was about to bomb into the stone age. What a situation, where you have courageous, passionate, righteous people – activists, people who are supposed to be on our side – and the media is able to play them like puppets!

Ideology is nothing to be scared of

If we don’t want to be played like puppets, we need ideology, we need understanding. It’s nothing to be afraid of. An ideology is simply a system of ideas – a set of beliefs, goals and strategies in relation to society. I think this scary word, ideology, can be summed up by three simple questions:

  • What is the current situation of society?

  • What changes do we want to achieve?

  • How do we go about creating those changes?

If you look around the world, and you look into history, you see that every movement that ever achieved anything meaningful is or was built on some kind of ideology. For example:

  • Malcolm X had an ideology, which one could argue was a mix of black nationalism, anti-imperialism, global south unity, socialism and pan-africanism, with Islam providing a moral-spiritual basis.

  • The Black Panthers had an ideology, based in Marxism, Maoism, black nationalism.

  • Closer to home, Sinn Fein and the IRA – who fought the British state to a stalemate (I wish we could do that!) – have an ideology, grounded in Irish nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism.

  • The leaders of the Iranian revolution had and have an ideology, based in radical Islam, anti-imperialism, anti-zionism and orientation towards the poor. You can say something similar about Hezbollah, the only fighting force in the world to have defeated the Israeli army in battle (#JustSayin).

  • The liberation struggles in Vietnam, South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Ghana, Kenya, Guinea Bissau, Zimbabwe, Palestine, Namibia, Algeria, Korea; the revolutions in Cuba, China, Russia, Grenada, Nicaragua: they all had/have an ideology, a system of ideas/beliefs/goals/strategies that people unite around.

These ideologies have plenty in common, particularly in terms of opposition to imperialism, opposition to colonialism, opposition to racism, and a general orientation in favour of the poor and marginalised. However, none of them are identical, and each reflects to some degree the history, traditions, culture and conditions of the people involved.

The President of the Cuban Parliament made an interesting self-criticism recently, when discussing the variations within the revolutionary process in Latin America:

“What characterises Latin America at the present moment is the fact that a number of countries, each in its own way, are constructing their own versions of socialism. For a long while now, one of the fundamental errors of socialist and revolutionary movements has been the belief that a socialist model exists. In reality, we should not be talking about socialism, but rather about socialisms in the plural. There is no socialism that is similar to another. As Mariátegui said, socialism is a ‘heroic creation’. If socialism is to be created, it must respond to realities, motivations, cultures, situations, contexts, all of which are objectives that are different from each other, not identical.”

There are theories that can point us in the right direction; there is history to learn from; but there’s no cookie-cutter that we can pick up to get rid of capitalism and imperialism.

What about us?

We too need an ideology. We need to work out a shared belief system, an agreed set of goals, an agreed set of strategies, that we can unite around and work together to create meaningful change. We need to answer those three questions: where are we at? Where do we need to be? How do we get there?

We will not agree on everything. There are a whole host of important issues that we have to be willing to agree to differ on. But I am convinced that there is space for a common platform.

Just look at the other side. The enemy has ideology. The elite, the rulers of society, the ultra-rich, the government, the state – they have an ideology. It’s imperialism and neoliberalism: the most brutal, the most harsh, the most ruthless form of capitalism, promoting nothing less than ‘freedom’ – total freedom for the rich to get ever richer.

Plus they’re so generous, they realise that the masses need an ideology too, so they create a ready-made ideology for us! The ideology they give us is: consumerism, individualism, diversions, divisions, racism, sexism, homophobia, selfies, twerking, porn, Call of Duty…

And we congratulate ourselves on all this freedom and democracy we’ve got! “It’s a free country”, we say. No! It’s not freedom, it’s not democracy. It’s bread and circuses. Give the masses cheap food and cheap entertainment, keep them divided, and you’ve got them under your control.

Minimum platform

What type of ideology do we need? Good question :-)

That’s the long conversation that we need to continue, in a spirit of inclusiveness, openness, comradeship, creativity and generosity. It’s going to take a while.

To me, in today’s world, perhaps the most relevant examples to look at can be found in Latin America, in particular in terms of the legacy of Hugo Chávez, may he rest in peace.

What does Chávez represent? The essence of ‘Chavismo’, I believe, is: 1) creative, non-dogmatic, up-to-date socialism; 2) consistent, militant anti-imperialism.

Socialism – there’s another scary word that isn’t really that scary. What is the socialism that is being pursued in Venezuela (and Cuba, and Nicaragua, and elsewhere)?

  • Adopting policies that favour the poor: pursuing redistributive economics and social programmes that aim to permanently raise the status and living conditions of those at the bottom of society.
  • Promoting the interests of the indigenous, the African, the worker, the woman. Protecting freedom of worship. Addressing discrimination on every dimension, in the interests of building unity and justice.
  • Attempting to break the power of the old elite, the rich, the right, who have held society in their grip for so many centuries.
  • Constructing a popular democracy, a state that is “for us, by us”.

As for Chávez’s legacy of anti-imperialism, that means consistently uniting with the widest possible forces against the main enemy. Chávez built solid, meaningful alliances with a very diverse range of states and movements, from Cuba to Brazil to China to Russia, Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Belarus, Gaddafi’s Libya, Angola, DPR Korea, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and so on.

He wasn’t a gullible liberal or a radical fashionista; he didn’t disown his allies just because the western press was demonising them. He kept his eye on the prize of ending imperialist domination for once and for all and constructing a new, multipolar world where countries can develop in peace.

He always said that one should unite with anyone who had even the slightest chance of joining the fight against imperialism. I think that idea gives as a decent clue as to how we should move forward.

international-sudents-day-rally-queens-park-nov-17-1980

“The Grenada Revolution was a grasp of joy … that life unfulfilled could and would change, be transformed for a people who had known 400 years of transportation, slavery, colonialism, neocolonial dictatorship and exportation to the cities of Europe and North America. Joy that the organised genius of ordinary people could at last be applied to develop their own resources for their own future. There was the joy of education, of seeing your children achieving free secondary schooling and your illiterate mother learning how to read and write, the joy of seeing wasted, unemployed youths forming cooperatives and planting the idle land.” (Chris Searle, Grenada Morning)

Thirty-five years ago today, on the morning of 13 March 1979, the defence wing of the New Jewel Movement successfully overthrew the much-despised government of Eric Gairy. This bloodless coup – conducted by no more than 46 lightly-armed cadres – was widely welcomed by the people of Grenada. Hugh O’Shaughnessy writes that “the coup was enormously popular with Grenadians and it seemed as if the whole of the island was coming out into the streets to celebrate.” English popular educator and internationalist Chris Searle (who spent several years in Grenada and was charged with running both the teacher training programme and the official publishing house) notes that “fishermen, nutmeg workers, unemployed youth, peasant farmers and agricultural workers came streaming from their houses and converged upon police stations all over the island, forcing the policemen to run up white flags.” (Grenada Morning)

It seemed that the smog of subjugation, oppression and backwardness was finally being lifted; that this small southern Caribbean nation would be given the chance it deserved to blossom, freed from the iron grip of the kleptocratic and ruthless Eric Gairy – whose record of repression, personal enrichment, neocolonial policy, and alignment with the most reactionary states in the region (most notably Chile under Pinochet and Haiti under Duvalier) had lost him the trust and respect of the people.

Dennis Bartholomew, who during the period of the revolution was a representative of the People’s Revolutionary Government at the Grenadian High Commission in London, talks of the significance of the ‘revo’:

“From being the descendants of slaves, from people who’d been colonised, from people who’d been tossed aside, we suddenly became the controllers of our own destiny. For 400 years, our forebears were enslaved. We suffered in order to produce Europe’s wealth. After slavery we were further enslaved under colonialism. But in 1979, with our own ability, by our own efforts, we changed our course. Yes, others helped, but it was us.” (phone interview)

Dennis points out that the sense of jubilation and pride generated by the revolution was not restricted to Grenada – it spread like wildfire within the Caribbean community in Britain:

The effect was absolutely electric in Britain. Grenadians had previously kept their heads down – working, sending money home and so on. All of a sudden we felt extremely proud. An energy was there that wasn’t felt before. For example, the High Commission and the Caribbean community worked together to put on an event at the Commonwealth Institute to mark the anniversary of the revo. We were expecting maybe 500 people, and in the end 5,000 turned up. When Maurice Bishop was in London it was phenomenal – you couldn’t get into the meeting because of the crowds. The attitude of Grenadians changed. People were walking around who hadn’t been political before, and they started speaking in public in defence of Grenada, such was the pride.

maurice-samoraThe excitement of the revo was felt all around the Caribbean, as well as in the Caribbean communities in Britain, the US and Canada. Grenada instantly became a pole of attraction for socialists, anti-imperialists and Black Power activists. The father or critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire, came to kick off the literacy campaign. Major figures from the US such as Angela Davis and Harry Belafonte visited Grenada and were deeply inspired. Cheddi Jagan, Michael Manley, Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro all spoke of the profound importance of the Grenada revolution. The legendary Mozambican freedom fighter (then President) Samora Machel visited the island to show his solidarity. Progressive politicians, educators, activists and writers from throughout the region came to work in Grenada – figures such as Richard Hart, Merle Hodge, Didacus Jules and George Lamming. The truth is that this peaceful revolution in a small Caribbean country (with a population of a shade over 100,000) was a landmark moment, and its effects were felt throughout the region, and indeed the world.

Maurice Bishop

muralThe most prominent leader of this revolution was a charismatic young lawyer by the name of Maurice Bishop. Bishop was a popular, creative and intelligent revolutionary with an intuitive grasp of where the masses were at. A brilliant communicator, his mutual empathy with the masses of the people was one of the major driving forces of the revolution – not unlike the relationship between Fidel Castro and the Cuban people, or between Hugo Chávez and Venezuelan people. Fidel saw him as a true brother and comrade, remarking that “Bishop was one of the political leaders best liked and most respected by our people because of his talent, modesty, sincerity, revolutionary honesty and proven friendship with our country”.

Recently-deceased and much-missed veteran of the Caribbean labour movement Richard Hart wrote:

“By any standards he was a remarkable man. A lawyer by profession from a comfortable middle class background, his sympathies were nevertheless with the underprivileged masses. The initial emotional stimulus which he had received from the Black Power movement of the 1960s had ripened and matured during the 1970s on a more secure intellectual basis as he familiarised himself with Marxist-Leninist theory. Sentiment, theory and practice had combined to mould him into a dedicated revolutionary. He possessed to an extraordinary degree the ability to articulate clearly the objectives of the Revolution and to inspire support for it internally and regionally. His analytical mind and capacity for simple explanation helped the people to understand and share his convictions. His personality was magnetic.” (In Nobody’s Backyard (Preface))

Much like Fidel and Chávez, Bishop was a brilliant orator, uniquely capable of voicing the needs and aspirations of his people. Searle comments: “His bearing, a deep, mellow voice and superb command of the English language together with a continuous propensity to resort to the Creole vernacular, combined with his skills of persuasive and sophisticated speech that he had developed as one of the Caribbean’s most successful barristers, all fused to give a many-sided articulacy to his public speaking… He had an outstanding ability to create this sense of joy among his listeners.” (Grenada Morning)

There were of course other very important leaders whose role was decisive, but it’s clear that Bishop’s personal role as the pre-eminent leader of the Grenadian masses cannot easily be overstated.

Achievements

revsolHaving captured power, the New Jewel Movement quickly got down to the serious work of improving the lives of Grenada’s long-suffering people. As Bishop said in his first broadcast on Radio Free Grenada after the capture of power on 13 March 1979:

This revolution is for work, for food, for decent housing and health services, and for a bright future for our children

Wendy Grenade, a Grenadian lecturer in Political Science at the University of the West Indies, enumerates the key areas of focus for the revo: “raising levels of social consciousness; building a national ethos that encouraged a sense of community; organising agrarian reform to benefit small farmers and farm workers; promoting literacy and adult education; fostering child and youth development; enacting legislation to promote gender justice; constructing low income housing and launching house repair programmes; improving physical infrastructure and in particular the construction of an international airport; providing an environment that encouraged popular democracy through Parish and Zonal Councils etc.” All in all, a very different focus to that of any previous Grenadian government, and to that of most other Caribbean states.

Pre-revolutionary Grenada suffered with unemployment levels upward of 50%. Through the development of cooperatives, the expansion of the industrial base, the diversification of agriculture, the expansion of the tourist industry, and the creation of massive public works programmes, unemployment dropped to 14%, and the percentage of food imports dropped from over 40% to 28% at a time when market prices for agricultural products were collapsing worldwide.”

Paulo Freire was invited to design and lead the implementation of a literacy programme, which was successful in all but wiping out illiteracy (the literacy rate increased from 85% to 98%). The leaders of the revo realised that an educational system must be established that broke away from the British colonial tradition and the inferiority complex that it sought to instil in its ‘subjects’. As Bishop elaborated: “The colonial masters recognised very early on that if you get a subject people to think like they, to forget their own history and their own culture, to develop a system of education that is going to have relevance to our outward needs and be almost entirely irrelevant to our internal needs, then they have already won the job of keeping us in perpetual domination and exploitation. Our educational process, therefore, was used mainly as a tool of the ruling elite.”

Searle observed an intense, widespread desire and demand for learning:

One of the first overwhelming truths and discoveries of the Revolution was that education was everywhere, it was irrepressible! It came at once from every side and at every moment. The dammed-up flood of four centuries of the people’s urge to know, to understand, to learn, to connect, to criticise, to express themselves, was unstoppable. At meetings, at rallies, at panel discussions, through songs, poems, plays and calypso, the message poured down upon the revolutionary leaders: Teach us, we want to know! Young and old, farmer and urban worker, fisherman and the woman cracking nutmegs, seamstresses and road-workers, all clamoured for more education, giving the cue for the slogan: Education is a must – from the cradle to the grave.

By 1983, 37% of the national budget was being spent on education and health. School fees were abolished; schools were repaired. “Free books, school uniforms and hot lunches were provided for the first time for the poor. Health care was made free and the number of doctors and dentists doubled.” (source)

ForwardEverBackwordNeverFor the first time, Grenadians had a very real say as to how public funds were allocated – via a People’s Budget that pre-empted the celebrated Porto Alegre participatory budget by more than a decade. Meanwhile, the economic growth rate averaged 10% during the years of the revolution. A World Bank memorandum on the Grenadian economy in 1982 stated: “The government which came to power in March 1979 inherited a deteriorating economy, and is now addressing the task of rehabilitation and of laying better foundations… Government objectives are centred on the critical development issues and touch on the country’s most promising development areas.” Hugh O’Shaughnessy notes that this was “as close to unstinted praise as that cautious institution was ever likely to come.”

Regarding agriculture, Searle writes that “there was increased enthusiasm to work on the land. The old pattern of the plantocratic estate, the hierarchical control of the expatriate landlord or the man in the ‘great house’ and the living death of laborious daily-paid work on land which was not theirs – all this was changing. The growth in cooperatives on the land and the collective stake in production and profit had brought many young people back to the land, and three farm training schools had been established to give these young farmers some basic expertise in agriculture and cooperative management techniques.”

The revo was strongly focused on women’s empowerment and participation. “We moved against sexual harassment, and we encouraged women to participate fully in the construction of a new Grenada, for example through the National Women’s Organisation” (Dennis Bartholomew phone interview). Indeed, the first decree of the revo was to outlaw sexual victimisation.

The changes in society were reflected by a massively invigorated national culture, expressed through calypso, poetry, dance and drama. “The shyness and reticence that characterised many of the Grenadian people before the Revolution, the self-consciousness of being a ‘small island’, second-rate or unnoticed was replaced by an explosion of national self-assertion through the revolutionary culture… More Grenadians were writing poetry and performing calypso than ever before, and receiving publication and air-play.” (Grenada Morning)

In terms of international relations, Grenada maintained friendly relations with all countries that were willing to treat it as an equal. Inevitably, this meant that its closest relations were with other nations within the socialist, progressive and non-aligned world, such as Cuba, (Sandinista) Nicaragua, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, East Germany, DPR Korea, Mozambique, Libya and Syria. Revolutionary Grenada was also a great friend to the forces fighting against South African apartheid and occupation, in particular the ANC and SWAPO.

We are a small country, we are a poor country, with a population of largely African descent, we are a part of the exploited Third World, and we definitely have a stake in seeking the creation of a new international economic order which would assist in ensuring economic justice for the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world, and in ensuring that the resources of the sea are used for the benefit of all the people of the world and not for a tiny minority of profiteers. Our aim, therefore, is to join all organisations and work with all countries that will help us to become more independent and more in control of our own resources. In this regard, nobody who understands present-day realities can seriously challenge our right to develop working relations with a variety of countries.

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the revo was the construction of an international airport – the first airport to be built by a post-colonial Caribbean state. Bartholomew says with great pride: “The key step was building the international airport. It wasn’t built by the US or Cubans – we built it ourselves, with Cuban help. It was based on an old British plan. Money was raised internally by the raising of bonds, plus there was help from Libya, from Algeria, from Britain and elsewhere.”

Sadly, the revo didn’t live to reap the benefits of the airport, which wasn’t completed until 1984. In May 2009, the airport was finally renamed Maurice Bishop International Airport.

People’s Democracy

maurice-bishop-gen-h-austin-lt-george-cherubinRevolutionary Grenada came under criticism from many angles for not holding parliamentary elections – particularly since Bishop’s first broadcast after the seizure of power had promised the restoration of “all democratic freedoms, including freedom of elections.” This lack of elections was constantly used by the US and its regional proxies to besmirch the New Jewel government, and there are plenty of people – even those broadly sympathetic to the revolution – who feel that the whole experience was tainted through lack of democracy.

Why weren’t elections held? After all, there was never any doubt that the NJM would comfortably win at the polls. Bishop discussed this issue in an interview with New Internationalist in 1980:

We don’t believe that a parliamentary system is the most relevant in our situation. After all, we took power outside the ballot-box and we are trying to build our Revolution on the basis of a new form of democracy: grass­roots and democratic, creating mechanisms and institutions which really have relevance to the people, If we succeed it will bring in question this whole parliamentary approach to democracy which we regard as having failed in the region. We believe that elections could be important, but for us the question is one of timing. We don’t regard it now as a priority. We would much rather see elections come when the economy is more stable, when the Revolution is more consolidated. When more people have in fact had benefits brought to them. When more people are literate and able to understand what the meaning of a vote really is and what role they should have in building a genuine participatory democracy.

Speaking at an event to mark the first anniversary of the revolution – an event at which the guests included Daniel Ortega and Michael Manley – Bishop highlighted some of the obvious flaws of the Westminster system:

There are those (some of them our friends) who believe that you cannot have a democracy unless there is a situation where every five years, and for five seconds in those five years, a people are allowed to put an ‘X’ next to some candidate’s name, and for those five seconds in those five years they become democrats, and for the remainder of the time, four years and 364 days, they return to being non-people without the right to say anything to their government, without any right to be involved in running their country.

In place of a such a pseudo-democracy, there was set up a system of grassroots democracy that, by any reasonable standard, must be considered far more democratic than the pretend democracy in place in Britain and the US. Thirty-five years later, Chris Searle remains immensely enthusiastic about the breadth of popular participation during those years:

“A lot went right. There were some unique developments. The internal democracy – the local democracy at the village and town level – was quite remarkable. Parish councils were set up; the women’s movement and youth movement were extremely active. It was a genuine mass mobilisation of ordinary people at every level, from the elderly down to children. There was nothing forced about it; the democracy bubbled up from the people. It was incredible, really.” (phone interview)

Organs of power sprung up everywhere, and nearly everyone was involved in some level of organisation and decision-making, be it the Zonal Councils, the Workers’ Parish Councils, the Farmer Councils, the Youth Movement or the Women’s Movement, all of which met at least once a month. Free facilities were made available for all such meetings, and they were often attended by senior government figures, who would have to answer directly to the people.

Bartholomew describes the atmosphere:

The feeling was totally different. People were coming together and doing things. Nobody said “we can’t do it”; they were saying “how are we going to do it”? There was a definite spirit in the air.

In 1981, the People’s Revolutionary Government established a Ministry of National Mobilisation, headed up by senior NJM leader Selwyn Strachan. This was a whole government ministry dedicated to devising means of continually spreading and improving popular participation in the running of the country, and ensuring maximum levels of accountability for those in positions of power.

Searle points out that the army was expected to be at the service of the people, and was deeply involved in helping to carry out decisions made by the organs of popular power. He states: “The army was involved and was extremely popular. if repairs needed or houses build, soldiers would be there.” Quite a difference from the role of the army in a typical bourgeois democracy!

So while parliamentary elections were not held in the four and a half years of the revo, a far more meaningful democracy was constructed. This had the additional benefit of avoiding the ways in which international imperialism – with its vast networks of contacts, diplomats, agents, media sources, bribes, and so on – can use parliamentary politics to subvert real democracy. Bishop’s analysis of this process brings to mind the way the west has tried to (and continues to try to) destabilise progressive governments, with varying degrees of success, in Jamaica (under Manley), Chile (under Allende), Venezuela, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere.

“A part of that political tribalism, as used by the CIA, has been to get some of the parliamentarians to use the medium of parliament in such a way as to destabilise the country. Masterminded by their American puppeteers, they raise bogus concerns about the economy, they spread vicious propaganda from outside the country and seek to make the people lose faith and confidence in their revolutionary government, raising a million and one other such provocative matters through the medium of parliament – and thus claim to do it in that sense with a certain measure of legitimacy.” (Interview in mid-1983, contained in Grenada: The Struggle Against Destabilisation)

Destabilisation

Naturally, the revo was not too popular in the eyes of the politicians of the imperialist states. After all, Grenada was the first (and remains the only) English-speaking country in the Americas to have undergone a successful revolution of the oppressed. Moreover, it was a revolution led by the descendants of African slaves, and therefore was seen as a particularly dangerous example to the black population in North America. “The Grenada Revolution has a facility of speaking directly to the people of the USA, in particular the exploited majority. Then in the case of black Americans, meaning something like 27 million black people who are a part of the most rejected and oppressed section of the American population, US imperialism has a particular dread that they will develop an extra empathy and rapport with the Grenada Revolution, and from that point of view will pose a threat to their own continuing control and domination of blacks inside the US.” (interview, ibid)

On top of the bad example it was setting, Grenada was also considered a threat on account of its relations with countries on the wrong side of the ‘iron curtain’. Hugh O’Shaughnessy writes: “Washington’s rage reached paranoiac proportions when Grenada started close co-operation with Cuba and the USSR. Grenada’s action challenged the hegemony that Washington was expecting to extend throughout the Caribbean after the withdrawal of the British who had dominated it for two centuries.”

As can be seen from the example of so many states that have refused to go along with imperialist diktat – from Chile to Mozambique, from Cuba to Libya, from Venezuela to Syria – the west has a thousand different ways of creating instability. Grenada was no different. The US was able to mobilise elements within the Grenadian trade union movement to call strikes when the government was unable to meet their demands for enormous wage increases. There were boss-led lockouts. Production was sabotaged. Rallies were bombed. There were assassinations. A wide-ranging campaign was conducted in the ‘free’ (rich-white-owned) Caribbean press against the Grenadian revolution. In short, Grenada was subjected to every form of economic, political, paramilitary and media destabilisation. The revo was under constant threat.

We think of the scientific way in which they have evolved a new concept which they have called destabilisation: a concept aimed at creating political violence, economic sabotage; a concept which when it fails, eventually leads to terrorism. We think of the attempts to use local opportunists and counter-revolutionaries — people who try to build a popular base, people who fail in building that popular base, and people who as a result of having failed to fool the masses then turn to the last weapon they have in desperation: the weapon of open, naked, brutal and vulgar terror. Having given up all hope of winning the masses, these people now turn their revenge on the masses. They now seek to punish the masses, to murder them wholesale; to plant bombs in the midst of rallies; to try to break the back of the popular support of the Revolution; because imperialism was frightened and terrified by the Grenadian masses on March 13, 1980 when 30,000 of our people gathered in one spot to celebrate one year of People’s Victory, People’s Progress, People’s Benefits. They were terrified by that, and as a result they now seek to intimidate, to brow-beat, to frighten and terrorise the masses to get them to be afraid to assemble, to get them to be afraid to continue to build their own country in their own image and likeness.

In 1981, US President Reagan deployed over 120,000 troops, 250 warships and 1,000 aircraft to Vieques Island, near Puerto Rico, for a mock invasion. The operation was code-named ‘Amber and the Amberines’, in clear reference to Grenada and the Grenadines (which is Grenada’s full country name, as the state incorporates the two small islands of Carriacou and Petit Martinique). In this sinister war game, “the objective was to capture ‘Amber’, hold US-style elections and install a ‘government friendly to America’, keeping troops occupying the island until the elections were over.” (The Struggle Against Destabilisation). This was all too obviously an elaborate dress rehearsal for the US military invasion of Grenada.

Such is the dangerous and precarious context in which the revo existed.

Implosion and invasion

Constant destabilisation and psychological warfare had led to an atmosphere of fear, paranoia and mistrust among the leadership. Rumours were flying, tempers were frayed, emotions were running high, and people were feeling the sheer exhaustion of working day and night to build a new Grenada in the face of US threats and provocation. Searle writes that “if ever there was a time for forces hostile to the revolution to strike and mobilise themselves around the venomous use of rumours, this was the time. In the small islands of the Caribbean the rumour and the ‘bad talking’ are the deadliest of weapons, and during this time every rumour that moved from person to person, cadre to cadre and community to community contributed to the eventual destruction of the revolution.” (Grenada Morning)

Although the revo continued to make impressive gains, behind the scenes a factional dispute emerged within the New Jewel Movement in 1983, based primarily on a criticism of Maurice Bishop, who was accused of developing a personality cult and of succumbing to petit-bourgeois thinking. A parallel leadership started to emerge in the NJM Central Committee around Finance Minister Bernard Coard, one of the key figures of the revolution and its most respected theoretician.

How the divide degenerated to such an extent is, to this day, a matter of intense dispute. It seems that Bishop had initially agreed to a proposal for joint leadership of the revolution which was supported by a majority on the Central Committee. However, he came back from a trip to Hungary and Cuba in early October 1983 saying that he wasn’t sure about the workability of the plan and that he wanted to give it some more thought. This may have been a mistake on Bishop’s part, and the accusation that he was “in contempt of the party” may have been true. Nonetheless, the response of the Central Committee to place him under house arrest was indefensibly foolish. “On the Central Committee side there was a theoretical ‘purity’ which refused to compromise and seek a practical and creative solution… They knew Maurice had enormous popularity with the people and that to detain him in that sudden unexplained and provocative way would rile the support base of the revolution. To many thousands of people in Grenada, Maurice was the revolution.” (ibid)

Maurice Bishop was placed under house arrest on 13 October 1983. Once the word got out, rallies were held across the country demanding his release. Just a few days later, on 19 October, a demonstration of several thousand marched to his house and managed to free him. The situation was one of total chaos and confusion. The crowd marched to the military headquarters at Fort Rupert, where Bishop apparently believed they would be able to defend themselves and regain control of the country. Hundreds of Bishop supporters made their way to the fort, and army units under the command of General Hudson Austin – a longtime comrade of Bishop’s who was on the other side of the NJM dispute – came rushing to the scene.

Both sides claim that the other side fired the first shots. Fort Rupert came under heavy fire from the army. The first to fall dead was Vince Noel, one of the original 14 members of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. O’Shaughnessy writes that “the cry of panic and the groans of the dying and the wounded were almost effaced by the sound of hundreds of people rushing to escape wherever they could. Some ran down the incline back to town, others ran for cover in the General Hospital tucked below the fort, others threw themselves over the battlements to death or injury below, like so many lemmings… Within the operations room Bishop gave the order to stop any return fire on the attacking forces. In the last cry of anguish his followers were to hear, he moaned ‘Oh God, oh God, they turned their guns against the masses.’”

The army won control of the fort, and firing ceased. Those remaining in the fort were ordered to leave, with the exception of (Prime Minister) Maurice Bishop, (Minister of Education) Jacqueline Creft, (Foreign Minister) Unison Whiteman, (President of the Agricultural and General Workers Union) Fitzroy Bain, (Minister of Housing) Norris Bain, Keith Hayling, Evelyn Bullen and Cecil Evelyn Maitland. These eight were lined up facing a courtyard wall and executed by firing squad.

The army’s communique in the immediate aftermath struck a tone of curiously misplaced triumphalism: “All patriots and revolutionaries will never forget this day when … the friends of imperialism were crushed. This victory today will ensure that our glorious party the NJM will live on and grow from strength to strength leading and guiding the Armed Forces and the Revolution.”

The chaos – and the population’s shock at the sudden killing of the country’s leader and his closest comrades – created a favourable context for the US to enact its invasion plans, which had been “nursed in secret at the State Department and the Pentagon for four and a half years” (O’Shaughnessy). As the Cuban government’s statement the next day all-too-accurately predicted: “Now imperialism will try to use this tragedy and the serious mistakes made by the Grenadian revolutionaries to sweep away the revolutionary process in Grenada and place the country under imperial and neocolonialist rule once again.”

A week later, Reagan played out his ‘Amber and the Amberines’ war game in real life, sending tens of thousands of troops to ensure that the Grenadian Revolution was comprehensively wiped out. Thus was destroyed one of the most promising experiments in people’s power of the latter part of the 20th century.

There is much research still to be done in relation to the precipitous fall of Grenadian Revolution – the extent of CIA involvement, the details of the Bishop-Coard split, and so on. It’s almost impossible to understand how such a disaster could have happened, just as it’s almost impossible to understand how the Black Panthers and allied organisations in the US could have imploded so spectacularly. In the case of the Panthers, a great deal of research has been done over the decades, and we have an increasingly clear picture of the depth of the state’s sinister campaign of assassinations, imprisonment, psychological warfare, agents provocateurs, fake letters, rumour-mongering, and the infiltration of drugs. It would hardly be surprising if the US intelligence agencies turn out to have been heavily involved in the collapse of unity within the NJM.

Whatever the case, it’s difficult to disagree with Fidel’s assessment that “no doctrine, no principle or proclaimed revolutionary position and no internal division can justify atrocious acts such as the physical elimination of Bishop and the prominent group of honest and worthy leaders who died… Look at the history of the revolutionary movement, and you will find more than one connection between imperialism and those who take positions that appear to be on the extreme left.” The murder of Bishop and his comrades lost the NJM the trust and confidence of the people, and in so doing paved the way for US invasion.

Lessons and legacy

The great socialist former Prime Minister of Guyana, Cheddi Jagan, (himself the victim of imperialist destabilisation) spoke in 1981 of the inspiration that Grenada was giving to the whole Caribbean region:

“It is like a breath of fresh air, a tonic to the frayed nerves of a people long betrayed, battered and bruised … a monument to the Caribbean man’s courage and political will to stand up to imperialist diktat and blackmail.” (Grenada Morning)

It’s unfortunate that the Grenadian Revolution of 1979-1983 tends to be remembered only in terms of its tragic final days, because its first four and a half years were brilliant and unprecedented – an explosion of creativity, of culture, of vibrancy, of learning, of democracy, of freedom. The grandsons and grand-daughters of slaves wrested power and built a society on the basis of their own hopes and dreams. They began to write their own history.

The successes of the revo could continue to inspire progressive people around the world. The legacy of the New Jewel Movement should be kept alive, for how many other socialist movements in the English-speaking world have achieved so much? Dennis Bartholomew comments:

More than anything, we showed that if you have the will, and if you mobilise the people, you can change things. We were able to do remarkable things in spite of the fact that we started with a bankrupt economy and very little in the way of natural resources. But the people were mobilised. The memory hasn’t been totally wiped out. Thirty years later, we can make a clear comparison to help us understand what the revo did. In four and a half years of a progressive, independent, socialist-oriented model, look at what we achieved, and compare that with the achievements of 30 years of a US-backed capitalist model. Yes, the revo was tainted in the eyes of Grenadians as a result of the tragic events of 19 October, but the achievements can’t be forgotten. We shouldn’t forget the enormity of what we did.

Ultimately, the revo should not be seen as a failure. Do we consider the Paris Commune as a ‘failure’? The Soviet Union? The Haitian Revolution? Julien Fédon’s slave uprising in Grenada at the end of the 18th century? In the context of the broad historical epoch we are living through – the struggle to finally defeat colonialism, imperialism and racism, and to set the stage for the advance to socialism – such experiments cannot be considered as failures. Bishop himself put it well:

It took several hundred years for feudalism to be finally wiped out and capitalism to emerge as the new dominant mode of production, and it will take several hundred years for capitalism to be finally wiped out before socialism becomes the new dominant mode.

May the legacy of the Grenadian Revolution continue to inspire and educate.

Further study

  • In Nobody’s Backyard: Maurice Bishop’s Speeches
  • Maurice Bishop Speaks: Grenada Revolution, 1979-83
  • Chris Searle – Grenada Morning: A Memoir of the ‘Revo’
  • Hugh O’Shaughnessy – Grenada: Revolution, Invasion And Aftermath
  • Chris Searle – Grenada: The Struggle Against Destabilisation
  • Richard Hart – The Grenada Revolution: Setting the Record Straight
  • Merle Hodge – Is Freedom We Making: the New Democracy in Grenada
  • Chris Searle – Words Unchained: Language and Revolution in Grenada
  • Film: Forward Ever – The Killing of a Revolution
nelson_mandela_rally

On 5 December 2013, the progressive forces of the world lost one of their greatest strategists and toughest fighters, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Mandela was, in the words of South African Communist Party General Secretary Blade Nzimande, “a brave and courageous soldier, patriot and internationalist who, to borrow from Che Guevara, was a true revolutionary guided by great feelings of love for his people, an outstanding feature of all genuine people’s revolutionaries.”

The legacy of Nelson Mandela and of the organisations that he did so much to shape – the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, and Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation) – deserves to be celebrated, studied and emulated. And yet, this legacy is under attack from both left and right.

On the one hand, we have those late-to-the-party self-proclaimed lovers of freedom and democracy: the representatives of western imperialism who want us to forget that they supported apartheid to the hilt. Such people want to claim Mandela’s legacy for themselves; they want to bask in the reflected glory of his message of reconciliation and unity, believing that it serves to sweep their criminal past under the carpet.

On the other hand, we have 57 varieties of ultra-left windbag who think that Madiba and the ANC sold out the struggle – that Mandela capitulated to imperialism and that the South African masses’ walk to freedom was aborted by the ANC’s compromises. They feel that Mandela’s “elevation into a universal hero was the mask of a bitter defeat”; that the ANC leadership was bamboozled into a neoliberal economic model that “enriched the few and dumped the poor”; that any useful change that might have occurred in post-apartheid South Africa has been “undercut by the extremes and corruption of a ‘neoliberalism’ to which the ANC devoted itself.”

In the following article, I will attempt to show that Nelson Mandela – as part of the wider leadership of the liberation struggle – acted with exceptional creativity, bravery and strategic brilliance in pursuit of meaningful and lasting change in South Africa.

Further, I will attempt to demonstrate that, in spite of exceptionally difficult domestic and international circumstances, the liberation movement has managed to make impressive progress towards the fulfilment of its historic aims of equality, justice, solidarity, freedom, democracy and shared prosperity, as laid out in the Freedom Charter.

I hope also to demonstrate that Nelson Mandela, far from being a fluffy liberal whose actions were perfectly acceptable to the prevailing imperialist order, was by any reasonable measure one of the great revolutionaries of the twentieth century; a man who fought ceaselessly against racism, imperialism and colonialism, by any means necessary.

Lastly, I will argue that the current fashion (seemingly all-pervasive in the western left) of heaping abuse on the ANC – exaggerating its perceived failures and ignoring its successes – is not in the slightest bit consistent with the principles and political practice of Nelson Mandela, and that disunity in the ranks of the liberation movement serves nobody but the right wing and their allies in international capital.

The break with passive resistance

Mandela’s first major contribution to revolutionary strategy in South Africa was to push the ANC to end its half-century-old policy of strictly passive resistance and towards a strategy of armed struggle.

The African National Congress had been heavily influenced by the nonviolent philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi, who lived in South Africa from 1893 to 1914 and who was among the founders of the Natal Indian Congress, an organisation set up to fight discrimination directed at the Indian population in South Africa. The ahimsa concept of nonviolence, which became a major cornerstone of the Indian independence movement, continued to inspire the ANC and its allies well into the 1940s.

As a founder member of the ANC Youth League in 1944 (along with Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and others), Mandela quickly rose to prominence as a capable and courageous young leader. Along with others in the Youth League, he successfully advocated a move away from purely passive resistance and towards nonviolent direct action. This led in 1952 to the adoption of the Defiance Campaign – a wide-ranging campaign for mass defiance of racist laws. In the short course of the campaign, over eight thousand volunteers accepted imprisonment as part of a disciplined mass protest in which they defied banning orders, gagging orders and segregation laws. The effect on the ANC and the country was electric:

There was a wave of national consciousness and national unity of all the oppressed, unprecedented in the history of the country … For the first time in its history the country witnessed a united and determined campaign embracing all the oppressed peoples under a single leadership, thus marking a turning point in the forms and methods of struggle hitherto conducted. In a relatively short period of time, the Congresses had organised a force of 8,557 highly disciplined volunteers who courted imprisonment. In the less than nine months that the campaign lasted, the membership of the African National Congress shot up from a mere 7,000 to over 100,000, and the ANC established itself as the undoubted leader of the struggle for democracy, freedom and national liberation in South Africa. The campaign transformed the ANC from a loose-knit body into an effective mass movement, with branches in almost every single area in the country and with offices manned by full-time personnel in all the major centres.

Although the campaign was wildly successful in terms of raising popular consciousness and moving the liberation struggle forward, it soon became clear that it wasn’t going to be sustainable. The selflessness and courage of the protestors did not have the effect of drawing out some latent humanitarian morality in the apartheid government; on the contrary, the state responded with heavy repression: killings, harsh prison sentences, more bannings, and a concerted effort to cut the campaign’s leadership off from the masses. In this context, the strategy of the ANC and its allies had to evolve once again.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes:

Non-violent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do. But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end. For me, non-violence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon. Over and over again, we had used all the non-violent weapons in our arsenal – speeches, deputations, threats, marches, strikes, stay-aways, voluntary imprisonment – all to no avail, for whatever we did was met by an iron hand. A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a certain point, one can only fight fire with fire.

For an organisation that had always operated above ground, the idea of armed struggle was by no means welcomed by everyone. Mandela, who had made a detailed study of the world’s socialist and liberation movements, led the argument:

I was candid and explained why I believed we had no choice but to turn to violence. I used an old African expression: ‛Sebatana ha se bokwe ka diatla’ (‛The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands’). Moses [Mabhida] was a long-time communist, and I told him that his opposition was like the Communist Party in Cuba under Batista. The party had insisted that the appropriate conditions had not yet arrived, and waited because they were simply following the textbook definitions of Lenin and Stalin. Castro did not wait, he acted – and he triumphed. If you wait for textbook conditions, they will never occur. I told Moses point blank that his mind was stuck in the old mould of the ANC’s being a legal organisation. People were already forming military units on their own, and the only organisation that had the muscle to lead them was the ANC. We had always maintained that the people were ahead of us, and now they were.

Spear of the Nation

umkhontoThe stepped-up repression in the light of the Defiance Campaign, and most importantly the notorious Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1961, led inexorably to the commencement of armed resistance.

In a series of high-level meetings in mid-1961, Mandela argued that the ANC must take the lead in setting up an organisation of armed resistance to apartheid. After many long nights of arguing, it was accepted that armed struggle was necessary, and Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo were tasked with setting up the military organisation. Umkhonto we Sizwe (meaning Spear of the Nation), better known by the acronym ‘MK’, was launched on 16 December 1961 with a series of bomb attacks against government structures in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban.

Mandela wrote of the early discussions defining the MK’s strategy and tactics:

In planning the direction and form that MK would take, we considered four types of violent activities: sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and open revolution. For a small and fledgling army, open revolution was inconceivable. Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it, undermining any public support it might otherwise garner. Guerrilla warfare was a possibility, but since the ANC had been reluctant to embrace violence at all, it made sense to start with the form of violence that inflicted the least harm against individuals: sabotage. Because it did not involve loss of life, it offered the best hope for reconciliation among the races afterwards. We did not want to start a blood-feud between white and black. Animosity between Afrikaner and Englishman was still sharp fifty years after the Anglo-Boer war; what would race relations be like between white and black if we provoked a civil war? Sabotage had the added virtue of requiring the least manpower. Our strategy was to make selective forays against military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transportation links; targets that would not only hamper the military effectiveness of the state, but frighten National Party supporters, scare away foreign capital, and weaken the economy. This we hoped would bring the government to the bargaining table. Strict instructions were given to members of MK that we would countenance no loss of life. But if sabotage did not produce the results we wanted, we were prepared to move on to the next stage: guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

The work of the MK went through several phases: the sabotage operations of the early 60s; a period of relative inactivity resulting from the capture and imprisonment of most of its leadership (including Mandela); the establishment of military camps in Tanzania, Zambia, Angola and Mozambique; the training of thousands of South African cadres in the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic; the vastly-expanded sabotage campaign of the 1980s; and the mission to infiltrate dozens of senior ANC and MK leaders back into South Africa to help lead the underground struggle against apartheid.

From the beginning, the aim of Umkhonto was not to win a military victory against apartheid – there were too many factors militating against that. As Joe Slovo noted, with his characteristic irony: “Reality shows that, contrary to other countries in southern Africa, we have no basis for a classical guerrilla struggle. We have never had a hinterland, and we do not expect to.”

Furthermore, the movement had to take into account the efficiency, size, experience, resources and sheer brutality of apartheid South Africa’s security services. “The enemy has at his disposal a mighty military machine and an enormous apparatus for reprisal. This combination of factors continues to make us place our main emphasis on the political struggle. (ibid).

Ultimately, the MK’s activities served as “armed propaganda“: shattering the illusions of apartheid invincibility; inspiring activists on the ground in the townships and trade unions; disrupting what martyred Umkhonto chief of staff Chris Hani called the “sweet life” enjoyed by the white South African population; and, crucially, breaking “the paralysing impotence that inevitably prevailed as a result of the centuries of the white minority’s predominance”.

The combination of revolutionary violence with mass civil resistance was designed to provoke a crisis in the enemy’s camp that would at least force them to the negotiating table. In this, it was largely successful.

At all times, the MK’s work was linked up with the broader global struggle against imperialism, and especially the Africa-wide struggle against European colonialism. Mandela spent the first few months of 1962 in Africa, his first port of call being Ethiopia, where he was a delegate to a meeting of the punchily-named Pan-African Freedom Movement for East, Central and Southern Africa (PAFMECSA). At this event, he called for the unity of Africa’s anti-colonial and anti-racist forces, and emphasised the role of revolutionary violence: “Force is the only language the imperialists can hear, and no country became free without some sort of violence”.

Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom contains the following fascinating passage about the study he did when preparing the start of the armed struggle:

“Any and every source was of interest to me. I read the report of Blas Roca, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, about their years as an illegal organisation during the Batista regime. In Commando by Deneys Reitz, I read of the unconventional guerrilla tactics of the Boer generals during the Anglo-Boer War. I read works by and about Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro. In Edgar Snow’s brilliant Red Star Over China I saw that it was Mao’s determination and non-traditional thinking that had led him to victory.”

This quote is remarkable for the insight it gives into Mandela’s creative thought as well as his political leanings. For one thing, it’s interesting for a black South African liberation fighter to look to his oppressor for lessons in revolutionary warfare, and it took a brilliant mind like Mandela’s to see the parallels between the African struggle against apartheid and the Afrikaner struggle against British imperialism. He saw that there was an anti-colonial kernel lying somewhere beneath the despicable and inhumane exterior of Boer rule, and he identified a self-image of rebelliousness that he was able to play to decades later in order to win sections of the Afrikaner people over to the project of reconciliation and nation-building.

Another interesting aspect of the quote above is that the MK – whose leadership was shared between the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) – was obviously looking to the socialist world for inspiration. The Soviet Union became the major supplier of training, weapons, finance and diplomatic support for the ANC (as detailed in Vladimir Shubin’s very useful book ANC: A View From Moscow), but it was to China and Cuba – the countries that had combined the fight for national sovereignty with the struggle for socialism – that the fledgling South African armed liberation movement looked for strategic inspiration.

As for Mao’s “determination and non-traditional thinking”, it’s clear that Nelson Mandela shared these strengths which – along with his legendary compassion and belief in the human spirit – constituted essential weapons in the struggle for freedom. There was never any guarantee that apartheid would fall. If it weren’t for the heroic resistance and strategic brilliance of the liberation movement, apartheid would likely still be in place. Political struggle requires not just determination (the sort of determination that allows you to remain a revolutionary through 27 years of prison), but also a deep understanding of your own forces and those of your enemy; flexibility; creativity; the will to fight and the will to negotiate. All of these, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had in abundance.

Communism, non-racialism and the SACP

One somewhat unfashionable fact about Nelson Mandela is that he was – at least at the time of his arrest in August 1962 – a communist. The ANC and SACP had always denied Mandela’s party membership, so as not to add grist to the mill of the apartheid state’s complaint that the anti-apartheid struggle was an extension of the ‘global communist threat’, directed from Moscow; however, in the SACP’s obituary of Mandela it was acknowledged – without doubt by prior arrangement with Mandela himself – that he had been a central committee member of the South African Communist Party.

Mandela’s party membership serves to emphasise the longstanding alliance between the ANC and the SACP – a relationship which has been decisive in shaping the liberation movement. The fruits of this alliance can be summarised as follows:

  1. A non-racialist approach to participation in the freedom struggle. The ANC/SACP policy was that the struggle against apartheid, whilst primarily fought in the interests of the most oppressed group (black Africans), was also a struggle to transcend the division of society along racial lines, and that therefore the struggle should embrace people of all races, so long as they were genuinely committed to a non-racial democracy.

    As explained in the ANC’s classic Strategy and Tactics document: “Our policy must continually stress in the future (as it has in the past) that there is room in South Africa for all who live in it but only on the basis of absolute democracy … Committed revolutionaries are our brothers, regardless of the group to which they belong. There can be no second class participants in our Movement. It is for the enemy we reserve our assertiveness and our justified sense of grievance”. This policy proved very effective, as it frustrated the apartheid state’s never-ending attempts to cause tensions between blacks and Indians, between Xhosa and Zulu, between white progressives and African nationalists, and so on. Furthermore, it created a precedent of unity and respect that constitutes the basis for a new, post-apartheid national identity.

  2. Alignment of the South African national struggle with the global socialist forces. This led to the ANC receiving abundant practical support from the socialist countries, in particular the USSR and the German Democratic Republic. In addition to the provision of funds and diplomatic solidarity at all levels, military and political training was given to literally thousands of MK fighters.

  3. The working class and oppressed masses were seen as the major support base of the liberation struggle, and progress continues to be measured primarily in terms of how much it benefits those that suffered most under apartheid.

Mandela’s life story has been so thoroughly white-washed that his relationship with the SACP is rarely talked about. But Mandela himself never tried to play down the role of the SACP, nor would he succumb to the demands of the western powers and the apartheid state that the SACP be pushed out of the alliance tent.

The ANC made numerous necessary – if painful – compromises in order to attain the release of Mandela and his comrades; in order to begin meaningful negotiations towards the end of apartheid; in order to achieve the unbanning of the ANC and other banned organisations; in order to gain support at UN level for the ending of apartheid; in order to avoid civil war and anarchy; in order to avoid capital flight and economic collapse. And yet it has never submitted to intense pressure to break its alliance with the SACP. Responding to the apartheid government’s statement that it would not negotiate with the ANC while it was so closely associated with communists, Mandela wrote to then Prime Minister PW Botha in 1989:

“No dedicated ANC member will ever heed a call to break with the SACP. We regard such a demand as a purely divisive government strategy. It is in fact a call on us to commit suicide. Which man of honour will ever desert a lifelong friend at the instance of a common opponent and still retain a measure of credibility among his people? Which opponent will ever trust such a treacherous freedom fighter? Yet this is what the government is, in effect, asking us to do – to desert our faithful allies. We will not fall into that trap.”

Mandela continued to defend and promote the role of the SACP during his tenure as President (1994-99). In his report to the 50th National Conference of the ANC in December 1997, he remarked:

Over the decades, including the last three years, the SACP has proved itself to be our steadfast ally in the struggle to end white minority domination and its legacy, and to create a genuinely non-racial society. It is on the basis of this common commitment that we, the ANC, look forward to the further strengthening of our relations with the SACP to promote this common objective of the national democratic movement.

The ANC-SACP alliance remains strong up to the present day. There are four SACP members in the Cabinet, and many senior figures in the ANC are also SACP members (including Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary general). The SACP continues to be the largest and most influential communist party in the continent of Africa.

Nelson Mandela’s philosophy may have been reduced by certain of his latter-day admirers to a sort of harmless-old-man liberalism, but his actual words and deeds provide clear evidence of his militant commitment to the cause of the most oppressed. He identified with any ideology that promoted the interests of the ‘wretched of the earth’, no matter if that ideology was (and is) considered in the west as the epitome of evil. In his famous speech at the Rivonia Trial, he commented:

It is perhaps difficult for white South Africans, with an ingrained prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so readily accept communists as their friends. But to us the reason is obvious… For many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society. Because of this, there are many Africans who, today, tend to equate freedom with communism.

The extended reflections in his autobiography on how he overcame his own prejudice against communism and how he came to value Marxist thought are so fascinating as to be worth quoting at length:

I had little knowledge of Marxism, and in political discussions with my communist friends I found myself handicapped by my ignorance of their philosophy. I decided to remedy this. I acquired the complete works of Marx and Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong and others, and probed the philosophy of dialectical and historical materialism. I had little time to study these works properly. While I was stimulated by the Communist Manifesto, I was exhausted by Das Kapital. But I found myself strongly drawn to the idea of a classless society which, to my mind, was similar to traditional African culture where life was shared and communal. I subscribed to Marx’s basic dictum, which has the simplicity and generosity of the Golden Rule: ‛From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.’

Dialectical materialism seemed to offer both a searchlight illuminating the dark night of racial oppression and a tool that could be used to end it. It helped me to see the situation other than through the prism of black and white relations, for if our struggle was to succeed, we had to transcend black and white. I was attracted to the scientific underpinnings of dialectical materialism, for I am always inclined to trust what I can verify. Its materialistic analysis of economics rang true to me. The idea that the value of goods was based on the amount of labour that went into them seemed particularly appropriate for South Africa. The ruling class paid African labour a subsistence wage and then added value to the cost of the goods, which they retained for themselves.

Marxism’s call to revolutionary action was music to the ears of a freedom fighter. The idea that history progresses through struggle and that change occurs in revolutionary jumps was similarly appealing. In my reading of Marxist works, I found a great deal of information that bore on the types of problems that face a practical politician. Marxists gave serious attention to national liberation movements, and the Soviet Union in particular supported the national struggles of many colonial peoples. This was another reason why I amended my view of communists and accepted the ANC position of welcoming Marxists into its ranks.

A friend once asked me how I could reconcile my creed of African nationalism with a belief in dialectical materialism. For me, there was no contradiction. I was first and foremost an African nationalist fighting for our emancipation from minority rule and the right to control our own destiny. But, at the same time, South Africa and the African continent were part of the larger world. Our problems, while distinctive and special, were not unique, and a philosophy that placed those problems in an international and historical context of the greater world and the course of history was valuable. I was prepared to use whatever means necessary to speed up the erasure of human prejudice and the end of chauvinistic and violent nationalism… I found that African nationalists and African communists generally had far more to unite them than to divide them.

This is a profound statement of the case for an alliance of communist and national liberation forces, and has application well beyond the boundaries of South Africa.

From armed struggle to negotiations

Having been so closely associated with the transition from nonviolence to armed struggle, there is poetry in the fact that Mandela is also closely associated with the suspension of the armed struggle in 1990 and the move towards a negotiated end to apartheid.

The National Party government had long insisted that the suspension of the armed struggle by the ANC/MK was a precondition for negotiations, and the ANC in turn had long insisted that there was no question of ending armed struggle whilst the government refused to negotiate and whilst its police and army were waging war against the black population. It is well known that Mandela could have won his release from prison many years earlier had he been willing to renounce the armed struggle. His principled and powerful response to these offers – read by his daughter Zindzi to a mass rally in Soweto in February 1985 – is now a classic document of the struggle:

I am not a violent man… It was only when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us that we turned to armed struggle. Let Botha renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people’s organisation, the African National Congress. Let him free all who have been imprisoned, banished or exiled for their opposition to apartheid. Let him guarantee free political activity so that people may decide who will govern them.

I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers and to their fathers who have grieved and wept for them. Not only I have suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free. I am in prison as the representative of the people and of your organisation, the African National Congress, which was banned.

Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts… I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.

Given that the ANC leadership had stuck to its principled position on armed struggle for nearly three decades, many in the movement were surprised and dismayed when, in August 1990, the Pretoria Minute was signed, announcing that, “in the interest of moving as speedily as possible towards a negotiated peaceful political settlement … no further armed actions and related activities by the ANC and its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe will take place.”

To some, this was betrayal. Indeed, there remain elements within the South African left (along with those comfortable middle-class radical intellectuals in the west who absolutely insist on third world liberation movements pursuing the most militant possible strategy) who still feel that the armed struggle should have continued to the bitter end.

However, this misses the point that circumstances had changed in several significant ways. Firstly, the ANC and other liberation organisations had been unbanned, political prisoners freed, political exiles returned, and serious negotiations towards democratic elections begun. With these victories – won through armed struggle, mass defiance, strikes, international pressure, and the changing military-political situation in southern Africa as a whole (thanks in no small part to the heroic intervention by Cuba at Cuito Cuanavale) – there was little justification or mandate for the continuation of the armed struggle. “While it had always accepted the human and material cost of protracted struggle, the ANC had, as a matter of abiding principle, sought a more humane resolution of the conflict without compromising the basic objectives of struggle” (source). Another decisive factor is that the USSR – by far the biggest backer of the MK – was by this time in a state of turmoil (it ceased to exist little over a year later), and its willingness and ability to support a guerrilla army were much reduced (the decline and fall of the USSR was deeply felt by socialist and national liberation movements across the world, from Ireland to Latin America to Southern Africa).

The suspension of the armed struggle removed a major roadblock to progress in the negotiations, and also served to focus attention on the most lunatic sections of the Afrikaner right-wing, who were armed to the teeth and perfectly willing to wage a war rather than accept transition to a non-racial democracy. That no such war took place is testament to the correctness – brilliance, even – of the ANC’s tactics at this point.

Although Chris Hani is sometimes put forward as a more courageous and militant politician who would have saved South Africa from the endlessly compromising Mandela, it is a matter of recorded fact that Hani unambiguously supported the ceasefire, for example writing in 1991: *”In the current political situation, the decision by our organisation to suspend armed action is correct and is an important contribution in maintaining the momentum of negotiations.”

Building a new South Africa

anc_rallyThe first democratic elections of 1994, won by the ANC with a clear majority (63% to the National Party’s 20%), did not establish a socialist utopia. The vast inequality, the desperate poverty, the white privilege, the male domination, the corporate power, the white-owned press, the intense violence: the accumulated injustice of three and a half centuries of colonial white supremacy didn’t go away overnight. The aims set out in the Freedom Charter were not instantly achieved, and indeed some of them still seem far off, two decades later.

To some, this apparent failure is an indication of Mandela having “sold out”: the whites offered him ‘apartheid lite’ – a continuation of the semi-colonial status quo but with the addition of a few smiling black faces in the government – and he went for it. To others, any failings of post-apartheid South Africa can be traced to Mandela and his comrades being dazzled by neoliberal economics and therefore turning their back on the socialist-oriented economic path laid out in the Freedom Charter.

Both of these narratives tend to ignore the very important progress that the South African government has made over the last two decades. Both narratives also tend to downplay the fact that the ANC, in negotiating an end to apartheid and leading the first democratic government, faced economic, political and social problems of almost unimaginable dimensions. It inherited a society that was bitterly divided, characterised by fear, distrust, hatred and violence. Apart from the obvious threat from the Afrikaner far-right, there were also deep divisions within the black community (carefully nurtured by the apartheid state over the course of many decades). The threat of civil war – from a combination of white fascists, Inkatha Freedom Party tribalists and bantustan leaders – was all too real, and a serious structural collapse or civil war could easily have led to foreign intervention and the type of hell that Mozambique and Angola endured for nearly two decades after liberation.

On the economic front, there was a clear possibility of total collapse if the corporations decided to sabotage the economy. There was also a threat of a major ‘brain drain’ if the professional whites felt they didn’t belong in an ANC-led South Africa (tempting as it must have been to say “just let them leave”, the fact is that any modern state requires educated people, and the whites had preserved for themselves a near-monopoly on education). Plus of course, the sudden disappearance of the liberation movement’s major state-level backers (the USSR and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe) meant that the new South Africa had no real choice but to look to the west for development investment – a situation that has thankfully now changed with the rise of China and the BRICS bloc. Some of the complexities of the negotiation process are described in the following passage:

During negotiations, representatives of the previous order sought an outcome that would leave many elements of the apartheid system intact. On the other hand, the liberation movement sued for democratic majority rule as understood throughout the world. The transitional measures were seen by the liberation movement as necessary compromises to ensure the broadest possible legitimacy of the new order and to use the advances made as a beach-head to a truly united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous society. At the point of change of government in 1994, the state was manned at all senior levels by apartheid functionaries; the economy was almost totally in the hands of whites; many of the parties sought constitutional outcomes that would guarantee white privilege; and networks of apartheid and extreme right-wing destabilisation remained burrowed, or had multiple links, within the state. These and other realities impacted on the manner in which the programmes of change were introduced.

The fact is the local and international conditions did not exist for a quick transfer to socialism. Joe Slovo commented as early as 1987 – three years before the unbanning of the ANC – that “it is not possible to transform South Africa into a socialist country overnight”.

This [the projected post-apartheid society] is, of course, not a socialist society. It rather is a society that starts correcting the historic injustices and discrimination against blacks, thus creating the foundation and further conditions for a socialist South Africa. Therefore we are of the opinion that the shortest way to socialism in South Africa is that of non-racist democracy in which the people really have a say. However, this will still be a long way. No matter what vision one has of South Africa, the first thing that must be done is to destroy racism. Therefore, we must not tolerate attempts that take discussions about the details of a post apartheid society as an excuse to avoid or distort this basic issue.

This remains a realistic analysis of the national democratic revolution: a more or less fragile class alliance of all forces opposed to apartheid – the economic, political, social and cultural legacy of which is still in the process of being dismantled. Twenty years later, the ANC’s updated Strategy and Tactics document resulting from the 2007 National Conference reiterated this path:

The main content of the National Democratic Revolution is the liberation of Africans in particular and Blacks in general from political and socio-economic bondage. It means uplifting the quality of life of all South Africans, especially the poor, the majority of whom are African and female. At the same time it has the effect of liberating the white community from the false ideology of racial superiority and the insecurity attached to oppressing others. The hierarchy of disadvantage suffered under apartheid will naturally inform the magnitude of impact of the programmes of change and the attention paid particularly to those who occupied the lowest rungs on the apartheid social ladder.

To successfully pursue any kind of progressive agenda in the circumstances required an extremely subtle and complex strategy, and a large dose of tactical compromise. Whilst acknowledging that there’s still a long way to go, it’s important to recognise the significant steps that have been taken along the road to justice.

Wiping out legal apartheid

Apartheid as an institutionalised system of white supremacy has been dismantled. Gone are the days when “a black man with a BA was expected to scrape before a white man with a primary school education” (Long Walk to Freedom). Where there were pass laws, now there is freedom for all to come and go as they please. Where there was legally enforced segregation, now people are free to associate with whomever they choose. Where there were bantustans, now there is a vision for a united national identity of all tribes and races. Where the state was set up to serve the interests of the white minority alone, now it is oriented towards creating a better life for the African masses. Where education was largely denied to the black population, now it is available for all. Where there was deep repression of all political activity deemed to be ‘subversive’ (i.e. favouring equality), now people have full democratic rights. Where the working class had very limited labour rights, now workers’ unions are part of the government. As comrade Mandela said: “the principal result of our revolution, the displacement of the apartheid political order by a democratic system, has become an established fact of South African society”.

This wiping out of legal/political apartheid is no small accomplishment. When people assert that the modern South Africa is “worse than apartheid“, they downplay a particularly evil form of oppression, and they trivialise the historic achievements made in overturning minority rule. The continuing denial of basic human rights and national self-determination to the Palestinian people should remind us that there was nothing inevitable about the end of apartheid. To break minority rule; to defeat the whites’ demands for a permanent parliamentary veto; to avoid civil war, military intervention, balkanisation, power vacuum and economic anarchy – these were all remarkable achievements.

Orienting the state toward the needs of the oppressed

It has become popular among parts of the left (especially in the west) to describe the ANC as having capitulated to neoliberalism. The ANC, on the other hand, considers itself as a “disciplined force of the left, organised to conduct consistent struggle in pursuit of a caring society in which the well-being of the poor receives focussed and consistent attention. In terms of current political discourse, what it seeks to put in place approximates, in many respects, a combination of the best elements of a developmental state and social democracy. In this regard, the ANC contrasts its own positions with those of: national liberation struggles which stalled at the stage of formal political independence and achieved little in terms of changing colonial production relations and social conditions of the poor; neoliberalism which worships the market above all else and advocates rampant unregulated capitalism and a minimalist approach to the role of the state and the public sphere in general; and ultra-leftism which advocates voluntaristic adventures including dangerous leaps towards a classless society ignoring the objective tasks in a national democratic revolution.”

Which view is more accurate? It’s certainly true that multinational corporations have a major stake in the South African economy, and that the government has been keen to present the country as being ‘investor-friendly’. Furthermore, the figures for unemployment and inequality are intimidatingly high. As President Zuma himself points out, “our country still faces the triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment, which we continue to grapple with”.

However, as prominent South African economist Haroon Bhorat notes, “these numbers belie the efforts of a benevolent state, which has used substantial fiscal revenue to expand social assistance. Currently, over a quarter of all South Africans receive government welfare checks, constituting 3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product… The share of South Africans with access to formal housing (77 percent), electricity (84 percent) and running water (72 percent) has increased drastically since 1994.”

In a recent interview, Blade Nzimande sums up the achievements of recent years, contrasting them with the picture of doom and gloom promoted by the (still predominantly white-owned) media:

They present South Africa as if it is falling apart. But over the last five years alone we have seen enormous gains for ordinary South Africans. Life expectancy has risen by four years, now averaging at 61. We’ve completely turned around the Aids denialism that was such a problem only recently. Improvements in education have been very impressive. Last year 78.2 per cent of school-leavers passed their final exams. It was less than 60 per cent in 1994. Sixty per cent of university students are now black or women. The government is also investing in a new health insurance scheme that will ensure everyone in the country gets coverage, and we’ve cleaned up the water supply, so over 80 per cent now have clean drinking water. We’re investing in our children. Of 12 million schoolchildren in South Africa, nine million receive a free school meal each day. The country is absolutely loyal to the ideals of the anti-apartheid movement.”

The increase in life expectancy – due largely to the “industrial scale distribution of antiretroviral drugs by the public health sector” – has been described by Professor Salim Abdool Karim, president of the South African Medical Research Council, as being “of the order usually only seen after a major societal shift, such as the abolition of slavery”. Mother-baby HIV transmission rate has decreased from 8.5% in 2008 to 2.7% in 2011.

The youth literacy rate is now around 98%, and the overall literacy rate is 87% – up from 70.1% in 2001, and the third highest in Africa. The number of black South Africans graduating from the country’s universities has increased more than fourfold in the past 20 years. The number of new teacher graduates doubled from 6,000 in 2009 to 13,000 in 2012.

Even the New York Times admits that, “since the end of apartheid, the government has built well over two million homes, brought electricity to millions of households and vastly increased the number of poor people with access to potable water. The average annual incomes of black-led households almost tripled from 2001 to 2011, according to census figures released late last year, and a growing percentage of the adult black population has gone to high school, with an increasing sliver going to college.”

South African author Jonny Steinberg notes that “84% South Africans now have electric lighting compared to 58% in 1996, while 85% of five and six year olds were attending school, compared to 35% 15 years ago. The poorest have benefited the most. All the extra things they are receiving now come directly from government. The ANC has built 1.8 million houses and given them away for free – it has literally changed the spaces in which they live. This is unprecedented anywhere in world.”

Efforts to diversify and industrialise are starting to yield results. For example, the government has promised that within the next five years, it will be able to procure at least 75% of its goods and services from South African producers. In spite of the global recession, South Africa’s economy has grown at a fairly steady 3.2% from 1994, and has experienced negative growth in only three out of 73 quarters.

Unemployment remains a massive problem – one inherited from an apartheid economy that didn’t even attempt to incorporate skilled black labour. The issue is compounded by the changes in the global economy towards digitalisation, and by the economic crisis. While the government is working to create jobs via its massive infrastructure programmes, it has put an extensive social welfare system in place. The number of South Africans receiving social grants has risen from 2.4 million to 16.1 million.

South Africa is unquestionably a better place to live than it was in 1994, but its achievements do not constitute long-term economic justice. The SACP is correct to point out that the “major socio-economic gains have been made ‘against the flow’ of the dominant growth trajectory; they are the result of government-led efforts and (to a lesser extent) of popular struggles. They have been largely based on efforts of reform and redistribution at the margins – a redistributive politics of ‘delivery’ out of surplus without fundamentally transforming the productive economy itself.”

In short, capitalism remains in place – not because the government favours capitalism but because to completely alienate capitalist class interests at the present moment would be to put the national democratic revolution at serious risk. Such a situation of a mainly capitalist economy administered by a progressive, socialist-oriented government is similar to the prevailing political economy in Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina and elsewhere. It certainly has its limitations, but it has been proven to be capable of delivering tangible benefit to the poorest sections of society. By no reasonable definition can it be considered ‘neoliberalism’.

The progressive family of nations

Fidel and MadibaThe west was hopeful that post-apartheid South Africa would exist within NATO’s sphere of influence and would be a dependable regional ally to imperialism, as it was under apartheid. These hopes were quickly frustrated. In spite of tremendous pressure to break his links with ‘undemocratic’ states and ‘terrorist’ groups, Mandela resolutely refused to turn his back on those who had rendered profound support to the South African liberation movement. During a trip to the US just a few months after his release from prison, Mandela was asked by Kenneth Adelman, former director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, why he was on such good terms with “supporters of international terrorism” such as Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. Mandela replied without hesitation:

Yasser Arafat, Colonel Gaddafi, Fidel Castro support our struggle to the hilt. There is no reason whatsoever why we should have any hesitation about their commitment to human rights in South Africa. They are placing resources at our disposal to win the struggle.

Mandela’s attitude on this question did not change once in power. In 1997, presenting Gaddafi with South Africa’s prestigious Order of Good Hope, Mandela declared: “Those who feel we should have no relations with Gaddafi have no morals… Those who feel irritated by our friendship with President Gaddafi can go jump in the pool.”

Socialist Cuba remained a major inspiration for Mandela, and the South African government maintains excellent relations with Cuba to this day. South Africa remains a strong supporter of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and the boycott of Israel is official ANC policy.

Even well into old age, Mandela remained unquestionably on the right side of the global barricades – “a friend to those engaged in the struggle for justice across the globe”, to use the words of Gerry Adams, another great freedom fighter and part of the guard of honour at Mandela’s funeral. Speaking at the International Women’s Forum in Johannesburg in February 2003, Mandela delivered a scathing attack on the west’s plans for war against Iraq:

“Both Bush as well as Tony Blair are undermining an idea [of UN multilateralism] that was sponsored by their predecessors. They do not care. Is it because this Secretary General of the United Nations is now a black man [Kofi Annan]? They never did that when secretary generals were white… If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America… What I’m condemning is that one power with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust. All that he wants is Iraqi oil.

South Africa’s political/military role in the region – and further afield – has been completely transformed. The apartheid state was a bulwark of reaction, creating havoc in Angola and Mozambique, colonising Namibia (then South West Africa) and propping up the racist Ian Smith regime in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). It was a reliable friend of Israel, and was only happy to do the dirty work of the CIA in southern Africa.

Modern South Africa on the other hand plays a positive role as part of the Southern African Development Community, engaging usefully in the Central African Republic, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has refused to allow itself to be used as a battering ram against Zimbabwe, and has given protection and asylum to Haiti’s exiled anti-imperialist president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

As Abayomi Azikiwe writes in his excellent tribute to Mandela: “Under Mandela, South Africa would serve as an example to all oppressed and struggling peoples throughout the world. The country continues today to be in solidarity with the liberation movement of the Palestinians and the people of the Western Sahara, and maintains positions in support of African unity and economic integration.”

Although it made a bad error in voting for the no-fly zone against Libya, the Zuma administration went on to lead African Union efforts to negotiate a ceasefire (efforts which sadly failed due to the intransigence of the criminal NATO invaders).

China is now South Africa’s biggest trading partner by far, and South Africa joining the BRIC group of Brazil, Russia, India and China placed it firmly within the leadership of an emerging Global South, based on multipolarity and south-south cooperation. This network – “the progressive family of nations” – is starting to slowly break US global hegemony and is opening up a space in which countries can develop freely in a supportive global context.

Maintain unity in the struggle to build a new South Africa and defeat internal and external enemies

“Unity is fundamental for us, particularly to the achievement of the goals of the Freedom Charter. Divisions are a luxury we cannot afford. They do not belong to us and will not serve our people, but the enemy and his agents.” (source)

As outlined above, impressive progress has been made towards a just, prosperous, united South Africa. Nonetheless, vast problems remain, and many people are frustrated with the rate of progress. Unemployment is unacceptably high. The power of the multinationals has not been broken, and the redistribution of wealth is still in its very early stages (the reality is that colonial relations in some centres of power, especially the economy, remain largely unchanged”). Enormous inequality persists, and this is still closely correlated with the race question (as Zuma points out: “All reports point to the fact that white males are still in control of the means of the production”). The land reform process has barely begun. The streets are still violent, and corruption is a major issue (although it seems progress is being made on this score).

In short, the national democratic revolution is still incomplete. This fact is clearly recognised by the ANC itself:

Steadily, the dark night of white minority political domination is receding into a distant memory. Yet we are only at the beginning of a long journey to a truly united, democratic and prosperous South Africa in which the value of all citizens is measured by their humanity, without regard to race, gender and social status.

Land reform, job creation, increased industrialisation and wealth redistribution are the key tasks of the coming period, along with continuing the work at a regional and global level to create more favourable circumstances for socialist development. It is time for a “radical socio-economic transformation to meaningfully address poverty, unemployment and inequality”. What political organisation is fit to take the lead in these tasks?

Many loud voices on the left are arguing that the ANC is past its sell-by date. Combined with the voices on the right – that have never stopped denigrating the ANC – we’re left with a loud chorus singing its anti-ANC hymn. With a ‘free’ press that is dominated by big (white) capital, this hymn gets broadcast to the masses constantly via newspaper, internet and TV. Although the chorus is louder than before, it is by no means a new phenomenon. Mandela identified it back in 1997:

The prophets of doom have reemerged in our country. In 1994, these predicted that the transition to democracy would be attended by a lot of bloodshed. Disappointed in their expectations by what actually happened, they nevertheless never abandoned their resolve to spread despair. The pivot of their offensive is that the history of Africa is a history of failure and disaster. Accordingly, they adhere to the openly racist position that a South Africa led by the African National Congress and no longer under white minority rule, will, inevitably sink into failure and disaster. And so they go about their business to highlight and elevate anything that is negative. Neither do they hesitate to tell lies or to invent stories so long as this advances their purposes… They advance this agenda of gloom and doom on which the enemies of real progress and social transformation rely to create the conditions for the defeat of the ANC, so that they are better able to ensure that no progress and no transformation occur…

They [the white opposition] believe that their fortunes lie not so much in policies they can propagate, but in their success in projecting themselves as tireless fighters for the defeat of the ANC. Their task is to spread messages about an impending economic collapse, escalating corruption in the public service, rampant and uncontrollable crime, a massive loss of skills through white emigration and mass demoralisation among the people either because they are white and therefore threatened by the ANC and its policies which favour black people, or because they are black and consequently forgotten because the ANC is too busy protecting white privilege.

Is this not reminiscent of the current media onslaught against the ANC and SACP – a campaign which is enthusiastically taken up by the mainstream press in the imperialist countries? Although the ANC has ‘played ball’ to an extent, it is by no means the preferred choice of international capital. Its liberation struggle roots; its social base in the oppressed; its membership of BRICS; its strong relations with ‘pariah’ states such as Cuba, Zimbabwe and the DPRK; its leadership role within Africa: all these things and more make the west decidedly uncomfortable. There are very few things the US and European ruling classes would like more than to see the ‘Democratic Alliance’ apartheid-nostalgia-brigade come to power in South Africa, and the barrage of left-sounding critiques of Mandela being printed in the mainstream press (such as that by Slavoj Žižek) is in support of that aim.

In such a context, and in the complete absence of any serious contender for leadership of the South African masses, unity is absolutely critical to prevent the forces of reaction from regaining the upper hand. The lessons of history are there to be learned. As Mandela warned: “Besides the advanced productive forces at the disposal of the colonial powers, one of the central reasons for the defeat of indigenous communities was division and conflict among these communities themselves”

The defenders of apartheid privilege continue to sustain a conviction that an opportunity will emerge in future, when they can activate this counter-insurgency machinery, to impose an agenda on South African society which would limit the possibilities of the democratic order to such an extent that it would not be able to create a society of equality, that would be rid of the legacy of apartheid. Accordingly, various elements of the former ruling group have been working to establish a network which would launch or intensify a campaign of destablisation, some of whose features would be: the weakening of the ANC and its allies; the use of crime to render the country ungovernable; the subversion of the economy; and the erosion of the confidence of both our people and the rest of the world in our capacity both to govern and to achieve our goals of reconstruction and development. This counter-revolutionary network, which is already active and bases itself on those in the public administration and others in other sectors of our society who have not accepted the reality of majority rule, is capable of carrying out very disruptive actions. It measures its own success by the extent to which it manages to weaken the democratic order.

Numerous alternatives to the ANC have been – and are being – set up. But can they play a progressive role when the only unity they promote is an unprincipled unity with tribalist conservative demagogues against the mainstream of the liberation movement as represented by the ANC, Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions) and the SACP?

None of this is said in order to deny, or make light of, the problems, contradictions and differences within the ANC. The issues of cronyism, corruption, bureaucracy are real and understood (such problems are of course not unique to South Africa, and can be found in progressive and reactionary states alike). And the ANC continues to comprise a broad range of class interests, which exist in a sometimes uneasy coexistence. These problems are perfectly well understood within the organisation: “Patronage, arrogance of power, bureaucratic indifference, corruption and other ills arise, undermining the lofty core values of the organisation: to serve the people! How the ANC negotiates this minefield will determine its future survival as a principled leader of the process of fundamental change, an organisation respected and cherished by the mass of the people for what it represents and how it conducts itself in actual practice.”

But breaking up the leadership of a national democratic revolution that has been in place for over a hundred years is not something to take lightly. Certainly there’s no indication that Mandela would ever have advocated a break with the ANC. Apart from anything else, he left the organisation a significant portion of his estate! Mandela was a party man. Stepping down as party leader at the ANC conference in December 1998, he said: “A name becomes the symbol of an era. As we hand over the baton it is appropriate that I should thank the ANC for shaping me as a symbol of what it stands for. I know that the love and respect that I have enjoyed is love and respect for the ANC and its ideals.” Attempts to justify splits and spin-off organisations on the basis of “upholding Madiba’s legacy” are utterly disingenuous.

The only realistic path for those wishing to push South Africa in a more progressive direction is to work within the mainstream of the liberation movement to do just that. This is precisely what Cosatu and the SACP do, and it parallels the work of communists within the Brazilian government, or Marxists within Sinn Féin. If the left abandons the mainstream of the struggle, it means “surrendering the leadership of the national struggle to the upper and middle strata.” Who does that help? Not the South African masses, but international capital.

Mandela-ChrisHaniChris Hani, a few weeks before his untimely death, predicted this new phase with eerie precision.

I think finally the ANC will have to fight a new enemy. That enemy would be another struggle to make freedom and democracy worthwhile to ordinary South Africans. Our biggest enemy would be what we do in the field of socio-economic restructuring. Creation of jobs; building houses, schools, medical facilities; overhauling our education; eliminating illiteracy, building a society which cares, and fighting corruption and moving into the gravy train of using power, government position to enrich individuals. We must build a different culture in this country… and that culture should be one of service to the people.

Celebrating the legacy of Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani means to protect the unity they worked so hard to create; to complete the revolution that they did so much to further; to build and improve the organisations they served so selflessly; to serve the people of South Africa; to finish the work of building a new society and undoing the damage of three and a half centuries of ruthless, racist oppression.

poster

The following is a slightly expanded version of a speech given by Carlos Martinez at a recent event marking the 120th birthday of Mao Zedong.


Giving a short assessment of the life of someone like Mao Zedong is not an easy job. The man was politically active for over half a century; he lived through the Chinese Revolution of 1911 (which established the Republic of China); the formation of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921; the revolutionary civil war of 1925-27; the revolutionary civil war of 1927-36; the war of resistance against Japan; the war of liberation; the birth of New China (it was Mao who proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949); the construction of socialism; the Korean War; industrialisation of China; modernisation of China; the Sino-Soviet split and the breakup of the united world communist movement; the intense and at times deadly inner-party struggles within the CCP; and so on. It was an incredibly momentous period of history – a story of never-ending struggle – and he was a leading protagonist. Therefore I can’t possibly hope to do justice to his legacy in a half hour speech! For that reason I’m just going to focus on a couple of points that I think are worthy of discussion.

I’d like to start off by posing a question. And that is: what if there’d been no Mao? In what way would China – and indeed the world – have been different? How many people wouldn’t have lived long, meaningful lives? How many people wouldn’t have had enough to eat? How many people wouldn’t have learnt to read and write? How many people _wouldn’t _have made it past the age of 35? Would China have even broken the cycle of underdevelopment that it had been locked in for so many centuries? Would the ‘ century of humiliation‘ have become two centuries of humiliation? Would China even exist as a united country, or would it have been broken into pieces by the different colonial powers? Would China still be run by warlords, like Afghanistan is? Would China be the economic and scientific powerhouse that it is today? Would China have lifted fully hundreds of millions of people out of poverty? Would China – before the revolution one of the poorest, most economically backward countries in the world – have landed a rocket on the moon a few days ago, becoming only the third country to achieve such a feat? Would it be launching telecoms satellites on behalf of Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador? Would the socialist experiments in Latin America be receiving the financial support they need to build their social programmes? Would there be any meaningful threat to US global hegemony?

Western historians slander Mao

In the west, this question is usually approached in a very different way. There was this monster of a man, Mao Zedong, and he killed millions of people. According to some very well-paid historians, Mao is single-handedly responsible for what they say is the biggest famine in human history. There are maybe hundreds of western academics competing with each other to provide the biggest, the most shocking, the most appalling, the most awe-inspiring number in their favourite game: ‘How Many People Died Because Of Chairman Mao’.

For example, the popular book Mao’s Great Famine, by Professor Frank Dikotter, actually estimates that as many as 60 million people died during the four-year period of the Great Leap Forward – 1958-61. And that has suddenly become the accepted figure in western academia now. How is that even possible?! Was the Great Leap Forward devised as some kind of mass extermination programme, that it could wipe out 10% of China’s population? Of course, it’s no problem for people like Dikotter to get their books published, because their role is to attack socialism rather than to provide evidence and meaningful historical analysis, but at least make some attempt to be credible! For example, we’re supposed to ignore the fact that, in spite of this unprecedented loss, China’s total population didn’t go down during that time; in fact it increased from 650 million in 1958 to 680 million five years later!

The Great Leap Forward wasn’t a crazed population control scheme; it was an ambitious programme, led by Mao, to achieve rapid industrialisation and collectivisation, the idea being to make a much-needed final break with underdevelopment, backwardness and poverty. That’s a good cause! Were there excesses? Were there serious mistakes? Did many people suffer terribly, including to the extent of starvation? Yes. Mao himself admitted this. There were mistakes and there was also a disastrous series of droughts and floods. But one cannot go from that to calling it “the greatest crime ever committed against humanity”. For whatever the problems of the Great Leap Forward, it was not the Nazi holocaust; it was not the forced transportation of at least a hundred million African slaves; it was not the vengeful murder of 10 million Congolese by the armies of King Leopold; it was not the death of 35 million Chinese at the hands of Japan’s imperialist armies during 1937-45; nor was it the policy-driven famines created by the oh-so-civilised British administrations in India and Ireland.

I’m not here to go into detailed refutations of the nonsense that people like Dikotter come out with – there’s plenty of excellent material available on that topic, for people that are interested. But it is very important to refute the slander, to refute this idea of Mao as ‘monster’. The point of the whole ‘Mao was a monster’ narrative is specifically to denigrate the Chinese Revolution. What these academics are trying to do, what their job is, is to prove the superiority of capitalism over socialism; to prove the superiority of colonialism and imperialism over national sovereignty and self-determination. In effect, they’re saying: you people were better off when we were in charge! But when we investigate the actual facts (“seek truth from facts!”), we are able to prove the direct opposite: that is, the superiority of socialism over capitalism; the superiority of national sovereignty over colonialism and imperialism.

What capitalist country has achieved so much, in so short a time, compared with what’s been achieved in China, and what was achieved in the Soviet Union? And where the capitalist countries have achieved a high level of development, what has the cost been? What laid the basis for such development in Europe and North America? Slavery, colonialism and brutal class oppression. The deaths of millions upon millions. The perpetuation of a system of global apartheid which we’re still struggling to get rid of today. Does anyone imagine that British factory workers at the time of the industrial revolution had a nice life? Did they have ample food, spare time, access to education, healthcare and cultural facilities?! Hardly. And even they were massively privileged compared to the African slaves, transported in their tens of millions to the Americas; or the masses of India, Kenya, Ireland and elsewhere, whose lives were broken through British plunder and colonial policy. The progress of the socialist world is not rooted in slavery and colonialism but in the collective efforts of its people.

As an aside, I should mention that this Professor Dikotter has a slightly patchy record as a historian. A vehement anti-communist, he has argued for rehabilitating the legacy of Chiang Kai-shek (never mind the millions he killed!) and he used his Inaugural Lecture at SOAS to claim that Britain’s forcing opium onto the Chinese population in the mid-19th century really wasn’t that bad!

How many people lived because of Chairman Mao?

mao-zedong-1So really there’s a bit of a gap in the market when it comes to modern Chinese history. Instead of ‘How Many People Died Because Of Chairman Mao’, let’s ask: ‘How Many People Lived Because Of Chairman Mao’? If it’s reasonable to attribute all unnatural deaths in China since 1949 to this one man, then surely it’s also reasonable to attribute all life beyond the 1949 life expectancy to the same man!

Before the revolution, life expectancy in China was around 35 years. China was ravaged by famine, war, stagnation, feudalism and colonial brutality. By the time Mao died in 1976, life expectancy had almost doubled, to 67 years. Now it’s 76. The pre-revolution literacy rate in China was around 20%. By the time Mao died, it was around 93%. China’s population had remained stagnant between 400 and 500 million for a hundred years or so. By the time Mao died, it had reached 900 million – clearly, something changed for the better; clearly circumstances were generally favourable for human life! Women, ground down by millennia of feudal backwardness, were able to make unprecedented gains towards attaining social equality. A thriving culture of literature, music, theatre and art grew up and suddenly became accessible to the masses of the people – even to the endlessly ground-down Chinese peasantry, who had never had access to such things. Chinese land was irrigated. Universal healthcare was established. China – after a century of foreign domination – maintained its sovereignty, developed industry, developed the means to defend itself militarily, helped other nations – less than a year after the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China, China sent an enormous volunteer army, led by one of the great revolutionary heroes, Peng Dehuai, to fight with the Koreans against the US. 180,000 Chinese soldiers gave their lives in that war.

So the Mao era was not the nightmare it is sometimes painted as. Mao was not a monster; he was one of the truly great revolutionary leaders of the 20 th century, and it’s correct that we recognise him as such. To talk of Mao’s mistakes is fine; that’s important too. He was after all a human being, and by definition made mistakes. Being the leading figure in a revolution that covers a quarter of the world’s population, his mistakes had a little bit more impact than other people’s mistakes! I, for one, make mistakes all the time, but I have very little in the way of power or influence and therefore nobody really notices! But when it comes to Mao, the mistakes were those of a great revolutionary, an exceptional leader who, more than any other single person, is responsible for the liberation of China.

The Mao era and the post-Mao era

Slightly more sophisticated bourgeois analysts will tell you that, OK, China has made impressive progress, but this has only been since the introduction of market reforms and foreign investment. Well, it’s certainly true that incredible progress has been made in recent decades, but that progress is built on what came before it. Without the basic industrialisation that took place in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the policy of opening-up could have led to disaster; to China being returned to semi-colonial status, its economy totally controlled by the imperialist powers as it was before liberation. But that hasn’t been the case, precisely because it’s built on the base of what was achieved in the first three decades of People’s China. The 1981 document ‘Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China’ explains this succinctly:

“The establishment of the socialist system represents the greatest and most profound social change in Chinese history and constitutes the foundation for the country’s future progress and development.”

This crucial role of the first decades of socialist construction is still recognised in modern China: “The First Generation of Collective Leadership with Mao Zedong, the founder of both CPC and New China, at the core led the whole party and the people of all ethnicities for the fulfillment of the socialist transformation and the establishment of the basic socialist system after new China was founded in 1949, and laid a vital, crucial basis for the ensuing explorations.”

If you’ll pardon the expression, there’s no Chinese Wall between Mao’s China and post-Mao China. There are different tactics and policies, but the overall direction remains: building a strong, modern, prosperous, educated, cultured, socialist China, capable of defending itself, capable of providing a decent standard of living to all its people, and capable of contributing to a global project of making the world a better place.

The impact of the Chinese Revolution on the rest of the world

Africa is ripe for revolution - Chinese posterI wonder what sort of situation the rest of the world would be in now if it hadn’t been for Mao and the Chinese Revolution? I put it to you that the world would be a very different place, and a much less hopeful one for the masses of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Historically of course there is the support for liberation struggles in Zimbabwe, in Algeria, in Korea, in Tanzania and elsewhere. Also it’s important to note that China’s revolutionary model was particularly relevant and particularly inspirational to many countries that were, similarly to China, locked in colonial subjugation and underdevelopment. The ideas of people’s war, of revolutionary base areas, of building a peasant army: these concepts resonated across Africa, Asia and Latin America, and I think it’s fair to say that, more than anyone, it was Mao Zedong and the Chinese Revolution that helped to expand the scope of Marxism from the industrial working class of Europe to the oppressed masses worldwide.

Today, those countries of the Global South that are working hard to improve the lives of their populations are deeply appreciative of the support they get from China. Venezuela’s rise over the last 14 years would have been extremely difficult without Chinese support. Chinese support is also massively important to Cuba, South Africa, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua and lots of other places. There is a real opening now for the stranglehold of imperialism over the third world to be broken. It seems to me very unlikely that this would be happening had it not been for the Chinese revolution; had it not been for the incredible courage, brilliance and inventiveness of Mao Zedong and his comrades.

Non-traditional thinking – the fight against dogma

Another great revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, who as you know sadly died just two weeks ago, wrote in his autobiography about what had inspired him in the days when the ANC and the SACP were working out their strategy:

“I read works by and about Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro. In Edgar Snow’s brilliant Red Star Over China I saw that it was Mao’s determination and non-traditional thinking that had led him to victory.”

This idea of ‘non-traditional thinking’ is indeed a very important aspect of Mao’s legacy. Although many Maoists one comes across in the west these days are painfully dogmatic and seem to think that Mao’s works provide some sort of blueprint for revolution, Mao was totally against the idea of books as blueprints. He understood very well that there are no simple formulas for conducting a revolution. His writings and speeches constantly called for creative and serious analysis of specific problems, rather than the application of formulas. He was pretty harsh about it! In his pamphlet Oppose Book Worship, he says:

“Unless you have investigated a problem, you will be deprived of the right to speak on it. Isn’t that too harsh? Not in the least. When you have not probed into a problem, into the present facts and its past history, and know nothing of its essentials, whatever you say about it will undoubtedly be nonsense. Talking nonsense solves no problems, as everyone knows, so why is it unjust to deprive you of the right to speak? Quite a few comrades always keep their eyes shut and talk nonsense, and for a Communist that is disgraceful… Of course we should study Marxist books, but this study must be integrated with our country’s actual conditions. We need books, but we must overcome book worship.”

So today, to follow the example of Mao is not to do everything Mao did; is not to treat Mao’s strategy as the One Strategy to Rule Them All; is not to head to the hills and create revolutionary base areas; rather, it is to try and emulate Mao’s bravery, his creativity, his understanding, his total dedication to the people; and to celebrate his legacy; to celebrate his contribution to China and to the world.

Arirang mass games

What follows is an extensive interview with Yongho Thae, Minister of the Embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in London, conducted by Carlos Martinez. The interview took place at the DPRK embassy in London in October 2013. Topics covered include the DPRK’s nuclear programme, the nature of the DPRK’s political system, the DPRK’s place in a changing global political landscape, tourism, Syria, and Latin America. Given that the DPRK is considered by the imperialist states as ‘enemy number one’, it is essential for anti-imperialists to make an effort to understand and defend it.


The western media narrative claims that DPR Korea’s nuclear programme is a major threat to world peace. Why does the DPRK have nuclear weapons?

When the western press comments on the nuclear programme of the DPRK, it never talks about the core reasons behind that programme; it is only interested in justifying US bullying; it wants people to be blind to the underlying logic of our position. Our policy is simple and easy to understand: we need a nuclear deterrent.

Before I go into this issue, I’d like to clarify that it is still the DPRK’s policy to denuclearise the Korean peninsula. It has always been our policy to get our country out of the threat of nuclear war. In order to reach that aim, there was no choice but to develop our own nuclear capacity.

After the Second World War, the US was the only country in the world that had nuclear weapons. In order to further their strategy of global domination, they decided to use an atomic bomb against Japan. The facts show that there was no need for the US to use such a weapon in that situation. In Europe, in May 1945, Hitler was defeated and the war ended. In the Pacific, the tide had turned totally against Japanese imperialism. It was obvious that the Soviet army would take part in the war against Japan, and Japan was losing the war with the US. It was just a matter of time before the Japanese war effort collapsed. Japan could not win against the combined forces of the Soviet Union, Europe, China and the US, so they were looking for a way out. There was absolutely no need for the US to use nuclear weapons. Inside the US establishment, there were fierce arguments as to whether these weapons should be used. The people of the world didn’t understand about the destructive power of nuclear weapons – only US leaders knew. They wanted the world to find out about how mighty these weapons were, so that the world would be forced to go along with US policy. In order to achieve this aim, they didn’t take into account how many lives would be lost. To them, the lives of ordinary Japanese people are like the lives of dogs, of animals. They would kill as many as possible in support of their geopolitical aims.

So the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later on the USSR developed nuclear weapons too. As time went on, the Soviet nuclear arsenal played the role of counterbalancing the possibility of US nuclear weapon usage. That is the main reason that the US couldn’t use these weapons in the second half of the 20th century. Later on the nuclear weapons club was expanded to include China, Britain and France. In terms of world peace as a whole, the enlargement of the nuclear club would intuitively be seen as a bad thing, but the reality was that the possession of nuclear weapons by China and the Soviet Union was able to check the use of nuclear weapons by anyone for any purposes. I think this is a fact we should admit.

As far as Korea is concerned, you know that Korea is just next door to Japan. Many Japanese lived in Korea, because Korea was a colony of Japan. Our media system at the time was run by Japanese. So when Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred, we heard about it and we understood very well the scale of this disaster. The Korean people understood very well how many people were killed in the space of just a minute. So the Korean people have a very direct experience of nuclear warfare from the beginning.

The Korean War started in 1950. The Americans thought they could easily win this war, because they had all the advanced conventional weapons and they mobilised 16 satellite countries. At this time China was only just liberated – the People’s Republic of China was just one year old. Meanwhile the Soviet Union was still recovering from the vast destruction of the Second World War. So, the US thought it could easily win the Korean War. However, they found out that their arrogance was misplaced. In fact, the Korean War was the first war that checked US ambitions.

The Korean People’s Army and the Chinese volunteers fought with incredible strength against the US. From the US point of view, this was a war against communism. But the communists had the full support of the people of these countries. Korea and China were rural countries, where the people were motivated by the idea of getting their own land. It is the Communist Party – the Workers’ Party of Korea – that distributed land equally to all farmers. So the WPK had the full support of the people, and the masses of the people took part in the Korean War. They knew the situation of their brothers and sisters in South Korea – dominated by landlords and US interests – and understood that if the DPRK lost the war, the rule of the landlords would be restored and the land reform reversed. So that is why the ordinary Korean people got involved. Everybody got involved and did not hesitate to make every sacrifice.

When he saw that the war was not going according to plan, Eisenhower asked his advisers: how can we win this war? The American generals suggested using the nuclear threat. The US felt that if they warned the population that they were going to drop a nuclear bomb, the people would flee from the front. Having witnessed the effects of nuclear warfare just five years previously, millions of people fled North Korea and went to the south. The result of this is that there are still 10 million separated families.

So you can see that the Korean people are the direct victims of nuclear bullying – us more so than anybody in the world. The nuclear issue is not an abstract one for us; it is something we have to take very seriously.

After the Korean War, the US never stopped its hostile policy towards Korea. Today they say that they cannot normalise relations with the DPRK because the DPRK has nuclear weapons. But in the 60s, 70s and 80s, we didn’t have nuclear weapons – did they normalise relations then? No. Rather, they continued trying to dominate the Korean peninsula with their own military force. It is the US that introduced nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. In the 70s, in order to check the influence of the Soviet Union, they deployed nuclear weapons in Europe and also in South Korea. The US never stopped threatening the DPRK with these weapons, which were just next to us, the other side of the demilitarised zone. Korea is a very small country, with a high population density. It is quite clear that if the US used its nuclear weapons, the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe would be unimaginable.

The DPRK government had to find a strategy to prevent the US from using these weapons against us. In the 1970s, there were discussions among the big powers as to how they could prevent nuclear war. What the big five counties agreed is that they would stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Only five countries would be allowed to have nuclear weapons; the others would not. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was born in 1970. The NPT clearly states that nuclear power states cannot use nuclear weapons for the purpose of threatening or endangering non-nuclear states. So the DPRK thought that if we joined the NPT, we would be able to get rid of the nuclear threat from the US. Therefore we joined. However, the US never withdrew its right of pre-emptive nuclear strike. They always said that, once US interests are threatened, they always have the right to use their nuclear weapons for pre-emptive purposes. So it’s quite obvious that the NPT cannot ensure our safety. On this basis, we decided to withdraw and to formulate a different strategy to protect ourselves.

The world situation changed again after 11 September 2001. After this, Bush said that if the US wants to protect its safety, then it must remove the ‘axis of evil’ countries from the earth. The three countries he listed as members of this ‘axis of evil’ were Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Bush said that, in order to remove these evils from the earth, the US would not hesitate even to use nuclear weapons. Events since then have proved that this was not a simply rhetorical threat – they have carried out this threat against Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now it comes to North Korea. There was DPRK Framework Agreement between the Clinton administration and the DPRK in 1994, but the Bush administration canceled this, saying that America should not negotiate with evil. The neo-cons said that ‘evil states’ should be removed by force. Having witnessed what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, we came to realise that we couldn’t put a stop to the threat from the US with conventional weapons alone. So we realised that we needed our own nuclear weapons in order to defend the DPRK and its people.

In additional to the direct nuclear threat, I must point out that there is also the issue of the ‘nuclear umbrella’. The US extends its nuclear umbrella to its friends, such as Japan, South Korea and the Nato countries. But Russia and China aren’t willing to open up a nuclear umbrella to other countries, because they are afraid of the response from the US. We realised that no country will protect us from US nuclear weapons, and therefore we came to understand that we must develop our own.

We can say now that the choice to develop our own nuclear deterrent force was a correct decision. What happened to Libya? When Gaddafi wanted to improve Libya’s relations with the US and UK, the imperialists said that in order to attract international investment he would have to give up his weapons programmes. Gaddafi even said that he would visit the DPRK to convince us to give up our nuclear programme. But once Libya dismantled all its nuclear programmes and this was confirmed by western intelligence, the west changed its tune. This led to a situation where Gaddafi could not protect Libya’s sovereignty; he could not even protect his own life. This is an important historical lesson.

The DPRK wants to protect its security. We ask the US to give up its hostile policy; to give up its military threat; to normalise relations with the DPRK; to replace the armistice treaty with a peace treaty. Only when the American military threat against the DPRK is removed; only when peace-guaranteeing mechanisms are established on the Korean peninsula; only then can we talk of giving up our nuclear weapons. In other words, the US should take the issue seriously; it should take a positive approach to solve this matter.

We are proud that, even though there is a huge US military presence in the Korean peninsula and in northeast Asia, so far we have been very successful in preventing another war on the Korean peninsula. The US war machine never stops. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria… every day, hundreds of innocent people are dying because of imperialist policy led by the US. But after the Korean War finished in 1953, the DPRK has been able to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula, and we think this is a great achievement.

Were you hopeful that, with the election of Barack Obama, the US position on Korea would improve?

Well, Obama’s policy is different from that of Bush and the conservatives. Instead of solving these problems directly, he is moving to a position of ‘strategic neglect’. Obama wants to keep the issue as it is rather than taking real steps to improve the situation. The current administration says that there are too many pending issues for the US to solve.

There have been some interesting visits to the DPRK recently, for example by Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, and by Dennis Rodman, the basketball star. Do these perhaps – even in a very small way – indicate that there are some people within US ruling circles that are interested in improving relations with the DPRK?

It’s very difficult to say whether those visits will have a positive influence. What the DPRK wants to do is to deliver a message to the American people that the DPRK is always willing to address and solve problems; that the DPRK wants to improve its relations with the US; that the DPRK does not consider the US as its permanent enemy. We hope that these visits of prominent US citizens will help to convey this message.

Do any of the other imperialist powers – for example Britain, France, Australia – have a more constructive position in relation to the DPRK, or do they follow the US lead?

There is a bit of a different approach. For instance, the US government has never extended diplomatic recognition to the DPRK as a sovereign state, whereas US allies such as Britain and Australia do accept our existence; these countries support a policy of engagement with the DPRK.

Does the US still maintain nuclear weapons in South Korea?

That is really hard to say, because US nuclear weapons are more sophisticated and modernised compared with the 70s and 80s. They have more nuclear submarines. They have weapons that are smaller and more difficult to detect. So it is difficult to say if there are nuclear weapons permanently stationed in South Korea. But it is very obvious that US nuclear weapons visit South Korea on a regular basis. Just recently, the US engaged in joint military exercises with Japan and South Korea. For those exercises, the US aircraft carrier George Washington entered the South Korean harbour of Busan for three days. What kind of planes are carried on the George Washington? Fighters and bombers that can easily drop nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

In March this year, the US introduced B52 bombers on the Korean peninsula for military exercises, simulating nuclear bombing raids on North Korea.

The US policy is to neither deny nor confirm whether they have nuclear weapons on South Korea. But the fact is that they can introduce these weapons and launch a strike at any time, so whether these weapons are actually there on the ground right now is not so relevant.

You’ve lived here in London for some time and presumably have some idea about how British people think about North Korea. The stereotype is that it’s an ‘undemocratic’ country where people don’t have the right to vote; where people don’t have any freedom of speech; they don’t have the right to criticise the government; they don’t have the right to participate in the running of the country. Is that a fair characterisation?

I think the general impression the British people have is shaped by the bourgeois media. What I can say is that those people who have done more serious investigation, especially those who have visited the DPRK and have seen our achievements with their own eyes, have a totally different impression of my country.

Pyongyang skylineThe number of British tourists has been increasing in recent years – this year alone it will be almost 500. There are nine British travel agencies who operate tours of the DPRK. Visas are never denied for tourists. I have met with some British tourists who had just returned from the DPRK, and they were so surprised to see how different it is from their impressions that they had picked up in the media. They didn’t know that the DPRK is a socialist country where there is free education, where there is free medical care, where people’s health is fully guaranteed, where there is free housing. They didn’t know all these good aspects of North Korea. Most of them, before they visit my country, imagine that our streets are full of malnourished people, that there is no decent transportation, that everyone looks sad, that there is no real cultural life, etc. But when they get to Korea they see that it is entirely different. For example, public transportation is almost free – you pay a little money but compared with what you pay in Britain or the US it is basically free. They couldn’t believe that Pyongyang city is full of big apartments and houses, built and given to the people free of charge. They were also surprised that there were so many schools, much better equipped than British state schools. They found out that North Korean children are generally at a much higher educational level than their British counterparts; that the vast majority of North Korean children enjoy free after-school activities, learning piano, violin and so on. They found out that there was no begging in the streets, no drug problems. They found out that they could leave their hotels at any time of night and go out in the streets without fearing for their safety, since there are no problems of robberies and gangs.

So they were shocked, and they asked me why the British media is so negative all the time about the DPRK and never mentions its positive aspects. My answer is that the media wants to depict the DPRK as an evil, as a type of hell, because they want to tell the British public that there is no alternative to capitalism, to imperialism. They want people to believe there is only one economic and political system; therefore it is against their interests to say anything positive about the socialist system.

So if people in this country want to visit North Korea, it’s easy to do so?

Yes. There are many well-known companies such as Regent Holidays, Voyagers, Koryo Tours and others that organise group tours. Because the media depicts the DPRK so badly, the number of people interested in visiting is actually getting bigger and bigger.

If you go on a tour, would you typically visit only Pyongyang?

Pyongyang schoolNo, you can visit any place you like. There are more and more options emerging all the time. For example, many tourists want to visit for just one day, so they can do a one-day trip via the border with China. Another trip we have started is a train trip, with trains going from China to Korea. Also now there is an air trip, with outdated passenger aeroplanes (typically made in the USSR in the 50s or 60s), which are quite fashionable with many tourists. Now a New Zealand company is organising a motorcycle tour of the whole Korean peninsula. One can find such tours available on the internet.

These tours have increased a lot over the last 3-4 years, as we have much more of the supporting infrastructure now, so the tourist industry is more open and diverse. We feel that it helps us to establish stronger cultural relations with other countries.

Each socialist country has had its own way of organising popular democracy and participation, for example the Soviets in the USSR, and the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution in Cuba – structures that allow people to manage the affairs of their workplaces and localities, solving their basic problems and electing people to higher bodies at regional and national levels. Is there something along these lines in North Korea?

Of course. We operate democracy at every level of our party and government. As you know, the major party of government is the Workers’ Party of Korea. This party is a mass party with a membership of millions, and is organised along democratic centralist lines. If someone in a given party structure (a cell) is not working according to the party line that has been discussed and agreed upon, then there would be a criticism by other party members and that member is given a chance to correct his behaviour. At each level of the party we use this system of criticism, self-criticism and accountability in order to maintain efficient and correct work.

We have a Supreme People’s Assembly, which could be considered the equivalent of the British parliament. Under this Supreme People’s Assembly, there are assemblies at province, city and county levels. The members are all elected, and these bodies meet frequently. They are responsible for taking important decisions, in a normal democratic way. For example, given a limited budget, they might have to take a vote as to whether to spend money on building a new kindergarten, or improving a hospital, and so on. In this way, broad masses of people are involved in the process of managing society. If the bodies don’t function correctly, there are mechanisms for people to criticise them and to appeal against bad decisions and negative work. For example, if water sanitation in a particular village needs to be improved, then local people can go to the council to protest. If their protest is taken into account and the situation is improved, that is good. If not, people can appeal higher up – to the city or province level – to make sure that the council is representing them properly.

Is the WPK the only political party in North Korea?

There are many parties and mass organisations besides the WPK, such as the Catholic Party and the Social Democratic Party. We do not consider that we have ‘ruling’ and ‘opposition’ parties – the parties are all on friendly terms and cooperate in developing our society. These other parties all participate in the people’s assemblies – as long as they get enough votes. They are even represented in the Supreme People’s Assembly.

People have a prejudice against our country that decisions are only made at the top by only one person, but how is this even possible? Running a country is a complicated process that needs the energy and creativity of many people.

I’m interested to understand how has DPRK been able to survive the last two decades, in such a difficult global political context. The Soviet Union – the biggest socialist country – collapsed; the people’s democracies in Eastern Europe no longer exist. How is it that, in a hostile international environment, the DPRK has been able to keep going?

Arirang mass gamesThe past two decades have been the most difficult period for us. We suddenly lost our major trading partners, out of nowhere, with no warning. This had a major impact on our economy. And with the disappearance of the USSR, the US moved to a policy of intensification, believing that our days were numbered. The US intensified its economic blockade and its military threat. They stopped all financial transactions between the DPRK and the rest of the world. The US controls the flow of foreign currency: if they say that any bank will be the target of sanctions if it does business with the DPRK, then obviously that bank has to go along with them. The US issued such an ultimatum to all companies: if they do business with North Korea, they will be subject to sanctions by the US. This is still in place. The US government thought that if they cut economic relations between the DPRK and the rest of the world, we would have to submit to them. The only reason that we have been able to survive is the single-hearted unity of the people. The people united firmly around the leadership. We worked extremely hard to solve our problems by ourselves.

If the UK one day suddenly lost its markets in the US and Europe, would it survive? If all financial transactions are stopped, how can a country survive? And yet we did survive.

Is the global situation more favourable now for North Korea and for other countries that are pursuing an independent path?

Yes. The past two decades were very difficult: not only did we have to survive economically but we also had to frustrate US military intentions; therefore we had to put a lot of investment and focus on strengthening our army, building weapons and developing our nuclear capability. Now that we have nuclear weapons, we can reduce our military investment, because even a small nuclear arsenal can play a deterrent role. We are in a position where we can make the US hesitate to attack us. Therefore we can focus more on people’s welfare now.

Do you think that the relative economic decline of the US and Western Europe will help Korea?

We have to wait and see. It is true that US economic power is declining, but precisely because of this, the US is trying to consolidate its political and military power. At the moment, this is reflected in the ‘pivot to Asia’, which is really about China. The importance of the Korean peninsula is therefore increasing, due to its proximity to China and Russia. The Korean peninsula is sort of a pivot point from which the US thinks it can exercise control over the big powers.

The war in Syria has been a key issue in world politics over the last 2-3 years. The DRPK continues to be a supporter of, and friend to, Syria. What is the basis for this relationship?

Mural celebrating DPRK-Syria friendshipIn the past, our late president Kim Il Sung had very comradely relations with President Hafez al-Assad. Both leaders shared the viewpoint that they should fight against imperialist policy. Syria was always a strong supporter of Palestinian self-determination, and was an important pillar against US and Israeli policy in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the DPRK was an important pillar against US policy in the Korean peninsula. So both countries share the same policy in relation to struggling against imperialist policy worldwide. This is the basis for the solidarity between the two countries.

Historically, Syria was not our only friend in the Middle East: we were very close with Nasser’s Egypt and with Yasser Arafat and the PLO – these leaders and countries shared the same philosophy of independence and development. This shared philosophy still exists between Syria and North Korea.

Under the pretext of introducing human rights and democracy in the Middle East, the US and its partners are creating chaos. Their so-called ‘Arab Spring’ policy has created a situation where hundreds of innocent people are killed every day. People are fighting each other in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, everywhere. This is a reflection of US divide and rule policy. Israel – the most important regional partner of the US – is a small country, whereas the Arab world is quite big; so the US and Israel are afraid of the unity of the Arab world. How can they break this unity? They try to create hatred among the different political organisations, among different religious groups, among different countries. Once this hatred is created, they encourage people to fight each other. This is the “freedom” they have brought: the freedom for people to kill each other. This is the strategy for guaranteeing the security of Israel.

It is essential that the Arab people understand the policy of divide and rule. This policy has been used for hundreds of years by the British Empire, the Americans and other imperialist empires. People have to unite in order to protect their children.

Over the past 10-15 years, there have been some important changes in South and Central America, the region historically considered as the US ‘backyard’. There are now progressive governments not only in Cuba, but also in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Do you think this is a promising development?

I think so, yes. The people of South America are more conscious than ever before. Previously, Latin America was dominated by US imperialism, with most governments – many of them brutal military dictatorships – directly supported by the US. But these states didn’t improve the lives of the ordinary people. So now people have come to understand that they must break the relationship of dependency with the US. They have decided to take up their own destinies. Just look at Venezuela: Venezuela has been an oil-rich country for a long time, but only once Chávez got into power was the oil wealth distributed so that ordinary people could benefit.

The DPRK has positive relations with Latin American countries. We have now opened our embassy in Brazil. We have good relations with Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela; Cuba of course. Chávez wanted to visit North Korea, but in the end his health didn’t allow it. But he always promoted good relations between Venezuela and North Korea. He is certainly very much missed.