Latin America: Socialist Perspectives in Times of Cholera (Preliminary Notes for a Necessary Debate)

By Vilas, Carlos M. | Social Justice, Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

Latin America: Socialist Perspectives in Times of Cholera (Preliminary Notes for a Necessary Debate)


Vilas, Carlos M., Social Justice


I would like to develop this article by picking up on some ideas I formulated several years ago regarding certain characteristics, achievements, and contents of the processes of popular political and social transformations in the underdeveloped world. These processes refer basically to three principal questions or dimensions: national independence, development, and democratization. The ways in which these dimensions meet and articulate reciprocally are ultimately a result of the social groups that lead each process in particular and of the insertion of each process in the international system.(1) I think that focussing on the topic from this perspective will help give us an idea of the conditions that must be taken into account by any socialist project in Latin America today.

1. National Independence

Any reflection on socialism and its prospects in Latin America must obviously consider the impact of the disappearance of the "East" as even a hypothetical alternative to the international capitalist system. Independent of one's opinions about the former regimes of the East, it is undeniable that this variation of socialism -- or that of the Chinese experience -- was an explicit referent for the socialist projects of most political forces in the Latin American Left. Closely linked to the above, these regimes, particularly the economically most advanced such as the former USSR and the now-defunct German Democratic Republic, constituted an important source of economic and military aid for some Latin American countries -- such as Cuba -- which opted for socialism, or others -- such as Nicaragua during the decade of the 1980s -- which at least attempted profound, popular socioeconomic transformations. This aid helped these regimes to negotiate some of the rougher passages of underdevelopment and, above all, to defend their national sovereignty.

Whatever the particularities of each case, there is no question that Latin American resistance to imperialist aggression received often-decisive support from the Eastern bloc. To establish counterpoints between how much national independence is due to the cooperation of the East and how much to the efforts of the peoples themselves is to pose the issue badly, or in bad faith. Popular efforts to maintain and consolidate national independence in the various Latin American and Third World countries that were engaged in processes of profound social transformations obtained decidedly significant support from the East before its collapse. Economic and technical cooperation assumed subsidy-like characteristics, given the proverbial limitations of the countries receiving the assistance. The effectiveness of such cooperation in helping the receiving countries down the road of development has been limited, to put it mildly. However, the availability of economic aid is only one of the aspects to be considered in this regard; equally important is the capacity of the receiving countries to convert the aid into development, and this is a question that depends above all on the strategies, policies, and actions, that is to say, the decisions, adopted by the respective governments.

In the international arena, the possibilities for a socialist option were tied to the competition between the capitalist system and the socialist bloc and to the capacities of the popular and national regimes to receive aid from the latter so as to check the pressures of the former. Today, the socialist bloc no longer exists, and there is little sense in crying over spilled milk.

The international order that is being formed in the aftermath of the debacle in the East and, above all, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, is a politically unipolar and economically multipolar order, but in any case it is an indubitably capitalist order. The Soviet Union [until its recent demise -- Eds.] and China still hold socialism high on the official scale of values, but their relegation to secondary positions in international politics is beyond doubt. …

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