Latin America - the Balkanised Continent

Latin America is a huge area of the world, rich in human and material resources and yet a large part of its peoples live in poverty. Most of the countries that make it up speak a common language and have a common history. Simon Bolivar raised the idea of uniting all these countries to fight the imperialists. In today’s context this idea translates into the Socialist United States of Latin America – a socialist federation.

The Venezuelan Revolution, led by Hugo Chávez, has re-awakened the Bolivarian dream of a union of the peoples of Latin America. This has come in the footsteps of the great independence fighters of Bolívar, Hidalgo, Juárez, San Martín, O'Higgins, Sucre, Zamora and Martí. With the victory of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara also invoked the spirit of continental revolution.

According to Hugo Chávez, "the geopolitical concept of Bolívar, envisaging the union of the continent, still has tremendous contemporary force".

"None of his generals at the time of independence", he continued, "at least none of his Venezuelan generals, had this vision of uniting all these Balkanised territories of Latin America in order to confront the imperial power of the north. Now everyone is searching and struggling towards this goal, not just the Venezuelans but all of Latin America." He concluded: "La patria for all of us is America; and union is fundamental. Everyone has shared this aim: Martí, O'Higgins and Artígas - Sandino and Péron said so too. The union of all our peoples."

Latin America, which is potentially a very rich region, extends from the Río Grande almost to Antarctica, comprising 21 separate countries with diverse Indian cultures and historical legacies, most notably Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, British and French.

Given its imperialist heritage, Spanish is the language of the vast majority of people of Latin America, except in Brazil where Portuguese is spoken. The once proud native Indians, dispossessed and exterminated by the conquistadors, still retain their own languages such as Yaqui (Northern Mexico), Nahuatl (Central Mexico), Maya (Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico and Guatemala), Chibcha (Colombia), Quechua (Ecuador and Peru) and Aymara (Southern Peru and Bolivia). In some countries, the indigenous people are the majority of the population.

With its abundance of natural resources, the continent could potentially be a paradise on earth for its peoples. However, this beautiful part of the world has been Balkanised by imperialism and its local oligarchies of feudal landlords and bourgeois upstarts, backed by the church establishment, have bled the land and its people for their own selfish interests and gain. This élite long ago sold out the cause of independence, and became the stooges of imperialism.

From its enslavement by the Spanish conquistadors from around 1500, the continent was to be at the mercy of European, and especially Spanish exploiters, fuelled by the legend of El Dorado. Rival groups fought tooth and nail for economic and political supremacy and advantage, exterminating the native Indians in the process. This despotic rule was to last some 300 years, until the fight for independence.

The struggle for national independence from Spain was essentially a bourgeois-democratic struggle, which received its impetus from the French Revolution of 1789-93 and the Napoleonic Wars. The outstanding figure of this liberation struggle was Simon Bolívar ('El Libertador'). He drew the conclusion that a continent-wide crusade against Spanish rule was necessary, uniting Latin America against the imperial power. Bolívar, who landed at Cartagena, fought his way up the Magdalena valley to Bogotá and on to Cúcuta. From there he pushed on to Caracas, but was unable to hold it. However, Bolívar, together with his most able lieutenant, Sucre, assembled an army of horsemen from the Venezuelan llanos and some 5,000 British ex-Peninsular War veterans at Angostura. With this army he marched across the Andes into Colombia and joined forces with General Santander's liberation fighters. Together they defeated the Royalists, first at the battle of the Vargas in the lowlands and again at the battle of the Boyacá in August 1819.

He went on from there to complete the liberation of Venezuela and another victory over the Royalist forces at Carabobo in 1821. With these victories under their belts, Bolívar and Sucre went on to liberate Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. This revolutionary liberation struggle unfolded over a ten-year period.

With Colombia free, a revolutionary congress was held at Cúcuta. Opposing factions quickly emerged. Bolívar stood for a centralised and unified republic made up of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama, whereas Santander favoured a looser federal arrangement of sovereign states. Bolívar's ideas prevailed and the Republic of Gran Colombia came into being. Argentina and Chile were also free, conquered by republican forces from Argentina led by General José de San Martín. Only Peru remained under Spanish rule, but was finally taken at the battle of Ayacucho in December 1824. Upper Peru was at last liberated five months later and given the name of Bolivia.

His vision was of a United States of Latin America all the way from the Río Grande to Tierra del Fuego, free from colonialism and offering equality of opportunity to all. In this, he defended the rights of Venezuela's large community of black slaves, who he set free on his estates.  

However, the Republic was short-lived, and even before Bolívar died in December 1830, the Republic had split into its three constituent countries and Bolívar's dreams had been betrayed. The Creole bourgeoisie was incapable of rising to the revolutionary tasks of their European counterparts, and proved incapable of uniting the continent. They were terrified of the very shock troops of the liberation struggle - the landless peasants and former slaves. Through their actions, the oligarchy betrayed the independence struggle, resulting in the break-up of the Bolivarian Republic and the carving up of the living body of Latin America.

The ruling oligarchy, entwined with the slave-owners, the parasitic landlords and foreign imperialists, could not play any progressive role. They were certainly unable to lead a struggle for genuine national sovereignty. They were too weak, too subservient, and too corrupt to lead such a genuine revolutionary struggle. They had arrived too late on the stage of history and were incapable of carrying through the tasks of the national-democratic revolution.

Under modern conditions, how can this belated democratic task be fulfilled? The rotten oligarchy that rules Latin America today is even more reactionary than in the past. They are the local office boys of imperialism, at the beck and call of Washington, which regards Latin America not as an independent entity, but as its own "sphere of influence", under its economic and political domination. The Monroe Doctrine became the diplomatic cover for US expansion and intervention across Latin America. The Doctrine was brought into being to project the United States' sphere of influence and to fill the void left by Spain's departure. In essence, the US imperialists simply saw Latin America as their own "backyard", and the oligarchy became their messenger boys in this regard.

Leon Trotsky explained long ago in his theory of "Permanent Revolution" that in the ex-colonial world, the bourgeois cannot play any progressive role. The tasks of the national-democratic revolution that remain (land reform, national independence, etc), fall upon the shoulders of the working class and poor peasants. Only the working class, drawing behind it all the oppressed layers in society, can play a revolutionary role in the modern epoch. In Latin America, where 85% of the population live in urban areas, the tasks of the national-democratic revolution can only be carried out in the course of the socialist revolution.

In other words, the dream of Simon Bolívar of the unification of the peoples of Latin America can only be accomplished in the modern epoch by the coming to power of the working class. They are the only real revolutionary class capable of uniting the nation and taking society forward. This is the very meaning of the "Permanent Revolution" today.

In practice, the creation of a united states of Latin America can only be achieved by the overthrow of the reactionary oligarchies that rule the present Balkanised states on the continent. In other words, what is posed is a continental-wide socialist revolution. Already Hugo Chávez has talked in these terms. The collaboration between Cuba and Venezuela is a beginning. It needs to be deepened by the completion of the revolution in Venezuela with the expropriation of the oligarchy. This would allow the resources to be fully utilised in the interests of the masses in a planned and harmonious fashion. If this were carried through in the rest of Latin America, planning would be possible on a continental-wide basis. A continental planned economy under the control of the masses will open up a new vista for the peoples of Latin America and the world.

On a capitalist basis, the "cooperation" proposed include such measures as the School of the Americas, the Organisation of American States, the Inter-American Defence Board, Plan Colombia, the IMF and World Bank, NAFTA, CAFTA, and now the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Each of these is used to further enslave the peoples of Latin America.

Domination of world market

There can be no planning in the interests of the masses on the basis of capitalism. The economies are tied to the capitalist system, above all the world market, which dominates the continent. No country which remains on the basis of capitalism can escape the laws of the capitalist system. In the adage of the labour movement, "you can't plan what you don't control, and you don't control what you don't own."

The only way in which this can be broken and the continent united is on the basis of the socialist revolution. On a capitalist basis, Venezuela has been bled white by the ruling oligarchy, which have looted the country's wealth on an unprecedented scale. The vast majority of the population is permanently poor and hungry. While the top 10 percent of the population of 23 million receives half the national income, 40 percent (on 1996 figures) lives in "critical poverty". The situation has been growing dramatically worse. The country imports more than half its food needs, 64 percent in 1998. Vast areas of Venezuela lie fallow or unused.

Now the US wants to implement a free trade area for the Americas. Chávez and Castro have proposed an alternative: the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. This plans to eliminate trade barriers and tax obstacles, as well as providing increased cooperation between banks. Venezuela provides cheap oil to Cuba and other states.

This is a pointer for the future. However, it can only scratch the surface when faced with the power of the multinationals. Real cooperation can only be undertaken through the coming to power of revolutionary governments that eliminate the power of the oligarchy and take fully into the hands the resources of the country. The working class has no interest in retaining artificial borders created by imperialism and vested interests. It will be in favour of the maximum cooperation in developing the rich resources of Latin America for the peoples of the continent.

In the words of Bolívar: "Government must prove to be formidable and ruthless, without regard to law or constitution, until peace is established. I believe that our enemies will have all the advantages as long as we do not unify our American government. We shall be inextricably caught in the web of civil war, and be shamefully beaten by that little horde of bandits which pollutes our country."

This is sound advice! Today's struggle for a Socialist United States of Latin America is the real programme of Simon Bolívar translated into the realities of the 21st century. It is the only salvation for the oppressed masses and can usher in a genuine paradise on earth for the benefit of all.