Latin America and Gaddafi*
by Mike Gonzalez.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez with Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi in Qatar, 2009. Photograph: EPA/Corbis
It was undoubtedly a mischievous rumour, but William Hague accepted it without demur: Hugo Chávez had offered asylum to Colonel Gaddafi. It was vigorously denied by the Venezuelan government, and as yet it seems to be founded on nothing but a rightwing sleight of hand that elides Chávez and Gaddafi into a single, caricatured military dictator. But Chávez was elected, and re-elected, to the presidency of his country, unlike Gaddafi, and he has not tortured and murdered thousands of his political opponents as Gaddafi has – on the contrary his detractors continue to vilify him daily in the media with impunity.
Yet the response to the Libyan events from Latin America’s radicals has been perplexing and disturbing. Chávez himself has praised Gaddafi and echoed directly the views on the Libyan revolution offered by Fidel Castro. Castro has counselled caution and patience, warning that since the US media are consistently reporting the insurrection and denouncing Gaddafi’s brutal repression it must clearly be suspect. Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua, rushed to present himself to the press as a fervent supporter of the Libyan leader in his sterling defence of his nation.
It is worth remembering that the Sandinista National Liberation Front, of which Ortega was and remains a leader, took power on the basis of a mass rising of the Nicaraguan people against a dictatorship at least as vicious as Gaddafi’s. In the final month of the Sandinista Revolution, from June to July 1979, the Somoza dictatorship (a dynasty actively sustained by Washington for more than 40 years) used napalm against the country’s impoverished population. Chávez freely acknowledges that the Bolivarian movement, which gave its name to the new Venezuelan Republic, was born in the great urban insurrection of February 1989, the “Caracazo” in which the poor barrios of the cities, and principally of Caracas, emptied into the city centres in three Days of Rage after President Carlos Andres Perez broke his promise not to implement neo-liberal economic measures. There were several thousand victims of the repression of the movement. The same people mobilised to defeat an attempted coup against Chávez in 2002 and saved the Bolivarian revolution.
These two very different leaders cannot support an oppressive regime that now faces a mass democratic movement from below. For despite attempts to deny and silence the movement, tyrants have been toppled across the Middle East – not by the mass use of Twitter alone, of course, but through strikes, mass protests, and face-to-face battles with a repressive machinery in which people have been willing to put their lives on the line in the struggle for freedom. There is still much ground to be covered before that is achieved, but there have been glimpses of a very different world in the course of these struggles.
How can Ortega, or Castro more cautiously, deny their support for this mass movement in the name of the Latin American revolution? Ortega, of course, has no right to claim to represent a movement which carried him to power but which he has frequently betrayed, not least by making a pact with the man who led the US-backed movement that ultimately destroyed Sandinista Nicaragua, the now Cardinal Obando y Bravo, in order to get himself elected.
And how on Earth can Castro, seen by many as a voice of national liberation and social revolution, refuse his support to the overwhelming majority of Libyans in their battle for freedom. Unlike Venezuela and Nicaragua, Castro did not come to power as a result of a mass insurrection, though the defeat of the Batista dictatorship was hugely popular. Since then, what challenges he has faced have been quickly defined as counter-revolutionary, and public dissent rigorously controlled.
In the tradition of Marx and Lenin, revolution is the moment when the mass of working people take to the stage of history to win their freedom – their “self-emancipation” as the tradition has it. This makes a movement potentially revolutionary, not the words of its leaders. Why the caution then? In a world of realpolitik, Libya has invested in all three countries and presented itself as an anti-imperialist power, defying the US and deploying its enormous oil wealth as a weapon of national defence. No doubt it has been an important factor in forging an alliance between third world states looking to strengthen their ability to resist the assaults of imperialism.
But when those states act against their own people, they have no right to continue their claim to be acting on their behalf. The mask falls, and the revolutionary process comes face to face with the state that has claimed to be its embodiment. As Gaddafi bombs and burns his own people, there is only one choice before anyone who claims to be leading a people’s revolution – and that is to unequivocally support the movement from below, irrespective of its confusions and contradictions.
* Published on the Guardian website