One of the headline speakers in this year’s El Sueño Existe festival was Victor Figueroa Clark (see previous blog). Victor was in Machynlleth to talk about this new book, Salvador Allende, Revolutionary Democrat. Victor spoke in several sessions, including the main session on the first day. In a wide ranging contribution Victor made several important points about Allende. The struggles in Chile forged Allende’s nationalism, which led to anti-imperialism, which in its turn led to internationalism. Victor saw this same path followed by Hugo Chavez, who picked up Allende’s mantel in Latin America.
We caught up with Victor during the festival, to ask him some questions.
You recently launched your book. It’s forty years since the coup. Do you think there’s any relevance to the three years before the coup, 1970 to 73, for the Left in Latin America today?
I think there’s a clear relevance. If we look at the way that these processes have taken power, for example, they are following a similar, democratic road to state power, but also in the sense they want to achieve this social and economic transformation. We can see, for example, in Nicaragua you have a former guerilla movement, the Frente Sandinista, which took power originally in 1979 with an armed revolution, which then came back into power again a few years ago after losing in 1990. They did this through an electoral process using institutional democratic means to begin their transformation of Nicaragua. We’ve seen similar processes in Venezuela and elsewhere.
I think Chile forty years later also has another relevance which is perhaps more historic. It taught the Left in Latin America that politics is in many ways about how social conflict is channelled. Violence is one element of social conflict. It’s a method of social conflict. You see that Chavez, for example, when he talked about his revolution he said we are following in the road of Allende but this revolution is peaceful. I think that is something in Latin America today when you see transformations within the military realm as well as in the social, economic and political.
You mentioned Nicaragua. It’s a country you’ve studied and written about. What is your assessment of the Sandinista government since it came back to power in 2007?
This is potentially a slightly controversial view but my assessment is you have a Sandinista government in power now which, after being out of power for 16 years, has a real vision of the social problems, the economic problems and the educational problems Nicaraguan society faces today. What they’ve done is built a set of policies around those particular needs which are very practical without forgetting the mobilisation aspects which is to try and advance this model beyond capitalism.
Within Nicaragua we’re talking about the third poorest country or the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere, after Haiti. You need to go to Nicaragua to see the poverty, to see the level of deprivation there to realise how far they have to come before they can even ensure the basics to the population. I think this Sandinista government is revolutionary because it is providing the basis of resolving those very practical problems for the population while also building the processes which will enable them in the future to move beyond dependant capitalism and move them towards something we would call socialism.
Over the past seven or eight years there’s been a lot of praise for the ALBA countries, the processes which are taking place in Venezuela, in Bolivia, in Ecuador, but as far as Nicaragua is concerned a lot on the Left have either ignored it or are hostile to the processes that are happening there. Why do think this is the case?
I think there’s a series of origins of this. One is that when people support a revolutionary process they feel they invest a lot of their time and their effort and their emotion into that process. This is something that you clearly see through the Eighties when there was such a large solidarity movement abroad with Nicaragua. When that movement is defeated there’s a kind of bitterness that arises. They feel betrayed by the revolution. That naturally brings out anger and sorrow and disappointment in people. That’s one of the reasons.
The second element is that the Sandinista movement was very broad when it took power. It integrated a lot of groups that were able to come in and take positions of government at very senior levels immediately. They held onto those positions through the 1980s. But when they lost power there was a series of debates – it happened at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union when socialism as an ideal was questioned – many of these particular leaders wanted to go in the direction of the Third Way, a Social Democratic direction for the Frente Sandinista. I can see at the time that could have been a logical conclusion to take from the situation in the world as a whole. The truth is the ones that held onto those revolutionary goals pushed the movement on to take power again at the end of 2006 with those ideals.
I don’t disparage the work and the lives and the efforts that were made by these people in the 1980s but I do think there has been a political mistake in understanding the Sandinistas today. You’ve seen a generational change, for example, in the Sandinista movement. When you go to Nicaragua and you meet Sandinistas you see that the overwhelming majority of them are people from poor backgrounds, they are dark skinned, peasant backgrounds, the urban poor. That wasn’t the case in the Eighties when many of these leaders were educated at university. I think from a class level the Frente Sandinista is more democratic than it ever was before.
I think the final issue is the leadership of the Frente and the turbulence and corruptions that have alledged to have occured with people like Ortega, for example. We don’t know what happend with the criminal allegations against Ortega. It’s inarguable that democratic transitions in the leadership of a movement are a positive thing, and perhaps in Nicaragua you haven’t seen that. But you need to understand that public loyalties are towards people as well. If Daniel is seen as a revolutionary by the majority of the people it’s because he never left them. This was something that was said to me by an old man in Masaya. He said Daniel was there from the Seventies, he went through prison and torture; he was there in the Eighties and in the 1990s when no one gave a shit about us he was there. So I think he’s earned that loyalty and it’s not fair for those of us outside to suddenly say he’s a dictator. That lends itself to be used by people who just want to overthrow the process.
I don’t think that anyone has to support them. For me, if you analyse what the government is doing on the ground, the way people react to that government, then you see the essense of the process and the rest, well that’s for history and the courts to judge, but let the Nicaraguan people decide.
Dr Victor Figueroa Clark lectures at the London School of Economics and is the editor of lefhistory.com (see here)