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In a heavily-commented, highly-recommended diary the other day, Chris Kulczycki surveyed recent electoral victories by the left, center-left, and populists in Latin America. He believes these victories show that the

spirit of Che Guevara, the charismatic revolutionary leader who is still a hero and an inspiration to many Latin Americans, is gaining strength.

In fact, he titled the diary "Che Guevara Smacks Bush!," and a portrait of Che is displayed prominently above the fold.

Unfortunately, Chris has his facts wrong, and the trend his evidence describes is much more diverse than he allows. While it is true there are still Guevarist elements in Latin America, most of them are relegated to the radical fringe in their respective countries. A close look at the political development of Chile is instructive. What happened there in Sunday's election has almost nothing to do with the "spirit of Che Guevara," whatever that might mean.

To ground this historically, we should start with the real historical figure of Che Guevara. Most of us, I think, would recognize his picture:

and most of us probably know that he was Argentine, that he played a prominent leadership role in the Cuban Revolution, and that had iconic status in radical movements the world over in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Some might even know that Che attempted to export Cuban-style revolution to Latin America and Africa, and personally participated in guerrilla movements in Congo and Bolivia.

For now, I'm more interested in his political philosophy, in what might be his "spirit" gaining strength in Latin America. I think for that, we have to look at some key elements of what Che stood for: revolution, Marxism, spontaneity.

Che's was an unorthodox revolutionary Marxism. Although he believed in vanguard parties should lead the revolutionary process, he was less interested in learning and applying the rigorous methodology of dialectical materialism as it had been develooped in the Soviet Union and by the Third International. Revolutions were driven, he thought, by the revolutionary cadre, and the revolutionary process itself stripped people of the bad habits and corrupt consciousness that had characterized the old order. The result of the revolution was a purified "New Man," capable of generous, self-less acts and ready to cooperate in a mutual endeavor to transform society.

Che seems to have believed that it was possible to pass directly from underveloped capitalism straight to advanced communism, passing through a very brief dictatorial stage. As Finance Minister in Cuba in the early 1960s, he eliminated money, in the belief that removing this vestige of capitalism would free people to find their mutual interests.

Clearly a Marxist, Che also shows some Nietzchean elements and there is a strong anarchist, utopian streak in his thought. Through force of will alone, through the correct application of revolutionary violence, he believes, the enlightened revolutionary cadre can bring down the old regime and initiate the communist transformation.

Guevarism swept the world in the 1960s. Not only was his image displayed on t-shirts in just about every continent, young, would-be revolutionaries everywhere voraciously consumed his books. The slogan "two, three, many Vietnams" (from Che's 1967 address to the Tricontinental Congress) became the catchphrase of world revolutionists across the globe.

The "spirit of Che" was clearly present in Chile's Popular Unity, the 1970 political coalition that brought avowed Marxist Salvador Allende to the presidency. While Allende himself was in essence a moderate leftist politician who sought improved living and working conditions for the working class, the left-wing of his coalition was inspired by the Guevarist example.

The center and the left of the Popular Unity coalition split over how rapid a transition to socialism they should implement. The left believed Chile could move rapidly to a full socialist state, and even beyond to a communist society. They argued for immediate nationalizations of the factories, the creation of democratic institutions of popular power, and the distribution of arms to workers' councils.

After Allende was overthrown in 1973, most of Popular Unity's political leadership wound up in exile, many of them in Europe. Carlos Altamirano, who as Secretary General of the Socialist Party was probably the most prominent figure to espouse a Guevarist politics, along with many others went to East Germany. He found he didn't like existing socialism, however, and made his way to Western Europe. There, in the late 1970s, he converted to Eurocommunism, the perestroika revisionism adopted by the Italian Communist Party in the mid 1970s. In 1977 he publicly renounced almost all of his previous political positions in the book Dialectica de una derrota (Dialectic of a Defeat). (A detailed analysis of the "renovation" of the Chilean Socialist Party can be found here.)

Altamirano started a centrist faction within the Socialist Party, which moved back to Chile and allied with the anti-communist Christian Democratic Party. When Chile's Communists and others created an armed movement in the early 80s to overthrow the Pinochet dictatorship by armed force, Altamirano's Socialists entered into negotiations with the dictator, and ultimately agreed to accept the constitution he had imposed on the country in 1980.

In 1988, the military regime sponsored a plebiscite as mandated by that constitution on whether Pinochet should continue another eight years as president. The armed left rejected the plebiscite as a legitimation of dictatorial rule, but Altamirano's Socialists and their Christian Democratic allies agreed to participate in it.

The centrist opposition won the 1988 plebiscite, and their Christian Democratic candidate won the presidential elections held the following year. In 1993, a second Christian Democrat was elected -- again with Altamirano Socialist support. In 2000 the Socialist Ricardo Lagos, heading the Altamiranist Socialist Party, won the presidency with Christian Democratic support. The Lagos administration has consistently shown a firm commitment not just to capitalist economics, but to free trade. To the best of my knowledge, Chile has not yet been invited to join MERCOSUR, the South American trade bloc that has resisted Bush's Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), because Chile's existing tariffs are lower than those imposed by MERCOSUR. At the same time, however, Chile under Lagos has signed and implemented free trade agreements with the United States, the EU, China, and India. In South America, Chile is the strongest supporter of the FTAA.

Michelle Bachelet, who won the first round of Chile's presidential elections on Sunday with about 46% of the vote, has vowed to continue Lagos's economic policy. Her victory in January, however, is not assured, as the two right-wing candidates together took almost 49% of the vote.

If there is still a Guevarist influence in Chile, it is to be found within the Communist Party and the veterans of the 1980s armed movement. At their rallies and in their newspapers it is not uncommon to see Che's image and to read his texts. In fact, here's the cover of the current issue of Punto Final, the house organ of the Chilean Communist party:

The only problem is, the Communists didn't vote for Bachelet on Sunday. They had their own candidate, the Green/Humanist Party's Tomas Hirsch, who got a little over five percent of the vote. The Communists may vote for Bachelet in January, but given the animosity between Communists and Socialists, and especially between Communists and Christian Democrats, it's entirely possible that they won't.

To sum up, Bachelet if anything is anti-Guevarist. She leads a political party that had been Guevarist in the past, but has explicitly and publicly renounced Guevarism as an error that led more or less directly to the establishment of the Pinochet dictatorship. They are friendly to free trade, to anti-Communists, and to the United States. Sunday's election in no way, shape, or form represents any kind of "anti-imperialist" victory.

Originally posted to litho on Wed Dec 14, 2005 at 11:45 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Oh come on, (none)
    Give that Chris kid a break. He meant well, he just has no frigging clue what's going on in Latin America (just like Otto Reich).

    How well the neo-liberal running against Bachelet in the run-off will determine if Macri stands for president of Argentina in 2007.

  •  People I know who are following this election (none)
    Have joked that if Bachelet wins, then the CIA will orchestrate another coup and install a new Pinochet. However, as you stated, Lagos and Bachelet are NOT Allende, and the Socialists are not like they once were during their Popular Unity period. In some respects, Lagos and Bachelet are "SINOs" (Socialists in Name Only.) They also support keeping Chile's private pension system (the one that supporters of destroying Social Security pointed to as a "sucess" - even though it is quite flawed in some respects) the way it is. However, Chile is definately moving to the left, but in the center-left fashion that is more to America's image (not in Bush's liking, but in the sense that historically America's liberal reforms have been pursued in a center-left way...even the New Deal was center-left if you read about the Depression), and not towards Guevarism.
    •  Its like I said (none)
      a development process is part of a country's evolution.  The diarist here is much more knowledgable than I, so the background is very helpful.  I believe the new president, who may retain the vestiges of the social democrats, may very well lean to a more socialistic brand of government in time.  But politicians are leery of revolutionaries and will move slowly to implement some of the changes that they believe in and discard the others. When I was in Chile 30 years ago I witnessed a belief in social justice that was not evident in Brazil.  The Frei family seems to have had a long history of such sentiments.

      Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities-Voltaire

      by hairspray on Wed Dec 14, 2005 at 12:50:39 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Che has become an icon (none)
    El Che is beyond politics now.

    He did not start his revolution in his native Argentina or neighbouring Chile, he started in Cuba with Fidel in the Sierra Maestra.

    He helped put Fidel in power.  Fidel became a tyrant and a butcher. Fidel eventually would have rid himself of Guevara the way he rid himself of most of the original Sierra Maestra revolutionaries.  Oliver Stone's movie hints of future purges.

    Che realized he was good at fighting a guerrilla war so he went to Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, where there is plenty of jungle.

    His Bolivian campaign diaries point out his frustration with Bolivians who did not flock to his side.

    One can disagree with his Marxist philosphy, like I do big time, while admiring his cojones, like I also do.

    If he had succeeded, South America would be another Cuba, not good.; an oasis of truth. -1.75 -7.23

    by Shockwave on Wed Dec 14, 2005 at 12:14:08 PM PST

    •  C'mon (none)
      "If he had succeeded, South America would be another Cuba..."

      So Fidel would have ruled all of South America?  The US would be able to institute an economic embargo on the entire continent?

      There are many unique attributes in the case of Cuba that just wouldn't have applied elsewhere.

  •  not so sure (none)
    Certainly Bachelet is no Marxist, even of Allende's stripe, but her election shows that leftism is still strong in Chile. I predict she will easily win, but I may be biased since my sister-in-law works is in the Chilean Socialist Party.

    From my Chilean experience, I disagree with the supposition that just because Chile has not fully re-embraced its leftism that it does not have strong anti-imperialist leanings. Part of the reason for that is the oppression that occured under Pinochet, which has pushed Chilean politics to the right much the same as 30 years of right-wing foundations and media takeover has done in the US.

    Chileans are by and large very liberal and anti-imperialist (except the upper class, of course). It's just a matter of time until their electoral politics fully reflect this, IMHO. (Not to mention, a few more years of "neo-liberalism" should do the trick as well.)

  •  Poly Litho Graph (none)
    To Litho,  You are uncommonly knowledgable regarding Chilian politics. If you care to, would you outline your credentials or background?

    You seem, as the Freudian's say, over-determined in portraying the current Chilian politics as not as radically leftist (revolutionary?) as a distant Che. Is this because the emphasis in the previous diary was so exagerated, or do other concerns or future results of such a mischaracterization cause you to correct this view so pointedly?


    •  Fair question (none)
      I have a Ph.D. in Latin American history, with a specialty in Chile, I've lived in Chile and taught in the academy there, I was in Chile during 1988-89 when the dictatorship was overthrown at the ballot box, and my wife and son are Chilean.

      There's nothing radical about contemporary Chilean politics. The current government is center-left social democrat, and the right wing is still strong.

      In Sunday's election, Bachelet received about 46% of the vote. The two right-wing candidates combined for about 49% of the vote, and they have already announced they will work together for January's runoff. If they don't lose supporters between now and then, the right wing will win.

      Bachelet's only hope is to strengthen her support among moderates and hopefully peel off two or three percentage points of their supporters. Some radical leftists may vote for her, but many will either nullify their vote or vote for the right (thereby sharpening the conditions to make a revolutionary opening more possible).

      •  I take severe issue (none)
        with this, "In Sunday's election, Bachelet received about 46% of the vote. The two right-wing candidates combined for about 49% of the vote, and they have already announced they will work together for January's runoff. If they don't lose supporters between now and then, the right wing will win."

        It really doesn't take the dynamics of runoff elections into account.  If runoffs worked like that, Mary Landrieu would not currently be in the US Senate.  We may recall that in the initial election in 2002, she recieved 46% of the vote vs. three Republicans who garnered a total of 51%.  Landrieu won the runoff with 52%.  

        Prior polls in the Chile election put Bachelet at 50% or above against both right-wing challengers in the event of a runoff.  This even from a poll that only had her at 41% in polls for the initial election.  I just don't see a candidate who can only manage 25% in the first round of an election coming up with 50% against a popular Bachelet.  I just don't see it as having any chance of happening.

        •  Editing error (none)
          An early draft of that sentence read:

          If they don't lose supporters between now and then, as appears likely, the right wing will win.

          I cut that parenthetical in the interest of clarity, but you're right I sure lost some precision.

          Also, I'm going to confess to a high degree of nervousness about the January runoff. When Lagos was in a similar situation in 1999, I was mostly optimistic, and he did win a narrow but decisive victory over Lavin. I don't know why, but I've got a bad feeling about this race. Piñera is not as clearly a baby-eater as Lavín is, and I'm worried the electorate might get snowed.

          My mother-in-law belongs to an evangelical protestant church, and voted Piñera on Sunday. She tells my wife she's going to vote Bachelet in Januarya, but who the hell knows if that's true?

          •  Now, that makes more sense... (none)
            I also have a suspicion that some moderate voters may have voted Pinera to keep 'baby-eater' Lavin out of a runoff,  I have no evidence, but just a thought.  

            I've also heard that there is a great deal of hostility among Lavin supporters for Pinera.  Do you feel that to be true?  I can imagine a great deal of those Lavin supporters spoiling their ballots come January, especially if Pinera is driving hard to the center.  

            Finally, I'm interested in your last point as to how the growing influence of evangelical Protestantism in the region will affect the race.

            •  Last visit in '03 (none)
              So I can't comment too much on what people were thinking in this particular race. I think the UDI shot their wad, though, when Lavin got elected mayor of Santiago; he hasn't done much, and the party's been going downhill pretty much since. I think it's interesting, for example, that Bombal lost his Senate seat when the Concertacion doubled the right in 8th Norte (IIRC).

              My mother-in-law is probably not too representative of evangelical protestants. She did vote Pinera, on priest's orders as I understand, but she'll probably come around to Bachelet. (She voted Girardi for diputado, which is pretty interesting considering he'd been linked to scandals.) But evangelicals in general see the Concertacion as the devil incarnate -- my brother-in-law's wife, who is much more hardcore, will almost certainly be voting Pinera in the runoff. My brother-in-law himself is keeping his mouth shut about who he is voting for, which probably means he's going right too.

              I'm not sure how much of Chile is protestant right now, but I'm guessing it's about ten percent. With the current division, they're not much of a wedge, but if the right gets its act together they could be more important.

              And, of course, their numbers are always growing...

  •  Excellent Diary, but... (none)
    blaming the Guevarism of the left wing of Popular Unity for Pinochet is a matter open to dispute. One might just as reasonably blame the "centrists" (the right-wing of Popular Unity) around Allende for his failure to arm the workers as demanded by the left to defend against a coup that was well advertised. In a world where neo-liberalism seemed triumphant until a month ago its still hard to imagine an alternative history in which Chile was able to successfully pursue a socialist path that was both democratic AND revolutionary, but an armed working class might have raised the costs of an attempted coup sufficiently to either forestall it ir prevent it from gaining the breadth of support that it needed to triumph.

    This is of course a political as much as a historical difference. Thanks again for such an informative diary.

    "Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories" -- Amilcar Cabral

    by Christopher Day on Wed Dec 14, 2005 at 03:01:05 PM PST

    •  Just a reporter (none)
      My introduction to the history of the Chilean coup was Gabriel Smirnow's The Revolution Disarmed, which makes exactly the argument you make in the comment. Personally, I think the coup was inevitable from the moment Allende got elected, and attempts to arm the workers would only have made it come more quickly. Allende's efforts to negotiate a deal with the Christian Democrats were a waste of breath, as the PDC would accept nothing short of the total defeat of the UP project.

      The diary, however, reports on Altamirano's views. He believes leftist extremism undermined the moderate path, and that a less radicalized UP may have been able to reach a deal with the PDC. His faction of the PS put that into practice as early as 1984, when Pinochet -- in his infamous "juego de piernas" -- split the PS and the PDC off from the PC and put an end to the popular mobilizations that threatened to bring the regime down.

  •  I think you are pissed (none)
    because you didn't write the diary that I did. I don't blame you. You would have done a better job of it. But you are nitpicking over a bit of poetic license. Give it a rest and write a real diary about South American politics, not the vengeful one I just read. I will welcome and recommend it. I am a simple generalist and a writer first, though I have been interested in Latin American politics for many years. You are the expert.

    Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
    You can kill one, but another is born.
    The words are written down, the deed, the date.

    Czeslaw Milosz

    by Chris Kulczycki on Wed Dec 14, 2005 at 07:19:34 PM PST

    •  You framed your diary (none)
      around a basic error in fact. When you make errors like that, you have to expect that someone is going to call you on it.

      It's not nitpicking. Your diary was at the top of the rec list for a good part of Monday, and it was propagating basic misconceptions about Latin American politics.

      Good diaries, Chris, inform. They should not misinform, as yours did.

      I don't know if you've all 200 or so comments your diary provoked, but there's a good number of them in there along the lines of "Hoo-rah, Che Guevara!" Based on what you've read here in this diary, you might want to consider an intellectual responsability of disabusing those people of at least some of the misinformation you peddled them.

  •  Very informative Litho (none)
    One day I'll have to really sit down and read some history about Latin America.

    Who designed the intelligent designer?

    by deano on Tue Dec 20, 2005 at 08:41:51 PM PST

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