Location: United States

I am a graduate student at the State University of New York at Binghamton studying education and history.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Diverse Social Movements Lead Latin American Resistance to Neoliberal Capitalism

The Chavista Revolution in Venezuela and the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico.

*A note on definitions: Neoliberalism, a term often used in this article refers to the policies of "free markets," privatization, austerity measures (cuts to social programs such as healthcare, education and public transportation), etc instituted under Reagan (US) and Thatcher (UK) in the 1980s and systematically forcefed to the rest of the world via various international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF.

The American Professor of literature and anti-globalization activist Michael Hardt contends that there exist “two primary positions in the response to today’s dominant forces of globalization”:
Either one can work to reinforce sovereignty of nation-states as a defensive barrier against the control of foreign and global capital; or one can strive towards a non-national alternative to the present form of globalization that is equally global.[1]

Latin America, in the wake of colonialism, forced labor, independence struggles, bloody civil wars, brutal dictatorships, US military interventions and the destructive impact of the debt regime has been struck particularly hard by the globalization project. The Zapatista Movement in Chiapas, Mexico and the Chavista revolution in Venezuela have come to dominate the respective poles of the anti-globalization movement in Latin America. While the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) has adopted a horizontal power structure, concentrates on local issues and rejects contention in the political realm, the Chavista revolution in Venezuela, while maintaining a strong grass-roots support base, is fighting for global justice through the Venezuelan state under democratically elected President Hugo Chavez. While some commentators, such as Hardt, would argue that the Zapatista movement and Chavista revolution are contradictory and even conflicting forms of political organization, I would argue that the movements are both necessary and complimentary in the fight against powerful corporate interests.

This paper will examine the structure of the Zapatista movement and the Chavista revolution, how each respective structure has allowed the participants to fight back against the onslaught of global capital, and the advantages and disadvantages of each respective system. In concluding, I will argue that the Zapatista movement – representing what Hardt describes as the “democratic-globalization” position, and the Chavista revolution – representing the “national-sovereignty” camp, are complementary and necessary means of protest in attacking the neoliberal order from above and below.[2]

The spike in oil prices in the 1970s saw the Venezuelan economy boom, however the fall in oil prices in the 1980s devastated the economy as the government was forced to seek IMF loans and implement austerity measures.[3] Hugo Chavez was elected President in 1998 against a backdrop of political corruption, economic depression and political and social upheaval. Although Venezuela is the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter and the nation has vast hectares of rich farmland and numerous natural resources, the country’s wealth has been kept from the majority of the people as it is concentrated among Venezuela’s European-elite and siphoned off by foreign-based corporations and investors. It was against these realities of economic and social injustice that the Chavista revolution based its legitimacy. For this short discussion, I will highlight two key features (one domestic and one international) of the Chavista revolution – the nationalization of key industries and the diplomatic pressure against the agents of globalization. I will also describe the relationship with the state, and the advantages and disadvantages of this relationship as the people of Venezuela struggle for “another world.”

Privatization has emerged as a key tenet of neoliberal policy, as powerful transnational corporations have taken control of industry, the cultivation of resources and even basic government services as part of the forced structural adjustment programs of the 1980s. Thus, an integral aspect of the Chavista revolution has been the nationalization of various privately held industries. Chavez has already nationalized key industries including telecommunications and electricity and is threatening to nationalize the steel industry, currently controlled by Siderúrgica del Orinoco (Sidor), which is owned by the Techint Group of Argentina.[4] Chavez warned the company chairman, Paolo Rocca, “I’ll grab your company,” adding “I’ll pay you what its worth…I wont rob you.”[5] Chavez has also threatened to nationalize the banking system, controlled by financial institutions from the US and Spain, unless it agrees to offer low-cost financing to domestic industries.[6] The most significant nationalization project, however, was the nationalization of the massive oil industry announced during May Day (2007) celebrations with Chavez declaring “today is the end of that era when our natural riches ended up the hands of anyone but the Venezuelan people.”[7] Chavez will still allow the private companies, which include Exxon Mobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips to remain as minority partners.[8] These developments will likely allow the President further leverage as he works to redistribute Venezuela’s massive oil wealth to the people through extended social programs, particularly in the realms of health and education. The President also used the opportunity to declare that Venezuela would leave the IMF and World Bank, a development of transcendent importance for the Chavista revolution in the fight against global capitalism.[9]

In the diplomatic realm, Chavez has managed to build a strong support base, despite condemnation from Washington and many of its key allies. In a trip to Great Britain, a key American ally and a harsh critic of the Chavez administration, the Venezuelan President addressed crowds outside the Camden Town Hall and at the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall.[10] Each respective speech of more than three-hours criticized the neoliberal policies of Washington, the IMF and the World Bank and defended Venezuela’s policies of democratic socialism.[11] Chavez also called for British investors to participate in several projects including an underground railway system, a natural gas pipeline and other petrochemical projects.[12] The trip succeeded in bringing acclaim from politically active British youth, Latin American migrants and investors alike.[13]

In Latin America, Chavez’s diplomatic and political leadership has helped other left-leaning candidates gain electoral inroads, and Chavez continues to maintain cordial relationships with neoliberal-oriented leaders in Mexico, Chile and Peru.[14] Such developments have elevated Chavez as a Latin American leader as he pursues policies of mutual aid and solidarity such as the proposal for a hemispheric union, the “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas” (ALBA) as an alternative to Washington’s plans to institute the “Free Trade Area of the Americas” (FTAA).[15] Chavez has also advocated a collective negotiation of the Latin American debt, featuring 10% of the payments going to an “International Humanitarian Fund” to implement social programs without neoliberal strings attached.[16] His popularity among Latin America’s poor and oppressed was seen at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre where, compared to the mixed reaction to Brazilian President Lula’s speech, Chavez received thunderous applause as he emphasized his commitment to grass-root struggles declaring: “I am not here as the President of Venezuela… I am only President because of particular circumstances. I am Hugo Chavez and am an activist as well as a revolutionary.”[17]

On the World Stage, Chavez appeared before the United Nations, clutching a copy of world renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony of Survival and declaring that the world was “standing up” against “American imperialism.”[18] Chavez called for an end to imperialist wars, and expressed solidarity with the people of Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Latin America, the African Union, Russia and China among others.[19] Chavez closed by calling for a new era: “for our children and our grandchildren a world of peace based on the fundamental principles of the United Nations, but a renewed United Nations.”[20] The speech was hailed by a loud and enthusiastic round of applause, demonstrating a strong and growing support base for the ideals of Chavismo on the international level.

While the Chavista revolution has thus far maintained a relatively vertical structure, it also features a massive support base of some 60% of the electorate.[21] Massive popular mobilizations have played a decisive role in ensuring the continuity of the revolution, particularly during the attempted coup in April 2002. Moreover, the groundswell of support has served to legitimize Chavez’ rule in the face of accusations that he is becoming increasingly dictatorial. Ensuring the viability and sustainability of the Chavista revolution will greatly depend on a continued alliance between the state and the grass-roots activists in Venezuelan society.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Zapatista movement began on January 1, 1994 when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) seized several municipalities in Chiapas with the intent of establishing autonomous communities. The uprising corresponded with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but was also a response to neoliberal governmental policies as well as the failure to fulfill the land rights under Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution. While the Chavista revolution focused on state power, thus falling under Hardt’s “national-sovereignty” camp, the Zapatista’s have rejected the seizure of state power, thus encompassing the “democratic-globalization” position. For this discussion I will highlight two key components of the Zapatista movement – the establishment of autonomous communities and the formation of a transnational solidarity network.

The liberal projects of the 19th century sought to transform communal landholdings into individually owned holdings, a development which stood in stark contrast to indigenous conceptions of land.[22] The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the subsequent Constitution of 1917 (particularly Article 27) sought to redress the previous expropriations with the establishment of the ejido and the restitution of communal holdings.[23] Following the 1982 financial collapse in Mexico and the forced austerity measures that followed, the communal land holdings, as well as government services, began to erode. Preparations for the signing of NAFTA exacerbated these trends, as Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution was revised to allow for the dissolution of the ejido. Historically the Mexican indigenous, a majority in Chiapas, have been systematically excluded from the workings of the state. This has created a situation whereby the Zapatistas no longer aspire to seize state power. Instead, their structure is horizontal in nature, focusing on two key tenets – “mandar obedeciendo” (command obeying) and the constant alteration of representatives within the Juntas of Good Government.[24] The Zapatista communities have focused on providing what the government has failed to – land reform, education and basic healthcare. With the failure of the PRI to implement the San Andreas Accords, the Zapatistas have taken it upon themselves to initiate the reforms. “We don’t need the government’s permission to build our own autonomy,” the commandantes insist.[25]

While the Zapatista’s primary focus remains local in scope, they have also been successful in establishing a transnational solidarity network. Solidarity networks, inspired and encouraged by the Zapatista movement, have sprung-up throughout the world providing a sort of “transnational spotlight [providing] protection vis-à-vis the Mexican state and military.”[26] Furthermore, the Zapatistas, with their barrage of online publications and communiqués, have illustrated that the problems many Mexicans, and indeed many other oppressed peoples, face is rooted outside the borders of the country.[27] The Zapatistas have used the concept of neoliberalism to link the problems created by unrestrained global capitalism to struggles other populations face and have thus facilitated the formation of an important component in the anti-globalization struggle - all from the marginal state of Chiapas in Southern Mexico. Still, the Zapatistas have been criticized with the “slowness of their advance” which is attributed to “their inability to broaden [their struggle] into a class struggle, a national one.”[28] Naomi Klein argues that this is not necessary however, for the Zapatistas, along with countless other local movements like it, should continue to focus on the local struggle while networking outward, thus creating, in the words of the Zapatistas “one world with many worlds in it.”[29]

As our examination of the Chavista revolution and the Zapatista movement has shown, the anti-globalization struggle has taken many different forms, some of which seem radically opposed in the opinion of observers such as Michael Hardt. I would argue to the contrary however, as the Chavista revolution and the Zapatista movement, while assuming varying forms and divergent relations to the state, have nevertheless taken strides in opposing the neoliberal capitalist order. In the domestic realm the Chavista revolution has succeeded through the nationalization of key industries and the expansion of social programs, while the Zapatistas have succeeded by carving an autonomous social space free from the reach of global capital. On the international stage, Chavez continues to make strides in forming a state-based alliance against the neoliberal order while the Zapatistas have built transnational linkages with supporters and other new social movements. It is my contention that these unique and separate processes are integral to combat neoliberal capitalism from above and below in the struggle for the attainment of another world.

[1] Tom Mertes, ed.; with contributions by Walden Bello, et al. A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible? London and New York: Verso, 2004. 232
[2] Mertes, 241
[3] BBC Timeline: Venezuela – A Chronology of Key Events. BBC News (accessed May 6, 2007)
[4] Simon Romero. “Chavez Rattles Takeover Saber at Steel Company and Banks,” The New York Times (May 7, 2007) (accessed May 8, 2007).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Simon Romero. “Chavez Takes Over Foreign-Controlled Oil Projects in Venezuela,” The New York Times (May 2, 2007) (accessed May 8, 2007).
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Hugh O'Shaughnessy. “Venezuela's President Chavez Wins Hearts and Minds in London,” The Observer, London (May 22, 2006) pg. 9.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Steve Ellner. “Venezuela: Defying Globalization’s Logic,” North American Congress on Latin America, Vol. 39, No. 2 September/October 2005 (October 17. 2005) available at (accessed May 7, 2007).
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Chavez Address to the United Nations (September 20, 2006) available at (accessed May 6, 2007).
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ellner.
[22] Jose Rabasa. “On the History of the History of the Peoples Without History.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations (accessed May 1, 2007), 205.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Rabasa, 210
[25] John Ross. “Celebrating the Caracoles: Step by Step, the Zapatistas Advance on the Horizon.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations (accessed may 1, 2007), 46.
[26] Thomas Olesen. “Mixing the Scales: Neoliberalism and the Transnational Zapatista Solidarity Network.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations (accessed May 2, 2007), 84.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Mertes, 42
[29] Mertes, 228


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