Pragoti presents an exclusive interview with professor Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, USA. Vijay Prashad has also written in and edited the book, "Dispatches from Latin America: The Frontline Against Neo-liberalism". Prashad answers questions related to the political situation in the United States and in Latin America.
On the US Elections Q. Do you believe that the Democrats would have an edge over the Republicans in the forthcoming elections given the unpopularity of the Bush regime? Does the unpopularity reflect a general outrage against the policies of the Republicans or a mere disapproval of Bush and his close associates? The Bush regime is very unpopular. At this point, polls indicate that about 28% of the electorate still holds faith with President Bush and his policies. The mid-term elections of 2006 provided a window of the general discontent against the Republicans, with the victory of Democratic populists in states that had become rotton boroughs for the Right (Virginia, Montana). Some of this can be explained by a demographic shift in these states, rather than in any major shift in the consciousness of the US population. Professionals who work in Washington, DC and in Baltimore have moved into the suburbs and ex-urbs that have grown into Virginia; these people do not have the same kind of religious backgrounds garned by the Christian Right and the class resentments fostered by the near fascist Right. In other words, there is a general revulsion against the Bush clique, and Bush as the embodiment of idiocy, as well as a slow erosion of the unbeatable base fostered by the Right from the Nixon years onward. The gains come to the Democrats because this is a two party system. The Democrats have done little to deserve the 2006 victory, and what seems to be an inevitable victory in the presidential election this November. Rather than frontally challenge the Bush administration on Iraq, they preferred to be “responsible,” which means to try to better manage the Occupation. They also took the important political (and Constitutional) weapon of impeachment off the table. The Republicans had no such “national interest” qualms when they went after Clinton in the last years of his presidency (the impeachment proceedings tied up government and made it impossible for Clinton to do anything substantial). Q. Given that the elections in the US are personalised to an extent, who do you think has an edge in terms of winnability in the contest between Mc Cain and Obama? One should not underestimate the gloom of these eight years. Bush has pursued the strategy of govern through the propogation of fear among the population and then use force against the adversaries who he claims is the cause of this fear. The sentiment this kind of politics produces is both fear and despondency. There is nothing of the “morning in America” kind of rhetoric of Reagan, who was able to link belligerence on the world stage with a sunny disposition about America itself. Bush, because of 911, the Enron scandal, the collapse of the subprime market, could not afford to be cavalier: all that was left for him was the gloom. McCain is the inheritor of this political position, and he is having a hard time walking away from it. This is where Obama’s appeal lies. He rejects the politics of fear, which appeals not only to the youth, who have been very active in his campaign, but to those who are fed up with the costs of fearmongering. Q. Racism had become one of the issues in the internal elections of the Democrats, esp. after the utterances by Obama’s pastor. Do you think the issue of racism would be one of the dominant discourses in the forthcoming elections? The question of race is of course central. In a positive way, the fact that Obama is the candidate and that he might become president is very significant for a country founded on the dispossession of people who hail from or whose ancestors hail from Africa. African Americans entered the electoral sphere only forty years ago, and in these years the backlash against the Civil Rights victories has been very significant. Affirmative action and voting rights have both been severely curtailed. Yet, Obama has made it to the apex. One could see this as simply a fig-leaf: a parallel to the kind of neo-colonialism thesis of Kwame Nkrumah. But this is very shallow. It is true that Obama’s election will not mean the end of racism, but his candidacy is certainly a blow to the hard Right, to the racist element. At the same time, this hard Right has already been trying to use the politics of fear, here of a black man in the White House, to create anxiety about Obama. It will probably not work, largely because there is a sentiment against the politics of fear itself. Q. Is Obama’s ‘politics of change’ campaign merely an eyewash or do you believe that there is some truth in it? The idea of the “politics of change” should not be restricted to Obama’s political positions or the Democrats’ programmme. Obviously, the space of maneuver for Obama and for the liberal-populists in the Democratic Party is very narrow. The agenda they propose is modest and in many cases retrograde. An Obama presidency will certainly not move a progressive set of policies across the board. What it will do, however, is to shift the tenor of US politics toward possibilities. From fear and “there is no alternative” we might come to the stage of hope and alternatives. This will be a major advance for the US polity. Q. How important a role is the current recession in the US economy going to play in these elections? Can the campaign of ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ of the Democrats during Bill Clinton’s first elections play a role in this year’s election too? Is the economic recession and its fallout an integral part of Obama’s campaign? Economic turmoil is always bad for incumbents, regardless of their potential to turn the economy around. Carter was damaged by stagflation, even as he might have had a more socially productive way to deal with it than Reagan (who relied upon the military multiplier and on borrowing from the future). So Obama has to do nothing to benefit from the economic problems. Indeed, his proposals are hardly reassuring – higher taxes on the superrich toward a stimulus package for the supply side, and nothing from the populist side against “free trade” or financialization. Indeed, on the economy, populism has come to mean railing against China (for its “cheap” products and “unfair” trade practices) and India (for its outsourcing). The real meat of populism, a new tax policy and a jobs programme, are off the table. McCain has himself said that “economics is not my strong suit,” which gives the advantage to Obama. But that advantage is not in the court of the populist-liberals, who will be dissatisfied as Obama moves toward the kind of conservatism of Clinton – “fiscal responsibility” and “free trade” rather than Keynesian demand stimulation and constraints on finance capital. Q. We have been hearing in India that the Bush regime, after its pathetic performance on the foreign policy front, has been banking on the Indo-US Nuclear deal to bail it out. How is the Nuke deal being received in the US political circles? The nuke deal is barely mentioned at all. I wrote about this last year in Frontline, how there is virtually no debate on the deal at all. The Washington Post editorial on the deal (June 25, 2008), the most significant mainstream statement on it, pointed out that the deal is more an opportunity for India than for the US. “India is clearly destined for a greater role on the world stage,” the influential editors wrote, and the yoke with the US will allow it to take its place on that stage. The advantage for the US is also an advantage for India, according to the editors, who pointed out that these shared “strategic priorities” include “blunting Chinese military power and resisting Islamic terrorism.” In many ways, this is the nature of the coverage – that this is a deal in India’s favor, and that the US does not get anything from it. When Clinton’s presidency was in a downward freefall after the impeachment period, he banked on a trip to India; Bush’s move to India is similar. Clinton wanted an economic partner from the Global South to muscle the former Non-Aligned partners into the free market-globalization line; he hoped that India would be that “subordinate ally.” Bush wants a military partner who will do the same kind of work among the NAM states to bail out the US military from its overreach in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. The isolation of Iran and the encirclement of China are a part of this strategy. But discussion on these themes are restricted to the policy papers of the Pentagon and the neo-conservatives; the deal itself is talked about more in terms of India’s arrival on the world stage rather than on the advantages to the US of the partnership. On the Latin American Resistance Q. Do you think it was a wise decision for the Communist Party of Venezuela not to merge with Chávez’s new United Socialist Party of Venezuela? Why? A merger of the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) with the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) would have been detrimental to the Bolivarian Revolution. Some argue that the PCV did not merge for fear of liquidation, that the party wanted to preserve its own identity at all costs. This is not entirely the case. The process by which the PSUV was formed is important for any analysis of the PCV’s decision. The PSUV will form its political line and its organization model only after a collective (horizontal) process. This party-building process will come up with the goals and the means of achieving them. The PCV is a party founded in 1931, with a long tradition. It is the fourth largest bloc in the Bolivarian coalition. The PCV plays a fundamental role in maintaining an independent Marxist-Leninist agenda outside the left-populism of the PSUV. A year after berating the PCV for not wanting to join the new party, Chavez himself recognized that the PCV’s decision was wise. The recent chaos around the explusion of Luis Tascón from the not yet formed PSUV is another indication of the importance of having an independent Marxist party, with norms that are established and democratic. Q. Do you think the timing of the referendum by Chávez was a correct political decision? How is the defeat in the referendum playing out in the politics of Venezuela? First, the defeat was by a very small margin (1.3%). But it was a defeat nonetheless. In December 2006, Chavez proposed to transition Venezuela into “21st Century Socialism,” at which time he also called for the merger of all his allies into the PSUV. But rather than take the message to the grassroots, the Chavez regime went into hibernation, emerging with thirty-three new articles for the Constitution. The National Assembly then put forward thirty six more articles. Many of these are very good (to strengthen participatory democracy, attacking neoliberal policies). The controversial articles included a stronger, robust land reform agenda, the protection of the oil industry from privatisation, reduction of the working week (to 36 hours from 44). There was also a raft of proposals to strengthen the presidency. The Chavez team read the public mood incorrectly. They did not notice that the process by which the referendum had been generated alienated large sections, and that this backroom process allowed the opposition some room to campaign against it from the Right. When the tide seemed to turn in the opinion polls, Chavez made it a referendum about his presidency, which was a mistake. It was always a referendum about the Bolivarian revolution, which is larger than the inefficiencies of the current regime and its scandals. To link the larger reforms to this presidency minimized its importance. The isolation of the grassroots in the process led to the formation of the Revolutionary Grassroots Front of the South, a movement formed to challenge the bureaucratization of the Venezuelan section of the continental Bolivarian revolution. Q. What is the state of Zapatista movement in Mexico and what has led to its decline? In an interview with the Colombian journal Gatopardo (December 2007), the EZLN’s Subcomandante Marcos said that “we are now out of style.” The EZLN became the poster-child of the anti-globalization movement in the 1990s. Its iconic role has now waned, partly because of the facile way in which it was adopted in the first place (that is, without serious investigation of its programme, among other matters). On the world stage, it was more the “coolness” of the EZLN than its ability to move an agenda that mattered – keep in mind that the equally important El Caracazo, the working class uprising in Caracas in 1989, was not similarly iconized, nor was the January 4, 1993, protest in the Ogoni lands of Nigeria against Shell Oil, where 300,000 of the 500,000 Ogoni people came out on the streets and byways. The EZLN was media-savvy, and Marcos was particulary clever at making room for the movement. But its expectations easily outweighed its capacity. So the EZLN has undergone a media decline, not a real decline in Chiapas, its base. There it continues to have a presence, and it will have an even more important presence in the opposition to Plan Mexico, the US-Mexican initiative to take on dissent in Mexico, label it narco-terrorism and crush it militarily. As Marcos put it, “an artificial social conflict is created, cultivated as if in a laboratory, and then government forces enter to bring peace.” Q. Do you see an ‘alternative’ policy regime emerging from the experience of the Latin American countries? Does it have the potential to become the bulwark of resistance to the unipolarity in the world? It is important to separate out the various problems of the domestic Venezuelan scene from the Bolivarian alternative posed for Latin America by the Venezuelan revolution. That alternative is wide-ranging, but best articlated in the anti-neoliberal Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, a grouping of four member states (Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela) and four observer states (Ecuador, Uruguay, the Dominican Republic and St. Kitts). The ALBA is committed to an alternative to neoliberal globalization, calling for trade and investment to be based on cooperation, putting people before profit. One way to do this is for states to cooperate in the provision of free healthcare and free ducation to the people in the zone. The centrality of healthcare and education to this agenda is very important, and it is a lesson we should take in other countries of the Global South. To those who say there is no alternative to neoliberalism, we should answer, that while this might be so in terms of the immediate creation of socialism, it is certainly not so in the creation of this element of radical social democracy – free healthcare and education of good quality are essential goods that must be provided by any government today. This should be a minimum demand, and ALBA has put that on the agenda. One way ALBA can do this is with the vast petro-dollars that have flooded Venezuela, but also Bolivia and Ecuador, all oil and gas states. But ALBA has also provided an institutional model. It is organized into three councils: a presidential council of the major leaders; a ministerial council of the concerned government officials; a social movement council of the major social groups, such as the movement of the landless of Brazil and the Via Campesina. Via the third circle, the social movements are able to put forward their proposals for the new order, and these make their way to the other circles for discussion. The creativity of the process is as important, therefore as its outcomes. Q. Don’t you think the policies actually implemented even by the Left leaning Presidents like Lula are at variance with their pre-election programmes? Are these deviations from their programmes incidental or do they form a part of the strategy of ‘one step forward and two steps back’? I take my lead on Brazil from Emir Sader, one of the most important left intellectuals in South Ameica. Sader contributed a very strong critique of the Lula regime in the book Teo Ballve and I edited for Leftword. In 2007, after the first round of voting for the Brazilian president, and after Lula’s considerable march back from the Workers’ Party (PT) manifesto in his first term as president, Sader wrote a very strong piece arguing nonetheless for a vote for the PT. Lula’s regime, he conceded, would not be willing to promote the kind of reforms underway in Venezuela, or even in Bolivia. It would continue to capitulate to industry, even as the Lula regime would protect the nationalised oil industry, promote a more just minimum wage, conduct rural electrification, spend more on education and healthcare, etc. The real issue is the question of regional integration, whether Brazil would be part of the ALBA process, and of the reassertion of the Global South, what role Brazil would play in the Doha negotiations and other such forums. Brazil is not Venezuela; each country will have to struggle to settle accounts with its past. But Brazil under the PT is a more reliable player in regional integration, which might be the best ally for the Brazilian social movements to gain more power over the PT and over Brazilian development. This is why the Movement of the Landless, a Brazilian group, is a leader in the social movements council of ALBA even as Brazil is not a full member. Q. With FARC on the retreat, do you see the end of radical guerilla movements in Latin America? In early March, Chavez called Colombia the “Israel of Latin America,” indicating that his neighbor had begun to play the role of a subordinate ally to the US in South America, mimicking the role played by Israel in West Asia. The Plan Colombia, a US-funded counterinsurgency programme, has tried to crush the FARC and other armed guerrillas operating in Colombia, but also to send a message to other left movements in the continent. Colombia plays the role of counter-insurgent in the region. That is important to consider when you look at FARC. Unlike other radical guerrilla movements (such as the Shining Path), FARC has not glorified violence. It emerged as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party in 1964, when the path of legality was severely constrained by the bourgeoisie. Space opened up once more in the 1980s, so that the FARC partisans formed an above ground political party, the Patriotic Union (UP) to contest elections. The UP faced severe repression from the paramilitaries and the state, with the assassination of many of its candidates and cadre. That experience sent the FARC back into the forest, from where it has continued to fight a long-range struggle. The FARC recognized recently that it would not be able to shake the Colombian state by force, so it sought some kind of political settlement. Chavez played the role of the intermediary in the hostage release process, which would have built confidence in bringing FARC to the surface, and alongside the Polo Democratico Alternativo (PDA), the main Colombian opposition alliance, forming a strong electoral and political combination. In the PDA, there is a left pole which comprises the former Communist Party, the demobilized M19 guerrilla movement and the Maoists. FARC could be a valuable part of this pole, which would in turn maintain the PDA to the left (the FARC would be a counter to the “centrists” who now dominate the PDA). The FARC might have waited too long. The FARC’s highpoint was in the late 1990s. If it had made a political agreement then, when there was a will amongst the people for such an arrangement, then today Colombia would have a strong left to overcome the near fascist Right led by Uribe. The situation would resemble El Salvador, where the FMLN made a deal when it was still strong and is now poised to win the elections in 2009. The Colombian state is no longer willing to open to the FARC. The Colombian state sought to attack the FARC and to kill some of its important leaders. The Colombian state needs to be pressured to make space for FARC to come above ground. Q. What are your views on the indigenous movements in Latin America? Where do you place them in the struggle for a true Bolivarian alternative? In the struggle to re-found the Left, the indigenous movements played a central role. It was on the terrain of the indigenous struggles that many in Latin America gained the confidence to challenge neoliberalism (notably in the indigenous-led fight against resource extraction firms, typically oil companies). These indigenous movements, such as in Ecuador, recognized early that there’s was not simply a movement for their communities, but also for the recreation of their societies. This enabled them to make alliances with worker and peasant organizations that learned, in the process, to foreground questions of dignity. This experience is widely recognized in the Venezuelan process, where there is now a Minister of Popular Power for Indigenous Peoples (the minister is Nicia Maldonado, previously president of Venezuela’s national indigenous organisation, CONIVE). In 2004, Chavez’s regime changed the name of October 12 from Day of the Discovery of America to Day of Indigeous Resistance, to recognize the heritage of indigenous struggle against colonialism. Chavez and Maldonado (when at CONIVE) inaugurated the Guaicaipuro Mission (named for a hero in the 1560s resistance) to take social goods to Venezuela’s indigenous. In August 2007, Maldonado, now as a government minister, inaugurated the First International Congress of the Anti-Imperialist Indigenous Peoples of Latin America. Thousands of delegates from across the world came to join a front against imperialism, and for an alternative (represented here by ALBA). Q. In terms of parliamentary democracy, do you think political coalitions played a role in ascendancy of Left in the Latin American countries? Can the Left in India draw some lessons from it? Smothered by the dictatorships, the various social and political movements joined together in the 1970s and 1980s to create unity of action. The condition of the dictatorships provided them with the material basis for unity. This experience was very important because it did not allow a gap to open between the socio-political movements and the new social movements. During the 1990s, as the dictatorships crumbled, this unity of action was strengthened in the new struggles against neoliberal, democratic experiments. The unity in the struggle against the dictatorship and in the fight against neoliberal globalization provided a foundation for the left to build strong coalition among the people, and to make a bid for power. Further, the varied experiences of the socio-political movements and the new social movements allowed the left to come to governance with a variety of new proposals to feed the alternative agenda. The Bolivarian experiment is the fruit of this unity of action. The Indian experience is different. The socio-political forces and the new social movements have not had the same kind of material basis for unity: if the Emergency had lasted longer this might have been fashioned. The gap between the socio-political Left and the new social movement Left is very great, but it cannot be joined alone by a process of will. The bridge has to be built in struggle, as the Latin American experience suggests.