Arun Chowdhury Memorial Lecture

“The New Wave of Socialism in Latin America”

Subhasis Mukherjee

Prof Edgar Isch Lopez, an eminent social scientist from Central University of Ecuador and former minister in the leftist government of Ecuador, delivered the 7th Arun Chowdhury Memorial Lecture on 31 March 2023 at Sarala Roy Memorial Hall. Prof Isch spoke on "The New Wave of Socialism in Latin America-Vibrancy and its Lessons". The session was chaired by Sri Anirban Chattopa-dhyay, eminent Editor and Columnist.

Arun Chowdhury was born in Kolkata, Bengal, British India on 31st March, 1929, became a member of the CPI in 1947 and took part in various mass movements. Joining as Headmaster of Nagari High School, in Nagari village, Birbhum, West Bengal in 1953, he tirelessly engaged himself in building new schools for the marginalised people in the district. He devoted most of his life to the service of the Communist movement in Bengal and in helping the socially oppressed. In addition to his political activities, he was a scholar of regional history and folk culture. He was also an ardent proponent of tribal rights, history and culture. He pushed for recognition and integration of tribal languages, scripts and history within Government affiliated curricula in West Bengal. Mr Chowdhury breathed his last on 18th June 2015.

Arun Chowdhury Memorial Trust has been organising the annual memorial lecture since 2016 on subjects having social significance.

The evening started with Dr Abhijit Chowdhury - eminent physician and a leading figure in community health and education initiative in West Bengal - welcoming the audience on behalf of Arun Chowdhury Memorial Trust and briefly elaborating the background of selection of the subject and the speaker, and articulated the expectations of the audience. Sri Biman Basu, veteran Left leader of West Bengal formally felicitated Prof Isch.

While introducing the speaker Sri Anirban Chattopadhyay briefly described Prof Isch’s background and the relevance of the story of Latin America's anti-imperialist struggle in the Indian context, although the regions are thousands of miles apart. He also said “ ….we in West Bengal and Kolkata have always been kind of enamoured by the Literature, Culture, Music and radical politics of Latin America” and that's the reason for the eagerness of the audience to hear about their new ways of struggle against imperialism and neo-liberalism.

Prof Isch delivered his lecture with the help of a presentation. He narrated the geo-political similarities and differences among different nations in Latin America. Latin America is “one of the biggest eco-diverse regions of the world” with the mountainous Andean region, with big rivers, forests and water which for ages have been targets of imperialist plunder. People in Latin America say “Our country is so rich that it has been stolen so much and yet we still have it.”

Prof Isch recalled the rich history of Latin America and its famed empires: Maya, Aztec, Inca. The people and nations have a pool of indigenous knowledge on Agriculture, Hydraulic management, Architecture engineering etc.

Demographically Latin American and Caribbean countries possess gender equity and are mostly young. If one takes 100 people as a sample, 29 will be under 14 years of age, 27 between 15 and 29, 38 between 30 and 65 and 6 would be older. If classified, according to the ethnic groups, 35 of the 100 people will be white, 29 Mixed or mestizo (a new cultural reality), 24 Afro-descendants, 11 Indigenous and rest would belong to different minority groups.

Latin American countries have a chequred history of struggle against colonial rulers. Through the nineteenth century the fights were led by the “Criollos” who were descendants of the Spanish. However, independence from colonial rulers was the “last day of this despotism and the first day of the same”. Post- independence, social injustice conditions were maintained, including slavery. The first independent nation was Haiti. The black slaves took the flags of the French revolution but for this they have not been forgiven until today. In the Andes region, the figure of Simon Bolivar was the main inspiration.

Coming to the present situation, Prof Isch told about the deep rooted inequality across the nations. “Today there are walls that separate people in extreme poverty from people who are very wealthy.” With representative photographs, he demonstrated the “Physical and symbolic walls”. According to him, “the social division of the colonial era has left deep marks and it is aggravated by the class division of capitalism”. Further, ‘the old colonial division by race or by skin colour is still present today. For this reason it is necessary to decolonise thought, laws and social practices. In general, the system of oppression combines a condition of social class, a condition of gender and ethnic condition’.

Some of the other realities of Latin America, as told by Prof Isch are that “International statistics place Latin America as a region with the greatest inequality in the world. Across Latin America, 140 million people, around 55% of the workforce, are in the informal economy and almost 1 in 5, lives in slums. Up to 52 million people could fall into poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean, as a result of the Covid pandemic, taking the fight against poverty back 15 years.”

Latin America faced imperialist domination in various forms: direct invasions, Coups etc. Also external debt is being used as a system of chaining and imposition of neoliberalism. The imposition is also achieved through controlled InternationalTrade. Moreover there are controls over the news media, and socio-cultural apparatus like Churches, television and movies. Educational plans are being introduced based on neoliberal values.

There are American military bases in Latin American countries. 12 in Panama, 9 in Columbia, 8 in Peru, 3 in Mexico, 3 in Honduras and 2 in Paraguay.

In spite of the odds there are popular struggles across Latin America. Workers are fighting for their rights. The neoliberal governments have weakened the workers’ organisations though they are active and in the process of recovery. Indigenous peoples have a long history of struggle. They are the ones who confront the ‘extractivist’ companies plundering the region of its vast natural resources. Indigenous peoples’ idea of Sumakkawsay (good coexistence) ushered constitutional changes to include the rights of nature.

Women movements are very active and are very close to the workers and indigenous organisations. Peasants are fighting for land, water and traditional and indigenous ways of producing and protecting seeds. Teachers and students are fighting for the right to education. Youth are more active for their rights and for environmental issues and for a new society.

But Prof Isch clarified that the struggles are mostly “fought for the dream of improving the family and territorial situation” and “still little for a new society”.

According to him “There are many differences between progressive socialist, liberation Christians, feminists, indigenous and Marxist positions. Many of these differences are expressed at the electoral level. However, unity in action is usually present in popular uprisings and in social struggle”. As for inspiration for struggle, “influence of the Cuban revolution is present but has weakened compared to the situation in the 20th century” and Che Guevara remains an icon for the youth.

He reiterated that “in the current conditions, there are very few organisations that favour the armed struggle, although there is no wavering on the need for revolutionary violence as a principle. …The parliamentary and electoral struggle, in most cases, is seen as an accumulation of forces and as a demonstration of what the people can do through local governments”. Consequently “when governments fail, it is a hard blow to the positions of the left and in favour of socialism”.

Prof Isch elaborated different realities popular movements are facing across Latin America. In Brazil there is a democratic alliance between the left and the nationalist right. A leftist government attacked by Imperialism today is also fighting against corruption in Venezuela. In Bolivia, there is a strong indigenous presence in the government who are championing the Andean indigenous worldview. In Columbia, for the first time it has a democratic and left-wing government. It must face fascist currents. In Mexico, a nationalist government is listening to popular demands and has the strength to face political onslaught of imperialism.

Governments in Argentina and Chile are national “popular projects”. They make reforms which are not radical enough.

In Ecuador, the neoliberal government is very much weakened and it is possible that the president will have to face a political trial (impeachment). A section of the Right wants to use popular movement in their favour, but it is the indigenous and popular forces that are driving the trial. Whereas in El Salvador, an authoritarian government is talking about promoting capitalism based on crypto currencies. Peru has the most reactionary regime and the Right has carried out a coup. More than 100 people died in the protest. However the popular forces are continuing their struggle.

Prof Isch ended his lecture by saying that “History isn't defined by cycles and let's consider the fact that “people make history” by constantly transforming society and themselves with advances and setbacks that resemble a zigzag. Conscious and voluntary action of the people, however, is determined by historical and specific productive conditions”. He reminded Engles as quoted by Rosa Luxemburg “Capitalist society is faced with a dilemma: advance to socialism or return to barbarism” and concluded with the call “The present is for struggle. The future is ours”.

The question-answer session was a vibrant one and reflected the synergy the lecture was able to create. Asked about the character of the present Chilean regime, Prof Isch answered that at best it can be termed as a popular nationalist government and no reason to consider it as a socialist one. Asked why recent popular movements in Latin America have so far failed to produce a black leader, his answer was that grass-roots movements in Latin America do have a lot of contradictions and are trying to overcome them. The question of having a black leadership is one such contradiction. On how the Chinese investments in Latin America are being looked upon by anti-imperialist movements, he answered that at least they are better than the American imperialists who have their military bases in most Latin American countries and definitely, Chinese investments are not considered as a “socialist” one.

The lecture was attended by leaders and activists from the Left movements in Kolkata and around West Bengal.

At the end Dr Jayati Chakraborty, offered the Vote of Thanks on behalf of the Foundation.

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Vol 55, No. 45, May 7 - 13, 2023