Teaching from the south

A close working relationship with our European partners does not preclude us from drawing on certain examples or experiences from Latin America. As we form our political and social strategies, it’s important to monitor how developments are unfolding in Latin America. – Alexis Tsipras

Syriza’s stunning victory in Greece’s election has been a win for the left in Europe. Naturally, there has been plenty written on this but I would like to contribute some lessons Syriza can learn from recent history that are worth thinking about in their attempts to overcome the neoliberal model.

First Latin America, then Greece?

What is happening in Europe today has some similarities to Latin America’s ‘pink tide’. Since the turn of the century several Latin American nations have been ruled by leftist governments (Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Nicaragua, El Salvador) many of which can be considered populist. Populist is often used as a derogatory term, but these parties, and now governments, want to speak in the name of the people. The left-wing populists promise the people the impossible: that the people, and not the market, could be in charge.

Of course even the suggestion that this is possible scares many. In fact, the former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras had already warned that Syriza wants to ‘turn the country into a European edition of Venezuela.’ However hyperbolic and appealing this is, it is impossible given the historical, structural and geographical differences.

Yet, as the current Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras himself said:

We can certainly benefit from cooperating with Latin America through the exchange of best practices on key matters, such as our shared views on economic crises, debt, or international trade agreements. The left has been following the developments there for quite some time, long before the consequences of the crisis resulted in the historic opportunities that are now before us.

Global neoliberalism

The first similarity is the economic condition. Much of the reason of the success of Syriza is due to the failures of austerity in Greece under the neoliberal paradigm. The first decisive global break with this paradigm came around the turn of the century, when political parties supported by anti-capitalist social movements swept to power across the Latin American continent. It was not only the electoral success of charismatic leaders, but popular movements outside the traditional parties that became powerful political forces and altered the balance of power – very similar to what is happening in Greece, and Spain.

Greece’s crisis also followed a pattern familiar to Latin American nations in which large oligarchs dominated society, pushed for free market reform and helped run the economy into the ground. Additionally, the Greek crisis, like that of other European nations such as Spain, went from being an economic and social crisis into a political crisis. The old political system had all but collapsed allowing space for newcomer parties to enter.

The similarity is somewhat striking when we look at the social suffering caused by cutting social programmes and spending, and rolling back hard-won protections for labour and marginalised groups. This led to widespread social discontent and rebellion out of which emerged new political parties and groupings very distinct from those that had dominated the left for most of the 20th century. Both Syriza, and Latin American movements, from Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and Venezuela emerged out of the coming together of diverse currents on the left.

Debt conditions

Syriza’s election wins have solved the first part of Greece’s problem: how to gain political power on an anti-austerity platform? The second and harder part is actually making a dramatic change to the economic model. And due to some of the similarities with Latin America’s previous experiences, Syriza could do well to learn the good and bad from them.

One of the key problems is that of debt. Greece’s debt renegotiations are at the forefront of the new Syriza’s government plan. Many authors have drawn similarities to Argentina, and even suggested a similar tactic in renegotiating and defaulting on debt along with the devaluation of their currency.

Nonetheless, these are both impossible for Greece without exiting the Eurozone, which would cause huge social problems. Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis is well aware of the situation, and before he took up his current position wrote that the position of exit and default was untenable.

But there is one more thing to be learned and that is Argentina is still paying the price for the move. Creditors who refused this write down the debt are still demanding that they be repaid in full with battles raging in New York Courts. This is not to say that Argentina did the wrong thing, not at all. But it is not smooth sailing.

As a result, Syriza are making a tough, but correct decision in not attempting to write off their debt, or leave the Euro, but rather come to an agreement in which it can be frozen until Greece can pay without sacrificing its economy and its society in the process.

Continental shifts

This leads on to another lesson, and one of the most important ones that can be learnt from Latin America, and that is the building of continental solidarity. As Antonio Negri remarked, ‘To win on these issues we must take the measure of the battlefield, and this must extend to the whole of Europe.’

In the Latin American example, the solidarity across the left wing nations has not only meant that trade and economic restructuring has been less painful, but the inspiration, solidarity and financial support of a country like Venezuela has encouraged other nations to renegotiate debt, nationalize industries and to reorganize economies. Hugo Chávez helped Evo Morales run Bolivia’s oil and gas industry for the benefit of the country rather than foreign shareholders, and even helped halt the robbery by Spain of the profits of its electricity company.

Further, with the construction of trade blocs such as Mercosur, ALBA, Petrocaribe and the Bank of the South on the way, the leftist bloc has changed the face of Latin America permanently. Leftist nations, such as Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela have shown neighboring countries that there is an alternative to the single neoliberal message that has been endlessly broadcast for decades, by governments and the media and that they will receive support if they come under economic or diplomatic attacks.

Also, the Union of South American nations (UNASUR), instead of following the typical neoliberal line like that of the European Union is an organization that defends the sovereignty and right of governments in the region, and just recently has condemned the United States’ intervention in Venezuela, a far cry from Europe.

The European Union needs to be politicised: at present it’s a kind of bureaucratic, non-political environment that doesn’t allow for a real debate over the direction of the integration process. It can be Greece who gets this started

The people have to know that if they don’t want a neoliberal Europe, they can always create a different one. Many of the reactionary left imagine the fall of the European project, what should be imagined instead is a leftist Europe.

And Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has hinted at this possibility. In replying to a question on twitter he said that Greece will do everything different from Venezuela. ‘We are a Europeanist party.’ Exactly. Greece is not trying to replicate the model in Venezuela. However, it should replicate the solidarity and change across the continent.

Right and media attacks

Additional lessons that can be learnt from Latin America are the very real threat of economic sabotage by the right and global capital. This first happened in Chile under Allende in the 1973, and is happening right now in Venezuela. Although the state is less stable in these countries, it is something to be taken seriously.

And it will not happen in an open coup, but to heed Chile’s Marxist president Salvador Allende’s prescient words it will be, ‘an oblique underhanded indirect form of aggression . . . virtually imperceptible activities usually disguised with words and statements that extol the sovereignty and dignity of my country.’

Although Greece may not have the same social instability that these countries have, the threat of right wing instability is a very real one. The neo-fascist Golden Dawn have a strong presence, and the right wing sentiment is currently strong across Europe.

The strength of these groups make it dangerous for Syriza to say that the government can solve all the problems of capitalism by implementing reforms within this environment. If they fail to deliver on all of these polices, some of those who believed in them will turn to the far right, who say they have a more pragmatic way of solving the problems of European capitalism.

Moreover, Greece is vulnerable to attacks from European elites. These attacks have shifted from outright hostility to a more patient game. As a member of the Syriza central committee noted, ‘They won’t do us the favour to openly oppose us.’

European elites may play the oblique underhanded attacks that Allende talked about. This may either force the leftist project to fail, or force the party to all but sell out. The latter would ensure the continuation of the austerity agenda, but also prevent leftists and movements across Europe from rallying behind Syriza and Greece.

Faith in the people

The final lesson is the most difficult one, and that is the government must put faith in its population. The Latin American president who has most listened to his populous is Evo Morales, changing his policies when they turned out to be unpopular. It is no surprise that Morales won his third election by a huge margin, over 30 per cent to his nearest rival. Other leaders such as Correa and Maduro have not been as successful at this, and this has been detriment to their political capital.

Another example was in Brazil. After former centre left president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva came to power the most powerful social movement in Brazil, the 1.5-million-strong land reform campaign MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra), who gave critical support to the government but was in no better a situation than under the previous conservative government. Though the MST had managed to compel the previous government to legalize many land occupations, it ceased to make much headway under Lula, meaning they made a break with the government. And although there is not such a movement in Greece, they should not make the same mistake.

These ideas are far from over and far from complete, but the Syriza project needs to be critically examined. There has been no shortage of this, but it needs to be done with respect and support in the hope that a better Greece, and a better Europe, can be built. If we need to know where to look for what lessons Syriza might learn there are worse places to look than the leftist governments, new social movements and political formations that have changed Latin America for the better in the last fifteen years. It is a lesson that may well help create a way of overcoming the neoliberal model in the very centre.

Andrew Self

Andrew Self is a journalist and teacher from Melbourne. He tweets at @andrewself.

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