25 October 2019

Bolivia, democracy and Corbyn – it’s not pretty

By Paul Canning

On Tuesday morning the Corbynite campaign group Momentum tweeted out a three raised fist emoji salute to the re-election of Evo Morales in Bolivia.

“Congratulations to Evo Morales who looks set to win his reelection bid outright in the first round of voting!”, they wrote.

In prematurely claiming victory for Morales, Momentum echoed the presidents of Cuba and Venezuela’s. The Jeremy Corbyn supporters club would surely have known that the circumstances of a supposed Morales first round win that avoids a runoff election in December are, to put it mildly, questionable.

The OAS, United Nations and the EU are among those who have raised eyebrows. In fact the fact Morales is even standing, rather than of someone else from his party, MAS, is an outright denial of a 2016 referendum on term limits.

Morales claimed he lost that referendum because a soapish scandal had erupted just before the vote involving a supposed girlfriend, plus ‘love child’, plus corruption. He said that he didn’t want to run again but “I can’t disappoint my people” and he had to follow his “destiny” of being president. He then got a pliant Supreme Court to invent the novel idea that term limits for politicians is a breach of human rights.

None of that seems to matter to Momentum, who seem to think that undemocratic behaviour is fine if it comes from someone waving a red flag.

Reversing the referendum result in order to stand again is the big reason why Morales’ could be forced to a second round by his opponent Carlos Mesa. Despite MAS controlling most of Bolivia’s media, Morales’ support has dropped all over the country, ending regional polarisations, and leftwingers who opposed Morales over the referendum voted for his ‘neoliberal’ opponent.

As numerous commentators have pointed out, if Morales had not decided to stand again he would have bowed out a hero. An Indigenous President who helped reduce poverty and did various other good works.

Instead we have a massive propaganda operation online about mythical US interference, Evo talking about a coup and his Vice President, Álvaro García Linera, dangerously evoking about a conflict between q’aras (whites) and indigenous people. As journalist Andrés Cañizalez has noted, it is as if the survival in power of Maduro “is an example for [Nicaragua’s] Ortega and Evo, for now, to simply throw away institutionality, knowing that there will be no consequences”.

And it’s not just Momentum who are full square behind this assault on democracy – it’s Corbyn himself too.

The Labour leader met García Linera in London in February, then tweeted the bizarre claim that Bolivia, Mexico and Uruguay were “already playing an important role in mediating a negotiated political solution in Venezuela”. This is not only complete nonsense (and note that Labour has never once acknowledged the EU’s role in pushing Venezuela negotiations) but it ignores the way Morales has ignored the 2016 referendum result to run for president again.

When Corbyn attended the inauguration of his friend, Mexican President Lopez Obrador last December he gave an interview  to the left-wing conspiracist Matt Kennard in which he heaped praise on Morales. They later met in Mexico – here’s a picture of Seumas Milne filming the encounter. The same month he gave Morales his backing in a statement to ‘Labour Friends of Progressive Latin America.’ Again, without even a hint of concern about Morales’ undemocratic behaviour.

Tellingly Corbyn has praised “street movements” like MAS as they “consider themselves less election-fighting machines than revolutionary upswells; multitudes that primarily exercise power not through the legislature but through the charismatic influence of their leaders and by taking to the streets to give voice to popular anger”.

This is not how the leftwing Latin Americans who Corbyn never speaks with see it. Morales has created “a vertical movement with fragile roots that are entirely dependent on a single individual and heavy subsidies” argues Open Democracy. “If the cases of Brazil and Venezuela are any indication, we should have learned that cult of personality, a sin so common to the Latin American left, tends to ricochet in the opposite direction.”

But we already know from Venezuela that Corbyn and others never learn anything, never leave their safe space and ignore left or civic or institutional voices that counter their rose-tinted view of Latin American “revolutionary upswells”.

Hugo Chavez’s famed ‘gains for the poor’ were already crumbling when Corbyn (and Diane Abbott, Owen Jones et al) were still visiting. But they wouldn’t have known this because they never spoke to anyone outside the Potemkin Village. If they had they’d have learned that the Cuban supported health programme they all praised was a complete wreck.

If they’d spoken to the Labour movement independent of the government they’d have known that Chavez and Maduro were repressing it. Years later when Maduro went after a Parliament dominated by opposition MPs elected by Venezuelans, many of them elected from barrios, the silence was deafening.

Heck, Corbyn met the socialist former Chilean President Michele Bachelet (now UN human rights chief) a year ago and rather than talk about human rights – her job – Labour tweeted that they’d be talking about workers rights in the EU. Corbyn’s account decided to use the opportunity to tweet a boast about how Saint Jez had opposed Pinochet.

Continuing the theme of existing in a 1970s bubble, back in May Corbyn gave a speech to a Marxist gathering in a Welsh valley called El Sueño Existe, organised by his old friend the Marxist lecturer Dr Francisco Dominquez. In his jaw dropping speech Corbyn did talk at length about human rights and refugees – but only in the context of Trump. There was not one single mention of Venezuela, the biggest refugee crisis in Latin America’s history, or Nicaragua, which he spoke about in the House of Commons 210 times.

If you wanted a crystal clear example of Corbyn’s tenuous connection to both human rights and democracy in Latin America that speech is it.

Hegemony is all

In the second par of their tweet Momentum claim that:

“[Morales’] programme of renationalising key natural resources whilst drastically reducing poverty rates has led to a period of great stability for millions of Bolivians.”

‘Stability’ has clearly ended but the ignorant faith in MAS economic policy is another telling example of how waving a red flag ends any scrutiny of the smallprint for much of the left.

Despite all the worthy grandiloquence nine years ago, according to Goldsmith’s political economist Jeffery R. Webber, Morales’ party has opted for an “agri-capital-state alliance” that “has consolidated agribusiness capital, both national and foreign, in the soy sector, integrating the rich peasants in a subordinate manner”. Activists have claimed that Morales also used the opening up of land to agriculture “to move members of his base to electoral districts he might otherwise lose”.

What is amazing about the left’s unquestioning embrace of Morales is that Vice President García Linera said five years ago that the government plan was to massively increase the land farmed by large businesses. García Linera calls this turn to agribusiness “the embrace of the adversary” – citing the Italian Marxist philosopher Gramsci, he claimed this was not cronyism, but an essential part of maintaining hegemony.

The irony of all this is that Corbyn and Momentum are full-square behind a government whose economic policies could barely even be described as leftwing. And once again, this corner of the British left is demonstrating that when it comes to Latin America, their relationship with democracy is purely conditional.

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Paul Canning is a writer and activist