Tariq Ali's Latin American "axis of hope"

Tariq Ali's Latin American A few years ago, in Caracas, a school principal showed me a photo of herself and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. "Can you see how Chávez is leaning down so as not to overshadow me?" she said while recalling how members of the Opposition, during the April 2002 coup, had attempted to destroy the new Bolivarian primary school where she worked.

Each time I visit Latin America I experience a mixture of joy and rage over its abysmal poverty and the kaleidoscope of people's personal experiences, which are so often connected to political history.

When the possibility to interview Tariq Ali, author of Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, presented itself, I knew I had to take the opportunity. Ali's involvement with Latin America stretches back almost four decades. In 1967, as the world protested against the war in Vietnam, Ali was in Bolivia as a member of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, to observe the trial of Régis Debray as Che Guevara aimed to create a new revolution. Ali also took photos of "every Bolivian army officer in the region" for the Cubans, which on one occasion almost cost him his life.

The old rebel in Ali has not mellowed. When the left-wing army colonel Hugo Chávez won a landslide presidential election in late 1998, links between Caracas and Ali were soon established. Today he is a member of the advisory board of TeleSur — a TV network which is a joint venture between Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Having conversed with Chávez on various occasions, Ali believes he is "a politician who speaks from the heart." In his view:

"He is not a politician who is manicured. He is not a politician whose speeches are prepared by public relations advisors. He doesn't have any spin-doctors, and so you have to take most of what you get, which is good, with the occasional over-the-top remark."

In a world replete with politicians who construct almost every detail of their public appearances, it is easy to forget that Chávez is schooled in another type of politics. Even for many Chávistas, however, the President does on occasion go too far in his public statements, which at times have caused unnecessary diplomatic clashes with other countries in the region.

Tariq Ali's Latin American When asked about the political situation in Venezuela, Ali states that the Chávez government is not:

"...nationalising everything under the sun. They are using their state power and the wealth of the country to transform it, to reduce disparities, while at the sometime saying to the local bourgeoisie, as long as you don't engage in coup d'états and try and topple elected governments, you can make your money provided you do it in the country under our rules and regulations."

A critical look at the Caracas administration will find that many of its policies are about re-directing the country's huge oil wealth. The aim is to empower millions of poor people through better health, education and job programs. In Europe after World War 2 such governments were labelled 'social democracies'. In Latin America, for various historical reasons, such policies as Chávez's are classified 'revolutionary'.

Venezuela's foreign policy has been bold. Ali argues that, "moves towards regional cohesion have never been as serious as this since the time of [Simón] Bolívar." He points to TeleSur and the forthcoming Banco del Sur (Bank of the South), which is another joint venture that involves Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay. Ali considers these ventures to be positive developments.

Given his links to Cuba, I was interested in exploring Ali's views on the island. While the author thinks the Cuban system needs reform, he considers the current leadership quite capable. The Cuban system certainly has many competent leaders. However, corruption on the island is widespread. In a recent in-depth paper on Cuba by Samuel Farber, the author noted that while some levels of consumerism have increased since 2000, in 2007 general corruption seems to have worsened. Farber states, "Everybody I talked to agreed that law-breaking [has] become a way of life in order to survive in Cuba."

If the Cuban system were to implode, or be overthrown by external forces, the consequences could be drastic. Washington, and the large Cuban community in Miami would look to move in quickly, with a neo-liberal economic model in hand. Latin America and many Third world countries would also suffer, as it is unlikely a new administration would support Cuban doctors and teachers' much-needed international work. Another threat is that the Cubans follow China's economic path, which Ali considers would be a "tragedy".

Similarly, a major clash between Venezuela and the U.S. should not be ruled out. Ali notes that the US already has "plans to destabilise Venezuela" that "involve the utilising of Colombian [territory] and the Colombian regime to do it, which is the only hard core pro-US regime in the region." Were Washington to engage in new forms of intervention — and this should not be ruled out given past actions — the political scenario in the region could become very ugly with Chávez's high rhetorical style coming back to haunt him.

For now though, Ali's "Axis of Hope" seems to be moving from strength to strength. Recently, former Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo Méndez has declared he will stand for the 2008 presidential elections in Paraguay. Known as "The Bishop of the Poor", polls indicate that Lugo Méndez is a "disturbingly credible threat to the Colorados" — the party, which has ruled the country since 1947. Were the Bishop of the Poor to become president, his first international visits may well be to Caracas and Havana. Tariq Ali might also be dropping by.

Tariq Ali photo © Marli White, 2007.

 

 

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