As Venezuela enters its seventh week of a general strike, costing the country an estimated $10-billion (8% of its gross domestic product) and the biggest example of wealth destruction in Venezuelan history, one can’t help recalling a similar scenario in Argentina exactly one year ago.
Rioting in the streets of Buenos Aires left 27 people dead and toppled the government of Fernando de la Rua, who led a left-leaning coalition to victory in 1999.
In Venezuela, after a convincing victory four years ago, President Hugo Chavez has done little to uplift the poor majority in the country. His populist economic programmes, believed by many to be modelled on Cuban-style communism, have caused an 18% economic contraction and increased the number of families living in poverty from 60% to 70%. Massive overspending, much of which has been siphoned off through corruption, has emptied government coffers and increased the debt burden. In the face of this collapse Chavez has done little to stimulate confidence.
These events have taken place against a backdrop of left-wing sentiments that have washed over the South American continent. Leaders such a Chavez in Venezuela, “Lula” da Silva in Brazil, Alejandro Toledo in Peru, Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador and to a lesser extent Ricardo Lagos in Chile, not to mention those leaders emerging from a severely left-leaning Argentine society, have all expressed a strong inclination to left-of-centre ideologies, with some factions even showing a soft spot for revolutionary action.
The Sao Paulo Forum, a hemispheric umbrella group for Latin American Marxists and socialist parties founded by Da Silva and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is indicative of the strong leftist ideology ingrained in Latin America. The forum’s members include various guerrilla organisations and active rebel groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, as well as Chavez himself.Â
Organisations such as the Sao Paulo Forum and the apparent ideological shift to the left by many governments have found widespread acceptance due largely to the cult-like following of the father of Latin American-style socialism and icon of world revolution, Che Guevara.
Guevara was born in Argentina, assisted Castro in the successful Cuban revolution in 1958 and was murdered in Bolivia fighting for a Pan-American social revolution. His romantic ideals are respected and have been adopted by many. However, these ideals are not applicable to the globalised environment of today.
In Venezuela — and to some degree Argentina — a backlash against populist policies by a broad spectrum of interested parties ranging from pot-banging mothers and trade unionists to big business has questioned the practicality of these policies.
Recent events in Venezuela have demonstrated a rejection of certain economic policies and principles that are unsustainable in the modern world. Chavez may have used the same charisma and popular appeal associated with Guevara, but evidence shows that he is far from a successful leader and governor of a country that has integrated into the modern global system.
Interestingly, while Chavez and Da Silva of Brazil are ideologically very close, there is a stark contrast in their methods of governance. Da Silva, whose proposed economic policies include a more market-friendly approach, has gained favour among credit lenders and investors while Chavez continues to blame the wealthy elite for his country’s woes. Like Lagos in Chile, Da Silva has demonstrated that it is not necessary to shed one’s left-leaning tendencies to gain international acceptance. These leaders have shown great foresight by adapting or, more appropriately, evolving their ideas to better suit the current status of their respective countries and the challenges of the global environment in which they participate. They have adopted a more responsible approach, one that merges investor confidence, economic/political integration and multilateral participation with the socio-economic needs of their countries. They see foreign investors as contributing to meeting their domestic developmental goals.
There are some parallels in Southern Africa. President Robert Mugabe, like many leaders in Latin America, was a freedom fighter and revolutionary leader. But his leadership of Zimbabwe has been much less successful. In an interconnected world, it is difficult to get away with outdated policies or disguise their true aim. Foreign relations and domestic politics are two sides of the same coin and countries such as Zimbabwe need foreign involvement and good governance to overcome poverty and economic decline.
In South Africa the government has slipped comfortably into the mould of social democracy, not unlike the social democrats in the United Kingdom and Germany. But it has also been at the forefront of advocating greater global equity and poverty eradication.
In spite of this, there are still hardliners in the government and other parties, such as the Pan Africanist Congress, who feel “betrayed by their comrades”, who have implemented liberal economic principles to the detriment of the “revolution”.
Certain leaders in Latin America have shown how left-leaning ideals can be evolved to incorporate principles of market-friendly global integration. This has proven to be far more successful at achieving social deliverables than the populist leftist ideals of a bygone time.
South Africa should think seriously of shedding the last strands of its revolutionary image — that which supports leaders such as Mugabe — and become more committed to a pragmatic approach that involves public-private partnerships, increased political and economic integration and refined initiatives to attract foreign direct investment. This would be the most realistic way of truly meeting the socio-economic requirements of the country.
Lyal White is the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund Latin America researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs