(OPE-L) Changing the World by Taking Power

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Wed Oct 06 2004 - 17:48:35 EDT

An interview with Tariq Ali entitled "Venezuela: Changing the World by
Taking Power" (from www.venezuelaanalysis.com). The title of the
interview is not accidental: it contains a short response to John H's
book.  In solidarity, Jerry
        Interview with Tariq Ali
    Venezuela: Changing the World by Taking Power

Tariq Ali, the world reknown activist, writer, and filmmaker,
talks about Venezuela, Brazil and the state of the Latin
American Left. According to him, one of the greatest errors
the global justice movement is committing is to ignore state
power, which is why Venezuela is so important for the left.
  By: Claudia Jardim and Jonah Gindin -
Published: 22/07/04
Tariq Ali is a veteran political activist, filmmaker, and
author of numerous books, both fiction and non-fiction. He
was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and now lives and works
London, England where he is an editor of the British
journal New Left Review. His most recent political texts
include The Clash of Fundamentalisms (Verso, 2002) and Bush
in Babylon: Recolonizing Iraq (Verso, 2003). Claudia Jardim
and Jonah Gindin talked with him during a recent trip of
his to Caracas, where he participated in the presentation
of a statement of solidarity from numerous Brazilian
intellectuals (see: Brazilian Intellectuals and Artists
Declare Support for Venezuela's Chavez).

"You cannot change the world without taking power", says
Tariq Ali, who asks the Global Justice movement to come and
see Venezuela's reality before making judgments based on
Credit: Claudia Jardim - Alia2
How do you explain the explosion in social movements
against neoliberalism in Latin America?
I think the reason for this is that Latin America was used
as a laboratory by the United States for a long, long time.
Everything the US wanted was experimented in Latin America
first. When they wanted military—on the political
level—when they wanted to crush popular movements by
unleashing military dictatorships they did it in Latin
America first: Brazil, Argentina, Chile; three of the most
brutal dictatorships we have seen. Then, after the collapse
of the communist enemy, they relaxed on the political front
but they got Latin America in a grip economically, and they
said ‘this is the only way forward.’ We can summarize it
like this: the laboratory of the American Empire is the
first to rebel against the Empire. So many many different
and interesting processes are happening in Latin America
and I think where the left is weak is in its inability to
bring these together and to refound the Latin American
What began to happen in Latin America is a process of
de-industrialization; foreign investments coming in. In the
most classic examples were Chile under Pinochet, then Brazil
under Cardoso and Argentina under successive governments.
They de-industrialized the country, they thought that the
country could function in a bubble—an economic bubble
created by a false boom, a boom which was largely fuelled
by foreign investment, foreign moneys coming into banks
where there were low interest rates. So people used to use
this to invest, but whenever the investments got risky they
used to take them out—international capital. They had
absolutely no motivation for building Brazil or Argentina
so you gradually began to have the rise of a new social
movement which arose from below: peasant movements,
landless peasant movements, unemployed working class
movements which began to challenge this initially on a
micro-level, in villages, in one town, in one locality, in
one region. And then gradually it began to spread.
The result was continent wide protests...
You had an uprising in Cochabamba in Bolivia against the
privatization of water. You had a struggle of the peasants
of Cuzco in Peru, against the privatization of electricity.
On both struggles the government made repression first and
then they had to retreat. Then you had an unbelievable
collapse in Argentina, where within three weeks I think 4
or 5 presidents came and fell. That began to demonstrate
very graphically the crisis of neoliberal capitalism. Then
you had Brazil. In Brazil you had a situation where Cardoso
had de-industrialized the country completely. There was no
national bourgeoisie left, there were no national
traditions within the capitalist sphere left, and the
country began to suffer.
Do you see the US Empire absorbing this energy by trying to
propose a softer version of neoliberalism?
I don’t think they are, at the moment, prepared to do that.
They will only do that if they feel threatened. And they
don’t feel threatened at the moment. And one reason—I have
to be very blunt here—they don’t feel threatened is because
there is an idealistic slogan within the social movements,
which goes like this: ‘We can change the world without
taking power.’ This slogan doesn’t threaten anyone; it’s a
moral slogan. The Zapatistas—who I admire—you know, when
they marched from Chiapas to Mexico City, what did they
think was going to happen? Nothing happened. It was a moral
symbol, it was not even a moral victory because nothing
happened. So I think that phase was understandable in Latin
American politics, people were very burnt by recent
experiences: the defeat of the Sandinistas, the defeat of
the armed struggle movements, the victory of the military,
etc., so people where nervous. But I think, from that point
of view, the Venezuelan example is the most interesting one.
It says: ‘in order to change the world you have to take
power, and you have to begin to implement change—in small
doses if necessary—but you have to do it. Without it
nothing will change.’ So, it’s an interesting situation and
I think at Porto Alegre next year all these things will be
debated and discussed—I hope.
Without adequately addressing state power, what alternative
to neoliberalism is the Global Social Justice movement
No, they have no alternative! They think that it is an
advantage not to have an alternative. But, in my view
that’s a sign of political bankruptcy. If you have no
alternative, what do you say to the people you mobilize?
The MST[1] in Brazil has an alternative, they say ‘take the
land and give it to the poor peasants, let them work it.’
But the Holloway[2] thesis of the Zapatistas, it’s—if you
like—a virtual thesis, it’s a thesis for cyber space: let’s
imagine. But we live in the real world, and in the real
world this thesis isn’t going to work. Therefore, the model
for me of the MST in Brazil is much much more interesting
than the model of the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Much more

Brazil's Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) has been
pressuring the Workers Party (PT) to deliver on its
promises of delivering land to Brazil's poor.
What do you make of the impasse that has been reached
between the grassroots and the government in Brazil?
I think the problem in Brazil is the following: the PT[3]
captured the aspirations of the people, especially the
poor. They captured them, but they couldn’t deliver
anything—so far, they have delivered nothing. In fact, the
repression against the MST in the first year of Lula has
been much higher than in any single year of the Cardoso
government. The farmers and the police have victimized and
killed far more MST militants. Now, this will end badly.
Why has it happened? It’s happened because, in my opinion,
the PT had not prepared itself in a serious way to even
think about any real alternatives. Publicly they said, ‘yes
we’ll give land to the landless, yes will do this, yes we
will do that,’ but they had not made any real preparation.
And Lula, I’m afraid, is a weak leader. A weak leader who
is so excited at being in power, that he forgets why he is.
The same thing happened to Lech Walesa in Poland when the
big mass movement Solidarnosc threw him up and he finally
was elected. What did he deliver? Nothing. And he was voted
out by the people, and that will happen to Lula.
Refounding the Brazilian left...
I think that, in my opinion, what we need in Brazil is a
movement to refound the Brazilian left. And this movement
must include, broadly speaking, those people inside the PT
including many members of parliament and senators and
grassroots members, a very key component that should
include the MST and it should include that layer of
Brazilian socialist intellectuals who are now very
disillusioned. These three components are very important to
refound the Brazilian left, it’s foolish to do it by just a
few people walking out and declaring ‘we’re a new party.’
You need a new different sort of a movement and a different
sort of a party than the PT. In these conditions the bulk of
the Brazilian working class is now an informal working
class—it’s not the case as it was when the PT was founded.
And so you have different priorities. You have to refound a
Brazilian left which is in accord with these new priorities
and realities of Brazil today, not some mythological
picture of the past.
Before the elections in Brazil, I was in Ribeirao Preto at
a festival, and they asked me ‘if you were a Brazilian, who
would you vote for?’ And I said I would vote for Lula with
the majority of the poor of Brazil. But I said my big worry
was that Lula will forget who has voted him into power and
he will cater to the policies of those who did not vote for
him—the IMF and the World Bank and the international
financial institutions. They did not vote for Lula, but
they’re the people who’s policies are being carried out.
And I said that would be a tragedy, and people gasped but
that’s exactly what’s happened. And for me the relation
between Lula and Cardoso is the relation between Thatcher
and Blair. Blair followed Thatcher, Lula is following
Cardoso. It’s intertwined, and this is the tragedy of
Brazil and in four or five years time there will massive
disillusionment; the right will probably win again and we
will have to start the fight from the beginning.

For Tariq Ali Lula is "a weak leader who is so excited
at being in power, that he forgets why he is." Lula has come
under fire by the MST lately for having shunned his
commitment to reducing landlessness.
Credit: Dida Sampaio - AE
In Colombia, for example, there has been a huge
militarization that is very similar to cold war U.S
strategy in Latin America. Where does this fit in with a
new strategy that, as you have pointed out, is largely
Colombia is exceptional at the moment, and of course
Venezuela where they tried to push through a new coup
d’état which failed. They will do that if nothing else
succeeds. Where they feel democracy doesn’t serve their
interests they will return to the military—that’s obvious.
But at the moment the problem is: how to devise a society
in which you can push through projects, social-democratic
projects for the poor. That’s the key in my opinion, that’s
why Venezuela is very important. Before Lula was elected a
possibility emerged, an image emerged of the following:
Argentina had collapsed, in Venezuela there was Chávez that
if you had a Bolivarian federation, of Brazil, Argentina,
Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba, together you could
produce a completely different way of looking at the world
and a different form of society, which would not be
repressive, which would not be vicious, which would
transform the everyday lives of the poor. That has not
happened because…Kirchner, in my opinion, is better than
Lula; he’s trying to resist on some levels. The big
disappointment has been the Brazilian PT, big
disappointment. But that doesn’t mean we stop thinking like
that because in a small way it’s what I said at the press
conference today: 10,000 Cuban doctors, thousands of poor
Venezuelan kids going to Cuba to learn to be doctors. Here
you take advantage of each other’s strengths, not each
other’s weaknesses. So it’s very good that Venezuela and
Chávez are taking advantage of the strengths of Cuba,
rather than their weaknesses. The social structure they
have created, health, education that’s something that
Brazil could do as well, but they don’t do it.
In the wake of strong opposition to the Free Trade Area of
the Americas might the US use bilateral trade agreements to
achieve its economic goals in Latin America?
I think the United States, you have to understand, always
acts in its own interests, and its own interests are to
stop a regional force from emerging in Latin America
without the presence of the United States; to stop a
regional force emerging in the far east—China, Japan,
Korea, without the presence of the United States; to stop
Europe from becoming a strong political economic power. So,
the United States will permit concessions where it suits
their interests, as long as they feel that this doesn’t
threaten them politically or economically. They can make
many concessions, but by and large they prefer bilateral
deals. ‘Deal with us. Don’t deal with us as a collective,
deal with us one-to-one. That’s what suits us.’ That’s
always been their policy.

Tariq Ali says that Venezuela is an example which the
Americans wish to wipe out. "If this example exists, and
gets stronger and stronger and stronger then people in
Brazil, in Argentina, in Ecuador, in Chile, in Bolivia will
say 'if Venezuelans can do it, we can do it'"
Credit: Claudia Jardim - Alia2
The Global Justice Movement is wary of Chávez’ populism,
his military background, and what they fear may become a
top-down ‘revolution’ that excludes the grassroots. How do
you think the GJM and Chávez can be reconciled?
As long as the poor in Venezuela support this government it
will survive, when they withdraw their support it will fall.
But I think it will be useful if the Global Justice
movement—and there are many different strands in it—came
and saw what’s going on here. What’s the problem? Go into
the shantytowns, see what the lives of the people are, see
what their lives were before this regime came into power.
And don’t go on the basis of stereotypes. You cannot change
the world without taking power, that is the example of
Venezuela. Chávez is improving the lives of ordinary
people, and that’s why it’s difficult to topple
him—otherwise he would be toppled. So it’s something that
people in the Global Justice movement have to understand,
this is serious politics. It’s pointless just chanting
slogans, because for the ordinary people on whose behalf
you claim to be fighting getting an education, free
medicine, cheap food is much much more important than all
the slogans put together.
What do you think of the Venezuelan example of
participatory democracy?
I think it needs to be strengthened. I think it’s weak, I
think the movement here needs to institutionalize on every
level—the level of small pueblos, the level of the towns,
the level of different quarters—organizations, which can be
very broad: Bolivarian Circles, whatever you want to call
them, which meet regularly, which talk with each other,
which discuss their problems, which aren’t simply a
response to calls from above. It’s very very important,
because you know, Chávez is an unusual guy in Latin
America—very special—and he is young and long may he live,
but he has to create institutions which outlast him for the
future of this country.
What is at stake in Venezuela? Whose interests? And can
Venezuela survive alone? What does Venezuela mean to the
Venezuela is an example which the Americans wish to wipe
out. Because if this example exists, and gets stronger and
stronger and stronger, then people in Brazil, in Argentina,
in Ecuador, in Chile, in Bolivia will say ‘if Venezuelans
can do it, we can do it.’ So Venezuela, from that point of
view, is a very important example. That’s why they’re so
worked up. That’s why the Americans pour in millions of
dollars to help this stupid opposition in this counry; an
opposition which is incapable of offering any real
alternative to the people, except what used to exist
before: a corrupt, a servile oligarchy. That’s what
Venezuela means, and I think that one weakness, till
recently, of the Bolivarian revolution has been that it has
not done more towards the rest of Latin America, because
it’s been under siege at home. But I think, once Chávez
wins the referendum, and then the local elections I hope,
and the mayoralty of Caracas in September, I hope then a
big offensive is made for the rest of Latin America too.
From that point of view, the model of the Cuban doctors is
a very good one. I mean, a Venezuelan doctor—in five years
Venezuelans will come back [from Cuba] as doctors, they can
help both their own country, and they can go to other
countries to work in the shantytowns. They are small
things, but in the world in which we live they are very big
things. Fifty years ago they would have been small, today
they are very big. And that’s why we have to preserve and
nurture them.

We are an overflown river" says the banner at a Pro-Chavez
rally outside the Presidencial Palace in Caracas.
Credit: Jonah Gindin - Venezuelanalysis.com
The mainstream private media plays an important political
role in Venezuela. How can this disinformation be
What we lack in Latin America is means of communication, we
need a satellite channel like Al Jazeera, and I said we’ll
call it ‘Al Bolivar’ if you want. But you need one which
reports regularly—what the right is saying, what the left
movements are saying, which gives an account of what it is
the MST wants, which challenges Lula, but which does it
quite independently, without being attached to any state.
And I think this satellite channel could be very important
for the whole of Latin America, to challenge the BBC World,
and CNN and have a Latin American channel. And the
Venezuelans, and the Argentineans, etc. it’s in their own
interests to do it.
What do you think opposition and US strategy will be in the
event of a Chávez victory come A-15?
Well, I think the only strategy left then is to try and
overthrow him by a military coup. So the fact that the
military seems to be supporting him, and after the previous
coup it was a warning to him as well: you can’t simply rely
on the military without educating people. I think without
the military in Venezuela, they can’t do anything—they
cannot topple him. I think the opposition, quite honestly,
if they lose this referendum—which was their big demand for
years, ‘oh, he’s not allowing a referendum,’ forgetting that
he has given you a constitution according which you want
this referendum, without this constitution you couldn’t
have had this referendum—so if he wins this referendum the
opposition will be fractured, I think they will be
completely demoralized, it’s foolish.
Do you think opposition strategy might be to claim there
was fraud in order to deligitmize Chavez´victory?
Well, look: we have to fight that when it happens, but I
think this is why the process should be transparent, and I
think lots of observers will be coming. And if that
happens, the government has to go immediately on the
offensive, and say ‘this was a clear victory, you want you
go into the whole country and talk to every single voter.’
One hasn’t got to be defensive about that. Go completely on
the offensive and say, ‘this isn’t Florida.’
In any case, one shouldn’t worry permanently, be paranoid,
you know one should depend on the strength of the people.
If the people vote him in, and he wins the referendum they
will be big celebrations all over the country. And it will
be obvious, what has happened.

[1] Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Tera—Landless
Rural Workers Movement, Brazil.

[2] John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power:
The Meaning of Revolution Today, Pluto Press: 2002.

[3] Partido dos Trabalhadores—Workers Party, Brazil.
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