Historical Precedents for a “Radical Left” in Latin America (and Why They Matter When Thinking about Latin American Politics Today)

After my post yesterday, there was some discussion (some of it productive, some of it not) in the comments thread here, and in the wake of that, I wanted to elaborate a bit further.

To be perfectly clear, I was in no way trying to enter a debate of whether or not Hugo Chavez (or Rafael Correa, or Evo Morales, or Cristina Kirchner, or Lula, or Dilma Rousseff, or Jose Mujica, or Fernando Lugo, or Ollanta Humala, or Daniel Ortega, or Mauricio Funes) is/is not a “real” “leftist.” I was pointing out the uselessness of the Washington Post‘s characterization of progressive leaders in Latin America as “radical left.” My reasons for that criticism are simple – we actually have historical precedent for a “radical left” in Latin America that we can compare to today’s governments. And suffice to say, it does not look like any government or leader in the region today.

This is easy to see if one simply steps back and looks at Latin American history in the last 50 years, where we have numerous historical precedents of “truly radical” leftists: the MR-8, VPR, and numerous other leftist guerrilla groups that fought Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s; the MIR in Chile; the Montoneros in Argentina in the 1970s; the Tupamaros in Uruguay; the Shining Path in Peru in the 1990s; and even segments of Nicaragua’s Sandinistas in the 1970s and El Salvador’s FMLN in the 1980s are all clear examples of what the “radical left” could and did do and what ideologies of the “radical left” looked like. Each of these groups adopted armed struggle to violently overthrow their governments (which were often right-wing authoritarian dictatorships that also explicitly and implicitly resorted to extreme violence in the name of ideology) and revolutionize society and economics suddenly and violently in the fight for equality. And that violence was central to that fight. The writings and documents of the leftists involved in these struggles and the political philosophers they drew from all made clear, both implicitly and explicitly, their belief in the centrality of violence in fomenting revolution. One does not need to dig deeply to see that, and to suppose that radical leftism in Latin America in the recent past had no diagnosis or understanding of the perceived need for violence is simply ridiculous.

And that’s why calling Chavez or other current leaders the “radical left,” as the Washington Post did, is absurd, and what I originally objected to in the previous blog post. We have actual historical evidence of what a truly “radical left” does in the last 50 years, and it’s nothing like what Chavez, Morales, Correa, Rousseff, Lugo, Mujica, or Kirchner are doing, either in word or in action. Ultimately, the “radical left” has historically wanted to transform society by overthrowing the existing structures of government, not by working from within those very institutions themselves. That doesn’t mean that none of those current leaders is “left”; it simply means that, contrary to what the Washington Post article claimed, those leaders are not the “radical left,” then or now. One does not need much more than a basic understanding of political ideologies/philosophies and a willingness to move beyond dogma to see that.

If one disagrees with the use of violence, fine – that doesn’t mean one is suddenly “not left.” And I’m not personally advocating resorting to violence to effect change, nor am I saying there can’t be change from the left more broadly without violence.  But if a willingness to resort to systematic violence to overthrow a government and transform society  is not “truly radical,” then…..what is?


About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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