What is to be done? Tolstoy, Lenin, John the Baptist and recent elections

Xiomara Castro, president-elect in Honduras. Right: “Long live the People in Resistance” – post coup graffiti.

Soon after my return to Canada from my first visit to the Dominican Republic in 1983, I saw Peter Weir’s brilliant film, In a Year of Living Dangerously. As a socialist option in Indonesia collapses through local intrigue and U.S. intervention, Linda Hunt’s character, Billy Kwan, asks obsessively: “What is to be done?”

In the wake of my encounters with Haitian cane-cutters and Dominican and Haitian activists, it became my question too.

Billy Kwan’s question alludes to Lenin’s 1902 manifesto that called for a new vanguard organization that would be dedicated to taking power. Lenin took his title from two earlier works by Russian authors. In 1863, Nicholas Chernyshevsky issued a manifesto that imagined a new social order. Twenty years later, Leo Tolstoy took the same title to offer a vision of the renewal of individual moral responsibility.

But the question actually comes from the Bible. In Luke 3:10—part of the lectionary readings in many churches this Sunday, Dec. 5, the second Sunday of Advent—the people ask John the Baptist: “What are we to do?” And John answered, “If you have two coats, give one to the person who has none; and if you have food, do the same.” 

Later, in Luke 12:16-21, the question appears in Jesus’ story about the rich fool: “There was a rich man and his land had produced a good harvest. He thought: ‘What shall I do? For I am short of room to store my harvest.’So this is what he planned: ‘I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones to store all this grain, which is my wealth. Then I may say to myself: My friend, you have a lot of good things put by for many years. Rest, eat, drink and enjoy yourself.’ But God said to him: ‘You fool! This very night your life will be taken from you; tell me who shall get all you have put aside?’ This is the lot of the one who stores up riches instead of amassing for God.”

Life is too short for the poor to wait for wealth to trickle across the greatest breach between rich and poor that this planet has ever known. While some of us in the North think we have the luxury of sitting back to see how things go—except that climate change seems to have finally got our attention—the impoverished must always take risks and try something new.

Since the election of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970 and despite the coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet three years later, the left in power in Latin America has tried to govern according to the rules of liberal democracy, arguably without sufficient regard for the roles of money, foreign interference and private media companies.

Confronted by poverty, after “lost decades” of development, social movements in Latin America began to develop alternative policy approaches in the 1990s. Smart politicians paid attention and in one country after another—imperfectly, with lots of mistakes—the “formal democracies” of old began to be transformed.

That “pink wave” did not last. A military coups in Honduras and Bolivia, parliamentary coups (or “lawfare”) in Paraguay and Brazil, devastating impacts of U.S.-led (backed by Canada) sanctions in Venezuela, the power of money in Ecuador and petty corruption all weakened the drive for lasting change.

Left and centre: Chile’s election pits Gabriel Boric against José Antonio Kast. Right: the party of Nicolás Maduro won most regional elections in Venezuela. (Images from Página 12, Argentina)

A second progressive wave?

In October 2020, voters in Bolivia restored the “Movement for Socialism” (MAS) party to power just a year after the coup. In June, voters in Peru elected a rural teacher, Pedro Castillo, to be their president. In November, Venezuela’s ruling PSUV party won almost all state-governor races, and in Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega was re-elected largely because of policies that favour the impoverished majority. Later in November, voters in Honduras chose Xiomara Castro, whose husband Mel Zelaya had been overthrown in a coup backed by the United States and Canada in 2009, to be their new president. 

The next test comes in Chile on Dec. 19, when a Pinochet-loyalist, José Antonio Kast, faces a centre-left candidate, Gabriel Boric, in a second-round run-off vote.

No country is the same as another, and specific issues pertain to each of the elections noted above. But the big loser in most of these votes is the United States, together with ever more deferential Canada. Latin Americans are again choosing leaders who do not have the interests of the United States at heart. 

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