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. 

Finding hope in Canada’s election, the UN General Assembly and CELAC

The concurrence this week of a federal election in Canada with the spurt of diplomatic action around the United Nations General Assembly reminds me that I value political debate, and that the world needs urgent action on multiple, related issues.

What we have in Canada is what Marta Harnecker and others have called “polyarchy”—the alternation of power among elites, or the choice from among the elites of whom we wish to govern us for the next few years. And no: we should not be satisfied with that, but rather build toward a system that ensures that everyone can have a meaningful sense of participation in the social, economic and political decisions that most affect their lives. That means having societies and governments that are strong enough to control the worst excesses of capitalism and flexible enough to embrace diversity.

Monday night, Sept. 20 – Liberal minority government projected.

But, in Canada for the moment, we have what we have. Perhaps the most optimistic view is that some sort of new coalition among Liberals, the NDP and the Greens will be strong enough to achieve solid measures to limit climate change, advance justice for Indigenous peoples, promote a global recovery from the pandemic, and quick action on housing and child care.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, world leaders appeared at the General Assembly podium or via video link. Some emphasized the UN Charter, with its affirmations of national sovereignty and self-determination, and (rightly) criticized the sanctions applied by powerful states against the more vulnerable. Others promised new action to try to enforce their version of a rules-based international order (that is: the corporate-led, neo-liberal one).

Again, amidst the contradictions, one has to look for signs of hope. U.S. President Joe Biden, beset by divisions in his own party and fallout from his border patrol’s gross mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers, promised “relentless diplomacy” (an improvement, I hope, from “endless war”).

Biden held two online summits: one to try to advance action on climate goals, and the other to advance action on Covid vaccines—including the urgent need for a waiver that would allow more widespread manufacture of vaccines. Biden promised a new contribution of 500 million doses to the global effort, raising the U.S. commitment to 1.1 billion doses. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who joined Biden’s pandemic summit, promised in the Liberal election platform that Canada will donate “at least” 200 million doses of vaccine through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing program, by the end of next year. Critics say the contributions are insufficient.

Participants in the CELAC summit, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, Sept. 18.

Monroísmo vs Bolivarianismo

A few days earlier, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador convened leaders of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) for a summit in Mexico City, in part, at least to strengthen the forum as a counter-weight to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS).

Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro proposed replacing the “Monroe Doctrine” (promoted by the early 19th century U.S. President James Monroe—”America for the Americans,” meaning the United States and reflected today in the actions of the OAS) with a “Bolivarian Doctrine” that would uphold both the unity and the autonomy of the peoples of Latin American and the Caribbean, with CELAC as a space for common action.

Brazil and Colombia (led by the region’s two most conservative presidents) stayed away, but others either came or sent representatives. There were flare-ups over different approaches to human rights protection and economic policy, but in the end, the leaders issued a common declaration and called for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Érika Mouynes (left), Panamá’s foreign minister, noted that she was just one of three women at the CELAC table. Claude Joseph (right), Haiti’s foreign minister, met outside the meeting with Mexico’s immigration service to express concern for Haitian migrants in Mexico.

Cuba VI – James Baldwin, racism, imperialism and ourselves

In the 2010 interview when Fidel Castro apologized to gay Cubans for his government’s treatment of them in the 1960s, he asked, “Why hate the United States, if it is only a product of history?”

At the same time, we need to name what is going on. For the sake of describing the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and also economic, political and military power exercised in the world today, sometimes we talk about “Empire.” But there are moments, such as in discussions of Cuba (or in the wake of 20 years of war in Afghanistan), when we need to be more direct, and talk about imperialism: coercion and force used by stronger states against less advantaged peoples.

James Baldwin: “I attest to this: The world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”

For the gay African-American writer James Baldwin (1924-87), the way that the United States behaved abroad was tied to racism and homophobia at home. In an essay on Baldwin, the Indian writer and academic Prakash Kona wrote

“In sustaining the hegemony of powerful global elites who serve as engine for corporate capitalism America is guilty of keeping alive the notion of a civilization obsessed with its own sense of racial, moral and political superiority.”

To make his argument, Kona drew on Baldwin’s reflections on “American innocence” — “an innocence trapped in an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s actions” that for Kona is most “clearly revealed than in their foreign policy in the third world.” That particular quality of “American innocence” is demonstrated perfectly by Dick Cavett in a question to Baldwin that opens Raoul Peck’s brilliant film, I am not your Negro (2016, currently streaming here). 

Peck again took up Baldwin’s themes in an essay in The Atlantic in 2000, saying that the people of the United States need to heed Baldwin’s words:

Why can’t we understand, as Baldwin did and demonstrated throughout his life, that racism is not a sickness, nor a virus, but rather the ugly child of an economic system that produces inequalities and injustice? The history of racism is parallel to the history of capitalism. The law of the market, the battle for profit, the imbalance of power between those who have all and those who have nothing are part of the foundation of this macabre play. He spoke about this not-so-hidden infrastructure again and again:

“What one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.” And more pointedly: “I attest to this: The world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”

Cuba holds firm

While many other attempts to break free of U.S. hegemony over the Americas have been suppressed (Dominican Republic in 1963 and 1965; Chile in 1973; Honduras in 2009—to mention only a few examples) and others are under siege (Venezuela today), Cuba holds firm.

Yesterday (Sept. 16), Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador welcomed his Cuban counterpart, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, to events marking the 211th anniversary of the beginning of Mexico’s fight for independence.
“I have said and I repeat: we can be in agreement or not with the Cuban Revolution and with its government, but to have resisted for 62 years without submission is an indisputable historical feat.”  Texts of their speeches (in Spanish).

Many of us from the global North get involved in the global South out of a partly-formed sense of solidarity or misguided charity. We only start to think about imperialism when we see that our goals of social justice or an end to poverty are blocked outright by U.S. imperialism (the history of invasions and coups) or by systemic oppression and exploitation (debt, banking and trade rules, etc.). Social movements find that their way towards liberation is blocked by systems imposed from the richer, Northern countries.

Their starting point in Latin America was usually the problem Gustavo Gutiérrez described: poverty—and then what to do about it. My starting point has been among various expressions of liberation theology, social gospel or the preferential option for the poor, and aligning myself with similarly-inspired actions. Hence my support for political options like those taken in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and most recently (and still tentatively) Peru, and movements like the MST (landless people) in Brazil and the Zapatistas in Mexico. Those movements may not set out to be anti-imperialist, but to the extent that they are opposed by capitalism and its proponents, they must become anti-imperialist.

Gail Walker (left) of Pastors for Peace speaks to a gathering at College Street United Church in Toronto in July 2018.

By way of conclusion, some ways to connect with others who work in solidarity with people in Cuba.

Pastors for Peace and the larger coalition of which it is part, the Intereligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), are based in New York City and led mostly by African-American and Latinx people. P4P has done a superb job of undercutting the US blockade of Cuba by simply breaking it: people go to Cuba in caravans, provide aid, and support US students to study medicine in Cuba. You can join their mailing list here for updates on Cuba.

In Canada, there are a variety of solidarity networks, including the Canadian Network on Cuba and the Canadian-Cuban Solidarity Association (CCFA) that promote friendship and share information. CUBAbility, a Toronto-based group, sends musical instruments and other aid. Some churches (notably The United Church of Canada) and trade unions work with partners in Cuba.