From the June 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard
The modernisation of Latin America will be a fantastic task for whoever takes it on. Despite the existence of several nations with a more or less European culture and level of technology, the continent is generally appallingly backward. In the mid 1960’s its industry accounted for only 24 per cent of the gross domestic product and employed only 14 per cent of the native population. Only half the population ever receives any primary education and in some parts the rate of illiteracy is 100 per cent. In 1965 the income of General Motors was 20.7 billion (thousand million) dollars which was more than the gross national product of any Latin American nation including Brazil. In case the message still isn’t clear, one man, Paul Getty, owned more personal wealth than the yearly income of Ecuador. Moreover, many millions live outside a money economy: In Brazil’s north east alone 10 millions are reckoned to come into this category.
The most awesome statistic about Latin America is that from a total of 226 million in 1965 the population is expected to be around 316 million by 1980, 40 per cent of whom will be under 15 years of age. This means that the vast majority will be non-producers. Here, rather than China or India, is where the so-called population explosion is at its worst and an annual increase of 3 per cent in the economy is required just to keep living standards as they are.
In the face of all this can there really be any hope for Latin America? The answer is “yes”. In fact it is precisely this state of affairs which must galvanise capital into action, whether using the methods of democratic government or military juntas, for failure to act will ensure that the situation becomes utterly chaotic, and that can’t be good for business. What use is a continent seething with discontent and crawling with guerrillas in the countryside and in the cities? We dealt last month with the poor prospects of the rural guerrillas. As for their imitators in the cities, they have no basis of support among the working class class and can really only have nuisance value. A resumption of constitutional rights in Uruguay will undoubtedly cut much of the ground from beneath the Tupamaros. Indeed, the only possible contribution the guerrillas might be able to make is by prodding tardy regimes into some concessions that little bit sooner.
The working class of Latin America has already been written off as the “revolutionary” force by the would-be emancipators at the meeting of the Latin American Solidarity Organisation (OLAS) in Havana in 1967. It is true that the continental working class is still very weak and is actually declining as a percentage of the population. There are only about 7 million members of the trade unions and these mostly in the more developed nations. But in Latin America, as elsewhere, the Socialist movement must be essentially working class.
A popular explanation for the political backwardness of the Latin American working class is that it brings with in into the cities reactionary rural attitudes among which is the desire for a strong-man such as Peron was. In short, they look to a “Patron” to solve problems rather than their own political or industrial action (see S. Mander Static Society: The Paradox of Latin America). There is some truth in this explanation but it has to be seen against the fact that millions of city dwellers in Latin America aren’t, strictly speaking, workers at all. Each year destitute rural inhabitants drift citywards to end up in the shanty-towns such as the “Favelas” of Rio. Some drift back to the countryside for a variety of reasons but many of those who remain never really get involved in the relationships and disciplines of wage-labour, so the size and attitudes of Latin America’s working class cannot be accurately judged merely by looking at the urban populations.
Nor will the idea of the “Patron” endure outside of the semi-feudal hangover which throws it up. As capitalist expansion really gets underway the workers will be forced by an intensification of the class struggle to look to unions for help and to the various political parties. This has been the pattern in Italy, Japan, and other countries which have recently undergone large scale industrialisation and it is no accident that Latin America’s trade unions are strongest in those countries where capitalism has already made considerable progress, such as Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Venezuela.
The evidence is that Latin America’s capitalist class is awakening to the possibilities. Their theorists have long extolled the need to control foreign investment and interference, particularly American, and the current denunciations of the “imperialists” are belated recognition of this. Covering the election by the Chilean Congress of Dr. Allende as President, Lewis Duguid reported that “. . . the bourgeois congressmen, some of them bitterly anti-American and convinced that Chile’s problems are imported, have voted in a man who repudiates many institutions of Chile while glorifying its distinctiveness”. Of Allende’s alleged Marxism, Duguid quotes Allende explaining this as meaning "he accepts the Marxist interpretation of history”. (Guardian 25 October, 1970) So what? This is purely academic and the fact remains that Allende’s government is committed to and was elected on a mere ragbag of reforms, and far from opposing US investment is soliciting it, only this time for "fair returns”.
Meanwhile the government is forcing foreign companies which are wholly controlled from abroad to sell the majority of their shares to local investors. In Venezuela the bourgeois government is progressively increasing its share of the profits of the largely US owned oil companies and is extending its overall stake in the oil industry. This bourgeois confidence stems from the sure knowledge of their newfound unity.
As we have already said, our interest in Latin America lies in the prospects for the growth of socialist ideas there. These ideas will go hand in hand with the strengthening of the conditions which have produced them elsewhere — mainly the development of capitalism and all that stems from that, including its ever increasing problems and contradictions. Of course as socialist ideas grow in the rest of the world then, with the existence of today’s sophisticated means of communication, Latin America cannot fail to be affected by this. Indeed, even if the continent continued indefinitely in its backward state it could not escape Socialism when the developed world put it into operation. It would fall in line with the superior social system, so we don’t have to wait for every backward part of the world to be modernised before production for use becomes possible. The fact is that capitalism has come to Latin America and is rapidly expanding its techniques and relationships.
We confidently look forward to the day when growing interest in our ideas will be reflected in the number of enquiries from Latin America. What should socialists there do in the meantime? Certainly not to engage in movements of "anti-imperialism”, demands for agrarian reform and the like, but instead to propagate whenever possible the case for Socialism — worldwide common ownership and democratic control of society’s resources.