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New International, April 1949


Amelio Alvarez

Letter to a Cuban Socialist

On the Problems of Latin America


From The New International, Vol. XV No. 4, April 1949, pp. 103–106.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Under new post-war conditions events in Latin America continue to correspond to the old, oscillatory rhythm characteristic of this region: popular movements, more or less confused, but on the whole progressive, which lose their grip when faced by the first real economic or political difficulty. Two factors seem to predominate in all these countries, varying with each national situation – sometimes considerably – within these general limits. One is the traditional “pretorian” role of the army. This point deserves very heavy underlining. The factor involved here is especially characteristic of South America. As is well known, these armies do not correspond to any function of real defense, even in the bourgeois sense of the term. They are, above all, an instrument for internal policing and also of lilliputian imperialism. Hence, two consequences. They become a constant political factor, often predominant, always important. On the other hand, they often serve as transmission belt for external influences (today the United States or Argentina), either for creating internal revolutions or as an indirect instrument of some foreign imperialist policy (in other words, the “aggressor” country isn’t even pursuing ends which are its own – a phenomenon typical also of the Balkans).

The events in Venezuela are especially typical in this respect. The popular insurrection led by Betancourt [1] was a typically progressive movement within the limits of the post-war period. Chalbaud was one of its military leaders, representing the young officer cadres of the army. After the insurrection “took over power,” we saw the growth and then the explosion of a typical conflict of Latin American liberalism. (Remember the role of the liberal generals in XIXth century Spain.) The movement was extensive enough to permit the Betancourt government to undertake a vast job of organizing the masses, a job proportionately unparalleled even when compared to Mexico, where the democratic organization of the trade unions and of the “ejidos” (farming communities) seems to have always been a farce. If such an organization had dealt with a more numerous or more conscious proletariat (even that of Cuba, for instance, with its traditions of the European revolutionary workers’ movement, via the Spanish immigrants, and its agricultural proletariat preponderant among the rural population) it would probably have dashed all hopes of a military coup. At least, that is my impression. But in the given backward conditions it was an unavoidable necessity for the civilian political movement to come to grips with the problem of the army. This autonomous, functionless body of the Latin American countries must be crushed; otherwise it will fatally reassume its former “function” of arbitrator and parasitic profiteer of social struggles. What matters is not that Chalbaud (mere example of a social type) was for a while liberal and sympathetic to the popular movement; but that, by the victory of this movement itself, he became the head of the army, of that parasitic social organism which, in the present structure of these countries, is in a position to arbitrate the civilian struggles and therefore fatally tends in this direction. Here lies a permanent menace which took shape as soon as conditions permitted.

It is clear that the Betancourt and Gallegos government did not know how or were unable to confront the military problem. I do not exactly know why. Printed information is very scattered and is of little avail. The difficulty is increased by the lack of Latin American uniformity. The situation in Latin America is rather European in this respect: here indeed is a far from homogeneous bloc of authentic national entities (with some exceptions). Maybe Accion Democratica simply did not have enough time. Maybe it really underestimated the problem in an opportunist sense. Maybe, finally, by a combination of both factors, it was too heterogeneous to unify itself rapidly enough to solve the problem in time. Nonetheless, whatever the factors may have been, it seems that Accion Democratica started to act along these lines. Betancourt, it is said, began organizing a popular militia – conspiratively – and this fact, among others, is supposed to have precipitated the military coup. If this is true, the fault manifestly lies in the “conspirative” method, which cannot touch the masses in an efficacious manner, which never deceives the adversary and which, consequently, always falls through. More generally speaking, here are my conclusions: No democratization of the Latin American armies is possible. These are professional and parasitic formations wherein a mere change of cadres (“the sergeants becoming colonels”), or even of the composition of the troops, in no way changes their “pretorian” function. There is only one road for a victorious popular movement: to crush them, to destroy them by means of popular pressure and vigilance organized throughout the trade unions. Here arises an alternative : either arming the people and periods of military training; or nothing at all besides the simple police functions assigned to bodies for which the trade unions and rural communities are guarantees and which will be changed frequently. We must take into account the enormous technical progress in the military field which makes the traditional program of arming the people a little obsolete and which, on the other hand, implies heavy burdens for the backward and “poor” countries. It is evident that no Latin American country can dream of opposing the United States in terms of military effectiveness. On the other hand, problems of military defense do incontestably arise for some of them – at least provisionally – against certain imperialist tendencies (Argentina, Brazil), against certain dictatorial regimes, certain “rival” nations. A decision in favor of one or the other alternative will have to be reached according to each individual case.

Position of the Movements

According to my information on the Cuban situation, (1) the “Autentico” [2] government and movement are both deeply discredited; (2) the right opposition (the former “Batista Bloc”) continues to be discredited and divided; (3) the left opposition remains weak, without organizational form, without prestige, and divided; (4) the army cadres are said to have been renewed to a rather large extent by the Autenticos in a way favorable to their interests; (5) the economic conjuncture continues to be “prosperous” but unstable because of inflation and the total lack of even the slightest coordination; (6) finally, Batista is supposed to have posed his candidacy as president for the next elections. In these conditions the army inevitably tends to play its role of arbiter and to invigorate its “pretorian” functions despite everything.

Thus, for Cuba also, the same problem arises within a more or less short span. And here, as everywhere else, the Stalinists will play their game in favor of a “strong government,” even if for the time being it would be hostile to them. They need it in order to control the workers’ movement. And it can hardly tear this control away from them (even Peron has “difficulties” with them). On the other hand, every extension of democratic liberties – even limited – is unfavorable to their attempts at penetration and totalitarian inroads. Thus, while waiting to take the situation into their own hands, if and when they can, they always tend to favor authoritarian solutions.

Effect of Stalinism

The other factor which dominates the situation in Latin American countries is the not very conscious character of the democratic-progressive movements, their low level and national narrowmindedness. The degeneration of the Stalinist movement, then its totalitarianization, have here manifestly played a fatal role. They have corrupted and continue to infect the young revolutionary workers’ movement, adding themselves to the very rapid “bourgeoisification” of the socialist movements where they existed historically (Argentina, Chile) and to the mistakes of anarchistic “spontaneism.” For this very reason they have rendered the democratic movement impotent. On the other hand, no proletarian current has appeared among the workers side by side with and opposed to Stalinism. Proof of this is manifest in the direct and continuous control of the Mexican government over the trade unions; in the Autentico tendency within, later the Autentico organization of, the Cuban trade unions; in the very formation of Venezuelan trade unions by “Accion Democratica”; in the reorganization and enlargement of Peruvian trade unions by the Apra; finally, in Peronian Bonapartism’s easy control and regimentation of the Argentine trade unions. But what precisely do these facts prove? That, as a result of the Stalinist obstacle and its infection of the workers’ movement, the forward surge of these countries takes place – despite the obstacles of American imperialism, national reaction and Stalinism – by spontaneous processes of mass radicalization in the form of petty-bourgeois democratic movements which are at the same time dynamic and confused, opportunist and revolutionary. In Latin America it is not the proletariat – despite its importance and its historic function – which influences the petty bourgeoisie, but the latter which influences and often organizes the proletariat and carries it along with it. The proletariat’s influence is exercized only impersonally, so to speak, generally by the ideological path of the socialist perspective which dominates the entire historical epoch and as such is not exclusively due to the spontaneous development of the proletarian forces, as we know since Marx and Lenin. That this is the situation in Latin America seems to me unquestionable; it results from a combination of the maturity of socialism on a world scale and the backward state of Latin America, which is even more retarded and artificially blocked by Stalinism. But – and this is remarkable – such a situation is far from being merely negative. To be convinced of this, just compare it to the eclipse of living forces in Eastern Europe, colonized by Russia’s totalitarian imperialism, or to the stagnating impotence which hits western Europe, wedged in between the Russian menace and the expansion of American control. To express my opinion exactly, I should rather say that such a situation is progressive within given limits and, left to itself, cannot lead to any stable and lasting solution. It implies a development beyond these limits, short of which these countries fall back into the former chaos. Of course this development can result only from the conscious work of a vanguard which reorganizes and rearms the workers against Stalinism and petty- bourgeois illusions, thanks to the very circumstances created by these democratic-progressive movements. (Not the least of their positive traits is precisely to permit the organization or rapid growth of the trade unions and the possibility of political rearming of the workers.)

Unfortunately, the very formation of such a vanguard, to say nothing of its work, for the moment amounts to practically zero. Tiny little national groups – confused, isolated, sectarian and/or opportunistic, generally wornout and disoriented, without any international connections, even embryonic ones – claim to answer the need for such a vanguard. Actually they represent practically nothing, neither in respect to cadres nor roots. When they do engage in some activity, they “practise” a pseudo-policy of prestige, a pseudo-propaganda without any real theoretical value and a pseudo-agitation lacking a transmission belt to the masses and without any effect on them. To crown it all, most of them, besides, lay claim to an independent organization and to a mythical independent action. The reasons for such a situation are many. (And unfortunately, let it be said in passing, the situation in Europe or Asia hardly seems better in its way.) First of all, Trotskyism which, between the two wars, was the only real international movement against Stalinism – this was evident to all – has died a well deserved death. (What seems to subsist of it – the Trotskyist parties of the Asiatic countries – are either indigenous movements having only the ideology of Trotskyism, or else they are prisoners, although with a mass base, of the same fundamental contradictions as the Trotskyist residues elsewhere, and will avoid degeneration only by transforming themselves profoundly.) Trotskyism, as an international movement, died because it built its perspective on an erroneous prognosis of the Russian development and, in a correlative way, on a catastrophic underestimation of the world labor-socialist setback. By keeping the Trotskyist position on the USSR after Stalingrad (which confirmed the bureaucracy’s hold on power and its reinforcement on a world scale), it was bound to lose all possibility of action and all influence; whereas a radical change of position at that time, even though late, could, however, in my opinion, have prepared a decisive role for Trotskyism in the post-war period. Correlatively, by making the prognosis of a revolutionary perspective for Europe as a result of the war, it condemned itself to read events backward, to lose everywhere the little influence it still kept and to reinforce everywhere the tendencies of capitulation to and compromise with Stalinism.

Moreover, the claims to renew and outgrow Marxism on “Indo-American” soil proved to be a cover for confusionism and petty-bourgeois compromises. (The mass influence of the corresponding movements does not in the least correspond to their programmatic value, but to the proletarian-socialist setback.) Finally, those elements – generally Trotskyist or their sympathizers – which could have regrouped a vanguard and catalyzed these petty-bourgeois democratic movements, kept themselves in sectarian isolation, their pretext being to keep an organizational independence – which did not exist or which soon stopped existing for lack of organization itself – or to keep a programmatic integrity which, in so far as it is a short-term historical program of action, has not stood the test of events.

Start from Scratch

In this respect, therefore, everything must be done anew. What is involved is a rearming in theory and perspective and a reorganization of the modes and course of action. On the first point, this is an international task to which the Latin American elements can of course bring only their contribution and in which they depend on the work accomplished elsewhere. In no way, however, does this hinder practical activity. On the contrary. For it is in accordance with the very development of practical activity that the theoretical perspectives will become clear. How to form cadres and strike roots depends on local conditions, of course, and there is no general answer. But, above all, it is necessary to be in that which exists. This is an apparent banality, but such a condition is found to be unfulfilled almost everywhere. Even where there seem to be more important groups with a mass influence (Chile, Bolivia), they do not appear to be connected with what could be called a national current – whether it be that they are not concerned with integrating themselves in it, when it does exist, or with taking the initiative to form it on a large base, when it has not yet taken on an organizational form.

This stems from the Trotskyist past. After the various Communist parties had been formed and the process of Stalinization took root in them, the struggle naturally took the form of internal opposition and of conquest of the party, that is, of the instrument of mass action, from within. This stage, in Latin America, rapidly led to the following one: formation of a new party. This stage in turn proved to be a total failure. That is the unquestionable fact. The reasons for it, in my opinion, in decreasing order of importance, are: (1) the situation created in these countries by the conditions of economic stagnation, with sudden speculative booms, and political corruption; this situation favors Stalinist tactics and makes revolutionary tactics more difficult; (2) the false Trotskyist perspective: “defense of the USSR,” “proletarian” character of the Communist parties, underestimation of the petty-bourgeois formations which attract the masses to them; (3) corollary to (2) – the tactical rigidity which led these groups to “explain” their isolation and ineffectuality, and persist in it, by a “principled” pseudo-analysis.

Into the Popular Movements!

Briefly, experience has decisively proved the vitality of the petty-bourgeois democratic-socialistic formation and the sectarian artificiality of the groups claiming to constitute new Bolshevik-Leninist parties. It has thus also proved, in my opinion, the falseness of the historical perspective and of the tactics according to which these groups proceeded. It has made clear the disastrous consequences of underestimating the petty-bourgeois popular movements and refusing to integrate oneself in them, not only to find there a milieu for work from which the new party would shortly arise, but above all and especially to help unequivocally in forging these movements into vigorous instruments of democratic action, and to help their proletarian base and their spontaneously revolutionary cadres and elements (students, for instance, poor peasants, cadres like Guiteras) to surmount the petty- bourgeois limitations of the movement. It is not at all an accident that the only movement which succeeded in realizing positive work, despite its limitations and its present defeat – Accion Democratica – had as its original core a group of former Communist militants gathered around Betancourt who, in their fashion, had drawn the conclusions of Stalinism. Inversely, why does not our work bear fruit, after years of devoted and thankless efforts? The ridiculous weakness of the initial core? Certainly. But then nobody in the beginning would have expected more from it than a first modern achievement. And the result – far from even being a moderate expansion – has been the decomposition of the initial core itself. Local conditions of corruption, petty-bourgeois impotence and adventurism, trade-union bureaucratism? Certainly, once more, and in no way do I underestimate these obstacles. No, I believe it is a question of lack of correct orientation despite the about-face in former tactics. You appear to the milieux in which you work – despite efforts to take roots seriously and “unequivocally” – as foreign and dogmatic elements. You are wrong to consider the first step forward to be the expansion of your own core. For years this core has had no existence, despite its apparent “shadowy existence.” And what must be formed is precisely an entirely different core, conceived in a much wider fashion. The question is to integrate – without any dogmatic or hierarchic pretensions – all the elements which have had a militant and socialist experience in the Communist Party or among the Trotskyists and which have not become corrupted in the sense of an individual “solution”; and at the same time to integrate this group in a progressive popular movement, not with fractional claims, however, but in the form of an open tendency. What has to be done, rather, is to be flexible in orienting the formative process of a dynamic wing and its political rearming, without trying to impose political and organizational formulas on it from above or from behind the scenes.

Material for such work does exist, for instance, in Cuba, and the political conditions which favor it do exist or are continually being reconstituted. During the period of the rising unpopularity of Grau and the election of Socarras I had the impression that the movement to be penetrated was Chibas’ party. It seems to have more or less fallen apart after the election. Whatever the value of this specific case may be, I believe there is room for a new popular-democratic movement in the face of an unpopular government, “bureaucratized” and impotent Autenticos and the machinations of the new Batista bloc in formation. Even a weak grouping, but one which would prepare the people for coming national and international events, which would clarify for them the impotence and corruption of the Autenticos in power, the machinations of the Batista bloc and the specific role of the Cuban Stalinists (linking it to the Kremlin’s world strategy) and the perspective of a military coup – such a group could gain a large audience rapidly if it knew how to present and to consider itself as the mere beginnings of a popular democratic movement.

One last word on the situation in Argentina. I do not wish to discuss it as a whole. I only want to indicate that the social demagogy of Peronian Bonapartism has reached a bottleneck and that we are rapidly headed for a stage of economic struggles and wide- scale and open government repression. Will this stage drag out or, on the contrary, will it rapidly reach a crisis of the regime? At any rate, this development which will soon take place will be important for Argentina, and for all of Latin America by repercussion. It must be closely studied without illusions or “theses” and its meaning for the masses must be interpreted – if means of expression are available.

* * *


1. Betancourt, the head of Accion Democratica and of the Venezuelan insurrection, became, after the seizure of power, the head of the revolutionary Junta until he transmitted his power to the new democratically-elected president, Romulo Gallegos. Gallegos, in turn; was forced to renounce power following the military coup of Col. Chalbaud, former member of the Betancourt revolutionary Junta and head of the Venezuelan army.

2. The Autenticos are a mass petty-bourgeois party which look shape after the downfall of Machado in 1934. Its head, Ramon Grau San Martin, headed the revolutionary provisional government, called “la pentarquia,” of which Bastista, a former sergeant promoted to colonel-sergeant, was a member. After a while Batista built up new military cadres and overthrew Grau San Martin and set up a military dictatorship. The Autenticos became an illegal opposition party until 1940, when Batista convened a Constituent Assembly and succeeded in being elected president. The Autenticos became a legal opposition party and succeeded in 1944 in having their candidate, Grau San Martin, elected president. In 1948 Grau San Martin was succeeded by another Autentico candidate, Prio Socarras. The rapid unpopularity of the Autentico party in power led to bitter internal struggles, which resulted in the formation of a new party led by a former stronghand of Grau San Martin – Eduardo Chibas, who by now is one of the main figures of the left opposition in Cuba. It led also to attempts of former President Batista to build up a new right-wing opposition – attempts which have so far resulted in the formation of a new Batista party.

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