Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Discussing Latin America - A (Very Belated) Response on Political Parties

Awhile back, Yann and I discussed the nature of political parties whose identities were rooted in a particular historical figure. I originally pondered the roles of figures like Augusto Sandino, Farabundo Martí, and Juan Peron might have had in current party politics in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Argentina, respectively. Yann had some really great thoughts, particularly in regards to efforts to re-interpret past national figures into current worldviews of national and global politics in Latin America. These figures can remain controversial, as with Sandino ("Whether or not Sandino was an anti-imperialist hero, or a criminal lunatic is still very much a debate in Nicaragua"), but Yann argued strongly that my exclusion of Bolivar was perhaps misplaced, as Chavez has attempted to re-interpret Bolivar as one of the original "anti-imperialists." While I think (and I believe Yann agreed) that Bolivar differed from a Marti or Sandino in that Bolivar is still a part of the nationally-accepted myth of Venezuela when compared to Sandino or Marti, I agree that, in light of Chavez's efforts to re-interpret Bolivar, we can lump him in with the other two.

However, I want to actually address the issue of Peronism. Yann suggested that Peronism was the outlier from these groups/parties, as he founded the party that became central to national political contestation, rather than serving as a model for future parties, a la the Sandinistas' uyse of Sandino and the FMLN's use of Marti. Yann went on to suggest that we could therefore consider Peron closer to Chavez or Castro in that their parties were "formed around charismatic individuals."

I agree in that sense, but I think we shouldn't necessarily overstate that differentiation, either. In terms of party creation, I completely agree. However, I think there are important similarities between Peronism and the Sandinistas as they currently exist. Peron has been dead for nearly 40 years now, and his two administrations (1946-1955 and for 9 months, from 1973 to his death in 1974) had radically different legacies. Peron certainly was never a left-wing leader, but historically he was probably one of the most "populist" leaders of Latin America. In spite of his efforts at top-down control, the workers' movement developed strongly under Peron, and in many ways used and developed further Peron's fight for causes that often are (probably rightfully) considered "left," including labor rights, more equal wealth distribution, greater control and profit from laborers' efforts, etc. With Peron out of the country for 18 years, this leftward shift among many in the Peronist party happened without having Peron be able to directly counter them or divulge his true beliefs on these issues. At the same time, more conservative sectors that were drawn to his top-down (and even borderline authoritarian) control of the movement and social change, as well as his more fascistic sympathies, seemed justified in their beliefs of what Peronism was when he returned in 1973, far more right-wing in his campaign, brief administration, and attitudes than many portions of his own party. In short, Peron was able to represent, in his words, deeds, and ideas, many different things to different groups, and none of those groups was completely "wrong" or "right." (And this isn't even to consider those who hated and stood against Peron from start to finish).

All this is to say that I think Peronism and Peron doesn't represent a complete break from the divisive role Sandino and Marti had in their own countries. Yes, Peron formed his namesake party, and Sandino and Marti did not. However, the image of Peron was a divisive one almost from the start, not just among his party and other parties in Argentina, but within the party itself, and his absence for 18 years only exacerbated these divisions. You still see this today - the Peronists are still deeply divided and torn over the role they should take, a division made even deeper by the military's "Dirty War" of 1976-1983 and the presidency of Carlos Menem, a Peronist who drove Argentina to economic collapse with his extreme neoliberalism while opening old wounds by pardoning convicted war criminals from the dictatorship.

As one final note here, I agree with Yann that Chavez has the potential to be similar to Peron down the line. I would also add Lula to this mix. The PT is completely Lula - he was one of its founders, he has been its main leader and spokesperson since its formation in the early 1980s as Brazil's dictatorship opened, and he has been its only presidential candidate in Brazil's 5 post-dictatorship elections (the failed elections of 1989, 1994, 1998, as well as the victory of 2002 and re-election in 2006). Come 2010, Lula's term is up, and the PT is facing the first post-Lula election of its existence. As Yann cautioned, it is too soon to say for sure if Lula (or Chavez, or Castro) will end up having the same effect as Peron on their parties. The PT in 2010 will be aided in no small part that Lula is still alive, and can make clear which direction he thinks the party should go. Still, he faces a difficult challenge, as divisions among middle-class intellectuals and ideologues vs. workers and politicians seeking more practical demands have emerged. Indeed, Lula's own administration has jaded many of his more intellectually leftist supporters, who felt he abandoned the true "revolutionary" cause when he actually had to navigate real political channels (in this regard, I have little sympathy for such ideologues, I openly admit). I'm certainly not saying the PT will end up going down the same road as Peron's Partido Justicialista, and I would be amazed to see Lula end up doing a massive rightward shift, both for ideological and historically contextual reasons. Still, I think that, as with Chavez and Castro, it will be very interesting to see how the PT functions in a post-Lula road, and Peronism will more likely than not serve as a fascinating and important point of comparison and contrast.