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Pink Tide 'Pirates'

Tariq Ali surveys the new Latin left.

By Derrick O'Keefe 12 Jan 2007 |

Derrick O'Keefe is a founding editor of the online journal Seven Oaks who last wrote for The Tyee about hockey in "Beer League Underbelly."

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Tariq Ali explores "Che's Revenge."
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope
  • Tariq Ali
  • Verso (2006)

In January's early days, a double-header of inaugurations highlighted the breadth of the "pink tide" sweeping politics south of the Rio Grande. On Jan. 10, Daniel Ortega was sworn in as president of Nicaragua, completing a 17-year effort to regain that country's top office. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez arrived late for the Sandinista celebrations, flying in from his own swearing in for another six years.

Ortega has come a long way from his days leading the Nicaraguan revolution against the contras in the 1980s. He went to great pains to soothe the worries of the country's entrenched elite, watering down his economic demands to something like moderate social democracy. Chavez has taken a very different, aggressively anti-capitalist course, backed by a vibrant popular movement carrying out what is known as the Bolivarian Revolution. In the first days of 2007, the Venezuelan leader has already announced the nationalization of electric and telecommunications companies, emphasizing that this is part of a larger trend in which "everything that has been privatized will be nationalized."

The diversity among such Latin American leaders has caused some to identify "two lefts" in the region. In last May's Foreign Affairs, Jorge Castaneda, the former foreign minister of Mexico under Vincente Fox, counterposes "modern, open-minded, reformist, and internationalist" nominally socialist regimes in Brazil and Chile with "nationalist, strident, and close-minded" governments in Venezuela and Bolivia.

Castaneda, a former Marxist intellectual turned minister in a conservative regime, is precisely the type of turncoat upon which Tariq Ali enjoys venting all of his considerable polemical skills. The Pakistani-born Ali, a veteran activist, playwright and writer based in Britain, has, for instance, savaged former comrade-in-arms Christopher Hitchens's support for the Iraq war in both print and live debate. Early in 2006, Ali released the book Rough Music, a short and wicked denunciation of Tony Blair. He has since turned his pen to the rebirth of the left in Latin America, and in particular to the regimes loathed by Castaneda, with Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope.

A bridge from Cuba

The pirates in question are Cuba's Fidel Castro, Venezuala's Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales (although it must be noted that Morales leads a land-locked Andean country somewhat removed from the Caribbean Sea).

In a world as beset by inequality and imperial war as ever, Ali takes hope from this new Latin American alliance, examining the radical reforms underway in Venezuela and Bolivia and assessing the role played in these new political movements by the old revolution in Cuba and its ailing octogenarian commandante en jefe. The Cubans are a bridge from an earlier political era, according to Ali, whose own background is as a Marxist critical of the Soviet, Eastern European and other bureaucratic states.

The "old man in Havana," as the author rather affectionately refers to Castro, was prescient enough to identify early on the importance of Chavez's political project in Venezuela. But rather than insisting on "Cubanizing" the Venezuelans politically, as Soviet apparatchiks might have, Cuba instead provided much-needed human capital in the form of more than 10,000 medical personnel. In exchange for the doctors, who are essential in expanding Chavez's social programs, Caracas sends cheap oil to the energy-starved island. Ali provides a brief history of past concerns that made him take his distance from Cuba, as well as an assessment of Cuba's prospects after Fidel Castro. The author makes clear his disdain for any plans to return to U.S. domination:

Bolivia sees its ghosts

"Washington is waiting for the Old Man to die. Then a new offensive will begin. It will be an economic not a military assault, offering money in unlimited quantities to buy the loyalty of the island people and promising them a consumer paradise for eternity. If they succeed, it will be a tragedy for Cuba and Latin America."

According to Ali, another type of revolution is now also taking place in Bolivia, where the indigenous majority has finally elected one of its own in Morales. The author has an added reason for taking satisfaction in recent events in Bolivia. In 1967, he was part of a small team of British journalists who travelled to the country during the months when Che Guevara's band of guerrilla fighters was being rounded up and killed by the army. Ali believes Bolivia is today experiencing "Che's revenge."

Pirates of the Caribbean is richly footnoted and contains lengthy appendices in which Ali takes out his own polemical revenge on a number of those apostates of the left who now use their talents to demonize their former allies. For anyone interested in understanding Latin America's "New Left," Tariq Ali's Pirates is a great place to start.  [Tyee]