Communist Ideology Fading Fast in Latin America : Politics: Parties fared poorly in the 1980s and Soviet changes have further harmed their morale and prestige.
U.S. presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan worried about communism in America’s back yard. Obviously, times have changed: As world communism cracks and crumbles, the “Red menace” in Latin America is all but forgotten.
Today, most Latin American Communist parties have renounced old dreams of Cuban-style revolution. Some are splitting up, falling apart or withering away. Others are overhauling their ideologies to embrace democratic and even free-market principles. A few are hanging tough, stubbornly sticking to Marxist-Leninist doctrine. But throughout the region, Communist parties are in crisis.
In general, Latin American Communists fared poorly at the polls during the region’s democratic revival in the 1980s. The successive Communist failures in Europe, culminating in the abortive Soviet coup in August, have further devastated the morale and prestige of pro-Moscow parties in this region.
That does not portend the death of the Latin American left, with its banners of equality and social justice in countries where inequality and injustice are commonplace. But Jose Joaquin Brunner, an analyst with the Santiago-based Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, said that the influence of traditional Communist ideology is waning fast.
“The tendency is a new type of left in Latin America; I think it will have more Social Democratic traits,” Brunner said.
Communist parties began appearing in Latin America early in the century, but few ever mustered much popular support or power at the polls. They did, however, earn considerable measures of respect and fear for their discipline, organizational skill, revolutionary zeal and intellectual luminaries.
In Chile, for example, a widely revered Communist was Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize poet. But Neruda is dead, and today Chile offers a prime example of crisis and decline in Latin American communism.
Older than the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of Chile was founded in 1912. It shared government power early in the 1970s as a senior partner in the coalition that elected President Salvador Allende, himself a leader of Chile’s old Socialist Party, a Marxist-Leninist institution.
Then came the bloody military coup of September, 1973. The Communist Party went underground, advocating violent resistance to the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
When the military regime allowed elections in 1989, balloting rules were such that no candidate with less than about 30% of a district’s votes could win a seat in the Congress. The Communists won none.
Jorge Insunza, a Chilean Communist leader, admits that the Soviet Communist Party’s troubles have compounded the crisis in his party. But he vowed that the Chilean party will pull through these hard times.
“The party has very deep roots in Chilean society,” he said. “We started out before the October revolution, and we do not depend on what happens in the Soviet Union.” He added that the Chilean party rejects the “bureaucratic model” of communism that dominated the Soviet Union until the era of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s perestroika and is in the process of making “very deep changes” in its own ideology.
“We have come to the conclusion that Marx’s old concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be used today,” he said. And the party’s anti-market concepts will be revised, he said, “accepting the fact that the market exists in reality and continues to exist in a socialist society.”
Former Chilean Communists, however, say the party remains resistant to open discussion and deep change. Fanny Pollarolo, who quit the party last year, said changes in the Soviet Union encouraged her and other reformers to break with orthodox Communist thinking.
Pollarolo is among 10 of the Central Committee’s 45 members who have resigned. Several have formed a new movement, the Democratic Left Party. Pollarolo, 56, is president.
“The perestroika process, the figure of Gorbachev, has had great significance for us,” she said. “It has given us hope for reformulating a democratic, humane, modern society, free from all formal orthodoxy.”
As Communists in other Latin American countries re-examine their political identities, it remains to be seen how much formal Communist orthodoxy will survive in the region. But Marco Aurelio Garcia, a history professor who specializes in leftist Latin American movements at Brazil’s University of Campinas, said parties remaining faithful to Marxist-Leninist doctrine will be discredited by the Soviet Communist failure.
“The situation of the orthodox left is going to be very difficult in the coming years,” Garcia said.
Starting with Cuba, where communism has been the official ideology since the early 1960s, here is a sampling of how Latin American Communists are dealing with the difficulties:
Soviet aid in the form of huge trade subsidies was reduced to nearly zero this year. And if fledgling capitalists in the Soviet republics eliminate barter arrangements with Cuba, putting all trade on a cash basis, Cuba would become the customer of last resort and face far worse shortages of food and fuel than the Draconian ones it already suffers. The political impact of dwindling Soviet help will become clearer when Communist delegates debate Cuba’s economic and political course at the Fourth Party Congress, starting Oct. 10.
The party’s only formal reaction to the Soviet coup failure, an editorial in the official newspaper Granma on Aug. 29, said: “Whatever happens in the Soviet Union, we will not move away from the path we have chosen . . . our independent, Cuban and socialist line.” A debate over what exactly that means has been under way in the party for months and has been intensified by events in the Soviet Union.
Says Gillian Gunn, a Cuba specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington: “Had the Soviet coup succeeded, the prospect of more stable (Soviet) economic assistance would have strengthened the hand of Cuban hard-liners. The failure of the coup, and the related expectation that aid will decline more rapidly than before, has strengthened those arguing for introduction of some market mechanisms as the only way to avoid economic collapse.”
Meanwhile, the sight of huge anti-Communist demonstrations in Soviet cities appears to have strengthened Havana’s resolve to crack down even harder on the island’s small dissident movement, which is demanding an end to Castro’s one-party system. Dissident groups, emboldened by events in the Soviet Union, tried to organize a demonstration recently, but a pro-government mob chanting “In Cuba, there can be only one party” harassed the first dissidents to arrive, and the rally never got under way.
The Sandinista National Liberation Front, in its first party congress a month before the Soviet coup, took steps toward abandoning its guerrilla past and creating a democratic opposition party. The delegates dropped references in working documents to being a Marxist-Leninist party but rejected a democratic bid within the party to shake up the self-appointed Sandinista leadership with an open election. At the same time, the Sandinistas decided to continue calling themselves socialist, revolutionary and anti-imperialist.
As president of Nicaragua, Sandinista party leader Daniel Ortega was forced by the war with the Contras, economic collapse, and U.S. and Latin American pressure to embrace political pluralism and run in a free election, which he lost. Even while following Gorbachev’s example of political openness, Ortega has criticized Moscow’s drift away from the socialist model. Reacting with alarm to the Soviet coup aftermath, Ortega said: “The most right-wing sectors are trying to smash Gorbachev and turn the Soviet Union toward capitalism. Boris Yeltsin’s methods against the Soviet Communist Party are totally anti-democratic and dangerous.”
The small Communist Party of Nicaragua takes the opposite view. Ariel Bravo, the party’s secretary for national and international affairs, said the Soviet upheaval was to be expected because “the Soviets began deviating from true Leninism as soon as Lenin died and Stalin took over.”
The tiny Venezuelan Communist Party, divided over events in the Soviet Union, suffered its most serious blow Aug. 27 when Chairman Hector Mujica resigned from both his post and the party. Mujica, who had belonged to the party for more than four decades, had adopted a reformist line. He said he was resigning because some sectors of the party leadership opposed reform and supported the attempted coup in the Soviet Union.
The University of Campinas’ Prof. Garcia said that the fallout from the Soviet events could carry small Latin American Communist parties such as Venezuela’s “to a final phase, to their disappearance.”
The Patriotic Union, a coalition formed in 1984 to incorporate pacified guerrillas, has been dominated by the Colombian Communist Party, but the alliance is in trouble. In light of the changes in the Soviet Union, many Patriotic Union leaders have quit the Communist Party, calling it a last bastion of Marxist reactionaries. Oscar Gonzalez Arana, the Patriotic Union’s director of international relations, said its differences with the Communist Party have become so great that a complete break between the two is certain.
Roberto Freire, secretary general of the Brazilian Communist Party and a former presidential candidate, is proposing that the party transform its structure, change its name and drop its traditional hammer-and-sickle symbol. He said that reforms in the 69-year-old Brazilian party began years ago but that recent changes in the Soviet system confirmed the need to break with the past.
“If that model is exhausted, the Communist Party is exhausted,” Freire told reporters at a recent meeting of the Brazilian party’s Central Committee. “It isn’t a matter of renovating or reforming the Communist Party. It is a matter of forming a new party with the Communist Party as a base.”
The Argentine Communist party, founded in 1918, has severely criticized Gorbachev’s reforms. Fanny Evelman, a long-time Argentine Communist leader, said in a telephone interview that the Soviet changes are aimed at returning to capitalism. “We, who have been victims of American imperialism, cannot accept that surrender,” she said.
According to Evelman, 80, socialism is the only solution to the underdevelopment of Latin America and the Third World. U.S. capitalism, she said, “is corroded from within by its own contradictions.”
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux, in Mexico, and special correspondents Jan Howard, in Nicaragua, and Stan Yarbro, in Colombia, contributed to this report.
Red Flag in Latin America
Throughout Latin America, Communist parties have given up on revolution. Some are withering away, others are changing, a few are hanging tough. In nations marked in black, above, the parties are in crisis. Here is a look:
Communist Party, born in 1912, predates Soviet Union. Partner with socialist Allende government in early 1970s, it went underground when Allende was overthrown. Now legal again, it has done poorly at polls, and its leaders talk of adapting.
With Soviet aid all but cut off, Cuba suffers serious food, fuel shortages that may grow worse. But defiant Communist Party vows to hew to “independent, Cuban and socialist line,” and dissidents remain largely suppressed.
With Marxist Sandinistas voted out and broad-based National Opposition Union (UNO) in power, Nicaragua’s small Communist Party has turned pragmatic, joining UNO and refraining from identifying with any Communist country.
Communists dominate Patriotic Union coalition, but Soviet upheaval has caused many coalition leaders to quit Communist Party as too reactionary. Party’s leader speaks of merging it with other leftist opposition groups to form new party.
Tiny Communist party was crippled this year when longtime leader, who had called for reform and denounced attempted Soviet coup, resigned and left party. To some, its continued existence is in question.
Top Communist says changes in Soviet Union confirm need for reform within Brazil’s Communist Party, even to extent of changing name and forming new party. Issue will be taken up at party conference this year.
Argentine Communist Party has criticized Soviet reforms as return to capitalism, and its longtime leader still sees socialism as only hope for people of Latin America and Third World.
Outside Cuba, Uruguayan party is communism’s biggest Latin success. But like others, it is considering deep structural changes, possibly merging with other parties to seek broader electoral base.