Marta Harnecker: activist, writer, teacher

Her views on the Latin American Left today

[Translation of an interview from Folha de São Paulo for August 28, 2012. See original here.]

by Eleonora de Lucena

She defines herself as a Marxist-Leninist “popular educator.” A Chilean, she was a student of philosopher Louis Althusser, a Catholic student leader and a member of the socialist government of Salvador Allende. She married one of the commanders of the Cuban revolution, Manuel Piñeiro or “Barba Roja,” and in the 2000s she became an adviser to Hugo Chávez.

Marta Harnecker says she has written more than 80 books. The best known, Conceptos Elementales del Materialismo Histórico (The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism), from the 1960s, has sold more than a million copies and is in its 67th edition. At 75, she travels throughout Latin America and says she is optimistic; the United States no longer does what it wants in the region and the concept of sovereignty has spread.

Living now in Vancouver, Canada, she considers Chávez “an essential revolutionary leader” but a “contradictory person.” “He is a soldier who believes in popular participation. The important thing is to see the fruits of this thing.” Venezuela is the least unequal country on the continent.


Folha – How do you evaluate the political situation in Latin America?

Marta Harnecker – I am very optimistic.

When Chávez won he was alone and now the scenario has changed a lot. I consider the most advanced situations to be in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. My last book was on Ecuador and is called Ecuador: Una Nueva Izquierda en Busca de la Vida en Plenitud. The concept of these governments is that of an alternative to capitalism, in which the human person has full development.

We didn’t consider this important in the past and these days it is fundamental: a society constructed by people, from the bottom up. It is not a matter of the people being beggars who receive gifts from the state. That is not what we want and that is not what is being done. The midwife of this process was neoliberalism, which brought about contradictions, and the people began to resist and began to understand that they have to participate in politics and to create political instruments. That was the case in Ecuador, in Bolivia and in Venezuela. There was popular pressure there in the 1980s which is part of the origins of Chávez’s triumph.

There is a structural crisis of the state. People no longer trust politics or politicians and they want something new. They are tired of unfulfilled promises. These governments came about and, contrary to the predictions of some, including Brazilian intellectuals, the process has continued. There are those who thought an obstacle had been met and it was going to slow down. But that’s not the way it was.

But the empire is there. There are the cases of Manuel Zelaya and Fernando Lugo. They had processes that were weaker internally, with more fragile popular organizations, without parties. Both came from bourgeois parties. There is nothing to copy in Latin America. Some become enthusiastic about the Venezuelan process and think the same thing can be carried out in all the countries. The process on the continent is completely differentiated. What unites them is the social process. In Bolivia and in Ecuador, for example, the indigenous are important groups but not in Venezuela.

Isn’t Chávez’s performance closely linked to petroleum?

Petroleum was already nationalized when Chávez came to power but it was not in the hands of the government. It was being managed by groups allied with the opposition. As a consequence of the 2002 coup, management by the government has been reestablished. The profits from petroleum are used for domestic social missions and to support other processes in Latin America. There is a dependency, but they are clear that it needs to be overcome.

The government is investing in industrialization projects, since neoliberalism de-industrialized our countries. The strategy is to be less and less dependent on petroleum.

In Bolivia the Morales government is faced with the opposition of popular movements. How do you explain that?

These are contradictions that the processes pass through. These are very different from the revolutionary processes of the 1920s, in the Russian revolution. In these cases, it was just a coming to power. In many of them, with correlation of the forces in parliament, in the local governments, in the communications media and in the economic power, which remained in the hands of those previously in power.

In Álvaro Linera [vice president of Bolivia] is a reflection of the contradictions the country is going through. Between a government of which he has to be an executive, to make decisions, to resolve problems for the whole country, and the social movements, which have a pattern of democratic discussion, etc. In the Bolivian process, the population is diverse and has contradictions. They are united around banners like, for example, that of the plurinational state. But the contradictions are acute and the government has to understand that and to look at all the sides democratically. It is very complicated. The people want the state to resolve the problem. It is a kind of paternalism. When these governments come along, they want immediate solutions, they do not know about politics or about the correlation of forces. Besides that, a local vision prevails, without a vision of the whole.

What is needed is a process of popular education so that a community understands that it is detrimental for the country and for other communities not to build a road. Linera recognizes that there are, and there will be, contradictions and governors need to lead with them.

How do you analyze the situation of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay?

They are different. They are much more moderate governments but are taking measures toward sovereignty. Because the first thing we need to achieve is sovereignty before the US. We have held meetings leaving the US out; the State Department does not come along to tell us what to do. In most of the governments of the region, sovereignty is a value. It is a success that Unasur has been formed and that Chile, Mexico and Colombia are in it.

Has the power of the US in the region diminished?

The United States can no longer do what it wants. But of course its power is immense. There is a United States counter-offensive that is reflected in cases like that of Zelaya, and in the attempt against Correa. There was the coup against Lugo. They are trying again to stage a coup in Bolivia, with sectors of the opposition taking advantage of the contradictions within the population. In Santa Cruz and in other places they are attempting to form alliances with dissatisfied sectors of the people. The attempt at separatism was defeated thanks to popular organization. Now there is no imminent danger but those forces are reconstituting themselves.

We do not have an easy path. These are processes that are not defined overnight. The best defense is to have an organized people. Chávez understands that very well. He always insists that we cannot solve the problem of poverty if we do not give power to the people. Chávez is a type who understands the people, he is very human. I wrote a book with him that is called, Hugo Chávez Frías: Un Hombre, un Pueblo. I’m not saying that Chávez the man has no defects or that there are no contradictions between his discourse and what he does. We are going through human processes, not a pure, divine process.

In your view, could there have been a common model among the Latin American countries?

I am a Chilean. In Chile, the bourgeois counter-revolutions was consolidated, with Pinochet and his followers. The Concertación continues neoliberal policies with some social policies. There was a neoliberalism that was successful in the increase of the GNP, the construction of highways. But Chile, which was one of the most egalitarian countries in Latin America, is now one with the greatest differences between the poor and the rich. In Chile there were no walls around the homes of the haute bourgeoisie. The effects of neoliberalism cannot be measured solely on the economic side. I met a Chilean married couple, architects, who work 14 hours a day. They live to work, they don’t work to live.

People of the petite bourgeoisie gain a few things but there is a lot of competition, they are always rushing, they are never at peace at work. In Brazil as well the bourgeois counter-revolution was consolidated.

How was that? The PT [Partido dos Trabalhadores – Workers’ Party] administration is a bourgeois counter-revolution?

The dominant sectors were consolidated, the agribusinesses. The PT is seeking to do something else. It cannot be compared with Venezuela or Bolivia because of the correlation of forces in Lula’s victory. In a country that is the sixth economy in the world, finance capital and the transnationals have enormous power. So capitalism is consolidated, but there is attention to the popular sectors. They take people out of poverty.

In Brazil, the government needs to facilitate the process of popular organization more. We have a Left that had been in the opposition. The government has to be the executive, to resolve problems and it cannot wait for party discussions. The distance between the party and the government grows. Parts of the popular sector take on positions in the government. In a state like Brazil it is necessary to be very firm in order not to change into something else. A worker who becomes a senator or a representative changes his life. As Marxism teaches, material conditions influence. I believe that there is a deformation of many leaders, who stop representing popular interests.

There are many left criticisms of Lula and Dilma made without understanding the forces that exist. I do not mean that they cannot do more than they have done.

So there is no common model for Latin America?

No. Each situation in Latin America is different. It is necessary to study each place, its historical origins, the correlation of forces.

I am a student of Lenin. It is necessary to make a concrete analysis of the forces, to choose strategy and tactic. There is a horizon, which is socialism for the 21st century, the society of living well. We do not want a socialism like the Soviet one, statist, totalitarian, a single party, atheist, that used social movements as a means to an end. It is necessary to read the classics, Marx and Engels. The goal is a society in solidarity, that there not be exploiters and exploited, in which each one finds something to do, that differences be respected. That is a utopian goal. I would gauge societies with questions: 1. Have these governments made gains in relation to national sovereignty? 2. Do they consolidate, increase the organization of the people? 3. Do they develop with respect for nature?

How do you analyze the world economic crisis?

It is an important structural crisis. It is not terminal because capitalism recovers. Objective conditions are more advanced than subjective conditions. I value movements like that of the indignados. Rebellion is a first step but it is necessary to have it turn into a power. Reconstruyendo la Izquierda (Rebuilding the Left) is a book of mine in which I say that what is needed is an instrument of articulation that is not the traditional parties. Neoliberalism fragments the population.

How is that?

Politics is not the art of the possible. That is diplomacy. I wrote a book on that. The revolutionary politician needs to understand that in order to achieve his objective he has to create a correlation of forces. To build social forces in order to have political strength in order to achieve his objective. You build social power with popular protagonism. The state cannot create what does not exist, but can create the conditions so that the forces are strengthened.

Political parties would not be that instrument? Are there no differences?

Political parties do not understand politics as the art of building social forces. But they understand politics as a way of attaining government positions, of having more members of congress, more power. That is not the idea. Politics is often discredited. The Right has appropriated the language of the Left. The Left often does practical politics just like the right: patronage, personalism, political careerism, sometimes even corruption. The people see the same discourse, the same practice, they become disenchanted.

For example?

There are no examples. Each case makes the diagnosis. But it is clear. It is necessary to be very consistent between what you say and what you do. It is necessary to work to construct social power, and not to be dedicated to institutional fights. Socialism requires a great majority, a hegemony, to convince the greatest number of people of the project, being very pluralistic and respecting differences.

I have a book that makes an analysis of the errors the Left has committed. When a person knows the value of solidarity, he begins to understand that it is more important to be than to have. That is the struggle against consumerism. There is a demobilizing democracy. People are in debt. Workers are demobilized because they can lose their jobs and they are not protected as in the past. When the leftist parties manage to gain some ground, the leaders often cease being revolutionary leaders. The danger is very great. A political activist who becomes part of the bourgeois apparatus has to have some kind of structure, a group of people who control and consult, who ask the leader why he is buying a car he doesn’t need. Co-optation, by ideology and by culture, is easy for a single individual.

You were married to a leader of the Cuban revolution and lived on the island for many years. How do you see the situation of the country?

Cuba was my second homeland. I have a Cuban daughter who lives there. Cuba taught Latin America dignity, the capacity to defend sovereignty, resistance against all ills. The economy is very complicated.

How do you see the changes taking place in the economy?

There had to be changes. People need space to develop their productive capacity. It is true. I believe that the participation of workers in cooperatives is a path that should be explored.

You were a disciple of Louis Althusser (1918-1990). What was that experience like?

I studied psychology at the Catholic University of Chile. As a leader of the university Catholic action, I visited Cuba and was fascinated. I was a Catholic and I began to have discussions with Marxist Christians. I went to France and met Althusser, who had also been Catholic. I read his books, and established a relation as a disciple. I lived a few meters from his home and I saw him three times a day. He would tell me what to read. I didn’t continue in psychology. That was from 1963 to 1968. A also worked with Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005). I returned to Chile thinking of teaching French.

I deliberately didn’t get a degree. I had written a book, Conceptos Elementales del Materialismo Histórico from the notes I had made for a course for Haitians and Mexicans the last year I was in Paris. That book sold more than a million copies. It is now in its 67th edition and has been translated into several languages. In Brazil it was distributed in underground editions. Because of the book, I became professor at the University of Chile, with Theotonio dos Santos and Ruy Mauro Marini. I was editor of the Unidad Popular magazine, Chile Hoy. I adapted articles by intellectuals, making them accessible to the people. That’s when I became impassioned with journalism.

I have more than 80 books in print. Some are books of personal accounts, of experiences in several countries – El Salvador, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Venezuela. I have a book on the PT which is pending. In Chile I was part of the Socialist Party and I became fascinated with popular education. I think the greatest satisfaction is to create a text that everyone can understand, that is not academic. I am not a professor. I am a popular educator; that is how I define myself. After the coup in Chile I went to Cuba, where I strengthened my relation with Comandante Manuel Piñeiro, “Barba Roja” (1933-1998). I stayed in Cuba until 2003. I went to interview Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. I collected the criticisms from the Left, the doubts about his government. He liked it very much that I relayed the criticisms and he invited me to work at the palace. I didn’t want a salary. They only paid for an apartment and for food.

What were the criticisms?

That such and such a ministry was not doing such and such, that it had too authoritarian a tone, everything. I lived in Venezuela for six years.

Do you now find that Chávez is an authoritarian person?

Chávez is a soldier who believes in popular participation and wants to promote it. It’s just that he is contradictory as a person. And you have to respect that contradiction. We would want him not to be so authoritarian but we understand. I myself have a very complicated character. Very often I would like to change but it is not so easy. The important thing is to see the fruits of these things. If we compare the Venezuela in the first year with that of today, we have people with personalities, who criticize, who grew has human beings. And that is what we are seeking. I loaded him with criticisms.

And do you still live in Venezuela?

I live in Vancouver, in Canada, with my companion, Michael Lebowitz.

How do you see Chávez’s succession?

There is no one of Chávez’s stature. The ideal would be collective leadership. Given the fragmentation that liberalism has produced in Latin American popular sectors, the workers today have nothing to do with those in Marx’s times; there is outsourcing, precariousness. What is needed are people with great charisma and a very strong personality to bring all these sectors together.

There is the populist leader who uses the people for his political objectives and the revolutionary leader who, using his abilities, promotes the growth of the people A revolutionary leader with charisma communicates with the people just like the populist. The difference is that the populist, like Perón, gives things away, but not help for the people to become independent. He is not the bridge to growth.

I remember one of the first trips I made with Chávez, for the inauguration of a school. The people were asking for things, they were handing him notes. One of them asked for a road. Chávez suggested that they organize with others in a cooperative to get the road. That is the idea. I believe it is not populism; it is revolutionary leadership. I believe the Venezuelan process and Chávez are essential for that process in Latin America.

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