A L Morton Lecture 2009

It was the Peasants what done it

The major changes in Latin America examined – report by Willie Thompson

The Society’s 2009 A L Morton lecture was held in the Conway Hall on Saturday October 3, with the speaker being Dr Francisco Dominguez, member of the Venezuela Information Centre and head of the Latin American Studies Centre at Middlesex University.

His theme was an interpretation of the history of Latin America extending up to the present. In particular he emphasised the role played in it by the disregarded masses and, in the countries where they were numerically great, the descendants of the indigenous population.

The point from which he began was the independence revolutions of the nineteenth century. These, with Simon Bolivar as their principal inspirer, were led by enlightened middle class revolutionaries strongly influenced by continental Freemasonry (a very different creature from the British version) and opposed by the Creole aristocracies of the Spanish and Portuguese empires.

To win these revolutions the exploited masses had to be mobilised, but having fulfilled that role were expected to return to working in miserable conditions for landowners, mine-owners, traders and occasional manufacturers, and be content with a state independence which brought them little if any material benefit. In addition the ruling classes of the new republics were terrified of the example of the thoroughgoing slave revolution in Haiti as a warning of what could happen if the masses got out of hand.

At the same time, the masses, principally peasants and miners, had had their aspirations ignited by the independence revolutions. Bitterly conscious of the grotesque inequalities in wealth which prevailed throughout the continent, they were not disposed to accept their subordination, and Latin America became famous for its revolts and revolutions.

To stabilise this unstable equilibrium the Latin American elites turned to the great power in the north, the USA, which backed them up in their repressions and itself often intervened directly, sending in the Marines to secure a safe social and political environment for its overseas investors.

By the 1930s communist parties were being established throughout Latin America. However, Dr Dominguez, argued, their rather mechanistic concentration on the industrial working class and relative neglect of the peasant masses meant that they failed to become the force they might have been with a more effective political strategy. Cuban communists, for example, played little part in the revolution – though they certainly helped to ensure its survival.

Current developments, though, are probably the most encouraging anywhere in the world, particularly in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Dr Dominguez explained the social strategies being adopted by the radical governments there to win mass support – and, most importantly, to keep it. These are countries with an especially high proportion of indigenous ethnicity and the development of indigenous traditions and values in new circumstances are a most important aspect of revolutionary success.

These complexities, both historical & contemporary were all explained by Dr Dominguez in a most clear and stimulating manner. The talk was followed by lively discussion which could have continued much longer had time been available.

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November 2009

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