Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 21, 2016

Rafael Correa and the Chessintern

Filed under: China,indigenous,Latin America,oil — louisproyect @ 9:55 pm

As most people probably understand, political analysis about a particular government leader is often largely driven by where they stand in the geopolitical chess game—most of all by the grandmasters who play it, namely the “anti-imperialist” left that is as single-minded ideologically as earlier generations of Kremlin apologists if not more so.

In my experience, Stansfield Smith is the Boris Spassky of this milieu. The tops at awfulness with no competition on the horizon. Back when he was on Marxmail, he never posted anything except talking points in line with the Pepe Escobar/Mike Whitney/Eric Draitser Chessintern.

To belong to the Chessintern, you have to master a few basic openings such as the need to defend every foreign policy initiative of the Kremlin or China and then to smear anybody who ends up on the other side of the chessboard as tools of the CIA or the NED.

Back in 2010, when Smith was still a Marxmail subscriber, he did everything he could to tarnish indigenous activists in Ecuador organized in CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) as tools of imperialism. That year there was a coup attempt in Ecuador that CONAIE supported. Rather than dealing with indigenous unhappiness with Correa, as I tried to do in an article on the Miskito rebellion in Sandinista Nicaragua, Smith approached the whole thing as a conspiracy in which NED payoffs to the Indians was the key factor. You don’t need Marxism to understand such conflicts, just Hal Holbrook’s line in “All the President’s Men”: “follow the money.”

Interestingly enough, the Chessintern-friendly CounterPunch ran a number of articles that year that refused to demonize the Indians. The late Roger Burbach called attention to a law that allowed for the privatization of water and that placed “no real restraints on the ravaging of rivers and aquifers by the mining companies.” Ben Dangl stated that Correa had been marginalizing the indigenous movements of Ecuador while Laura Carlsen seemed to have offered the most balanced approach: “Although Correa has required companies to pay a larger share of profits to the government as mentioned above, he promoted the extractive model of national development that encroaches on indigenous lands and rights and has led to massive environmental destruction.”

The same divisions exist in Ecuador today with indigenous people continuing to feel vitimized, especially when it comes to the exploration for oil in their territories. If you’ve seen “Crude”, you know how much damage oil companies can do to Ecuador’s water and soil. With the film’s  focus on the attempt of peasants to sue Texaco and Chevron’s for damages, it is not difficult to imagine that Indians would have the same kind of grievances even if the government was part of the Bolivarian revolutionary movement and that oil drilling in Indian country was being done in partnership with a Chinese oil company. That is, unless you were Stansfield Smith.

With a title like “Propaganda as ‘News’: Ecuador Sells Out Indigenous Tribes and the Environment to China”, you pretty much know what to expect. Whatever the question (Syria, Ukraine, Tibet, Xinjiang), you trawl the Internet for any links between some protest movement and the NED, the CIA or some Soros-funded NGO and that’s all you need to know. Case closed.

Foolish me. I tried to transcend Chessintern thinking when I wrote about the Miskito revolt:

The best presentation of the Miskito case comes from Charles R. Hale, an American anthropologist who was a Sandinista supporter. The more time he spent with Miskito people, the more he came to realize that the government in Managua had misunderstood their legitimate demands. His book “Resistance and Contradiction: Miskito Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987” is essential reading.

Hale explains that Miskito unrest had preceded the Sandinista victory. The same economic forces that precipitated the revolution against Somoza were shaking up the Atlantic Coast. Large-scale commercial exploitation of the land for cattle-ranching and cotton production caused displaced peasants to arrive in the cities with dim economic prospects. When the earthquake hit Managua, these prospects completely disappeared and armed struggle seemed like the only reasonable path.

These peasants also moved eastward, putting pressure on communally owned Miskito land. The UN and the Alliance for Progress sponsored some large-scale projects in partnership with Somoza that the Miskitos resented, including the construction of a deep-water port. The construction interfered with traditional fishing activities. The Miskitos faced challenges on all front.

But mostly the Miskitos felt left out of the economic development that was taking place all around them. The Somoza family had pumped millions of dollars into nearly 200 industrial fishing boats on the Atlantic Coast. Commercial fishing accounted for 4 percent of foreign currency earnings in 1977, but nothing substantial flowed into Miskito improvement. The “trickle down” theory was as false in Nicaragua as it was in Reagan’s America. Capital to finance the expansion came from Cuban exiles in Miami and North American banks. All the stepped up economic activity was of no benefit to the Miskitos, who regarded the Spanish-speaking businessmen as little more than invaders. After the commercial fishers had taken the last lobster and shrimp out of the water, they would have gone on their merry way.

Essentially this is the same kind of clash in Ecuador today.

Smith’s article is an assault on Amazon Watch, an NGO that was supposedly the source of an article titled “Ecuador to Sell a Third of Its Amazon Rainforest to Chinese Oil Companies” that has made the rounds on the Internet. In Smith’s eyes, the article was “an invention” since to this date no land has actually been sold. He also believes that even if China began buying up land for drilling, the targeted area is practically the size of a postage stamp:

And, for comparison, the Alberta tar sands oil fields are 1,500 times the size of the small area Ecuador opened up for oil exploration in the Yasuni. In comparison, too, last May Obama approved oil drilling in the Artic Sea, where 20 billion barrels of oil and 90 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are now more available due to the melting of Arctic ice sheets.

I am not exactly sure how much drilling there will be in Yasuni National Park once the extractive juggernaut gets a full head of steam but it is bigger than the state of Connecticut. This does not even speak to the damage that will be done to a priceless natural habitat that Correa pledged to preserve after becoming president.

To wrap up his case against the indigenous peoples, Smith draws a contrast between their “corporate-backed funders” such as the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and China, which “provides loans at low interest rates, does not intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, respects other countries’ paths of economic and political development, and encourages South-South cooperation as a counter to Western hegemony.” I got a chuckle out of this since the organization I was involved with in the 1980s that trained Nicaraguans how to use high technology tried to get some donations from Mott. The executive director Michael Urmann, who died in 2012, told me about after going up to see Mott in his penthouse he was forced to listen to this knucklehead lecture him about world politics for an hour. That was bad enough but when no money came out of the visit, he was fit to be tied. Our attitude toward Mott, the Ford Foundation or any of a number of liberal charities was if they gave us money, it was their contradiction, not ours. Since both of us were sixties radicals (he was a Maoist), that is the way we looked at it. I have no idea what Smith was doing in the sixties but his inability to think in these terms suggests not very much.

But in terms of Smith’s ebullient description of Chinese beneficence, inquiring minds would naturally have to look a bit closer at the economic data to determine whether China is interested in helping the poor, especially since strikes and protests there set records in 2015. Worker militancy has led to increased wages in recent years, hence leading to a devaluation of the yuan to make Chinese exports competitive with other Asian countries that pay even lower wages.

All this has consequences for Ecuador. With a devalued yuan, which Ecuador uses, exports to China produce less revenue. When you take into account that the price of its main export—oil—has dropped precipitously in the last year or so, the consequences are drastic. Less money is available for social spending, the cornerstone of the oil-lubricated Bolivarian revolution. There is also the pain of increased prices on imported goods, including food and medicine. In other words, Ecuador is going through the same painful adjustment as other export-dependent Latin American countries and there is little that China or any other BRICS country can do to alleviate matters. We are dealing with a general crisis of capitalism, something that seems to escape the ideological framework of the Chessinturn. They have a classless notion of “development” that posits alignment with the BRICS as a kind of magic elixir that will vanquish poverty. Someone should remind these people that capitalism is a crisis-ridden system that has long outlived its usefulness even when it is practiced by someone who gave Julian Assange safe haven. We are for giving him safe haven but we are also for giving Ecuador’s Indians safe haven.

Finally, let me recommend what is probably the best left critique of Rafael Correa, an article by Marc Becker that appeared in the September-October 2009 Against the Current. Just to establish Becker’s bona fides, he is a major Mariategui scholar and considered to be a rock solid anti-imperialist. He even had the audacity to write an article putting the Shining Path in a relatively good light.

Titled “Ecuador: Left Turn?”, Becker’s article is quite even-handed. It refers to Correa as defending the idea that “socialism is both more just and efficient than capitalism” and promising to stand up for indigenous rights. However, the deeds don’t quite match the words as Becker points out:

Despite Correa’s attempts to mimic Chávez’s strategies, his policies are not nearly as radical as those of his counterpart. Of the many lefts that now rule over Latin America, Correa represents a moderate and ambiguous position closer to that of Lula in Brazil or the Concertación in Chile rather than Chávez’s radical populism in Venezuela or Morales’ Indigenous socialism in Bolivia.

The danger for popular movements is a populist threat with Correa exploiting the language of the left but fundamentally ruling from the right. It is in this context that a mobilized and engaged social movement, which historically in the Ecuadorian case means an Indigenous movement, remains important as a check on a personalistic and populist government. If Correa follows through on any of the hopeful promises of his government, it will be due to this pressure from below and to the left.

Correa continues to enjoy an unusually large amount of popular support in a region which recently has greeted its presidents with a high degree of good will only to have the populace quickly turn on its leaders who inevitably rule against their class interests. Chávez (and, to a certain extent, Evo Morales in Bolivia) have bucked this trend by retaining strong popular support despite oligarchical attempts to undermine their governments.

Correa is a charismatic leader, but in the Ecuadorian setting charisma does not secure longevity. José María Velasco Ibarra, Ecuador’s classic caudillo and populist, was president five times, but was removed from four of those when he failed to follow through on his promises to the poor. In recent history, Abdalá Bucaram was perhaps the most charismatic leader, but he lasted only seven months in power after winning the 1996 elections. Charisma alone does not assure political stability.

In the wake of Ecuador quickly running through ten chief executives in 10 years, Correa appears positioned to remain in power for 10 years if he can maintain his current coalition to win reelection in 2013. Correa has also said that it will take 80 years for his “citizens’ revolution” to change the country.

In quickly moving Ecuador from being one of Latin America’s most unstable countries to maintaining a strong hold over executive power, Correa appears to have been able to mimic Chávez’s governing style. Whose interests this power serves, and particularly whether it will be used to improve the lives of historically marginalized subalterns, remains an open question.

Needless to say, the drop in the price of oil since 2009, when this article was written, renders the question of enjoying an “unusually large amount of popular support” rather moot.

1 Comment »

  1. Really good critique of Stan Smith and his trolling. Here is my response to his hit piece on me:

    Stansfield Smith’s personal attack against me is as misleading, erroneous and poorly researched as his hit piece on my employer, Amazon Watch, to which we replied here. Mr. Smith, who is the co-administrator of a Facebook group called “Friends of Ecuador–North America” –which serves as the home base for Smith’s ramblings–does not seem to have any interest in objectivity. His most recent attack is a mess of insinuations and conspiracy theories so convoluted that they would put a logic professor in a tizzy, so I will address his attacks one-by-one:

    Business Insider takes its disinformation story from another March 2013 Guardian article titled, “Ecuador auctions off Amazon to Chinese oil firms” an article which provides no evidence to support its title. This Guardian article also mostly relies on Zuckerman of Amazon Watch…Both articles never state Ecuador did actually sell Amazon rainforests to Chinese companies; they allege Ecuador “planned” to sell a third, though this “plan” is not corroborated by any evidence. Now almost three years later, no rainforest has yet to be sold to China, but the same concocted story is repeated.

    Contrary to Smith’s insinuation, being quoted in an article does not mean that you either wrote it nor agree with every word in it. And why does Smith say that the article relies mainly on me? I have one quote in the article, which also quotes an indigenous leader and a letter from the seven indigenous nationalities of the south central Ecuadorian Amazon, all of whom condemned the oil round threatening their territory. It also quotes Ecuador’s then-Minister of Hydrocarbons who was promoting the oil auction.

    And yes, the Ecuadorian government was in Beijing for a promotional road show and private meetings with Chinese government officials and oil company executives to try to auction off 20-year leases for oil drilling in millions of acres of the Amazon to Chinese oil companies. Before they deleted the website in the last week for their 11th Round Oil Auction (you can still see some information here), the Ecuadorian government publicized that then-Minister of Non Renewable Natural Resources Wilson Pastor and a “technical team from the Secretariat of Hydrocarbons” met with six different companies in Beijing, including Sinochem. As then-Minister of Non Renewable Natural Resources Wilson Pastor told a reporter from EFE, “The motive of our presence is to promote the 11th Oil Round, which we started this year in Colombia, the US, and France. We could not leave off China, which is our principal strategic ally in economic development.” Ultimately, the only company that signed a deal from the oil auction was Andes Petroleum, a conglomerate of Chinese state-owned CNPC and Sinopec. However, Amazon Watch did not single China out. In fact, the only road shows that we physically protested were not in Beijing but in Houston, Calgary, and Paris.

    This same story slamming Ecuador President Correa and China for forcibly displacing indigenous people and destroying the rainforest for the sake of oil profits reappeared in June-July 2015. This just happened to coincide with a rightwing (sic) protests in Ecuador against Correa, over his raising taxes on the rich.

    There is no mention in either the Business Insider story nor in the Guardian story of Correa “forcibly displacing indigenous people.” However, here is an article about indigenous and campesino communities in southern Ecuador denouncing government efforts to displace them to clear the way for more mining by Chinese mining company Ecuacorriente. In the Ecuadorian government’s “investment catalogue,” they are promoting a massive expansion of mining in indigenous territory in Ecuador.

    Furthermore, I never spoke with the reporter at Business Insider, let alone the bloggers who quoted the Business Insider article years later without my knowledge. Smith’s insinuation is that I’m somehow colluding with right wing protesters, which is both baseless and libelous. In fact, when I lived in Ecuador I attended a rally supporting President Correa that was a response to the attempted coup by the military and the police. Amazon Watch was a major supporter of Correa’s Yasuní-ITT Initiative. Our founder was an official Ambassador for the proposal and we worked closely with the government of Ecuador on technical components of the proposal itself, as well as promotion and fundraising.

    Smith’s piece proceeds to quote an “outrageous article” allegedly by Amazon Watch criticizing the response of the Ecuadorian government to Indigenous and civil society protests. But a simple reading of the “article” shows that it is a declaration from the indigenous Kichwa people of Sarayaku and not a statement from Amazon Watch. It begins with the following sentence: “The People of the Zenith, SARAYAKU, once again are present in solidarity with the call from distinct social sectors, the country’s indigenous communities and social movements to defend human dignity, nature and biodiversity against the devastating threat of oil exploitation in our lands.” They also sign it as the Kichwa People of Sarayaku and we note “English translation by Amazon Watch. Below is the original statement in Spanish.”

    Smith then goes on to repeat desperate attacks from his last piece, all of which we have already already debunked. Smith falsely accuses Amazon Watch of being “corporate-backed,” despite the facts that his own link disproves his point. He insinuates that we are in cahoots with the US government that supports the Trans Pacific Partnership despite the fact that for years we have opposed it very publicly, including in a 2010 letter to President Obama. Then he calls us “a leader in the struggle to make Chevron pay for its environmental crimes in Ecuador” before insinuating that we are working with Chevron on an “anti-Correa campaign [that] happens to coincide with the successes of Ecuador’s legal case against Chevron.” WHAT?! So we worked with our longest adversaries, a group that we’ve campaigned against for the last fourteen years and have nominated to the Corporate Hall of Shame multiple times, because we were upset that our campaign was too successful??!!

    Defending yourself from Stansfield Smith’s personal attacks is like arguing with Donald Trump; you can’t win because he has no respect for facts or reality. I have to return to work–helping to advance the rights of indigenous peoples and protect the Amazon. I encourage Mr. Smith to do the same.











    Comment by Adam Zuckerman — February 24, 2016 @ 11:01 pm

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