Continuing my research into the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), I stumbled upon an interesting anecdote. Roughly a year ago in Nicaragua surfaced a document, entitled "Revolutionary Brotherhood -- 21st Century Socialism (here in Spanish or English)." This document is purported to have been authored by the Sandinista Party Secretariat (FSLN) following a meeting with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez. In it, the document explains point by point how the FSLN would make their "Second Sandinista Revolution" sustainable -- that is to say permanent -- upon the back of Chavez' project of 21st Century Socialism.
Now, I'll be honest, I cannot attest to the veracity of the authorship of this document. The Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario, which has carried the story since the beginning, also makes no assertions about the origins -- except insomuch as quoting others as to the veracity of the document. I myself did some digging and found myself talking to a poor villager in Cuba who said he'd received a copy of the document from one of his comrades working the revolution in Nicaragua, who had in turn received it from somebody within the FSLN.
As these things go, we may never know the origins of the text. Nevertheless, whether it is a conspiratorial plan from the highest levels of Sandinista government, or a simple summary of activities carried out to date is to a large degree immaterial. For what the document spells out, in summary and bullet points, is what those of us who have followed Venezuela and the ALBA from the very beginning have come to expect from this 21st Century Socialist Revolution.
Specifically, the document lays out, in as concise a fashion as I've ever seen, the fundamental building blocks used to construct 21st Century Socialism. These tenets include extending presidential mandates, changing political constitutions, co-opting the branches of government under the party's revolutionary tutelage, fomenting social conflict between different strata of society, limiting basic rights such as property, speech and assembly, and using the resources of the government for partisan political purposes. These are all things to which we have become accustomed as we watch a new era of instability rock the region, leading to basic rights being, "... profoundly threatened by the presence of tentacular governments that have erased the boundaries between government, party and state," as stated by former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.
As I step back from my research to ponder this challenge, it dawns on me that we are speaking a very different language than the Bolivarians. While we may use the same words, the meanings given to them by the historical context and their political project are profoundly dissimilar. When we say democracy, our mind immediately envisions a liberal, representative republic. We all understand the importance of the protection of private property, of the guarantee of civil and political rights, the separation of powers, rule of law and a non-partisan, professional civil service. Yet, as the Nicaraguan document so clearly outlines, the ALBA project of "21st Century Socialism" is built differently. They speak of social and cultural rights (in opposition to political rights); they complain about the damage that separation of powers has done in their push toward the creation of a new socialist state, and use this conflict to centralize power within the party. They see the importance of using the civil service for partisan political promotion (as is demonstrated by a Dutch study on the "0 Hunger" program in Nicaragua). And most importantly, they view fomenting social conflict between sectors of the society as a way to increase political power.
For those of us who deal with the Bolivarian countries in Washington, we would be wise to take note of this distinction. Too often Washington falls into the ALBA trap as we speak too deliberately and noisily about elections. And we are frustrated as they call our bluff, telling us -- and rightly -- that they hold exponentially more electoral processes than we do. These elections, we are told, legitimize their right to dismantle the institutions of the state and of government at the behest of their political project, 21st Century Socialism. In avoiding this jargon, which has become so charged as to be almost meaningless, Washington should instead focus on increasing its true, stalwart and unbending commitment to rule of law and the strengthening of supra-human institutions, while being unafraid to point out the very real differences between the two versions of "democracy" on offer across the political landscape of the region. This clarity and commitment will lend credence to our calls for the respect of constitutional rule of law, and empower actors who are looking to Washington for leadership in the promotion of the "truths we hold self-evident."