The Tree of Revolutions. A Conversation with Rafael Rojas

El árbol de las revoluciones (Turner, 2021) is the latest book by Mexico-based Cuban historian and essayist Rafael Rojas. It is an intellectual history of ten revolutions in Latin America during the 20th century. The Mexican revolution (1910-1940), the Nicaraguan revolution of the 1920s, the Cuban revolutions of the 1930s and 1959, Vargas’ Brazilian revolution, Perón’s Argentine revolution, the Guatemalan revolution (1944-1954), the Bolivian revolution of 1952, the Chilean revolution (1970-1973) and the Sandinista revolution of 1979. The historical journey through a diversity of sources produced both by the movements and by some of their main characters gives an account of the ideas behind these revolutions and the disputes over the possible directions that were available to them. Discussions in which we see nationalisms, populisms, pro-Soviet and democratic socialism, and republicanisms battle, and which allow us to see, beyond each particular process, the way in which they shaped the political struggles of the last century in the continent while at the same time not losing track of their place in the various geopolitical disputes.

This is a book that, as its title announces, diversifies the idea of revolution in Latin America. First, starting from the distinction between revolution as a gradual change and revolution as a total change of the social order. And then also according to how was used in different social processes of radical rupture. For example, Fulgencio Batista calling his coup d’état a revolution or Perón’s incorporation of the concept to describe the regime established by military coup in 1943, what is it that allows us to call revolutions, apart from the rhetoric used in each case, to processes as dissimilar as Brazilian Varguismo, Argentine Peronism or Mexican Cardenism?

When I refer to the multiple appropriations of the term revolution to signify phenomena such as coups d’état, rebellions or revolts, I want to account for the fascination that the concept exercised in most of the 20th century in Latin America, across the ideological and political spectrum. I also want to suggest that these uses were leftovers from the 19th century concept of revolution in Latin America, which was attributed to military uprisings or rebellions. I understand that a revolution occurs when the social structure of a country is altered or disrupted, in a relatively short time, and the nation is re-founded and the State is reconstituted. This happened in Mexico between 1917 and 1940 –like Alan Knight and other historians, I consider Cardenismo as the last phase of the Mexican Revolution– and also in Brazil during Varguismo and in Argentina during Peronism. The revolutionary, in my opinion, is defined by the depth and speed of social change, not necessarily by the ways in which it is conducted, whether violent or peaceful, authoritarian or democratic.

We see in the book how the signifier revolution went from being a concept to being a metaphor of political language, and in the Cuban case even becoming independent and presenting itself as an entity of its own with its own motivations and imperatives. I understand the book as an effort to recover the revolution as a prolific concept with a range of historical realizations. Still, in the face of thinking about possibilities of social transformation, how useful can it be to present them as revolutions? And this considering not only the metaphorical use but also (as you say towards the end of the book) that the democratic path has ended up being the predominant one when it comes to executing projects of social transformation.

The concept of revolution is inevitable and irreplaceable to think the modern history of Latin America and the Caribbean. And not because of what the leaders of one or the other process said, but because of the transformation that took place in the social order of each country that experienced a revolution. I follow Reinhart Koselleck in the idea that all revolutions produce their own metaphors, but, despite the etymological polysemy and symbolic fetishism they generate, they cannot be confused with political regimes, forms of government, official ideology or the institutionality of the State. I do not share the thesis of those who propose, to refer to the economic, social and political change that took place in Cuba between the sixties and seventies, to substitute the term for Castroism, totalitarianism or dictatorship, which are more the names of a regime. Likewise, I reject confusing the Revolution with socialism, the homeland or the nation, as the official discourse maintains.

Could we speak for the case of Cuba of the transformation of revolution into totalitarianism? This leads me, in a broader sense, to think about the issue of the drifts of revolutions, what happens to them once the social structure of the country has been changed and a new one has been established, that moment when the transforming impulse becomes the given and stabilizes. The cases in the book are dissimilar and range from violent overthrows to internal transformations, but could one think, in more abstract terms, of the way in which revolutions can be followed by reactionary changes of direction that would in turn call for new revolutions?

From the conceptual perspective adopted in the book, a revolution could not turn into totalitarianism, because it would be like an apple turning into an orange. What could happen, and in fact did happen in Cuba, is that a revolution produces a totalitarian regime. It is also very common for revolutions to result in reactionary and despotic regimes. This is what Crane Brinton called the “Thermidorian turn” of any revolution, which in France ended up producing Bonapartism or in Russia Stalinism. But in the Latin American cases I am studying, revolutions that open a democratic channel are not absent either.

Cover of ‘El árbol de las revoluciones’ (Turner, 2021).

This is a very good clarification, that a revolution produces a totalitarian regime, rather than becoming one. Could you explain a little how this happens?

The production of a political regime within a revolutionary process has to do with the new political hegemonies that emerge, the institutional design of the State and its international alliances. In Mexico, for example, a regime of hegemonic party, controlled opposition and public liberties had already been created since the 1920s. In Cuba, from 1961 onwards, when the first socialist institutionalization took place, which Juan Valdés Paz has recently studied, there was a clear advance towards a regime very different from the authoritarianisms or democracies predominant in other Latin American revolutions. The new hegemonic bloc tends since then to the creation of a concentrated and unique power, to a limitation of public liberties and to an organizational structuring of society.

The diversity of agendas, ideologies and positions that are present in the revolutions you analyze throughout the book questions the usual emphasis on continuities and similarities when talking about revolutions in America. It is an emphasis that makes it possible to assimilate, for example, the conception of the Mexican agrarian reform with the Cuban one (to cite an example of something that seems to me to be very clear in the book and is very illustrative). The question that arises for me when I see how much diversity there is, and how much of that diversity involves the struggle for the construction of very different realities (liberal, republican, nationalist, Soviet-style collectivist, etc.), is to what extent its dissolution in favor of a more homogeneous vision has been the result of the influence of the narrative of the Cuban Revolution in Latin America.

That is a very shrewd observation. As you rightly say, and Tzvi Medin describes perfectly in his classic The Shaping of Revolutionary Consciousness (1990), between the 1960s and 1970s, the Cuban government created, through multiple means and channels of transmission, the narrative that socialism –and not just any socialism but the one based on the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the USSR and the Soviet bloc– was the involuntary or unconscious result of the struggle of Cubans for their sovereignty since the 19th century. That narrative was assembled from a teleological and unilateral vision of the Cuban past. It could be added that the Cuban State transferred the same providentialist and linear vision to the history of Latin America and the Caribbean and proposed the Cuban Revolution as the final outcome of all Latin American revolutions, since the Haitian one in the 18th century. The Cuban Revolution was presented as the destiny and superseding of all previous revolutions, thus encouraging the prejudice, very common in the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, that all previous Latin American revolutions had been “bourgeois” or “betrayed.”

A very interesting analysis of the period following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution is the discussion about how to carry out the revolution, which is made very explicit when you present the thinking of Ernesto Che Guevara and Salvador Allende and their respective proposals of guerrilla struggle and the democratic way. This discussion seems to be resolved later in a general tendency towards the democratic path. However, processes such as the Venezuelan or Nicaraguan ones in recent years also seem to indicate a tendency to dismantle democratic structures or to use democratic tools in a formal way to give a democratic appearance to authoritarian regimes. How to understand this tendency?

As you will have seen at the end of the book, I do not consider the recent experiences of Chavismo and Orteguismo as revolutions. I think they are left-wing authoritarian processes, very conscious that they are not revolutionary, and that is why they resort with such vehemence to the symbolic usury of the Latin American revolutionary tradition. The same has been happening in Cuba since the eighties or the nineties, at the very least. As I said before, the first Latin American revolution that opted for the authoritarian, not totalitarian, way was the Mexican one. The Mexican revolution was a presidential and PRI-led authoritarianism, but without reelection, with autonomy of civil society and tolerance of opposition parties such as the PAN and the communists. Later came other revolutions more in line with democratic processes, such as the Guatemalan, Bolivian and Chilean revolutions. In the Nicaraguan revolution there was a first authoritarian moment and then a democratic reorientation, which is reflected in the very pluralistic Constitution of 1987, which led to the electoral defeat of Sandinismo in 1990.

What distinguishes and differentiates authoritarianism from totalitarianism?

The differences are multiple. In Latin America, where we have never had the experience of a right-wing totalitarianism, authoritarianisms do not produce an absolute control of society by the State, do not restrict the market economy to a minimum, do not have an official ideology that is transmitted through education, culture and the State media, which monopolize the public sphere, and, in general, create political systems of hegemonic, not single, parties, with minority oppositions and, sometimes, with alternation in power.

One of the book’s proposals is the revaluation of populism as a valid ingredient of the Latin American leftist tradition. There is a rejection of the thesis of a supposed “zero degree of ideology” and an emphasis on the contents of national sovereignty, social justice and racial integration. From this position, populism (both classical, Varguismo and Peronism, as well as the civic populism of Eliécer Gaitán and Eduardo Chibás) appears as a contender both of the national oligarchies and the penetration of the United States and of the Leninist variant of socialism, from as early as the 1920s, although reaching its apex in the 1940s. However, we tend to think of populism more as a series of logics of government, such as absolute leadership and the creation of metanarratives that appeal to nation and tradition. Would an understanding of populism that emphasize its contents dismiss these logics?

With populisms it happens as with revolutions. They are often mechanically associated with authoritarianism, but the truth is that their historical experiences have been very varied. Peronism and Varguismo, in addition to strong personal leaderships, were constitutional and institutionalizing, like the Mexican Revolution. But, as you rightly say, in the 20th century in Latin America there were civic populisms, such as the Gaitanist in Colombia or the Chibasist in Cuba, which were perfectly democratic. And although they never came to power, they had a prolonged and influential opposition trajectory, which marked the political culture of both countries in the mid-20th century.

A unitary narrative also associated with that of the Latin American revolution, which the book makes clear does not correspond to historical reality, is that of anti-imperialism. What are the different positions in the revolutions you analyze? Could it be said that a common line that reaches almost all of them is the criticism of the monopoly economy in the hands of the United States?

Latin American and Caribbean anti-imperialisms have also been very diverse. Mariátegui, for example, criticized the demagogic anti-imperialism of Haya de la Torre. The two classic populisms, Varguismo and Peronism, established discordant relations with the United States. In Mexico, at the moment of greatest revolutionary radicalization, during the years of Lázaro Cárdenas, the oil expropriation was negotiated with Washington. Two Cold War revolutions, the Bolivian and the Guatemalan, also had very different experiences in their relationship with the United States, which supported the former and overthrew the latter. Washington showed hostility to some Latin American revolutions, such as the Cuban, Chilean and Sandinista revolutions, but not all of them, and had a tolerant and even communicative relationship with some civic populisms.

Something that I read with surprise, and which shows the diversity of sources for thinking about society among many of the Latin American politicians, is how their influences included ideas such as esotericism. I was particularly struck by the impact of Madame Blavatsky’s ideas on the unity of the universal spirit in Sandino’s prophetism. There are other reflections such as those of Mariátegui on the function of myth, which allowed him to exceed the limits of Marxist determinism and make me think of the recurrence of a transcendentalist vision of the revolution that came to converge very well with universalisms such as the theosophical one. Could you explain that a bit?

This subject is fascinating. There is a revolutionary mysticism in Latin America, which has antecedents in José Martí, and which can be observed in Madero in Mexico, Sandino in Nicaragua, Gaitán in Colombia or Chibás in Cuba, which goes through readings of spiritualism and theosophy, of Madame Blavatsky and Allan Kardec. And there is also the presence of other sources of mysticism, coming from Afro-American religions or even from Catholicism, which in the sixties led to Liberation Theology. The idea that revolutions have a strictly rational basis is the product of a liberal and positivist determinism, first, and Marxist-Leninist, later, that clashes with historical reality. As John Womack recalls, for decades, the peasants of Morelos were convinced that Zapata was not dead and continued to fight in his name.

Another important theme in the book is the reading of the indigenous issue by various politicians, such as Mariátegui or De la Haya. However, although indigenism was a relevant dimension within the Mexican Revolution, the indigenous irruption in politics took place much later. What place do movements such as the Zapatista have (and you mention a little about the 1994 uprising of the MZLN, but if it were possible to elaborate) within the Latin American revolutions?

Indigenism was fundamental for the first revolutionary generation of the 1920s, especially in Mexico and Peru. However, in the following decades, as revolutionary ideologies moved towards industrialization and development policy on the one hand, and miscegenation and nationalism on the other, the ideas of indigenous autonomy and communal property lost strength in the revolutionary tradition. There is no trace of indigenism, for example, in Che Guevara, who organized a guerrilla movement in a largely indigenous country like Bolivia. After Mariátegui there was a regression of indigenism within Latin American Marxism. Luis Villoro spoke in Mexico of “moments of indigenism,” but as Federico Navarrete and other authors have argued, the Mexican post-revolutionary State applied policies of miscegenation and whitening, as did the Brazilian Estado Novo. The same could be said of anti-racism and the vision of Afro-descendants in the Greater Caribbean. As Alejandro de la Fuente has studied, the reality and culture of blacks, under the Cuban Revolution, were subjected to new forms of discrimination and exclusion. It was with the uprising of the EZLN in Chiapas in 1994 that the concept of “indigenous autonomy” came to the center of some leftist ideologies. Currently there is a struggle between currents that prefer development policies or indigenism within the Latin American left, as we have seen in the governments of Rafael Correa and Evo Morales in Ecuador and Bolivia, and right now in Mexico with Andrés Manuel López Obrador and in Peru with Pedro Castillo. The way in which the new government of Gabriel Boric in Chile is approaching this issue is very encouraging.

Rafael Rojas (PHOTO: Ailyn Sánchez)

When I finished reading the book I had the impression –which I believe it is the best a history book can leave– that in the Latin American revolutions and their internal movements there are already many references that can help us build the future, for example, projects in which a horizon of social justice is compatible (and this is rather a necessity) with democratic principles. In recommending the book to some friends I have done so for this reason, among others. What would you like your readers to remember after reading El árbol de las revoluciones?

One thing that indeed emerges from the book is that the legacy of the Latin American revolutions of the 20th century is not incompatible with democracy. It is, undoubtedly, in those few countries whose ruling elites opt for non-democratic models. And it is not surprising that it is precisely those few governments that are the most vehement in the exploitation of revolutionary symbols. An exploitation that, as we know, entails the suppression of the intrinsic diversity of each revolutionary process. It is also significant that many critics of these regimes passively assume this symbolic appropriation of the revolutionary tradition and establish a sign of equality between revolution and authoritarianism. The book, I believe, proposes that the intellectual and political history of the revolutions of the 20th century should be studied as an antidote to the simplifications and the concealment of the old authoritarian ideologies.

Hilda del Carmen Landrove Torres. Cuban researcher and cultural promoter. She has been involved for years in social and cultural entrepreneurship and more recently in academic research in anthropology. She is currently a PhD candidate in Mesoamerican Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.


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