July, 1990. Three decades ago. The Cuban dictador Fidel Castro and brazilian Partido de los Trabalhistas leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva founded the Foro de Sao Paulo.
Those were tough times for Communism. The Soviet Union was living in turmoil since the mid-1980s. Under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the soviet empire tried to reform itself through initiatives such as Perestroika (reform) and Glasnost (openness). During the XXVII Communist Party Congress there was almost no reference to marxism-leninism. Since 1986, prices of oil plummeted, seriously damaging the material capacity of the Soviet Union. The socialist economy was not working. In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Socialist regimes all around Eastern Europe anticipated the disolution of the Soviet Union. As Henry Kissinger explained in Diplomacy (1994), the Soviet Union was not strong enough to fulfill the role that the Politburo had assigned to her.
Meanwhile, since Mao´s death and under Deng Xiaoping´s leadership China adopted market economy reforms. But although he explained that they were applying “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”, the fact is that Beijing had abandoned the collectivist model and was growing at an outstanding economic pace that allowed China to become the second largest economy today.
In Latin America deep political transformations took place during the 1980s. Almost all countries in the region were ruled by democratic governments and during the last years of that decade many of them had initiated free-market economy reforms and were developing warm relations with the US.
Such a hostile environment compeled Castro to trigger his inmense political skills. Once again, he would demonstrate that he was Latin America most important leader. Gifted with a superior intelligence, which he exercised always or almost always for wrong causes, Castro challenged the mandate of the hour. While many were thinking about the “End of History”, the Cuban tyrant resisted the idea of the end of Socialism.
In July 2-4, 1990, Castro and Lula gathered the “Encuentro de Partidos y Movimientos Políticos de América Latina y el Caribe” (Latin American and Caribbean Partys and Movements Meeting) later known as the Foro de Sao Paulo, with the purpose of not giving up before “Neo-Liberalism”. It was then when Castro explained that “I have the deep conviction that when crisis arrives, leaders arise”.
But Castro understood that in the late 20th Century the expansion of his socialist revolution required the abandonement of violence that he promoted in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Historical conditions had changed. Access to power would be accomplished by democratic means. Once left-wing administrations were elected those governments would impose the Foro de Sao Paulo agenda. In some cases, such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and to some extent Bolivia and Ecuador, democracy was reduced to fiction by means of dismantling checks and balances.
When Hugo Chávez Frías became Venezuela´s President in 1999, Castro achieved one of his long-term objectives when he managed to impose a sort of colonization rule of Venezuela. Chávez allowed Castro to replace the fundamental Soviet Assistance that was was interrupted ten years before. Caracas regime oil would become La Habana´s fuel for Castro´s regime survival for the next two decades. His Foro de Sao Paulo strategy payed back and the Cuban dictatorship survived the most serious challenge since he took power in January 1, 1959. Castro was able to get through the 1990s, when he had to impose restrictions under the slogan of the “Periodo Especial” when so many anticipated that his days in officer were numbered. Fateful years resumed by Leonardo Padura as those when Cubans had three fundamental challenges: how to have breakfast, how to have lunch and how to have dinner.
Some voices hold that the rise of the Foro de Sao Paulo sustained a new stage of Latin American Left that meant abandonment of violence as a legitimate way of political action. As Doctor Guillermo Lousteau Heguy explained in 2016 before the Real Academia Hispanoamericana, “the Foro de Sao Paulo suggested a Left-Revolution strategic revision and a renewal of their thought as long as reasserting their opposition to Capitalism and Neo-Liberalism and their adherence to Socialism as a necessary and rising alternative. The Foro de Sao Paulo´s hosts message was ending violence as a political mean and access to power through elections. There were evident reasons: their forces were not enough and that a cultural transformation was needed, since accession to power by means of weapons would be insufficient. As Gramsci prescribed, revolution woud fail in the absence of cultural hegemony”.
By 2010, aproximately ten Latin American countries had members of the Foro de Sao Paulo as heads of state or government. Some of them observed the Rule of Law and democracy, such as the cases of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. But in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, democratically elected leaders dismantled republican institutions and established dictatorships, some of them lasting till the present.
We must obtain some lessons from this remembrance. First of all, is that Communism never takes rest and is able to adapt their means to achieve old purposes. The second lesson is that freedom must never be taken for granted. The Foro de Sao Paulo allowed in many cases the ways of establishing Socialist Dictatorships in the early 21st Century.
*Mariano Caucino is an expert in international relations and former Argentine Ambassador to the State of Israel and Costa Rica.