Marta Harnecker and the Death of the Latin American Hard Left

Jorge G. Castañeda

The Chilean sociologist, political scientist and activist Marta Harnecker, one of the most influential Marxist theorists in the Latin American left, died on June 15 at the age of 82. One of her many books, “The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism,” published in 1969, had far-reaching impact. The condensed, synthetic and accessible Marxist textbook was essential reading for university students during the 1970s and early 1980s. It has since sold nearly one million copies in Spanish and Portuguese, and is considered one of the best-selling nonfiction books ever published in Latin America.

Her manual came at a time when many in the region were searching for a reasonable form of opposition to a status quo they considered unacceptable on social, economic, political and cultural terms. It was a theoretical alternative to the dogmatic or perilous options formulated either by traditional communist parties or by Ernesto Che Guevara. She offered a different model: pro-Cuban, neither violent nor radical, an alternative to social democracy.

After the Cuban revolution the left in Latin America evolved in two directions. What I call the “right” left, born out of Marxist theory and communism, became moderate, globalized and democratic, and eventually evolved into the social democratic parties of Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and El Salvador. The “hard” left had its origins in catholicism, populism and the Cuban revolution. Ms. Harnecker belonged to the latter camp.

Ms. Harnecker studied with the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser in Paris in the 1960s. In her work, she synthesized complex ideas, using the methods she learned under him, along with many other disciples of Mr. Althusser like Régis Debray. Mr. Debray’s immensely influential “Revolution in the Revolution? Armed Struggle and Political Struggle in Latin America,” written in 1967, became Fidel Castro’s blueprint and set out new guerrilla tactics. Ms. Harnecker and Mr. Debray were both in Chile during the years of Salvador Allende’s government, where she worked as a journalist, along with a Cuban spymaster who later became her husband, Manuel Piñeiro.

Though the Marxist left lost ideological momentum in the mid-1980s, Ms. Harnecker nonetheless retained great influence in the region. Mr. Piñeiro, known as “Red Beard” or “Minister of the revolution,” led Cuba’s security services and directed Cuban support for guerrilla groups throughout Latin America for decades. Through him, Ms. Harnecker kept her finger on the pulse of Havana, and was in tune with every young and old left-wing group in the hemisphere.

She became a fan of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez in 1999, and placed her considerable intellectual talent at the service of providing him with the theoretical framework for what he called “21st century socialism.” An impossible task: As Karl Marx wrote, history often repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. So it was with Ms. Harnecker and Mr. Chávez.

She is perhaps the last symbol of the Latin American left of the 1960s and 1970s to exit the scene, as Cuba’s old guard fades and the Venezuelan experiment becomes a humanitarian crisis. Only Mexico continues to be receptive to many of the ideas that Ms. Harnecker developed and promoted throughout the region. Though few people know who she is today, she will be remembered by all of those who have followed the evolution of the Latin American intellectual left over the last half century.

That evolution followed several paths, but two in particular stand out. One was sponsored by the region’s hard-left elements: the Cuban regime, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Mr. Chávez, Evo Morales of Bolivia (to a lesser extent), smaller splinter groups in other countries, and a large chunk of the Mexican left. This left was authoritarian, statist, nationalist and anti-imperialist, with a certain predilection for armed struggle, and totally subservient to Havana. It never went through the process of modernization that the European left experienced, as did other sections of the Latin American left.

This was the case of many intellectuals of the region, ranging from sociologists such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil (his country’s president from 1994 to 2002), to Chilean exiles returning from Eastern Europe in the late eighties, to reformed Uruguayan former guerrillas and Communist Party descendants, and to writers and activists such as myself.

When I published “Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War” in 1992, the armed left had practically disappeared — the 1994 Zapatista movement in Mexico was a pantomime — and much of the region’s progressive parties and leaders were undertaking a transition to another strategy. It involved an electoral road to power, an acceptance of the market, representative democracy, globalization and individual freedoms — and a modus vivendi with the United States.

By the early 2000s, that “better half” of the Latin American left came to power in countries as varied as Chile, Uruguay, Brazil and, somewhat later, El Salvador. It was at first hugely successful, and enjoyed broad support. Unfortunately, it eventually fell prey to many of the region’s traditional banes: corruption, economic mismanagement and excessive ambition. Still, it laid the grounds for a recurrent and democratic rotation of power between right and left, which Latin America had never managed for a sustained period of time. It is the basis for the current experiment in Mexico — as always with my country, out of step and time with the rest — and perhaps one day in Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia.

With the ebbing of the so-called “pink tide,” the passing of Fidel Castro and almost all of the generation of the 1960s, an era has finally ended. Ms. Harnecker’s death confirms it.

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