How Should DSA Engage With the Latin American Left?

Instead of changing course, DSA should continue prioritizing mass parties of the Latin American Left.

Beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Latin America saw a surge in left wing parties and candidates winning elections. Often referred to as the “Pink Tide,” this trend has encompassed a variety of different movements throughout the region, with its initial successes including the elections of Presidents Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil. As of 2023, despite some shifts in the political landscape, much of the region is still governed by parties of the left. This development has led to increasing focus on the region from socialists across the world, including in the United States and DSA.

As DSA has grown and developed, the organization has built relationships with many of the mass parties that characterized the initial successes of the Pink Tide, such as the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers’ Party) in Brazil. Resolutions passed by DSA conventions in 2019 and 2021 outlined this approach, prioritizing solidarity and engagement with Latin American mass parties in our international work. This has included DSA’s participation in the São Paulo Forum, a big-tent network of left-wing political parties, multiple delegations to countries in the region, and consistent statements outlining DSA’s political approach in solidarity with our comrades in Latin America.

However, there has been criticism of this approach towards Pink Tide governments from some DSA members and caucuses. This has included calls to prioritize engagement with non-governing socialist parties or labor organizations rather than mass socialist parties that have won elections and governed, arguing the former share more in common with DSA. An example of this distinction can be seen in Brazil, with some advocating for further engagement with the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL, Socialism and Liberty Party) rather than the governing PT. Proponents of this approach often argue the dangers of a “campist” approach to internationalism, and emphasize a vision of class struggle distinct from, and sometimes opposed to, governing mass leftist parties.

At the most recent DSA convention, critics of DSA’s international policy, including in Latin America, proposed an amendment to the International Committee (IC) Consensus Resolution which sought to re-orient along an approach in line with their vision of class struggle. Ultimately, the amendment failed and the consensus resolution passed unamended, showing a third consecutive convention mandate for prioritizing engagement with mass parties. However, this outcome does not mean this discussion is over in DSA. The nature of our engagement with the rest of the American continent is incredibly important and will continue to be discussed.

This is especially true as DSA works to find its place and grow in the post-Bernie era. If we want DSA to truly become a mass organization that can win state power for the working class, we must learn from those who have done the same, and show clear solidarity in their struggle against imperialism. With this in mind, we will outline the case for the continuing DSA’s prioritization of solidarity and engagement with the Latin American left and mass parties, which strengthens DSA and the global struggle for socialism.

As we continue to encounter important questions about the structure and vision of our organization, what should be of particular interest to any DSA member is how governing socialist mass parties in Latin America have been able to build strong and vibrant political organizations. Unlike the capitalist parties in the US, which do not conduct meaningful political work outside of election season, these socialist mass parties can count on the support of millions of member-organizers and broad sections of the population, as well as entire social movements.

Learning from our Latin American comrades who have successfully built mass parties will be important to our organization’s own political future. To learn how these parties have been so successful in their organizing, we interviewed three DSA members and IC leaders (Marvin Gonzalez, Luisa Martinez, Fern Kurago) that have first-hand experience, either through their own organizing work or as part of DSA’s delegations to Brazil and Venezuela, interacting with organizers from PT and PSUV. Throughout this article we’ll be relaying some of what they learned about how members of these parties conduct their political work, and how this can be applied to how we organize in DSA.

PT members will sometimes remark that their party is really a party of “60 million.” Although the official membership count is nowhere near this figure, it’s used to signify how not everyone involved in mass movements and political struggles PT has helped organize are members of the party, demonstrating how massive the scale and scope of PT’s mass work really is. This is a result of a conscious effort within the party to encourage members to join mass movements. As PT members help these movements organize, organic ties are built between the party and ongoing social movements. The building of these connections with mass movements is such an important part of PT’s organizing strategy that for the first few years of the party’s existence it did not run in elections, and instead focused on building up its support in the labor movement. This strategy would pay off, with the largest union in Brazil, the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT, Unified Workers’ Central), being closely tied with the party and one of the strongest allies of the Lula administration.

This bottom-up organizing strategy has given PT the ability to deliver a convincing nation-wide left-wing political project that ties the demands of mass movements together into a vision for radical social change. It has also given mass movements the ability to directly influence policy making through PT. For example, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST, Landless Workers’ Movement), an avowedly Marxist social movement of poor rural workers for land reform, successfully ran their own organizers for office under the PT ballot line. Although there have been serious disagreements between PT and the MST over PT’s willingness to carry out land reform, they continue to work closely together because of deep organic ties that have been fostered over years of shared struggle.

This model of bottom-up organizing was incredibly important in bringing the left to power in Chile. From 2019-2022, Chile saw massive protests known as the Estallido Social (“Social Outburst”) prompted originally over a hike in public transport fares that then spread to encompass broad discontent with the neoliberal order. Socialist parties in Chile, which operate under a coalition of the broader socialist left and include parties like the Communist Party of Chile and Gabriel Boric’s Social Convergence party, built upon this protest energy to provide a left-wing electoral alternative. Running Gabriel Boric, a former student activist who rose to national prominence during the protests, the intersectional work between the protest movements and the socialist parties brought the first socialist president to power since Salvador Allende.

PT hasn’t only built up a presence within social movements, it has also been active participants in community institutions like churches, as well as having conducted local mutual aid work. As a result, the party and its role in everyday life has become a major part of the lives of socialist organizers. Venezuela’s PSUV shares this, with the mass party having a presence in the life of the community. Those we interviewed who had gone on delegations to Venezuela described how the social life of both the community and the party took place in basketball games, which were important places for the community to discuss local politics. This presence in community spaces has helped the PSUV support the formation of community-based governing models. Community spaces in Venezuela have been hotbeds for radical organizing that has often led to government-supported efforts to turn apartment complexes into tenant-run cooperatives and create community areas that run their own local economies and practice direct democracy known as communes. This presence in the communities has been key in maintaining a strong socialist base among the urban poor of Venezuela, which has been especially important as they suffer from a US-backed economic siege. As DSA continues to grow, these parties show the importance of having less shallow relationships with our own member’s lives and being present in all parts of the life of our communities.

This integration of the party and mass movements together into a broader political project was critically important to building PT into what it is today. By not being afraid to form coalitions and join social movements, PT has not only been able to prevent itself from being politically isolated, it has also been able to offer social movements a political project that can turn limited demands into part of a broader fight for socialist politics and a new society. As most of the political work within DSA happens through campaigns run by local chapters, ensuring that our campaigns don’t remain isolated from ongoing social movements outside of DSA is a lesson PT has shown the value of.

This strategy has been especially important for PT, as unlike governing socialist parties in Venezuela, Bolivia, or Cuba, they have always had to govern with a minority. Lula’s governing coalition in the National Congress holds 225 seats in a 513 seat legislature (43%), with PT itself only holding 68 of those seats. The challenges faced by the PT in being a governing minority are especially prudent for us. A similar challenge is also facing the left in Chile as the left coalition faces a resurgent right that sabotaged the attempted effort at constitutional reform. DSA electeds have almost always found themselves surrounded by a political class inherently hostile to the vision we offer, and learning from how PT has been able to be a governing left in this similar predicament will be important for our own electoral strategy.

DSA is also still predominantly composed of members from urban centers. Appealing to rural workers, in part due to their work with MST, has been a strong point of PT’s organizational successes. Rural areas in the US lack a strong left-wing presence. Fostering connections with PT and other socialist mass parties will give us more insight into an organizing strategy that has been incredibly successful appealing to both the rural and urban poor.

Governing socialist mass parties in Latin America have been able to build themselves into becoming a viable electoral alternative through years of community organizing. By supporting grassroots movements in their own political struggles, and providing these movements with an electoral outlet, these parties have been able to win over broad sections of the working class. Learning from these parties, many of which have encountered and then overcome the same difficulties we face now, can be key to showing us how to win over our own communities to socialist politics.

The American continent has been shaped by a genocidal history of settler colonialism and slavery. While there are significant differences in how this oppression has been carried out across the continent, the history in common connects modern struggles for liberation. When in government, mass parties of the left in Latin America have taken many important steps in support of racial equality, indigenous rights, and defining achievable steps towards a decolonial future. Learning from the achievements and limits of these approaches is essential in combating the oppression that results from settler colonialism and slavery in the United States.

In Brazil, PT governments have made important strides in supporting racial equality and indigenous rights. This year, Lula’s inauguration centered the nation’s diversity, ascending the presidential ramp alongside indigenous and black leaders and thereafter immediately issuing decrees that protect indigenous land and the environment. Lula’s administration also created a Ministry of Indigenous People which is headed by Sônia Guajajara, an indigenous woman and PSOL member. Additionally, PT governments under Lula and his successor Dilma Rouseff have made significant policy changes promoting racial equality for Brazil’s Black majority, including mandating teaching of Afro-Brazilian history and culture in primary and secondary education, creating racial quotas and other affirmative action programs in the public education system, and creating national programs to address racism and representation in federal administration.

In Venezuela, anti-colonial leader Simón Bolivar has served as an inspiration for the political transformation that began with Hugo Chávez’s presidency. Now, the term Bolivarian has become intertwined with the Chávista project. Along with championing the end of colonial rule, the Bolivarian Revolution included many important changes for indigenous people. Venezuela’s enshrinement of indigenous rights and political representation in their 1999 constitution drafted under Chávez was one of the first of its kind, and was a crucial step forward for the enfranchisement of the indigenous population. This, accompanied by other social and economic gains under PSUV governance, has led to a very high level of support for Bolivarian candidates in indigenous communities.

These achievements put parties like PSUV and PT in stark contrast to their conservative opponents. Alongside these accomplishments, we can also look to the broader political vision which is articulated by the Latin American left as inspiration for how to fight complex racial hierarchies. It is important that struggles for liberation against racial inequality and settler colonialism are not only taken in concrete steps of policy, but also incorporated as key parts of our political project. One way to make the vision of this political project visible is to make the racially diverse nations of Latin America represented in leadership. Some examples of this can be seen in Brazil and Colombia. Alongside his symbolic inauguration, Lula’s 2023 cabinet appointments show a conscious effort to embrace Brazil’s diversity. Colombian Vice President Francia Márquez, who was elected in 2022 in a huge victory for the Colombian left, now serves as the first Afro-Colombian and second woman to hold the position.

For the majority indigenous nation of Bolivia, the leadership of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS, Movement for Socialism) party has also served as an important step for representation. Evo Morales, leader of MAS, is largely considered to be Bolivia’s first president to come from an Indigenous background, and his tenure accompanied important steps for the formation of a political project centered around indigenous-self determination. As was done in Venezuela, MAS-led Bolivia adopted a new constitution in 2009 that articulated significantly expanded rights for indigenous people. This included the identification of Bolivia as a plurinational state which articulates the presence of multiple national identities within the conception of their political order. This was a key part of how MAS envisioned the support and recognition of indigenous nationalities which began under Morales. Plurinationalism provides a theoretical framework for how ideals of decolonization can manifest in the practice of governance, and serves as an important area for us to learn from as we aim to construct a decolonial future in the United States.

However, it is also here that we can learn from the limits that the Latin American left has reached. Parties in governance, even those with the support of Indigenous voters, have not always navigated the contradictions of state power in a way that appears to hold true to the principles of indigenous self-determination. Both Bolivia and Ecuador both adopted new constitutions identifying their nations as plurinational, but have struggled with criticism from indigenous communities during the governance of the left wing parties which implemented these changes. The source of these criticisms have been the contradictions between indigenous self-determination in land governance and state-led development projects. In Bolivia, the MAS government did receive significant criticism over its attempts to construct a highway that would divide protected indigenous land. Despite this criticism and the right wing coup in 2019, MAS has been able to maintain grassroots support among the indigenous majority in Bolivia, which has allowed them to stay in government.

However, things have played out differently in Ecuador. Allies of Pink Tide president Rafael Correa and his party the Movimiento Revolución Ciudadana (RC, Citizen Revolution Movement) have been unable to regain power since their betrayal by Lenin Moreno, who ran as a leftist but quickly pivoted to the right after his election. During the 2021 election, the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) as well as the indigenist party Pachakutik both recommended a “null vote” in the runoff between CRM candidate Andrés Arauz and neoliberal banker Guillermo Lasso. While the President of CONAIE did go on to endorse Arauz, RC’s loss in the runoff showed the consequences of a divide between the Pink Tide left and indigenous organizations. In order to win elections and govern in a way consistent with the principles of plurinationalism, the left in Ecuador will have to build strong ties with the organized indigenous community.

From Ecuador to Brazil, every left party that enters into state power faces limits in what they can achieve, and will struggle with difficult contradictions. No socialist party has governed without doing so, and it would be misguided to assume the same will not be true for DSA as we gain state power. We should not take these limits and contradictions simply as opportunities for criticism, but as opportunities for understanding and learning. From engaging with mass parties of the Latin American left, we can gain insight from the experiences most directly relevant to our organization, including how these parties navigated electoral victories, building a mass party, and engaging with settler colonialism and deeply ingrained racial hierarchy. Along with what we can get from engagement with the Latin American left, we must also consider what we in DSA can give in return through our solidarity.

What makes showing solidarity with the Latin American left most important is its ongoing struggle against imperialist attacks by our nation’s political elite. Both Venezuela and Cuba are under devastating economic sanctions as well as facing an open effort by the US to promote regime change. In 2002, the US supported a military coup in Venezuela against Hugo Chávezthat had briefly succeeded in establishing an American-aligned government before mass demonstrations brought him back to power. Attempts at regime change didn’t end here. Propping up Juan Guaidó, an opposition politician who had never been voted for as the legitimate President of Venezuela, the US supported his destabilizing efforts to encourage a military mutiny in 2019 against Maduro and the PSUV-led government. After recognizing him as the legitimate head of state, Venezuelan diplomats were ejected from their embassies in the US, and the buildings were given to Guaidó’s rival government.

During Operation Car Wash, an anti-corruption campaign heavily manipulated by the Brazilian right that led to the arrest of Lula, Brazilian prosecutors illegally worked with American officials to coach witnesses and create plea deals. The effects of this were enormously beneficial for Bolsonaro, sabotaging the left in Brazil for years and giving him the political monopoly he needed to carry out some of his worst anti-worker and anti-environment policies.

Both of these examples, alongside numerous other military coups and interventions in Latin America,  demonstrate how the threat of US-backed interference and regime change are very real. Despite this, socialist governments in Latin America have found ways to combat the threat of imperialism through building community power and worker’s control. The PSUV under Hugo Chávez created a political system of communes, which he described as the “basic unit” characterizing Venezuela’s socialist transition. These communes, many of which are armed and practice community-self defense independent from police forces, operate with radical participatory democracy over whole communities, many of which exist in poor neighborhoods that have historically been strong bases of support for the Bolivarian Revolution. These communities are expansive and touch every part of community life, running bakeries, clothing shops, schools, and even whole factories as worker cooperatives. This has allowed many communities to not rely on corporations for the production of essential goods, which has become especially important as Venezuela faces US sanctions and open opposition from the capitalist class.

Even while facing a state of economic siege, nations like Cuba have been able to build models for socialist democracy, presenting models to the liberal democracy that we live under. In 2022, millions of Cubans participated in community meetings to participate in the drafting of a new family code. This system of participatory democracy, which had also been used in 2019 for the drafting of a new constitution, was anything but a rubber stamp. 300,000 different suggestions were made by ordinary Cubans who participated in these meetings, which led to changes being made to nearly half of the first draft of the family code. There is a long precedent of this model of community-based decision making. In 2012, thousands of meetings with labor unions across the country were held to discuss a new labor code. Similarly, major changes to the labor code were made, with 101 new amendments and 28 entirely new labor regulations added based on community suggestions.

Although elections to Cuba’s National Assembly are not competitive, candidates are chosen through a nomination system that heavily empowers community organizations. Candidates are first nominated by members of their community. Then, representatives of mass organizations like the Federation of Cuban Women, the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba, the University Students’ Federation and many more, conduct interviews with community members and hold town halls before choosing a candidate for their constituency. Interestingly, the Communist Party of Cuba has had no official role in the choosing of a candidate for National Assembly for the last few decades, not even being present in the meetings of mass organizations. Two-thirds of Cubans belong to one of these mass organizations, which are incredibly important in the day-to-day political and social life of Cuba.

Although there is plenty to criticize the Cuban political experiment for, any criticism should not take away from the fact that Cuba’s struggle for a socialist society is part of the same international movement DSA should consider itself a part of. Socialist experiments in Cuba, Venezuela, and across Latin America are building the type of world that we’re also fighting for, and deserve our solidarity, especially in the face of US imperialist aggression.

The struggle against imperialism that socialist governments in Latin America are facing is not something they are dealing with in the abstract, it is a fight for their very survival. Mass parties like PT, PSUV, and the Partido Comunista de Cuba (PCC, Communist Party of Cuba) have had to contend with building socialism while having to face the real and very dangerous threat of US interference. This situation gives rise to contradictions that any socialist movement under the threat of imperialism will have to reckon with. For example, according to those we interviewed, supporters of the PSUV recognize the environmental damage being done by Venezuela’s reliance on oil. However, the reality is that no move towards sustainability can take place until the economic sanctions against Venezuela are removed. As long as Venezuela is under a state of economic and political siege by the United States, it isn’t materially possible for major changes in energy generation to take place.

Despite these challenges posed by US imperialism, the governing left continues to see their mission as transitioning to socialism. This is not an easy process in a world dominated by an imperialist power, which has given rise to contradictions that socialist movements in Latin America have found creative ways to address. Popular socialist self-government through Venezuela’s communes, or the regional power blocs like the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA, Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) that operate on the basis of collaboration and solidarity, not domination, show how the fight for socialism and the fight against imperialism is deeply intertwined in Latin America.  It is here where the transition to socialism is connected to building an alternative to the current world order. In 2004, Cuba and Venezuela founded ALBA, a political and economic alliance based on collaboration and Latin American unity in the face of US interference, not hegemonic control by powerful nations over weaker ones. The São Paulo Forum has also built a network of leftist parties across Latin America, opening another avenue for the building of solidarity between movements attempting to radically transform the political and economic life of their own nations while dealing with the very real threat of imperialism. These organizations, alongside other collaborations between the governments of the Pink Tide, have played an important role in promoting regional integration and economic collaboration outside of neoliberal free market framework of the US. In the face of an imperialist power that is gradually weakening, the Latin American left has sought to build not another hegemonic power, but to construct regional power centers built on solidarity and cooperation, alternatives to the very idea of an oppressive center of power.

These political experiments show the possibility of making real progress in building socialism not only in spite of imperialism, but as a way to directly combat it. It goes without saying that regime change in socialist Latin America means only a reversal of their achievements and an abandoning of the socialist political project. In Venezuela, it would mean the destruction of the communes and a privatization of the commune-controlled workplaces, which would only intensify the current economic crisis and mark a return to an era of corporate domination that existed before the socialist experiment.

Our role as socialists in the US, especially if we have criticisms of nations like Venezuela and other socialist-governed countries, is first and foremost to relieve pressure on Latin America by conducting anti-imperialist and solidarity work. The brutal imperialist attacks that have hampered the ability of socialist movements to carry out their political project are directly caused by the interests of the American elite, putting us in a unique position to help our comrades in Latin America. In order to do this most effectively, our role as socialists in the imperial core is not to play favorites and pick which parties to prioritize based on our own sense of ideological alignment, but to support the governing socialist mass parties that have to directly deal with attacks by the US empire. If we’re serious about helping our comrades, let us make sure that the fight against imperialism is truly our priority.

DSA convention has now recognized for three successive conventions the importance of prioritizing mass parties, both for the benefit of our organization from what we can learn, and for the benefit of the global working class as we strengthen our anti-imperialist solidarity.

When considering what we can learn from our comrades in Latin America, we often look to those who have achieved significant political victories. However, it is not victory alone that should determine our engagement, but the struggle to meaningfully wield state power to the benefit of the working class. Out of this struggle emerges contradictions –  important wins can be made, but there are limits to what is possible. Navigating these is the task of any governing left party, and if we do not learn from those who have tried before us, we will fail to steer ourselves in the right direction. Engagement with parties who have significant achievements will not ensure our success, but can play an important role in guiding us on our journey to socialism.

Rather than picking favorites based on perceived similarities in ideological composition or size, this approach entails aligning ourselves in solidarity with left-wing mass parties at the forefront of the struggle against imperialism. Our solidarity connects to how we publicly support or criticize movements of the Latin American left. Internal discussion and criticism is appropriate, but it’s important we consider to what extent criticisms may carry water for US hegemony and US-funded movements. This reality is important to any conception of “critical support”, which must prioritize efforts towards support as compared to criticism. We challenge US exceptionalism which centers our own importance and the idea that we have a right to be heard about every issue. While a critical analysis of ongoing socialist experiments is important and necessary, the way to help the working class of nations like Cuba and Venezuela is not to endlessly criticize their movements. This is especially true for communications from official organizational channels. By focusing on offering our solidarity and conducting anti-imperialist work we can provide real relief for our socialist comrades struggling against US imperialism.

While we have focused on making the case for continuing DSA’s current approach to Latin America, it is important we also engage further with the arguments put against it. The 2023 convention amendment which attempted to change this approach argued for establishing solidarity based upon “the rights of workers and peoples and not the balance of geopolitical power or the nominal political identities of different governments.” The authors of the amendment also criticized the failure to meet with opponents of Maduro in Venezuela and a lack of criticism for the Nicaraguan government in a statement against US interference. The amendment  called for a “big-tent” approach which does not just meet with “ruling or leading parties”.

Further examination reveals why this framing misrepresents the policy of the IC and was ultimately rejected by convention delegates. First of all, it’s important to recognize that following a multi-tendency approach can pose difficult challenges in international work, as there is limited time and resources to dedicate to international delegations and other efforts to build connections. For example, the delegation to Venezuela cited by the amendment’s authors did attempt to meet with members of Maduro-critical leftist coalition Alternativa Popular Revolucionaria (APR, Popular Revolutionary Alternative), which includes the Partido Comunista de Venezuela (PCV, Communist Party of Venezuela). Ultimately, they were unable to meet due to scheduling conflicts and prioritization of plans made with PSUV. It is true that prioritizing mass parties can come at the expense of other work, but ultimately we believe it is worthwhile to prioritize engagement with the millions of comrades in these parties who are fighting for a better world, as we have outlined throughout this piece.

Balancing our engagement between mass parties and other organizations can be very difficult, especially during delegations with limited time and resources. However, there are many examples of the IC working to build connections with organizations outside of ruling parties. Examples of this in Latin American include DSA’s work in Brazil in collaboration and solidarity with PSOL, CUT and MST as well as collaborations with labor leaders in Mexico, US embassy workers on strike in Honduras, Starbucks union organizers in Chile, and indigenous organizers in Ecuador leading a national strike. This collaboration with labor organizations and smaller political parties is a crucial part of the IC’s work and demonstrates the ways in which the committee does in fact follow a big-tent, multi-tendency approach while maintaining prioritization towards mass parties.

Additionally, it is inaccurate to characterize the rights of “workers and peoples”  as at odds with geopolitics and the political orientation of governments. The struggle against imperialism is geopolitical, but it is also a class struggle waged against US capitalists. Support for the left mass parties is deeply tied to achieving tangible wins for the working class, with the alternative being right wing governments aligned with the US ruling class. The balance of geopolitical power, and specifically the strength of left wing Latin American governments seeking regional integration and opposition to imperialism, is directly connected to the rights of workers and peoples. The implicit separation of the two by opponents of DSA’s current internationalist strategy only serves to confuse our understanding of the struggle for socialism in Latin America.

Instead of changing course, DSA should continue prioritizing mass parties of the Latin American Left. This approach will strengthen our own ability to become a mass organization, continue an emphasis on solidarity and support for our comrades battling imperialism, and further class struggle throughout the American continent. With unity and engagement, we can hope to see a future beyond just a Pink Tide, and towards a socialist America from North to South.