Dialogue: The Third World After the Cold War

Against the Current, No. 27, July/August 1990

James Petras and Mike Fischer

The profound transformation of U.S.-Soviet relations has dramatic and contradictory consequences for Third World liberation movements. These movements as well as the international left are struggling to respond to the new situation. With this article, Against the Current hopes to stimulate a discussion that will contribute to developing both understanding and revolutionary practice for a new period. —The Editors

SURVEYING THE FUTURE of the Third World on the eve of the popular explosion in Eastern Europe, Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) cornmander Joaquin Villabos insisted that “it would be absurd to consider the Salvadoran conflict as an integral part of the East-West conflict that could thus be resolved by an agreement between the USSR and the USA.” “The [Salvadoran] revolution will not wait;” Villabos argued, for “a detente at the Central American level would be possible only if the structural problems of the region found a solution.”(1)

Writing the same month, Soviet Ambassador to Cuba Yuri Petrov gave his own prescription for a resolution of the Central American conflict, arguing that “to resolve the conflict in Central America, the same approach must be adopted as in Southern Africa. In the same way that we have collaborated with the United States in the case of Angola and Namibia, it is necessary that some third countries play the role of mediator in the case of Nicaragua and El Salvador.”(2)

With the hindsight of another year—a year marked not only by cataclysmic upheavals in the East but also by the U.S. invasion of Panama, the growing isolation of Cuba, and the U.S. intervention in the Nicaraguan elections—one can see just what kind of “mediation” Petrov had !n mind. Much like the Soviet mediations in Southern Africa—which have indirectly bolstered the reactionary (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) forces in Angola, constrained the meaning of independence in Namibia, and placed severe pressures on the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa to negotiate with the De Kierk regime—recent Soviet mediations in Central America have sacrificed erstwhile regional allies for what Petrov aptly designates “collaboration” with the United States. Villabos’ optimism notwithstanding, the consequences of Soviet “new thinking” in the Third World have been disastrous for Third World liberation movements. The Salvadoran revolution—and many others—face different times as Moscow and Washington pursue detente at their expense.

In this context, the U.S. invasion of Panama is only the most dramatic of a series of events which underscore the nature of U.S. policy during a period in which Soviet isolationism is allowing it an ever freer hand. Coming as it does in the midst of the euphoria about “the end of the Cold War,” the “worldwide democratization” and even “the end of history,” the Panamanian invasion brings home the actual direction of historical change in the next period and demonstrates the consequences that the decline of one world power has on another.

More specifically, we would argue that it is the retreat and decline of the USSR and the upheavals in Eastern Europe—with their contradictory character—which have facilitated the resurgence of Washington’s hegemonic ambitions.

Contrary to those who have argued for some sort of imaginative symmetry through which democratization in the East and the breakup of the Soviet Empire would automatically evoke a parallel process in the West, we are witnessing the acceleration of Western expansionism as well as a growing propensity to use economic pressure and military force to project its power into regions attempting to assert their independence.

The basic misconception of the pro-portents of imaginative symmetry has been to overstate the importance of ideological factors as the primary basis for bloc divisions and hegemonic politics at the same time that they understated the importance of economic-strategic drives in the West as the major force shaping its foreign policy toward the Third World.

The U.S. invasion of Panama was not an anomaly—as some liberal critics assert—but a logical outcome of conditions congenial for a reaffirmation of Western imperial interests. Strengthened by the peaceful spread of Western influence in the East, the capitalist powers are in a stronger position to force fully reassert their dominance of the South. But before exploring the particular contours of this domination more closely, we must look at some of the changes in Soviet foreign policy that helped make it possible.

Moscow Retreats

Soviet aid to Third World liberation movements has occasionally been crucial to their survival. But to say this implies neither an endorsement of Moscow’s less than benign intentions in giving such aid nor a blindness to how the strings inevitably attached have sometimes hurt the movements to which it was given. Khrushchev’s sudden halt of all aid to China—which had disastrous consequences there as well as for the mass movements in Asia and Africa—and the Brezhnev leadership’s scanty aid during the Vietnam War foreshadow Gorbachev’s current retreat.

Nonetheless, the current Soviet turn in foreign policy is at least as disastrous as those of Khrushchev or Brezhnev. Its fallout has precipitated Vietnam’s abandonment of the Phnom Penh regime to the Khmer Rouge along with Moscow’s support for a U.N. resolution calling on Hun Sen to surrender power—despite the active support of the Cambodian population for Hun Sen and his Vietnamese allies, given the alternatives.(3)

It has contributed to such unusual spectacles as Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chair Yasser Arafat advising Knesset delegates of the Israeli Communist Party to enter a Labor-led Pens government—not to mention the CP’s open support in its weekly paper Zo Haderech, for massive Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union, even though many of these immigrants will help build Shamir’s “Big Israel” on the West Bank.(4)

The impact in Southern Africa and Central America has been even more serious. Soon after the Angolan and Cuban victory against the South African Defense1orees (SADF) at Cuito Cuanavale, the USSR assumed the role of mediator to hammer out a settlement for Namibian independence in negotiations to which Southwest Africa Peoples’ Organization (SWAPO) was not even invited.

The settlement itself, based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 435—a watered down version of Security Council Resolution 385 designed to bypass the United Nations—allowed Louis Pienar’s South African administration in Namibia to supervise the elections there and relegated the United Nations to a secondary role. Openly backing the far right Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), Pienar restricted SWAPO’s access to the media and subjected its members to the constant harassment of the notorious Koevoet death squad, which, in conjunction with the SADF, was responsible for the murder of a number of SWAPO cadre at the beginning of the campaign season. To top it off, SWAPO was required to win two-thirds of the vote to write the country’s constitution. And the poet of Walvis Bay, which handles 86 percent of Namibian exports and the only deep water port in all Namibia, remains in South African hands.

The Namibian settlement also mandated a withdrawal of Cuban troops in Angola, drawing an implicit parallel between their presence there as defenders of the Angolan government and that of the SADF, which was working with Sayimbi’s UNITA to overthrow the Luanda government. Combined with a cutback in Soviet aid to Angola—even as the United States continues to support Savimbi’s UNITA forces—the Cuban withdrawal precipitated a dramatic escalation of UNITA terrorism throughout the country. Especially since December, commented one foreign missionary, “the war has picked up. UNITA said they were going to take the war to the rest of the country, and they’ve pretty much held to flier word.”(5)

The Namibian settlement is just a preview of the kind of settlement that the USSR is currently promoting in South Africa. Moscow and Pretoria have been conducting high level talks for almost four years. Last year, Yuri Yukalov, head of the South African department of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Oliver Tambo that the ANC would have to renounce armed struggle lest “South Africa. ..be destroyed.”(6)

Moscow’s pressure on the ANC to negotiate—and the aid which backs that pressure—has shaped the terms on which the ANC approaches negotiations as well. Nelson Mandela has stated repeatedly since his release that the ANC must adopt “structural guarantees” to prevent “black domination,” a coded way of signalling the ANC’s willingness to devise a constitutional compromise on their call for one person, one vote. And Joe Slovo’s recent reservations about nationalizing South Africa’s numerous monopolies in his homage to Gorbachev and perestroika, “Has Socialism Failed?” parallels the ANC’s move away from a call for such nationalizations in the landmark Freedom Charter and toward an endorsement of the “mixed economy” they currently advocate in their Constitutional Guidelines proposal.

Harmful as the new Soviet policy has been in South Africa, however, nowhere has it had more of an impact than in Central America. And at no time was this change clearer than in the dramatic days of the FMLN’s offensive last November. Two days after the FMLN—flushed with the initial success of their offensive—called fora general insurrection, Moscow demanded that the guerrillas halt, declaring that “whatever the reasons for the present explosion … neither of the two sides can succeed in overcoming the other, and attempts to do so can only increase the number of victims among the population.”(7) The next day, the Jesuits were murdered. Two weeks later—and days before the Malta summit was to open—a Soviet delegation called a meeting in Managua where they told Cuban and Nicaraguan officials to halt their support for the Salvadoran revolutions.(8)

Two weeks after that, on December 12—and fully cognizant of the pressure Bush had placed on Gorbachev at Malta concerning aid to Nicaragua—Daniel Ortega signed the San Isidro accord in Costa Rica. Days earlier, Ortega had called on “all of the world’s governments” to “break off relations with this government [in El Salvador] of mass murder and forget about diplomatic language.” The San Isidro accord—in addition to establishing a parallel between the FMLN and the Nicaraguan contras—defined Cristiani’s death squad government as “the product of a democratic, pluralist and participatory process.” Defense Minister Humberto Ortega, in an interview in Barricada, argued that “whether the governments of the region please us or not it is not legitimate that some government should support forces, opposing another government,” adding, “it is necessary to know how to apply positions of principle according to context.” One week later, the United States invaded Panama.

And Washington Advances

The U.S. invasion of Panama is simply the culmination of a whole series of military-based power grabs in the Third World. Washington has poured billions of dollars to aid such unsavory clients as the mujahideen in Afghanistan, UNITA in Angola, the contras in Nicaragua and the Pol Pot-led coalition in Cambodia. In each regional conflict, Washington has welcomed Soviet withdrawal and opposed genuine negotiations. Moscow’s unilateral military disengagement has encouraged Bush to assert U.S. military and political power rather than following suit.

Such a “go for broke” strategy in Washington belies myths of Bush as the “prudent” president who would follow a “realistic” foreign policy, shifting away from the adventurous, unilateral ideological-military direction of the Reagan administration. Bush, the pundits said, would enter into genuine negotiations with the USSR, reducing global tensions and ending regional conflicts.

But given the Soviet retreat, the temptation for the Bush administration to realize the Reaganite dream of the early 1980s was too strong to resist Pursuing this fantasy, the Bush administration has demonstrated a remarkable inability to confront the long-term economic consequences of its adventurism. Like the former CIA director that he is, Bush is at his best focusing on specific fields of operations, with emphasis on securing very immediate political interests in areas of easy access with an abundance of military resources. By background and temperament, Bush cannot transcend his past nor that of the Reaganite ideological matrix from which he was spawned.

The absence of a strategic conception of the U.S. role in world political economy and the presence of an “operations man” in the Oval Office means that the end of the Cold War will be accompanied by an exacerbation rather than the resolution of regional conflicts. Soviet isolationism is whetting the hegemonic appetites of the “opportunity mongering” operators in the White House. They can be counted on to increase pressures on the Soviet Union to further withdraw support from its traditional allies.

In the name of “avoiding regional conflicts,” Washington can be expected to encourage unilateral Soviet reductions of aid and trade to adversaries of U.S. hegemonic ambitions. Among all the major issues on the table at Malta, it is interesting to note that Bush applied the greatest pressure on Gorbachev to cut back aid to beleaguered Cuba—already facing significantly less generous terms in its trade with its erstwhile social-in camp allies—and to Nicaragua.

The President’s focus on reasserting U.S. ideological-military hegemony in Third World areas like Nicaragua is vintage Bush; it is what he does best. With the military invasion of one Third World country already consummated, alarming new incursions into the Andes underway, and the FBI’s recent assertion in Mexico of its new “extra-territorial” right to kidnap foreigners, it is dear that U.S. hegemonic politics are alive and well and that the political conditions are now in place facilitating future military interventions whenever Washington’s interests dictate it.

As both the Sandinistas and the FMLN are discovering, maintaining principled positions in such an unfavorable context becomes dose to impossible. Major factions within both organizations are exploring possible linkages with the Second International to compensate for their loss of Soviet support. Increasingly isolated in a region of the world where both economic pressure and political repression make it especially difficult to construct a truly democratic socialism, liberation movements throughout the Third World now contemplate throwing their lot with social democracy—what Eleuterio Fernandez Huldobro of the Uruguayan Tupamaros refers to as “dressed up capitalism,” a force which “sees perestroika as dangerous because it steals theft clothes in many areas.”(9)

The Crisis in the South

Those clothes have been particularly threadbare in Latin America, which makes the growing appeal of social democracy there even more troubling. Real existing social democracy in Latin America has brought neither “welfare” nor “reform” but rather Thatcherite neo-liberal austerity measures and, in Peru, Venezuela and Jamaica, often severe repression. Here, as throughout the South, social democracy has no future.

Nonetheless, realizing that they would no longer be able to turn to the Soviet Union for major support, some Sandinistas—and especially those associated with the Tendencia Tercerista before 1979—began establishing ties with the Second International late last year.(10) The FMLN followed suit soon thereafter. Having officially renounced FMLN Marxist -Leninism in early March, their spokesperson Ana Guadalupe Martinez, speaking at the French Socialist Party Congress in Paris, highlighted the “coincidence between the program of most currents within the FMLN and the objectives of the Second International,” adding that Mitterand’s party considered the FMLN a ”sister party.”(11)

In the wake of the Sandinista defeat at the polls, both they and the FMLN are moving in the direction of becoming mass-based electoral parties. Like many revolutionaries throughout Latin America, they do so echoing the words of Sandinista director Victor Tirado, who argues ”that with the collapse of the socialist world, the tendency in the world toward disarmament and the use of negotiations to resolve conflicts, there is no support for armed struggles for national liberation.” “Today,” he continued, “the best we can aspire to is coexistence with imperialism… the cycle of anti-imperialist revolutions is over.””(12)

As Tirado calls for a reorientation of the Sandinistas, Martinez is discussing the possibility of the FMLN participating in an opposition coalition with the once hated Christian Democrats in El Salvador’s 1991 municipal elections. It is with this in mind that the FMLN enters U.N.-mediated negotiations with the Cristiani regime. But it would be a serious mistake to argue, as many in the solidarity movements have done, that such negotiations represent an unqualified victory for the FMLN—anymore than they do for the ANC in South Africa.

Both Cristiani and De Klerk are negotiating now because the new international climate places liberation movements in a difficult and potentially precarious position. Clearly the tremendous popular mobilizations in South Africa beginning List August and the FMLN’s inspiring bid for power in November—not to mention the severe economic recession in both South Africa and El Salvador—are the latest in a long series of reminders to both countries’ elites that at some point they must negotiate. But both elites are choosing to negotiate now because they can do so from a position of strength and in a comparatively better context than they were in a year—or two years—ago.

In El Salvador in particular it is highly unlikely that the liberation forces can emerge from negotiations with language that might allow their safe participation in next year’s elections. Though much has been made of Cristiani’s decision to appoint a top military officer—Colonel Mauricio Vargas, military commander for the eastern half of the country during the recent FMLN offensive—to his negotiating team for the first time, somewhat less has been said about Vargas stance toward negotiations in general. Just last September, he insisted on “reminding the FMLN, in case they’ve forgotten, that to dialogue is one thing and to negotiate is another.” Negotiation,” he argued, “has no reason to exist.”(13) The FMLN has no illusions about what talks with such a thug might produce; if they nonetheless choose to participate in them, it speaks volumes about their current isolation.

Hence the Tupamaros’ recent acknowledgement that “in the short run, a setback may occur, a revitalization of social democratic ideas, of hopes in reformism,”(14) is, to say the least, an understatement. Nonetheless, mindful of the South’s growing immiseration—mired as it is in its worst recession since the 1930s as well as caught in a scissors crisis between falling commodity prices and rising interest rates that has created a staggering debt it will never pay off—the Tupamaros also argue that “in the medium and long term, practice will take care of showing that a new society cannot be built through petty reforms, that this is an illusion.”

And the Meaning of Democracy

The Tupamaros’ analysis of the impending crisis seems to bring us back to where we began—with Villabos’ remarks about the indigenous nature of Third World crises. In one sense, both are of course correct; to reduce liberation movements in the South to mere appendices of the Soviet Union is to endorse the obverse side of the Reagan-Bush team’s own obsession with communist conspiracies and domino theories. There is no sense in being nostalgic for the system being swept away in the East, however important it might be to recognize its contradictory nature, especially in the context of the Third World.

But a failure to recognize these contradictions as we give kudos for elections in the East neglects both the liberation movements’ current isolation and the need to forge a viable alternative to social democracy as a means of working out of that isolation. As the space for these movements continues to constrict, it is imperative that we devote as much effort to solidarizing with them and helping forge such alternatives as we do to crowing over the events in Eastern Europe. Otherwise, and quite understandably, many of these movements will never transcend what Eduardo Galeano refers to as the “nostalgia” with which they will recall that “the defunct Soviet bloc helped to fund justice in Cuba, Nicaragua and many other countries.”(15)

The current struggle to construct a creative and forward looking alternative to such nostalgia revolves around the meaning and practice of the word democracy. Democracy’s appearance on the horizon in the East is certainly welcome. But it is frequently conflated there with a perestroika which is in fact only a thinly veiled apology for the introduction of capitalist relations of production. It is not sufficient to herald the arrival of glasnost if we do not also ask- glasnost for whom? And what, given the present political economic conjuncture, will the quality of that glasnost be?

These are pressing questions in the Third World, and help explain the continued sympathy in many quarters for the Cuban Revolution. Castro’’s unambiguous condemnation of perestroika—although itself confused by his incorrect conflation of production with distribution, capitalist relations with capitalist methods—strikes a chord in the Third World and especially in Latin America in the same way that the uncritical nostalgia Galeano speaks of exercises its own appeal. We are critical of Castro’s simultaneous rejection of glasnost. But our criticism must be tempered by an understanding of glasnost’s limitations in Eastern Europe. So far, glasnost has been controlled by elites whose trajectory, at least for the moment, is in the direction of a modus vivendi with capital.

Glasnost has not led to greater openness in the Third World, and it has certainly not led to greater openness in the United States or Western Europe. Many Western progressives assumed that the tight ideological controls exercised by the U.S. mass media as well as the narrow political options available here would loosen and broaden now that the Communist menace has disappeared. But nothing of the sort has occurred.

While the major media in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe provided comprehensive coverage of demonstrations and arrests, the U.S. mass media covered up the hundreds of demonstrations and arrests that took place here during the Cristiani regime’s murderous bombing of San Salvador’s barrios last November. Later, the media dutifully transmitted the propaganda of the Bush administration and covered up the massive civilian killings in Panama.

Glasnost is seen by Western power brokers as an opening to propagate pro-capitalist propaganda abroad and as a means of encouraging Eastern liberals to rewrite their history in line with Western ideological dogma. The Western interpretation of ideological changes in the East is then recycled back to the West as confirmation of the universal validity of capitalist verities.

There is an inverse relationship between the amount of media coverage of mass protests and rebellion in the East and similar events in the West when thirty million workers cast their ballots fora Socialist trade union leader in Brazil, it was given minimal coverage; when a fraction of the above marched in Eastern Europe, tons of ink were spilled and the electronic airwaves burned the circuits.

When a U.S. Marine was killed running a military roadblock near a major military installation in Panama, it was headline news. When U.S.-backed contras murdered a U.S. nun and wounded a U.S. bishop engaged in a humanitarian mission, the mass media relegated it to the inside pages or to a blip on the TV. Washington exonerated the contras: no moral indignation, no aid cut-off. The issue was forgotten. In the case of Panama, the opposite occurred.

The double meaning of glasnost for the West was cynically summed up by Secretary of State Baker “…both the United States and the Soviet Union today are supporting democracy. The difference is that the Soviet Union supports democracy by staying out of countries, thus permitting democracy to proceed. In this one and very unique instance the United States did it by going in to assist a democratically elected government against a dictator.”(16)


“Those advancing the cause of liberation,” the Tupamaros write, “ought to get a helping hand of solidarity, even though this has nothing to do with the laws of the market.”(17) This formulation gets at the heart of what is most shameful about Moscow’s decision to renege on its former commitments, as well as the relentless manner in which Washington is taking advantage of that betrayal.

The left’s challenge today remains what it has been for the last sixty years: to make the case both theoretically and practically for a genuinely democratic socialism, one that steers between the Scylla of Stalinism and the Charybdis of social democracy which, today, appear to many liberation movements to be the only two options on the horizon. The former represents a betrayal of the democratic principles at the heart of Marx’s vision; the latter, with its willingness to accommodate capital, denies economic justice and consequently erodes the conditions that might make that vision fully operable.

If it is to become operable, we must temper our applause for the contradictory developments in the East with an appreciation for what, in the current conjuncture, has been lost, both in terms of the very real, if inadequate, cradle to grave benefits that characterized Eastern bloc social systems and in terms of the space these societies created for Third World liberation movements. Only then can we fully appreciate the daunting task before us: to harness what was best about these societies—however deformed its appearance—to the democratic currents presently sweeping through them, replacing both with a genuinely internationalist, truly redistributive, and fully democratic socialist vision.


  1. Universidad, University of El Salvador, April 1989.
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  2. Le Monde, April 7, 1989.
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  3. Pierre Rousset’s article “Imperialist diplomacy and the Cambodian civil war,” International Viewpoint #183 (April 25,1990), for example, mentions that the people of the besieged western Cambodian town of Battambang welcomed the Vietnamese troops rushed in to defend it in November of 1989.
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  4. The Other Front, February 21, 1990.
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  5. New York Times, April 26, 1990.
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  6. International Viewpoint #170 (October 2, 1989).
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  7. Le Monde, November 15, 1989.
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  8. Le Monde, November 30 and December 1, 1989.
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  9. Tupamaros, January 1990.
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  10. La Cronica, January 3 and January 10, 1990.
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  11. El Sol, March 26, 1990.
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  12. The Guardian (New York), May 2 1990.
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  13. Latinamerra Press, September 29, 1989.
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  14. Tupamaros, January, 1990.
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  15. Guardian (New York), May 2 1990.
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  16. Philadelphia Inquirer, December 24, 1989.
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  17. Tupamaros, January 1990.
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July-August 1990, ATC 27

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