Mortality and the Utopian Quest

It’s been about a year since I posted an article on the Center for the Study of the Americas web site Global Alternatives. Some of you have written me, inquiring what has happened. The simple truth is that life is catching up with me. Twenty two years ago I suffered a back injury in Nicaragua that put me in a wheel chair. Then in 2004, while on a return trip to Nicaragua I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. an incurable blood cancer. The prognosis was that I had three to five years to live. I defied the odds, actively pursuing and participating in a number of promising clinical trials that have kept me alive. By late last year, however, the chemo-like drugs had taken their toll. My last treatment had me flying to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona once a month to see a doctor for 20 minutes in order to pick up my designated drug.

On winter solstice of last year I elected to undergo a stem cell transplant at the University of California at San Francisco medical center. I expected to be out in mid-January but the treatment didn’t go as planned. I wound up spending four months in hospitals and convalescent centers, experiencing some dark days in a state of delirium. I had trouble conversing with friends, often unable to utter a complete sentence.

In my delirium I had a primordial dream. I traveled backwards in history, with each year ticking away on an enormous grandfather clock. The swing of the pendulum opened a window into each year of my life. If I dared to jump through the window I could perhaps gain a year or stop time itself.

On my journey back through time 1989 stood out as a particularly traumatic year. I relived the moment when a humongous wave of the Pacific Ocean that I was trying to body surf threw me face down into the retreating undertow, busting my back and sucking me out into the sea. I couldn’t keep my head above water and was on the brink of drowning when a fisher boy in his teens came and dragged me on to the beach.

My accident occurred as Nicaragua and much of Central America were caught up in their struggles for a revolutionary utopia. I had worked with the Sandinistas since 1978, writing on the revolution, advising the Nicaraguan government on US foreign policy, working with an agricultural think tank on agrarian reform issues, and collaborating with solidarity organizations in the United States.

By 1989 the US backed counterrevolutionary war had taken its toll on Nicaragua. People were more concerned with their day to day survival than with building utopia. The economy was in tatters with shortages in food, basic commodities, and medical supplies. The hospitals in Managua were under supplied and under staffed. Paralyzed from the waist down I was put in a sweltering hot room with a plummeting blood pressure that caused the doctors to fear for my life. After a week there I was flown out in a medivac plane headed for Berkeley. We made an excruciating stop over in El Salvador where the guerrillas had launched a major offensive against the government. The airport was partially closed, and the military took five hours to clear our plane for departure. The heat and the humidity were overwhelming.

In Berkeley I spent almost three months in the hospital, first in intensive care and then in rehabilitation. Concern with my own life and recovery was punctuated by the rapid unfolding of history that year, particularly the Chinese democratic movement in Tienanmen Square. I lay in bed watching a TV suspended from the ceiling, seeing a brave man single handedly stop a column of tanks in their tracks, as thousands of demonstrators were forced to flee the military crack down in the square. Next in November came the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the upheaval in the Soviet bloc. Those of us who considered ourselves socialists and participants in national liberation struggles had to rethink our political philosophies and our very lives. The utopia of state socialism had collapsed.

Within months of my accident I was traveling again, this time to Cuba, mainly to undertake physical rehabilitation at the country’s excellent treatment centers. I also wanted to see how the Cuban revolution was faring in the midst of the global crisis of socialism. The collapse of Soviet assistance had dire consequences as everyone on the island had to tighten their belts. For the first time since the triumph of the revolution in 1959 there were cases of malnutrition. The country had entered a “special period” as the leadership proclaimed.

From 1990 to 1992 I took a couple of trips to the Soviet Union and eastern European to try to understand what had happened to socialism. I naively believed that a renovated socialism, free from state and party control of the economy and society, would take root in the region that had challenged the capitalist world for decades. But where ever I went—Moscow, Kiev, Budapest, Prague, Belgrade, Warsaw, and Berlin—I found that people were mainly interested in getting the goods and commodities that the “free market” supposedly offered. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were the new icons, not Mikhail Gorbachev or any other leaders of the Soviet past.

With my historic utopias fractured, I returned to my “roots,” to Latin America to work, travel and write. Slowly the left began to rebuild in the 1990s, placing its hopes more in the emergent social movements than in political parties. The Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexcio marked the advent of a new kind of revolution, one in which the people took control of their local communities and questioned state power while using the internet to spread the news around the world of the advances and difficulties they faced. Then in late 1999 as the millennium drew to a close it appeared for a moment that we might have regained the initiative. Hundreds of organizations, from Zapatistas to Anarchists and  Teamsters descended on Seattle, shutting down the conclave of the World Trade Organization. We blocked the entrances, calling for an end to free trade and neoliberalism. It was an inspiring moment.

A global protest movement took hold. Tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on the Summit of the Americas in April, 2001 in Ottawa, Canada to denounce the negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Demonstrators next challenged the capitalist leaders at the G-8 meetings in Genoa, Italy in July, 2001, forcing the heads of state to hold their meetings on naval ships stationed off shore. Underlying these  protests were the World Social Forum meetings that were held every year starting in January 2001. Utopia had reappeared, this time under the banner “Another World is Possible.”

But our hopes for a new world were rudely dashed on September 11, 2001, as the dogs  of war were unleashed and a ferocious US Empire undertook a crusade half way around the world. The fascist sounding governmental agency, Home Land Security, became the vehicle for suppressing individual freedoms in the United States while the CIA and special forces detained, tortured and even murdered untold numbers of people in foreign lands.

I tried to contribute to the resistance, broadening my own research beyond Latin America, co-authoring “Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire.” The manuscript went to the printers on January 1, 2004, and I took off on a bus trip around South America, going from Santiago to Mendoza, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Porto Alegre and Rio de Janeiro. Friends along the way told me I looked pallid. I ignored them and flew on to Managua, where I became deathly ill. At first I thought it was food poisoning, but then a young doctor who had been trained in Cuba told me I had multiple myeloma.

I refused to let my new malady deter me, continuing my travels and writings as I went to Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Chile. With global attention focusing on the conflicts and upheavals in the Arab world and Central Asia, Latin America largely faded into the background. However for the past decade the social movements and many of the continents leaders have been debating and pushing for new alternatives that offer hope in a world ravished by imperial wars and economic disasters. Often referred to as “the pink tide”, new left of center governments, have taken office in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela and now Peru. The process of change varies widely among these countries, but what unites them is a series of social programs and reforms that question the neoliberal paradigm.

An historic leap for the region took place in late February 2010, when representatives of 32 countries including 26 heads of state from the hemisphere met at the Mayan Rivera near Cancun to call for the founding of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Notably excluded were the United States and Canada. While most participants were reluctant to say it would replace the Organization of American States, President Evo Morales of Bolivia captured the sentiment of many countries when he proclaimed “Whenever the United States is present, democracy is not guaranteed, peace with social equity is not guaranteed.” Even right of center president Felipe Calderon of Mexico expressed his firm support, proclaiming CLACS “must be a priority.” In a sign of their commitment to a genuinely independent entity, the gathering unanimously appointed Washington’s most vociferous critic, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, to host the next summit in July, 2011 that will approve the principles of organization and unity.

The call for a new socialism is part of the political and social renaissance that is stirring in Latin America. On January 30, 2005, Hugo Chavez, while addressing the fifth annual gathering of the World Social Forum, proclaimed: “it is necessary to transcend capitalism … through socialism, true socialism with equality and justice.” Chavez went on to tell the roaring crowd of 15,000 at the Gigantinho stadium in Porto Alegre, Brazil: “We have to re-invent socialism. It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.” This marked the inception of what is now referred to as “socialism of the twenty-first century,” a banner that has now been raised across Latin America, signifying the profound process of change sweeping the region. The leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador have also proclaimed that socialism is the only viable alternative to capitalism.

Aside from the experiment in communitarian socialism in Venezuela, the call for socialism in the rest of the hemisphere is more of an ideal than a practiced reality. But the fact is that for the first time since the demise of the Soviet bloc socialism is appearing on the horizon and is part of the political discourse.

Globally we have entered into a period of great turbulence and incertitude, of momentous changes, fraught with dangers and calamities. But there are also opportunities for us to swing the pendulum of history in our favor. With 6.9 billion homo sapiens on the planet it is perhaps inevitable that we will move from one crisis to another.

Globalization under the aegis of transnational capital is the antithesis of utopia. It destroys communities, indigenous populations, local beliefs and customs and offers consumerism and commodities as the immediate be all and end all of human existence. We live in a world of fractured utopias, but the forces from below continue to rebel and construct new narratives out of the ruins.

As I slipped in and out of delirium in the San Francisco hospital, the real world captured my attention on the small TV screen that hung from the ceiling in my bedroom. First in Tunisia and then in Egypt, demonstrators took to the streets and urban squares, demanding the removal of the autocratic leaders that had dominated their countries for decades. Spreading to Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, the peoples of these countries were driven by their own primordial and utopian dreams as they called for democracy, freedom, equality and dignity.

There is not one utopia, but many utopias. The desire for utopia is pervasive in virtually all societies. In the Middle East, the struggle for utopia is first and foremost a desire to get rid of the monarchical and dictatorial regimes and to implant democracy and liberty. It will be tribal based in countries like Yemen, in Bahrain it is the desire of the Shiites to regain their freedom and liberty. For Egypt, utopia is an end to corruption and democratic elections in which Muslims, Coptic Christians and secularists can peacefully determine their future.

For Latin Americans the desire for utopia has moved beyond the controlled democracies that are dominated by the elites. The social movements, particularly the indigenous ones, call for “Buen Vivir,”a world in which people live in harmony with all forms of life. For the Landless Movement of Brazil, utopia is the access to land and resources that allow for full communal development with schools, agricultural research centers, and medical facilities. Ollanta Humala’s victory in Peru reveals that the Pink Tide is still rising in Latin America. The oligarchic and racists elements that have dominated Peru for centuries have been dealt a decisive blow as the country tries to construct its utopia in the geographic heart of the ancient Inca empire.

My primordial dream in the hospital reflected my desire to turn the clock back in order to have more time to explore the cosmos. I wanted to cheat death, to go back as far as I could. I finally arrived at my very birth, in a prehistoric cave in the time of the Neanderthals. There I began my life again, in another time, another epoch. The swing of the pendulum had opened a window to the future.

In the real world, despite a difficult convalescence, I was given a new future with the stem cell transplant. Doctors tell me I can look forward to a “good quality of life” for another couple of years or so, or even conceivably a cure. My quest for utopia continues. I want to participate as long as possible in the shaping of our world. I cannot join the camp of the pessimists who believe that the world is headed for disaster, perhaps even an apocalyptic ending. The global battle against the “dark side” will be complicated and difficult, but the human species over the millennia has displayed amazing resilience and creativity, even in the twentieth century when we experienced two world wars, a global economic depression, a holocaust and the unleashing of nuclear power. The future is completely unpredictable, but it belongs to those who persevere and dare to struggle.

Roger Burbach is working on a new book with Michael Fox and Fred Fuentes for Zed Books, “Challenges to US Hegemony: Social Movements, Populist Leaders and Socialism in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela.” He is also in search of a publisher for “Fractured Utopias: A Personal Odyssey With History.”