Juan Claudio Lechín is Bolivian by blood—and by history. Juan Lechín the elder’s dedication to insurgence against the feudal oppression of Bolivian workers paved the way for the Revolution of 1952 and some of the most radical labor laws ever attempted.
Lechín junior is normally a writer of fiction, film, and theater. His play Fernando, el caótico took El Premio Nacional 98 José Machicado, and La gula del picaflor won El VI Premio Nacional de Novela in 2003. But Lechín’s interest in politics is a life-long endeavor, dating back to the education he garnered growing up in the midst of national labor struggles, in exile three times in Venezuela and Peru during the dictatorships of the 1960s and ’70s, as well as from a decades-long study of Marxism that began in childhood.
In recent years, Lechín has grown preoccupied with the perception that fascism may be returning to Bolivia. In 2005, following years of fierce social movements, voters successfully elected the country’s first indigenous president, former coca farmer and union leader Evo Morales Ayma. Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party—which includes his vicepresidente, ex-guerrilla fighter Álvaro Garcia Linera—promised to heal South America’s poorest nation with a creative blend of state socialism and indigenous values. But, in contrast to the hope that so many nurtured in 2005—including anti-globalization activists, leftists, environmentalists, and Bolivians themselves—the Morales adminstration has forged a “proceso de cambio” featuring a new constitution that opens the way for endless reelection, blatant diminishment of freedom of the press, full-tilt industrialization including massive dams, new oil, gas, and lithium excavations, as well as high-tech corridors blasting through indigenous eco-reserves, and a tendency to dismiss, or in some cases violently repress, the nonstop protests that have arisen across the country. Las máscaras del fascismo: Castro, Chávez, Morales (in Spanish by Plural Editores), Lechín’s new book, audaciously compares the laws and political strategies that Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, and Morales himself have employed to congeal power with those of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco.
The interview with Juan Claudio Lechín that follows took place on a day that a peaceful march to the capital initiated by indigenous communities was threatened by members of the MAS party wielding clubs and dynamite. Stationed between them, 900 policemen in full riot gear blocked passage, as officially stated, “to prevent violence,” although many citizens suspected the situation was a government setup to suppress the march. The issue? Native groups were exercising their constitutional right to protect sixty self-sufficient, sovereign communities and an ecology boasting thousands of plants and animals, including eleven endangered species, in their Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS)—in protest against the industrial superhighway the MAS government was constructing through their reserve. It was against this backdrop that Juan Claudio Lechín talked about governance in Latin America.
—Chellis Glendinning for Guernica
Guernica: In the beginning of Las máscaras del fascismo, you speak of your fear to publish such a radical analysis. Can you explain that fear?
Juan Claudio Lechín: Yes, it was a double fear: interior and exterior. I come from the Left. I studied Marxism from the age of twelve because, at the time, it gave an answer to my feelings, to my thirst for freedom and a vision of equalitarian society. But, after years, I started to get disappointed by the Soviet Union and to no longer believe certain magical aspects of the theory. I started to watch reality instead. I studied colonial history, and I began to lose many of the dogmas that Marxism had installed. Then, one day in 2006, a group of citizens made a hunger strike against Evo Morales’s imposition on the national assembly to ratify a new constitution—which, of note to us, would give him the right to run for countless reelections—even though the required 66 percent vote was impossible to attain. Some Morales supporters started to shout that they were going to hang us! They threw dynamite into the Basilica de San Francisco cathedral, and we had to escape.
We human beings are structured by a certain flow of ideas that get installed in our souls. When somebody breaks that flow—in order not to be empty—we tend to become unsettled.
At that moment I realized that there could be a correlation between what was unfolding in Bolivian and European fascism, so I studied fascism for four and a half years. It was an existential fear—to leave a corpus of ideas and jump into the emptiness in order to make sense of reality.
The external fear was to lose friends. Maybe my close friends of the Left would feel my book as an aggression, a punch. We human beings are structured by a certain flow of ideas that get installed in our souls. When somebody breaks that flow—in order not to be empty—we tend to become unsettled.
Guernica: So what are these ideas that could unsettle people?
Juan Claudio Lechín: I make two premises: one, that fascism is a pragmatic model of taking absolute power, and two, that twelve conditions exist to detect the presence of fascism. I go on to analyze six characters: Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco in Europe; Castro, Chávez, and Morales in Latin America.
To my surprise, the correlations among them are extremely high. All of these leaders destroy a political system—the parliament, the judicial system, the laws, the army, media, all the freedoms that, at least in Latin America, the crowds fought for two centuries to capture. Free unions, free elections, free political speech.
Whether fascists use one tool, like eliminating freedom of speech, or another, like they will kill you, they aim to drive the leader and his party to absolute power—whereas in a liberal society and with autonomous regions or federalism, the division of power offers a path toward diminishing concentration. At least, people have a means for fighting for justice because, in fascism, protest becomes impossible.
Guernica: Can you give examples?
Juan Claudio Lechín: There’s the issue of reelection. In the Sierra Maestra, Castro touted the constitution of 1940 as a tool of both freedom against Batista and future social reorganization. But as soon as he took power, he followed Franco, working toward a more daring document that was finally launched in 1976. In it, Castro would hold power indefinitely, without being burdened by elections.
In 1999, a year after Chávez took power, he initiated a new constitution, and one of its purposes was to guarantee unchallenged, continuous leadership. It was denied—but seven years later Evo Morales made the same effort, imposing 51 percent majority rule over the former 66 percent. Even in Cuba you need two-thirds.
Then there’s freedom of the press. Fifty years ago, Castro began a process to allow only government newspapers, TV stations, and the like. Today the world has become more complex because instant communications have made it smaller, so you cannot do that so easily. Instead, Chávez installed 800 government-controlled broadcast stations in order to diminish private media presence. The only one he couldn’t fight was Radio Caracas, so he closed it down. The Venezuelan government also started to shrink the available frequencies so that whenever the license of an unwanted radio or TV station expired, the station had to close.
In 2011, the same was imposed in Bolivia with this new telecommunications law. As soon as he gained power, Evo put in 400 new radio stations, acquired equipment for a state-run TV station, bought up newspapers, and little by little decreased freedom of expression while enlarging the presence of government-controlled media.
Guernica: A national uprising by the press and journalism departments of the universities occurred in 2010 and 2011. They were fighting against the government’s new laws clamping down on freedom of expression. One law opened the way for closing down media venues based on criteria to be judged by the government. There were protest marches, national petitions, placards written in their own blood, caskets into which microphones and writing tablets had been thrown, microphones hung from nooses to mourn the death of journalism.
Juan Claudio Lechín: Yes, a sort of “spring rebellion,” that was—with the same result as the one in Prague: defeat. Sadly, the protests were politically ineffective. They had good intentions, of course, and lots of passion, but there was no possibility of stopping the government and no internal direction to organize alternative proposals for freedom of speech.
In the end fascists will even take control of culture, of music, art, writing; the power never stops its expansion.
We could go over and over this administration’s attempt to control every institution—judicial, legal, parliament, autonomies, political parties, the army, police. I put charts in the book to show the parallels in policies between European fascist states and these governments in Latin America. In the end fascists will even take control of culture, of music, art, writing; the power never stops its expansion.
Guernica: Have you personally had experiences that add to your insights?
Juan Claudio Lechín: Many. For instance, in 2005 I went to Venezuela to present a novel. A close friend of mine who works in the parliament told me that Hugo Chávez wanted to meet with me, given that my father was a famous political figure in Bolivia. I sent the message back that I was on a more personal visit. My friend reported that Chávez was insistent. “Don’t be surprised,” he said, “if he calls you at three in the morning.”
He never called.
Weeks later I learned, through my friend’s father, that the secret service had uncovered something they considered threatening: I had signed a letter against the 2003 Cuban execution of three citizens for trying to escape. It’s now common knowledge that the secret service in Venezuela is Cuban; the headquarters for Venezuelan passports, IDs, and security checks even resides in Havana.
But, at the time, I was astonished. I didn’t want to believe it.
Guernica: Given that survival in a world of nation-states demands participation in a race for military and economic power, authoritarian governments grow out of the necessity for controlling society in order to compete in that contest. This is a political pressure. Fascism’s rise sociologically can also be seen as an extension of the mechanization required to maintain the mass technological society that has resulted from imperialist expansion. What’s your understanding of how the drive to absolute power emerges?
Juan Claudio Lechín: I see it as a product of the clash between the onrush of modernity and the familiarity of feudalism. I believe that, over the last four centuries, two political philosophies have been at battle. One is monarchy, whether it’s feudal, absolutist, or whatever; the other is liberalism that can be constitutional, presidential, etc. These two systems have been waging a constant war, on the one side for the centralization of power, and on the other, for redistribution of power.
Yes. I’m an anarchist because I’ve lived my life with a high level of freedom… and when I say freedom, it’s not what is understood in the U.S., like freedom to buy in Saks or at Bloomingdale’s.
The rest, like communism or fascism, are in-between forms that some societies acquire in the transition between these two. The moment in which fascism appears is when the values and institutions of liberal society have not yet been fully installed and there exist masses boasting a traditional mindset. Fascism emerges from a social unconscious intent on re-establishing mentalities that people are familiar with—and this installation carries the novelty of being realized by a caudillo and leaders from the common people using a revolutionary discourse.
Guernica: Reading your book, one may become confused. The system you present as a backdrop for sanity against fascism is liberalism. Yet in the North many progressive activists have long since rejected liberalism, and certainly neoliberalism. What do you mean by liberalism?
Juan Claudio Lechín: Liberalism is a complex system. It has its political side, with its emphasis on liberties and deconstruction of power. But then there is the economic side: capitalism with its two opposing faces, the small owner and the transnational. Liberalism has its failures, of course. I am not a liberal! But, from my position living inside dictatorships and military juntas in Latin America, I have witnessed that liberalism offers a better chance for people to succeed at protest than this shell of feudalism called fascism or communism. In it, nothing is possible. Too, liberalism is a young system; it’s still being created. One can intervene, propose, make it happen.
Guernica: Yet, in the book, you show your outrage at the excesses occurring in Latin America with illustrations that appear to favor rightist political agendas. What are your politics?
Juan Claudio Lechín: I’m not from the Right or the Left. In fact, while the right wing of liberalism is part of the system, so is the left wing. This is an ancient confrontation. To my mind, the big mistake of most of twentieth-century political philosophy has been to consider communism as the Left and liberalism as the Right, when liberalism actually originated as the revolutionary system that confronted the monarchic concentration of power. And communism, as it’s existed, fosters concentration of power and destruction of liberties.
At this point, I think that there are very few left or right wings in Latin America. The two are overlapped, mixing speech and beliefs, traditions and impulses. The Right in Bolivia is petty, has no vision, and occupies a place of false importance in order that the Left can have its scary enemy. The Left is filled with small, egotistical fascists trying to solve their personal darknesses of childhood with adrenaline addiction, while playing knights against its heretics in what, in the midst of global modernity, amounts to an unimportant country. And the poor? The indígenas? They are just stairs to climb on.
For me, political thought precedes any actions I take. If I am mistaken in my choices, at least I can be honest with myself.
Guernica: So, would you call yourself an anarchist?
Juan Claudio Lechín: Yes. I’m an anarchist because I’ve lived my life with a high level of freedom. I make decisions not because of self-interest, but because I feel morally compelled. I’ve never worked in any government although, in the last thirty years, I’ve been asked to join every one of them. Like Tuto Quiroga’s. Even Evo Morales invited me to run as the MAS candidate for Prefect of La Paz.
Politically speaking, anarchism has taken many forms. In all of them it’s a statement against authority and for freedom—and when I say freedom, it’s not what is understood in the U.S., like freedom to buy in Saks or at Bloomingdale’s. It’s a freedom of being, of becoming towards a life based on solidarity and love.
Guernica: Given your thoughts about anarchism and freedom, it’s appropriate that you dedicate Las mascaras del fascimso to your father. Who was he?
Juan Claudio Lechín: My father was a union leader for over forty years. During his era, the unions inside Bolivia had all the political tendencies—communists, anarchists, liberals, Maoists, Trotskyites, nationalists. And all kinds of Bolivians were members—peasants, taxi drivers, women, blind people, miners. It was a rough time. We had dictatorships, and for survival other unions throughout Latin America were intertwined with international powers like corporations and governments.
For his efforts, my father was imprisoned and exiled and prosecuted. But always, he had two quests. One was to maintain a united union. The other was to gain true citizenship for the people.
At his funeral an old woman embraced his coffin, crying and shouting, “He taught us what vacations are! What social security is! He taught us to be humans!” At that point I saw that, for all the ideological in-fighting, what was going to last was that people were able to fight for their rights and their dignity.
Chellis Glendinning lives in Bolivia. She is a psychotherapist specializing in recovery from traumatic stress and the author of five books. Her Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy and Chiva: A Village Takes on the Global Heroin Trade both won the U.S. National Federation of Press Women book award in nonfiction.