With the left-wing candidate, Pedro Castillo, poised to win the presidential election in Peru, I found myself arguing over the significance of this with a young left-wing Labour Party organiser and academic. He had enthusiastically welcomed the victory, while I expressed some fears that Peru might be let down. It left me feeling very uneasy. Had I gone soft on my socialism over the years or were sections of the left here just too romantically uncritical of left-wing leaders in South America?
I first came across liberation theology as a student studying divinity at Edinburgh University in the late 1960s. Liberation theology caught my imagination with its message that the church should derive its legitimacy and theology from the perspective of the poor and should be a movement for those who are denied their rights as human beings. My mentor in this was Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez and Brazilian Leonardi Boff. Later, when I was doing a diploma in community development in the 1980s, I embraced the 'problem posing' community development strategy of Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, set out in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed
I had my chance to put Freire into action when I was the community minister in Lochside in Ayr. Part of the church building was turned into a community centre offering the more traditional 'community education' style blend of classes, sports and activities. The rest of the building was for me to develop a range of community development initiatives – a rights advice service; small social enterprise initiatives and tenants groups. With the zeal of Freireian praxis, we changed the world from the bottom-up – or at least we helped the tenants campaign for and get long overdue central heating and window replacement.
We must have been doing something right because local Tory MP, George Younger, got our Urban Aid funding withdrawn for undertaking 'political activity'. It was reinstated after a visit from the then Moderator of the General Assembly, an unassuming elderly cleric who turned out to be a bit of an old-fashioned socialist. He lobbied successfully on our behalf.
In those days, Labour was at its most radical when looking outwards at the international situation. The election of the communist, Salvador Allende, in Chile was iconic. His assassination followed by the Pinochet dictatorship left us with a burning anger that persists to this day.
Optimism was sky high when Robert Mugabe was elected as the first leader of an independent Zimbabwe. We celebrated the triumph of an articulate intelligent African freedom fighter comprehensively defeating Britain's favoured puppet candidate, Bishop Abel Muzorewa. Mugabe let us all down badly, turning against his erstwhile comrades, crushing dissidents, massacring opposition supporters and taking his country to the very edge of bankruptcy while he obsessed over internal politics and his succession plans.
My heart was pounding as I stood on Glasgow Green at the May Day rally in 1989. The motorcade drew up and out strode Daniel Ortega, darling of the left and President of Nicaragua. We were ecstatic that he had seen off the threat to his country from the US and the US-backed Contras. Good times surely lay ahead for Nicaraguans. He has stayed in power off and on ever since, turning from tackling poverty and promoting economic development to crushing opposition and championing the socially conservative agenda of the Catholic Church, including a total ban on abortion and persecuting gay people.
Looking back, I feel a bit like the Communist Party comrades who gradually had to come to terms with the truth about the atrocities and failures of the old Soviet Union. So many of my political icons proved to have feet of clay.
An exception to this was Nelson Mandela. In 1993, our family was part of 10,000 people who gathered in George Square to welcome him to Glasgow 12 years after he had been given the Freedom of the City. He used the opportunity to thank Glaswegians for the stand they had taken against apartheid over many years. Mandela never let us down and remains a beacon of hope for radical change.
All this is to say I don't criticise the left in South America lightly. For much of its history, Latin America has excluded the left from its elections, first through limited suffrage and later through military intervention and repression during the second half of the 20th century. The collapse of the Soviet Union changed the geopolitical environment as many revolutionary movements folded and the left embraced the mixed economy. As a result, the United States softened its view of leftist governments as a threat to security, creating a political opening for the left. The pink tide, as it became known, was led by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in 1998.
According to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a pink tide president of Argentina herself, Chávez of Venezuela, Lula da Silva of Brazil and Evo Morales of Bolivia formed 'the three musketeers' of the left in South America. Tides are caused by the rise and fall of sea levels influenced by a number of forces. The political fortune of the left in Latin America has ebbed and flowed like the tide. Left-wing governments succeeded in reducing poverty and inequality and boosting literacy levels and skills. Progress is always followed by a backlash but we also have to recognise the left's own failings in government.
Too often those elected on the pink tide have played fast and loose with the constitution and the democratic checks and balances of the state. Presidents of both the left and right have been equally keen to change the electoral rules so that they can go on and on. The left has been too quick to curb press freedom, silence opposition and clamp down on civil unrest and protest. It has also failed to challenge the socially conservative legacy of the Catholic establishment. When sections of the left here in the UK welcome the election of Castillo in Peru, they seem prepared to gloss over his opposition to all abortion, LGBT+ rights, equal marriage and gender equality. Can you really call someone a 'socialist' with views like that?
There is a path for the left to follow in South America but it has to be a socialism of a different sort. It has to be a socialism built from the bottom-up,
fashioned by the social movements of the day, by feminism, by indigenous activism, by postcolonial thought. It should be secular, socially liberal, open to sexual difference, women's rights, different ideas of governance, different perceptions of social property and the market, focused on a just transition to a green economy. It must be a truly democratic socialism.