Podemos’s Latin American Roots

Podemos has gained traction by drawing on lessons from the Latin American left.

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (right) and Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera last fall.

Our people are winning here,” read a message Pablo Iglesias sent to Íñigo Errejón in early December 2005. Iglesias was in Bolivia watching the presidential election unfold from up close. A Spanish political scientist and now the leader of the leftist party Podemos, Iglesias had arrived in Bolivia planning to write an academic article about a promising party called Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) that finally had the chance to govern.

The formation had put forth an indigenous presidential candidate, Evo Morales, in a nation whose political and economic organizations had been dominated by creole elites since Simon Bolívar took office as Bolivia’s first president in 1825.

What’s more, its vice-presidential candidate, Álvaro García Linera, had been imprisoned during the 1990s for participating in the radical Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army. On December 18, 2005, Bolivians elected MAS with 53.7 percent of the vote. (Their center-right opponents, who ironically went by the pseudo-acronym Podemos, received 28.6 percent.)

Coming on the heels of the alter-globalization protests, which had stretched from Seattle, Washington to Porto Alegre, Brazil, the MAS victory showed that the Left could transform political indignation into institutional power.

That’s why Iglesias was there: to figure out how MAS had so powerfully mobilized Bolivia’s indigenous and working-class people. He and his colleagues were “determined to replace the Eurocentric glasses” of the Spanish left and make Bolivian social movements intelligible to those who also wished to fight neoliberalism in Europe.

Shared Political Lessons

Nine years and one Morales reelection later, Iglesias returned to Bolivia to witness another presidential election. This time, however, he wasn’t looking to write an academic article. Instead, he’d gone to Bolivia with Errejón to tell Bolivians how much Europe had learned from them.

“Today, I wanted to share with you some political intimacies, which have a lot to do with the genealogy — the DNA — of Podemos and which are directly connected to Bolivia in a way that’s closer than many can imagine,” Iglesias said in a speech he gave alongside the current Bolivian vice president, García Linera.

Delivered in La Paz on September 26, 2014, just days before the presidential elections, the speech about Podemos told a story that many don’t like to hear: there are places in the world where the Left has institutional power, and it’s from them that we should learn how to acquire it.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Podemos — which stunned many back in May after winning five seats in the European Parliament — largely draws its political inspiration and organizational acumen from Latin America’s “pink tide,” the popular movements that later turned into governments, starting with Hugo Chávez’s electoral victory in 1999.

Podemos’s Constituent Process — a two-month nation-wide debate this past fall that laid the party’s ethical, political, and organizational foundation and elected its leaders — paid homage to similarly named congresses in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. As the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos puts it, “Podemos is the end result of a learning process originated in the South.”

Many Podemos figures, including Iglesias, lived the electoral victories in Latin America both personally and professionally. Juan Carlos Monedero, a political scientist at the Complutense University of Madrid and the party’s secretary of the constituent process and program, was an advisor to Chávez’s government. Luis Alegre, a Marxist philosopher and the party’s secretary for internal participation, wrote a book on Venezuelan democracy.

And Errejón, Podemos’s secretary of politics, studied popular movements in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. “In Latin America I got to see actual experiences of political transformation where the subaltern sectors were the protagonists,” Errejón tells Luis Giménez in an interview for the recently published book Claro que Podemos. “Each context is different, but this is a lesson that ‘yes it can be done.’”

A Different Spanish Nation

The lessons, though, run much deeper than “yes we can.” Podemos’s counterparts in Latin America have inspired them to tap into a popular discourse that, in Spain, has remained dormant since 1978.

Until recently, the image of the Spanish nation-state as a potential force for good immediately recalled the Francoist army and the country’s four-decades-long dictatorship. Avoiding any hint of Francoism at all costs, the center-left Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the right-wing Popular Party (PP) have more or less steered clear of the vocabulary of national unity and popular sovereignty.

But they have avoided it, in part, because they don’t want to bring attention to their own implicit or explicit connection with the past in what today is referred to as the “myth of the transition.” The myth of Spain’s transition is the idea that Catholics, Francoists, moderates, Socialists, and communists put differences aside to work together and shepherd in a democratic regime. The reality, however, is that things were not so consensual — pro-Franco forces controlled the process at each stage, and Spaniards are still today saddled with the relics of the old fascist regime.

Iglesias and others in Podemos have made it okay to talk about the Spanish nation again, freeing it of fascistic overtones by identifying it exclusively with members of the working and workless classes.

Another important lesson Podemos learned from Latin America is to mobilize people through local assembly-like groups. In Venezuela, they’re called colectivos; in Bolivia, ayllus. Now, in Spain, they’re called “circles.” (The ayllu — a Quechua and Aymara communal form — goes back thousands of years.)

Circles in Spain emerged less from existing associations than from self-governing experiments during the indignados or 15-M protests during the summer of 2011. The idea is that the people — which in Venezuela and Bolivia prominently feature indigenous groups — have already figured out how to organize; it’s the job of the parties to include these organizational forms in their constituent processes.

In Podemos, circles are the party’s political engine: they come up with the proposals and debate the policies. The sixty-two person Citizen’s Council is tasked with arguing for them in the Spanish national media and, so far, in the European Parliament and Andalusian regional parliament. Podemos currently holds fifteen seats in the Andalusian parliament, having come in third behind the Socialists and Popular Party, and is now poised to enter more local governments in the May 24 elections. Some polls even forecast that Iglesias will be the next prime minister following this December’s national elections.

The New Populisms

I spoke to Germán Cano about the party’s relationship to Latin America near the Podemos headquarters in Lavapiés, the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in Madrid. Cano is a member of Podemos’s citizen’s council and is in charge of the party’s burgeoning relationship with Latin America’s “Southern Cone” — Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile.

He believes the Latin American experience shatters the Western assumption that “there is no alternative” to neoliberalism. “Latin America has been a laboratory that has shown us that it’s possible to build a majoritarian political will without adhering to the horizon  they’ve told us is inevitable,” he says.

It’s a horizon that began long ago, Cano adds, but “in Europe it only began to make sense with the so-called Third Way of Tony Blair and the subsequent accommodations parties like the Spanish Socialists have made.” In the United States, Bill Clinton embodied this Third Way, which sugarcoated corporate welfare, anti-union policies, and the repeal of social welfare programs with the language of “investing in people.”

I ask Cano what he hopes to bring back from Latin America to Spain.

“It’s impossible to transplant exactly what’s going on in Latin America to a reality so different like the European or the Spanish one,” he says. “That’s something we are mindful of. These societies are very different.” But if there’s a deeper theoretical point Podemos has learned from the Latin American pink tide governments, it’s “how to articulate demands that in the first instance don’t appear to fit with already constituted identities,” he says.

Like any political party, Podemos is made up of different tendencies. Unlike in most, though, their differences largely remain theoretical, not practical. Iglesias and Errejón, for example, seem to subscribe to the so-called “post-Marxism” of thinkers like the late Ernesto Laclau. Monedero and Alegre, by contrast, align themselves more with classical Marxism, with what’s known in Spain as Republican Marxism, recalling the Spanish Civil War. These differences, however, take a backseat when it comes to politics on the ground.

And in terms of practical politics, Podemos is “betting on the recent political tradition called the ‘new populisms,’” as Cano tells me. They’re trying to understand “populism as a space that has been undervalued and underestimated as much by the liberal tradition as by the Marxist tradition, which hasn’t understood that the social composition doesn’t respond to fixed and already constituted identities.” Political identities, he continues, are always in the making.

This approach was inspired by García Linera, who crafted a theoretical lens that today brings the shared experiences of the Spanish-speaking world into focus. His theory of the “plebes” casts a wider net over who counts as “proletarian,” such as peasants and indigenous people in Bolivia.

In Spain, one might substitute for “peasants” the hundreds of thousands of frustrated youth whose unemployment rate hovers around 51 percent. Classical Marxist categories have historically overlooked such people, yet the development of a more flexible understanding of the proletariat has ushered in fresh political thinking both in Latin America and Spain.

For instance, belief in the “new populisms” has led Podemos into such uncharted territories as military reform. Through the organization of a circle of military service members called the Podemos Armed Forces, the party has been able to voice much-needed criticism of a Spanish military that politicians have given a pass. The circle impelled Podemos, with the support of Member of Parliament Lola Sánchez, to make its case at the European Parliament for reforming the military’s judicial system.

Reclaiming the Pink Tide

The time constraints of being an MEP and continuing to grow the party have forced Iglesias to give up his academic work, including his research on Bolivia. And it’s likely that more of his Podemos colleagues will soon follow suit.

But the party now has institutionalized its interest in the region. Certain members of its recently elected Citizen’s Council as well as various circles have been charged with meeting virtually with supporters in Latin America. Podemos circles have sprouted up from Quito, Ecuador to Paysandú, Uruguay. And Cano and others are now in charge of maintaining the party’s strong ties in places like Argentina, where he spent a week this October traveling to circles across the country.

Podemos’s intellectual and political connections with Latin America, however, still rely on close-knit university ties. In Argentina, for example, support for the party often comes from large swaths of the university and activist left that the Kirchners have been able to incorporate into the government orbit.

And in recent months the party has quietly stopped its glowing references to Latin America’s leftist governments. For instance, instead of calling Argentina an “example of democracy,” Iglesias recently said, “Peronism seems alien to us in Europe.”

The reasons for the change are clear enough. Back in Spain, the media has a history of demonizing countries such as Venezuela, whether in El País, the country’s equivalent of the New York Times, or conservative outlets like El Mundo, ABC, and the Popular Party-run national television station TVE. And Spanish public opinion often hews to the political coordinates of its media, an insight Podemos has used to great effect.

Though Podemos has managed to change the terms of the domestic political debate, it hasn’t come close to achieving the same degree of success when it comes to foreign policy, where the biases and assumptions of yesterday still dominate people’s perspectives toward countries like Cuba, Bolivia, and especially Venezuela. It doesn’t help, of course, that Monedero himself has become embroiled in a scandal involving payments he received while working for Hugo Chávez’s government.

In response, Podemos must construct narratives about its sister projects in Latin America. Narratives that pave paths to follow and highlight the material successes of these governments — significant decreases in poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and economic inequality along with significant increases in indigenous rights, minimum wages, access to health care, and popular political participation.

Over the past year, Podemos has created a compelling language critical of “the caste” and the bipartisan “Regime of ’78” in Spain. An equally persuasive and constructive story of Latin America’s pink tide may be in order today. It might just convince the Spanish people that that they too can win.