“I see that there are many young people here; as an old man, a little advice… Life can set us a lot of snares, a lot of bumps, we can fail a thousand times, in life, in love, in the social struggle, but if we search for it we’ll have the strength to get up again and start over. The most beautiful thing about the day is that it dawns. There is always a dawn after the night has passed. Don’t forget it, kids. The only losers are the ones who stop fighting.” José Mujica – Speaking at the Guadalajara International Book Fair 2014
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is set to become the youngest woman to ever be elected to the US congress. This is a big deal. The symbolism of her defeating an established candidate (I’m going to do the inverse of the mainstream media and not refer to him by name, gracious though he was in defeat) who had outraised (10-1) and outspent (18-1) her cannot be ignored. Well, unless you are the mainstream media
or her own party.
Ocasio-Cortez ran on a campaign of Medicare for all, abolishing ICE and trying to get corporate money out of American politics. It was, in a very real sense, a grassroots campaign. This is a victory.
In 1950, Jacobo Árbenz was elected as prime minister of Guatemala with 60% of the vote. His Agrarian Reform Law, Decree 900, redistributed unused land to peasants, paying the landowners with government bonds. Land from over 1600 estates was redistributed to 500,000 families, roughly 17% of the population.
In 1951, the Shah appointed Mohammed Mossadegh, the popular politician, to be prime minister of Iran. He was a progressive leader who introduced many social reforms, including social security and sick pay. In the early 1950s, he sought to limit the power of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now part of BP) with the support of his government.
In 1970, Salvador Allende, on the fourth attempt, won the Chilean elections, becoming the first Marxist to lead a nation in Latin America following open elections. One of his first acts was to nationalise many industries, including banking.
This isn’t a victory. Not yet.
When it comes to taking on the establishment, there is never a decisive victory. Árbenz was exiled after a US coup. He was humiliated, his legacy destroyed by a covert campaign led by the CIA. He died in exile in 1970, five years after his daughter committed suicide. Mossadegh’s government was overthrown by a US and UK government backed coup and, after being sentenced to three years of solitary confinement, spent the rest of his life under house arrest until his death in 1967. Salvador Allende was overthrown by the country’s military, which was supported by the US government. Official accounts note that he committed suicide, perhaps mindful of what happened to leaders that were overthrown before him.
Ocasio-Cortez is an anti-establishment socialist candidate, and that, history tells us, is profoundly dangerous. It’s dangerous because when you take on the establishment – agriculture for Árbenz, oil for Mossadegh and banking for Allende – the establishment will be ruthless in ensuring its own survival, whether through discrediting an individual or toppling a government.
Despite the history lesson, I am hopeful. There is recent precedent of Ocasio-Cortez’s politics being successful. Even though she was inspired by Bernie Sanders, it is an old man from a different country that gives me optimism. You may not have heard of José Mujica, the 40th President of Uruguay, who led his country from 2010-2015, but trust me when I say he is amazing. He walked it like he talked it, refusing to live in the presidential palace or use its staff, preferring to stay on his farm on the outskirts of Montevideo. He donated the vast majority of his presidential salary to charity; he was reportedly offered a million dollars for his iconic old VW Beetle, and said if the offer materialised, he would donate the money to charity, and he legalised marijuana as a way to try and stem gang-related deaths, regulate the industry and provide help to those who were suffering addiction. His five years in power were peaceful, which as I have given you a snapshot of, is no mean feat.
Ocasio-Cortez reminds me of Mujica. She is working class, speaks out against injustice where she sees it (this is a link to a podcast she recorded with Jeremy Scahill from The Intercept and it is well worth your time), lives in the community she represents and won by appealing to every part of her community.
I want her supporters to enjoy this moment, but don’t forget that as her profile grows, so will the opposition to her. In England, you can see the press coverage of Jeremy Corbyn as an example of what is likely to happen to Ocasio-Cortez. Corbyn is decried as anti-Semitic (despite a career that has seen him consistently denounce prejudice in all forms) and ridiculed for having no clue on how to manage the economy (unlike the last two governments). He faces almost wall to wall negative press coverage. And yet the last election saw him do much better than ‘anyone’ expected. And by anyone, I of course mean the same groups that wanted him to fail, the groups that didn’t see Ocasio-Cortez coming. I guess what I’m saying is have fun celebrating but remember that La lucha continua…