Joseph Hansen

The OLAS Conference

Tactics and Strategy of a Continental Revolution

(November 1967)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.28 No.6, November-December 1967, pp.1-10.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Joseph Hansen, editor of The Militant, attended the Organization of Latin American Solidarity conference as a reporter for that newspaper

The first conference of the Organization of Latin-American Solidarity, which met in Havana from July 31 to August 10, was recognized from all sides as an event of worldwide political significance.

The international press gave top priority to the deliberations, 157 foreign journalists registering for credentials. The State Department paid the conference a high, if involuntary, tribute by postponing a scheduled meeting of the Organization of American States until September in order to place this reactionary body in better position to try to offset the decisions reached by the OLAS gathering. All of Washington’s satellite governments in Latin America reacted to the conference with anger and apprehension, taking extraordinary measures to block delegates from attending. The Mexican government, under pressure from the Johnson administration, even staged a provocative witch-hunt on the eve of the meeting. [1]

It was the largest assembly of authentic representatives of the active guerrilla fronts in Latin America that has yet been held. Cuban sponsorship of the gathering, the sponsorship of a workers state, gave it added significance. Delegations attended from ten other workers states and from fourteen international organizations. (A conspicuous absentee was the People’s Republic of China.) An outstanding feature was the presence of spokesmen of the Black Power movement in the United States. Stokely Carmichael, one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was included among the top figures of the conference, being made an honorary delegate.

The apprehensions of the imperialists and their retinue were not misplaced, as could be judged from the way their press and even the US Congress fumed as the conference proceeded. Among the leftist currents, reactions were mixed, ranging from the open displeasure and opposition voiced by right-wing Communist party leaderships, as in France, to the gratification expressed by various guerrilla movements, the commendatory statements of spokesmen of the Black Power movement in the United States and the recognition by leading Trotskyists that the conference represented an encouraging achievement and step forward for the world revolution.

The subjects considered by the delegates were of burning actuality:

  1. The United States and Latin America, with particular emphasis on the place of the Cuban revolution in the struggle of the exploited continent for freedom from the imperialist metropolis.
  2. The escalation of US imperialist aggression in Vietnam, with its associated threat to other countries, including the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and the increasing implication that the extension of US military power in Southeast Asia will continue until it reaches the level of nuclear war unless effective countermeasures are taken hi time.
  3. The ghetto uprisings in the United States and their connection with the colonial revolution and the international struggle for socialism.
  4. The class struggle throughout Latin America, involving on the one hand the utterly reactionary oligarchies backed by Washington and on the other the worker-peasant masses and their revolutionary vanguard.
  5. The betrayal of the revolutionary struggle in Latin America committed by the right-wing leadership of the Venezuelan Communist Party.
  6. The class-collaborationist Kremlin policy of “peaceful coexistence” with world capitalism followed by the Kosygin-Brezhnev regime.

Throughout the proceedings, the main theme was the reactionary role played by US imperialism in Latin America, particularly its maintenance of the most repressive military regimes. Considerable attention was paid to the depth of US economic, political, and military penetration on a continental scale. The delegates added graphic accounts of what is happening in their own areas and how the US blocks the social overturns needed to lift their countries out of stagnation.

The indictment of US imperialism began with the opening address made by President Osvaldo Dorticos Torrado and reached its most powerful expression in the closing speech made by Prime Minister Fidel Castro at the Chaplin theater.

However, the most dramatic moments in the presentation of the case against the world’s most colossal economic and military power came during two press conferences at which the journalists and delegates were given an opportunity to question agents of the CIA captured in Cuba while on counterrevolutionary missions. One of the groups had landed during the conference itself!

From the basic premise concerning the continental scale of the role of US imperialism and its policy of intervening in any country in Latin America where it decides an active threat may exist to its reactionary interests, the conference drew a number of far reaching conclusions.

First of all, it was obvious that the struggle for emancipation must itself be conducted on a continental scale. Heavy stress was placed on the identity of interests among the toiling masses in all the countries of Latin America. This was summarized at the conference in the words of Simon Bolivar: “For us, our country is America.” Rephrased, this becomes the present-day slogan: “Latin America – one country.”

Secondly, it was obvious in face of Washington’s policy of blocking even modest reforms by bolstering or installing the most ferocious military dictatorships, that no road is left open to the peoples of Latin America but armed struggle. Moreover, it was affirmed that the objective of this struggle must be nothing less than a socialist victory.

These two conclusions – the hemispheric nature of the freedom struggle and the necessity of taking up arms in a battle for the socialist way out – were affirmed in speeches and resolutions that made headlines around the world. The position was graphically symbolized in two giant portraits, one of Simon Bolivar, the Liberator, as a backdrop at the opening session, the other of Che Guevara similarly placed in the Chaplin theater where the OLAS meeting came to an end. The meaning was unmistakable – what Bolivar began in the past century as a bourgeois democratic revolution can be completed and carried to success today only as a socialist revolution. [2]

This outlook, it is clear, stands in sharp contradiction to the line of “peaceful coexistence,” or class collaboration, followed by the right-wing leaderships of the Communist parties in Latin America. The experience with these leaderships, particularly the right wing of the Venezuelan Communist Party which went so far as to publicly repudiate the guerrilla fighters, was placed on the agenda for special consideration. The Cubans, along with the representatives of the various guerrilla fronts, called a showdown on the issue.

On the ground that they had betrayed the struggle in Venezuela, the Venezuelan CP leadership was not invited to the conference. It fell to a center group, headed mainly by the CP contingent in the Uruguayan delegation, to seek to avert or soften the showdown. They argued that it would be unwise to split with the right-wing Venezuelan CP leaders – they were good comrades who would see the error of their ways in time. The unity of the movement must be preserved at all costs. Even if the Cubans and the guerrilla fighters felt strongly about the actions of the Venezuelan CP leaders, definitive action should not be taken at the OLAS conference. The question should be referred to a subsequent conference of the Latin-American Communist parties where the Communists could settle their differences among themselves. Besides, it would be a mistake to make a fetish of armed struggle. In some countries, of course, no other means is open and it might well be that it will eventually prove to be a necessary stage in all countries; but the value of other forms of struggle should also be admitted. Criticism of the Soviet government for offering technical and financial aid to such dictatorships as the one in Colombia was considered particularly uncalled for and reprehensible.

These and similar arguments did not convince the delegates and the conference ended by characterizing armed struggle as the only road to victory under the conditions prevailing in Latin America, all other forms of struggle being necessarily subordinate to this and of value only insofar as they further armed struggle.

In conjunction with this, the conference held up the experience of the Cuban revolution as a general model. Whatever mistakes were made in the course of the Cuban revolution and whatever modifications might be required due to specific circumstances in the various Latin-American countries, the main lesson of Cuba remains valid – against a repressive military dictatorship of the Batista type, only armed struggle can assure victory. Moreover the Cuban experience, it was maintained, also remains valid on the tactical level. The key to mounting an armed struggle with any hope of success is to launch guerrilla war.

The question of armed struggle was thus taken at the OLAS conference as the decisive dividing line, separating the revolutionists from the reformists on a continental scale. In this respect it echoed the Bolshevik tradition. Seeking to phi things down still more tightly, the Cubans insisted on the key importance of guerrilla war as a method of moving toward armed struggle. They likewise insisted on the priority of the countryside over the city in initiating a guerrilla nucleus and advancing it. Certain modifications, nonetheless, were to be noted. For instance, it was reported that in Venezuela the guerrillas have shifted from a fixed center to a “moving column.” Another interesting development was the distinction made between “revolutionary conditions” and “revolutionary situations.” The former refers to the broad relationship of forces, the latter to a specific combination of circumstances such as Lenin had in mind in projecting the seizure of power. While revolutionary conditions hold for all of Latin America, in no country does a revolutionary situation in the Leninist sense exist at the present moment. Thus the perspective is for a long and difficult period with no easy success in sight.

While the delegates concentrated on problems of the Latin-American revolution, the framework of their deliberations was much broader. They did everything possible to utilize the conference as a sounding board to express solidarity with the Vietnamese people. They did not limit themselves to hailing the heroism of the Vietnamese but insisted on the need to support them in the most vigorous and effective way possible – by stepping up material aid, by opening up new fronts against US imperialism, by revolutionists making the revolution in their own countries.

A similar attitude was displayed in relation to the struggle of the black people in the ghettos of the United States. When Stokely Carmichael spoke at the final plenum, he received a standing ovation; and throughout his stay in Cuba, the press, the radio and television featured him as one of the main luminaries. The uprisings in the ghettos in the US going on at the time of the conference were given similar prominence; and after the conference a giant rally was staged in Havana on August 18 in commemoration of the Watts explosion. In this way the Cubans sought to call dramatic attention to the common ties between the colonial revolution and the struggle of the black people in the United States and to draw the appropriate lessons.

The conference ended by setting up a permanent organization with a set of statutes. The aim of the new organization, OLAS, is to coordinate and advance the revolutionary struggle in Latin America along the lines specified in the main resolutions passed by the delegates. In this way, the conference not only drew a balance sheet on the experience with the right-wing leaderships of the Latin-American Communist parties, it set up a new continental organization to challenge them in the field of struggle. This was probably the single most important outcome of the Havana gathering.

What was the line of political thought behind the OLAS conference? No documents are available on this, but it can be inferred with perhaps reasonable accuracy. I would say that the Cuban leaders have drawn certain broad conclusions concerning their entire experience up to this point.

To save the Cuban revolution from being smashed by American imperialism, they were compelled to turn to the Soviet Union. Without material aid from the Soviet Union, it would have been virtually impossible to survive without immediate extension of the revolution. Besides material aid, they also turned to the first workers state for models in various areas. This also involved turning to the existing Communist party in Cuba, particularly for cadres.

This course, from which the Cubans felt there was scarcely any realistic escape under the circumstances, also carried certain disadvantages. One of the worst was the undue impetus given to the growth of bureaucracy, which would have been a problem in any case. The danger was seen in time, and the Cuban leaders met it head-on in the famous Escalante affair. They drove ahead to completely restructure the party so as to further deprive the Escalantes of points of leverage.

In the international field, where the Cubans from the very beginning were committed to advancing the cause of world revolution, the experience was even more disturbing. Khrushchev’s course in the missile crisis of 1962 showed the dubiousness of relying on the Soviet bureaucracy in a showdown with American imperialism. The doubts that arose, or were reinforced, at that time settled into firm conclusions in view of the policies followed by both Moscow and Peking in face of Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. An Asian land war which ought to have led to an early defeat for American military power was permitted to drift into an increasingly dangerous threat without a single serious countermeasure being undertaken. The two powers have proved incapable up to now of uniting even at a government level in defense of a beleaguered workers state and with their own countries marked as subsequent targets! The Cubans thus came to see in Vietnam a warning as to their own possible fate.

The conclusion was inescapable. The defense of Cuba rests primarily on the Cuban workers and peasants. The best defense is extension of the revolution.

As they came to realize this with fresh urgency, the Cubans went through another disappointing experience – the leadership of the Venezuelan Communist Party gave up the armed struggle to which it had committed itself and reverted back to the “electoral road”; i.e., participating in the electoral field, not as a revolutionary opposition party, but as a pressure group supporting the “progressive wing” of the national bourgeoisie.

And this betrayal received covert support from the Kosygin-Brezhnev government through cynical proffers of technical and financial aid to Latin-American military dictatorships participating with all their counterrevolutionary energy in the US blockade of Cuba.

To counter the Venezuelan betrayal and the Kremlin’s treacherous maneuvers in Latin America, a vigorous new assertion of revolutionary principles and a fresh start in applying them was obviously required. The OLAS conference was designed to serve this objective.

Looking back, it can be seen that the Tricontinental conference, held in January, 1966, represented a step in this direction. It ended in a compromise, however. Along with the assertion of revolutionary goals, formulas were agreed to that provided a cover for the right-wing CP leaderships and all those who were willing to pay lip service to armed struggle while in practice continuing to play the rotten game of electoral politics. This was capped with Castro’s attack on “Trotskyism” which, however much it satisfied the right-wing CP leaderships, was taken by all vanguard elements with any real knowledge of the Trotskyist movement as at best a mistaken identification of Trotskyism with the bizarre sect of J. Posadas and at worst nothing but a belated echo of old Stalinist slanders, the purpose of which remained completely obscure. It was thus necessary to wait and see what the true outcome of the Tricontinental conference might be. The course followed by the Cubans quickly disclosed that the revolutionary side of that conference was the more important and it became clearer and clearer, particularly after the disclosures concerning the betrayal in Venezuela, that a public break with the right-wing CP currents was inevitable and imminent.

This was formalized at the OLAS conference. The right-wing CP leaders were branded as betrayers of the revolution, those who attempted to straddle the issue were compelled to line up, a clear declaration was made on armed struggle as the only road in Latin America. In this context, the political meaning of the OLAS conference is absolutely clear. It registered the fundamental differentiation of the Cuban revolution from the old Communist parties and their class-collaborationist politics.

Does this mean that the Cuban leaders have become “Trotskyist?” The answer is no. What they have done is assert their political independence in relation to both Moscow and Peking, or any other center for that matter. As the logical concomitant to this, they have decided on a policy of non-exclusion in relation to all other revolutionary tendencies. They will give a hearing to and collaborate with any revolutionary current. Whether or not a given tendency is actually revolutionary is to be determined by its attitude toward the Cuban revolution and the principle of armed struggle in Latin America.

The break with the right-wing CP leaderships consummated at the OLAS conference consequently opens the way throughout Latin America for an accelerated regroupment of revolutionary forces. How this will work out specifically remains to be determined in each country, of course.

A conference or congress, no matter how revolutionary it is in principle, cannot do more than draw a balance sheet on the experiences of the preceding period and project a course of action in accordance with the lessons that have been learned. The OLAS conference was no exception; in fact it did well in this respect, accomplishing what it set out to do.

Nevertheless, some very important questions, raised at least by implication, received little or no discussion. In the coming period they will undoubtedly occupy the attention of many of those who participated in the conference and perhaps they will be brought up at a later stage in the regroupment process.

For instance, there is the problem of explaining the betrayal of the right-wing leadership of the Venezuelan Communist Party. It is scarcely sufficient to consider such a development to be a matter of individual weakness of character inasmuch as an entire leading staff of a mass party with a strong trade-union base was involved. Evidently the betrayal had social roots. These ought to be explored, not only for the education of new revolutionary cadres but also the better to avoid a repetition of such a disastrous outcome and the better to combat the betrayers in Venezuela itself.

Obviously associated with this are the international ties of these leaders, their political background and particularly their formation in the school of Stalinism. All this should be brought out into the open and the lessons assimilated.

A related question is the failure of the Cubans in particular to anticipate the betrayal. To raise the question does not at all mean to indict the Cubans. In fact the integrity they have displayed makes it possible to raise it dispassionately. Study of the question will of itself eliminate the deficiency – which is lack of knowledge of the true history of the world Communist movement and lack of appreciation of what Stalinism did to that movement.

That this has a very practical side is indicated by a related question: How did it happen that in the internal struggle in the Venezuelan Communist Party, the faction that stood for revolutionary principles ended up in a minority while the faction that stood for class collaboration ended in a majority? The question is all the more pertinent in view of Cuba’s nearness, the impact of the Cuban revolution throughout the continent, and the fact that the revolutionary faction had behind it the weight of a workers state. The course of that factional struggle ought to be studied closely in all its aspects with a view to determining whether the defeat was objectively inevitable or whether perhaps avoidable errors were committed. If the defeat was due to a shift in the relationship of class forces in Venezuela, then the revolutionary movement must examine not only the causes of this but how it affects tactics and strategy. If it was due to blunders in leadership, the objective effect of these blunders must still be weighed. A problem which some delegates were already pondering at OLAS demands the most intensive consideration. This is the problem of the revolutionary struggle in the cities. The key issue is what to do in situations where the masses are not yet prepared to engage in all-out combat but can be mobilized to at least some degree. Is leadership of the workers and the unemployed to be turned over to the right-wing betrayers? Without a battle for the allegiance of the masses? Are there partial struggles which the workers and unemployed might be prepared to engage in that could prove propitious to the revolutionary cause and which might serve at least to remove the right-wing betrayers from the field as a serious obstacle?

It is to be noted that the Venezuelan betrayers, in seeking to answer the damning charges leveled against them by Fidel Castro, have advanced as one of their strongest arguments precisely the question of the revolutionary vanguard maintaining its ties with the masses in the cities. They, of course, seek to utilize the masses as pawns hi the electoral game and at the same time divert them from the revolutionary road; but their calculation that the Cubans are vulnerable on this issue should be weighed quite objectively. It is not only in chess that the moves of a foe can indicate weaknesses in one’s own position that might otherwise be overlooked. The correct countermove would seem to be to step into the arena of the class struggle in the cities and seek to outflank the right-wing CP leaders to the left. The secret of success lies in the development of transitional slogans which in and of themselves are more realistic than the measures advocated by the reformists yet entail a logic that takes the masses along the road of revolution.

All this is associated with the question of developing a homogeneous leadership and organizational structure capable of giving correct guidance to the revolutionary struggle in all its aspects. This is what revolutionary Marxists mean when they talk about the necessity of building a party of action. At the OLAS conference this question was colored by the Cuban experience so that one heard such contradictory statements as “the revolution will be made with or without a party” and “the guerrillas constitute the core of the party.” If the revolution can be made without a party why advance the concept of a party being built around guerrillas or of guerrillas performing any political function at all? And while the possibility of making a revolution without a party was voiced, at the same time the necessity for absolute discipline in the struggle, the disciplined combination of the military and political aspects was insisted upon. The question obviously demands deep consideration, the elimination of misunderstandings arising from various sources, not least of all the bad impression

created by the Stalinist and Social Democratic record in Latin America and elsewhere. A study of the Bolshevik experience could possibly prove of unusual interest if it were undertaken with due consideration for the peculiarities to be found in Latin America.

The correct relationship between revolutionary theory and practice can also be expected to come under examination in the coming period. There was an evident tendency at the OLAS conference to ascribe the failures and betrayals of the right-wing CP leaderships to wrong or outdated theories, or to “theorizing” divorced from reality. Deeper study of the whole phenomenon of Stalinism will disclose, however, that the policies of the parties affected by it did not flow from “theory” but directly from some very mundane and practical bureaucratic interests. The “theory” constituted little more than window dressing although eventually certain theories that were advanced, such as the theory of building socialism in one country, had their own pernicious influence. The tendency noticeable at the OLAS conference to discount theory was one of the consequences of leaving out of account the role of Stalinism as a determinant in the betrayal of the Venezuelan Communist Party.

It should be added that the seeming bias against revolutionary theory in general derives in reality from a specific rejection of Stalinist, Social Democratic and all other varieties of reformist ideology, just as the seeming discounting of the decisive role which a party can play as a revolutionary instrument derives from a specific rejection of parties of the Stalinist and Social Democratic type. This attitude, a necessary stage in preparing the way for the organization of genuinely revolutionary mass parties in Latin America and for a rebirth of revolutionary theory, is now coming to a close. The definitive break with the right-wing CP leaderships is a certain sign of this.

Finally it should be noted that while the black struggle and its Black Power phase in the United States was handled in exemplary fashion at the OLAS conference, the antiwar struggle and the dynamic movement shaping around it in the United States did not come up for attention and analysis. The oversight stood out all the more in view of the importance ascribed to it by the Vietnamese and the impact it has had throughout the world. Perhaps the Cubans misjudge the potentiality of the antiwar movement, considering it to be frozen in a pacifist pattern. In the coming period this wholly unprecedented development in the American class struggle will undoubtedly reveal new facets that will not fail to prove impressive to all Latin-American revolutionists and to invite closer attention on their part.

The OLAS conference ended a chapter in Latin-American revolutionary politics and opened a new one with very promising perspectives. For the imperialists, things have taken a decided turn for the worse. For the vanguard, a great advance has been registered. They are now in a much better position to carry out their duty, which is to make the revolution.



1. Government agents raided a Maoist bookstore in Mexico City to secure “more than twelve tons of evidence” that Mexican capitalism and its chief ornament, President Diaz Ordaz, were the target of a guerrilla “plot” involving fourteen followers of either Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro, or Leon Trotsky. Some of the fourteen became acquainted with each other for the first time in the torture rooms of the Mexican political police. All of them are now in Lecumberri prison where they may be held indefinitely without trial.

2. A curious sidelight was the reaction of the ultraleft sectarians to this. For instance, Mike Banda of the Socialist Labour League, describing the decor at OLAS as he saw it from London, said:

“This conference significantly and unlike previous [?], conferences was adorned by portraits [?], not of Marx and Lenin, but of Simon Bolivar, the bourgeois-landlord-statesman.”

Banda was silent about Che Guevara and his portrait, probably because of a blind spot in his binoculars. But an unsigned article in an adjoining column of the same issue of The Newsletter (September 2) supported the thesis of J. Posadas and the SLL that it was all a lie about the famous guerrilla leader having left Cuba, since he was presumably liquidated by Fidel Castro. The authenticity of Guevara’s message on the need to bring massive aid to the Vietnamese people by creating more Vietnams and taking the road to socialist revolution is highly suspect, according to the same anonymous writer, who also remains unconvinced by Regis Debray’s “unclear”statements about “some kind of encounter with Guevara” in Bolivia. It is not at all to be assumed from this that the SLL supports Guevara or his line. A subsequent article in the September 16 Newsletter declared that the OLAS conference drowned out basic Marxist concepts with “loud noises about ‘armed struggle’.”

Whatever else may be said of Banda’s views, it must be admitted that he adheres with flawless consistency to the SLL theory that Cuba is a capitalist state headed by “another Batista” who is itching to sell out to US imperialism despite the resistance of the State Department to a deal, and who demonstrated this by caving in to the Kremlin’s line of “peaceful coexistence,” getting rid of the revolutionary Guevara as part of the betrayal. Thus it is not by accident, if we are to believe Banda, that Castro feels a natural affinity for the portrait of the “bourgeois-landlord-statesman” Bolivar, just as it is not by accident that Banda feels a natural affinity for the portrait, if not the thought, of the “manufacturer” Engels.


Last updated on: 8.7.2006