Deciding that a raw material as strategic as lithium will be subject to the majority will of the population rather than the mean interests of rich countries and local oligarchies represents a positive step forward which hopefully will be maintained and built on in the policies of the American continent’s progressive and left-leaning governments.
Resolving to exploit lithium in its country of origin instead of exporting it simply as an unprocessed raw material, without any greater added value, constitutes a strategic measure on the path to overcoming what is known as “extractivism”, one of the pillars of the neoliberal model in place in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Such a decision features in the Bolivian government’s programme and has already been adopted by the Mexican government and the new authorities in Chile who managed to prevent the outgoing right-wing government from literally giving this resource away to a multinational.
The measure means a new direction in the exploitation of local resources, until now simply handed over to transnational companies.
And what is valid for lithium is equally so for the rest of the natural resources that, under the neoliberal strategy, are destined to benefit large industrial conglomerates from rich countries and which do not bring, on the periphery of the world system, tangible profits. Well, except the ones received by the creole bourgeoisie who have always refused to pursue domestic development.
With “developmentalism” (the most ambitious reform of that creole bourgeoisie, or at least of its formerly progressive sectors) only the local production of means of consumption was promoted, in an effective refusal to achieve the creation of means of production, the very thing that continues to be the monopoly of the central economies.
If such a goal becomes the strategy of this continen’s progressive and left-leaning governments, an important step forward will have been taken which should be extended to other areas and above all start to form part of the regional integration agenda that will allow them to have a more solid presence in the complicated world framework.
Pooling resources would help this strategy greatly, especially if the existing technical and scientific potential is taken into account along with the possibilities for business projects in the wider market of all these countries together. Producing lithium as much as is feasible could give these countries a decisive role in the world automotive industry and other emerging technology sectors.
On the other hand, venturing into energy projects that provide an alternative to the current model based on oil, gas and coal guarantees more autonomous development in the medium term in this strategic sector.
Governments like that of Venezuela -so dependent on oil- seem to favour new strategies such as their own industrialisation and an intelligent exploitation of that resource (and of others such as gold or the so-called “rare earths”, of increasing importance in the new dynamics of the world economy).
Promoting a regional pharmaceutical industry to achieve a sufficient degree of independence from the big multinationals is another viable and necessary objective.
Countries like Cuba and others in the area already have proven scientific bases to achieve it. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the enormous risk of depending on two or three large pharmaceutical companies that monopolise the vaccines (and the associated research), generate immense profits and turn their position into a weapon of extortion that affects even developed countries.
Any advance in this direction entails laying the foundations for a different relationship with the world system, a relationship that has been onerous and even humiliating on more than a few occasions. For this reason regional coordination is urgent for these countries. That is the nature of the task the so-called developed countries promote -the European Union would be the most successful example- and that is practiced by countries that can be called “continental” because of the enormous size of their territory and/or population and which in principle would not seem to need it (China, United States, Russia, India).
Even these powers promote forms of regional integration with the clear objective of ensuring their political dominance and guaranteeing markets, the supply of raw materials and of cheap labour, no less than their dominance of trade routes and transport links.
Similar criteria to those which led to the nationalisation of lithium should be used to tackle financial capital, under the control of rich countries given their almost total predominance in the so-called “international financial institutions” (the IMF, World Bank, OECD, WTO and other similar bodies). Together they impose a system of loans that works today as probably one of the most refined plundering systems.
And to the international financial institutions should be added banks and private companies that subject these periphery countries to a highly disadvantageous system by means of international loans.
In Latin America and the Caribbean the percentage of GDP dedicated to paying this type of debt is already very significant.
Negotiating individually with these modern-day plunderers is a very difficult task; trying it jointly and taking on the system with criteria shared across the region would give better results. But for that to be feasible, again, it is essential that at the top of governments there is a consolidation of a new social force that at least attempts to modernise and democratise the current social order, something which is unthinkable for the current dominant class (and its allies), disconnected from any aim which is not to its own benefit.
That a new direction (economic and political) in this region involved only modernising capitalism and making it less unequal and unfair would be without doubt an unprecedented step forward benefitting the social majorities.
But if the dominant class is, because of its own nature and interests, contrary to these goals, which popular sector would be called upon to face this challenge and to what extent would capitalism as such be able to undergo such a transformation without exposing itself to its own disappearance?
In other words, how reformable is the current capitalism? Deciding for example what to produce and what not to produce if social goals are prioritised and attention is paid to science’s dramatic diagnoses related to the capitalist economy’s impact on the environment determines whether the system is in a state to be subjected to the majority will of the population (to be truly democratic) or whether it persists in prioritising commercial profit.