By Peter B. Gemma
Gloria Estela La Riva, a labor, community, and anti-war activist based in San Francisco, is running for president under the Party for Socialism and Liberation banner. She first ran as a third-party candidate for President in 1992 as the Workers World Party nominee, and was that party’s vice-presidential candidate in the elections of 1984, 1988, 1996, and 2000. La Riva was the Peace and Freedom Party candidate for Governor of California in 1994 and received 72,774 votes (0.9 percent.) She joined the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) when it split from the Workers World Party in 2004.
La Riva is the elected First Vice President of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, Communications Workers of America, Local 39521, and worked for more than 13 years as coordinator of the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, who returned home to Cuba in December of 2014.
Peter B. Gemma: I appreciate your time for this interview. You have stated that, “By the end of my first year at Brandeis University, I decided I needed to become a socialist.” What happened?
Gloria La Riva: I went to Brandeis in 1972 as a beneficiary of the affirmative action struggle waged by Brandeis students of color. The United States was involved in its imperialist war against Vietnam and there had been university protests in 1968 all around the country. Students were coming together to fight for equality, ethnic studies, against racism and for affirmative action. I learned from the students that they had fought to win the right for us, students of color and White students who were of lower-income, to enter Brandeis with scholarships. Through my political science classes and the radical student movement, I realized that the challenges that my family faced, poverty, evictions, racism, were endemic to capitalism and I quickly became radicalized in my first year.
Gemma: I have some basic questions about socialism and this election. I’ve interviewed one candidate who adheres to the socialist label who says he is a Trotskyite, and the PSL has been described as neo-Stalinist. Can you give me an overview of the American socialist movement?
La Riva: We do not define ourselves as either Trotskyist or Stalinist, but rather as revolutionary Marxists. We believe that working-class people, employed, unemployed, and students – I think the great majority – need to take political power, to reorganize society on the basis of meeting the fundamental needs of the people in a long-term, sustainable fashion. Today, the capitalist economy is organized to reward the capitalists, the owners of the giant banks, oil companies, military-industrial and other corporations.
Gemma: I’m sure when you are campaigning or talking with the media, it takes something to break the ice after using the unfamiliar term socialism – is there an issue or two which address specific policy issues that can start a political discussion rather than an exploring philosophical terms?
La Riva: I start out by pointing that one out of every two people in this country are either poor or near poverty, while we are seeing obscene, unimaginable wealth at the top. For example, just on the issue of the corporations and banks that use tax shelters abroad, if their holdings were taxed — even at the current minimal tax rate for the rich — that income to the society would amount to $717 billion dollars. But instead of just the basic idea of increasing taxes on the rich under this current system, the opposite is taking place. This is the capitalist system. People who understand this reality know that we need a new system.
We have been campaigning across the country and we’re getting a lot of support from people who agree that this system cannot go on. We also recognize the positive aspect of Bernie Sanders’ campaign mentioning socialism, which greatly facilitated our identity as socialists. People are willing to listen and they ask what socialism is. This year we have seen the fog of anti-communism being lifted from the minds of many, after more than 70 years of exclusion.
Gemma: You support the nationalization of “all the economic resources in this country,” and you’ve said, “Nixon used the emergency action in the 1970s to create a wage freeze, but we want to use it to create a price freeze.” Nationalization is pretty much a foreign term to most Americans – how would that work on a practical basis?
La Riva: If the people had political power we could for example set limits and control prices or inflation. Because of the skyrocketing of rents by landlords – really price gouging – we believe the rents should be rolled back to the 1990s. Of course, that would take a movement, but one greatly encouraged by a president who called on the people to organize collectively.
The billionaire class owns all the fossil fuels under the ground. The pharmaceuticals that are effectively killing people by jacking up essential medicines to inaccessible prices, or pushing opioids on the population, are causing mass addiction and crisis, and more. Under socialism, the people would own these vital resources which working people have indeed created. That’s what we mean by nationalization, taking back all the wealth we produce which has been gobbled up by the “One Percent.” The capital of the banks was created by interest rates worse than loan sharks ever charged – the banks were bailed out and we are stilling paying for that bailout! By taking control of the banks, the wealth could be used to finance a vast overhaul of the infrastructure, whether water, sewage, electricity, fuel lines, communications, roads and bridges, homes, and so much more.
Gemma: The PSL advocates a working week of 30 hours via the introduction of an income guarantee. The PSL website states, “A job should be a constitutional right. The minimum wage should be raised to $20 per hour and a living income must be guaranteed for those who cannot work.” What steps would you have to take to accomplish this?
La Riva: The Pentagon receives almost one trillion dollars each year, whether through direct military weapon financing or by other federal departments such as Energy. When we say to people we meet that the people should have the say in what is produced, where our wealth should be employed, we get an overwhelmingly positive response. When people fight back and organize, they can win.
Five years ago, the idea of having a $15 minimum wage was inconceivable to the majority. Thanks to the movement and workers coming together in the “Fight for $15,” cities across the country have been forced to raise their minimum wage, some over time. Hillary Clinton is still against the $15 minimum wage, and Trump’s answer is “they need to work harder.” When this is explained, people say, “Yes, that’s right.” They immediately recognize that it was a popular movement by the low-wage workers themselves along with the unions. The only thing that has ever changed this country for the better has been the movement – the masses of people organizing, educating and demanding. That’s how we plan to accomplish our goals. We plan to continue building the movement.
Today, there is no rational reason that every person who is able to work couldn’t have a job and every person unable to work couldn’t have a living income. What stands between that and the present reality is the capitalist system itself, which, as Karl Marx pointed out 150 years ago, needs unemployment. There is a vast need to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, build and staff tens of thousands of new schools, clinics, childcare centers, to construct millions of new housing units and refurbish many others, to carry out a crash program to switch over to renewable energy, and more. These urgently needed programs would provide tens of millions of jobs. And the money to fund them is there, presently in the form of the Pentagon budget that must be liquidated.
Gemma: You are campaigning on a platform that promises to “shut down all U.S. military bases abroad and bring all the troops, planes, and ships home,” and you propose to, “immediately end all covert operations around the world, as well as those agencies responsible: the CIA, NSA, FBI, etc.” What is the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s alternative to our current defense and national security structure?
La Riva: Today the U.S. has some 800 bases in more than 100 countries, with Central Commands for every continent. It is the military of an empire, serving to protect the interests of corporate America ar
ound the world. The wars waged by the U.S. in Korea, Vietnam, Central America, and the Middle East have all been wars of aggression.
Just to mention a few examples – the Guantánamo prison and military base must be immediately shut down and the whole territory returned to Cuba. Puerto Rico is an outright colony and can never be free as long as it is riddled with U.S. bases. Korea remains divided, long after the end of World War II, because of U.S. occupation and its threat to all of Asia. Africa is the new target of a massive expansion of U.S. military presence. We the working people pay for and die in these wars, while the rich get ever richer.
The danger of a new nuclear war remains very real, especially with the extremely hostile stance of the U.S. – which, by all indications, would only be intensified under a Hillary Clinton presidency – toward Russia, which is the second-ranking nuclear weapons power. The Obama administration has approved a new, one trillion dollar nuclear weapons program, even more dangerous than all the current existing nukes.
Obama signed a $38 billion military package to Israel, giving them a complete green light to continue the occupation, settlements, bulldozing of Palestinian homes, and th bombings.
A socialist government would take the initiative to dismantle all nuclear weapons. Its foreign policy would be based on friendship, self-determination, and solidarity with other countries rather than the current one of threats and aggression against many countries. I call for the dismantling of the military-industrial complex, stop the sales of weapons around the world, end U.S. aid to Israel and support the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including the right of return.
Gemma: If you are successful in dismantling the nation’s national security apparatus and erasing America’s international military footprint, would we be vulnerable to cyber attacks, spying, and terrorism? If our security and defense positions are changed radically, will the world automatically follow?
La Riva: For so many years during the existence of the Soviet Union and the larger socialist camp, the people were always told that those who live under socialism had no freedom, that they were under surveillance by their government, but all along the repressive state machinery of the United States was conducting a war against the popular movements. Now we are living under a regime of total surveillance and spying against all U.S. people and worldwide. Just recently, President Obama claimed – without any facts whatsoever – that Russia was hacking the Democratic Party’s e-mails and trying to effect the elections. That is the typical demonization of other countries that is intended to divert our attention from the greatest threat in the world, U.S. imperialism itself.
We believe that we should be promoting peace and solidarity around the world. If we stopped intervening in other countries’ affairs and paid reparations to all the victims of our imperialist wars, then why would we have to worry about our security? The people of the world want to co-exist, but capitalism and imperialism stifles that possibility. I have traveled to many countries that were being actively bombed like Yugoslavia, some targeted by crippling sanctions like Iraq and Iran, or suffering blockade like Cuba. It always amazes me that in each of those countries, the people emphasize that they distinguish between the U.S. people and the government, and desperately want peace and good relations. Our people need to understand this essential point.
Gemma: You have pledged to “abolish the police force as we know it and create a whole new one to serve the people, not the rich and corporations.” What would that law enforcement system look like?
La Riva: We call for a police force that doesn’t shoot and kill innocent Black, Latino, Native, and other people of color and working class Whites, one that doesn’t protect the corporations and banks over the well being of the people. For this we need a completely new system. Under socialism, community police would be unarmed – it is an outrage that we see in the United States, armies of Robo-cops with AR-15s deployed against protesters, and police who immediately shoot to kill.
Gemma: In researching the PSL, I was surprised by some news reports – for example, your party’s call for the withdrawal of the U.S. from the United Nations, and ending all foreign aid. How will that help American presence on the international stage?
La Riva: The United Nations is dominated by the five states with veto power and particularly by the U.S. It was conceived in the last years of World War II as an instrument of U.S. global hegemony. A revolutionary government would propose with other countries and people that it be converted to a truly equal association of states and peoples.
Gemma: Another surprise for me was your position on guns – the PSL believes the Second Amendment guarantees the right of individual citizens to own guns, and oppose restrictions on the purchase and possession of guns. Will you explain that?
La Riva: I support the position stated in the Peace and Freedom Party platform: “We support the right of working people to keep and bear arms.” That doesn’t mean that I think the overwhelming numbers of weapons in the U.S. population is healthy, especially with the proliferation of semi-automatic and automatic weapons that are pushed so heavily by arms manufacturers. Congress has exempted the corporations from any liability in the case of murders or the massacres that we see – that loophole allows the companies to take no responsibility.
Gemma: You said that you, “strongly support the Employee Free Choice Act.” What is that?
La Riva: EFCA, which remains un-ratified, called for workers to be able to achieve labor union recognition when a simple majority of eligible workers signed a card indicating that they wish to be represented by a union. It also would prevent a company from stalling on negotiating for a contract, which often kills a union drive. It was a truly radical legislation and the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, the whole labor movement, fought for its passage in 2008. But, the halls of Congress are filled with corporate lobbyists who made sure the politicians in their pockets buried it.
The current long, drawn-out system of seeking union recognition provides employers with numerous ways to intimidate and often fire workers who advocate for union recognition.
Gemma: The PSL “demands that the Black community be compensated fully, with interest, for the historical racism and wrongs forced upon them by capitalism.” How would the government organize a reparations program?
La Riva: The U.S. capitalist system was erected on a foundation of genocide against Native people and the theft of their land, and billions upon billions of hours of unpaid slave labor by Black people. Even after slavery was formally ended, the plantations were not broken up and the formerly enslaved people were not granted the right to property in the form of adequate land.
There is not enough knowledge in our country about the legacy of slavery and how much of the terror, theft of wealth, and denial of opportunity that still exists today. That causes the Black community in many cities to remain poor.
The Black population has far less personal wealth compared to White families or any other community. It has to do with racism – which is deeply embedded into our society – not always among the people, but there is White supremacy. The capitalists and politicians have done everything they can to foster that White supremacy in ways that are not necessarily so obvious – but are rooted in the denial of rights to Black people.
Jim Crow laws were the legacy of the counter-revolution – the turning back of the reforms after the Civil War, the Black Codes that created peonage and re-enslaved people in another form with prisons. Prisons are filled with Black and Latino people. That’s a direct result of the extremely racist notion that Black people should be given a harsher sentence than a White person for the exact same crime, who are denied a proper defense, or racially profiled.
As far as reparations goes, we would also start by honoring the broken treaties that the U.S. has refused to abide by with Native nations, and a program of reparations for the Black nation in the U.S. Let’s convene a committee of representatives from all the oppressed groups to calculate all that has been taken from them. It would be an important step for these groups to continue rebuilding their communities after centuries of suppression.
Gemma: Bernie Sanders’ campaign introduced the word socialism into the American politics and it may be a factor in many campaigns in the future. You have stated that, “I was hoping that Sanders would win the Democratic nomination,” and the PSL urged registered Democrats to vote for Sanders in New York and California. Is your platform much like the one Sanders ran on?
La Riva: Bernie Sanders represented an era of a more liberal policy that has been totally suppressed in the last 35 years. We agreed with many issues he spoke on, like free quality education and healthcare. We also believe that every person should have housing and food to eat. Sanders did a great thing to help popularize socialism. Of course, we had key differences with him, especially on foreign policy.
But for us, the question was how are we going to relate to the supporters of Sanders, millions who were energized by progressive ideas, who waged an admirable fight for their candidate. We had a positive attitude and constant engagement with Sanders’ supporters.
Today, we are promoting our campaign to expand on what socialism is in its entirety. Socialism also stands in full solidarity with all oppressed people around the world like the Palestinians, or the Cubans, whose socialist government is constantly threatened by U.S. aggression and blockade. We are running to further explain that real socialism can only come about through a mass peoples revolution, not by the decree of any politician.
Gemma: One news item maintains, that the PSL “considers itself generally on the same side as the on many issues,” and quotes you as saying that the PSL and the Green Party are “not running against each other.” What sets you apart from Jill Stein’s candidacy?
La Riva: We do have many points of agreement, and the existence of more than one progressive campaign is a very good thing. But our campaign is different than the Greens in that we are running an explicitly socialist campaign. Only a system where the people take real power, and own the means of production – the wealth that produces wealth – in a planned economy, can really transform society. We don’t believe that capitalism can be reformed. Look at every aspect of capitalism – the entrenched wars and global expansion, the vast production that is only motivated by profit and not people’s real needs and sustainability. Each time there is the mildest legislation to rein in the capitalists, they defeat it because they hold the real power in this system.
La Riva: Let me first point out that I am also on the ballot in California as the candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party, and in Vermont as the candidate of the Liberty Union Party. The PSL is on the ballot in Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, with Dennis Banks as my running mate, and in Washington State, New Jersey and Louisiana with Eugene Puryear as my running mate.
Gemma: Why two different candidates for vice president? Tell me a little about each one.
La Riva: It has been very helpful for us to have two candidates, allowing us to cover more of the country, and to have representation from two great fighters for justice. Dennis Banks is the legendary Native leader and co-founder of the American Indian Movement. He just finished a campaign tour in California, which had a phenomenal reception from the people. Dennis Banks has been continually at Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s encampment with thousands of people resisting to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Eugene Puryear is an incredible African American activist from Washington DC, the co-founder of DC Ferguson, a Black Lives Matter organization. He’s young but has done so much in the movement, including authoring the book, Shackled and Chained, a very important explanation of racist mass incarceration and its historical development under capitalism.
Gemma: Why was PSL taken off the Florida ballot? On what grounds are you challenging that decision?
La Riva: It was a change in the middle of this election cycle, with an unconstitutional interpretation by the new general counsel of the Florida Secretary of State. Othr third parties were also thrown off even though we had complied with the same requirements that allowed us to be on in 2008 and 2012. We are challenging with a lawsuit, but it is doubtful we can be made whole this year, since we were notified at such a late date.
Gemma: If you were allowed into the debates, what is one question you would directly ask Hillary Clinton? And how about Donald Trump?
La Riva: I would ask Clinton why she laughed when talking about the U.S.-backed lynching of Muammar Gaddafi, the leader of Libya, an African nation, or why, as Secretary of State, she sided with the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009, or why she referred to Black youth as super predators.
I would warn Trump that if he were to dare try to expel the undocumented workers and continue to attack Mexicans or try to ban Muslims, he would face a mass resistance in this country that will shake the system and show who really the power.
But if I were in the debate, I would also use my time to explain that we the people have always been the engine of change for the better, and that it is vital to understand that the rich are rich because day in and day out they under pay, exploit, lay off for profits, do whatever they have to do to maximize their profits, and in the end, the people have not one guarantee in our lives, no matter how hard we work. I would say that the Mexicans who labor in the hot fields cultivating and harvesting so food is on our tables, are not the enemy, the billionaires like the Walton family that owns more than 62 million Americans because they pay pitiful wages is the real enemy. I would say that the U.S. wars are what have created so much instability and danger in the world, and it is time for real peace by withdrawing our troops and providing a life of dignity for all. These concepts are not alien to the working class – people who struggle to survive instinctively understand this.
I could go on, but these socialist and progressive ideas are anathema to the rulers of the country. This is precisely why we are not allowed in the debates, or on the ballot on all 50 states by their draconian rules. And yet we have made great gains in the 2016 presidential elections. We have reached many thousands directly, person to person, and many people, especially the youth, are ready to fight for true justice. The Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Peace and Freedom Party, the Liberty Union Party have all worked together in a very positive way. We look forward to more collaboration.
Thanks very much for this opportunity to share my thoughts.