Why stop at two?

Greg Grandin

  • Leftovers: Tales of the Latin American Left edited by Jorge Castañeda and Marco Morales
    Routledge, 267 pp, £17.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 415 95671 0

‘The people of South America are the most ignorant, the most bigoted, the most superstitious of all the Roman Catholics in Christendom,’ John Adams, the second American president, wrote in 1815. The notion that they could form a ‘confederation of free governments’, as the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda had proposed, was as ‘absurd as similar plans would be to establish democracies among the birds, beasts and fishes’. Until recently, scholars pretty much agreed. The region had plenty of liberals, but a category that includes both Miranda – who corresponded with Thomas Paine, participated in the American and French Revolutions and led Venezuela’s break from Spain – and Porfirio Díaz, Mexico’s strongman for around 30 years at the turn of the 20th century, is as volatile as the politics that the term ‘liberalism’ seeks to explain. Historians tended to think that liberalism, which had no roots in the continent, masked a colonial legacy of patrimonial royalism and Catholic monism which produced authoritarians like Díaz and utopians like Miranda, a knight errant, Adams wrote, ‘as delirious as his immortal countryman, the ancient hero of La Mancha’.

After the 1959 Cuban revolution, figuring out how to stop the swing between authoritarianism and utopianism – and how to prevent the spread of Communism – became a central preoccupation of social scientists in the US. Latin America served as a testing ground for modernisation theory, a project aimed at shepherding developing countries to democracy. In the early 1960s, the goal was to set up functioning welfare states. The purpose of society, Walt Rostow wrote in Stages of Economic Growth, published in 1960, is not ‘compound interest for ever’; human beings were not ‘maximising units’ but ‘pluralist’ beings who deserved to live in dignity. ‘The future of the hemisphere did seem bright with hope,’ Arthur Schlesinger Jr wrote after JFK announced the Alliance for Progress, which promised ‘homes, work and land, health and schools – techo, trabajo y tierra, salud y escuelas’. JFK ‘pronounced the Spanish manfully’, Schlesinger said, ‘but with a distinct New England intonation’.

By the mid-1970s, however, nearly all of South America was ruled by juntas and Central America was convulsed by civil wars. Union members, peasant activists, reformist politicians, priests and teachers were persecuted; hundreds of thousands were killed by the security forces; more than a million people in Central America alone were driven from their homes. Keynesianism had given way to neoliberalism, and Latin America was now the laboratory for a more stringent form of modernisation. Samuel Huntington was frank: ‘democracy,’ he wrote in 1989, ‘is clearly compatible with inequality in both wealth and income, and, in some measure, it may be dependent on such inequality.’ By the time the Berlin Wall came down that November, almost every Latin American country had returned to some form of constitutional rule. Manuel Noriega held out in Panama, but he was dispatched a month later by US troops in Washington’s first post-Cold War invasion. There was still Fidel Castro, but Cuba was isolated, having lost its Soviet Bloc trading partners. By June 1990, Bush père could claim that a ‘rising tide of democracy, never before witnessed in this beloved hemisphere’ would soon make possible a ‘free trade zone stretching from the port of Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego’.

Latin America’s conversion to free trade was short-lived, however. In 1998, Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela, and Latin America began another turn to the left. In one country after another, self-described socialists, from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Michelle Bachelet in Chile to Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, came to power. In April 2008, Fernando Lugo, a priest, became president of Paraguay, ending more than six decades of one-party rule, 35 of them under the dictatorship of General Stroessner. Morales broke through Bolivia’s political deadlock in August 2008 by submitting to a recall referendum, which he won with nearly 70 per cent of the vote; he then presided over the ratification of a new social-democratic constitution. A year earlier, more than 65 per cent of Ecuadorians had voted for a new charter. In February this year, Venezuela’s constitution was amended, allowing Chávez to run for re-election when his term ends in 2012. And in March, Mauricio Funes, of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, was elected president of El Salvador.

Surveying the resurgent Latin American left, policy makers and commentators tend to divide it into social democrats whom Washington can work with, and demagogues who must be contained. As Michael Reid, an editor at the Economist, puts it, it is ‘hard to overstate what is at stake in this ideological rivalry, this battle for Latin America’s soul’ between liberal democrats and a new generation of knights errant who have learned to manipulate the rites of democracy – that is, elections – while hollowing out its substance. The Mexican political scientist and former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda also divides the left into two camps: pragmatists, forward-looking reformers such as Lula and Bachelet, who have made their peace with a globalised world and the reality of US power; and irreconcilables such as Chávez and Morales, nostalgists more than populists who cling to ‘introverted and archaic’ notions of sovereignty and anti-imperialism. ‘The revolution, the assault on the Winter Palace,’ he writes, ‘is still ever gently on their mind.’

But why stop at two lefts? Latin America’s presidents embody distinct traditions: trade-unionism, indigenous peasant organisation and progressive military nationalism, in the cases of Lula, Morales and Chávez; left developmentalism with Correa, who has a PhD in economics, in Ecuador; middle-class social democracy with Bachelet and Tabaré Vázquez, both doctors, in Chile and Uruguay; liberation theology with Lugo in Paraguay; and Peronism in Argentina with Cristina Fernández, who along with her predecessor and husband, Néstor Kirchner, has returned her party to its populist roots after a disastrous embrace of neoliberalism. The insurgent New Left has its standard-bearers in Raúl Castro and the still lingering Fidel in Cuba as well as the tarnished Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. The only current not represented is old left Communism, though Communist Parties are part of the governing coalitions in Bolivia, El Salvador and Uruguay.

Latin America’s new leftists, led by Lula and Chávez, have brought about a significant realignment of hemispheric relations, drawing even American allies such as Colombia, Peru and Mexico into their orbit and coming close to achieving Miranda’s wished for ‘confederation of free governments’. Latin American governments met twice last year, without Washington: they condemned Colombia’s US-supported raid into Ecuador to attack a Farc camp and supported Morales in the face of separatist attacks that left scores of government supporters dead. On a range of issues – opposition to the war in Iraq, normalisation of relations with Cuba and ratification of the International Criminal Court – they have shown a degree of unanimity and an independence from the US that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.

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[*] All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World (Yale, 352 pp., £30, July 2008, 978 0 300 12580 1).