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Leaving the Insomnia Plague Behind – Latin America and the New Experimental Realism of the Left

I.  History, memory, and pragmatism

In his book One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes how for the people of Macondo, the most devastating consequence of the insomnia plague was the loss of memory, since a person affected by this illness sees “The recollection of his childhood (being) erased from his memory, then the name and the notion of things, and finally the identity of people and even the awareness of his own being, until he sinks into a kind of idiocy that has no past.” Trying to fight the collective loss of memory, Jose Arcadio Buendia, “with an inked brush marked everything with its name: table, chair, clock, door, wall, bed, pan… Little by little, studying the infinite possibilities of a loss of memory, he realized that the day might come where things would be recognized by their inscriptions but no one would remember their use.” For Marquez, those who can’t remember the names of things, and more importantly, their uses, lose their sense of history.

Allegorically, it could be easily argued—but would only be partially true—that for the last fifteen years, the new progressive and revolutionary governments of Latin America, following the steps of Jose Arcadio Buendia, have been fighting the convenient historical amnesia that afflicts both the Washington-oriented theoreticians of capitalist development, and their compliant submissive collaborators, the Latin American conservative elites.

History, according to Marquez, doesn’t depend on memory, or on the unveiling of obscure facts by dedicated historians. In contemporary Latin America everything seems to indicate that for the new type of Latin American democracies, particularly Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua, more important than remembering the names of the old social maladies, is asking questions about their causes and proposing effective solutions to improve the present material conditions of their people, particularly the poor. This understanding of history, this new kind of socially oriented, experimental realism is unique to Latin America and constitutes a serious challenge to current capitalist world domination.

II. The promises not kept

Particularly after the Cuban revolution, in an effort to undercut the spreading of social dissatisfaction and Marxist oriented insurrections in South America, the ideologues of capitalism presented that economic system as being able to generate a fair redistribution of wealth, a redistribution of property (which meant at the time primarily agrarian reform), and the political benefits of democracy and modernity. These ideological delusions were first propagated by the Alliance for Progress when launched by J.F.Kennedy in 1961, and they continue to be part of the discourse of organizations like the World Bank and the IMF, both responsible for the imposition of drastic neo-liberal economic models in the continent.

There is overwhelming data showing the alarming social indicators that afflicted Latin American economies during the decades of Washington DC-led strategies of growth. Ironically, very little has or is being said about how the laws of capitalism conditioned Latin American economies to increase their dependency on the US and at the same time exacerbated social contradictions, such as the disparity between the highly developed and less developed capitalist countries, the increase of internal social inequality, and the increasing gap in the distribution of wealth. Decades of neo-liberal economic models and of economic, military, and political surveillance brought nothing but neo-fascist dictatorships, repression to popular organizations, financial chaos, and extreme poverty to most people in Latin America. Yes, Marquez is correct–history doesn’t depend on memory, but sometimes people remember national traumatic events.

III. The discrete charm of Latin America

For the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, the only things worth noticing in world politics are happening exclusively in Latin America.  This may sound like an overstatement, but from a perspective critical of the capitalist system, the conclusion is clear: the only region in the world currently implementing alternative ways of social organization and resistance to global capital is Latin America, Cuba included.

According to last year’s report by the World Bank, in the last decade, the Latin American middle class (those not rich but economically secure) grew by a spectacular 50% thanks to the efforts of successful economic policies by governments committed to political stability and the delivery of social programs such as health, education, and housing for the poor. This indicator of economic redistribution marks a sharp contrast with the United States where the income gap reached grotesque disproportions. The divide between the 1 per cent and the rest of the American people was not a simple slogan of the Occupy Movement, but reflects the cruel conditions of inequality in the US.

In a not too distant past, most of Latin America could have been characterized by having an incommensurable and unpayable foreign debt, a heavy concentration of capital in foreign hands, a corrupt and deregulated banking system, and an ascending wave of privatization of public services. However, currently, numerous Latin American states partially or completely own and administer important natural resources such as oil, minerals, land, water, etc. and most importantly, divert those profits to social programs such as health, education, and public infrastructure to benefit the poor. Their financial and banking systems have been regulated, and a new kind social legislation is appearing. For instance, while in the US we grant personhood rights to corporations, countries like Ecuador and Bolivia grant Nature formal constitutional rights.

It would be a serious mistake to believe that democracy in Latin America, or anywhere else, exists as a concept without qualifiers. In real life, democracy assumes the specific forms of the societies in which it exists. The form of democracy in classical Athens was conditioned by a slave-based mode of production, quite different, let’s say, than the forms contemporary European democracies erected upon the current capitalist modes of production.  Similarly, current American democracy is different than the form of democracy that existed prior to or during the civil war, although both are marked by the dynamics of capitalist growth at different points in time.  Across their forms, contemporary western democracies all seem to reflect the interests of those able to finance the political campaigns of politicians, with variations in the actual levels of voting participation from country to country.

Latin America presents a contrast. Roughly, since the year 2000, Latin Americans have elected and/or re-elected either the same candidates, such as Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, Chavez in Venezuela, Ortega in Nicaragua, and Bachelard in Chile; or members of the same political left coalitions such as Dilma Rousseff after Lula in Brazil, Cristina Fernandes de Kichner, after the death of her husband Nestor Kichner, Jose Mujica after Tabaré Vasquez en Uruguay, Maduro after Chavez in Venezuela. This vote of continuous political confidence can only be understood if we realize that the electoral majority responsible for the electoral success of these governments have been the masses of the poor. The simple democratic social equation, that people tend to elect and re-elect governments that promote social equity, seems elude many political analysts of Latin America and the US.

IV.  Dissolving the notions of capitalist democracy

The new Latin American left finds itself in the position to re-define the concept of democracy in the continent. Important efforts have been made so far to transcend the idea of democracy as the function of a specific electoral system, and big steps have been taken to extend the concept of democracy to the economic field (it is hard to understand political democracy without economic democracy).  Most of all, the new left, particularly in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, have been clear about the need to avoid the manipulation of the term “democracy” in order to eclipse the class contradictions that still persist in their countries, and at the same time, the new Latin American left recognizes the urgency of delineating a clear position of resistance against imperialism and global capital.

It is easy for writers to pontificate and prophesize about the future, and I am aware of the limits of my own historical circumstances. Nevertheless, I believe that if the new path assumed by Latin America is to succeed, and if success is measured by the ability of transcending capitalism, the following arguments are worth considering:

  • The function of the economy:  the current hybridity of Latin American struggles and resistance to capitalism must lead to a ever more clear differentiation between two types of planning—that planning marked by the logic of social service, and planning shaped by the logic of the market. The former implies a distribution of economic resources to satisfy the needs of the majority; the second follows the irrationality of the market in favor of a few.
  • The function of the relationship between classes: this implies the continuous political strengthening of popular and grassroots organizations by widening their agency in all aspects of civil society and the political process. By doing so it is possible to weaken the political organizations of the conservative forces and narrow their social base. The effort of creating new, heterodox social movements must continue and expand. As in the case of the last re-election of Correa in Ecuador and Maduro in Venezuela, these movements have been able to transcend not only the old conservative political parties but also the traditional parties of the left.
  • The function of ideology:  the new Latin American left must persist in promoting a new type of civics, and a new type of political consciousness, an ideology that values equity, justice, human solidarity, and the long-term well-being of humans over the immediate interests of global capital.

Latin America cannot take the risk of reading aloud the word democracy, nor of recognizing it in national or international documents while at the same time not remembering its use or how its content is determined. If the insomnia plague of capitalism is to be left behind, this new democratic realism must continue. As those of us in the US work on coming to terms with the realities of Obama’s presidency, we should support—and keep track of—the efforts in the continent south of us to leave insomnia behind.

Enrique Quintero was a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, then taught ESL and Second Language Acquisition in the Anchorage School District, and Spanish at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.

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