‘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.
In Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Colombia and Bolivia, indigenous movements have upheld social democratic traditions. In Peru, an indigenous protest recently forced the revocation of laws aimed at opening up large swathes of the Amazon to foreign logging, mining and oil corporations. There have been advances in gay and women’s rights, including access to abortion: Uruguay, for example, this year made it legal for gay couples to adopt. Rights, it seems, have been expanding in Latin America at a moment when they seem to be contracting elsewhere. Despite this, much of the literature on Latin America continues to emphasise the fragility of democracy in the region. This may sometimes be true of government institutions, but it’s not true of social movements and political culture, where the idea of democracy has proved remarkably resilient.
Over the last two decades, social and intellectual historians have revised their interpretation of Hispanic liberalism. The revitalisation in Europe of Thomist rational natural law – one of the foundations of the notion of inalienable rights – has been traced back to debates among the Dominicans about the brutality of Spanish conquest and colonialism. Stuart Schwartz found an unexpected degree of religious toleration in Iberian colonial society,while legal theorists have come to appreciate the blend of moderate French Girondism with an Anglo-American concentration on rights that defined the first generation of independence leaders such as Miranda. Early 19th-century republican constitutions and civil codes in Mexico, Argentina, Nueva Granada, Alto Perú and Chile balanced the liberal imperatives of separate powers and limiting the role of government with the ideal of promoting a virtuous society.
Yet liberalism did not generate stable and enduring governments. By the middle of the 20th century, Latin American countries had approved a total of 186 constitutions, an average of just under ten per country. Venezuela alone had 24. ‘Treaties are scraps of paper,’ Simón Bolívar said, ‘constitutions, printed matter; elections, battles; freedom, anarchy; and life a torment.’ One reason for this volatility was that, in the decades before independence, profoundly illiberal societies had developed in South America in tandem with export-based economies. Rather than spread power and wealth, Latin American capitalism, which was based on seignorial estates and forced labour, concentrated privilege. While demands for pure Spanish blood were relaxed, new forms of cultural racism took their place. The United States is often the standard by which Latin America is judged, but it’s important to remember that Latin America didn’t have a ‘north’, a region with a free labour system in which liberalism could develop. In Latin America, every liberalisation was the result of violent social conflict, from the Túpac Amaru rebellion in the Andes in the 1780s, the 1794 Haitian revolution and the insurgencies led by the priests Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos in Mexico in the 1810s, to the Cuban independence wars of the second half of the 19th century and the Mexican revolution of 1910. These and dozens of lesser-known peasant and slave revolts not only weakened the system of forced labour but infused liberalism’s abstract promises of equality with examples of collectivism in action.
Generations of conflict over labour and land rights made Latin America famous for its revolutionaries, but less well known is its contribution to social democracy. In 1917 Mexico produced the world’s most elaborate social democratic constitution, prohibiting child labour, affirming the right to form unions and hold strikes, enacting land reform, abolishing debt peonage, and mandating healthcare, pensions, unemployment and accident insurance for workers. Every Latin American country followed suit, ratifying ever longer constitutions with chapter-length sections on social rights and duties, labour, education, family and economic order. Between 1944 and 1946, Latin America experienced its first, forgotten ‘transition to democracy’: nearly every country in South America and most of those in Central America, along with the Dominican Republic and Cuba, became a democratic state; those that were already democracies extended the vote, strengthened labour rights and implemented social security programmes. Social democracy became synonymous with modernity. ‘We are socialists,’ Guatemala’s first truly democratically elected president, Juan José Arévalo, said in 1945, ‘because we live in the 20th century.’
Latin Americans also pushed for reform abroad: 21 Latin American representatives – the largest regional caucus – joined 29 others from around the world in San Francisco in 1945 to found the UN, pressing it to confront the problem of colonial racism and to adopt a human rights policy. Chile and Panama supplied the draft charters on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was based, and the Chilean academic Hernán Santa Cruz served on the committee, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, which wrote the final text. A well-heeled, Jesuit-educated socialist, and a friend of Salvador Allende, Santa Cruz was the committee’s most forceful advocate of social rights: the right to welfare, to work, to unionise, to rest and leisure time, to food, clothing, housing, healthcare and free education. Cuba inserted into the charter the right to an adequate standard of living, the Dominican Republic included a provision on sexual equality, and Mexico had the phrase ‘without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion’ added to the clause guaranteeing freely contracted marriages.
Latin American lawyers, notably the Chilean diplomat Alejandro Alvarez, also challenged the assumptions of Great Power diplomacy. Alvarez argued that the ‘liberal and democratic spirit of all the nations which compose the New World’ provided an opportunity to establish a new co-operative diplomacy. Washington had long insisted on its right to intervene in its ‘backyard’. But Franklin Roosevelt, hamstrung by the Great Depression and forced to extricate the US from a series of marine occupations in the Caribbean basin, dropped this when he recognised the sovereignty of Latin American nations late in 1933, his first significant foreign policy achievement. Legal theorists in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia supported his Atlantic Charter, hoping that it would lay the foundation for an international social democratic order. By 1943, Roosevelt was holding up the ‘illustration of the republics of this continent’ as a model for postwar liberal multilateralism. Though he took credit for overcoming ‘many times 21 different kinds of hate’ to ‘sell the idea of peace and security among the American republics’, the inspiration could just as well be traced to Bolívar’s call in 1826 for the creation of a confederation of American nations.
From 1947, though, the landed class, along with their defenders in the clergy and military, took advantage of the Cold War to stage a counter-offensive. Within a few years, a majority of Latin American countries were once again under military rule. The US State Department supported this turn, believing that the region’s ‘excessively rapid trend towards the adjustment of social rights’ had resulted in unacceptable levels of ‘political instability’ that threatened access to resources and paved the way for Communist penetration. George Kennan, the theorist of containment, argued that it was ‘better to have a strong regime in power’ in Latin America ‘than a liberal government if it is indulgent’ to Communists. And Washington helped make sure things stayed that way, funding and training security forces to disastrous ends in one country after another. Kennan wrote in a long memo to Dean Acheson that the US should accept that ‘harsh governmental measures of repression may be the only answer.’ ‘South America,’ he added, ‘is the reverse of our own North American continent,’ its geography tropical, its mongrel people ‘unhappy and hopeless’, and its history ‘unfortunate and tragic almost beyond anything ever known’.
In the debate over what is and isn’t different about US hegemony, little attention has been paid to the most important factor in the rise of the US: Latin America. ‘South America will be to North America,’ an essayist wrote in the North American Review in 1821, ‘what Asia and Africa are to Europe.’ Not quite. Modern capitalist empires – France, Holland and Great Britain in Africa, Asia and the Middle East – ruled over culturally and religiously distinct peoples. Anglo-American settlers, by contrast, looked to Iberian America not as an epistemic ‘other’ but as a rival in a fight to define a set of nominally shared values. John Winthrop urged the first generation of Puritan settlers to build a ‘City upon a Hill’, yet as they struggled to survive one freezing winter after another, their thoughts turned to the rumoured ‘magnificence’ of an already existing New World metropolis – Americana Mexicana – so advanced it boasted ‘1500 coaches drawn with mules’, as Samuel Sewall wrote in his diary in 1702. While Cotton Mather taught himself Spanish, Sewall elaborated what may be the earliest version of the shock doctrine. Spotting a blaze in the night sky, he hoped the comet would strike Mexico City and spark a ‘revolution’ that would lead to a mass conversion. ‘I have long prayed for Mexico,’ he said, ‘that god would open the Mexican fountain.’ Within a generation of its independence from Britain, the US would begin to measure its progress against the ‘deathlike sleep of Spanish dominion’, aristocratic in its pretensions, indolent in its industry and superstitious in its beliefs. ‘I hate the dons,’ the future American president Andrew Jackson wrote in 1806, while he was involved in machinations to separate Florida and Louisiana from Spain; ‘I would delight to see Mexico reduced.’
Pan-American relations developed into an ideological contest over who best represented common principles, which helps explain why Latin America remained social democratic while US liberalism became missionary and evangelical. The very idea of ‘Latin’ America took shape after Washington’s annexation of more than a third of Mexico’s territory in 1848. ‘They would concentrate the universe in themselves,’ the Chilean liberal Francisco Bilbao complained after William Walker’s 1856 invasion of Nicaragua, where he brought back slavery years after it had been abolished: ‘The Yankee replaces the American; Roman patriotism, philosophy; wealth, morality; and self-interest, justice.’ When Washington attempted, at the 1889 pan-American conference, to strengthen the Monroe Doctrine’s ‘America for the Americans’ clause – which Latin Americans tended to interpret as ‘America for the US’ – Argentina countered by proclaiming ‘America for humanity’. As efforts to overcome the region’s feudal past coincided with the US’s rise to global hegemony, a diffuse cultural anti-imperialism developed first into social democratic non-interventionism, then into New Left militancy.
Washington’s first experiences with foreign nation-building – a few decades after Reconstruction in the South – were in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Panama. But the ‘New Latin America’ was as hard to build as the New South. While it was easy to disparage the defeated Confederacy’s manorialism and belief in white supremacy, throughout the 20th century US diplomats found themselves in competition with Latin American nationalists honed in struggle against their own agrarian lords over who best represented progressive democracy. During the Cold War, this contest forced Washington to respond to Communism and nationalism with social democracy, promoted by modernisation programmes such as the Alliance for Progress. It was a tough sell, since the US was simultaneously arming the region’s landed class and its constabulary. Reagan shifted emphasis, enlisting Bolívar, Augusto Sandino, José Martí and even the ‘Bolívarian teachings’ of Miranda in the new right crusade for ‘political liberty’: code, in part, for unregulated capitalism.
It is in this context that the Washington Consensus – a term coined by the economist John Williamson to describe the application of the neoclassical economic model adopted by Chile to the rest of Latin America – needs to be placed, as the latest attempt to ‘open the Mexican fountain’. The two-year-long, tight-money programme – run in the early 1980s by Paul Volcker, the chair of the US Federal Reserve – greatly inflated the value of dollar-denominated Latin American debt, leading the IMF to step in and order a structural adjustment programme. In exchange for refinancing their loans, the IMF forced a majority of Latin American governments to privatise industries and services, cut tariffs and subsidies, deregulate finance and weaken labour law. Governments adopted ruthless anti-inflationary regimes, slashing budgets, forsaking deficit-financed efforts to spur industrial growth, and handing central banks over to technocrats who paid more attention to the US Treasury than to their own people.
The success of this model depended on the creation of a new urban class of consumers with access to cheap credit, who could make up for the decline in real wages. But this worked only in a few urban areas in Mexico, Colombia and the southern cone. Between 1980 and 2000, a 9 per cent per capita GDP growth rate – not 9 per cent a year, but 9 per cent over the whole two decades – badly affected the middle class and manufacturers. Cheap agricultural imports destroyed peasant communities, reducing neoliberalism’s support base to a small transnational class. Deregulation led to financial meltdowns, while the privatisation of everything from nurseries to pensions fostered an orgy of corruption. A recent study by the Brazilian economist Carlos Medeiros reports that more than $100 billion of Latin American state assets were sold off in the 1990s, resulting in a vast transfer of wealth to foreign corporations and a new class of domestic super-billionaires, such as Mexico’s Carlos Slim Helú, whose worth is equivalent to that of the poorest 17 million Mexicans. The retreat of the Mexican state under Nafta led to a rapid expansion of the drug trade. It’s often said that narco cartels – which were responsible for more than 6000 drug-related murders last year – have made Mexico ungovernable; even a potential ‘failed state’. But in many places the cartels serve as an effective parallel government, taxing legitimate businesses, providing employment, and funding such basic infrastructure projects as phone lines, electricity and road-building. And drug revenue ($23 billion a year) helps keep the country’s deregulated banking system solvent.
The problems with neoliberalism encouraged the turn to the left among voters in Latin American countries, and the record of populist and pragmatist leftwingers alike has been impressive. Poverty and inequality have fallen in nearly all left-led countries, according to a recent UN report, with Venezuela narrowing the gap most, by increasing the wealth of the poorest by 36 per cent. Chile and Brazil’s GDP has grown by 5 per cent annually over the last couple of years, Argentina’s by 7 per cent; even desperately poor Bolivia has seen more than 4 per cent growth under Morales. Critics attribute Venezuela’s pace-setting 8 per cent yearly increase to high oil prices, which makes one wonder why petroleum-exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia and Mexico grew at only 3 per cent. The answer is that Chávez’s massive spending on public works, education, healthcare, housing, co-operatives and small businesses has worked as a scattershot stimulus package. Much of this expenditure may be wasteful, chaotic or corrupt, but the country’s unemployment rate has fallen from nearly 20 per cent in 2004 to 9 per cent, the fastest drop in Latin America. As Keynes himself pointed out, the waste involved in public works projects is infinitely less of a vice than the waste of intractable unemployment. ‘Two pyramids’, he said, are ‘twice as good as one’.
There is variation in style and policy among Latin America’s new leftists, but it has more to do with regional history than ideology. In the southern cone, civilian and military dirigisme from the 1930s to the 1970s created complex, relatively diverse societies. The neoliberalism introduced in the 1980s deepened inequality and generated new social organisations – such as Brazil’s landless workers movement – but there wasn’t a complete collapse of the old political order. In Chile, Bachelet is the fourth civilian president since Pinochet left power in 1990, and has continued her predecessors’ efforts to rebuild a social safety net. Lula also rose within an established political system, and now presides over Latin America’s largest economy, with successful financial, agricultural, energy and financial sectors. In the Andes, especially in Bolivia and Ecuador, where racism is more entrenched, class power more extreme and foreign control more barefaced, privatisation and deregulation stripped the economy to its core and destroyed the existing order. The region’s new leaders have established unapologetically fortified executive branches held accountable by elections and a mobilised, socially diverse rank-and-file. They are more willing to challenge the rules of the global political economy, to nationalise industries, push land reform and negotiate higher royalties from petroleum and gas exports.
Critics such as Castañeda argue that populism is unsustainable, but Morales in Bolivia and Correa in Ecuador are managing so far. From 1998 until Correa’s election in 2006, no president in Ecuador had completed a full term, as one after another was driven out of office on corruption charges or by popular protests. Bolivia before Morales was rocked by a series of ‘resources wars’ over gas and water privatisation which led to the ousting of two presidents. In Venezuela, after a raucous decade in power, Chávez’s popularity hovers around 60 per cent, and in regional elections last year his newly formed United Socialist Party won about 54 per cent of the vote. It is true that plummeting oil prices might threaten Venezuela’s social gains, but Chile and Brazil are equally vulnerable to this. Declining export revenue could, however, make it difficult for Chávez to broker the demands of his different supporters. Chavismo is both a governing coalition and a social movement: this diversity accounts for its vitality, but also limits it. The global downturn might force a showdown between the new Bolivarian bourgeoisie, or ‘boligarchy’, and the activists who believe they are building ‘21st-century socialism’.
Along with Venezuela, Brazil has played a key role in establishing Latin America’s growing independence from Washington. When Brazil announced last September, after Morales’s right-wing opponents in Bolivia tried to destabilise his government, that it would not accept a coup in South America, it was an act of solidarity as well as an assertion of its own regional doctrine; Washington’s silence was taken as a show of support for the plotters but also an indication of the inattention of a declining superpower. If Obama normalises relations with Cuba, as Lula has been pushing him to do, Brazilian and not US agro-industry is set to become the major developer of the island’s sugar economy, and will gain access to US markets. Lula has advanced his country’s economic interests in Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay – ‘Brazil’s backyard’, according to the Uruguayan analyst Raúl Zibechi – while at the same time defending Morales, Correa and Chávez, not just from Washington but from Brazilian investors threatened by resource nationalism, land reform and higher taxes. The Brazilian president is as popular abroad as he is at home, becoming the Third World’s proxy at international financial summits like the G20, a prominence just ratified by the International Olympic Committee’s decision to pick Rio over Chicago and Madrid for the 2016 games. Washington will be paying close attention to Brazil’s 2010 presidential election, hoping that whoever wins will share Lula’s moderation but not his charisma.
Castañeda writes that any viable Latin American left will have to come to terms ‘with a basic fact of life: the United States will not go away’. But, over the years, its refusal to come to terms, its insistence on not just the rhetoric but the substance of sovereignty, has served as a check and balance on US power. In the years since the Bush administration supported the failed coup against Chávez in 2002, the Venezuelan president has represented this historical stubbornness with antics that many think befitting a ‘clown or a madman,’ as the Argentinian novelist Luisa Valenzuela wrote in 2007. But ‘it’s worth keeping in mind’, Valenzuela went on, that a ‘very heady dose of megalomania is a prerequisite for even dreaming of confronting a rival as overwhelmingly powerful as the United States.’ In addition to Brazil, a number of South American countries are scheduled for elections that could scramble the political landscape. At the end of October, it seems likely that Uruguayans will elect as their president José Mujica, a 74-year-old former leader of the insurgent Tupamaros who spent most of the 1970s and 1980s in jail as a political prisoner. In early December, Bolivians will, it appears from current polls, overwhelmingly elect Evo Morales to a second term. But later that month, the right might regain power in Chile. The Christian Democrat former president Eduardo Frei is locked in a close election with the conservative Sebastián Piñera; a third-party dissident socialist, Marco Enríquez-Ominami, is poised to act as a potential spoiler.
Whatever direction Latin America’s new left takes, the global economic meltdown might just bring about the long-sought convergence between Latin America and the United States, though not in the way that might have been imagined: ‘On bad mornings,’ Paul Krugman recently remarked, ‘I wake up and think we are turning into a Latin American country.’ As to the election of the first African American to the US presidency, Lula called it an ‘extraordinary gesture’, and hoped that Obama would transform it from one exclusively for the ‘US people into a gesture for Latin America … respecting our sovereignty and an equitable coexistence’.