Space is the field of man’s strength, time is that of his weakness.
These are times of retreat and confusion in South America. A new geopolitical cycle can be seen in the domino effect that now has Venezuela in the eye of the emotional storm, after Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, Ecuador and, to a lesser degree, Honduras, Guatemala and Peru have been through (and in some cases are still going through) a period of political crisis and upheaval. It is understandable that such ruptures—electoral or otherwise—should have eroded heterodox experiences, and that some use these circumstances to immediately bring down any alternative experience on the continent. However, we must recognize that the period of the last fifteen years of highly significant progress and harmony among various regional projects to change the status quo, in the context of a relaxation of US realpolitik, has come to and end. Like any painful change, this latest one challenges the region to take a long, hard look at itself.
In this particular period it is hard to find a critical, penetrating interpretation of the Latin American movement in the forces present. In the political apparatus and schools of thought in general, regardless of the offensive or defensive stigmatization that each side makes of the adversary, perceptions tend to be more a field of dispute and radicalization that one of openness and in-depth analysis. The media is naturally overrun by this trend. With some exceptions, one can see what Pew Research Center researchers found in a 2018 media survey namely that Latin American citizens are comparatively the most frustrated with the content offered by their media ecosystem. Where the conditions exist for media plurality (in a process of generalized erosion at continental level), the diverse biases that the media imposes through its emphasis on immediacy, the fragmentation of reality, and even biased or partisan manipulation of the news, mean that the media’s contribution takes a distant second place when it comes to raising a society’s vision of its own transformation. This does not obviously detract from the various media that do play an important and essential role in the countries where media blockades have appeared (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Brazil).
But it is above all the ideological content of numerous political spaces that matter to us here and which stand out because of the Manichaeism of the current crises. In the case of Venezuela, where the psycho-emotional saturation is at its most intense, the revanchism of anti-Chavez sectors, now reinforced by real economic failure and spiralling poverty, enables a reptilian thinking that leads to support for any measure that might bring about regime change, with no concern for the medium-term cost or the social base that has built up in the last decade. On the pro-government side, sheltering behind a curtain of victimization at what is deemed imperial interference by the United States and her Lima Group allies serves to deflect any correction of the economy and the arbitrary measures taken by a government determined to monopolize power. This same victimization, under the assumption of imperialistic manoeuvring, serves as a perceptive veil on a regional level to cover up the repression unleashed by Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and protect the Sandinista symbol.
In the Brazilian context, between the new outsider Bolsonaro—who aims to annihilate remains of corruption and “populism” and the social arc mobilized against the man described as “neo-fascist”—and the persecution in the courts of former president Lula, one has to turn to “external” witnesses, such as André Singer—leading (and marginalized) intellectual of the Workers Party—or the historian Perry Anderson to gain a more reliable idea of why Brazil collapsed. The collapse of the Brazilian sociopolitical movement that set out to confront a number of powers established in the context of a distancing from Washington and favourable trade conditions at the time (commodities), pertains naturally to a political experience with all its sociopolitical breadth, in which harassment in the courts (actually carried out by various political camps) was one of many variables. The "passive reformism" by coalition, the downturn of the commodities market, the bureaucratization and social abstraction of the governing party in a context of orthodox rules of selective “buying” of the political consensus were other central variables.
In Argentina, one can observe a similar trend to fulfil aggiornamiento attempts after the 2015 elections. While the Cambiemos alliance’s policy of submission continues, its economic failure only cushioned by rescue from the IMF—with all the tragic precedents that this represents in the history of Argentina and the region—the main political families race ahead in a political reconfiguration that is essentially driven by electoral obligations. Although there is some discussion, little is taken on board or analyzed in depth in terms of the structural weaknesses of Argentina’s course in terms of institutional discontinuity, duality of the elites, political reform, financial dependence, imitation of development, etc. In these diverse experiences, and even within the new restoring regimes subject to the same level of sociopolitical complexity, the degree of critical analysis is scarce or mostly biased and is to be found above all outside of the political space.
It is nothing new that situations of crisis and conflict be accompanied by such ideological distortions. Between the 1960s and 70s, the East-West rivalry established binary positions and fed revolutionary and third-world mythologies on the one hand, and State terrorism and support for corrupt regimes on the other. Since the end of this bipolarity, the shadow cast by the US, regardless of its reorientation after 2001 and its relative decline, has continued to feed a double bias of persecution and fascination in Latin American imaginaries. Lately, since the economic downturn around 2012 and the return to an orthodox realpolitik in Washington, these binary imaginaries appear to have been exacerbated. Although geopolitics has leaned towards an incipient multi-polarity (visible, for example, in the Venezuelan conflict), the opposing side is at the same time stigmatized, demonized, just as in the days of the Cold War. Often the image of the other is exploited with psycho-political ends. In practice, the adversary’s intrusions or blunders, ever present in a world as chaotic as it is dynamic, are often a substitute so as to avoid having to make the effort of intellectual asceticism and independent thought.
This impoverishment of perceptions brings to the fore other elements in the political-cultural context of the continent. One is related to the solidity of identities and political forces at the heart of the incessant flow of transformations resulting from globalization. In the “imitation capitalism” underlying all the countries in the region (highlighted in Raúl Prebisch’s work), a development model has been induced that, while showing an apparent closeness to the western model, has not succeeded in absorbing fully the cultural and economic ingredients situated at the heart of modernism. Absorbing this modernism does not mean a linear adoption of capitalism as a form of exploitation and colonization. It means above all bringing up to date cultural and conceptual structures, while resisting the erosion of one’s own identity, to attain greater levels of genuine power and the capacity to negotiate with the outside world. It is no coincidence that this challenged has been best resolved by those countries with strong nationalist identities and high capacities for adaptation (Japan, Vietnam, China, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, for example.) In Latin America, this present dilemma continues to lead to an often brutal alternation between phases of forced modernization (similar to the current period) and moments of dissident relativism or identitary retreat. Heterodox experiences, like opposite experiences, continue to clash naturally on this point. They were part of its contradiction, which again brings to the forefront the consistency and the dynamism of the continental elites. This introspection is vital because it is a question of analyzing how these experiences, unheard of at international level, could confront a dominant power matrix and install new forms of resistance.
In practice, although external pressure is great and continues to place obstacles in the way, almost all the anti-status quo projects that came to an end in recent years stumbled on three endogenous obstacles: the bottleneck of the global economic downturn and the challenge of breaking away from the rentier myth of commodities; the difficulty in perceiving more deeply the weaknesses and evolution of their social matrix and, consequently, broadening their popular base by resolving internal antagonisms; the understanding, from the most realistic and pragmatic perspective, of the evolution of international politics and distancing with certain residual perceptions. In this sense, the Venezuelan crisis encapsulates these three dimensions: the exhaustion of the rentier petrol state (forewarned previously and seen in other countries), in the context of an internal social polarization and the absence of a real political alternative. It is unviable that the tutelary power of the North will mobilize its hard military power (even in a limited form), but will most likely use all means possible to weaken an area that is not of strategic interest but could upset regional security and stability.
It is at times like these that the likes of Rodolfo Walsh, Marc Bloch, Raymond Aron and George Orwell, among others, are sorely missed. All these thinkers were able to identify intellectual weakness and the capacity of adaptation as a central element of defeat or chaos. It is necessary to abandon a logic whereby the ideological bases tend to navel gaze and become a substitute for reality, a similar characteristic that marked the revolutionary struggles of the 1960s and 70s, and which is reproduced in the current polarization of the political spectrum. It is not a question of promoting a neutral position or mere diagnostics. At heart, it is a question of raising a society to the level of its challenges in order to strategically tackle a long-term project of transformation, placing the essential ideologies in the right place.