Book review: ‘The New Latin American Left’

July 3, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The resurgence of the left in Latin America over the past few years has been one of the most positive developments in world politics in the opening decade of the 21st Century. In the early 1990s, following the defeat of the Sandinistas and the demobilisation of Guatemalan and Salvadorian guerrillas, the armed revolutionary challenge to US hegemony in Latin America faded, and many on the right hailed an outright victory against socialism. As electoral democracy returned to the region, the Latin American left turned its attention to the ballot box; two decades later, after much patient struggle, it has claimed a number of significant victories, and made some qualified progress in trying to bring social justice to Latin America.

This book is a detailed introductory examination of today’s Latin American left: a chapter each on Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela and Bolivia, along with three broader analytical pieces examining the similarities and differences between the region’s various ‘left’ movements. Broadly speaking, the new Latin American left may be split into two distinct sections: a pragmatic, only mildly reformist current epitomised by Lula da Silva in Brazil and the Broad Front coalition in Uruguay) on, and a more assertive, nationalist-populist current typified by Venezuela’s Chavez and Argentina’s Kirchner. The contributors agree that today’s left can boast a greater pluralism than in the past, incorporating identity-based social movements linked to race, gender and sexual orientation; the watchwords, according to Boaventura de Sousa Santos, are ‘Complexity, internal heterogeneity and flexibility’.

The strongest article in this collection is a piece by Atilio Boron, who offers a searing indictment of the effects of three decades of neoliberal economic policies: ‘Increasingly precarious labour conditions, high levels of unemployment, a dizzying increase in poverty, external vulnerability, unbridled debt and the foreign takeover of economies. Democracies … that are empty of all content…’ Boron reminds us that the neoliberal economic framework remains intact today. Across Latin America, governments elected with a popular mandate to end neoliberal primacy have found themselves constrained by structural limitations, both internal and external, and forced to abandon their more radical ambitions. The prime example of this is the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT), emasculated through a policy of continual compromise.

The New Latin American Left is a useful introduction for anyone wishing to familiarise themselves with contemporary Latin American politics. The overriding tone is curiously contradictory: there is a strong sense of a seismic historic shift, alongside an equally powerful feeling that nothing has changed, that nothing can change. Boron attributes this to a contradiction that is intrinsic to the political liberalism of Latin America’s democracies – a liberalism that gives primacy to the independence of private (economic) interests, the latter being often at odds with the democratic organisation of the polis and the rule of popular sovereignty. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Venezuela today, where a vigorously pro-market mass media campaigns daily for the overthrow of the country’s socialist President. Despite the structural limitations, the Latin American left continues to make progress, supported by a disparate array of extra-parliamentary ‘social movements’ which identify neoliberal hegemony, and the state practices associated with it, as a common enemy.

The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn is published by Pluto Press.

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This post was written by Nathaniel Mehr

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