The time of the underdog: rage and race in Latin America

About the author

Ivan Briscoe is a fellow of the Conflict Research Unit, which is part of the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in The Hague. After working as a journalist and newspaper editor in Argentina, France and Spain for over a decade, he now specializes in the study of fragile states, the effects of inequality and the emergence of organized crime.

To judge from the childhoods of Latin America’s most powerful men, the streets of the continent, much as the Spaniards dreamed, could still be paved with gold. Brazil’s Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, as he himself admitted, did not eat a solid meal until the age of 7. Peru’s Alejandro Toledo famously worked as a shoeshine boy. And Bolivia’s Evo Morales – whose decisive victory in the 18 December elections opens his route to join the exclusive presidential club – was born with the help of a witch-doctor, tended llamas on the long walk from high-altitude Oruro to semi-tropical Cochabamba, and chewed the orange peel thrown by passengers out of bus windows.

For societies long synonymous with rigid stratification and the bleakly condescending looks of the Hispano-Creole ruling class, the intrusion of leaders who are darker, and once desperately poor, is a genuine novelty. Similarly, in the predominantly white European societies of the south – Argentina, Chile and Uruguay – the reins of government are now in the hands of those who were arrested, tortured or exiled under their respective military dictatorships of the 1970s. The rise of the left may be the main (acclaimed or lamented) political dynamic of the time, but it has been driven and framed by an even wider trajectory: the ascent of the underdog.

Yet the vertical mobility of a charismatic few should not be taken to mean that whole societies have suddenly become fluid. Inequality is extreme across the region, and in the Andean states it has been the persistence and exacerbation of differences in wealth and opportunity that have been the primary motors for new political movements. In Bolivia, where 70% of the population is indigenous, a World Bank study of May 2005 found on average indigenous peoples have fallen deeper under the poverty line in the last decade; seven out of ten jobs in that country are now in the “informal” low-wage economy.

Ivan Briscoe is editor of the English edition of El País, Madrid. His outstanding commentary and analysis about Latin America and Spain on openDemocracy include:

“Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve” (April 2003)

“Beyond the zero sum: from Chávez to Lula” (July 2003)

“A victory for Spain, not al-Qaida” (March 2004)

“Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco” (May 2004)

“The invisible majority: Venezuela after the referéndum” (August 2004)

“All change in Venezuela’s revolution?” (January 2005)

“Taking liberties: a review of Naomi Klein” (November 2004)

“Nèstor Kirchner’s Argentina: a journey from hell” (May 2005)

“The new Latin choir: democracy vs injustice in Latin America” (October 2005)

“The summit of the Americas’ free-trade farewell” (November 2005)

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The politics of skin colour

The issue after Sunday’s elections in Bolivia is whether a government of “ponchos and neckties,” with an Aymara in high office, can exert the authority and apply the right political levers to achieve its vast transformative aims. “Morales has said he will end the stage of Bolivian history in which indigenous people were subordinated to white business and political elites, and were subjected to a system of employee slavery”, explains journalist Roberto Navia, author of a fascinating biographical portrait of the young Morales.

For those countries where indigenous peoples form a majority (Guatemala and Bolivia, though Peru is close), racial and ethnic discrimination is stark in almost all areas of life; the redistributive task is clear, which is not to say it will be easy. Yet across the body of Latin America, similar social inheritances are to be found: shades of colour overlap with degrees of poverty all too regularly, even if centuries of mestizaje obscured the need for any affirmative action. Elites simply persuaded themselves that since no one is strictly white, no laws of segregation could possibly exist, and everybody is therefore equal.

“Even though it is true that very few laws are in force against racial discrimination”, the Venezuelan government informed the United Nations in 1996, “we can say that there is no practical need to legislate on this subject, given that problems of discrimination do not exist.”

Some 75% of the Venezuelan population is estimated to be black and mulatto (mixed black and white): any visitor to the country cannot fail to be impressed by the exhaustive spectrum of skin colours. Yet the euphemistic vocabulary of discrimination exists there are much as in the great “racial democracy” of Brazil, where black and mulatto men earn on average 63% of white men’s income, or in Mexico, even though that country was governed by an indigenous president, Benito Juárez, as far back as 1858.

Buena presencia (proper attire) and reserva de admisión (right to refuse admission) linger over hotels, bars and classified job advertisements across the region. And while Hugo Chávez thunders against the white creole oligarchy that derides him as a zambo (an indigenous and black mixture), its foremost members still manage to appear on a daily basis in giant photos in the leading newspapers of the land, propping up the society pages with sundry artistic openings and champagne gatherings.

The wishful delusion that the differences between the very nearly white and the quite black were only anchored in inherited economic disadvantage, and could be solved by education, growth and the passage of time, have been forever dispelled – here as much as in the Andean indigenous strongholds. Since 2003, two Brazilian universities have established pilot quotas for black and poor people. Chávez for his part issued a decree in May 2005 to establish a commission that will explore affirmative action in education. His own preferences are in no doubt: a poster for the recent parliamentary election showed him smiling and pointing at onlookers with the word enmoróchate (darken yourself).

Within his administration, the Venezuelan president has decisively pushed towards diversity. “As soon as a few indigenous leaders qualify from our courses, they are snapped up by government”, says Elizabeth Rodríguez, a consultant on indigenous people’s education and frequent visitor to Venezuela. “There has been a steady movement into the middle ranks of departments by younger and much more diverse officials. Only the highest ranks remain as they were, and there the presence of the military is much more noticeable.” El Universal newspaper has estimated that members of Chávez’s top brass now occupy 100 posts as directors of all manner of state-run bodies and firms.

Slogans of revolutionary progress, meanwhile, have become an essential means of communication. Meetings at the social funds of state-run oil giant PDVSA, the source of the $3.5 billion spent yearly on Chávez’s welfare and education “missions,” ring with the keywords of people, participation and sovereignty. “I’ve fought a lot in this process”, a 28-year-old, dark-skinned professional employed at the subsidised food programme told me. “Those who give the most at work support the process.” He added that he had been chosen to head a new sugar mill, part of a food sovereignty plan devised by Cuban advisers.

The Cuban example

Cuba’s example as a sustained attempt to eradicate racism is unrivalled in the continent, and doubtless a model for Chávez. Having suffered near-apartheid prior to Castro’s revolution – the dictator he ousted, Fulgencio Batista, was infamously excluded from the Havana Yacht Club due to his slight tint – the regime set about redressing the balance. By 1981, a census reported that the difference between the life expectancy of the black and mestizo population was just one year below that of whites, far less than the Latin norm. In the process, as historian Alejandro de la Fuente records, all independent black people’s associations and newspapers were swallowed by the state; no anti-racist policy was publicly debated.

This drilled and disciplined, party or military-led route to social change seems to have won a club of admirers, especially given hostile national or international contexts. Morales’s ambitious land redistribution for indigenous people as well as his plans for greater state control of natural resources will likely prove early tests of will, as they already have in Venezuela. Curiously, the same sentiments of a definitive break with the past, of a new era of “social control”, are also being voiced by an emboldened President Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, though his are not ethnic adversaries.

Kirchner’s new ministers, handpicked and regarded as utterly obedient to their master, stand out for one thing alone: the trauma of the dictatorship. Media reports have suggested the president only got to know Felisa Miceli, his new economy minister, when he found out they had a friend in common, killed by the Triple-A death-squad during the “dirty war” years in 1975. Miceli’s chief financial official was interned for two months in the worst detention centre of all, the Esma. The new foreign and defence ministers were arrested or persecuted, as was Kirchner himself.

openDemocracy writers track a tumultuous year in Latin American politics:

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, “Mexican democracy in peril” (April 2005)

Guy Hedgecoe, “Losing Ecuador” (April 2005)

John Crabtree, “Bolivia’s retreat from civil war” (June 2005 )

John Crabtree, “Peru: the next Andean domino?” (June 2005 )

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, “America’s protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS” (July 2005 )

Arthur Ituassu, “Brazil: never the same again” (October 2005 )

Isabel Hilton, “Álvaro Uribe’s gift: Colombia’s mafia goes legit” (October 2005 )

Celia Szusterman, “Argentina: the state we’re in” (October 2005)

Roberto Espíndola, “Michelle Bachelet: Chile’s next president” (December 2005 )

Nick Buxton, “Revolutionary times in Bolivia?” (December 2005 )

In light of this, it is perhaps not surprising that recent twists in economic policy have taken on a particular flavour. Kirchner has described his decision to pay off once and for all the country’s debt with the International Monetary Fund as an attempt, steeped in “memory, truth and justice”, to “overcome the terrible wounds that mistaken policies produced.” And if that seemed like mere rhetoric, the latest offensive against inflation – embracing price limits on 223 key shopping items in place of the traditional armoury of interest rate rises and currency pegs – pointedly shunned the monetary policies that were synonymous with the military dictatorship, and later with President Carlos Menem in the 1990s.

The politics of the underdog that is now taking shape in Latin America turns on antagonisms both ancestral and in living memory. It makes uses of pent-up and all-too justified enmity to win votes, and later establishes its cadres through an ideology of rupture and structural change. Yet as it does so, the social goals it advocates are likely to become indistinguishable from the entire political movement that is promoting them; the grand words can become, as in Venezuela’s oil-firm boardrooms, as partisan or as hollow as the next speech.

In Cuba, this has meant that racial discrimination, believed to have been conquered, simply reemerged intact when the economy underwent a tepid liberalisation in the 1990s, and firms could choose their own labour supplies. Meanwhile, Kirchner’s bonfire of the orthodoxies has brought a centralisation of power that would seem to be the antithesis of the “collective, diverse, plural” decision-making he has boasted of. It now remains to be seen whether price-fixing will have any lasting impact.

A long struggle

A self-effacing Latin American government that attempts and achieves deep-rooted change is rarely, if ever, to be seen. When it comes to the indigenous cause, the opposite is in fact much more common: opportunistic use of indigenous people’s organisations by politicians interested solely in the vote-count. “In Ecuador, the indigenous movement is going backwards, while in Peru, despite recent attempts, there is still no national indigenous movement”, explains Ramón Pajuelo, a researcher for the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (Institute of Peruvian Studies, IEP). “All we have in Peru is the attempted use of the indigenous symbols and concepts by upstart politicians who are not even indigenous, which is the case of the Humala brothers, whose aims in essence are those of military nationalism.”

Evo Morales for his part will not merely be fending off pressure from Washington and business elites. His own party, entrenched in a broader movement of peasant and indigenous resistance, will be subjected to intense scrutiny from supposed allies. Felipe Quispe, an Aymara who has long called for the reconstruction of the mythical, pre-Inca Kollasuyu nation, has already sounded a divisive note: “Quispe accused Morales of surrounding his political party with right-wingers and not being an original Aymara”, explains Navia.

In the circumstances of crippling poverty from which many of these leaders and activists come, it is perhaps understandable that charlatans, glory-seekers and opportunists litter the political field. But one thing is sure: it is now the votes of the poor, voting on issues central to their own social status, who are now the power-brokers in Latin America. The stage has been set for a long battle.