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Renewing the Latin American connection

All the countries of those sitting around this table were born in genocide. In the case of Brazil, we were the world champion of slavery. So we are based on that! Sweet but violent. From the Squares and Beyond partnership.

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Rosemary Bechler (RB): Stephanie, what do you think you will be able to take back with you to your colleagues in Mexico – I believe your organisation has its AGM shortly?

Stephanie Erin Brewer (Stephanie): Yes, our human rights centre is having its three year strategic planning meeting, and I was  just reflecting on our mid-term elections when the invitation arrived. It is perfect timing and a great breath of fresh air to be forced to stop thinking about Mexico all day every day, and to seize on comparative experiences and to hear stories of hope as well.

Because several people mentioned that they do see a real change arising from the positive impact that some of the strategies that we have been discussing can have. We know that not all models can be applied in all places, but the fact that something good can happen somewhere is a very positive sign.

International human rights ngo’s, for example in the inter-American system of human rights, do talk to each other of course. Centroprodh is currently working alongside other similar Latin American ngo’s specifically on the right to social protest and laws that seek to outlaw or limit social protest and marching, documenting abuses against protesters. All of that focuses on the means rather than the end, but it is a problem we have in the wider region and we have a regional thematic hearing on that subject at the Inter-American Commission that we are collaborating on.

RB: That clampdown seems to be happening worldwide…

Jean Tible (Jean): It’s greater maybe in Latin America for historical reasons. We elected Lula for example, in 2003. Since Lula was elected, one indigenous has been killed in Brazil every week. Whether you talk about the countryside or urban violence, we are killing a generation of citizens and people engaged in struggle. All the countries of those sitting around this table were born in genocide. In the case of Brazil, after that we were the world champion of slavery. So we are based on that! Sweet but violent.

Stephanie: What we heard from Robin about the referendum moment in Scotland was very inspiring in terms of occupying not just spaces and streets, but imaginations – the need to focus on pushing people to think of the adjacent possibility, the future that is possible.

Because in Mexico, something we do a lot which it is necessary to do, is to document and denounce all the terrible acts of violence and oppression and the violations of human rights that are happening, and that the people are actually living directly. So it is easy to project horror and negativity. But that can just overwhelm people and cause them to shut off rather than mobilise. When you focus on giving them something positive they can visualise themselves working towards, that is going to have more chance of rousing them to action. It’s great to have such a forceful reminder of that part of the equation.

RB: You are talking about how best to counter the major piece of work that regimes do to maintain the sense that ‘there is no alternative’, as we see in the treatment of Greece at this moment, and that this has to be a profound work of the imagination as well as a set of concrete actions…

Noam Titelman (Noam): I have the feeling that when the indignados movement started in Europe and similarly with the Occupy movement, to be completely honest, Latin American activists and leftists viewed it with some scepticism. In some Latin American countries, they were embracing different versions of twenty-first century socialism, or more traditional movements, such as the Chilean movement or the Workers Party approach, where the basic principles were still the same albeit with a certain amount of renewal.

And what has happened I think in the last six months or a year is that the pendulum of the rising left in Latin America has started to turn around. More and more of the left leaders in Latin America feel themselves getting weaker and with them the leftwing projects.  We are looking with more interest at what is happening in Europe - at Podemos for example, but also other initiatives. We are starting to rethink, perhaps with more openness, some of the ideas being discussed here. This is interesting because the indignados, I believe, were largely inspired by Latin American movements… so it is a very interesting dialogue in that sense.

It is of course a mistake to think of the left as a homogenous force. But in all its different varieties it is starting to encounter difficulties in Latin America, whereas in Europe, the crisis of the centre left parties is pretty clear, but what is appearing in their stead is less clear. Some monsters are appearing in that shadowy time when what is dying hasn’t quite finished dying and what is being born has not yet emerged.

Jean: In a way the left that emerged in South America was a bit of an exception in the world. Because wherever you look, apart from Chile which is maybe an exception in this exception – in the rest of the world the inequalities were increasing, but not actually in South America.

But Brazil is now facing something more similar to the European crisis. It is useful to think in terms of struggle cycles I think.  We have one cycle which was that of the ‘new social movements’ at the end of the 70’s and in the early 80’s, including the Workers Party, the trade unions, the black movement, feminist movement, student movement and so on, and this cycle had an institutional outcome in the victory of Lula.

But the good things that Lula as a collective person brought about led to a good problem – it helped to produce a new generation of the newest movements who find themselves acting both with and against the ‘new social movements’. We have an old left and a new left. The division is not good, but union between them is not possible because they come from different worlds.

Some of us have tried to bridge the gap – I’ll give you an example. With the Arab Spring, some of the Latin American left were against the Arab Spring and made their stand with Gaddafi or with Assad, not of course with Mubarak. We have to understand that Gaddafi, despite all his awful traits, and with a thousand quotation marks, was to them a “”Third world leader””, and that Mandela, when he left prison, chose to make his first visit to Libya.

We have to understand that the leftwing government in Venezuela thinks of all these global uprisings as a conspiracy against the left, in Ukraine, in Syria - wherever. So it is interesting listening to Noam. The situation in Brazil is very interesting in this regard, because the new generation of movements seems to want more. We have just begun in fact to struggle against the inequalities – which in Brazil are racial inequalities first and foremost.

If you go to a restaurant, or a university, or a hospital or a big company in Brazil, you know immediately who is working in a high position and who in a lowly one by the ‘chromatic’ of skin colour. We have a new generation who wants to go further in changing this, but we are facing some profound difficulties.  We have been distributing new money in Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil through the increased sale in commodities, but now we have to start taking money off the rich. This is not easy in countries where the powerful elite has all the power. Even if you don’t like the Guardian, you have to recognise what a difference it makes if you don’t have anything like this, or the BBC.  So if you want to take the imaginary of the Brazilian debate – we are in a very difficult situation.

Of course, thanks to the internet, we have a sort of democratisation of the public debate. But we are struggling in a very unequal feud. Because in the country as a whole, Brazil still has a slave mentality, even today.

Noam Titelman, 2012. Demotix/Mario Tellez. All rights reserved. Noam Titelman, 2012. Demotix/Mario Tellez. All rights reserved.RB: There seems to be a different quality of class solidarity, for example in Chilean demands in 2013 for a free quality education system for all… ?

Noam: It is interesting to see a graph of wealth in Latin American countries. Basically there is very little difference in income between the poorest ten per cent and the richest of the 90%. The real difference is the wealth of the richest 1 – 10%. When one talks of middle class, it is not so different from lower class – they are just better educated and they have better access to debt. This was interestingly in fact one of the things that initiated mobilisations and the uprisings in Chile in 2011.

There is a strong tradition of the left in Latin America which perhaps doesn’t have to manifest itself quite so dramatically, because it doesn’t live quite so closely to the problems as the left does in Europe. But for us the paradigm of extreme left, good or bad, is Cuba, whereas in Europe it is the Soviet Union. One can disagree with the kind of government Cuba has but it obviously isn’t the same as that of the Soviet Union. So in Europe, the left is always having to explain something, to answer for the genocidal history of the Soviet Union.

Secondly, the income distribution in Latin America is so unequal that perhaps that facilitates solidarity in a sense even though, as Jean said, that means that the elite has even tighter control over the mass media. In Chile for example, there are two main political groupings, both of them right wing and they own all of the major newspapers.

The other factor I think is that during the last decade, when the big subprime crisis that rocked Europe and the United States didn’t hit Latin America – I remember seeing that part of the world undergoing the same situation that Latin America had gone though in an earlier period, with a certain degree of satisfaction, remembering the enormous amount of advice that we had to endure at the time, and here they were with the same problems. That was really amazing. And it was accompanied by the boom in commodity prices that helped the rise of the Latin American left in all its variant versions. But now that that is gone, a whole new question arises about the next phase.

Latin America has to face head on the middle income trap, whereby the very same institutions that enabled us to pass from being low income to middle income countries, are now today making it difficult for us to continue on this path. They have been coopted strongly by an elite who simply don’t want to share their power with anyone. That is today’s struggle and they have a lot of force on their side.

Zizek has this story about a father telling his sons to visit their grandmother on a Sunday. One way the father could say this would be, ‘Look you have to go and see your grandmother. I don’t care if you want to or not. And if you don’t go, I’ll punish you.”  The other way is to say, “Look, go see your grandmother. You know she loves you and that it would make her happy. But only if you want to.” Both, Zizek says are relationships of force between the father and the son. But the second is even stronger because it involves not only having to go and see your grandmother but having to want to go. This is how ideology in society works, and one becomes one’s own prisonkeeper in society as a result, defending the system as it is. Power works like that in our societies. That is the hardest barrier to pass. It is even stronger perhaps than power as an outright enemy. That too is what Jean refers to as the Brazilian imaginary.

RB: On the question of your interest in Podemos, what did you make of Simona Levi’s rather critical view of that party’s approach to hegemonic leadership – given the huge prestige of Ernesto Laclau’s thinking in Latin America (also in Spain)?

Noam: A very healthy experience for every left activist, militant or whatever is to attend many assemblies, and see what it feels like when an entire assembly goes against you – whether because they think you are too radical, or too moderate – but it is a very useful experience, and allows you to understand better that the true enemy is not the one inside, the guy one milimetre different from you – but the enemy out there. There is a tendency on the left to overestimate the relevance of the adversary next to you in comparison to the one on the other side. When I heard Simona talk I thought there weren’t that many differences between her and Podemos, but that she felt that the main obstacle to the changes she was formulating was in Podemos. But I disagree – that is not where the main adversary is.

Jean: That is one of the key questions of the generations. Podemos is very interesting. It is a reading of the Latin American governments. The leading team of Podemos have all paid a visit either to Bolivia or Ecuador or Venezuela. But a friend of mine jokes that Podemos captured the worst out of all of them!

Podemos is of course interesting because it places before us the challenge of political organisation – how to deal with the common citizen. For they are talking to everyone in Spain. That is populism of course. And they are telling the Spanish people, “We want to govern. We want to be the majority. We want to change the country.” Sometimes the left doesn’t even dare put to themselves this objective or this goal. Without the 15M Podemos would not exist. But Podemos is not the 15M. 15M announces a sort of savage democracy in the good meaning of the term. But that cannot survive – you have to have some form of mediation. It is the challenge of representation. In political philosophy, I am against representation. But in real life, you can’t avoid it if you want power, as you have also publicly stated, national power. That is interesting because Simona, while being critical of Podemos, was telling us that Barcelona en Comu was a good thing. But you cannot disassociate completely Podemos and Barcelona en Comu - that’s the point! Or Podemos and Ahora Madrid.  That is interesting. Because as yet we don’t have an answer to this matter of political organisation.

Those guys were in the student movement and they created a party. They had an alliance with Bachelet on one topic, education. That is interesting because they are not in the government. But they are in the government. So as a generation we have to find our equilibrium, our balance between not being in an institution, and yet creating something tangible.  You have to have this mediation.

Noam: What I find most interesting in Podemos is that the left had to find an answer to the defeat it has experienced over the last thirty years or so. And it has found two roads, two ways of doing this. The first was the third way, the renovation of socialism – what happened with social democracy, which was basically renouncing the left to save the left – which ultimately didn’t save much of the left – but it did renounce the left. The second way to confront this defeat which also failed to do anything but confirm it, was to overemphasise its symbolic relevance – enclosing one’s-self within the small battle which one knows one can win – or even if you lose – to remain with your sense of purity intact in losing the good battle.

What I like about Podemos is that it doesn't want to go along with either of these defeats. They want to get something done. I saw a very interesting interview between them and Chantal Mouffe, who wasn’t too sure about their ‘renunciation of left and right’ – but she said that she understood why they might say that, since so many movements have called themselves ‘left’ and have done anything but left politics. But she said, that the most important thing was to understand that even if you stop calling yourself left – that doesn’t mean that there is no left and right any more, any more than there is an end to good and bad economics, and you mustn’t renounce the fundamental conflict, the agonism in politics.

I found that very interesting, which of course doesn’t mean that every country in the world has to follow the same path as Spain, that again would be reductive. It does mean that there is an option which doesn’t fall into either of those two traps which constitute a defeat while trying to avoid defeat – and that is something that I do take away with me.

RB: So Stephanie, a last question I’d like to ask you since you spend a lot of time helping people in Mexico – what does empowerment look like to you?

Stephanie: This forms part of our core philosophy and we love to talk about it. As a starting point, surely we have all heard the phrase ‘strategic litigation’ – it can be good, but in Centreprodh we have a different philosophy  – we don’t do strategic litigation. The reason is that those who do pursue this start with a plan for a case they’d like to litigate and go looking for a victim that they can use to achieve their end.

So, our model is called ‘integral defence’, and it is based on putting the person, or the community or the group at the centre and that person being the one who determines what his or her priorities and needs are, what strategy he or she wants to pursue, and so our role is to inform and to provide a range of tools.

People also arrive in our office usually, unfortunately, after suffering not only the original human rights violation in a context of whatever other structural violences that they were already living, but they then also don’t have access to justice. If they file a criminal complaint the case is not investigated, or maybe they are threatened for filing a complaint. They go to their national human rights commission and maybe the commission closes the file of their case without investigating. If it is a person who has been arbitrarily detained and tortured and put in prison for a crime they did not commit, they probably have a sentence they have appealed, they have filed a constitutional challenge, the public defender doesn’t answer their calls.

And so it is in those conditions of being denied their rights and their personhood that they then show up in Centroprodh. So we certainly hope to provide a completely different relationship and experience. And we consider that we accompany those people. They grant us the chance to accompany them in the struggle that they are leading in their own lives. And we aim to discuss their situation with the person to see what they want to do.

So we don’t necessarily like the term ‘empowerment’ – we are very picky but some people think it has a paternalistic connotation. It maybe implies that they have no power and that you somehow do have it and are injecting the power into them: but the people who come to us have the most important power which is amazing bravery and perseverance, because simply defending your rights puts your own life at risk, and so that is the most important thing. We can’t do any of our work without those people. They could fight their fight without us, although they wouldn't have any of the tools that we can supply them with. But they would still be struggling. But we couldn’t do anything without those people. So that is our vision of how we relate to, and how we accompany the survivors who come to us.

Jean: I’m talking about Brazil, but it may go wider than this. What is important in the last three decades is that we have an empowerment of the poor people on the bottom of our societies. The situation is still awful. Now, young black people are still being killed. But part of them do have more empowerment, in the sense that they are better able to denounce and to self-organise, and to put their demands on the agenda.

About the authors

Stephanie Erin Brewer is coordinator of International Affairs at the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Center for Human Rights, in Mexico.

Noam Titelman is a social activist. In 2012 he became president of the Student Federation at Santiago’s Catholic University, one of the oldest and largest universities in Chile.

Jean Tible is professor in the Political Science Department at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, and author of Marx Selvagem (Savage Marx, São Paulo: Annablume, 2013).

RB, editor

Rosemary Bechler is a mainsite editor of openDemocracy, and a member of the coordinating committe of DiEM25.

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