Juan Tokatlian: "We are a region adrift in global affairs".

The crisis in Venezuela and Jair Bolsonaro's access to power coincide with Latin America's slide towards gradual irrelevance in world politics. Interview by Nueva Sociedad. Español.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
26 February 2019

December 20, 2018. View from Copan building in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo: © Cris Faga/ZUMA Wire). PA Images. All rights reserved.

Nueva Sociedad: In the 1990s there was a neoliberal hegemony in the region; the following decade, the hegemony was a progressive/national-popular one. Where are we today?

Juan Tokatlian: It seems to me that this a topic well worth studying and clarifying. If we take Antonio Gramsci's reflection as a reference, what we should be analyzing is the "political, intellectual, and cultural" leadership of certain groups or classes in specific historical junctures, as well as the sustainability and reach of that hegemonic leadership - a leadership based on a combination of consensus and coercion which requires that its exercise of power be accepted by those who are being dominated.

The first thing we would notice is that hegemony in Latin America is, in general, transient and weak. Some specific cases, however, have shown more strength and longevity. Moderately reformist socio-political and economic projects led by sectors operating under the rules of the system - that is to say, not anti-system in that they did not have an outlook of revolutionary change - could not be consolidated in the 1950s and early 60s. The authoritarian projects of the late 70s and early 80s could not prosper either. Both had to endure the intense heat of the Cold War in the periphery.

When the historical dispute between the United States and the Soviet Union came to an end, the neoliberal project of the 1990s could not extend itself beyond that decade in most of South America, although it did go on in some subregions. At the turn of the century - again in South America but not in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean - the progressive project could not go beyond the 15-year mark.

And we are now witnessing the resurgence of the neoliberal project which, in spite of what is usually said, shows some traits of fragility in so far as it is based on fragmented and polarized societies in a context of highly primarized and financialized economies - not a robust hegemony at all.

We will probably see its consensual components diminish and its coercive devices grow, and this will tend to generate more instability and conflict in an increasingly uncertain and aggressive global context. In short, what we are seeing are limited hegemonic projects which cannot be consolidated because, in some way or other, they cannot be fully accepted by a substantial part of society.

NS: Brazil and Venezuela are two particularly difficult cases: the latter because of its multidimensional crisis, and the former because it is currently immersed in the very first contemporary far-right political experiment in the region. How should both phenomena be addressed from Latin America? What are the risks?

JT: They are certainly "difficult" cases if by that we mean that although they have been following different political paths, they are both facing today their greatest contemporary historical crisis - as a revolutionary aspiration (Venezuela) and as an ambitious reactionary test (Brazil).

Venezuela and Brazil force us to seriously reflect on something that now may seem far away in time, reminiscent of the democratic transition phase in the region: the military issue

I suppose your question aims at the differences and singularities which characterize both experiences: the former, possibly, in its terminal phase, and the latter, uncertainly, in its initial stage. However, despite their national specificities, I would like to highlight the fact that they do have much in common.

What is currently happening in these two countries should lead us to raise - yet again - the military issue in Latin America. The so-called "war on drugs", with its epicenter in Colombia, Mexico and Central America, has been showing us all along the high costs and terrible damage caused by the militarization of the fight against drug trafficking, and the pernicious and perverse effects of confusing the role of the armed forces and the functions of the police by blurring the line between defense and public security.

What I would like to stress is the fact that the cases of Venezuela and Brazil force us to seriously reflect on something that now may seem far away in time, reminiscent of the democratic transition phase in the region: the military issue - that is, the issue of the participation of the military in the management of the State and of the reach of civil power and democratic control over the armed forces. In this sense, the rising role of the armed forces in these countries' institutional life is a relevant fact.

The case of Venezuela is the most emblematic and extreme. There, the military cover a wide range of functions within the State and have a key role in sustaining - or, eventually, overthrowing - the political regime.

The case of Brazil has become significant because some 70 army officers were elected at the recent elections, due to the fact that senior commanders (besides the President himself and Vice President Hamilton Mourão) have been appointed to 5 influential positions in Jair Bolsonaro’s cabinet, because the president has repeatedly expressed his will to increase the involvement of the military in the fight against organized crime, and because the armed forces are, as a matter of fact, the guarantors of the "constitutional powers" (Article 142 of the Constitution) .

In short, it seems to me that it is essential to focus once again on the military issue in the region in the context of precarious democracies, considering the current phase of US military power outreach in Latin America and in the light of a conceivable demonstration effect in the region of re-politicization of the armed forces.

NS: Is this a setback for integration or a paradigm shift?

JT: Since the beginning of the 21st century, different governments in South America have vaunted their role in the field of integration. Whether for commercial and/or diplomatic reasons, with business matters and/or values in mind, governments of different ideological signs have invoked integration with unusual rhetorical force.

The permanent relaunching of the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), the original claim of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), the founding of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alba), the establishment of CELAC and the formation of the Pacific Alliance (AP) all come to prove that spirit.

The mood at the beginning of the century was for closer association of nations. Today, however, the state of integration in South America is mediocre to say the least.

The region operates politically under the logic of sociability: coming together in all possible forums, regardless of the institutional effectiveness and the supposed compatibility of interests. However, economically, the logic of unilateralism prevails: each actor thinks about his own domestic market, varies his position on the degrees of national protectionism without prior consultation, discourages in practice productive ties between business sectors, and negotiates bilaterally with the United States or China, for example.

The Lima Group departed even further from established policy in the region by issuing a statement in which it called for the armed forces of Venezuela to express their allegiance to Guaidó

So, sooner rather than later, a collision happens: there cannot be good sociability with so much one-sidedness. What is more, the crisis in Venezuela has revealed the current loss of political sociability. Apparently, CELAC failed to realize the sheer magnitude of the internal and international problems derived from the tragic situation in Venezuela. Unasur’s behavior was quite embarrassing, and the six governments of the right-wing wave in the region which could have steered the organization in a new direction, actually decided to bury it.

Presidents Iván Duque of Colombia and Sebastián Piñera of Chile launched the idea of ​​creating PROSUR to replace Unasur, quite possibly with the aim of laying further siege to Venezuela and perhaps, if need be, to other countries in the future. Mercosur left Venezuela out and then did not do much else. The Pacific Alliance never did anything, and even less since the coming to power of Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the changing of the Mexican government's political sign.

The Alba members’ contribution has been inconsequential in helping one of their own to find a political solution and ways of social reconciliation. And in the midst of all this, the so-called Lima Group, which was right in challenging the legitimacy of President Nicolás Maduro’s second term, has taken the unprecedented option of recognizing the Speaker of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as "president in charge", even though he does not possess any of the attributes of a government nor can he exercise any of its basic functions.

The Lima Group departed even further from established policy in the region by issuing a statement in which it called for the armed forces of Venezuela to express their allegiance to Guaidó.

Yet another sign of the times indicating that the role of the armed forces is reaching an importance and a degree of political incidence which was believed to have been left behind since the democratic wave of the 1980s.

NS: Will political change in Mexico have a regional impact?

JT: The sheer size of the domestic and the bilateral challenges with the US that President López Obrador's government faces is such that it will take up all of his initial attention. Mexico's priorities are domestic, and its relationship with its northern neighbor cannot be substituted by any other.

The impact of the political change in Mexico on Latin America will thus be less than progressives in the region are hoping for. It will not, however, be irrelevant.

Let me give a historical and comparative example to help understand the relationship between Mexico and Latin America. In 1981, in the midst of widespread violence in Central America, Mexico and France signed a declaration recognizing the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) in El Salvador as representative political forces involved in the armed conflict in that country.

That was a blunt gesture in relation to Washington's position on the multiple Central American crises, and it opened the way for the constitution in 1983 of the so-called Contadora Group (Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela), which in 1985 joined the Support Group (Argentina, Brazil Peru and Uruguay) and sought negotiated political solutions to the armed conflicts in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Its performance was, by the way, highly effective.

Mexico was the key architect of that initiative and its role was fundamental in convincing European countries not to endorse the "low intensity war" sponsored by President Ronald Reagan in Central America.

38 years later, Mexico has taken the option of a principled policy towards the Venezuelan situation, it has refused to join the Lima Group and, together with Uruguay, has called for an international conference on Venezuela. The so-called Montevideo Mechanism, which has been joined by the countries of the Caribbean Community (Caricom), is promoting a negotiated political solution.

The impact of the political change in Mexico on Latin America will thus be less than progressives in the region are hoping for. It will not, however, be irrelevant.

Now as before, Mexico seeks political solutions. In the current case, though, it does so in a more careful and defensive way, and it is not getting support from the large and medium-sized countries of South America.

Mexico will definitely keep on looking at the region and it may exert some degree of diplomatic activism as long as it does not seriously interfere with its complex and contradictory relationship with Washington.

NS: How is Latin America positioning itself as regards the Trump effect and global realignments?

JT: It is useful to look not only at the United States but also at China, but it is essential to look at the world from the perspective of the region instead of simply talking about the great powers.

Latin America has been historically losing gravitation in the world and seems destined today to diverge more and more. The former leads to weakness, the latter accelerates disintegration. The two combined deepen dependence.

Some indicators - among the many that are available - exemplify that fall. In 1945, when the United Nations was created, the weight of the regional vote was significant: out of the 51 original UN members, 20 were from Latin America. There are currently 193 countries represented at the UN, and the dispersion of the region's vote has left Latin America as a bloc with even less influence.

Data from the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) reveal that Latin American participation in total world exports went down from 12% in 1955 to 6% in 2016. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, in 2006 the requests for new patents from Latin America were 3% (requests from Asia were 49.7%); ten years later, they had dropped to 2% (while those from Asia increased to 64.6%). A recent World Bank report on inequality highlights that eight of the ten most unequal countries in the world are in the region: Haiti (2), Honduras (3), Colombia (4), Brazil (5), Panama (6), Chile (7) ), Costa Rica (9) and Mexico (10).

In turn, as we have already pointed out, integration initiatives are clearly declining. Weakening and disintegration lead to greater foreign dependence, either from a declining power such as the United States or from a rising power such as China. The strategic corollary of this is Latin America's slide towards gradual irrelevance in world politics and the erosion of relative autonomy in its international relations.

To this should be added the following observation. I believe there is some confusion in the region regarding the United States and China.

The United States has not been/is not passive and has not isolated itself as far as inter-American relations in economic, political, welfare or military matters are concerned. The US has never "left" the region: it is there. The Monroe Doctrine has lost its relevance, but this does not mean that the United States has withdrawn from Latin America. In reality, Washington is always "coming up" to the region with different policies, focuses and intensity.

As to China, today Beijing is approaching Latin America with economic resources, in a pragmatic way, and strengthening State to State ties. The Chinese regional deployment is thus a more moderate one and it favors the status quo, which in turn facilitates the absence of local players with veto capacity, as did happen in relation to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

In response to what has been happening since the 1990s, the region has come up with a so-called policy of "reliable engagement" towards China. However, Latin American countries should begin to contemplate a different and mixed strategic option towards China - that is, a policy combining approximation and foresight.

Latin America has been historically losing gravitation in the world and seems destined today to diverge more and more.

In short, if Latin America is to avoid a double dependency in relation to the United States and China, it should urgently recognize that it is up to itself to strengthen its power attributes regionally. The declining slope of the autonomy of the countries in the region is bound to get steeper if they keep to the current path.

NS: Everybody is now looking at Venezuela. But what about Colombia? What is happening there?

JT: The case of Colombia is particularly interesting because there, in a way, all the issues we have been talking about intersect there. Colombia is an enduring South American democracy (since 1958) which has been through a combination of prolonged political violence, relative economic stability, and a clear leadership at the top exercised by a social elite.

With all the contradictions derived from the temporary predominance of different fractions of the elite, with a combination of coercive resources and consensual devices, without a clear distinction between the Cold War and the post-Cold War periods in terms of its relationship with the United States, Colombia is a perfect example of a peculiar hegemony in South America.

There, the role of the military linked to the fight against insurgency and the war on drugs has been a lasting one. A peace agreement was reached with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which the current government abides by in dribs and drabs - and meanwhile, 93 social leaders and 85 former members of the FARC were murdered in 2018. 

Colombia has been a key player within the Lima Group and it is the country whose leaders have been most intense in their criticism of the Maduro regime. They have even been tempted - at the moment it is just that - to join Washington in a more aggressive strategy towards Venezuela.

It should be added that, at the present juncture, the relevance of Colombia for the United States has increased significantly. Washington has identified a so-called "axis of tyranny" formed by Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

The only Latin American country which maintains simultaneous tense relations with all three is Colombia. Colombia used to have a very good working relationship with Cuba as a result of the latter’s role in the negotiations with the FARC, but this has been replaced today by friction since the collapse of the dialogue between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), which was taking place in Havana.

An ELN attack in Bogota led to the end of the talks. Bogotá is now demanding the extradition of the ELN members who were sitting at the negotiating table and Havana has replied that the existing protocol for breaking negotiations must be implemented. The Duque government has unusually increased its criticism of Cuba.

On the other hand, tensions with Venezuela began with the coming to power of President Chávez and increased markedly after the failed coup against him in 2002.

If Bogotá has historically looked to the North and its bond with the United States has been always a close one, it has now embraced Washington with a heightened ideological conviction and greater pragmatic motivation

Finally, Colombia maintains with Nicaragua a historic maritime dispute that led to a ruling by the International Court of Justice (CIJ) favorable to Managua, and a new one is being expected from the CIJ that could reheat the already poor Colombian-Nicaraguan relations.

At the same time, we must bear in mind that Colombia, which played an active role in the promotion of the Pacific Alliance, has retreated from it since the arrival of López Obrador in Mexico, and has reinforced its links with another right-wing government in the region: Piñera’s government in Chile.

If Bogotá has historically looked to the North - expressed in the respice polum Colombian doctrine - and its bond with the United States has been always a close one, it has now embraced Washington with a heightened ideological conviction and greater pragmatic motivation.

Colombia is notoriously aligned with Washington and that will not change. The interesting thing, in any case, is that Buenos Aires, Brasilia, Santiago, and Lima - among others - seem, in the present juncture and in their own way, more willing to follow in the footsteps of Bogotá and put the United States as their preferred diplomatic option.

The results of this will have to be assessed in terms of the material well-being, national security and international autonomy of the societies of the region. That is another chapter which will have to be monitored rigorously and systematically. We are a region adrift in global affairs and that is dangerous... for us.

This article was previously published in Nueva Sociedad. Click here to read the original content in Spanish. 


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData