Latin America 2000-2015: an interim assessment

The great shortcoming of the messianic leaders was their failure to understand the root of their so Latin American stance: cycles exhaust themselves inevitably. Español Português

Carlos D. Mesa Gisbert
1 April 2016

Former president of Argentina Cristina Kirchner and former president of Brazil Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva smile during a meeting at Casa Rosada on September 10, 2015 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Gabriel Rossi/LatinContent/Getty Images)

We should always read the present - and think of the future - on the pillars of history. The period 2000-2015 should thus be seen in the perspective of the recent past - of the questions that have been answered and those we have left unanswered.

At the time of the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, we experienced a shudder which had to do with the idea of the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new one. It was a funeral without honours and a baptism with much fanfare. The word revolution was hovering again over our heads - a powerful and strong word, because whoever embodies it carries change, ultimate change, and is in possession of a revealed truth. Whoever expresses it cannot admit that this absolute truth be questioned, and - even less so -, that it could eventually be replaced by another truth. The holders of that truth were backed by the popular vote, which gave them legitimacy, but they assumed that this vote was to repeat itself endlessly and that they had come here to stay.

History, be it seen from a Western perspective – dialectics -, or from an indigenous perspective - the cyclical process of suns being born and dying -, has taught us that it is just not possible to assume that when we reach a mountaintop, this will be our last, and that, from then on, nothing will change. We experienced this already in the nineteen-nineties, with Fukuyama’s suggestive provocation. There is, of course, no end of history, unless the species becomes extinct. The great shortcoming of the messianic leaders was their failure to understand the root of their so Latin American stance: cycles exhaust themselves inevitably.

21st century Socialism in a booming cycle

A cursory review of the most significant political projects in South America allows us to find some evidence for what has been said. The vigorous proposal made by Chávez (1999-2013), the inspirer of the so-called 21st century Socialism - the features of which could never be ideologically framed, unlike those of the Cuban Revolution –, did not come to an end with his death, but with his successor Nicolás Maduro , who inherited a structural economic crisis that he has been unable to control and has plunged Venezuela in the worst crisis in its republican history. In December 2015, this translated into a resounding parliamentary defeat for the ruling party.

The rather less bombastic and apparently stronger stance, from a pragmatic left point of view, embodied by Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), whose achievements in the fight against poverty and the inclusion of millions of Brazilians into the middle class were quite significant, led us to assume that the Workers’ Party (PT) would consolidate its position under president Dilma Rousseff (in office since 2010). This has not been the case. The current Brazilian crisis threatens to engulf both the President and Lula himself, who are both being investigated for alleged corruption.

Néstor and Cristina Kirchner (2003-2015), who seemed to have found the perfect alternating mechanism between husband and wife, had to face, like Venezuela, the relentless reality of the biological imperative. The erosion of Kirchnerism after three mandates resulted in the narrow win of liberal Mauricio Macri in December 2015. Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa (2006), who currently finds himself immersed in a difficult political and social context, has announced that he will not run for re-election in 2017. Bolivia’s Evo Morales (2006) has just experienced its first electoral defeat in ten years in a referendum the aim of which was to enable him to run for a fourth term (2020-2025). He had said that he wanted to know whether the people did or did not want it... If a corollary to all the above was needed, we can find it offshore from South America, in the Caribbean: President Obama's visit to Raúl Castro’s Cuba, nearly sixty years after the triumph of the anti-imperialist revolution par excellence.

Radical discourse has not always been matched by the facts and, quite probably, a substantial part of what was undertaken in the period 2005-2015 would not have been achieved without the assistance of the world commodity prices - the highest ever in the history of the region since independence -, which were especially advantageous for South America. The tough talk against the neoliberal orthodoxy of the nineties thus benefitted from external support, which allowed the legitimate commitment to debt and consequent social investment to achieve significant results through export revenues five times higher than in the three preceding decades.

This scenario made it possible not only to reaffirm the state’s primary role in social policies, especially health and education, but also to widen the state’s presence in the economy - as a regulator but also, importantly, as an entrepreneur-, recovering some of the features of state capitalism that - in the logic of a mixed economy - had been fostered by the United Nations Economic Commisssion for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in the fifties and sixties of the 20th century. It would be unjust, however, to give all the credit to exogenous factors. It is clear that deliberate policies were undertaken and that, in many cases, prosperity was managed wisely.

Some measurable results: a moderate reduction in inequality (considering that Latin America is still the most unequal region in the world); a significant decrease, beyond expectations, of extreme and moderate poverty; and middle-class growth (still fragile because of the number of people who have escaped poverty but are still in the precarious dividing line between poverty and the middle class): nearly 60 million Latin Americans have reached this new status. In addition, we have seen an increase in consumption, and a consequent increase in savings and domestic demand, which have generated some significant changes in the economic structure of the smallest countries in the region.

Post-dictatorial past

At a time when everything that came before these transforming political processes is being disqualified, it seems worth having a fair recount of the post-dictatorial past in the region. The eighties, for example, have always been considered a lost decade: it is argued that the heavy foreign debt legacy prevented restoring growth and improving resource distribution in society. This, however, tends to forget that, from the point of view of politics, it was a won decade: won for democracy, freedom, citizen values and respect for the Constitution, which had been shelved or trampled by the military who governed the continent at their ease for almost two decades (1965-1980).

It is unreasonable to read history as if it were a comic book, and divide the world between goodies and baddies, heroes and villains. It should be noted that the success of the countries that have combined a radical discourse with wise economic management has to do with a positive legacy from the years of economic liberalism (the nineties), with being aware of the fact that responsible macroeconomic management is a necessary but not sufficient condition for any political project, regardless of its leanings. Consistent macroeconomic policies, and flexible monetary policies appropriate to each context, are not - lesson taken – impositions by the IMF or the World Bank, and have nothing to do with how much to the left, or to the right, a government is, but are an essential part of proper state management. Perhaps the most illustrative example of the consequences of not understanding this premise is Venezuela today.

Not a minor detail to remember is the fact that, during the nineties, a country like Bolivia underwent very significant structural changes, including the consolidation of municipal autonomy – the embryo of indigenous autonomies -, intercultural and bilingual education, and a land reform act which recognized the communal lands (TCOs) in the lowlands and the community lands in the Andes, in addition to the economic and social function of land. None of these measures can be deemed "neoliberal".

From "revealed truths" to the quest for new politics

Let us go back to the "revealed truths" and cyclical history. In an interconnected, dynamic and changing world, where adaptability is a must for survival, to say that the state as an employer, or nationalizations, or statism as a dominant premise, are part of an irreversible process, it to misunderstand reality. There is no room for categorical statements and incontrovertible dogmas. In economic policy, especially in a market economy scenario, you need to be able to give quick and intelligent responses, in the best interests of each society, and not follow pre-established ideological premises – responses sometimes with more state and sometimes with less state.

Quite another thing, from a conceptual point of view, is the social achievements related to state responsibility in health, education, basic sanitation and redistribution of wealth. The road towards ending discrimination and expanding inclusion is indeed irreversible, but beware: these are irreversible ideas that must be defended day to day, depending always on economic success. The current welfare state crisis in European society comes to prove the frailty of social advances which used to be considered set-in-stone conquests, but which in fact have teetered when a combination of ethical premises and demographic, social and economic realities have produced unforeseen turbulences.

In addition, a complex present time has to be faced. If in Europe the two crucial issues of the moment are migration and fundamentalist terrorism, in Latin America, on top of the aforementioned social and economic issues, there is a critical challenge: organized crime and the ensuing violence. The region, the most peaceful in the world in terms of the way it solves its international conflicts, is the world's most violent one if we look at the number of violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Organized crime exceeds responsiveness at national level and demands an integrated effort to fight it. If we need economic and, eventually, political integration, the more do we need regional policies to combat booming transnational crime in a region where currently urban population far exceeds 70%.

The 21st century – this also applies to the European model - shows that social dynamics have changed dramatically. The role of people through extraordinary instruments like social networks, and the growing disenchantment with ensconced politicians, either because of the closed power circles, the enlightened character of some leaders, or – especially – the galling corruption of politicians who, in turn, corrupt the exercise of politics, have highlighted the inadequacy of our constitutional charters. This has nothing to do with any shortcomings of the republican principles or the foundations of political liberalism that generated the democratic system’s operational mode: it is a failure of the mechanisms of their daily exercise. The 19th century assumptions that are contained in our constitutions, based on the untouchable logic of representative democracy, have come into tension with the legitimate demand for participatory democracy.

The problem is that the appropriate recipes to respond to that demand are not available yet. For the time being, what we do have are the expressions of an outraged society that is not interested in culprits but in ways to make itself heard, or the exaltation of collective movements - termed "social movements" - that have sought to enshrine "politics in the streets" as the most legitimate popular response to the insensitivity of power, generating rather uncontrolled expressions of power in defense of group interests. These are not yet the answers that could be accepted as alternative profiles for successfully replacing the classic model, but, rather, early warnings for a much-needed in-depth reflection on our constitutions.

Cult of personality and political parties

We cannot ignore the claim made by many successful politicians in Latin America who, due to an excessive cult of personality, to their symbolic representation (ethnic, for example), their innate ability to connect with the people, or the momentum of their ideological proposal, are convinced that theirs is an irreplaceable leadership. It is the old story of the essential, enlightened conductors, the great helmsmen, the ones who embody change. This line of reasoning leads to the search for indefinite re-election and the concentration of all powers in one hand, seriously damaging two crucial principles of democracy: alternation in office and the strength of the institutions over and above individuals. The pretense is none other than to break this extraordinary premise: that the birth of republicanism has to do with the vital need to limit power - as if history had not taught us, ad nauseam, that there are no essential people, only essential causes.

The problems experienced by some leftist leaders who came to power with a strong popular backing, among other things because they were announcing an ethical revolution, and are facing today serious charges of corruption, only comes to prove the above statement. Some of these leaders are now being investigated and prosecuted. What they are arguing in their defense does not seem consistent: "These are politically motivated attacks"; "They are trying to discredit our leaders, so as to weaken the process of change"; "This is a conspiracy of the right and imperialism".

There are no corrupt officials from the right or from the left. There are corrupt officials. In the same way as some neoliberal leaders have been charged and, in some cases, sentenced to prison for corruption, the leftist political figures who are being accused of corruption must defend themselves in court and prove their innocence. It is obvious that such sensitive matters are used politically from different sides, but to hide behind the claim that they are being "persecuted" to get away with it, is not what we would expect from those who raised the flag of the fight against corruption. In any case, this is clearly a highly corrosive issue and one that causes great damage to politics and democracy in Latin America.

The other challenge that the cult of personality does not help to solve is the restructuring of the party system for the 21st century: more horizontal, more participatory, networked, far apart from the "democratic centralism" of the old days, capable of renewing the fossilized, if not completely wrecked, party structures. The parties’ failure or, rather, their logical exhaustion thanks to the crucial contributions of Peronism in Argentina, the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) in Peru, the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) in Bolivia, the Liberals, the Conservatives, the Social Christian Party (COPEI) in Venezuela, the Democratic Action Party (AD) in Venezuela, the Colorado (Red) Party in Paraguay, the National Party in Uruguay ... does not do away with the idea that parties are needed for the proper functioning of democracy: it demands a different perspective to shape them. It is just not possible to have a pluralistic, transparent, participatory, and regenerated system on the basis of building party hegemonies, in the logic of recovering revolutionary premises which, by their very nature, do not involve a democratic, open, dialoguing perspective.

Positive valuation, old challenges

The reckoning of the first fifteen years of this century is definitely a positive one, and leaves us with some ground for moderate optimism, as long as we understand that progress is closely linked with what we have done since the beginning of the nineteen-eighties, when we won democracy back.

Among these positive contributions: democracy – precisely -, the reduction of poverty and inequality, and higher levels of inclusion, in a variety of contexts and from different ideological positions. On the other hand, in many countries, the old elites are still there: they have adapted to the way the new winds of power blow and have managed to penetrate the ranks of the left and co-opt some of its most important leaders.

But these elites are part of the game, and this is not always a bad thing. The contribution of private investment, entrepreneurship, capacity for innovation and change, must be valued and integrated into dynamic and creative national projects.

From what has been achieved in these years – which is substantial -, we should come to the conclusion that we must now fill in the gaps of all that we have not achieved. These are the three main gaps to be filled: education, research and innovation.

Being aware that there are no absolute truths, and that no paths are determined or finished, we will surely be able to keep on practicing self-criticism and gather the necessary strength to continually seek the welfare of our societies.

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