The mirror stage: Obama and the Latin left

If Obama wins, the outreach of this peacable figure could send confusing tremors southwards
Ivan Briscoe
21 August 2008

Last year, Time magazine made her the "Latin Hillary." It was a comparison which President Cristina Kirchner seemed to fancy, just as Germany was the country she wished Argentina to become. A few months later, bruised in the opinions polls and beaten in the convulsive struggle over farm taxes, she faced the press - for the first time in her presidency - and let it be known that Obama was her new idol. "I've never been as interested in a presidential election in the United States," she said.

The liking does not yet seem to be mutual. A report in Chile's El Mercurio newspaper quotes diplomatic sources as indicating that Obama plans to visit Latin America during his campaign, but only the safe places run by prudent socialists and cooperative accountants - Chile, Mexico and Brazil. Nothing too daring: no campaign approach to the Bolivarian quartet or the Kirchner dynasty, and definitely none to Raúl Castro's mobile phone perestroika.

If a more perfect union is what you are after, then these latter are not countries for a photo-op. Argentina's president is in a corner, trying her hardest to change tack while altering nothing, not even the disgraced statistics bureau. Venezuela still simmers, outside the media glare for a while as Chávez spreads his state ever more widely and the opposition figures out a way to steal his thunder. It is hard to imagine Obama in one of the Bolivarian's Endogenous Development Nuclei, though I could be wrong.

But in the other direction, the beatific outreach of a peace-making mulato has proved very seductive. Fidel has praised the candidate from his bed, while Chávez cannot quite muster the splendid fury of his anti-imperialism when ticking off "the little gentleman". How Cristina would like to do as Obama does, and as her husband did, and dissolve the resentments of black and white in a hard stare at the operations of global banks and corporations. Or travel from one country to the next, as Chávez did last year, and stir up mass devotion with the spine tingle of substantial political change.

The radical, redistributive promise of Obama is almost certainly in spite of himself, yet his telegenic surface has undoubted appeal beneath the Río Grande. Latin America's left-wing "revolutions" have depended on a two-switch process: the law of the heart for the poor and marginalized, roused by people like themselves taking power and promising dignity; and a rule of iron, marked by the employment of political and ideological tools suited to keeping power in hostile, oligarchic environments (new parties, media laws, price controls, managed corruption, and, of course, anti-imperial crusades).

Here is the problem. Just by existing, Obama prises apart these two, often contradictory elements. Within the Latin left, he harvests sympathy even as he works for the devil. A top adviser to Venezuela's foreign minister insists that the "the state machinery in the United States functions with or without a president," that the structure itself is turned on the poor of the global south. He adds that Democrats are also much better at starting wars.

But it will still nag Chávez and others were Obama to become president. Darker than most of the Venezuelan's compatriots, and certainly more so than the ruling couple of Argentina - a society where class and skin colour tend to coincide - President Obama could no longer be the site where these or other rulers displace domestic class hate and turn it into global mobilisation; he is not a "daddy's boy," not a "squalid oligarch". McCain would be business as usual, in every single way. He may not be interested in the region, but Obama in the White House could send strong and confusing tremors across the continent.

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