From Soweto to the Amazon

Sergio Aguayo Quezada
17 December 2007

Latin America is in turmoil because it is immersed in a three-track transformation: renewing its leaderships, seeking solutions to ancient problems, and readjusting its relations to the world.

Sergio Aguayo Quezada is professor at Mexico's Colegio de Mexico. Among his books is 1968: Los archivos de la violencia (Grijalbo/ Reforma, 1998).

His website is here

Among Sergio Aguayo Quezada's articles in openDemocracy:

"America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS" (24 July 2005)

"Washington vs Latin American democracy" (29 November 2005)

"Fraud in Mexico?" (7 July 2006)

"Mexico's democratic lifeline" (12 September 2006)

"Mexico: on the volcano" (24 November 2006)

"Mexico: living with drugs" (16 March 2007)

Monica Chuji Gualinga, a Quechan indigenous woman from the Ecuadorian Amazon, is just one emblematic figure in this great process. This 34-year-old has spent no less than her twenty-one years old years defending the rights of her community, for which she has received support of development NGOs linked to organisations in other countries. Monica, despite her youth, is at the centre of the silent revolution taking place in Ecuador: she is one of the 132 congressmen and congresswomen in charge of redesigning the constitution. Like many of her compatriots, she is dissolving the stereotype of the submissive Indian who talks softly and looks at the ground. After so many years of being burdened by history, Monica Chuji Gualinga and her companions are becoming agents of history.

In Ecuador - and there are equivalent initiatives across the region - the new progressive agenda is embodied in the Ecuadorian "Magna Carta" project. This seeks respect for human rights, protection of the environment, and the construction of a "pluricultural and multi-ethnic" state that is based on a "regime of autonomies". It respects the market economy while seeking to modify the way in which it functions in the country; in particular, it break with the straitjacket imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

The seeds of change

A strand of this story began in Soweto, South Africa, three decades ago. In 1976 a handful of European development or solidarity organisations (plus one Canadian institution) created the International Education Exchange Fund to help train the next generation of young South Africans capable of leading their country beyond apartheid. In 1979 the model was exported to Latin America with the creation of the Project Counselling Service - an institution with a singular combination of qualities in that period of dictatorships and one-party rule: a neutral name, a low profile and ambitious goals. Its mission was to protect victims of conflict and to support the consolidation of those civil organisms out of which new leaderships could develop.

The Consejería (Counselling) - as the organisation is known in the region - operated according to a simple rationale. The strategic design and the priorities of the Consejería were devised in consultation with a group of Latin Americans; the European and Canadian bodies which nurtured and promoted it also provided funding for projects prepared and monitored by this group, and would have guaranteed legal representation in the Consejería. If the influx of resources and the external impact are indicators of success, the Consejería has been indeed been successful: it has channelled approximately $200 million to local initiatives and projects, and a good number of its counterparts have been and are key agents of change.

On the eve of the Iberian-American summit in Santiago on 8-10 November 2007 - the one whose headlines were dominated by a public dispute between the king of Spain and the president of Venezuela - the Consejería entered a new stage. At a meeting in Peru, the European and Canadian sponsors voluntarily handed over the management responsibility of the Consejería to eleven people. There were two Europeans and one Canadian, while the rest were Latin Americans; six were women and five men, of whom I am one.

The fruits of transformation

This institutional and cultural reform is another sign of the three-dimensional transformation with which this article began; part of an exceptional moment in a region where a coincidence of factors is bringing into sight new and radical solutions to the region's political and social problems. These factors centre both on Latin America's own development and its relations with the outside world; and they particularly reflect the steep decline of United States influence in the region.

The Iraq war has reinforced Washington's traditional indifference to Latin America and led most Latin American governments to move further outside the US orbit. Why, these governments have calculated, expose oneself to attack by Islamist fundamentalism when there are abundant local conflicts to address; why submit to the failed recipes of the IMF and the World Bank when resources and channels exist elsewhere to explore economic solutions? The independent fever is evident everywhere: for example, Ecuador's president has declared that he will renew the authorisation for the United States's military base in his territory if Washington sanctions an Ecuadorian base in Miami.

The void left by the superpower is being filled by other countries. Spain's rising presence in the region, for example, is both diverse and turbulent - reflecting both the complexity of this historical relationship and the current dynamics of change across Latin America.

The region has received from Spain honest and entrepreneurial businessmen along with adventurous corsairs willing to do anything to obtain a quick or easy win; politicians of sensibility and respect along with those of coarseness and arrogance (among the latter is José María Aznar, who in a Mexico already polarised by the dubious election of 2006 instructed us to vote for the candidate closest to his own Partido Popular). Spain's influence includes a healthy multiplication of cultural and social networks: for example, the Consejería's management meeting sees Mónica Chuji, the indigenous Ecuadorian, sit next to Pilar del Barrio, a Spaniard with years of commitment towards the marginalised in the region.

From this human and institutional melting-pot, the new America is arising. There are no precedents for what is occurring. Neither is there certainty about the future. What can be said with confidence, as 2007 ends, is that - in a globalised world where millions of citizens are seeking new routes to dignity, security and voice - it seems natural that a process initiated by Europe and Canada in Soweto reappears thirty years later in the Amazon.

This article was translation by Alfonsina Peñaloza

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