The next American revolution

Sergio Aguayo Quezada
2 April 2008

The United States presidential election on 4 November 2008 will presage the departure of the conservative right from the White House, a process that will culminate in the inauguration of the country's forty-fourth president on 20 January 2009. This will also be the end of a cycle of history. It is appropriate at such a moment both to draw a balance-sheet of the receding political period and to anticipate the possible shape of the next.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)

"The new Latin America: from Soweto to the Amazon" (17 December 2007)

On the surface the liturgy of transition is - to a Latin American eye - familiar to the point of tedium. The process remorselessly champions the exceptional character of the "American dream", choreographs endless mini-dramas against the backdrop of the nation's flag and colours - while battering the egos of all those who aspire to the post. It is as if religion's judgment of character has been transplanted to the political cycle, whereby any inconsistency or infidelity is an occasion for the country to remind its candidates that they are ultimately at the service of the citizens. The public dissection is carried out, moreover, with that very American mixture of Puritanism and acid wit, mixed with a bit of superstition.

In a democracy, great political transformations find expression, in one way or another, during elections. This year, on the Democratic front, a woman and an African-American are engaged in an epic tug-of-war for the banner of "change" which has already broken box-office records in the United States and the world. This dispute - and the fact that the Republican candidate is in a different mould from the ideological current that has dominated the White House for eight years - emphasises the fact that a chapter of history that has transformed the United States and humanity is coming to an end.

The shifting tide

The retreat of the neo-conservative hegemony in Washington is a historic event. The ideological right will leave the White House comprehensively discredited as a result of the invasion of Iraq and the economic recession. In either case, its sombre record can be rendered in numbers - by counting coffins or adding zeros to the budget and trade deficits.

At the same time, an impressive and enduring element in United States political culture is the capacity to recover from disarray by a form of activist self-encouragement (the "can-do" syndrome). That ability to rethink and reinvent oneself is an integral part of the American experience, and precedents abound.

At the turn of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt embodied the "progressive" reformism that moderated some of the excesses of the untamed capitalism that had so exacerbated social discontent. During the 1930s, Franklin D Roosevelt responded to the great depression with large-scale schemes of state intervention that both reactivated the country's economic life and redefined the state's own role in the larger political economy.

The next United States president may be obliged to play a comparable major role as the architect of a new domestic order. But the drama that will culminate in George W Bush's departure from the stage has significant international dimensions too. The next president will inherit from President Bush a society confused as to its role and place in a world that, for the most part, consistently rejects conservative and neo-liberal policies. This represents a retreat of the tide that carried Ronald Reagan to the US presidency in 1980 to lead what became in effect a worldwide political and economic revolution (whose gospel to the collectivist world had two basic commandments: "thou shalt have clean and trustworthy elections, and thou shalt make structural adjustments in order to establish a market economy even more extreme than ours").Among openDemocracy recent articles on Latin American politics:

Stephanie Blankenburg, "Venezuela: a complicated referendum" (4 December 2007)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia's controversial constitution" (10 December 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, "Latin America's dynamic: politics after charisma" (19 December 2007)

Celia Szusterman, "Pulp friction: the Argentina-Uruguay conflict" (30 January 2008)

Guy Hedgecoe, "Ecuador's politics of expectation" (1 February 2008)

Catalina Holguín, "Colombia: networks of dissent and power" (4 February 2008)

Richard Gott, "Fidel remembered: a view of the Cuban revolution" (20 February 2008)

Andrew Nickson, "Fernando Lugo vs the Colorado machine" (26 February 2008)

Now, almost thirty years on, the paradigms are changing. This is becoming obvious even in Washington, where the series of reports that recognises the mistakes and excesses both of the neo-liberal years and of the Iraq war is increasing in volume month by month. The Inter-American Development Bank's annual report, for example, recognises that social exclusion - an indicator of the appalling imbalance in the distribution of income in the region, just one legacy of the entire conservative era - is the "most dangerous threat that democracy faces in Latin America and the Caribbean" (see Gustavo Márquez, ¿Los de afuera?, Informe de Progreso Económico y Social / BID, 2008).

The lost superpower

History has never been either unicausal or predetermined. If the approach to the second world war created a propitious context for Mexico to nationalise its oil, and for Juan Domingo Perón to make it into power to twist the already twisted Argentinean psyche, the result of the invasion of Iraq has been to broaden Latin America's margins of autonomy - in a way that the left has taken advantage of. The most extreme expression of multicausality can be observed on Cuban territory. The United States's military base at Guantánamo Bay on the eastern tip of the island has seen the establishment of an infamous jail for prisoners of a distant war that in turn opened spaces for the Cuban regime in Latin America.

These are, then, promising times to imagine what new political balances might be emerging. The relevant questions include:

* where does the western hemisphere as a whole stand in relation to the readjustment of world power in these first years of the century?

* how will the United States try to recover its diminished influence - and lost spaces - in Latin America?

* how will those countries that took advantage in order to occupy those void spaces react?

A couple of decades ago, when the Berlin wall started to crack, American conservatives boasted that history had ended and that they had won. Their country is still a superpower but it would be absurd to place bets on the place that the United States will occupy in a decade. In part, that will depend on what happens in this year's presidential election - the focus of a competition so fascinating, so novel and so charged that, at times, what is truly relevant becomes obscured. But even if its essence can only be glimpsed amid the spectacle, Latin Americans too can continue to appreciate a passionate and educative contest.

This article was translated by Alfonsina Peñaloza

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