Contradictions in the Latin American Left

25 August 2010 by Immanuel Wallerstein

Latin America has been the success story of the world left in the first
decade of the twenty-first century. This is true in two senses. The
first and most widely-noticed way is that left or left-of-center parties
have won a remarkable series of elections during the decade. And
collectively, Latin American governments have taken for the first time a
significant degree of distance from the United States. Latin America has
become a relatively autonomous geopolitical force on the world scene.

But there has been a second way in which Latin America has been a
success story of the world left. Movements of the indigenous populations
of Latin America have asserted themselves politically almost everywhere
and have demanded the right to organize their political and social life
autonomously. This first gained world attention with the dramatic
uprising of the neo-Zapatista movement in the Mexican state of Chiapas
in 1994. What has been less noticed is the emergence of similar kinds of
movements throughout Latin America and the degree to which they have
been creating an inter-American network of their local organizational

The problem has been that the two kinds of lefts - the parties that have
achieved power in the various states and the/ indigenista/ movements in
the various states - do not have identical objectives and use quite
different ideological language.

The parties have made as their principal objective economic development,
seeking to achieve this objective at least in part by greater control
over their own resources and better arrangements with outside
enterprises, governments, and intergovernmental institutions. They seek
economic growth, arguing that only in this way will the standard of
living of their citizens be enhanced and greater world equality achieved.

The/ indigenista/ movements have sought to get greater control over
their own resources and better arrangements not only with non-national
actors but also with their own national governments. In general, they
say their objective is not economic growth but coming to terms with
PachaMama, or mother earth. They say they do not seek a larger use of
the earth’s resources, but a saner one that respects ecological
equilibrium. They seek/ buen vivir/ - to live well.

It is no surprise that the/ indigenista/ movements have been in conflict
with the few most conservative governments in Latin America - like
Mexico, Colombia, and Peru. Increasingly, and quite openly, these
movements have also come into conflict with the left-of-center
governments like Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, and/ even/ Bolivia.

I say even Bolivia because that is the one government that has elected
an/ indigenista/ president with massive support from the/ indigenista/
population of the country. And nonetheless, there has been a conflict.
The issue, there as elsewhere, is whether and how natural resources are
developed, who makes the decisions, and who controls the revenue.

The left parties tend to accuse the/ indigenista/ groups that come into
conflict with them of being, wittingly or not, the pawns (if not the
agents) of the national right parties, and of outside forces, in
particular of the United States. The/ indigenista/ groups who oppose the
left parties insist that they are acting only in their own interests and
on their own initiative, and accuse the left governments of acting like
the conservative governments of old without real regard for the
ecological consequences of their developmentalist activities.

Something interesting has recently happened in Ecuador. There, the left
government of Rafael Correa, which had won power initially with the
support of the/ indigenista/ movements, subsequently came into sharp
conflict with them. The most acute division was over the government’s
wish to develop oil resources in an Amazonian protected reserve called

Initially, the government ignored the protests of the indigenous
inhabitants of the region. But then President Correa invented an
ingenious alternative. He proposed to the wealthy governments of the
global North that, if Ecuador renounced any development in Yasuni, these
wealthy governments should compensate Ecuador for this renunciation, on
the grounds that this was a contribution to the world struggle against
climate change.

When this was first proposed at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009,
it was treated as being a fantasy. But after six long months of
negotiations, five European governments (Germany, Spain, Belgium,
France, and Sweden) have agreed to create a fund to be administered by
the U.N. Development Program to pay Ecuador not to develop Yasuni on the
grounds that this contributes to the reduction of carbon emissions.
There is talk of inventing a new verb, yasunize, to denote such deals.

But how many such deals could one make? There is a more fundamental
issue at stake. It is the nature of the “other world that is possible” -
to use the slogan of the World Social Forum. Is it one based on constant
economic growth, even if this is “socialist” and would raise the real
income of people in the global South? Or is it what some are calling a
change in civilizational values, a world of/ buen vivir/?

This will not be an easy debate to resolve. It is currently a debate
among the Latin American left forces. But analogous situations underlie
much of the internal strains in Asia, Africa, and even Europe. It may
turn out to be the great debate of the twenty-first century.

Other articles in English by Immanuel Wallerstein (1)



8 rue Jonfosse
4000 - Liège- Belgique

00324 226 62 85