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Something is Happening There

Nikolas Kozloff, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

In Venezuela, the revolution is televised. Each Sunday, Hugo Chavez treats his country to a one-man variety show—Alo Presidente!—that would make Ed Sullivan blush. He sings, dances, grills subordinates, belittles the opposition, tells jokes, interviews distinguished guests, and delivers history lectures, all the while advertising his self-styled Bolivarian Revolution. These broadcasts represent weekly salvos in a political war—pitting the country’s conservative elite versus its radically leftist leader—that increasingly claims the airwaves as a primary battleground. Yet as scholar and journalist Nikolas Kozloff points out in his new book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left, this polarizing contest is limited neither to television, nor solely to Venezuela.

Latin America’s media wars are but a small part of Kozloff’s lively and wide-ranging look at the continent since its tectonic shift to the left nearly a decade ago. Beginning with Chavez’s 1998 election in Venezuela, a cascade of similarly minded leftists has swept into power across South America. In Brazil, Luiz Ignacio da Silva—a labor union organizer known popularly as “Lula”—captured the presidency with a landslide victory in 2002. The following year Nestor Kirchner, an obscure, provincial governor, rose to power in Argentina. The changing of the guard in Buenos Aires spread next to neighboring Chile, where voters ushered into office their first female president, Michele Bachelet in 2005. South America’s shift away from the right continued a year later with the elections of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

That the past decade has witnessed a dramatic turn to the left in Latin American politics is abundantly clear; the question remains whether the region’s recent flirtation with socialism signals a departure from its tortured modern history, or merely represents an updated rerun of similar episodes from the past. Firmly stationing itself at the intersection between these competing possibilities, Revolution! looks to provide some preliminary answers.

Kozloff charts a course across the leftist landscape of South America, travelling from the more radical countries in the Andean north to the less revolutionary states of the Southern Cone. While there, he interviews an extensive roster of academics, activists, and government representatives, and collects his own impressions of the region’s progress in escaping the shadow of its authoritarian past. What emerges is a loosely organized assortment of portraits and meditations that fairly well captures the disparate nature of Latin America’s emerging political posture.

Kozloff is no romantic. While clearly sympathetic to the political agendas propagated by the various leftist governments currently in power, he is less enthusiastic about what he witnesses on the ground. Kozloff sees the Lula regime in Brazil as unrivaled in its corruption and willingness to abandon poor constituents. He correctly takes the Kirchner administration to task for its abysmal labor record and penchant for patronage politics. In Chile, Kozloff documents Bachelet’s use of water cannons and tear gas to subdue student protesters demanding affordable education. The situation in Bolivia is possibly more distressing still, where Kozloff reports that issues of indigenous rights and constitutional reform have threatened the state with disintegration.

But Kozloff is no Jeremiah either. In Ecuador, he finds the recently elected Correa deftly steering his country away from historically entrenched racism and practices of environmental degradation. In all the countries Kozloff visits, he sees invigorated social movements taking shape. And if the majority of leftist governments have failed to fully meet the expectations of their citizens, Kozloff demonstrates that, for the most part, the sensitivity of national governments to civil society organizations has improved remarkably throughout the continent.

As in every current discussion of Latin America’s left turn, however, all roads eventually lead to Hugo Chavez. Accordingly, Kozloff devotes the majority of his attention in Revolution! to Venezuela. If the region is indeed experiencing some sort of revolution as Kozloff’s title suggests, then Venezuela surely inhabits the vanguard. Since recovering from an attempted coup in 2002, Chavez has ramped up the revolutionary rhetoric, and grown increasingly aggressive in his practical politics. Yet while he fires the imaginations of supporters at home, and sparks hope in the international Left, significant questions linger concerning the nature of Chavez’s Bolivarian project.

Of greatest concern, as Kozloff rightly argues, is its sustainability. He writes, “Venezuela is awash in oil money, and people’s expectations are high. However, public discontent over inefficiency is mounting, not just among the opposition but among sectors of the population that support the Bolivarian Revolution. People are calling for the right to health care, the right to housing, and the right to work.”

And they are acquiring those rights, albeit unevenly, through the government’s “Bolivarian Missions,” a series of state-subsidized associations tasked with alleviating inequities in education, health, and housing suffered by Venezuela’s poor. Perhaps not surprisingly, however, these alternative systems of social welfare delivery lend themselves to political hostage-taking in the ongoing battle between Chavez and his opposition: Kozloff notes:

Public hospitals are confronting even more daunting problems than the primary care system. Public health care pits two systems, divided largely by politics, against each other. Though Chavez has spent millions on the Barrio Adentro [mission], he has largely ignored the traditional public hospitals…Chavez has underfunded the traditional hospitals because the physicians’ associations supported the 2002 coup and oil lock-out of 2002-03. Doctors complain that Chavez wants to ‘trample’ the old system by not supplying adequate maintenance or resources.

Such charges cannot be taken lightly. As Revolution! makes clear, the more disturbing aspects of Chavez’s rule notwithstanding, life in Venezuela—and the continent more broadly—is undeniably better for the majority of its people. The advent of Latin America’s New Left has sparked a renaissance of social justice movements, and articulated new possibilities for the region’s economic arrangements after decades of disastrous neoliberal reform. Moreover, fears of a return to military dictatorship have been safely dispatched by the return of a vibrant civil society, while many previously marginalized sectors of the population have been brought back into the political fold.

So what does the future have in store for Latin America? Implicitly embedded within Kozloff’s observations is the assumption that South America is on an inexorable march toward regional integration. To be sure, Revolution! concludes by examining the region’s prospects at deepening union. “Many have long proposed closer South American political and economic integration, but the time to move forward has never seemed more propitious.” Maybe, but recent evidence suggests that Kozloff’s optimism may be premature. If the latest bout of macho chest-thumping between Chavez and Colombian president Alvaro Uribe is anything to go by, hopes for integration are tempered for the time being by lingering antagonisms and continued U.S. influence.

It comes as no surprise, then, to find Kozloff arguing that integration offers the best hope for loosing the region from the chokehold of American power. His observation that the possibility of “South America speak[ing] as one voice on the world stage” would “deal a severe blow to U.S. power,” rings true. But Kozloff remains disappointingly silent on another critical ingredient to the future of Latin American prosperity, whether integrated or not: China.

When Fidel Castro pointed out in 1953 that the region “export[s] sugar to import candy, we export hides to import shoes, we export iron to import plows,” he made reference to the debilitating dependency of Latin America on United States markets. Countries in South America find themselves in much the same spot fifty-five years later, though the terms of agreement have been slightly altered. As the balance of power in international relation shifts east, South America has increasingly become the focus for Chinese foreign direct investment and trade.

Today, Latin America exports its natural resources, not just to the United States, but increasingly to China in return for inexpensively manufactured goods. As a result, local industries are undercut, and the region’s economic development has gradually been cast in doubt. Has the New Left’s rush to China’s embrace set the stage for a return to classically colonial trade practices, with Latin America on the losing end? Kozloff doesn’t say, leaving readers with as many questions at the end of Revolution! as at its start.

Will Latin America’s New Left find ways to stimulate self-sustainable growth without falling under the sway of foreign domination? Can it do so without retreating from the global political economy? Most importantly, will South America’s new crop of socialist-inspired leaders be able to strike the balance between meeting the hopes and demands of their poor constituents without bursting the constraints of their very real economic limitations. Stay tuned.


Michael Busch

Michael Busch is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at the CUNY Graduate Center.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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