Learning from Latin America: Instead of Expending Our Energy on Constant Critique, We Should Be Learning from the Progressive Changes in Latin America

By Massey, Doreen | Soundings, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Learning from Latin America: Instead of Expending Our Energy on Constant Critique, We Should Be Learning from the Progressive Changes in Latin America


Massey, Doreen, Soundings


This article is born in part out of exasperation. I am fed up with having to defend the so-called pink tide in Latin America when in fact there is so much that we 'over here' could be learning from the experiments that those progressive countries are undertaking. So I want to turn defence into positivity.(1)

But apart from my impatience there is a serious conjunctural reason for making this case. If, as we have been arguing in Soundings, the economic crisis of neoliberal capitalism might provide the conditions for a wider ideological and political challenge that could engender a moment of real rupture, then we need all the resources we can get. At such moments, it is vital for the left to have examples of - and for the right to eliminate - any practical operational possibilities for a progressive way out from the troubles besetting the hegemonic settlement.

During the last such period of potential breakdown, with the collapse of social democracy in the 1970s and 1980s and the battle over what would follow, there were experiments in left alternatives. They were hesitant and not without problems, and neoliberalism of course won. But the left alternatives were taken seriously enough by the right to be very vigorously attacked. Among these ways out to the left there was the innovatory municipal politics of the GLC and the Metropolitan Counties (they were simply abolished). And there were experiments in the global South, among them in Nicaragua. I remember to this day, having left London where I'd been working with the GLC, sitting in Managua and watching a speech by Ronald Reagan, broadcast in this Sandinista capital, in which he told the world of the threat posed by Nicaragua. (This was why he was backing the Contra war.) Behind him, a map of Central and North America, plain save for the boundaries of countries, showed a small red patch at the bottom - Nicaragua. And as he talked, the red patch bled north, through Central America, through Mexico, to lap on the banks of the Rio Grande. Threat? Three million people; no oil; no nuclear weapons; we didn't even have chocolate or enough biros.

It was the threat of a good example that Reagan feared. One of my arguments here is that right now, with the neoliberal settlement in at least economic crisis, the emergence of a range of progressive experiments in Latin America holds out the possibility for us to point to, and learn from, a way out to the left.

There are many things we could learn, but the focus here is on just three areas, all of them probably unexpected - 'democracy', 'the media' taka the freedom of the press) and 'space'. The first two are important because it is on these that most criticism of Latin America has been levelled. In both cases not only are the criticisms often downright wrong; they also offer lessons that we in the North could team from, if we are to improve our own pallid democracies and dysfunctional media.

Moreover the very fact that these are the areas where we find the dominant lines of attack itself reflects the nature of the articulation, under neoliberalism, of those two old incompatibles liberty and equality. 'Liberty' has won out over equality. (2) So Venezuela is attacked for its supposed lack of liberty while there is no mention of the strides that have been made in addressing poverty Indeed I would argue that the attack on grounds of lack of liberty is precisely designed to obscure the advances on the equality front. In this mindset, 'liberty' is usually referred to as democracy But a prerequisite of democracy is equality So the case crumbles on a multitude of grounds.

A discussion of 'space' is here for rather different reasons. The political left in Latin America has taken this issue more seriously than is customarily the case in Europe. It is one of the more unusual spheres of politics in which progressive Latin America has been especially imaginative and in which it might provide another provocation to our own political imaginations. …

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