Left in the backyard


Nikolas Kozloff is the latest
radical US journalist to find
merit in the challenges posed
to Washington by South
America’s new order


Revolution! South America and
the Rise of the New Left

Nikolas Kozloff
2008, Palgrave Macmillan
249 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

US MEDIA interpretations of the leftward drift in Latin America as a retrograde throwback to a spent era of statism and inflationary social policies are being energetically challenged – from within.

In the latest example of a journalist seeking to make sense of a new order in Washington’s “backyard” defined, above all, by challenges to its hegemony in the region, Nikolas Kozloff has compiled a valuable overview of the key issues raised by the accession of left-of-centre leaders in South America.

While not offering much in the way of original analysis, Revolution! can be placed alongside Bart Jones’s ¡Hugo! The Hugo Chávez Story From Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution and Greg Wilpert’s comprehensive Changing Venezuela by Taking Power as an example of a growing body of literature from within the US critically sympathetic to the progressive agenda being pursued by the Venezuelan leader.

This willingness to give balanced attention, even the benefit of the doubt, to Chávez and his counterparts in neighbouring states who have been challenging or testing the main tenets of neo-liberal economics is, in itself, a phenomenon worthy of comment.

We might speculate that, as the Bush era with its over-emphatic emphasis upon intervention in the Middle East begins to fade into an inglorious past, progressive thought is reawakening to the more realistic possibilities for radical change offered south of the Rio Grande. It is as if radical US journalists have smelt blood and are moving in on their conservative prey. As Kozloff – also senior research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington – points out, Chávez has proved that a government can resist the US and the trend towards unfettered market-driven globalisation.

It is for this reason that fellow writers called upon to comment on his book refer to the work as an “antidote” to the canting coverage of Latin America by the mainstream media, whose hysterical anti-chavismo recalls the vocal anti-castrismo and even the anti-communism of past eras. The notes of the chorus are subtly different, but the tune remains much the same.

It is also why, by far the most interesting section of Revolution! is devoted to the media itself, and efforts led by Chávez to weaken the ideological grip of the US in Latin America by spearheading alternatives to those mouthpieces of Washington whose slick characterisation of what is good and bad in politics and economics has only recently come under close scrutiny. It is in this area that Chávez’s Bolivarian ideals are more likely to have an impact on policy in the region in the long-term.

Signs of integration

Revolution! does two main things: it surveys policies that the broad spectrum of governments in South America deemed to be on the left have in common and where they differ; and it explores the extent to which in these policy areas there are signs of enduring integration within the axis that has coalesced around Chávez.

In energy policy, for example, Kozloff examines the strenuous efforts made by the Venezuelan leader to fashion common policy objectives in the region, and the obstacles to this thrown up by the dynamics of oil and gas production in the individual states of South America. Venezuela is the natural leader in this area, given its vast oil reserves and the degree of leverage or otherwise with the US that derives from their intimate energy relationship. The author compiles an overview that represents a seriously enlightening and positive discussion of energy integration in South America, not least through Venezuela’s Petrosur initiative.

Kozloff examines how Venezuela has injected vigorous new life into that old saw, regional integration, though its Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). He looks at how formerly warm military ties between Washington and South America – a region plagued by military abuses – have cooled considerably. He considers the implications of nationalism fuelled by an indigenous assertion in countries such as Bolivia, the successes and failures of Venezuela’s “revolution” , and the key role in shaping a new form of politics and “participatory democracy” now being played by civil society movements across the continent.

Media and culture

But it is Kozloff’s two chapters on cultural policy and the media that leave observers of Latin America with the most enduring sense that we are witnessing a genuine sea change in state-society relations and the neo-colonial relationship with Washington.

He describes Chávez’s “anti-elitist” cultural policies through which the state promotes people’s art and traditional craft artisanry, and the difficulties the Venezuelan leader confronts in reversing the juggernaut of US consumer culture. Half of the music DJs play, for example, must now be Venezuelan; Chávez has founded a state publishing house to produce free or cheap editions; and a film studio, Villa del Cine, has been established to counteract the influence of Hollywood.

There has been a greatly increased emphasis on the figures of Simón Bolívar and Ezequiel Zamora, and Chávez’s ambitious educational programme includes the creation of the Bolivarian University in which anyone with a high-school diploma can enroll.

State funding of newspapers to counter the ferocious criticism of the anti-Chávez press, grants to websites that present a more balanced view of the regime’s activities such as www.venezuelanalysis.com, and the creation of Telesur, a hemispheric satellite TV station to rival US media networks such as CNN, reveal the Venezuelan leader’s media savvy and the extent to which the mass media has become one of the main ideological battlegrounds of the democratic era. The struggle between Chávez and the oligarchic RCTV channel – whose anti-Chávez coverage The Los Angeles Times described as edging “fully into sedition” – has entered Latin American folklore for its ferocity. Telesur, often billed as South America’s answer to Al Jazeera (with whom it has a content-sharing agreement), is run by a former RCTV news director who has remarked that his former employer practised “a form of media terrorism”. Despite the massive challenges of extending the presence of a news channel across South America – not least given the entrenched position of much more conservative and well established networks such as Brazil’s O Globo – Telesur appears to be prospering, and governments sympathetic to Venezuela are considering freeing space on state channels for its broadcasts.

Revolution! is the study of the relationship between South America and Washington in the new era of the democratic left that was waiting to be written.

It is a timely and thought-provoking foray into an area that will test policymakers in the US like never before for years to come. They would do well, as they begin to adjust to the new realities, to start by reading this book.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books