No longer left out

An eloquent and accessible overview of leftwing politics in Latin America will fill the gaps in knowledge of armchair scholars


The New Latin American Left:
Utopia Reborn

Edited by Patrick Barrett, Daniel Chavez and César Rodríguez-Garavito
2008, Pluto Press
302 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

REVOLUTIONARY REFORM is just one of the apparently paradoxical possibilities thrown up by the explosion of leftwing politics in Latin America since democratisation.

After some bleak years following the end of the Cold War in which a confused and divided Left rummaged around for a sense of direction, there is a new coherence providing global leadership that is encapsulated by such diverse initiatives as the World Social Forum and the Bolivarian Revolution.

But how can all these faces of the contemporary Left be understood and put in context, and what is their contribution to broader debates?

The New Latin American Left addresses these questions with an eloquent and highly accessible overview of leftwing politics in the region that will fill the many gaps in knowledge of armchair scholars.

Patrick Barrett, Daniel Chavez and César Rodríguez-Garavito have compiled a collection of essays that both situate developments in individual Latin American countries within the broader leftward drift, and tease from these examples lessons for the Left more broadly.

As the authors point out, the resurgence of the Left – from the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela a decade ago to the more recent victory in Paraguay of Fernando Lugo – has taken analysts by surprise and their work has yet to take systematic account of the phenomenon.

Fortunately, The New Latin American Left does so – making this essential reading for students of politics in the region and anyone else trying to get a handle on the highly plural manifestations of leftwing politics that, at first sight, may be difficult to understand. This book provides a confident and authoritative comparative regional perspective while also offering a valuable reference tool. It takes as its point of departure Utopia Unarmed, Jorge Castañeda’s pioneering but ultimately mistaken foray into unknown territory in the early 1990s that coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the then ascendancy of neoliberalism among economic policymakers.

Direct democracy

The New Latin American Left traces the contours of a very “new” Left in Latin America that put behind it that era defined by milestones such as the Cuban Revolution, Chile’s Popular Unity government and the Sandinista revolution. This new Left is defined as much by its commitment to direct democracy and its pluralism as it is to the old saws of economic equality and control of the state. The editors write:

“As numerous analysts have shown, a good part of what is original about the new Latin American left can be found in the way these traditional concerns have been expanded to include many different agendas related to ethnicity, gender, race and other sources of inequality…” [pp.2-3]

The first part of the book focuses on parties and examines the most prominent experiences of leftwing national and local government in Brazil, Venezuela and Uruguay as well as Colombia. The second section examines social movements in those countries that have experienced continuous and dynamic mobilisation since the 1990s: Argentina, Mexico and Bolivia. The third section balances the empirical focus with essays that offer a more general and theoretical perspective on the new Latin American Left. Atilio Boron, the Argentinian intellectual, considers the central problems facing the new Left in Latin America: its relationship with democracy and the need to find alternatives to neoliberalism. He argues that the obstacles facing the Left are real, but can be overcome. He writes:

“… it is worth recalling here the lessons derived from the Cuban case. Despite all the obstacles it has faced for nearly half a century, Cuba has been able to make significant advances in the construction of a democratic society – that is to say, a society in which the distribution of goods and services of all types is highly egalitarian, and in which the scandalous gap in wealth that separates the governors from the governed in the rest of Latin America does not exist … If Cuba did it under those conditions, what are the insurmountable obstacles that prevent similar achievements in countries that enjoy much more promising prospects?” [pp. 253-254]

Boaventura de Sousa Santos, the radical Portuguese sociologist, concludes by taking stock of debates and efforts at association on the Left today, such as the World Social Forum, that suggest the need for theoretical guidance in a situation of “depolarised pluralities”. The distance between the practices of the Latin American Left and the classic theories of the Left are greater today than at any time, he argues:

“This reciprocal blindness of practice in relation to theory and theory in relation to practice produces, on the one hand, an under-theorisation of practice and, on the other, an irrelevance of theory. That is to say that the blindness of theory renders practice invisible, while the blindness of practice makes theory irrelevant. This reciprocal lack of co-ordination gives rise to, on the side of practice, an extreme oscillation between revolutionary spontaneity and a self-censored and ultimately innocuous sense of the possible, and on the side of theory, an equally extreme alternation between a post-facto reconstructive zeal and an arrogant indifference to anything unaccounted for by theory.” [p. 255]

De Sousa Santos is one of a number of political philosophers including Enrique Dussel who have emerged to develop that theory in relation to current leftwing practice in Latin America, nurturing what might be called the Left’s “will to coherence” – a phenomenon that the very publication The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn forms part of.

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

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