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Mainstream, VOL L, No 37, September 1, 2012

Latin America: Another World is Possible

Sunday 2 September 2012, by Ash Narain Roy


With the entrenchment of democracy, new paradigms of governance are emerging in Latin America. Some would say, a new Latin America is emerging, with a new trajectory of growth, stability and confidence. It is not Castro or Ortega but Chavez, Morales, Kirchner, Lula and many others who have shown that another world is possible. The unmistakable message from Latin America is that there is a world beyond neoliberalism. The past one decade or so has witnessed the emergence of viable alternatives to market liberalism. The region is moving into a post-neoliberal era of develop-ment. The foreign policy behaviour of Latin America too has shown a new pattern. As President Lula said rather bluntly in 2003, “We will not accept any more participating in international platforms as if we were the poor little ones of Latin America, a ‘little country’ of the Third World…. This country has everything to be the equal of any other country.”

Other Latin American leaders may not be that blunt, but they have left no one in doubt that they want to build a world where many worlds can co-exist. They are working to bring about not a universe but a pluriverse of social, cultural and economic configurations. They want a new world order where the present should not be ‘an always postponed future’. Latin America can no longer be dismissed as a “land of tomorrow”.

The post-neoliberal paradigm, exemplified by Latin America, seeks not only to contest the technocratic monopolisation of the political space but also to promote the expansion of the national state, particularly in the economic realm. Latin America is in the process of deepening democracy. The spread of democracy has increased the political legitimacy of governments including those that dislike the United States. Social movements have reap-peared with a force that has no parallel in the region. Latin America has also seen the rise of popular movements, often led by the indigenous populations. It is primarily a fight for asserting their control over their lands, water and other natural resources. The poor and marginalised people perceive globalisation as a euphemism for “second colonisation”.

Given the economic threats, neoliberal offensive in Latin America provided new political oppor-tunities, conditions and catalysts for a new wave of indigenous mobilisation. Decentra-lisation created new political arenas which made local governments more relevant as political showcases for progressive actors.
Some Latin American countries have begun to democratise in their own characteristic way. Ecuador and Bolivia have taken a lead by giving nature “the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structures, functions and its processes in evolution”. The indigenous people have shown a commitment to solve the energy, climate, food and financial crises with their indigenous values. By granting nature equal rights with humans, there is an effort to establish a new relationship between man and nature and how this harmony must be preserved as a guarantee of its regeneration.

If the poor and indigenous people are asserting their rights and opposing corporate loot and unsustainable development, people are also taking to the streets in big cities and small towns to defend their right to education, protect their lands from road and mining projects, and are demanding peace. Latin America is facing a recurring dilemma. Mines, roads and other projects promise economic growth and develop-ment but people are asking uncomfortable questions about unsustainable growth.

In recent months the indigenous people in Bolivia have stopped construction of highways through their territories which threaten their environment and livelihood. They have raised the question of lack of prior consultation before such projects commence. Peru has gone to the extent of passing a law for the right to consulta-tion. In Ecuador, the indigenous people and others voted by 92 per cent in Victoria del Portete and Tarqui in Azuay Province to stop the implementation of a large-scale mining project, owned by a Canadian company. The opposition to the Belo Horizonte dam in Brazil conveys pretty much the same message. Interestingly, the Left-leaning regimes too are rattled by the growing assertiveness of the indigenous groups.

Last year Chilean student protests made news around the world for months. The students peacefully occupied high schools and university campuses throughout the country. They deman-ded an overhaul of the educational system. Chile has one the highest income inequality in the world. Chile’s students confront an education system that is deeply segregated by class. To receive university education poor families have to incur huge debts to pay tuition which can be as much as $ 20,000 per year.

Even Bolivia, which has an indigenous President, had its share of the problem. Last June President Evo Morales announced a controver-sial project to build a road going through the indigenous territory. People got so agitated that they organised a big march toward the national capital, La Paz.

Peru too experienced big protests last year against several mining projects including the Minas Conga gold mining project in Cajamarca in the northern highlands. A strike caused the company to suspend the project which was the largest mining investment in the history of Peru. The protests were due to fears that the project would threaten some 20 lagoons which serve as a foundation for local ecosystems and a source of water for the farming communities.
Another mining controversy that has caused mixed reactions involves an open-pit iron ore mine ‘Aratiri’ in central Uruguay. While some Uruguayans see it as an opportunity for employ-ment and economic growth, others are concerned about the environmental consequences of such ventures.

Latin America has shown that liberal demo-cracy and market economics are neither the only nor the preferred model of development. It may not have dealt a death blow to neolibera-lism and there is no guarantee that market liberalisation will not recur, but the region has begun to search for an alternative economic system. The movement beyond neoliberalism differs from country to country. More and more countries are seeking a greater role for the state and protection from the market’s destructive power. While they favour an activist state, they also believe in building the capacity of the city.

Today’s Latin America is a continent of change. Unlike much of its history, the forces that seem to have the upper hand today are those that have been historically shut out. It is for the first time in its history that Latin America today has its own choices. There are lively and vibrant popular organisations providing the essential basis for meaningful democracy. In the 1990s, Latin America seemed to have arrived at the end of history. Today, history has come roaring back to life.

The author is the Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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