[5 June 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 colorful broadcasts represent weekly salvos in a political war between the country’s conservative elite and 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.
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 reflects the disparate nature of Latin America’s emerging political posture.
While clearly sympathetic to the political agendas propagated by the various leftist governments currently in power, Revolution! soberly dissects their many weaknesses and shortcomings, as well Indeed, Kozloff finds that South America’s New Left governments rarely practice the progressive politics they preach. On a more hopeful note, though, Kozloff sees invigorated social movements taking shape in each of the countries he visits. And if the majority of leftist governments have failed to fully meet the expectations of their citizens, Kozloff demonstrates that 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. While he fires the imaginations of supporters at home and sparks hope in the international Left, however, significant questions linger concerning the nature of Chavez’s Bolivarian project.
Yet there is little doubt that, as Revolution! makes clear, the more disturbing pockets 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 US influence.
But Kozloff remains disappointingly silent on another critical ingredient to the future of Latin American prosperity, whether integrated or no: 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 55 years later, though the terms of agreement have been slightly altered.
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.