The New New Left in Latin America

As it has been throughout much of its history, today’s Latin America is a continent of change. Unlike much of its history, the forces that seem to have the upper hand right now are those that have been historically shut out: the poor, the indigenous, and the majority of the workers. The popularity of the Chavez government in Venezuela and the Morales presidency in Bolivia, combined with the existence of left-leaning governments in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Ecuador and Brazil has altered the traditional relationship between these countries and the United States. Naturally, much of Washington is not happy with this turn of events. Meanwhile, anti-capitalist and indigenous rights activists joined by leftists and progressives discuss their meaning. Can a government be anti-capitalist? How leftist are these governments banding together in their opposition to the northern behemoth called the United States?

Writer and student of Latin American politics Nicholas Kozloff has written a book examining these and other questions regarding the leftward drift in Latin America. His first book, titled Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S., examined the rise of Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution. Kozloff’s reading of the phenomenon is skeptical but hopeful. It is also told from a left viewpoint that mistrusts the monolithic model of Cuba almost as much as it distrusts US imperialism. His new book, Revolution: South America and the Rise of the New Left continues in a similar vein.

Comparing and contrasting the various left-leaning governments in Latin America, Revolution is both an update and a critical guide to the various possibilities Latin America might face in the future. His on-the-ground approach brings him into contact with activists for social justice and government officials. Never too academic, the text is very readable and accessible. One page provides the reader with the insights of the author; another page gives the reader a glimpse into the thoughts of a veteran of some social movement; and another gives the opinion of an academic observer of Latin American history and monetary policy. There are at least two things going on here: the first is a look at the various nations changing the political face of Latin America, and the second is a study of those nations’ attempts to create a united front in order to confront the US wolf always ready to blow their house in.

There is no glossing over of the problems the people of the countries looked at here face. The balance between indigenous desires for autonomy and the population’s fascination with those things US culture beams into residents’ living rooms via satellite television is but one. Others involve internal debates and conflicts over the representation of different demographic elements in each society. On a continent-wide scale, many differences exist between the cultures, economies, and desires of the different peoples the governments studied here must represent. Add to that the enmity of Washington and its allies in the South and the only thing certain is that the future of the popular movements represented by the governments examined in Kozloff’s book are anything but certain.

Yet, there is hope that the historical relationship between the governments of Latin America and their people may be forever changed thanks to the current crop of populist governments in power throughout the continent. This possibility rests on a number of circumstances both external and internal. Kozloff examines them all, from the potential downside of the growing identification of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela with the persona of Hugo Chavez to the continued subversion of change by Washington, its so-called free trade pacts and the aggressive actions of its clients in the Colombia government and the opposition parties of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

Revolution: South America and the Rise of the New Left is an erudite examination of the recent history of the changes occurring throughout Latin America. While certainly sympathetic to these changes, the text maintains a critically supportive tone and outlook. The narrative is at once as intimate as the stories of officials who rose from the illegal slums and as analytical as the examination of the economic and political arguments for and against Latin American integration. Those in North America who dismiss the significance of the populist revolution taking place to the south — either because it’s not “left” enough or because they genuinely believe that nothing that happens in Latin America could really matter — would do well to read this book.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

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  1. Kay said on April 15th, 2008 at 5:58am #

    Great article! I’m in full agreement that the political landscape of Latin America is changing and it is an important and noteworthy modification.

    I will definitely pick up Revolution: South America and the Rise of the New Left.

    Thank you