The gods that failed
A writer's recantation highlights the intellectualfailures of the Latin American left
LEAVE aside Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and no writer has done more to shape the mental imagethat both locals and outsiders have of Latin America than Eduardo Galeano. In 1971 the thenjournalist published “Open Veins of Latin America”, a scorching tirade against foreignexploitation. Now in its 84th impression in Spanish, it remains a fixture on the exiguousshelves devoted to Latin America in bookshops in Europe and the United States. In all, it hassold over a million copies. Hugo Chavez gave it to Barack Obama when they met in 2009.
“Open Veins” is written in powerful prose, with intoxicating passion. But it is also a work ofcrude propaganda, a mix of selective truths, exaggeration and falsehood, caricature andconspiracy theory. It is the bible of “dependency theory”, the notion dear to the left that“underdevelopment in Latin America is a consequence of development elsewhere, that we LatinAmericans are poor because the ground we tread is rich in resources.”
The message is one of anti-capitalism as well as anti-imperialism. Mr Galeano brackets as“mechanisms of plunder” both “the caravelled conquistadors and the jet-propelled technocrats;Hernan Cortés and the [US] Marines; the agents of the Spanish Crown and the InternationalMonetary Fund missions; the dividends from the slave trade and the profits from GeneralMotors.” He dismisses all possibility of reform; Cuban communism offers the only route tosalvation.
So when Mr Galeano let slip, in remarks at a recent book fair in Brasilia, that today he wouldfind “Open Veins” unreadable, it was almost as if Jesus's disciples had admitted that the NewTestament was a big misunderstanding. He added that when he wrote the book he lacked“sufficient knowledge of economics and politics” and that it belongs to “a past era”.
Indeed so. Asia's economic development and Latin America's commodity-fuelled economicboom of this century expose dependency theory as simplistic nonsense (although it still hasadherents in Latin American Studies departments). Social democracy, as practised in Brazil,Chile and Mr Galeano's own Uruguay, has offered more to the Latin American masses than theCastros' bankrupt police state.
But the contention of “Open Veins” that Latin Americans are poor because someone—multinationals, local capitalists or the United States—is stealing their wealth retains aprofound resonance in the region. It lives on in the rhetoric and actions of governments inVenezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina. The political recipe has modulated, however. Inplace of Cuba's armed revolution, the formula now is one of “radical democracy”—or“populism”, as its detractors often call it.
This has involved charismatic leaders winning power through elections by claiming tochampion “the people” against their oppressors. They then hold on to power by ruthlesslyseizing control of all state institutions in the name of the majority and by rewarding theirfollowers with jobs and benefits via an expanded public sector.
The theoretical champion of radical populism, its mobilisation of plebeian masses and itsconfrontation with the established order was Ernesto Laclau, an Argentine politicalphilosopher who lived in Cricklewood, a placid north London suburb. He argued that populismwas an antidote to the capitalist domination of liberal democracy and to the hegemony oftechnocratic “administration” over the realm of “the political”. Laclau died, aged 78, in April. Heremains influential. Ricardo Forster, a friend and sympathiser, was this month named byArgentina's president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, to the new and Orwellian post of“strategic co-ordinator for national thought”.
Yet Laclau's radical populism contains the seeds of its own downfall, both because it relies onindividual leaders (Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro, lacks his mentor's charisma) and,above all, because it offers no economic answers. Chavista Venezuela, sitting on vast oilreserves, has proved incapable of organising a reliable supply of toilet paper, a product thateven theoreticians need. Having run short of hard-currency reserves, Ms Fernandez's Argentinahas begun to cut subsidies and make its peace with its foreign creditors, prompting Mr Forsterand his friends to warn against a “conservative restoration”.
Mr Galeano's recantation and the mounting difficulties of radical populism are reminders thatcapitalism is the only route to development in Latin America. The task for its proponents is toshow that it can be a tool not just to create wealth but also to overcome extreme inequality.
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