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Latin America

The Left on the Move

New Book Charts Roller Coaster Ride of South American Left

Thursday 11 September 2008, by Benjamin Dangl

Throughout the past eight years of the Bush administration, North and South America have politically and economically been heading in opposite directions. While Bush waged wars, curtailed civil liberties and spread neoliberalism, South Americans stopped corporate looting, ousted corrupt presidents and developed economies for people instead of profit. Journalist Nikolas Kozloff’s new book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) looks behind the scenes and politics of this changing continent.

At the start of this lively and accessible book, Kozloff, a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and author of the earlier book, Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), poses the question he seeks to answer with Revolution!: "What are the contours of this political earthquake that has spread through the hemisphere?"

The book serves as a useful introduction to the region’s current political dynamics, and Kozloff’s writing shines when he describes lesser-known characters and stories in the South American shift to the left. Readers are introduced to Efrén Icaza, an environmental activist in Quito who tells of his family’s hardships growing up under the thumb of the oil industry in rural Ecuador. While sitting in a café and being approached by some of the city’s all too common begging children, Icaza describes his father’s 16 hour workdays in the oil fields, their 60-70 mile drives on horrible roads between oil wells-living in squalor so that private oil company executives could become rich. Telling Kozloff of his father’s struggles, Icaza says, "I think you never would have found those kinds of labor conditions in the US."

Icaza’s stories underscore the fact that so much money has historically gone into building up the oil industry in Ecuador to export oil, while very little money has gone into social programs and development for the actual communities living and laboring in Ecuador’s vast oil country. The author charts the bubbly, toxic and corrupt history of oil in Ecuador and how the new President Rafael Correa is working to take back the reigns of this industry-which account for 40% of the country’s export wealth-and put it under state control.

Throughout the book, Kozloff meets with people inside and outside the government halls of power. Alberta Acosta, Ecuador’s Minister of Energy and Mining under Correa, listens to jazz in his office and during the interview digs up a small book of writing by Bertolt Brecht, quoting a passage by the author on the political decisions one makes in everyday life. Acosta says, "I believe you have to have values, and those values can be processed throughout political engagement." He tells Kozloff of the private oil companies that interfered with different government ministries in the past. "Before, oil companies would communicate with the president in an arrogant manner, almost an order, indicating what needed to be done." Now, as Kozloff explains, the times are changing, and Ecuador is another nation that is asserting its energy sovereignty.

Venezuela and Cuba are natural allies, and Kozloff adeptly digs into some of the two nations’ recent collaborations. He looks at Venezuela’s "Oil Sowing Plan" in which Cuban "communities design their own development projects and PDVSA [the Venezuelan state oil company] provides the funding." In 2005 PDVSA paid $6.9 billion for social, educational and health programs in Cuba. Also among the successes Kozloff applauds is the fact that "Chavez helped to undercut the US trade embargo" against Cuba. Without the Soviet Union, Cuba faltered, but Chavez stepped in with money and oil, allowing Castro, "in May of 2005 to double the minimum wage for 1.6 million workers, raise pensions for the elderly, and deliver cooking appliances to the poor." The Chavez government also provided Cuba with $412 million in subsidized goods and opened a state bank. This type of aid and new state business collaborations are developing throughout the region thanks largely to Venezuelan support.

This new regional integration, Kozloff writes, is formed in part by Cuban doctors at community health clinics in Caracas, in rural hospitals in Bolivia, and by new South American cooperations in lending and financial aid. For example, the Bank of the South, an institution promoted by Chavez and powered by oil money, "could eclipse the IMF in the region." The author also points out that though Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has disappointed much of his leftist base by pursuing neoliberal policies, the leader of the region’s most powerful economy has offered breathing room for Chavez and other leftist leaders in South America.

In sections of the book on the changes in Bolivia under President Evo Morales, Kozloff describes the partial nationalization of the gas industry, the redistribution of land, expansion of health and educational services to marginalized communities and other positive policies. However, he gives the impression that much of these changes are due specifically to Morales as a leader, when in fact they are the result of years of mobilizations among various grassroots groups. Similarly, Kozloff depicts Morales as a key leader in the 2003 Gas War against Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. However, Morales was outside of the country during much of those protests and played a limited role in them, while other militant groups, particularly in El Alto, led the charge against the president and his neoliberal policies.

Yet throughout the book, Kozloff doesn’t back away from addressing the complexities and contradictions of the region’s various leftist governments and movements. He occasionally looks at the Venezuelan government with a critical eye, commenting on the Chavez administration’s centralization of power and offers examples of the government’s inefficiency, mismanagement of funds, and troubling environmental track record, suggesting that in the oil-powered economy, "the environment could prove to be Chavez’s Achilles’ heel." Kozloff also mentions the new "boliburguesía"-a word compound of "Bolívar" and "bourgeoisie"-which is "a riff on Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution and the new class of elites it has created." This new class of politicians, bureaucrats and middlemen, Kozloff writes, "could form an impediment to the advancement of socialism."

However, Venezuela offers plenty of reasons to be hopeful. A chapter entitled "South American Media Wars" starts off with a close look at Telesur, Venezuela’s new hemispheric TV station. The network has an audience of 5 million viewers and is broadcasted in 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries with 24-hour programming. As its proponents explain, Telesur is a way to show South America through South Americans’ eyes. In an interview, Kozloff asks Uruguayan Aram Aharonian, Telesur’s director at the time, "To what extent does Telesur contribute to South American integration?" Aharonian responds, "The problem in Latin America is that we don’t know anything about each other, we are blind to ourselves. We always saw ourselves through the lens of Madrid, London, New York. We begin with the idea that first we must get to know ourselves. Our problems are similar, the expectations are similar. Telesur is merely a tool so that people get to know what’s happening in Latin America, so that people recognize, ‘Oh, that’s Ecuador,’ or ‘Oh, that’s Chile.’ And this may spur the process of integration, as you say."

Many nations in South America are working together with a revived civil society and using natural resource wealth to empower the state and development projects. Kozloff writes that Valter Pomar, Secretary of International Relations with Brazil’s Workers’ Party, is confident that progressive regional integration between nations would have a positive geopolitical impact because it "would take place within the context of a rising left movement. That is important, because the European Union was pushed for and created under conservative governments."

As Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left is a book about a currently unfolding phase in Latin America, it sometimes raises more question than it answers, namely-what’s next? In a chapter aptly titled, "Integration For Survival" political analyst Emir Sader looks to the future of the region: "It’s unclear where it’s all headed. But the continent has three or four more years left with these regimes in power. That’s why it’s possible to deepen the process of regional integration, not to the point of being irreversible, but relative irreversibility to the point that a new neo-liberal government might have problems changing course."


Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007). He edits, a progressive perspective on world events, and, a website covering activism and politics in Latin America.