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Richard Gott: Latin America at the Dawn of the 21st Century

Political explosions of popular unrest have been taking place all over in the Andes in recent years, almost on a monthly basis. Largely unnoticed by the foreign media, they represent a sea change in the atmosphere in Latin America, a two-headed phenomenon of major significance. The indigenous peoples, the heirs to the age-old civilizations of the continent, have begun stirring themselves politically, moving to center stage in several countries for the first time since the great Indian rebellions of the 18th century. They have grown strong enough to overthrow governments.

During the same period, this predominantly Catholic region has sheered off in a new and unexpected direction, embracing evangelical Protestantism on a hitherto unprecedented scale, creating new social actors, and presenting a serious problem for the Roman Church that is high on the new pope's agenda. Pentecostal churches have sprung up like dragon's teeth, almost without human agency, in the remotest and poorest areas of the continent. When Pope John Paul II denounced liberation theology, forcing radical Catholic priests to abandon their flocks in the shantytowns, the evangelicals moved seamlessly to fill the vacuum.

These developments have multiple and specific causes in each country, but they have arisen to prominence chiefly as a result of the free-market economic programs that have been implemented throughout the continent since the 1980s. These promised untold riches, the increase of national wealth through economic growth, yet in practice they brought large price increases, the cheap sell-off of state enterprises, and a drastic curtailment of services once provided by the government—including health, education, and credit to agricultural workers. In many countries, the great majority of the population found themselves worse off, with no education or medical services of any kind available. This, with the consequent acceleration in the rate of movement from country to town, left people with little to sustain themselves but the self-help communities established by evangelical religion and the ever-expanding networks of cultural nationalism and indigenous mobilization.

In the Andean countries, especially, with memories of a pre-Columbian civilization kept alive over the centuries, this has proved a potent mix. The cultural resurgence of groups reclaiming their Indian/indigenous identity, and the organic growth of the Pentecostal churches, can be detected almost everywhere, from Argentina to Chile, from Brazil and Mexico. The disastrous displacement of indigenous peoples from the countryside, driven out by oil prospectors, logging companies, and coca eradication programs, has produced immense new indigenous cities often invisible to the white middle class. Lima in Peru has become a Quechua city, Santiago in Chile is peopled with Mapuches, driven out of their reservations in the south, Quito in Ecuador has doubled in size, and El Alto, the new Aymara city in Bolivia, threatens to overwhelm La Paz. These urban conglomerations, thanks to modern methods of communication, remain in constant touch with their rural roots.

These epoch-defining developments, chiefly affecting the poorer (and majority) sectors of the population, are beginning to redefine the familiar image of Latin America. Most outsiders still imagine a continent of confident white settlers from Europe, living in a society made secure by the authoritarian military traditions of Spain and the narrow ideology and morality of Rome. The new movements of indigenous peoples and evangelicals are changing this picture, and already causing concern within the existing conservative political establishments in Latin America. Debates within the once powerful leftist movements have also been affected. Gender issues and liberation theology had been taken on board in the last decades of the 20th century, but most people on the left have been unprepared for questions associated with culture, race, and popular religion.

Few have recognized that Latin America is on the brink of an entirely new era, comparable to that of the early 19th century, when Simón Bolívar, a revolutionary from Venezuela, fought for independence from Spain and brought the radical ideas of the French Revolution to replace those of Spanish absolutism. New political actors have come to the fore all over the continent, with the aim of redressing the wrongs visited on the indigenous peoples, and of redrawing Bolívar's postindependence map. They are also calling for an end to the privileges of the old white settler elite and of its Church, both in the name of the continent's original inhabitants and in that of a renewed “Bolívarianism”—the vision and ambition of Bolívar to unite the countries of the former Spanish empire.

The leadership of this movement belongs to Hugo Chávez, the mercurial and charismatic ruler of Venezuela over the past seven years, who has set out single-handedly to revive Latin America's sense of its own history and culture. He is not alone. Many people in the Andean countries of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia are demanding a return to Tahuantinsuyo, the “four states” of the old Inca empire of 500 years ago, stretching from Pasto in Colombia to the River Maule in Chile, and to Tucumán in Argentina. Their aim, in the words of one Peruvian observer, is “to realize the Bolivarian dream with an Inca base.”

These developments have some elements in common with comparable phenomena in other parts of the world. The revival of local and indigenous cultures across borders, threatening the frontiers established in colonial times, has become familiar in Africa in recent years, while the self-help solidarity of the evangelicals is not unlike that provided by the social and cultural movements associated with the revival of Islam. Even the United States has seen a significant revival of indigenous activism, which has not gone unremarked further to the south, and the spread of evangelical religion, although now local and autonomous, started as a U.S. export.

Yet the experience of Latin America, different though in some ways similar to developments elsewhere, is rarely bracketed together with the others, nor has there been much discussion or analysis in the media. Latin America is no longer a beacon, or even a topic of discussion, for the left. In the 15 years since the collapse of Communism, the defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the almost universal acceptance of neoliberal hegemony, political interest in the continent's future has waned. Latin America has effectively disappeared from the screen. Newspaper coverage has been reduced to reports from the specialist correspondents of the financial press, providing the kind of information that only the business community wishes to hear. Television programs consist of travelers' accounts of whitewater rafting, or the lifespan of the condor and the llama.
Yet while no one has been looking, dramatic developments have been taking place. The new era began in February 1989 with an event in Venezuela known as the Caracazo, an explosion of political rage by the underclass in Caracas against a program of free-market reforms. For two days the city degenerated into violence of a kind not seen there since the 19th century, sparked off by an increase in bus fares, but reflecting a much wider political discontent. A thousand people, perhaps more, were killed in the subsequent repression.

The Caracazo was as significant for Latin America as the fall of the Berlin Wall, in November the same year, was for Europe. It marked the first occasion when the free-market agenda, universally adopted in the 1980s, was dramatically rejected by a popular uprising. Comparable rebellions occurred subsequently in other countries, but Venezuela led the way. It was the first to suffer from serious government corruption, and the first to react against the effects of globalization and neoliberalism—the economic recipe enshrined in the “Washington consensus.”

The Caracazo had an important impact on the soldiers who were called on to repress it, and it led inexorably to a military coup attempt in1992 led by Colonel Chávez. The subsequent creation of a powerful current of popular opinion in favor of this remarkable officer was to sweep him into power at elections in 1998. The Chávez government, still popular in its eighth year, was the first (after Cuba) to experiment with an original program of antiglobalization. Chávez draws his inspiration from the nationalist struggles of the 19th century. His heroes are Bolívar, who sought to liberate the continent, Simón Rodríguez, Bolívar's tutor, who opposed European migration and sought to educate the indigenous peoples, and Ezequiel Zamora, a general who championed the peasants against the landlords.

With a strategy of securing the country's oil rents, embracing land reform, and empowering the poor, the blacks, and the indigenous groups, Chávez has become an icon for the other popular, often indigenous movements that have emerged further south. His “Bolívarian” agenda has found a ready audience in the Andean countries.

Chávez has also had an influence on young officers in several countries, reviving the military tradition of left-wing nationalism espoused by General Juan Velasco Alvarado in Peru in the 1970s and by General Omar Torríjos in Panama in the same period. He also keeps alight the flame of the Cuban Revolution, regularly seeking assistance and advice from Fidel Castro, the continent's aging political rock star.

In the years since the first Chávez election victory in 1998, the crisis of neoliberalism has affected the entire continent. New and more radical presidents have been elected, put there by popular pressure, although not themselves always able to escape from the neoliberal straitjacket. A new leftist president took office in Brazil in 2003, the candidate of the Workers' Party with a long track record of hostility to globalization. Luiz Inacio da Silva (Lula) aroused many people's hopes, but when he took the route of neoliberalism, he lost soon lost his initial popularity and his regime degenerated into the familiar pool of corruption that has longed defined the politics of Brazil. Some leftist critics have described him as a Brazilian Lech Walesa, the Polish trade union leader who ended up on the right.

Unprecedented scenes of revolt occurred in the early years of the 21st century in Argentina, in which even the impoverished middle class was mobilized. The normally sober citizens of Buenos Aires were seen banging on the doors of defaulting banks, and the underclass became increasingly active all over the country. Elections in 2003, with a dour cast of political rejects competing for the presidency with no popular support, led to the emergence of President Nestor Kirchner, a supporter of the left-wing Peronist Youth in the 1970s, and widely perceived as a different and new broom.

In neighboring Uruguay, Tabaré Vásquez was elected president in October 2004 as the socialist leader of the Frente Amplio, the heirs to the Tupamaros, the left-wing urban guerrilla movement of the 1970s. In Colombia, the civil war waged since the 1950s endlessly rolls on, its impact exacerbated by the government's economic policies and by the continuing American military intervention, enshrined in “Plan Colombia.” Substantial areas of the country remain out of the control of the central government, as they have been for much of the past 500 years.

Few countries have been exempt from these winds of change. The Caracazo was followed by a comparable explosion in Ecuador the following year. A hundred Indian activists occupied the Santo Domingo cathedral in Quito in May 1990, demanding action from the government to resolve the land disputes in the Sierra, and sparking off an insurrection throughout the country. The government was obliged to negotiate and to recognize CONAIE, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, first established in 1986 by the 11 principal indigenous nationalities in the country, as the legitimate voice of the Indian majority community. Land conflicts and the increasing involvement of the indigenous movements in politics continued throughout the 1990s, with the formation in 1995 of Pachakutik (the Movement of Pluri-national Unity), the first indigenous political party.
In January 2000, thousands of Indians seized the Congress in Quito, shouting the three demands of their movement, “ama sua, ama llulla, ama kjella”—no thievery, no lying, no idleness. They were supported by a group of young army officers, led by Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez, and they brought down the government that had dollarized the economy. Three years later Colonel Gutiérrez was elected president with the support of Pachakutik. The coalition of the military and the Indians was to last for less than a year. It fell apart over the colonel's support for the neoliberal policies of his predecessors, and his retention of the U.S. dollar as the national currency. The result was a division within the indigenous organizations, and uncertainty about their future moves. Yet in 2005 they were able to unite to remove Gutiérrez.

Next in line for dramatic political intervention by indigenous movements was Bolivia, where the attempt to privatize the water supply provoked demonstrations in Cochabamba in April 2000, leading to the cancellation of the contract with the U.S. firm Bechtel. At presidential elections in June 2002, Evo Morales, the indigenous leader of the Movement to Socialism, came a close second to Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada, a right-wing millionaire. A year later, in October 2003, this businessman-president had to be rescued from his palace in La Paz by an ambulance, while the city was given over to rioters protesting against privatization and the imposition of fresh taxes. The police force, itself on strike, confronted armed soldiers, while Indians poured down from the hills to trash U.S. fast-food outlets and supermarkets. President Sánchez fled to the United States.
Early in January 2005, the scene was repeated. Tens of thousands of Indians demonstrated in El Alto, the vast city of Indian rural migrants on the plateau above La Paz, protesting against the increase in the petrol price, and about the profits and inadequate reach of yet another foreign water company—the French Lyonnaise des Eaux that had been operating there since privatization in 1997. Hundreds of thousands joined the protest a day later in the eastern metropolis of Santa Cruz, and President Carlos Mesa, himself the product of the rebellion against Sánchez Losada, declared that he would resign if the demonstrations turned violent. The French water contract was cancelled, but further popular mobilizations in June led to Mesa's resignation. Elections were held in December 2005 and the left-wing Morales won with more than 50 percent of the vote, inaugurating a new revolutionary era in the history of Bolivia.

A similar story has been unfolding in Peru, hitherto less exposed to indigenous politics than the other Andean countries. On New Year's Day 2005 the Andean town of Andahuaylas was occupied by a group of 200 former soldiers demanding the resignation of Peru's unpopular, right-wing president, Alejandro Toledo. Led by Antauro Humala, a retired officer of indigenous extraction, the group's action was enthusiastically supported by thousands of local Indians who flocked to the main square to show their solidarity. Their national indigenous movement, the first of its kind in Peru, has hopes of resurrecting the empire of the Incas. The rebels held out for four days, but were dislodged after President Toledo declared a state of emergency and sent a small army to remove them.

Antauro Humala had staged a similar coup in 2000 with his brother Ollanta, an unsuccessful action that helped, nevertheless, to accelerate the end of the corrupt, ten-year regime of Alberto Fujimori. In subsequent years, the Humala brothers devised a countrywide organization with a nationalist, indigenous agenda. Their “Ethno-Cácerist Movement” has sought to restore the government and geographical space of the Inca empire. Ethno-Cácerism, the formulation of their father, Isaac Humala, invokes the memory of a 19th-century Peruvian president, Marshal Andrés Cáceres, who waged a guerrilla war against the Chilean occupation during the Pacific War between 1879 and 1883.

The organization's magazine, Ollanta, sells more than 60,000 copies every fortnight, and campaigns against globalization, against the free-market system adopted by successive governments, and against privatization. It also sustains a steady diet of articles hostile to Chile, to Israel (a prominent backer of Toledo), and to homosexuality (a preoccupation of many Andean Indians). As in Bolivia, they have concentrated on the privatization of the municipal water companies, something particularly offensive to indigenous opinion. Popular demonstrations in Arequipa in June 2002 prevented the local companies from being sold off to a Belgian firm, and led to the resignation of the economy minister, Pedro Pablo Kucynski, the architect of the privatization program. “Everywhere you look,” he said ruefully, “people say 'the guys follow the model, and they're in the soup. So obviously the model does not work.'” Ollanta Humala is a candidate in the presidential elections to be held in April 2006.

Ollanta's message goes down well in a country where more than half the population are Quechua or Aymara Indians, and it is echoed throughout the Andean region. Peru's white elite, of course, has been virulently hostile to the emergence of this and other indigenous movements in the Andes. Mario Vargas Llosa, the novelist and former right-wing presidential candidate (he is now a citizen of Spain), is an outspoken critic, accusing them of generating “real political and social disorder.” Society faces a choice, he says, between civilization and barbarism.

This is the age-old cry of Latin America's white settlers, indicating an unwillingness to come to terms with the indigenous peoples whose continent they have usurped. It is too early even to guess what will be the effect of these new phenomena. But the prevalence of the free market, once thought to presage “the end of history,” has certainly thrown up some intriguing items in the democratic marketplace. The 70 million evangelicals in the continent today (there were less than 20 million in 1980) will not easily be wished out of existence, and the indigenous movements are clearly here to stay. The Pentecostal churches endlessly divide and quarrel, and the indigenous movements do the same. Each ethnic group, and they are legion, has its own leader. They still perform better in opposition than in government. Yet their presence on the continental stage is permanent, and worth watching. Latin America deserves more attention than it has received in recent years.

Richard Gott—December 2005.

Richard Gott is the former Latin-American correspondent of London¹s Guardian newspaper. He is the author of Cuba: A New History (Yale University Press, 2004) and Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution (Verso, 2005).