Uncertain Political Future For Latin America's Left

LATIN American leftists - whether dressed in guerrilla garb or not - have been a potent political influence. But they've ``failed miserably'' - except in Cuba - to take power, make revolution, and live up to their lofty ideals, says Jorge Castaneda.

With the end of the cold war and the complete collapse of the socialist model in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, it appears that the United States and capitalism have won. And nowhere, he writes, is the victory ``so clear cut, sweet, and spectacular as in Latin America.''

In his latest book, ``Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War,'' destined to be a classic on the theme, Castaneda ably analyzes the recent history of key leftist groups from the Nicaraguan Sandinistas to the Peruvian Shining Path.

But more important, the last half of the book is an insightful, much-needed look at where Latin America's left is headed and how it must transform itself to remain a political player.

Despite the wholesale adoption of free trade and the ``neoliberal'' policies of ``Reaganomics in the tropics,'' the meager economic growth rates achieved to date, coupled with a widening gap between the rich and poor, are already creating doubts about such policies and fresh opportunities for the left.

``The pendulum is starting back,'' Castaneda said in an interview at his Mexico City home.

In ``Utopia Unarmed,'' he argues that the dire conditions - poverty, injustice, violence - which originally spawned the left are more compelling today and make fertile political ground for another generation of leftist leaders.

In 1980, 136 million Latin Americans (41 percent of the population) lived in poverty. Today, by one estimate, 270 million people in the region live in poverty. It's no surprise, Castaneda says, that in Brazil, where 60 to 70 percent of the population is poor, urban, and largely illiterate, the Brazilian Worker's Party did well in the last elections and is leading the polls for the next presidential vote.

Obviously, the policy path of Latin America's left cannot follow the discredited Soviet economic model. The left must find its own kinder, gentler capitalism. ``The left can begin to craft a paradigm for the future by blending the social corrections imposed upon the market by Western European capitalism, with the business-government complement to the market developed by Japanese capitalism,'' Castaneda writes.

A political-science professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (a long-time leftist bastion), Castaneda argues that the left must also reformulate its nationalist views. With the cold war overlay gone, the threat of US military intervention in the region is fading. A blanket rejection of anything ``Yanqui'' is outmoded. He suggests a new ``longitudinal nationalism.''

Utilizing the methods adopted by the Sandinistas, for example, Latin American leftists should build ties with United States groups that support their policies.

The new nationalism should oppose foreign involvement in drug enforcement and immigration control while welcoming outside help on human rights, the environment, labor rights, consumer protection, and monitoring of elections, he says.

Another banner of the Latin American left must be furtherance of democratic rule, Castaneda says. Democratic principles must be applied within the leftist movements themselves. And, along with fair elections and free speech, the left has to push democratization of civil institutions.

Castaneda argues that the problem with government in Latin America isn't its size, but its lack of accountability (corruption) and its undemocratic nature. Only by perfecting the nascent democracies of the region will government represent the majority of the population rather than a social and economic elite, he says.

Castaneda's ideological stance is obvious. There's no attempt to balance his views with scholars of the political right. But this is an honest, intellectually turgid critique of Latin America's left. No one else has produced a similar work - despite the crying need. And the book is stuffed with fascinating footnotes.

Castenada's last book was ``Limits to Friendship,'' co-authored with Robert Pastor. It's a classic and widely used in university courses on Mexico-US relations. ``Utopia Unarmed'' is likely to find a similar niche, not only in the United States but throughout the hemisphere when it is published in Spanish later this fall.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.