Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sebastían Piñera Wins Chilean Election

Consider this a placeholder for a longer post about the Chilean run-off election which took place today. Why should you care about the Chilean election? Because for the first time since the transition to democracy in 1988 a right wing party has won the Presidency.

While Piñera represents a coalition of right wing parties, some of which supported the Pinochet dictatorship and still defend it, he took pains during the campaign to criticize Pinochet and stake his own ground on the issue. History was made tonight. For early information on the dynamics and importance of the race you can go here and here.

Recherche du Tempts Perdu

Reader, I have some news for you. Apparently the Cold War ended some 20 years ago and someone forgot to notify the people who think, read, analyze and translate Latin America for an American audience. Where the region is concerned, we seem not to have left the 20th century and its political and ideological battles behind.

This has become particularly problematic as the countries which dramatically transitioned to democracy in the 1980s have embraced more nuanced economic and social policies then the so-firmly embraced Washington Consensus of that time. Faced with a changing political panorama and in a thrall of excitement, subtlety in reporting and analysis of the region has all but disappeared. The caricatures that emerged have served little to elucidate or clarify where Latin America is heading. Or what our politics are about. Instead a reader encounters facile narratives where all left-of-center politicians are cast as cookie-cutter Che Guevara types and all right-of-center ones became unconscionable soulless capitalists. It would seem American (and even some Latin American) bon pensants care more about the sexiness of the trendy story they want to tell than they do about accurately explaining the tragic reality behind each country's distinct struggle with and advances in social equity. More importantly, they get to don their Guevara t-shirts and relieve the revolutionary chic of the 1960s—the not-so-new thing out of the tropics has arrived!

A consequence of this tunnel vision is that these audacious interpreters of Latin American maladies have perpetuated a mystification of the left and a misunderstanding of the right in the region. When diagnosing a political crisis or reporting on an election this outright disregard for the nature of the left and the right leads to a broad brush painting of different countries and politicians as a monolithic bloc. Leaders and policies are likened and classified as rapaciously oligarchic, Washington-consensus-inspired or alternatively as romantically revolutionary. In reality some of these comparisons are as farfetched as trying to compare cocos and mangos. Yes, they are both tropical fruits, but aside from that? Nothing much in common. A good example of such caricatures could be seen in the reporting and analysis of the 2006 Peruvian election. Only someone wedded to the sexy narrative of the moment could have characterized then-candidate Alan García as a lap dog of Imperialism when in reality he emerged from the ranks of the long anti-imperialist APRA party of Peru and presided over the country as a populist (with horrid results) in the 1980s. The lurid sensationalism, almost magic realist in character, told readers little about Peruvian politics, little about García and his political platform and little about what issues where really at stake in the election.

In the end these two stereotypes of the left and the right have been drawn for us irresponsibly and conveniently—with equal measures of guilt—by the press, radicals wistful for the good old days and fear-mongering reactionaries. They do not reflect the whole of the political reality of Latin America and ignore the rise of a new generation of intellectuals, writers, thinkers and politicians. In fact, the political spectrum in the region is inhabited by unacknowledged individuals, parties and movements which have their own measured functional approach to the seemingly intractable problems of poverty, violence and inequality. It may not be sexy and just short of the revolution, but it is real.

This is the underreported Latin American story of the decade. And this is the space where you can read all about it.

Why The Corollary? An Introduction.

If you know a little of the history of the relationship between The United States and Latin America you may be familiar with The Monroe Doctrine.

The Doctrine, introduced in 1823, has been the context of hemispheric political and economic relationships for the last 2 centuries. In those halcyon days of the 19th century—when Monroe and Adams (who was actually the individual most responsible for the crafting of this foreign policy) tentatively ventured into global affairs—their goals were perhaps grandiose given the relative power of the United States at the time. But they were certainly modest by future standards and seen with a friendly eye by the former Spanish colonies to the South. The US not only recognized the independence of these newly created Republics, it went further in supporting them, warning the European powers not to meddle or attempt to regain control over them. As is usual with institutions and policies—little could the involved players guess that The Doctrine would become the reason for much American meddling and interventionism in the region, whatever the intent of the United States at the time and the assumptions of their Latin American counterparts.

The Doctrine would only become the much-used-and-abused rational for American policy towards Latin America after the Spanish-American War. And in fact The Doctrine became important mostly because of an expansion of its stated strategic and diplomatic goals. This expansion was introduced by Teddy Roosevelt in 1904, in an amendment to the The Doctrine known as The Roosevelt Corollary.

Any critical examination of the relationship between the United States and Latin America leads back to the Roosevelt Corollary. The Corollary is the foundation on which all the fateful decisions by the US—from the occupation of Haiti in 1915 to the invasion of Granada in 1983—are built on. Except for a few periods, for example the FDR-initiated and very successful but short-lived Good Neighbor Policy, The Corollary has been the strategy that has most shaped our hemisphere. And yet it is the least acknowledged. To this day the US is still working out and living with the consequences of it.

As a Latin American obsessively preoccupied with regional politics and even more obsessively intent on clarifying and updating how these politics are understood in the United States I could not think of a better name for this blog. It is a swan song of sorts to the The Roosevelt Corollary, but also a recognition that our history has greatly determined where we are today. My goal is that through a better understanding of what Latin American politics is today we will be able to move, together Gringos and Latinos, beyond the outdated Corollary.

Welcome to the blog!