Sunday, January 17, 2010

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.

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