Latin America’s message to the Arab world

Latin Americans should share their experiences with democratisation with other countries in the global South.

dilma rousseff
Now the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff was tortured in 1970 by the country’s military junta [Ricardo Amaral]

Take a good look at this 1970 photo.

The 22-year-old woman in the photo is about to be examined by a bunch of subtropical inquisitors.

She has just been tortured, electrocuted and waterboarded – what Dick Cheney dismisses as “enhanced interrogation” – for 22 days.

Yet she didn’t break down.

Today this woman, Dilma Rousseff, is the President of Brazil – the perennial “country of the future”, the world’s seventh-largest economy by purchasing power parity (ahead of the UK, France and Italy), a member of the BRICS, and exercising a soft power way beyond music, football and joy of living. 

This photo has just been published, as part of a Rousseff-biography, exactly when Brazil finally launches a Truth Commission to establish what really happened during the military dictatorship (1964-1985). Argentina, way ahead, already did it – judging and punishing its own surviving inquisitors in uniform.

This Saturday, Rousseff will be in Buenos Aires for the swearing-in ceremony of Cristina Kirchner, re-elected as President of Argentina. The presidents of these two key South American countries are women. Tell that to the Tantawi junta in Egypt – or those democratic paragons at the House of Saud.  

These things take time

Egyptians may not know that it took Brazilians no less than 21 years to get rid of a military dictatorship. The unbreakable Dilma in the photo is the 1970s counterpart of the Google generation today fighting for democracy from Cairo to Manama, from Aleppo to eastern Saudi Arabia.

Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose – except a lot of time. In Brazil, real democracy was advancing just as it was smashed by the 1964 military coup – actively supervised by Washington. The coma lasted for a long two decades.

Then, in the 1980s, the military decided to dub their snail-pace “transition” towards democracy as “slow, gradual and secure” – secure for them, of course. But it was the street – Tahrir Square-style – that finally turbocharged it.

The strengthening of democratic institutions took over a decade – including a presidential impeachment for corruption. And it took another eight years for a president – the immensely popular Lula, whom Obama revered as “the man” – to open the way for Dilma.  

So the road was long until one of the most unequal countries in the world – ruled for centuries by an arrogant, rapacious elite who only had eyes for the wealthy North – finally enshrined social inclusion as essential to national politics.

The progress in Brazil was parallel to many other parts of South America.

A partial climax was reached this past week, when the new Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (known by its acronym in Spanish, CELAC) met in Caracas. CELAC started as a flaming idea for the emergence – in a new world-system, as Immanuel Wallerstein would have put it – of an integrated Latin American nation, based on justice, sustainable development and equality. Two men were instrumental in the process – Lula and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Their vision convinced everyone from Uruguayan President Pepe Mugica – a former guerrilla leader – to Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, a banker.     

So now, amid the agonic crisis across the Atlanticist North, Latin America surges with the possibility of a real “third way” (forget the Tony Blair variety).   

While Europe – dictated by the God of the Market – is engineering the further impoverishment of its own people, Latin America accelerates its push for increased social inclusion.

And while virtually every latitude from Northern Africa to the Middle East dreams of democracy, Latin America may actually open to scrutiny the hard-earned fruits of its democratic achievements.

Stay focussed, expect no gifts

CELAC is a powerful bet on vigorous South-South dialogue. The body, in this initial stage, will be directed by Chile, Cuba and Venezuela.

Former Tupamaro guerilla leader and President of Uruguay Pepe Mugica said it very clear in Caracas that the road ahead towards the dream of Latin American integration inevitably will not be a rose garden. Quite a few ideological battles will be fought before a wide-ranging political and economic project takes shape.

CELAC complements Unasur – the South American union – dominated by Brazil. Unasur is also still in the beginning; for the moment it is essentially a forum.

And then there’s Mercosur – the common market of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and, soon, Venezuela. In Caracas, both Dilma and Cristina have sealed their further integration with Chavez.

Brazil’s top trading partner is China; it used to be the US. Soon number two will be Argentina – also overtaking the US. Trade within Mercosur is booming – and will continue to boom with the incorporation of Venezuela.

Yet there’s no shortage of snags in the path towards integration. Chile prefers bilateral agreements. Mexico looks north first – because of NAFTA. And Central America becomes practically a US satrapy because of CAFTA.  

Still, Unasur has recently approved a crucial strategic project in geopolitical terms; a 10,000-km fibre optic network, managed by local state companies, to get rid of dependency on the US.

For the moment, no less than 80 per cent of the international data traffic in Latin America passes through submarine cables to Miami and California – twice the percentage in Asia, and four times Europe’s.

Internet fees in Latin American are three times more expensive than in the US. It’s hard to talk about sovereignty and integration under such conditions.

Washington – which exports three times more to Latin America than to China – in fact is and will remain focussed elsewhere; in Asia, to where the Obama administration is fond of selling the Pacific Century agenda.

The fact is that Washington – as well as Latin American right-wingers – has nothing to propose to the peoples of Latin America, either politically or economically. So it’s up to Latin Americans to perfect their democracies, advance their own regional integration and devise alternative, social-democratic models to hardcore neoliberalism.  

By one of those tricks played by Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, perhaps now is also the time for Latin Americans to share their experience with their Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in the global South.

The road is indeed long. It starts with a 22-year-old woman staring down a dictatorship. And there’s no turning back. 

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.