Latin America’s recent rightward spiral should not be seen as the end of the populist era in the region.
Atacama is a cool and arid region that occupies a continuous strip for about 1,000km along the coast of the northern third of Chile, reaching as far as the Peruvian border in the north. As the driest desert zone on Earth, it is a good metaphor to describe Latin America’s current dry spell of influential ideas and political appeal.
What do the two dozen countries which make up Latin America have in common? Arguably, they have been the vanguard of different historic movements at various moments of their 200-year histories as national units.
Latin America experienced a unique process of liberation from its colonial masters – Spain and Portugal – early in the 19th century. While most African and Asian nations gained national independence only from the 1950s onwards, one can truthfully claim that countries such as Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina and Brazil were leading the Global South’s anti-colonial struggle. Latin American revolutionary movements fought and won against colonialism starting back in the 1850s. Afterwards the region became the centre of innovative ideas in politics, economics and the arts.
But these creative revolutionary times are now gone.
Vanguard of diplomacy, economy and literature
Many of the practices now associated with modern-day diplomacy and international law were pioneered and put into practice in Latin America already in the second half of the 1800s.
Take the concept of multilateralism, which soon became a fundamental principle for each and every diplomatic corps from the region. The full mastery of legal techniques and codes was then perceived to be one of the strengths of Latin American representatives, especially when they joined high-profile international conferences.
The principle of “diplomatic asylum”, for example, has found a fertile ground in Latin America, having been transformed into one of our proudest traditions.
Yet Latin American thought would actually come of age in the course of the 20th century. An exquisite group of economic thinkers – from Argentine Raul Prebisch to Brazilians Celso Furtado and Fernando Cardoso and Chilean Enzo Faletto – has been responsible for crafting the theory of dependency and most of its intellectual derivatives.
As a school of thought, it has revolutionised the field known today as developmental economics and highly influenced the doctrines applied by a diversity of presidents and ministers, bankers and chief economists. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America is still dominated by such thinking.
In 20th-century literature, the magical realism genre was dominated by Latin American literary giants such as Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cuba’s Alejo Carpentier, Mexico’s Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, Uruguay’s Horacio Quiroga, and Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar, among others. Beside being awarded Nobel and other literary prizes, this group of literary stars dictated the tendencies in the world of arts and culture. For some time, they were the ones to be watched, followed and liked.
In a nutshell, contemporary Latin America is definitely not an artistic, economic and/or political trendsetter.
Latin America had a lot to contribute to some negative political trends, too. A recent column in The Economist magazine went as far as drawing a link between US President Donald Trump and Argentina’s late President Juan Domingo Peron.
However problematic this kind of exercise might be from a historian’s viewpoint, it recognises that populism as a political mode of action has roots between the Rio Bravo and the Patagonian Pampas.
One cannot but recognise the creative capacity of Latin American political leaders of the 1900s.
Recycling of old ideas
Unfortunately, today, all we see is the recycling of old ideas.
In the realm of economics, the experts of neo-developmentalism engage in fierce battles against neoliberal enthusiasts in the pursuit of ascendancy.
In electoral competitions all across the region, neo-populists and neoliberals keep attacking each other, as if they have the infallible formula for generating social welfare and political stability. Not to mention other softer forms of power – cinema, the fine arts, literature, etc – where Latin America’s leverage is far below the curve and it can no longer claim to be part of the vanguard. In a nutshell, contemporary Latin America is definitely not an artistic, economic and/or political trendsetter.
Diplomacy, a historical reservoir of political acumen and national pride in Latin America, is hardly able to save us from humiliation and oblivion. Donald Trump presses forward with his anti-Latino migration policies and does not get any significant or articulate response or any sign of resistance from our leaders. To say the least, it is sad and shameful to witness the self-helping behaviour of Brazil’s and Argentina’s presidents in their relations to the US and their refusal to denounce the outrageous proposal to erect a wall between Mexico and the US. Latin American states are engaged in a “race to the bottom” on who will be America’s new pet. And the worst of all is that they are not paying attention to China and India rising.
Indeed, Latin America has contributed an innovative set of social policies to fight illiteracy, bad healthcare, chronic hunger and extreme poverty lately. But even these successful moves are now under jeopardy, since the political mood in the region is presently averse to investments aimed at rescuing the most impoverished and vulnerable ones from marginalisation. In the name of fiscal austerity and other ideas which used to be fashionable in the 1980s and 1990s, many good administrative practices are being abandoned.
As a consequence, the region is lagging behind the rest of the world. Whatever international political or economic forum you take as a reference – whether hosted in Halifax, New Delhi, Davos, Shanghai or Munich – scanning its programme would inevitably lead you to the same conclusion: No one cares about Latin America now.
Dawisson Belem Lopes is a professor of international and comparative politics at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and a researcher of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) in Brazil.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.