Back on the Map

September 25, 2007

In a recent piece in Foreign Policy magazine, editor Moisés Naím argued that Latin America has become a “lost continent,” and that the region “can’t compete on the world stage—not even as a threat.” Even the anti-Americanism emanating from our south, most readily embodied in Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, doesn’t hold the weight of the growing legions of suicide bombers of Iraq, Afghanistan and their neighbors. While recognizing that leftist leaders elected in the past five years are far from monolithic, Naím argues that “prolonged mediocre economic performance” is a cornerstone of the dissatisfaction sweeping the region, and that it unites the people of Latin America in their sense of “rage, revenge, and impatience” with their political leaders. Patience, he argues, is needed to solve the problems of Latin America and reverse the decades of poor economic performance. Patience, he says, will put the region “back on the map.”

Perhaps it should not be surprising that a technocrat such as Naím would fail to connect the anti-Americanist impatience he ascribes to some 500 million people with the decades-long history of economic subjugation to the hegemonic doctrines promoted by the United States and the international financial institutions; it is far easier to ignore history than engage it. “Latin Americans,” he reminds us, “have been experimenting with brutal, heavy-handed swings in their political economy since the 1970s.”

We can only assume that the brutal heavy-handedness to which Naím refers, though he makes no mention of it, is the steady entrenchment of U.S.-promoted neoliberalism, first introduced in Chile in the early 1980s and then sown throughout the region under the auspices of structural adjustment and, later, the Washington Consensus. To be sure, it was Latin American elites who put these policies into place, but, as Paul Drake argues in a new NACLA book, “the celerity with which most of the Latin American republics capitulated to [the neoliberal] U.S. offensive in the 1980s and 1990s was stunning.” Latin America was to be the proving ground for the neoliberal project, which was to stabilize the region after the debt crisis, jumpstart economic growth, and make the region competitive on the world stage. State-owned enterprises and services were privatized, social institutions and protections were eroded, wages and per capita income stagnated—and, as we all know, the growth never materialized.

The showpieces of the doctrine—first Mexico, then Argentina—suffered near total collapse. And yet, Naím would have us believe that Latin America’s impatience with this legacy will be the region’s undoing, and that only a moderation beholden to the imperative of economic stability will lift Latin America’s 165 million impoverished people from their squalor and put them “back on the map.”

Meanwhile, the people of Latin America aren’t waiting to be put back on someone else’s map. Demonstrations, uprisings, and elections from Chile to Los Angeles have made clear that the peoples of the Americas are no longer content to wait and see who might finally deliver on the promises made over the past 40 years. Perhaps the most striking feature of this “impatience” is the structural analysis put forth by everyday people throughout the hemisphere. From students in Chile to miners in Bolivia, from teachers in Oaxaca to restaurant workers in Chicago, the people of the Americas understand the relationship between their subordination and the penetration of their local and national governments by the neoliberal imperative.

To be sure, this frustration with the legitimacy of local and national governments is having repercussions for governability, as we are seeing so vividly in Oaxaca (and as is discussed eloquently by Carlos Monsiváis in the pages that follow). But in a region where the needs of the people have been so long subordinated to the imperative of economic growth and stability (even as that growth and stability have failed to materialize), new models of and for inclusion must be built into Latin America’s democratic processes.

In this way, 2006, as the “year of elections,” should be seen not as the end of the neoliberal period—indeed, this moment is a highly uncertain one and the interests behind the neoliberal imperative remain firmly entrenched—but as the beginning of a new era, in which Latin America rebuilds its social democratic traditions, breaks free of the constraints of imperialism, and reorients the very map from which it has been so easily erased.

How fitting, then, that the birth of this new era should coincide with NACLA entering its fifth decade. We celebrate in 2007 the 40th anniversary of the publication of the first NACLA Newsletter, a mimeographed eight pages that signaled the arrival of what would become the most-widely read English-language publication on Latin America. NACLA’s achievements over the last few decades, chronicled by Fred Rosen on the occasion of our 35th anniversary and published in the Report, mirrored the ever-changing political situation in Latin America. During dark periods of dictatorship and civil war, the NACLA Report brought readers in the U.S. information they could not find anywhere else, and directly challenged structures of power throughout the Americas. NACLA changed the lives of scholar-activists in the Chile and Central America solidarity movements, and, as our FBI file shows, was a force to be reckoned with.

Of course, our anniversary provided an opportunity to reflect not only on what we’ve done, but on what role we play now. Clearly, a great deal has changed since 1967. Though our mission—to provide information and analysis as tools for education and advocacy—remains as relevant as ever, the way people search for and use information has changed dramatically, even in the last decade. So we had to think carefully about how people use NACLA and the information we provide, and how best to reach new people who are seeking to make sense of the world in order to change it. In this process, it became clear that we had been assuming that our long and prestigious history was enough to see us through and ensure our longevity. I was, therefore, charged with the somewhat daunting task of moving an organization as venerable as NACLA forward, into a new era in which we would be not only what we once were, but more: reach more people, provide more information and, above all, make more of an impact.

So, how will we do this? Well, in a number of ways—the most important of which is to move aggressively onto the Web, where we can bring our readers not only the information contained in the Report, but more news, analysis, and resources. You’ll see a brand new NACLA website in the coming months, where we will provide more content, and also a place for Naclistas to come together to debate and discuss issues, to share knowledge and expertise, and to take action on the issues that are so vital as this new era unfolds. This is a propitious time for NACLA, and I’m thrilled to be a part of this process of change. I thank you, NACLA reader, for keeping us, and the peoples of Latin America, on your map for these 40 years. Here’s to 40 more. ¡Pa’ adelante!


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