Confronting Neoliberalism

September 25, 2007

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union three years later created a world fundamentally different from the one in which the Latin American left had been active. The Soviet Union’s demise, much to the surprise of many anti-Soviet leftists, almost entirely removed from public discourse not just one particular alternative to the present capitalist system, but also the belief that any real alternative was possible. It was not only existing socialism, but existing social democracy that was deemed to have collapsed. All alternatives were declared dead and buried by powerful “opinion makers,” mostly based in the North. Aided by the proliferation of U.S.-supported free-market think tanks, all the models of growth and development that involve some state intervention were lumped into one and that one model declared a failure. In fact, leftists began to be portrayed as conservatives, as antiquarians holding out against the one true faith of free-market capitalism.

This was the ideological tide that NACLA, along with the Latin American solidarity movements and the rest of the left, found itself swimming against in the early 1990s. At that time, then-associate editor Deidre McFadyen wrote a series of self-critical “Taking Note” editorials about the solidarity movements’ incomplete vision and lack of staying power. “The days of black-and-white situations and clear-cut solutions are gone,” she wrote in December 1992, and “this grayness seems to have induced paralysis and indifference among former activists....” But under the guidance of McFadyen and other editors, NACLA’s contributors over the past ten years have attempted to report and analyze the very “grayness” that has discouraged so many activists. They have, for the most part, taken the stance of “critical journalism” that won the day in the 1980s.

It had become apparent to the Naclistas of the early 1990s that the principal contradictions of the era, the ones that NACLA should cover, appeared not in armed conflict but in the consolidation of the power of global capital. Transnational capital, largely through a series of treaties brokered by multilateral lenders and innovations in the financial industry, had gained almost instantaneous mobility—the ability to provide and withdraw its “services” at a moment’s notice.

NACLA’s coverage of neoliberal globalization anticipated the emergence of the full-blown anti-globalization movement in Seattle. By the mid 1980s, NACLA had already begun paying close attention to the debt crises and free-market restructurings that were just beginning to become the scourge of the region and its working populations. Then, in February 1993, NACLA published “A Market Solution For the Americas?: The Rise of Wealth and Hunger.” The issue, later expanded into a book called Free Trade and Economic Restructuring in Latin America, was a close examination of the neoliberal model—privatization, deregulation, a reduction of the public sector through “fiscal balance,” integration into the global economy on the terms of the dominant economic powers and, perhaps above all, a cranking up of labor discipline—in a number of key countries. It also laid out the critique of neoliberalism that would later be taken up by the “anti-globalization” movement. In the greatest neoliberal success stories, the editors wrote, “macroeconomic growth was accompanied by stagnant or declining real wages, an unambiguous growth of poverty, a loss of social benefits, a breakdown of community and explosive growth of the informal, marginal sector of society.”

This was not a critique of all capitalist models. The old global economic model, after all, put in place in the capitalist world by the Bretton Woods agreements at the close of World War II, was based, however inconsistently, on a kind of social compact. The compact was highly uneven and guaranteed the hegemony of capital—especially U.S. capital—but it was a pact in which large segments of the population were included, and it legitimized the idea of the state’s responsibility for the social well-being of its citizens. This model had been incorporated in many Latin American countries by way of state-sponsored import-substitution industrialization, state-run systems of social security, and highly regulated trade and investment relations with the developed world. The past two decades, however, have seen the gutting of that old model and the evaporation of the social compact—with a vengeance throughout Latin America—and its replacement with the neoliberal scramble for wealth and survival. The enemy of the “anti-globalization” movement has become “neoliberalism,” not “capitalism.” This has been reflected in NACLA’s critique.

Just as NACLA was strongly influenced by the emergence of Latin American armed struggle in the 1960s and 1970s as well as the apparent success of Cuba’s Leninist regime, its analysis has most recently been strongly affected by changes in Latin American politics in the 1990s, particularly the significant weakening of the state and the parallel growth of popular movements fighting for specific reforms and local initiatives. The latter was the subject of “Introduction to Hope: The Left in Local Politics,” published in July-August 1995.

This new era has also seen an emphasis on new kinds of issues: immigration and Latin American communities in the United States; race and ethnicity; gender and sexuality; the drug war. These issues had been considered marginal to the grand narratives of social transformation and the analyses of corporate structure that characterized the earlier periods; they now seemed more central to multidimensional analyses of domination and liberation. NACLA looked at immigration and U.S. Latino communities in 1992 in Reports called “Coming North” and “Roots of Empowerment”; gender and sexuality were dealt with on their own terms [see “The Long March to Feminism,”] in a number of Reports beginning in the mid 1990s. Current editor JoAnn Kawell had authored a Report called “Coca: The Real Green Revolution” in 1989 and edited one called “Drug Economies of the Americas” in 2002: “It was very hard to bring up the drug issue in 1989,” she remembers, crediting then-editor Fried with the “courage” to cover the topic. “It was then considered to be marginal to the debate on U.S.-Latin American relations. Ten years later it is one of the key issues. That’s a big change.”

Another change is the much greater emphasis on questions of human rights. Solidarity activism had brought human rights to the forefront of NACLA’s coverage, especially in the context of Central America. For years, the left had considered “human rights,” with its individualistic focus, secondary to “social justice.” Because of Central America’s extreme poverty and the horrendous brutality of its old regimes, the two began to merge; the Central American solidarity movements spent a great deal of time and energy documenting human rights abuses, as well as “accompanying” targeted local activists, especially in Guatemala, in order to afford them greater protection. Looking back on her solidarity experience, McFadyen remembers defining the Central America conflict as a “conflict of values”: Basic justice and human rights were counterposed to the brutality that seemed time and time again to have U.S. support. As the Sandinistas attempted to chart a new course in Nicaragua, “social rights”—education, health care, housing, employment—were added to the human rights framework. “...[T]he idea of ‘human security’ must be incorporated in our notion of human rights,” wrote editor Jo-Marie Burt in the July-August 2000 Report called “Rethinking Human Rights,” so as to “encompass the broad spectrum of rights that must be guaranteed to an individual so that he or she can live a life of dignity.”

The MIR-UP and party-building conflicts of the 1970s had led NACLA to refrain from taking sides in inter-left disputes, and to adopt a non-exclusionary stance toward groups that identified themselves as leftist, progressive or revolutionary. But these principles were strained to the breaking point in the 1990s as NACLA attempted to reconcile a focus on human rights with leftist guerrilla movements that targeted civilians—in many cases civilians belonging to rival leftist groups. This was particularly the case with the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru and, more subtly, with the FARC in Colombia.

Lines were drawn in an exchange following the May 1992 publication of an essay by Peruvian feminist Virginia Vargas called “Women: Tragic Encounters with the Left,” which decried the lack of open debate and democracy within the left, its refusal to take women’s struggles seriously, and mourned the assassination of the Peruvian community organizer María Elena Molano by Shining Path. A year later NACLA published a letter from a Shining Path supporter that argued that Molano had resisted the legitimate presence of Shining Path in her community, and so the guerrillas “had no alternative but to end her life.” This was followed by a flood of letters, including a response from Vargas, denouncing Shining Path and its U.S. supporters for representing everything the left should be fighting against: extreme intolerance, secretive organization, violence against civilians, a willingness to kill everyone who stood in its way to power. From that point on, NACLA’s coverage of Shining Path reflected that critical opposition, and NACLA has given itself permission—to a degree not present in the past—to adopt an oppositional stance toward any group that regularly violates human rights. The “no-enemies-on-the-left” days were over; by the early 1990s, human rights and internal democracy had joined the struggle for social justice as touchstones of NACLA’s analysis and coverage.

In the new political atmosphere of the last decade, the organizing agenda with which NACLA has most identified itself is the growing “globalization from below,” a cross-border coming together of groups that challenge global capital on a local or regional basis. NACLA has now committed itself to serve this new movement not only in the content, but in the form of its coverage. Under Kawell’s direction, NACLA is expanding its on-line coverage, the better to respond to events in a fashion more timely than that allowed in a bimonthly format. The old questions, of course, remain. What goes in? Who writes? Who do we reach?

Over the years, NACLA has constantly refreshed and renewed itself. The current staff has come on board over the past few years: Marisa Maack began as an intern in 1996 and joined the staff a year later. JoAnn Kawell, Terry Gibbs and Jordi Pius Llopart, the remainder of the current staff—there is one soon-to-be-filled opening—have come to NACLA over the past two years.

NACLA’s mission today remains the same as it has been for over 35 years: to reveal, to document, and to analyze the structures of exploitation, as well as to document and celebrate the social movements, the popular and democratic politics, the cultures and the communities of the Americas; to provide concise, readable, and thoughtful reports on Latin America and the Caribbean to its readers. Above all, NACLA remains the kind of project that only makes sense within the context of a larger community of activists and scholars. The overriding goal of the “congress” founded 35 years ago in the ferment of the “New Left,” is to continue its tradition of publishing material that is useful—useful to activists, scholars and citizens trying to make sense of the world in order to change it.

Tags: NACLA, neoliberalism, leftist politics, solidarity

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