Some years ago, Walter Mignolo pointed out that Latin America was “a consequence and product of the geopolitics of knowledge, that is to say, a consequence of the knowledge produced and imposed by Modernity in its auto-definition as Modernity” (C. Walsh, “Las geopolíticas del conocimiento y colonialidad del poder. Entrevista a Walter Mignolo,” Indisciplinar las ciencias sociales: geopolíticas del conocimiento y colonialidad del poder: perspectivas desde lo andino, Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, 2002). Following Mignolo’s statement, one can argue that the dependency on concepts, theories, and modern Western thoughts has been the main problem when Latin American social scientists and politicians have tried to explain the political, economical, and historical experience of their region. The result has been that Latin American politics and economic development theories have developed under the shadow of concepts and interpretations coming from outside.
Although the Latin American Left (LAL) has historically taken an anti-imperialistic line against cultural, economic and political interventions, LAL’s different interpretative traditions reproduce the problem quoted above. If we pay attention to some leftist attempts to examine Latin America during the 20th century, it is clear that their analysis used foreign perspectives instead of local ones. This includes the adaptation of Marxism to the Latin American experience. Thus, in the 1930s Peruvians intellectuals José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930) and Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre (1895-1979) analyzed Latin American capitalism arguing that a local perspective was necessary if structural problems were going to change.
Drawing on Marx and Lenin, Mariátegui believed revolution to be the only route to social transformation. Haya de la Torre relied on a process of soft transformation controlled by the State. The main problem with those perspectives was their strong dependence on a theoretic framework that forced the Latin American experience to resemble the European and/or Russian experiences. Mariátegui even argued that Latin American indigenous people were waiting for their Lenin.
In the 1950s, social movements who fought against dictatorships became a bridge between the 19th century revolutionary traditions, liberal ideas, and new left claims. The rebels were able to merge Simón Bolívar’s and José Martí’s images with anti-imperialist ideas and the post-World War 1 revolutionary tradition. Most of those who dreamt of a change in Latin America were doing it within a liberal-democratic-nationalistic framework. This fight involved, for instance, giving power back to the people, confronting dictators often supported/imposed by the United States, reforming Constitutions to include social guaranties, enacting Labor Codes, creating a welfare state, and producing agrarian reform. These reforms were not communist per se. On the contrary, similar policies were taken in the USA and Europe during the 1930s and 1940s in an effort to combat the Great Depression. However, in Latin America things changed dramatically after 1959.
The Cuban Revolution and the spread of the revolutionary sentiment built the foundation for a new, critical social philosophy. This vision, known as the dependency theory (DT), tried to “seek a global and dynamic understanding of social structures instead of looking only at specific dimensions of the social process opposing the academic tradition which conceived analytically independent of one another, and together independent of the economy, as if each one of these dimensions corresponded to separate spheres of reality”. In that sense, dependency theory stressed “the socio-political nature of the economic relations of production, thus following the nineteenth-century tradition of treating economy as political economy.
This methodological approach, which found its highest expression in Marx, assumes that the hierarchy that exists in society is the result of established ways of organizing the production of material and spiritual life. This hierarchy also serves to assure the unequal appropriation of nature and of the results of human work by social classes and groups.” So, DT proponents attempted “to analyze domination in its connection with economic expansion” (F.H. Cardoso & E. Faletto, Dependency and Development in Latin America, University of California Press, 1979).
Finally, the DT proposed the total separation of the Third World countries from those powerful economies that had controlled them. The idea was to attain better economic conditions by creating a local path to progress. Therefore, although it appeared radical, this theory repeated the vision of time and progress created by Modernity.
Recently, many of the afore-mention ideas have returned to the Latin American political arena with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s program, “Socialism of the 21st century.” The real problem for this proposal is to overcome populism by consolidating a new political option different than Latin America has experienced. For this, it must solve the two historic problems for Latin America: poverty and social inequality. Yet Chavez’s attempt to concentrate power resembles that bitter experience of ‘Socialismo Realmente Existente’ for the 20th century world. On the other hand, political experiments of unification involving leftist parties carrying out neoliberal reforms, such as that of Chile, do not really guarantee the LAL a specific identity within the political system. If the Latin American Left does not learn anything from the history of the last century, poor people will be the ones to suffer.
Ramón Grosfoguel has pointed out that Latin American social scientists have not overcome the system of representations created by Modern Europe (R. Grosfoguel, “Developmentalism, Modenity, and Dependency Theory in Latin America,” Nepantla, 1:2, pp. 347-374). The leftist theories I have briefly summarized here integrate their interpretations into the totality and unity of Modernity and thereby limit their conception of Latin America to a foreign framework. I do not propose we separate Latin American studies from Modern theories of analysis. However, these theories have proved to be limited if we want to understand this region and its political culture.
For the LAL this seems to be pivotal. Therefore, imagining a different Latin America also means that the LAL must imagine itself differently from the past. Reenacting the past is not a good option if the LAL wants to play a key role in transforming Latin America in this century. If the LAL does not re-imagine itself, it will be doomed to disappear.
DAVID DÍAZ-ARIAS is a Professor of History at the University of Costa Rica. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org