Latin America's Search for New Grammar

5 MINS READApr 9, 2015 | 00:37 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

The White House announced Tuesday that Venezuela did not constitute a threat to American national security. The announcement is interesting, since last month the United States announced that Venezuela was a threat to national security. In explaining the switch, the White House said the language of last month's statement was a formality necessary if the United States were to impose sanctions on individuals the United States regards as violating human and legal rights. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, a senior U.S. State Department official, Thomas Shannon, was in Caracas meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

There are two possible explanations for this turnaround. One is confusion in Washington. The other is that Washington used the designation to pressure Maduro into negotiations. We prefer to believe the second explanation. In either case, U.S.-Venezuelan relations have gone from sanctions and Venezuelan expulsions of U.S. diplomats, to high-level contacts in Caracas. So, confusion or plan, something is happening.

These events are taking place on the eve of the two-day Summit of the Americas in Panama. The most interesting part of that meeting will be the real possibility that U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro will meet on the sideline. Indeed, the new relationship between Cuba and the United States, which has been moving forward in spite of obstacles, might have driven the complex shifts in U.S.-Venezuelan relations.

It is not news that Venezuela is in deep economic trouble. The death of Hugo Chavez left Venezuela in political trouble as well. Chavez's personality was charismatic. He could float over economic problems. Maduro is not charismatic, and the economic problems have become much worse. The mountain is higher, and Maduro is not nearly as light as Chavez.

The U.S. opening to Cuba has transformed the relationship between Venezuela and Cuba. Where Venezuela had been a supplier of discount oil to Cuba, and Cuban security personnel had served to protect the Venezuelan government, the Cubans obviously can't play the same role in Venezuela. And given oil price shifts and changes in Cuba's role in Venezuela, Venezuela's willingness to subsidize Cuban oil (or Cuba's need for that subsidy) declines.

As Cuba is drawn into an American dialogue, Venezuela becomes more isolated. Latin America has its share of leftist leaders, such as Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador or Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. But it was Cuba that was the center of gravity of the Latin American left, and Venezuela is next. If Venezuela retains its regional relations but is forced to shift its relationship with the United States, then Latin America's left is in tatters.

Latin America has long had a powerful leftist movement. Compared to other regions, its universities, labor unions and journalists have included disproportionately large numbers of critics of what is now called globalism. In recent years, driven particularly by Venezuela and leaders like Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, the left — which had been more marginalized since the fall of the Soviet Union — had recovered some of its glitter. But Lula is out of office, and his successor lacks his power. Morales is reaching out from isolation. Correa has spoken from the left but saved room for decent relations with the United States.

If Maduro shifts and Cuba continues its opening with the United States, then the Latin American left is again forced to the margins. It will be left with a rhetorical influence but not a political one. This is not a new story in Latin America. Without a significant personality to organize around, the left has tended to engage in theory, but little practice.

Therefore, as we watch Washington try to sort out the diplomatic complexities, and watch Cuba and Venezuela reach accommodation with the United States, the most interesting question is the political and intellectual landscape of Latin America. It is no longer a marginal region. Brazil and Mexico are significant economic powers, and other nations, like Chile and Peru, are showing dynamism significant enough to register on the global scale. As a region it has already emerged and, Brazil's problems notwithstanding, it will continue to emerge.

But what will it think and believe? That is less clear. The left is, as we have argued, in tatters. Its core is being politically devastated. At the same time, Latin America's elite may have bought into "neo-liberalism," which means free trade and internal liberalization, but that process has been met with sullen hostility by intellectuals and has certainly not excited the masses.

Significant social developments require a sense of life, which we might call ideology for want of a better name. The ideology of the left lives, but it has had too many political disappointments to take itself seriously. American ideology cannot carry Latin America, because part of the region's sense of self derives from hostility to the United States. The question that a U.S. diplomat visiting Caracas raises in our mind is not geopolitical but intellectual. Latin America is undergoing a dramatic shift, but it lacks the grammar to express what comes next. But ideas follow reality and in some way, Latin America will affirm its antipathy to the United States in a grammar newer than Karl Marx used 150 years ago. We will look for signs of its emergence.

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