the past eight years of the Bush administration, North and South
America have politically and economically been heading in opposite
directions. While Bush waged wars, curtailed civil liberties and spread
neoliberalism, South Americans stopped corporate looting, ousted
corrupt presidents and developed economies for people instead of
profit. Journalist Nikolas Kozloff's new book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) looks behind the scenes and politics of this changing continent.
the start of this lively and accessible book, Kozloff, a Senior
Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and author of the
earlier book, Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), poses the question he seeks to answer with Revolution!: "What are the contours of this political earthquake that has spread through the hemisphere?"
book serves as a useful introduction to the region's current political
dynamics, and Kozloff's writing shines when he describes lesser-known
characters and stories in the South American shift to the left. Readers
are introduced to Efrén Icaza, an environmental activist in Quito who
tells of his family's hardships growing up under the thumb of the oil
industry in rural Ecuador. While sitting in a café and being approached
by some of the city's all too common begging children, Icaza describes
his father's 16 hour workdays in the oil fields, their 60-70 mile
drives on horrible roads between oil wells-living in squalor so that
private oil company executives could become rich. Telling Kozloff of
his father's struggles, Icaza says, "I think you never would have found
those kinds of labor conditions in the US."
stories underscore the fact that so much money has historically gone
into building up the oil industry in Ecuador to export oil, while very
little money has gone into social programs and development for the
actual communities living and laboring in Ecuador's vast oil country.
The author charts the bubbly, toxic and corrupt history of oil in
Ecuador and how the new President Rafael Correa is working to take back
the reigns of this industry-which account for 40% of the country's
export wealth-and put it under state control.
the book, Kozloff meets with people inside and outside the government
halls of power. Alberta Acosta, Ecuador's Minister of Energy and Mining
under Correa, listens to jazz in his office and during the interview
digs up a small book of writing by Bertolt Brecht, quoting a passage by
the author on the political decisions one makes in everyday life.
Acosta says, "I believe you have to have values, and those values can
be processed throughout political engagement." He tells Kozloff of the
private oil companies that interfered with different government
ministries in the past. "Before, oil companies would communicate with
the president in an arrogant manner, almost an order, indicating what
needed to be done." Now, as Kozloff explains, the times are changing,
and Ecuador is another nation that is asserting its energy sovereignty.
and Cuba are natural allies, and Kozloff adeptly digs into some of the
two nations' recent collaborations. He looks at Venezuela's "Oil Sowing
Plan" in which Cuban "communities design their own development projects
and PDVSA [the Venezuelan state oil company] provides the funding." In
2005 PDVSA paid $6.9 billion for social, educational and health
programs in Cuba. Also among the successes Kozloff applauds is the fact
that "Chavez helped to undercut the US trade embargo" against Cuba.
Without the Soviet Union, Cuba faltered, but Chavez stepped in with
money and oil, allowing Castro, "in May of 2005 to double the minimum
wage for 1.6 million workers, raise pensions for the elderly, and
deliver cooking appliances to the poor." The Chavez government also
provided Cuba with $412 million in subsidized goods and opened a state
bank. This type of aid and new state business collaborations are
developing throughout the region thanks largely to Venezuelan support.
new regional integration, Kozloff writes, is formed in part by Cuban
doctors at community health clinics in Caracas, in rural hospitals in
Bolivia, and by new South American cooperations in lending and
financial aid. For example, the Bank of the South, an institution
promoted by Chavez and powered by oil money, "could eclipse the IMF in
the region." The author also points out that though Brazilian President
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has disappointed much of his leftist base by
pursuing neoliberal policies, the leader of the region's most powerful
economy has offered breathing room for Chavez and other leftist leaders
in South America.
sections of the book on the changes in Bolivia under President Evo
Morales, Kozloff describes the partial nationalization of the gas
industry, the redistribution of land, expansion of health and
educational services to marginalized communities and other positive
policies. However, he gives the impression that much of these changes
are due specifically to Morales as a leader, when in fact they are the
result of years of mobilizations among various grassroots groups.
Similarly, Kozloff depicts Morales as a key leader in the 2003 Gas War
against Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. However, Morales was outside of the
country during much of those protests and played a limited role in
them, while other militant groups, particularly in El Alto, led the
charge against the president and his neoliberal policies.
throughout the book, Kozloff doesn't back away from addressing the
complexities and contradictions of the region's various leftist
governments and movements. He occasionally looks at the Venezuelan
government with a critical eye, commenting on the Chavez
administration's centralization of power and offers examples of the
government's inefficiency, mismanagement of funds, and troubling
environmental track record, suggesting that in the oil-powered economy,
"the environment could prove to be Chavez's Achilles' heel." Kozloff
also mentions the new "boliburguesía"-a word compound of "Bolívar" and
"bourgeoisie"-which is "a riff on Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution and
the new class of elites it has created." This new class of politicians,
bureaucrats and middlemen, Kozloff writes, "could form an impediment to
the advancement of socialism."
Venezuela offers plenty of reasons to be hopeful. A chapter entitled
"South American Media Wars" starts off with a close look at Telesur,
Venezuela's new hemispheric TV station. The network has an audience of
5 million viewers and is broadcasted in 20 Latin American and Caribbean
countries with 24-hour programming. As its proponents explain, Telesur
is a way to show South America through South Americans' eyes. In an
interview, Kozloff asks Uruguayan Aram Aharonian, Telesur's director at
the time, "To what extent does Telesur contribute to South American
integration?" Aharonian responds, "The problem in Latin America is that
we don't know anything about each other, we are blind to ourselves. We
always saw ourselves through the lens of Madrid, London, New York. We
begin with the idea that first we must get to know ourselves. Our
problems are similar, the expectations are similar. Telesur is merely a
tool so that people get to know what's happening in Latin America, so
that people recognize, ‘Oh, that's Ecuador,' or ‘Oh, that's Chile.' And
this may spur the process of integration, as you say."
nations in South America are working together with a revived civil
society and using natural resource wealth to empower the state and
development projects. Kozloff writes that Valter Pomar, Secretary of
International Relations with Brazil's Workers' Party, is confident that
progressive regional integration between nations would have a positive
geopolitical impact because it "would take place within the context of
a rising left movement. That is important, because the European Union
was pushed for and created under conservative governments."
As Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left is
a book about a currently unfolding phase in Latin America, it sometimes
raises more question than it answers, namely-what's next? In a chapter
aptly titled, "Integration For Survival" political analyst Emir Sader
looks to the future of the region: "It's unclear where it's all headed.
But the continent has three or four more years left with these regimes
in power. That's why it's possible to deepen the process of regional
integration, not to the point of being irreversible, but relative
irreversibility to the point that a new neo-liberal government might
have problems changing course."
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia
(AK Press, 2007). He edits TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective
on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website covering activism
and politics in Latin America.