The Latin American Diaries |


What is the cost of a basic universal social pension for Latin America and the Caribbean?


by Dr. Gibrán Cruz-Martínez, Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies

The world’s population is ageing, and Latin America and the Caribbean is no exception. By 2030, the number of older people – those over 60 – is expected to grow by 56 per cent (United Nations, 2015), and will outnumber children below 10 (HelpAge International, 2015a). Latin America and the Caribbean is expected to be the region with the fastest growth of this group (71 per cent increase), followed by Asia (66 per cent), Africa (64 per cent), Oceania (47 per cent), North America (41 per cent) and Europe (23 per cent) (United Nations, 2015).

Figure 1: Estimating the ratio of older-age population (60+) in 2015, 2030 and 2045, source: UNPD, 2015

Figure 1: Estimating the ratio of older-age population (60+) in 2015, 2030 and 2045, source: UNPD, 2015

Ageing may bring wisdom and experience, but it also creates new social risks that need to be anticipated. According to the latest data from the Socioeconomic database on Latin America and the Caribbean,  57.7 per cent of salaried workers have the right to pensions when retired (CEDLAS and World Bank, 2016).[1] Therefore, almost half of the current workforce will not benefit from a contributory pension during retirement. If data is segmented by age, gender, level of education and area of residence we can examine the gaps in contributory-pension coverage.

As Figure 2 shows, there is a considerable gap in all categories, with gender the only possible exception. Workers aged 15-24, adults with a low level of education and residents in rural areas are the groups whose retirement is worst provided for. One possible explanation is that these groups work in more flexible and informal jobs, with less social security benefits than older generations, urban populations, and workers with over 13 years of formal education.

Figure 2: Share of salaried workers with right to pensions when retired by age, gender, education, and area

Figure 2: Share of salaried workers with right to pensions when retired by age, gender, education, and area, source: CEDLAS and World Bank, 2016, notes: SEDLAC (CEDLAS categorize level of education as low (0 to 8 years of formal education), intermediate (9 to 13 years), and high (more than 13). Author’s own calculations using the latest data for Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, Venezuela.

Increasing the proportion of salaried workers contributing to a social security pension scheme is imperative. But is there any other alternative? What can governments do to guarantee the wellbeing of older people who are not set to benefit from a pension scheme? Universal non-contributory pensions – also known as social pensions – represent a viable option worthy of consideration.

Social pensions are non-contributory programmes that use benefits to bring the incomes of older people up to a societal minimum standard. Social pensions can be universal or targeted. Universal social pensions are available unconditionally to those who meet eligibility criteria of age and typically some form of residency. Targeted social pensions use additional targeting measures (e.g. assessment of means or assets) to identify the ‘truly deserving’. The main difference between social pensions and contributory pensions is that the latter are based in social-insurance schemes, with benefits derived from work or taxes and centred on redistribution throughout the life cycle. In Latin America and the Caribbean, workers in the formal sector are the main beneficiaries of contributory pensions, but the large segment of the population working in the informal sector is not covered.

In countries with a low level of contributory pension coverage, a basic universal pension could guarantee income security and a basic social-protection floor for every older person. But how much would it cost to implement a basic universal social pension in the region? This will naturally vary according to the pension level – the value of the benefit – and coverage – the age of eligibility.  Here I use four eligibility ages (60, 65, 70, 75) and one pension level (20 per cent of gross domestic product per capita)[2] to examine different scenarios. Data comes from the United Nations Population Division (UNPD, 2015) and is available for 38 countries. A modified model of Willmore’s (2007) formula is used, adding 5% of the total cost of transfers as administrative cost, previously proposed by Knox-Vydmanov (2011: 3).

As the results shown below reveal, all Central American countries would be able to finance a basic universal social pension with less than 0.7 per cent of their national GDP (age of eligibility 75). South American and Caribbean countries would need on average 0.6 and 0.8 per cent of their national GDP to fund a basic universal person for everyone over 75 years. The cost of a universal social pension in the total region varies from 0.3 to 2% GDP at 75+ coverage, from 0.5 to 2.8% GDP at 70+, from 0.8 to 4% GDP at 65+, and from 1.2 to 5.5% GDP at 60+. Unsurprisingly, the cost of a social pension rises as eligibility age decreases and pension level increases.

Figure 3: Cost of a basic universal pension equivalent to 20% of the GDP per capita in 38 Latin American and Caribbean countries, author’s calculations; source: UNPD, 2015

Figure 3: Cost of a basic universal pension equivalent to 20% of the GDP per capita in 38 Latin American and Caribbean countries, author’s calculations; source: UNPD, 2015

In Latin America and the Caribbean only four countries have implemented a basic universal social pension: Antigua, Bolivia, Guyana and Suriname (HelpAge International, 2015b; Shen & Williamson, 2006). For example, Bolivia introduced Renta Dignidad in 2008 to replace a cash transfer program created in 1997 (Bonosol). The eligibility age for Renta Dignidad is 60, and it currently has 869,808 beneficiaries, meaning around 88 per cent of those eligible (APS, 2016). The monthly income transfer is 270.83 bolivianos (US$ 39.83) for those who are not beneficiaries of the contributory pension scheme, and 216.67 bolivianos (US$ 31.86) for pensioners of the contributory scheme.[3] Most beneficiaries are women (53.4 per cent) and recipients of the contributory pension (83.3%).

The total value of transfers under Renta Dignidad in 2015 was equivalent to 1.2 per cent GDP.[4] The simple model used in this article estimates that a potential basic universal pension in Bolivia of 354.08 bolivianos (US$ 52.07)[5] for everyone over 60 would cost approximately 1.9 per cent GDP (including an estimated administrative cost). In Bolivia’s case the model appears to be presenting an accurate picture of costs.

There are many ways to finance basic universal social pensions. Bolivia, for example, funds Renta Dignidad mainly from taxes on fossil fuels (Mendizábal & Escobar, 2013), whereas Guyana uses budgetary allocations from central government  (IMF, 2006). Among the possible alternatives for other regional governments are (1) increasing tax revenues by non-regressive methods (e.g. taxes on financial transactions, targeting the top 1%), (2) relocating public expenditure to social protection, and (3) improving the efficiency of expenditure (see Harris, 2013; Ortiz et al., 2015). There is no magic solution that fits all cases. Each country will have to examine its own reality and implement a unique mix of policies.

But overall this post has revealed that there are multiple options for financing and implementing social pensions throughout the region.  The real question is whether there is the political will to make the necessary fiscal and monetary arrangements. The clock is ticking and the population is ageing rapidly. The time to act is now.


*Previous versions and analyses related to this article were prepared while the author was a Research Fellow in Social Protection at HelpAge International.


References and Notes

APS (2016). Estadísticas De La Renta Dignidad. Version of 30 April 2016: Dignidad/Estad%C3%ADsticas de la Renta Dignidad (Al 30 de Abril de 2016).pdf [accessed 11 June 2016].

CEDLAS, and World Bank (2016). Socio-Economic Database for Latin America and the Caribbean. [accessed 11 June 2016].

Harris, Elliott (2013). Financing Social Protection Floors: Considerations of Fiscal Space. International Sociel Security Review, 66(3-4), 111-143.

HelpAge International (2015a). Pension Watch. Social Protection in Older Age. [accessed 11 June 2016].

HelpAge International (2015b). Pension-Watch Database. [accessed 11 June 2016].

IMF (2006). Guyana: Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper Progress Report 2005. IMF Country Report, 06(364)

[accessed 11 June 2016].

Knox-Vydmanov, Charles (2011). The Price of Income Security in Older Age: Cost of a Universal Pension in 50 Low and Middle-Income Countries. Pension watch briefing series, 2, HelpAge International.

Mendizábal, Joel, & Federico Escobar (2013). Redistribution of Wealth and Old Age Social Protection in Bolivia. Pension watch briefing series, 12 , HelpAge International.

Ortiz, Isabel, Matthew Cummins, & Kalaivani Karunanethy (2015). Fiscal Space for Social Protection. Options to Expand Social Investments in 187 Countries. Extension of Social Security Working Paper, 48, International Labour Organization.

Shen, Ce, & John B Williamson (2006). Does a Universal Non-Contributory Pension Scheme Make Sense for Rural China? Journal of Comparative Social Welfare, 22(2), 143-153.

United Nations (2015). World Population Ageing. New York: United Nations: [accessed 11 June 2016].

UNPD (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision. [accessed 11 June 2016].

Willmore, Larry (2007). Universal Pensions for Developing Countries. World Development, 35(1), 24-51.

World Bank (2016). World Data Bank.


[1] Author’s own calculations using the latest data for Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, Venezuela.

[2] These pension levels are ‘lab tests’ – arbitrarily assigned – and do not necessarily represent an adequate basic income for all countries. Median/average income, median/average salaries and median/average income poverty line could be examined as alternative options for pension levels.

[3] Author’s calculation using Renta Dignidad data from APS (2016). Conversion rates are accurate as of 11 June 2016.

[4] Author’s calculation using GDP data from the World Bank (2016), and Renta Dignidad data from APS (2016).

[5] Author’s calculation using GDP per capita data from the World Bank (2016). Conversion rates are accurate as of 11 June 2016.

Finding My History in the Literary ‘Archive’ of Indenture


by Dr Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Associate Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies

In partnership with Gitanjali Pyndiah (PhD candidate, Goldsmiths) and Institute of Commonwealth Studies colleagues Dr Catherine Gilbert and Dr Kavyta Raghunandan, from 3 to 5 May, 2016, Maria will be live streaming “‘We Mark Your Memory in Songs’: Literary Remembrances of the System of Indenture“, a series of three short talks on literary representations of the system of indenture and its legacies.

Group of Indian Immigrants in Guyana

A group of Indian immigrants in then British Guiana

Over the years I have had the opportunity to meet scholars who have done academic work on overseas Indian communities from a variety of disciplines, from geographers to musicologists, historians to sociologists. The vast majority have had roots in the indenture system, often being motivated to study their chosen topic out of curiosity about their own history. One thing that has united me with these academics, regardless of where our indentured roots lie, is a love of literature and an opportunity to share our joy in the discovery of texts in which we are spoken to, for and about by people who share our heritage. This, in large part, is the motivation behind the Periscope live-streaming event ‘We Mark Your Memory in Songs’.

To my mind, every novel, poem or short story about the system of indenture and its legacies in overseas Indian communities is an act of resistance against the erasure that surrounds the transportation of East Indians across three continents between 1838 and 1917. Whilst people may have a general awareness of the Indian presence in places like Guyana, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa and Trinidad, it is rare outside of these communities to encounter someone who knows how they first arrived there. The Indian-Guyanese diaspora often tackle the additional frustrating problem of having to explain where Guyana is. Being born and brought up in London this is something I have found myself doing on a weekly basis since I was a child.  Once, a contact at the Guyana High Commission in the UK advised me to write ‘South America’ clearly at the bottom of an important letter I was sending to an official in Georgetown, ‘Or it will get sent to Ghana,’ he explained without irony.

It was by reading works of literature rather than history that I developed an interest in the system of indenture. Many years ago, before I had an idea of what I would do after completing my undergraduate degree, I read a copy of David Dabydeen’s novel The Intended. This was the first novel I read by an Indian-Caribbean writer and its depiction of how racism shaped the lives of a group of teenagers growing up in London resonated tremendously with me. Its proximity to my own experiences make it apt to me now that I discovered this book before the beautiful but canonical A House for Mr Biswas by V.S Naipaul or the powerhouse poetry of Mahadai Das or Rajkumari Singh. What affected me particularly in The Intended was the chief protagonist’s reflections on his childhood in Guyana and the stories that surrounded his ancestors. Around the same time I became aware, through speaking to my father’s family, of the epic personal stories that surrounded the indenture system: I heard tales of bold and brave women who boarded boats alone to travel unthinkable distances. In the vast majority of cases they were leaving a homeland they would never see again.


I may have had inkling after reading The Intended that my future lay somewhere in the past; this was confirmed when I stumbled across a copy of Moses Nagamootoo’s Hendree’s Cure in a bookshop near Piccadilly Circus. It was through a conversation with my father about this novel that I learnt that his maternal grandfather, my great-grandfather, was a first generation Indian-Guyanese of South Indian descent, a minority group beside the massive majority of North Indian labourers who were favoured — and stereotyped — by the British as less rebellious and thus more suitable for plantation work. My decision to do postgraduate study in the field of indenture was sealed at this point and I went on to write my MA thesis on the South Indian community of Guyana. I looked at the colonial representations of this group in archival documents and analysed how Indian-Caribbean writers have both played with and perpetuated the colonial stereotypes constructed about South Indians.

The study of indenture is still an emerging field and this is what makes works like Nagamootoo’s first novel so important. To the best of my knowledge, Hendree’s Cure and Peter Kempadoo’s Guyana Boy are the only literary works written by Guyanese writers of South Indian descent. They give us valuable insight into the lives of Indian-Guyanese minority communities. It is of course not just Nagamootoo and Kempadoo who have presented us with literature that represents minority communities. To name but two others, Jan Lowe Shinebourne’s The Last Ship and Ryhaan Shah’s A Secret Life are equally important works that have contributed achingly poignant portrayals of the Chinese-Guyanese (Shinebourne) and Muslim Indian-Guyanese (Shah).

When I read works about those who existed as minorities within minorities under the indenture system I return to the archive more resolute and determined. While writing my PhD thesis I had an opportunity to recover short texts written during the period of indenture by Muslim and South Indian authors. Being a tiny part of the movement to redeem the history of indenture from the seemingly bottomless well of  ‘hidden histories of Empire’ is rewarding, but my journey would have been impossible without the inspiration provided to me by the Caribbean writers who have determined my academic choices.

Travelling to do a PhD: The role of international postgraduate students in networks of information circulation


by Jose Luis Guevara Salamanca, Research Student, Institute of Latin American Studies

I am writing this post one year after arriving in London. Having finished my undergraduate studies in 2005 in Colombia I began looking for a place abroad where I could develop my scholarly career. Eventually, in 2011, after six years in academic publishing, I took a Master’s in History in Colombia, and then in 2015 I began my PhD here at ILAS.

From the beginning I have been interested in the history of books, and during my PhD I have been able to relate this topic to questions about the legitimacy of knowledge, the roots of public policies on science and technology in Latin America, and how my personal experience fits into global networks of knowledge production and information circulation that have driven particular projects by scholars new and old.

For many British scholars the idea of coming to the UK to study the history of the book in Peru and Colombia seems strange. But the biggest surprise to me was not their posture, but rather how I took for granted that I would go abroad to do my PhD. Why did this seem the next logical step in my career? Clearly the main reason is that accumulation of capital and knowledge had created an imbalance in scientific and academic development between Colombia and the UK. Consider alone the concentration of books that Bloomsbury provides for the students of UCL, the School of Advanced Study, SOAS, and other institutes and members of the University of London.


A reading room at Senate House library, Bloomsbury

However, this vision only reproduces the traditional scale of centre-periphery explanations, which basically rely on an economic perspective to study the relations (and perhaps hierarchies) between different places[1]. In my research there is an ongoing battle to separate myself from perspectives that reduce cultural and social variables to the flows of capital, thereby hiding the networks that allow us to identify global organisations that challenge the metropole-colony understanding.

In this struggle for intellectual independence a question emerges: is it possible that after more than 200 years of independent history Latin America has not created its own, original corpus of knowledge? I have heard many explanations of why Latin America has not produced a school of thought distanced from European roots, with an underlying frustration about never becoming a place where knowledge is produced instead of reproduced. Could it be a lack of PhD programs in universities? The absence of a strong conversation among our scholars? A public policy that cannot free production of knowledge from “dependency” on Europe?

Two trains of thought split off from this issue. The first one relates to the common binary explanation in which “first world academia” is opposed to “third world academia” because of the obvious resource imbalances and the dependency of the latter on the former. The second, meanwhile, sees the circulation of information and knowledge as a global network that connects different geographies beyond the developed economies.

In the first case, voices from different parts of the world have gradually achieved global recognition[2] since the midpoint of the twentieth century, emerging from former colonies of the Imperial European enterprises. As such, oppositions like “developed world” and “emerging economies”, or “first world” and “third world”, can be understood as euphemisms for colonizer and colonized.[3] This is especially true where mechanisms of legitimacy of knowledge – rankings, databases, avenues to scholarly publication – work more in terms of the market than of scientific progress. However, this dichotomy only creates a dual vision that disempowers knowledge producers outside of the major centres. These producers, of course, already suffer from a lack visibility within a largely Anglophone system which reinforces the idea that “discoveries” happen in specific places[4].

The second case tells a different story, albeit one that provides as many questions as answers. An understanding of how information circulates outside of the bipolar world demands a broader view encompassing materials, channels, translations, deviations, influences, interests, global contributions to knowledge production, and meanings achieved by readers as active participants in the reproduction of information. Instead of telling a story of isolated creators blessed by “genetically unique cleverness”, this view underlines the connections, borrowings, influences and multiple ways in which the world of scholarship is linked. One of the ways in which geographically separate academic arenas encounter each other is through PhD students themselves. Although we come here to learn, in many cases we have an ongoing research career in our countries.  And because of the nature of our economies and our growing academic sectors, many students already have some experience of publishing, teaching and researching. We carry our own methods, questions, interests, and passions along with us on our research voyages.

For Colombian scholars the PhD is sometimes considered the summit of an academic career. It comes, especially in the social sciences and humanities, after lengthy research projects at undergraduate and Master’s level.[5] Reaching the required language proficiency for a PhD in a non-Spanish speaking country can also represent a significant and time-consuming challenge. Some scholars spend years looking for funding, studying languages and completing relevant exams and applications. This idea of the PhD as the pinnacle of one’s career is also shaped by the fact that once in post at a Colombian university, academics have to split their time between research itself, administrative tasks and teaching courses, many of which do not fit their area of expertise. Thus, later research lacks the luxury of time afforded by the PhD.

In the UK, meanwhile, the PhD dissertation is considered the beginning of a scholar’s academic life. The publication of the thesis as a monograph helps to position the researcher in a given field and that process turns the young scholar into an author: he or she knows how to respond to the publisher’s expectations, how to rewrite a text for a more general audience, and how to sell the idea of the project within a particular collection or series. This training in the communication of science and knowledge is part of the PhD process, allowing for insertion of the scholar into particular networks of information dissemination.

To come to the UK is to take part in a process of dissemination that flows in many directions – not only from Europe or North America to the rest of the world. Perhaps we have been too focused on showing how the “centre” spreads around the globe rather than how different geographies nourish each other. Gone are the days when audiences, readers, students and consumers were understood as passive agents in the processes of circulation of goods and texts, for new advances in the study of consumption, readership and education have shown how meaning changes in the process of circulation and how the practice of reception has come to define the production of knowledge itself.



[1] Peter Burke works on this perspective on his book, A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot, Kindle edition (Cambridge, UK : Malden, Mass: Polity, 2000). Effectively, this author locates the center-periphery approach into the geographical explanation of circulation of knowledge, this strengthens the idea that behind those geopolitical explanations exist an specific way of understand the space, also position geography in the middle of this debate.

[2] Authors like Samir Amin, Edward Said, Dipesh Chakravarti, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Walter Mignolo and Jorge Canizares Esguerra have become widely known.

[3] Many of those voices have been gathered in academic trends that have searched for rewritte the colonial history like the postcolonial studies, decolonial studies and subaltern studies. However, many of this alternatives have been born in Southeast Asia, for that reason they tell the story of colonialism from the experience of the British Empire. A few steps ahead have been done for Hispanic American colonies in the work edited by Mark Thurner and Andrés Guerrero, After Spanish Rule. Postcolonial Predicaments of the Americas (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003).

[4] Examples could be found in the difficult access to works in Chinese and Japanese history because of the lack of use of English. Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Writing History ‘Backwards’: Southeastern Asian History (and the Annales) at the Crossroads. Studies in History, 10(1994), 131-145. Even many of the works in Latin American history written in Spanish are absent from certain networks of circulation because of the language barrier.

[5] Although this is changing because the years to get an undergraduate diploma have been reduced considerably in recent times.

The Venezuelan Elections and Gasoline-Fuelled Citizenship


by Dr Amy Penfield, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow 2015-16

On the morning of Monday 7th December, I was greeted with news reports of the Venezuelan ruling socialist party’s (PSUV) landslide defeat in the previous day’s parliamentary elections, accompanied by images of jubilant crowds celebrating on the streets of Caracas. Hailed as the long-awaited end to Chavismo and of the divisive Bolivarian Revolution, one would be forgiven for taking the results to signify a change in government. Indeed, with the opposition alliance Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad – MUD) now holding a two-thirds ‘supermajority’ in the National Congress, they possess the power to make significant changes to government spending and legislation, as well as to potentially re-write the constitution and initiate a recall referendum against the current president, Nicolás Maduro. The election results were broadly reported as a response to widespread discontent with President Maduro’s administration and the severely debilitated economy.

Figure 1: MUD supporters celebrating the election results. Reuters/

Figure 1: MUD supporters celebrating the election results. Reuters/

Petro-citizenship and the lurking devil

Despite the outward appearance of a dramatic shake-up of parliamentary powers, as Tinker Salas and Silverman have noted in their analysis for The Nation (December 8th 2015), grievances over dubious democratic processes, food shortages, poor currency management, and rising crime rates often mask the true origins of Venezuela’s on-going and inherent instability: a dependency on oil. Tinker Salas and Silverman argue — as did Coronil in his classic study of the Venezuelan oil industry, The Magical State (1997) — that the Venezuelan economy has been ‘addicted to oil’ since the birth of its petroleum industry in 1908. All ensuing regimes, regardless of political ideology, are buttressed by the petro-dollars that make up the bulk of state revenues (currently accounting for 97% of export revenues), and are entirely at the mercy of its characteristically volatile price. Alongside illusions of ‘dazzling development projects that engender collective fantasies of progress’ (Coronil 1997: 5), the famously branded ‘devil’s excrement’ (el excremento del diablo) was found to be the shrouded begetter of political corruption, criminality and greed, a phenomenon more commonly known as the ‘resource curse’. These observations are as relevant today as in 1997, when Coronil’s book was first published, and reveal why a number of observers aren’t so optimistic about the opposition’s capacity to offer up remarkable remedies to widespread discontent amidst a backdrop of plummeting oil prices.

Aside from assisting in the illusions of state leaders, oil is also woven into processes of subject formation among citizens who harbour a sustained sense of entitlement to the benefits of oil wealth, a dynamic described by Coronil as an intimate relationship between the social body and the natural body of the nation. The late Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution was exemplary in bolstering this imaginary of the social-natural dyad through its endeavour to channel the nation’s oil wealth into endogenous development projects, free education and healthcare, and subsidised food for the entire population (i.e. not just the country’s elite).

Figure 2: A local ‘Mercal’ in a Venezuelan frontier town. This state-run chain of shops was set up under Chavez’s government, and provides subsidised food and household essentials for poor neighbourhoods. Photo by the author.

Figure 2: A local ‘Mercal’ in a Venezuelan frontier town. This state-run chain of shops was set up under Chavez’s government, and provides subsidised food and household essentials for poor neighbourhoods. Photo by the author.

Oil is political, gasoline is personal

So, what does the future hold for these erstwhile beneficiaries of Venezuela’s prolific oil wealth? And what do the election results signify for those who might not have been celebrating the outcome so joyously? My own fieldwork in Venezuela between 2009 and 2011 explored indigenous people’s experiences of Bolivarian socialism and political inclusion, as one of the disenfranchised populations targeted for the petroleum-funded socialist initiatives. During this time, it became clear that abstractions of oil wealth for certain poor communities did not feature centrally in burgeoning notions of citizenship, nor to local-level comprehensions of rights to the ‘natural body’ of the nation. What became paramount in daily performances of citizenship was rather the ubiquitous derivative of oil — gasoline — which the entire population encounters daily as the tangible manifestation of oil and its omnipotence.

The political potency of gasoline in Venezuela is due in part to its extremely low price, the result of a subsidy introduced in the 1940s when Venezuela was emerging as one of the world’s main suppliers of oil (currently, for example, 120 litres of gasoline can be bought for only US$0.01). Since the subsidy was introduced, Venezuelans have viewed cheap gasoline as a birth-right, perhaps even more so than the dispensation of petro-wealth in the form of national development and social provisioning. This is so much the case that it is difficult to imagine a successful attempt to raise the price of gasoline, even amidst regular threats to do so (see Miroff 2014; Baverstock and Strange 2014). Indeed, price hikes might very well be applied if it weren’t for the shadow of El Caracazo looming over any who dare take this fateful step.[1]

Figure 3: News article following the Caracazo riots.

Figure 3: News article following the Caracazo riots.

In a situation strikingly similar to the current hardships experienced in Venezuela today, falling oil prices in the 1980s led to an economic crisis and the subsequent decision to remedy this through increased gasoline prices under neoliberal reforms. The price adjustments brought about a wave of protests, riots, and a violent military crack-down on the 27th February 1989, known as El Caracazo, that left hundreds dead. It is clear to see, then, that whatever happens to the price of petroleum, and to the management of the somewhat abstract wealth accumulated from the sale of oil, subsidised gasoline is treated with great caution in recognition of its fundamental role in well-being and livelihood. It is, in this sense, a tangible manifestation of the nation’s oil wealth, and of Venezuelans’ rights to that wealth.

Gasoline-fuelled citizenship

Meanwhile, for the indigenous population of the country, daily encounters with gasoline are even more intimate and central to well-being, not least so for the Sanema, with whom I conducted anthropological fieldwork. For my hosts, the dual nature (the natural and social body) of the petro-state is experienced first and foremost in their direct and intimate interaction with huge quantities of subsidised gasoline, which is woven into every aspect of their practical and moral lives. This process of becoming ‘permeated with gasoline’, as it were, is related in no small part to the recent co-option of indigenous peoples into state building objectives.

Figure 4: Indigenous boys siphoning gasoline from one barrel to another. Photo by the author.

Figure 4: Indigenous boys siphoning gasoline from one barrel to another. Photo by the author.

The Venezuelan State’s interest in Amazonian territories began in the early 1970s with a plan to utilise the rich resources of southern regions — named the ‘Conquest of the South’ (la conquista del sur) — predominantly with the aim of building infrastructure that linked the Amazon regions to the rest of the country. This development of the south was a process that was later taken on by Chavez’s regime after his election in 1998, through an accelerated inclusion of indigenous peoples into the Bolivarian Revolution. For the first time in Venezuelan history, the indigenous population gained considerable recognition, most notably in changes to the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution which introduced a section devoted to native peoples, and which included clauses that espouse rights to collective land ownership, native education and health practices, and prior consultation for natural resource extraction in their territory. Notwithstanding this multi-ethnic vision, however, Chavez simultaneously directed attention to indigenous people’s history of exclusion and consequently promoted their equal incorporation into criollo-standardised [2] initiatives such as the hallmark communal councils, neighbourhood-run development projects that formed the backbone of Bolivarianism.

Figure 5: The outboard motor, one of the most common political gifts bestowed in Venezuelan Amazonia. Photo by the author.

Figure 5: The outboard motor, one of the most common political gifts bestowed in Venezuelan Amazonia. Photo by the author.

From the perspective of my indigenous interlocutors, gifts and the direct supply of funds for these communal council projects figure prominently in descriptions of their motivations for migrating northwards, embarking on regular trips to the cities, and participating in political activities. The Bolivarian Revolution played a central role in accelerating regular and extended movements in Amazonia due to gifts of outboard motors and other machinery, profuse political events in the cities, and frequent paperwork errands. This process of political inclusion thus resulted in a new rapid and regular mobility that was facilitated by their newly obtained gasoline-guzzling outboard motors, which in turn required large and regular supplies of evanescent gasoline. Exacerbating this process was the government mandated monthly cupo (quota) of gasoline supplied to each indigenous community, an endowment that sustained their dependence on gasoline-run machinery, which again impelled them to regularly travel to the cities in order to procure the quota. We can see how such circular movements to the cities are self-perpetuating since one literally needs gasoline to get gasoline. Indigenous peoples, then, were swiftly embedded in a circulatory system of citizenship and dependency through gasoline.

Holding steady amidst change

It is easy to see that even amidst rhetorical powers of oil and the ever-looming threat that its volatile price ultimately determines (or indeed homogenises) the fate of political regimes; the price of gasoline, on the other hand, remains far more constant, and much more reliable. Cheap petrol has endured both neoliberal and socialist regimes. For the time being, then, many Venezuelans’ sense of citizenship remains sufficiently stable despite the ostensible overhaul in political power within the National Assembly.

So, while Venezuelan elites might view themselves as ‘stewards of oil wealth’ (see Tinker Salas and Silverman 2015), the country’s poor and indigenous populations channel their rights and citizenship through a more prosaic materialisation of the petro-state: gasoline. Hence, we might do best to look for a solution to Venezuela’s ‘addiction to oil’ in the more mundane daily encounters with this valuable energy source.

Figure 6: Indigenous community travelling to the city in their gasoline-powered canoe. One man wears a jackets proclaiming "Indigenous socialist warrior at your service!” Photo by the author.

Figure 6: Indigenous community travelling to the city in their gasoline-powered canoe. One man wears a jackets proclaiming “Indigenous socialist warrior at your service!” Photo by the author.


[1] Others have suggested that Maduro fears raising the price of gasoline, as it would have knock on effect for many other products (see Hetland 2015).

[2] Criollo is the local term used for non-indigenous Venezuelans or people of mixed heritage.


References cited:

Baverstock, A. and Strange, H. (2014). “Venezuelans fume as Government signals end to ‘free’ petrol”

Coronil, F. (1997). The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Hetland, G (2015). “The End of Chavismo? Why Venezuela’s Ruling Party Lost Big, and What Comes Next.”

Miroff, N. (2014). “Venezuela nears end of the road for gasoline subsidy.”

Tinker Salas, M and Silverman, V (2015) “’Democracy, as usual,’ in Venezuela.”

East of Eden: The Vatican’s Role in Socialist Cuba-United States rapprochement


by Dr Luis Pérez-Simon, Co-Director, Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research, Institute of Latin American Studies

It is a historical fact that Cuba has always punched above its weight in matters economic, political and cultural, especially starting in the latter part of the 20th century.  What may be less evident is that in the last quarter century it has done so diplomatically, and that the Catholic Church has staunchly accompanied it along the way.  In fact, the Church has been a lifeline for Revolutionary Cuba since even before Cuba was revolutionary.


On August 1, 1953 security forces arrested Fidel Castro, six days after he had led an attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba.  However, he had not been captured.  He had turned himself in.  His surrender had been negotiated and orchestrated by Santiago de Cuba’s archbishop Mgsr. Enrique Pérez Serrantes, who also personally guaranteed his safety [1].

And although the Church’s fortunes in Cuba have risen and fallen since 1959 [2], its influence on the centre of power and on rebel ideology has been constant.  Besides the obvious connection to Fidel and Raul Castro [3], traces of Catholic doctrine can be found in the socio-political Hombre Nuevo Socialista paradigm, the version of Marxism-Leninism that Cuba fomented in earnest throughout Latin America in the 1960’s and 70’s as part of its political internationalism, and the very idea behind the medical brigades launched in 1963 as part of its support for anti-colonial struggles and now forming the back bone of Cuba’s socio-economic humanitarian internationalism [4].

If the Castro regime sought to legitimise its nascent Revolution and expand its ideological reach, in part, by co-opting Catholic Liberation Theology in the 1970’s, it may yet do so nearly sixty years after the fact —and perhaps prolong it’s reach— by embracing Pope Francis’s ‘Reconciliation Strategy’ for the Americas.

Having reached an ideological and tactical dead-end with military incursions in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Cuba has had much more political success with humanitarian and medical missions in the developing world.  Indeed, they have succeeded in fostering international good-will and support while helping to shore up the Cuban economy by providing health and education support internationally: the nearly 600,000 medical missions to over 158 countries have had a direct impact on more than 2 million patients, and its literacy campaign has been exported to more than 28 countries with hundreds of thousands of people being taught to read and write [5].  Beyond the recognition and gratitude of those countries directly impacted by these missions, other international actors –such as the Vatican [6]– have offered their support for what has become the single most resounding diplomatic success of the Revolution.

The moral and political capital gained from this internationalist humanitarian aid has proven invaluable for the Cuban State.  On the one hand, it has contributed in no small measure to a consolidation of support for an end to the US. Economic Embargo [7], likewise fomenting calls for the re-inclusion of Cuba into regional institutions such as the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank.  On the other, it has also had a direct impact on its very relationship with the United States.  And has been widely reported, the Vatican was the fulcrum of the rapprochement negotiations.


The beginning of this latest collaboration between the Cuban state and the Vatican can be traced to 1998.  The juncture of a heavy hurricane season [8], a re-elected Clinton administration [9], and the first papal visit to the island [10] provided the right mix of international good will, of American willingness to spend some hard-earned domestic political capital, and the emergence of a trustworthy and impartial intermediary in the form of the Vatican.

Though the process has been slow, it has been able to overcome several seemingly insurmountable obstacles, namely the transition from Fidel to Raul Castro as head of government and the Cuban Five-Alan Gross imbroglio.  Indeed, it has been the steady support and encouragement by the Vatican that allowed both parties to capitalize on these very challenges to eventually reach a diplomatic understanding. Just as the arrest of the Cuban Five froze any collaboration with the Clinton Administration, the arrest of Alan Gross hindered any Obama initiative at moments when relations had begun to improve.   Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 visit to Cuba gave both parties new impetus in their gradual rapprochement.  This followed a major overhaul of Cuba’s economic and social model by Raúl Castro [11], and foreshadowed the 2012 Policy shift toward reconciliation with Cuba initiated by the recently re-elected Obama administration [12].

Although normalization will take some time, this moderate pace will benefit both countries. Cuba will be able to ease into a global economy from which it had been excluded while doing its best to remain socialist, whereas the US will be able to advance its overall Latin American policy goals in a climate of international respect and collaboration.  Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to both Cuba and the United States will serve as a further – and very real – bridge between the two countries.  And the Vatican’s diplomatic and political influence will only grow in Cuba and in the rest of Latin America.



[1] A summary execution –likely by firing squad in the very Moncada barracks– would have been a likely scenario if Castro had been captured straight away.  He remained at large long enough for the prelate to become personally involved.  Additionally, in El hombre que no quiso matar a Fidel Castro, its author claims to have been ordered to poison Castro, an order which he refused to carry out in part due to his catholic beliefs (see p. 18-19).

[2] Although the Church sought to maintain its influence by offering a ‘third way’ between opposing ideologies, it was quickly sidelined once the Revolution declared itself Marxis-Leninist.  Within a few years, over two-thirds of all priests had been expelled or had fled the country (including Cuba’s first cardinal, Manuel Cardinal Arteaga y Betancourt) and over 400 religious schools had been shut down.  It wasn’t until 1991 that Catholics were allowed to integrate the Cuban Communist Party, and only a year later was the Constitution changed to forbid discrimination based on religious affiliation.

[3] It is widely known that both Castro brothers attended a Jesuit school and that they had strong ties to Archbishop Pérez Serrantes.  See F. Castro & I. Ramonet, My Life: a Spoken Autobiography.

[4] An interesting case for a revolution and an Hombre Nuevo based in Catholic principles is made by B. Kenrick in A Man from the Interior; the Cuban leader himself discusses at length the Revolution’s support for Liberation Theology in F. Castro, Fidel & Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism & Liberation Theology.

[5] see Burke, ed. Health Travels: Cuban Health(care) On and Off the Island and Unesco, Adult and Youth Literacy: National, regional and global trends, 1985-2015.

[6] Msgr. Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Science went so far as to praise Cuba’s medical and educational aid to Latin America, calling it “a gospel of work” during an international conference on globalization and development problems in 2010.

[7] The last major vote by the UN General Assembly condemning the US embargo, in 2013, had full the support of all 190 member countries save for two: the Unites States itself and Israel.

[8] The one-two-three punches of hurricanes Bonnie, Georges and Mitch devastated a large swath of the Caribbean and Central America. Cuba responded by sending medical and humanitarian missions to Honduras, Guatemala and Haiti.

[9] It appears that for the first time since Cuba became a socialist country, Washington addressed the fact that the ‘Cuban issue’ was getting in the way of a Latin American policy that served American interests.  See W. LeogGrande & P. Kornbluh, Back Channel to Cuba.

[10] The only other Latin American country to have had visits from all three John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis is Brazil.  For an insight into the cultural impact, ideological shifts, and political meaning of JPII’s visit see M. Vázquez Montalbán, Y Dios entró en La Habana.

[11] It must be noted that beyond expanding religious tolerance and equality in the island, the Vatican has been an integral part of Cuba’s entrepreneurial and business administration education having established the first MBA program since the Revolution.

[12] C. Parsons & M. Memoli, in “Obama aides discuss Vatican role in warming relations with Cuba”, LA Times, April 10, 2015, point to a Situation Room meeting where it was decided to take a two-prong approach in approaching Cuba, secretly.


América Latina en tiempo real


by His Excellency Manuel J. Benítez de Castro, ILAS Associate Fellow

ILAS Associate Fellow Manuel J. Benítez de Castro of the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs gives an introduction to his recent reflections on the cultural, social, political, and economic factors that have shaped contemporary Latin America (full article available here in PDF in Spanish).

En noviembre de 2014, el Real Instituto Elcano me invitó a dar una charla en Madrid, sobre un tema que definió como “América Latina en la actualidad”. Puesto a la tarea de preparar esa charla, recordé las innúmeras charlas que, durante mis últimos catorce años en la Dirección de Europa occidental del Ministerio, había mantenido con diplomáticos y empresarios europeos, en mayor número con españoles, intentando explicarles en qué consistía el “peronismo”, los “movimientos populistas” y cómo y por qué funciona como funciona la política en nuestros países… a menudo con un magro resultado de comprensión. Mis  interlocutores, que partían de sus matrices cognitivas europeas, veían que la realidad cotidiana de la Argentina les resultaba absolutamente familiar, “a la europea” y sin embargo constataban que los desarrollos políticos les sorprendían invariablemente, y generalmente no para bien! Entonces pensé que esa era una buena ocasión para traducir en términos académicos, me animo a decir científicos, un paradigma de los fenómenos sociales y políticos latinoamericanos que ayude a explicar lo que ocurre actualmente en América Latina, y qué puede esperarse que produzca la globalización en el ámbito regional.

SSamuel Huntington (derecha), en su libro “Choque de Civilizaciones”, define a América Latina como “un brote inmediato de otra civilización de larga vida” (que es la occidental), y “puede ser concebida tanto una subcivilización dentro de la civilización occidental, como una civilización separada con una cercana filiación con Occidente y dividida sobre su pertenencia a Occidente.” Y concluye: “Para un análisis centrado en las implicancias políticas de las civilizaciones, incluyendo las relaciones entre América Latina por una parte y Norteamérica y Europa por la otra parte, la última designación es más apropiada y útil.”

Dado que el concepto de “subcivilización” no tiene una connotación muy precisa, prefiero recurrir a la noción de “estructura emergente”, que nos permite enfocar a la cultura latinoamericana como una “cultura emergente” de la civilización occidental, o sea una cultura originada por una determinada configuración estructural – ergo, históricamente condicionada por la misma -, que se desarrolla y genera sus propios atributos y capacidades e interactúa autónomamente con la estructura de la cual se desprende.

Esa perspectiva teórica se ve favorecida por la adopción de una “lente de corrección”, que nos ayuda a “enfocar” con mayor precisión la entidad de América Latina: el concepto de “pliegue”, desarrollado por Deleuze. Así como un pliegue mantiene la textura y el color de una superficie, desarrollándola en un nivel diferente, a partir de esa disrupción que constituye el mismo pliegue, América Latina, como estructura emergente del momento expansivo de esa otra estructura que fue la civilización europea en los siglos XV al XVIII  inclusive, es, en realidad, un “pliegue” de la cultura occidental. Así como el pliegue marca una discontinuidad en la continuidad, América se “despliega” de la cultura occidental con un resorte propio, marcando una continuidad cultural que emerge de la discontinuidad histórica, y que lleva a lo largo de su desarrollo ese doble signo de continuación discontinuada.

Cuatro factores claves

Ese pliegue, en mi enfoque, se produce por la combinación de cuatro factores principales: 1) el multiculturalismo constitutivo de la sociedad latinoamericana, presente desde su mismo origen; 2) la importación de las representaciones colectivas  españolas y portuguesas en los siglos XVI a XVIII, entendiendo como tales los valores, ideas, instituciones, normas, organizaciones, procedimientos y mecanismos que se implantaron en tiempos de la colonia, y posteriormente el conjunto de instituciones europeas y norteamericanas con las que se forjaron los órdenes políticos en el siglo XIX; 3) la influencia de la dimensiones espacial de América en la realidad cotidiana de esos siglos y en el desarrollo histórico de sus sociedades; 4) la aceleración de los tiempos americanos.

Esos cuatro factores no actuaron homogéneamente en todo el espacio de América Latina. La conquista española se expandió sobre el territorio de tres grandes culturas aborígenes: la azteca y la maya, en la zona de América del Norte, Central y el Caribe, y la inca, en la zona de América del Sud. Desde México hasta Bolivia tenemos este espacio que se ha denominado “indoamérica”. En cambio, la conformación de las sociedades del Cono Sur (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay y sur de Brasil) tuvo más que ver con la inmigración europea, que se mezcló con comunidades indígenas de menor desarrollo cultural, dando lo que podríamos llamar “euroamérica”. Y el  área caribeña, bajando hasta el norte de Brasil, tuvo luego una poderosa interacción con las culturas afroamericanas que se fueron desarrollando a partir de la liberación de la esclavitud en esos países. Tenemos así tres manifestaciones culturales de ese pliegue, que se caracteriza por una matriz común y tres variantes sociales, según la conformación demográfica predominante en el lugar.

Ahora bien, la cuestión del pliegue plantea la de su “despliegue”, cómo se despliega América Latina actualmente, cuál es el alcance del cambio que se produce al acceder a la fase última de la globalización capitalista, con la decadencia de la modernidad y el tránsito hacia una nueva era cultural que está “transversalizando” el mundo y sus normas. Esto que presenciamos como “actualidad” en América Latina no es otra cosa que un proceso de transformación de una “cultura emergente” a una “nueva cultura global”, en el sentido de una cultura en sí, diferente y homologable a las demás en el contexto de la globalización.

Gianni VattimoGianni Vattimo (derecha), en el ensayo que cito en el trabajo, se pregunta si la experiencia de Europa puede influir o considerarse un parámetro en América Latina. Y dice: “Un problema filosófico sería la reflexión sobre la transformación de la experiencia del tiempo, el cuestionamiento a la certeza de la noción lineal de la historia. Hay países donde la modernidad no se realizó del todo, entonces el contra-argumento puede ser que no existe tal cosa como una ley evolutiva que funciona igual para todos, y por ende no tendríamos por qué esperar que tal o cual situación nos pase a nosotros. Yo creo –dice Vattimo- que otro aspecto del posmodernismo que concierne a países como Argentina – o más en general a América Latina – puede ser la liberación de las culturas locales, lo que en mi opinión no significa la búsqueda de una identidad fuerte como si el problema fuera el de reconstruir una identidad perdida, sino fortalecer las comunidades locales, como las que representan los dialectos.” Pero, continua “…garantizar la supervivencia de culturas locales, no me parece que esto sea posmoderno, más bien es una idea muy premoderna. Por supuesto que quiero que las culturas se expresen, pero tal vez aquí sería más relevante el fortalecimiento de un pensamiento autóctono, es decir, no depender políticamente del extranjero, eso me parece más significativo políticamente, aunque actualmente no hay más culturas que puedan seguir pensándose como rigurosamente nacionales, sino culturas mezcladas, contaminadas, en el sentido latino de la palabra.”

La “latinidad” de Latinoamérica

Qué tiene de “latina” América Latina, y por qué sería ésta su denominación distintiva? Una primera mirada, más intuitiva que analítica, al universo latinoamericano advierte que esa designación responde a una “ exclusión”: América Latina es aquélla parte de América que no es anglosajona, que fue europea y ya no lo es, una Iberoamérica que ha roto el molde hispánico.

La “latinidad” de Latinoamérica emerge más de la analogía que de la semejanza. Como la Roma del Imperio, lo que resalta en una primera aproximación a América Latina es ese rizoma de culturas heterogéneas que conviven sin amalgamarse enteramente, un universo multicultural y colorido, más o menos hibrido, que a su vez va evolucionando con una dinámica acelerada y una gran plasticidad a los cambios del contexto global. Como aquélla latinidad, ésta se define por oposición a sus fronteras y se caracteriza más por una afinidad de convivencia que genética.

Por otra parte, la praxis latinoamericana muestra una sólida vocación de unidad, cooperación y convergencia política entre las naciones que la integran. En este sentido, América Latina se construye al mancomunarse por oposición al Norte anglosajón, al mundo “gringo” y frente a Europa. América Latina no se presenta en la realidad, pero se hace real en nuestras mentes y, a través de nuestras acciones, en sus efectos.

A partir de este paradigma del pliegue latinoamericano, el trabajo señala los rasgos centrales de la cultura latinoamericana actual: el “despertar indígena” en el espacio indoamericano; la evolución de las creencias religiosas; el fenómeno de la concentración urbana en megalópolis globalizadas; las democracias de mayorías y la crisis de la representación; el problema de la educación; la cuestión de la desigualdad, entre otras.

[El artículo completo se puede leer aquí en formato PDF]

Spain’s Podemos Just Latest Victim of Toxic Venezuela Monster


by Dr Asa Cusack, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow 2014-15

Spain’s traditional parties aim to halt the remarkable rise of Podemos by painting links to Venezuela as foreign intervention. Like many Podemos policies this is an import from Latin America. The good news is that it makes no sense. The bad news is nobody cares.

Chavzilla, (C) 2015 Asa Cusack
The rise of Spain’s Podemos (We Can) from zeroes a year ago to potential heroes of this year’s general election has shocked the rest of Europe. But their lead in the polls has brought a new level of scrutiny and hostility from the ruling People’s Party and the centre-left PSOE.

The latest charge is that Podemos “has its origins and roots in Venezuelan money”, namely illegal donations channelled via the party’s founders, many of whom worked as consultants to the Latin American left. That attacks on Podemos have increased with their popularity is no surprise, but this one is especially dangerous. As novelist Isaac Rosa notes, “few places have reached Spain’s level of ferocious anti-Chávez feeling … present in most of the media, in politicians, but also in society, including parts of the left”.

First things first: is it true?

2015-03-24-1427215159-8313558-monedero_head.jpgIf you know Venezuelan politics, the most striking thing is that this is news at all. The central figure, Podemos number three Juan Carlos Monedero (right), has been a fixture of Venezuelan politics for as long as I can remember, ubiquitous in academic forums and the media (sometimes chatting with Chávez), identifying openly as a government consultant. My own article on these links appeared in August 2014, with many others before and since. So why the sudden uproar?

Basically, because someone realised long-public accounts of the thinktank from which Podemos emerged (CEPS) show receipt of £2.7 million from Venezuela since 2002. Again, if you know Venezuelan politics, this is nothing outlandish. Monedero was but one of numerous CEPS advisers, including Podemos figureheads Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón, working closely with the Venezuelan government. Neither is it surprising that the Venezuelan government, flush with oil money and facing an implacable opposition, would pay such advisers well. To a state that in a single year lost $20 billion dollars to fake import transactions for currency arbitrage, £2.7 million on real consultants is a very small potato. Others question why Monedero received payment in 2013 for work done in 2010. They might ask the hundreds of regional exporters waiting months and years for Venezuelan debts to clear. Sadly, to find things running smoothly would be more surprising.

All of which is actually immaterial to the charge of foreign intervention, since it would only matter if leaders’ money had gone into Podemos, which it hasn’t. An independent audit of party accounts found that no executive member had donated more than €100. The vast majority – more worryingly for political rivals – came in small amounts from crowdfunding.

So, at a time when Podemos was but a twinkle in its founding fathers’ eyes, they did receive money from Latin America for work they undertook openly, but this money did not fund the party. Am I missing something? Or was Tony Blair’s gap year working at a bar in Paris a devious French plot to fund promote the nouvelle gauche?

2015-03-24-1427215834-6266515-Gramsci.jpgThe dreary answer to “who influenced who?!” is that Podemos and Chávez each turned independently to the intellectual left when the neoliberal model fell over. Much has been made of Podemos’ debt to the Argentine neo-Marxist Ernesto Laclau, no doubt familiar to them from their academic careers; Chávez favoured Hungarian neo-Marxist István Mészáros, PhD supervisor of his closest economic adviser Jorge Giordani. Both theorists were channelling Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (right) anyway, so the most significant influence in either direction was probably Podemos’ first-hand experience of what can and can’t be achieved through a mass movement towards participatory democracy.

“Terror in the Andes!”: Birth of the Toxic Venezuela Monster

So if this is not heinous Venezuelan intervention in Europe’s fifth largest economy, what is it? Again, the answer lies in Latin America.

Peru’s Alan García was the first to realise that Venezuela could be used to discredit political opponents. Up against former soldier Ollanta Humala in 2006, García’s principal line of attack was that Humala was a Chávez lackey, his campaign paid for by diplomatic bags full of filthy lucre. Despite producing no evidence, García overturned a first-round deficit of six percentage points and won the presidency.

Later that year Mexico’s right-wing candidate Felipe Calderón, under challenge from leftist Andrés López Obrador, ran negative campaign ads (above) that showed Chávez warning Mexican president Vicente Fox “not to mess with him” followed by clips of López Obrador telling Fox to “shut up, big mouth!” at a rally. Another had Chávez announcing imports of AK-47s against a backdrop of weapons, guerrilla fighters, and dissonant music. The impact was massive, with an immediate twelve-point spike in Calderón’s ratings. López Obrador lost by 0.58%, depriving Mexico of its first left-wing government since the end of one-party rule and bringing in the president who oversaw the country’s downward spiral into astonishingly brutal drug violence.

What they had realised – and what Latin American politicians have known ever since – is that Venezuela is a toxic brand. Whole digital forests have fallen to articles on media bias against Venezuela, and to any disinterested observer who knows the country the phenomenon remains mind-boggling, but let’s not rake over old coals. Suffice it to say that the latest BBC Mundo headlines on Mexico and Colombia concern a decapitated politician and a series of bombings in Bogotá. These events barely registered in the English-language media, yet when things a hundred times less serious happen in Venezuela, the howls can be heard on Venus. But there is sometimes a lack of toilet paper, granted.

Toxic Because It Contaminates, Monster Because It’s Beyond Rationality

2015-03-24-1427218069-7056400-schama_head.jpgThe unfortunate fact is that the “media war” is lost. To say “Venezuela” in the same breath as “North Korea” is entirely acceptable to most people, including much of the left. How a renowned historian like Simon Schama (right) – not an idiot by any means – felt qualified to claim on Question Time in 2010 that Venezuelans “would give their eyes for a real democratic verdict” is still beyond me (Chávez had already won six fair elections on his presidency). But even more revealing is that it went unchallenged, with the BBC’s later apology for this frankly ludicrous statement reaching a tiny fraction of the three million socially influential viewers who saw the original broadcast.

Spain’s traditional parties are just the latest to realise that what you say about Venezuela nowadays doesn’t even have to be true. So they claim to “reveal” payments that were never hidden, whereas “supposed” donations “have to be confirmed”. The wall of media sound behind standard tropes of Venezuelan wickedness means you need only say “Venezuela” and “Podemos” before standing back to watch the fun.

The First Rule of Toxic-Monster Club Is Don’t Talk about the Toxic Monster

Worse, Venezuela is now beyond discussion, with the pathological polarization of its domestic politics reproduced in miniature around the world. Isaac Rosa’s conclusion for Podemos is sombre, but I can’t improve on it:

“[Detractors] have found an inexhaustible seam for wearing down [Podemos], a leak through which they hope support will drain away. They’re going to make some of Podemos’ founders pay for their recent relationship with the Venezuelan government, and we’ll soon see how much. The worse things get in Venezuela – and they will get worse, though we can’t even discuss why – the more damaging for Podemos.”

Podemos is just the latest victim of the toxic Venezuela monster: Syriza beware!


n.b. originally published in The Huffington Post

Image attributions:

1] “Chavzilla”, copyright Asa Cusack 2015, based on public domain 1954 Japanese movie poster, with elements of other CC licensed images “Hugo Chavez Homage” by David Shankbone and “Presentación de PODEMOS (16-01-2014 Madrid) 19” by Discasto.
2] Cropped from CC image “Presentación de PODEMOS (16-01-2014 Madrid) 34” by Discasto.
3] Antonio Gramsci, 1922, public domain.
4] Simon Schama, cropped from CC image “Simon Schama FT Business Book of the Year 2013” by Magnus Manske.

Adaptive Economies in Latin America: How Mexico’s Holbox Became “Whale Shark Island”


by Professor Michael Redclift, ILAS Associate Fellow

Professor Michael Redclift, Emeritus Professor of International Environmental Policy in the Department of Geography at King’s College London, presents a snapshot of adaptive change on Holbox, just off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, which has ‘rebranded’ itself as “Whale Shark Island”
(n.b. Cambridge University is hosting a conference on “Branding Latin America” on April 8, 2015).

OThe history of Holbox is wrapped in myth. Explorers Stephens and Catherwood stayed nearby, at Yalahau (Chiquila) on April 4, 1842, and mentioned the surrounding coast . At the time the pirate Molas was operating in the area with some success, and seems to have had the confidence of local fishing communities. However, it was not until 1883 that (old) Holbox was officially founded. In 1889 a serious hurricane destroyed the village and a new settlement was formed around a 100 metre square grid system. The village was complete by 1893 and it is still referred to as the ‘new town’ or ‘new Holbox’.

The early days of the Holbox economy

In the 1920s and 1930s Holbox featured at the margins of what was still viewed as a geographical periphery, even in Merida. Its founders, unlike those of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres (with whom Holboxenos have intermarried and whom they hold in high regard), were not Mayan refugees from the rebel Maya forces during the Caste War but descendents of sailors and non-Mayan Mexicans. (Today there are only three Maya speakers on the Island and they are all from outside). Most of the trade was in dyewood and some hardwoods. Some chicleros came and rested on the island after spending three or four hard months of work in the forests. Later the fishing activities developed for sale, especially shark fishing, which produced shark skin and shark fins, which were sold profitably. There was also some copra [husk of coconuts used for matting] production, mainly on the mainland, with which people from Holbox were associated.

mexican_fishermenAdaptation on Holbox: from fishing…

Fishing has always been the principal activity of households on Holbox. Before the 1970s the commercialisation of the catch was poorly developed and most boats caught a ‘random’ collection of species. Indeed, before 1960 the most important item was probably turtles (about sixty per cent by value) and shark, but after 1970s the number of turtles caught declined slowly. During the 1960s lobster fishing increased in importance: in 1969 it represented about three quarters of the value of the catch in Quintana Roo as a whole. Most of the lobster was exported to the United States, but with the growth of Cancun in the late 1970s and 1980s a local market came into play. Lobster fishing had some clear advantages for artisan fishers: lobster were easily available and had high commercial value; they could be caught using relatively simple technology and in shallow water; and lobster fishing could absorb a large number of fishers and enable the reproduction of the household economy without access to much outside investment.


The whale shark brand is everywhere on Holbox

…to developing the ‘brand’: Welcome to ‘Whale Shark Island’!

Nobody seems entirely sure who it was that first drew the attention of Holbox islanders to the tourist potential of the whale sharks. It is generally agreed that about ten years ago the fishing families began taking visitors out to see the whale sharks – initially this was a small scale venture. The waters where the whale-sharks congregate is far from the shore but the water is relatively shallow – just twenty metres or so. In most other parts of the world where whale-sharks congregate, such as off the Honduran coast and in India, the waters are much deeper. Consequently, it is easier to see, and to swim with, the whale-sharks off Holbox.  It is a measure of the adaptive speed of the Holboxenos that they quickly developed a ‘logo’ for their island that incorporated the whale-shark. The shark has come to inhabit the island, as it were, and the island to inhabit the shark. This logo is now used everywhere, on houses that have been refurbished, on the front of shops and cafes and in hotels. It is a piece of design genius which has enabled the locals who benefit from the whale-shark season, and the hotel entrepreneurs, to become a global brand – and be advertised on the World Wide Web. Local people also insist that their interest is in conserving the whale-sharks rather than hunting them so, in this at least, they are displaying conservation objectives. The brand is also used widely in web advertising for Holbox’s whale-shark season, which boosts local tourism.


Image attributions:
1.) Sarunas Burdulis (CC via Wikimedia)
2.) Tomas Castelazo (CC via Wikimedia)
3.) copyright Michael Redclift.

ALBA: an important but poorly understood regional project


by Dr Asa Cusack, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow 2014-15

As the Institute of Latin American Studies prepares to host the conference Ten Years of ALBA: Progress, Problems, and Prospects on 26 February 2015, stipendiary fellow Dr Asa Cusack considers how economic and political problems in Venezuela currently threaten many of the real achievements of this alternative mode of regionalism in Latin America and the Caribbean.

ALBA_post_SMLVenezuela has an abundance of oil and a lack of doctors.  Cuba has an abundance of doctors and a lack of oil.  On 14 December 2004, the two countries launched the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) precisely to allow the simple, yet innovative, logic of mutually beneficial exchange to solve each other’s problems.  As it celebrated its tenth birthday last month, ALBA’s membership grew to eleven with the addition of Grenada and St Kitts & Nevis (alongside Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua amongst others).  However, intensifying political and economic risks in ALBA’s lynchpin, Venezuela, now threaten this important but poorly understood regional project.

I say ‘important’ because ALBA did not stop at ‘oil for doctors’, nor even with various other international social programmes offering free eye operations, a census of disabled citizens’ needs and literacy training.  Rather it went on to launch wide-ranging economic initiatives aimed at reducing the region’s dependency on the rich world: a virtual currency to remove the US dollar from intra-regional trade (SUCRE), an oil-backed soft-loan scheme to insulate small Caribbean economies from rocketing oil prices (Petrocaribe), a regional ALBA Bank to fund development projects, a new ‘People’s’ Trade Agreement putting people before profit, state multinationals to keep private counterparts honest (‘Grandnationals’), and even a Social Movements Council to give civil society direct input into regional governance.

Yet precisely how important all this has been remains hard to say, because of the ‘poorly understood’ part.  Neither individual ALBA governments nor the organisation’s secretariat provide clear information about the implementation or impact of these various initiatives.  And, since ALBA consciously allows its initiatives to expand beyond its formal borders and into other non-member countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, it’s often hard to define exactly which ALBA we are talking about.  These ambiguities allow commentators to fill in the blanks with the version of ALBA that best fits their particular ideas and interests.

ALBA_cumbre_cropMy own research into ALBA’s implementation within its formal membership suggests that, because ALBA is unevenly implemented, it has had, as one might expect, an uneven impact.  This makes it hard to sum up its nature and value in simple terms.  Key elements such as the People’s Trade Agreement, designed to reverse the neoliberal reforms of earlier decades, have not been institutionalised, and even within broadly successful initiatives, like the SUCRE and Petrocaribe, those elements designed to redress imbalances between member-states remain weak.  This doesn’t mean that ALBA’s role is insignificant, but it does indicate that its role is not as significant as its heads of state tend to claim.

The fact that trade via the SUCRE mechanism has hovered around US$1 billion in recent years (despite having launched only in 2010) and that Petrocaribe has saved the entire Caribbean billions in foreign exchange – averting numerous fiscal crises in the process – are clear signs of ALBA’s material significance.  Here too the macro often obscures the micro, such as the new export opportunities afforded to collectives of small farmers in Ecuador via the SUCRE or the new transfer benefits for the elderly and disabled funded by Petrocaribe savings in Antigua and Barbuda.  Being ‘poorly understood’, these real human benefits of ALBA – and every member-state has its own equivalents – are often overlooked despite being the organisation’s basic motivation.

Indeed, because ALBA cares little for its own formal limits and often strays unnoticed into the affairs of non-members – whether as subsidised petrol in El Salvador or fair-trade deals for Guyanese rice exporters – the geographical spread of its impact is likewise underestimated.  The political, negotiated nature of its inter-state interactions has also meant that it has been able to react with uncommon speed to stabilise regional neighbours hit by external shocks, such as those caused by the sudden suspension of US trade preferences or the collapse of financial institutions.  Since subsidised, ALBA-sourced imports into Venezuela can become part of massive contraband flows into Colombia and Brazil – which lower the cost of living for consumers there – even its role in illicit forms of integration is potentially significant.

In more abstract terms, ALBA has also served as a sandbox for new forms of regional cooperation, with initiatives like the SUCRE and international social ‘missions’ achieving maturity and real utility, even if others have floundered.  This degree of experimentation is the exception, not the rule in regional organisations.  Symbolically, it has served to demonstrate that, even if another world is not yet possible, another regionmay be.  For the same reason, it has served the political end of uniting and channelling disparate forces in their opposition to the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas and the North-South free-trade deals offered in its wake.

ALBA_marchaALBA’s importance to Latin America and the Caribbean is thus greater than often assumed, which makes any threat to its persistence all the more serious.  Unfortunately, the flipside to ALBA’s innovation and flexibility is a lack of prudence and stability.

Despite the (continuing) growth of its membership, ALBA remains fundamentally Venezuela-centric in terms of its governance and financing.  Indeed, because many ALBA programmes are funded off-budget by the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, in turn controlled by the Venezuelan presidency, they can be jeopardised as much by political as economic upheaval in that country.  Since massive public spending on domestic social programmes also originates with PDVSA, any further deterioration of these public services would eat into President Maduro’s slim electoral advantage, opening the door to an opposition that sees ALBA simply as ‘giving away the oil’.

So what to do?  While the Venezuelan government officially budgets for an oil price of around US$60, even that is above the current level and it does not cover off-budget spending.  In the past Venezuela has been able to paper over occasional cracks with Chinese credit, but the recent collapse of oil prices raises issues of a different magnitude.  International financial markets are backing away and Venezuela’s cost of borrowing has risen dramatically.  Maduro recently proposed a partial devaluation that could help improve cash flow, but there is no guarantee that this will suffice, and devaluation comes with a political cost at a time when the president’s popularity is already on the wane.  Though sensible for the same reasons, his moves to reduce state subsidisation of domestic petrol consumption are also likely to prove unpopular.

OPEC has shown little sign of lowering production, and the only possible divine intervention would be geopolitical instability involving major producers.  The main problem remains the earthly one of increased shale exploitation in the US, itself only threatened by the same low prices worrying Venezuela.  Maduro will find himself exposed to the possibility of a recall referendum in April 2016, and his ability to continue as president will depend to a great extent on how he deals with these key economic questions.

For ALBA, and for the prospects of alternative regionalism in Latin America and the Caribbean, the stakes could not be higher.


(An earlier version was published by SPERI, the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute)

A Short Guide To Understanding Venezuela


by Dr Matt Wilde, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow 2013-14

The last few months have been testing times for Venezuelans. In February a series of anti-government protests broke out across the country, igniting social tensions that had been simmering since the death of Hugo Chávez and the election of his successor, Nicolás Maduro, in April 2013. Initially beginning among students in the western state of Táchira, demonstrations soon emerged in Caracas and other major urban centres, where predominantly middle-class protestors took to the streets to condemn high inflation, food shortages and insecurity. Led by Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado, radical sectors of the opposition seemed intent on stoking tensions in order to destabilise the government.


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