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Latin America & Caribbean

The Return of the Right in Latin America


by Christopher Wylde, Associate Professor of International Relations at Richmond University and Visiting Fellow at ILAS

The so-called ‘Pink Tide’ that swept Latin America from 1998 onwards has recently experienced a number of electoral challenges, which complement previous mobilisational and extra-constitutional challenges. In the hubris of the mid-2000s, the Left looked unassailable across large swathes of Latin America. Hugo Chávez was re-elected for a third time in 2006; Chile was under the administrations of Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet, who had run proceedings throughout the long decade, with only a brief interregnum from the centre-right in the form of Sebastiá Piñera. Brazil had elected Lula for a second time in 2007; Argentina was dominated by the Kirchners; Evo Morales and the MAS were triumphant in Bolivia; Correa in Ecuador, Vásquez in Uruguay, Colom in Guatemala, Funes in El Salvador, even Paraguay under Lugo (albeit briefly) – the list is long.

Mauricio Macri y Evo Morales, by Gastón Cuello, CC BY 2.5 AR

Mauricio Macri y Evo Morales, by Gastón Cuello, CC BY 2.5 AR

Fast-forward to 2016 and the situation is not so rosy for the Latin American Left. The election (by a wafer-thin margin) of the right-wing, market-friendly Mauricio Macri in Argentina has heralded an end to Kirchnerismo and its neo-developmentalism and the attendant rise of a distinctly more neoliberal flavour to Argentine governance. Significant changes have already occurred in Argentina’s political economy of development, manifested in policy changes ranging from a sharp depreciation of the peso, capitulation to global capital markets in the form of paying the fondos buitres (vulture funds), an immediate reduction of retenciones (export taxes) for large agricultural Trans-National Corporations (TNCs), and a ‘sudden-stop’ to domestic energy subsidies.

Meanwhile, in Latin America’s largest and most populous economy, the hydra-headed Petrobras scandal has engulfed even Lula himself, with former President Dilma Rouseff being removed from office through impeachment proceedings in Congress – what Barry Cannon of NUI Maynooth has termed a ‘smart coup’. Nicolás Maduro – Chávez’s successor in Venezuela – has undoubtedly been hurt by a slump in oil prices, with an alliance of centre-left, centrist, and right-wing opposition parties scoring a resounding victory in parliamentary elections in December 2015.

Understanding the Right (in Latin America)

In order to get to grips with what these shifts mean for Latin America and its contemporary development trajectory we first need to understand and map the contours of the left/right divide (in Latin America). Impressive and detailed primary research on this topic by Dr. Barry Cannon from NUI Maynooth provides valuable insight. In his newly published book The Right in Latin America (Routledge, 2016) he proposes that an analysis of inequality generates a powerful ontology of Right/Left politics in Latin America. Policy solutions may change, but this central concern is constant. For the Left, this translates into greater state involvement in the market in order to ensure more substantive equality through welfarism; for the Right this means greater state involvement in the market to enforce pro-market regulations designed to enhance equality of opportunity.

These public-policy profiles have implicit and explicit outcomes favouring some class fractions over others, meaning that class and the role of elites should be central to any discussion of the Right. Historically, political parties of the Right in Twentieth Century Latin America were not prominent in its political expressions. Domination of the state through personal, bureaucratic, and clientelistic ties obviated the need for direct control of the main organs of government (executive, legislature, federal governors where relevant). Betrayal of these elite interests in the form of Import Substituting Industrialisation (ISI) led them to turn to the military in the 1970s and early 1980s – ushering in what Guillermo O’Donnell termed Latin America’s ‘bureaucratic-authoritarian’ period. The lack of economic success of these regimes, combined with the decline of the militant left across the region, ushered in democratic transitions, so as the 1980s progressed the Right embraced democratic politics and a renewed emphasis on parties, legislatures, and elections.

Short-lived Venezuelan president Pedro Carmona with backers, 2002

Coup leader Pedro Carmona and various supporters, Palacio Miraflores, Caracas, 2002

This analysis reveals that the Latin American Right goes far beyond political parties. Institutions like the Church and the Media, as well as socio-economic elites in large firms or think-tanks, must all be considered as part of the nexus of Right power. In summary, all those class fractions, institutions, and actors of society that support the free market and a lessening of state power over market relations (in order to fulfil its desire for equality of opportunity – read: equality to engage in market based relations) come under the aegis of the Right.

This means that an understanding of the contemporary Right in Latin America must incorporate analysis of not only political parties, but also the way in which power is exercised beyond this arena. With this in mind, the rise of the Right and the ways in which they have resisted the Pink Tide must be understood not only in terms of electoral politics, but also mobilisational and extra-constitutional tactics as well. Therefore, the election of right-wing government (in particular Argentina) must be understood alongside mass demonstrations in Brazil, for example, as well as extra-constitutional practices such as the attempted coup d’état in Venezuela in 2002.

The influence of the Right in Contemporary Latin America

With this in mind, the return of the Right to Latin American politics is a somewhat misleading starting point as the Right never really went away. This is especially true in the broader context of Latin America’s insertion into the global division of labour. Given that the structures of international political economy distinctly favour pro-market regulation and its associated suite of policy prescriptions (privatisation, liberalisation, and de-regulation), the contours of the Pink Tide itself were fundamentally shaped by this dynamic. As a result of what José Santiso termed the ‘limits of the possible’ the post-neoliberal modality of governance emphasised by Pink Tide states had a strong neoliberal flavour: private property was not systematically attacked – there was no significant land redistribution; free trade was largely maintained – albeit with certain protections for strategic sectors; macroeconomic frameworks remained largely in line with servicing international debt obligations; and poverty-reduction programmes were firmly embedded in a neoliberal discourse of Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) principles (Bolsa Familia, AUH, Bono Solidario etc.). This was tempered with a more active industrial policy, a refreshed neo-corporatism, a moratorium on privatisations (with some re-nationalisations), and the construction of counter-hegemonic regionalism (ALBA, UNASUR, and CELAC), combined with an attempt to forge a new social contract between the state and the people through a reconceptualization of citizenship.

In its totality this post-neoliberal governance represented a crystallisation of previous forms of political economy – including the neoliberalism of the 1990s and the ISI period of the mid-twentieth century. As a result, the ‘return of the right’ – to electoral politics at least – should not be overemphasised, as the Right’s power in Latin American political economy beyond the state has always shaped political discourse, even at the apex of Pink Tide power.

Yet, the case of Mauricio Macri in Argentina clearly demonstrates that the return of the Right to electoral politics has had an important impact on Argentina’s development trajectory. His early policies represent an attempt to re-orientate Argentine political economy towards a full-blooded neoliberalism, thus conforming to a pro-market ideology that emphasises equality of opportunity. However, equally interesting are those aspects of the post-neoliberal Argentine state that Macri is not changing: the state oil company YPF remains nationalised and the core poverty alleviation programme (AUH) remains in place. This acceptance of the need to provide for the poor goes beyond the elites of Argentina and represents an important shift in the thinking of the Right in Latin America in general.

In an interview before her death Margaret Thatcher said that her greatest legacy to UK politics was Tony Blair, the implication being that her administrations had shifted British politics fundamentally to the right, so that even a left wing Labour Prime Minister now pursues essentially Right-wing policies (understood in terms of equality of opportunity). In this vein, and given Argentina’s current commitment to the anti-poverty rhetoric and policies of the post-neoliberal regime of the Kirchner’s, perhaps Cristina’s (and Néstor’s) greatest legacy will be Mauricio Macri.

The Devastating Environmental and Social Impact of Gold Mining in Chocó, Colombia


by Louise Winstanley, Programme and Advocacy Manager, ABColombia

Rio Quito

Chocó is situated between the Darién Gap on the border with Panama and the departments of Antioquia and Valle de Cauca. It is one of the planet’s hidden tropical treasures, classified as a Forest Reserve [i] and home to approximately 56 per cent of Colombian bird species and 11 per cent of all known bird species in the world [ii]. Chocó is also rich in mineral resources, particularly gold and platinum. It is therefore no coincidence that Chocó, a region rich in natural resources, has become one of the focal points of the Colombian conflict, with thousands of people killed or forcibly displaced.

Uncontrolled exploitation of small-scale mechanised gold mining in Chocó has proved to be a lucrative business for illegal armed groups. These groups operate in territories belonging to indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, spreading violence and fear, with opponents to mining threatened, attacked and killed. As well as generating violence, these mining operations have serious health and environmental impacts, threatening the lives and livelihoods of the population and damaging large areas of one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.

Chocó is an unusual department in that 96 per cent of the land in Chocó is collectively owned by indigenous or Afro-descendant peoples. For these ethnic groups, their territory embodies the essence of life and development. Therefore, Colombian law considers territory a fundamental right for these groups. Their livelihoods revolve around hunting, fishing, farming and small-scale artisanal mining. This way of life has preserved the rich biodiversity of this exceptional corner of Colombia, allowing it to meet the communities’ basic needs for centuries.

diggerHowever, in the 1980s a gold rush in the south of the department saw miners arrive with mechanical diggers and dredgers. Using mercury to separate out gold, they washed the residue into the rivers, along with other chemicals. Mercury pollution built up in the rivers of Chocó as a result of the rapid growth of small-scale mining operations. In 2009 a government commission revealed that four tons of mercury had been washed into Río Quito (above), just one of the tributaries of the Atrato River (the main river running through Choco) [iii]. In 2010 Colombia was named as the world’s worst per-capita mercury polluter from small-scale mechanised gold mining, and Chocó was one of the worst-affected areas in Colombia [iv].  Small-scale mechanised gold mining also became a lucrative business for illegal armed groups, increasingly important to them as a means of funding the conflict. Paramilitary and guerrilla groups not only extort ‘rents’ in exchange for ‘protection’, they also loan out machinery to these small-scale operations and sometimes even become owners of mining operations themselves.

As well as intensifying the conflict, small-scale mechanised mining has damaged the social fabric of many communities.  First, the presence of these illegal armed actors severely limits the possibility of communities engaging in traditional artisanal mining, which only intensifies the threat to livelihoods already jeopardised by environmental damage to local rivers. This has forced some women to seek work as cooks and cleaners in mining camps, where they can face immense violence and poverty.


Community leaders in Chocó report a number of interrelated issues stemming from this form of mining:

‘…many women have been sexually affected by these guys who come here to mine, they offer them jobs and end up raping them and then other men [at the camp] continue raping them … there are women who are psychologically traumatised by what has happened to them… in order to work they have gone to these mining camps and because the mine owners are mixing together with the armed actors, the women are seen as collaborators and this affects them considerably because they are stigmatised as collaborating with armed groups… the lives of women are controlled by those who dominate their territory… they control their sexual life, the way in which they dress, everything… They start looking at them as women when they are only 10 years old’.

‘… [T]he chemicals used in mining affect the women’s bodies… you see women with skin blemishes on their bodies as a result of exposure to chemicals used in mining. Sometimes they have babies with deformities…’

‘The impacts of the mining activities have been disastrous for us; we are not the same communities as 10 years ago. We have experienced many crop failures; mercury causes disastrous problems in our community. In particular as farmers we experience the full impact… We do not use the waters from the river … the fish are no longer edible due to the mercury. People who eat the fish get stomach pain and diarrhoea’.

Fishing ABC

These communities also face a newer challenge as they discover that during their forced displacement much of their territory has been conceded to multinational companies (MNCs). Investment by MNCs in Chocó is actively promoted by the Colombian Government despite being associated with militarisation and social conflict. The majority of concessions granted to MNCs are in the early exploratory stage but they are already generating legal disputes and social protest. The communities have been working with lawyers and the Dioceses of Quibdó to mount legal challenges to mining operations, environmental destruction and human rights abuses.

While international norms and Colombian Constitutional Court judgements have strengthened the guarantees for Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples to “free, prior, and informed consent” processes, recent Colombian Government legislation appears to seek to circumvent these rights.

Communities are trying to find ways forward to address these issues, including through legal and environmental strategies. Some have been successful in preserving their territory and way of life, but the challenges they face remain significant.  These challenges and their possible solutions will be explored at a conference hosted by ILAS at Senate House at the University of London on 11 November 2016. Places at this conference are limited so please reserve your place at:


For more information on our organisation visit:



[i]   Ministerio de Ambiente, Vivienda y Desarrollo Territorial. Dirección de Licencias, Permisos y Trámites Ambientales. Oficio No 2400-E2-95921 de 02/09/2010. Suscrito por Magda Constanza Contreras Morales – Coordinadora Grupo de Relación con Usuarios.

[ii] Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, Ecosystem profile: Chocó-Manabí Conservation Corridor, Colombia and Ecuador, 2005.

[iii] Fiscalía General de Nación, Comunicado del 21 de abril de 2009, Bogotá cited by UPME (Unidad de Planeación Minera Energética) in Panorama del Sector Minero, August 2014.

[iv] NIDO, Antioquia, Colombia: the world’s most polluted place by mercury: impressions from two field trips, 2010.

An “Agonized Siege Over a Roomful of Dynamite”: Histories of Violence Between Miners and the Bolivian State


by Elena McGrath, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow and PhD Candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison

On August 26, 2016, Bolivian deputy minister of the interior Rodolfo Illanes was found beaten to death in Panduro, Bolivia, approximately 160 kilometres southeast of La Paz. The official had been taken hostage the day before by cooperative miners as he travelled to negotiate a settlement on behalf of the government of Evo Morales. As late as Thursday afternoon, the Bolivian press were reporting that Illanes was alive and well — he had told radio network ERBOL that he was safe in the custody of the miners.[1] Just hours later, however, police exchanged fire with striking workers, killing four. A fifth died as a result of a botched dynamite explosion. Illanes did not survive the night, and his body — showing signs of blows to the head and ribs — was deposited by the side of the highway in the morning. The death of the minister made international headlines as the MAS moved to condemn the kidnapping and “cowardly” assassination.[2] Evo Morales even told the media his government had survived a “coup” attempt.[3] Less public has been the response to the deaths of four miners at the hands of Bolivian security forces.


Police confront cooperative miners, August 2016. Source: La Razón

These kinds of deaths in places like Bolivia are reported globally as routine signs of disorder, but they are not. The deaths of these miners highlight a change in the terms of the MAS coalition, currently under significant pressure to live up to its populist promises and articulate two very different forms of social justice: economic prosperity and social redistribution. Many observers have been wondering why cooperative miners, some of the staunchest allies of the MAS government since 2005, would attack a MAS official.[4] Others have noted the relative privilege the miners enjoy within the current political moment, especially in contrast to activists in areas such as the Amazon, who have been clashing with MAS since 2011. Certainly, the government wants to dismiss the demands of the striking cooperativistas as excessive. And indeed, many of the demands of the striking cooperativistas seem designed to exclude others from protection: cooperatives are resisting, among other things, increased environmental regulation and the recognition of unions among the employees of cooperative members.[5]

But this hostage crisis is far from unprecedented, as Bolivia has a long history of miners negotiating with the government in the language of violence. In 1942 and again in 1967, the Bolivian state sent the army to quell miner’s strikes, resulting in dozens of casualties.[6] Workers sometimes tried to hold off the army with dynamite, as happened during the military coups of General Natusch Busch in 1979 and General García Meza in 1980.[7] Bolivia’s more populist governments have tended to avoid full scale confrontations between the army and the miners, but even then negotiations have sometimes taken the form of violent clashes. The government of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR, 1952-1964) was initially friendly to miners but as it shifted from a policy of labour conciliation to one of labour repression, there were several serious clashes, many of which took the form of hostage crises.

Miners carry MNR President Victor Paz Estenssoro after the Nationalization of the mines, 1952. Source: La Razón Digital, Bolivia.

Miners carry MNR President Victor Paz Estenssoro after the Nationalization of the mines, 1952. Source: La Razón Digital, Bolivia.

In December 1963, during a strike over salaries and layoffs, members of the Siglo XX miners’ union took several American engineers and Peace Corps volunteers hostage in order to protest abuses by the state. In this case, the intervention of minister (and union leader) Juan Lechín successfully secured the release of the prisoners. The miners had not intended to kill the men, and in fact they allowed a reporter and photographer from Life Magazine to interview them and document the impromptu games they played to stave off boredom and fear.[8] However, activist Domitila Barrios de Chungara recalled that the union rank and file, terrified and angry after hearing reports that they would face an invasion by the army and peasant militias from Ucureña, had burst into the building housing the Americans and nearly killed them before the negotiations concluded. It was only the firm resolve of the women of the Miners’ Housewives Committee — who were guarding the hostages — that prevented these untimely and politically inexpedient killings.[9] Had the military fired on miners, the situation may well have ended up more like last month’s conflict.

In both of the historical cases cited above, these protests occurred against a “friendly” MNR government. While the MNR had been moving to the right since the 1950s, even as late as 1963, the government claimed to represent the miners in a multi-class coalition. The miners went on strike and took hostages in order to demonstrate that this alliance had limits. The same Life reporter also spoke to a miner about why he was protesting against the government and was told only that “I am too poor to fear death.” In the modern-day case, minister Illanes himself originally reported to Radio Pio XII that his kidnapping was in part a protective measure given the level of popular anger towards him. Cooperative leaders hoped to keep negotiating lines open with the kidnapping, not to shut them down.

In the days after Illanes’ death, a recording emerged of a phone conversation allegedly involving Agustín Choque, vicepresident of the Federation of Cooperative Miners (FENCOMIN), and an unidentified government functionary. In the profanity-laden conversation, the government official calls Choque “brother,” but warns the leader that the kidnapping has taken the mining crisis to “another level,” and that Choque is “playing with his life.” Choque, for his part, confessed that he did not know exactly what had triggered the kidnapping but demanded that the official refrain from threatening him. Around the time when this conversation took place, FENCOMIN issued a furious statement condemning the deaths of several protesters, calling out the “dictatorial” response of the MAS government to the miners’ strike, and reminding the public that the police had killed miners two years before. Here is clear evidence that this kidnapping was part of a negotiation with the state that was spiralling out of control. When the miners took Illanes hostage, they wanted to ensure the safe treatment of their own strike representatives. But as clashes with police escalated, the leaders of FENCOMIN lost control over the situation.

Table from Elena McGrath, “Drinking and Dynamite: Revolution and Social Struggle in Bolivia, 1900-1992” (University of Wisconsin, 2016). Data from: Ministerio de Minería y Metalurgia, and Corporación Minera de Bolivia (COMIBOL). Dossier: Estadísticas Del Sector Minero Metalúrgico 1980-2013. La Paz, Bolivia: Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2014, pg 31.

Table from Elena McGrath, “Drinking and Dynamite: Revolution and Social Struggle in Bolivia, 1900-1992” (University of Wisconsin, 2016). Data from: Ministerio de Minería y Metalurgia, and Corporación Minera de Bolivia (COMIBOL). Dossier: Estadísticas Del Sector Minero Metalúrgico 1980-2013. La Paz, Bolivia: Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2014, pg 31.

There is a material difference in the conditions of the workers these days. The striking miners in this case are not salaried employees, but members of cooperatives. In 1985, the democratically elected government shut down state mines all across Bolivia under the auspices of IMF-backed austerity. Closed alongside these mines were the welfare structures and policies that had aimed to guarantee some kind of economic security and physical safety for the dangerous work of the mines. In the neoliberal climate of the 1980s, cooperatives seemed to offer a new kind of mining economy that could be encouraged without state investment, providing a solution to the crisis in employment and spiralling poverty without involving the state in provision of costly social security and workplace protections.[10] Most importantly, in the political moment of the 1980s, cooperatives were seen as a way to replace the powerful worker’s unions. In cooperatives, members take on the entirety of the risk, but they also reap all of the profits of any ores they can sell to state banks at preferential prices. In practice, there is a vast difference between poor cooperatives, where members scrape by with very little equipment, protection, or remuneration and wealthy cooperatives whose members own chains of hotels, bus fleets, and who employ paid workers to enter the mines on their behalf.[11]

The MAS government has attempted to strike a balance between social redistribution and national capital by encouraging groups like the cooperative miners with preferential treatment, but as with the MNR in 1964, the limits of this political coalition are showing. Morales responded to the latest conflict by reforming the mining code yet again, restricting some privileges and especially by outlawing the use of dynamite at protest — a measure designed to tar the miners’ very methods of protest as inherently violent.[12] The similarity in both cases is that as the political coalition unravelled, the state miners of the 1960s and likewise the cooperative miners of the 2010s are being accused of greed, entitlement, and unrealistic expectations of political favour. For the miners, this fight is about levelling the playing field: no matter how privileged, miners risk their lives on a daily basis in order to earn their living. The threat of death is a feature of their daily lives. The Morales government achieved power at least in part by promoting the idea that the government should not be killing its poor.[13] When his government stopped talking about the miners as though their lives were as worthy as those of the police, Morales put the very foundations of his government at risk.



[1] “Illanes Dice Que Su Liberación Está Condicionada a Que Se Instale El Diálogo,” La Razón, August 25, 2016, Digital edition, sec. Seguridad Nacional,

[2] Reuters, “Bolivian Deputy Interior Minister Beaten to Death by Miners,” The Guardian, August 25, 2016, World edition,

[3] “Evo Denunció Un Intento de ‘Golpe de Estado,’” La Nación, August 28, 2016, El Mundo edition,

[4] “Bolivia: Por Qué Los Mineros ‘Consentidos’ de Evo Morales Llegaron Al Extremo de Matar a Uno de Sus Viceministros,” BBC Mundo, August 26, 2016, sec. América Latina,

[5] Manuel Filomeno, “Una a Una, Las Demandas de Los Cooperativistas Mineros,” Diario Pagina Siete, August 27, 2016,

[6] Soria Galvarro T et al., 1967: San Juan a sangre y fuego (La Paz: Punto de Encuentro, 2008).

[7] “BOLIVIA’S ‘POPULAR FRONT’ GOVERNMENT; From Tin Mines to Coca Fields,” Guardian Weekly, February 20, 1983; “Around the World: Bolivian Miners Say Strike Continues Despite Siege,” New York Times, July 28, 1980, Late City Final Edition edition, sec. A.

[8] Miguel Acoca, “Hostages of a Mob of Miners: The Exclusive Story of Four Americans and 10 Days of Terror in Bolivia,” Life, January 3, 1964. Magazine coverage is available in full at:

[9] Domitila Barrios de Chungara, Let Me Speak! Testimony Of Domitila, A Woman of the Bolivian Mines, ed. Moema Viezzer, First Edition (Monthly Review Press, 1978), 88. The hostages did not appreciate the favor. The Life reporter who visited the hostages during this time called them “an unsmiling bunch of Lady Macbeths,” Acoca, “Hostages of a Mob of Miners: The Exclusive Story of Four Americans and 10 Days of Terror in Bolivia,” 66.

[10] The first mining cooperatives date back to the 1930s, nevertheless, state support for this group dates to 1958. Hernan Siles Zuazo, “Ley General de Sociedades Cooperativas,” DL Nº 5035, 13 de Septiembre de 1958; Evo Morales updated this law in 2013, in an attempt to cast cooperative mining as a part of the revolutionary democratic process of 21st century Bolivia. [BO-L-N356] Bolivia: Ley general de cooperativas, 11 de abril de 2013

[11] Jocelyn Michard, Cooperativistas Mineras En Bolivia: Formas de Organización, Producción, Y Comercialización (Cochabamba, Bolivia: Centro de Documentación e Información, 2008).

[12] jame.E681459d, “‘Paquetazo legal’ revierte concesiones de cooperativas asociadas a privados,” Text, Erbol Digital, (September 1, 2016),

[13] “Quintana Se Estrella Contra Página Siete Y Lo Tilda de ‘polilla Sin Sangre’ – Diario Pagina Siete,” Diario Pagina Siete, September 6, 2016,

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.

The Massacre of El Mozote, El Salvador: Between Journalism and Ethnography


by Leigh Binford, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY

To coincide with publication of a revised and expanded edition of his “The El Mozote Massacre: Human Rights and Global Implications“, Leigh Binford challenges conventional wisdom on the most notorious event of the civil war that ravaged El Salvador throughout and beyond the 1980s.

Between 11 and 13 December 1981, the Salvadoran Altlacatl Battalion massacred more than a thousand men, women and children in and around the hamlet of El Mozote, located in the northeastern department (similar to a state or province) of Morazán, El Salvador. It was the second year of a brutal civil war between the government and rebel FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) forces that would not end until 1992. The war resulted in at least 75,000 dead and 7,000 disappeared, 95 percent at the hands of the government military (85 percent) or paramilitary and death squads linked to them (10%) according to a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission. Government forces committed dozens of massacres, but the El Mozote is the one that most people recall, perhaps because journalists visited the site several weeks after the events and published articles in major U.S. newspapers that forced the newly-installed Reagan administration to undertake a cursory investigation.

El Mozote shortly after the massacre (from Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, San Salvador)

El Mozote shortly after the massacre (from Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, San Salvador)

Following the administration’s denial that a massacre had occurred, El Mozote dropped off the media radar until the Truth Commission report and the subsequent appearance of a lengthy article and then book by journalist Mark Danner. Danner provides an excellent description and analysis of the embassy’s (non)investigation, but apparently he spent little time in northern Morazán, was unfamiliar with the area’s pre-war history, and as a result erred in his representation of the population and its response to the army invasion. Three claims about El Mozote and the massacre have become part of common sense: (1) that all or almost all of the population died; (2) that the town avoided political violence before the Atlacatl invaded in December of 1981; and (3) that the political neutrality of the inhabitants could be attributed to their embrace of evangelical Christianity.

Many people in northern Morazán would agree with the second and especially the third of these formulations, but not one of the three is supported by evidence. Many people had left El Mozote and the surrounding hamlets before the massacre for regional cities or workplaces in the mountains or coffee and cotton agro-export zones to the north and west. Based on the collection of 14 genealogies in the early 1990s, I estimate that about a third of the pre-war population was killed in the massacre. However, the losses differed greatly among different extended family units. Three of the 14 families lost less than 10 percent of their members, and three others lost more than 60 percent. Thus while all survivors have been deeply affected by the deaths and everyone lost relatives of some degree in this highly endogamous area, some households lost more members than others.  Moreover, many people who remained in the area and were caught in the army’s pincer operation left home just ahead of the Atlacatl’s arrival and hid nearby, where they heard the sounds of and in some cases observed the slaughter of friends and relatives. Fear kept most of them silent for decades, until the organization of a local human rights organization during the first decade of the new millennium. Eventually dozens of people testified to what they had seen and heard during the Atlacatl incursion, contributing to the extensive archive of information presented to judges in Guayaquil, Ecuador, when the case was argued before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in April of 2012.

The main memorial in El Mozote’s central plaza

Second, El Mozote was certainly less conflictive than many other communities in northern Morazán, but it was far from the placid island in a sea of armed confrontation that Danner maintains in his 1994 book, The Massacre at El Mozote. Based on ten field trips to northern Morazán between 1991 and 2012, as well as an exhaustive study of the available documentation, I conclude that there occurred a minimum of twenty politically-motivated murders and assassinations in and around El Mozote between January 1980 and early December 1981. The majority took place not in El Mozote proper but in nearby hamlets and rural areas. This dispersal of violence complicated people’s efforts to make sense of the repression. It is important that we keep in mind that the Atlacatl operation embraced a zone encompassing as much a hundred square kilometers and at least six rural hamlets.

Third, many people erroneously attribute the political attitudes of the population in and around El Mozote to widespread adoption of evangelical Protestantism. Even former FMLN guerrillas make this argument, which simplistically links pre-war Catholicism with support for the rebels and Protestantism with support for the government. However, the correlation of evangelical Protestantism and political conservatism is far from one-to-one. The larger problem with this formulation is the lack of evidence for a substantial pre-war evangelical presence in northern Morazán. While some materials indicate that small evangelical groups had organized in areas around El Mozote, the hamlet itself was staunchly Catholic. Indeed, it was one of the only hamlets in northern Morazán to contain a free-standing Catholic church, which was constructed by the inhabitants in the late 1950s with local labor and donated funds. However, the church contained no resident priest, and José Carmen Romero, the local lay catechist, remained faithful to Fr. Andrés Argueta, the conservative priest who presided over the parish of Jocoaitique in which El Mozote was located. Catholics, too, could be politically conservative, and in fact most of them were. A radical priest was appointed to head up a new parish created in 1972, but before the war he never visited El Mozote, which was ensconced in the heart of Argueta’s territory. Christian Base Communities did not develop in or around El Mozote, and without the local organization associated with them and the progressive message of God’s preferential option for the poor they disseminated, Catholicism in El Mozote remained wedded to a conservative theology that promised those enduring poverty on earth rewards in the afterlife.

Finally, it is important to mention that the hamlet of El Mozote was inhabited by a number of merchants and tradespeople whose energy, intelligence and organizational capability had resulted in a level of local development that must have been the envy of rural hamlets throughout northern Morazán. The hamlet contained a church, brick schoolhouse, cemetery and was home to an agricultural cooperative. On the eve of the civil war El Mozote had even been selected as the site for the construction of a technical school, to be financed by the Venezuelan government, that would train peasants in agriculture, carpentry, bricklaying and other skills. Although land shortage and landlessness were growing problems in the area, it seems likely that the material benefits that many people received by working within the system and Argueta’s conservative Catholic message worked together to inoculate them against FMLN calls to overthrow the government.

Until recently the people in and around El Mozote have been one of the “people without history” discussed by anthropologist Eric Wolf. Of course the people in El Mozote always had a history, but for much of the world that history only began (and ended) when the Atlacatl carried out its scorched earth operation. With little understanding or apparent interest in social and economic relations in the area before and on the eve of the civil war, journalist Mark Danner and many other commentators were quick to center their analyses around bits of information that reinforced pre-existing beliefs about poor, rural people. But the reality of the massacre and those who lived it was much more complex, as I argue here and in a great deal more detail in The El Mozote Massacre: Human Rights and Global Implications (University of Arizona Press).

Abriendo el diafragma de análisis: una panorámica del sistema político ecuatoriano post 2006–pre 2017


por Manuela Celi, Doctoranda en la Universidad Complutense-Instituto Universitario Investigación Ortega y Gasset, y Associate Fellow en ILAS

Previo a la llegada de Alianza País (AP) al escenario político ecuatoriano, la crisis de representación fue un tema de análisis recurrente. En los últimos diez años, el país había presenciado las posesiones y auto designaciones de al menos 7 presidentes. Solo tres fueron electos por votación popular; los mismos cuyo mandato fue abruptamente interrumpido, con una creciente presión social en las calles como telón de fondo y la élite política orquestando maniobras de distribución y ordenamiento del poder.

En el año 2006, cuando Rafael Correa gana las elecciones presidenciales, el contexto cambia significativamente. No se trata únicamente de la emergencia de un nuevo liderazgo en formato outsider, propio de un sistema roto que, a palos de ciego, busca renovar la representación en el gobierno. AP construye una alternativa con un discurso refundador, respaldado en la promesa de una Asamblea Constituyente que rediseñe los lineamientos de un nuevo pacto social y de una reforma del Estado desde la perspectiva de recuperación del sentido del servicio público, devolviendo al ciudadano su rol soberano.


Hoy, trascurrida una década después este giro en la historia nacional reciente y, a menos de un año de las siguientes elecciones generales, es necesario plantear algunas interrogantes fundamentales para situar al sistema político vigente. Si se habló extensamente de su desgaste, resulta pertinente un seguimiento para dilucidar, más allá de las veleidades propias del debate electoral actual, qué ha pasado con todas aquellas condiciones que empujaron el colapso del sistema hacia una crisis de representación.

Para contestar esta pregunta conviene un repaso previo por los principales elementos que caracterizaron dicha crisis, cristalizada entre 1996 y 2005, partiendo por la dimensión institucional del sistema -las funciones del Estado- debido al impacto que tuvieron sus deficiencias en el afianzamiento de una opinión pública crítica. Así, cabe destacar que el Ecuador está organizado a partir de un modelo de fuerte presidencialismo, con una alta concentración funcional del Estado en el Ejecutivo y sin contrapoderes administrativos contundentes; por lo cual, la gestión pública global es tanto responsabilidad como prerrogativa del mismo.

Esta condición incidió directamente en una conflictiva relación entre el Ejecutivo y el Legislativo, incapaces de entablar un vínculo de colaboración, más allá de alianzas coyunturales con objetivos específicos. En un contexto de voto altamente volátil, pocas veces la fuerza que llegó a la Presidencia tuvo, por sí sola, la mayoría en el Congreso. Ambas gestionaron en un ambiente de frecuente polarización y bloqueo, provocando severas crisis de gobernabilidad que las fueron desgastando progresivamente.

Respecto del Legislativo, cabe señalar sus altos niveles de fraccionamiento, tanto por la gran cantidad de partidos que hay en el sistema[1], como por la presencia regular de fuerzas electorales coyunturales y candidaturas independientes, comodines en la disputa entre los partidos tradicionales. Del mismo modo, su histórica composición provincial, producto de un regionalismo[2] inherente al país, coadyuvó a una concepción de la política como un quehacer para el posicionamiento de demandas e intereses exclusivamente locales, en desmedro de un proyecto nacional.

Las negociaciones al interior del Legislativo, estuvieron marcadas por transfuguismos y expresiones constantes de indisciplina partidista. Además, la posibilidad de re-elección de diputados, se tradujo en clientelismos y redes de corrupción, generando poca movilidad y escasa representación. Todas estas condiciones, explican que el porcentaje de ciudadanos que tenían poca o ninguna confianza en el Congreso durante estos nueve años,  promediara un 85%[3].

Algo similar se observaba en cuanto a la Función Judicial, para la cual poca o ninguna confianza alcanzaba un 79%. El principal problema radica en que, mientras funge como canal de resolución de asuntos políticos a través de su relación con el Legislativo[4] o como mediador en la compleja relación Ejecutivo-Congreso, su rol de contrapeso/control ha sido históricamente deficiente y carece de credibilidad. Su gestión, altamente politizada, contribuyó a la percepción ciudadana que vincula política y corrupción. Asociación profundamente nociva si consideramos que, entre 1996 y 2006, el promedio del Índice de Percepción de Corrupción (IPC) para Ecuador es de 25, en una escala de 0 a 100 en la que 0 corresponde a altamente corrupto[5].

ecu_corteAhora, en cuanto a la dimensión representativa del sistema, que remite a la situación de los partidos y de la ciudadanía, dos cifras del periodo pre AP llaman la atención. Por un lado, un 88% de ciudadanos manifiestó tener poca o ninguna confianza en los partidos entre 1996 y 2005; mientras, por otro lado, un 56%, consideraba que la democracia podía funcionar sin éstos[6].

El sistema de partidos, caracterizado como pluralismo extremo y polarizado (Pachano, 2008; Freidenberg, 2004)  o “multipartidismo” (Chasquetti, 2001)[7], se conformó históricamente a través de clivajes regionales, provocando una ausencia de fuerzas nacionales. Además, los partidos ecuatorianos presentaron siempre importantes limitaciones en la construcción de una estructura organizativa y más aún, de una propuesta programática. Han sido estructuras jerárquizadas, con escasa democracia interna y poca actividad partidista. Estas condiciones de carencia estructural fueron asimismo terreno fértil para otro fenómeno propio de la política nacional: el personalismo. La figura del líder es fundamental en el imaginario social y suele presentarse bajo un formato mesiánico redentor.

En este contexto de inorganicidad, no sorprenden tampoco las carencias ideológicas. Determinadas por una concepción utilitarista de la polítca,  las élites diseñaron sus propuestas coyunturalmente y con contenidos vagos. Tendieron hacia una suerte de formato catch all cuyo interés primordial era alcanzar la mayor cantidad de votos, evidenciando importantes vacíos en cuanto a la construcción de bases y una reveladora distancia con movimientos sociales o grupos sectoriales. Bajo estas codiciones, el voto fue altamente volátil y disperso. Los electorados así constituídos conciben lealtades frágiles y dependen del alcance de un vínculo que frecuentemente deviene temporal.

Esta etapa previa a AP evidencia una creciente movilización social, producto de la pérdida de confianza respecto de la política y el hastío frente a la relación vertical que establecen las élites con la ciudadanía. Las calles fueron el espacio de expresión del agotamiento de una democracia de electores en la que la sociedad civil, además de no sentirse representada, vio limitados sus espacios tanto de participación como de accountability.

Ese malestar social, en alguna medida, fue también canalizado y/o conducido por los medios de comunicación que, convertidos en actores políticos, difundieron selectivamente información y sus lecturas reduccionistas de la realidad. Así, se cierra casi una década de profunda crisis, con una democracia secuestrada por las élites, un sistema excluyente y con muy baja legitimidad. Tiene sentido entonces que un 37% de ciudadanos entrevistados por Latinobarómetro afirme que le interesa poco la política y un 41%, nada[8].

Más allá de las elecciones, ¿qué pasa con el sistema político hoy?

El triunfo electoral de AP en el 2006 es una expresión del hastío social y la apuesta por una alternativa que plantea una ruptura con las élites tradicionales y con la institucionalidad vigente. Desde entonces, son ya diez años de estabilidad presidencial con Correa, reelecto democráticamente en tres ocasiones. Asimismo, el oficialismo ha sido la bancada mayoritaria en la Asamblea Nacional (Congreso) contando con un escenario privilegiado para gobernar.

ecu_Constitución_del_EcuadorLa Constitución del 2008, cambia significativamente las reglas del juego. En términos institucionales, se fortalece al Ejecutivo generando las condiciones para el afianzamiento del presidencialismo. En ese sentido, resultan sugerentes ciertas disposiciones constitucionales que otorgan al Ejecutivo facultades exclusivas en ciertos temas, contribuyendo a la persistente concentración de poder. Tal es el caso de la formulación de política monetaria, crediticia, cambiaria y financiera, así como la posibilidad de presentar proyectos de ley que creen, modifiquen o supriman impuestos; aumenten el gasto público o modifiquen la división política. En el mismo sentido incide la figura de la “muerte cruzada”, que permite al Ejecutivo disolver la Asamblea, convocando a elecciones para ambas Funciones. Si bien se argumentaba que esto podría resolver el persistente bloqueo y amenaza política del Congreso, lo que en realidad hace es invertir la relación de poder.

Bajo las condiciones descritas, durante la última década el Legislativo ha desempeñado un papel de acompañamiento de una gestión general del Estado que está, principalmente, en manos del Ejecutivo[9]. Esto explicaría, sumado a cierta legitimidad de gestión, una disminución de casi 20 puntos en el promedio que incluye a quienes tienen poca o ninguna confianza en el Congreso en 2015 (64%). La inédita popularidad de Rafael Correa, se ha transferido a otras instancias y actores, que el imaginario social relaciona con él.

En cuanto a la Función Judicial, no hay avances singnificativos en relación a su condición fundamental que es la independencia. La justicia continúa siendo politizada[10]. No obstante, los valores registrados para poca o ninguna confianza en dicha Función han disminuido, sumando un 58%. Además, el Ecuador, a pesar de encontrarse todavía entre los países peor situados en el IPC de Transparencia Internacional, ha presentado  una mejora en su puntaje, alcanzando un 32.

En términos generales la institucionalidad del sistema cuenta con mayor confianza y, por lo tanto, legitimidad. Sin embargo, existen todavía asuntos pendientes e incluso incongruencias. Quizá lo más significativo es la ausencia de contrapesos. El gobierno enfrenta severas críticas respecto de la falta de autonomía e independencia de las Funciones del Estado. Además, el proceso de reforma estatal, sumado al estilo de liderazgo de AP,  ha constituído una estructura vertical que gestiona de manera jerarquizada. Allí se desdibujan peligrosamente las diferencias entre Estado y gobierno, Ejecutivo y Presidente, Presidente y partido.

En el ámbito de la dimensión representativa el panorama no resulta alentador. A nivel nacional, se ha caracterizado al sistema vigente como de partido único[11] o partidario con organización hegemónica[12]. No obstante, más allá de la gestión protagónica y, a veces excluyente, de AP, existen elementos que generan incertidumbre frente a las próximas elecciones y que actúan como un espejo en el que se refleja el sistema político instaurado en esta última década.

Entre 2006 y 2013, las condiciones políticas y sociales vigentes le dieron el empujón final a un sistema de partidos en franca descomposición. Posteriormente, ciertos sectores han sido capaces de ir posicionándose nuevamente. Las válvulas de fuga para las élites son las alianzas temporales, la consolidación circunstancial de organizaciones electorales y la emergencia de nuevos -y viejos- actores políticos en formato movimiento, como mecanismo para distanciarse de la figura de partido, desprestigiada desde el discurso oficial anti-partidocracia.

A puertas de las elecciones programadas para febrero de 2017, el país se encuentra nuevamente frente a un panorama electoral de fragmentación. Actualmente existen 13 organizaciones con registro electoral y al menos 4 precandidatos presidenciales anunciados. Asimismo,  3 fuerzas más se encuentran discutiendo sobre sus opciones presidenciables y otras están en proceso de constitución o “remozamiento”, con la premisa de que diversos actores han denunciado durante estos años una Función Electoral no autónoma[13].

Posibles candidatos para las presedenciales de 2017

Posibles candidatos para las presidenciales de 2017

Este fútil sistema de partidos que va configurándose electoralmente se encuentra altamente polarizado en formato AP vs. oposición. Se advierte un desdibujamiento de los posicionamientos ideológicos, incluso en actores como el oficialismo que ha pasado por auto nominaciones que van desde Socialismo del Siglo XXI hasta Postneoliberalismo, sin precisiones singnificativas respecto de lo que esto significa[14]. La oposición, por su parte, se muestra dispuesta a una variopinta posibilidad de coaliciones.

Bajo esas condiciones, el debate político se encuentra burdamente reducido a un oficialismo autoafirmado que construye enemigos mas no adversarios, es decir, oponentes legitimados y reconocidos que cuenten con canales efectivos para expresar el disenso y los antagonismos[15]. Mientras, sus rivales reproducen el formato de algunas oposiciones de la región, haciendo un llamado a un escenario de pacífica unidad acrítica y posicionados hacia un centro “desideologizado” que, en contextos de estéril polarización, resulta seductor. Se trata de una voluntad de despolitización  social que  desconoce el conflicto como inherente y necesario.

A su vez, no se evidencian avances relevantes en el desarrollo de estructuras organizativas partidistas. Los mecanismos de democracia interna, de existir, se muestran extremadamente débiles, mientras el personalismo  es uno de los elementos que se ha enrraizado aun más. Tampoco se puede hablar de una real renovación de élites considerando que detrás de las nuevas figuras, se encuentran las fuerzas tradicionales del país.

Por otro lado, AP ha tenido una conflictiva relación con la sociedad civil. Durante estos 10 años se han producido múltiples rupturas con distintos sectores como el indígena, el ambientalista, las organizaciones de mujeres, algunas fracciones del sindicalismo, entre otros. La imposibilidad de generar canales de diálogo y negociación con el gobierno, mantiene al margen a actores importantes, debilitando sus propuestas y demandas dentro de la agenda pública, desincentivando también la participación. La sociedad civil se ha visto desgastada bajo una dinámica de marchas vs. contramarchas; expuesta además, a la confrontación con vocerías sectoriales paralelas, avaladas por el gobierno.

Protesta indígena contra Correa, Quito, 2015

Protesta indígena contra Correa, Quito, 2015

En definitiva, no se vislumbra una democratización real del sistema político. Los avances en cuanto al fortalecimiento institucional del Estado conviven con una modalidad de toma de decisiones vertical-autoritaria y con las inercias de una dimensión representativa débil. Si bien una evaluación respecto de la crisis, debe reconocer el mérito de AP en su capacidad inicial de reconstrucción de un vínculo con la ciudadanía, esto tiene sentido cuando existen otros proyectos en disputa. La representación debe ser plural, caso contrario, termina siendo secuestrada nuevamente.

El Ecuador se encuentra frente a un nuevo ciclo de acumulación de demandas, está por verse si AP puede canalizarlas. Por su parte, los actores políticos se enfrentan una vez más a la desafortunada tarea de pensarse en función de los comicios, lejos de la posibilidad de estructuración de un sistema de partidos. Esto requeriría, incialmente, de una revisión de los contenidos diferenciadores que constituyen las ideologías.

Hoy, mientras nuevos y viejos sectores de las derechas han logrado reinstalarse en la palestra, a las izquierdas les queda la larga tarea de resignficarse, de darle un sentido a un discurso peligrosamente vacíado y construir una opción en términos organizativos. Resultará necesario también recuperar la confianza, el sentido y el rol de las fuerzas políticas, sean partidos, movimientos o cualquier otra forma de articulación que pretenda establecer vínculos estables y fructíferos con la sociedad civil organizada y no organizada, superando las profundas brechas actuales.

Por su parte, la ciudadanía también tiene tareas pendientes. Más allá de la coyuntura, todo proceso pico debe funcionar como una suerte de recurso de pedagogía cívica social, alimentado por diversos sectores que asuman su responsabilidad histórica en la construcción de país. El debate político requiere de un esfuerzo urgente por salir de su condición anodina, de un diálogo reduccionista de sordos. Los medios de comunicación -hoy públicos y privados- continúan jugando un papel siniestro en la distorsión de los debates. La recuperación de las libertades y espacios expresivos, así como el reconocimiento de otros actores como interlocutores válidos, es primordial.

La crisis de representación sólo podrá ser superada cuando la política nacional salga de su burbuja cortoplacista, proyectándose hacia la consolidación de un escenario más amplio y plural. Resulta imprescindible asumir como un ejercicio constante la observación y evaluación del  sistema político a modo de escenario sintomático del proceso de construcción democrática del país. La coyuntura actual demanda más esfuerzos en ese sentido en la medida en que el debate electoral nuevamente resulta no solo banal sino, sobre todo,  distorsionador.



[1] En 1996,  11 partidos componían el Congreso. Para 1998 esta cifra bajó a 9. Empero, 4 años después, el Legislativo contaba con 20 listas.

[2] Característica transversal del sistema originada en la contraposición entre las especificidades productivas de la Sierra y la Costa, permeó también las dinámicas políticas y sociales del país, generando relaciones de competencias y obstáculos a la conformación de indentidades nacionales.

[3] Todas las cifras de percepción utilizadas para este artículo han sido tomadas de Latinobarómetro, los años se especificarán según cada caso, de ser necesario.

[4] La Constitución de 1998 dispone que los miembros de la Corte Suprema de Justicia sean elegidos, en última instancia, por el Congreso. Mientras, al Consejo de la Judicatura, lo componía y presidía la CSJ. Así, bajo el formato juez y parte, se fue tejiendo la relación Legislativo-Función Judicial.

[5] Trasparencia Internacional

[6] Pregunta incluida en 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002 y 2005.

[7] Entre 1996 y 2006, el promedio de binomios que se presentan para las elecciones presidenciales era de 8,6 por proceso.

[8]   Pregunta incluida entre 1996 y 2005, con excepción de 1999 y 2002.

[9] Un estudio reciente sobre la actividad legislativa entre 2009 y 2012 evidencia el alto nivel de iniciativas legislativas impulsadas desde el Ejecutivo (27) frente a las del Legislativo (21). Además, de 53 leyes aprobadas, dicha Función vetó 29 (Ramírez, 2013).

[10] Algunos ejemplos se pueden encontrar si se contrasta la celeridad y resolución de procesos judiciales impulsados por el gobierno y la oposición. A su vez, el referéndum realizado en 2011, según varios actores políticos y sociales, generó las condiciones para que Ejecutivo y Legislativo incidan en la selección y designación de autoridades de control público y de la Función Judicial.

[11] Dávalos, P. (2014). Alianza País o la reinvención del poder. Bogotá: Ediciones desde Abajo.

[12] Muñoz, F (Ed.). (2014). Balance crítico del gobierno de Rafael Correa. Quito: UCE.

[13] Dos casos significativos cuestionaron, en su momento, dicha independencia: la descalificación de algunas organizaciones durante la última reinscripción de partidos y el controvertido proceso de descalificación de firmas para la iniciativa ciudadana de consulta popular sobre el proyecto Yasuní ITT.

[14] AP, auto posicionado como izquierda, evidencia tanto en gestión como en discurso, algunas inconsistencias. Tal es el caso de su visión extractivista que no concuerda con un cambio de matriz productiva ni menos con su proclamación de la naturaleza como sujeto de derechos. Lo mismo pasa con algunos retrocesos en materia de derechos laborales expresados en una Ley recientemente aprobada el primer semestres del 2016 .

[15] Mouffe, Ch. (2007). En torno a lo político. México: FCE

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.”

The Latin American media is ignoring climate change at its peril


by Javier Farje, Journalist, TV Presenter, Consultant, and former Editor of Latin America Bureau

In 2009, on the eve of the Conference of the Parties 15 (COP 15), in Copenhagen, the World Bank published a revealing document. Entitled Low Carbon, High Growth, Latin American Responses to Climate Change, the document stated in no uncertain terms that global warming was a danger for the region. The report contained a stark warning. ’The “unequivocal” warming of the climate system – it says – reported by the IPCC is already affecting Latin America’s climate’. This important book contains a wealth of information. From the Andean mountains to the sub-tropical forest of the Amazon; from the planes of Argentina to the beaches of the Dominican Republic, climate change is punishing the continent with the melting of glaciers which affects entire communities who depend on the water those iced summits provide; the increase of malaria due to the upsurge of temperature; the droughts and floods that have affected the agricultural output of the southern plains, the increase of rain and the Central American region, with its bursting rivers washing away entire towns.


Laguna Glaciar, Bolivia


In the same year of the publication of the World Bank’s report, The Konrad Adenauer Foundation of Germany decided to carry out an exercise. Between 15th February and 15th March of 2009, The Foundation monitored the news coverage of the most important newspapers in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. Despite the fact that 2009 was a very active year in relation to climate change, owing to to the high expectations about an agreement in Copenhagen, the coverage of global warming had an average share of 0.60% of the total bulk of news in those newspapers. And there were sources galore to give good exposure of climate change and its consequences for the region. The World Bank report was only one of the many publications related to climate change released that year. Furthermore, most Latin American governments, especially those countries ruled by left-wing presidents (Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua) had politicised the issue of climate change in terms of the North-South divide and that merited good coverage of the issue.

Perhaps the country whose media comes out worse in this situation is Brazil. This is particularly serious because Brazil is one the top ten greenhouse gas global emitters. They are responsible for almost 70% of the total emissions of those gases. The coverage of climate change issues in the two most important media organisations in the country, Folha de Sao Paulo and O Globo, between 1996 and the present time, is abysmal, to say the least (Time to Adapt, by Mike Shanahan). Those two giants of Brazilian media consider that climate change is an environmental story, with 36% of its coverage as a ‘green issue’, and only 19% of the same coverage is related to the economic consequences of global warming. And less than 2% of their coverage deals with the impact on climate change in poor people. This is a staggering statistic because there is plenty of evidence that there is a direct link between climate change and poverty in Brazil. In Low Carbon… a map with data provided by all Brazilian municipalities clearly shows that, in those regions where climate change is rampant, mainly in the north of Brazil, poverty has increased.

In Mexico, two of the most important newspapers, La Reforma and El Universal (Schmidt, Ivanova & Schaffer) have increased their coverage of climate change since 2005, but mainly due to a national debate related to the production of biofuels. Mexican media tend to give a great deal of importance to ‘uncertainty’ about the link between climate change and meteorological phenomena, despite plenty of scientific evidence that there is a direct link between the intensity and frequency of hurricanes and rains and global warming. The publication of the IPCC’s 4th and 5th assessment reports in 2007 and 2014 respectively was totally ignored by Televisa, the biggest TV conglomerate in Mexico. The IPCC’s assessment reports are the most important documents dealing with the current state of global warming and its consequences for the planet. And Mexico has been the subject of significant analysis in those reports.

Peruvian media, mainly the second biggest newspaper in the country, La República, is critical of the government’s policies in relation to the inadequacies in fighting climate change. Bolivian media, which is mainly owned by the opposition to the government of Evo Morales, ignores climate change mainly because the president blames global warming on the capitalist system and the right-wing media does not want to be seen as siding with the government on its ideological anti-capitalist crusade.

In some Central American countries like Honduras, the media tends to ignore climate change. The British think-tank Panos interviewed a group of Honduran journalists a few years ago. They concluded that climate change is not editorially important for editors and media owners. They tend to rely on CNN for their coverage of climate change-related issues without bothering to conduct their own investigations. A group of activists and scientists in the Dominican Republican told the author in a programme for the Spanish-speaking network Hispan TV, that the increase in sea levels has caused the disappearance of beaches and coastal towns. They bitterly complained that the Dominican media is not interested in the problem. The World Bank has published a report that states that the Dominican tourist industry is in danger of disappearing within the next 50 years because of high sea levels and the impossibility to keep its holiday resorts safe from such increases. And yet, once again, the Dominican media shows no interest.

La Barquita, Dominican Republic, which has suffered from regular flooding in recent years

La Barquita, Dominican Republic, which has suffered from regular flooding in recent years

All in all, the coverage that Latin American media gives to climate change leaves a lot to be desired. The Centre for Science and Technology Policy Research of the University of Colorado Boulder, in the USA, monitors the trends in the media all over the world. Since 2004 to the present day, Latin American newspapers perform poorly in relation to the rest of the world. Indeed, Latin America has the worst record of climate change coverage, worse even than the media in the Middle East, which, for obvious reasons, has other priorities.

There is another element that helps to explain this lack of interest. Climate change does not sell. This is particularly acute in the case of television. Tacky reality programmes, ill-educated so-called chat show presenters and soap operas generate advertising, the retreat of Andean glaciers or the change in agricultural patterns as a result of climate change don’t.

The IPCC has stressed the role media plays in exposing the dangers of climate change and holding governments to account. Indeed, climate change constitutes a goldmine for investigative journalism in particular in Latin America. And the IPCC’s assessments and reports are a unique source of information to investigate the human consequences of climate change; and more than ever, universities and think tanks make their material widely available to the public. Furthermore, many of the people affected by climate change have been denouncing their situation without getting much attention from the media. These changes will severely damage the economic growth of the region. The dangers faced by the region as a result of climate change will be devastating. The complete melting of the Andean glaciers, the rise in sea levels affecting the coasts in the region, droughts and rain, entre communities devastated by meteorological changes caused by climate change are some of the examples where Latin American media organisations could devote resources to a comprehensive new type of investigative journalism. But the Latin American press is so far failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation. The region cannot afford such irresponsible complacency.

PS. On a positive note, a group of Venezuelan journalists formed in 2009 a network called Journalism on Climate Change.The network is growing. Not all is lost.


(n.b. this post was originally published via Linked-in)

Galeano’s Open Veins Continue To Bleed: The Latin American Development Legacy


by Jo Morley, Postgraduate Student on the SAS Human Rights Consortium MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights

RIP GaleanoApril 2015 brought the news that Eduardo Galeano, whose seminal book The Open Veins of Latin America established him as one of the region’s most prominent writers, had died. Leaders from all over the Latin American continent paid tribute to ‘a maestro of the liberation of the people’ (Bolivia’s Evo Morales). Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff said ‘May his work and example of struggle stay with us and inspire us each day to build a better future for Latin America’. Since its publication in 1971 Open Veins, a chronicle of centuries of economic exploitation and underdevelopment has sold more than a million copies worldwide (Democracy Now, 14th April). Galeano wrote that:

‘Latin America is the region of open veins. Everything, from the discovery until our times, has always been transmitted into European – or later United States – capital, and as such has accumulated in distant centres of power. Everything: the soil, its fruits and its mineral rich depths, the people and their capacity to work and to consume, natural resources and human resources’. The continent is ‘painfully aware of the mortality of wealth which nature bestows and imperialism appropriates…Development develops inequality’.


Hugo Chávez presents Open Veins to Barack Obama

Galeano’s death is an opportunity to reflect on the colonial legacy, imperialist development doctrines, and the failures of the neoliberal experiment that continue to burden Latin America to this day. Many authors comment that experience in Latin America highlights the ‘failings and abuses of development’ (Mowforth 2014) and the ways in which development policy has been used politically to justify what Gustavo Esteva refers to as the ‘new colonial episode’.

While Galeano and others have argued that the intention of the development age was Western capitalist domination and access to the natural resources of the rest of the world (Mowforth, 2014 p.2), today we cannot ignore that poverty in the region was cut by nearly half during the last decade, according to a 2014 report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This may be attributed somewhat to the rise of the so-called ‘Pink Tide’ and ‘Leftist’ governments in Latin America (namely Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil and Argentina), some of whom have challenged the neoliberal policies imposed on them and who brought changes in social policies, moving to address poverty and inequality mainly through nationalisation and state-ownership of natural resources.

At the international level too, policy has moved towards human rights-based approaches to sustainable development and the fulfilment of access to economic and social rights. Within development agencies that have adopted a human-rights based approach, debate continues about how much focus should be placed on the role of both states and non-state actors including development agencies and multinational corporations (MNCs), and to consider their accountability. Many development agencies are now involved in service-delivery, capacity building and advocacy for rights as well (Gready and Vandenhole, 2014).

These international developments have been informed by a body of Development literature from authors including Amartya Sen, William Easterly, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Collier and Jeffrey Sachs. Highlighted in this literature are the unequal power dynamics within international development institutions and the limitations that they place on governance issues and on establishment of just and fair policies. In light of this it is easy to see why international financial institutions (IFIs) continue to impose economic development models focused on the extraction and exploitation of the region’s human and natural resources on Latin American countries. These policies promote plantation agriculture, privatisation of water and sanitation, large-scale energy and mining development, timber extraction and many other projects seen to embody ‘development’. Multiple examples from across Latin America demonstrate that local social and environmental concerns are subordinate to economic concerns, both for governments trying to leverage economic growth out of their natural resources  and for MNCs and IFIs seeking to consolidate forms of neoliberal governance (Sawyer and Gomez, 2014).

According to Martin Mowforth (2014) globalisation over the last two decades, predicated on a Western capitalist model of neoliberal economic development, has been imposed with such violence as to be rendered ‘unbearable to many of the region’s population, as well as unjustifiable’. According to the UNDP in 2014 38% of the Latin American population remains ‘vulnerable’ to falling into poverty, with 200 million people earning between $4 and $10 per day. The UNDP also acknowledged that the region lacks social protection, which could hinder poverty reduction.

As the international community negotiates the final content of the Sustainable Development Goals, the lessons of Latin American development policies, their impact on the region’s perpetual inequality, and the violent conflicts that continue to characterise development projects in Latin America (Mowforth, 2014) should all be considered in creating protections for the most vulnerable and the most marginalized. Only then will it be possible to realise Ban Ki Moon’s vision for the post-2015 development agenda: ‘A life of dignity for all’.



  • Gready, P., Vandenhove, W. (eds) (2014) Human Rights and Development in the New Millennium. Rutledge. London.
  • Sawyer, S., Gomez, T. (eds) (2014) The Politics of Resource Extraction: Indigenous Peoples, Multinational Corporations, and the State. United National Institute for Social Development. Palgrave macmillan, New York.
  • Galeano, E. (1971) The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Serpent’s Tail. London
  • Democracy Now. ‘Remembering Eduardo Galeano, Champion of Social Justice & Chronicler of Latin America’s Open Veins’ Democracy Now. 14th April 2015.
    Available at:
  • Oleanga, M. (2014) ‘Poverty in Latin America: One-Third of Region’s Population At Risk of Falling Into Poverty’. Latin Post. 27th August 2014. Available at:
  • Mowforth, M. (2014) The Violence of Development: Resource Depletion, Environmental Crises and Human Rights Abuses in Central America. Pluto press. London.

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