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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.

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

Finding My History in the Literary ‘Archive’ of Indenture


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

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

Group of Indian Immigrants in Guyana

A group of Indian immigrants in then British Guiana

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Ethiopic Ocean and Luiz Felipe de Alencastro’s New Perspectives on the South Atlantic


by Marília Arantes Moreira, Research Student, Institute of Latin American Studies

I recently met up with Brazilian historian Luiz Felipe de Alencastro in Paris to discuss his latest article, “The Ethiopic Ocean – History and Historiography 1600−1975”, published in 2015. In a café, with Oscar Niemeyer’s French Communist Party headquarters standing behind him, he also had much to say about ongoing projects on South Atlantic Studies as a new cultural area of knowledge. [1]

The Ethiopic Ocean

Alencastro is known for his influential and prodigious output, especially the books “História da Vida Privada” (1997) and “O Trato dos Viventes” (2000), in which he explained Brazil’s formation outside of its territory in light of its crucial role in the bilateral slave-trade network with Africa. Embedding Brazil in a global context, he revealed how economic geography imposed political conditions on colonisation.[2]

Recently, The Transatlantic Database has enabled a revision of his books with new quantitative approaches: “as those were commercial relations, everything was taken into account”, he notes. From 1550 to 1850, 95% of all slave ships docked in Brazil: “This oceanic continuum is stronger than the continental idea of South America”. [3]

In “The Ethiopic Ocean”, Alencastro explores the core of traditional interpretations of Atlantic History, introducing a Brazilian point of view. He utilises the term “Ethiopic Ocean” as a geohistorical aggregate for comprehending the subequatorial seas of western and eastern Africa, considered as “an ocean in it’s own right” in the Sailing Age, and as a means of reasserting a complexity that modern cartography was unable to offer. Since 1850, with geopolitical transformations, another ocean has been shaped. As underlined in his article, “significantly, the American Cyclopaedia (in 1873) designates North Atlantic as the ‘Atlantic Proper’.” [4]

Alencastro relates his immersion in the study of whalers while a Visiting Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, in 2012. Averse to driving, he sometimes waited at New Bedford Whaling Museum rather than the bus stop on his way back home. After coming across their accurate maps and charts, including one showing whale concentrations (above), he re-read the “wonderful work” Moby Dick (1851) and realised that those sailors also knew what the slave traders had realised: the North Atlantic is shorter than the South: “It is all about the thermic equator, located 10 degrees above Senegal.”

The Anticyclone of Capricorn that governs Southern currents and naval routes was key to exploration of Africa. Like Jesuit Padre Antonio Vieira’s sermons, it seemed to justify transmigration as “singularly favoured and assisted by God”, morally validating slave trafficking as a stage in the evangelisation of African bodies and souls that would be converted in Portuguese colonies.[5]

Alencastro's representation of the maritime dynamics of the Ethiopic, with cyclons and anti-cyclones, hand-drawn during our interview

Maritime dynamics of the Ethiopic, with cyclones and anti-cyclones (drawn by Alencastro during interview)

Yet, the purpose of Alencastro’s article is not to explain the South Atlantic (as previous essays did), but rather to compare traditional historiographies, demonstrating how this phenomenon was interpreted differently. His deep historical analysis of Portuguese, Brazilian, Belgian, British and North-American literatures, as well as the Annales School, shows how this geographic zone was only dimly perceived – and underestimated. Yet “Brazil and Africa cannot be merely footnoted”, he argues.[6]

The idea of writing a genealogy of South Atlantic history came after Harvard’s International Atlantic World Seminar, 2004, in a talk with the Director Bernard Baylin, concerning the “The Idea of Atlantic History” (2005).[7]  However, “the debates on Atlantic History started in the 50’s, in France; they weren’t invented by Baylin”, Alencastro underlines.[8] “When Braudel said the Atlantic is ‘a space which borrowed its past and was hastily constructed’ as I show in the article’s epigraph, he was denying that Pierre Chaunu did the same in ‘The Mediterranean’, because he couldn’t give an idea of the whole in his essay.” [9]

But Braudel didn’t even recognise the significance of the bilateral trade in Pierre Verger’s “monumental” thesis, Flux et reflux de la traite de nègres entre le golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos, du XVIIe au XIXe siècle (1968), even though he supervised it.  Alencastro points out that even Verger had also neglected Angola’s significance to Brazil, which went far beyond Bahia: “now numbers are proven by the Database.” [10]

While in charge of the Sorbonne’s Brazil and South Atlantic Studies Centre (2000-2104), he organised conferences gathering specialists on Namibia, Angola, South Africa, alongside other Southern Atlanticists. A book is on the way, as well as a denser version of “The Ethiopic Ocean”. Encounters are giving rise to new projects, such as a Centre of South Atlantic Studies at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo, to expand the concept’s use to contemporary South-South relations.

Alencastro redefined the South Atlantic as a network instead of system after realising that, differently from the Indian Ocean or the Caribbean, it depended on the Eurocentric system. As the slave trade was interrupted, the network collapsed. So did communication between Africa and South America, for more than 120 years. Relations were only revived after 1975, with the independence of Angola and Mozambique.

Another point is that “The Ethiopic Ocean” isn’t purely maritime. For example, it includes Minas Gerais leather for rolled packs of exported tobacco. Silver from Potosi, via Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, was the currency used in exchanges with China. Nevertheless, São Paulo, Pará, Maranhão and the Amazon belong to another geographical pattern.

The chronology (1550-1850) delineates a continuum of the same colonial matrix, the slave trade period. It suits the long durée definition, but “not in a Braudelian way”. Considering historic ruptures, Alencastro thinks independence in 1822 “didn’t change things much. It is true that the first export destination for Brazilian goods became Liverpool instead of Lisbon, but Luanda remained the second most important port of Brazilian traders because of the slave trade.” Moreover, “what held the provinces together after independence was these relations with Angola, managed by the Braganza dynasty of Brazil – the only ones with the diplomatic ability to comply with both the British and the slave owner’s demands.”

The “Opening of Brazilian Ports” (1808), part of the Royal Navy’s offensive across the whole South Atlantic, is another deceptive symbol of Europeanisation, argues Alencastro. “In fact, that’s when Africanisation occurs.” After 1815, Brazilians and Cubans appropriated abandoned British and North American schemes all over Africa, constituting a significant episode of displacement. Would that make any sense with Marx’s idea of the “dark side of Capitalism”? “Yes. The British abolished the slave trade, but kept buying commodities made by slave hands.”

To Alencastro, Brazil didn’t become a nation until the five million Africans got there, victims of the Atlantic slave trade. “If the majority of the population is black and there were none, then Brazil was not yet born.” Brasileiro wasn’t a demonym until 1850. When legal union was complete, there were 6.5 Africans for every Portuguese or white descendent in the country.

Clearly, intellectual debates on Atlantic History remain unresolved, not least concerning Eurocentric bias and openness to new perspectives. And though Baylin once declared “he knows nobody poetically enraptured by the Atlantic World” (referring to Chaunu and the Mediterranean), when I came across “The Ethiopic Ocean”, I for one couldn’t help falling in love with it.



[1] Luiz Felipe de Alencastro, Emeritus Professor at Université de Paris-Sorbonne, and Professor at the School of Economics of São Paulo — FGV.

[2] Alencastro, Luiz Felipe de, “O Trato dos Viventes: Formação do Brasil no Atlântico Sul, Séculos XVI e XVII”: Companhia das Letras; São Paulo, 2000. And História da vida privada no Brasil, Volume 2. Império : A corte e a modernidade nacional . São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1997.

[3] The Transatlantic Database (completed and organized by D. Eltis, D. Richardson, and others);

[4] Alencastro, Luiz Felipe de, “The Ethiopic Ocean: History and Historiography – 1600-1975” (In Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies, n. 27, 2015, p. 1-79), p. 46.

[5] Alencastro, Luiz Felipe de, Op.Cit. p. 7.

[6] Bailyn, Bernard, “The Idea of Atlantic History”, Itinerario 20 (1996): 19-44.

[7] As Professor Leslie Bethell observed, from 260 papers produced in six years of Harvard’s seminars, only nine referred to Brazil.

[8] Bailyn, Bernard, The New England merchants in the seventeenth century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955. See also, Massachusetts shipping, 1697-1714; a statistical study, Cambridge; Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959.

[9] Braudel, Fernand. Pour une histoire sérielle: Séville et l’Atlantique (1504-1650) [Pierre Chaunu, Séville et l’Atlantique (1350-1650)]. In: Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations. 18ᵉ année, N. 3, 1963. pp. 541-553.

[10] Verger, Pierre. Flux et reflux de la traite de nègres entre le golfe de Bénin et Bahia de Todos os Santos, du XVIIe au XIXe siècle: Paris, 1968.

Thinking Inside the Boxes: The Latin American Political Pamphlets Collection at Senate House Library


by Christine Anderson (Latin America Research Librarian) and Julio Cazzasa (Special Collections Cataloguer), Senate House Library

arg_polpamOn 23 February 2016, Senate House Library will be hosting “Thinking Inside the Boxes“, a series of talks about its extensive Latin American Political Pamphlets Collection, which documents some of the most troubled years of twentieth-century Latin America.   The event, featuring Anthony Pereira (KCL), Guillermo Mira (Salamanca), Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho (KCL), Thomas Rath (UCL), Anna Grimaldi (KCL), Thomas Rath (UCL) and Aquiles Alencar (British Library), hopes to demonstrate the relevance of these documents across a number of research topics and contexts.  But we invite all researchers and postgraduate students to consider consulting the archive in their own research.

The majority of the collection consists of the former holdings of the Contemporary Archive on Latin America (CALA), which from its inception in 1976 sought to build up a combination of academic and ‘alternative’ sources of information for the use of students, teachers, researchers, solidarity and human rights committees, journalist, development and volunteer agencies, television programme producers, trade unionists and the like.  It maintained contact with documentation and educational centres in Latin America and beyond, housing of rare materials jeopardised by political developments in the region.  This ensured that its collections were uniquely rich in their depth of coverage.

guate_polpamBy 1981 however, the archive faced an irretrievable funding situation and was forced to close.  Originally its collections had been destined to be divided between Latin America Bureau, the Institute for Race Relations, the CARILA Latin America Resource Centre, and the Nicaraguan Ministry of Planning, but these organisations were unable to organise the retrieval of the material before CALA’s closure.  The Institute of Latin American Studies stepped in as “the only institution involved which had the will and the means to save this material in time and to house it.”

Since then the original collections have been augmented by fresh donations and the re-classifying of political ephemera within the main library stock, but with the amalgamation of new material the Institute has sought to maintain the onus of the original CALA collection.

In 2003 the University of London Vice Chancellor’s fund agreed to provide the money for a joint project between ILAS and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICOMM) aiming to improve access to and use of their collections of political ephemera.  This has involved the creation of item-level catalogue records on the School of Advanced Study Library Catalogue (SASCAT) and the uploading of collection-level archival descriptions to both the Archives Hub and AIM25 databases.

chile_polpamAlthough the collection (which consists mainly of items in Spanish, Portuguese and English) covers every country in Latin America, it is particularly strong in certain areas.  There are currently around 140 boxes of materials. The Chilean boxes, for example, are mostly concerned with the build-up to and the aftermath of the 1973 coup, including election posters for Salvador Allende and pamphlets written by apologists for the Pinochet regime.  In addition, there are many contemporary and obscure items produced by leftist opposition groups in the 1970s.

Another strength of the collection is its coverage of human rights bodies in Central America in the late 1970s and 1980s.  Much of this material came as a result of the links between the Latin American organisations and solidarity and support groups in this country. A similar situation pertains for countries like Argentina and Brazil.

The Latin American political ephemera collections have an impressive variety and depth, and they hold a great deal of material that is either difficult or impossible to obtain elsewhere.  They are open for reference purposes to all researchers and postgraduate students, and anyone wishing to consult them or just to get further information should feel free to contact us here at Senate House Library.

Christine Anderson (Latin America Research Librarian):
Julio Cazzasa (Special Collections Cataloguer):

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.”

América Latina en tiempo real


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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuatro factores claves

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

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

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

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

La “latinidad” de Latinoamérica

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

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

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

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

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

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