ALAI, Latin America in Movement
Interview with Boaventura de Sousa Santos
From neoliberal repression to people's utopian imagination
As Europe and Latin America’s leaders meet behind the “safety” of barricades and thousands of police during the Fifth Official Ministerial between the two regions, the National Engineering University is host to the Third Peoples’ Summit: Linking Alternatives. Activists from both regions convened to discuss alternatives to neoliberalism and a world that is more just, more democratic, and based on principles of solidarity. Portuguese activist researcher Boaventura de Sousa Santos was one of better-known participants. Raphael Hoetmer spoke with him during his stay in Lima.
How would you explain the current situation in Latin America?
Changes in the world are happening fast and show a lot of contradictions due to the host of political events that have affected us in recent years. An example of which are the changes in Ecuador, Bolivia, and more recently in Paraguay. Elections in these countries have been won [respectively] by a progressive economist, an indigenous campesino, and a priest who follows liberation theology, showing the materialization of resistance against the neoliberal policies of recent decades.
On the other hand, Latin America remains a key piece in the economic strategy of the transnational companies and the governments of the North. One must remember the capitalist system always needs new spaces for generating economic profits. In this way, the expansion of the market has come to convert water, health services, and education into commodities; something that before was unthinkable. At this moment, the commodification of natural resources is the fundamental strategy of capital accumulation in the medium-term, zeroing in on the enormous amount of biodiversity in Latin America.
This renewed focus on Latin America has been accelerated by the fiasco of the war on Iraq. The United States now realizes that during its relative absence in its “back yard” changes have come to being that present two problems for its agenda. First, social processes had advanced beyond its control, far beyond what it expected, resulting in progressive governments and in strong social movements. Secondly, those movements achieved power through democracies in a period in which the U.S. was using the discourse of democracy to justify interventions around the planet.
In this context a new strategy of counter-insurgency is developed consisting in a mix between the Alliance for Progress with a conscious policy of dividing the movements, specifically the indigenous movement. Meanwhile, in recent years, militarization has deepened and the criminalization of protest has brutally intensified.
In this context you just described, some changes to the neoliberal paradigm are evident. Do you think this paradigm has transitioned into one of security?
Yes, this seems to me as the final perversion of neoliberal re-structuring. In effect, neoliberalism tries to replace existing concepts of development and democracy with concepts of control and security due to its incapacity for generating solid popular support.
This is a consequence of a deepening social exclusion, misery, and inequality under neoliberal capitalism that implies the emergence of phenomenon I call “social fascism.” This is not a political regime, but a form of social relations of such strong inequality that they even have veto-power over the lives of others. We run the risk of living in societies that are politically democratic but socially fascist.
The most painful example of this logic is the growth of hunger in the world that shows the contradiction between life (the production of accessible sustenance for the world’s population) and profit (the production of profitable biofuels). The emergence of “social fascism” shows how the modernist project is broken, because it's failed to fulfill its promises of liberty, equality and solidarity, and we know now that it won’t fulfill them in the future either.
In this context, we are presented with the contradiction between the security paradigm, with the fight against terrorism, on the one hand, and on the other states that re-vindicate their sovereignty, social movements, and specifically the struggle of indigenous peoples. It’s in indigenous territories where 80 percent of Latin America’s biodiversity lies. In this sense, organizations like the Coordinator of Andean Indigenous Organizations (CAOI), the National Confederation of Communities Affected by Mining of Peru (Conacami), and the National Coordinator of Ayllus and Marqas (Conamaq) of Bolivia are a threat to the status quo.
Therefore, the criminalization of dissent throughout Latin America is strongest against indigenous peoples, like we’ve seen in Peru and Chile. A clear effort exists in transforming indigenous into the terrorists of the 21st century, as shown by documents of the CIA. The document “Global Trends 2020” shows their worry about the radicalization of indigenous movements and the control of natural resources. In fact, Alan García [President of Peru] takes this as his inspiration when he talks about terrorist networks that were going to attack the EU-Latin America summit.
The so-called “post-Washington Consensus” is “post” because neoliberals no longer simply trust in the economy above all else, so they use war and the fight against terrorism to maintain the system of global inequality. There are clear examples of this such as the province of Santa Cruz in Bolivia, where Colombian paramilitaries train private security groups of the local oligarchy, which is decidedly defending the status quo.
In this re-organization of the continental map, what currents do you perceive?
It's evident that on the continent governments have emerged with a logic that is distant from that of neoliberal state capitalism. In their economic management we can signal two sides. On one side are the governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva [Brazil], Cristina Fernández [Argentina], and Michelle Bachelet [Chile] that maintain neoliberalism at the macro-economic level, but deepen social protection for the margins of society. The other governments, like those of Evo Morales [Bolivia], Rafael Correa [Ecuador], and Hugo Chávez [Venezuela], are trying to change the economic system. From a logic of greater sovereignty, they apply different strategies, such as nationalization, contract re-negotiation for the exploitation of natural resources, or the ceding of that exploitation to small national private companies.
In all those cases a greater sensibility toward social questions are visible, as are—in varying ways—a questioning of transnational companies and their activities. The companies respond to this with the invention of “social responsibility.” They build schools and hospitals for their public relations to show that they, too, are concerned with social inequality in societies that are increasingly unequal. The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal that was held during the Peoples’ Summit in Lima clearly shows that behind that human face façade are persistent structural violations of human rights by the transnationals.
It’s a confusing and contradictory process but I insist that we are seeing the emergence of a regional solidarity, with greater spaces and tolerance toward political differences. Nonetheless, the majority of those governments are driven by traditional conceptions of the state and development, which effectively limits their capacity for transformation.
On the other hand, Peru and Colombia represent the neoliberal status quo and the U.S. agenda in the region. My impression is that they act in complimentary ways with each other. Colombia represents the military logic, which looks to create conflict and tensions that spur greater militarization and intervention in the region. In Peru, a similar logic is in place with a strong component of criminalizing social organizations. This is always the first step toward preparing for later militarization. In fact, there are strong indications that the U.S. base in Manta, Ecuador will move to the Peruvian Amazon.
As I’ve already mentioned, these processes of criminalization and militarization seek the free access to and commodification of natural resources. Obviously, within this economic model, Peru plays a central role because of its enormous reserves of hydrocarbons, minerals, and precious metals. And Peru’s economic and political elites are more than willing to play the role of a mineral exporter in the global division of labor, since they come out on top. Nonetheless, the majority of Peruvians have not gained a thing in recent years from spectacular economic growth, so they’ll logically look for alternatives to the current government.
The case of Bolivia shone for a long time as the most transformative process in the region, but it has now entered into crisis. How would you analyze the Bolivian situation in the process of sub-national regionalization that is being sought in the country?
Subnational regionalization has been promoted by the World Bank through the formula of decentralization, which sought to dismantle the state by transferring central state responsibilities to the local level. In Bolivia there already was a process of decentralization being led by the autonomy of indigenous peoples, based on a solid cultural and political vision. This means the indigenous won something through the decentralization policies promoted by the World Bank.
But the banner of decentralization has now been picked up by the oligarchies in response to losing control of the central state. They had always been “centralists” but they had to take up the banner of autonomy to protect their own economic privileges. In my opinion, the province of Santa Cruz’s declaration of autonomy is illegal, since it’s not permitted under the old constitution. In reality, the decision of autonomy would have to be taken by congress after the establishment of the new constitution.
I’ve always defended in Bolivia the distinction between ancestral autonomies and those of decentralization. I propose understanding indigenous autonomies as extra-territorial in relation to provincial autonomies. In other words, indigenous autonomies should be based on the entire control of their territory, outside of decentralized governance, since they were there before decentralization.
In any case, the current debate is extremely dangerous since there are reciprocal feelings of armed confrontation. The oligarchs do not want to cede their privileges and the indigenous are not going to peacefully allow for their country to be divided. It’s interesting that they’d be the ones defending the country.
In all this what should be the role of Europe?
At the level of contacts between social organizations from both regions there are many positive things. A process like Linking Alternatives shows the profound solidarity that exists between the peoples of both continents and the willingness of European social organizations to learn from Latin American struggles.
But on the governmental level I see something very different. Increasingly, Europe is following in the footsteps of the policies of the United States, focusing on access to natural resources to maintain its competitive position in the world. This is even more repugnant to me since Europe has an extremely large cultural, social, and ecological historical debt with Latin America due to the colonial pillage of its natural resources and the indigenous genocide. In this sense, it’s unacceptable that Europe would now implement neocolonial policies that would give continuity to that same pillage. Nonetheless, it seems the European transnationals define the EU’s agenda, making it impossible for the emergence of a European policy focused on strengthening democracy, human rights, and social re-distribution in the continent.
In such a confusing world, how do you see different territorial projects clashing, how do you see the future?
It’s very clear to me that we are entering an historic phase of polarization. On one side, are the commodification policies looking for unrestrained access to natural resources and the continuity of elite economic privilege. On the other, is a radicalized imaginary in the progressive forces of the continent that have developed distinct conceptions of democracy, development, rights, and sustainability that are increasingly shared among increasing numbers of organizations and individuals. It gives me the impression that the dominant forces are no longer capable of co-opting this radical imaginary with their welfare policies. And this leads to repression. And so what we’re seeing is the confrontation between repression and utopian imagination. It’s hard to say where we’re heading. As sociologists we’re good at predicting the past, not so much the future.
For me the horizon remains democracy and socialism, but a new kind of socialism. I’ve said on several occasions that the new name of socialism is “democracy without end.” My bet is on radical democracy, since it represents an alternative to two fundamental ideas. I don’t think we can change the world without taking power, nor do I think that we can change anything within the existent power. So I think we have to change the logic of power, and to do that, democratic struggles are crucial.
Struggles are radical when they exist outside of traditional logic of democracy. I insist that we have to deepen democracy in all of life’s dimensions; from the bedroom, to the state, like the feminists say, but also with future generations and with nature, which pleads us to stop the ongoing destruction of the planet.
Our objective is to escape low-intensity democracy, restrained, to arrive at a high-intensity democracy that actually makes the world increasingly uncomfortable for neoliberalism. But reality does not change spontaneously. To do anything in politics requires two things: to be right at the right time and to have the strength to impose reason. (Translation: NACLA)
- Boaventura de Sousa Santos is director of the Centro de Estudios Sociais de la Universidad de Coimbra en Portugal, where he also teaches sociology. He is a Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and is part of the Consultative Council of the Programa Democracia y Transformación Global in Lima. He is also deeply involved in the processes of the World Social Forum and the Universidad Popular de Movimientos Sociales.
- Raphael Hoetmer is part of the Programa Democracia y Transformación in Lima.
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