ALAI, Latin America in Movement
Colonialism and decolonization: new versions
Different perspectives and styles characterize the various change processes taking place in Latin America, but they are all built on the grounds of self-determination and sovereignty. Moreover, several of them are rooted in political approaches to decolonization; this perspective is also ostensibly a basis for building the new regional integration initiatives and their institutional framework.
Two Latin American countries, the Plurinational State of Bolivia and Ecuador, have identified decolonization and de-neoliberalization as essential elements that underpin their transition towards the horizon of Good Living, which is an alternative proposal for civilization that also implies the dismantling of both capitalism and patriarchy.
Other countries point to the urgent need to decolonize when defining their relations with third parties and, in not a few cases, this proposal is raised when it comes to protecting themselves, whether from shocks of imperialism, neocolonialism – particularly from the greed of transnational corporations –, or from traditional colonialism per se, which in the midst of the 21st century, still affects some 20 “non-independent territories” of the Caribbean
In the key venues of regional integration, such as the 1st Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)
, almost all Heads of States mentioned decolonization as a historical necessity and even raised it as a matter of urgency. Moreover, it stood out as the main unfinished historical issue, when the moment came to agree on an epilogue for the celebrations of the bicentennials of independence, coinciding around these same dates.
As defined by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the decolonizing perspective is an integral part of the “alternative” foundational vision, that aims at the construction of a shared future built on what is identified as our “own”; and that puts to the forefront solidarity and complementarities – rather than the market – as the guiding principles for the integration of peoples. The discourse here expresses self-determination, both with respect to the subjugation resulting from capitalist dynamics, as well as to the dictates of imperialist and neocolonial power.
In UNASUR, this perspective is primarily manifested in proposals relating to sovereignty, and becomes evident in the development of “endogenous approaches” whether for the design of the New Financial Architecture, or for defining the South American Defense Council, among other initiatives.
But as the decolonizing proposal progresses, neocolonial and imperialist powers also shift positions. Most of the time these are inextricably allied and they come up with recycled interpretations of their old methods: coercion, ideology, threats, circuitous strategies.
One example is the recent political variant of outdated arguments to justify impositions, which are now presented as “freedom”. Free the people and/or Bring democracy are the explicit assertions to demote as barbarism any form of political administration distinct from the liberal one. In that same vein, any attempt at economic organization other than the “free” market, be it socialist, community-based or simply sovereign, is demonized. “Freedom of expression” is the argument brandished by the elites to attack proposals of democratization of communication that potentially imply universalizing effective access to such expression.
The manipulation of the concept “freedom” makes it possible to reinstate old domination mechanisms through well-known instruments of pressure ranging from verbal reprimand to the “notes” of international organizations, and even military pressure.
Thus, the drum-beats of the bicentennial celebrations of independence were still echoing, when the vestiges of inconclusiveness rose to the surface. The most glaring example was no doubt the deployment of military exercises by British troops, commanded by the highest level of monarchical power, Prince William, in the Malvinas Islands, an Argentinean territory occupied by that kingdom for almost two centuries. In this case, the reversal of roles between aggressor and victim has gone so far that David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – the State that still has most colonies in the 21st century – accused the Argentinean Government of being colonialist. But beyond anecdotes, this fresh impetus of military action positions the British military base in the Malvinas Islands as the most important NATO force in the South Atlantic. US President Barack Obama, demonstrating esprit de corps with this advance of positions for common benefit, refused to endorse a condemnation of this occupation, proposed by all the countries of Latin America, within the framework of the failed 6th Summit of the Americas, held in Colombia, in April 2012.
Meanwhile, commercial pressures have also been stepped up as a powerful weapon of coercion, which is applied permanently and at different levels; the best-known example in this area is the blockade imposed half a century ago on Cuba by the United States – where they maintain, moreover, under forcible occupation, the military base in Guantanamo. Other less imposing, but also incisive forms, are the pressure on tariff preferences, negotiated on a bilateral basis according to the political “behavior” of the countries, or “certifications” of various kinds issued by agencies of the dominant powers: on trade, human rights, corruption, etc.
On another scale, but in the same line, there are pressures resulting from international institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, the international financial institutions and other neocolonial bodies such as the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) – whose external arbitration policies treat States and companies under equal conditions; for that reason, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela have decided to retire from that entity, rejecting the implications of renunciation of a country’s sovereignty.
But if the twenty-first century version of neocolonialism has a brand identity, it is the intrinsic interweaving of its interests with those of anonymous capital and transnational corporations. The most recent example of its application in practice was the threat released by the Government of Spain, treating Argentina as “a pariah of the international community”, when that country expropriated 51% of the share capital of the oil company REPSOL-YPF, in response to a virtual sustained boycott over reinvestment in the country. Argentina “has shot itself in the foot”, to quote the Spanish Chancellor Jose Manuel Garcia, as he announced energy, industrial, commercial, and diplomatic reprisals. The international financial institutions issued similar opinions, while Latin America continues to congratulate the Argentinean Government, underlining principles of dignity, sovereignty, and decolonization.
Thus configured, imperialist and neocolonial powers are working hard to “re-conquer” the world, and the term “grabbing” best reflects this situation. The appropriation of urban and rural land, water sources, minerals, and even the principles of life itself, is one of the main features of the current scenario. The agendas of geopolitical control, which include even inter-galactic goals, are outlined by the transnational ambitions of those territorial and resource grabbing endeavors, which occur in abundance in Latin America.
Therefore, and as a basic question of dignity, the decolonization issue in the region is inseparable from the emerging initiatives of change and integration, because in addition to involving the whole, it has to do with the way the mechanisms of domination in the 21st century are configured, and hence also with the design of strategies to dismantle them.
Decolonization in progress
Making decolonization a political and regional issue, interconnected with the proposals for change – socialism of the 21st century, Sumak Kawsay, Good Living and some others – is without a doubt the first necessary step for its achievement, in a region where, as noted above, colonial and neocolonial power situations and relations cohabit in a complex web, according to the rules of the game of global capitalism.
There have been steps taken in this regard. Thus, the Plurinational State of Bolivia has taken a giant leap by inserting decolonization as a key political element of its process of change; also by raising, subsequently, the need for State policies and implementing an institutional framework to take it forward. With these macro ingredients, it is foreseeable that, although the road ahead for its realization is long, the rules of the game have been drawn up, for the first time in history.
Ecuador is living a similar situation where, from a different perspective, the roads towards decolonization are being outlined, in this first phase, in the arena of economic self-determination, inherent to sovereignty and the process of de-neoliberalization. In this case, ending neocolonialism is even the leitmotiv of a broad consensus, to explain and support complex changes or processes, such as the audit of the external debt (performed in 2008) and the subsequent negotiations with the international financial sector under the notion of “illegitimate debt”.
In both countries, decolonization is a target and in both, depatriarchalization is being put forward as an intrinsic element for undertaking the transition towards the construction of Good Living. So we are talking about deep structural transformations, where the prospect of re-founding the “State” from a plurinational approach opens the possibility of vindicating both the indigenous peoples and, from a pluralistic outlook, people of African descent and other sectors.
At the regional level, Petrocaribe, an initiative encompassing solidarity and energy sovereignty, launched by the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in 2005, marks a milestone in the momentum of decolonization practices. In effect, it is being carried out with the countries characterized as the most peripheral of the region
– where abuse by transnational shipping companies is incalculable –, precisely those countries in the border area where colonial relations still set the tone. This scenario also condenses multiple consequences of the transatlantic slave traffic, involving several million people forcibly displaced from Africa – it is estimated that between the 17th
century there were about 35 000 slave traffic shipments – and therefore in that context, a proposal for transformation that incorporates the participation of those peoples, could give shape to a prospect of real and future decolonization.
Latin American peoples continue to resist; still immersed in one of the most substantive transformation processes in the world, they are facing capitalist and neocolonial powers prepared to go to any lengths to maintain control on a global scale. Nonetheless, it is also true that there are many given conditions – including the structural crisis of capitalism itself – that make this journey of decolonization, sovereignty, and overcoming of capitalism, a viable prospect.
We are, then, faced with a scenario of great complexity, alongside which proposals are blossoming in a process of the most dynamic construction. Substantive discussions take form, nurturing and challenging the scope of a growing body of endogenous thinking.
In conclusion, there is reason for hope, such as for Puerto Rico and other peoples still living under colonial circumstances to be able to share, through self-determination, our dreams of a new future for the region.
(Translation: FEDAEPS and ALAI)
Irene León, Ecuadorian sociologist, is Director of FEDAEPS and vice president of the board of ALAI.
Translation note: Good Living: an Andean indigenous concept known as Vivir Bien in Bolivia and Buen Vivir in Ecuador; or Sumak Kawsay in Quichwa and Suma Qamaña in Aymara.
Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Barbados, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Martin, Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Saba, Saint Eustatius, Saint Maarten, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat. Even in countries like Jamaica, which gained its independence in 1962, the British Queen is still Head of State.
Caracas, December 2 and 3, 2011.
Translation note: the Malvinas Islands are known in the UK as the “Falkland Islands”.
 Made up of Venezuela, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Surinam, Saint Lucia, Guatemala, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (Honduras was suspended after the coup in June 2009).
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