In a fiery speech at the advent of the new century, the controversial populist President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, proclaimed that the 21st century will be the century of Latin America. As a key representative of the “New Left” in Latin America, Chávez was symbolically foreshadowing the important role Latin America will play in reshaping the world.
If one is to understand the modern world, one only needs to look over 500 years ago, when feudal Europe shook of its medieval cloak and entered into a new stage of development. This was no accident. As Columbus landed onto the shores of the Caribbean, it was the subsequent brutal enslavement and genocide of the indigenous populations and the squandering of their natural resources that made thar new stage possible. Furthermore, it was the devastation of Africa and the mass deportation and bondage of its peoples to colonial Latin America that also propelled Europe onto the pathway of modernity. In the midst of all this, began the composition of new peoples, new identities, and new strategies of resistance. Most importantly, alternative societies (to the rigid colonial system imposed by Europe) were created, most notably the maroon societies.
Even though Latin America has partially shrugged off the overt colonial enslavement of Europe, the United States has entered the scene under the banner of divine intervention and destiny. From the occupation of Puerto Rico and México, to the multiple interventions in Panamá, Dominican Republic, and Haiti, the U.S. rose to a superpower on the strained backs of its “backyard,” explicit in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.
Nonetheless, with multiple revolutions, such as the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the Sandinista Rebellion in Nicaragua in 1979, Latin America has told the U.S. to get its hands off of the region. However, the 20th century was the self-proclaimed “American Century” and the noose from the North tightened, as the policies of neoliberalism became à la mode. Through deals with México, Chile, and Central America, poverty was exacerbated and forced millions into a diaspora to work in the Northern metropolis. Puerto Rico was its experiment station.
After the often failed urban and rural guerilla movements that spread across the region during the 1960s, 70’s, and 80s, many put down their guns and thought of a new way to build an equitable society: electoral politics. Thus began a wave of left-wing presidencies, from Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to Evo Morales in Bolivia, to the return of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega. These leftist presidencies and governments continued the work to insert their nation’s marginalized who live in the barrios and favelas in a process of self-determination so they can build a bright collective future. The U.S. still looks on with great caution, meddling its dirty fingers once in a while.
From music to literature, art to language, those at the margins of colonial and post-independence Latin America have produced a different vision of the world. From reinventing education through the writings of Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, to re-imagining the future city through the “metrobus” system in Colombia, Latin America looks back at the abuses of the past and sees the future as a challenge full of possibilities. When late last year the Brazilian city of Río de Janeiro was chosen as the host city of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games – the second in Latin America and the “Third World” and the first in South America – the words of Hugo Chávez never echoed so true.
Originally published in Que Ondee Sola magazine, April 2010