Bolivar’s Ghost

Widespread discontent swept leftist South American governments into power. Will it now sweep them out?

People standing in a line on a wet road in sobral
People in Sobral wait for President Lula to arrive to speak about his Zero Hunger program, an ambitious plan to provide 46 million of Brazil’s poor with “three meals a day.”/ Photograph by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

For a fictional place, the town of Macondo carries a powerful ring of familiarity. If there is a central character in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, it is this small, remote place, born in an unnamed part of South America. Márquez’s magical-realist novel tells the story of the couple who founded Macondo, during an unspecified period in the continent’s history, settling there to escape their past at a time when “the world was so recent that many things lacked names.”

In the beginning, Macondo was a magical place where no one was older than thirty, and where no one ever died. But trouble soon comes to the town. An orphaned girl arrives one day, carrying her parents’ bones in a bag and bringing with her a plague of insomnia. People begin to lose their memories. Panic-stricken, one family tries to label everything in sight. When the plague lifts, time begins to circle back on itself and one elder cries out, “I know all of this by heart! It is as if time had turned around and we were back at the beginning.”

Warring political factions arrive and ransack Macondo, terrorizing its residents. Then the ruthless owners of a banana plantation come and the government, beholden to them, murders 3,000 workers and their families. Years later, the sole survivor of the massacre returns, only to find that the new residents have no knowledge of the hideous event. A torrential rain begins to fall on Macondo and doesn’t stop for nearly five years.

This sad tale must resonate with anyone who has lived through any of the last 100 years of Latin American history. For most of that time, military dictatorships, foreign interventions, and corrupt local governments have systematically upended small Edens and dashed larger hopes. But there is another way of interpreting Macondo,one in which the magical — levitating priests, clairvoyant gypsies, and yellow flowers drifting down from the skies — exists alongside the tragic and ultimately triumphs over it. And today a crack of light may indeed be penetrating the long darkness of Latin American history.

On March 1, 2005, Tabaré Vázquez Rosas stood in the back of a pickup truck and made his way through the packed streets of Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital city. The oncologist-turned-politician had just been sworn in as the country’s first leftist leader and now, decked out in a navy blue suit, his hair finely coiffed, it was time to address the masses. Vázquez extended his arms outward, gazed down Avenida de las Leyes, and admired the scene. Confetti floated from apartment balconies, fireworks pounded the air, and brigades of drummers carried themselves noisily through the streets.

Vázquez had not come alone to this celebratory occasion. Looking on like proud parents stood four men with a lot at stake in his inauguration: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s firebrand union-leader- turned-leftist-president; Ricardo Lagos, Chile’s first post-Pinochet social democratic leader; Hugo Chávez, the former soldier who won Venezuela’s presidency by ballot six years after failing to do so by bullet; and Néstor Kirchner, the man who rallied Argentina around a new and united populist vision. These men watched as yet another left-leaning politician was swept into office, their broad smiles suggesting a new day for a desperate continent. Having experienced it themselves, these more veteran and savvy politicians were not about to begrudge Vázquez his time in the sun, but beneath their smiles one sensed a certain apprehension. It is one thing to promise a new beginning to a people beaten and beleaguered by history, and quite another to follow through when amorphous hope mutates into loud, persistent, and non-negotiable demands.

“A lot of people died or went to jail to win what the Frente Amplio [Vázquez’s party] has today,” said Martin Bension, a local history teacher, recalling Uruguay’s brutal military past. “The Vázquez administration knows this and will have to keep it in mind.” The warning to be mindful is acute. Uruguay is wracked by poverty and social divisions, and if Vázquez doesn’t start delivering tangible improvements, conservative establishment parties are waiting in the wings with their own prescriptions.

The forces behind Vázquez’s ascent are also at work in Bolivia, where the charismatic Evo Morales — leader of the Movement Towards Socialism, or mas party, and the first full-blooded Aymara Indian to have a real shot at winning the presidency — has benefited from the wave of populism that has swept the continent over the past seven years. Following late-2005 elections in Bolivia, Chile, and Honduras, in 2006 no fewer than nine Latin American countries will go to the polls, with many of the contests featuring pitched battles between leftist political parties and conservatives backed by elites struggling to contain the populist wave. The region’s militaries are watching cautiously from the sidelines, as is the United States, which, since the incendiary events of September 11, 2001, has been so preoccupied with the “war on terror” that it has overlooked the revolution brewing in its own backyard. Until now.

Latin America could tilt either way. It is unlikely, given the region’s volatility and pressing needs, to choose a path in between. The chief prescription favoured by conservatives is the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ftaa), the open-border free trade agreement with North America. But by the time President Bush, Prime Minister Martin, and President Vicente Fox of Mexico arrived in Mar del Plata, Argentina, last November to sing the virtues of such a hemispheric alliance, they had already been upstaged. Just prior to the summit meeting, Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales launched a counter-summit in the form of a massive anti-globalization rally with a straightforward message: a united Latin America will stand apart from North America, will achieve independence from World Bank and International Monetary Fund (imf) loans and prescriptions, from structural- adjustment programs that turn local indigenous economies into export-driven machines where the money flows offshore. Right or wrong, the United States was portrayed as the New Spain (i.e., as a neo-colonial would-be conqueror) and was told in simple terms: this is not your backyard. The Mar del Plata summit whimpered to a close, President Bush leaving before the compromised final communiqué was released.

Although a six-storey image of Che Guevara was chosen as the backdrop for the counter-summit, the ghost of Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) is also ever-present in revolutionary Latin America. Known as “the liberator” for launching revolts that brought independence to a string of countries (Bolivia, Panama,Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and his native Venezuela), Bolívar always dreamed of a united Latin America. But the end of Spanish rule in 1824 was followed by more than 150 years of wars and ruinous bitterness across the continent. The bloodiest and most tragic battle saw Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina crush a provocative Paraguay. The 1865 War of the Triple Alliance reduced Paraguay — which, at the time, was one of the most advanced and industrialized countries in the world and a direct threat to England’s economic supremacy in the region — to half its population and left its economy in tatters.

Encapsulated histories often hide more than they reveal, but it is fair to say that what followed was indeed one hundred years of solitude. But today, with life-expectancy rates topping seventy years, infant mortality rates steadily declining, military spending hovering around 1.2 percent of gdp (low compared with other developing regions), and robust economies emerging across the region, many Latin American countries are clawing their way out of developing- nation status. Within this rosier picture, however, there remain enormous challenges. According to the United Nations Population Fund, 222 million Latin Americans, 43 percent of the region’s population, live in poverty, with 96 million of those in extreme poverty (i.e., living on less than $1 a day). The UN also states that the “region faces the greatest socio-economic inequalities in the world.” One must add to this picture historic animosities between neighbouring states and, in some instances, renewed hostilities.

Under popular president Ricardo Lagos, Chile is the only country in the region with a diminishing poverty rate, and, based largely on the strength of its chief export, copper, economic forecasts look positive. But the fastest-growing economy in the region has also created enmity among neighbours by signing bilateral trade deals with the United States, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, and, in November 2004, China. Essentially, Chile has obviated the need for an ftaa or smaller regional trade pacts by going it alone.

Mexico, meanwhile, is an outlier of a more dramatic sort. Vicente Fox’s dogged support for the ftaa led Chávez to refer to him as “cachorro del imperio” (the empire’s puppy) on his weekly television broadcast Alo, Presidente. So, while the drive toward unity picks up steam, if it fails a continent divided against itself might be the result.

Chávez, in particular, seems driven by Bolívar’s unity message, but leaders such as Brazil’s Lula also appear to recall Bolívar’s parting words: “I’ve become a victim of my persecutors and of those who have worked so hard to bring me to the very doorstep of my grave.” And while in North America the provocative Chávez steals headlines, the quest for Latin American unity may be determined by the relationship between the region’s two economic and geographic giants, Brazil and Argentina.

On January 1, 2003, before 200,000 well-wishers who had squeezed into Brasília’s streets, Lula was sworn in as president. For days on end, the celebrations continued, with people chanting, waving red flags, and dancing through the avenues and boulevards of the nation’s capital. It was a groundswell of support, but the euphoria ran deepest in the slums of Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo. After all, Lula is one of their own. Born into an illiterate farming family that moved to São Paolo, he quit school at age twelve to shine shoes. Rising from the humblest of beginnings, he found work at a steel-processing factory and then began his long climb to the top of Brazil’s union movement. The stocky, bearded agitator squared off against the country’s military dictatorship, founded the Workers Party (PT), and made three runs at the presidency before his historic win three years ago.

Once in office however, the politics of symbolism, of rhetorical flourishes about giving Brazil back to the people, quickly gave way to the harsh realities of governing a country so large and so full of social and economic dilemmas . Despite Lula’s early bombast — he once threatened to cut off the fingers of Brazil’s financial elite if they refused to part with their rings — within a year he was looking more and more like an accommodationist. As part of a restructuring program, he named an orthodox economic team, slashed the budget of his Zero Hunger program, accepted not only the terms of the current imf agreement, but even tighter restrictions for the next one, and raised the ire of unionists and social-justice activists. Three years on, Lula presides over a soaring stock exchange and record-breaking bond rates, but he has also gutted his promised land-reform program, watched the average Brazilian’s wages drop by 15 percent, and seen his government all but incapacitated by a series of damning and colourful corruption scandals. In the shantytowns of Rio and São Paolo there is an ominous rumble, a disquiet that is bubbling to the surface.

Brazil’s poverty is a thing of legend. Nearly one-third of the population, some fifty-eight million people, live on less than $1 a day, and the poor and landless continue to spill into the urban favelas where crime, gangs, and hunger await. It is this poverty, as well as the staggering level of inequality — the hyper-rich living cheek by jowl with the frustrated poor — that Lula promised to eradicate by 2007. Insisting that his austerity initiatives were necessary for economic renewal, Lula is now attempting to make up for lost time and deliver on his promises. But many of the people who put him in office are not buying. Tens of thousands of mostly indigenous landless peasants have taken to the streets, two of his coalition partners have left his government, and his own party has had to expel a handful of elected members for being too persistent in their criticisms.

Lula’s troubles stand in sharp contrast to the situation in Argentina, where Néstor Kirchner, an unknown former provincial governor, has benefited from comparatively low expectations. An unlikely leader in a continent that cleaves strongly to cults of personality, Kirchner assumed office five short months after Lula to a far more subdued welcoming committee.

Argentina’s previous five presidents had been run out of office in the wake of the currency collapse in 2001, which caused the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. Unemployment stood at 18 percent, the government was looking down the barrel of $132 billion (US) in foreign debt, and the imf was tightening the leash. No Latin American country stepped forward to help. The reasons for this are manifold, but among them is a simple truth: when Argentina suffers, there is at least as much glee as sorrow felt across Latin America. Argentines are widely reviled for their haughty Peronist ways and their European sense of superiority, especially over countries with large aboriginal and black populations (namely Brazil). From the northern tip of the continent, Hugo Chávez can preach unity and rage against the imperial overlords, but in the settlements surrounding La Paz, in the favelas of Brazil, and in the hilltop enclaves of Chile, Argentina has served for time immemorial as the hated other.

Fearing the fate of his predecessors and knowing that he must go it alone, Kirchner acted quickly and with surprising resolve. Just four months into his presidency, he bluntly informed Europe’s private lenders that they would have to settle for just a quarter of what Argentina owed them. He threatened to stage the largest loan default in the history of the imf, and then, incredibly, demanded that the Fund provide an additional $13.5 billion — on his terms — to prevent the default and another currency collapse. It worked. Kirchner got his loan, and while international financiers wondered how they had been so thoroughly fleeced, Argentines across class lines began to admire the panache and pragmatism of a president who took office with only 22 percent of the popular vote.

Hugo Chávez, usually careful not to publicly criticize other Latin American leaders, has shown a clear preference for Kirchner’s resolve over Lula’s vacillations. In 2005, Venezuela purchased nearly $1 billion in bonds from Argentina, and, after Kirchner spoke out strongly against the United States at the ftaa summit, Chávez launched plans for a $4-billion gas pipeline between the two countries. It would be wrong to credit Kirchner with single-handedly producing an economic miracle — Argentina may still come a cropper in its dance with international finance — but for the moment he’s coasting on an economic growth rate of 8 percent per annum and unemployment figures that have dropped to 11 percent from 18 percent in 2003. As importantly, in 2004 Argentina posted a fiscal surplus, and with his new arrangement with international lenders, Kirchner has been able to spend $2.8 billion on emergency aid to the poor and on public works projects.

While it was Lula who took direct aim at Brazil’s military rulers, it appears that Kirchner has bested him on this front as well. For twenty-eight years the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, many now elderly and frail, had gathered together every Thursday at 3:30 p.m. to walk slowly and in tight circles outside the legislature in Buenos Aires. They are the mothers of the countless thousands who vanished during Argentina’s “dirty war” from 1976 to 1983, when expressions of dissent against the military dictatorship often resulted in disappearances. The Mothers’ goal has been to end the amnesty accorded to those responsible. Detained himself during those brutal years, Kirchner purged the military generals and supreme court justices who had supported the amnesty. In so doing, he challenged the convenient predisposition among Argentina’s elites to let historical bygones be bygones. In June 2005, the reformed supreme court decreed an end to the am- nesty. The Mothers’ silent but incessant demand had been rewarded, Kirchner’s gamble had paid off, and the government and military edged closer to the needs of the street.

Outside Argentina’s borders, however, people and governments are less sanguine. While the Kirchner administration makes public declarations of support for Mercosur, a free trade agreement taking shape between eleven South American countries and an obvious countervail to the ftaa, in practice Argentina ardently defends its own interests, especially against Brazilian dominance. Argentina has joined other Latin American countries in criticizing the agricultural subsidies the United States grants to its farmers (as well as other forms of protectionism), but there, it seems, is where the unity ends. The Mercosur blueprint calls for free trade by 2006, but this plan is predicated on Argentina and Brazil moving toward roughly equal production. To cite one dispute among many, Kirchner has been harshly critical of Brazil’s more advanced automobile industry, which aggressively promotes new models each year and dumps cars into Argentina. Such practices have resulted in a dramatic trade imbalance in the automobile sector — over 50 percent of the cars purchased in Argentina are designed and manufactured in Brazil, while Argentina’s struggling industry commands a negligible share of the Brazilian market.

“We want the automotive industry in our dear sister country Brazil to develop, but we want it to be developed in Argentina in equal terms,” Kirchner said in a September 2004 speech. The diplomacy was admirable, but the net effect was to squash plans for a vehicle free trade agreement with Brazil, scheduled to take effect this year. Since 2004, responding to the demands of local manufacturers of everything from shoes to oil, Argentina has imposed a host of import restrictions on Brazilian products. Parsing Kirchner’s many speeches on the subject, one can see a growing criticism of Brazil for using its cheap labour and becoming a regional economic bully, a hegemon acting in its own interest.

“We are going to bury [the ftaa] here,” Hugo Chávez announced to wild cheering at the 2005 counter-summit. “We are going to change the course of history. Only united can we defeat imperialism and bring our people a better life.” But Chávez’s “only united” clearly means buying, selling, and trading within Latin America, and Argentina’s current economic policies are tilting it toward offshore markets. Kirchner’s response is that it is not Argentina but Brazil that is active in the global game. Indeed, the criticism of Argentina’s “dear sister” is even more direct when matters turn to the international arena. “If there’s a job in the World Trade Organization, Brazil wants it. If there’s a place in the United Nations, Brazil wants it. They even want to name a Brazilian pope,” said Kirchner last year.

Protectionism plays well at home for Kirchner, but the sheen on Argentina’s star is likely to dull if the net effect of slapping tariffs on neighbouring countries is to suppress their economies. (Furthermore, the next time Kirchner goes knocking on the imf door, he will be doing so without the threat of foreclosure and can, as a result, expect tough bargaining.) While Brazil’s propertied elites and big-business sectors are thriving, its effort to create a middle class of entrepreneurs and small sellers is foundering, and a principal reason why is a dearth of nearby export markets like Argentina. In the diplomatic and trade war emerging between the two countries, Lula has some cards to play. His problem is time.

Lula has yet to announce whether he intends to run for re-election, but according to David Fleischer, a professor of political science at the University of Brasília, if he does run and loses, “the left ‘tilt’ in Brazil might not return for a while . . . Lula was the shining star of the left in Latin America . . . and there were a lot of people who had high hopes for what he’d be able to put together. And, of course, those hopes have been more or less dashed.” Fleischer’s assessment may belie a greater danger. The amount of emotional investment poured into Lula’s candidacy should not be underestimated, and, if his progressive reforms don’t bear fruit, there will be riots and, potentially, a military response.

Kirchner’s cozy relationship with Argentina’s new generals, and the transformation of the military into a benevolent force, is not without precedent in Latin America. Occasionally, South American armies have served leftist interests. On October 3, 1968, Peru was in a tough spot. Farmers were abandoning their lands for the cities, food production was plummeting, and radical guerrilla movements were springing up across the countryside. The nation’s top military officer, General Juan Velasco Alvarado, had seen enough. The Soviet-sympathizing Velasco staged a coup, easily overthrew the liberal government of President Fernando Belaúnde Terry, and began ruling by decree. Unlike other military leaders, however, Velasco sided not with the established elites but with the impoverished masses. Within months, he had seized control of the much-hated International Petroleum Company, nationalized a series of foreign businesses, and launched a sweeping land-reform program. He had also begun providing low-cost medicine to the country’s poor — hardly the stuff of the archetypal Latin American military strongman.

While Velasco’s tenure was relatively short-lived, and the results mixed, the same week that he seized power in Lima, Panama’s General Omar Torrijos launched his “revolution for the dispossessed, not for the propertied.” Torrijos threw out the right-wing civilian government, nationalized the main gas and electric company, passed a guaranteed minimum-wage law, brought in land reforms, and, critically, in 1977, wrested control of the Panama Canal from the United States.

Thirty years later Hugo Chávez, the former Venezuelan army colonel who was elected president in 1998 after trying and failing to take power through a military coup six years earlier, followed a similar script. “I had this conversation with Chávez twice,” says Humberto Brown, who represented Panama at the United Nations during the 1989 US invasion. “He positions himself as a Torrijista, seeing the military playing a different role than the traditional role of being the repressive tool of the elite. He also sees [the Torrijos tradition] as rescuing the national resources of the country and using them for the development of ordinary people. What he’s doing with oil is what Torrijos did with the Panama Canal.”

Catia, a shantytown in west Caracas, seems to sprawl endlessly, its wretched conditions stretching into the horizon. One of its districts is called Manicomio (meaning bedlam), in reference to the large insane asylum that dominates the skyline. From here, it is difficult to discern either progress or hope. The poverty seems intractable, illiteracy and a lack of marketable skills are the norm, and resignation is etched on the faces of most inhabitants. And yet, amid the squalor, even here there is a crack of light.

In December 2002, the principal and most teachers at Juan Bautista Alberdi school walked off the job, declaring that they would not return until Hugo Chávez was deposed. These teachers lived outside Manicomio, their sympathies clearly those of a more elite class, their action in solidarity with Chávez’s opponents. Eight months after trying to oust him in a coup, Chávez’s enemies were busily promoting general strikes and employer lockouts to bring down his government. At the school, locks were placed on the front gates, and within days the place took on the hue of so much else in the teeming slum: dysfunction, rot, pathos.

But then something odd happened. Parents and neighbours, fed up with the constant politicking, decided to take matters into their own hands. A group of them busted open the locks with a view to running the school themselves. Inside, they found that their children had been attending a very dark place, a place more reminiscent of a prison block than a school.

The horrific conditions were recorded on video before the parent-neighbour group set to cleaning, restoring, and rebuilding the school. Parents were recruited as teachers, students returned, and, for the first time in memory, they were given proper meals. In April 2003, as an international delegation was ending a visit to the school, a group of students surrounded the delegates. To the question, “Is there anything you want to ask of President Chávez?” they responded joyfully and almost in unison, “We want absolutely nothing from the president. Only that he come to our school and witness for himself what we have done.” While this school was a community effort, there was devotion in the students’ voices.

The forces aligned against Chávez, however, remain powerful and are unlikely to ever make peace with him. Like other leaders, Chávez’s political fortunes rest on the ability to deliver tangible improvements to places like Manicomio. Based mostly on oil revenues, in late November he committed a whopping $100 billion over five years for infrastructure development. This new spending comes on top of a 43-percent increase in spending on education, health, and other social programs in 2005 alone. For the time being Chávez is delivering, but the real test will come when world oil prices sag.

For centuries, the highlands that surround Lake Titicaca and straddle the border between Bolivia and Peru have been home to some of the region’s most tragic battlegrounds. It was from here, in 1780 — more than two hundred years after the Spanish conquistadores first arrived — that the indigenous Quechua leader Tupac Amaru II looked down on the Spanish rulers in the valley of Cuzco and decided that it was time for them to go. Amaru launched a bloody assault. The Spaniards captured the bold leader, took him to the central plaza in Cuzco, and had each of his limbs torn from his body. But the battle raged on.

Across Lake Titicaca, on the Bolivian side where the altiplano (high tableland) dominates the landscape, it is said that another Tupac, Tupac Katari, heard the wailing screams of Amaru and, following them, led an Aymara army on a six-month siege against the Spanish. In the end, he too was captured and publicly dismembered, and the indigenous army was defeated. Popular myth has it that Tupac Katari’s final words can still be heard echoing across the altiplano: “You can kill just me now, but tomorrow I will return and will be millions.”

Today, those millions have arrived, and La Paz is facing an ominous encirclement. Surrounded by millions of poor Aymara living in barrios that crawl up the hillsides and spill onto the altiplano, the city is on edge. The expansion has created a new metropolis called El Alto, a key base of support for Evo Morales, the Aymara peasant leader who heads the Movement Towards Socialism party. Morales’ genius has been to turn a series of disparate anti-government protests into an indigenous uprising. Bolivia has the second-largest oil reserves in South America after Venezuela, but it is the region’s poorest country (and the one with the highest proportion of indigenous people). Inspired to a degree by Venezuela and the apparent trickle-down effects of its oil economy, the people of El Alto rose up against British and Spanish companies exporting oil to California from Bolivia. Beginning in September 2003, strikes and roadblocks paralyzed the country and led to a bloody confrontation — the first gas war — with the military. Some seventy people were killed, and as the news spread, President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s already tenuous grip on power was further eroded. He resigned on October 17, 2003.

After a period of relative calm, Morales and his followers — unsatisfied with the new president, Carlos Mesa, who had failed to nationalize Bolivian oil resources — took to the streets again. The El Alto threat: “Not one drop of gas” for the city of La Paz. For weeks on end, tens of thousands of people descended on the capital below, once again shutting down La Paz and engaging in running street battles with the police and military. The second Bolivian gas war pushed yet another president out of office.

As the late-2005 election campaign rolled over Bolivia, Morales promised sweeping changes, including the nationalization of the gas industry, participatory democracy reforms, and, loosely construed, the end of capitalism as Bolivia has known it. To some international observers his most provocative election promise was the decriminalization of coca production. In Washington the war on drugs remains active, and its position has long been that the “narcoterrorists” of Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia, and their support chains in Venezuela, must be shut down, crushed if necessary. Morales responds by saying that coca is benign, a quasi-cultural industry, and that if there are any problems, they are problems of demand not supply — of a sickness in America, not in Bolivia.

In El Alto the people readied themselves for an uprising should their best chance at self-determination in 500 years somehow be taken away from them. The battle lines are drawn, and, if Morales succeeds, some are predicting civil war, others a US invasion. In the meantime, Evo Morales seeks safe haven in El Alto. But there too, the demands for change are increasing daily.

Across Latin America, there is growing solidarity about saying no to the ftaa, but precious little agreement about what other economic model to support. The region’s economies are based overwhelmingly on exporting raw goods. Some hope resides in regional trade. Mercosur agreements now affect 220 million consumers and represent more than a trillion dollars a year in gdp. But a history of collapsing economies has left Latin American countries wary of each other, prone to protectionist reactions at the slightest hint of an economic downturn, and vulnerable to the demands of the United States.

It is for this reason that South America’s left-wing leaders are looking overseas for new markets and new forms of leverage. Enter China, with its voracious appetite for raw materials and oil, for the very products so desired in the North. Latin American exports to China grew to $22 billion (US) in 2004 from $3 billion in 1999, a staggering increase that has made China the largest single market for South American goods — and economists in Washington increasingly nervous.

But while China is buying, its investment potential in Latin America lags far behind that of other economic powerhouses. Moreover, since China’s primary interest lies in importing raw materials, there is little hope that it will help Latin American economies diversify in meaningful ways. In fact, some countries in the region — notably Mexico — see China as a threat to their own diversification efforts. Raw goods shipped from Latin America to China, argues Mexico’s Vicente Fox, are fuelling a powerful and cost-effective Asian manufacturing sector that will blunt the edge of economic development at home, and it is for this reason that Latin America is better served within an ftaa, i.e., by a patron closer to home, that it knows.

So, despite an undeniable rise in popular political expression across the region, nothing in Latin America is certain. “What’s happening,” argues Larry Birns, director of the Washington- based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “is that the poor — which was an inert political factor, an inert sociological factor — has become a hotbed of rising expectations. What you’re seeing in Latin America is a kind of new political law emerging from the street — if you defraud us on running on a campaign agenda, if you use your platform to simply get into office and then dismiss it, then the people have a right to recall the election by hitting the streets.” For now, the populist wave has cast its lot with the democratic left. But populist movements have a long history of flying any number of flags of political convenience, from doctrinaire Marxism to military dictatorships. Such movements also show a persistent and problematic willingness to blindly deliver their collective power into the waiting hands of a caudillo, the archetypal and charismatic strongman, the father figure who is not always benevolent.

In Macondo, the residents fought valiantly against the hundred years of solitude that threatened to engulf their town. They experienced blissful moments, moments of magic and miracle, but all was ultimately lost. Today, in Caracas and Montevideo, in Buenos Aires and Brasília, the people are demanding a different ending to their own story.

Pedro Sánchez