Latin America has been the success story of the world left in the first decade of the 21st century. This is true in two senses. The first and most widely noticed way is that left or left-of-center parties have won a remarkable series of elections during the decade. And collectively, Latin American governments have established for the first time a significant degree of distance from the United States. Latin America has become a relatively autonomous geopolitical force.
Moreover, movements of the indigenous populations of Latin America have asserted themselves politically almost everywhere and have demanded the right to organize their political and social life autonomously. This first gained world attention with the dramatic uprising of the neo-Zapatista movement in the Mexican state of Chiapas in 1994. What has been less noticed is the emergence of similar kinds of movements throughout Latin America and the degree to which they have been creating an inter-American network of their local organizational structures.
The problem has been that the two kinds of lefts — the political parties that have achieved power and the indigenista movements — do not have identical objectives and use quite different ideological language.
The political parties have made economic development their principle objective, seeking to achieve this at least in part by exerting greater control over natural resources and forging better arrangements with outside enterprises, governments and intergovernmental institutions. They seek economic growth, arguing that only in this way will the standard of living be enhanced and greater equality achieved.
The indigenista movements have sought to get greater control over their own resources and better arrangements not only with non-national actors but also with their own national governments. In general, they say their objective is not economic growth but coming to terms with “PachaMama,” or Mother Earth. They say they do not seek a larger use of natural resources, but a saner one that respects ecological equilibrium. They seek “Buen Vivir” — to live well.
It is no surprise that the indigenista movements have been in conflict with the few most conservative governments in Latin America — like Mexico, Colombia and Peru. Increasingly, and quite openly, these movements have also come into conflict with the left-of-center governments like those in Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and even Bolivia.
I say even Bolivia because that is the one government that has elected an indigenista president with massive support from the country’s indigenista population. Nonetheless, there has been a conflict. The issue, there as elsewhere, is whether and how natural resources are developed, who makes the decisions and who controls the revenue.
The left parties tend to accuse the indigenista groups of being, wittingly or not, the pawns of the national right parties and of outside forces, in particular of the United States. The indigenista groups insist that they are acting only in their own interests and on their own initiative, and accuse the left governments of acting like the conservative governments of old, without real regard for the ecological consequences of development.
Something interesting has recently happened in Ecuador. There, the left-wing government of Rafael Correa, which won power initially with the support of the indigenista movements, subsequently came into sharp conflict with them. The most acute division was over the government’s wish to develop oil resources in an Amazon protected reserve called Yasuni.
Initially, the government ignored the protests of the region’s indigenous inhabitants. But then Mr. Correa offered an alternative. He proposed to the wealthy governments of the global North that if Ecuador renounced any development in Yasuni, these wealthy governments should compensate Ecuador, on the grounds that this was a contribution to the global struggle against climate change.
When this was first proposed at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, it was treated as a fantasy. But after six months of negotiations, five European governments (Germany, Spain, Belgium, France and Sweden) have agreed to create a fund to be administered by the U.N. Development Program to pay Ecuador not to develop Yasuni on the grounds that this would contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions.
But how many such deals can be made? This question raises a more fundamental issue — the nature of the “other world that is possible” (to use the slogan of the World Social Forum). Does the path toward a better life for people in the global South lie in a socialist concept of society coupled with constant economic growth? Or is it through what some are calling a change in civilizational values, a world of Buen Vivir?
Though this debate is currently being argued among the forces of the Latin American left, it underlies many of the internal strains in Asia, Africa and even Europe. It may turn out to be the great debate of the 21st century, and it will not be easy to resolve.
Immanuel Wallersteinis, senior research scholar at Yale University and the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World.