I’ve been remiss in not getting to this sooner, but, after the death of Hugo Chávez, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva published an editorial in the New York Times addressing not just the legacy of Chávez, but the future of politics of the left in Latin America. Lula is praiseworthy of Chávez’s efforts to address social inequalities in his country. He also speaks highly of Chávez’s efforts towards regional integration, saying it falls on the surviving leaders in South America to
consolidate the advances toward international unity achieved in the past decade. Those tasks have gained new importance now that we are without the help of Mr. Chávez’s boundless energy; his deep belief in the potential for the integration of the nations of Latin America; and his commitment to the social transformations needed to ameliorate the misery of his people.
In theory, regional integration sounds wonderful, especially given the historical economic context in which local elites and international capital collaborated to extract resources while gross socioeconomic inequalities continued and even worsened throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. And certainly, having regional institutions like the Bank of the South to serve as a counter to the attempted hegemony of the World Bank and IMF is a good thing. However, one can’t help if the idea of the Union of South American Nations attempting to “move the continent toward the model of the European Union” seems like a more questionable goal, particularly in light of the European Union’s recent troubles. Certainly, that’s not to say the Union of South American Nations has to take that same path,
The piece also contains what seems to be an awareness, if not concern, over the ability to institutionalize Chávez’s reforms in his absence:
Mr. Chávez’s legacy in the realm of ideas will need further work if they are to become a reality in the messy world of politics, where ideas are debated and contested. A world without him will require other leaders to display the effort and force of will he did, so that his dreams will not be remembered only on paper.
To maintain his legacy, Mr. Chávez’s sympathizers in Venezuela have much work ahead of them to construct and strengthen democratic institutions. They will have to help make the political system more organic and transparent; to make political participation more accessible; to enhance dialogue with opposition parties; and to strengthen unions and civil society groups. Venezuelan unity, and the survival of Mr. Chávez’s hard-won achievements, will require this.
That other leaders will have to continue his legacies if the reforms are to remain in place is clear; whether or not they can is another question. Although Lula states the challenges simply and elegantly, it is clear that they are not insignificant, and include subtle digs on Chávez’s own government: in addition to needing to “strengthen unions and civil society groups,” Lula points to the need for Chávez’s successors to make politics “transparent” and “to enhance dialogue with opposition parties,” things that were not always present under Chávez. In other words, Lula is saying that so-called Chavismo has to adapt and transform in the absence of its leader, and that there is room for improvements in how governance with reforms can occur. These comments aren’t exactly uncritical of Chávez, and show the ways in which there were and are real disagreements in both policy and style between leaders of “the” left in Latin America.
If Lula’s criticisms were not yet fully clear, he makes them so in a thinly-veiled description/critique of Chávez that simultaneously serves as a reminder that discussion of “a” Latin American left is misguided:
One need not agree with everything Mr. Chávez said or did. There is no denying that he was a controversial, often polarizing, figure, one who never fled from debate and for whom no topic was taboo. I must admit I often felt that it would have been more prudent for Mr. Chávez not to have said all that he did. But this was a personal characteristic of his that should not, even from afar, discredit his qualities.
One might also disagree with Mr. Chávez’s ideology, and a political style that his critics viewed as autocratic. He did not make easy political choices and he never wavered in his decisions.
This comment precisely cuts directly to the reason why a talk of “the” Latin American left is so frustrating. Such characterizations of a singular left assumes such a uniformity in ideologies, practices, and tactics among leaders as to almost be insulting, treating Latin American leaders as generic, interchangeable pieces without any regard for distinctions in their personal ways of governing, to say nothing of the varying contexts of their nations, the issues facing their individual countries, or the pluralities in their electorates. Lula’s clear that Chávez’s outspoken methods were not necessarily the type he would adopt, and when he says that “one might also disagree with Mr. Chávez’s ideology,” it seems reasonable to suppose that Lula includes himself in that category (current president Dilma Rousseff herself also pointed out that Brazil didn’t always agree with Chávez). Leaders can share similar goals – greater inequality, economic growth, more democratic openings, etc. – without being of the same ideology. Lula’s aware of this fact; would that more North American media commentators were as well.