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Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War.

Next year reporters will be profiling the "new Latin American left" as they cover more than a dozen national elections and note that in several, including those of Mexico, Brazil and El Salvador, left parties and coalitions are serious contenders. Left mayors have headed administrations in major cities such as Sao Paulo (until a year ago) and Caracas (currently).

Not long ago, Latin American leftists ignored elections, which they saw as expressions of "bourgeois democracy." Their own experience of fraudulent vote counts and military governments that freely practiced murder and torture seemed to confirm their conviction that the only meaningful politics was to work for a revolutionary change of both the political and economic systems - and ultimately the international "rules of the game."

The Nicaraguan revolution aroused enthusiasm in other countries not because it could be imitated - outside tiny Central American countries guerrilla struggle was not a viable route to power - but because it held out the possibility of another way of organizing society (as Cuba did). The end of communism was discouraging not because it signified the end of a model but because it seemed to leave the United States with unchallenged hegemony. Liberation theologians have stated emphatically that they see no need for fundamental rethinking since their commitment had not been to Marxism but to the poor whose plight continues to worsen.

For some years, Latin American left-wing intellectuals, politicians and organizers have been coming into the cold, that is, admitting to themselves that revolution - however desirable in principle - is not in the cards.

Nevertheless this book is the first comprehensive effort by a major Latin American leftist to look unflinchingly at how much has changed and to spell out how much the left has to learn, unlearn and change. Castaneda moves easily among the circles of current and former government figures, politicians and ex-guerrillas. Besides well-known figures, such as novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he profiles nonpublic figures such as Victor Romeo, whose career he traces from the Cuban Air Force, through struggle with the radical left MIR in Chile, to Sandinista Nicaragua where, after the 1990 electoral defeat, he was "the ultimate castoff: a man with no country, money or roots, but most of all, a man without a meaning to his life."

What remains, says Castaneda, is reformism as embodied in social democratic parties and programs. Somewhat beyond the midpoint of the book, he sketches the contours of a left agenda. Since he is Mexican, it is not surprising that he should make a reformulated nationalism central to his proposal, and that standing up to U.S. intervention even in the name of the drug war should be an important element.

Latin American leftists have only recently acknowledged the values of procedural democracy, which by itself certainly does not assure meaningful representation for the poor majority but is nevertheless indispensable. Castaneda makes the interesting observation that the (understandable and possibly justifiable) post-1990-election "pinata" in which many Sandinistas hastily bought their homes at fire-sale prices stands in a long Latin American tradition in which groups in power regard state property as their own patrimony.

Under the rubric of "democratizing democracy" Castaneda discusses a number of reforms that could make today's civilian regimes responsive to ordinary people: separation of powers, judicial reform, making tax collection effective and independent and overcoming corruption.

What makes such unobjectionable proposals left? The question comes up more than once, and Castaneda calmly asserts that the left need not be concerned to have exclusive possession of its agenda. Indeed, it can only be successful by forming alliances and cooperating with other sectors.

Such is even more the case with economic proposals. Granting that the only currently viable economic system is capitalism, Castaneda argues that Latin American countries should not look to the extreme free-market versions of the United States and the United Kingdom but to the more successful capitalisms of Europe (vigorous social programs) and Japan (strong business-government partnership).

He opposes, for example, the widely held notion that the Latin American state must be downsized. State-owned enterprises are often well run, but governments tend to use them as cash cows rather than tax the wealthy. The crucial question is not the size of the state but what it can and should do.

More than half the book is devoted to observations on experiences of the left during the past generation, including its occasional sins or crimes. The book will no doubt strike some readers as elitist since it is focused on leaders of one kind or another. The two chapters dealing with grassroots movements seem more dutiful than insightful and, except for six pages on women's movements, the voices are virtually all male.

Why should the elites - or the United States - allow even piecemeal implementation of programs aimed at shifting resources to the currently excluded poor majority.? Unless such a shift takes place, replies Castaneda, Latin America will become unlivable for those very elites, and "they can't all go to Miami."

Latin American stock markets may be hot, but the present order leaves out two-thirds of the people. Corporate-led free-trade schemes are likely to produce more losers than winners. The test of Castaneda's book is not whether it gives aging leftists a mission, but whether it helps define the tasks of the present generation.
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Author:Berryman, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 17, 1993
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