In This Review
Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War
This book deserves to be at the top of any reading list on Latin America. Jorge Castañeda, a well-known Mexican scholar, has written a timely, fascinating and skillfully crafted account of the impact of the end of the Cold War on the Latin American left. His canvas is large, truly hemispheric in scope, incorporating armed guerrillas, old-line communist parties and populist politicians, and reaching from a discussion of the role of the radicalized clergy and Jesuits to the machinations of Cuba's intelligence agents.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this book is its lack of self-censorship. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the failure of the Cuban revolutionary experiment has freed the Latin American left to tell its own internal history, liberated from the fear that to do so will provide hostages for its enemies. Thus, Castañeda provides an extraordinary account of the activities of Manuel Piñeiro, who from the beginning of the Cuban revolution played a key role in building one of the world's most successful security services. He also provides insights into the internecine struggles within the Salvadoran left and Cuba's role in these bloody conflicts over tactics and leadership.
The pivotal role of intellectuals, not only within the left but also as interlocutors between government and opposition, and increasingly between Latin America and the West, is carefully examined here. Castañeda pulls no punches. He recognizes the intellectuals' easy seduction by power and their "cannibalistic" struggles for funding, prestige, jobs, and perks. Castañeda, who was educated at Princeton and the Sorbonne, comes from this intellectual milieu, of course, and is very much at home in the international left-liberal networks he so vividly describes. It is in this matrix that Castañeda places his new definition of Latin American national interests, recommending that the Latin American left exploit their international connections. The left, he believes, should move from outright opposition to everything Washington does toward concentrating on transnational coalitions to oppose specific U.S. policies the left objects to. "The U.S. political system did provide a large margin of action to those who want to make their case to the American public," he concludes. Indeed, this was the great lesson learned by the Sandinistas and Salvadoran left during the 1980s. "Mainly, they understood that the most effective ally, if not the most reliable friend, that practically anyone in Latin America with a U.S. agenda could seek was to be found within the United States."
Castañeda is sensitive to the explosion throughout Latin America of popular participation at the grass roots level in the 1980s, which constitutes a new component of the Latin American left, comprising church groups, organizations of urban dwellers, human-rights activists, and above all, women.
The end of the Cold War, Castañeda argues, will allow the Latin American left to shed the communist stigma. No less important, it will remove the temptation to blame the United States for its own weaknesses and mistakes. He recommends three imperatives: an uncompromising commitment to representative democracy and opposition to all human-rights violations wherever they occur; a repudiation of corruption; and the consistent practice of democracy within the left's own ranks. In this context, Castañeda is critical of the Latin American left's continuing ambivalence over the question of democracy in Cuba. These basic recommendations, together with Castañeda's rich menu of policy suggestions, are all eminently humane and reasonable. At times, however, they seem more attuned to the cosmopolitan seminar rooms of his international network than to the inhuman and unreasonable streets described so vividly in his pages. And it is also important to remember that in Cuba, "utopia" remains armed, even if confined to a bunker.
Castañeda recognizes the obstacles to his reformist agenda, to be sure: Latin America's immense deficiencies in education, health, housing, nutrition, and infrastructure, and the dilemma of how to finance the remedies for these deplorable conditions. With only a third of the total population of Latin America, according to Castañeda's calculations, fully integrated within the modern economy in terms of income and consumption, it remains an open question as to whether the wealthy will be able or willing to finance the needs of the poor majority. Castañeda believes that fear of social upheavals and concern over public safety will force the upper and middle classes to acquiesce to the reformist agenda he outlines. "Without the fear inspired by the prospect of losing everything, the wealthy and the middle class will prefer to lose nothing," he writes. But short of the revolutionary option, which Castañeda thinks is dead in Latin America, it is difficult to see how the choices will occur in such stark terms. And, if they do occur, why would the rich not turn, as in the past, to their praetorian guards who still linger not far in the background in most of the countries of Latin America. These traditional enemies of democracy also tend to see Castañeda's international networks less as a mechanism to influence U.S. policy than as a conspiratorial arm of U.S. strategic interests in the region. But here Castañeda chooses hope over history. It is notable that a serious discussion of the military and the role of the armed forces in Latin America is largely absent from this otherwise comprehensive book.
Jorge Amado, the great Brazilian novelist, whom Castañeda calls one of "the most long-lasting communist intellectuals in Latin America and the world," summed up the pain and sadness at the defeat and failure of the cause to which so many of his friends had dedicated their lives. "The ideals of justice and beauty for which they fought, for which they suffered persecution and violence, jail and torture, and for which so many were murdered, turned into smoke, into nothing, into a lie and an illusion, a miserable and ignominious trick." It is the picking up of the pieces from this wreckage and the recuperation of the democratic aspirations of the left that Jorge Castañeda has so brilliantly captured in this remarkable book.