Latin America after 9/11: Geopolitics and the Pink Tide


by John Beverley

Let me begin by recalling a famous passage in his lectures on The Philosophy of History, where Hegel, writing in 1822, anticipates the future of the United States:

Had the forests of Germany still been in existence, the French Revolution would not have occurred. North America will be comparable with Europe only after the immeasurable space which that country presents to its inhabitants shall have been occupied, and the members of the political body shall have begun to be pressed back on each other [… and shall  so ] form a compact system of civil society, and require an organized state […] America is therefore the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World’s History shall reveal itself – perhaps in a contest between North and South America. [1]

Hegel is anticipating here the idea current at the end of the 19th century that only with the close of the western frontier century could the United States begin to emerge as a global power. What I want to dwell on instead, however, is his seemingly parenthetical remark at the end about “a contest between North and South America.”

Does it make any sense today to imagine like Hegel that the future of Latin America will necessarily involve a conflict with the United States, “in the ages that lie before us?” I think the answer is yes, but that this may not be a necessarily bad thing for the United States. September 11, 1971 was the date of the coup d’état against the democratically elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, a coup, we now know, orchestrated partly by Henry Kissinger and the Nixon Administration. If that date marks symbolically in some ways the beginning of a long period of conservative restoration in the Americas, including the United States, it seems clear that Latin America at least has entered a new period in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001: 9/11. If the tonic of the previous period was the integration  of Latin America with the United States under the banner of the so-called “Washington Consensus” , the new period portends an increasing confrontation between Latin America and US hegemony, in  several areas: economic, cultural, and, perhaps inevitably, military.

That prospect brings to mind the late Samuel Huntington’s idea of the “clash of civilizations.”[2] To recall his now familiar argument: Huntington suggested that new forms of conflict in the world after the Cold War would no longer be structured along the bi-polar model of communism versus capitalism, but rather would crystallize along heterogeneous “fault lines” of ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious differences, which  would generate potentially antagonistic geopolitical blocs. In Huntington’s phrase, the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean were, like Turkey or the Ukraine with respect to Western Europe, “torn countries.” Would they define their future by a symbiotic and dependent relationship with the cultural and economic hegemony of the United States, or would they develop, individually or collectively, a distinct “civilization” of their own, with its own linguistic, cultural, religious and geopolitical identity?

Huntington recounted apropos this alternative the following anecdote in The Clash of Civilizations:

“In 1991 a top adviser to President Carlos Salinas de Gotari described at length to me all the changes the Salinas government was making. When he finished, I remarked: ‘That’s most impressive. It seems to me that basically you want to change Mexico from a Latin American country into a North American country.’  He looked at me with surprise and exclaimed: ‘Exactly!  That’s precisely what we are trying to do, but of course we could never say so publicly’” (51).[3]

But, one might ask, what is the point of talking about Latin America as a “civilization,” or, for that matter, about Latin America, which is a doubly colonial double misnomer, first because the America part of it derives from the name of the Italian navigator, and second, because the Latin part derives from a campaign promulgated by the French foreign office in the nineteenth century to try to displace US and British influence in the region by emphasizing South and Central America’s affinity with the countries of Latin Europe? Shouldn’t we be concerned instead with marking the limits if intelligibility of concepts likes “civilization” or “nation”?

My question, however, is a different one. From a sense precisely of these limits, in which  the authority of ideas of nation, national identity, or civilization– perhaps even of what we mean and teach as “culture” itself– are brought into question, what is the emergent form of a new Latinamericanism, capable of confronting US hegemony and expressing an alternative future for the peoples of the Americas? For Hegel, what delayed the coming to fruition of the United States as a nation was the continental frontier, because the expansion of the frontier did not allow the formation of a coherent civil society among its inhabitants. What has delayed, not the confrontation between Latin America and the United States, because that confrontation  already has a history of more than three hundred years, but rather the successful affirmation of Latin America in that confrontation, has been the continuation in Latin America of elements from its colonial past, combined with the imposition of a model of national independence and modernity that  marginalized or repressed broad sectors of the continent’s peoples, languages, and cultures. The affirmation of Latin America as a civilization, in Huntington’s sense of the word, therefore requires re-imagining Latin American nation-states, societies, cultural identity and politics at a moment in which not only the historical forms of communism and socialism but also a capitalist-neoliberal model of modernization have proven inadequate.

Like the rest of the world, Latin America is entering phase of post-neoliberal globalization. My sense is that 9/11 initiates or signals a double movement in this regard,  a movement that comes not only after but also to some extent because of  the effects of  9/11. Before 9/11, and especially during the Clinton presidency in the 1990s, the United States was hegemonic in every sphere of Latin American life. That hegemony was embodied in the idea of the Washington Consensus. After 9/11, that hegemony begins to fade. US foreign policy turns increasingly away from Latin America, with the inauguration of the War on Terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A significant part of Latin America, in the meantime, begins to shift away from identification with US power. The strong disinclination of Latin American governments, with one or two exceptions, to send troops to Bush’s Coalition of the Willing in Iraq and Afghanistan marks one of the first moments since the 1970s that Latin American governments, even those closely tied to the United States economically (like Chile) break with US dictates.

That  double shift—the United States taking its eyes off Latin America, and Latin America beginning go in a different direction after 9/11 because of both domestic and international forces— provides the context for the emergence of what has come to be known as the Pink Tide, the marea rosada or marea rosa in Latin America. I refer to the fact that in the last ten years or so, a majority of the countries of Latin America—including presently Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru and until recently, Chile, have come to be governed by parties of movements that represent themselves as socialist or “of the left” in some sense. This resurgence of the left occurs some thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of a revolutionary upsurge in Latin America in the sixties and seventies initiated by the Cuban revolution of 1959.

The immediate  impulse behind the Pink Tide were the sharp economic crises in Latin America in the late 1990s and early years of the new century, notably the Brazilian devaluation of 1999, and the economic collapses of Ecuador in 1999-2000 and of Argentina, in 2001-2002. In electoral terms, the first instance of the Tide was the Chávez government of 1998. The most recent is the re-election of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, a close ally of Hugo Chávez .   The governments of the marea rosada are of a very heterogeneous character. They all depend to some degree or another on social movements that arise outside the traditional parties of the left. Using Ernesto Laclau’s useful phrase, they are instances of social movements, “becoming the State”. Laclau means to distinguish becoming the state from the Leninist idea of taking state power. They are perhaps most accurately described as center-left governments, but a redefinition of what the “left” means is also part of their dynamic[4].

Though they can have competing economic and territorial interests, at moments of crisis (for example, the attempted putsch by reactionary groups in the energy rich  province of Santa Cruz  in  Bolivia in 2008) they have been able to come together to support each other. They are nationalist, but their nationalism embraces a regional, Latin American affirmation, and a sense of how to negotiate in a globalized world. Though sometimes they have roots in popular insurrections, such as the urban riots called the Caracazo in Venezuela in 1989, which lead to the rise of Chavez, or the indigenous blockades in Ecuador and Bolivia, they seem to be able work effectively within the framework of constitutional democracy and electoral politics, which on the whole they respect and accept. Though they are not immune from authoritarian deformations, they see the horizon of the Latin American future as essentially a democratic one, and their aim is to deepen democratic participation among sectors of the population marginalized or excluded from formal political dialogue. They also represent attempts to rethink the idea of the nation-state itself. Where in this country postcolonial discourse is something that is advanced and debated in the academy, in many governments of the Pink Tide postcolonial ideas are enshrined in their new Constitutions.

I am sympathetic to what I see as the general impulse behind the Pink Tide. But I do not wish to minimize that it involves many ambiguities, contradictions, and uncertainties, and that like any human enterprise, it is subject to the failure or to the perversion of its goals. Nevertheless, it is worth repeating the point I made previously: now, some twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the regimes of what was called “actually existing socialism,” and a general retreat in the Western democracies from the ideal of  the Welfare State, a majority of the population of Latin America lives under democratically elected governments that identify themselves as “socialist” in some way or  another. What “socialism” means in this case is a matter for debate, but that was also true in the cases of both communism and European social democracy.

Detail of Lenin, Man, Controller of the Universe, Diego Riviera, 1934

How does this tectonic political shift look from the United States? I am aware that I am writing at a moment when several Republican candidates for the presidency have actually advocated building a wall along our southern border with Mexico. But while there is much anxiety about illegal immigration, and indignation from time to time about Hugo Chávez, my sense is that Latin America is hardly noticed by the general public, and is certainly secondary in the Obama administration’s priorities to Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Obama promised when he came into office what he called a New Partnership with Latin America, which sounded like sort of revived version of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy of the 1930s. Some—I include myself—may have even entertained for a moment the idea that the election of Obama and the extent of the financial meltdown in 2008 would herald a political shift in the United States itself that would be coincident in some ways with the Latin American Pink Tide. But, with the exception of some welcome although not always very public new initiatives (in US-Cuban relations, for example), there has been more continuity than change in Obama’s Latin American policy. Its goal appears to be to continue to affirm or reaffirm US regional hegemony, and it remains focused on and economic and military alliance with Colombia, one of the more conservative countries in the region rather than with Brazil or Argentina.  If this reading is correct, unless there is a significant shift of direction in what I hope will be a second term, the Obama administration will seek rather than a relation of mutual sympathy with the Pink Tide a strategy to limit it within a framework acceptable to the established US interests. Chávez has remarked that Obama remains a “prisoner of empire.” A harsh judgment, but one that is hard to avoid, however much one wishes Obama well.

It may be that what has kept Obama from moving more decisively on the economy in this country is not unconnected to what has kept him from aligning more closely with the new developments in Latin America. In particular, Obama and his people have been influenced in their approach to Latin America by what has come to be known as the doctrine of the “two lefts.” As enunciated by the Mexican political scientist Jorge Castañeda in an influential article in Foreign Affairs, the resurgent Latin America left is  seen as divided between “a modern, democratic, globalized, and market-friendly left” and “a retrograde,  populist, authoritarian, statist, and anti-American left.” [5][6] Think for the first, Lula and now his successor Dilma Roussef in Brazil, and for the second Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Evo Morales in Bolivia. The task of US policy towards Latin America, Castañeda argues, should be to encourage the first and discourage the second.

There are indeed many, and often deep differences, among the new governments of the left in Latin America, but in my opinion they do not resolve themselves into this neat dichotomy, which has the character of  a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is an important emerging contradiction in the Pink Tide, but it is one within the governments of the Tide rather than between them. This has to do with the conflict between indigenous claims to territorial rights based on the new multicultural constitutions and the state’s interest in exploiting natural resources to produce an economic bonanza to distribute to the popular sectors. That conflict is central in Bolivia today, for example, in the struggle over whether to build a road through an indigenous National Park, the TIVNIS. But it does not lend itself to Castañeda’s dichotomy. Rather, it is a conflict that cuts through the Bolivian government itself and the social movements that brought it to power.

But even if there were something more to Castañeda’s dichotomy of a hard and a soft Left than wishful thinking, should the Obama administration in any case commit itself to a policy that puts it at odds in some ways with democratically elected governments in major countries like Brazil or Argentina? For Castañeda the “market friendly” governments of the modern left are those still willing to work within a framework conforming to the existing structure of international trade and markets, whereas the  “authoritarian”  populists question that framework and are looking for ways to modify or get out of it, by for example, repudiating foreign debt, as Argentina did in 2002. The example of Argentina’s default, which has led to a strong economic resurgence, must be on the mind of Greek economists and politicians in recent days.

The resurgence of the Latin American left may be attributed largely if not exclusively to the enormous social effects created by the neoliberal economic policies dominant during the 1980s and ‘90s, effects that were also behind the huge wave of immigration to the United States during those years.  Another way to put this is that the crisis of the neoliberal model was experienced in Latin America about a decade or so before it was felt in the United States and Europe in 2008-2009, especially in the economic collapses of 1999-2002. The strategies for responding to that crisis may differ from country to country, but there is no doubt that all the governments of the Pink Tide   accept the need to move beyond the neoliberal assumptions of the Washington Consensus, although many of those assumptions remain in place.

China is a new factor in the region. China senses that a vacuum of hegemony has emerged in Latin America, and is stepping in to fill it. Where Castañeda argues for a US policy that “fortifies the  modern left, and weakens the retrograde left,” inviting in this way continued confrontation of the US with major actors and constituencies in Latin America, China, has not been guided in its approach to Latin America by this dichotomy, precisely because it would like to break open  that framework in some ways. It is in the process of deepening its economic, cultural and political relations with all governments in Latin America. The main determination here, is of course economic: China’s voracious appetite for raw materials. But there is a postcolonial dimension too: although there has been no return to the Maoist Third Worldism of the fifties and sixties, the fact that China, like Latin America has been at the bottom end of European imperial and colonial designs is, I think, a not inconsiderable factor in its emerging relationship with Latin America.

In my own area, the literary humanities, the book that seems to coincide in some ways with Castañeda’s idea of the “two lefts” is El insomnio de Bolívar—Bolivar’s Insomnia by the well-known Mexican novelist and cultural critic Jorge Volpi. The book is a kind of panorama of the situation of Latin America on the eve of the Bicentennial of its first declarations of Independence in 2010. [7] It centers on a strikingly provocative question in that regard:

Preguntémonos  entonces, otra vez, ¿qué compartimos, en exclusiva , los latinoamericanos?   ¿Lo mismo de siempre: la lengua, las tradiciones católicas, el derecho romano, unas cuantas costumbres de incierto origen indígena o africano y el recelo, ahora transformado en chistes y gracejadas, hacia España y los Estados Unidos?  ¿Es todo? ¿Después de dos siglos de vida independiente eso es todo? ¿De verdad? (85)

[Let us ask ourselves, then, once again, what do we  Latin Americans share in particular. The same things as always: the language, Catholic traditions, Roman Law, a few customs of uncertain indigenous or African origin, and the resentment, now converted  into jokes and  witticisms, of Spain  and the United States?  Is that all?  After two centuries of independence is that all?  Truly all? ]

The answer Volpi offers is equally striking: “Quizá la única manera de llevar a cabo el sueño de Bolívar sea dejando de lado a América Latina” (148) — Perhaps the only way to realize Bolívar’s dream is to abandon Latin America.” In what he calls a “Chronology of the Future” at the end of his book, Volpi envisions—in a  sort of comic-serious mode– the  following sequence of events: the disappearance of his own country, Mexico, via its incorporation into the United States; then the division of the continent in a two more or less cohesive geopolitical entities, North and South America; in 2035 the creation of an “Alliance of the South” and in 2044 of a “North American Union”; a war between the North and the South  in 2049; a gradual period of détente, leading to the formal proclamation  in 2098 of something called los Estados Unidos de las Américas, the United States of the Americas; then, finally, in 2110, the year of the tricentennnial of Latin American Independence the emergence de facto of this  new supernational state. That chronology is the scenario Bolívar imagines in his last, delirious bout of insomnia; with its completion, he can finally sleep:

“As for the marea rosada in particular, there  is  no such thing,” Volpi assures his readers.  “The announcement—feared by many—of the awakening of the   left  in Latin America is an illusion or a misunderstanding. Each country  has  its own dynamic  and, beyond the contamination between one government and another,-and  the erratic internationalism of Chávez—the triumph or the advance of parties or leaders of the left obey  more internal social and economic tensions than  a sort of regional epidemic] (133-34,  135).

Volpi would be the voice of  not so much what Castañeda calls the respectable left as something like a Latin American Mitt Romney or John Huntsman: a “sensible” Latin American center-right that is committed to democracy and some social programs, but deeply wary of the more radical possibilities suggested by the Pink Tide. What is notable however is that this position puts him and people who think like him in Latin America somewhat to the left of Obama in this country. There is in his proposal, an understandable desire on the part of a younger, middle class generation in Latin America to be rid of the weight of ossified discourses and expectations, including what is perceived as an exhausted rhetoric of populist nationalism or revolutionary utopias. But there is also something not all that new in Volpi’s proposal. I refer to the positions in nineteenth century Latin American Liberalism that saw the United States as a model for Latin American national development—the Argentine Domingo Sarmiento is perhaps the most important example—or that at an extreme sought outright integration with or annexation by the United States. In a way, Volpi is making public the North Americanization of Latin that the Mexican minister Huntington interviewed in The Clash of Civilizations couldn’t.

Where Volpi and I do coincide to some extent is in thinking that the future will involve not only a rivalry but also a kind of convergence between the United States and Latin America. Volpi raises in particular the question of the massive waves of Latin American immigration to United States, which implies for him that his own country, Mexico, is now being absorbed de facto into the United States, a prospect he welcomes. But there is the other side of that: what is happening to the United States, which, with a Hispanic population currently estimated at 50 million and growing, has become or is on the road to becoming soon the second largest nation of the Spanish-speaking world after Mexico, surpassing Spain itself  in that regard. In his final book Who Are We?, Huntington saw the “clash of civilizations” as now internal to the United States, arguing that Hispanic immigration and rapid population growth , what he called “the Hispanic Challenge,” rather than radical Islam or China, was the greatest threat to the future of the United States as a nation-state.[8] The nature of that threat, Huntington thought, was not only the demographic presence of a large Hispanic population in the United States, but also the unevenness of its acculturation to what he called the “Anglo-Protestant” creed at the center of  US life and institutions .

By the end of this century one out of four inhabitants of this country will be Hispanic or Portuguese and Brazilian. Today, some ten to twelve million they are undocumented immigrants. The question of what to do with them is one of the most intractable issues in US public policy. But they are not going to go away, nor can they be repatriated en masse, nor, as we have seen recently in Alabama, can they be discouraged from working and living in the United States without damaging important sectors of the economy. Nor can the United States effectively check further immigration, even with very heavy policing such as that portended by the anti-immigrant measures adopted recently by many states , or the 2000 mile wall, electrified, as Herman Cain wants it, or not. Nor will, as Huntington feared, this huge population, including both US citizens and permanent residents as well as the undocumented, be assimilated via the previously powerful forces of  immigrant acculturation. Indeed, Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepik, writing about Miami, speak of Hispanic immigration as producing  an “acculturation in reverse.” [9], which they define as “a process by which foreign customs, institutions, and language are diffused within the native population, and in which “biculturalism has emerged as an alternative adaptive project to full assimilation into American culture.”

It follows from this that, obliged by the demographic and cultural reality of its actual population, the United States will have to become as a nation something other than it is (or imagines itself to be) today, something perhaps not all that different than what the Bolivians had in mind when they redefined their country as a plurinational state. I have in mind here the observation by the African-American writer Harold Cruse that:  “America is a nation that lies to itself about who and what it is. It is a nation of minorities ruled by a minority of one.” In a way, Huntington was right: Hispanics are not just another immigrant group; the Hispanic presence will change what the United States is and can be.  That means that future of the United States does not lie within the United States itself, but is now bound to the full emancipation of Latin America. Latin America as a distinct “civilization”, however, is not a territoriality that is purely external to the United States.  Latin America, Neustria America or “Our América,” in José Martí’s phrase, is not “outside” North America; it extends deeply into North or “Anglo” America, and has since the time of our the formation of the United States as a nation. The conflict Hegel envisioned in 1822 between North and South America is now a conflict inside the United States. The ability of the United States to pass beyond the current impasse in it national life in a progressive rather than a reactionary direction will depend crucially on the Hispanic community, including crucially its role as, in a significant majority, a voting bloc that favors Democrats.

As North Americans, we have been accustomed to think of Latin America, and more generally the Hispanic-Iberian world as a kind of past we were destined to overcome as a nation. We need to begin to think of Latin America as part of our future rather than our past.

Piece adapted from a public lecture given at the University of Pittsburgh, November 8, 2011


[1] George W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, version and trans. J. Sibree.  (New York: Dover, 1956), 86.

[2] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

[3] Ernesto Laclau, “Deriva populista y centroizquierda latinoamericana,”  (10/10/06)

[4] Jorge Castañeda, “Morning in Latin America,”   Foreign Affairs, September/October 2008.

[5] Jorge Volpi, El insomnio de  Bolívar. Cuatro consideraciones sobre América Latina en el siglo XXI  (Barcelona: Random House Mondadori, 2009).

[6] Samuel Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. (New York: Simon & Schuster , 2004).

[7] Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick, City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami (Berkeley: University of  California Press,  1993)

About the Author:

John Beverley is Distinguished Professor of Hispanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. His most recent book is Latinamericanism after 9/11 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011).