Oscar Guardiola-Rivera photographed by Diana Matar
Who knows what version of globalisation we are currently in? A few years back, Tom Friedman said we’d reached version 3.0, but that was before the financial crisis upset such positive prognoses. Ever since, Marxists like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have rabidly hailed the end of capitalism as we know it, waiting for the second coming of communism. While critics fight the war of abstract words, reality has shown us that certain parts of the world have kept stomping on while others wither away. Who doesn’t know, by now, about China’s unparalleled late-industrialisation? Or of India’s burgeoning and booming middle classes? Yet, relatively little has been said, either sensibly or hysterically, about South America. Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s new book, What if Latin America Ruled the World? How the South Will Take the North into the 22nd Century, takes a timely look at the history of the region, as well as how it is shaping up as a regional block with serious ambitions.
Shumon Basar We live in a world where the names of things and the things that those names reference are not necessarily in synch anymore. How do you feel about the term “Latin America”? What connotations does it possess, and is it a forward-looking description for that part of the world?
Oscar Guardiola-Rivera Both Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez would be delighted with this question. In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges reminds us that all nouns have only a metaphorical value. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez speaks of a plague of forgetfulness that obliges the inhabitants of Macondo to rename all things and start anew. This is not just a matter of identity, but rather, the question is one of existence.
OG-R How can one achieve a spiritual life that is characterised by independence and at the same time inherit one’s given world? The ways in which we answer this question may be said to constitute memory and history itself, perhaps even what is considered to be human. In the 19th century, Francophone Colombian intellectual José María Torres Caicedo coined the term “Latin America.” He did so in reference to a Spanish and Portuguese “educated” civil society, which turned its face towards France and to a lesser extent Britain, and turned its back not only to Spain and Portugal but also, most importantly, on Afro- and Indo-America. Afro- and Indo-Americans did not and do not have the same problem.
OG-R Their political consciousness had emerged between the 17th and the 18th centuries from not being considered humans, not from not being considered Europeans.
SB How does the narrative of being “inhuman” link to the coining of “Latin America”?
OG-R If one is considered “inhuman,” as was the case in the experience of Afro- and Indo-Americans, one’s history is analogical to a journey, a vertical flight in fact, from the hell of inexistence down below (on the decks of slave ships, for instance, or in the experience of being displaced from one’s own land and hunted to extinction) to the light up above. Thus, 19th-century “educated” civil societies in the Americas were looking backwards, to their European past, with a mixture of utopianism (the utopia of constant, unending renewal that would become the engine of mercantile capitalism, first tried out in the Caribbean and then globalised on the back of the first world money, the Spanish-American silver peso) and nostalgia. In contrast, Afro- and Indo-Americans – together with those belonging to the “educated” elite who underwent a conversion of their own, like Las Casas, Thomas Paine or Francisco de Miranda – were forward-looking. The term “Latin America” carries both connotations. It isn’t stable or fixed.
SB The first part of your book’s subtitle is “How the South Will Take the North...” and this is a provocation to the received schema that designates the world into a horizontal order of West and East. Was there a time in history when this kind of imaginary – North vs. South – was dominant?
OG-R You’re right, it is a provocation. But at the same time it acknowledges a number of historical facts that, in unconscious ways, still affect the way we imagine the world. For instance, Columbus was travelling from West to East, following the Sun. However, no less importantly, he was also consciously travelling South of the equator. In this respect, he inherited a venerable legacy of cosmological and geographical thought that imagines the earth as a machine – whose rules man could master by the power of his own reason, and put to practice in order to locate those regions “in the part of the Sun” where valuable metals such as silver and gold could be found. This was the scientific and mythical basis for the legend of El Dorado, upon which the powerhouses of Europe were built: Spain and Portugal first, and then Britain, France and the Netherlands. This scientific knowledge had been introduced into Europe via the Levante in North Africa, thanks to people like Al-Kindi and other Arab writers and translators of Aristotle, as well as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas in Europe.
SB What do you mean by “scientific knowledge”?
OG-R According to them, the world-machine was divided into three regions with particular climates and particular peoples, which also determined their relative and particular capacities to reason and profit from, or impact upon, their surroundings.
SB And this has left a profound imprint on how we perceive the constitutive parts of the world?
OG-R This is the kernel of what we now call geopolitics, but also of racialised discourses dividing the world into less and more civilised regions, and of justifications for empire, colonisation or moral trusteeship all the way to 21st-century neo-humanitarianism. This is why I’m interested in the North-South divide, because it is an idea of the mind that stuck like a parasite and still has tremendous consequences for peoples worldwide.
SB One characteristic of today’s globalisation is the way in which emerging economies are forging new robust economic collectives that bypass the West. For example, there’s China’s investment in Africa. There’s the exporting of Dubai’s real estate development across the Middle East and into India. You describe how 32 of the nations of the Americas have formed a regional block to propagate their shared interests against the rest of the world. Do you think that the future of individual nation states lies more and more in belonging to such regional blocks?
OG-R The future of economic ties and free trade lies with regional blocks becoming better at sharing infrastructure and productive ties, while also bettering their ties with other regional blocks. It is already the case that Latin America’s impressive growth rates in recent years reflect a deepening engagement with Asia, where China and other countries are also growing fast. There are important challenges here. For instance, Latin American countries should avoid a repetition of the story of resource extraction, overexploitation and dependence (vis-à-vis Europe and the US), but this time with China. This is why one of the most interesting economists working at present, Venezuelan Carlota Pérez, is absolutely right in pointing out that Latin America’s new model of development must have, at its core, a series of technologically forward-looking enterprises associated with the boom in commodities and commodity prices. She calls them “process industries.”
SB Can you give an example?
OG-R One is Bolivia’s experiment with the possibility of a revolution in the car-industry framework towards electric cars. Bolivia and Northern Argentina apparently share an advantage on lithium reserves, the main ingredient in electric batteries. It would be a waste if the raw resources were sold out to China, or elsewhere, and they developed more differentiated products on the basis of more advanced technologies, while we were content with some short-term revenues. That short-termism, in the case of oil and gas reserves, has caused already huge problems in countries such as Venezuela, Colombia or Ecuador.
SB Is Latin America really the future?
OG-R At present, the world faces two choices: either the authoritarian capitalism of China (or its Conservative European variety, dominant at present in Britain, France and Germany) or the democratic communalism of the Americas, featuring redistribution and deep commitment to political and social human rights.
SB Is this its secret?
OG-R Instead of thinking that economic orthodoxy would do the trick on its own, the countries of Latin America have recognised that economics comes second to, or are deeply intertwined with, sound political decisions. And in this case, sound politics means a principled stand on access to common goods such as health, housing and education being a social claim, a right, leading to policies of redistribution and inequality-busting. It is fighting its ground, together with a rising tide of Latinos in the US, against the right-wing populist reaction represented by the Tea Party. What would you prefer? §
What if Latin America Ruled the World? How the South Will Take the North into the 22nd Century is published by Bloomsbury and out now.