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3:AM Brasil: Viva South America!

By Guy Burton.

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Oliver Balch, Viva South America!, Faber, 2009

The shadow of iconography hangs over Latin American politics – and not always to its advantage. Perhaps the most eponymous image for foreigners is that of Che Guevara, whose Christ-like face looks out from countless postcards, T-shirts and bedroom posters. Che’s deification can be attributed to its restless energy to push the quest for social justice further to the point where he lost his own life. As such, Che’s promise remained unfulfilled, enabling everyone to project their own hopes and dreams upon him.

A similar process is currently at work with Símon Bolívar. An orphaned and widowed aristocrat in what is now Venezuela, he is credited with freeing the territory that encompassed his country, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from the Spanish yoke at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Yet independence did not lead to emancipation but rather political discord and violence as competing elites sought to wrest power from each other. On the eve of his departure to exile in Europe, he died, disappointed to the last.

Yet it is Simon Bolívar’s image as The Liberator which receives greater hearing in today’s Latin America. Under the sponsorship of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, Bolívar has become the figurehead of a process of wider social change that is currently being undertaken across the region.

Since the 1980s Latin America has been subject to neo-liberal and structural reforms. Designed to encourage economic liberalisation and deregulation, the aim was to encourage private business and ‘trickle down’ the wealth. Like Bolívar’s dream though, the result has largely been one of disappointment. After twenty years of the so-called Washington Consensus the rich got richer and the poor more vulnerable. But rather than take this lying down new social groups and movements emerged, demanding more equity and redistribution and culminating in the election of the Left throughout the region.

Oliver Balch’s purpose is to chart the effect that these social and political changes are affecting the continent with Bolívar as his guide. In Viva South America! he assigns a theme for each country, he sets off to find out the nature and extent of the problems along with the efforts being made to overcome them.

Balch’s adoption of his route doesn’t quite fit with Bolívar’s own though. While The Liberator helped emancipate the north of the continent, the south owed much to the efforts of José de San Martin. Meanwhile Brazil stands out as the sole lusophone country in South America whose independence was achieved not by war, but by the peaceful replacement of the Portuguese king with his son as the first Brazilian emperor.

Moreover, while both Bolívar and Chávez were concerned with throwing out a foreign power (Spain and the US respectively) from South America, many of the problems studied by Balch cannot be so easily externalised. Consequently the book combines a variety of different themes, from the effect of neo-liberal reform in Bolivia and encroachment on indigenous peoples’ land and identity in Ecuador to the domestic oppression of Chilean women and institutionalised racial discrimination in Brazil.

Where Balch is at his best is in his eye for detail. Given the social and grassroots nature of the changes sweeping the region he quite rightly gives space over to the ordinary people that he meets. Their tales of suffering and abuse make for harrowing reading, especially the Chilean woman who served a prison sentence for a crime she didn’t commit and the senseless violence committed against individual Colombians every day. One is left feeling what a pointless and tragic waste of human potential is being reaped across the region.

For the most part Balch doesn’t lose sight of these stories’ purpose which is to provide detail to the themes laid out for each country in each chapter. However sometimes it becomes unclear whether the book is supposed to be a testimony of these previously unheard voices or a travelogue; Balch’s account of a hunting trip with the supposedly bloodthirsty Huaorani people in the Ecuadoran jungle being a case in point. He rams the point further home when he calculates the number of buses, flights, hotel beds, notebooks and photos taken during his 12-month odyssey.

Nevertheless, that Balch the traveller and journalist comes through is no great disadvantage to the book; indeed, it is arguably its virtue. Viva South America! provides a good overview of the wide range of social issues affecting the continent. For the non-specialist reader who is about to visit the region for the first time and wants to make sense of it all, Balch’s book provides a highly readable account. For example, the chapters on religion in Peru offer a good study of the rise of Protestantism in that country and its neighbours while that related to race in Brazil may encourage readers to look around themselves and see who they are sharing restaurant space or the beach with.

Which brings us back to the danger of icons. Having travelled around the continent he ends up in Venezuela, the home of both Bolivar and Chávez. Throughout his stay Chávez appears as a distant figure, first on his TV show in a motel and then at the inauguration of a new bridge. During his observation on the latter Balch provides a rich account of the local atmosphere and colourful characters he encounters during the long and hot wait for El Presidente. But one is also struck by the physical (if not emotional) separation between Chavez and his supporters and the absence of any direct engagement between this new liberator and the people.

While Chávez is keen to see himself as Bolívar’s heir, one hopes that his hero’s bitter words at the end of his life do not come back to haunt him and the people he purports to lead: “Those who serve a revolution plough the sea.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in Brazil, Guy Burton now lives in London, where he recently completed a PhD at the London School of Economics on the centre-left in Latin America.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 5th, 2009.