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Latin lessons

¡Viva South America! A Journey
Through a Restless Continent
Oliver Balch
Faber & Faber, 416pp, £

In 1947, George Orwell published an apocalyptic essay entitled “Towards European Unity”. Re­iterating Rosa Luxemburg’s choice between “socialism or barbarism”, he claimed that the only possible hope for socialism (hence, to him, for humanity) was Europe, the only place where “socialism means liberty, equality and internationalism”, as opposed to the “oligarchical collectivism” of the USSR. Elsewhere, he wrote, the Soviet myth held sway, or capitalism was entrenched. Although Orwell’s expectation of immediate nuclear Armageddon proved alarmist, 62 years later, with a similarly apocalyptic geo­political scenario of economic collapse and catastrophic climate change, his essay largely rings true – only we should exchange the continent of Europe for that of South America.

In Europe, despite the emergence of a new new left in France and Germany, socialism too often means Thatcherism with a permanently grinning face, or further east, the grim police states of the former Soviet empire. But in Latin America, avowed socialists of one sort or another have won a string of election victories, most recently with El Salvador falling by the ballot to the former guerrillas of the FMLN. None of these governments is strictly revolutionary – the name of the Bolivian governing party, Movement Towards Socialism, is telling, suggesting a slow, steady progression rather than a sudden rupture – and they range from Venezuela at the leftmost edge to the reforming neoliberal Workers’ Party government in Brazil. Nonetheless, most of these movements show an optimism and confidence that socialism genuinely means “liberty, equality and internationalism” rather than the surveillance, inequality and warmongering of Europe’s governing socialist parties. Yet expecting Latin America to solve the world’s problems would be foolhardy: this is a continent that remains mired in an often extreme poverty and violence, and where the reforming governments fund their social programmes through fossil fuels.

This combination of giddy hope and a sense of impending doom runs through Oliver Balch’s travelogue ¡Viva South America!, one of the few books in English to discuss the continent and its uninterrupted “pink tide” in any sustained way. Describing itself as “a journey through a restless continent”, it charts a chatty, unsystematic but often very informative and astute path. Balch, a British journalist based in Argentina, structures the book around two central organising conceits. First, he looks for evidence of “the ghost of Simón Bolívar”, the 19th-century revolutionary who liberated much of the continent from Spanish rule. Bolívar, a combination of visionary, pragmatist, bourgeois statesman, guerrilla, high-minded moralist and impressive philanderer, is taken as an embodiment of the continent’s contradictory radicalisms. Each chapter begins with a quote from the “great liberator”, and most reflect on his legacy (or lack of one) today.

Perhaps more worryingly, each chapter takes a country in South America (with one Caribbean addition, Cuba) and focuses on an element of its politics, daily life or national mythology. So we have “Colombia and Violence”, “Ecuador and Indigenous Peoples”, “Venezuela and Revolution”, “Bolivia and Economics”, and so forth. Some of these chapters make sharply counter-intuitive claims. This is perhaps where ¡Viva South America! is at its best, debunking or at least complicating some of the stories these countries tell, both to themselves and to gringos such as our correspondent.

So, Chile, which is now ruled by Michelle Bachelet, a former victim of Pinochet’s dictatorship, is found to be an endemically sexist state, where the cult of the Virgin Mary masks a reality of domestic violence and casual misogyny. Similarly, “Brazil and Race” takes well-chosen aim at the ideology of a colour-blind nation, noting that the official praise of miscegenation enables a situation where mainly black favelas and mainly white governments and boardrooms are induced to feel proud of their country’s enlightened attitude to race. These are also the moments where Balch’s unassuming manner is most effective. The book is dominated by everyday reportage, not facts or analysis, and this tends to succeed or fail depending on who Balch is talking to or how much the reader can do without a political ex­position. He questions his interviewees in the Louis Theroux manner, withholding his own opinions but gently pushing people into saying what they really mean.

When it works, ¡Viva! is both funny and serious, though its author will never win any awards as a prose stylist (more than once, he uses the inexcusable “x is like y on drug z” trope). Balch has no party-political axe to grind, although if anything his allegiances seem to lie with grass-roots politics, particularly with the attempts to build self-managing institutions against, or, in the case of Venezuela, alongside official governments. He is sympathetic, if gently ironic, towards Argentina’s self-managed factories, co-operatives and collectives, where his interviewees’ Guevarist posturing clearly exists in tandem with some genuinely serious attempts at eliminating exploitation. Prominent mention is made of the struggles of indigenous Americans, taking power for the first time in Ecuador and Bolivia; and in Venezuela, Balch marches and parties with the Chavistas and pours scorn on their neoliberal opponents, although he is not blind to the movement’s near-worship of its leader. When a quietly sardonic Balch describes a group of Venezuelan leftists yelling “¡Socialismo o muerte!” it’s clear he’s no joiner-in, but he never patronises their optimism or their seriousness.

Sometimes the travelogue exhibits the geopolitical nous of a gap-year traveller. In a concluding chapter on Cuba, just before last year’s dynastic succession in which Fidel Castro passed the mantle of head of state to his brother Raúl, he makes the not unprecedented observation that one-party states tend towards ossification and that Havana hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. The lack of analysis becomes glaring when he ponders how Cuba’s free universal health service lacks basic medicines (a half-century blockade might explain that little teaser). Similarly, the tendency to exotica can become wearying. But ¡Viva! is a vivid, enjoyable book about one of the few areas that offer any real hope for socialists today – though Balch is no Orwell, and ¡Viva South America! no Homage to Catalonia.

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009