Macarena Gómez-Barris | REVISING RADICAL DEMOCRACY: ART AND POLITICAL UNDERCURRENTS

In a wave that Geraldine Lievesley and Steve Ludlam described as an experiment in radical political democracy and the US media dubbed “the Pink Tide,” Latin Americans voted social democratic governments into power beginning in the late 1990s. [i] Over the past twenty years, these models of governance ranged from authoritarian populism, as modeled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, to the horizontal assembly processes in Bolivia that resulted in the election of Evo Morales, the nation’s first Indigenous president. Uruguayan President José Mujica pursued one of the most radical political agendas: widely touted as the world’s humblest president for his demeanor and small home living quarters, Mujica promoted gay rights, legalizing marijuana and first term abortions as well as offered a range of economic alternatives to neoliberalism.[ii]

As political commentators celebrated these changes, rising debt, new authoritarianisms, and the expansion of extractive capitalism upon Indigenous territories threatened efforts to deepen autonomous forms of political expression.[iii] By referring to centuries of colonial theft, Evo Morales’ presidency in Bolivia and President Rafael Correa in Ecuador made Earth Rights central to their electoral campaigns. Once in power both rewrote their nations’ constitutions to grant rights to majority Indigenous populations.[iv] In contradictory fashion, both governments soon granted mega contracts to Chinese, Canadian, and European state enterprises in hydroelectricity, mining, minerals, and petroleum, while actively working to deflate broad-based social movements. They also contended that the closing off of resource extraction would only perpetuate economic dependency and foreign debt.[v]

In a different case, rather than redress Mapuche, Pehuenche and Huiliche land claims, Chilean President Bachelet expanded corporate and military control over the Bio-Bio Southern region. For Indigenous peoples of the Americas, the pattern of colonial developmentalism coupled with a police state diminished the difference between Left and Right governments, especially when decolonizing rhetoric turned into anti-Indigenous state practice.

During the pink tide, gender policy also tended to be absent or to perpetuate heterosexual norms and codes. In Argentina, gender rights activists noted how regressive reproductive politics were the hallmark of Christina Kirchner’s administration.[vi] As Kirchner denounced foreign control of the economy and helped to legalize gay marriage, she supported the strict abortion ban within a failing health system, which did not guarantee universal contraception.[vii] Even as Kirchner and Michelle Bachelet touted health care reforms and broadened programs for public transportation, they continued a fast-paced neoliberal agenda that skewed income towards the global rich. Revealing the masculinist orientation of politics, Maria Galindo and Mujeres Creando rewrote the new Bolivian Constitution to include the perspectives of Indigenous women, lesbians, sex workers, single mothers, and trans-women.[viii] Through a series of radio shows and actions, they pointed out how new governments in the hemisphere excluded their female and cuir populations.

In terms of addressing anti-Black racism, there is little evidence that progressive governments made significant change. Though the 2010 Racial Equality Law in Brazil took measures to address institutional racism, including land titles to some quilombo (runaway slave) communities, it fell far short of campaign promises for racial redress. By 2012 one hundred public universities and 1,000 private Brazilian universities had passed affirmative action laws, even as new discourses of racial difference created new social and economic equalities in the nation.[ix]

As we know from recent events, the Brazilian white privileged minority reacted violently to changes to the structural order. Since 2014, “witch-hunting” processes in Brazil have spread at an astonishing pace, leading to the removal of President Dilma Rouseff in 2016. Referring to Dilma’s removal, Noam Chomsky commented, “We have the one leading politician who hasn’t stolen to enrich herself, who’s being impeached by a gang of thieves, who have done so. That does count as a kind of soft coup.”[x] As the experience of pink tide states illustrated, and the dramatic events in Brazil made more acute, even prior to the xenophobic right wing turn in the UK and Europe progressive and radical political agendas in Latin America were directly challenged by the rise of the global right.[xi]

Indeed, the military coup against Honduran president Mel Zelaya en 2009, the parliamentary coup against Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo in 2012, and the recent electoral victory of Marcri en Argentina and the return of Sebastián Piñera in Chile all evidence the conservative and military counter wave that forced the Pink Tide to recede. In Brazil, as in Honduras, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina, the phenomenon of fake news, obstructionism, and political in-fighting made state-oriented change impossible. Candidates who promised a profound challenge to globalization, soon privatized, defunded, and accelerated the neo-liberalization of their national economies.[xii] Overall, the Pink Tide failed to congeal lasting political transformation.

Conservative commentator Jorge Castañeda wondered if this failure represented the death of the Left in the Americas.[xiii] Yet, to name the failure of the pink tide as a kind of death distracts from the profound historical structural inequality in the Americas. It also ignores the persistent attacks by conservative forces upon redistributive policies by those promoting a hoarding economy that benefits those with access to power and resources. A better way to think about the pink tide is to note the failures of liberal democracy steeped in the ongoing binds and arrangements of colonialism.

As new trends point to yet another wave of momentum by the political Left,[xiv] we should consider how to move beyond the ebbs and tides of conservative and progressive governments to other kinds of social bonds. How can we pursue otros mundos, or the possibility of other worlds not limited by the parameters of the nation state and electoral politics? What kinds of autonomous collaborations and modes of critique imagine politics beyond the narrow definition ascribed by the colonial nation? To answer these questions, I offer three short examples from my forthcoming book Beyond the Pink Tide (UC Press, 2018).

 

Minor Views

The work of a Puerto Rican artist collective called “Occupy Museum,” featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, illustrates why we must orient our view toward minor, island, and artistic perspectives rather than merely focusing on the capture of the state. Ten Puerto Rican artists, Gamaliel Rodriguez, Melqulades Rosario, Nibla Pastrana Santiago, Sofia Maldonado, Celestino Ortiz Jose Soto, Gabriella Torrer-Ferrer, Adrian Roman, Yasmin Hernandez, Norma Vila, and Chemi Rosado and Bea Santiago (who participated independently) created “Debt Fair,” an exhibition that grew from the Occupy Wall Street movement and powerfully addressed the island’s subordinated position to the US mainland. Using symbols of the less visible, yet structurally present aspects of the global economy, artists placed a small Puerto Rican flag against a powerful anti-debt manifesto that rejected the PROMESA program and its heavy austerity measures.

The exhibition specifically named the First Bank of Puerto Rico as routinely underwriting Wall Street’s biggest banks.[xv] Through videos and wall text, the exhibition details how Wall Street dividends exasperated the neocolonial condition forcing tens of thousands of young people and professionals to migrate to the US mainland, even prior to the recent devastation. Debt Fair artists asked the viewer to consider the embedded role of Global North art institutions in Puerto Rico’s financial institutions, making visible how MFA programs in the US saddled artists with insurmountable student debt.

As “Debt Fair” points out, growth models in the Caribbean have been steeped within the structures of colonialism and imperialism in the hemisphere.[xvi] By 2015, and prior to the events of Hurricane María, PROMESA had already produced a massive national debt that paralyzed the island’s economy by more than seventy billion dollars.[xvii] With debt repayment plans shortened and interest rates increased, Latin America and the Caribbean was structurally conditioned by US foreign financial dependence, austerity regulations imposed by multinational lending agencies.[xviii] As early as 1982, the Mexican government announced that it was not able to repay its ballooning loan with skyrocketing interest rates, leading to panic amongst international lenders and to direct intervention by the International Monetary Fund and the Central Bank.

“Debt Fair” argues for moving beyond debt dependency on the global market with increased relevance given the catastrophes produced out of Hurricane María.

 

Trans-Solidarities

In 2015, Colombian artist Carlos Motta countered binary gender norms by inviting over two hundred trans women, including sex workers and Indigenous trans women, to an independent art space in Guatemala City. Motta collaborated with REDMMUTRANS, a trans-multiracial organization that collaboratively worked against the acute experiences of social, racial, and economic discrimination. In a multiracial society where anti-Indigenous racism and trans-phobia is pervasive, REDMMUTRANS offered a venue for countering gender/sex norms and the strict binary gender codes in Guatemala that date back to the Spanish colonial era. The objective of the work was to lift recognition of trans bodies within the violent public sphere that privileges binary gender assignations.

As an internationally recognized artist, Motta intervened into art worlds that had historically excluded trans bodies. Carlos Motta described his role in the project this way: “I’m not so concerned with labeling this action as art, but instead with developing an ethical artistic practice that reconsiders the act of (documentary) representation.”[xix] In this quote, Motta insists on not separating artistic agency from the history of representation. Indeed, as a cis-gendered artist he expressed weariness with the use of trans and Native bodies as ethnographic spectacle. Instead, Motta re-signifies the gallery to make evident the contemporary state of emergency for gender non-conforming peoples. Set within the afterlives of civil war and its political violence that includes feminicide, genocidal violence, and vastly unequal economic conditions, Motta reconsiders the political stakes of contemporary art in Guatemala. Refusing the surveillance eye, where there is safety in numbers in the gallery space, the performance challenges the very real threats that trans-Indigenous and working class women face in Guatemala on a daily basis.

Indeed, coinciding with the pink tide, a newfound visibility for queer and trans peoples sweeping the hemisphere moved LGBTI identities from the periphery of politics into the spotlight of public debate and legal recognition. As I elaborate in a chapter in Beyond the Pink Tide entitled, “How Cuir is Queer Recognition? Repositioning the Sexual Underground,” the future of queerness lies in attending to past and present alternative sex and art worlds.

 

Freeing Bodies

Libertad para las 17, or “Freedom for 17” is an important trans-feminist movement that rejects a capitalist economic system that feeds itself by criminalizing female, Indigenous, mestiza and Black bodies. Learning from abolition movements throughout the Americas that are led by Afro-descended peoples, anti-prison activists in Central America show us a mode of hemispheric politics that both challenges the prison industrial complex and the political conservatives that aim to control their gendered bodies.

As a Salvadoran group that was founded during an international meeting in, Libertad para los 17 works to free a group of female prisoners imprisoned by ultra conservative laws. This includes an absolute ban on abortion that penalizes those attempting to end their own pregnancy, even in the face of life threatening medical conditions. Alongside the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, Libertad para los 17 thinks and organizes with other feminist groups in Central America against the carceral logic that moralizes female bodies. Through marches, legislative battles, artistic expression like poetry slams, and direct action, Freedom for 17 has made important inroads that challenge how women’s bodies are claimed by the state, redirecting the meaning of libertad.

These three brief examples from the Américas demonstrate how to deepen our critique and lift submerged perspectives that flow within artistic and political undercurrents rather than adjust to the normative tide of national politics.

 

[i] On the pink tide, see Larry Rohter’s widely cited article, “With New Chief, Uruguay Veers Left, in a Latin Pattern, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/01/world/americas/with-new-chief-uruguay-veers-left-in-a-latin-pattern.html?_r=0, March 1, 2005.

[ii] For a good introductory article in English to Mujica’s background and presidency, see “José Mujica: Is this the World’s Most Radical President?” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/18/-sp-is-this-worlds-most-radical-president-uruguay-jose-mujica.

[iii] See Another World is Possible: Globalization and Anti-Capitalism by David McNally (Manitoba: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2002), and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (New York: Penguin Random House, 2005).

[iv] See Marisol de la Cadena’s Earth Beings for a detailed explanation of the Pachamama (Durham: Duke University Press). Also see chapter two of my book The Extractive Zone (2017).

[v] See my recent book, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives for full discussion of extractive capitalism and mega-development (Duke University Press, 2017).

[vi] See Debora Loprelle, “Gender Policies in Argentina after Neoliberalism: Opportunities and Obstacles for Women’s Rights,” Latin American Perspectives, Volume 42, Issue 1, 2015.

[vii] Argentina’s terrible record on maternal morality was denounced in a damning Human Rights  Watch report, “Illusions of Care: Lack of Accountability for Reproductive Rights in Argentina,” https://www.hrw.org/report/2010/08/10/illusions-care/lack-accountability-reproductive-rights-argentina, August 10, 2010, viewed January 30, 2018.

[viii] http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/emisferica-111-decolonial-gesture/galindo, Viewed March 22, 2018.

[ix] For a clear hemispheric discussion of racial difference and its ideologies see “Confounding Anti-Racism: Mixture, Racial Democracy, and Post-Racial Politics in Brazil,” by Alexandre Emboaba da Costa, Critical Sociology, Volume 42: 4-5, 2016.

[x] http://www.democracynow.org/2016/5/17/noam_chomsky_brazils_president_dilma_rousseff, The Guardian, (May 16, 2016).

[xi] See Lisa Duggan’s forthcoming Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and Neoliberal Greed (UC Press, forthcoming). Also see Paul Amar, Ed., Middle East and Brazil: Perspectives on the New Global South (Indiana University Press, 2014). On October 20, 2017, we held a panel at Global South Center at Pratt Institute called “The Rise of the Global Right.” See www.globalsouthcenter.org.

[xii] Neoliberalism, a phase of late capitalism, can be briefly defined as the privatization and deregulation of the government, a process that in the Americas, as elsewhere in the Global South, was installed through dictatorship. We can date the beginning of debt crisis and disaster capitalism to the overthrow of Socialist President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. Chile became the nation where experiments in austerity were supported by brute authoritarianism.

[xiii] Castañeda, Jorge C. “The Death of the Latin American Left,” New York Times, Op-Ed., March 22, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/23/opinion/the-death-of-the-latin-american-left.html?_r=0.

[xiv] “2018, The Year of Left Possibilities in Latin America,” by Katur Arkonada, https://www.telesurtv.net/bloggers/2018-el-ano-de-las-izquierdas-posibles-en-America-Latina-20180122-0002.html, viewed January 28, 2018.

[xv] For an excellent overview of the 2015 debt crisis prior to the effects of Hurricane Maria see http://www.ibtimes.com/puerto-ricos-debt-addiction-was-fed-banks-passed-risk-bond-buyers-1990649, viewed October 15, 2017.

[xvi] On coloniality, see Anibal Quijano’s classic work, “The Coloniality of Power,” Nepantla 2002.

[xvii] PROMESA refers to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or the US House’s bipartisan legislation that gives the control board the power to cut pensions, labor contracts and social services in order to restructure the seventy-three billion dollars in loan. PROMESA legislation is strongly critiqued by Puerto Rican activists and scholars as another effort by US capitalism to privatize social security, health care, and education on the island.

[xviii] During this period the level of debt in Latin America skyrocketed from 159 billion in 1978 to 327 billion in 1982 (FDIC 1997).

[xix] See an extensive interview, “Queer Lives are Conditioned by Violence,” by Cat Tyc with curator and artist Carlos Motta in BOMB: Artists in Conversation, http://bombmagazine.org/article/946053/carlos-motta, May 6, 2016.

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