Africa and Latin America

Roots of Optimism and Contradictions

The Berlin Wall is dismantled brick by brick in November of 1989.  It becomes a symbol of freedom and new beginnings.  A few months into 1990 the Soviet Union collapses and from its ruins a plethora of nations re-emerge or are newly formed.  In Africa, Namibia wins its independence from an Apartheid government in retreat.  In 1990, Nelson Mandela is released and in 1994 leads the ANC into victory. People form opposition political parties, take to the streets and engage in national strikes that make countries ungovernable.  Dictators like Moi of Kenya have to make democratic concessions that overtime sees them out of office.  The fear spawned by years of civilian and military dictatorships is gone.  All is possible.  In short, the 1990’s become a time of hope.

But in the euphoria two questions are left unanswered.  The Cold War was between two Empires.  What will the victor do with the spoils of war? And if Communism was an answer to a problematic capitalism, what happens when a vaccine fails to inoculate?  For the first question a New World Order that projects a gentler and kinder US is declared into effect by George Bush Sr.  And for the second question Capitalism as victor becomes capitalism as cure.  The problem becomes the Welfare State, bloated bureaucracies, and corruption not capitalism.  Enter the world of global capitalism and I.M.F. Structural Adjustment Programs whose mainstay is the privatization of government subsidized social programs.  Free or government subsidized health, education and housing programs are privatized.

For the world majority poor conditions remain stagnant or worsen.  According to, “3 billion people live on less than $2 per day while 1.3 billion get by on less than $1 per day”.  In Africa, a Human Development Report through the office of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) indicates that close to half of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population “some 313 million people – survive on less than $1 day [and] poverty incidence today is roughly the same as in 1990”. The report also states that it is in only in Sub-Africa where the number of infant mortality, a staggering 4.8 million each year, is on the rise.

In here then is the problem which comes to a head first in Latin America and which in Africa is reaching a boiling point.  On the one hand a Western democracy that promises checks and balances of the Executive Branch, Judiciary and Legislature but without the content that would make democracy meaningful.  In effect the end result is a façade with the three pillars of democracy rising out of growing seas of poverty.   Forgotten is that democracy is desirable only if it can deliver what it promises.  For the poor freedom ought to bring with it better housing, health, education and the promise that one’s children will have a better life.  But in effect this democracy becomes one that preaches freedom while in real day to day living terms increases suffering.  It is this contradiction that fuels the move toward the left in Latin America.
People Power and Democracy with Content
In Latin America this contradiction is best captured by fight for water.  The attempt to privatize water, a natural resource that as far as most people are concerned falls free from the sky comes to symbolize the New World Order and the myth of a global village.  If water rights can be sold off to the highest bidder and the village watering hole belong to a United Something Company, where it will stop?  Take Bolivia for example.  The Bechtel Corporation is granted a 40 year water right by the Hugo Banzer’s government.  Immediately Bechtel doubles the water rates for the already poor.  The poor take to streets; the government meets their protests with riot police in which lives are lost.  More protests and the government concedes defeat and the contract is cancelled.

In Bolivia and other Latin American countries, people have learned that People Power (first used successfully in the Philippines against Ferdinand Marcos) can be a fourth pillar in the triad of the executive, legislature and judiciary.  In fact, it can even change governments.  Before Evo Morales, there is Hugo Chavez of Venezuela who with popular support in 1998 leads the Fifth Republic Party into power. In 2002, Néstor Carlos Kirchner in Argentina, following a devastating economic collapse, comes into power. In Chile, Michelle Bachelet, described as either a socialist or center-left in January, 2006 was elected. What unites all these leaders, in spite of a difference in ideologies and their own set of contradictions is a common platform that is opposed to the excesses of neo-liberal policies, global capitalism and dependency on the World Bank and IMF.  And they are People Power leaders.

Africa seems to be moving in the same direction.  In South Africa movements against the privatization of water and public services or what they term as ‘neo-apartheid’ are on the rise.  In Nigeria, the excesses of oil companies are being opposed in the Delta region.  In Kenya, when the government closed down a national paper, The Standard, earlier this year citing a national security threat, thousands of people took to the streets.  The paper was running the following day.   The World Social Forum (a powerful anti-globalization forum) held its 2006 annual meeting in Bamako, Mali as well as in Caracas, Venuzulea.  In 2007, it will be meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.  It is not difficult to project that as the contradiction of a democracy without content becomes more pronounced, grass root organizations will field their own candidates or support those candidates that share a similar platform as the People Power leaders of Latin America.
It should be noted that Africa is also registering protest against the New World Order by “Looking East”.  China has growing trade and military relations with countries across the African alphabet – Angola to Zimbabwe with South Africa as its largest trading partner on the continent.  In April 2006, China reached an oil deal with Nigeria and in early May signed an oil exploration deal with Kenya.  The West can no longer assume a monopoly that goes unchallenged.  But “Looking East” is also problematic.  China as it is now understood is a country with a communist head and a capitalist body- and it is hungry.  “Third worldism’, an ideology of comradeship that tied China to Africa in the past no longer holds today.  As cheaper Chinese goods are imported, what is happening to local African industries?  Will an asphyxiating Chinese bear hug replace Russian and Western bear hugs?  Is Africa simply trading one master for another?
The question of whether People Power can be sustained for a long period of time remains.  Popular energy cannot be sustained.  People coalesce around an immediate threat and disperse when the threat seems to have subsided.  As global capitalism learns to make concessions People Power will loose momentum.  There is also an impressive array of forces against People Power: Local and international business interests, a hostile local and international media and a Washington that seeks to undermine these new leaders.  African countries that model themselves along Latin American lines can expect to face the same forces of opposition.  Unless South Africa, Nigeria and other wealthy African countries are in a position to play the same role as Venezuela of supporting other People Power governments, longetivity will be out of the question.

There are two things however that might suggest otherwise: changes that benefit the people once made are difficult to reverse.  The economic, social and political gains in Latin America also serve to protect the governments in power.  In Latin America there is an axis of mutual support where rich oil Venezuela can bail out a cash strapped Argentina when need arises thereby cutting out the Western aid which comes with anti-people conditions.  This means that an example of alternative approaches to change is there for all to see and emulate and African People Power leaders can look to Latin America for support.  Previously only a Cuba under siege was willing to play this role but now there are more avenues of support.

Secondly there is the historical connection between Africa and Latin America that goes way back to the days of slavery and today there are large populations of Latin African Americans.  As democratic spaces open in Latin America and racism against Afro-Latinos lifts up, they will demand foreign policies that are cognizant of this historical relationship.

Addressing the Caracas World Social Forum earlier this year, Hugo Chavez said that “We [Latin Americans] carry Africa inside us, Africa is part of us, Latin Caribbean America cannot be understood without Africa and the sacrifice of Africa and the grandeur of Africa, brother continent, brother people”.   For African political activists, recognizing that they are locked in the same struggle as their Latin American counterparts is really a question of mutual survival.  As more People Power governments come into existence, the likelihood of their survival into the future will also increase. In a sense then, People Power governments are here to stay as long the people will it.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of Hurling Words at Consciousness (Africa World Press) and Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change (KPH).   Mukoma is also a columnist for the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine.  A shorter version of this article first appeared in the July- September 2006 issue of the magazine. 

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