El Cambio: Latin America’s "Change," and Ours

You’re focused on living standards. We’re focused on well-being. That’s the difference between the indigenous vision and the modern Western vision.

Bolivia’s Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, in conversation with Thomas Ponniah

Evo Morales, the provocative “populist” president of Bolivia, is coming to Brown at the end of February, a visit of some moment: the first US campus stop by the first Latin American leader of “indigenous” stock and identity. A two-day conference at the Watson Institute this week on Changes in the Andes (emphasis on Venezula and Ecuador as well as Bolivia) is the start of our Open Source cramming and cranking regimen on “el cambio.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Sujatha Fernandes and Thomas Ponniah here (18 minutes, 8 mb mp3)


Sujatha Fernandes

Here’s the key note so far: get Hugo Chavez out of your head, or your craw. Set aside “petro-nationalism.” Discount most of the routine labels about “left-wing” and “populist” politics. Think: culture… from low-power community-radio conversation to El Sistema, the mass education of young symphony players in Venezuela over the past 30 years — now crowned in the global glory of Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.

Think: indigenous… and focus not so much the political empowerment finally of the suppressed majority in the Andes; listen rather for the implications of a pre-Columban consciousness that is surely different from our own with respect to health and science, God and nature, the experience and meaning of life.


Thomas Ponniah

Different but maybe not that different. This first conversation in a series approaching the Morales Moment at Brown engages two young scholars who’ve exercised what Simon Schama calls “the archives of the feet” around Latin America. Sujatha Fernandes is a sociologist at the City University of New York, who cut her teeth on the contemporary pop cultures of Cuba. Thomas Ponniah lectures at Harvard on globalization. It was Dr. Ponniah who stopped me short with the thought that perhaps the first way to begin thinking about the “change” in Latin America is to consider the dominant word in the 2008 presidential campaign all around us. In the States, he observed, “the meaning of ‘change’ is that after seven years of cynicism, the public wants renewal… In Latin America, it takes on the totality of the human experience.”

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  • I have a question: What relevance does “the movement” in the Andes have when considered within the context of the pre-Columbian, indigenous prophesies concerning the significance of the year 2012?

    For an intriguing, extensive discussion of this subject, The Mystery of 2012, Predictions, Prophecies & Possibilities (2007 by Sounds True), featuring a collection of essays by several authorities in various disciplines is a good place to start.

    One interesting question to begin with: How did the Maya (and perhaps even the Olmecs and Toltecs) make their determination regarding the age of the universe (16.4 billion years)? How could a culture lacking the benefits of modern technology arrive at essential the same determination as contemporary Western science? Another interesting questions: Why did the Pope, upon learning of their calendar (in the report from Cortez), order its destruction?

  • To what degree is possible that what we are observing as “the movement” is a manifestation of a fundamental, radical transformation at the level of collective consciousness? Is it possible that the manifestation of this transformation is most readily observed, most pronounced, at the level of “indigenous people” because they are less occupied by the requirements of “maintaining” their materiality and more in tune with the current of change?

    Isn’t this pretty much what Marx suggested would be the outcome of capitalism? Now I’m no expert on Marx, but wasn’t his vision concerned with the consequences of capitalism? If my understanding is correct, Marx anticipated that capitalism would lead to the progressive concentration of capital in the hands of fewer and fewer people, and that eventually this inequity would produce conditions so intolerable, deplorable and undesirable, that the “disadvantaged” would revolt and a new system would emerge, a system governed my new values, a system concerned more with equity and well-being, than with advantage and return on investment? Is this what’s happening?

  • Zeke

    In the middle of an American presidential campaign, I strongly urge anyone to watch a film called Our Brand is Crisis about the Bolivian election. James Carville and a bunch of other Clinton (circa Bill) advisors travel to Bolivia and help Morales’ opponent defeat him (the first time). Pretty sobering stuff.

  • davidgura

    Evo Morales made his first appearance on an American college campus in 2006, at Columbia University. He, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, participated in the University’s ongoing World Leaders Forum. (Sorry for the correction, Chris).


    I had the good fortune to see Morales in Miller Theater, on Columbia’s campus in Morningside Heights, just hours after the Bolivian president produced a coca leaf from his jacket pocket during his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, just days after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared that the General Assembly Hall was redolent of sulfur.

    Eighteen months earlier, during a semester I spent in La Paz, Bolivia’s commercial capital, I watched in wonder as Aymara and Quechua protestors, galvanized by Morales’s populist rhetoric, blockaded roads with boulders and burning tires, marched en masse up curving streets to colonial plazas, and eventually brought about the resignation of Bolivian President Carlos Mesa.

    Morales’s political platform is difficult to pin down. (To call him a modern-day socialist is to oversimplify his philosophy). He draws material from Marxism, indigenous traditions, and common sense. To Morales and most Bolivians, the “Washington Consensus” economic policies, engineered by Ivy League academics in the 1980s, failed. And failed them. What Morales says, in broader terms, is that capitalism, as it has been implemented in most of South America, hasn’t benefitted most South Americans. For decades. For centuries.

    Most Bolivians, your guest said, are interested in “renewal.” I wish he’d defined the term. I’d argue that most Bolivians want education, healthcare, housing, work, and wider respect for indigenous cultures. Bolivians are a resilient people, amazingly optimistic. Morales, more so than any previous president, has instilled hope for political and social change in a bloc that was first subjugated, then marginalized.

  • davidgura

    As an addendum, Chris, it would be wonderful if you could score an interview with Morales, or at least provide a recording of his address at Brown. I think that my friends in the Open Source circle would be surprised, as I was, by his rhetoric. Although he doesn’t roar from the pulpit, Morales is a powerful orator. Unlike Chavez, he favors poetry over pomposity.

  • davidgura

    The other day, I went back and listened to “Latin America’s New Socialism” (01/03/2006), with Jeffrey Sachs, Miguel Centellas, and Jim Schultz. It would be great to check in with them again, two years later.

  • davidgura

    Last post for a while, I promise…. Sujatha Fernandes’s comments about community radio were fascinating. I thought of Daniel Alarcon’s wonderful novel, “Lost City Radio.” What about a show on the subject?

  • barberena

    The quote of Evo Morales being ”the first Latin American leader of “indigenous” stock and identity” is INCORRECT. It may be true for Bolivia but it is not for Latin America. In 1858/1861 Benito Juarez, Zapotec (amerindian), became president of Mexico (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benito_Juarez). That is just before or about the time Abraham Lincoln was elected president and when slavery was still legal in the USA. I think that it may be hard for the Anglo-Americans to think that 150 years before Obama, their undeveloped neighbors from the south had already a “minority” as President. I suggest a show about all the misconceptions that Anglo America has about Latin America.


  • chena

    I think the distinction without a difference that is supposed to matter is that Evo Morales’ claim to fame is that he’s the first democratically elected indigenous president. Even inside Bolivia this shallow claim is dismissed by the fact that Bolivia had several mestizo leaders before Morales.

    Of course, the fact that Alejandro Toledo was president of Peru from 2001-06 is conveniently forgotten. The fact Toledo was a shoe shine boy, that his father was a bricklayer and that his mother was a fishmonger somehow gets understood to mean that they were middle-class. Toledo grew up in a Quechua-speaking household. Not that this helped him in any way to be a better president, but he preceded Evo Morales to the claim of being the first 100 % indigenous president in contemporary times.

    A show about the prejudices Americans have about Latin America should include the fact that America’s apartheid laws were passed precisely to prevent the real ‘melting pot’ phenomenom that ocurred in Hispanic culture.