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This is how chess is played: Latin American politics beyond borders

One of the various consequences of the 1973 oil crisis is that it was the moment that is generally chosen as a watershed and from which internationalization, interdependence, globalization, or whatever we want to call it, appears as an inescapable element for economic and social analysis.

In Transnational Relations and World Politics: An Introduction, Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye defined this then-novel model of action as transnational. The international arena no longer belonged exclusively to the state or governmental world, and other actors began to play a leading role with accepted legitimacy.

The economy was the fastest to adapt to this “new world” and, in the 1970s, it was embodied in what were called transnational corporations. Interestingly, transnationalism was also a common practice among radical and armed leftist groups. These skillfully used informal networks as a way of carrying out their revolutionary plans. Without fixed geographical bases, they managed to thread links between different groups and places on an intercontinental map whose nodes, among others, were Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization, Kadafi’s Libya, and the Castro dictatorship in Cuba.

Networks and actors

Transnational activity was spreading beyond the left. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it became the dominant trend in globalized politics. The boomerang effect, so well defined by Margaret Keck and Katherine Sikkink in the book Activists without Borders, was the democratization of national actors’ access to the international arena. Thus, it did not matter how small, isolated, or disempowered they were. Any group could appeal to the world for resources or to put limits on states that persecuted them.

But changes were also observed in society, not only in the transformations undergone by some sectors, for example, in the reduction in the number of traditional workers and the increase in the number of workers linked to the service sector. It was also observed in the fragmentation of a policy that was beginning to show the diversification of social demands. These included the environment, feminism, anti-nuclear issues, or demands for more freedoms in the face of the advance of the heavy and bureaucratized European states.

Networks across borders gave renewed life to the associative world. Non-state or para-state actors and groups also found a comfortable place in this new terrain: organized crime, financial networks, the media. Other phenomena that soon became recurrent and did not respect national borders were forced migrations, pandemics, or climatic disasters. 

The globalizing phenomenon took shape as a national state crisis, which began to see their capacity to intervene in and regulate a market that was no longer exclusively national and took on a different magnitude in terms of its logistical, organizational and resource management scale.

The national becomes international

Simply put, the formula for success that had been built since the Second World War, the welfare state, was beginning to have serious problems remaining sustainable and its political and intellectual legitimacy was wavering with it. Other demands were growing in societies that the stale European social democracies could not even correctly characterize.

This framed the well-known crisis of representation (which, updated and augmented, continues until now) that reflected the growing social discontent with a nationalized political system that could no longer provide answers to the problems, the challenges that had a global character.

For politicians, activists, and all those who understood political action beyond theoretical reflection, this also translated into a challenge that required innovative responses that transcended national borders, but for which there were precedents. And this challenged the political world, regardless of whether the protagonists occupied central positions in states and governments or were part of small-party or non-governmental organizations. 

In the document The world is not enough. Networks of politicians and struggles for democracy in Latin America, published by Diálogo Político and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, I presented an investigation that attempts to order and make strategic sense of the current world of transnational political activism.

To this end, I emphasized three types of strategy: international governmental networks, informal politics, and transnational politics. The latter, in turn, I divided into transnational activist networks and partisan political networks across borders.

The aforementioned work also started from a cross-cutting hypothesis that made sense of the tense and conflictive map of Latin American politics. Current political transnationalism has been translated with a new meaning by leaders and movements, especially those belonging to the so-called pink tide, 21st century left, new Latin American left or populist left, and their successors. And that meaning has become dominant.

Beyond borders

This wave of activism and transnational politics was very well exploited by those who adhere to authoritarian, illiberal, and even anti-democratic projects. It emptied the internationalist movement of its traditional liberal influence based on ideas of cosmopolitanism or the internationalization of democracy. The São Paulo Forum, Clacso and the riots organized to delegitimize non-left governments in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are just a few examples of an equation that is much more coordinated than it appears.

This new transnational phenomenon is sustained by a catch-all discourse, hegemonically enunciated from the political, academic, and cultural world, and which combines contemporary and 20th-century elements with the patriarchal tradition, widely present in the political history of the region. To this are added elements from the classic socialist discourse propagated by one of the most important and traditional nodes of the network, Cuba.

This model of regional nationalism as the basis for a renewed national political activism takes up some classic issues in this type of movement: an agonal view of politics, anti-liberal ideas, and an anti-imperialist, but at the same time conservative, narrative. However, the research also shows a renewed transnational activity of political parties, in a range that goes far beyond the universe of the left.

Possibly, the most important (and optimistic) result of the text published by Diálogo Político is that Transnational Party Organizations (TPOs), despite not being popularly recognized, have grown significantly. They can become a very useful tool both to confront the demands of societies dissatisfied with national politics and as a hope for confronting the authoritarian discourses of the left and right that are strengthening in Latin America today.

*This text was originally published in Diálogo Político.

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.


Otros artículos del autor

Coordinador del Grupo de Estudios de Asia y América Latina del Instituto de Estudios de América Latina y el Caribe de la Universidad de Buenos Aires. Doctor en Procesos Políticos Contemporáneos por la Universidad de Salamanca.


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