The crisis and its challenges in Europe and South America – Part One

18.10.2014 - Anna Polo

This post is also available in: Spanish, Italian

The crisis and its challenges in Europe and South America – Part One

Viewed from Europe, the crisis seems global and the future bleak, but at world level: are things really that way? Are there countries or even continents living in a different situation, with certain optimism, offering alternative experiences, views and reasons for hope? South America could be the case in this sense.

We talked about this issue with Guillermo Sullings, economist for the Argentine Humanist Party and Tomás Hirsch, humanist spokesperson and vice president of the Humanist Party of Chile (pictured, at the Park of Study and Reflection Punta de Vacas, Argentina), whose responses will be published in the second part of this interview.

In your opinion, is the widespread perception in Europe of a global crisis is correct, or in South America the situation is perceived differently and processes are encouraging?

Guillermo Sullings: Speaking of the economy, certainly the international financial crisis that erupted in 2008 had a global impact, due to the relative weight in the world of the economies of USA and Europe.
But in the case of South America that impact has been relatively minor, thanks to the economic policies that some of its governments have been carrying out. Our region had already suffered in the 90’s the consequences of neoliberalism, with high unemployment, debt and destruction of domestic industries; then the populations at the beginning of the last decade, began to support with their vote more progressive governments. We could say that the common denominator in these governments has been a genuine concern for improving the quality of life of their populations and greater independence from the centres of international power. Each country has had very different experiences, depending on their idiosyncrasies, their resources and constraints. Economic policies have been quite eclectic and unorthodox, taking elements of socialism, cooperatives, Keynesianism and developmentalism and all living with neoliberal enclaves that could not be transformed.
But beyond the limitations and errors, the mere fact that governments are no longer puppets of economic powers meant a substantial improvement in the situation of the people. And what is encouraging in this process is that the people wanted change and rebelled against the only discourse of the neoliberal establishment installed in the public opinion through the media.
The challenge now is to take a leap forward, to avoid going back, because there are still segments of the population who believe in that neoliberal discourse, there are still strong powers seeking to condition governments and sometimes the mistakes and limitations of the current rulers could be used to influence the electorate.
Comparing the process in South America and Europe, taking into account the differences, and that despite the crisis the European economy is at a much higher level of development, I do think that the eurozone is too tied to orthodoxy and so it will be very difficult to recover the jobs lost. I hope the people there also rebel against the neoliberal discourse installed as the only truth.

Can you quote political, social and economic elements in several countries in South America, even those “dismissed” by the mainstream media, showing a different direction to the savage privatisation and abolition of rights towards which Europe is oriented?

GS: South America has always been known for having a large percentage of poverty and high inequality in income distribution but in recent years there has been considerable progress in reducing both indicators, through job creation and the implementation of social policies. Brazil in the last decade has reduced poverty by 35% by means of their social plans, complemented with urbanisation and universal education. In Argentina almost 6 million jobs were created since the 2001 crisis and the poorest are subsidised with the Universal Child Allowance. In Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia much of the oil and gas income is applied to meet the needs of the population.
Many of the strategic resources that had previously been privatised were recovered by the State in several countries in the region, as well as service companies. The state regained its true role in regard to protecting the interests of the population; that State certainly has a lot to improve, increasing efficiency, decreasing corruption and deepening the remaining structural transformations. I think it would be a mistake to identify the changes in South America with certain political leaders, which incidentally can also be challenged in many ways; I think what we have to highlight is the intention to change shown by these societies.
And I mean not only political and economic aspects, because there has been progress also in terms of civil rights for minorities, and much worked has been done in regard to public health and education.

The insistence of the media about the brutal violence in the Middle East and other parts of the world creates in ordinary people a sense of horror and helplessness and encourages support for the bombings and military interventions, presented as the only solution. Does the greater geographical distance from South America regarding the scenarios of many conflicts allow a different attitude?

GS: I think that much of the population of the region have a more critical view regarding the policies of the USA and NATO on the Middle East; but not through the perspective of distance, but because the story presented by large international media on these conflicts is looked at with suspicion and the Hollywood-like version featuring USA as the great international protector of justice is not believed.
Of course ISIS’ criminal cruelty awakens widespread reactions and condemnation as well as a feeling that something should be done for that to stop happening, but also there is no trust in foreign military interventions, because we know they are the same that created the conditions for the emergence of groups that fight today. The same happens with respect to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis; on the one hand the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, which generated the deaths of thousands of people, including many children, are repudiated, but the responsibility of Hamas’ intransigence is also acknowledged.
I would say there are varied positions on these issues in South America, perhaps thanks to the many tunes that are heard rather than a single account of the mainstream media. There are those who will believe that story and still think that NATO forces are the saviours of humanity against the threat of the villains, who are now Muslims, as once were the Communists. There are those who are placed at the other end and believe that everything that goes against the USA is good and sometimes support, or at least look furtively, the existence of true criminally bloody dictatorships or terrorist groups. And there are those who understand that these are complex problems that cannot have a single perspective. But of course, there is more diversity of opinions.

Do you see any progress in South America at legislative level to deal with the problem of concentration of the media and manipulation carried out by them, promoting instead free and plural information?

GS: In South America there has been a very noticeable reaction of the media attacking the policies of several progressive governments in the region. Personally I have observed, both in Argentina where I live, as in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador when I happened to be there, the assaults, sometimes grotesque, sometimes subtle, of the media whilst presenting themselves as “independent”. Media manipulation has been so evident and the links of the media with economic powers have been so obvious that much of the population has realised their machinations. Unfortunately another part of the population believe or want to believe in the media’s story and then the polarisation of opinion has led in some cases to real divisions in society, which in some cases have reached the heart of the family. But, contrary to what the media narrative seeks to establish, the social division has not been encouraged by governments, but precisely by the mainstream media. On the one hand it is unfortunate that this has been going on, because it gets so difficult to advance in divided societies, but then it is positive that the mask has fallen from a media supposedly independent and objective, and their true interests associated with economic power have became clear.
Against this various measures have been taken by governments, with varying results; in some cases they tried to punish the lies and media manipulation but, while this was justified, it sometimes generated the opposite effect, since the media presented themselves as victimised, and appealed to the international media to show a repressive and intolerant image of the rulers. In the particular case of Argentina, five years ago the antitrust Media Law was passed, which was obviously very resisted by the monopoly of Clarin Group, to this day still using  legal resources to delay the practical application of the law. The issue is complex, because against the power of the private media, governments may react sometimes with direct measures (which are presented as repressive) and sometimes with the empowerment of the public media, which obviously show a reality as biased as that of private media, only in reverse. But at least you begin to hear different tunes and this encourages a diversity of opinions.
I think our region has managed to break the exclusive account of the private media and no longer believes in their independence of opinion; but much remains to be done to ensure that all voices are heard, because unfortunately the spread any opinion may achieve depends on the resources and the resources to produce significant media are today only with the States or the economic groups.

Do you see progress in the inclusion of indigenous peoples, equal rights, gender equality, the elimination of extreme poverty and illiteracy which characterised for many decades the southern regions of the world?

GS: Certainly there have been great advances especially in countries where the population has a majority of indigenous peoples, such as in Bolivia and Ecuador. And of course when we talk about generalised improvements in the living conditions of the population and poverty reduction, this includes also indigenous peoples, which have always belonged to the most disadvantaged population group.
However, not all governments in the region have focused on this issue in the same way, including progressive governments. In some cases, although economic growth has coincided with improved income distribution, we must also say that many times that growth has been based on extractive commodities and this not only threatens the ecosystem, but it has also often generated conflicts with indigenous peoples who saw their land rights trampled. In these cases, sometimes the interests of these native peoples have prevailed, but in other cases the interests of the operators of the resources have been dominant, or simply the need for governments to exploit those resources to obtain hard currency. The issue is complex, because societies are complex and cannot automatically consider all claims by indigenous people to be fair by definition; but the fact is, as we said before, that the progressive governments of this region still have several unsolved issues and a growth model based on consumerism is one of them. But yes, we can roughly say that South America has come a long way in relation to the rights of indigenous peoples.
And with regard to the rights of minorities in general, I think it has advanced; particularly Argentina, which is where I happen to live, has legislated a lot and well with respect to gender equality, sexual diversity and against discrimination. The recent approval of the gay marriage law, which allows rights and even same sex marriage, places our society on the vanguard in that issue.
With regard to extreme poverty and illiteracy, much has been advanced also, with specific plans and campaigns to reduce these rates dramatically. However, as a last personal reflection, I think, with respect to poverty, it is good that the progressive governments work to subsidise the less fortunate, but the next step should be to work towards achieving that the development of the economy itself manages to include the excluded and this requires a deep reformulation of the capitalist economic system rather than just offsetting its negative effects.

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