Latin America

Learning from Latin America: Part 1. The State

By Cygnus

The function of Scottish independence, for those on the Left campaigning in favour, is one of societal revival. Scottish society can enter the 21st century only after the sweeping away of anachronistic British structures – stemming from London – that nurture elitism and stifle democracy. We are now turning towards different societies, looking for positive ideas (policies, laws, etc.), and doing the right thing by stealing them. The most commonly occurring examples cited appear to be practices and policies from the Nordic countries. These ideas are promoted by Scottish think-tanks, Common Weal and Nordic Horizons, with the former being most prominent in terms of reference in pro-independence circles (although it has no formal position on the referendum). ‘All of us first’ are the words of the moment by Common Weal, an attempt to capture opposition to inequality in a slogan. The excitement about building our own version of a Nordic Utopia – as some have sardonically called these countries – has manifested itself in the rhetoric of some active in the Radical Independence Campaign. A couple of questions arise at this point.

Firstly, what is it that people identifying as ‘socialists’ find so covetable about Nordic countries?

It is demonstrable that these countries are more equal and more democratic, with better healthcare, better pensions and better wages. These conditions are said to be achieved by inclusive democratic structures, nationalised services, and a peaceful foreign policy. No doubt hailing the Nordic approach as the paragon of civilisation is a result of living under the British system, where aggressive individualism is rewarded and those weakest in society are punished for the crime of being disadvantaged. The Nordic approach is merely social democracy – the filing down of the sharp, rusty edges of neoliberalism to maintain the structures of cuddly capitalism. This is not radical by any measure. In fact, the trend in Sweden[i] and Norway[ii] is towards privatisation of public services and state-owned companies.

Secondly, why are some on the Scottish left obsessing over Nordic countries when there are more socially-oriented countries they can turn to?

Is it because Scandinavians are more ‘like us’? They also speak a Germanic language. They are also white. They are quite close to us geographically. However, there are examples further afield which are radical and which can be feasibly applied to an independent Scotland. Starting around fifteen years ago, some Latin American countries have been transforming their societies not only politically and economically, but addressing deep social issues of sex and gender in a positive and meaningful way, and prioritising social needs, not capital accumulation. Strangely, they have largely been ignored in favour of the people to our north-east.

After the election of Rafael Correa as Ecuadorean president in 2007, a Constituent Assembly was formed to write a new constitution. The assembly gained approval by 80% of the electorate, and the constitution was approved almost two-thirds of voters. Enacted in 2008, this constitution[iii] – by international standards – is uniquely progressive in that it addresses the fundamental human rights and needs of citizens.

Article 11 recognises the fundamental right to gender identity and sexual orientation. Ecuador is the first state to do this. Article 281 guarantees the right to food: “Food sovereignty is a strategic objective and an obligation of the state in order to ensure that persons, communities, peoples and nations achieve self-sufficiency with respect to healthy and culturally appropriate food on a permanent basis.” The state has fourteen administrative, economic and bureaucratic obligations pertinent to this article. Again, this is a world first in terms of rights. Articles 71-4 address the rights of nature: nature has “the right to be restored” and the state is obliged to restrict or prevent “activities that might lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of ecosystems and the permanent alteration of natural cycles.” Like the previous two, this section of the constitution is globally unprecedented. That the environment can be constitutionally protected is particularly salient to Scotland, considering the recent razing of areas of Special Scientific Interest in Aberdeenshire by the avaricious Donald Trump, enabled by the Scottish government.[iv]

Similar to the Ecuadorean experience, only ten years earlier, Venezuela elected Hugo Chávez who subsequently made provision for a Constitutional Assembly to be voted on. The constitution was approved by the electorate in 1999 with an over two-thirds majority. The Venezuelan constitution has been described as “non-androcentric”. In terms of language, it uses both the Spanish masculine and feminine noun-classes – something lacking in all constitutions up until 1999. It incorporates the definition of discrimination by the UN ‘Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women’. In a more concrete move towards equality of the sexes, women working in the home are entitled to receive payment by the state for this, since their labour is recognised as an economic activity. Economic rights in the Bolivarian constitution are geared in the interests of working people: “every worker has the right to a sufficient salary that allows a life with dignity and covers his own and his* family’s basic material, social and intellectual activities.” In addition, the state is obliged to promote and protect economic democracy, like cooperatives. The right to healthcare is also enshrined in the constitution: “health is a fundamental social right, an obligation of the state, which guarantees it as part of the right to life.”[v]

Both the Ecuadorean and Venezuelan constitutions clearly seek to ensure not only the protection of political rights and freedoms, but to engender a social and economic environment that is conducive to the advancement of individual and community health and wellbeing. The medium- and long-term result of such rights being implemented is that people with their fundamental needs secured can then concentrate on political participation and activity. In turn, then, social change can be harnessed by the working class in a direct way, since they are no longer burdened with daily hardships as before.

Bolivia has been engaging in land reform for years, but the redistribution of land has been accelerated by president Evo Morales since his election in 2006. Land ownership has been shifted from the wealthy to indigenous communities and poor farmers. While the landed classes still own vast amount of land, peasant and indigenous organisations now collectively control one-third of regularised land. Of titled land, peasant and indigenous communities now hold over 55%. The government has acquired (by some estimates) 25 million acres from individuals or businesses that did not use land productively or could not show legal rights to the land they claimed.[vi] Guided by correcting historical injustices and challenging privilege, Bolivia is making those in genuine need the beneficiaries of land use. By contrast, the Scottish government’s Land Reform Review Group recently proposed that there should be an upper limit on the amount of land held by private owners, and advocated an increase in community land ownership.[vii] This is a disappointingly insipid solution to a country which has the highest concentration of land ownership in the developed world, with 432 individuals owning 50% of the land. Scotland only abolished feudal property rights ten years ago.

The only example of lessons in democracy from Latin America which is popular with the Nordicists is that of Porto Alegre. In 1989, the Brazilian city decided that measures had to be taken to combat corruption and wasting of resources. The participative budget was the solution offered: the population would decide on budget expenditure, priorities and development plans. The working class and middle class, leftists and rightists, were invited to talk civilly in an economic forum. This has been lauded as a victory for democracy. Proponents point to results: sewerage systems, drinking water access and paved roads have been installed in poor areas that previously had none.[viii] It’s unsurprising that those favouring the Nordic model are attracted to this scheme – it allows the middle class to retain their position of luxury while the working class must negotiate their way out of poverty. This does reinforce the idea that advocates of Nordic-style democracy have bourgeois interests, contrasting with recent programmes and policies in Venezuela, for example, which are largely working class.

While the radical changes in Latin American countries tend to be highly state-centric and top-down, this is quite a logical step, given the history of US invasions, military dictatorships and systemic human rights violations. The concern with having a state that guarantees rights and can promote and defend working-class interests is an obvious priority. However, there are positive trends that indicate communities are taking control, without state coercion (explored in part 2). In the discussion of the need for Scotland to radically change, there are two flaws in choosing the Nordic model. The first is that Scotland has a large working class population, and a prominent working class political culture. The Nordic approach accepts that governance should remain in the hands of the bourgeois; working class empowerment is not an option. The second is that Scandinavian countries began their social democratic projects in the early- or mid-20th century (depending on which country you are talking about) – before the globalisation of neoliberal capitalism. Capital must deepen and expand, which is why even Norway is now submitting to the logic of the market; social democracy can only slow down capitalism, not stop it. The Bolivarian movements began as a direct challenge to neoliberalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with the focus on tearing down the economic structures that exploited those poorest in society, to the benefit of the wealthy. Those in favour of independence and calling themselves a ‘socialist’ of any stripe must to turn to Latin America for ideas. With a housing crisis, food bank use rising, concern for the future of NHS, urgent land reform needed – all amid recession and austerity – the lessons we can learn from Latin America are far more instructive and relevant than those from the Nordic countries.






* Assuming this gender specific language is in the English version of the constitution only