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Workshop of a New World Civilization?


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 20/2008, P. 223 f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Latin America is experiencing an unprecedented "Slip to the Left". But the leaders of States and governments that have come to power are rather oriented toward social democracy than socialism. The special political trend in the subcontinent against the neo-liberal trends of a mere economic globalization poses the question what that means regarding culture not only for the New but also for the Old World. The EU-Latin America Summit and the up to now longest foreign trip of the Federal Chancellor to Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Mexico let that recently somewhat forgotten area of the world anew become the focus of attention.


The students of 1968 ("Achtundsechziger"), of whom we are now reminded again on the occasion of the May revolts forty years ago, did not only want a transformation of our Western societies. They were looking for a world-wide revolutionary transformation of the cultures as well. They expected a kind of secular salvation history for the profane world history. At that time Latin America was regarded as model of hope, led by the small, rebellious sugar cane and cigar island of Cuba with a a self-willed Caribbean socialism under Fidel Castro. In the autumn of that patriarch, about half a century after the seizure of power in Havana, the dreams of paradise have long since fallen through. Many leftist intellectuals of Europe at the latest in the course of 1989 turned away from Latin America - if they not at once lost their pathetic belief in freedom, equality and fraternity and went over to neo-liberalism. Meanwhile we are - in fear and trembling - far more interested in the Islamic cultural area than in the Latin American. And when the prices of petrol rise to dizzying heights we anxiously look at where Beijing and Delhi skim off the market - and with it our ease of being.


The New Left

Latin America was for a long time removed from Europe's attention. That could now change to the extent to which "left-wing" governments conquer the southern part of the New World, quite against the suction of the disappointment with the socialist expectation for the near future (Naherwartung) in Central and Eastern Europe. While the leading nations place their hopes on an economic globalization without limits, in Latin America one begins - somewhat "out of season" - to raise again the social question. This is perhaps a late democratic fruit of the liberation theology, a Christian social enlightenment of the people.

The "Neue Zürcher Zeitung" (16.2.) however regards this development by no means as positive. It fears "the spectre of an ideology believed dead" suddenly awoke again. The author, Uwe Stolzmann, publicist, literary critic and experienced Latin America traveller sees it that way: "Since 1998 the region has really been overrun by a red wave. Coup at the polls. Presidents such as Tribune Hugo Chávez, the trade unionist 'Lula' in Brazil, coca farmer Evo Morales from Bolivia, the married couple Kirchner in Argentina, the Chilean Bachelet, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the Uruguayan Tabaré Vázquez, Alan García from Peru, old-Sandinist Daniel Ortega - they all call themselves "left-wingers" or are called so." Just now also the former Bishop Fernando Lugo as state president of Paraguay was added. What are we to expect of them? According to Stolzmann's assessment no good things. From country to country he itemizes the number of victims. It always began with revolutionary hopes. But the "good cause" in the name of a fairer system almost always ended in crimes. The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa is quoted, "You create hell, if you try to build a perfect society." And the author continues, "For the foreigner the region has something gloomy, a shocking and disturbing mystery; that continent with its proverbial culture of violence, with its periodic relapses into barbarism. 'Culture of violence'? - a sensitive and subtle paraphrase for terror and arbitrariness. The traveller is soon confused by the general admiration for merciless redeemers of any kind: dictators, generals and rebel leaders, perpetrators on behalf of a higher providence."

Indeed, in Latin America you come upon an often religiously or quasi-religiously biased sense of mission, a messianism now with, then without God. That began with the European conquest and colonization under Columbus, who wanted to establish a "new Jerusalem".


Motor of Cultural Globalization

The Argentine anthropologist and cultural historian Constantin von Barloewen assesses the messianism peculiar for Latin America basically as positive. In "Die Zeit" (30 April) he declares "the Latin American Hope" was topical. But you could not understand the current trends without the religious and cultural characteristics of that continent. The messianic movements were basically counter movements - first against a neo-feudalism "that only camouflaged itself as bourgeois-Western liberalism", and against the "principle of authority of 'Paternalismo'" which was concealed under modern masks. Thus through five centuries that modern age, Enlightenment, yes modernity, which Europe and eventually North America claimed for themselves, were withheld from Latin America.



The Latin American history is not just the history of decay and certainly not just the history of violence, but an attempt of a "metamorphosis of the utopian thinking." The experiment was "inspired by an, as it were, 'messianic surplus', a Creole, indigenous and pan-American dream". In the same year when Thomas More published his "Utopia" - 1516 - the "Father of the Indians" Bartolome de Las Casas described the Latin American Aborigines as people "in innocence and without greed", who were in contrast to the Europe of the Renaissance. Some believed that the messianic kingdom of peace for all mankind came from Latin America - including North America's conversion from materialism, hedonism, greed. Those utopias of social justice, which repeatedly failed, extended up to the theology of liberation. But has Latin America's "mission" itself failed with them?

Constantin von Barloewen's assessment differs from that of Stolzmann. The current turn to the left meant no relapse. On the contrary, it became clear "that the continent is looking for new answers to globalization - different from the answers of the capitalist-communist regime in China and also different from those of India, which has devoted itself to the Western concept of progress. For some critics the new political movements in Latin America stand out from the capitalist world society like an anachronism, but for others like a rock of hope. At least they seriously ask the question whether alternatives to neoliberalism are possible."

One observes with suspense whether in Latin America the awareness of a new modernity can develop, differing from that of Europe and North American, a modernity of its own type. One had tried for too long a time artificially to impose a heteronymous modernity upon the subcontinent. With it the potential difference of Native American Indian culture, African traditions and Spanish-Portuguese belief in being chosen has too often been ignored. "The Aztec, the Olmec, the Inca culture - they all are in their transcendental cosmology inconsistent with the modern Western technology. The secular understanding of history alone, which - with its physical-scientific world view in the centre - developed in Europe since the Renaissance, has no analogue in the colonial-Catholic culture of Latin America."

Unlike North America's pragmatic progress-oriented Protestantism of Calvinistic character, which believed that earthly success predestined to eternal salvation, the Catholicism of Latin America rather proved to be oriented towards tradition and with it connected itself with some Indian ideas of cycles of time about the return of the same things, according to which the future actually lies in the "restoration of the original past", in man's return to that archetype as which he was designed by God. Not the heaven before us but the heavenly archetype behind us is that platonically imagined place to which we return on our pilgrimage. There the paradisical Yesterday appears as the real Tomorrow, as the aim of our destination to the Divine. In that attitude for Latin America the modern age admittedly remained closed.

The great problem of Latin America's Catholicism, which for a long time was moulded in a colonial-authoritative way, Barloewen explains in this way: It could not bring that innovative thrust which the "Mediterranean Christianity of the classical antiquity achieved, which succeeded in the course of three centuries in changing and renewing the Greco-Roman world view". A real "spiritual conquest" and development of Latin America out of a modern, liberating spirit of Catholicism did not take place. The subcontinent nevertheless held awake its great yearning that it could turn away from a mere Eurocentrism "and formulate its own concept of reason, which admits intuition and empathy and overcomes the abstraction of the rational universalism."

Constantin von Barloewen continues to believe that Latin America due to its strong cultural mix has the potential to open cultural horizons to the globalization of European-North American moulding as well as to a materialistic-economic narrowness: "While the West with its gaze on the globe still lets itself be led by an anachronistic 'continental thinking', the global society increasingly changes into archipelagos, into a 'multiversum' in which the cultures get their identity not from one root, but from a 'network of roots'. The West just experiences how the claim to universality of its culture is questioned. Its monolithic thinking does no longer justice to the evolution of the world society, even when it is to be enforced with tanks." Instead it becomes increasingly clear that the universal reality needs the culturally specific one. "The Western claim to the monopoly of reason and to be the conscience of the world can no longer be maintained. The West will have to admit multiple modernities, also competing conceptions of progress, according to the competing cultural and religio-historical pre-conditions of modernity."

Rich experiences in history give Latin America an important reservoir of empathy. Barloewen is convinced of that. For centuries it has had to live from different cultural sources. The recent "Slip to the Left" is for the historian of civilisation another signal that the world does not tick the way we continental Europeans like to imagine it. Globalization too does not work just economically, and certainly not according to our interests alone. Perhaps Latin America proves to be the engine of a culturally advanced globalization. Constantin von Barloewen in any case does not want to write off this subcontinent of many hopeful attempts, for it could perfectly play "a compensatory role as workshop of the world in a "world civilization".


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'