WHe He Thomas More published the satirical novel Utopia in 1516, but he was careful not to provide an exact location for his imaginary island and its perfect society. But readers were told it was located off the coast of Brazil. This is no coincidence.
The idea of utopia may be universal, but it has had a special connection to Latin America since Columbus and Europe’s encounter with America (which happened shortly before More wrote). This was nourished by the myths of El Dorado and the Amazon; by the stories of the astonishing civilizations of ancient Mexico and the Incas; A blank slate on which any item can be inscribed. “We cling to Utopia because we were built as Utopia, because the memory of a good society exists both at our origins and at the end of the road as the fulfillment of our hopes,” as Mexican novelist Carlos Fuen Carlos Fuentes said and wrote.
This trend continues in Latin American politics to this day. The utopian impulse is to “rebuild” rather than reform the country, manifesting itself in new constitutions or the disqualification of political opponents. It often works against the more modest but achievable goals of good government and steady progress.
Take, for example, the proposed new constitution presented in Chile this month. It has 110 articles in the chapter “Fundamental Rights and Guarantees” and is a detailed blueprint of an ideal society in which no one is discriminated against and everyone is equal, though some more than others. It guarantees the right of every individual to, inter alia, “neurodiversity”, “free development” of “personality, identity and life project”, and “leisure, rest and enjoyment of free time”. It also requires States to promote and guarantee “harmonious interrelationships and respect for all symbolic, cultural and heritage expressions”. Although these wishes are hopeless, they are often contradictory and highly unlikely to be fulfilled.
Or take Colombia’s newly elected president, Gustavo Petro. Not only did he initially propose a ban on all new oil, gas and mineral exploration in a country that relies on mining and oil for more than half of its exports, but he also promised that the state would provide 11 percent of its workforce People who have lost their jobs (which his designated treasury secretary says won’t happen). Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised not just monotonous policies and administration, but a “fourth transformation,” akin to his country’s independence or 1910-17 years of revolution. And outsiders, from Butch Cassidy, the American train robber who died in Bolivia, to a group of German anti-vaccinators who founded a commune in the wilds of Paraguay during the pandemic, continue to see Latin America as a place to chase their dreams, undisturbed by laws or restrictions.
The problem with this quest for utopia is that it coexists with generally bad government. This may not be a coincidence. As Colombian essayist Carlos Granés explained in Delirio Americano, a monumental exploration of 20th-century Latin American culture and politics published earlier this year, intellectuals in the region were increasingly interested in nationalism and Revolutionary utopian fetishes lead them to disdain liberal democracy and embrace authoritarian leaders of the right or left. These impulses have intensified into Latin America’s political imprint. “What place will Latin America have in the Grand League of Nations if we abandon utopia and revolution?” Mr Granes asked. Their adoration reached its peak with the emergence of Che Guevara, Liberation Theology, and Deputy Commander Marcos and his Zapatista National Liberation Army, each through guerrilla warfare against imperialism, the advancement of the poor, and what Granes calls ” Revolution “to make an example of sacrifice and redemption as performance art”.
The longing for utopia was a response to the injustice and inequality in Latin American society. But this can make these problems worse. Utopias can easily slide into dystopias of poverty and police states, like Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua, and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Even if it doesn’t, it can lead to frustration and reactions, which may be Chile’s fate.
It is far better for Latin American politicians to be honest with their people about possible limitations and to pursue a path of steady progress than to seek paradise.
Read more from our Latin America columnist Bello:
Migrant flows in the Americas are changing (July 14)
Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest Gets More Dangerous (July 9)
Ecuador’s president sees little hope of implementing reforms (June 16)