BOOK REVIEW / A continent of revolutionary hits and myths: 'Political Suicide in Latin America' - James Dunkerley: Verso, 12.99 pounds

Nick Caistor
Monday 31 August 1992 23:02

FOR MANY years, Latin America and revolution seemed synonymous. In 1959 Cuba, in the late Sixties Chile, in 1979 Nicaragua: whatever was happening elsewhere in the world, the small countries of this dependent subcontinent seemed to be constantly experimenting with different - often violent - ways of asserting their own identities.

James Dunkerley has followed these experiments closely. He began his career writing about Bolivia, one of the poorest of all Latin American countries. The oppression and political instability in that country - with almost 200 coups d'etat in 150 years of independence from Spain - also attracted Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, who thought it was the place ripest for revolution after Castro's success in Cuba. Guevara got it wrong, and perished miserably in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967. Nothing quite so dramatic happened to Dunkerley, but his book on Bolivia, Rebellion in the Veins, showed that he, too, was convinced the unions in the state-run mining industries would spearhead a revolution, and inspire the rest of the continent.

As it turned out, by the late Eighties Bolivia was converted to neo-liberalism, following Chile down an economic road that owed everything to Hayek, the Chicago School and even Mrs Thatcher. Civilian governments have dismantled the power of the unions, Bolivia has become a model of economic responsibility on the international scene, and there have been no more coups.

The essays in Dunkerley's new book show that he, like much of the left, is trying to find ways of coming to terms with this kind of change. The need to deal with what for him are unpalatable developments helps bring out new lines of thought and interpretation, which greatly enrich the book. In the final essay, he returns to contemporary Bolivia, and is far more sober in his evaluation of how its society evolves. He notes that the neo-liberal revolution is no panacea, given that the majority of the population scarcely benefits from the stability it has brought. He also explains how drug money and other hidden forces are key ingredients in the vaunted recent successes of Latin American economies, arguing that this makes it impossible to speak of democracy in the region, even of the palest liberal kind. And one of the palest liberals he can find is Mario Vargas Llosa, whom he attacks in another essay not only for dabbling in politics and then pulling out when not immediately successful, but also for using politics mendaciously in his books, to present a dangerously distorted view of events in Peru.

Given the pattern of change throughout Latin America, it is perhaps fitting that Dunkerley's book is chiefly concerned with 'political suicide'. A brilliant essay on how and why the Sandinistas lost power in Nicaragua after a decade of revolution examines one kind of self-destruction, from which Dunkerley draws lessons that are relevant for everyone. More interesting still is his consideration of individuals in Latin America who have found the struggle to impose their political ideas and beliefs too hard, and have chosen ways out that inevitably leave huge question marks over the significance of their achievements.

The most notorious recent case of this kind of political suicide is that of President Salvador Allende in Chile. Dunkerley accepts what is still anathema to many people - that Allende probably did kill himself when attacked in his presidential palace by rebel troops commanded by General Pinochet. It became part of Chilean resistance dogma that he had been shot defending his constitutional revolution to the last. The merit of Dunkerley's essay, and of his book as a whole, is to show that there is room for a more dispassionate view of the political upheavals of the past 20 years of Latin American history; and that this careful sifting can provide a surer basis for future debate and action than cherished but misguided myths.

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