“Woke” Politics Comes to Latin America
Amid recent electoral victories for the left, activists are adopting the rhetoric and tactics of progressives in the U.S
By Simón Ganitsky
In September 2020, members of the Misak indigenous community in Popayán toppled a statue of Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar, who founded that city in south-western Colombia in 1537. The Misak put Belalcázar on symbolic post-mortem trial and found him guilty of enslavement and genocide. The sentence was the removal of his monuments. Seven months later, in April 2021, the Misak toppled another statue of Belalcázar in nearby Cali as part of a recent wave of protests against Colombian President Iván Duque. These protests also led to the removal of statues of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (the conquistador who founded Bogotá), of Christopher Columbus, and of the Catholic Monarch of Spain, Isabella, who sponsored Columbus’s trips.
Though the “national strike” (as the recent protests are known) included indigenous groups like the Misak, its original organizers were unions, students, and other non-indigenous activists on the left. By legitimizing the attacks against the representations of conquistadors, explorers, monarchs, and presidents, and by portraying the struggle of the oppressed indigenous peoples as theirs, the students and activists behind the recent protests have sought to retain the moral high ground in their opposition to Duque’s right-wing government.
Theories of oppression have been common currency in Latin American politics and universities for over half a century, in light of the region’s history of colonialism. One finds a classic formulation of them in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the 1968 treatise on education by Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire. The book portrays traditional education as an oppressive practice in which students are depositories of the knowledge imparted by teachers. Freire proposes an alternative “dialogic model,” in which students will be able to understand their condition of oppression, and liberate themselves and everyone else.
A vision of the world like Freire’s has informed Latin American political thought for several decades now. It made Latin American revolutionaries conceive of their political struggle as educational in nature, and of authentic education as fundamentally revolutionary. This was at the base of the anti-imperialist Marxism that dominated the Latin American left in the second half of the 20th century: Freire had a direct influence on Allende’s Unidad Popular movement in Chile and on the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. In the recent protests in Colombia, one of the icons of the student movement has been Camilo Torres, a socialist Catholic priest who joined the Communist ELN guerrilla in the 1960s, and is referenced approvingly in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Yet, while social protests based on theories of oppression are nothing new in Latin America, the widespread toppling of statues that we saw in 2021 is something of a novelty. It is at least partially an import from the United States—a replica of the movement to remove Confederate monuments, which intensified after the 2016 election and the 2017 Unite the Right rally. This is part of a broader trend in American politics and culture that puts social justice, equality, and identity in the focus. And it is transforming the ways in which people protest in Colombia and other Latin American countries: In México, Chile, and Bolivia, statues of Columbus and of other figures of Spanish colonization have been removed or vandalized in recent years. Two common symbols in the recent Colombian protests against serious police abuses were the hashtag #ColombianLivesMatter and the English acronym ACAB (standing for “All Cops Are Bastards.”)
It seems “wokeness” is a fashion that has spread from the United States to countries like Colombia—and has found a receptive environment among the Latin American left. The tenets of the new progressivism resonate in a region where anti-colonialism and the fight against oppression have long defined leftist politics. The left decries American influence in the region as a continuation of the subjugation of their countries; they claim (not entirely without justification) that after achieving independence from Spain, Latin American elites were unwilling to transform the social structure inherited from colonial times, and later allowed for new forms of colonial oppression by other foreign powers.
Now this anti-colonial struggle has been transformed by the contemporary notion of identity. This explains why, next to Columbus, the conquistadors, and the Catholic Monarchs, the statues of heroes of Colombian independence have been targeted too—figures such as Francisco de Paula Santander, a liberal and one of Colombia’s first presidents, and Simón Bolívar, the liberator of what currently are Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Panama. According to some surviving indigenous groups, many Colombians of Spanish descent who fought for independence perpetuated the oppression of their people after the end of Spanish rule. They are considered “the heirs to the genocidal legacy […] of European, capitalist, military, Christian, patriarchal and white colonization.”
At the same time, indigenous people in many Latin American countries are treated as possessing a morally superior identity and “ancestral memory and wisdom,” and are put at the front of the political struggle by parts of the left. If the real victims of history in Latin America want to remove the statues of the people who fought for independence, then, according to many activists, that is the morally right thing to do.
That’s not to say that indigenous people in Colombia and elsewhere aren’t the victims of terrible past and present crimes—but it is a large jump from observing that fact, to taking it as the comprehensive identity of the people in question, to finally deriving moral righteousness from it. Now more than ever there’s a climate, mostly evident in social media, in which everything Western reeks of colonialism, and must be rejected as a form of oppression. We, Latin Americans, are expected to be ashamed that we speak a European language, and that our culture is mostly Western. And if you read, say, Don Quixote, and not the Popol Vuh, be prepared to offer a convincing justification, and to condemn the imperialism you’ll find in Cervantes’s writing.
This is all taking place as a new generation of left-wing Latin American leaders is rising. After gaining power in Mexico and Argentina before the pandemic, leftists won elections in Honduras, Peru, and Chile in 2021, often portraying themselves as fundamentally different from the socialist presidents that dominated the continent in the 2000s.
Some of the leaders are adopting the new “woke” politics. This is clearly the case with Gabriel Boric, the Chilean president-elect. The Washington Post anticipates that Boric’s “more nuanced positions set him up to be Latin America’s first woke president, a leader built for an age of gender-neutral pronouns and Greta Thunberg.” This 35-year-old “bearded millennial” jumped onto the public stage in his country as a leader in the social protests of the 2010s. Alongside a series of necessary tax and social security reforms, he has put gay and trans causes, indigenous rights, and climate change at the center of his proposals.
This new iteration of the Latin American left is a medley of both continuity and change. It retains the economic concerns of the old left: During the campaign that led to his victory, Boric announced that “if Chile was the birthplace of neoliberalism, it will also be its graveyard.” “Neoliberal” is an umbrella term that the Latin American left has used as an offense against various enemies since the 1970s, sometimes interchangeably with “imperialist,” “yankee” and “fascist.” Today, the left’s range of derogatory terms has been broadened to include “transphobic,” “homophobic,” or “white supremacist.”
Encouragingly, one way new left leaders such as Boric distinguish themselves is by decrying the corruption and the authoritarianism that characterized past socialist governments. But whether the new discourse of identity and the focus on race and gender will truly help the left bring about the changes Latin America needs—while making a meaningful break from the past and protecting rights and liberties—remains to be seen.
Simón Ganitsky is a Colombian PhD student in Philosophy and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.