In 1981, as revolution and counterinsurgency raged across Central America, Mexico’s secret police believed they had bagged an important spy: Jorge Castañeda Gutman, the son of the foreign secretary. According to surveillance carried out by the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), Castañeda was an avowed “Marxist Leninist” who had betrayed his country on behalf of the Cuban government, by using his father’s connections to help foreign revolutionaries from Central America. DFS agents collected photographs of him consorting with the guerrilla leadership from El Salvador and dramatically stamped “espionage” on his file.
A quarter century later, in 2006, Jorge Castañeda published an article in Foreign Affairs that would have shocked his DFS pursuers. The essay, “Latin America’s Left Turn,” popularized a theory he had been advocating for more than a decade. The possibility of revolutionary change, he argued, had ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, leaving Latin America’s left no choice but to become “modern”—by which Castañeda meant embracing a pluralist commitment to democratic electoral politics and a pragmatic openness to markets and international trade. Part of the left, including many veterans of Communist parties and guerrilla movements, had already done so. Castañeda called this group the “right left”—a pun, intentional or not, on the two senses of the word “right”—and pointed to Chile’s post-dictatorship governments as an archetypal example of modest social reform pursued within a broadly capitalist framework.
But Castañeda worried that much of Latin America’s left had failed to learn the lessons of 1989. These governments formed an alternative authoritarian populist tradition that Castañeda labeled the “wrong left.” Exemplified by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s indefatigable Fidel Castro, this left was closed-minded, stridently nationalist, economically reckless, indifferent to democratic norms, and irrationally anti-American. Jorge Castañeda, once seen as a Cuban agent, was now pleading the case of the moderate left against its radical opponents—in a journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations.
The “two lefts” idea may be the most influential interpretation of the Latin American left in this century. The international press routinely covers the region with the distinction between authoritarian populists and reasonable social democrats in the background. There are moments when this framing seems to fit neatly. In 2011, several leftist presidents from South America were diagnosed with cancer. Hugo Chávez—standard bearer of Castañeda’s bad left—implicated the U.S. government: “Would it be so strange,” he wondered aloud, “that they’ve invented the technology to spread cancer and we won’t know about it for fifty years?” He disappeared for long stretches to Cuba for treatment, without ever disclosing the exact nature of his cancer. And in March 2013, five months after being reelected for a fourth term as president, he died. Chávez left behind social missions for the poor, funded by Venezuela’s oil wealth, as well as an anti-imperialist bloc of nations in Latin America. While many of Venezuela’s poor felt represented by him, the opposition saw him as clownish and autocratic. The years since his death have been marked by anti-government protests and a deepening economic crisis.
The other cancer-stricken politicians, including Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, the former president of Brazil, survived. Lula, a metalworker and union organizer, rose to prominence as a founding member of the Workers’ Party and an important opponent of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Elected president in 2002, he served two terms that exemplified the social-democratic “right left,” combining strong economic growth and increased foreign trade with expanded social programs for the poor. He left office with an approval rating around 80 percent. Lula was also a lifelong smoker. When he developed throat cancer, he spoke openly to the press about his condition and even shaved his head on television during chemotherapy. By 2012, he could report that he was cancer-free—and note with satisfaction that Dilma Rousseff, another Workers’ Party candidate, had succeeded him as president.
The contrast between Chávez’s evasive conspiracy theories and Lula’s transparency plays into the idea that there has not been one monolithic left in the region’s “pink tide,” which began with Chávez’s election in 1998, but two. But the two lefts idea has also been challenged from multiple points of view. Admirers of Hugo Chávez or others whom Castañeda placed in the “wrong” category predictably bristled. Some accepted the distinction but reversed its polarity: in their view, Latin America’s radical left was the only hope for a new society, while the incrementalist “social democrats” had proved impotent in the face of global capital. Others, pointing out strong diplomatic relations and friendships that crossed the two camps—Lula, for example, has always spoken of Chávez in far more positive terms than Castañeda does—suggested that there was only one left. Still others thought that the division into two camps imposed an artificial homogeneity on their members, since there were important differences even within the two categories.
Many on the left dismiss Castañeda as a typical young leftist turned middle-aged conservative, and he knows he has critics. His recent memoir, published in Spanish as Amarres Perros (literally “dog ties,” but also an untranslatable pun on the title of the 2000 film Amores Perros), opens with an aphorism from Rabbi Yehuda Brandwein: “When a man without enemies leaves this world for the next, the Creator immediately knows that that person has wasted his life.” Castañeda insists that the problem with his political career has always been the timing: “I pick the wrong moment to be right.” His autobiography, however, suggests that he has changed less than it might first appear. He has always been an advocate for internal reform on the left and for transforming violent conflict into political struggle, as well as an ambitious, if only partially successful, architect of his own political career. His experiences also help render the “two lefts” idea, in both its strengths and weaknesses, more intelligible.
Jorge Castañeda’s diplomat father gave him a peripatetic and global childhood, including stints in Cairo and the United States. His mother, Oma Gutman Rudnitsky, was a Polish-Jewish refugee and an avowed Stalinist who provided him early exposure to left-wing politics. He spent his undergraduate years at Princeton and in Paris, where he encountered the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. While in Paris, he and his friends began rethinking some of the common tenets of Latin American “leftism.” Dependency theory, which blames economic underdevelopment on imperialist exploitation rather than domestic institutions, struck him as a Manichean rationalization for excessive nationalism and the foreign policy interests of Cuba.
His first political efforts came in 1978 when, at age twenty-five, he joined the Mexican Communist Party (PCM). Mexico’s Communist Party, the oldest in Latin America, was, like many in those years, debating its future direction. By the end of the 1980s, it would move in a sort of “Eurocommunist” direction, joining broader coalitions before dissolving into the center-left Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD). But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such new directions were still being debated. Castañeda wanted to be one of the reformers and, at the PCM’s 19th Congress in 1981, sought a rule change to allow him to stand for the Central Committee despite lacking the requisite five years of membership in the party. His proposal was defeated, as were most of the reform efforts at the time. Castañeda found himself without influence in the party, and soon left.
At the same time, Central America exploded into conflict between left-wing insurgents and repressive governments, largely backed by the United States. In 1979, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas overthrew the multi-decade dictatorship of the Somoza family, setting the stage for a civil war against the U.S.-supported Contras. Guerrilla forces also threatened to topple the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador. The guerrilla movements sprung from deep injustice in each nation, but they also relied on international patrons. Cuba’s role in arming, training, and uniting various armed factions is now well documented, though it was frequently denied at the time. But Mexico’s role in the conflict remains underappreciated. The southern state of Chiapas offered a cross-border refuge, especially for the Guatemalan guerrillas. Mexico City, a cosmopolitan haven for radicals since the 1910s, provided a base to coordinate the dissemination of propaganda and the transfer of arms. Castañeda’s father, Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs between 1979 and 1982, soon enlisted Jorge as an intermediary between Mexico and the Central American guerrillas. In his autobiography, Castañeda says that his primary work was in public relations but that he also helped transfer arms. This was the work that prompted the DFS to accuse him of spying for the Cubans.
In his autobiography, Castañeda answers these charges himself convincingly. Despite the suspicions of the obsessively anti-radical DFS, he was working for his father, not the Cubans. Plenty of more important Mexican officials were doing the same kind of work. President José López Portillo—who referred affectionately to the Sandinistas as “my boys”—knew what Castañeda was doing and ignored the DFS reports. Castañeda acknowledges only one action—flying a Colombian guerrilla named Jaime Guillot Lara to Spain to prevent his extradition to the United States—that the Cubans desired but that he did not believe was in Mexico’s national interest. For the most part, however, his job was to strengthen Mexico’s role in Central America as a counterweight to Cuban influence. Among Castañeda’s accomplishments were helping 40,000 refugees from Guatemala resettle in Chiapas and pushing Mexico to grant official recognition to the Salvadoran guerrillas—the beginning of a process that ended years later with a negotiated solution to the civil war and the conversion of the guerrilla forces into a political party. The man who would become famous as a critic of the radical left was undeniably helping armed revolutionaries. In a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the “two lefts” idea last June, I asked him if he thought he had been right to support the guerrillas. His answer was a qualified “yes”:
I never went as far and I wouldn’t go as far as people like Gabriel Zaid did [in Dissent] or some of the other people from the New Republic as far as considering [the Central American civil wars] to be a family feud. There were real class interests involved, there were real ideological differences involved, there were real strategic interests involved, and these were not just family feuds in little countries, especially . . . once the U.S. got involved.
In El Salvador, he argued, “there was no other way to try and do away with the violence and the dictatorship and the repression.” And the guerrillas proved capable of transforming themselves into “a relatively modern, sophisticated, and globalized left. It negotiated a peace agreement, stuck to the peace agreement, waited for its moment to come, and then won. . . . [T]he outcome was very much along the lines of what I hoped would happen there and what I tried to support there.” (A former guerrilla leader, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, was elected president of El Salvador in 2014.) In Guatemala, he says, support for the guerrillas was also the right thing to do, but the result was less impressive. Guatemala’s indigenous majority remains deeply impoverished, and the country still lacks basic state functions such as an effective income tax.
Nicaragua’s pro-Venezuela orientation under former guerrilla Daniel Ortega places it firmly in Castañeda’s “wrong left” today. He told me that even during the 1980s he worried about the authoritarian tendencies of the Sandinista government. “They were much more subordinate to the Cubans and there was a much greater propensity to authoritarian rule, to corruption, to international grandstanding and all sorts of crazy things from the very beginning,” he said.
There came a point when I no longer had much influence, especially in 1982 when they were already firmly in power. So in the case of Nicaragua I wouldn’t say it’s a felicitous outcome like El Salvador, but I’m not sure it wasn’t the right way to go. What I tried to do was have Mexico pressure them as much as possible to stay away from the Cubans but with the Mexican [financial] collapse of 1981–82, that became impossible.
Overall, Castañeda concludes that, despite the guerrillas’ uneven track record, “I picked the right side.” But watching the guerrilla movements resolve internal disputes through defamation and even murder strengthened his belief in the need for democratic reconstruction on the left: “Clearly the way these differences were solved within these groups was leading me to think: what has changed since Stalin and Trotsky?” As the wars in Central America wound down, Castañeda began to advocate for reform within Mexico, where the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) had suppressed democratic challenges and maintained economic corporatism for several decades. In a 1985 article he now openly describes as “neoliberal,” he recommended economic modernization, foreign investment, political democratization, and dismantling consumption subsidies. Accused by PRI loyalists of attacking Mexico’s welfare state, he countered that his real target was a corrupt and clientelistic system that excluded the poor and anyone else who didn’t have something to offer the ruling party. In 1988 he served as an informal consultant to the presidential campaign of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, whose challenge from the left might have succeeded if controversial voting irregularities had not resulted in a victory for the PRI’s Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
Castañeda freely claims the label “neoliberal,” a term most Latin American leftists associate with economic crises and slow growth, not to mention market-friendly dictators like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. I asked him what distinguishes neoliberalism from social democracy in the Latin American context. “There’s a very small margin of maneuver or leeway for any Latin American government of the left, today or in the last fifteen years, to move beyond your basic market-oriented, market-friendly, financial stability, low-inflation, macroeconomic policies,” he responded. “In that sense, everybody is neoliberal.” A social democratic government, in his terms, pursues redistribution but only within these parameters: “Sustained center-left governments can bring about important changes in people’s lives, like they’ve done in Brazil, like they’ve done in Chile, like they’ve done in Uruguay . . . but they’re not a revolution—that’s over.”
These ideas echo the argument of Castañeda’s most important work, Utopia Unarmed. Published in 1993, the book explored what the end of the Cold War meant for Latin America’s left. Full of insider detail, its first 300 pages remain unequaled as a single-volume study of the Latin American left in the twentieth century. The final, prescriptive pages solidified an early—and controversial—version of the “two lefts” framework. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequences for Cuba, Latin American leftists had lost access to external support. At the same time, the end of the Cold War would remove the specter of egregious U.S. interference that had previously provided part of the justification for armed resistance. The only path remaining for the left, he concluded, was an electoral strategy modeled on Western European social democratic parties.
Castañeda followed Utopia Unarmed with a deeply researched biography of Che Guevara, Compañero. Critical but not unsympathetic, it stands out from other biographies of Guevara by emphasizing the complex international political context through which the guerrilla leader moved. Perpetuating Power (published in English in 2000) draws on a series of participant interviews to analyze how Mexico’s semi-authoritarian PRI determined presidential succession in the absence of contested elections or family dynasties. The basic conclusion was that, to be selected, the pre-candidate needed to create a problem that only he could solve. In one shocking example, Castañeda concluded that Interior Secretary Luis Echeverría helped provoke the 1968 massacre of student protestors at Tlatelolco, generating a crisis that only he could resolve for President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. As president, Echeverría adopted a populist, anti-imperialist, and leftist profile to contrast with the conservative president who had selected him. This cynical view of Echeverría, which is supported by other research, helps explain Castañeda’s hostility to Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a contemporary Mexican leftist whom he sees as continuing the tradition of Echeverría’s irresponsible and unethical populism. López Obrador once insulted Felipe González, Spain’s social democratic former prime minister, by calling him “a despicable reformist”—exactly the sort of outburst that someone like Castañeda, who cheerfully identified himself as a pinche reformista de mierda (something like a “goddamn reformist piece of shit”) during our conversation, finds suspicious and intolerable. (González recently showed something of what López Obrador may have meant when he declared, after comparing prison conditions in the two places, that Chile’s murderous dictator Augusto Pinochet respected human rights much more than Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro.)
In Mexico’s 2000 presidential election, Castañeda found an unexpected vehicle for his project of democratic reform as well as his personal ambitions: Vicente Fox, the politically inexperienced executive and rancher nominated by the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). Castañeda tutored Fox on social policy and successfully convinced part of the Mexican left to cast a “useful vote” for the PAN in order to dislodge the PRI from more than seventy years in power. Despite his dislike of the PRI, Castañeda must have learned something from the techniques he wrote about in Perpetuating Power. He cannily sidestepped rivalsto secure an appointment in Fox’s administration: his father’s old job as foreign secretary. His focus on human rights in the region led to tension with Cuba, while another major effort—to broker a comprehensive immigration reform package with the Bush administration—was derailed by 9/11. Finding the conservative PAN no more hospitable to reforms than the Mexican Communist Party had been, Castañeda left his job in 2003. He ran for president in 2006, an independent opposing the leftist López Obrador as well as the PRI and the PAN. Though his name failed to appear on the ballot, his campaign lead to changes in law that have made it easier for independent candidates to run. This is an important issue in a country where many citizens have lost faith in every official option, but it may also be used to try to siphon votes from López Obrador, who currently leads polls for the distant 2018 election.
The “two lefts” idea was a logical development of Castañeda’s political experiences. It emerged during his early confrontations with an inflexible Communist Party, the authoritarianism of the PRI, and the agonies of guerrilla warfare. The overriding emphasis on democratization and pluralism within the left made perfect sense in each of these contexts, and it still makes sense in many cases. But as historical circumstances change, the framework has lost some of its appeal. The last decade has been rough on European social democracy—one reason that the world’s leftists increasingly look to Latin America for inspiration. But Castañeda continues to believe that Latin America’s left should look European.
Meanwhile, Latin America’s deepest problem, extreme inequality, has moved to the center of the international left’s agenda. From the standpoint of inequality, the record of the “right left” is decidedly mixed. In Brazil and Chile, inequality remains at extraordinarily high levels despite slight decreases. When I put this objection to Castañeda, he conceded the point but averred: “nobody has been able to solve that problem anywhere except over an enormously long period of time or with very radical measures that are obviously not possible today anywhere in Latin America.” Cuba’s egalitarian achievements, for example, were built on Soviet subsidies, moving everyone onto the state payroll, and the emigration of a significant percentage of its professional population to the United States. “If I could send 25 million Mexicans to the U.S., believe me, inequality in Mexico would diminish greatly, because I’d be sending the poor. But you can’t do that. You can’t send the rich either. Either way you’d decrease inequality.”
Castañeda holds out hope for social democracy in the continent, noting that poverty has decreased, and “a decrease in poverty probably should bring a decrease in inequality. But it’s going to take a hell of a lot of time and much more effort and more imaginative policies.” Still, he insists, policies must not only be imaginative, but effective. According to the World Bank, Hugo Chávez’s government used its oil wealth to reduce inequality in Venezuela to the lowest levels in the Western Hemisphere outside of Canada. But this fragile achievement, even if the data is correct, may not survive the economic crisis created by state policy. Meanwhile, others in the “wrong” camp—such as Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia—have overseen robust economic growth while also reducing social inequality. Correa and Morales both criticize the market and the international system too much for Castañeda’s taste, and Correa’s use of the bully pulpit to attack media figures who criticize him has broadened from a fight with right-wing news outlets to threatening the free practice of criticism and journalism. Correa’s and Morales’s real achievements of distributive justice are balanced, then, against a kind of personalistic “democratic centralism” in decision-making. This is hardly totalitarianism, nor even dictatorship. Neither Correa nor Morales, in spite of their apparent rhetorical radicalism, has done away with capitalism nor outlawed the opposition. But ironically, it is probably not Bolivia or Ecuador’s right that has the hardest time voicing its displeasure: the right has its own sources of power and influence. Dissent from the left, however, often comes from social movements that criticize a model of development that is highly dependent on resource extraction. These groups, unfairly lumped in with the right, have a harder time getting a fair hearing when they clash with their governments. But if it is true that certain aspects of these governments are worthy of criticism, and are even intolerable, the same could also be said of almost any government, including those of the “right left.” Castañeda stands by his support for the Central American guerrilla movements in the 1980s because one country out of three (El Salvador) had a good outcome. It isn’t at all clear that today’s populist left will leave a worse record.
That hardly means that they deserve uncritical support. Democratic socialism, for reasons Castañeda has outlined well, is unlikely to emerge in Cuba or Venezuela. But it’s not clear that it’s likely to emerge in “social democratic” Chile or Brazil either, given the persistence of extreme inequality in both countries. The recent rediscovery of the study of political economy in the United States has revealed the depths of our own democracy’s indifference to the poor and its responsiveness to the interests of the wealthy. This is no less true in places that are even more unequal, including most of Latin America. Electoral democracy may not be well suited to every type of problem, and extreme inequality is one that seems to tie it into knots. Castañeda’s confidence that market liberalization and a social democratic ethos were natural complements, shared by so many in the 1990s, has become much harder to sustain. Still, he insists, there are simple, non-revolutionary ideas, like levying an inheritance tax, that should be tried before giving up hope.
Castañeda’s “two lefts” schema—the result of decades of firsthand experience—still provides a useful starting point for analysis. There are real differences within Latin America’s left. But Castañeda’s distinction loses purchase on reality when it hardens into a cudgel that is used to beat the “populist” left to such a degree that it becomes impossible to understand why those governments came about, or what achievements have sustained their popularity. Such a position can only be justified if social democracies are judged exclusively by their successes, and populist governments only by their failures. The actual historical record should stimulate critical self-reflection from partisans of both sides. If deeply entrenched inequality means that Latin America still needs democratic socialism, the question of how to get there brings to mind a joke that Eric Hobsbawm used to tell: an Irishman is asked the way to Ballynahinch and replies, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”
Patrick Iber is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso. He is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (Harvard University Press, 2015).
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