Here is my review of Oscar Guardiola-Rivera's book What if Latin America Ruled the World? how the south will take the north into the 22nd century, London: Bloomsbury, 2010. 427pp, £20. It was written for the Chatham House publication International Affairs, 87:1 (March 2011).
Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s depiction of the textile-based societies invaded by European colonists in the 16th century serves as a metaphor for his own narrative: ‘a form of weaving or making…a way of putting things together, like composing a piece of music’ (p52). In the words of Spanish chronicler José de Acosta describing the Inca quipus, statistical records made from knotted strings, What if Latin America Ruled the World reads as ‘so many greater and lesser knots, and tied string; some red, others green, others blue, others white…[which] weave together, relate, organise in different ways so as to obtain an infinity of words…draw forth the innumerable significance and value of things’ (p52-3).
The strings that Guardiola-Rivera weaves are made from history, philosophy, anthropology, political science, ethnography and economics. The knots are moments in the past where the narrative hovers: the encounter between Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and Inca ruler Atahualpa in 1532, the fight in Panama between ‘free blacks’, mestizos and indigenous people, and a force of filibustering mercenaries over a slice of watermelon in April 1856, or the Latino-dominated marches on 1 May 2006 throughout the United States against proposals criminalising undocumented migrants.
The author attempts to weave historical legacy and contemporary significance into each story. Pizarro’s encounter with Atahualpa marks the beginnings of globalisation when, extracted by the shipload, South American precious metals provided the basis for the emergence of universal money, giving rise to modern capitalism, international and internal divisions and private debt. This is counter-posed to the existence of ‘common goods’, principally common land-ownership, from the pre-Colonial Americas to pre-enclosure Britain and related to contemporary struggles for access to land and water in the Andes.
The ‘incident of the slice of watermelon’ is a metaphor for how local communities resist US imperialism or Manifest Destiny: ‘the term filibuster entered into the English language from the Spanish filibustero, meaning a pirate or buccaneer…filibusters are the true forerunners of Halliburton, Dick Cheney, Blackwater and Plan Colombia’ (p200-1). The migrant marches illustrate how the increasing vociferous and growing Latino population in the United States, estimated to be a majority population by 2040, have the potential to transform the political-economic system of the country which rules the world.
There is a plethora of fascinating material in this book and long qualifications in over 50 pages of footnotes. Like all stories memorised and retold, the narrative is selective, episodes or contributions to Latin American history are jumped over with dizzying digressions that take us far from the continent. The author’s sources are extensive and diverse, from centuries-old scholarly texts, to contemporary media reports and personal tales. The narrative fluctuates in pace and tone from scholarly accounts to chatty anecdotes and even the political philosophy espoused seems to swing from revolutionary to reformist. It is not clear whether this represents a tendency to be led by the material or a subtle triumph in the art of weaving. Perhaps, like the Inca quipus, which some historians claim could only be read by their creators, this book reflects a personal journey with resonance to Guardiola-Rivera. Nonetheless, the reader can enjoy landscape through which he takes us.
Guardiola-Rivera asks himself ‘what if Latin America ruled the world’. Although there is no obvious attempt to provide an answer, in posing such a question he aligns himself with the school of Latin American intellectuals who have juxtaposed the ‘materialistic’ north with the ‘spiritual’ and ‘collectivist’ south. More precisely, he contrasts the rapacious capitalism/globalisation rooted in Europe and the US and the institutions set up to secure their dominance, with the rising popular movements in contemporary Latin America which retain ‘an image and a memory of the lost commons of their Indian and African ancestors’.
In presenting this juxtaposition, however, the author all but overlooks serious conflicts and contradictions which exist or have emerged in those countries in the region which have rejected blanket neoliberal formulas. In Ecuador conflicts have arisen between government plans for development with equity and indigenous communities claiming exclusive sovereignty over the oil resources on which this project is premised. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales has faced militant protests which have forced him to retreat on the removal of fuel subsidies. In Brazil, the redistribution measures implemented under President Lula since 2003, much applauded by Guardiola-Rivera, have failed to reverse structural inequality in the fifth largest economy in the world.
The title of the book does, however, achieve another objective: it demands that attention be given to the growing contemporary international significance of Latin American and places that significance into a kaleidoscope of history. It is an ambitious but welcome endeavour.
Review by Helen Yaffe, author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
 José de Acosta, Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias, 1590, cited by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, p52.