When Barack Obama addresses Latin American audiences (1), he expresses the view that we should not be trapped by the past and that we should look to the future; and he claims to be less interested in ideological and theoretical debates that in the solution of practical problems.
Such points of view are common in the United States. They also reflect an implicit epistemology that is profoundly conservative and reactionary, especially when expressed in the context of a discussion of relations between the United States and Latin America; for if we leave the past behind when we think about current challenges, we implicitly are accepting the structures that the history of colonialism and neocolonialism has created, structures that sustain inequality between the two Americas of North and South, and that increasingly deepen underdevelopment and poverty in the America of the South.
Present inequalities cannot be understood without explanations of the origin and development of existing patterns of production and distribution and their evolution through adaptation to new developments, including popular social movements. Informed by such understanding of the systemic sources of underdevelopment, the current structures of domination can be transformed. When Latin American and Caribbean leaders repeatedly refer to colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism, they are seeking to explain that these historic processes of domination have shaped their present reality, and they are maintaining that the United States continues to control and exploit, as it has done in the past, and as can be seen from the prism of the past.
As Obama expressed his “leave the past behind” and “end of ideology” view at the Seventh Summit of the Americas (2), his counterparts from Latin America and the Caribbean were speaking from an alternative set of epistemological premises. They believe that history explains the present, and that historical interpretations require theoretical analysis and evaluations of right and wrong. In contrast to Obama, they believe that addressing practical problems requires examination of history, theoretical debates, and ideological reflection.
Raúl Castro, for example, in his address to the Summit, traced the history of the relation between the United States and Cuba, in which the United States has never respected the sovereignty of Cuba. He maintains that if the United States and Cuba are to enter a new era, it must be on a basis of mutual respect for the sovereignty of each, overcoming the patterns of the past.
Nicolás Maduro, President of Venezuela, in insisting that his nation is a threat to the national security of no country, and in expressing the long-standing desire of his people for true independence, quoted a letter by Simón Bolívar, written 200 years ago. Clearly, this former bus driver, whose education was acquired through the experience of union leadership, does not want to lead the past behind.
Cristina Fernández, President of Argentina, took issue with Obama’s expressed desire to avoid ideology. She maintained that the expression of values and the formulation of ideology are the most important weapon of the oppressed peoples. I am in agreement with the epistemological perspective of la Presidenta Cristina. The poor do not have nuclear weapons and smart bombs, nor do they control corporations and banks. But they do have the capacity to discern and express what is right and wrong, to do so in social organization and social movement, and therefore, in a powerful collective voice, to demand a world in which the global powers act in accordance with the values that they themselves proclaim, albeit without reflection or commitment.
Obama, in his remarks, responded to the address by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who had observed that the United States had no moral authority to lecture the peoples of Latin America, given the long US history of systemic violation of the rights of the people of Latin America and also the people of the United States. In his response, Obama focused on the historic denial of the political and civil rights of African-Americans and the overcoming of this injustice nearly fifty years ago. With this focus, Obama conveniently ignored the denial of the social and economic rights of African-Americans, continuing in the present; and the century-long implementation of imperialist policies with respect to Latin America, continuing in the present, with some new and creative techniques, as Cristina Fernández pointed out.
In the new political reality of Latin America and the Caribbean, many of the presidents and heads of state have been brought to power by popular social movements, and they express themselves on the foundation of an alternative epistemology that reflects the quest by the colonized, the exploited and the poor for an alternative world. Not so Obama. He was brought to power through the campaign contributions of the wealthy. His epistemological assumption that history and ideology are not important for the resolution of the global crisis serves the interests of transnational corporations and the global powers, precisely in an historic moment in which the survival of humanity requires a reflection from below.
Whereas Obama wants to leave history behind, Latin American leaders are unable to forget history, and they consider it their duty to remember it, if they are to understand the present and act with justice.
We, the people of the United States, should do what the peoples of Latin America have done since 1995. We should create a popular movement that, informed by study and intellectual work, discerns the characteristics of a just, democratic and sustainable world-system, and that seeks to put into positions of political power those charismatic leaders who will have the capacity and the commitment to speak on a foundation of an epistemology from below, relegating to the past political leaders who reflect an implicit imperialist epistemology.
- See, for example, “Remarks by the President and the Summit of the Americas Opening Ceremony,” Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, April 17, 2009; “Remarks by President Obama at the First Plenary Session of the Summit of the Americas,” Panama City, Panama, April 11, 2015.
- Held in Panama City, Panama, April 11-12, 2015.