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A Meeting of Minds in the Lion's Den : Politics: Latin America's left, fighting obsolescence, struggles to redefine its goals : in a post-Cold War era.

April 23, 1993|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda's new book, "Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War," will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in September. A graduate professor at the National University of Mexico, he is a visiting professor at Princeton this year.

Times have not been easy for the left lately. In Latin America, where it has occupied a central role on the political stage--though not in office--the fall of socialism, the need for economic adjustment and the sequels continuing reverberations of the "Reagan revolution" have all contributed to the general impression of the left as obsolescent or irrelevant.

And yet, through an excruciating process of self-analysis and correction, this segment of the political spectrum, for half a century a constant presence in Latin American life, is now attempting to find its way in the post-Cold War world. Just how far the left has come since the socialist debacle of a few years back was apparent in a conference held last week at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. Also apparent was how much it still must accomplish.

The very presence of high-profile figures such as Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of Mexico, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Antonio Navarro Wolff of Colombia and Ruben Zamora of El Salvador reflected one an important transformation: The Latin American left now has well-known, acknowledged leadership, something that, apart from Castro in Cuba and Allende in Chile in 1960s and '70s, was far from the case.

The presence, too, of such mainstays of Latin Americanist scholarship in the United States as Albert O. Hirschman, Abraham F. Lowenthal and John Womack among the panelists discussing the future and platform of the left indicates that it is taken seriously. Rightly so: Lula, for instance, is leading in many polls anticipating next year's presidential elections in Brazil; Cardenas has declared his candidacy for Mexico's vote in August, 1994, and the growing difficulties Mexico may well raise his prospects to levels not unsimilar to those of 1988.

At the same time, though, the Princeton conference showed that the left still has quite a road to travel to find clear and precise answers to difficult questions. In general, it appears most self-assured on the issue of democracy. Much of the left in Latin America traces its contemporary roots back to the struggle against authoritarian rule.

All of the leaders present at the conference are committed to the electoral process and to the improvement of society. On this count, their record is spotless, and the statements they made at the conference, including Cardenas' call for international monitoring of next year's presidential elections in Mexico, illustrated their confidence.

The presence of such leaders in Princeton, and their posture of eager engagement was evidence of the most intriguing and potentially far-reaching change in the left's traditional posture regarding the United States. The majority of the Latin guests addressed the audience in English, and with the dexterity that comes only from being accustomed to this type of public--and this type of meeting--in the United States.

For some time now, leaders of the left in Latin America have been taking their cause to the U.S. circles where many of the political and economic decisions affecting their countries are made. Instead of simply bemoaning or denouncing U.S. "intervention"--often a reality well worth criticizing--they have begun to operate politically in the United States, building coalitions against the policies or ideological currents inimical to the left's interests in Latin America.

On domestic economic and social issues, however, the left is clearly still in transition. While it has moved away from the anti-market, nationalistic stances of the past, specific alternatives are still on the drawing board.

The recentering of the left's stances on economic and social issues is evident; for example, Lula, Zamora and Navarro Wolff all stress the need for economic competitiveness and regional integration. This also the case for Cardenas' position on the North American Free Trade Agreement: rejecting the existing Bush-Mulroney-Salinas pact, but agreeing to support a NAFTA that would include environmental and labor side-agreements with teeth, a compensatory financing mechanism, negotiations on labor mobility, slower phase-in periods for certain Mexican sectors and a dispute settlement mechanism open to all parties and issues.

But stances articulated at Princeton are more a reaction to existing trends than a broad, different vision for the future. The left has to move forward in the direction of what it used to have, has now lost and must rebuild: a utopia to mobilize its followers, but also one that persuades its adversaries that they can live with the left in the same nation. The campaigns the Princeton participants will be engaged in this year and next will be the real test.

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