Oscar Guardiola-Rivera in conversation with Anthony Downey

28 May 2014

In March 2014, Ibraaz and the Kamel Lazaar Foundation launched an online media partnership with Art Dubai 2014 for the eighth iteration of the Global Art Forum.

In this exclusive interview from Art Dubai, Ibraaz Editor-in-Chief Anthony Downey speaks to Oscar Guardiola-Rivera about governments and the processes behind revising historical timelines.

Anthony Downey: We are here with Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, who is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck College, London. He’s also the author of, among other books, What if Latin America Ruled the World: How the South Will Take the North into the 22nd Century (Bloomsbury, 2011)and Story of a Death Foretold: The Coup against Salvador Allende, 11 September 1973 (Bloomsbury, 2013)Oscar has just been part of a panel looking at history specifically, but also elisions in history and historical moments in time that have been significant for a lot of people.

Oscar, I wanted to start by thinking about history as a process of revision, looking back on moments of time that could have changed the world if things had happened differently. I think what you look at specifically are these moments of conflict; for example, the death of Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973 – another 11 September that means much more to Latin America than the more current 11 September. I’m wondering what drew you specifically to Allende. He is quite a conflicted character, he has become, in many ways, an emblematic character for what could have happened in a historical moment of time – if he had lived, it could have changed the world.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera: There is a biographical reason; I was very young when the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize, and my father’s family comes from the very same region as García Márquez. So my father said to us: ‘Do you remember Gabriel? Well he won this very important prize’ – it meant nothing to me at the time, of course – ‘and he’s going to speak from Stockholm.’ I asked my father ‘where is that?’, and he said, ‘that’s where the Vikings come from.’ Now I was interested! He turned on the radio; García Márquez’s acceptance speech revolved around a character whom he never names but whom he describes in a beautiful turn of phrase: he speaks of a Promethean president who died in his palace in flames, fighting an entire army alone.

That’s when I got hooked on the idea and on the story of this man, who I assumed was just another part of our Colombian mythical fictions. He turns out to be real; he turns out to be exactly the figure of a Greek tragedy, but one that – amazingly – takes place in the late twentieth century. I became interested in this fact, this often unacknowledged fact, that time does not follow a sort of evolutionary line, or any direction for that matter (which is not say that it’s purposeless, but it certainly doesn’t have a unique direction).

Suddenly ancient Greek stories do happen in the southern corner of Latin America in the 1970s. That idea stuck with me and then of course, as I got to know more and more about the story, I realized that this was also not just the past in the present, but the very point of the origin of our current world; this is where, after all, what we now call neoliberalism was tried out for the first time. And so in a sense I also wanted to write the mythical story of our origins.

AD: If Allende had lived – and the title of your other book, of course, is What if Latin America Ruled the World? – how would you see history as having changed? Because, as you say, it was the testing ground for neoliberalism (and with Pinochet after that), so if Allende had lived, what world would we be living in?

OGR: A very different one, I have no doubt about that. In fact, it is the case that a tremendous amount of violence was used in order to break up the networks of solidarity and hope that had been created at the time of Allende. These were not abstractions; these were concrete networks with concrete people. There is a wonderful phrase quoted by the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman when he remembers that a woman from the slums whom he had met before, whom he had lectured because she was addicted to soap operas and was alienated from society, comes to him two or three years later, in the Chile of 1972, and she tells him ‘you know what? Now we’re dreaming reality.’

There are very few occasions in our narrative of history when we see people actually realizing their dreams. But of course, what happens when people realize their dreams is that for others these are nightmares, and that’s when conflicts begin. I realized that the only way you could describe what happened then was not as a novel (which I had to set out to write at the beginning), nor as the usual, chronological history book, because it was in fact an epic story. It was a tragedy, both a tragedy and a farce. The tragedy is what happened not only to Allende but to the people who dreamt reality, who were not only convinced but acted on their convictions. That was the tragedy. The farce is the world we live in.

AD: It’s interesting, you mention that there were concrete networks – and there obviously were concrete networks within Latin America – but could you talk a little bit about Latin America’s relationship to the world at that time? Because there seemed, for a moment in time, to be momentum building up around the Non-Aligned Movement, Bandung, conferences throughout the world, that seemed to suggest another way of living. What I’m thinking about is Latin America’s relationship to the world, not just to itself; how did that develop during that period of time, because it seemed to close back in rather than look outward.

OGR: That’s also the second part of the answer to your previous question. It is the case that the violence that took place in Chile at the time was not unique; in fact, it was taking place pretty much all around the globe. The reason was described in very explicit terms first by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre when they headed the first Russell Tribunal, and then by García Márquez and Cortázar when they took the baton in the Second Russell Tribunal. What they saw was that the important powers at the time – the global powers, the powers that were becoming global at the time (America and its allies, the victors in the Second World War) – were creating a project, and acting on a project, to turn the world into sort of one world, the project of homogenization and standardization that we now call globalization.

And the way they saw it was exactly the way it should be seen; the world is much more diverse and interesting than we think, and its richness and importance is in that diversity, in the fact that there are many histories, not just one. If you push all those other histories – actual peoples – to the brink of extinction for the sake of creating only one, of course the problem that you’re going to encounter is that, suddenly, the needs that you have created in order to put together that one-world project become unachievable. Or what you create is a period of eternal crisis, which, again, is the time that we live in. We live in a period of transition, but it’s a peculiar transition; it’s a transition that doesn’t take us anywhere. It is a transition for which the best image is that of limbo; we effectively live in purgatory.

So at the time, Latin America was part of a network that started in Bandung. By the time that Salvador Allende goes to speak before the UN General Assembly he has emerged as the voice of the voiceless. If you read the papers at the time, even the Economist was ready to recognize that this was different, that this was not just the Cold War. It wasn’t just east versus west or left versus right, this was different; it came with a different cosmology, with a different way of life. It therefore also had different politics. What was incredibly interesting to me reading declassified documents in the NSA archives in the USA was to discover that figures such as Allende or Patrice Lumumba in Africa, and other similar figures, we more hated and feared by the Americans than, let’s say, Fidel Castro. Because, in a sense, Fidel Castro could be put in the box of your stereotypical figure of the revolutionary with a beard wearing green fatigues.

But these other guys, Lumumba and Allende, they were both Marxists but also committed democrats. They were not ready to accept that armed struggle was the royal road to transformation, and, actually, they acted on their word. They achieved so much that at a certain point even they themselves started to notice that people were going in a different direction. The fact that actual alternative worlds did become real at the time is the reason for the huge amount of violence that was released at the time absolutely consciously. Let me tell you the truth, I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, but we found one here.

AD: Absolutely, it’s the same with Lumumba. It is widely agreed that the American government, the Belgian government, and, to a lesser extent, the British government, were complicit in the torture and execution of Lumumba (purportedly to stop Moise Tshombe taking over and the secession of Katanga). If Allende had lived, we would be living in a different world – but he didn’t. The spirit of Allende – because he has become an emblem – do you think that spirit lives on in any meaningful way as a mode of organization, as a way of recreating that hope, that revolutionary zeal that was present then, and that seems to be needed more now than ever?

OGR: There is a sort of logical reason why the book on Allende came after What if Latin America Ruled the World? What if Latin America Ruled the World? is about the emergence of these different agendas, these very diverse, alternative ways of achieving further freedom, or at least ameliorating the worst consequences of unilateral globalization. That is still happening in Latin America. It was incredibly interesting for me to find out that for many of the protagonists of those political processes, for instance, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, their main historical character was neither Castro nor the Cuban revolution but actually Salvador Allende.

Several times when I interviewed Chávez then Lula, but also when I spoke to the social movements that were at the basis of the new parties in the ‘new’ new left in Latin America, Allende kept coming up. The reason was a very clear one: they said that he demonstrated that, actually, democracy and socialism, in broad terms, are not incompatible, and that even if you try socialism and it doesn’t work, well, you can deal with it in democratic terms. But the fact of that matter is that, as a continent, we have never been allowed to try it out. So what if that was the reason it didn’t work? What if we could try it out on our own terms? Terms which also included the self-criticism of the left in the 1970s?

It so happened that when these movements and leaders were thinking about this, and acting on the belief that if they were to try it out again it would work, America became overstretched and busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it stopped paying the usual attention it pays to its ‘backyard’. That created a moment – a very contingent moment – and these different leaders and movements saw it in the different countries and in very different ways, and they took it. They took the chance, they took the opportunity, and the results are there to be seen.

You can see what has happened in Brazil, it’s an amazing example. Most people do not know that actually the Brazilians were directly active in helping the Americans overthrow Allende – this was a Brazil under a dictatorship, but we’re talking about forty years ago. Forty years later, Brazil is under the government of the Workers’ Party, Lula da Silva becomes a global leader, and Brazil becomes a global player, but a global player with principles. Not the kinds of principles that we pay lip-service to here in the west when we say ‘these our own values and others should download them and then they would become like us’, but actually principles which are very different, principles which involve consistency. The Brazilians have become very consistent, and this has turned them into people who other people around the world are ready to listen to, unlike those other countries which have clearly shown that when it comes to values, principles, and so on, they will only pay lip-service to them.

AD: I just want to pick up on one thing there; you’ve talked about the fear at the time, and the great bogeyman in western consciousness at the time was Marxist-socialist democratic order. Do you see any parallels between what happened then and what’s happening now in North Africa and the Middle East in relation to another western bogeyman: so-called Islamic democracy? It’s something which the west sees as a contradiction in terms but which is in fact being played out; it’s being played out in Tunisia, which just passed a constitution that is far more liberal than most constitutions in Western Europe, and certainly more liberal than the US constitution. Do you see any parallels between the history of Latin America and the current history of North Africa and the Middle East?

OGR: Not only do I see the parallels, but those who were involved in the so-called Arab Spring saw them as well. I remember being in Cairo during the time of the occupation of the main square, and many would remind me of the fact that some of their parents and grandparents had fought against colonialism. In doing so, the figures that kept coming back have commonalities, from Sayyid Qutb – who started out as, among other things, a reader of people who would inspire others like Ernesto Guevara in Latin America – to those who remember today that the very same framework that was applied to Latin America is now being applied elsewhere in the globe. It’s the very same structure exactly.

If you’re able to produce a bogeyman for your western audience, if you’re able to tell them that the barbarians are at the gates, out of fear they will abandon their best judgement; they will be ready to sacrifice their most cherished liberties –

AD: And suspend law…

OGR: Exactly, which is happening as we speak in Europe. And then they will be able to roll out these one-world projects all around. What may be different nowadays is that this form of colonization is now becoming a blueprint for self-colonization, because now we have this very peculiar break-up between North Europe and South Europe, and the very language that was used in order to justify paternalism in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America in the 1970s, is now effectively being used vis-à-vis Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians and the Greek.

Now what you see is a sort of impossibility of applying this model elsewhere while keeping alive fortress Europe and the illusion that the Treaty of Westphalia conditions still apply – these things are coming back home. Now it’s not as easy as it was to say ‘Islamic democracy, Marxist-socialist democracy (in Latin American terms) – those things are just incompatible’, because, among other things, many of those peoples are now in Europe. And because they’re in Europe the question is no longer an ‘us versus them-over-there’ question, the question is also about the very soul and the identity of Europe. Europe is beginning to discover that its identity is not as clear-cut as some might have thought, that actually, also within Europe there are repressed histories, repressed identities, and other possibilities.

To give you an example, the long-repressed language of the Levellers, the Diggers and the Ranters is also coming back in the language and the actions of, say, the Occupy movement in St Paul’s Cathedral in London until just a few months ago.

So now the game has to be a sort of dual-game of maintaining the lead on the difficulties of the crisis at home while at the same time trying to contain those forces for alternatives elsewhere. The beauty of the word ‘to contain’ in English is that it means both ‘to keep at bay’ and ‘to embrace’, so in a sense, Europe is becoming part of global history, or, as a couple of South African anthropologists recently put it, Europe is evolving into Africa.

AD: Oscar, thank you very much for your time.


Guardiola-Rivera, Oscar. “Oscar Guardiola-Rivera in Conversation with Anthony Downey.” Interview by Anthony Downey. Ibraaz. Ibraaz, 28 May 2014.