[This article is one of six contributions to the Jadaliyya roundtable launching the Latin East Initiative. Click here to read the introduction or read other contributions by Amal Eqeiq, Eman Morsi, Rania Jawad, and Ella Shohat.]
Teaching Latin America in Tehran:
Based on Professor Padilla’s teaching experience in Iran, in 2011, when the University of Tehran invited him to teach the Latin American Studies masters’ program, he articulates a series of insights on transnational knowledge, politics, and misinformation within culture and education. Padilla’s courses included “Human Rights in Latin America, from the Conquest to the Present,” and “Documentary Film in Latin America.” He historically contextualizes the Spain-Persia connection from before Latin American colonization, in 711, when the Iberian Peninsula and the Islamic world facilitated cultural and religious exchange. Padilla describes adapting his teaching to the special conditions of Iranian higher education. Keen and motivated students spoke a sometimes-literary Spanish. The political context of Iran’s “closed” society, however, produced special challenges. The environment was saturated politically in the legacy of anti-imperialist struggle and Third Worldism, and the 1978 Iranian Revolution aftermath. This placed brakes on institutional autonomy and freedom of information. Culturally, young Iranians knew Latin America through popular media and, interestingly, through Magical Realist literature.
Padilla notes that, since the revolution and Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Latin American countries either closed their embassies for security reasons, or neglected cultural exchange. Only Cuba and Nicaragua, in the 1980s, opened embassies in Tehran, being among the only countries to maintain political and cultural ties within the anti-U.S. geopolitical alliance. These conditions produced a narrow historical optic within Iranian academia, including superficial references to the Spanish Civil War, the colonization and independence of the Americas, the Mexican and Cuban revolutions, and Latin American dictatorships. Iranian students were familiar with Simón Bolívar and Che Guevara. After the Revolution, the Iranian media depicted U.S. intervention in Latin America through movies and documentaries, press reports, and books. Students knew of revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua, and U.S.-backed military dictatorships They compared these experiences to the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mosaddeq. Iranian television, meanwhile, positively depicted the Iran-Latin America relation. Given the often one-dimensional superficiality of this knowledge, Iranian students’ reference points came from a comparison with personal experiences. Religion played a fundamental part in their reflection and analysis. Some students perceive social problems in Latin America, such as crime, violence, traffic, and drug consumption, as consequences of Western moral degradation. In their view, it could not happen in Iran, due to the moral integrity of cultural codes. In literature, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, and Gabriel García Márquez were well known.
From these transnational and intercultural references, Padilla sees the possibility of a deeper relationship in the future, based on mutual knowledge of respective societies and shared histories. There is a powerful transnational linkage between Iran and Latin America, but the possibility for a fuller mutual understanding is restrained by the narrow optic of political repression. The article presents an engaging transnational study. It would be interesting to know more about the perception of Magical Realism among Iranian students, and how they might relate it to Iran’s own tradition of Magical Realism in major 20th figures like Sadeq Hedayat. It is also interesting to know what evidence of Left conceptual resources the students display in their global analysis of imperialism. How do the Marxist and Magical Realist traditions square with the official ideology of the Islamic Republic? Can we thereby identify fissures in Iran’s contemporary political culture, and perhaps see alternative ways forward, for Iran and other post-colonial countries struggling with comparable issues?
A Tale of Two Modernities:
Comparing Iran and Latin America, Professor Kraidy contemplates plural Modernities, dependent upon cultural contexts. He maps the interplay of modernism and modernization in Saudi Arabia and Latin America. Is Latin America exuberant modernism with deficient modernization? Does technological modernization with limited cultural modernism apply to Saudi Arabia? The article undertakes new mappings of culture and power at the South to South level. Between Mexico and Saudi Arabia, there are contrasting images of hybridity and purity, but underlying commonalities. In Saudi Arabia, Ikhtilat concerns the control of gender mixing, a preoccupation with purity. By contrast, the La malinche controversy, the Nahua woman who aided the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire as a translator, represents the core hybridity and ambiguity of Mexican culture. These are polarities between Saudi and Mexican cultural norms. Yet Kraidy makes further comparisons, between the Jihadi anashid (the spiritually moving ISIS anthem) and Mexican narcos (pop music celebrating drug traffickers as popular heroes), finding two criminal subcultures that collude with official governments, and use digital media to create community and enemies. At the material level of cultural production, where economies and politics fuse with new militarized counter-cultural aspirations and mass deprivation, there is a striking transnational symmetry.
The article compares two theoretical works, The Tale of Modernity in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by Abdullah Muhammad al-Ghathami, and Nestor Garcia Canclini’s Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering or Leaving Modernity. The Tale of Modernity depicts Saudi Reality TV as a public trial of “modernity”, where clerics and journalists attack “modernity” for promoting foreign values (i.e. gender intermixing). Saudi modernists, meanwhile, have fought “conservatism” through poetry, literature, and the press, from the 1920s to the 1980s. Ghathami defines “modernity” as embracing the contingent and unforeseen, with Saudi modernity as perpetually incomplete. This creates cultural schizophrenia, explained as a historical conjuncture. The oil boom made Saudis abandon manual labour to imported hands. Failing to achieve mastery over self and circumstance, Saudis are modern only in appearance. There is modernity of means, but no equivalent mental modes. Yet, politically, Ghathami equates Liberalism with Imperialism, and vaunts Saudi nationalism against Iranian and Turkish rivals.
There are similarities. Ghathami and Canclini see modernity as incompletion, uncertainty, and contingency, and tension between modernism and modernization. Media is central to national modernity, and catalyses transnational cultural hybridization. Despite these similarities, their conceptions diverge. Hybrid Cultures argues fluid re-arrangements over binary or complete transitions, i.e. from “autocracy” to “democracy” and “capitalism”. Plural modernities are unequal and contradictory, in a “multitemporal heterogeneity”, a “mixing old and new”, in opposing and reinforcing relations, i.e. overlapping liberal institutions and authoritarian habits. Ghathami, by contrast, sees a linear modernist-conservative “struggle mired in cultural schizophrenia”.
Kraidy concludes that modernism and modernization are not dichotomies, but couplings, yielding multiple permutations. Modernity can cohabitate with older ways of thinking, doing, and being. It is an illuminating comparison. I would like to know what possible linkages exist between Ghathami’s pragmatic-Hegelian view of the unified modern self, and his conservative politics from a modernist optic. Also, how Hybrid Cultures, while dismantling dualisms, demarcates important differences between free and unfree societies.
Divergent Histories and Conquering Inequalities in the Middle East and Latin America:
Is the Middle East an anomaly within the global South? There was long a myth of low-income inequality. A 2017 Thomas Pikkety report on income inequality in the Middle East declared it the most unequal place in the world. If viewed as a unit, Brazil (one of the world’s most unequal countries) is slightly more equal. The top one percent of income earners in the Middle East collect twenty-seven percent of the total income, compared to 21 percent in India. This evidence dispels the so-called conundrum of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, where experts expressed surprise that protestors perceived high inequality in contradiction with the data. The findings suggest that the Middle East requires transnational interpretation. Low inequality exists within particular countries, but high inequality exists across the region as a whole. The colonial legacy is not far behind this “new” revelation.
In light of this, the article traces Middle Eastern similarities and differences with Latin America. A similar shift occurred from state-led politics of industrialization to neo-liberal market-led policies. The regions share the mid-20th century Third World internationalist tradition. Yet variations in industrial projects, differing neoliberal pathways, and social upsurges forge distinct divergences between Latin America and the Middle East, explaining high regional inequalities in both regions. Throughout the 1940s-70s, scholars and activists perceived their regions within a common fate. Decades of transnational dialogue, through spaces like the Non-Aligned Movement, forged an ideology of common destiny across the Third World. This held that the world economy was rigged to favour the rich Western countries, the erstwhile colonial masters. The Third World had been reduced to primary resource production through colonialism, i.e. deindustrialized. Common strategies sought to redress this unjust imbalance, to compete in the globalized industrial market. Both regions followed a Left tradition of anti-imperialist policies of state-led domestic industrialization, i.e. import substitution, through linking internal markets, protecting export sectors to diversify trade, and subsidising manufacturing companies. In both regions, the post-independence popular nationalist states tragically turned into authoritarian military regimes.
Harris also notes important differences. Latin America had a longer history of independence, and elites were linked to conservative landowning classes. Many Middle Eastern states undertook land reform right after independence. Manufacturing sectors were bigger in Latin America than in the Middle East. Neo-liberalizing forces were stronger in Latin America than in the Middle East since the 1970s. In Latin America, the transition to democratized forms of mass politics widened the civil space for popular mobilization against regional military dictatorships. In the Middle East, by contrast, non-violent popular movements in 2011 sought to prise apart autocrats and security forces, often meeting obstacles of counter-revolution and ultimately civil war. The Middle East, in view of this, is exceptional in providing social citizenship for elite kinship, with an imported professional and working classes, and military security subcontracted to the USA. This has been celebrated as a viable “alternative” to Nasserite populism, and prevented a more conventional balance of power arrangement. Despite differences, both regions operate in a grey zone of state-linked contracts, kinship networks, and speculative linkages of global finance. Both experienced ruptured social fabrics through violence targeting marginalized social groups, abstracted as “crime” or “war”. Harris concludes that the sense of shared horizons could provide impetus for collective political strategies once again.
This article interestingly depicts the multiple components of post-colonial hegemony in conflicting sources of social power. What mechanisms underlay popular nationalist regimes becoming military autocracies in these regions? What role for social movements? What differences or overlaps? Is the way out partly ideological? Not at all?
Omar Dahi and Alejandro Valesco,
Latin America-Middle East ties in the New Global South:
The article addresses the risk of unequal development and de-industrialization between nations in the South. The Third World movement was launched in 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, as representatives from liberated African and Asian nations gathered to deliberate over a global programme of collective solidarity. It boldly envisioned a major egalitarian transformation of the global order. In 1974, the G 77 was the zenith of the Third World movement.
Latin American countries came to the Non-Aligned movement amidst domestic socialist transformation, becoming targets in the Cold War, and being forced into dictatorship and armed conflict through US sabotage. This explains Che Guevara’s transnational anti-imperialist struggle, aiding African anti-colonial struggles, and aspiring to continental revolution in South America. Until the 1970s, such South-South cooperation efforts were plentiful, with the 1973 oil shock confirming the new geopolitical power of the global South. By the 1980s, however, a major counter-revolution was implemented from traditionally dominant core capitalist countries in the North. Led by the USA, it launched the G-7 through the World Trade Organization and the World Bank. The collapse of oil prices in 1981 marked the end of the Third World movement. Yet, in the golden years of the Third World movement, important achievements occurred. Between the 1950s and 70s, there was a general growth in productivity, a rise in human development indicators in health and education, and decreasing poverty.
With the demise of the Nehruvian consensus as transnational vision for a non-violent socialist reorganization of the world, an alternative politics of Machiavellian realpolitik was installed. Between 1980 and 1990, real wages declined and income inequality sharpened dramatically. Governments cut social spending. Privatization became a priority. Gone was the ideological hegemony of figures like Nehru and Nasser, who were now scorned by the postmodern Left as inauthentic and West contaminated. Since the end of the organized ideological Third World movement, never the less, South-South trade has grown. Yet the emphasis on equality is gone. Southern countries now prey upon one another, with the leering approval of the erstwhile colonial master. A few countries have captured power over the rest, notably China. It can be just as unequal as traditional North-South trade. Yet the rise of new economic superpowers in the South has disrupted the established global order, and there is the possibility to remake the ideological orientation in the future.
This article presents an engaging panorama of 20th century South-South transnational politics. I would like to understand the interplay of ideological politics and other structural determinants. Was the Bandung egalitarian vision really so powerful in shaping pre-1980s South-South relations? Is inequality inherent in global capitalism, or can a socialist integument defang it? What explains its loss of ideological appeal among today’s Left? What is the role of Marxism, as an organized state power (i.e. the USSR, China) and ideology? Where do countries like Vietnam fit now in this picture? And what are the prerequisites for relaunching a transnational socialist politics committed to lifting the popular masses of the Third World democratically, without repeating the errors of the Cold War era or the new “identity politics” fad exemplified politically in the 1978 Iranian Islamist revolution and ISIS, with many smaller examples in the myriad crises currently racking countries like India?
All of these presentations share the intellectually refreshing idea, from which we can learn much, of the complexities of histories, political realities, and knowledge circulation at the transnational level. When the theoretical optic shifts from the Post-Colonial centre/periphery binary to focus on multi-centred South/South relations, we can learn much. Power is not the monopoly of a monolithic Western modernity, confronting an impotent and silent other, but myriad creative and dangerous forces. Very specific analysis is required to determine their significance, for good or ill. This intellectual and political shift liberates our minds from the prevailing clichés of Post-Colonial orthodoxy. We begin to think more critically, paying attention to the lived experiences of populations. Academic life as a vocation can thereby transcend the “rituals” we are expected to follow. Comparative and transnational perspectives can make our work relevant to our world and our lives.