Exclusive interview with Dr Guillaume Long, Ecuadorian Minister of Culture and Heritage
In June 1959, dressed in full military regalia and surrounded by an entourage of Fidel Castro’s men, the Argentina-born Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara landed in Gaza on a mission to spread leftist aspirations to the native Palestinian population in the global fight against Western imperial power. Today, nearly six decades on, the fight continues in both the Arab world and Latin America, a common thread that inextricably binds these otherwise vastly different global regions.
“There’s always been a tradition of Latin American left-wing solidarity with the Palestinian cause,” says Dr Guillaume Long, Ecuador’s Minister of Culture and Heritage and the president of the International Relations Commission of the ruling Allianza PAIS party. Dr Long is in London to attend an international conference on Palestine and Latin America hosted by Middle East Monitor and centred on the theme of “Building solidarity for the 21st century”. The conference brings together a number of diplomats, journalists and activists from both Latin America and the Middle East to discuss and share avenues of exchange and participation between the two regions.
According to Dr Long, the Middle East has much to learn from Latin America in the past few decades, especially from the example set by the rise to power of “new left” parties characterised by what he calls a “backlash” against US dominance and a global hegemony dominated by neoliberal capitalism.
“Latin America wants to be on the global map,” he tells me, “part of its political agenda is being on the global map and questioning global governance and questioning the fact that… the World Bank and the IMF run this kind of virtual neoliberal economy which we don’t want a part of.”
This rise of anti-imperialist, anti-US discourse in Latin America is something that Dr Long attributes to the bitterness harboured as a result of US meddling in domestic Latin American politics, as well as the catastrophic policies of American-imposed liberalisation during the latter half of the 20th century that led to huge rises in inequality across many Latin American countries.
“The United States called [Latin America] for many years their “backyard”, and as part of that “backyard” we were a laboratory for pretty much everything that the US thought had to happen on the planet… And it created a massive backlash. And this backlash is a backlash against austerity, it’s a backlash against the growth of inequality.”
But the rise of the Left in Latin America isn’t just limited to domestic issues. Dr Long is adamant that the new discourse – or “new counter-hegemony” as he calls it – of questioning the existing US-dominated status quo is as much about building relations with other countries and regions of the global South than about creating policies designed to specifically target the legacies of corruption and inequality that still dominate in many Latin American countries. It is through the fostering of such “South-South” relations, he hopes, that the tendency for local governments to simply focus on domestic or regional issues can be overcome.
“Clearly we have to break that barrier,” he affirms, “we have to have many more ties with Sub-Saharan Africa, with Southern and Eastern Asia, with Central Asia, and of course with the Middle East. So how can we do that? Well, we need to invite people more to panel discussions, one of the reasons I’m here is to try and break this natural isolation we have between the regions; we have to engage with each other more.”
Part of this engagement, he makes very clear, can be achieved by promoting international solidarity with oppressed and marginalised peoples everywhere, and no more so than in the case of the Palestinians.
“The United States committed many abuses in Latin America, has done systematically for a number of decades, particularly during the Cold War, the United States defended the establishment of dictatorial governments, of human rights abuses, even of genocides in a number of countries. And I think the Latin American left sees Israel, Israeli colonialism – the apartheid state in general and abuses to human rights, notably last year in Gaza, but also previously 2008/2009 in Gaza and during the 2006 Lebanon war – the Latin American Left sees this as yet another crime committed with the protection of the United States. And because we’re so used to that pattern I think we identify with it particularly well.”
“The Palestinian cause is part of that narrative and is part of that injustice,” he stresses, “but it’s not the only cause.”
Indeed, during last year’s Gaza war Latin America was one of the only regions in the world to strongly condemn the actions of Israel, with some countries putting their words into actions by withdrawing their ambassadors from Israel or cutting diplomatic ties altogether. Ecuador, currently ruled by the populist leftist president Rafael Correa, even went so far as to denounce Israeli killings of Palestinians as “genocide”. When questioned about the boldness of Latin America in directly taking on the global consensus, Dr Long replies that: “Latin America is setting the tone as a region on a number of issues… I think in a hundred years from now we’ll look back at this period and Latin America will play a key role in the global historical narrative.”
So what can the Middle East learn from the Latin American case – the case of a number of small, leftists Davids standing up to the Goliath of Western neoliberal capitalist hegemony? Dr Long is reluctant to draw facile comparisons between the two regions, saying that they are “completely different”, yet offers some practical advice drawn from his own experience being a part the rise of leftists politics in Latin America.
“I think that the key to the coming to power of progressive, left of centre Latin American governments was unity. We had a common enemy, which was this kind of neo-liberal craze, and the Left, which was previously very fractured, very fractured – and this is where I want to bring in a parallel with the Middle East where there are all sorts of fractures, from sectarian to political to religious – the Left, which was very fractured in Latin America, made common cause to defeat the right wing.”
Easier said than done, perhaps, in a region where violent conflict is increasingly polarised along ethnic and sectarian lines. But Dr Long is also adamant about the virtues of democracy, and highly critical of fears – on both the Left and Right – that true democracy in the Middle East will mean Islamism.
“Not having democracy will make [Islamists] into martyrs and heroes – that’s fearing people, I don’t believe in fearing people.”
It is a strong and compassionate argument, and one that perhaps the old vanguard of Arab leftists and nationalists (not to mention Israel itself) would do well to heed – before too many more “martyrs” are created from the dust of ordinary lives across the Middle East.