Hebrew appeared in the early 7th century as the Semitic language of the Canaanites, surviving into the present as the liturgical language of the Jewish people, who, based on the geography of their Diasporas would speak Yiddish, Arabic, German, or Russian. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was a young professor born in Luzhki, trained in Paris, and later immigrated to Palestine at the end of the 19th century. He proposed learning and reviving Hebrew, a cause for which he created an association and newspaper. He became so obsessed with the idea as to raise his first child exclusively in the old language, prohibiting a single word from any other language in his household and therefore transforming his son into the first person in three centuries to have Hebrew as a maternal language. The world’s only language to pass from written form to spoken, Hebrew was adopted – alongside Arabic – as the official language of the Israeli State in 1948: the survival of the language is inherently attached to that of the nation.
From a lexigraphical perspective, Ben-Yehuda’s project encountered many obstacles, among them the obvious necessity to name objects and phenomenons that did not exist in ancient Hebrew, which spoke of God, love, and war, but did not know how to say deodorant, automobile, or inequality. Like a blind man who uses his fingertips to define the contour in front of him, language often falters in its search for words. New technologies accelerated the apparition and proliferation of new terms, the majority of which were imported from English. Still, in some cases, the language ceases to provide a word: if you cannot find the expression it is because you may be encountering something new.
Before, for example, we said: “a coup” (a term which, likely due to the long history of Great Britain’s institutional stability, has no direct translation to English – instead we use the Gallicism “coup” – or, of course, German– putsch). But today, when we refer to the irregular displacements of presidents in Honduras, Paraguay, and, more recently, Brazil, we don’t encounter the adequate word, and fall instead into using adjectives and oxymorons like “institutional coup”, “parliamentary coup”, or “soft coup”.
However we choose to put it into words, Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment – and the triumph of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, the defeat of Evo Morales in the Bolivian constitutional referendum, and the precarious situation in Venezuela – confirms that Latin America is changing. Done is the cycle of super commodities; with the stagnant economy and a persisting sensation that the distributive peak is behind us, those left-learning governments that still exist stagger about anxiously in the face of a rising new right, with a social anticipation only exacerbated by the drama of constant allegations of corruption.
In this climate, geopolitical realignments, and the possibility for a profound reformulation of the entire region, has stopped being a fantasy invoked by anti-imperialists. Soberly, yet without doubt, Macri’s government decided to recognise the new Brazilian president, Michel Temer, discarding in the process other possible options: it could have followed the lead of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, all three of which agreed that Dilma’s impeachment qualified as a coup and refused to accept the new president. Or it could have followed the lead of Uruguay and Paraguay, who applied Mercosur’s democratic clause to suspend Brazil from the bloc even if, in the improbable case that such a clause was actually considered, such a move is incredibly risky: Brazil is far too important a country to exclude without major costs, as happened in the case of Paraguay; on the other hand, it seems unlikely that the Paraguayan government would have agreed to join. At the very least, the Argentine foreign ministry could have remained silent, leaving Temer’s government in a sort of diplomatic limbo, as Chile and Uruguay did, among others.
Whether out of pragmatism or conviction, Macri accepted the change in government and received with barely stifled enthusiasm the Foreign Minister José Serra, with whom he said he exchanged ideas about how to “ameliorate” Mercosur. A few days later, Finance Minister, Alfonso Prat-Gay, celebrated the displacement of Dilma as an opportunity to reformulate the bloc, in a way that was shortly repeated by other officials.
There are definite risks, and the current design of the customs union will need to be put on hold in order to promote a “flexible Mercosur” of simple, free trade. The distinction between the two seems technical but is in actuality at the heart of the current political debate. What exactly does such a distinction mean? Based on a free trade agreement, the goods and services produced by one of the members can be sold freely in the others, which eliminates internal commercial barriers. NAFTA is a fairly good example of such a model, including Canada, Mexico, and the United States, as is the Pacific Alliance, which includes Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. A customs union, meanwhile, adds a common external tariff to the internal free trade: a good or service pays the same tariff if it enters the border of any of the members. Unlike free trade, which only aims to expand the market, the customs union prevents members from negotiating bilaterally with third parties and pushes them to coordinate their trade policies and, more ambitiously, common products. The European Union is a good example of the latter system.
Each option has its reason and logic. And since politics are made less of discourse and ideals than power and interests, beyond these visions are distinct economic systems, distinct societies and power relations. Put simply, countries with limited productive structures tend to create more open economies, which then allow them to export products – in general, natural resources in wide demand on the international market – in the largest quantity to the largest amount of destinations possible, and at the same time import goods that cannot be locally produced without additional costs. They will thus bend in favor of processes of open integration.
In the case of countries that make up the Pacific Alliance, among which Chile distinguishes itself from the other Latin American countries that make up the bloc, the principal exports are copper and its derivatives (57%), followed by fruit, fish, paper, and cellulose, according to recent official statistics. This has made Chile sign treaties with literally half of the world: the United States, China, Canada, Mexico, Central America, South Korea, Norway, Switzerland, Brunei, New Zealand, Singapore, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Japan, Australia, Turkey, Malaysia, and…. Liechtenstein.
This type of primary and open economy – and, in the case of Chile, very dynamic economy– contrasts sharply with those of countries like Brazil and Argentina, which despite all of their problems have managed to preserve and rebuild relatively diversified industrial models that both supply their domestic markets with consumer products and generate basic supplies of capital goods: Argentina is a regional power in the production of tractors and harvesters and Brazil is the third largest manufacturer of aeroplanes in the world. Industry accounts for 17% of Argentina’s GDP and 16% of Brazil’s, versus the barely 11% of Chile and 7% of Peru. Last year, for example, 600,000 vehicles were produced in Argentina and nearly 2.5m in Brazil, far less than in previous years but much more than Chile, which imports all of the vehicles that circulate the country.
The original decision to construct Mercosur as a customs union was aimed at protecting its partners’ fragile industrial sectors with a single external tariff, something which would not be necessary if each partner were able to sign trade agreements unilaterally. This objective has only partially materialised, and is accompanied by another, which, save particular regimes, is certainly not achieved: advancing an integration that allows for greater productivity by way of building economies of scale. The debate appears technical– free commerce versus customs union– but it encapsulates a more profound discussion about the degrees of economic protection, the role of the State and the role of industry and its added value in the economy.
In short, the debate centres on different economic growth models for different societies. Perhaps gambling on open exports may be just right for Chile given its place on the Pacific coast and its fairly homogenous industry, with less than 17m inhabitants and copper as the main source of national wealth, but the difficulties of the last few governments suggest that such a model has its limits. Yet this type of design is clearly insufficient for larger and more complex economies like those of Argentina or Brazil. Of course, a developed and thriving industry means higher wages, stronger unions, and, almost always, more political conflict. This is certainly at stake in a Latin America that is rapidly changing its political direction. While appealing to expressions like “conservative restoration”, or worse, “liberal revolution”, is not productive, this change inevitably sparks concerns for the future and a need for criticism of the present for which we still find ourselves seeking the words.