What is happening now in South America is that Indians, blacks, women and the poor - the tenants of the black holes of the continent - have become the new landlords. This is the hour of the downtrodden - Reportage in 5 parts

Voyage to South America – Introduction

PUBLISHED IN |  Mar 31, 06

SAO PAULO. In an ocean of lights, great black patches. Blacker than black. From the plane, this is the view of Sao Paulo, the largest and richest city in South America. A stunning view of a city three times the size of metropolitan Paris and with a population three times that of Israel. We circle and then circle again – the airport here is the busiest on the continent, with a plane lifting off every four minutes, 24 hours a day.

As the plane approaches for landing, details become visible. Some of the dark patches are woodlands, but others are the brutally impoverished shantytowns, the favelas, which even now, at the start of the 21st century, are without electricity. This is the image of South America we are accustomed to – glittering lights with large islands of dark; wealth in the areas visible to tourists, intolerable misery in the backyard.

In the early morning, with the sun shining, the traveler can see that human beings are living in these black holes. More than living, in fact – they are starting to exert influence. For the first time in the history of the continent, these people – from the shantytowns of Sao Paulo and Caracas, from the villages of the Andes in Bolivia – have sent their representatives to the presidential palace. Already now, left-wing governments, all democratically elected, rule in six countries of Latin America, and by the end of this year the list may be augmented by Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

The term “left-wing” might be misleading. None of the countries in question has turned socialist. Not even Venezuela, the most radical of them, has been Cubanized. What has happened is that Indians, blacks, women and the poor – the tenants of the black holes of the continent – have become the new landlords. This is the hour of the downtrodden.

The new landlords are not the people we have come to know from South America. Instead of suits and ties, there are now Indian women in government offices in La Paz. In their country, they make the rules now. After the singing of the national anthem, at the conclusion of a ceremony in the presidential palace during which everyone removed his hat, only these women remained in their rainbow-hued wool head coverings, such as they have worn for hundreds and thousands of years. Because, with all due respect to a 200-year-old anthem, their hats were here first. Instead of the standard government-issue vehicles, the “new revolutionaries” prefer to get around in old American gangster-style cars. That’s how Marina, the “revolutionary,” navigates the streets of Caracas – in a red Dodge manufactured long before she was born, whose doors are in danger of snapping off at every turn in the road.

This revolution, like all those that preceded it on the continent, is an attempt at liberation from occupation – once the struggle was against the Spaniards, later against the U.S. Marines, but now it is against a new occupier, an economic occupier that was dominant here in the neoliberal 1990s. The International Monetary Fund, the implementer of the system, is viewed here as Satan incarnate.

One after another, the countries of the continent received from the economics PhDs – the “boys of Chicago” under the tutelage of Milton Friedman – the same recipe: the way to overcome the hyperinflation of the 1980s was to privatize companies, reduce government intervention in the economy, “streamline” the workforce and “liberate” the foreign currency market. This particularly extreme form of capitalism had never been tried anywhere in the world, least of all in the United States itself. It was a radical version of the economic policy that Benjamin Netanyahu tried to introduce in Israel.

And then came the reaction against a political structure that was no longer perceived as representing the people, but to be serving external economic interests. It looks a bit different in each country, but in all of them it came, this time, from below. From the people.