Issue 3/2005 - Hoffnung Südamerika?

The Sum of Possible Influence

South American cities between nation-building and globalisation

Krystian Woznicki

In 1990, as elections in Peru were in full swing, Alberto Fujimori promised the electorate that he was able to shell out a gigantic sum of money. With this money he wanted to open new doors and at last put his country on the road to victory. His origins were to help him in this project: Fujimori’s parents came from Japan, and that is also where the money was meant to come from, money that no one in Peru ever got to see. When he ran again for re-election in 2000 after ten years in office, his reputation had waned noticeably. His tight, almost dictatorial programme caused the people to thirst for democracy. It thus does not come as much of a surprise that it was only by means of manipulation that he was able to attain another election victory. It was not to be long before this became known, and his life’s work fell into disrepute. Fujimori set off on a business trip to Japan, where he suddenly fell ill. So ill that he had to take time off and at the same time resigned from his presidency. He stayed in Japan for the time being, where to this day he is not only tolerated, but even loved.

Fujimori had barely taken up residence in his new place of abode when he wrote and published a book 1, in which he showed the Japanese public that George W. Bush is not the only one who can successfully wage war on terror. This book, which implicitly but obviously was meant as an apologia for his period in office, aimed not least to remind its readers of an episode that had left behind a big impression on the Japanese public. Even today, people in Japan have not forgotten that in 1996 Fujimori ordered the successful storming of the Japanese embassy in Lima, which had been taken over by MRTA rebels. And successful means: in this special military operation – which caused a sensation partly because Fujimori had a copy of the entire embassy building built to analyse the possibilities of evacuation -, all the hostages were liberated unharmed, while all the terrorists were shot dead.
Previous to this, the world was kept on tenterhooks for four months – that’s how long the occupation lasted – by news reports from Lima. Even on the last day of the drama, April 22 1997, it was not certain if even one of the Japanese hostages would escape alive. When, finally, all 71 hostages were rescued after a forty-minute fight replete with machine-gun hail and bomb explosions, the Peruvian president emerged as a celebrated hero. Right on time for the hundredth anniversary of the Japanese-South American friendship, he appeared proudly at press conferences and insisted on explaining his successful strategy to the perplexed media representatives using the exact model of the Japanese embassy – microphone in his left hand, pointer in his right. 2

[b]The transformation and the problem of mediation[/b]

This episode in the history of South American capital cities may be among the strangest. But at any rate the event is typical of their permanent presence in the global mass media: whether coups d’état or state terror, it would seem that there is an incessant stream of sensational news reports about various horrors, all underlining the decrepit state of South America’s capitals. In the 20th century, large parts of South America were stuck in dictatorial treadmills. The backwardness of the continent associated with this could not be covered up even by the alleged successes of the juntas. As a result, for a long time the South American capital provided material for political thrillers, novels about dystopic states, and computer games that used this background to create bloody first-person action games: »Operation Inca Gold«, for example, simulates Fujimori’s successful battle against the rebels. The central place of action is the Japanese embassy in Lima.
In recent times, a change has been emerging, one that has a lot to do with the fact that the continent has been gradually able to put its dictatorships behind it – the »third wave of democracy« was also to embrace South America. The political transformation represents a common denominator among the various nations, but will they be able to build upon this and find a common cultural language that unites the continent over national borders? This question is asked by Manuel Antonio Garretón 3, for example, because he believes that South America could be able in this way to re-establish connections within globalisation. This is not about the rebellious tendencies of a united South America towards the US imperium, which even in Germany are seen with some misgivings. 4 Instead, it is mostly about finding a framework of meaning within the supranational context that mediates between the nation-state and globalisation in the democratic era. In this project, the capital cities become the focus of interest.
The overcoming of the dictatorships is in itself enough to give seats of government a new meaning. Forty percent of the respective population is concentrated in cities like Lima, Caracas, Buenos Aires and Santiago, and produces around half the gross national product. These cities thus represent the central political, economic and cultural stage upon which the democratic system is tested and formed. Another reason why the political transformation becomes apparent in the capital cities is because their mayors are almost always presidential candidates and frequently also end up reaching the top position in the state – Lima is the prime example of this. 5 The big task facing the South American capitals in the course of the third wave of democracy is, however, to reinvent the nation once more under these new conditions. The capital as the nation-state’s primary module of representation has in many cases also to consider the indigenous rural population – paradoxically, in the 1990s these groups became the central driving force behind social movements throughout Latin America 6 – while at the same time extending the horizon beyond national borders owing to its own economic clout. At any rate, in the »global cities«, which most of the South American capitals are, friction with the global are unavoidable.
So »la capital sudamerican« oscillates between two completely incompatible poles. The differences that emerge in the process have found expression in visual culture; South American capitals are often the main subject of film productions and photo projects. In this discourse, problems are studied from all sides and the question is raised: Has the third wave of democracy really brought about a radical change? A recurrent motif is social polarisation. Caracas, for example, has provoked as widely differing approaches as »Caracas, amor a muerte« (1999) and »Caracas Litoral, Venezuela« (2005). The first of these is the film debut of Gustavo Balza. It recounts the life of a young couple in the Venezuelan capital. He keeps having problems with the police; she, still legally a minor, is pregnant and cannot decide whether to have the child or not. Against the real background of a country in which over fifty percent of the population is younger than 18, this film focuses on a case that is anything but rare in Venezuela and other Latin-American countries. The basic configuration of the film can however be seen as strange, because, as Gunther Blessing notes, the »associated everyday difficulties and suffering are seldom brought so explicitly to view and thus to awareness. In this sense, the artistic >representation< is here to be taken literally as vicarious presentation.« 7
When the research project »Caracas Litoral, Venezuela: Nuevos Urbanismos« (2005) turns to the Caribbean coast north of Caracas, on the other hand, another contrasting pole of society in the capital city comes under scrutiny: the area known as Litoral Central is a destination popular with wealthy weekend guests from Caracas. What is created using the capital from the urban upper class is to be thought of structurally as the complementary counterpart to the capital city. Anything this elite sees as lacking here is created there in the course of a process of »unregulated land development«. The urbanistic study by Richard Plunz, Michael Conrad and Modjeh Baratloo focuses primarily on the reconstruction of the Litoral Central after mudslides destroyed the coastal regions between the Gulf of Mexico and Mount Avila, and tries to inscribe itself actively into this process with analyses and designs, always keeping in mind that there, too, the polarisations of the capital are reproduced: a large part of the population lives in slums.

[b]Residues of the dictatorship and the commonmediation denominator[/b]

Another constantly recurring motif is the echo of dictatorial legacies that are supposedly over and done with. For the fact that the democratisations of the 1980s had a Janus-faced character is expressed in visual culture as well: »On the one hand, the obvious forms of political abuse could be removed and formal democratic structures established; on the other, the hegemony of neo-liberalism, which was partly already introduced by force under the dictatorships, was extended precisely under the conditions of democracy.« 8 Buenos Aires is a perfect example of this problematic situation.
During the 1990s, the Argentine capital was often portrayed as a role model. An echo of this hype has found its way into Jean-Marc Bustamantes documenta-X project »Bitter Almonds« (Phaidon, 1997). Here, the satellite city of the free market is seen, from the narrative point of view of a flâneur, as being on the same level as Tel Aviv and Miami. If one looks closely, one can see differences in street signs, car number plates, advertisements etc., but Bustamente emphasises the commonalities, which are expressed in his predilection for certain details: the marginalia of the city are the common denominator. So the journey followed by the viewers seems like a stroll through ONE city whose outlines are extended over three continents – in this sense, Buenos Aires seems a global city par excellence. When Fernando Solanas was awarded an honorary Golden Bear at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival, Buenos Aires was symbolically, financially and politically re-established within the nation-state and had long ceased to be a role model for the free market. The feedback effects of the neo-liberal model had vented themselves; the Argentine capital had been overshadowed by a deep crisis for several years. Solanas’ »Memoria del saqueo« (2003) depicts this crisis as being the result of exploitation by a government that is submissive to the dictates of the International Monetary Fund. This cinematic theory is illustrated by hollow-seeming monuments of power: palaces of politics and business. However, the parallels to »La hora de los hornos« (1968), Solanas’ debut film, are more striking. In this film, the Peronist masses turn the city into a political space of active resistance to the dictatorship. Similar scenes of urban unrest can also be seen 35 years later: demonstrations against the sell-out of the country that also meet with a repressive response, this time from a democratically elected government. »The scenes of violence are now in colour, the forms of violence are barely different,« as Peter B. Schumann observes. 9 Despite the continuities, something decisive has changed: whereas up to the end of the nineties people always looked to Europe, »people in Buenos Aires have (now) realised and accepted that they are Latin Americans.« 10 This shift is also traced by a film like Daniel Burman’s »El abrazo partido« (2004): the longings of a youth that is looking for something to hold on to are focused on the continent of Europe, but the would-be emigrants are never on the same level as their ancestors. Rather, they are confronted by the problematic and jumbled immigration situation that also faces Mexicans if they want to enter the USA.
If the crises and transformations of recent times have melded the continent together and Bolívar’s dream of a great Latin American nation has received new sustenance from the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, a basic question is raised: Can the solution for the problem of mediation described at the start be found in South American capitals, which are burdened by the legacies of dictatorship? In view of the problems outlined here, can the capital, oscillating between nation-building and globalisation, really be considered as a meaningful authority of a supra-national identity? Questions that John Malkovich’s »The Dance Upstairs« (2001) also seems to pose. The setting of this debut film is simply »the capital«. All major South American cities are reflected in it, at least with regard to their recent past. »The capital«: here, it is a free variable parameter, a cipher, a fiction. Just like the country it represents. Just like the historical figure that the film depicts: a nascent revolution. The regime is corrupt and authoritarian, shady deals with Asian protagonists are the order of the day. »The capital« is a network of inscrutable power structures, a morass of machinations. In the shade cast by this darkness, a revolution mythos is fermenting, a mythos that, paradoxically, is nipped in the bud by precisely the character who is driven to despair by the mess in which the state is in: a jurist who has lost his faith in the legal system.
If »The Dancer Upstairs« gives an answer to the questions asked above, it is because it identifies the common denominator of South American capital cities in a negative, problematic characteristic and thus calls into question the supranational project put forward by Manuel Antonio Garretón. Unfinished chapters of the past (dictatorial structures, networks of corruption, revolutionary myths) dominate South American capitals and disqualify them from being carriers of a common cause. If not the capitals, it could be inferred, then perhaps the periphery – why shouldn’t the capitals play a subordinate role, even existing in the background of this South American version of the EU in the same way as, in the national context, the big exception among the South American capitals, Brasília? This product of a totalitarian scheme had to differentiate itself absolutely from the rest of the country to be able to assert its claim to power. To be different, this utopia, which left the drawing board for the real world in 1960, had to »negate the existing order« and, to preserve its autonomy, it had to »remain independent, without historical connections.« 11 It was not least this basic contradiction that led to the fact that Brasília today can be considered a national centre only with some reservations. The only Brazilian city that is in the same league as Lima, Caracas, Buenos Aires and Santiago is São Paulo – when this status is measured according to the sum of its possibilities of exerting influence. Because, although the seat of government is in Brasília, the country’s central stage is the city in which the economic, cultural, social and, in the final analysis, political potential is concentrated.
This also shows the limits of the Brasília model. For if the South American capital is relegated to a background existence, its characteristic as the political stage for a large part of the population is neglected. The processes of coming to terms with the past are also demoted to a secondary level where they can be disregarded. Brasília is the best example of this, because these days it is either largely overlooked or at most seen under urbanistic aspects, but almost never comes under scrutiny as the product of a totalitarian regime. For this reason, it is not the South American capital city that has to be set back as the carrier of the continental transformations, but the goal of a supranational identity. At present, the national and the global represent the decisive conditions for democratic change. The fact that the periphery can, and probably must, play an important role here is shown clearly by the most influential and arguably most successful democracy movement in Latin America – the Zapatists-, who locate their reformatory objectives primarily in the national context and their counter pole not in the USA, but in neo-liberal globalisation. 12


Translated by Timothy Jones


1 Alberto Fujimori, Alberto Fujimori Fights Terrorism. Tokyo 2002.
2 »Fujimori tours gutted residence,« in The Japan Times, 25. April 1997, p. 1.
3 Manuel Antonio Garretón (ed.), El espacio cultural latinoamericano. Bases para una política cultural de integración, Santiago de Chile 2003.
4 Jens Glüsing, »Sie sollen alle weg!«, in Der Spiegel, 19/2005, p. 124-127.
5 See also David J. Myers/Henry A. Dietz (ed.), Capital City Politics in Latin America, London 2002.
6 Olaf Kaltmeier/Jens Kastner/Elisabeth Tuider (ed.), Neoliberalismus – Autonomie – Widerstand. Soziale Bewegungen in Lateinamerika, Münster 2004, p. 9.
7 Gunther Blessing, »Caracas, amor a muerte – >Ästhetik der Gewalt< and >das grausam Wirkliche< im venezolanischen Film,« in Oliver Diehl/Wolfgang Muno (ed.), Venezuela unter Chávez – Aufbruch oder Niedergang? Madrid/Frankfurt 2005, p. 156.
8 Kaltmeier/Kastner/Tuider, p. 8.
9 Peter B. Schumann, »Urbane Metaphern in argentinischen Filmen,« in Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut (ed.), Buenos Aires – Berlin, Berlin 2004, p.103.
10 Stefan Thimmel, »Aufbruch nach der Krise? Buenos Aires im Jahre 2004,« in Buenos Aires – Berlin, p. 121.
11 James Holsten, »Brasilia: Modernität als Experiment und Risiko,« in Walter Prigge (ed.), Bauhaus Brasilia Auschwitz Hiroshima, Berlin 2003, p. 266.
12 See Kristine Vanden Berghe, Narrativa de la rebelión zapatista. Los relatos del Subcomandante Marcos, Madrid/Frankfurt 2005, p. 134.