Thursday, November 27, 2008

Discussing Latin America, Part 2 - The role of iconic figures in political party conflict

Mr. Trend raises an important question in  Part 1 of this post related to understanding political parties in a number of Latin American countries.

Among the political parties mentioned in the previous post, I think there are some important distinctions that need to be made in how the symbolic figure becomes adopted. Among the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador, both parties were attempting to recover a national history that was somewhat lost or hidden through the iconic use of Nicaragua's Augusto César Sandino and El Salvador's Farabundo Martí. What sets these two parties apart from others is that the importance of these two individuals as national figures is still hotly contested in both countries (at least I think this is the case in El Salvador). Whether or not Sandino was an anti-imperialist hero, or a criminal lunatic is still very much a debate in Nicaragua. 

Both the Sandinistas and the FMLN were in some sense attempting to reinterpret the historical narrative in their respective countries, which is much different than say the use of José Martí in Cuba or Bolívar in Venezuela. My sense of the use of José Martí and Bolívar is that these two figures were, and remain so, national icons used to give nationalist legitimacy to a movement. There was not a conflict over the importance of these two figures to each country's national history as exists in Nicaragua and El Salvador. 

Mr. Trend suggests that Bolívar does not belong in this category, but I think it is an interesting case that does belong here. There has been an attempt by Hugo Chávez to reinterpret Bolívar as an anti-imperialist hero, and sort of whitewash his more unsavory characteristics. What is going on there is somewhat similar to how the Sandinistas chose to present Sandino during the Nicaraguan Revolution. Sandino's thought was collected in ways by Sandinista leaders to present a very narrow portrait of the man that would serve the Revolution's interests. Chávez is doing something similar by issuing collections of Bolívar's thought that highlight his thought in ways that serve the Bolivarian Revolution, but ignore some of the more anti-democratic and aristocratic tendencies of Bolívar. However, this use of Bolívar is not quite comparable to Nicaragua and El Salvador, because both sides in Venezuela accept Bolívar as a national icon. Anti-chavistas oppose Chávez' use of Bolívar for political ends, but not his place in Venezuelan history. 

As for Perón, I'm not sure I would lump his Justicialist Party (PJ) in with the other cases, since it was Perón himself who formed the party. There is a fairly decent sized literature in political science on political parties formed around charismatic individuals (which maybe I will delve into in future posts?) that sets these types of parties apart from others on a number of organizational and ideological dimensions. I am somewhat familiar with the effect his leadership had on the future of the party, but I'm not familiar with the current status of Peron as a myth or national icon in Argentina. Does it cross party lines, or is he more seen as a symbol to supporters of the PJ rather than to all Argentines?

Thinking about parties formed around charismatic individuals, my sense is that we would be better off comparing Perón to Chávez, and possibly to Fidel Castro in Cuba and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and his foundation of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in Mexico. This comparison would be somewhat difficult because we haven't been able to observe a post-Chávez party or a post-Castro party, but the consequences for these political parties is likely to be distinct due to their foundational characteristics in ways unlike the FMLN or the Sandinistas.

In short, what I am suggesting from all of this in response to Mr. Trend's question is some form of conceptual typology to look at the consequences particular individuals have on political parties. I think we could look at these parties along three lines:

1) The use of contested national symbols (i.e. Farabundo Martí and Sandino)
2)The use of accepted national symbols (i.e. José Martí and Bolívar)
3)Parties formed around charismatic individuals (i.e. Perón, Chávez, Castro)

This typology allows for one party to fit in multiple categories, but I think it makes more sense to look at these parties in this way, rather than in a sort of holistic comparison of political parties across countries.