Latin America and the future of memory

Under the slogan “40 years of Democracy. 40 years of Participation”, humanist activists celebrated four decades of unwavering commitment to humanization in Santa Rosa, the capital of the Argentinean province of La Pampa.

After an introductory speech by Humanist Party councilor Alba Fernández and Deputy Director of Human Rights and Nonviolence Juan Esponda, who narrated the events surrounding those beginnings, a film compilation was shown that highlighted the contributions of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Silo to the cause of Nonviolence.

The event continued with a presentation by Javier Tolcachier, member of the Centre for Humanist Studies of Cordoba on “Latin America and the future of memory”, after which the large attendance was celebrated until late into the night with choripán and dancing.

We reproduce below the presentation by the researcher and Pressenza agency columnist.

Latin America and the future of memory

Javier Tolcachier

La Pampa – 28/7/2023

About 15 years ago I wrote a book called “Memories of the Future”. It seemed interesting to me to use that work to try to discover certain parallels in relatively recent historical situations in Latin American nations in order to broaden understanding and renew one’s own look, more accustomed to the cloister of local belonging.

On the other hand, in this work I thought it appropriate to verify existing traces in the collective consciousness that could facilitate or hinder humanising action and at the same time delve into the social and historical landscape in which many of us and our comrades in struggle have been formed, in order to delve into the roots of certain behaviours and postures.

Some time after, I went back to the drawing board and wrote “Humanising history”, an essay that tries to see, starting from certain basic concepts of historiology elaborated by Silo, how the analysis of any historical period, including of course the present moment, could be approached.

In that study, I emphasised the tri-temporal characteristics of consciousness, in which present, past and future act in an intertwined way, projecting themselves through very diverse raw materials in each generation, which interacting with others in the same historical moment project different images of possible futures.

From these premises, I would like to try to see with you today where the arrow of time is pointing today, and what is the best way to point towards it from these territories. That is why I believe that “Latin America: The Future of Memory” might be an appropriate title for this talk.

Five decades after the military dictatorships

The forty years of uninterrupted electoral democracy that are being celebrated are an unquestionable achievement and constitute the counterpart of the bloody regime executed by the civil-military-ecclesiastical dictatorship promoted by the geopolitical strategy of the United States of America throughout the region. This strategy, which in South America was known as the “Condor Plan”, spread throughout Latin America, in an attempt to subdue the revolutionary impulses for sovereignty and social transformation that were resurgent with force at the time, especially after the victories of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua in 1979.

Twenty years later, Hugo Chávez took office in Venezuela, opening the doors to the Bolivarian Revolution, aware of the necessary continental character of the struggle for the emancipation of the peoples. This new impetus would lead to a period of strong rapprochement and integration between the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean. This cycle, in turn, would also be a response to the neoliberal and financial dictatorship, which had already been initiated by military governments, but which would be deepened by civilian governments in the 1980s and 1990s, once again throughout the region.

Meanwhile, new phenomena were taking shape beneath the surface, which would emerge with full force sometime after. On the one hand, identity revolutions were gaining momentum, in which indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, discriminated against and enslaved for centuries, would claim historical vindication, participation, and self-determination. Thus, they would become the government with Evo Morales in Bolivia and today part of the Colombian government in the figure of its vice-president Francia Márquez. This trend also includes the current demands for historical reparations by the Caribbean nations, which have successively assumed or are planning to assume their definitive independence from the British crown in a short period of time.

At the same time, the unstoppable feminist revolution has advanced by leaps and bounds, demanding not just a few specific rights as in the past, but a radical and more than just total equality, increasingly taking part in all social spaces and demanding to have the option to decide with greater freedom over the heavy charge imposed by nature, the cassocks and the patriarchal cultural mandates of having to procreate and be responsible for the upbringing of the new generations.

We have also seen the rise of women leaders to the highest levels of political power, such as Cristina Fernández, Dilma Rousseff or the current president of Honduras, Xiomara Castro, the current candidate of the Citizen Revolution in Ecuador, Luisa González, and many others in executive positions previously reserved only for men, such as the prefects Paola Pabón or Marcela Aguiñaga in Ecuador or the current pre-candidate for the presidency of Mexico, Claudia Sheinbaum.

In broad strokes, these are the landscapes of memory in which everyone, depending on their generational belonging, has been formed. To which should be added a certain cultural ancestry, which has undoubtedly nuanced the condition of origin of each social group and individual.

Meanwhile, a new generation has emerged in the last two decades, for whom, in general, what happened during the period of dictatorship and even neoliberalism is beginning to seem like ancient history, just as, for example, what happened between the two world wars of the 20th century is for many of us. You will agree with me that, unless a person or their family has been touched by the tragedy more or less directly, the feeling of what happened historically is not as vivid in the new generations as in the previous ones, beyond the effort they make to transfer their memories to the emerging cohorts.

And obviously, as before and because of the historical dynamic itself, while on the social surface, the changes projected by today’s graying generations are unfolding, future revolutions are being forged, sheltered from the mass media, and unforeseen by the majority of citizens and even by the most enlightened academia.

A turbulent presence of permanent change

The present of memory finds itself in a moment of strong historical turbulence, such as those that sometimes occur on flights, in which a climate of fear pervades the passengers for what might happen, being subject at such moments to the fate of a fragile aircraft. Or, to use an even more precise simile, what is experienced in places where seismic events are common, in the course of a strong and prolonged ground shaking.

The everyday objects and tools we use no longer have much in common with what we used to use in the past. Places we used to frequent no longer exist, surviving only in photographs and memories. Professions and talents that were once revered or highly sought after are now efficiently replaced by technologies and new knowledge.

Major changes are also taking place in social bonds, where family forms, work methods, possibilities to communicate, and also impediments to doing so without interference have multiplied. Language once considered a fundamental social cohesion factor, has changed significantly, drifting towards a new tower of Babel with new generational tribes and population segments.

In the almost subatomic world of intimacy, affective tendencies and gender identities have diversified, while geopolitically, the rules of the former single predominance of the West are now being challenged by a powerful multipolarity.

Even the very image of astronomical space is changing with the installation in a distant orbit of powerful lenses that allow us to see far beyond the known.

What once seemed utterly impossible is now plausible and transforms the profundity of our vision of reality.

In this uncertain and fickle panorama, large groups of people tend to seek security, certainty, something that is or at least seems immovable. Especially in populations that are increasing their longevity, as is the case in the nations of Northern Europe, East Asia, and, increasingly, those of the South American Southern Cone.

This tendency in the psychosocial background, this mechanical response in resistance to this time of severe transformations and unrecognizable landscapes, is what explains the transitory rise of retrograde options.

From this state of profound instability felt by populations, we can recognize pendulum swings such as adherence to recalcitrant and violent currents that will be used to stop and turn back the clock of history, both in the political and religious spheres. Even the practices of ecological care and everyday preoccupation with the environmental situation contain, beyond their rational aspects, a conservationist element that also fits in with the above.

This also helps us to understand why the proposals for social change that are usually put forward by progressive sectors, despite their conceptual justification, are rejected by the majority of the population, who undoubtedly yearn for a different world, but without having to undergo new disturbances or significant alterations.

In the midst of this highly significant paradox, it is worth asking ourselves if the necessary transformations should be produced without the population feeling uneasy about them: is an inverted gatopardism necessary, in which everything changes without appearing to change, as opposed to the much-vaunted traditional ‘gatopardismo’ in which no change occurs beyond an inflammatory discursive patina but lacking in real content?

On the other hand, if one affirms the need for popular competition to produce far-reaching changes in both social organization and collective consciousness, this represents a total contradiction in terms.

Or is it that groups, guided by their beliefs, introduce into their revolutions unthinkable changes that go far beyond the programs they take up as a banner at a given juncture? What margin is left then for explicit projects and the call to add intentions to them?

The future of memory

The current total population of Latin America and the Caribbean has almost quadrupled since 1950 – another major change – from 168 million to more than 660 million and will continue to grow at a somewhat slower rate until 2086, reaching 752 million, and then begin to decline. [1]

However, this growth is not uniform across age segments. According to demographic estimates, the current decade is projected to see a decline in the number of people under 30 and positive growth in the region’s adult population, especially those over 50.

Breaking down the current generational clock, we find that there are approximately six coexisting generations at the present time, four of them born in the last century, in a pre-digital era, a fifth in the transition to and after the 2000s and a sixth, between children and adolescents, fully belonging to the current times.

In terms of proportion, the under-15s now account for just under a quarter of the population, and it is estimated that in another twenty-five years, as a result of the falling birth rate and rising life expectancy, the over-60s, who today make up about half of the population, will outnumber them.

Today’s generation struggling to take on a transformative role – which we cautiously place between 15 and 30 years of age – adds another 25%, while those in the process of settling into society make up 22%. Latin Americans at the center of the generational scene, between 45 and 60 years of age, account for 17% of the total.

If we consider the speed of change and the differences that these changes are establishing in the different generations’ perception of the reality they live in, these statistics show only a growing swelling of the less dynamic groups, i.e., those less prone to change. This is not at all informative about the sign of these transformations, since none of this is linear and the generations may be able to propose reactive directions to social progress as part of their project. This can be clearly observed in a certain sector of the youth, who, contrary to what their predecessors tried to build from a more rebellious landscape, rebel in conservative or even retrograde terms.

However, at the beginning of the last decade, the world and also our region were once again shaken by strong mobilizations of young people who seemed to be protagonists of a new sensibility with very positive aspects, such as greater horizontality, the demand for real democracy, greater justice in the redistribution of wealth and gender parity, to name but a few of their most outstanding proclamations.

This generational uprising managed to occupy an important political space, yet it seems to have been absorbed by a system that at the time appeared to be mortally wounded.

Another uprising of a more complex nature, but also led by a “front line” of young people, took place shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic in Chile and Colombia, helping to remove conservative governments in those countries. The sign of this onslaught was different in Bolivia, collaborating with a coup d’état that pursued anti-revolutionary interests, and in Ecuador, a situation that was effectively manipulated by the system and paradoxically allowed a banker, now happily defeated, to enter the presidency.

What, then, is the project of the current growing generation, the generation born in an environment of full digitalization, what possibilities does it have for implementation, what resistance does it face and what will its social and political implications be in Latin America and the Caribbean? Will they be creative, reactive solutions, will they tend towards adaptation without change, towards effective and transformative action, or will they try to disengage and withdraw into themselves, losing all influence?

These are not easy questions, nor will we be able to answer them in full, but we are sure that we will be able to glimpse something of the future of memory through these folds.

First of all, the mass of information shared by the new generations today reaches all corners and social segments in almost real-time, despite systematic efforts to censor, misinform, turn it into new merchandise, or empty it of meaning. This indisputable fact allows us to infer a kind of leveling out in the content handled by most young people and, therefore, in the possibility of constituting projects with similar elements, beyond cultural differences or differences in socio-economic position. It is precisely this informational leveling out that allows us to think that, in the process, no one will want to be left behind in the enjoyment of the benefits that humanity as a whole has accumulated throughout history, which augurs new mobilizations in this sense.

Likewise, this wide avenue of possibilities opening up to the new generations stimulates a certain indecision in life choices, vertigo inherent to the broadening of horizons, contrary to the predetermined path of previous times, but which at the same time hinders the adoption of a common collective project.

On the other hand, the speed of social dynamics, sometimes bordering on absolute immediacy, promotes a sensation that hinders any idea of process or gradualism. Everything must happen now and in the “now”. This is radically opposed to the previous idea of “progress” or “upward social mobility” that required many years of formative effort, which partly explains the failure of the current educational model and the youth’s search for shorter paths (or shortcuts such as migration or even delinquency) to achieve certain goals.

At the same time, the high degree of convenience facilitated today by technological gadgets means that the very idea of “effort”, despite the enormous difficulties faced by many young people, is no longer relevant. In any case, the effort is imposed by the need to survive in an exploitative system, but it is no longer a virtue, as is the concept of “sacrifice”, so much in vogue in previous generations.

In terms of relationships, the new generations find themselves subjected to the scourge of social fragmentation, which affects them not only within their homes but also in the disarticulation of deep and immovable ties and bonds around them. This means that most probably and out of necessity, an important factor in the youth project today has to do with the search for a community in which to find shelter and with which to identify.

This clashes with neoliberal pretensions and practices, which impose increasingly individual and less human contact in all ambits already permeated by digital applications and technologies.

Meanwhile, more and more young people disbelieve the current political system and reject the inaction or ineffectiveness of representatives in responding to the severe difficulties they face. Sometimes they show their dissatisfaction by abstaining, casting a blank or null vote. On other occasions, they support a candidate who promotes himself or herself as outside the system, although this is usually a new lie.

As the possibilities of subsistence and economic peace of mind for young people within the system are minimal or non-existent, many seek alternative forms or spaces, which, although they show different and more collaborative ways of doing things, generally end up failing or being absorbed, as the general framework or bigger picture continues to be adverse.

Added to all this is something even more important. It is the existential void felt by most of this new generation because of the unease produced by the provisionality and meaninglessness of the system itself, which only promotes possession and competition as priority behaviors. A primitivism that leads to absurdity, to the proliferation of mental disorders such as depression, addictions, eating disorders, and violence against others and against themselves. It is worth mentioning here that self-harm is already the third leading cause of adolescent mortality at the regional level.

Do these first outlines allow us to sketch out a possible coherent generational program or do they merely outline a situation that is not sufficiently intelligible but certainly refractory to old habits?

We are inclined towards the latter, but this understanding invites us to affirm without hesitation that the world has already changed and the old recipes will no longer work in this one.

We are in the last stage of an “ancién regime”, as the old monarchical, aristocratic and clerical regime was called during the French Revolution. And it is highly likely that the present growing generation will be the one to turn its back on it for good. This assertion is based not only on an act of hopeful consciousness but on the total and evident failure of the system to provide effective responses to pressing social and existential needs, beyond the distraction of new technological fetishes.

Although some of today’s major problems date back a long time, the emerging youth will not adhere to the same responses that previous generations relied on in the past.

What we are trying to say is that it is necessary to deploy proposals in line with the new sensibility, without fearing the rejection that they may provoke in contemporaries from other eras. And with them, to advance in the understanding of those profound landscapes that generate adherence to certain ideologies and actions and react with skepticism in the face of novelty.

Of course, like any revolution, the next one, already underway, will contain contradictions, will be resisted by the old molds, will not fully achieve its objectives even in its most fertile cycle, and finally will be replaced in its paradigms by subsequent generations. But what is certain is that with the thunderous or silent rebellion of the new generation against the established, history will continue its advance towards the Universal Human Nation, inclusive, collaborator, parity, diverse and non-violent, the foundational utopia of the historical time we are living in.

[1] Source: Latin American and Caribbean Demographic Centre (CELADE)-Population Division of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), revision 2022 and United Nations, WorldPopulationProspects, 2022 [online]

Redacción Argentina