Volume VI, Number 1, Spring 2010 · Americas

"Review of Public Intellectuals in Contemporary Latin America" by László Kovács

László Kovács is a doctoral student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Email:

Public Intellectuals in Latin AmericaPublic Intellectuals in Contemporary Latin America
Avital H. Bloch, Rogelio de la Mora and Hugo Cancino, eds.
University of Colima, Colima México and Alborg University, Denmark
2007, pp. 191, ISBN 970-95357-0-6


The year 2007 was marked by a phenomenon that could be named as the end of ideologies, according to most theoreticians working in the fields of the humanities as well as that of social and political sciences. However, in contemporary Latin-America, value and belief systems are still flourishing, radiating through the political and intellectual production of many prominent intellectuals. The aim of the contributors to the volume Public Intellectuals in Contemporary Latin America, edited by Avital H. Bloch, Rogelio de la Mora and Hugo Cancino and published as a joint project of the University of Colima, México and Aalborg University, Denmark in 2007, is to explore how the subcontinent’s social and political history is marked by the activities of public intellectuals that represent intersections between diverse disciplines and socio-cultural activities in a given geographical area. They are, to quote the book, “persons whose main preoccupations are ideas, their articulation, and their broader circulation” (7). Authors from diverse universities, backgrounds and scientific affiliations have gathered to expose diverse arguments and to “describe and analyse their significance and impact in different societies across the continent, especially during times of change or crisis” (7).

Preoccupation with Latin-American countries, as well as their evolution has gained even more prominence now that in most countries democratic transitions have taken place from previous authoritarian regimes that resorted to social violence and political restrictions insofar. The figure of the Latin-American intellectual situated in the public domain seems to be an adequate mediator between the authors’ concerns and the concrete historical situations of the given contexts. Latin America has always been treated as a sensitive subject in many regards. The history of the southern continent is marked by conquest, repression, genocide, oppression, slavery, cultural, social and racial idiosyncrasies, several interventions of the USA, etc. The stance authors take here can be described as cautious at best, employing a cross-disciplinary approach towards the social phenomena they analyze.

Their concerns concentrate around six themes: the diffusion of ideas and movements, the notion of hegemony, the concept of gender and the lack of gender equity, the role of intellectuals in regime transitions, and the blending of politics and culture. The articles of the volume provide deep insights into the above-mentioned issues; what is missing is a deeper engagement with the topics (a lacuna easily understandable in the case of a book of this size), and perhaps concise conclusions for the future. Instead, authors prefer to historicize current issues of crucial importance in Latin America by conveying the contemporary state of Latin America into past issues that uncover the lack of engagement with the underlying cause of the subcontinent’s socio-political evolution, which, in certain cases could be pinned down to the interests of the USA in the region. Overall, Public Intellectuals in Contemporary Latin America promises much more than it finally achieves; the term “contemporary” often signals here a past that is only in parts connected with the present of Latin America, which includes seven out of the twenty countries covered by the very geographical term. Nevertheless, this fact does not diminish the obvious merits of the contributors, who have managed to create truly encyclopedic, thorough and insightful histories of Latin American public intellectuals who deserve greater attention than they have received up to this point.

Public Intellectuals in Contemporary Latin America includes, besides an introduction by the editors, nine papers on diverging topics. The first essay by Carolyn Sorkin entitled “Chilean Social Scientists after the Transition: Opposing Roles for the Former Opposition” (11-41) deals with how Chilean intellectuals during the Pinochet regime have evolved since the democratic transition of their country. After a brief historical introduction, Sorkin sets up three categories for what she sees as “social scientists”: the autoflagelantes (self-recriminators), the autocomplacientes (the self-satisfied) and the apartados (non-participants). The author justifies this setup with the example of personalities such as Manuel Antonio Garretón, Tomás Moulián, Eugenio Tironi, José Joaquín Brunner and Martín Hopenhayn and by resorting to the “mitigating factors” of economic and social particularities of Chile, and the fact that in ideology, nothing is black-and-white or right-or-wrong. Although this paper in not pronouncedly critical, it manages to create a system in which it wisely conceptualizes Chilean intellectuals and their creative activities. What is missing from the argument is a more direct engagement with historical uncertainties. Sorkin slightly overlooks the decisive role the USA played in changing the social and economical context of the country: for example, the fact that Allende’s opponents might have been sponsored by the US government and that Pinochet himself was the solution on the part of the USA to put an end to the spread of leftist ideologies.

Pablo Rolando Cristoffanini essay entitled “The Modernity Discourse of Chilean Intellectuals” (118-29) could be an organic continuation of the paper discussed above. It is a text that describes in detail those intellectuals whom Sorkin calls autocomplacientes. They are the ones who represent the neo-liberal ideology that holds in itself an extreme form of liberalism, especially what government roles are concerned. This model is based on an uncritical acquisition and consumption of technology, according to intellectuals such as Eugenio Tironi, which might or might not imply social liberation. Cristoffanini warns about the misery technology combined with capital can produce: “absurd examples of this […] include wearing fake cell phones or driving non-air-conditioned cars with their windows up during the summer” (124). He also stresses the fact that what the neoliberals present as a homogeneous progress is in fact a multiple system where a huge gap separates the poor from the rich. The author identifies the autocomplacientes with a “naïve and biased vision” and points out that it is the dependence on the capital that determines, in a one-way relationship, the evolution of a given society.

Besides Chile, it is Mexico that receives special attention in the book. Rogelio de la Mora’s “The Role of Intellectuals in Truth Commissions in Peru and Mexico” (91-117), Hugh Bartling’s “The Democratic Vision of Subcomandante Marcos: Local Visions, Global Portents” (130-47), and Avital H. Bloch’s “The Journal Vuelta and the Emergence of Mexican Neoconservatism” (148-68) deal with different implications of Mexican political and social situation in the second half of the 20th century. De la Mora emphasizes that in Peru public intellectual discussions were fuelled by government and opposition radical group violence and its consequences, while in Mexico, “due to tits constitutional limitations, no truth commission has yet been established” (116-7). Bartling’s article introduces a somehow alternative perspective to the other texts found in this volume, which makes it akin in its approach to Hugo Cancino’s analysis of Ernesto Guevara in “The Ideological Thought of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara” (65-78), who claimed that Che was a “modern intellectual in the Gramscian sense” (78). Bartling’s text deals with Subcomandante Marcos, the spokesperson for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN), who ‘sells’ this movement through the proper exploitation of global media as a revolutionary initiative. The aim of this movement is to implement a radical democracy, as opposed to the hierarchical and corrupt form of government set up by the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional). Subcomandante Marcos, following January 1, 1994, became soon world-wide known “sharing the lineage” with “Simón Bolivar, Francisco Villa, Augusto Sandino, Emiliano Zapata, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara” (131); his speeches consist of paradoxes, rhetorical devices, all bound within the aura of the guerilla mask he wears (“I am willing to take off my mask if Mexican society takes off the foreign mask that it anxiously put on years ago” (133), which allows every Mexican to identify with him, and, at the same time, for the global media to present him in its entire theatricality. Cristoffanini’s paper is characterized by a thorough and scientifically justified scrutiny of Marcos’ activities; it is a serious analysis that presents Marcos and his ideas as “salient” that can inspire “diverse attempts towards progressive social change” (147). Bloch’s essay considers Mexican intellectuals on the ‘other’ side of the barricade; she discusses those who converged around the journal Vuelta: Octavio Paz, Gabriel Zaid, Enrique Krauze and Jaime Sánchez Susarrey. These intellectuals believed in a liberal society with an economy where a “mild” capitalist repression was necessary to ensure order and progress, and they strongly opposed authoritarian regimes. Revolutions, they claimed, “resort to violence” and are characterized by “obsession, anti-historical utopianism, lack of pragmatism, and failure to learn,” and, “ultimately produce totalitarian regimes” (152). These intellectuals considered their ‘enemies’ some of the leftist thinkers like Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Julio Cortázar, and strongly believed in a utopian version of capitalism, which seemed able to produce benefits for all integrants of society. In this context, Bloch analyzes how the category of “neoconservatives” can fit to include the “_Mexican autocomplacientes_” and successfully maps out important connections between local politics and global connections with other countries and political traditions (nevertheless connecting Paz, the Noble-prize poet’s political activities to his moral beliefs).

Public Intellectuals in Contemporary Latin America further deals with several interesting cases and views several men and women in position of power and influence: Gioconda Belli, Ernesto Guevara, Alfonso Arinos de Melo Franco, or Beatriz Sarlo – and provides a historicized, colorful description of their activities, referring to materials written and published by and about them. In “Intellectual Prestige and Public Frustration: Ambiguities of Public Intellectuals in Brazil” (42- 64) Fernando Lattman-Weltman examines the public life of Brasil’s Afonso Arinos de Melo Franco (1905-1990), who himself “emphasized the externally imposed character of his political career in his memoirs” (47) and writings. “How the World Determined the Verb: Gioconda Belli, a Poet Forged in the Action” (79-90) by Priscilla Gac-Artigas uncovers the life and political work of Nicaraguan-Italian Gioconda Belli, woman, activist and writer that identified herself by the place she lived in, claiming: I am Nicaraguan (61)”. She is today of not only of the most respected intellectuals of her country but also the “bravest figures of Latin American revolutionary history” (90). Dora Barrancos’s “Beatriz Sarlo: The Fervor of Commitment” (169-89) presents Beatriz Sarlo, the Argentinean literary critic who examined the ways in which intellectuals influenced changes in Argentina during the 60s, 70s and 80s.

The volume’s achievement lies in its anthology-like approach to gather the ideas and achievements of a number of significant public intellectuals in Latin America; were the authors given the opportunity to express themselves in greater detail, the readers could have, indeed, hold in hand an encyclopedia, since Latin-America is an immense continent with radically diverging colour locales, with its peculiar political, cultural and social differences, and with varied histories that include revolutions, transitions, dictatorships, wars, continuous foreign interventions and inner tensions, many of which are still unresolved. Despite the difficulty of the topic, Public Intellectuals in Contemporary Latin America successfully embarked on a necessarily restricted enterprise in pointing out to the tip of the iceberg, the most visible part of how Latin American intellectuals see the problems and also how these are interpreted from the perspective of the world outside Latin-America. This book employs a legitimate strategy by exploring thoughts of public personalities who serve as intellectual crossroads and presents its research findings with legitimate tools, making use of sociology, political science, cultural studies, literary analysis, post-marxism, gender studies and feminism. Public Intellectuals in Contemporary Latin America proves an engaging and provocative reading to readers who already know something about (the history of) the subcontinent, and is a truly pleasant introduction to the not yet initiated readers into Latin American intellectual affairs.