Argentina’s Expropriation of Repsol’s YPF (A Reversal of Fortune): Understanding the Decolonial Turn in Latin America

Far from being an implausible paradox, the difference between what is happening in Europe and in Latin America lies at the epicenter of a 500-year long farce: coloniality. In a monumental reversal of fortune, the peoples of Latin America are deconstructing coloniality from its core, while within Europe this seems to be the new tune of power.

What is occurring in Europe—the “Troika” devouring Greece, turning its people into new colonial and oppressed political subjects, the new racism against Spanish and Portuguese laziness, the Irish meltdown as a sign of provincial recklessness and lack of discipline—has been pretty much the history of Latin America, that is, until now.

Today (3 May 2012), the Argentine National Congress is due to approve President Fernández’s plan to expropriate and nationalize Spanish petrol giant Repsol’s majority shares in Argentina’s leading energy company YPF. On 1 May 2012, Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, announced the nationalization of yet another Spanish electrical company (Red Eléctrica Corporación), adding to a long list of expropriations since 2005.

Argentina’s argument is simple: Repsol reported a profit of 15.278 billion dollars between 1999 and 2011, and most of it was shipped back to Spain, like in the old days, when gold, silver, cotton and sugar were exported to the Kingdom, leaving the colonies not only empty handed but with their social fabric destroyed. Repsol, along with other oil and electrical companies in Bolivia, were given absurd and absolute guarantees from neo-liberal governments in Latin America, that is, before the decolonial turn in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and, of course, in Lula’s government in Brazil.

Sure, the US and the EU are raging, demanding respect for the pillars of liberalism—such as legal certainty—which amounts to nothing more than coloniality in disguise. The European model has not only failed miserably outside the walls of Europe, but now reveals its excruciating flaws within its own protected compound of supposed rationality, liberty and social prosperity. Now they are discovering for themselves how the “invisible hand” is inextricably linked with systemic poverty.

To understand what is happening in Latin America it is crucial to understand the passage of history from colonialism to coloniality. The first thing to take into account is that the Americas were not incorporated into a preexisting capitalist system. Rather, there simply could not be any capitalism without the colonization of the Americas.

As we are told by Argentinian philosopher, Walter Mignolo, coloniality is the hidden side of modernity. This bipolarity—modernity/coloniality—means that coloniality is constitutive of modernity, so there is no modernity without coloniality. This strange but coordinated symbiosis allows us to grasp the double nature of modernity. Within the West, modernity means the deployment of a logic of liberties and prosperity, while its colonial side means extraction and racism, domination and exclusion. Of course, the dream of prosperity and liberty is a charade even within Europe. The vital thing to grasp is the impossibility of splitting or dividing these categories, for they rely on each other to function.

Theology and evangelization accomplished the first period of dominance. Nonetheless, at the end of the 17th century, a shift in the paradigm occurred. Through a secular and commercial language based on profit and the free circulation of commodities, a model hailing from England, Holland and France overtook the Spanish-Portuguese approach. So we can say that, while Spain considered America an extension of Europe (an ecumenical church), England considered the world an open market. This second phase was marked by an Anglo-French combination of economic growth and rationalism framed as a developmental crusade. When the United States—the greatest military and economic power ever known—entered the scene, it resulted in the refashioning and strengthening of the British capitalist-imperial apparatus, cutting off in a stroke any link with British, vernacular and feudal hierarchies. It intensified the dream of a free market through an expansive constitution and through the demolition of classic forms of national sovereignty.

The first phase of colonization is intimately linked with the theological prolongation of Europe in America, i.e. Westernization. The second, as put by Edward Said, is the orientalization of the rest of the world. The first depends on the purity of race as the main standard of occupation, while the second is all about the emergence of the bourgeoisie and the planetary implantation of capitalism and the consequent division of labour, making itself concrete in coloniality.

The first radical difference imposed by Europe is the hegemony of its knowledge. The rules are imposed rigidly and any knowledge that does not comply with the rules of the game, meaning folklore, the subjective, the emotional or sacred, are expelled as inept and brutish forms of conceiving the world. Hence a racist and utterly narcissistic knowledge that can only be held together by its own terms of validity is built and irrigated as a universal project that destroys any other ways of conceiving and living in the world. Hereafter, the colonial subject is declared, as Hardt & Negri have pinpointed, as an absolute other, the negation of being white and European, of being a liberal and a rationalist. So being a colonial subject has meant being in a catastrophic state of cultural and political error.

The Enlightenment in Nueva Granada (now roughly Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador) was, as Castro-Gómez lucidly puts it, not a “simple displacement of meanings programmed from a neutral ‘point zero’ that would have adopted an original text, but rather a strategy of social positioning garnered by the ‘Enlightened’ creole against subaltern groups”. There is, then, a fundamental ramification of colonialism. On one side, its diffusion and imposition from Europe, on the other, the benefitting of colonial national elites through formal independence, whereby Enlightenment is the mechanism through which power is affirmed as a suppression of difference and the continuity of racial privileges. What these white elites accomplished was a formal departure from the metropolis. They reproduced the bulk of the principles of modernity/coloniality—such as the nation state and the rule of law—as a way of perpetuating their hegemony and of encouraging new forms of racism and domination. The processes of independence in Latin America did not destroy coloniality, it simply exacerbated its more acute forms. They were just a way for the white colonial elites to grasp power in a stronger form. Our history is therefore the history of oppression fathomed by such elites against indigenous peoples, blacks and mestizos.

Coloniality survives colonialism and is kept alive in constitutions, books, in criteria of academic performance, cultural canons, common sense and aesthetics. According to Maldonado-Torres, as modern subjects we breathe coloniality every day, all the time. Coloniality is not a mere consequence or residual form of colonialism, coloniality is the inevitable product of modern discourse with Latin America as a testing ground for Empire and capitalism.

The true problem of liberal universalism is that it was never meant to be an authentic universality. Terms such as “rights” and “freedom” are no more than miniscule concepts elevated fraudulently to a space of universal representation in order to overwhelm and disenfranchise difference. In this sense, the colonial subject is given a flawed form of election, either to embrace free markets, human rights and constitutions or to be deemed and treated as a barbarian, a rogue or a terrorist. But free markets, human rights and constitutions are the very mechanisms through which coloniality becomes pervasive and indisputable.

Argentina’s expropriation of Repsol’s shares can be seen as a way of undoing the perverse forms of coloniality that have deprived most Latin Americans of the opportunity to realize their own being in the world. Following Bolivia’s Vice President, Alvaro Garcia-Linera, the new political model supersedes the liberal republicanism that fragmented and privatized the commons. In this sense, we stand before a new type of politics, where the commons are administered and shared collectively. The only way to protect this new political truth is through a plural economy, a strong commons, where the strategic activities of the country lead to an economic surplus that is reinvested across all productive sectors.

In truth, Bolivia did not acquire its independence in 1825, but in 2005. Up until that point, the model of the state was colonial, held together by a despicable and racist elite who welcomed foreign intervention. As Garcia-Linera once remarked, coloniality is a global demon and the only way to defeat it is with another sort of globalization, not of financial capital or militarization, but of people power.

Rich and novel forms of knowledge that are part and parcel of the new Latin American landscape, such as Pasha Mama and Sumak Kawsai, may even help the West to escape the terrible mess it has created for itself before it becomes fully colonized by its own tradition. There is hope: look to Latin America.

Ricardo Sanin Restrepo is Professor of Legal Theory at the Universidad Javeriana Bogota-Colombia

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Ricardo Sanín Restrepo

Ricardo Sanín is a pro­fessor of legal and polit­ical theory and teaches in sev­eral in­sti­tu­tions across Latin America. Visiting profesor at Universidad Central de Quito, Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad de Mexico (UACM), Universidad San Luis de Potosí (Mexico) PUC Rio de Janeiro, Universidade Federal de Ceará-Brasil. Guest Lecturer at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), University of California in Berkeley, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Universidad de Valencia-Spain, Universidade Federal de Goias-Brasil. 

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