Latin America and Central Europe: View from Prague
By Rosendo Fraga

It was a cold and rainy autumn day at the Charles Univesity on the northern Hemisphere. The windows looked onto the Valtlava river that crosses the city, three blocks away from the the historical ‘Charles Bridge’, one of Prague’s marvellous tourist attractions.

Three blocks away but on the other direction, the Czech and Argentine flags were scorting the gates of the other University premises: the ‘Golem 2002’ exhibition, where the poem by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges referring to one of the most popular legends of the Jewish community in the Czech capital had given rise to a cultural show enhanced by incredible works of art such as Rómulo Macció’s ‘The Golem’s breath’.

In a classroom gathering professors and students from Prague, interested in Latin America -not many indeed; nor are those in this part of the world who specialize in Central Europe- we shared a roundtable composed by Czech political science expert Professor Jacques Rupnik, who runs the National Social Sciencies Foundation in Paris, Professor Jiri Kunc, one of the few Latin American experts at the Charles University in Prague and me.

As I was the foreign guest, I was honored to open the debate. I started by pointing to the historical and cultural identity of Latin America which features a political, economic and social diversity. Then I explained that the Panama Canal marked a border to the North of which Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean are located in an area of direct political, economic and cultural influence from the United States. By contrast, South America is further from the American influence and feels closer to Central Europe but the geographical distance prevents Latin America from considering a total integration to this continent unlike Central Europe which has succeeded in its attempt. The latter has been more successful than Latin America in its democratic consolidation and the integration to the globalized economy because it is already part of Europe.

Professor Rupnik was right in his views differing with my remarks. He pointed that Latin America had a much more capitalist recent past than Eastern Europe and even in authoritarian regimes such as Pinochet’s highly capitalist policies were implemented. He noted that the geographical distance was not so compelling an argument for countries such as Argentina joined the dollar economy through currency board.

I sympathized with his opinion but also pointed that Chile’s experience responds to a country accounting for only 3% of the total Latin American population and while the region had a larger capitalist background than the communist Central Europe, the populist regimes had dominated much of the last decades.

Professor Kunc wondered whether Latin America existed or was infact a literary invention as had been expressed by renowned Gabriel García Marquez in his ‘magical realism’.

He said the question is that one chooses his own past, that countries choose their history, which influences on the present time, as happens to the Czech Republic with its background of having been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for three centuries until the end of World War II.

He mentioned Mexico as a country which has made a good choice of its past in the light of its present and identified Czech traced in the Mexican culture through music. He explained something I had already heard from a Mexican Ambassador in Buenos Aires, that the wind instruments used by the Mariachis were the legacy of the Czech musicians of the court of Emperor Maximillian of Hasburg during his brief Mexican Empire in the mid-XIX century.

At some point I was compelled to reply that Latin America exists although I admit it represents a geographical, historical and cultural reality rather than a political, economic and social one.

Suddenly, students and professors began asking questions and making comments where the questions on Argentina and its crisis recurred once and again as a case that gathered strong academic interest.

Compared studies are always relative because the experiences and social processes may not be transferred. However, they might help to understand that countries are not isolated realities, let alone on the outset of the XXI century in a hyperglobalized world.

Two blocks away from the University, two days later María Kodama is scheduled to meet with Czech Hispanicists within the framework of the ‘Golem 2002’ exhibition, which Argentine Ambassador in the Czech Republic Juan Eduardo Fleming -a diplomat who knows well how to use culture as a foreign policy tool- hopes to celebrate next year in Buenos Aires by organizing an exhibition, meetings and similar activities joining Argentines and Czechs referred to the Golem.

Rosendo Fraga
Director of Centro de Estudios Nueva Mayoría

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