A Nordic Institute of Latin America Studies for the future

On Wednesday the 4th of March, the Nordic Institute of Latin America Studies (NILAS) was inagurated in Stockholm. This is a 50-year old dream coming true. I will be the chair of the board. This is the speech I gave at the inaguration.

Benedicte Bull, Chair of the board, at opening of NILAS

Dear excellences, colleagues, students, friends: It is an absolute honor for me to offer these words at the inauguration of the Nordic Institute of Latin American Studies, NILAS.

The idea of a Nordic institute for Latin America Studies is not new.  It was first launched in 1968 by the Nordic Council, as the third pillar of the Nordic institutes: the Africa institute was already established in Uppsala, the Asia institute in Copenhagen, and the Latin America Institute was planned to be in Oslo.

That never happened. Actually, the reason was that Norwegian politicians and researchers did not think that the tiny group of Latin America researchers in Norway at the time were able to pull it off.

So, it is a particular honor for me, as a Norwegian, to inaugurate NILAS here in Stockholm. It is a dream of half a century that has finally come through. It has come through for many reasons. I will talk about the most important last. That has a name and it is Andrés Rivarola, who has put relentless energy into this.

But his ideas would perhaps not have prospered had there not been a broader demand, a need and a desire for such an institute, that has not been present until now.

The 1960s

When the first idea of a Nordic Latin America institute was launched it was in the context of two broad drivers of global politics: the Cold War and the Third World Movement.

The interest in Latin America in the context of the latter was ignited particularly by the 1959 Cuban revolution. Before the 1960s, only a very few Scandinavian researchers, mostly anthropologists, ethnographers and archeologists, ventured into the study of Latin America. There were a few exceptions. The Instituto Iberoamericano at Gothenburg University was established already in 1939. At the University of Copenhagen a course was offered on Central American Indian Language and Culture already in 1949, and here in Stockholm, the Ibero American Library and Institute was established at the Stockholm School of Economics in 1951.

In 1969 the Ibero American institute here in Stockholm was given an independent status and a wider role as a coordinating and information center for Latin American studies in Sweden. In 1977 it was incorporated into the University of Stockholm.

The context was, among other factors, increasing groups of students that searched for the seeds of a global revolution in Latin America, or at least new impetuses for reform. Olof Palme was prime minister in Sweden, and provided leadership with his commitment to labor and social movements across the Third World, but with a particular attention to and fondness of Latin America.  

However, another part of the context that would be even more important for the development of Latin America studies was that by the 1960s, all the Nordic countries had established their own aid-agencies (Norad in 1952, Sida in 1965, Danida in the late 1960s), and needed to strengthen their basis of knowledge for their new endeavors.

The 1970s

It was another pivotal event Latin America – the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile – that really brought Latin America to the attention of both Nordic politicians and researchers. Finland got its Tapani Brortherus, Sweden got its Harald Edelstam, and Norway its Frode Nielsen. All distinguished diplomats that made a huge effort to bring jailed, persecuted and tortured members of the opposition against Agusto Pinochet to safety. 

In the aftermath, a major narrative behind Latin America studies as it was established in the Nordic countries was that of solidarity, of how to contribute to change, not only in Latin America, but in the world in general.

In 1973, the Scandinavian Association for Research on Latin America (NOSALF) was established with support from the Nordic Council, and it started to pressure for increased attention to the urgent matters of the region. All the Nordic countries, saw a new interest in Latin America studies.  In accordance with the main narrative and dominating scholarly currents of the day, a main approach to Latin America studies was dependency theory, world system theory and radical political economy.  However, in Sweden with its traditionally stronger  business relations to Latin America, also a focus on other economic issues such as regional integration emerged. In Norway, environmental issues were already back then on the agenda, and in the late 1970s strong critique against Norwegian engagement in forestry and mineral mining in Brazil. This was based on concerns for the environment and indigenous peoples, already then an important topic in Danish Latin America studies.   

The new flows of Latin Americans that fled from the dictatorships in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, but above all Chile, created new pressures for a strengthened awareness and knowledge of Latin America in the Nordic countries. A Centre for Latin American Studies was opened at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. In Norway, groups related to the Oslo Peace Research Institute emerged as the locus. Yet, a Nordic initiative was pretty much off the agenda.

The 1980s

The next boost to Latin American studies came with the Nicaraguan revolution and the wars in Central America. Across the Nordic region, this led to studies of revolutionary movements, imperialism, counterinsurgency and dependency relations. Latin America was all of a sudden the focus of world affairs and something everybody had an opinion about. Former prime minister of Norway and current General Secretary of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, recalls that he had little clue about Norwegian local politics back then, but knew every detail of the departments and municipalities of Nicaragua.

However, Central America was also divisive, as the actions of the United States in the region put the relationship to this close ally to the Nordic countries to a test. The incipient Latin America research community became a major pressure group for taking a strong stand against US involvement in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, often associated with an emerging phenomenon: the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Nordic relations were strengthened through NOSALF, and through coordination between embassies and aid-agencies, and in multilateral organizations. Yet, no one spoke of a Nordic Institute.

The 1990s

The 1970s and 1980s had been characterized politically by an attempt to balance the role of the Nordic countries as NATO allies, with those of supporters of often radical third world movements, and with proximity to the Soviet Union. The 1990s created a whole new context. Latin America fell out of focus of global politics, while democratization, market orientation and political stability strengthened business interests in the region. At the same time, aid initiatives increased and diversified into focuses on indigenous peoples, gender relations, environmental issues, peace and human rights.

The Swedish researcher, Ola Tunander, drawing on another Swedish thinker, Rudolf Kjellén, argued that the Nordic countries in this situation adopted the perspective of the geopolitics of the weak. The small countries were no longer enmeshed in the super-power rivalry or any independent attempts to dominate. Rather, their own well-being depended increasingly on global peace and the establishment of clear international rules for economic and political relations. The institutional context for this differed strongly between the Nordic countries,  particularly after Sweden and Finland joined the European union in 1995, while Norway chose to remain outside. After that, for most of the Nordic countries, the engagement in regional integration, democracy issues, development, human rights and many other topics in Latin America, were partly pursued through European institutions. In the case of Norway, the “geopolitics of the weak” found its expression in the “politics of engagement” that led it into peace negotiations in Guatemala and later Colombia, and more recently, Venezuela.

The political changes of the 1980s and the 1990s had very different consequences for Latin America studies in the different countries. In Denmark, the work situation for the any social science researcher working on third world issues got increasingly difficult. Finland, to the contrary, established the Iberoamerican Centre at the University of Helsinki in 1986, and in 1992 it started to coordinate its first Latin America Studies program, that later developed into the only PhD program on Latin American studies in the Nordic countries. Norway got its first, Latin America research coordinators, after much pressure from individual researchers as well as NOSALF, while the new attempt to establish a Nordic institute failed due to debates about its location (whether it should be Oslo or Bergen). Yet, Sweden, continued to dominate the field with its two institutes dedicated fully to Latin America studies, and with the only Nordic academic journal for Latin America studies, Iberoamericana.

The 2000s

NOSALF had organized Nordic meetings for Latin America researchers since its inception, but in 2001 the first more formal Nordic Latin America conference was organized under the name of Nordic Latin America Network (NOLAN). This led to strengthened relations between Nordic researchers, and is the immediate historical context for the emergence of NILAS.

However, several global developments affected the development of Latin America studies negatively in the years to come. The attack against the twin towers in New York the same year shifted the world’s attention  away from Latin America and towards the middle east. At the same time, globalization led to the emergence of so called “global studies” and in both Finland and Sweden regional studies, including the Iberoamerican institutes, were incorporated into broader centers of “global studies”.

At the same time, the beginning of what came to be named “the pink tide” in Latin America caught the attention of both new generations of politicians, activists and researchers, and the older generations that remembered the glory days of revolutionary movements of the 1970s. In the case of Norway, the beginning of the Pink Tide coincided with the entrance of a center-left government – and rising oil prices – giving the country both the ability and interest in strengthening relations to Latin America. In 2008 the Norwegian Network for Latin America Research (NorLARNet) was established, along with a generous funding program for Latin America research. The Nordic dimension was always present as this was led by first  a Swede – Rickard Lalander, and then a Dane – Helle Munk Ravnborg. For the following 10 years, NorLARNet provided funding for the NOLAN conferences, that became the “glue” in Nordic Latin America research. At the same time EU-Latin America relations were strengthened, with the establishment of the EU-LAC foundation and several other initiatives.

In many ways, throughout this history, the Nordic dimension has been present, but never materialized in a more solid Nordic institute – until now. What had changed? Many things.

The current context

Existing regional and global institutions are weakened at many fronts. The EU is in trouble with Brexit looming for three years before finally becoming a reality. The United States is withdrawing from a role as supporter of global institutions. New global powers compete for dominance with the old ones. With China in the obvious lead, we see the emergence of a new Eurasian order, with Russia in a new global role. 

The global competition is no longer about capitalism versus socialism or communism, but what kind of capitalism, and whether there it allows a space for democracy at all. Whereas movements in Latin America previously provided global hope, many groups that desire a more egalitarian, democratic and just future, look to the Nordic countries.

In this context, I believe there is a need for an institute that can strengthen the relations not between individual researchers or countries and Latin America, but between the Nordic research communities and Latin America as a whole.

The narrative of the last period wherein Nordic-Latin America relations boomed – in the 1970s and into the 1980s – was that of dependency relations and the fight against imperialism and military dictatorships. These phenomena have not disappeared, but they are transformed. The world has changed and we need knowledge about it to understand it, and to create new common understandings that can provide platforms for collaborative action.

We live in a globalized world, and any Nordic government or business or NGO that seek “Latin America experts” can simply bring in the best Brazilians, or Chileans or Mexicans or Colombians on this and that topic. Any Latin American country can simply get in touch with Nordic specialists. But what that will not provide is a new joint understanding of challenges and possibilities.

NILAS was born out of a desire of giving Latin America studies a stronger Nordic identity, not to make it less “latin”, but perhaps less influenced by other global powerhouses. It will be about creating a mutual understanding, a space for debating social developments, and creating a counterweight to ever more polarizing narratives about what Latin America is and means to us, and what the Nordic countries is and can mean to everyone.

The future

I have great hopes that after 50 years, finally a Nordic Institute of Latin America Studies, will succeed. The group that is now charged with filling this wonderful new creation with content has a lot of work ahead. There are also risks. We Norwegians have a long history of being a dependent “vassal state” to Sweden, and I know very well that the specialty of Andrés Rivarola is geopolitics.

However, I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we really enjoy working together and seeking joint benefits. This is real regional integration from below, but with an undisputed, visionary and energetic leader. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Andres Rivarola for his relentless work to make this happen. 

This new Nordic community has clearly defined borders, and in the tradition of the geopolitics of the weak, we don’t seek to dominate or conquer, but rather strengthen relations to all relevant actors in Europe and beyond. We have already welcomed our friends from Salamanca, from Hamburg and Paris as “honorary Nordics” and there is space for more.

I would like to end by saying that I am proud and happy to be a part of this new chapter in the history of Nordic Latin America research and I am quite convinced that this will be a fun, exciting, important one. 

By Benedicte Bull
Published Mar. 12, 2020 11:12 PM - Last modified Mar. 13, 2020 12:31 PM
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La Bullatina

Professor Benedicte Bull's blog on Latin American politics, development and the environment, and global developments of relevance for it.