From the Left



A Column of the 'Not So Urgent' Sort: Shifts in Political Economy Terminology, Part I

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

I am often asked how I come up with topics for my columns, one every week. It wasn't easy at first, I respond, but once you have been doing it for a while, ideas begin to flow naturally. It helps that we live in such convulsed, rapidly changing times.

I write two types of columns: the first are "off the headlines" (i.e., three I wrote last year on the removal of Queen Elizabeth II as Barbados' head of state), while the second type I would classify as on "not so urgent" topics (i.e., a multipart column I wrote also last year on the historical meanings of Cuban food). The unseating of the queen two months after it happened is a stale topic; Cuban food is always fresh.

The first kind require swift thinking and writing and almost immediate publication, lest they become dated and irrelevant. The second sort can wait in the wings, swirling and taking shape inside my brain for months, or years, awaiting my full attention and publication on almost any week.


For my last column of 2022, the thought of writing one of those year-in-review columns crossed my mind; but only briefly: not very original and, on top of that, inevitably dark and depressing.

I also contemplated writing on congressman-elect George Santos' lie-littered candidate biography but decided against it. What else could I add when Santos himself, after a pathetically devious admission this week (referring to his blatant fabrications as embellishments), defended his actions saying, "We do stupid things in life" and "I am not a criminal." Stupid, yes; but I am not convinced that he is not a criminal. I suspect it's more a matter of not having been caught yet.

For several months, I have been meaning to write one of those "not so urgent" columns, a glossary, of sorts, on shifting political economy terminology; this week's New York Times' opinion piece "Quiz: You Can't Say That! (Or Can You?)" prompted me to write it today.

The quiz consists of 11 sets of questions asking survey takers and readers: if they "would use the following words," words like "Hispanic" (87% yes), "illegal alien" (52% yes), and "chestfeeding" as opposed to "breastfeeding" (10% yes). And to think that some (of us) self-described progressives claim that there is no such thing as political correctness, that it is an invention of the Right.

Question No. 8, "Would you use the following words to refer to this group of nations?" particularly caught my attention: "Third World" or "Global South" and "Low-Income" or "Developing."


Survey takers were asked whether they would use "Third World" or "Global South." Seventy-three percent said "yes" to the first and 85% said no to the latter. Not surprising, given that "Third World" has been used for 75 years and "Global South" is of far more recent vintage, used mostly by academics and first coined in 1969 by academic/activist Charles Oglesby, and gaining traction only in the second decade of the current century.


The terms "First World" and "Second World," like space satellites, are products of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union were the two superpowers left standing in the aftermath of WWII. The "First World" referred to a block of capitalist, industrialized nations aligned with the United States and included Canada, Western Europe, Australia and a few other nations. The "Second World" included industrialized communist states under Soviet influence: Poland, Bulgaria and the like. China, although not industrialized until recently, was often grouped under the "Second World" category.

The term "Third World" came into existence later, created to categorize non-industrial nations that were either communist (i.e., Cuba and North Korea) or capitalist (i.e., Peru and Egypt), which were ostensibly not aligned with either of the superpowers. But as with most social science typologies or categorizations, the label didn't always fit neatly. Cuba, for example, was since 1961 aligned with the USSR. Along with Yugoslavia, India and other countries, the island nation was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), formally established in 1961, gaining leadership over the movement in the 1970s and serving as NAM Summit Chair in 1979 and 2006.

More to come next week. Happy New Year!


Luis Martinez-Fernandez is the author of "Revolutionary Cuba: A History" and the forthcoming book "When the World Turned Upside Down: Politics, Culture, and the Unimaginable Evenest of 2019-2022." Readers can reach him at To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.

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