Social Movements and Leftist Governments in Latin America: Introduction



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Social Movements and Leftist Governments in Latin America: Introduction

Gary Prevost, Harry E. Vanden, Carlos Oliva Campos



[A] Social Movements In Context

The last decade in Latin America has witnessed two important simultaneous and interrelated developments: the rise in prominence of social movements, and the election of a number of left and center-left governments. The social movements have ranged from the broad, community organized “piqueteros” of Argentina that brought down three governments in the space of one month in 2001 to the indigenous-based movements of Ecuador and Bolivia that have been instrumental in toppling five governments in the two countries within the last decade, the Landless Movement in Brazil (MST), Afro-Colombians resisting displacement in a region coveted by investors, the Cocalaros and the mobilizations against water privatizations and gas pipeline investments in Bolivia, to the Zapatistas in Mexico, who burst on the scene to challenge the formation of NAFTA and the marginalization of the mostly indigenous peasants in Chiapas. The social movements of Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia are complemented across the region by a myriad of organizations that engage on a range of issues from land rights to women’s rights to environmental concerns. These groups have been studied in detail under the rubric of “new social movements,” but they are equally a continuation of a long history of social movements in Latin American history that have resisted the domination of the continent by colonialism, neo-colonialism and native elites for centuries and more recently have engaged in vigorous forms of collective action that have reinvigorated the political struggle for economic and social justice in the context of globalized resistance. They have also continued to develop ever wider repertoires of contentious actions and ever stronger and more dynamic forms of participatory democracy. These movements have been the focus of a wide range of academic studies in the past decade. This work will draw most heavily in its analysis on the framework provided by Richard Stahler-Sholk, Harry E.Vanden, and Glen Kuecker articulated in their 2008 volume, Latin American Social Movements in the 21st Century: Resistance, Power, and Democracy. The primary argument of the authors is that while the recent social movements are grounded in centuries-long struggle of Latin Americans against colonialism, neo-colonialism and elite domination, they have brought new forms of struggle into play often with somewhat different political objectives than their predecessors. Other key scholars providing a reference point to the analysis of the authors include the work of Sonia Álvarez, Evelína Dagino and Arturo Escobar, eds. Culture of Politics, Politics of Culture, Re-visioning Latin American Social Movements, 1998, Joe Foweraker, Theorizing Social Movements, and Sidney Tarrow’s important 1998 contribution to our understanding of social movements in a broad context, Power in Movement: Social Movements Contentious Politics. Other works influential in the analysis are Deborah Yashar, Contesting Citizenship in Latin America: The Rise of Indigenous Movements and the Post Neoliberal Challenge, 2005, James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer’s Social Movements and State Power: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, 2005, and Susan Eckstein, Power and Popular Protest, Latin American Social Movements, 2001, and Margaret Keck and Kathyrn Sikkink. Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics, 1998.1

How can we understand the evolution of social movements during the past two decades in the context of the past? These movements have a rich history which cannot be developed here in great detail but as is the case today they arose out of the social condition of the continent. That is the poverty and inequality that was the legacy of centuries of Spanish and Portuguese colonization followed by British, French and North American neocolonialism and the ever more intense internationalization of capitalism. Earlier centuries had witnessed primarily rural, peasant based movements but the twentieth century also saw the growth of labor-based movements grounded in the region’s extractive industries and nascent manufacturing sectors. The twentieth century movements were often influenced by Marxist and in a few cases anarchist ideas. For the Marxist-influenced movements this meant that the objectives of a workers’ or peasants’ movement were frequently channeled through the efforts of political parties, both reformist and revolutionary.2 The movements were grounded in the living conditions of their members but ultimately subordinated to party structures. In all of these cases, the parties of the Left did not generally gain state power, so these movements remained outside of government as an oppositional force. However, Latin America did have two unique models of the role of social movements in the political process. In both Mexico and Argentina traditional workers movements were co-opted by government leaders Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) and Juan Perón (1943-1955) to play a key role in the maintenance of political power by these leaders in return for an improvement in the standard of living for the working people. This arrangement, dubbed corporatism by political scientists, became deeply imbedded in Mexico providing the party of Cárdenas, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), unbroken rule until 2000. In the case of Argentina, the party Perón built has sustained itself successfully over almost seventy years to again be the dominant force in Argentine politics.3

Before proceeding to an analysis of the relationship between contemporary Latin American social movements and the region’s progressive governments it is also necessary to provide some background to the contemporary social movements and the political context in which they have emerged over the last twenty years. The fall of the East European socialist camp, which began in 1989 with the political revolutions in Eastern Europe and culminated with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 opened a new era of international relationships known as the Post Cold War. President George H.W. Bush declared that there would be a New World Order dominated by democracy and free enterprise (i.e. capitalism), freed from the presence of the socialist countries and their drag on the world economy. It was argued that the mechanisms of the free market if adhered to by all governments, including those of the less developed world, would lead to a world of greater prosperity for all, including those in the poorer countries who had been marginalized traditionally. These views were operationalized in what became known as the Washington Consensus which was to be implemented worldwide through the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The key ideas were reduced government spending and downsizing, privatization of state run utilities and industries, and trade liberalization carried out through regional trade agreements and the launching of the World Trade Organization as the third and final leg of the International Financial Institution (IFI’s) first envisioned at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. In the early nineties these ideas resonated well with the political elites in Latin America as well as all of the region’s governments, with the exception of Cuba. This even included the traditionally nationalistic government of Argentina, which also embraced the neoliberal Washington Consensus model. The high water mark of this political consensus occurred at the First Summit of The Americas meeting convened by U.S. President William Clinton in Miami in December 1994. The summit of heads of state, to which Fidel Castro was not invited, enthusiastically endorsed the idea of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a hemispheric wide customs union that would be fully implemented by 2005 along strongly neoliberal lines.

However, these detailed plans would eventually go off track and seventeen years later the idea of the Free Trade Area of the Americas is a dead letter. The defeat of the FTAA came about as the result of a variety of factors. Ultimately it was opposition to the pact by several key governments in Latin America-- Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil in particular-- that doomed the project. To understand how these governments came to voice the strong negative positions that killed the idea it is necessary to analyze how opposition to the FTAA within Latin American civil society developed, how the opposition was mobilized by an array of social movements, and finally how the anti-FTAA, anti-neoliberal sentiment was reflected in the election of governments of the left and center-left across the region, beginning with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in December of 1998.

The starting point for the breakdown of the Washington Consensus occurred when the promises that these policies would lead to better social and economic indicators for the region’s poor majority was not realized, especially in the key countries of Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. In each of the three, beginning with Venezuela in the late 1980s, aggressively neoliberal government policies were implemented that involved privatization of state-owned companies and a cutting of government services. These policies generally did cut inflation and stimulate macroeconomic growth. The control of runaway inflation that had marked the so-called “lost decade” of Latin American economies in the 1980s was popular across all classes. However, beyond cutting inflation these policies did little to improve the lives of the majority poor and the consequent higher unemployment rates and cuts in government subsidies actually worsened the situation of growing numbers of poor Latin Americans. Nor did they improve the horrible disparity in wealth and income that has long been Latin America´s nemesis. The macroeconomic gains served to improve the circumstances of the region’s better off citizens and in the process further widened the gap between the rich and poor. The objective conditions of the people in Latin America most negatively affected by the neoliberal reforms were reflected first in mobilizations of Latin American civil society that came from a variety of sources, some traditional and others that were new. The 1989 uprising in Caracas and other Venezuelan cities (the Caracazo) is here representative of the growing anger of the masses when confronted with structural adjustment and neoliberal policies.

Against this historical backdrop it is important to analyze the new dimensions that emerged full blown in the last twenty years, the phenomenon that has been called the “new social movements.” These movements have come to full fruition during the era when Latin American countries have returned to greater political democracy following the era of the 1960s to the 1980s when key Latin American countries like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay were under the rule of brutal military dictatorships. In reality many of these “new social movements” representing women, the indigenous, human rights concerns, Latin Americans of African heritage, and religious reformers emerged during the era of the military dictators. Some new social movements like the Mothers of the Disappeared in Chile and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina arose directly in response to the military repression but most of the others emerged first during the military era as the result of deteriorating economic condition for wide sectors of the population and wider international factors emanating from different corners of the world. The winds of change in the Roman Catholic Church, embodied in the movements of Liberation Theology, were initiated by the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965), and the meeting of the Latin American bishops in Medellin in 1968.4 The rise of women’s movements is part of a second wave of feminism that derived from the push for women’s equality in late 1960s in the United States and elsewhere.5 The consciousness of African heritage was grounded in the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s in the United States and the Caribbean.6 Greater consciousness on the plight of the first citizens of the hemisphere came in part from United States and Canadian based movements, Hemispheric gatherings of indigenous peoples and then gained resonance in the wider world through the awarding of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize to Guatemalan indigenous leader Rigoberta Menchú on the 500th anniversary of the Columbus voyage.7

These international factors, united with the local conditions and new dimensions of globalization on the ground in Latin America, resulted in the emergence of these movements across the continent beginning in the 1980s but flowering in the 1990s. The 1990s in Latin America was a time when conservative, neoliberal governments pursued a political agenda that ran counter to the needs and issues of masses of Latin Americans and the social movements described above and formed in previous years. The changed situation was that these new social movements could organize openly with full legal status, freed from the previous likelihood that their political organizing and street demonstrations would be crushed by harsh military repression. Authorities might use the police to break up certain kinds of more militant actions, such as strikes and land occupations, but their organizations were no longer banned, nor were their leaders killed or placed in jail for long periods of time. Indeed, they found that they had an increasing number of spaces in civil society in which they could operate and organize

The social movements that have arisen in recent years in Latin America have been marked by several key attributes. They have tended to seek autonomy from the traditional political parties, to practice horizontal and participatory processes in decision making and to seek social justice based on race/ethnicity, gender and/or traditional marginalization from the political process or economic benefits. These principles have engendered some rethinking of traditional concepts of revolution in the context of seeking fundamental social change. For decades the concept of social change was linked to armed revolution in Latin America and a commitment to construct socialism with the Cuban experience as the guide. Often connected to the paradigm were political parties of a vanguard nature. The language and tactics of the contemporary movements have gone in a different direction; tactically they have focused on non-violent direct action and programmatically they have stressed broad themes of social and economic justice without an explicit commitment to radical socialism. Emblematic of the approach is the commonly heard declaration “another world is possible.” This phrase became a popular rallying cry of social movements that came together in the last decade at the World Social Movement in Porto Alegre, Brazil and Caracas, Venezuela and at numerous alternative Summits of the Americas (e.g. Mar del Plata, Argentina in 2005). Scholars of the contemporary social movements also emphasize that these movements arose during the era of the neoliberal free market project that began with the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s and continued with the imposition of the so-called Washington Consensus of the 1990s. Many Latin American governments led by Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil implemented such reforms in the 1990s but their general failure to achieve economic and social success led to a questioning of the principles in the new century. However, the power of these programs and the earlier Latin American military regimes of the 1960s and 1970s severely damaged the political capabilities of the traditional parties and social movements. It was that crisis of the traditional working class based labor movements and many political parties that created the political space for new social movements to then come to the fore to resist the projects of the Washington Consensus.

Beyond the fact that the movements which emerged full blown in the 1990s faced a different, more open Latin American political climate more favorable to dissent, one is prone to ask, what about them was “new”? Clearly part of their “newness” was that they were raising issues that were recent in the Latin American political scene and often were issues not being raised in a serious way by political parties of either the left, middle or the right: women’s rights, black rights, gay and lesbian rights, environmental issues, and indigenous concerns, continued marginalization of the masses. In other cases the issues were not new, for example, unemployment and workers rights in Argentina. The picketers’ movement backing the unemployed of Argentina’s cities was a new phenomenon discussed in detail in the Argentina chapter. The issues raised by Brazil’s landless movement, the MST, was raising a time honored issue, land reform, but using a myriad of tactics including actual provision of services for those engaging in the traditional tactic of land take-over and occupation.

Another area of interest in the new social movements is in the arena of tactics and how they contested power. Many of the tactics and political actions that were employed were not unprecedented but some were, quite novel, for example, cortar ruas (closing streets) and other actions were employed by the piqueteros in Argentina. The indigenous movements and their supporters in Bolivia and Ecuador utilized the tactic of blocking ground access to the capital city and transit on other major thoroughfares by barricading roads with material at hand and in the process stalling much of the transit and commercial activity of their countries. Twice in each country within the last decade this tactic succeeded in forcing the resignation of elected governments. Massive mobilization and occupation of central spaces in the capital and other major cities was also employed. In both countries the dominant issues were that the indigenous majorities were being marginalized economically and politically and that the established government was selling off the country’s assets and sovereignty to foreign interests. The issue was not new but their articulation and the swiftness of the movements’ success was startling. In both cases new elections eventually brought to power the progressive governments of Evo Morales and Rafael Correa. The success of the movement’s tactics in Bolivia and Ecuador must be credited in part to their creative actions and the changed political climate. In an earlier era of military rule such non-violent acts of political protest would likely have been broken up by the army and the disruptions to the commercial life of the country prevented.



The new social movements have also been seen as adopting a different stance toward the political parties, largely refusing to interact with them and remaining in a more independent stance, less available to be co-opted. This observation is reasonably accurate, especially in comparison to movements of the twentieth century that were wedded to traditional parties of the left. Such an independent position was natural, because the movements often arose outside of the political party structures which ignored their issues. This phenomenon is not unique to Latin America. When similar movements arose in Europe and the United States, their issues were not generally championed by the mainstream parties, even those on the left. However, in the North, eventually their issues were adopted and the independence of these movements came to be significantly compromised. This can especially be seen with women’s and environmental movements in Europe and the United States where, following adoption of their ideas by mainstream parties, the goals of these movements were either fully or partly reached, demonstrating that cooptation is not necessarily a negative result for the social movement. That level of cooptation has not fully arrived in Latin America but with progressive governments in power across the region, the possibilities for cooptation become greater. It is significant that the greatest amount of cooptation in the region occurred in the country with the longest time period of progressive governments, Chile. Another key factor in cooptation may be the ability of the progressive government in power to co-opt social movements and some of their leaders, and may turn on their ability or willingness to make major gains on behalf of the movement’s goals. For example, in the United States the civil rights movement became wedded to the Democratic Party because leaders of that party in the Congress and White House delivered on major reforms of civil rights laws in the United States in the mid 1960s. In contrast, the government of Luis Inácio da Silva (Lula) in Brazil was unwilling to make any significant concession in the area of land reform. As a result, the landless movement does not have much to show for its backing of Lula in the 2002 and 2006 elections and has remained politically independent and critical of government policy in this area.

[A] Electoral Victories of the Left

The past decade has also witnessed the electoral triumph of a number of political parties and coalitions of the left and center-left. The trend started with the election of populist challenger Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998. Chávez has revised the constitution, created mechanisms of political participation and access to services for hither-to-fore marginalized neighborhood residents, has been reelected twice and he and his supporters been able to mobilize popular support to defeat a coup and a referendum designed to remove him from power and stop his reforms. Further, he has moved significantly to the left, committed to what he has labeled “twenty-first century socialism” and launched several region-wide anti-neoliberal projects, most importantly the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).” In 2002 the Chávez victory was followed by the election of socialist Tabaré Vásquez in Uruguay, populist Lúcio Gutiérrez in Ecuador, and most importantly, Worker’s Party leader, Luiz Inácio da Silva (Lula) in Brazil in his fourth run for the presidency. Lula reelected for a second term in 2006 and his anointed successor, Dilma Roussef extended Workers Party control of the Brazilian presidency until 2015 with her October 2010 landslide victory. Also, in Uruguay ex-Tupamaro guerrilla and socialist José Mujica triumphed in 2008 to continue the domination of the leftist Frente Amplio. In 2003 Nestor Kirchner was elected president in Argentina on a political platform that returned the Peronist Justice Party to its traditional center-left stance following a long detour to center-right neoliberalism under Carlos Menem; this leftward tilt was validated by the election of Christina Kirchner in 2007. The momentum of progressive electoral victories was also manifested with the 2005 election of socialist Evo Morales to the presidency of Bolivia as the country’s first indigenous leader. He was reelected in 2009 with 64% of the vote and has carried out broad constitutional reform that has moved the country in a progressive direction against the wishes of the long ruling traditional oligarchs. The last five years also have seen the election of center-left candidates Rafael Correa and Fernando Lugo in Ecuador and Paraguay. Lugo’s election in Paraguay in 2008 on a left platform ended the long hold of the country’s oligarchy on the office of the presidency. Correa was first elected in 2006 following the removal of previous president Lúcio Gutiérrez by social movement led massive street demonstrations. Correa was reelected in 2009, validating progressive constitutional reforms enacted during his first term. Central America was also not immune to the leftward trend. In 2006 Daniel Ortega, long time leader of the once revolutionary Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), returned to power after a sixteen year hiatus, and in 2007 center-left candidate Álvaro Colom won a surprising victory in Guatemala breaking a more than fifty year hold on power by the right. In 2008 Faribundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) Party candidate Mauricio Funes broke two decades of rightist control when he was elected president in 2009.

In Honduras President Manuel Zelaya began to drift to the left in Honduras after his election in 2005. However, a coup d’etat ultimately resulted in his removal from power by the traditional elites in June 2009; but the coup also stimulated the development of new social and political movements in Honduras. In Mexico, the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party of Mexico nearly won the 2006 presidential election, losing by only a single percentage point in highly disputed results. The leftward tilt in Latin American politics has been clear. Numerous scholarly studies have zeroed in on this development, most importantly, Leftist Governments in Latin America: Successes and Shortcomings edited by Kurt Weyland, Raúl Madrid, and Wendy Hunter.8 Others have endeavored to categorize the new leftist political movements as, to use Jorge Castañeda’s strained categories, a “good” left that only wants moderate change and can work with the United States and a “bad” left that is too closely tied to the populist tradition in Latin America and would not as easily conform to liberal democratic and neoliberal economic policies more similar to those of the United States and Western Europe.9 The idea of two lefts, was actually articulated by Teodoro Pletkoff in his article “Las dos izquierdas” in Nueva Sociedad in 2005, a year before Castañeda’s article was published. Petkoff sees one left that moves away from real socialism, seeking to deepen social equity and democracy and another radical current that operates through “personalism, authoritarianism, the steel control of public power,” and which operated at the margin of formal democracy.10 Another approach is seen in Benjamin Arditi’s 2008 article, which proposes a slightly different conceptual framework to discuss the left and left turns in Latin American Politics.11

It is, then, entirely appropriate to speak of the political trend to the left in Latin America that began with the Chávez victory in Venezuela in 1998, but it is necessary to analyze the variety of progressive politics that are practiced by the various parties of the left that have come to power during the past decade. As a result, scholars of Latin American politics have begun to create typologies to help us define this process and analyze what their progressive governments have accomplished. Some of these, like Castañeda and Petkoff, project the type of leftist parties that gained election as indicators of the type of government and thus carry their categorization of a moderate left and a radical left into their characterization of the leftist governments now in power. In regard to the actual governments in power, the aforementioned edited volume of Kurt Weyland, et.al. is the most comprehensive to date.12 Weyland argues that the attempts to categorize the various presidents have met with controversy and disagreement. He asks if some of them are Populists, and if so, based on what definition of Populism? Similarly, he wonders whether others are social democratic and, if so, what would that notion mean in contemporary Latin America? Can one even speak of social democracy, he queries, in a setting in which the “working class” (strictly defined) is small and shrinking, trade unions are weak, and external economic constraints are often tight?13

The main differences over categorization revolve around multi-dimensional vs. more simplistic, less theoretically sophisticated categorizations.14 The multi-dimensional approach is epitimized by Livitsky and Roberts in their forthcoming book, Changing Course: Parties, Populism, and Political Representation in Latin America’s Neoliberal Era.15 The authors are more sympathetic to the approach of Weyland that emphasizes primarily the differences in strategy and tactics of Latin America’s left governments, distinguishing a moderate group from a more radical one along a continuum. The approach of Roberts may be especially useful in helping to understand the diverse origins of the leftist parties but the authors, like Weyland, are more interested in comparing the programs and policies these movements have pursued once they have achieved power. This approach facilitates our fundamental task of understanding the contention between left governments and social movements in the current moment of leftist state power.



The authors adopt the term Contestatory Left to describe the governments on the most progressive side of the continuum. This term avoids the categorization of “radical,” or good, bad, or permitido to acknowledge that none of the current parties in power are pursuing policies in the manner of the revolutionary governments of the 20th century, most notably the Cuban communists and the Sandinistas of the 1970s. While virtually all of the left governments under study embrace the concept of socialism, all of them are operating within the framework of a capitalist system in each of their countries. There is general agreement that Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela is both in rhetoric and action the most radical of the six countries that will be studied in detail in this volume. Chávez first won the presidency without reference to socialism, but over thirteen years in power has definitely moved to the left and for nearly a decade has spoken of constructing “21st Century Socialism” in his country and does so through the explicitly socialist, United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). His close alliance with the revolutionary government in Cuba and his use of explicitly anti-imperialist language to evaluate the international scene underscore his rhetorical position on left end of our spectrum. In reality his programs are not as radical because he operates in the framework of the Venezuelan capitalist system which controls the majority of the country’s economic activity outside of the oil sector. However, Chávez has pursued limited nationalizations of land and factories as a strategy for long term expansion of the state sector. The project that tracks closest to that of Venezuela is that of Evo Morales’ Bolivia. Since assuming power in 2005 Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party have pursued a policy of radical reform centered around the nationalization of the country’s hydrocarbon industry and the empowerment of the majority indigenous population for the first time in the country’s history. Another sign of Bolivia’s radical stance is its membership in ALBA and its willingness to make close ties with Cuba. Not too far behind Bolivia on the scale would be Ecuador where Rafael Correa identifies himself as a socialist and pursues policies of wealth redistribution and nationalization of natural resources. Though not initially a member of ALBA, Ecuador has now joined and has moved closer in its ties to Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela. However, like his counterparts in Bolivia and Venezuela, Correa operates in the framework of the dominance of the Ecuadoran economy by private interests. On the other end of the political spectrum is the Brazilian model of President Lula and now Dilma Rousseff and the now out of power governments of the Chilean Socialist, Lagos and Bachelet. While some might see the Chilean case much further to the right end of the spectrum than Brazil, in reality both pursued a similar strategy of almost completely accepting the neoliberal frameworks of their predecessors but pursuing government programs aimed squarely at reducing the level of absolute poverty in their countries. For the Workers Party led governments this has meant food and income subsidies and expanded educational opportunities. The most difficult government to categorize is that of the revived Peronist Party in Argentina and its late leader Nestor Kirchner and current president Christina Kirchner. Because of its amorphous and often changing character many analysts, including Weyland, are reluctant to place the Peronists definitively on the left but others believe that the policies pursued by the Kirchners are in reality very close to that of Chile and Brazil and place them in that part of the political spectrum for the purposes of this volume. In the views of the author the Peronists have returned much closer to a progressive orientation, distancing themselves almost completely from the decade long neoliberal detour under Carlos Menem.

[A] How Social Movements Have Brought the Left to Power

The electoral victories of the progressive governments have often been directly tied to the work of the social movements. In the cases of Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador the victories of the left came about after massive street demonstrations had removed a previous government from power and left a caretaker administration responsible for conducting new elections. In Bolivia street demonstrations in 2003 forced the neoliberal Sánchez de Lozada from power and when his successor and Vice President Carlos Mesa failed to deliver on promised reforms he was driven from power by a massive mobilization and general strike in 2005. These actions paved the way for elections organized by a caretaker government that were won in a landslide by Evo Morales in December 2005, and again with 64% of the vote in a second election in 2010. In Ecuador the social movements first exercised their muscle in 1997 with the removal of Abdala Bucaram but they were not able to shape the regime of Jamil Mahaud that followed. However, in 2001 they forced Mahuad from office and threw their support behind Lucio Gutiérrez and his anti-neoliberal platform in the elections that followed in 2002. Gutiérrez won the election but once in office moved to the right and carried out a pro-U.S. agenda. As a result, he was driven from office in 2005 by street demonstrators from the same social movements that had supported him in the 2002 elections. The departure of Gutiérrez and establishment of a caretaker government led to the 2006 election of socialist Rafael Correa. Correa was not organically a candidate of the social movements but his victory was facilitated by their defeat of the discredited Gutiérrez. In many ways the developments in Argentina were the most dramatic. In 1999 the Argentine people had elected a center-left government headed by Fernando de la Rua as a repudiation of the ten year presidency of neoliberal apostle, Carlos Menem. However, once in office de la Rua carried out policies that were essentially a continuation of Menem. In December 2001, de la Rua tried to carry out a series of currency reforms that were particularly unpopular and resulted in massive strikes and street demonstrations that forced his resignation. De la Rua’s chosen successor and a subsequent appointee failed to quiet the demonstrations resulting in four different Argentine presidents in one month. The political crisis ended only when the man who de la Rua had defeated two years earlier, Peronist Eduardo Duhalde, assumed the presidency pledging to reverse the neoliberal policies of his Peronist predecessor Menem and call new elections in early 2003. Duhalde carried out his promises and the March 2003 elections brought to power Peronist Nestor Krichner, who pledged to carry out a progressive agenda. In the case of Brazil the social movements like the powerful landless movement, the MST, has not facilitated the removal of a neoliberal government as in the above described cases but nonetheless it was instrumental in helping Luiz Inácio da Silva (Lula) win the presidency in 2002, following twelve years of neoliberal rule in that country. They also supported his reelection in 2006, despite some reservations.

[A] Social Movements and Progressive Governments

The position of the social movements once these progressive governments take power becomes an interesting question that up until now has received relatively little scholarly attention. It is necessary to close that significant gap and offer insight into one of the most important questions of contemporary Latin American politics and its full transition to democratic functioning. The following questions are asked: once in power does the progressive government view the country’s social movements as partners in government to be consulted or as is frequently the case co-opted in support of government policies or, conversely, to be held at arm’s length as continuing opponents? Does the government in power reach out to the social movements and seek to bring key leaders into posts in the new governments? If the social movements continue their street mobilizations against the government, how does that government respond to such challenges? Are the police and military used in the same manner as a Rightist government would likely have done? From the social movements’ side, how do they view the new government that they may have helped to put in power? Do they initially give that government the benefit of the doubt and suspend their street protests or do they continue the pressure? If the incoming government offers positions to social movement leaders, do they accept such posts? If such posts are accepted, how long do social movement leaders remain in government if the demands of the movements are not significantly met? In a general sense, do the social movements act as actors independent of the government or do they become merely cheerleaders for the implantation of government policies? And, ultimately, can the social movements achieve their demands without a political movement or party that can take the government and implement their demands. The answers to these questions vary widely from country to country where the left has achieved power.

Bolivia following the election Evo Morales in 2005 is one of the most interesting and probably the country where the social movements, especially the ones grounded in the indigenous community have had the greatest success in having their demands articulated by the leftist government in power. In the wake of Morales’ initial victory and his subsequent reelection in 2009 hundreds of local, regional, and national social movements have emerged to fill the void created by the collapse of the traditional political party system. In the process they have strengthened civil society and energized and consolidated a more democratic society in Bolivia that speaks to the needs of the country’s long suffering majority poor through government programs financed by the newly nationalized energy sector, a key demand of the social movements that brought Morales to power. These social movements have also contributed to a reexamination and redefinition of citizenship, the basis and content of Bolivian national identity, and the intimate relationship between culture and power in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural state. As the Morales government has faced a hard backlash from the traditional landowning elites of the Bolivian lowlands, the support of the social movements have been central to the implementation of the Morales reforms, especially the wholesale constitutional changes that validated the multiethnic character of the state and the state control of the country’s natural resources. The ongoing challenge for the Bolivian social movements is to provide important tactical support to the MAS-led government in its confrontation with the traditional elites while maintaining enough independence to criticize the government when it does not move forthrightly to tackle the country’s deep seated poverty and underdevelopment. Sustained demonstrations in March 2011 against perceived unreasonable government-backed price increases indicated a willingness to display such independence.

Argentina bears some resemblance to Bolivia in that the government in power since the beginning of 2002 has worked hard to both meet the needs of the powerful social movements that arose in the years before 2002 while also seeking to bring these movements under the control of the dominant Peronist Party after its political transformation from 2002 onward. When Peronist Eduardo Duhalde took power at the start of 2002, after a month of turmoil that saw three governments fall, he began a complex process of reestablishing traditional Peronist control of the social movements that was begun by the founder of the Justice Party, Juan Peron. In classic corporatist style, the Peronists had taken almost full control over the population by granting significant social benefits where keeping a tight lid on any independent political action by unions or other organizations. That control evaporated in the 1980s under Carlos Menem when he moved the Peronist agenda to the neoliberal right and broke its historic ties to Argentina’s popular classes. When Radical Party leader Fernando de la Rua continued Menem’s rightist politics and was driven from power by social movement-led street demonstrations in December 2001, it provided the Peronists with an opportunity to reposition themselves to the left and regain its historic domination of the country’s politics. That process began when Duhalde, the defeated Peronist candidate in the 1999 who assumed the presidency in the wake of the street demonstrations, acted to meet the protestors demands and to work systematically to co-opt the picqueteros movement that had been at the heart of the demonstrations. The picqueteros were primarily unemployed city dwellers, the victims of Menem’s neoliberal policies that slashed employees from the economy. Duhalde not only created new jobs but also put many picquetero leaders in charge of the neighborhood based job programs. The strategy was successful and in 2003 the endorsed Peronist candidate, Nestor Kirchner, defeated Carlos Menem’s attempted political comeback. Once in office Kirchner continued the populist direction of government policies and the party was rewarded with the election of Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, Nestor’s spouse to the presidency in 2007. Following Nestor’s death in 2010 it now appears that Peronist domination of Argentine politics and the relative demobilization of the social movements will continue with Christina’s likely reelection in the fall of 2011.

The case of Venezuela has some parallels with that of Bolivia and Argentina but has its own distinct characteristics. Like Bolivia, the ruling party of Venezuela, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), has its roots in anti-neoliberal social movements that arose in the streets in the early 1990s in reaction to the austerity measures of the government of Carlos Andres Perez. The symbolic leader of those protests was army officer Hugo Chavez who led a failed coup attempt and was subsequently jailed. However, in 1998 Chavez reemerged as a populist, anti-liberal presidential candidate. He scored an impressive victory against the country’s two traditional parties by mobilizing popular support from the people and organizations that had been in the streets earlier in the decade. However, the Venezuelan case takes on a somewhat different framework during the thirteen years that Chavez has been in power. It can be argued that the large scale resources available to the Venezuelan state from its oil and gas revenues allows Chavez to create a state that borders on corporatism where key constituencies, primarily poor urban dwellers, are wedded to the state by the provision of government programs in health, education, and food security that were never previously available on such a significant scale. On the other hand, Venezuela is home to numerous social movements, especially in the labor arena, that maintain their distance and independence from the government.

The country with arguably the most contentious relationships between the government and the social movements, especially indigenous ones, is Ecuador. Socialist Rafael Correa came to power in 2006 following the removal of the previous president by street demonstrations and he has pursued a program of radical reform geared to the country’s poor majority. However, the social movements have generally kept an arm’s length from the president. When voters in Ecuador approved a new constitution by a wide margin in September 2008, both President Correa and powerful social movements claimed responsibility for the victory. Ecuador’s strong and well-organized social movements have long been able to pull down governments they opposed but have been repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to build concrete alternatives. Social movements have not experienced much success in the electoral realm, often being defeated at the hands of populist candidates who steal their leftist rhetoric but rule in favor of the oligarchy once in office. Correa’s predecessor, Lucio Gutierrez, was a prime example of that duplicity. Given that history, the social movements approached Correa’s government with a good deal of reservations. Although Correa shared the social movements’ criticism of neoliberal economic policies, he had not risen through their ranks. In particular, indigenous movements resented Correa for occupying political spaces that they had previously used to advance their concerns. At the same time, the new constitution was the most progressive one in Ecuador’s history and codified many of the aspirations of the social movements. Ecuador is a dramatic example of how political parties and social movements can be in significant tension even as they embrace similar visions but follow different paths to realize their objectives.

The governments of Brazil, under the Workers Party, and Chile, under the Socialist, were probably closest together in their overall political strategies and definitely less radical than Venezuela, Ecuador, or Bolivia. Both progressive governments pursued social democratic policies of poverty alleviation aimed at the most vulnerable sectors of their societies while basically accepting the broad neoliberal policies of the more conservative governments that proceeded. Programs of education and food security received priority attention in both countries and both achieved enough success to sustain themselves in power. In the case of Brazil, that continues into the present with the election of Silma Rousseff. The Socialists lost power in the 2010 election in Chie after being part of the concertacion ruling coalition for twenty years. However, these social democratic policies played out differently in each country in terms of their relations with important social movements. The case of Chile is one of classic co-optation of social movements by a ruling progressive party with significant gains for both sides in the process. During the dictatorship, powerful neighborhood-based movements developed that contributed to the defeat of Pinochet in the 1989 referendum. It might have been expected that these movements would have flourished with the return of democratic civil liberties but twenty years later with a few important exceptions, like the Mothers of the Disappeared, the neighborhood groups were largely demobilized through the integration of the key activists of the movements into positions of local authority implementing government programs that responded positively to some of the needs of the community long neglected under the dictatorship. When protest movements did emerge during the concertacion period, they often came from unlikely sources such as high school students.

The Brazilian case is an interesting one from the perspective of the Workers Party government and the social movements. First of all, the Workers Party itself emerged from the social movements of the period of the dictatorship, primarily the Christian base communities and newly-formed trade unions, especially in the auto industry. As an electoral party, the Workers Party has drawn on those bases throughout its twenty-five year history. In the last fifteen years, the country’s most prominent social movement has been the Landless Movement (MST) which has mobilized tens of thousands of rural workers to occupy unused farm land and to pressure the government for land reform. The MST has openly supported the candidates of the Workers Party in a tactical alliance against the neoliberal right while maintaining its full independence from the government. It has done so out of recognition that President Lula has championed the interests of large scale commercial farming to bolster Brazil’s growing role in the world economy. Such an alliance makes significant progress on land reform unlikely and leaves the two sides in a position of an uneasy truce where both benefit from the arrangement.



Where does this review of case studies leave us twenty years after the triumph of the first leftist government in Chile in 1990? As demonstrated, the relationship between leftist governments and social movements is a complex one with many peculiar national characteristics: Generalizations are difficult to make. However, one pattern does generally emerge. The relationship is a symbiotic one. In the face of the traditional elites and their political parties the parties of the left need the enthusiasm and renewing qualities of the mass social movements in they are to achieve state power, either directly by street mobilization or through elections. On the other hand, no matter how powerful they may be, the social movement cannot hope to achieve all or party of their ambitious projects without the mechanisms of the state apparatus that a left party in power can provide. Inevitably their relations will be filled with conflict but that is the nature of politics.


1 The key contributions to scholarship in this area in recent years include: Sonia Álvarez, Evelína Dagino and Arturo Escobar, Culture of Politics, Politics of Culture, Re-visioning Latin American Social Movements. Boulder: Westview, 1998; Richard Shahler-Sholk, Harry E. Vanden, and Glen David Kuecker. eds. Latin American Social Movements in the 21st Century: Resistance, Power, and Democracy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008; Susan Eckstein, ed., Power and Popular Protest, Latin American Social Movements, 2nd ed. Berkeley : University of California Press, 2001; Sidney Tarrow. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge University Press, 1998; and Joe Foweraker, Teorizing Social Movements. London: Pluto Press, 1995; Deborah Yashar. Contesting Citizenship in Latin America: The Rise of Indigenous Movements and the Post Neoliberal Challenge. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005; James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Social Movements and State Power: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador. London and Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2005; George Reid Andrews, Afro-Latin America 1800-2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004; Sidney Tarrow. The New Transnational Activism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, and Margaret Keck and Kathyrn Sikkink. Activists Beyond Borders: Transnational Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

2 For an overview of the role of Marxism in Latin American politics see Sheldon Liss, Marxist Thought in Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984 and Donald Hodges. Latin American Revolution: Politics and Strategy from Apro-Marxism to Guevarism. New York: William Morrow, 1974.

3See also Harry E. Vanden, Latin American Marxism: A Bibliography, New York: Garland, 1991, especially the introduction, and, in regard to peasant mobilization, Harry E. Vanden, "Marxism and the Peasant in Latin America: Marginaliza­tion or Mobilization," Latin American Perspectives IX, No. 4 ,Fall, 1982, pp. 74 98.

 For good overviews for corporatism see, Howard Wiarda. Corporatism and Comparative Politics: The Other Great Ism. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997 and Peter Williamson. Corporatism in Perspective: An Introductory Guide to Corporatist Theory. London and Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989. Also for the application of corporatist theory and two newly democratized countries, Georgia and South Africa, see Brian Grodsky. “From Neo-Corporatism & Delegative Corportism? The Empowerment of NGOs during Early Democratization” Democratization Vol. 16, No.5, October 2009, p. 898-921.

4 For an overview of liberation theology and the Latin American movements it spawned see Philip Berryman. Stubborn Hope: Religion, Politics and Revolution in Central America. Mary Knoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984.

5 For an overview of women’s movements in Latin America see Lynn Stephen, Women and Social Movements in Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

6 For an overview of race and race-based social movements in contemporary Latin America, see George Reid Andrews. Afro-Latin America 1800-2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

7 For an overview of Latin American indigenous movements see Hector Díaz Polanco. Indigenous Peoples in Latin America. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997. See also, Donna Van

Cott, From Movements to Parties in Latin America : the Evolution of Ethnic Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005 and Van Cott, Radical Democracy in the Andes. New York: Cambridge, 2009.



8 Kurt Weyland, Raul Madrid, Wendy Hunter. Eds. Leftist Governments in Latin America: Successes and Shortcomings. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

9 See Jorge Castañeda, “Latin America’s Left Turn,” Foreign Affairs, Vol 85, No. 3, May-June, 2006, pp. 28-43, and Jorge Castañeda and Marco A. Morales, Leftovers: Tales of the Latin American Left. N.Y.: Routledge, 2008. For a different take on the “good” and “bad” left see, Maxwell Cameron, 2009. “Latin America’s Left Turns: Beyond Good and Bad” Third World Quarterly 30, no. 2: 331-348.

10 Petkoff, Tedoro.“Las dos izquierdas” Nueva Sociedad 197 (May-June 2005): 114-28

11 Benjamin Arditi. “Arguments about the Left Turns in Latin America: A Post-Liberal Politics?” Latin American Research Review. 2008, 43(3), 59-81.

12 Weyland et.al. For related literature see: Teodor Petkoff, 2005;. Jorge Castañeda, 2006. Cleary, Matthew. “Explaining the Left’s Resurgence” Journal of Democracy 17, no. 4 (October 2006): 35-49. Arnson, Cynthia. ed. 2007. The “New Left” and Democratic Governance in Latin America. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press. Boeckh, Andreas. ed. “Die lateinamerikanische Linke und die Globalisierung” Lateinamerika Analysen 17 (July2007): 69-197. Hunter, Wendy. “The Normalization of an Anomaly: The Worker’s Party in Brazil” World Politics 59, no. 3 (April2007): 440-75. Roberts, Kenneth.. “Latin America’s Populist Revival” SAIS Review 27, no. 1 (Winter-Spring 2007): 3-15. Castaneda, Jorge, and Marco Morales. eds. Leftovers: Tales of the Latin American Left. New York: Routledge, 2008. De la Torre, Carlos, and Enrique Peruzzotti, eds. El Retorno del Pueblo: Populismo y Nuevas Democracias en America Latina. Quito: FLASCO & Ministerio de Cultura, 2008. Madrid, Raúl. “The Rise of Ethnopopulism in Latin America” World Politics 60, no. 3 (April 2008): 475-508. Cameron, Maxwell and Silva, Eduardo. Challenging Neoliberalism in Latin America. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Weyland, Kurt. “The Rise of Latin America’s Two Lefts: Insights from Rentier State Theory” Comparative Politics 41, no. 2 (January 2009.): 145-64. Levitsky, Steven, and Kenneth Roberts, eds. Latin America’s Left Turn. New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

13 Kurt Weyland, “The Performance of Leftist Governments in Latin America” in Weyland et.al.

14 For a slightly different bifurcated classification of the left as “permitido” (permitted by or acceptable to bourgeois democracy and the empire and thus not capable of making the radical structural changed needed) and a left “no permitido” (not allowed by Western style liberal bourgeoisie democracy or the empire, and thus truly radical and capable of making necessary change), see Jeffrey R. Webber and Barry Carr, eds., The Resurgence of Latin American Radicalism: Between Cracks in the Empire and an Izquierda Permitido. Latham, Maryland: Roman and Littlefield, forthcoming.

15 Livitsky, Steve, and Kenneth Roberts. Changing Course: Parties, Populism, and Political Representation in Latin America’s Neoliberal Era. New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.


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