The New Latin American Left & Reclaiming Latin America

The New Latin American Left & Reclaiming Latin America

By Ben Dangl

Originally published November 20, 2009 in Z Magazine

The New Latin American Left: edited by Patrick Barrett, Daniel Chavez, and Cesar Rodriguez-Garavito; Pluto Press, 2008, 320 pp; Experiments in Radical Social Democracy: edited by Geraldine Lievesley and Steve Ludlam, Zed Books, 2009, 288 pp.

The coup in Honduras has created an ongoing challenge for governments across the political spectrum in Latin America. In the years leading up to this tense and decisive event, a number of leaders and social movements pushed the region to the left. It is this regional shift that is the focus of The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn, edited by Patrick Barrett, Daniel Chavez, and Cesar Rodriguez-Garavito.

This book includes a series of insightful chapters by various experts on the roots and rise of the new Latin American left in nations such as Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Uruguay. Many of the authors are progressive academics and analysts from the countries they are writing about.

At the start of The New Latin American Left the authors explain that, so far, most analysts looking at the region have focused exclusively on “partisan politics” or “grassroots mobilization.” Yet, in this book, the country and regional case studies examine the political parties, governments, and social movements as three separate forces. The authors write that social movements have perhaps been the most important forces of these three players in bringing about progressive change or paving the way to the election of various left-leaning presidents. In some cases movements called for national change based on rights, against privatization by a corporation, from a class or ethnic-based position.

Central to the discussion is the relationship between political parties and social movements. A political party, write the editors in the first chapter, “can serve as the political arm of social movements, enabling them to project their social power and express their demands in the political arena and providing them with a necessary means for gaining access to the state.” Alliances between movements and parties can help promote important policies, fight against the right, and advise politicians.

At the same time, the “electoral logic” of parties can operate at odds with the movements’ logic, write the editors. As parties need a broad base, movements are often going to make up a smaller part of that base than other sectors. Plus, movements, as in the case of Brazil, are often asked to refrain from actions that could make the party look bad during or outside of an election season. The editors argue that an ideal situation is one in which the parties and movements can operate together, or at least co-exist, in the defense of human rights and against neoliberalism and the right wing. However, as The New Latin American Leftillustrates, such collaborations between the street and the State often turn out to be rockier than planned.

The rise to power of the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) says a lot about the challenges of moving from the grassroots to the government palace. The PT began as a working class party, with Lula, a former steel worker, as its leader. He won 11 million votes in the 1989 presidential elections. The PT’s directions were initially conceived by the workers and party base. Lula was elected president for the first time in 2002, but he quickly turned his back on the working class orientation of his party.

While Brazil’s Landless Farmers Movement (MST) formed some of the crucial backbone of the PT’s electoral and social power, the authors write that in Lula’s agricultural policies since he has become president, “priority has been given to huge farms with extensive tracts of land that make intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and which are devoted to the production of monocultural export crops.” Most of this industry focuses on the production of sugar cane, soybeans, and coffee.

Many of Brazil’s social movements (particularly the MST) are completely at odds with these devastating policies and have been working for a small scale network of family and community farms, aimed at helping the five million family farmers without the necessary amount of land to survive and the other four million family farmers without any land at all. Some of the aims of this movement are agriculture without pesticides, employment, respect for ecology, soil, biodiversity, and not using GMO seeds.

The authors point out that in 2006 Lula did implement the Family Grant program targeting low income families with social support, including grants for food, school, and cooking gas, which impacted some 11 million families—approximately 25 percent of the population. In exchange for receiving the support, “the benefiting families with children under 15 years of age must enroll their children in school and guarantee their attendance, keep their vaccinations up to date, seek prenatal care and participate in educational programs on breast feeding and nutrition.” In some places this support goes to nearly half of the families in a town or city.

Yet, the authors write, “The implementation of this program was not accompanied by policies that addressed the causes of poverty in Brazil, such as access to land or privileging propertied and wealthy classes in the tax system. Hence, Brazil continues to be one of the most unequal societies in the world.”

In 2006, Lula won the presidency again, in part thanks to unions and movements such as the MST, which supported him largely because the alternative was worse. The leading opposing candidate represented the most destructive forces of the right wing and elite. One editorial in the progressive newspaper Brasil de Fato at the time explained, “An analysis of the four years of President Lula’s first term in office leads to a disappointing balance for the working class, above all with respect to the economy.” Yet the editorial asked readers to “properly distinguish between our principal enemy, our adversaries and our allies. Wherever we get this wrong, we end up defeated…. Thus, to vote for Lula, even with no illusions about his economic policy, is the duty of all of us who constitute the working and the Brazilian people.”

Edgardo Lander, the author of the chapter on Venezuela, strikes an interesting balance when assessing the hopes and challenges in this country. Lander discusses the abundance of new neighborhood groups, communal councils, Bolivarian circles, and electoral battle units that have been developed by the government in collaboration with social sectors. The relationship between the communities participating in these programs and the State has varied in intensity and autonomy over the years and involves a broad range of experiences. On the other hand, Lander writes that many of the widely-applauded social and political programs of the government “are heavily dependent on oil revenues, to the point that a significant decrease in the latter could endanger their continuity.”

Regarding President Hugo Chavéz, Lander says his “style of leadership could become an obstacle to a process of democratization if many of the key and small decisions of the process remain in his hands, thereby closing the door to the urgent necessities of the institutionalization of public administration and of the organization and autonomy of the popular movement. The great dependency of the transformative process on one person makes the process itself very vulnerable.”

In a chapter on Argentina, Federico Schuster writes that the Nestor Kirchner government ignored and isolated radical sectors of the piquetero movement in order to demobilize them. Kirchner did not repress the movements, knowing that doing so would generate an enormous backlash—as it did with the deaths of two piqueteros under former President Eduardo Duhalde. “Faced with this prospect, he has preferred a strategy of wearing out the resistance,” Schuster writes. Due to their relative lack of structure and unity, the movements proved to be unsustainable in this context.”

At the start of The New Latin American Left, the editors explain that the book is not a conclusive work; many of these movements and governments that the authors focus on have still only recently come to power, so it’s hard to make “definitive evaluations.” Yet in dissecting the recent history of the new Latin American left, the book sheds light on immediate challenges posed by the relationships between social movements, political parties, and governments elsewhere in the region, from Lima to Tegucigalpa.

Packed with behind the scenes information and eye-opening analysis, this book should be required reading for anyone interested in the most dramatic leftist political events of the decade.

Reclaiming Latin America: Experiments in Radical Social Democracy also provides an in depth and accessible introduction to Latin American politics. While avoiding superficial analysis and simplistic leftist cheerleading, this book addresses the complexity and diversity of the new Latin American left.

Many of the contributors to this book write of the leftist shift with sober exuberance about the geopolitical sea change. As analyst Emir Sader says, “Eleven Latin America presidents have been ejected before the end of their mandates over the last fifteen years, not by the traditional process of US-backed military coup, but through the action of popular movements against the neoliberal policies of their governments. The one old-style coup attempt of the period, against Chavez in 2002, was defeated.” This quote and other hopeful commentaries on the left throughout the book are shadowed by the coup in Honduras, which took place after this book was completed. I wonder how the authors might have altered their assessments had they written their chapters after President Manuel Zelaya was ushered off in his pajamas to Costa Rica.

However, there have been many recent events just as profound as the coup in Honduras taking place in Latin America and this book offers a rich map of the currents that still move the continent. This book particularly shines when the authors move toward the relationships between social movements and left-leaning governments in the region.

Central to the book are questions of power, autonomy, and sustainable pathways to radical change. As editor Geraldine Lievesley writes, “Radical social democratic governments can support social transformation but they cannot develop, consolidate and sustain it. This can only really be done by people themselves, working in communities and forging links with other, like-minded communities within and across national borders. This does not mean that such groups should not deal with the State—this is inevitable—but that they should structure and take control of that relationship.”

The book also includes discussions of the role social movements played in electing leftist governments. Fransisco Dominguez writes, “The Brazilian [Workers Party] PT originates in the militant trade unionism of the 1970s, and the Bolivian MAS originates in the cocalero union of coca growers…. In Argentina it was mainly the four thousand-odd actions of the piqueteros (roadblockers) which led to President Fernando de la Rua’s ousting in December 2001.”

Uruguay is described in Reclaiming Latin America as a fascinating and emblematic example of a left of center leader taking power with support from grassroots networks. Lievesley writes that the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), the political party and coalition of current President Tabaré Vázquez, was created in 1971 out of a collection of Christian Democrats, leftists, communists, and socialists that united to break the two party rule of the Blanco and Colorado Parties. Those two parties had run the country since 1830 when Uruguay had won independence from Spain. “The Frente’s founders formed comités de base, grassroots committees which they hoped would promote participatory democracy and contribute to the transformation of what was a hidebound political system,” writes Lievesley. The primary goals of the FA from the start were land reform and a stronger public sector.

Though the FA coalition faced widespread repression, torture, and disappearances during a dictatorship that began in 1973, it re-emerged as a political force with the return to democracy in 1984. The momentum of these early years culminated in 1989 with the election of Tabaré Vázquez as the mayor of Montevideo, the capital city. However, Lievesley writes, “Since 2004, a growing distance has developed between the Frente’s ambitious hierarchy and its grassroots.… Veteran activists do not share the same values as younger Frente members, who have no memories of the years of clandestinity and struggle, and view the organization as a means to further their careers.”

The Bolivarian political process in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez has been more dynamic than that of the FA in Uruguay. One chapter explores social democracy within its educational, health, and community programs. Author Sara C. Motta describes some of the government’s social programs in the La Vega barrio in Caracas, Venezuela: “[H]ealth can become a particular issue solved in a functional manner that undermines the community’s organization and therefore the development of a participatory social democracy. Individuals who were once organizers of their communities become functionaries of the State.” This can have a weakening effect on the community’s autonomy and capacity to self-organize, Motta explains.

With Mission Ribas, classes are taught in neighborhoods across the country to meet the local needs of the community. Students use their education to solve problems in their communities with projects and planning. Elizabeth, a participant in this process, reflects, “We have organized all over La Vega. Many of the students are women. It has been an emancipatory experience for me and many others who have begun to believe in their ability to solve problems in the community.” Yet in solving a housing or public service problem, writes Motta, the education “seeks to enable the student to find solutions for particular problems, such as inadequate housing, within the limits of broader structures of power. In doing so it attempts to democratize these broader structures, but not transform them.”

Motta also writes of the Consejos Comunales, which provide a means for regular citizens to participate in governance and the management of funds and resources. Through this program, communities can organize themselves into a Consejo with a representative, then design proposals and projects. “Consejos are an attempt to create a new set of state institutions that bypass the traditional State, and distribute power in a democratic and participatory manner,” writes Motta.

At one national meeting addressing this process, a working group concludes, “We must obtain the tools to be able to struggle against the bureaucracy and search for a way to get rid of leaders that want to control us, look to maintain their own power and who divide the community.” Participant Edenis Guilarte says, “What we are doing is training, creating consciousness, which is a process that goes beyond repairing a road, obtaining a service, enabling access to water, it’s a macro process, a process of social change, a fight over ideas and practice.”

In spite of any setbacks to the Consejos Comunales, they still offer new spaces for growth and localized responses to development, which dismiss clientelistic tendencies and assert autonomy over time. The Consejos have given the people the seeds to grow beyond the State. Yet, Motta concludes, the political struggle “revolves around the question of whether [the consejos comunales] become an institution that channels the demands of poor communities to a localized social democracy (with all the possibilities and limitations that this entails) or whether they enable the expansion of demands for community self-management that challenge capitalist and social relations.”

John Crabtree contributed a chapter on Bolivia that provides a brief overview of the country’s political and social history, the roots and policies of the Evo Morales government, and the social movements’ actions in directing the country’s future. Crabtree looks at the role the State has played in managing natural gas resources since Morales took office, and describes the constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution and the regional and political divisions in Bolivia. He looks at Morales’s new social programs in health, education, and housing and describes Morales’ relationships with other regional leaders seeking independence from Washington. In spite of success in a number of areas, Crabtree does say, “The MAS lacked a clearly articulated program; it lacked experience in government; the machinery at its disposal for administering change was absent; and it was in no way a tightly disciplined party.”

In a chapter on Brazil, Sue Branford describes the euphoria of Lula’s victory, but goes on to write that in spite of leftist rhetoric and promises to his base on the campaign trail, upon taking office for the first time Lula turned his back on his progressive supporters: “The agreement with the IMF was quickly reaffirmed, and the target for the public sector surplus, required to service the internal debt, was set higher, at 4.25 per cent of GDP, than even the IMF demanded.” Lula later announced a 45 percent budget cut which disproportionately affected social programs for the poor. In May 2003, unemployment reached 20.6 percent, a new record at the time. Thanks to Lula, foreign corporations now dominate industrial, agricultural, and banking sectors and GM crops, specifically pushed by Monsanto, are produced across the country.

Reclaiming Latin America sets out to cover a lot of ground and succeeds in doing so with other chapters on Argentina, Cuba, Chile, Mexico, and the entire region. Overall, the contributors to the book maintain a healthy balance of analysis and reportage, throwing in the occasional anecdote and prose that keep the pages turning.


Benjamin Dangl is the author of the forthcoming book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press, 2010).