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Latin American Experiments in Democracy

Reclaiming a Continent

by BENJAMIN DANGL

Reclaiming Latin America: Experiments in Radical Social Democracy (Zed Books, 2009) provides an in depth and accessible introduction to Latin American politics for people seeking to understand this past tumultuous and hopeful decade. 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 peppered with undeniable facts that point to a 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. As I mixed reading this book with reading reports from Honduras, I kept wondering how the authors of Reclaiming Latin America 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 field map of the currents that still move the continent. This book particularly shines when the authors’ gazes 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 Leivesley 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."

Also present in many of the pages are 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."

Democracy and Social Change: From Montevideo to Caracas

Uruguay is set up 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 which 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, the 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 in Reclaiming Latin America explores social democracy within the educational, health and community programs in the country. Author Sara C. Motta describes some of the government’s social programs in the La Vega barrio in Caracas, Venezuela. Motta writes that while access to healthcare certainly helps people’s lives, the institutionalization of social movements in this process can be harmful to community organizing. "[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 seeking to solve 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 do offer new spaces for growth, localized responses to development which can and do 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."

Protests and Parties in Bolivia and Brazil

John Crabtree contributed a chapter on Bolivia which 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, as well as describes the constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution and the regional and political divisions in Bolivia. He looks at Morales’ 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% budget cut which disproportionately affected social programs for the poor. Unemployment and poverty skyrocketed across the country; in May of 2003, unemployment reached 20.6%, 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. Over all, 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. The book, much like this past decade in Latin America, offers important lessons from ongoing experiments in democracy.

BENJAMIN DANGL is currently based in Paraguay and is the author of "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia" (AK Press). He edits UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.