The South American Summit of Nations and the Social Forum for the Integration of Peoples took place last week, stirring visions of continental unity. Both events-one of government leaders and one of civil society-showed there are new winds of change on the continent.
Talk of alternatives for regional integration and the state’s role in development, which used to take place on the margins of the dominant discourse of neoliberalism, has now moved to the center of public debate. Although comprehensive and viable alternatives are still a ways off, the discussion has moved from the podium to the streets.
In the end, the official summit failed to resolve the split between leaders who see regional integration as a springboard into the current system of corporate-led integration, and those who envision something different. However, debate continues both between nations and within them.
Elections in the region continue to be an important gauge of change. With the exception of Mexico, which on closer examination is not so much of an exception, the balance continues to shift to the left.
But a deeper analysis of elections in Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Mexico indicates that the “pink tide” interpretation-that a diluted trend leftward is sweeping the continent-may be insufficient to understand the complexity of what’s really taking place in each country and the region as a whole.
What is considered “left”? How much leeway do self-professed leftist governments really have for making change in a globalized world? How do progressive governments relate to social movements and vice versa? And what do these changes mean on a regional level?
These questions, still unanswerable, obstruct any attempt to color in Latin American states according to dominant political tendencies, like a red-blue post-electoral map of the United States. The challenge is to respect the specificity of each political process while drawing out ways to characterize the obvious regional shift taking place.
The New Leaders
The re-election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela by an overwhelming margin and the triumph of center-left candidate Rafael Correa in Ecuador both mark breakthroughs in Andean politics dominated by narrow political and economic elites.
Chavez, always quick with a provocative phrase, has announced that the next step of the Bolivarian Revolution is to construct “socialism of the XXI Century,” without providing many details as to what that would look like. In practice, his government continues to combine radical anti-U.S. rhetoric, Latin American solidarity, and an active state role in redistribution of wealth, with significant private sector involvement and export-oriented concepts of integration.
Ecuador’s Correa now joins the growing list of Latin American leaders who are looking south, instead of north to the United States, for opportunities in trade, development, and international alliances. He plans to strike a blow against U.S. hegemony through his opposition to a Free Trade Agreement and the continued presence of the U.S. military at the Manta Base.
Daniel Ortega’s return to power in Nicaragua and the re-election of Lula in Brazil send slightly more cryptic geopolitical messages.
Ortega has maintained his leftist credentials largely on the basis of the animosity he instills among U.S. government officials. In domestic politics, however, he supported the nation’s incredibly restrictive anti-abortion law. Although his party voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), Ortega became increasingly pro-free-market policies during the campaign and, soon after being sworn in, pledged to uphold and strengthen CAFTA despite popular protest.
Lula enters his second term with debts to the powers-that-be on the one hand and social debts to the poor on the other. His second term signals the end of an increasingly acrimonious honeymoon with the grassroots organizations that make up his constituency base. At the same time, Lula doesn’t seem willing to risk the loss of the economic elite’s support. Pleasing both will be impossible.
Finally, Mexico’s disputed elections last July seemed to buck the regional trend by sending a rightwing party government back to power. Yet subsequent events make it very difficult to state that Mexican society reaffirmed the course. Accusations of electoral fraud persist, the one-half of the population that voted against the right remains mobilized and unconvinced, and one state-Oaxaca-is in open rebellion.
Parties vs. Movements?
Latin America is a mixed bag, to say the least. With ideological differences blurred, pragmatism competing on a daily basis with principle, and grassroots movements seeking to avoid the opposing poles of marginalization and cooptation, it’s difficult to make neat pronouncements.
A few basic premises can, however, be surmised.
First, the poor continue to be the majority despite over a decade of neoliberal promises. In most Latin American countries over half the population lives below the poverty line. This is the natural constituency of the new left.
Second, this majority has reached the limits of its patience with the promises of the economic model. The hope-killing combination of poverty inherited from generation to generation, growing unemployment and under-employment, and an in-your-face concentration of wealth has led inevitably to opposition. In some countries this opposition has been expressed at the ballot box, in others there has been an outpouring in the streets, and in most it’s a combination of the two.
Third, leftist parties in many cases have little to offer that really addresses the demands and the discontent of the poor majority. Whether it’s the corruption scandals of the Lula administration, the social conservatism of Tabaré Vázquez’s Uruguay, or the unprincipled opportunism of Ortega in Nicaragua, leftist “populists” have reproduced politics-as-usual with disappointing frequency once in government. The right and the left are not identical twins, but acquisition of power usually reveals some family traits.
Despite progressive governments that refuse to form part of a U.S. Backyard Club, the region has not managed to become an alternative pole in a multipolar world.
The great hope of Latin America-and what it has to offer to the world-is a vast collection of vibrant social movements that dare to question everything from their own governments to the way corporations pollute their lands. Sometimes they express themselves in the polls, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they call themselves the “left,” and sometimes they call themselves the people or nothing at all. Labels don’t matter. What matters is the search for new ways of governing that reduce the inequality, increase real democracy, and end the hunger and poverty.
Call it pink, red, blue, purple, or chartreuse: to get anywhere, social movements will have to display all these colors and more. Whatever its hue though, the tide in Latin America seems to be rising.
LAURA CARLSEN is director of the IRC Americas Program in Mexico City, where she has been a writer and political analyst for more than two decades.