Reclaiming a Continent: Latin American Experiments in Democracy
Reviewed: Reclaiming Latin America: Experiments in Radical Social Democracy, Edited by Geraldine Lievesley and Steve Ludlam. Zed Books (August 18, 2009), 288 pages
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
However, there have been many recent events just as profound as the coup in
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
Democracy and Social Change: From
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
The Bolivarian political process in
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
John Crabtree contributed a chapter on
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
Benjamin Dangl is the author of the forthcoming book, Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in