New Internationalist

Continental shift

Issue 400

No time like the present. The current political moment in Latin America is breathing new life into the Left. Argentinean political scientist Carlos M Vilas takes stock of the changes afoot.

Jacob Silberberg / Panos Pictures
Jacob Silberberg / Panos Pictures

The political map of a large part of Latin America is being redrawn by the combined effect of popular movements and elections. The concerns of labour unions, movements of indigenous peoples and peasants, organizations of women, young people, human rights activists and the like have finally found expression in the political system. Social protest is being converted into government programmes and action.

This is quite distinct from the so-called ‘transition to democracy’ of the 1980s and 1990s, which were generally driven ‘from above’ in complex negotiations between discredited political parties and military governments. The present political configuration is the result of a massive push ‘from below’. New governments, born out of honest elections, have distanced themselves – or are attempting to do so – from ‘neoliberal’ capitalism, which seemed to have installed itself permanently, and to have left jagged tears in the social fabric. They are expressing a popular frustration with the inability of liberal democracies to answer demands for social progress.

The drive to change is different in content, style and institutional form in societies as distinct as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela – which together make up half the population of Latin America. Broadly speaking, one might locate Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador – the last-named still more in intent than in fact – as the most radical; Brazil, Panama and Uruguay as the most moderate; Argentina and possibly Nicaragua as intermediate.

For two decades the World Bank and the IMF, the great media networks and the governments of the industrialized North tried to convince Latin Americans that there is ‘no alternative’ to unfettered free markets, otherwise known as neoliberalism. But the events of the new century show that there is indeed an alternative – and it is worth constructing. Even in Chile, where the political system has meshed with the economic policies of the former Pinochet dictatorship, the Government of Michelle Bachelet appears willing to tackle democratization and social justice.

To my mind there are three recurring themes in the current political shift:

The reactivation of the state as a tool for development and well-being. Governments are no longer willing to be pushed around domestically by private capital, or internationally by more powerful countries. They want greater autonomy in decision-making. One aspect of this is the recovery of state control over energy resources; for example, the oil industry in both Venezuela and Bolivia. The state is also taking on a more active regulatory role in areas traditionally reserved for the public sector but privatized by the neoliberal regimes – areas like railways, pensions, energy and water. However, unlike the populist regimes of the past, the approach seems selective and doesn’t question private activity or foreign firms on principle. The nationalization of foreign energy companies in Venezuela and Bolivia is by negotiation; in Argentina, the re-nationalization of some public services (water and sanitation, the post office, the use of airwaves by TV and radio) was in response to serious shortcomings of the privatized companies.

For the Bush Administration, Venezuela and Bolivia’s ‘radical populism’ threaten the security of the hemisphere

Such repositioning is intended to recover the ability to make political decisions on matters which in recent decades had been transferred to the market – often to foreign-controlled markets. Privatization didn’t just transfer the ownership of assets; it also transferred the objectives of public policy in areas affecting the development and well-being of the population. Whether state involvement in the economy is growing a lot (Bolivia, Venezuela), or a little (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay) is less important than assessing progress towards the political objectives: greater autonomy from the short-term interests of the markets; a different, more equitable engagement with globalization; a style of development which distributes the fruits of collective effort better.

In the search for greater political autonomy the decision by Brazil and Argentina to become ‘disindebted’ to the IMF stands out immediately. Using accumulated reserves to pay off their debts, both countries pulled out of a game organized by powerful economic interests and the US Government.

The adoption of active economic and social development policies. Neoliberal social policy, which focused on relieving poverty through growth, is being replaced by an investment strategy designed to root out its deep causes. Public investment in infrastructure, the improvement of real wages, and better access to government resources – all aim for a reversal of poverty and social inequality. Land reform, ambitious plans to help small and medium sized businesses and peasant economies, public education and the aggressive expansion of free and public systems of healthcare, all form part of the new agenda of social policy. According to a recent report from the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Argentina and Venezuela take the lead in the reduction of poverty.

The new reformist governments seem to have learned from past macroeconomic mismanagement. Careful fiscal management has accompanied changes in public policy.

A new impulse towards alternative regional integration. This initiative is quite distinct from the much-resisted proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) promoted by the US. The alternative involves the expansion of MERCOSUR (the South American common market trade agreement) to include Venezuela as a full member; a ‘Bolivarian Alternative’ (including Cuba) promoted by Venezuela; and joint investment projects around culture and finance (with Venezuela again as the most visible promoter). Among the investment projects are Hugo Chávez’s sale of oil at preferential prices to Cuba and Nicaragua; or the creation of Telesur, a new pan-Latin American TV channel based in Venezuela that is an attempt to break the Western media monopoly. The political character of this drive to integration must be emphasized. It goes beyond commercial exchanges, reduced tariffs, policy and business co-ordination, to an attempt to build in the participation of civil society.

The road being followed by Latin America is not without difficulties. The magnitude of social need feeds the impatience of the deprived for an answer to their claims. The rhythm of recovery is set not just by the goodwill of governments but by the scale of the problems, and by a complex game of negotiation with real power. When the pace of negotiations slows, the people at the bottom tend to interpret the lack of progress as forgotten or diluted electoral promises. At times, the electoral convergence of large social coalitions gives way, after the triumph, to conflicts of vision and may even lead to open competition for scarce resources.

It may be inevitable that national self-interest sometimes short-circuits relationships with neighbours, especially when transnational businesses are also involved. For example, the tensions between Bolivia and Brazil over the nationalization of fossil fuel reserves; or agrarian reform which affects Brazilian beef, soybean and coffee companies; or the spat between Argentina and Uruguay over environmental contamination from the construction of a pulp mill on the Uruguay River, a natural border between the two countries.

Finally, the distrust and even aggressiveness of Washington towards many of these governments is clear. For the Bush Administration, regimes like Venezuela and Bolivia are examples of ‘radical populism’ that threaten the security of the hemisphere. After decades of targeting popularly inspired social change as anti-democratic and akin to ‘communism’, Washington has discovered that the new Latin American democracies are being remarkably efficient in dealing with their people’s aspirations for progress and national autonomy.

During a recent visit to Latin America, Fausto Bertinotti, President of the Italian House of Deputies, characterized the change in the region as ‘the political renaissance of Latin America’. Despite the element of diplomatic courtesy in this comment, it undoubtedly summed up the current vitality and creativity of Latin America, which is in such contrast to the regressive mediocrity of recent decades. •

Carlos M Vilas is a political scientist attached to the National University of Lanús, Argentina.

  1. Translated by David Ransom.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Continental shift

Leave your comment