Social Movements and the Left in Latin America


Midge Quandt


            Social Movements and Leftist Government in Latin America: Confrontation or Cooptation, Gary Prevost, Carlos Oliva Campos, Harry E. Vanden, eds., Zed Books, 2012, 181 pages, PBK.

Ever since leftist governments were installed in Latin America in the 21st century, much of the political commentary and political science literature has focused on them. In the process they have largely ignored the social movements that played a big role in the 1990s as advocates of social justice and democracy. In addition, their protests were instrumental in getting progressive leaders elected. In this collection of essays, Social Movements and Leftist Governments in Latin America, the editors, well known progressive scholars, right the balance by turning their attention to the movements. They asked the contributors to examine the relationship between progressive social movements and progressive governments in the 2000s.  Progressive governments can be moderate or radical; the editors and most writers are non-committal, deliberately or not.

The editors do not use Jorge Castañeda's now discredited terms — bad left (radical) and good left (moderate) because all leftist states, they emphasize, “are operating within the framework of a capitalist system.” This fact enables the writers to be non-committal. In addition, perhaps most do not want to take sides. (This reviewer believes that there is a difference between radical and moderate governments. The radical governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and to a lesser extent, Ecuador, which I support, have challenged capitalism and imperialism; the moderate governments of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay are capitalist- and U. S.-friendly.)

          The movements considered here are often called "new" social movements for the following reasons: They are made up of previously marginalized groups, like the Indigenous and environmentalists; the movements usually seek autonomy from political parties and governments; and they use non-violent direct action instead of the armed struggle of the historic left.

          The essays explore the relationship between the social movements and the governments that they helped bring to power. There has been co-optation, confrontation and cooperation or a mix of these.

          Co-optation is most thorough-going in Chile where the social democratic coalition government lasted until 2010. Edward Grieves does a case study of one neighborhood in Santiago and then analyzes the rest of civil society. In this neighborhood, the popular movements have been integrated with the municipal government through social programs and the inclusion of activists in positions of authority. In Chile overall, the state and the market have penetrated virtually all of civil society. Popular movements are weak. “The increasing penetration of the state into civil society has resulted in the increasing marginalization and fragmentation of . . . movements,” Grieves concludes. However, the student movement, which has the neoliberal state as its target, may point the way to a broader challenge to the government in the future.

          In Argentina, Peronism has always tried to blunt challenges to government authority. It is no different in the 21st century. Most social movements have been co-opted by the Peronist, moderate government of Nestor Kirchner and then, Cristina  Kirchner. The neighborhood-based piqueteros (road picketers) were the most visible of these. Many were integrated with the state through subsidies and government posts. Overall, the movements lacked organization and a political party of its own to press for change. The essay on Argentina suggests that both sides benefited from co-optation, the movements getting material benefits and the government, stability.

          It is in Ecuador that the movements have the most difficult relations with the government. Rafael Correa, and his government are often grouped with the radical left; he calls himself a socialist; his rhetoric is anticapitalist; and he has done much for the poor majority, as radical researcher Marc Becker notes. Yet the social movements accuse him, rightly, of hewing to a capitalist model of development. Becker states, “of the many lefts . . . in Latin America, Correa represented a moderate and ambiguous position closer to that of Lula in Brazil or the concertacion in Chile than Chavez’s radical populism or Morales’ Indigenous socialism.” Correa has also marginalized the movements. Not only that, in the case of Indigenous groups, (some of which receive U. S. funding), he also represses protests against extractive enterprises that affect their land. The Indigenous often clash with the government over mining and water policies. (Venezuela and Bolivia also engage in extractive industries but in contrast to Ecuador have opened political spaces for the popular organizations.)

          In the two remaining radical left states, Bolivia and Venezuela, neither government can count on the unqualified support of the base. In Bolivia the ruling party, The Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) and the presidency of the indigenous Evo Morales, are built squarely upon the social movements, especially the coca growers' unions and the several indigenous organizations. Cooperation between the movements and the government is strong.  This is because of  "a shared solidarity — class, ethnocultural and revolutionary." However, significant protests by the MAS-allied movements arose during Morales' second terms. "Their complex relationships (both complementary and conflictive)" remain. The same may be said for the state-focused movements of Venezuela.

          This volume is useful in so far as it lays out the relationship between movements and government. I have two reservations about the book. First, the essay on Venezuela by Daniel Hellinger focuses too much on rent-seeking behavior (Venezuela is oil-dependent) and its consequences for the urban poor, including clientalism, and not enough on the situation of the state and the largely supportive social movements. Secondly, the authors do not engage with those aspects of the movements that do not seek state power. Several social movements, including the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil and some groups of piqueteros in Argentina, regard autonomy from the government as basic to their anti-statist, anti-capitalist vision. The editors state that in their opinion the social movements have no power to effect change unless they are connected to the state apparatus. "No matter how powerful they may be, the social movements cannot hope to achieve all or part of their ambitious projects without the mechanisms of the state apparatus that a left party in power can provide." Both editors and authors treat the power of the state as a necessary complement to the power of the social movements. I agree. Given the continuing strength of neoliberalism at home and abroad, progressive strategy needs the state to effect change. To rely solely on the grass roots is to ignore the question of power. But as Uruguayan analyst Raúl Zibechi and U. S. journalist Benjamin Dangl, (who are not among the authors), point out, the state generally weakens the autonomy and militancy of the social movements and dilutes their radical vision.