The Tide May Be Turning in Latin America


Midge Quandt




Latin America after Neoliberalism: Turning the Tide in the 21st Century? Edited by Eric Hershberg and Fred Rosen (PBK, 372 pages, published by the New Press and the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), 2007.)


          My friends tell me that I put more store by books than by direct experience. Probably true. But since I lack first-hand knowledge of Latin America (Nicaragua, Mexico and Cuba excepted) I rely on books like the excellent studies published by NACLA to fill the gaps.

          NACLA’s first volume in its new series, Dispatches from Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism, reported on an array of popular initiatives and left-leaning regimes across the continent. The second volume, Latin America After Neoliberalism, is also a collection of essays; but it is organized by themes and is more academic, though still accessible. The book is a useful guide for activists wanting a better understanding of the profound transformations underway in the region.

          The essays are grouped in three sections. The first one deals with Latin America’s relationship with the world, especially the U.S. Included is an in-depth analysis of the many factors that led to the dominance in the 1980s and 1990s of neoliberal economic ideas and policies. The second section is devoted to the challenges that those who work for progressive change face, highlighting the problems of inequality and poverty. In the third part, the authors discuss the social and political actors engaged in the struggle for justice; the new left, the women’s movement, indigenous movements and organized labor. I will focus on this last group of articles because it is with these social forces that hopes for progressive change reside. The perspectives present here should help give activists in the North a better understanding of our partners in the South.

          In “The Left in South America and the Resurgence of National-Popular Regimes,” Carlos Vilas writes about the “new left” that has recently come to power and he does so in the context of progressive regimes in the 20th century. Vilas stresses the continuity between new regimes and previous experiments in so far as the national-popular regimes of the last century and the present one eclipsed orthodox left governments. (Conventional left-right definitions have always been somewhat unsatisfactory as applied to Latin America, he argues).

          The recent emergence of the left was fueled by impoverishment and mass protest as governments hewed to the Washington consensus and its market-friendly demands. Center-left governments in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina have tried to satisfy social demands through state action while avoiding open conflict with the U.S. The exception is Hugo Chavez. Vilas calls him a “radical reformer” from outside the traditional political system. His reforms have been the most far-reaching; his confrontational stance toward the U.S. also separates him from most others.

          Vilas’ main theme is the similarities that characterize national-popular governments today: pragmatic and moderate in espousing national capitalism. Currently these governments have no plans for systematically changing the social order. In part, this stems from the constraints imposed by the international lending agencies. However, there exists a tougher stance toward the North. With it comes a shift to regional economic integration and national autonomy.

          In underlining the commonalities of left regimes, Vilas differs from Jorge Casteñada writing in the May/June 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs. Casteñada makes a sharp distinction between “two lefts:” the moderate social democrats with whom he sides and the radical anti-American populists interested only in personal power (a false charge!). Vilas, too, recognizes differences, but believes that the similarities tell us more about what is new and significant in Latin American politics.

          As for “radical populism,” Washington has mistakenly pinned this label on an array of progressive regimes, making them precursors of terrorism. Vilas, by contrast, underscores their moderation. He also points out the drawbacks of moderation. “A not-minor danger is that principles will be left by the wayside. The distance between pragmatism and opportunism can be . . . abbreviated by the urgencies of electoral arithmetic.”

          Thus Vilas offers an incisive and nuanced analysis of the left that should help us understand the dynamics at play.

          Norma Chinchilla and Liesl Haas have given us a rich farrago in “De Protesta a Propuesta: The Contributions and Challenges of Latin American Feminism.” Because they examine so much, I will summarize two important themes which pertain to the movement now. The first is the shift from being outside to being inside the political system. The second is the emergence of transnational organizing.

          Both tendencies emanated from the greater openings that the democratization of the 1990s brought with it. However, the move from protest to political participation, while broadening the scope of feminism, created deep divisions in the movements. Some women feared cooptation by the state and the dilution of a radical agenda. (A similar problem has arisen with regard to indigenous organizing. As Shane Green shows in this volume, political participation often takes place at a considerable price: Governments marginalize or suppress demands considered too radical.)

          The issue of dampening down radical demands surfaced again in the creation of national women’s ministries throughout the region. They tend to promote narrow, non-controversial policies and prefer to work with  NGOs that have an excessively cautious approach to social policy. Moreover, they are not accountable to the women’s movements, as the feminist NGOs are not accountable to the grassroots ― a charge often made by the feminist leader, Sofia Montenegro, with regard to Nicaragua. (The tension between social movements and NGOs appeared at this year’s World Social Forum in Nairobi.)

          To turn to the second theme, the 1990s saw the rise of what the authors call transnational feminism. It flourished because of the conviction that in a globalized world, women’s problems cannot be solved on the national level alone.  Regional alliances and conferences provided a fruitful forum for strategizing. Yet there was a downside: a diversion of energy from local work.

          Since the Beijing conference of 1995, Latin American feminists have tried to balance political participation, movement building, a global focus and local activism. Nicaragua is a case in point. There the Autonomous Women’s Movement took part in the presidential campaign of 2007. And it did so without compromising its independence or its radical vision.

          Like the women’s and indigenous movements, labor organizing has become more transnational in recent years in response to globalization. Mark Anner’s piece, “Labor and the Challenge of Cross-Border, Cross-Sector Alliance” zeroes in on this phenomenon. These themes are the subject of two case studies: the anti-sweatshop movement and the opposition to the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).

          Even with an ally like the Textile Workers’ Union (UNITE), workers in the maquilas of Central America were hard to organize. Highly mobile textile firms could just move on if they faced too much opposition.

          Enter the NGOs, North and South, onto the sweatshop scene. In cross-sector and cross-border alliances with other NGOs and unions, they were more successful than labor alone in defending workers’ rights. Though labor focused on organizing drives and NGOs on media expos¾s, these efforts were complementary.

          In the struggle against FTAA, the labor movement played a larger role than in the maquilas. The Hemisphere Social Alliance (HAS) contained powerful and well-funded unions, many in South America. The HAS represented a coalition of Northern and Southern unions and NGOs that for the first time went beyond shop-floor issues to encompass democratic economic governance. And along with other players, it defeated Bush’s plan.

          A challenge generally to successful organizing in the region was Northern domination of Southern partners, as happened in the maquilas of Central America ― a persistent danger when power differentials exist and one that solidarity activists must always guard against.  The organizing against the FTAA sidestepped this problem because of the size and clout of Southern organizations.

          But a challenge that Anner glosses over is the continuing conservative streak in the AFL-CIO (a holdover from the Cold War). This tendency was mitigated but not overcome by the emergence of a more progressive leadership exemplified by John  Sweeny’s election as President in 1995. Kim Scipes at the Latin American Solidarity Conference of April 2007 made a strong case that Sweeny’s much touted Solidarity Center has a mixed record whose alliance with the infamous and reactionary National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has a deleterious and distinctly non-progressive effect on cross border organizing.

          Latin America after Neoliberalism supplements the more country-specific Dispatches from Latin America. It gives us an in-depth analysis of the burgeoning left today. But as Nicaragua’s Fernando Cardenal said years ago, “It is not a still photo; it is a moving picture.” We can only hope that it keeps moving in the right direction.