Latin America

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There has been much intense resistance and struggle in Latin America since the introduction of mercantilist and then industrial capitalism into the region. After a period of national development and populist regimes, the military forces organized the reinsertion of the continent into the globalized capitalist economy, muzzling the voice of the social movements. The neoliberal period that followed was characterized on the political level by « controlled democracy ». Contemporary social struggles are thus very marked, not only by a massive opposition to the project for the Free Trade Zone of the Americas, but also by the many movements that are against privatization. Sectorially, there are movements of peasants, indigenous peoples, workers, middle classes, women, politicians and religious figures : they have all played their part. Convergences developed during the 1990s. These initiatives have been using the new information technology and aspire to more participatory forms of democracy. They are, however, faced with new challenges : their relationship with politics, the need for an anti-systemic convergence, the criminalization of social movements and the militarization of the continent.

The Latin American continent, which gave birth to the first World Social Forum at Porto Alegre in Brazil, has become the symbol of the convergence of social movements, just as Davos is that of the dominant powers in the capitalist world. It is therefore important to analyze the regions where this initiative has developed in order to understand its main characteristics.

Resistance and struggles in their historical context

Contemporary struggles are rooted in a history that has to be borne in mind when describing and analyzing them. It was mercantilist capitalism that started the insertion of the continent into the world economy, dominated at that time by Europe. The pillage of the region’s wealth contributed to the primitive accumulation that was at the origin of European industrial development. Its human costs were dramatic : the genocide of the American Indians and the enslavement of the Africans.

Industrial capitalism established its economic domination over the continent, but without setting up real colonies as in Africa and Asia. It was the white or creole minorities who declared their independence from their former metropolitan centres, which made recolonization unthinkable. The conflicts within the system were soon turned to the advantage of England, first of all, and afterwards, the United States, who drew up the Monroe Doctrine (America for the Americans).

During these two periods, social struggles were numerous. Suffice to mention a few : for example, the wars of the indigenous peoples all over the continent to retard their submission and the revolts of the slaves, above all in the Caribbean, Cuba and Haiti. When agrarian capitalism was first introduced, for example in Brazil, peasant movements arose as religious movements of social protest. All through the 19th and 20th centuries, within the dominant social groups there were divisions between the conservatives, generally linked to the interests of the agrarian oligarchy, and the liberals, who favoured capitalist modernization.

From the beginning of the 20th century, Mexico underwent a political and social revolution, which was nationalist, anti-imperialist and agrarian (Zapata and Pancho Vila). And, with the development of industry which became important in the Southern Cone, Colombia and Mexico (although marginal in the other countries), workers’ struggles began to make themselves felt. They came up against ferocious resistance, as testified by the massacre at the school of Santa Maria de Iquique in Chile, which cost the lives of thousands of copper-mine workers, striking in companies controlled by North American capital.

In sum, the subordinate insertion of Latin America into world capitalism is not of recent date and it has created situations of great injustice and profound cultural destruction, which have been at the origin of formidable social struggles. The chief characteristic of the contemporary era is thr neoliberal orientation of the world economy known as the Washington Consensus. The continent has been heavily affected by privatization and liberalization policies and the social struggles that have developed are indelibly marked by them.

The continent as an economic, political and cultural periphery

The Latin American continent is often seen as one sole geographic and economic entity. This can be seen particularly in the policy of the United States and the international financial institutions. However, the national situations are very different and the forms that social struggle take vary from one country or region to another, according to such factors as the degree of industrialization, the resistance of the agrarian oligarchies and the relative size of the indigenous people.

There was an era of national development based on the substitution of imports by local production (desarrollismo) and which therefore concentrated on the internal market. The Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL) guided these policies at a regional level until the model became undermined which was fairly soon, mainly because of the costs of technological transfer and acquisition of know-how. It was the same story as in the rest of the South (the Bandung model, according to Samir Amin). The advent of the military dictatorships created the political and social conditions necessary for passing from an economy based on the internal market to an economy subordinated by economic imperialism. Foreign capital investment grew substantially, consolidating the monopolistic structure of the national economies.

With the failure of the national development model, the left in many countries suffered a political collapse and internal divisions. It was the crisis of populism in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and the start of the militarization of the political system. The military dictatorships forced the abandonment of the national development model, suppressed the socialist reforms in Pinochet’s Chile and opened the national economies to the international market. Social and political movements were savagely repressed. In Central America and in parts of the Caribbean, the agro-exporting economic structures, supervised by the dictatorships supported by the United States, gave birth to armed, national popular movements, which took power in Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti. Only Cuba resisted being inserted into the economic system run by the United States, but at the cost of an embargo. During these hard times for the social movements across the whole continent, the Christian churches, particularly the Catholic Church, which had been renewed thanks to the Vatican Council II and the Conference of the Latin American Episcopal Council at Medellin in 1968, provided space for reflection (liberation theology) and social action (basic church communities).

Forced by the scale of the demonstrations and social and political pressures, the military retired from the forefront of the scene, giving rise to tremendous hope for social justice and political participation. The results of the democratic transition did not however come up to expectations : the impunity of the former leaders, the continuing clientelism and corruption, as well as the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of elites showed how impossible it was to bring about change « from above ». Besides, the mass media remained under the control of the large economic groups, the international financial bodies left no room for manoeuvre for national policies and the external debt literally exploded. None of this favoured the exercise of a truly representative democracy.

Neoliberalism grew rapidly, particularly under the influence of international financial organizations (IMF, World Bank), who imposed their credit conditions (including structural adjustment programmes), demanding rigorous monetary policies, the reduction of State functions through privatization and diminishing expenditure and regular payment for servicing the debt. All these measures corresponded to the world policy of re-establishing capital’s rate of accumulation. It enabled the Triad (United Staters, Europe, Japan) to reinforce its position at the centre of the world economy and reduced Latin America to its traditional place on the periphery. Local economic powers, having an interest in pursuing their comprador rôle, i.e. that of intermediaries, did not find it difficult to rally to neoliberal policy. As Emir Sader said : « Never has a model become so widely generalized in the continent and never has it had such a pitiful result in the history of Latin America. » [Emir Sader, 2002].

The social consequences of this conservative transition were disastrous : increase in poverty, growth of inequalities, dismantling of public services, mass dismissals, failure of small businesses, casualization of labour and development of the informal sector. More and more social groups suffered the consequences. As Marta Harnecker has written in her work on the subject [2002], it is not only the expanding mass of poor people who are affected, but also the impoverished middle classes, small and medium agricultural producers and members of cooperatives, indigenous peoples, professionals, unemployed, public employees, women in the informal sector, small savers, retired people, even the lower ranks of the army and the police - in sum, what Helio Gallardo calls « the social people ». While the national development model had somewhat strengthened the working class and thus imposed a real submission of capital to labour, the neoliberal era had the effect of developing a formal submission, in other words, found many other ways of extracting surplus (external debt, interest rates, development of finance capitalism, favourable conditions accorded to foreign investors, fiscal havens, etc.).

This had a considerable effect on the social movements. After they had already been victimized by the military regimes, they were increasingly weakened by the new economic orientation. In fact, the class struggle was pushed into the background and trade unions fell back on defensive positions and immediate demands. On the other hand new claims developed, formulated around the notion of universal rights : education, health, social security, housing, food, cultural identity. They also expressed opposition to specifically neoliberal policies : privatization, casualization of labour, lower wages, the closing of certain enterprises. It is not however possible to understand them unless they are put in the global context of the capitalist system, which always ends by favouring certain social classes to the detriment of others. Here we give some examples.

The struggles against the neoliberal project

The opposition to NAFTA (the Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico), was strikingly expressed by the Zapatistas in Mexico as from 1994. The project of expanding this formula to all the countries of the Americas (FTAA) has since extended to the whole region and it is this continental struggle that provided the theme for the march of more than 50,000 people that closed the Second World Social Forum of Porto Alegre in 2002. The imminent threat of the integration/subordination of the continent into the North American economy has given rise to much resistance and accelerated the process of creating a broad alliance, bringing together movements from Latin America, the United States and Canada.

The most spectacular struggles have been those against the privatization of certain public services. This was the case in Bolivia, at Cochabamba, for water ; in Paraguay, Ecuador and Bolivia for electricity ; in Venezuela for public transport ; in Chile, for social security ; etc. Such actions bring together people from the popular sectors together with the middle classes, without however necesssarily creating permanent movements. In places where the crisis is particularly acute, new forms of economic organization are developing, such as barter in Argentina. A new conscience is developing in certain social groups: peasant movements, indigenous peoples, new trade unions, women’s associations. Reactions against neoliberal policies are adopting quite new methods : civilian strikes, occupation of public places, road blockages (piqueteros), saucepan demonstrations (cazerolazos), etc.

The peasant movements

There are many peasant struggles. They are to be found in the banana plantations of Panama against the US transnational corporations, in Paraguay for the right to land and to credit, etc. Together with the indigenous movements, the rural movements have been among the most dynamic of the continent over the last few years. In fact, neoliberal policies involve a veritable agrarian counter-reform and a new concentration of land. The old agrarian oligarchies have certainly lost some of their position and their strategies have been defensive, as in Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala. But some of the commercial and financial bourgeoise, enriched by neoliberalism, is partially investing in agriculture, pushing it further into the capitalist system, particularly through exports. As a consequence the small peasants are eliminated, sometimes brutally, as they are unable to prevent themselves from being excluded by the credit system and the lowering of prices, due to the opening of the markets. In places, like Nicaragua, where co-operatives have been systematically organized, they are slowly dying.

The most important of the peasant movements of Latin America is undoubtedly the Movement of the Landless (MST) of Brazil. There are several reasons to explain its fascination today : the number of people that it federates (more than 400,000 families) ; the political policy that it is developing whereby the individual desire to possess land is being superseded by a global vision of society ; and the creativity, combativity and tenacity shown by its members in defending their cause, through the occupation of land and official buildings and the long marches that have criss-crossed the country.

The MST carries out mass struggles and a lot of social and political pressure. Although it is not a political party, it carries socio-political weight. While the first objective of the Movement is to obtain land, justified by the principle of equality of access to land - all individuals have the right to meet their needs autonomously - this demand-action is part of a project for society that is broader, egalitarian, united, democratic and ecological, which the MST tries to implement in its everyday practice, through its assentamentos (collective settlements).

The internal organization of the movement follows the principles of participative democracy. It thus has a new orientation, as a reaction to centralism, bureaucratization and avant-gardisme. At the economic level, production is organized following co-operative principles and while it aims at high productivity, the MST is promoting ecological development through alternative techniques for fertilizing the soil and preserving indigenous seeds as well as rejecting pesticides that harm the eco-system. Access to health is facilitated by reviving medication by plants (phytotherapy) which are produced in MST settlements and this makes the peasants independent of the pharmaceutical multinationals. Similarly, education follows the principles of liberation pedagogy, promoting a collective apprenticeship, rooted in a political context and stimulating reflection and a critical attitude towards the content of the apprenticeship course.

The indigenous movements

The advent of the indigenous peoples’ movements on the continental scene is certainly one of the most striking phenomena of recent social history in Latin America. Since colonial times and up until recently, they have experienced domination, exploitation and discrimination. For long they have been reduced to the status of « object peoples » but they now appear as « subjects », the potential actors of a totally new affirmation of themselves. It is an affirmation that is cultural, social and political.

Paradoxically, while current globalization is in many ways disastrous for these marginalized people, it also creates the conditions that help them to emerge as social actors with their own identity. The acceleration of globalization brings with it the seeds of cultural, local and regional reaffirmation. As we know, the disintegrating effect of the liberal economy logic undermines national solidarity and induces the fragmentation of the main social actors and collective identities. In Latin America, as elsewhere, the tendency is accompanied by a proliferation of identity movements of a religious, national or ethnic character.

It is true that the indigenous movements are fragile and not devoid of the fundamentalist, racist and reactionary tendencies that are encountered elsewhere, but the most symbolic of the indigenous movements in Latin America - Zapatism in Mexico, Conaie in Ecuador - do , these days, express both the cultural and social dimensions of their struggle, which is highly political. They combine, in quite an innovatory manner, ethnic membership, ethical protest and social and political action. Their demands concern both the recognition of the human rights of the indigenous peoples as well as a genuine democratization of the country and a critique of the neoliberal development model. Their sense of identity is strong enough not to become diluted, sufficiently open not to shut themselves off from the rest of the world and their rebellions multiply their ties with others - local, national and international - rather than opposing them. The indigenous populations that organize these rebellions desire emancipation and freedom to make modernity their own. They want to concentrate the debate as much on the democratization of the political system and of the State in its relationships with the social actors as on challenging the dominant economic system.

The emerging movements seem to have learnt the lessons of yesterday’s antagonisms between peasant trade unions and indigenous organizations. While the former, with a « class » orientation, give priority in their analyses and demands to social relationships and the social position of their grassroots, the latter, who are more culturalist, tend to adopt options favouring a sense of identity through the recovery of traditions, even the restoration of the ancient order, even if unjust socially. Rivalries between the leaders of the two tendencies was very strong in these divisions of the popular, peasant and indigenous movement and ended up by radicalizing and polarizing their respective positions.

Now, while social justice remains the pole star to be attained, the quest is to make power responsible, while recognizing diversities and re-valorizing democracy. Thus neo-Zapatism declares it bases legitimacy on its efforts to overcome authoritarianism, avant-gardisme, dogmatism and militarism. With a strong sense of their own identity, the indigenous insurgents are also revolutionary and democratic and call for convergence with social, cultural and political resistance to the omnipresence of the market, creator of inequalities and destroyer of specific identities. The challenge posed by these indigenous struggles - from the Mapuche of Chile and Argentina to the Mayas of Central America, including the Aymaras and Quechuas of the Andes, the Kunas of Panama, etc. - is how to reconciliate the principles of diversity (and interdependence of political and cultural spaces) and equality (revival of the egalitarian perspective). The movements claim autonomy without secession and integration without assimilation. The Indian organizations respond to the destructive uniformity of globalization and the integrating orientation of the national authorities by an « Indianism » that is respectful of identities. « To be recognized as equal and different », « Equal because different », says Ana Maria, a Zapatista leader.

These utopias and this desire to include ethnic claims and a new anticapitalist internationalism in the social, national and international struggles are no accident. They are the result of the advent of young, innovatory elites within the traditional communities, the generational conflict, the rupture of the community spirit of unanimity brought about by modernization, but also a revival of their heritage with the values belonging to the indigenous world. They draw on the many cultural and political influences of the movements that, over the last decades, have been subscribing to the utopias held,in the religious sphere, by the currents inspired by liberation theologies, or, in a more socio-political sphere, by peasants and union organizations and the revolutionary movements, now in decline.

There are several dangers or deviations that lie in wait for these indigenous struggles : repression, first of all and attempts to suppress or co-opt them, institutionalization and neutralization, but also the risks of ethnic tensions within the movements themselves, identity withdrawal and authoritarian regression, but also the contrary tendencies of dilution, gradual erosion of the capacities for action of these resistance actors. More insidiously, at a more theoretical level, these rebellions could also be the victims of a certain analytical perspective that tends to oppose the new social movements to the old ones, emphasizing the novelty of their ideology and their modes of organization. And an effort to dig into the richness of these contemporary indigenous movements and analyze them with a rigid theoretical framework could also have detrimental consequences for action.

What is at stake, apart from the fate and survival of the indigenous communities and the indigenous people themselves, are the modes of social integration and national unity in the framework of the economy and Western culture. The responses that these movements will bring to the thorny issues of multiculturalism within nation states in crisis, the kind of autonomy to build, the relationships with politics and the conquest of power : all these certainly depend on their future but also on the way they relate to the other struggles and resistance. As we know, on these ambivalent themes of autonomy, relationships with power and multiculturalism, the institutional and constitutional reforms under way (in Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Bolivia...) can be quite functional : they may fit in with the dominant neoliberal model or correspond to a democratic logic of emancipation and resistance to that order.

The workers’ movements

Trade unions have existed in Latin America for a long time. The struggles they led in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela developed with the industrialization process. They were often linked to populist political parties (like Peronism, for example), social democrats or Christian democrats and when these parties came to power they lost much of their freedom of action. The North American AFL-CIO played an important federating rôle, but a very ambiguous one, as more often than not it was the « social » arm of the US State Department.

Since the 1970s, the democratic process saw the development of a new type of trade union, which was more independent and radical, less bureaucratic and adopting methods that tried to be more democratic. The novo sindicalismo of the Central Unica dos Trabalhadores in Brazil is the prototype of this trade union renewal. Indeed, this Brazilian federation was one of the founding actors of the World Social Forum, as was the Landless Movement (MST). In Argentina, a minority union, the CTA, also developed along similar lines. During the neoliberal period, union demands have picked up again, in spite of a series of failures. Social conflicts have broken out almost everywhere, in industry (Volkswagen in Mexico), in the mines in Bolivia, in construction and in the ports of Peru and Chile, with the public service employees, not to mention the more general demonstrations, above all in Argentina and Uruguay. This helped the older unions to be more open to new approaches and, in certain cases, to join in the convergence for another globalization.

Nevertheless the worker movement remains weak in many sectors, particularly in the maquiladora (sub-contracting) industry in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Elsewhere it is divided and in crisis (in Honduras) . In Colombia it is repressed by the army and the paramilitary (165 assassinations in one year). The struggles in this sector are thus important and arduous, even if the working class, as such, is a minority among the workers of the continent.

The middle classes

Protest has spread to the middle classes who have been made more precarious by neoliberal policies. But this has seldom led to really organized movements. There have been protests by the small savers, women, households, retired people. Thus the lorry-drivers in Chile, the small and medium businessmen in Brazil and Argentina, teachers and professors in Ecuador and doctors in Salvador all fight against the privatization of social security. A number of movements have gone beyond the one-off reaction and adopted a more global opposition to neoliberalism. This is the case of the CIVES, the Brazilian Association of Entrepreneurs for Citizenship, whose aim is to mobilize entrepreneurs and the professions in order to « develop citizenship, improve democracy and to defend social justice and ethics. » Struggling against the political prejudices associated with entrepreneurs and wanting to promote an alliance with the organizations representing popular interests and the leftwing parties, this professional association hints at a new kind of militant, the progressive entrepreneur against neoliberal globalization and for sharing wealth and respect for social rights.

The women’s movements

The women’s movements are at the forefront of the social protest against neoliberalism that has shaken Latin American countries. The Women’s World March brought together, in Honduras, some 80 organizations concerned with common action. In Guatemala action by feminist movements has led to the adoption of a law on violence against women and the Council of Maya Women is particularly active. In Argentina, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are well known ; their concerns have gone beyond action on behalf of the desaparecidos and now embrace a more global vision. As elsewhere, the feminist movements started in the middle classes but the dominant culture was not favourable to them in Latin America. The new development is the participation of women from the popular classes in collective actions of protest or in the unions (maquilas). Their organization in genuine movements is more recent and the basic orientation has been moving from a radical feminization to a social radicalism expressed by women.

The ecological movements

The ecological perspective is not very institutionalized in Latin America. There are hardly any ecological parties and where they exist they are usually marginal. But the large-scale pollution, the increasing degradation of the quality of life in the metropolitan regions, the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources and a number of ecological catastrophes have made ecology into one of the main concerns of the popular movements and the NGOs.

The political movements and those linked to the State administration

As elsewhere, the distrust of political parties is quite widespread in the continent. For example, in Chile there are 800,000 young people who have not registered as voters. In Colombia, over 50 per cent of the voters boycott elections. This is hardly surprising in the « supervised democracies » where people are confronted by the manufacture of consent, the hijacking of leftwing vocabulary by the rightwing, leftist parties administering neoliberal policies, and rampant corruption. New political forms have developed, as in Venezuela or in an ephemeral manner, in Ecuador, with nationalist military personnel. As Marta Harnecker has said, the right can dispense with political parties, but the left cannot, as it needs organizations capable of putting projects forward.

Some movements have become institutionalized in parties, in various forms, like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Lavalas in Haiti, the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil and the Farbundo Marti Front in Salvador. These experiences have not been very convincing vis-à-vis a really alternative project, which shows that the relationship between the social left and the political left is not an easy one. Electoral logic very soon imposes political compromise, separating the parties and their candidates from its more radical objectives. The change of attitude of the Brazilian PT towards the external debt of the Third World and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) during the last presidential campaign is symptomatic.

Mention should also be made of the actions and movements linked to the administration of the State. Many workers from the public sector have protested against the privatization of the State as in Costa Rica, where the law in preparation had to be withdrawn, and also in Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Bolivia and Venezuela. Moreover, experiences of participatory management have been introduced to the political field, as in Porto Alegre, in Brazil, and has spread like wildfire in Mexico and Bolivia, among other countries.

There are armed guerillas in Colombia, where social conflict is nourished by the refusal of the traditionally privileged classes to yield one iota of their economic power and political control, particularly in the agrarian field. Things have become complicated by the drug trafficking, which has ended in reinforcing the concentration of economic power and corruption. The institutionalization of the armed struggle within the guerilla movement has often given precedence to military logic over social objectives. Furthermore, the United States, through the Colombia Plan, has established a presence in the region and used the pretext of the combat against drug-trafficking to eliminate the guerillas and remilitarize the continent from Colombia, a convenient geostrategic base for this purpose. This new threat has provoked an increasingly generalized opposition in the continent as a whole.

The religious movements

During the recent period of neoliberalism, the movements of leftwing Christians or the Church of the Poor, which have played an important rôle in certain countries, have experienced fierce ecclesiastical repression. The basic communities have diminished, mainly because they lack space in the Catholic Church. In Central America, Ecuador, Brazil and Mexico they have played a leading rôle in the popular movements. The defence of the indigenous peoples and their social organization had received a lot of support from bishops in Mexico, Ecuador and Brazil. However, the growing strength of the conservative movements within the Catholic Church today overshadows an action which, in spite of being marginalized, has not ceased to exist.

The prospects for social struggles in Latin America


Both within countries and at the continental level, a series of sectorial or inter-sectorial coordination has been organized. On the national level, we could cite, for Ecuador, the CONAIE (Confederation of the Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), the CMS (Coordination of Social Movements), created in 1995, the Patriotic Front (1999), the Peoples’ Congress (1999) and the Parliaments of the Peoples of Ecuador (2000). After Hurrican Mitch in Honduras, Interforo was set up, bringing together social movements and NGOs. Many new initiatives linked to the World Social Forum, have developed at the national level in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and even in the Amazonian regions (which extend over several countries) and in Minas Gerais (Brazil). This often corresponds to what Marta Harnecker calls the formation of « alternative social blocs ».

A Latin American Social Forum met for the first time in Quito, Ecuador. It gathered, as in Porto Alegre, social movements and NGOs but excluded political parties (the leftwing parties come together in the Forum of São Paulo). And we should remember the World Social Forum, held in Porto Alegre, represents the most promising public space for global alternatives.

Using the new communication technologies

What is very striking in the new situation in Latin America is the intensive use of electronic means of communication. This has not yet overcome the barriers between the movements, but external contacts are very well developed. The leading example is that of the Zapatistas and Subcomandante Marcos. Those sympathizing with the movement make great use of the Internet, with a considerable command over its contents.( ?) The MST also has a worldwide communication network. For its part, the World Social Forum use several web sites. The Latin American social movements have fully entered into the electronic communication era, helped by continental and external NGOs, and supported by the continent’s own communication and information bodies, like ALAI (Latin American Information Association).

The challenges

The new dynamic that animates Latin American social movements during the neoliberal phase of world capitalism is not without serious challenges. It is true that the social failure of the economic project has created more and more reactions, which has led to a delegitimization of the system. But reactions are concrete and one-off at present, which facilitate broader-based contestation, but fragmented actions and organizations can also dilute the movements’ effectiveness.

A first challenge is therefore to define the objectives. There are the pragmatic currents, who would be happy enough - perhaps too easily - to obtain temporary or partial victories, while those who are more radically oriented aim at an in-depth transformation. Linked to these options are, on the one hand, the « rank and file » tendencies, who fear a new elitism and, on the other, the « vertical » currents, who have lost momentum after the experiences of « real socialism ». Combining everyday practice and long-term anti-systemic action is thus the first challenge, which is absolutely vital if transformation is to be successful.

The relationships with politics is a second challenge. If this does not exist, the building of alternatives cannot compete with the dominant socio-economic structures. It requires new forms of relationships between representative democracy (politics) and participative democracy (involvement of civil society). The subject of participation is increasingly mentioned within parties, but the social movements fear being hijacked. While the social movements and the political parties each have specific functions, particularly vis-à-vis the State, they must however manage to establish organic links. The present tendency is not for a single avant-garde party, which would incorporate all demands, but more for a convergence of political organizations.

The third challenge is that of the criminalization of social movements by the dominant system and the repression that is already being exercised and will be further exercised if they are more successful. In Bolivia, Evo Morales, presidential candidate in 2002, reached third place thanks to the votes of the indigenous people. He was described as a terrorist by the US ambassador. As has been happening all over the world, while the effects of 11 September have only occasionally been direct, their long-term effects are leading to a militarization of the continent (Colombia Plan), a delegitimization of the social movements and a reinforcement of rightwing regimes, de facto allies of the United States.

The aims and the alternatives

There are many aims and alternatives proposed. It is not easy to make a synthesis of them all, but it is possible to highlight some of the recurrent themes. In the economic field, de-linking is proposed and the search for other forms of integration into the world economy. The reinforcement of regional economic poles that are currently fragile (Mercosur, Andean Pact, Central American Common Market, etc.) is on the agenda.

The recovery of sovereignty vis-à-vis the transnationals is another essential objective, explicit or implicit, of all those who want to re-establish food security and the utilization of local resources for the well-being of their populations. This is expressed particularly in the various actions against privatization. Everyone is for the regionalization of the economies as against integration into the US economy through the project for the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

This macroeconomic perspective is accompanied by a concern to promote new forms of production that are more democratic and less linked to the capitalist market. There are many experiences under way, although not all of them have a genuinely anti-systemic outlook.

Another characteristic to be found at present within the movements, as also in the convergences (World Social Forum) is the demand for participatory democracy. This is not only applicable to the experiences in political management of towns recently won by progressive coalitions. It should also involve the participation of members in choosing the orientations of their unions, the freedom of workers to decide for themselves on the organization of work and the utilization of the surplus (self-management), as well as national referendums and other popular consultations. This points to a form of citizenship that is multiple and active, motor of a social transformation.

Finally, there are the ecological and cultural objectives. In fact, with a view to improving the quality of life, respect for the environment is paramount, above all amongst movements of the indigenous peoples. It is they, too, who insist on cultural autonomy. This is also demanded in the field of the mass media, particularly regarding music and cinema : it is the reason why many artists join the social movements. It is increasingly recognized that culture, too, is a space for resistance and social issues.


The social scene of the continent is characterized by : the return of social struggles, put on the back burner by the military dictatorships ; the difficulty of organizing in the neoliberal system, which individualizes the struggles and fragments them ; the emergence of new social sectors within the struggles themselves ; the accent on the quality of life and on culture as a popular issue ; the new forms of democratic demands ; the research for convergences. We are far from having covered the whole ground and still further from having exhausted reflection on the contribution of such an experience to the theory of social movements.

Boaventura de Souza Santos stresses the linkages in the new forms of struggle, those that are called the new social movements, the new socialism and the interclassist movements, to the new global context. He talks of the relationships of reproduction. On the one hand, he says, the objectives are defined in function of humanity as a whole, and on the other, it is subjectivity that affirms itself. One can see a new culture of emancipation and demands for autonomy, self-government, decentralization, co-operation, participation. And in Latin America these are also the claims of the popular classes. He concludes that it is necessary to reconcile the two poles, that of regulation-emancipation (the former is addressed to capitalism and the latter is claimed by socialism) and that of the subjectivity-citizenship relationship. The first pole concerns the positions adopted concerning the economic system. To manage capitalism in order to obtain immediate results or to promote human emancipation and contradict this logic : this is the subject of discussion. The other pole is concerned with the tension between personal (family) needs and insertion into society. Boaventura de Souza notes that the contemporary social movements are posing these questions in an existential manner.

True, it is indispensable to tackle these questions which raise both theoretical and strategic aspects, but it is also necessary to place them in the general framework of globalized capitalism. First, the labour/capital divide still exists and in certain cases it includes more people than ever before, even if the conditions are different (deregulation of work, sub-contracting, etc.). Second, the formal submission of the local economies by capitalist globalization has its influence on increasing numbers of social groups. In fact, more and more sectors are affected by market logic (public services, education, health, small peasants), as a result of privatization and a series of indirect mechanisms that syphons off wealth to privileged social groups, which explains the development of specific resistance. In this way, Latin America contributes to today’s history of social movements.




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Harnecker, Marta, Amérique Latine, tâche stratégique : articuler la gauche organisée en parti et la gauche sociale, Montreal, 2002


Le Bot, Yvon, Violence et modernité en Amérique Latine. Indianité, société et pouvoir,

Paris : Karthala, 1994


Raes, Florence, « Le MST au Brésil entre luttes paysannes et nouveau mouvement social », Lusotopie, 2001

Additional contributions

Alonso, Aurelio, La sociedad cubana en los años noventa y los retos del comienza del nuevo siglo

Denis, Roland, Nuestra revolución, Venezuela

Harnecker, Marta, Tarea estratégica : articular izquierda partidaria e izquierda social para construir un gran bloque social antineoliberal

Hidalgo Flor, Francisco, Ecuador : resistencia popular persistente al implacable modelo neoliberal

Kennedy, Mirta, El mundo visto por los pueblos, Honduras

Moncayo, Hector León, Colombia frente a la globalización : una mirada desde abajo

Parker, Christian, Chile : la búsqueda de una inserción competitiva en el mercado global

Ramondetti, Miguel, Argentina

Rubio, Roberto, A más de una década de politicas neoliberales en el Salvador

Sader, Emir, Que Brasil é esse ?

Villacorta, Alberto Enriquez, Guatemala, entre la exclusión y la esperanza

Wing-Ching, Isabel Sandi, Ajuste estructural y movimientos sociales. Costa Rica, 1999-2000

These texts have been prepared in the context of the report Mondialisation des Résistances

and can be consulted on the web site of the World Forum for Alternatives (

See also :

« Les mouvements sociaux en Amérique latine » Alternatives Sud, Vol. 1 (1994), No. 4

« L’avenir des peuples autochtones : le sort des premières nations. » Alternatives Sud, Vol. VII (2000), No. 2.


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