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Dissecting Utopia: New Book Assesses Latin American Left

The rise of the Latin American left is a product of years of social movements and dramatic leadership.

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While Brazil’s Landless Farmers Movement (MST) formed some of the crucial backbone of the PT’s electoral and social power, the authors write that in Lula’s agricultural policies since he has become president, "priority has been given to huge farms with extensive tracts of land that make intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and which are devoted to the production of monocultural export crops." Most of this industry focuses on the production of sugarcane, soybeans and coffee.

Many of Brazil’s social movements (particularly the MST), are completely at odds with these devastating policies, and have been working for a small scale network of family and community farms, aimed at helping the some 5 million family farmers without the necessary amount of land to survive, and the other 4 million family farmers without any land at all. Some of the aims of this movement are agriculture without pesticides, employment, respect for ecology, soil and biodiversity, and not using GMO seeds.

However, the authors explain that in 2006 Lula did implement the Family Grant program targeting low income families with social support, including grants for food, school and cooking gas, and which impacted some 11 million families – approximately 25% of the population. In exchange for receiving the support, "the benefiting families with children under 15 years of age must enroll their children in school and guarantee their attendance, keep their vaccinations up to date, seek prenatal care and participate in educational programs on breast feeding and nutrition." In some places this support goes to nearly half of the families in a town or city.

Yet, the authors write, "the implementation of this program was not accompanied by policies that addressed the causes of poverty in Brazil, such as access to land or privileging propertied and wealthy classes in the tax system. Hence, Brazil continues to be one of the most unequal societies in the world."

In 2006, Lula won the presidency again, in part thanks to support from unions and movements such as the MST, which supported him largely because the alternative was worse; the lead opposing candidate represented the most destructive forces of the right wing and elite. One editorial in the progressive newspaper Brasil de Fato at the time explained, "An analysis of the four years of President Lula’s first term in office leads to a disappointing balance for the working class, above all with respect to the economy." Yet the editorial asked readers to "properly distinguish between our principal enemy, our adversaries and our allies. Wherever we get this wrong, we end up defeated… Thus, to vote for Lula, even with no illusions about his economic policy, is the duty of all of us who constitute the working and the Brazilian people."

Power and the Grassroots in Venezuela and Argentina

Edgardo Lander, the author of the chapter in The New Latin American Left on Venezuela, strikes an interesting balance when assessing the hopes and challenges in this country. Lander discusses the abundance of new neighborhood groups, communal councils, Bolivarian circles and electoral battle units have been developed by the government in collaboration with social sectors. The relationship between the communities participating in these programs and the state has varied in intensity and autonomy over the years and involves a broad range of experiences. On the other hand, Lander writes that many of the widely applauded social and political programs of the government "are heavily dependent on oil revenues, to the point that a significant decrease in the latter could endanger their continuity."

Regarding President Hugo Chavéz, Lander says his "style of leadership could become an obstacle to a process of democratization if many of the key and small decisions of the process remain in his hands, thereby closing the door to the urgent necessities of the institutionalization of public administration and of the organization and autonomy of the popular movement. The great dependency of the transformative process on one person makes the process itself very vulnerable."