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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.

Reviewed: The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn , edited by Patrick Barrett, Daniel Chavez and Cesar Rodriguez-Garavito. Published by Pluto Press (2008), 320 pages.

The conflict in Honduras has been an ongoing challenge for governments across the political spectrum in Latin America. In the years leading up to this tense and decisive event a number of leaders and social movements have pushed the region to the left. It is this regional shift that is the focus of The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn , edited by Patrick Barrett, Daniel Chavez and Cesar Rodriguez-Garavito.

This book includes a series of insightful chapters by various experts on the roots and rise of the new Latin American left in nations such as Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay. Many of the authors are progressive academics and analysts from the countries they are writing about. Packed with behind the scenes information and eye-opening analysis, this book should be required reading for anyone interested in the most dramatic leftist political events of the decade.

At the start of The New Latin American Left the authors explain that so far, most analysts looking at the region have focused exclusively on "partisan politics" or "grassroots mobilization." Yet in this book, the country and regional case studies examine the political parties, governments and social movements as three separate forces in the new Latin American left.

The authors write that social movements have perhaps been the most important forces of these three players in bringing about progressive change, or paving the way to the election of various left-leaning presidents. In some cases movements called for national change based on rights, against privatization by a corporation, or from a class or ethnic based position.

Central to the discussions presented in the book is the relationship between political parties and social movements. A political party, write the editors in the first chapter, "can serve as the political arm of social movements, enabling them to project their social power and express their demands in the political arena and providing them with a necessary means for gaining access to the state." Alliances between movements and parties can help promote important policies, fight against the right, and advise politicians.

At the same time, the "electoral logic" of parties can operate at odds with the movements’ logic, write the editors. As parties need a broad base, movements are often going to make up a smaller part of that base than other sectors. Plus movements, as in the case of Brazil, are often asked to refrain from actions that could make the movement look bad during or outside of an election season. The editors argue that an ideal situation is one in which the parties and movements can operate together, or at least co-exist, in the defense of human rights and against neoliberalism and the right wing. However, as The New Latin American Left illustrates, such collaborations between the street and the state often turn out to be rockier than planned.

Brazil, Lula and the Landless Movement

The rise to power of the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) says a lot about the challenges of moving from the grassroots to the government palace.

The PT began as a working class party, with a worker (Lula, a former steel worker) as its leader, and won 11 million votes in the 1989 presidential elections. The PT’s directions were initially conceived by the workers and party base. Lula was elected president for the first time in 2002, and quickly turned his back on the working class orientation of his party.