What the Rise of Democratic Movements in Latin America Means for the Rest of the World

News & Politics

As the people of Latin America build democracies from the bottom up, the symbols of power are changing. What used to be emblems of poverty and oppression -- indigenous clothing and speech, the labels "campesino" and "landless worker" -- are increasingly the symbols of new power. As people-powered movements drive the region toward social justice and equality, these symbols speak, not of elite authority limited to a few, but of power broadly shared.

The symbolism was especially rich last year in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when the new minister of justice made her entrance at an international activists' summit. Casimira Rodríguez, a former domestic worker, wore the thick, black braids and pollera, a long, multilayered skirt, of an Aymara indigenous woman. As she made her way through the throng, Rodríguez further distinguished herself from a typical law-enforcement chief by passing out handfuls of coca leaves.

Throughout the region, marginalized people are rising up, challenging the system that has kept them poor, and pursuing a new course. In country after country, people are selecting leaders who strongly reject the Washington-led "neoliberal" policies of restricted government spending on social programs, privatization of public services such as education and water, and opening up borders to foreign corporations.

Of course, there are exceptions, most notably Mexico, where conservative Felipe Calderón claimed power after a bruising battle over disputed election results. But the growing backlash has driven old-guard presidents out of power in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Bolivia. And, while there are sharp differences among the new leaders, there is no question that what put all of them in power was a growing outcry against economic injustice. Over 40 percent of the region still lives in poverty, and the gap between rich and poor is the widest in the world.

No longer willing to accept perpetual poverty, Latin America's poor are redefining their societies and, in the process, redefining democracy. They are organizing large segments of society into strong, dynamic social movements with enough power to drive national politics. The challenge, of course, is to hold their new leaders accountable, to maintain the strength of the grassroots democratic power, and to go beyond symbolism to make real change.

Bolivia's Indigenous President

In Bolivia, where indigenous people are the majority, there are already some concrete signs of progress. Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president, took office in 2006 with the strongest mandate of any Bolivian leader. Catapulted onto the national political stage by his struggles as a union leader defending the rights of coca growers, Morales came to power on the heels of massive popular uprisings that ousted three presidents in as many years.

Despite sitting on the region's second largest natural gas reserves, Bolivia is South America's poorest country. In tandem with a wave of privatizations that swept Latin America in the 1990s, the oil and gas industry in Bolivia was opened for business to foreign oil companies, which garnered 82 percent of the profits, while leaving a scant 18 percent for Bolivia's coffers. Shortly after taking office, the Morales government set out to rewrite contracts with private companies. Negotiators increased the country's share of the profits to 50-80 percent by renegotiating contracts with 10 different companies, which will yield billions in additional revenue for the government to sustain its new social agenda.

Spurred by his experience as a coca grower, Morales has introduced new policies that challenge the U.S. approach to the "drug war." Coca, the base ingredient of cocaine, has special ancestral significance for Bolivia's indigenous people and in its raw form is widely used to treat maladies such as stomach upset, altitude sickness, and stress, in addition to being a part of many Bolivians' daily routine.

Under pressure from the U.S. government, previous Bolivian administrations tried coca eradication. Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network in Bolivia, says that "local farmers who planted coca as a means of subsistence would often face violent confrontations with the military and security forces who were mandated to destroy their crops, which in essence devastated their only means of livelihood."

The Morales government has developed a farmer-friendly program that allows small farmers to grow small amounts of coca for domestic consumption, while also implementing a zero-cocaine policy that includes interdiction and anti-money laundering efforts to prevent drug trafficking.

In Brazil, a Metalworker is President

The political shift in Brazil is also steeped in powerful symbolism. When Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, a metalworker with an elementary education, rode a wave of popular support to the presidency in 2002, it inspired working-class people around the world. He was re-elected with a comfortable 60 percent of the vote in October 2006.

Although his first term was tainted by corruption scandals and accusations from many on Brazil's left that he acquiesced too much to the demands by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for strict fiscal policies, he fulfilled some of his campaign pledges to the poor who form his political base.

According to the Center for Economic Policy Research, some 11 million families have benefited from the "bolsa família" -- a monthly cash payment made to poor families in exchange for ensuring that their children stay in school. Signaling more pro-poor policies to come, one of the first acts of Lula's second term was announcing an 8.6 percent rise in the minimum wage.

Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution

President Hugo Chávez is best known in the United States for his overblown rhetoric against President Bush. But in Latin America, the Venezuelan president is fond of conjuring up the symbolism of Simón Bolívar, the "liberator" of South America from Spanish rule, who dreamed of uniting the region in a strong bloc. And while it has garnered little attention here, Chávez has used oil windfalls to advance Bolívar's dream. Venezuela has purchased big chunks of Argentina and Ecuador's debts to the IMF, for example, and sold discounted oil to several of its neighbors and even to poor communities in the United States.

And Venezuela has signed trade pacts with several countries that include novel bartering arrangements, such as agricultural products in exchange for doctors and other technical personnel. Chávez has devised a regional trade plan to counter the Bush-favored Free Trade Area of the Americas. The Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (ALBA, for its Spanish acronym) aims to benefit the poor and the environment, and to advance trade among countries within the region.

In January, Venezuela and Argentina took another step towards breaking the region's dependence on such neoliberal institutions as the World Bank, IMF, and Inter-American Development Bank, which have conditioned lending on "free market" policy reforms and harsh austerity measures. They pledged more than $1 billion to jump-start a new "Bank of the South." Bolivia and Ecuador have since signed on.

Within Venezuela, Chávez has made impressive progress in boosting literacy levels and providing health and other services to the poor. He has teamed up with Cuba in cosponsoring a program called Operation Miracle to provide free eye surgery to poor residents from Venezuela, Panama, Jamaica, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and a growing list of other countries. The Venezuelan government is also investing heavily in creating a model of local economic development through cooperatives.

On the other hand, Chávez's fossil-fuel-based development plans -- including a proposed gas pipeline from Venezuela to Argentina -- are hardly visionary. As currently planned, the 5,000-mile pipeline will traverse areas of extreme ecological and cultural sensitivity. Several possible routes are being evaluated, but all run through the Amazon. Environmental and indigenous rights groups throughout Latin America have voiced opposition to the behemoth project, and have asked the Venezuelan government to halt all plans until they can be publicly debated.

Social Movements Redefine Democracy

Some of the most hopeful democratic advances in Latin America are not the result of official policies, but of social movements harnessing their own power. The thousands of poor peasants who make up the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil have claimed the right to settle on and farm close to 7 million hectares, or 43,000 square miles, of unused land -- a territory a little larger than the state of Ohio. For millions of people who are largely outside of the mainstream economic system, access to land is of paramount importance, as they depend on it for subsistence.

Miguel Carter, of the Oxford-based Centre for Brazilian Studies, explains that groups like the MST contribute to the democratic process in important ways. "By improving the material conditions and cultural resources of its members" he says, "the landless movement has fortified the social foundations for democracy in Brazil."

Indigenous movements, too, have gained ground. In the Amazonian region of Ecuador, after witnessing multinational oil companies for decades cut through the jungles of their ancestral lands in search of petroleum, indigenous women put their bodies on the line against the armed soldiers sent to escort oil workers. Known for fierce resistance to oil exploitation on their lands, the remote community of Sarayacu has so far succeeded in keeping the oil companies out.

Throughout Latin America, scores of indigenous peoples have demonstrated that marginalized populations can organize and mobilize effectively enough to topple governments -- as they have done in Ecuador and Bolivia -- despite their lack of material resources and political power.

A new characteristic of Latin American politics is greater collaboration among countries with the goal of breaking dependence on the North. In the past, countries were largely in competition for U.S. markets and development aid. Now they increasingly focus on complementing the strengths and weaknesses of one another, and seeking common solutions to their shared problems.

One example is the newly formed South American Community of Nations (CSN, in Spanish), an attempt by the 12 countries of South America to create an "area that is integrated politically, socially, economically, environmentally, and in infrastructure." Because the initiative is new, it is unclear whether it will simply become a trading bloc that improves the region's competitive position in international markets, as is the case with the Southern Common Market (Mercosur). Alternatively, it could establish minimum social and environmental standards and the infrastructure not only to link to international markets but also to trade within Latin America.

Similarly, in a radical departure from a traditional market-based approach, the Morales government has developed a "People's Trade Agreement," an innovative economic alternative based on principles of fair trade, labor, and environmental protections, and active state intervention in the economy to promote development.

Although still in an embryonic stage, "it is unique," says Jason Tockman of the Bolivia Solidarity Network. "It has both a strong resonance with the alternative visions for social, economic and political integration proposed by the region's social movements, and the weight of state authority."

The response to President Bush's visit to five Latin American countries in March is yet another sign that Latin Americans are choosing their own path, independent of the United States and its political and economic interests. Along Bush's route, thousands of people in the streets carrying colorful signs and "Bush Out" banners sent a clear message: people's movements are alive and well in Latin America, and they aren't falling for the White House's attempt to repackage the same unpopular U.S. policies under the guise of poverty alleviation.

At the same time, Chávez was able to gather and rouse into a fervor an estimated 40,000 people at an anti-Bush rally in Argentina, where he announced that Bush was a "political cadaver" -- alluding to the president's increased irrelevance in Latin America.

After two centuries of the United States treating Latin America as if it were its backyard, organized popular movements across Latin America are changing the dynamics of the hemisphere. By electing more popular governments in eight countries and by organizing tens of millions of people, they have put up strong resistance to the U.S. agenda of corporate-led globalization, and they have created real alternatives on the ground.

These efforts, combined with the Venezuela-led effort for alternative regional integration, not only provide the strongest counter-weight to the U.S. agenda anywhere in the world, but also offer multiple paths towards a better future for millions of people in the Americas.

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