Latin America: The Decade that Transformed a Continent

Source: Americas Program

In many ways, the first decade of the 21st Century was the flip side of the last decade of the twentieth century in South America. There have been numerous and significant changes. We still don’t know if it’s a glitch in time or a new beginning. In any case, the region will never be the same.

Carlos Menem, Alberto Fujimori, Carlos Andrés Pérez, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Julio María Sanguinetti, Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada, Hugo Bánzer… The names of the figures who dominated the 90s say it all: it was an era of privatization and deregulation, of the unprecedented shrinking of the state, an intense concentration of wealth and a dramatic increase in the presence of transnational corporations. Calculations made by Brazil, where whole sectors of the economy were privatized, estimate that 30% of the Gross National Product changed hands in these years. “A veritable earthquake,” writes the Brazilian sociologist Francisco de Oliveira[1].

The Washington Consensus left no stone unturned. In some cases, as in Argentina, the neoliberal model threatened the entire future of the country for several generations. The transformations were even more threatening because the privatizing hurricane came immediately after the dark years of the dictatorships or, as some would say, formed an integral part of the work of the dictators.

But those terrible years were also the years of the awakening of societies, the activation of old and new social movements, the continental coordination of the left in the Forum of Sao Paulo and global coordination in the World Social Forum. Massive popular uprisings, starting with the “Caracazo” of 1989 to the two gas wars in Bolivia and the Argentine uprising in 2001, responded so powerfully that they completely rewrote the script written from above. A wave of social activism, such as the region had not seen since the seventies, spread the carpet for the grand exit of neoliberal governments and the gradual but persistent appearance of a new generation of governments that presented themselves as left or progressive. In any case, they opposed the Washington Consensus.

A New Regional Architecture

The rejection of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)—the axis of the Bush administration’s regional policy, would have been impossible without these changes. The Summit of the Americas in November of 2005 buried the integrationist proposal from Washington and opened doors to broadening Mercosur throughout South America. Brazil’s position, along with Argentina, was key due to its firm stand and the strength of its arguments to forge an independent path. The Summit marked a “before” and “after” in the process of regional integration.

The creation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR, by its Spanish initials) would not have been possible without this first step. Recall the dates. In December of 2004 presidents of the region signed the Declaration of Cusco that constituted the South American Community of Nations. After a series of encounters, in April of 2007 the Community adopted the name UNASUR. The process continued to move forward. Following Colombia’s air attack on the camp of Raul Reyes (member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Ecuadorean territory on March 1, 2008, that threatened to ignite a serious conflict in the Andean region, UNASUR decided to create the South American Defense Council to coordinate armed forces in the region.

In the most important crisis experienced in the region, the role of UNASUR has been decisive. When the Bolivian far-right launched an offensive against the government of Evo Morales in August and September of 2008, and during the police rebellion in Ecuador in September of 2010 that could have developed into a coup d’état, the new regional alliance occupied the center of the political stage and lined up all governments in defense of democracy. The Organization of American States (OAS), formerly a powerful diplomatic instrument subordinated to the White House, ceased to occupy the dominant place that it had held for so many decades.

It’s clear that Brazil’s role, and in particular that of the Ministry of Foreign Relations, was definitive in promoting this about-face in geopolitical power relations. Celso Amorim, defined by the magazine Foreign Policy as “the best Minister of Foreign Relations in the world” in 2009[2], was the most visible figure of the new architecture built patiently by Brasilia. By the end of the decade, political integration had arrived at a higher point than ever before, although some important advances remain in the economic realm, where the complementarities must be constructed with generosity and a long-term vision.

It’s certain that these transformations could have been more ambitious if they had included serious progress in proposals for energy integration such as the Gasoduct of the South, which was never discussed again, and if the accords that gave life to the Bank of the South to build a new financial architecture had been implemented. In this sense, the aspirations of the group made up of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) are still far from being accepted by all countries that belong to UNASUR.

These are the advances and limitations that have emerged as the first decade of the beginning of the “progressive era” draws to a close.

The Boundaries of Political Dynamism

In addition to the changes on the macro-level, the region registered sustained economic growth led by the export of commodities, a decline in poverty and a broadening of domestic markets in some countries. It’s still too early to know whether this marks the beginning of a new cycle, or merely a particular moment when elevated prices for these exports on world markets generated a bonanza.

What is clear is that trade flows have changed dramatically. China has become Brazil’s foremost trade partner, replacing the United States that had held that position since 1930. The presence of the Asian giant is here to stay; China is already the second largest trade partner of Latin America as a whole.

However, the diversification of trade has various interpretations. On the one hand, it benefits the entire region due to the opening of new markets and for the sustained demand for regional production. But its influence in the short term could convert an into incapacity to transcend the extractive model if the necessary measures are not taken. Even in Brazil. The seventh largest industrial nation in the world has seen its industrial exports drop faced with the incessant Chinese demand for soybeans and iron, among other things.

The matrix of production has not only not changed since the global crisis, but the ascent of Asian nations has powered a return to production of primary products. In synthesis, the strong economic growth could be regressive in spite of the compensatory social policies that have gained ground throughout the region.

From another point of view, the progressive economic equation can be stated as growth and poverty reduction without structural reforms or redistribution of income. Although the indices that measure inequality show slight improvement, the numbers are far from what they were before the Washington Consensus. Worse yet: the concentration of wealth continues to grow as a consequence of the giant mining and monocropping businesses.

The effects of the economic model are twofold. First, the massive production of commodities does not generate dignified employment but rather new groups of poor people. The huge expansion of slums in Buenos Aires is just the tip of the iceberg of this reality. A study from the Universidad General Sarmiento estimates that in 2006 there were 819 slum settlements between the capital and the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires, with a million inhabitants. Today some two million people live in the slums, while the capital alone has 235,000 people living in slums—seven percent of the city[3]. The study affirms that the population in slums grows ten times more quickly than the national population. “A silent tsunami”, the Argentine right complains, failing to mention that Paraguayans, Bolivians and Argentines from the northern provinces arrive every day, expelled by the soy model that now occupies half of the productive land of the country.

If the boom in commodity production is not halted and structural changes put in place, the social policies will not be sufficient to stop this tsunami of poor people flooding into the cities. But this requires a debate that is still far off, with the exception of Brazil, in the priorities of governments that must make ends meet every month.

An Epoch Change?

To think about the directions that the region must take in the new decade means analyzing the push factors and limitations that brought us to this point. In the decade of the nineties a varied tapestry was woven out of threads provided by grassroots movements and left organizations, that gradually became the main promoters of change.

The old labor union movements saw a new wave of actors arise alongside them, often in fierce competition, made up of the losers from the model, the “have-nots” that lost their jobs, housing, land and rights. Each one on their own, and together in key moments, made up a powerful current capable of delegitimizing the neoliberal model, testing governance, and in extreme cases, putting corrupt or inept rulers to flight. Three presidents fell in the face of popular mobilizations in Ecuador and two in Bolivia. They are just a sample of a capacity to remove unpopular governments from power that was one of the factors that opened up new directions in the region.

The other current fed off this plebeian power but worked more comfortably in tandem with the set of institutions that were being taken over by progressive political forces. This occurred first on the local level, then regional and finally national, and one can say that it also affected political parties and movements, of the “old” and “new” left. Alianza País in Ecuador, el Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia and the Unified Socialist party in Venezuela are palpable examples of the bankruptcy of the party system that had been falling apart for a long time. Others, like the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT), the Broad Front in Uruguay and Tekojoja in Paraguay embedded themselves in the traditional political system, while bringing in major elements of renovation.

Everything indicates that we are at the end of a cycle. The parties that assume the administration of the state apparatus are reshaped by the exercise of this function. The movements, after a certain amount of time, become organizations that soften their most rebellious sides. In fact, today some of the main analyses focus on trying to understand some of the changes that have taken place within the forces that originally led the charge in making change.

In Brazil, perhaps the country where the new times are most broadly and deeply debated, the sociologist Francisco de Oliveira introduced the concept of “reverse hegemony” to describe the phenomenon by which the PT government governs for financial capital and Brazilian multinationals[4]. In his book “Lulismo,” the sociologist Ruda Ricci attempts to get to the bottom of the changes in the grassroots base of the PT and the rise of the new middle classes as the key to understanding the popularity of Lula[5]. “The New Mole” (El nuevo topo) by Emir Sader[6], “Savage Politics” (Política Salvaje) by the Bolivian Luis Tapia[7], Epoch Change: Social Movements and Political Power (Cambio de Epoca: Social Movements and Political Power) by Maristella Svampa[8] are some of the recent titles that seek to explore the complexities of what some have called “post-neoliberalism.”

It is worth adding the repositioning of the United States that Atilio Boron defines as “the various offensives to overthrow [governments] taking place in the region,” which include the proliferation of military bases in Colombia and Panama, the coup d’état in Honduras and the growing militarization of U.S. relations with the rest of the continent illustrated by the reactivation of the Fourth Fleet and the unilateral intervention in Haiti[9]. More recently and alongside former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, a rightwing pole seems to be forming integrated by Chile, Peru and Colombia, as indicated in the meeting held in December in Santiago with the help of Nobel winner Mario Vargas Llosa and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain.

Forwards or Backwards?

If its true that the progressive parties and social movements are going though long-lasting mutations that hold them back from being forces capable of deepening the changes taking place, progressivism could be entering a stage of stagnation that comes before a retrocession. In much of the region, various expressions of the left have been administering parts of government for two decades now. The logic of the state plays its role. While progressives have been able to modify aspects of government, the management of the state apparatus also changes those who occupy it. It isn’t even a question of ethics, although those do exist as Frei Betto points out in his book The Blue Fly (La mosca azúl)[10], in which he analyzes his own experience in government.

The real problem is that the State exists to conserve, above all to conserve itself. For this reason, if there are no external forces (like parties and movements) capable of exerting pressure, the conservative tendency will wind up being dominant. The case of Chile, where twenty years of Concertación gave way to the first rightwing government since the Pinochet dictatorship, can serve as an example and mirror in which to see ourselves.

The movements, for their part, have stabilized their leadership teams, created a group of persons specialized in leading more than in doing, hierarchies have appeared, and budgets to maintain leaders and well-equipped offices. It’s not a question of judging these developments, but of understanding them. Life has cycles, periods of growth, stabilization and decline, from which it is impossible to escape. And it’s very probable that the movements that were born two or three decades ago have completed their stage as incubators and promoters of change, giving way to a very different reality in which tendencies toward stability prevail.

The second decade of the 21st Century commences as the financial and economic crisis of the developed world threatens to become a political crisis. In this decade there will be more changes in the region; something will happen in Cuba that will cause profound changes in the regime, something else will happen in the United States that will have an impact everywhere, and something else will happen in some South American countries that could contribute to modifying the balance. In this last case, the candidates are Venezuela and Argentina, in that order.

There will be, no doubt, situations of chaos and threats to stability, including coup attempts and various forms of destabilization. Nothing new, really. What is new, and what was demonstrated in Ecuador, are divisions among the left and the diminished capacity for mobilization of grassroots movements. Although no one was looking for it, both are also the result of a decade of progressive governments.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes a monthly column for the Americas Program (


Atilio Borón, “La coyuntura geopolítica de América Latina y el Caribe en 2010,” Cuba Debate, December 14, 2010.

Emir Sader, “El nuevo topo,” Siglo XXI, 2008.

Francisco de Oliveira, “Hegemonia as avessas,” Boitempo, 2010.

Frei Betto, “A mosca azul – reflexão sobre o poder,” Editora Rocco, 2006.

Luis Tapia, “Política salvaje,” Clacso/Muela del Diablo, 2009

Maristella Svampa, “Cambio de Epoca. Movimientos sociales y Poder Político”, Siglo XXI, 2009.

Rudá Ricci, “Lulismo,” Contraponto, 2010.


[1] “La reorganización del capitalismo brasileño”, IHU Online, 11 de noviembre de 2009 en

[2] Foreign Policy, 7 de octubre de 2009.

[3] Boletín del Laboratorio Europeo de Anticipación Política, Geab No. 43, 18 de marzo de 2010.

[4] La Nación, 12 de mayo de 2010.

[5] “Hegemonia as avessas”, Boitempo, 2010.

[6] Contraponto, 2010.

[7] Siglo XXI, 2008.

[8] Clacso/Muela del Diablo, 2009.

[9] Siglo XXI, 2009.

[10] “La coyuntura geopolítica de América Latina y el Caribe en 2010”, en Cuba Debate, 14 de diciembre de 2010.

[11] “A mosca azul”, ob. cit..

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