Dissecting Utopia: New Book Assesses Latin American Left

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.

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."

In a chapter on Argentina, Federico Schuster writes that the Nestor Kirchner government ignored and isolated radical sectors of piquetero movement in order to demobilize them. Kirchner did not repress the movements, knowing that doing so would generate an enormous backlash as it did with the two deaths of piqueteros under former President Eduardo Duhalde. "Faced with this prospect, he has preferred a strategy of wearing out the resistance," Schuster writes. Due to their relative lack of structure and unity, the movements proved to be unsustainable in this context.

"Instead of encouraging the development of these movements," Schuster explains, "the majority of the leftist parties that have begun working with the unemployed have only ended up contributing to division, attempting to bring as many people as possible into their ranks, rather than building an authentic movement, a broad space that respects the movement’s self-determination. This has contributed to one of the greatest problems of the piquetero movement, which has ended up exacerbating its weakness – namely, dispersal."

At the start of The New Latin American Left, the editors explain that the book is not a conclusive work; many of these movements and governments that the authors focus on have still only recently come to power, so it’s hard to make "definitive evaluations." Yet in dissecting the recent history of the new Latin American left, the book sheds light on immediate challenges posed by the relationships between social movements, political parties and governments elsewhere in the region, from Lima to Tegucigalpa.


Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website covering activism and politics in Latin America. Contact: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com