The Face Of Power In Latin America
By Nadia Martinez
04 July, 2007
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
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 "neo-liberal"
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
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
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 neo-liberal 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
On the other hand, Chávez'
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
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
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
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
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.
Nadia Martinez was born and
raised in Panama. She co-directs the Sustainable Energy and Economy
Network at the Institute for Policy Studies (www.ips-dc.org) in Washington,
D.C. Her focus is on Latin America, where she works with environmental,
development, human rights, and indigenous organizations.
© 2007 YES! Magazine
and the Positive Futures Network
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