Winds of change

By Published On: March 16, 2007Categories: Politics1 Comment on Winds of change

Here is an article I never posted on the blog that I did for the Autumn edition of World Development Movement’s In Action magazine on changes in Latin America

In a vibrant red T-shirt, mother-of-three, Gladys, tripped over her
words as she explained the changes in her small, impoverished hillside
community of Caricuao on the outskirts of Caracas. Her stumbled
enthusiasm was bolstered by interruptions from a large group of women
who huddled in close to hear.Behind them stood a small, modern health clinic, part of a sweeping programme of healthcare, education, subsidised food and social welfare that has unfurled across Venezuela since President Chavez’s election in 1999.

"We vote for Chavez because he has voted for us," beamed Gladys. "Finally we have a President that is committed to treat us all equally regardless of wealth, skin colour or background."
But more impressive than the concrete of new health facilities or the glossy literacy kits in the school, was the palpable energy of her community who give up their time to support social change in a country where ten percent of the country own 50% of the wealth. "This revolution is not dependent on Chavez. As we say here, the struggle goes on, Bolivar lives," Gladys asserted, referring to the 19th Century independence fighter who championed a vision of a united Latin America.

A few weeks before meeting with Gladys, in January 2006, I stood with
thousands of vibrantly-dressed indigenous people in the ancient ruins
of Tiwanaku, Bolivia to celebrate the inauguration of the first
indigenous President, Evo Morales.

Juan Alvorado, wearing his miner’s
hard hat, said: "For five hundred years, the rich have become richer
and the poor poorer. Now I am overjoyed. We have one of us in the
Presidential Palace. Someone who knows what it is like to be poor, who
knows what it is like to be without food."

Across Latin America, there
has been a noticeable political swing in favour of parties opposed to
traditional "free market" economic reforms, known as neo-liberalism.
With the notable exception of Colombia and a few Central American
countries, country after country have voted left – unsettling their
powerful US neighbour, used to controlling their "backyard."

For Mark
Weisbrot, at the US Centre for Economic Policy Research, the reason for
the success of anti neo-liberal candidates is simple: free market
economic policies have proved to be "economically disastrous." Not only
have they failed to reduce inequality and poverty but they have also
failed on their own terms, economic growth. The statistics are stark.
In the 20 years prior to the start of free market reforms in 1980, per
capita income in Latin America grew by 82 percent. Yet from 1980 to
2000, it grew by only 9 percent; and for the first five years of this
decade, growth has totaled 4 percent. The number of people living on
less than a dollar a day rose from 36 million in 1984 to 50 million in
2001.

It is not surprising therefore that in the 1990s, groups across
Latin America most affected by neo-liberalism started to resist and
demand political and economic changes. These social movements included
farmers, health workers, teachers, women’s groups, unions and
indigenous communities. Their resistance often came at great cost. In
just one case, sixty-seven people died in October 2003 in Bolivia as
the government brutally put down protests for gas nationalisation. Some
of the social movements then linked up with parties who have taken
power as people looked for alternatives to failed "free market"
policies.

Bolivia is the most recent example where a party, MAS, set up
initially as a "political instrument" by various social movements, was
elected in a landslide in December 2005. In Uruguay, the first left
Government in almost two centuries was elected on the back of a civil
society coalition that had successfully pushed for a constitutional
amendment that prevented water privatisation.

The new "left"
governments have had more scope to act independently due to a weakened
International Monetary Fund. From the early 1980s, the IMF effectively
acted as a powerful ministry in every Latin American government. But
this unraveled in 2001 when Argentina not only defaulted on its
enormous debt of $100 billion dollars but also refused to sign a new
IMF agreement. The financial world held its breath, waiting for the
country to self-destruct. But instead Argentina ’s economy grew by the
highest rate in Latin America. The IMF’s reputation was irredeemably
damaged.

However countries have not been able to escape the tangled web
of power, created by years of trade and investment treaties, which
protects multinational interests. Argentina alone faces 35 legal
actions by multinational companies in the secretive World Bank
tribunal, ICSID. "Our countries are entrapped in a legal and judicial
straitjacket which prevents us from even de-privatising the State,"
says Oscar Olivera spokesperson for the Coordinadora in Bolivia which
"de-privatised" water in Cochabamba in 2000 after a popular revolt
against US multinational Bechtel. They faced a $50 million legal suit
which was only defeated as a result of huge international campaign.

The
resulting government agenda that has emerged has therefore been a
cautious one: centred on an increased role for the State to manage the
economy, an emphasis on reducing inequality and poverty, and attempts
to build regional alliances to counterbalance US and European power. In
Argentina, water has been taken back into the public sector in several
cities and a new cash-for-work scheme has brought two million people
out of unemployment. Brazil has led an international push to defend
developing countries that have prevented rich countries dominating
international trade talks.

However civil society networks have been
pushing to radicalise the agenda in particular by demanding a renewed
democracy, which involves a higher and qualitatively different level of
consultation and involvement of civil society in politics. In Venezuela
and Bolivia this led to demands for constitutional change. In Brazil,
municipalities have increased the involvement of residents through
participatory budgets.

Strong continental civil society movements
against water privatisation and for alternative models of trade
integration have been particularly successful in influencing government
positions. At the World Water Forum in March 2006, a meeting of
continental water activists prompted an alternative declaration
defending the right to water by the governments of Uruguay, Venezuela,
Cuba and Bolivia. The Bolivian Government’s recently outlined Peoples’
Trade Agreements emerged from proposals developed by Bolivian and Latin
American social movements and is focused on making trade work for small
communities and the environment.

However there remain big distinctions
in the left in Latin America with countries like Brazil, Uruguay and
Chile continuing to follow IMF advice, respecting the dominance of the
private sector and following strategies of social welfare to tackle
poverty, whilst Bolivia and Venezuela have been more prepared to enact
laws that address structural causes of poverty such as lack of access
to land. Yet even Bolivia and Venezuela have at times acted cautiously
to avoid directly confronting the interests of Western governments and
corporations as well as powerful domestic interests.

Therefore many
social movements remain very critical of the new "left" Governments’
failure to fundamentally restructure political and economic power.
Others, such as the Zapatistas in southern Mexico, argue that the State
in its current form cannot deliver real change and argue instead for
building autonomous spaces of power. "Some Latin American governments
have made important small steps in recovering our dignity and
sovereignty, but all have so far failed to meet the radical demands of
our peoples," says Oscar Olivera. "People think if you have an ally or
friend in Government, then that is enough. But this is a false hope.
Nothing changes unless you stay organised and mobilise."

It is clear
that social movements in Latin America are not going to stop now that
some of their demands have been met. The Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano
referred to the "open veins of Latin America" citing the flow of the
continent’s resources to the rich North that took place first under
colonialism and then the fiercest forms of neo-liberalism. Yet those
veins are now flowing with resistance, alternatives and new ideas. In a
continent where are our own models of development are clearly flawed
with rising inequality, environmental damage, political apathy and a
profound social unease, we would do well to listen to the currents of
change in Latin America and give them our full support.

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One Comment

  1. Earl M. March 18, 2007 at 12:03 am - Reply

    Nick,
    I want you to know that I really appreciate your content and message. As Americans I have to say in america, we just don’t get it. I came across a web site called Forum Social Mundial, which spelled it all out pretty well, but the domain was for sale, and offices in Venezuella and West Pakistan apparently continued this movement, though I suspected that the original tennets may have been laid aside and a more radical approach may have been embraced. Now, I know this was begun in Brasil, and I don’t know why the dissolution. But now that President Bush has been globe trotting down there, I really hate to speculate on the ajenda he has really been putting foreward, but I suspect it’s more of the same neo- compulsive crapola. I just don’t see him being any more real than in the past. I am thus wanting to hear your take on his whirlwind diplomatic fishing expedition.
    Keep up the excellent work!
    ……………………..E.

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