Authors: Ash Narain Roy and Shimone Jaini*
Every utopia sooner or later turns into a dystopia. Why, then, do Latin Americans fancy themselves constructing alternative utopias? What good is utopia? Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano seems to have the answer, “it is good for walk.” Latin America hasn’t stopped imagining and dreaming. It may not have captured the imagination of global policy-makers and the chattering classes. But the region has indeed changed, mostly for the better. However, it would be premature to proclaim that Latin America has turned the corner.
Why has Latin America acquired the reputation for its pursuit of endless revolutions or what Marina Sitrin calls ‘Everyday Revolutions’? Peruvian novelist Santiago Roncagliolo provides some insights about such revolutions in his novel, Red April, “there is a feeling in Latin America that good ones were not so good and the bad ones were not so bad.”
Latin America has long been a laboratory of political and social experiments. Sebastian Edwards, author of Left Behind: Latin America and the False Promise of Populism, says that the political and economic history of Latin America has been “marked by great hopes and even greater disappointments”. And yet, some of the political and social experiments continue to catapult the region into the global consciousness and resonate with people across the globe.
Latin America suffers from many frailties. But it refuses to put an end to imaginations. It continues to dream how to construct a world where many worlds could live. Thanks to their endless dreams and imaginations, the region glimpses possibilities of other worlds. There is a lot to learn from Latin America both from its best practices and worst failures.
Deepening democracy and political participation
With the entrenchment of democracy, new paradigms of governance have emerged in Latin America. In recent decades the region has shown a trend to reject traditional political parties and vote for new formations to power. The dominance of the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats is long over. But Political institutions are still quite weak. Rewriting constitutions comes easy to Latin Americans. Dominican Republic is having its 32nd constitution. Venezuela, Haiti and Ecuador have had 32nd, 26th and 20th constitutions respectively. Now Chilean President has agreed to change the 1980 Pinochet constitution.
Does it show Latin America’s growing impatience with the non-performing models? Or are Latin Americans undermining democratic principles in the name of pursuing more radical agendas?
The institutional architecture for democracy has been very diverse in Latin America. For instance, in some countries, the party system has collapsed (e.g., Peru and Venezuela); in other countries, parties have become increasingly detached from civil society (e.g., Chile and Mexico), and, in others, social movements have replaced traditional parties (e.g., Bolivia).
The region has also shown deep contempt for modern democratic politics. It means a different kind of politics, not necessarily the denial or rejection of politics. Maybe what the region is hankering after is not just a politics which delivers but also which uses a new language of politics. It is, in a way, what Andreas Schedlar calls ‘end of politics.’
The same voters who were captivated by new, mostly leftist movements, promising to redistribute wealth, punishing traditional parties and turning political systems on their heads have now begun rejecting them. Across the continent traditional parties have disintegrated though the trend is more pronounced in the Andean region.
It all began with the emergence of a ‘vote of rage’ towards the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the present century. Several governments lost power and the voters made a demand like ‘que se vayantodos’ (they all should go). Elections in Mexico in 2000 ended 70 years of PRI’s domination. In 1999, elections in Venezuela brought an end to 40 years of bipartisan politics. Something similar happened in Uruguay in 2000 when the domination of the Colorados and the Blancos came to an end. Popular movements toppled several governments in Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador.
Ivan Hinojosa of Catholic University in Lima says that “some parties recuperate but many don’t, and in their place you have all new and unpredictable movements”.
The institutions that promised better outcomes have delivered at best modest results. Much of the frustrations and anger that have given rise to mass protests and democratic discontent across the region are centred on the weaknesses of these institutions.1 Governments have changed, new parties and political formations have captured power and even the rhetoric has changed but meaningful institutional innovations are still a work in progress.
Constitutional changes and innovative schemes have empowered the various indigenous groups. Social policies and constitutional recognition of new citizenship rights have given these groups a new sense of belonging. However, the durability of these measures remains a moot question at a time when Latin America is witnessing end of the commodity boom and electoral setback to left-wing regimes.
New tools to boost political participation
In the areas of women’s empowerment and advancement of gender rights, the region has made notable advance. A study conducted by International IDEA in 18 Latin American countries demonstrates how important it is to have both men and women leaders to promote better participation from women, if the parties want to be democratic and inclusive institutions.
Efforts made by such parties in 11 “institutional spaces” include Statutes and Declarations of Principles, Internal Organization, Financing, Training, Recruiting, Media, etc. For example, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) have been ratified by every Latin American country. Most countries have approved laws promoting gender equality. Moreover, a small yet significant step of using gender-sensitive language to acknowledge women has proven monumental in reversing the predominantly male concepts in political language.
Despite the continued presence of a series of obstacles limiting the political participation of women in the region, such political parties have undertaken innovative and effective initiatives that can be considered “best practices”.
Multiple global crises have led to an increased interest in Latin America in the social and solidarity economy (SSE). In Latin America, the social and solidarity discourse, deployed with increasing intensity since the 1990s, refers to a model of political and economic development based on principles of solidarity, participation, cooperation and reciprocity. The same has also been articulated as ‘social knowledge economy’.
Hotbed of political innovation
A wave of political innovation is sweeping across Latin America as it is creating more participatory and inclusive democratic governments, breaking its shackles from the deep-rooted authoritarianism. It has also become an inspiration for many on how path to democracy is mapped out and advanced.
The Instituto Update, which studies political innovation in Latin America, found in its study that more than 600 initiatives have been put in place which are trying to reduce the gap between citizens and their governments by increasing political participation, improving transparency and accountability, encouraging innovation in government, and doing more to develop independent media.
The study identifies 5 main approaches in Latin America towards creating, developing and practicing new methods and instruments to foster political participation and trust in government. Firstly, citizens themselves are working for social change. The Secundarista movement that spread all over Brazil was led by students protesting for better education reforms in Saõ Paulo’s public high schools.
Another movement in México known as #Yo soy 132 was spearheaded by students who were protesting against political corruption during the 2012 presidential elections. This shows that people are creating new innovative ways to mobilize resources and to persuade elected officials and bureaucrats to pursue public policy changes.
Secondly, there are many feminist movements taking place all over Latin America like-#PrimaveraFeminista, #NiUnaMenos, #Pimp My Carroça, demanding reproductive rights and bringing attention to the issue of domestic abuse. Activists and organisations are also using social media and humor like GregNews, a comedy news show to make citizens aware and interested in public interest issues.
Thirdly, elected officials are trying to make institutions more participatory and inclusive. Measures like DemocracyOS (Argentina) and LinQ (Ecuador) to Brazil’s Internet Bill of Rights have made great progress in giving voice to the people in the policymaking process.
Moreover, to monitor and hold politicians and corporations accountable, civil society organizations are using technology and open data. Groups like Paraguay’s A Quienes Elegimos, Argentina’s Chequeado, and Chile’s Del Dicho al Hecho are using online tools and organising public protests to insist on transparency from the government.
And finally, there’s a recognition that politics across Latin America needs new voices and new people to get involved. Today, movements such as Mexico’s WikiPolítica and Brazil’s Bancada Ativista, as well as new political parties like Chile’s Revolución Democrática and Argentina’s Partido de la Red, are aiming to make politics accessible, cool, and honorable to a new generation of activists.
How protest movements are novel
Culture has long been a tool of propaganda. But culture in Latin America is also a tool of protests. Protesters dancing to the rhythms of cumbia and salsa music and citizens pot-banging from their balconies have grabbed global eyeballs. Brazilians have resorted to ‘panelacos’ (protesting with pots and pans) against President Bolsonaro for denying science on Coronavirus.
Chileans have resorted to social media with their different artistic modes of expression to warrant their movement against the government which decided to privatize public services and raise the price of public transportation. Victor Jara’s 1971 song “Derecho a la paz”(Right to peace) has become a resistance anthem for students and working-class protestors. The song, originally composed during Pinochet’s dictatorship, has now become an inspiration for the demonstrators to take to the streets despite the violent oppression by the police and military national forces.
New slogans, new symbols of power, new empowerment
For hundreds of years the indigenous people remained invisible in a culture dominated by the language and traditions of Europe. They also became victims ofwhat sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls ‘Racism without Racists’. Hence, recent gains by the indigenous are credible. Today, they have begun to dream. After all, dreams give vision and vision leads to action. Today, the various indigenous communities refuse to return to the dark valley; they have realized that forgetting could be a key part of learning.
Empowerment is an enabling exercise. It begins with the marginal, the forgotten. The indigenous groups in particular have worked to address the incompleteness of citizenship. In their efforts to rework politics, they have pointed out how for many, citizenship has remained an unfulfilled promise; citizenship is not mere entitlement.
For the indigenous, the body is the site for politics, very much the way it was for Gandhi. It is also a site for struggle. As Shiv Viswanathan argues, “the body prevents politics from straying into the abstractions of ideology or policy. It is a statement of presence, of sensing politics and suffering as part of a sensorium of sounds, smells, touch, taste and memory.” No less importantly, the rise of the indigenous has gone a long way to liberate politics from its behavioral and ideological pomposity.
By making way for leaders of their choice to gain power and overthrowing several presidents in Bolivia and Ecuador, the newly empowered indigenous groups want to ensure that no despot ascends the throne but a doer, one who heals their wounds, not turn the knife in them. In several countries and more specifically in Bolivia and Ecuador, the traditionally occupied indigenous territories have been recognized and protected and the sustainable development of natural resources located in their land has been guaranteed. Some of the issues like land as an economic base, a space of social reproduction and a condition for survival, recognition of their collective rights, have gained recognition in international forums.
Indigenous and peasant groups have not stopped at mere protests. They have adopted another strategy: protesta con propuesta, whereby positive alternatives have been suggested. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), for example, has formulated its own water reform proposal. Without denying their economic importance, the proposals emphasize the community-based, social, and ecological aspects of water. Also in Peru and Bolivia, platforms of popular alliances and peasant and indigenous organizations have formulated constructive counter-proposals that complement their claims and protests.
The following section analyses some of the institutional innovations and best practices in Latin America that have found acceptance and admiration outside the region.
Mexico’s Oportunidades and Brazil’s Zero Hunger
Progresa, Mexico’s Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program,(later known as Oportunidades and now as Prospera), is known for increasing school enrolments and attendance in its initial 18-month randomized evaluation (Parker and Todd 2017). In this program, money is directly given to families if they send children to school, meet nutrition standards and receive regular health check-ups. This has had significant long-term benefits that could reduce intergenerational poverty according to a study published in National Bureau of Economic Research.
A similar CCT program was adopted by Colombia in 2000 known as Familasenaccion which provides money to poor households with children under 18 years old. It targets population that comprises of poor families that have either been displaced by the conflict or are from indigenous communities. Though it is no longer regarded as an emergency response to a short-term crisis, but it has proven efficient as an answer to more structural poverty problems.
Another commendable example towards ensuring food security for everyone was taken up by Brazil in the form of ‘Fome Zero’ or Zero Hunger program. The program launched in 2003 with the goal that all people be able to access enough and the right kinds of foods, to meet basic nutritional needs and support health. Fome Zero is based on a multi-sectoral approach at the public policy level, involving policies and programs around social protection and safety nets, education, food production, health services, drinking water, and sanitation. This can serve as a role model for national commitment to making better nutrition a top priority.
Another best practice, Participatory budgeting (PB), has been the most serious effort to take democracy to the doorsteps of the citizens. The Workers Party and a coalition of civil society organizations of Brazil introduced PB in Porto Alegre in 1989. It soon spread to more than 250 municipalities. Several countries followed suit. PB is a process of democratic decision-making. It is a type of participatory democracy, in which ordinary people decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget. It allows citizens to identify, discuss and prioritize public spending projects and gives them the power to make real decisions about how money is spent. The Porto Alegre model is no longer used in the same way in Porto Alegre itself. It has lost its sheen elsewhere in Latin America.
Consulta previa (prior consultation) is another significant legal framework that some countries in Latin America have institutionalized to deepen democracy. It is the right of the indigenous and ethnic groups to be consulted on matters affecting their culture and heritage as established by ILO Convention 169. Its implementation has at best been patchy. While it has been successfully implemented by Peru’s Amazonian communities, progress is much slower as far as the Andean communities are concerned. Much of the natural resources are located in the region inhabited by the indigenous communities, consulta previa has given the people a say in the extraction of raw materials. However, many left-leaning governments have resorted to the so-called “progressive neo-extractism” to ‘fight poverty’. The indigenous groups have sharpened attacks on the Left arguing such model of development, which relies on the rapacious extraction of natural resources, entails environmental destruction and the fragmentation of indigenous territory.
Cuba’s medical internationalism
For nearly 60 years, Cuba has been sending healthcare professionals all over the globe. This is done partly to support those in need but also as a part of concerted campaign of its medical diplomacy and to make some money to help the country survive an ongoing US embargo. Since then, Cuba has established permanent medical missions in a number of countries. Over the last five decades, it has sent between 135,000 to 400,000 doctors abroad.
The tradition of medical internationalism in Cuba goes back to the first years of the Cuban Revolution. The country has dispatched 593 workers to 14 countries in the battle against Covid-19. According to the Cuban health ministry, 179 doctors, 399 nurses and 15 health technologists have been dispatched as part of Henry Reeve initiative. According to Helen Yaffe, free healthcare as a universal human right has been a key tenet now and in the 1959 Cuban Revolution which laid the foundation of medical internationalism thereby enforcing the idea and practice of sending medical teams abroad.
Even though the Cuban medical support has been helpful and hopeful to all those in desperate need, it also hasn’t been able to keep away from criticism. Some rights groups have accused Havana of exploiting its medical workers who are forced to work in unsafe environments. Others have criticized by calling the program “selectively humanitarian” which makes lower numbers of doctors available to the Cuban population. Many countries have been wary of accepting Cuba’s help due to its poor human rights record. While everyone may not find Cuba’s help genuine, this is perhaps the time to put ideological differences aside and focus on the joint effort against the global war of Coronavirus.
Zapatistas’ enduring legacy
The Zapatista movement was the first post-modern movement and it is still defiant in mountain strongholds. It rose up not just to fight indigenous repression, but also the globalization from above. It was a genuine popular movement striving for justice and for changing the status quo. Scholarly interest in the various indigenous movements in Latin America was shown only after the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas.The images of the Zapatistas were too striking to be missed—indigenous peasants with wooden rifles declaring war on the Mexican government. With their faces covered by black ski masks or red bandanas, the Zapatistas symbolically became the face of the faceless, the voice of the voiceless.
The Zapatista National Liberation Army had one-third women, some in bare feet. They became instant heroes of the left and an inspiration to indigenous groups and political romantics. There are still areas under their control where they have their own system of education, health, justice and security. They train their own teachers and doctors and some have their own currency. Their slogans have been equally instructive such as “cuando una mujeravanza, no hay hombre que retrocede (when a woman advances, no man is left behind) and “here you can buy or sell anything except indigenous dignity”. The Zapatistas spelt out their key priorities like revitalizing indigenous worldviews, building autonomous, locally focused food system and food sovereignty and gender equity. Mexican sociologist Gonzalez Casanova says that the Zapatistas represent a new way of approaching problems and alternatives beyond the old dilemmas of the left, defending life, water, land and forest. The Zapatista movement offered alternative ways to organize societies, economies and the food systems.
In 1990s, Colombia’s indigenous groups formed the Indigenous Social Alliance. It won a few seats in national parliament a few years later. Nationally visible indigenous parties came up in mid-1990s in Bolivia and Ecuador. In Bolivia, groups like the Assembly for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, Movement towards Socialism and Pachakutic Movement of Plurinational Unity gained traction. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE) in Ecuador has tasted electoral success and acquired considerable clout. It initially supported the left but later broke from its tutelage. The indigenous movements have helped in the democratization process. The group has combined indigenous culture and state institutions in innovative ways.
Limits of caudillismo
Latin Americans are masters at creating leaders, prophets and gods. The bane of Latin America is the system of caudillos (strongmen). Hence some are seeking leaderless revolutions. They contend, we don’t need leaders, certainly not big leaders. As Emile Zapata says, “strong leaders make a weak people.”
Populism the bane
Populism continues to be the bane of Latin American polity. Power and authority are still configured in relation to caudillos, not institutions. Parliaments, judiciary, party system and civil society provide little institutional counterweights to political abuses by the political class. The caudillos promise magical solutions and people still fall for them. Ironically, to remain in power, the maximum leader exerts and abuses state force but also propagate the myth that he/she is there by the popular will. The growing polarization has not allowed institutions like the judiciary and the police to become autonomous and independent. Populism has acquired a “new dimension” with decisive leaders pushing nationalism, demonizing opposition and stirring up issues that divide society. Populismhas marginalized the centrist forces and removed their bonding powers resulting in gridlock in parliament and diluting public trust in its efficacy.
Bertrand Russell says that the game of politics is the process by which people choose the man who will get the blame. Latin America has witnessed the masterful play of such blame game. Populist leaders thrive on confrontation and chaos. Bolsonaro is using the pandemic to stir up his base. He has dismissed Coronavirus as “just a little flu”, “we will all die one day”.
Some of the best practices in Latin America have caught the attention of the world. Whether these are replicable or not requires further research and study.The region has been long experimenting with novel political, social and economic initiatives and practices which resonate with people across the globe. Some consider the region to be a land of endless revolutions, but it has launched not only slogans but sustainable alternatives as well. It has maintained the ideal of ‘Protesta con propuesta’(Protest with purpose). However, many have questioned the robustness of these measures when Latin America is witnessing the end of the commodity boom and the defeat of left-wing governments. The historical conflicts, the silhouettes of authoritarianism and past of caudillismo still weigh heavily on the Latin American present.
Will the region be able to overcome its non-democratic past and advance with its revitalized worldview? Or will it succumb to the ghosts of the old despotic regimes? There are no easy answers. It has to do with Latin American psychology, “the rejection of what is real and possible.” Latin America also fits in Hannah Arendt’s description how the most radical revolutionary becomes “conservative the day after the revolution”. That of course doesn’t deter Latin Americans from constructing alternative utopias.
*Shimone Jaini is doing Masters from Centre of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian andLatin American Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University