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  Number 304 | Noviembre 2006
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Latin America

Two Opposing Solutions to Latin America’s Two-Sided Problem

Latin America’s essential problem, claims this long-time student of the region, is that no effective link has ever been created between social movements and political parties that accept placing social struggles clearly within an institutional framework we could call at least formally democratic. The key to this kind of social democracy oscillates between two opposing tendencies today: Chile’s successful globalization and the more radical—albeit more fragile—model taking shape in Bolivia.

Alain Touraine

The results of many of the elections held in Latin America in recent months have led numerous observers, perhaps the majority, to speak of a “leftwing victory” or to describe, beyond the differences among the various countries, a leftward evolution of the continent as a whole, distanced from US postures, supported by what could be called the “grassroots” social sectors.

The problem is that it’s not very useful to employ expressions that were invented and used for a totally different context. In Great Britain or France the terms “Right” and “Left” respond to a parliamentary system, and make the most sense in Great Britain. But applying the language of a parliamentary system to a presidential or semi-presidential one can only turn out badly. In Latin America’s case, it fits so poorly that I believe I have good reason to defend a position far removed from the one most frequently expressed.

The categories of “Left” and “Right” lose their meaning in Latin America, where the central point is whether the countries can find a political expression for their profound social problems; whether they can even place their social struggles within an institutional and democratic framework.

Alan García winning the election in Peru and National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderón finally imposing himself in Mexico by a handful of votes over López Obrador obviously doesn’t mean that Latin America is swinging to the right. So let’s reject such vocabulary to describe evolution in one direction or the other. The hypothesis I believe should be formulated is that the continent as a whole is increasingly distancing itself from a model that if not genuinely parliamentary is at least based on mechanisms of opposition between interest groups and groups of different ideologies.

Latin America is further than
ever from a democratic model

Latin America appears to be further from finding a political expression for its social problems than it was 30 years ago. And herein lies the essence of the matter: this is what’s at play and this is where the failure is found. No effective link has been created between social movements—whether based on workers, urban sectors or even ethnic groups—and political parties that accept placing social struggles clearly within an institutional framework we could call at least formally democratic. There’s no denying that Latin America has almost never approached a democratic model. Starting at the end of the 19th century, political conceptions developed in Chile and to a certain extent in Uruguay that were similar to those of Western Europe, even including the importance attached to the clerical-secular confrontation. But the only case of a country that initiated profound changes within a democratic institutional framework is that of Chile during the brief period from the Popular Front of 1938 to the defeat of Jorge Alessandri’s conservatism by Eduardo Frei’s Christian Democracy in the sixties, followed by Salvador Allende’s three-year Communist and Socialist Popular Unity government (1970-1973), supported by the Single Workers’ Confederation (CUT).

The enthusiasm stirred up by the Popular Unity government was perfectly justified: up to that moment, no other country had gotten so far in the association between a multi-dimensioned social movement and the design of a new government formula. But even Chile couldn’t escape the weakness to which its institutions had condemned all its Presidents. Allende came to power thanks only to an agreement with the Christian Democrats following a weak electoral victory, and they soon withdrew. The government fell in the face of active rightwing opposition, economic failure, and ultimately an army coup, all strongly contributed to by the United States.

There was an immense difference between Chile on the one hand and Argentina and Uruguay on the other. The weak democratic conditions of the regimes also overthrown by military coups in the latter two countries prevented any image of an assassinated democracy—which so well described the Chilean case—from also being applied to them, even though all three countries ended up being governed by dictatorships for almost the same period.

To tell the truth, it would be necessary to go quite far back in time to find another such impressive example of a strong link between social movements and strictly political actions to transform the institutions and society. The only case would be Bolivia, with the great peasant movements that emerged even before the 1952 revolution and their relationship to the regime of Víctor Paz Estenssoro.

The Mexican case

Mexico is viewed as an exception on the continent, given that it has passed almost its entire post-revolutionary history under the leadership of a state-party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). That lasted until a political reform separated the state from the party, which permitted National Action Party (PAN) candidate Vicente Fox to come to power. If I allow myself to be guided more by imagination than reality, I could go along with the hypothesis sustained by many that if Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) candidate Manuel López Obrador had come to power in Mexico’s recent elections it would probably have produced an extremely close association of social and political forces, at least in the sense I’m alluding to here, that is so far unknown in the country. While the revolutionary general Lázaro Cárdenas surely had solid grassroots, his presidential regime (1934-40) didn’t belong to any category we could term “democratic.”

The tiny margin between winner and loser in the latest Mexican elections shows the extent to which Mexico has approached a model that democratically administers social changes. But it’s necessary to go beyond this apparent symmetry, as the main task of a López Obrador government would certainly be to re-introduce an important and currently excluded part of the population into the political system.

The failure of the Zapatista symbol

From this perspective we need to recognize the failure of Marcos and the Zapatistas. While their unwillingness to join up with the PRD or López Obrador’s campaign is understandable, the hostility towards this particularly candidate appears as silly as it is mistaken. Marcos’ campaign failed to wrest many votes away from López Obrador, didn’t strengthen the defense of the indigenous communities and didn’t reinforce the need for a democratic Mexican project—elements that exalted the Zapatista movement until the March on Mexico, which ultimately left the Zapatistas extremely weakened.

Zapatismo’s symbolic importance justifies the significance of its failed posture. The great novelty of the Zapatista actions gave rise to hope of a profound renovation of political life on the continent. But in fact the opposite has happened. Not only did the PAN’s candidate defeat López Obrador, but the very hope born of the Zapatista uprising has disappeared, and it’s hard to see how it could resurge in the near future.

Suffice it to say that I’ve placed Mexico’s case early in this analysis because the end of the single party, the reality of political reform and above all the weakness of the PRI and strong bipolarity between what could almost be called a Right and a Left reveal a profoundly different evolution to that of the other countries. Everything has happened as if the force that overcame the statism of so many years wasn’t Guadalajara’s ultra-conservative Catholicism, but rather Monterrey’s growing influence, rapidly reinforced by a mass emigration that has weakened much of the marginalized sectors’ capacity for political action. In that sense, even if Calderón’s victory isn’t very significant, given that López Obrador himself came so close to victory, what has been affirmed is the thrust of the modern economic sectors, which have exercised a great influence on Mexican politics since Fox’s election.

The “big disappointment” with Lula

Beyond the recent electoral results, how can the speed and nature of the changes in Brazil be ignored? I’m highlighting Brazil’s case given this country’s importance in the Latin American political and social context and the immense hopes placed in Lula’s victory, even outside the country. This isn’t the place to again compare Lula and former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, because while Cardoso did carry out many of the desired and promised reforms, he didn’t succeed in creating a solid political system capable of accompanying the great social debates. Like Lula, he lacked his own parliamentary majority and thus had to form alliances, which weakened him. His 10-year presidency marked the recovery of both the state and the capacity to govern, but while he obtained many positive social results, Brazil has not rediscovered the growth it lost some time ago.

In contrast with Cardoso, the Workers’ Party (PT) sought to define itself in terms that were not strictly parliamentary right from the start. Everything suggested that Lula’s presidency would have a decisive importance, starting with the fact that he had previously been a union leader with an exceptional capacity for social mobilization. In short, there was every reason to assume that the association between social change and the construction or transformation of the political system would finally be produced. And as Brazil was such an important country, it was anticipated that this success would generate similar results in many other places.

For this reason, what would have to be called the “great disappointment” of Lula’s presidency has been the fact that he has given up the idea of creating a project that is both political and oriented to social change. This obliges us to talk in terms of a fundamental failure of the solutions that could be termed “leftist” in the continent as a whole.

The outstanding success of Ricardo Lagos in Chile is no exception to this, as his adversary wasn’t the rightwing parties, but rather Pinochet, whose shadow has continued to hover over the whole Chilean Right, which is far from becoming either English-style Tory or US-style Republican.

We have yet to find a satisfactory answer to the question everybody is asking: what is the reason for Lula’s failure? To avoid any misunderstanding, the failure I’m referring to isn’t necessarily a personal failure. After all, Lula has been reelected. But nobody is saying with whom, for whom and against whom he will govern during his second term.

The continent has never known social democracy

This question regarding Lula is so broad and occupies such a central position in reflection on Latin America that nobody could presume to provide a satisfactory answer. But while it many not be possible to contribute all the necessary arguments, there’s still a need to offer at least a hypothesis. Mine is that the inequality in most Latin American countries has been so transformed into a structural dualism that the continent appears incapable of achieving what Great Britain, the United States, France and other countries were able to create: something that reaches beyond political democracy, but doesn’t destroy it and even reinforces it; a social democracy rooted in recognition, whether by law or collective negotiation, of workers’ rights.

This image evoked by industrial European and North American society isn’t compatible with Brazil’s reality, where the state has almost permanently directed both economic action and social policy since the failure of the pre-1930s Liberal attempts, without underestimating the importance of Juscelino Kubitschek’s presidency (1956-61).

The Latin American political system’s most important trait has been its consistent inability to create both a social democracy and a social revolution. With the obvious exception of Cuba, Latin America has never been either Liberal or revolutionary. But even Cuba is only an apparent exception, as Fidel Castro announced his rejection of the Latin American model upon taking power and announced the Martí-inspired priority of fighting for national independence, a priority that would lead him to associate with the Soviet Bloc.

That failed mixture of nationalism and populism

Unable to formulate a policy based on democratic rights and to undertake profound structural changes, Latin America has never managed to free itself from a confused mixture of nationalism and populism, the most famous example of which has been Peronism. This has led to a double failure: both the sinking—or even the disappearance—of the political system and the absence of social transformation. This could be observed particularly in the Argentinean crisis of 2001, which represented the massive decline of the middle classes rather than any uprising of the working classes. So when everything appeared to favor Lula, Brazil’s failure forces us to conclude that the possibility of providing a solution in the region that is both transforming and democratic has been greatly reduced, or may even have disappeared completely.

For the past 20 years ago people everywhere have been talking about the need to prioritize the fight against inequalities. Generally speaking, that fight has either not taken place at all or has failed to achieve its objectives. We thus have to conclude that the great virtual model of Latin American politics—the association between a reinforced democracy and a voluntarist social transformation—has no real possibility of being realized in the future.

The political events that have taken place in various countries of the continent do nothing to encourage the idea of a general movement leftwards. Once again the opposite conclusion that I have arrived at imposes itself: the abiding and profound failure of a vigorous social democracy. The real question with respect to the current situation doesn’t concern the role of some dimension or other of social democracy. The problem that has to be clearly laid out is that of the opportunities open to the new politics of rupture inspired by Fidel Castro and currently represented by Venezuela.

With that model, Hugo Chávez has a chance to create a much more radical political and social voluntarism, particularly compared to the opportunities of the Southern Cone countries. Given the failure of Ollanta Humala’s candidacy in Peru and the complexity of the Ecuadorian situation—and leaving aside the case of Colombia, which would require a quite different analysis—Bolivia is without any doubt the place where the continent’s political life is being decided, together with its capacity to invent a social and political model capable of operating in an extraordinarily difficult situation.

The continent’s political future
depends on Evo Morales’ success

Latin American public opinion understood this immediately and Evo Morales’ government has so far received strong backing, even bearing in mind its conflicting interests with Brazil. There appears to be a general consciousness in Latin America of the need to accept the Bolivian model as it is being formed, in all its radicalism, nationalism and heroism, and in the excesses of both its language and actions.

I am among those who think that the continent’s political future currently depends, first and foremost, on Bolivia’s opportunities to construct and realize a model of social transformation and at the same time gain independence from Chavez’ rhetoric, because despite the progress achieved since his election, Chávez’s model of social transformation is still weak considering the immense resources Venezuela is reaping through the brutal rise in oil prices.

Morales’ extremely fragile situation only increases its importance even further. It’s no surprise that he hasn’t achieved the majority needed for the success of the referendum on departmental autonomy; the Santa Cruz region is still putting up very strong opposition and it could find support from abroad. Meanwhile, the new team’s capacity to govern is probably weaker and more fragile than is generally supposed.

At a moment in which Brazil is preparing for Lula’s second presidency—in an almost total vacuum of projects and management teams—the more radical solution represented by Evo Morales’ Bolivia is where the possibility of establishing a link between the fight against inequality and the fight for democracy must be sought. This possibility is what is always at stake in the debates all over the continent, although to date it has only produced an almost generalized failure.

The Argentine case: Neither Left nor Right

It is neither a coincidence nor an oversight that I haven’t considered the case of Argentina, a country whose extreme importance requires giving it a lot of attention, up to this point. It seems to me that the simplest part of the analysis for Argentina, as for the other countries, is to confirm the definitive failure of the national-populist model of past decades. Although the current government has defined itself as Peronist, as did the last one, the term is now so devoid of content that using it to define Néstor Kirchner’s administration is a contradiction in terms.

How can Argentina be asked to construct both a political and social model for a change it hasn’t really sought? Meanwhile, the country is beginning to emerge from the catastrophe that has destroyed its economy and society without the results obtained demonstrating any important progress in the country’s governability, as the recovery is based on three factors: a strong increase of exports to China; Chávez’ financial aid rounded off by the measures taken against European companies; and a rapid concentration of power in Kirchner’s hands.

If Argentina had to invent a new development model it ought to be of a more Liberal bent, given the importance of international trade in the economy and, above all, the significant dependence of the country’s future on its capacity to beef up its political, administrative and economic elites, which it has been able to create but has not bothered to develop.

Nor is it possible in Argentina’s case to speak of Left and Right. The logic of the situation is moving more towards voluntarist but Liberal solutions that can’t be offset by President Kirchner’s resistance and expanded decision-making capacity.

Yet there’s still optimism on the continent...

Nobody can assure Latin America’s triumph or failure. For the moment, a return of faith has allowed the consolidation of a moderately optimistic—if not euphoric—climate in many countries, despite the immense difficulties. One can perceive in Latin America a confidence in the future that doesn’t exist in any other part of the world save Spain. In this regard, the conclusion that I would like to commit myself to, at least as far as my capacity for analysis allows, is that only a much greater political radicalism than that of the recent period will allow the Latin American countries to escape from two apparent solutions that in reality bring with them real dangers: a government of Liberal elites rooted in a globalized economy and what could be termed a “neo-Castro illusion.”

This rather disquieting conclusion is not contradicted by the self-image of an important country in the continent. That country is Chile, which feels increasingly less a part of Latin America and hopes, according to the celebrated phrase of former President Ricardo Lagos, to enrich itself from East-West trade much as the Republic of Venice once did. This is an extreme alternative for one of the possible solutions: that of successful globalization. The other is the one taking shape in Bolivia, despite its fragility. I currently find it impossible to define any other solutions between these two profoundly opposite tendencies.


Alain Touraine is a French sociologist. This article first appeared in the September-October edition of Nueva Sociedad, and has been edited by envío.

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