Building Barrios: Community Development in Latin America. (Perspectives)

By Panfichi, Aldo | Harvard International Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Building Barrios: Community Development in Latin America. (Perspectives)


Panfichi, Aldo, Harvard International Review


Over the last two decades, Latin American countries have undergone profound transformations, including transitions from military to civilian rule, radical liberal economic restructuring, and accelerated urbanization and urban sprawl. Yet the impact of these changes on civil society, and particularly on the organizational structures of the urban poor, has yet to be fully, assessed. On one hand, most large Latin

American cities have experienced increased poverty and inequality in the 1990s, accompanied by the declining influence of the most organized and militant forms of popular organization. On the other hand, some poor communities have seen increased social mobility and organizational development. Furthermore, new forms of informal popular organization have emerged with more young people in leadership positions.

These trends generate a number of questions for sociologists, civil leaders, and policymakers: Why have some poor communities flourished in this changing context while others remain in misery? Why have some communities, known for their long-standing traditions of popular participation and collective action, found their bases weakened in recent years? And why have others without such traditions made considerable advances in civic organization?

Investigating social networks and community organization in two low-income neighborhoods in Lima, Peru, provides insight into these questions. The first neighborhood is Barrios Altos, an inner-city settlement dating back to colonial times. For years, social scientists have viewed this community in the historical center of the capital as one of Latin America's typical slums of despair, populated by the poor of Lima and characterized by social disorganization and a tendency toward individualism. The second case is Independencia, a community established through the 1960s invasion of rich estates on Lima's northern outskirts by the urban poor. Initially comprised of makeshift shanties, Independencia has frequently been seen as one of Latin America's newer shantytowns of hope, founded by migrants of peasant origin with ancient traditions of collective self-help and social solidarity.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Independencia was the site of considerable social and political experimentation, and most analysts expected it to fare better than Barios Altos in terms of both social mobility and political development. However, the 1990s saw a dramatic reversal of this trend, with the organizational bases of Independencia seriously weakened and neighborhood organizations in Barrios Altos growing for the first time. In order to understand these developments, it is important to examine changes in the political regime and institutional design of the state and their impact on the ability of the urban poor to organize and take collective action.

History in Transition

In the last two decades Peru underwent a transition from a reformist military regime to an unstable civilian one. It also shifted from a populist government in the 1980s to the neoliberal, authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s. During these years, the role of the state in society was expanded, reduced, and then expanded again, while governments experimented with different programs aimed at serving the urban poor.

The military government (1968-1979) had a reformist agenda that encouraged popular mobilization while at the same time seeking to control the people through corporatist structures. During this period, the state gained new centrality in virtually all spheres of social life, and this new position initially was accompanied by a high capacity for state spending to satisfy demand for public goods. At the same time, the military banned all political parties, leaving few opportunities for independent social and political participation.

Virtually all local community demands and struggles could have become direct political confrontations with the state since the success or failure of popular organizations was measured by their capacity to obtain state resources. …

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