Magazine article Monthly Review

On Local Elections and Government in Latin America and the Caribbean

Magazine article Monthly Review

On Local Elections and Government in Latin America and the Caribbean

Article excerpt

ON LOCAL ELECTIONS AND GOVERNMENT IN LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN

Bernard D. Headley's discussion of the July 29, 1986, local elections in Jamaica (MR, February 1987) presents a compelling argument that these elections became a plebiscite on the Seaga regime, in which the population showed support for the opposition. The revival of Manley's PNP is the most important result of these elections. But Headley may be wrong to assume that apart from their transitory role as "plebiscite,' local elections are merely a "pedestrian exercise.' If one looks not only at Jamaica, but at Latin America and the Caribbean as a region, one finds that local and provincial or state elections and governments have taken on a new importance in recent years. While this may be a mere coincidence of transitory phenomena, I think there may be more to it. The local state in the third world may be becoming an important arena for struggle.

Jamaica is not the only country in which state or local elections have played a plebiscite role. In the Brazilian "democratization' process, these elections have been important signals of popular dissatisfaction with the Sarney government. In Mexico they have become the only open battleground between the ruling PRI and the conservative opposition PAN. In Peru, President Garcia spent the same sort of effort supporting the APRA candidate for Mayor of Lima that Seaga and Manley spent on their local candidates in Jamaica.

But local government is not only important as an official opinion poll. Local governments in Latin America may not have as much autonomy as their North American counterparts, but they do govern in certain respects, and this can allow progressive political forces to try out programs or seek legitimacy through local activity. The recent mayoralty of Alfonso Barrantes in Lima was essential to the growth of a recognized national political force and to Barrantes's strong showing in the subsequent presidential election. Left-center and left-populist candidates elsewhere, including Jose Pena-Gomez in the Dominican Republic and Leonel Brizola on Brazil, have also used local or state governments in the attempt to build a mass base of support. That none of these candidates has yet been able to achieve presidential power does suggest limits to local power, but the very fact of these attempts in a region where the local level was long seen as completely powerless, is itself worth analyzing. So, too, is the attempt to extend local power within the democratization process. The Mexican left is pressing for more local control within Mexico City; in Colombia local election of mayors is to be reinstituted next year, and the left is evaluating what opportunities this may offer. One must also consider that small-town mayors in several countries literally have their lives on the line as assassination targets for guerrillas (in Peru) or, more often, for death squads and contras. Surely something more than a pedestrian exercise is at stake here.

Given this rising importance of the local governmental level, it is important that we begin to analyze its potential uses, and weaknesses, for the left. There is a long tradition of municipal radical politics in the developed capitalist nations. In the United States the history runs from turn-of-century "sewer socialism' through the mayoralties of Bernie Sanders in Burlington, Vermont, and the experiences of left coalitions in some California cities. …

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