Era of Political Responsibility Takes Hold in Latin America Tolerance, Participation Are Replacing Ideological Confrontation

Article excerpt

THOUSANDS of pensioners recently gathered at this city's central plaza in a noisy rally to pressure the federal government to increase their social security checks. The atmosphere was electric, one organizer recalls.

"I felt like the {local} Jaragua peak, because that whole group was one {entity}, a mountain of people who, despite all the differences among themselves, all had one objective," says Henos Amorina, an alderman who founded a local pensioners' rights federation in 1985, part of a national movement that now boasts an estimated 500,000 members.

Such emerging interest groups are flourishing in a new era of politics in Latin America. It is an era, social scientists and politicians say, in which grass-roots organizing has begun to take the place of old-fashioned patronage politics. They note a developing sense of citizenship and political responsibility, including a growing willingness to tolerate differences and work out common solutions. In Brazil, for example, movements have sprung up in the last five years around issues such as high taxes, the environment, consumer rights, and violence against street children.

"The potential of these social movements to express themselves implies growing political freedom.... Revolutionary messiahs and authoritarian models acting and ruling in the name of the people no longer have a holy scent," says Claude Auroi, a Swiss political scientist.

Brazilian pensioners used to let politicians "seduce them with beautiful speeches," believing their checks were favors "from heaven," Mr. Amorina says. The movement helped them to see that "they contribute, pay taxes, and are Brazilian citizens, and citizenship has to be respected."

Politics in Latin America has long revolved around an elite who traded their access to power and money for votes and social peace. In the last 15 years, this has changed: In the face of stubborn economic and political problems, military rulers in Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, and Peru have left power, and civilian governments in Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela have included more sectors of society.

Of course, old habits die hard. The recent coup attempt in Venezuela shows how hard it is for groups - in this case the military - to bend to government policies that affect them negatively. Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez also reacted according to Latin American tradition by imposing censorship on the local media, although local and international pressure quickly forced a reversal of that decision.

Throughout the hemisphere - with the glaring exceptions of Cuba and Haiti - an increasing number of free and honest elections have been taking place from presidential palaces to city halls. Television and radio have expanded their reach and censorship has ended almost everywhere, bringing information that creates new demands for political honesty and accountability, political scientists say. Governments have opened their economies to foreign trade and new influences, allowing the market to be a determining factor. And many former leftists have changed their ideas, as a result of experiences in exile or in government itself.

With these changes, and the fall of communism in the East, the question of whether capitalism or communism can best deal with underdevelopment is becoming irrelevant, analysts say. …

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