Social Movements and Progressive Governments: Building a New Relationship in Latin America

By Harnecker, Marta | Monthly Review, January 2016 | Go to article overview

Social Movements and Progressive Governments: Building a New Relationship in Latin America


Harnecker, Marta, Monthly Review


In recent years a major debate has emerged over the role that new social movements should adopt in relation to the progressive governments that have inspired hope in many Latin American nations. Before addressing this subject directly, though, I want to develop a few ideas.

The situation in the 1980s and '90s in Latin America was comparable in some respects to the experience of pre-revolutionary Russia in the early twentieth century. The destructive impact on Russia of the imperialist First World War and its horrors was paralleled in Latin America by neoliberalism and its horrors: greater hunger and poverty, an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, unemployment, the destruction of nature, and the erosion of sovereignty.

In such circumstances, many of the region's peoples said "enough" and started mobilizing, first in defensive resistance, then passing to the offensive. As a result, presidential candidates of the left or center-left began to triumph, only to face the following alternative: either embrace the neoliberal model, or advance an alternative project motivated by a logic of solidarity and human development.

Social Movements against Neoliberalism

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of Soviet socialism left the parties and social organizations of the left inspired by that model seriously weakened. At the same time, trade unions were hit hard by the weakening of the working class, part of the larger social fragmentation produced by neoliberalism. In that context, it was new social movements, and not the traditional parties and social organizations of the left, that rose to the forefront of the struggle against neoliberalism, in forms that varied widely from one country to another.1

In several cases, those new movements began by resisting neoliberal measures in their local communities, while others developed around gender, human rights, or environmental issues. Many then shifted their focus from isolated local issues to national matters, which not only enriched their struggles and demands but also gained them support from highly diverse social sectors, all suffering under the same system.

An early expression of this development was the campaign marking the 500th anniversary of indigenous, black, and popular resistance. The campaign signaled an important convergence of many different groups, united through new organizing principles, including horizontalism, autonomy, gender awareness, and "unity in diversity." It gave rise to new social coordinating organizations, such as the CLOC-Via Campesina, and helped clarify national and international agendas.2

One such agenda was the campaign against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which was particularly successful in Brazil and Ecuador, and which later led to the first historic defeat of U.S. policy in the region, at the Organization of American States Summit at Mar del Plata in 2005. Since then the problems of regional integration are no longer considered matters for governments alone, but have also become concerns of the masses.

The major element missing from Latin American politics in recent decades has been, with rare exceptions, the traditional workers' movement, beaten down by flexibilization, subcontracting, and other neoliberal measures. While in some cases the labor movement has participated in wider popular struggles, it has not been on the front lines of combat.

The new social movements often start by rejecting politics and politicians, but as their struggle progresses, many gradually grow from an attitude of mere resistance focused on single issues, to an increasingly political approach that questions the established authorities. In the process they begin to understand the need to build their own political instruments, as in Ecuador with Pachakutik and in Bolivia with the MAS-IPSP.3

There are many lessons to learn from these mass struggles, but one of the most important is that they show the central importance of a strategy of solidarity that endeavors to unite the widest possible number around concrete objectives, building understanding even among groups with very different traditions and politics. …

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