Latin American Social Movements: Standing up to Friends

Marcela Valente

Most of the progressive governments of Latin America present a paradox for the social movements that make part of the World Social Forum (WSF) in that it is hard for them to stand up to presidents and government functionaries who once formed part of their struggles. “Experience shows that opposing center-left governments in the region is proving to be very difficult,” says sociologist Atilio Borón, who is in the International Council of the WSF. “It’s more complicated to confront friendly governments than enemy ones,” he warns.

Born in 2001 in the ocean-side city of Porto Alegre as a space for critique of globalization, neoliberalism, and militarism, the WSF vigorously picked up steam when conservative governments mostly governed the region. But this vitality seems to have reversed with the rise of left, center-left, or progressive administrations. Among these current governments are even some central protagonists of the WSF such as leaders of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as well as Evo Morales and his allies in Bolivia’s indigenous movement.

This year, the international meeting of the WSF was replaced by local mobilizations on January 26, marking a day of global action. Borón and other observers noted some advantages of having governments in place that are more sensitive to the demands of Forum, but they emphasized the disadvantages and challenges faced by the movements much more.

For Miguel Santibáñez of the Chilean Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, made up of some 70 groups, the closeness of social movements with the governments “brought benefits, but also risks.” Santibáñez described how the new administrations have a greater willingness to create spaces of dialogue with civil society and that this allows “a degree of participation, involvement, and impact” for the movements.

He also noted a greater inclination for social reforms by citing the example of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who embarked on changes in the social security system through changes in the private system and in labor legislation. Nonetheless, he warned about the danger of demands “losing force” if the agenda of social movements are “captured” by the governments, giving the example of Venezuelan social organizations that strongly identify with Hugo Chávez’s government.

Borón maintains that social movements are enmeshed in the perplexity of having to stand up to those who shared in their struggles during many years, and that this phenomenon is one of the causes of the Forum’s weakened vitality this year.

He is not optimistic about the WSF planned for 2009 in Belem, Brazil either. For the Argentine sociologist, the most emblematic case of conflict between governments and social organizations is Brazil, where the PT and the CUT labor union, which were among the strongest left-wing oppositional forces in Latin America during the 1990s, lost their political weight since Lula became president in 2003.

Borón also cites other cases such as the Argentine Workers’ Central (CTA), one of the country’s main labor unions, which waited four years during the center-left administration of Néstor Kirchner (2003-07) to obtain promised legal recognition from the government that would put it on level with other organized salaried workers. The CTA, which has ideological affinities with Kirchner allies, was denied this legal status and announced it would continue to seek it from the new presidency of Cristina Fernández, Kirchner’s wife.

Another case “turning in the same direction as the CUT in Brazil,” according to Borón, is the PIT-CNT, Uruguay’s only labor confederation, which has allies in the left-leaning governing coalition, the Broad Front, of President Tabaré Vázquez.

The same splits, with their own specificities, could happen in Bolivia with Morales, in Ecuador with President Rafael Correa, or in Nicaragua with the return of ex-guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega, if these administrations leave behind their campaign promises and social programs.

“We can’t drop our guard with friendly governments,” recommends Borón. Social movements not only can maintain an independent agenda, but they “should” do so, he underlined. “It’s not easy, but if they don’t they will betray the trust of their bases,” he warned.

The social movement expert believes left parties or labor movements “should not convert themselves into the transmission lines of those in power at a given time” in exchange for government posts, financing, or programs as is the case in some instances, he says, because they’ll lose credibility.

Instead, when organizations “refuse to be used as arms of the government” independent of their political stripe, they are able to maintain the support of their members and the political vigor, he adds, citing the example of the Landless and Homeless movements of Brazil. In any case, for Borón the political situation of the region is not the only factor that is making the WSF lose relevance.

In his opinion, internal debates on the direction of the Forum are having a negative affect on the visibility and gravity of the movement. On this last point, he concludes, “Three or four years ago the idea was put forth that the Forum is a space for a cathartic expression of social diversity, in an attempt to avoid it from becoming a point of coordination for global struggles against big capital, which presents itself good and united every year at Davos.”


This article was originally published by IPS/Terraviva. Translated from the Spanish by NACLA.
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