South America’s social movements face an unprecedented situation: a majority of the continent’s governments define themselves as left or progressive, a reality to which these movements contributed significantly. This reconfiguration, however, can either help the growth of the movements or block their development.
In effect, governments that claim some affinity to social movements rule seven out of 13 South American countries. This new scenario, which has two main differences from earlier periods, has forced the movements to rethink their steps.
First, the confrontation between neoliberal governments and social movements is no longer the principal political dynamic. Indeed, the growing polarization under the new governments has led the old right—renovated under new themes and symbols—to displace the movements as national oppositional protagonists. In Venezuela, the right has managed to mobilize large portions of the populace, while the Bolivian right has proposed regional autonomy (both with a vision of social homogeneity). A similar process could unfold when Rafael Correa takes power in Ecuador on January 15. In Argentina, the right has regrouped to impede the advance of human rights and even managed to organize an agricultural strike against Néstor Kirchner’s policies. In Brazil, the excuse for the right’s electoral mobilization was corruption.
What’s new is that the right has successfully grouped together sectors of the middle class in winning over the streets with thousands of sympathizers. Amid these situations, it is not only the movements and their demands that become displaced, the movements also find themselves forced to mobilize in support of governments with which they are only in partial agreement.
Second, the rise of left and progressive governments has created a new relation of forces with popular sectors that form the movements’ grassroots. In almost every country, complex relations have arisen between these groups based on earlier poverty reduction policies. In general, the region’s governments are exercising two anti-poverty “models.” The one being implemented in Ecuador, and to some degree in Bolivia, is ostensibly focused on “strengthening [social] organizations” that are charged with designing and carrying out aid programs themselves—at least, since the mid 1990s, with the implementation of Prodepine (Development Project for the Black and Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador). Such programs have profoundly damaged the movements. In Ecuador, they nearly caused the split of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), leaving the group considerably debilitated.
In Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, the anti-poverty policies of progressive governments have made a qualitative leap from previous programs, which were all financed and promoted by the World Bank, as was Prodepine. Strictly speaking, we can no longer talk of “focalized” policies, since in Brazil the new policies target an estimated 25% of the population, while in Argentina and Uruguay the intended recipients oscillate between 10 and 20% of the population. In reality, the policies constitute a reconfiguration of relations between the state and popular sectors distinct from those that emerged during the height of the welfare state.
Poverty policies have sapped movements’ (that is, the organized poor) capacity for action and, worse, have brought into question the autonomy forged by movements during the hard and pure period of neoliberalism. Two factors are at the root of this weakening: subsidies generate clientelistic—and vertical—relations between “social” ministries and the mass of unorganized poor, which are no longer as inlined to mobilize. Alongside this last development, many movement leaders now occupy low-level government positions, distancing themselves from their organizations or, rather, subordinating these organizations vis-à-vis the governments they now work for.
It makes little sense in this new scenario to repeat practices that up to this point have met with success. Recognizing this new environment is the first step in addressing the current weaknesses of the movements. It seems indispensable that efforts should now focus on building autonomy (cultural, political and material) to sort out current difficulties. In the region, besides the Zapatistas, Brazil’s Landless Movement (MST) is the group that seems to have the best grasp of the present predicament. The MST undoubtedly supported Lula’s re-election to stop the right-wing dead in its tracks. And yet, they have already begun a propaganda campaign and mobilizations knowing that without their pressure Lula won’t move a finger to implement agrarian reforms. Although necessary, pouring into the streets obviously won’t solve all problems. As João Pedro Stédile, an MST coordinator, has urged, it is necessary to study, analyze and understand the new realities emerging under these governments.
Lastly, establishing new relations between organized and unorganized sectors from below will be vital in regaining momentum. But we are still at a loss as to where and how this will be done. But all signs point to the belts of poverty surrounding the cities as the stages for future revolts. The MST has bet on the black and poor youth of the hip-hop movement. In Buenos Aires, new relationships are growing between youth that have mobilized for road blockades (piquetes), poor youth inspired by music from the streets and Bolivian and Paraguayan immigrants. Indeed, in the areas demonized by the powerful—including progressive governments—there is a world of potential that can nourish new movements.
Raúl Zibechi, a member of the editorial board of the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, is a professor on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de America Latina and adviser to several grassroots organizations. This article was originally published in Mexico’s La Jornada. Translated by Teo Ballvé.