by James Petras
Global Research, February 14, 2008
Movements in Flux and Center-Left Governments in Power
In contrast to North America and Europe, in Latin America political regimes, social movements and ideologies are in constant flux. Within a period of a few years, the political pendulum can swing from a seemingly radical leftist wave, to center-left and even rightwing ascendancy1. Likewise major social movements emerge, expand from local or regional power bases to significant actors on the national political scene, play a major role in dispatching right-wing regimes, support and even enter governmental coalitions and then decline, especially if they fail to achieve any of the minimum demands of their supporters.2
Despite this complex mosaic of relatively abrupt changes and shifts in political power, social configurations and ideological direction, many North American, European and Latin American writers, commentators, intellectuals and journalists are prone to sweeping generalizations covering the entire region and broad time spans, reflecting in many cases, limited experiences and time periods, which have largely become out of date.3 In most cases, these generalizations are poorly documented, impressionistic and lacking any empirical, historical or analytical depth.
In recent years, roughly from the beginning of the 21st century to the end of 2007 (and continuing) some of the most lauded intellectuals of North America continued to describe Latin America as a hothouse for radical change, the home of the world’s most dynamic social movements, and undergoing leftist-led social transformation.4 Several immediate and transparent objections arise.
In the first place “Latin America” as a whole did not experience radical social movements over the period in question. In fact after 2003, in most countries where significant social movements existed, there was a sharp decline in movement activity, membership and social power. A cursory view of Argentina’s unemployed workers movement and factory occupations confirms this observation, as does the experience in Ecuador with CONAIE (the Indian movement).5
Secondly, most of Central America, the Caribbean and Pacific rim countries of South America never experienced a leftist government –not Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Peru, Ecuador (up till 2007), Haiti (since 1991) or the rest of the Caribbean island countries.
Thirdly none of the social movements, even the largest and most influential, succeeded in imposing their programs on any regime in the region, despite, in some cases, playing a major role in ousting right-wing incumbents.
Fourthly, none of the self-styled ‘radical’ or center-left regimes attempted any consequential structural changes, despite having won elections in some cases by substantial majorities and having the backing of trade unions, social movements, and Indian organizations. With the exception of Venezuela, no center-left or centrist regime reversed the corrupt privatizations of the previous rightist neo-liberal regimes, no measures were taken to redistribute land, income or reduce inequalities and regressive taxes.
The singular fact about Latin America is that, despite a number of massive popular upheavals, several political regime changes and the sometime ascendancy of mass social movements in some countries, the continuity of property relations remains intact. In fact the dominant tendency is to greater concentrations of property, the continued prosperity and increased profits of largely foreign-owned giant agro-mineral export enterprises, the continuation of the class structure and an increase in socio-economic inequalities.6 These regressive tendencies mark this period of supposedly ascendant social movements.
Once again intellectuals, particularly on the left, have succumbed to the rhetoric of social change, to symbolic acts, which are structurally inconsequential, to cultural identities rather than material interests and to the fatal attraction of close proximity to the centers of power.7 Not infrequently part of the strategies of legitimizing the center-left regimes is to invite intellectual notables to their inaugurations and other visible public ceremonies, flattering and inflating the ceremonial importance of these intellectuals (organizing ‘consultations’, special interviews and other promotional activities) while securing favorable articles, books and other propaganda useful in obtaining the acquiescence of opinion leaders in mass organizations.
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