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The Roadblock and the Ballot Box: Insurgent Democracies in Latin America

Christy Thornton
Date Published: 
April 01, 2008

In 1781, the story goes, the anti-colonialist Aymara leader Tupac Katari stood before his executioners and the people of La Paz and assured the Spanish rulers that his death would not end the anti-colonial struggle: “You may kill me now,” he is said to have told them, “but I will return as millions.” The legend of these words has resonated in the struggles of the indigenous and oppressed peoples of Latin America for centuries.

Dual strategies
Today, movements for social justice against political and economic repression and against imperialism in Latin America encompass those millions. From Argentina to Mexico, social movements are mobilizing on the streets and within the halls of power, using both the roadblock and the ballot box. In countries throughout the region, grassroots activists and political leaders have successfully forced issues of social justice to the national—and, indeed, global—fore. With each victory, the people of Latin America are reorienting the definition of democracy as it has been imposed on them since at least the end of the Cold War, steadily dissolving the ties that have bound democracy to neoliberalism, and creating new structures of popular power. Activists in the North need to embrace the processes of creating these new structures, and challenge the US–centric definition of democracy that our government and its surrogates promote throughout the world.

In its coverage of Latin America’s “left turn,” the mainstream press has reduced the myriad changes taking place in the region to an ill-informed dichotomy: nations follow either Ch·vez’s model (radical, anti-imperialist) or Lula’s (moderate, tempered neoliberal). But the mechanisms and objectives of Latin America’s many social justice movements are varied and multifaceted, and comprise a full spectrum along the horizontalist–statist continuum. It is along this spectrum that democracy is being reclaimed and reshaped, and in its grey areas that radical democratic practices and structures are being formed.

In 2005, one year before the presidential elections in Mexico, the Zapatistas’ Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle announced the initiation of what came to be known as the Other Campaign, a national tour that sought to foster ties within the non-electoral left in Mexico. Subcomandante Marcos, known in the campaign as “Delegate Zero,” traveled the entire country to hear the stories of the poor, disenfranchised, and forgotten—those for whom the opposition victory in 2000, which was to be a restoration of democracy by ending over 70 years of one-party rule, had meant little. The Other Campaign has created, according to Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy, a “dramatic political repositioning that gives new leverage to the movement, and at the same time challenges traditional politics to respond to demands from the grassroots.” Those challenges became contentious issues in the Mexican election, and debate still rages about the role of Marcos and the Other Campaign in the defeat of the leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. But the recent repression of Zapatista communities and Other Campaign adherents speaks to the threat posed to the established order: the demands of the Zapatistas, and the communities they have supported and inspired, will no longer be ignored. The Other Campaign, with its emphasis on including those who have been excluded in the neoliberal order, is making its mark on Mexican democracy.

Bolivia & Ecuador
In Bolivia and Ecuador, the constitutional assemblies convened under the governments of Evo Morales and Rafael Correa respectively have begun the monumental task of fundamentally reforming the economic oligarchies and entrenched racial hierarchies that have governed those societies since colonial times. In both countries, decades of sustained work by social movements have laid the foundations for the profound political changes that are taking place.

In Bolivia, the fight against neoliberalism sprang on to the world stage in 2000, when the people of Cochabamba successfully reversed the privatization of their city’s water. This was followed by massive mobilizations in 2003 and again in 2005, in which hundreds of thousands of people, representing neighborhood organizations, trade unions, and, above all, indigenous groups, successfully ousted neoliberal governments and pushed for the constitutional assembly.

In Ecuador, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) has been a resurgent force since its disastrous association with Luis Gutierrez in 2003, and thanks to huge mobilizations in 2006, was largely responsible for the cancellation of a contract with Occidental petroleum and the country’s pull-out from a free trade agreement with the US. Today, CONAIE is exerting pressure on the constitutional assembly to enshrine the “plurinationality” of Ecuador and the nationalization of oil resources in the new constitution.

To be sure, the process of remaking a nation is a contentious, and sometimes violent, one, as evidenced by the protracted political fights that the assembly processes have produced in both Bolivia and Ecuador. These processes are far from over, and it is too early to yet judge the success of the efforts, but in both countries, voices long suppressed are finally being heard.

In Venezuela, the government of Hugo Ch·vez has emancipated democracy from neoliberalism’s supremacy, and Venezuelan citizens are constructing new modes of organizing their lives and their communities. The project to create a “socialism for the 21st century” has been a contentious one, even within the Venezuelan left, as reflected by the recent defeat of a massive package of reforms put to referendum. Nonetheless, the government’s ability to confront the established order and begin to shape new priorities is extraordinary. What’s more, there are emerging structures of representation that challenge traditional notions of what it means to be state-driven or grassroots, as well as an instructive “evolutionary” process championed at the highest levels, which seeks to find the best solutions to the problems of the people.

The communal councils movement—begun as a grassroots project in the community of Cuman· and later endorsed by the government—is a highly participatory local democratic structure for decision-making and allocation of government funds, and an inspiring addition to the government-directed misiones that have brought well being to so many of Venezuela’s poor and disenfranchised. There are now some 20,000 communal councils throughout Venezuela, composed of committees that work both on political initiatives and social projects, such as cultural programs, service provision, and local economic development, and they have overseen the allocation of billions of dollars of government funding. Importantly, the communal councils are not political-support organizations and allegiance to Ch·vez plays no role in their constitution. Solidarity and community development are the guiding principles, and despite all of the rhetoric and posturing from our government and media about the authoritarian tendencies of the Venezuelan state, the communal councils are remaking Venezuelan democracy from the ground up.

And these are but a few of the many examples of the ways in which social movements are radicalizing the democratic process in Latin America, extracting their democracies from the jaws of empire. There are innumerable others, some decades old, some just establishing themselves: the Nasa project in ToribÌo, Colombia; the participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre; the worker-run recovered factory movement in Argentina; the urban squatters’ movement in Lima; the student movement in El Salvador; the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca; the Mapuche movement in Chile, the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil; the Via Campesina. In the context of the consolidation of formal, electoral democracy over the last generation, the successes of these many movements should be seen as a deepening of the promise that democracy holds, a step toward reversing decades, if not centuries, of systemic inequality. Instead, the government of the United States, together with its cultural, economic, and political proxies, decries the threat posed by the “deceptive appeal of anti-free market populism” and mobilizes the fear of destabilization to maintain the status quo. It’s clear now that the people of Latin America have repudiated that status quo. Katari’s millions have returned, and their voices are being heard. It’s time that we listen.

About the Author
Christy Thornton is the Director of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) and publisher of the NACLA Report on the Americas.