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Power and the People

Tom Hennigan

Civil Society and the State in Left-led Latin America: Challenges and Limitations to Democratization, by Barry Cannon and Peadar Kirby,  Zed Books, 256 pp, £24.99, ISBN: 978-1780322049

The rise to power of the left in Latin America since the turn of the millennium has been a source of hope for comrades in other parts of the world, depressed by the retreats elsewhere that followed the end of the Cold War and the apparent triumph of capital in an era of turbo-charged globalisation. Milestones such as the election of a first indigenous leader in Bolivia and the triumph of a working class hero in Brazil, along with the anti-imperialist fireworks accompanying Venezuela’s experiment in twenty-first century socialism stirred the global imagination, giving presidents such as Evo Morales, Lula and Hugo Chávez a prominence arguably not enjoyed by Latin American leaders since Cuba’s barbudos in the 1960s.

Since marching into presidential palaces across the continent the Latin Left’s success in reducing absolute poverty and, to a lesser extent, the region’s chronic inequality has been rightly hailed. But it has too often been used to deflect criticism of some troubling aspects of left-wing rule, such as its corruption and authoritarianism. This is dangerous, as much of the region’s recent success is not so much tied to its swing left as to China’s apparently insatiable appetite for commodities. Since the new millennium, that is since the Latin left took power, prices for Latin America’s principal exports have soared, meaning incoming administrations have had money to work with, something denied their predecessors. They have been massively favoured by the global moment.

Any wobble in China could leave the region horribly exposed, as could a popping of the speculative bubbles which Western investment bankers have inflated in many commodity markets on the back of a belief that rising Chinese-driven demand is eternal. If Latin America’s economies were to turn in a manner that put the progress of the last decade at risk, what other legacy would the region’s left be able to point to from its time in power?

Civil Society and the State in Left-Led Latin America, a collection of essays edited by Barry Cannon and Peadar Kirby, attempts to provide some answers to this question. The book notes the importance of the commodity boom, but its goal is to find out whether the region’s traditionally weak civil society has been empowered by the arrival in power of leftists, many of whom have longstanding ties with the social movements that form the progressive wing of Latin civil society.

Given the region’s dark history before its recent successful democratisation, one could argue that this empowerment is at least as important a task as taking advantage of the fair global trade winds to reduce poverty. The book’s survey of the progress of this empowerment shows up mixed results, as flagged up by its subheading – “Challenges and Limitations to Democratization”. The advances are noted but correctly the focus is on these challenges and limitations.

The competitive nature of the state in relation to civil society emerges as a central reason for these – too often Left-led governments which promised a greater role for civil society have once in office imitated their predecessors and viewed it as a rival to their own power, seeking to hoodwink, browbeat or otherwise shape its role from within the executive rather than truly empower it.

But the region has been the scene of some fascinating innovation. The survey opens with a chapter on Venezuela’s plans to create a communal participatory democracy to rival the current liberal elective model, flagging up what is without doubt the most revolutionary proposal to strengthen civil society in the region, though more time is needed to reveal what will survive of the Bolivarian Revolution following the death of its leader, Hugo Chávez.

A chapter examining the more modest and – for those worried about the erosion of democratic accountability in technocratic Europe – arguably more interesting experiment by Brazil’s Workers Party in participatory budgeting highlights the challenges being faced. The project, in which civil society participates in deciding on municipal budgets each year, is worthy of further development, despite evidence of its manipulation by political parties, if only because it could, if refined, provide a mechanism for holding politicians to campaign promises during their terms and not just restricting voter to a simple yea or nay on their time in power come election time.

A central theme in the essays is the impact on civil society of the extraction-based nature of much of Latin America’s economy. The commodity boom has given the region’s governments a huge incentive to maximise commodity production – whether mineral or agricultural – in order to provide the cash to fund their transformative social programmes. Much of the benefit has been invested in rebuilding states that were devastated by the neoliberal experiments of the 1990s, which, unhappily for the social democratic, populist and – only rarely – right-wing politicians who implemented them, coincided with a cycle of low prices for the region’s principal exports.

This desire to rebuild the state by maximising commodity production has frequently led to conflict with old allies who resent the high environmental and social cost local communities have to pay in order to host mining companies. Several of the essays detail how left-wing administrations have failed to carry out promises of greater consultation with such communities and instead have often sought to delegitimise them as enemies of national progress. Perhaps the worst violator here is Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, who fresh from his victory over the right identified “the infantile left, ecologists and Indianists” as the main danger to his supposedly left-wing project. It should be sobering for admirers of the Latin left’s record in power to read of its willingness to delegitimise former allies in order to further insert their economies into the global supply chain.

Stronger states though have allowed significant advances and one of the most promising developments to have occurred since the region’s swing left, with which the collection concludes, is the development of a social dimension to the regional Mercosur trade bloc, made up of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and, since last year, Venezuela. Founded in 1991, the organisation was in its early phase considered by critics to be too focused on trade, with none of the attention to social issues displayed by the European Union, attention that was urgently needed in a continent with such a yawning social deficit.

Member governments have sine 2003 sought to rectify that, with some considerable initial success, going beyond inventing a new nomenclature for “Social Mercosur” to setting up new institutions within the organisation specialising in social issues that have reached out to civil society. Despite the inevitable criticism from the more radical wing of the continent’s social movements of a top-down approach, this is an important advance.

There is however the suspicion, not discussed in the book, that the region has developed “Social Mercosur” because the bloc’s original goals – to boost trade between members and give the region a stronger voice in world trade talks – are moribund. Argentina’s gathering economic crisis, or rather the return of the crisis that has afflicted it for decades, has seen its government subvert or flout the rules of the bloc in order to prop up domestic industries and counter trade deficits with Brazil. Brazil has shown huge patience with its strategic partner, at times to the audible annoyance of Paraguay and Uruguay. But in doing so it has also allowed itself be left behind in the global race to sign trade deals – in large part because of Argentina’s hostility to free trade.

While bilateral and regional trade deals multiply around the world any trade talks with Mercosur and its members languish. Since the bloc was formed Brazil, still a relatively closed economy whose sustained economic growth and social progress rely on expanding trade and boosting competitiveness, has managed to sign trade deals only with Israel, Palestine and Egypt – and only the first of these is in force. In a world of ever more deeply integrated supply chains Brazil risks being left to reprise its nineteenth century role as a primary commodity exporter. Social Mercosur is a welcome addition to the Mercosur project but needs to be complemented by the pursuit of its original trade goals and not become a substitute for its failure.

Surveying the evidence presented in these essays the editors conclude with the assessment that left-led Latin America is characterised by “strong publics” that have moved beyond opinion formation to varying degrees of involvement in decision-making across the region. Some might consider that an overly optimistic view based on much of the evidence presented, though surely “weak publics” would be too harsh. The sense is of a region in transition. But this book does the reader interested in the performance of the Latin left the service of looking beyond electoral and economic measures of success. Instead it asks more profound questions about the quality of societies being constructed and comes up with a fascinating portrait of left-wing administrations seeking to navigate the tensions between the demands of their own civil actors in a world still dominated by market orthodoxy.

One possible comment on the essays would target their rather limited vision of civil society as constituted by progressive social movements – anti-globalisation activists, women’s rights groups, indigenous, environmentalists – pitted against “the social forces of oppression”. But conservatism in Latin American is not just an elite plot. An autonomous middle class is organised to varying degrees across the continent and can also pressure the state, whether neoliberal or leftist, in pursuit of its own concerns, as demonstrated by large rallies organised by the middle class in Argentina to demand more serious action against rising criminality. Meanwhile, in Brazil, militant conservative values have been gaining ground among poorer social classes, in part because of the spread of home-grown evangelical Pentecostal churches that are formidably or well organised, to the extent that they can mobilise a significant section of civil society to pressurise political parties to back off from attempts to liberalise draconian anti-abortion laws.  This conservative wing of Latin civil society merits further attention in order to understand some of the domestic limitations on the region’s progressive governments.

Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent for The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.




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