However, this new politics of progressive governments – which can be summed up as ‘more resources to combat poverty without effecting structural changes’ – has actually weakened social movements.
There are several reasons for this. The labour market has improved. States are more committed to spending money and building infrastructure in the poorest neighbourhoods. Many of the most prominent activists have been co-opted and taken up positions in ministries or NGOs.
While it is certainly true that poor families live better today, inequality has not changed. Yet the movements that enabled poor people to survive the worst times of crisis are melting away.
The generation of social movements and collectives that burst on to the Latin American scene at the beginning of the 1990s have completed their cycle and are now on the defensive. Many movements have become NGOs, whose leaders and administrators are more interested in dealing with international organizations and negotiating with governments than with organizing and politicizing the grassroots. A new cycle is born However, certain important events indicate that a new cycle of social protest is being born. In some cases they are the same movements that were the protagonists of the previous cycle; in others, new players are emerging, such as the bachilleratos populares.
What’s certain is that progressive governments in the region are having increasing difficulties when confronted by these movements.
In June this year the Federation of Neighbourhood Councils of El Alto (FEJUVE) put the brakes on attempts by Evo Morales’ MAS party to get its own people into leadership positions, and denounced the ‘oligarchic’ practices of the Bolivian government. It also, for the first time, elected a woman as president.
In Ecuador, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE) organized uprisings, strikes and road blocks in protest at President Rafael Correa’s decisions in favour of mining companies and water privatization.
In Brazil, new urban movements have emerged, bringing together hip-hop youths and afro-Brazilian women at ‘homeless camps’ under the name of the Urban Resistance Front. In Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela, the new protagonists are indigenous Amazonians who reject the exploitation of natural resources by multinationals. In Argentina, as well as the bachilleratos, there are scores of assemblies against mining companies which co-ordinate within the Union of Citizens Assembly.
It’s not easy to find common features in this universe of experimental organizations,
Most unequal Poverty has decreased recently in much of Latin America. Inequality too has also declined slightly in countries such as Brazil and Venezuela. But the Latin American and Caribbean region is still the most unequal in the world, with the biggest gap between rich and poor, according to the Gini index of equality. 33.3% are poor 12.9% are extremely poor 57.1% of national income 2.9% of national income goes to goes to the richest fifth the poorest fifth (South Asia, 8.7%). Sources: UN ECLAC, Social Panorama, 2008; World Bank, World Development Index, 2008; InterAmerican Dialogue ‘How Poor and Unequal is Latin America and the Caribbean?’ Policy Brief No1, November 2009. www.thedialogue.org in which many small groups are taking their first steps. But I find that they share three characteristics. One: women and youth are the protagonists. Two: the groups, be they rural or urban, are rooted in the margins of the system, in places where the state and capital have not yet implanted themselves with such destructive vigour. Three: they practise traditional forms of democracy from below.
This face-to-face democracy, modelled on consensus and taking the time to make decisions in which all may feel represented, has shown more presence and persistence than anyone could have imagined.
Every year the bachilleratos populares discuss the same issues: should students receive grades; should all be involved in decisions about whether a student should move up, taking into account both scholastic performance and economic and social context.
This is the democracy of the future, which created a new opportunity in the 1990s and which will open the door to changes in the long term. Raúl Zibechi is one of Latin America’s leading political theorists whose work regularly appears in Brecha magazine, Montevideo. His first book to be translated into English, Dispersing Power, has just been published by AK Press. www.akpress.org
High school and college students of the Penguin Movement took to the streets of Chile calling for better education. Ivan Alvarado / Reuters
28 ● New Internationalist ● OCTOBER 2010
‘Every generation has to fight the same battles’ we don’t really have a democracy Britain may boast the 'Mother of all Parliaments' but its democratic process is in crisis. A hung parliament in May resulted in a Conservative-led coalition that is now pushing through drastic cuts to public services. We asked three political activists – Tony Benn, Caroline Lucas MP and Agent Bristly Pioneer – 'where next?'
‘Every generation has to fight the same battles’
‘You know I was once called the most dangerous man in Britain?’ says Tony Benn with a sparkle in his eye. ‘Now I’m in danger of becoming a national treasure.’
At 85 years old, the history of Tony Benn is the history of 20th century Britain. When he was born, the sun hadn’t set on the British Empire and women couldn’t vote until 30. The son of a member of parliament, he remembers pushing leaflets through letterboxes in the 1930s Depression. He lost his 22 year-old brother in the Second World War, survived the Blitz and witnessed the founding of the National Health Service. He became a Labour MP in 1950, served in the Cabinet in the 1970s and campaigned hard against Thatcher in the 1980s. When he finally resigned in 2001, after 52 years in parliament, he said he was quitting to devote ‘more time to politics’.
A strident anti-war campaigner, he has repeatedly said he felt betrayed by the ‘imperial’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he’s spoken out publicly against New Labour. But this doesn’t seem to have shaken his faith in the role of MP, or party politics:
‘I wasn’t disillusioned when I left,’ he says calmly. ‘Every generation has to fight the same battles. There is no final victory and no final defeat… The advance of the human race has always been through struggle. Even if you lose a battle, you leave a trail of courage and determination that will encourage future generations.’
The truth is that Benn can’t just give up on democracy. For him, it is bigger than Blair, or Labour, or putting a cross in a box every five years. It is about power, and the fair distribution of it. ‘We don’t really have a democracy,’ he says. ‘The gap between rich and poor is wider than when I came into parliament, and globalization is handing power over to big corporations and institutions. All the power is being sucked upwards. Who elected the IMF? The most striking thing about the United Nations is how undemocratic it is.’
‘All the power is being sucked upwards’
Nevertheless, Benn still believes passionately in the work of MPs, and opposes the proportional representation system of voting (common in many other democracies) because it breaks the direct link between representatives and their constituencies. Although he supports small parties, he does not believe in coalitions, arguing that the liberal end of the group always ends up getting swallowed. For him, the widening of the franchise and the election of Labour is still associated with something revolutionary:
‘Before the vote the only way people could get things was through money. People used their vote to buy healthcare, social services and everything else. These victories are now under attack. The Conservatives see democracy as a threat.’
Benn finds it hard to swallow the idea that the British people chose the Conservatives’ anti-democratic agenda, or the notion that a
New Internationalist ● OCTOBER 2010 ● 29
New Internationalist ● OCTOBER 2010 ● 29