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University of Amsterdam

Since the 1980s Latin America is experiencing a still ongoing transition from import-substituting industrialisation and authoritarianism to democracy and social and economic reforms. Keywords as “renovation”, “dynamism” and “democratisation” have been used in connection with “liberalisation” and “privatisation”. Import-substituting strategies were abandoned and replaced by monetary stabilization programmes promoting export-led growth. The price these Latin American countries paid was high. All experienced debt crises during their shift towards democracy.

The irreversible reality of the globalization process, with intense capital and trade flows obliged these countries to adopt institutional transformations and to open up their markets. At the other hand, neoliberal policy changes fostered the growth of social movements defending and representing the urban poor, the landless peasants, the Indians, and many rural workers threatened by the effects of globalization. These groups are campaigning for more social protection, human rights and a better stand of living. In Latin America, blue-collar workers constitute a small share of the total work force and the electoral challenges faced by leftist parties are greater than in Europe. To compete effectively, they will have to incorporate the middle classes, the informal workers and new social movements whose interests often conflict with the unionised workers. The traditional means of reconciling such conflicting interests is through populism, an electoral and policy strategy that has not only been discredited, “but is itself arguable inimical to the consolidation of both economic reform and democracy”.

In this paper some aspects will be discussed of the ongoing revolution in Latin America and the way Latin American populism is changing its own nature after two decades of neoliberal experiments. Recent political changes in Brazil and Bolivia will be studied as cases. Both countries are symbolising important policy shifts. Though in 2002 Brazil elected the metal worker Lula as president, no fundamental break with neoliberalism was consumed. In 2005, Bolivia elected cocalero Evo Morales as president after several years of social upheavals and growing political instability. Morales promised to break with neoliberalism and to initiate socialist reforms with the nationalization of the oil and gas industry.

Surely, it is time perhaps to start questioning the idea that industrialization and technology paves the way to democracy and that democratic projects that are different from those of the private sector are authoritarian populism. The news and official reports regularly inform that while worldwide wealth and productivity increases the population, poverty increases as well. We, readers and audience of popular media, are daily invited to think that there is only one way to go: to increase productivity, to spread technology and to allow people to vote. Democracy is at the end of this road. When people vote in a surprising majority for a project (like that of Evo Morales, Hugo Chávez or Hamas), that is not following the predicted path, democracy in danger is debated and the authoritarian use of force is considered as a measure to re-establish democracy.

In Latin America, political change is related to changes in the class structure and how the ruling class alliance is exercising its hegemony over society. The usual view is that control of the state, the major center of political power in regard to both the allocation of society’s productive resources and the coercive power is still of crucial importance for any political or social movement. The pursuit of political power on the basis of political parties and electoral competition has become the normal form of exercising political power. A competing form is the formation of social movements, which unlike political parties, are not organized to pursue power as such, though they are clearly engaged in the struggle over state power.

The lessons to be drawn from the Brazilian and Bolivian cases are manifold. First of all, in opposition to classical populism organizations of “self-defense”, social movements have become involved in a process of social action and community development. Secondly, these organizations of “self-defense” representing peasants and Indians have become, together with the labour unions in the cities, highly politicized. They broke with former patterns of clientelistic behaviour bis-à0vis political power and the charismatic populist leader. As “reformist” organizations, they want to bring about social change and improvements in the lives of the poor, not the socialist revolution. As “reformists”, their leaders and militants are not seeking confrontation with the power structure or the agencies of political power, but are trying to develop new and additional resources in order to accumulate social capital and skills within the practices and frameworks of the neoliberal social and political model.

This brings us to the problem of the electoral road to power and the old Luxemburgist dilemma of “reform or revolution?” In other words: should we narrow this strategic question to the problem of the so-called pitfalls of electoralism? The electoral road to power offers some social movements better possibilities for overcoming their internal contradictions and for broadening their audiences. Electoral politics can help reaching other social classes, professional strata or regional interest groups on the base of a common platform. In Latin American countries, mobilization of social movements representing the interests of ethnic minorities, a landless peasantry and slum dwellers these categories against neoliberal reforms is paying. In several cases they succeeded in defeating neoliberal regimes and in bringing back in power leftist parties