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Reclaiming a Continent: Latin American Experiments in Democracy

Reclaiming Latin America: Experiments in Radical Social Democracy provides an in depth and accessible introduction to Latin American politics for people seeking to understand this past tumultuous and hopeful decade. While avoiding superficial analysis and simplistic leftist cheerleading, this book addresses the complexity and diversity of the new Latin American left.
Book cover for Reclaiming Latin America

Reviewed: Reclaiming
Latin America: Experiments in Radical Social Democracy
, Edited by Geraldine
Lievesley and Steve Ludlam. Zed Books (August 18, 2009), 288 pages.

Latin America: Experiments in Radical Social Democracy
provides an in depth
and accessible introduction to Latin American politics for people seeking to
understand this past tumultuous and hopeful decade. While avoiding superficial
analysis and simplistic leftist cheerleading, this book addresses the
complexity and diversity of the new Latin American left.

Many of
the contributors to this book write of the leftist shift with sober exuberance
peppered with undeniable facts that point to a geopolitical sea change. As
analyst Emir Sader says, "Eleven Latin America presidents have been
ejected before the end of their mandates over the last fifteen years, not by
the traditional process of US-backed military coup, but through the action of
popular movements against the neoliberal policies of their governments. The one
old-style coup attempt of the period, against Chavez in 2002, was
defeated." This quote and other hopeful commentaries on the left
throughout the book are shadowed by the coup in Honduras, which took place
after this book was completed. As I mixed reading this book with reading
reports from Honduras, I kept wondering how the authors of Reclaiming Latin
America might have altered their assessments had they written their chapters
after President Manuel Zelaya was ushered off in his pajamas to Costa Rica.

there have been many recent events just as profound as the coup in Honduras
taking place in Latin America, and this book offers a rich field map of the
currents that still move the continent. This book particularly shines when the
authors' gazes move toward the relationships between social movements and
left-leaning governments in the region.

Central to
the book are questions of power, autonomy and sustainable pathways to radical
change. As editor Geraldine Leivesley writes, "Radical social democratic
governments can support social transformation but they cannot develop,
consolidate and sustain it. This can only really be done by people themselves,
working in communities and forging links with other, like-minded communities
within and across national borders. This does not mean that such groups should
not deal with the state – this is inevitable – but that they should structure
and take control of that relationship."

present in many of the pages are discussions of the role social movements
played in electing leftist governments. Fransisco Dominguez writes, "The
Brazilian [Workers Party] PT originates in the militant trade unionism of the
1970s, and the Bolivian MAS originates in the cocalero union of coca growers…
In Argentina it was mainly the four thousand-odd actions of the piqueteros
(roadblockers) which led to President Fernando de la Rua's ousting in December

Democracy and Social Change: From Montevideo to

Uruguay is
set up in Reclaiming Latin America as a fascinating and emblematic example of a
left of center leader taking power with support from grassroots networks.
Lievesley writes that the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), the political party and
coalition of current President Tabaré Vázquez, was created in 1971 out of a
collection of Christian Democrats, leftists, communists and socialists that
united to break the two party rule of the Blanco and Colorado Parties. Those
two parties had run the country since 1830 when Uruguay had won independence
from Spain. "The Frente's founders formed comités de base, grassroots
committees which they hoped would promote participatory democracy and
contribute to the transformation of what was a hidebound political system,"
writes Lievesley. The primary goals of the FA from the start were land reform
and a stronger public sector.

Though the
FA coalition faced widespread repression, torture and disappearances during a
dictatorship which began in 1973, it re-emerged as a political force with the
return to democracy in 1984. The momentum of these early years culminated in
1989 with the election of Tabaré Vázquez as the mayor of Montevideo, the
capital city. However, the Lievesley writes, "Since 2004, a growing
distance has developed between the Frente's ambitious hierarchy and its
grassroots… Veteran activists do not share the same values as younger Frente
members, who have no memories of the years of clandestinity and struggle, and
view the organization as a means to further their careers."

Bolivarian political process in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez has been more
dynamic than that of the FA in Uruguay. One chapter in Reclaiming Latin America
explores social democracy within the educational, health and community programs
in the country. Author Sara C. Motta describes some of the government's social
programs in the La Vega barrio in Caracas, Venezuela. Motta writes that while
access to healthcare certainly helps people's lives, the institutionalization
of social movements in this process can be harmful to community organizing.
"[H]ealth can become a particular issue solved in a functional manner that
undermines the community's organization and therefore the development of a
participatory social democracy. Individuals who were once organizers of their
communities become functionaries of the state." This can have a weakening
effect on the community's autonomy and capacity to self-organize, Motta

Mission Ribas, classes are taught in neighborhoods across the country to meet
the local needs of the community. Students use their education to solve
problems in their communities with projects and planning. Elizabeth, a
participant in this process, reflects, "We have organized all over La
Vega. Many of the students are women. It has been an emancipatory experience
for me and many others who have begun to believe in their ability to solve
problems in the community." Yet in seeking to solve a housing or public
service problem, writes Motta, the education "seeks to enable the student
to find solutions for particular problems, such as inadequate housing, within
the limits of broader structures of power. In doing so it attempts to
democratize these broader structures, but not transform them."

Motta also
writes of the Consejos Comunales, which provide a means for regular citizens to
participate in governance and the management of funds and resources. Through
this program, communities can organize themselves into a Consejo with a
representative, then design proposals and projects. "Consejos are an
attempt to create a new set of state institutions that bypass the traditional
state, and distribute power in a democratic and participatory manner,"
writes Motta.

At one
national meeting addressing this process a working group concludes, "We must
obtain the tools to be able to struggle against the bureaucracy and search for
a way to get rid of leaders that want to control us, look to maintain their own
power and who divide the community." Participant Edenis Guilarte says,
"What we are doing is training, creating consciousness, which is a process
that goes beyond repairing a road, obtaining a service, enabling access to
water, it's a macro process, a process of social change, a fight over ideas and

In spite
of any setbacks to the Consejos Comunales, they do offer new spaces for growth,
localized responses to development which can and do dismiss clientelistic
tendencies, and assert autonomy over time. The Consejos have given the people
the seeds to grow beyond the state. Yet Motta concludes, the political struggle
"revolves around the question of whether [the consejos comunales] become
an institution that channels the demands of poor communities to a localized
social democracy (with all the possibilities and limitations that this entails)
or whether they enable the expansion of demands for community self-management
that challenge capitalist and social relations."

Protests and Parties in Bolivia and Brazil

Crabtree contributed a chapter on Bolivia which provides a brief overview of
the country's political and social history, the roots and policies of the Evo
Morales government, and the social movements' actions in directing the
country's future. Crabtree looks at the role the state has played in managing
natural gas resources since Morales took office, as well as describes the
constituent assembly to rewrite the country's constitution and the regional and
political divisions in Bolivia. He looks at Morales' new social programs in
health, education and housing, and describes Morales' relationships with other
regional leaders seeking independence from Washington. In spite of success in a
number of areas, Crabtree does say, "The MAS lacked a clearly articulated
program; it lacked experience in government; the machinery at its disposal for
administering change was absent; and it was in no way a tightly disciplined

In a
chapter on Brazil, Sue Branford describes the euphoria of Lula's victory, but
goes on to write that in spite of leftist rhetoric and promises to his base on
the campaign trail, upon taking office for the first time Lula turned his back
on his progressive supporters: "The agreement with the IMF was quickly
reaffirmed, and the target for the public sector surplus, required to service
the internal debt, was set higher, at 4.25 per cent of GDP, than even the IMF
demanded." Lula later announced a 45% budget cut which disproportionately
affected social programs for the poor. Unemployment and poverty skyrocketed
across the country; in May of 2003, unemployment reached 20.6%, a new record at
the time. Thanks to Lula, foreign corporations now dominate industrial,
agricultural and banking sectors, and GM crops, specifically pushed by
Monsanto, are produced across the country.

Latin America sets out to cover a lot of ground, and succeeds in doing so with
other chapters on Argentina, Cuba, Chile, Mexico and the entire region. Over
all, the contributors to the book maintain a healthy balance of analysis and
reportage, throwing in the occasional anecdote and prose that keep the pages
turning. The book, much like this past decade in Latin America, offers
important lessons from ongoing experiments in democracy.

Benjamin Dangl is the author of the forthcoming
book, Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America,
(AK Press, 2010). He edits TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on
world events and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in
Latin America. Email Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.