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Social Movements and Leftist Governments in Latin America: Confrontation or Co-optation?

Social Movements and Leftist Governments in Latin America: Confrontation or Co-optation?

by Gary Prevost, Carlos Oliva Campos, Harry E Vanden

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In recent years, the simultaneous development of prominent social movements and the election of left and centre-left governments has radically altered the political landscape in Latin America. These social movements have ranged from the community based 'piqueteros' of Argentina that brought down three governments in the space of a month in 2001 to the indigenous


In recent years, the simultaneous development of prominent social movements and the election of left and centre-left governments has radically altered the political landscape in Latin America. These social movements have ranged from the community based 'piqueteros' of Argentina that brought down three governments in the space of a month in 2001 to the indigenous movements in Ecuador and Bolivia that were instrumental in toppling five governments in the last decade. And in the cases of Venezuela and Brazil, social movements helped to provide the political base from which leftist leaders like Hugo Chávez and Lula were swept into power by election. This wide-ranging volume moves beyond simple discussion of these social movements to address an issue that is crucial for politics in the region today but has yet to be properly analysed - specifically, what is the position of the social movements after progressive governments take power. Are they co-opted in support of government policies or do they remain at arm’s length as continuing opponents? How many of the movement's demands are actually met and what happens when the government almost inevitably disappoints its supporters in such movements? This unique and important work explores these questions, shedding new light on how these social movements continue to operate in Latin America.

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Social Movements and Leftist Governments in Latin America

Confrontation or Co-optation?

By Gary Prevost, Carlos Oliva Campos, Harry E. Vanden

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Gary Prevost, Carlos Oliva Campos, and Harry E. Vanden
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78032-186-8


Argentina's social movements: confrontation and cooptation


In December 2001, a popular uprising led to the fall of the constitutional government of Fernando de la Rua. Over the course of the following days more governments fell victim to the mass mobilizations until the appointment of Eduardo Duhalde to the presidency ended the crisis and paved the way for the election of Peronist Néstor Kirchner in March 2003. In what ways does the political crisis help us understand social movements in the Argentine context and their relationship to governmental power? In the previous history of Argentina the fall of governments were episodes characterized by military coups, often in the context of an economic crisis of the capitalist system. In most past instances the overthrow of government was instigated by the military at the behest of powerful economic interests fearing revolutionary insurrection. This had occurred most recently in 1976, followed by the repression of the Dirty War and its 30,000 deaths. However, in 2001 the mobilized people were the main protagonist in government eviction, a relatively rare scenario for Argentine politics. The events of 2001 can only be understood with reference to the cycles of resistance that preceded them and likewise the present conjuncture of Argentine politics. In particular, how are we to assess the current relationship between the social movements that brought down the de la Rua government and the Peronist administration that came to power by election in 2003 and 2007? These movements, particularly the neighborhood-based 'piqueteros' (picketers), have established a seemingly permanent niche in Argentina's political and social life, and their relationship with governmental authorities is a complex one.

The roots of the overthrow of successive governments in December 2001 are to be found in the era of President Carlos Menem (1989–99). Peronist leader Menem was elected in 1989 in the wake of major economic problems that developed during the previous military regime (1976–83) and the subsequent administration of Radical president Raúl Alfonsín. The Peronists had historically championed protectionist and nationalist economic policies that had improved the lives of Argentina's working class. Menem won the presidency as an apparent traditional Peronist but once in office moved to implement sharply neoliberal policies. He curtailed government social spending, privatized industries, tied the country's currency to the US dollar and liberalized Argentina's foreign trade relations. The Argentine apostle of the Washington Consensus was Domingo Cavallo, whose service to the Argentine political elites lasted from 1976 until 2001. He served as finance minister in the military government and held various policymaking posts in subsequent governments. He was responsible for Argentina's decision in the 1970s and 1980s to take on significant foreign debt as part of its overall economic strategy. But above all Cavallo was known as the creator of the decision to tie the Argentine peso to the US dollar, a significant economic step away from Argentina's traditional wariness of North American domination. That wariness had been reinforced by US support of the British in the war over the Malvinas in 1982.

Not surprisingly, the working-class base of the Peronists responded negatively to these policies with strikes and street demonstrations. Menem responded harshly to his opponents, making no concessions and proceeding with his neoliberal agenda. In the short term, Menem's approach carried the day as the economy stabilized and rampant inflation was checked. These successes allowed Menem and the dominant Peronist Party to engineer constitutional changes that permitted Menem's successful reelection in 1995. However, in the process a significant layer of people among the working class and the newly unemployed fell out of the orbit of the Peronist movement and developed a culture of political mobilization and protest independent of the traditional political elites.

Throughout his second term, Menem faced a decline in economic growth, a dramatic rise in unemployment, and severe socioeconomic crises in the provinces. The midterm elections of 1997 resulted in the triumph of an opposition coalition of the Radicals and a left coalition called FrePaSo (Frente País Solidario). That election victory, backed by many of the alienated political groups in the streets, catapulted the same Radical/FrePaSo alliance to a ten-point electoral victory over the Peronists in the 1999 presidential elections. Radical Party leader Fernando de la Rua was elected with a clear mandate to reverse the neoliberal agenda of Menem and meet the demands of the mobilized groups that had been building support since the early 1990s. The hopes of these forces were tied closely to the FrePaSo leader Carlos Alvarez, de la Rua's vice-president. However, in October 2000 Alvarez resigned, convinced that de la Rua was not at all committed to a reversal of the neoliberal agenda. Symbolic of that lack of commitment to change was the continued linkage of the Argentine peso to the US dollar.

Crisis of 2001

In the second half of 2001, amid a growing recession and unemployment, de la Rua faced a rising tide of withdrawals of dollar-denominated deposits from banks and was forced to suspend these withdrawals to prevent a collapse of the financial system. This dramatic step by the Argentine president, called the 'corralito' or little pen, set in motion the events that shook the Argentine political system to the core. Middle-class bank depositors whose life savings were now threatened took to the streets, where they joined up with the previously mobilized working-class forces to challenge the legitimacy of the government. There were multiple confrontations with the security forces as the unemployed demonstrators known as piqueteros blocked main highways and bridges demanding jobs, food, and subsidies while also organizing alternative institutions like soup kitchens and community health and educational services. The emergence of the piquetero movement can be traced to the privatization of the state-owned oil industries in the southern cities of Cultural Co and Plaza Huincul, Neuquen, that began in 1995. These cities had been major centers of oil extraction and refining since the 1930s under the state-owned Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales (YFP). The oil workers developed a strong combative tradition and not surprisingly moved into action when the 1995 privatization of YFP resulted in massive layoffs and a dramatic drop in local average incomes. Their protests came to a head in Cultural Co on 21 June 1996 when the laid-off YPF workers and their supporters blocked an interstate highway and in the process their struggle gained national attention. The initial roadblock was followed by numerous others and forced some concessions from the local government authorities. Known as the Cutralcazo, the events brought a new actor to the Argentine political scene, the unemployed. Decades of largely full employment in Argentina had made organized labor a primary political actor, but now the unemployed came to the forefront as the labor movement was weakened by Menem's policies. Prior to privatizations and layoffs Argentine unemployment had generally been in the 6 percent area, but by the mid-1990s it was 17 percent. The events in Cultural Co also legitimized their chosen form of protest, the roadblock or picket. By 1997 the tactic had been copied throughout most of the country, including Buenos Aires, where blocking the streets became referred to as 'cortar ruas.' The piquetero movement had been born in the minds of the protesters themselves and was now a permanent national media feature of the Argentine political scene, in some ways replacing the traditional Argentine means of working-class action, the strike.

The piquetero movement that arose in Buenos Aires in December 2001 had some important differences with its southern cousin. Unlike those behind the Cutralcazo, the Buenos Aires piqueteros were independent of the Peronist unions and openly critical of them. The new piquetero constituency was composed of younger unemployed workers, many of whom had never held steady jobs or enjoyed worker benefits. Their leaders, however, had deeper roots in political activism, closely connected to local organizing, non-Peronist unions, and left political parties such as the communists. Leaders and the rank and file of the December 2001 movement saw their actions as the potential prelude to revolutionary actions that would overturn the whole Argentine capitalist system. However, even prior to December 2001 the national piquetero movement also had less revolutionary aspects. In response to the early wave of protests, the Menem administration had by 1998 dramatically increased payments to the unemployed under Plan Trabajar as a means of undercutting and blunting the appeal of the piquetero constituency. In a direct way the appeal of the piqueteros was diminished when the government made the payments conditional on non-participation in protest activity.

Another element of the December 2001 protest movement was the cacerolazos, which consisted of groups of people banging pots in their houses and in the streets as an expression of their protest over worsening economic conditions and the policies of the government. The first protest occurred on 19 December 2001 with no apparent prior plans or organization and was in direct response to the freezing of bank withdrawals, the so-called corralito. The protesters, aided by media attention, formed their own organizations, primarily using the Internet as a means of communication.

The caceroleros were mainly middle-class but drawn from a heterogeneous group of people, from unemployed small business managers to working professionals. Their protests were centered in Buenos Aires but quickly spread to many parts of Argentina. Initially it was a virtual movement, but it quickly morphed into something more as the caceroleros began to meet regularly in neighborhood assemblies. Like their initial movement, the assemblies or 'asambleas de barrio' were predominantly in Buenos Aires but with some replication elsewhere. Also, as a reflection of the character of the cacerolero movement, the assemblies tended to be concentrated in middle-class neighborhoods rather than the poorer areas. The assemblies operated on a basis of grassroots democracy and tended to be suspicious of organized political tendencies, including the parties of the left, which often participated in the forums. The assemblies were not affiliated with the piquetero movements but coordinated with them during broad mobilizations, such as those of late December 2001.

The coalition of middle-class and low-income demonstrators took to the streets of Argentina's major cities in late 2001, demanding the resignation of the national government and a renovation of the political establishment. The rejection of all the major parties was embodied in the demand 'Que se vayan todos!' (They all must go). The radical character of the protest movement was also characterized by the instigation, independent of the political parties, of neighborhood assemblies that organized the demonstrations and also coordinated local activities such as soup kitchens. The movement was fundamental in its challenge, questioning the authority of all three branches of the Argentine government, executive, legislative, and judicial. No state institution was spared.

The intensity of the demonstrations, together with increasingly violent confrontations with the police, led to a response from President de la Rua. He formed a government of national unity with the Peronists, but that step quite predictably did not quell the demonstrations and de la Rua resigned on 20 December. In the following ten days, three different Peronist politicians were inaugurated as president, only to fail to quell the protesters and resign. However, many economic measures were announced that went to the heart of demonstrators' political demands as the linkage of the peso to the US dollar was ended and a default on Argentina's external debt was announced. The solution to the December crisis demonstrated both the strength of the protest movement and also its limitations. On 1 January 2002, Eduardo Duhalde was inaugurated as Argentina's fifth president in ten days. Duhalde was the former governor of Buenos Aires, vice-president under Menem, and the defeated Peronist presidential candidate in 1999. In one view, his installation and subsequent two-year term in office was an anticlimax. The movement that had demanded a fundamental reorganization of the country's political system achieved only the overturning of the results of the previous election and the return to presidential power of the Peronist Party, which had dominated the country's politics for the previous sixty years. The results were validated when, in March 2003 elections, Peronist Néstor Kirchner, a relatively unknown governor of the southern province of Santa Cruz, won the presidency withDuhalde's backing. The continued hold of the Peronists on Argentine politics would be validated by the 2007 election of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, spouse of Néstor, to the presidency.

However tempting it may be to dismiss the 2001 social movement as succeeding only in returning the Peronists to power, a deeper analysis is required. The Argentine example seemed to suggest that even though the new social movements could consistently topple governments and virtually make a state ungovernable, their ability to 'rule from below' was in no way established, and the fact that they did not have a party or political movement that was explicitly based on their interests left them unable to achieve many of their demands. However, in one fundamentally important way the 2002 protest movement succeeded. It brought an end to the decade-long era of neoliberalism in Argentina and moved the country onto a different political course.

Peronist response

It is true that from 1 January 2002 the Peronists regained control of the system from their traditional rival the Radicals and kept their new left opponent, FrePaSo, at bay. However, to do this they were forced to reinvent the Peronist governing philosophy to respond to the demands of the demonstrators, especially the middle-class elements. During his two years in office, Duhalde set the stage for the 2003 Peronist electoral victory by a variety of measures that explicitly rejected the neoliberal policies championed by Menem and continued by de la Rua. The dollar 'convertibility' came to a formal end and the value of the peso stabilized at three pesos for a dollar. Depositors were forced to exchange their dollar-dominated funds at a third of their value in pesos or to accept promises of long-term repayment in dollars at low interest rates. While not a painless solution, it served to placate the concerns of the middle sectors who had feared a total collapse of the economic system and a loss of all of their savings. Negotiations were initiated with the IMF, the World Bank and foreign lenders to restructure the debt and reschedule payments. Later, under Néstor Kirchner, with financial assistance from Venezuela, Argentina largely paid off its IMF and World Bank debts. These actions allowed the Argentine government to reject the neoliberal conditionality of the international financial institutions (IFIs) as had been demanded by the protesters in the streets, who frequently chanted 'fuera FMI' (IMF out). Largely freed from these international constraints, the Peronist leaders were able to return to a position closer to their nationalist roots. Simultaneously, Duhalde and subsequent Peronist governments were also able to make some progress in the socioeconomic arena by introducing payments to the unemployed, engaging in some public investment and increasing expenditures on health, education, and housing. These initiatives, begun under Duhalde, deepened under Néstor Kirchner when the overall Argentine economy improved, buoyed by higher commodity prices for Argentina's exports and the reduced debt burden following the cancellation of IMF obligations.

Another element of the social movement challenge to Menem and de la Rua had been their failure to prosecute those responsible for the atrocities of the Dirty War. On this front, Kirchner moved to implement some of the demands of Argentina's human rights movement, symbolized by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The Kirchner administration supported and implemented a number of legal, judicial, and symbolic initiatives designed to punish human rights violations that had been overlooked by the previous post-military administrations. Amnesty laws were rescinded and, as a result, a number of human rights violators who had escaped prosecution or been freed in previous years were detained, tried, and incarcerated. Museums and memorial sites were created to commemorate the victims of state terror and the role of human rights organizations was officially recognized.


Excerpted from Social Movements and Leftist Governments in Latin America by Gary Prevost, Carlos Oliva Campos, Harry E. Vanden. Copyright © 2012 Gary Prevost, Carlos Oliva Campos, and Harry E. Vanden. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Carlos Oliva Campos teaches philosophy and history at The University of Havana. Gary Prevost is Professor in the Department of Political Science, St. John’s University/College of Saint Benedict, Minnesota. Harry E. Vanden is Professor of Political Science and International Studies at the University of South Florida, Tampa.

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