A Turning Tide? Grassroots Movements and a New Political Context in South America

By Marcos Perez

For the last decade and a half, the influence of grassroots movements in South America has expanded substantially. Organizations that emerged as localized reactions to neoliberal policies in the 1980s and 90s managed to force changes of government, accumulate resources, and access strategic positions within the state bureaucracy at the local, provincial, and national level.

This enhanced role has taken two main forms. First, in all countries of the region (except for Colombia, the Guianas, and to some extent Peru), relatively progressive administrations won elections following vast waves of social protest: Argentina and the left-wing Peronism of the Kirchners, Brazil and the Worker’s Party, Bolivia and Evo Morales, Ecuador and Rafael Correa, and of course, Venezuela with Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Republic. Even in countries that have more institutionalized party systems, alliances and figures associated with grassroots organizations came to power: Uruguay’s Broad Front and the presidencies of Michele Bachelet in Chile are clear examples. Most of these administrations sought to strengthen their coalitions of support by incorporating the demands of grassroots organizations and distributing resources among them.

Second, even those groups and activists who declined to support governmental coalitions benefitted from the institutionalization of particular repertoires of collective action. Diverse forms of protest, usually specific to one country or area, became increasingly accepted mechanisms for making claims to the authorities and demanding the enforcement of deals. The result has been that underprivileged populations, irrespective of their political affiliation, have developed effective mechanisms for holding officials and lawmakers accountable.

The question today is whether these trends are reversing. The so-called “pink tide” in regional politics seems to be coming to an end with the election of a right-wing government in Argentina, the difficulties faced by the heirs of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and the controversial impeachments of Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. Four out of five South Americans now live under right-wing administrations. The economic outlook for the region has also changed, as the substantial growth and poverty reduction of past years has turned into stagnation coupled in many instances with high levels of inflation.

In short, the structure of political opportunities in the region seems to be less supportive of grassroots organizations than a few years ago. How will this affect the social movements that strengthened substantially during the past decade and a half? Will these groups retain their influence or become less relevant to the creation and implementation of policies?

While short term opportunities seem to have narrowed substantially, the future is more unclear. The sustainment or decline of grassroots movements in the region depends on two main conditions: (a) the continuance of longer-term sociopolitical factors conducive to mobilization, and (b) the accumulation of resources and connections by activist groups during the last decade and a half.

Concerning the first condition, the combination of democratic expansion since the 1980s with persistent structural inequalities has reinforced the strong tradition of mobilization that permeates most countries in the region. From human rights groups and associations of settlers to farmers’ unions and student activism, people in South America have taken advantage of increased opportunities for dissent to demand the expansion and enforcement of civil, political, and social rights. The question then is whether these positive conditions for civic engagement will remain in place in the future.

With regards to the second aspect, in the recent past, movements in the region have had access to funding, assets, and connections through two main mechanisms. First, the incorporation (some would say cooptation) of a portion of them into governmental coalitions opened avenues for community organizations and their leaders to advance their goals. Second, the transformation in social policy from universalistic public services to targeted interventions (such as cash transfers), usually delegated into local institutions, created opportunities for grassroots groups to administer public funds regardless of their political orientation. It is unclear whether this accumulation will allow organizations to overcome the challenges ahead and sustain mobilization in a context of tightening short-term political opportunities.

In sum, the future is uncertain. Despite some apparent weakening, grassroots movements in the continent may remain in good shape to demand the expansion of social rights and the implementation of progressive policies. For those of us who think that social mobilization is an essential component of democratic governance in a region with enormous levels of inequality and a long, sad history of political instability, this is a hopeful and optimistic scenario.

These events are ongoing and the debate is far from settled. I am happy to exchange ideas on this issue. If interested, please email me at meperez@colby.edu.

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Filed under Activism in Latin America, Uncategorized

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