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ISR Issue 49, September–October 2006


Contending for power in Latina America

James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer
SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND STATE POWER: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador
Pluto Press, 2005
274 pages $30


IN RECENT years, Latin America has become a center for radical politics. Its social movements have driven out one neoliberal government after another, and even its electoral politics have produced a series of reformist or “center-Left” governments across the continent.
So James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer's Social Movements and State Power: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador certainly picked the right place to situate their discussion of the radical social change. Petras and Veltmeyer are well-known radical writers on globalization, imperialism, and Latin America. Their assessments of the current state of social movements and radical politics in Latin America are worth reading, especially since they adopt a Marxist framework.
The book consists of six chapters. The first critiques the current politics of “good governance” and “civil society,” the buzzwords of international development agencies. The next four are case studies on the four countries. The final chapter draws together observations from the previous chapters to make a case for a strategy of revolutionary change. It concludes with the unambiguous sentence, playing off a quotation from then-cocalero leader, now Bolivian president Evo Morales: “But a mobilized people is the sine qua non of revolutionary change-and revolutionary change is the only solution.”
Much of the book is on-target, although it does have an uneven and rushed feel to it, with chapters differing widely in tone and scope. And as it is with any account of rapidly changing situations, the case studies (mostly drawn from 2000-04) already seem to have been overtaken by events. It's a testament to both the social crisis and the combativeness of the social movements that the Ecuadorian government of Lucio Gutiérrez and the Bolivian government of Carlos Mesa were overthrown within months of the book's publication.
The chapter on Argentina begins with the December 19-20, 2001, Argentinazo, the popular uprising that overthrew the neoliberal De La Rua regime and four subsequent presidents over the following week. Writing in 2004, Petras and Veltmeyer explain what happened after the Argentinazo-the restabilization of the state and political system under president Nestor Kirchner.
Kirchner skillfully moved to defuse the movement, first, by making concessions to the middle class that had come into the streets in December 2001; and second, by rebuilding, dividing, and co-opting parts of the movement of unemployed workers, the piqueteros. Kirchner also benefited from the recovery of the Argentine economy, that helped him to defuse the sense of crisis and helped him gain support from Argentine big business.
How did the radical movement of 2001-02 that raised the slogan “que se vayan todos” (“out with all of the politicians”) seem to dissolve, with Kirchner-formerly known as a Peronist hack-being the main beneficiary? “The original strength of the popular uprising,” the authors explain, “its spontaneous, mass, autonomous character-became its strategic weakness, the absence of a national leadership capable of unifying the diverse forces behind a coherent program aimed at taking state power.”
If the chapter on Argentina illustrates the failure of converting a radical movement into one that could take state power, the chapter on Brazil illustrates the perils of the reformist road to change. The chapter is a scathing attack on the policies of the Workers Party (PT)-led government of President Luis Ignacio “Lula” Da Silva. Lula took power in 2003, and since has embarked an orthodox free-market program that has disillusioned his most loyal supporters. Describing Lula's thrall to neoliberal nostrums as “Taliban neoliberalism,” they state unequivocally that his “regime is a government of the right.”
The chapter also includes a useful analysis of the transformation of the PT from the vehicle of “the militants who built the party through grassroots movements” to that of “upwardly mobile functionaries, professionals with no history of class politics, who have joined the party to secure the perks of office and oil the wheels of business relations.”
The chapters on Ecuador and on Bolivia explicitly detail the interactions of mass movements with electoral formations. The book briefly describes the rise of the movement of Ecuador's indigenous people that established the indigenous political party Pachakutik in 1995. An indigenous uprising in 2000 briefly took state power, only for it to be handed back to representatives of the old state, like General Lucio Gutiérrez. The indigenous movement provided Gutiérrez with a “blank check” (Petras and Veltmeyer's term) when he ran for president with Pachakutik's support. Once in office, Gutiérrez made a sharp right turn, supporting U.S.-backed free trade and offering Ecuador as a staging area for U.S. military intervention in the Andean region. The indigenous movement and Left broke with Gutiérrez, but their earlier support for him had damaged their grassroots organizing.
The chapter on Bolivia emphasizes the period after the October 2003 overthrow of the neoliberal president Sanchez de Lozado, in which Morales's Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party provided a key prop to the caretaker regime of Carlos Mesa. Petras and Veltmeyer also provide a useful profile of the other opposition forces-from the Central Obrero Boliviano (COB, the main trade union federation) to the indigenista forces led by Felipe Quispe.
Throughout, they show MAS to be a dampener and betrayer to the social movement. While there is much evidence in support of this view, it is also the case that the 2005 mass mobilizations demanding nationalization of hydrocarbon resources tossed out Mesa and created the conditions for Morales to become the country's first indigenous president.
In other words, the simple dichotomy of “mass movement” versus “electoral politics” is not as neatly divided in reality. Petras and Veltmeyer are certainly correct to say that “insurgent forces, rather than electoral politics-the revolutionary road to state power-is the only viable method and means by which the popular movement can by its own actions bring about that 'new world' of social justice…” heralded by the World Social Forum. But that statement will always be true; how it applies to Bolivia under Morales's government is the challenge that now faces the Bolivian social movements.
Two main polemics with other left-wing perspectives on Latin America and social movements run through the book. First, Petras and Veltmeyer criticize liberal analysts sympathetic to international development agencies, who hold up “civil society” and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as vehicles for social change in Latin America. Throughout the book, the authors display how NGOs are one of the chief actors pushing social movements away from the path of class struggle and into electoral channels.
Second, they criticize the “autonomist” currents, associated with intellectuals like John Holloway and Antonio Negri, which champion social movements that can “change the world without taking power.” Characterizing this political trend as a “small but vocal sect of ideologues” that praises “anti-power” and “no power,” they argue that these ideas are “totally irrelevant, unable to explain or inform the politics of widespread resistance to capitalist development and imperialism in neoliberal form. All of the social movements…are engaged in a struggle for state power.”
Their last chapter makes the case for building a “unified political organization” to organize the social movements to fight for revolution and socialism. While readers of this magazine may not agree with all of their analyses or conclusions, their insistence on injecting these issues into the debate-which is clearly taking place in the social movements throughout Latin America-is a valuable contribution.

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