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Vol XXX, No 6 MAY/JUNE 1997

ANNIVERSARY ESSAY/ SOCIAL MOVEMENTS NACLA continues its celebration of its thirtieth anniversary with this ongoing series of "anniversary essays." We have asked prominent NACLA-afflicted intellectuals and activists to reflect on the past 30 years of Latin American history and politics through the prism of the ideas, concepts and events that have been central to our understanding of 'the region. In the following essay, Judith Adler Hellman examines the evolution of the left's approach to social movements over the past thirty years.

Social Movements: Revolution, Reform and Reaction


Social movements have long been a fixture on the Latin American landscape. Indeed, at the very

time that NACLA was founded in 1967, highland Peruvians were invading public lands in Lima to establish their highly organized squatters' communities, liberation theologians were organizing ecclesial base communities in cities and villages from El Salvador to Chile, Paulo Freire and his followers were using literacy programs to stimulate the Brazilian poor to engage in collective struggle for land and social justice, and impoverished Jamaicans were joining their neighbors in "share-pot" groups in the country side and in Kingston slums. But it has only been in the last 15 years or so that the importance and potential of social movements have been appreciated ­ if sometimes overstated ­ by progressive analysts and activists who are looking for grounds for optimism. Thirty years ago, the focus of our attention and hope was the Cuban Revolution. The readers and writers of the NACLA Newsletter tended to view the future of Latin America and the Caribbean as resting on the possibility of reproducing something like the Cuban model elsewhere in the region. Debates centered on the viability of the guerrilla foco as a "road to revolution," the feasibility of guerrilla struggle in countries like Argentina and Uruguay that lack Sierra Maestra mountains, the relative advantage of rural or urban fronts, and the wisdom of Che's decision to open a South America-wide foco in Bolivia. The descant in this discussion were the loud notes sounded by those asserting that the electoral road to socialism was still viable or that the organized urban workers remained the vanguard class. Arguments raged over the relative revolutionary potential of agricultural wage workers, small-holding peasants, tenants, sharecroppers, the urban industrial working class, and sometimes, even the "new middle classes" and the "progressive national bourgeoisie." What was taken as given, however, by almost all progressives concerned with Latin America, was that socialist revolution and the acquisition of state power were the goals, and the only open question was what would prove the most appropriate means to those ends. The social movements that today are so central to our discussions and our hopes for a more humane future in Latin America were not entirely ignored, but they tended to be viewed simply as building blocks in the more elaborate project of the total revolutionary transformation of society. Squatters' movements, self-help or literacy groups, cooperatives and community


Judith Adler Hellman is Professor of Political and Social Science at York University Toronto. She was involved in the founding of NACLA in 196' and worked as a staff member in 7970-71. She would like to thank Barry Carr and Steve Hellman for their helpful comments.

organizations of every sort were seen as instances of "pre-political" people taking their first halting steps toward the kind of consciousness and the practical participatory skills that would eventually allow them to become protagonists in a revolutionary scenario.1 The triumph of the revolutionarv forces in Nicaragua and Grenada inevitably reinforced this view of social movements as building blocks. Grassroots groups, middleclass business associations, labor unions and peasant movements were all key components in the coalition of forces that brought the Sandinistas to power in Nicaragua. In Grenada, the victory of Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement was made possible only after the Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation (JEWEL), a social movement comprised of community-level organizations and rural and urban workers, drew the multiclass participation of students, nurses, trade unionists and the Chamber of Commerce. Typically, when discussing the social movements that gave support to the Nicaraguan or Grenadian revolutions, what mattered to most commentators was not the movements themselves, but the contribution they made to the larger revolutionary project.

Within the short space of several years, mass organizations have emerged in El Salvador capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands thoughout the country; capable of articulating the immediate demands of the people for land, water, jobs, justice; capable of unifying the struggles of many sectors and transforming them into a political movement. These mass organizations, in combination with the political-military organizations formed in the early 1970s, pose a clear challenge to the hegemony of the bourgeoisie. -MarchIApri! 1980, Vol. 14, No. 2 The move to organize has the strongest possible support of he Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Yet major questions remain unresolved. What type of relationship should exist between the mass organizations and the FSLN, or the state? How will the newly introduced concept, "Popular Power," be put into practice? How will the immediate needs of the masses be balanced with the long-term goals of the revolution? How wilt the working class be unified? The ultimate character of the revolution will be determined by the way in which these questions are answered, not just in theory, but as real contradictions emerge that must be dealt with. -May/June 1980, Vol. 14, No. 3

But as hopes for socialist revolution began to recede in the wake of the savage coups in Chile

and Grenada, the defeat of guerrilla forces throughout South America and the electoral rejection of the Sandinistas, social movements began to be viewed in a different light. And once disillusionment with the Cuban Revolution began to set in as well, expectations of full-scale revolutionary transformation diminished, and interest and hope increasingly came to focus on small-scale, localized movements.2 With the collapse of what could be called the "grand narratives," passions were transferred to a huge range and variety of activities that came to be grouped under the everbroader heading of "social movements" or "new social movements." One form of movement included in this category is the neighborhood-based urban popular movement, which organizes to fight for housing and public services like electricity, potable water, sewage lines, paved streets, public transport and ­ at a more developed stage ­ schools, clinics and stores. Local self-help organizations, cooperative soup kitchens and literacy programs also figure on virtually everyone's list, along with ecclesial base communities (CEBs) in which nuns, priests and lay Catholics organize among the poor to combine popular religious practices with the struggle for collective goods. In addition to these initiatives, any comprehensive list of social movements would include human rights groups, environmental and indigenous peoples' organizations, youth,

student and women's movements, gay and lesbian groups, debtors' movements and popular cultural associations. For some, the definition begins to stretch too wide when it goes beyond the "'social" to include class-based and partisan struggles.3 But increasingly, urban and rural-based trade unions and progressive political parties are also discussed in the context of social movements or grassroots organizations. So too are the activities of cross-border solidarity organizations, Internet-exchange groups, an immense array of often highly institutionalized domestic and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), micro-enterprises of every stripe and, sometimes, the entire informal economy, which outstrips the formal economy in size in many parts of Latin America. In effect, the definition of social movements is so loose that it not only responds to the needs of progressive people in a post-Communist world who seek to invest their hopes and energies in an appropriate cause; it also serves the needs of apologists for neoliberalism who borrow World Bank language to pose self-financing or NGO-financed popular organizations as the principal promoters of "development with a human face." In the neoliberal model, popular self-help organizations fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of state funding for social services.4 Ironically, social movements are simultaneously acclaimed by enthusiasts at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum as an expression of popular resistance that may rescue the world (or at least movement participants) from the predations of neoliberal policies and as a tool through which neoliberal programs can be made to work more effectively.


popular struggles point to practical ways for the left to embrace democracy and to critique neoliberal ideology. In their struggle to broaden participation beyond the act of voting, people aren't rejecting elections, but rather making use of them. Similarly, the broad, autonomous and pluralist activity of the organizations of civil society have swept aside the old party structures and the social organizations traditionally linked to them. -Rubén Zamora, July/August 1995, Vol. 29, No. 1

The Mexican Student Movement of 1968 was without a doubt one of the most broad-based and

powerful of the similar movements that shook many countries around the world that same year....The past ten years of struggle by students, teachers and university workers have contributed to the forging of thousands of activists....These ten years of struggles by campesinos, workers and students have formed the backbone of the oppressed classes' struggle for a new radically different nation. -September/October 1978, Vol. 12, No. 5

Under the circumstances, discerning the definitional boundaries of what constitutes a progressive social movement poses some real difficulties, especially for those who assume that anything "popular" is necessarily progressive. In reality, the Christian right has enjoyed considerable success organizing at the grassroots in Latin America. And other organizations that fit the definition of "popular movement" may be as reactionary as the fundamentalist evangelicals, while others with progressive potential may be turned to conservative purpose when they are captured by the state or by personalistic populist leaders. The concept of civil society is as difficult to define as social movements. There is general agreement that social movements arise and develop somewhere in something called "civil society." But at times, the definition that runs through such discussions is no more precise than to label as "civil society" all movements that we admire, and "not civil society" what we don't like or don't trust. For example, for most analysts and activists, autonomous trade unions are a part of civil society, but oficialista unions (and independent unions that have grown corrupt) are not. If we take Mexico as an example, unions affiliated with the official Institutional Revolutionary Party

(PRI) would not be considered part of civil society, but the "democratic current" that arise within them would. Indeed, the problem of describing all popular organizations as civil society is nowhere demonstrated more clearly than in Mexico. If a union or association of some kind is organized from the top down in order to co-opt and manipulate people, it seems reasonable that we would not think of it as an element of civil society. But if it is organized from the bottom up, and only later is co-opted and captured by the state ­ as so many popular organizations in Mexico have been ­ then it is difficult to know at what point we should no longer consider it part of civil society and see it instead as part of the state apparatus. In an earlier essay in NACLA's thirtieth-anniversary series, Steven Volk adopts an inclusive definition stressing that "civil society is that civic space which lies outside the direct control of the state and the market .... Civil society suggests a complex assortment of nonstate organizations concerned with a vast array of issues and operating on myriad levels: from household life to trade unions, and from self-help movements and community associations to political parties."5 In more general terms, NACLA has consistently looked on the widest possible range of activities as worthy of coverage. Appropriately enough, the May 1992 issue on "The Latin American Left" included articles on women's organizations, environmentalism, autonomous peasant movements and the Workers Party in Brazil. Strikingly, the NACLA Report has devoted a great deal of attention to new movements of every kind. But it has also continued to place emphasis and confidence in the progressive potential of political parties and electoral coalitions. as in the issue entitled "Introduction to Hope: The Left in Local Politics,' which highlighted the Broad Front in Uruguay, the Workers Party in Brazil, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador, and the Movement Toward Socialism and Radical Cause in Venezuela.6

movements are grappling with a central question faced by "modern" society everywhere: If we are to have democratic, multi-ethnic and multi-class societies, what sort of social and political organization can ensure equality and mutual respect? The answers they propose eschew both the separatist nationalism now ascendant in Europe and the seizure of state power that until recently inspired Latin America's revolutionaries. -November/December 1991, 1/o!. 25, No. 3


The majority of homeless activists are women, and women's struggle has been at the core of the

transition from local activism to politics on a grander scale .... Neighborhood activists have concluded that only national political change can resolve their problems. As the drama of each country's crisis draws the movements into "politics," they face a dilemma: Will working with the government or various opposition parties compromise their autonomy, and their ability to work for fundamental change?" -NovemberlDecember 1989, Vol. 23, No. 4

If the image of social movements as the building blocks of socialist revolution has largely been

abandoned, it has been replaced by other expectations. Movements are credited with the capacity to transform consciousness and prepare their members to take a more active, militant, participatory role in society. They are posed as playing a key role in the process of democratization in Latin America. And peasant and indigenous movements are often seen as the only forces capable of promoting appropriate technology and sustainable development in the face of the destructive onslaught of global capital. But these are tall orders to fill. While they have enormous transformative potential, in practice, the outcomes of social movements are not always positive. For example, the process of

"empowerment" that so many analysts celebrate is almost always confined to the realm of subjective feelings. To be sure, increased self-confidence and the development of organizational skills and practical knowledge (the elements that for most observers constitute the "power" in empowerment) undoubtedly represent substantial gains for a powerless person. Yet, rarely does empowerment involve the actual acquisition of economic or political power. What is more, with all the talk of empowerment, there is little recognition that people may not only become empowered with the sense of their own expanded capabilities, but also "disempowered" and ultimately demobilized. This kind of disempowerment may occur when a movement is co-opted or repressed. But it may also occur when participants grow discouraged and disillusioned with the dynamics of group participation, the behavior of their co-activists who rise to leadership positions, or the bossiness of foreign or middle and upper-class NGO workers ­ to cite but a few negative possibilities. Oddly, many analysts of Latin American social movements who have themselves experienced many periods of disillusionment in the course of their own lives of political struggle fail to acknowledge, or perhaps even to consider, that a neighborhood activist can get pretty fed up with her neighbors, or that such movements decline not only in response to repression or cooptation, but to loss of enthusiasm for collective activity itself on the part of burnt-out social activists. In reality, women may not only emerge from the isolation of the patriarchal family to work together with others in a soup kitchen; they may also retreat back into the private sphere of the family ­ however oppressive ­ when relationships with co-activists become too difficult and complex to manage or even bear. If the claims surrounding empowerment as a one-way journey are sometimes exaggerated, so too is the confidence in the democratizing potential of social movements. While social movements played a direct role in the consolidation of democracy in Brazil, Chile and Argentina, elsewhere in Latin America the connection is not nearly so strong. In Mexico, for example, the social-movement sector has been in constant and rapid expansion since 1968, while only painfully slow ­ and in some periods ­ no progress has been made toward institutionalizing a more democratic political system. Just as misleading is the tendency of some analysts to conflate the internal dynamics of movements with their impact on the political system as a whole. In fact, there is an important distinction to be drawn between a movement's internal practices (which may or may not be more open, less hierarchical and more participatory than those of traditional political formations) and its capacity to push the whole political system in that direction. As one author has noted, while the movements may "allow for some degree of internal democracy at some point of their trajectory ...the democratization of social relations does not necessarily entail democratization at the institutional level of politics."7 Furthermore, at times the internal structures of movements are not even very democratic. Instead they may reflect the broader political culture and social relations in which they are embedded. For example, women and illiterate peasants often form the base of social movements in which leadership is exercized by men or middle-class intellectuals, and decision making may even reside in the hands of foreign NGO workers. In movements like those that have developed in Mexico ­ a political system dominated and shaped by patronage politics ­ new organizations may challenge the personalism of the old PRl-linked system of corruption and political control. But they often end up replacing the old networks with alternative channels that are clientelistic, rather than democratic, in their mode of operations.8 Often, along with the belief in the potential of social movements to "empower" poor people and to democratize authoritarian systems comes the expectation that rural activists can point the way to a better future for all humankind. As such, hopes for the development of environmentally sustainable practices have come to rest on the shoulders of indigenous and peasant activists who have combined ongoing struggles for the recognition of their identity,

autonomy and land rights with the revival or retention of traditional resource use. Although comprised of the poorest and most marginalized members of their societies, these rural movements have sprung to life throughout Latin America, reconfiguring the ways in which we think about development and the environment and capturing the imagination of people around the world. Not surprisingly, however, even when they are not repressed outright or demobilized by co-optation, indigenous and peasant movements may fail to live up to the expectations others have of them as natural resource managers or the guardians of the environment. Often it is the poorest, most isolated peasants who engage in traditional practices. Far from pointing a way toward a sustainable alternative to modern and destructive technologies, these practices are regarded by other cultivators, and sometimes even by those who engage in them, not as a viable alternative but as a form of backwardness to be abandoned at the first opportunity.9 Still, notwithstanding this fundamental contradiction, indigenous movements have emerged, both literally and figuratively, at the forefront of struggle in the Americas.10 In the face of the inability of political parties to develop a coherent alternative to neoliberalism, progressive people around the world have looked to the most marginalized women and men in the poorest regions of Latin America to articulate an alternative and spearhead the resistance. And, in a remarkable and lamely unexpected development, it is precisely this that occurred with the New Year's Day uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN ) in Chiapas in 1994. From the day they said "no" to NAFTA, the Zapatistas assumed leadership of an international resistance to global capitalism, drawing activists from around the world to the Lancandon forest to formulate a program to oppose the neoliberal project in all its manifestations. vast array of activities that come under the heading of social or grassroots movements presents a full range of mixed and often contradictory possibilities. For example, the ecclesial base communities that emerged in Brazil generally radicalized slum dwellers there while in Colombia, the CEBs evolved into a tool of the conservative Catholic hierarchy and exerted a fundamentally conservative influence over the poor people they organized.11 Or, to take another example, micro-enterprises, a favorite project of international-aid givers, may develop into democratically managed cooperative projects, or they may become a further source of inequality and stratification ­ not to mention tension and even violence ­ in poor communities. This variety of possible outcomes for movements makes the investment of hope, energy and solidarity in grassroots activities a more complicated matter than was support for socialist revolution 30 years ago. Compared with our situation today, confidence in the outcome of socialist revolution was straightforward and clear. In 1967, people on the left shared a considerable level of agreement on what a socialist revolution was bound to do once it came to power. It remained only for us to support revolution in Latin America and to try to bring about the same at home. Today we are mostly focusing our hopes on more limited endeavors. This was made clear by two former revolutionary militants who spoke to reporters about their transition from the comprehensive political struggles of the past to the new politics of grassroots movements. These activists said they found it necessary to develop "a new discourse, one that was a good deal narrower and more concrete and with more opportunities for small successes."12 The activists "brought certain agendas to communities which had agendas of their own," they said. In the course of the interactions, "new forms of political action emerged." This connection with popular struggles "has narrowed the organizers' agenda."13 Increasingly, then, the small-scale victories of social movements can be seen for what they are: the culmination of the courageous, energetic drive of powerless people to gain more control over their lives and immediate circumstances. As long as they limit their efforts to the struggle for relatively narrow, concrete goals, they are easier to get off the ground and easier to


sustain. As such, however, they risk political insignificance. The danger is that the movements "are local and small and fighting for the same small things," as a social movement leader himself explained. "These small organizations, if not linked to some larger project, lack political impact. They become competitive and parochial."14 In short, these movements have the potential to evolve into more thoroughgoing, more radically transformative forces. But this potential can only be realized when their vision and goals are broadened, and when they manage to ally with others in a wider political organization ­ or even, a political party.


1. Eric Hobsbawm describes as "pre-political" those "who have not yet found, or only begun to find, a specific language in which to express their aspirations about the world. Though their movements are thus in many respects blind and groping, by the standards of modern ones, they are neither unimportant nor marginal" Primitive Rebels (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1959), p. 2. See Fernando Calderón, Alejandro Piscitelli and José Luis Reyna, "New Social Movements: Actors, Theories, Expectations," in Arturo Escobar and Sonia E. Alvarez, eds., New Social Movements In Latin America: Identity, Strategy and Democracy (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1992), p. 19. See Judith Adler Hel!man, "The Riddle of New Social Movements: Who They Are and What They Do" in Sandor Halebsky and Richard L. Harris, eds., Capital, Power and Inequality in Latin America (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), pp. 165-183. See Laura Macdonald, "A Mixed Blessing: The NGO Boom in Latin America," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 28, No.5, March/April 1995, pp.30-5. Steven Volk, " `Democracy' Versus `Democracy,' " NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 30, No.4, January/February 1997, p.8. "Introduction to Hope: The Left in Local Politics," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 29, No. 1, July/August 1995. Renato Boshl, "On Social Movements and Democratization: Theoretical Issues," Stanford-Berkeley Occasional Papers in Latin American Studies, No. 9 (Spring 1984), p. 8. See Judith Adler Hellman, "Mexican Popular Movements: Clientelism, and the Process of Democratization," Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring 1994, pp. 124-142. Julia E. Murphy, "Rainforest Crunch: Anthropology, Environmentalism, Forestry and Maya in Central Quintana Roo, Mexico," Masters Thesis, York University, 1993. In Canada as well, First-Nations people are often called upon to lead protests, as in the massive October 1996 "Days of Action" against the neoliberal program of Ontario's Conservative government. Daniel H. Levine and Scott Mainwaring, "Religion and Popular Protest in Latin America: Contrasting Experiences," in Susan Eckstein, ed., Power and Popular Protect: Latin American Social Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), pp.203-40. David Barkin, Irene Ortiz and Fred Rosen, "Globalization and Resistance: The Remaking of Mexico," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 30, No. 4, January/February 1997, p. 20. Barkin, Ortiz and Rosen, "Globalization and Resistance," p. 19. Francisco Saucedo, a leader or the Assamblea de Barrios in Mexico City, cited in Barkin, Ortiz and Rosen, "Globalization and Resistance," p 26.

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