History International Affairs

Neo-Liberalism in Latin America- Resutlting Social Movements

South America can be considered to be the hub of Social Movements. Presence of various movements is there in every aspect of life and range from movements for the right of unemployed workers to movements of Coca farmers. They range from peaceful to extremely volatile movements. The formation of identity according to classes has brought people close together to form such groups. Movements such as women’s group, neighborhood organizations, workers, farmers, consumers, poor people, environmentalists, lesbian and gay groups, civil rights groups and the peace movements are growing fast. Rich with resources and man power, it for sure is a disappointment that a continent like South America is not categorized as a developed continent. Something has gone wrong terribly for sure. Hence it is not a surprise when one finds abundant number of social movements in every part of South America. Whether it is Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador or Mexico, social movements is present everywhere.

The economic and political changes in Latin America from the late 1970s until today have engendered widespread social response. Neo-liberal economic policies arising from the 1980s debt crisis caused increasing poverty and socioeconomic inequality. The experimentation of trickle down growth on the continent has led to the slicing of society into two extreme halves. On one hand a person can afford an imported car from Europe and on the other hand a family living in the slums has hardly anything to consume. The majority of the population lives in misery and terrible condition. The oppressive policies and actions of the ruling class (ranging from politicians to military rulers) have violated and debased the rights of the masses. Protests against World Bank and IMF policies are widespread. International conferences and meetings are the occasions when these movements often protest showing their discontent with the policies. Movements as a response to faulty government strategies and implementation of imperialistic policies have spread through out the continent. This climate of inoperability will persist until the swollen ranks of the poor and excluded have been successfully incorporated into the more advanced sectors of economic and social life in these countries.

Placing some light on some famous movements in this continent will make us understand the unique nature of each individual movement. The environment and time in which they evolved and how they have progressed. The presence of anti-globalization and anti-neo-liberal movements are very common in this continent. Mass movements against privatization in Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela-Chavez riots are some recent occurrences. But let us start with looking at a unique movement which although was a consequence of the neo-liberal policies of the west indirectly, but originally it is the movement of mothers formed for a particular reason.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are a remarkable organization of Argentine women human rights activists. They have been active for more than twenty years. Their exceptional work has been sustained for this length of time by two interwoven beliefs. One is that they were born again of their children. The other is that they have become mothers to all victims of repression in the present day Argentina. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo embraced these beliefs as a direct result of the lives lived by their children and the horrific deaths many of them met. The children of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were kidnapped and nearly all were murdered by Argentina’s military during its dirty war against the Left from 1976 to 1983. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and other human rights activists believe the number of dead who remain unaccounted for is more like 30,000. No one really knows for sure because these victims of the dirty war disappeared without a trace.

These disappearances of thousands took place for a definite reason. This occurrence was an integral part of a US backed effort to crush the Argentine Left and facilitate the implementation of the same kind of neo-liberal policies that were imposed in Chile by the Pinochet regime and numerous other repressive US backed regimes across Latin America. These disappearances went hand in hand with Argentine government policies that slashed real wages, outlawed existing union contracts, led to the firing of thousands of union activists from their jobs and prompted the privatization of the economy. Their political consciousness grew as they became persistent enemies of both the neo-liberal agenda that lay behind the dirty war and of those who bear responsibility for its continued implementation.

Furthermore, in the process of opposing this agenda, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo began to see themselves as inheritors of the ideals of their children and as responsible for carrying forward the work of their children. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have no illusions. They know that the large majority of their kidnapped children were tortured and murdered by the military during the dirty war. Nonetheless, they remain steadfast in refusing government offers of reparations for their children’s deaths. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo insist that they will not formally accept that any of their children are dead until the government comes forward with documentation to show what happened to them. This stance offers the only hope for seeing that justice is done with respect to what happened during the dirty war.

Even this unique movement gives us the indication that its occurrence is the direct response of policies and course taken by the rulers and that whatever movement you may select and look at, the reasons for the occurrence are fundamentally related to each other. Now let us look at a movement known as the ‘cocaleros’ (coca farmers led by native lawmaker Evo Morales) in Bolivia.
This movement is against the eradication of Coca fields. The growing of Coca is the livelihood of a percentage of Bolivian population and they have been growing it for centuries. It is used to treat altitude sickness and other ailments and they also use coca to kill hunger and as a sacred offering in religious ceremonies The plan to eliminate production of the plant, which many Bolivians chew as a stimulant and is also used in the production of cocaine, is at the heart of the US and Bolivian war on drugs that has lasted for 15 years From 1995 to 2001, US funded Bolivian anti-narcotics forces wiped out 70 percent of the country’s illegal Coca fields, nearly all of them in Chapare. Bolivia went from supplying the Coca leaves to one-half of the world’s cocaine to being a relatively minor producer of coca, most of which never leaves South America. But the US led war on drugs in Bolivia provoked an unintended backlash and this resulted in tens of thousands of defiant, sandal-wearing coca growers, called cocaleros, refusing to cooperate. Authorities have had limited success dispersing the cocaleros, who defend the highway and their coca fields with sticks, slingshots, dynamite booby traps and pre-World War II-vintage Mauser rifles. There is no other force in the country that has the coherence, the discipline and the ability to mobilize like the cocaleros. Caught between cocaleros demands for coca legalization and U.S. insistence on continued eradication, the government appears to be looking for a way out. Under the umbrella of a political party called Movement toward Socialism, Mr. Morales has joined forces with other grass-roots organizations and proposed a progressive broad-based agenda, including a call to re-nationalize partially privatized companies and a rejection of the U.S.-promoted Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. All this social and political revolt is thanks to the coca leaf. The coca leaf is what is giving people consciousness. The mobilizing of these farmers towards their right is an example for other countries to follow. They can take lesson from the persistence of these farmers. Demanding the right of fair trade is not very far from this issue and unreasonable policies of the first world.

The third movement of focus is the The Movimiento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), or the Landless Workers Movement, began in southern Brazil in 1984 in response to grossly unequal land distribution and is now the largest grassroots social movement in Latin America. According to the MST, less than three percent of the population owns two-thirds of Brazil’s arable land, and while sixty percent of Brazil’s farmland lies idle, 25 million peasants struggle to survive by working temporary agricultural jobs. The basic objectives are to obtain land and to offer the means to cultivate it in order support their families. The crisis of landownership and resulting landlessness in Brazil will not solve itself, nor will it be solved through current free market practices, and the local efforts must be joined by concerted national and international efforts in order to remedy the situation. In a globalized economy, social movements like the MST are limited in power, but have proven effective in accomplishing specific goals and placing pressure on their government. With grassroots mobilizations, the voices of the traditionally voiceless and marginalized people have a means of expressing their needs and demanding reform. This goes for any other movement. The mobilization of masses for any purpose or specific goal may require sacrifice and investment but at the end of the day the benefits of such efforts would accrue to the masses.

Social movement in Latin America has given people new hope of voicing their opinion, striving to achieve their common goal and secure their rights. The movements of landless, farmers, human right activist, guerilla groups and anti-globalization groups now have a weapon which they can use against rulers and governments, whether it is democratic or authoritative. Political groups have their own goals and ambitions and they might be driven by their own benefits. So a common man who wants to secure a certain right or benefit, a political party might not be the right answer. Social movement has given him the right kind of platform. These movements are considered to be more democratic and effective alternative to established formal political processes. They are a mode of direct participation into politics. These Social Movements have been supported by many NGOs in Latin America. Both these civil societies have worked hand in hand to achieve something that the people of Latin America have only dreamt of. The most recent of these movements are the anti-privatization movements. They are present in most parts of the continent. One of the cornerstones of the neo-liberal policies adopted by most Latin American governments in the 1990s was the privatization of state-owned enterprises. This process of passing national wealth on to the private sector has been so injurious that it could soon render entire countries unviable. On occasion, citizen organization has succeeded in halting privatizations through public demonstrations that at times have turned into outright insurrections. Not only did the privatizations take place against a backdrop of rampant corruption and plundering of national resources; they were also a commercial failure, and the population of the countries involved ended up footing the bill. Meanwhile, poorer-quality services, higher rates, and a deterioration in infrastructure due to a lack of investment resulted in fabulous profits for multinational corporations.

The indigenous people have realized that they have been robbed of their assets for way too long. The multi-national and other foreign groups have bought local goods for extremely cheap rates and sold them for high rates in the foreign markets. The local growers, farmers and workers who have produced these goods are not themselves able to consume it since they are available at a rate which they can not afford themselves.

Such a situation of un-fair trade exists. The movements are considered to be a important part of a society and the world has realized that its existence might just be an answer to the growing inequality.

About the author

Tariq Aftab Hussain

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