What Political Parties must learn as the Left reinvents itself on the streets of Latin America

How to re-arm the forces that work for progressive social change? The good news is that this agenda is already under way. Not in the party establishment, but in the street.

Former President of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, and the former President of Brazil,Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, president of Brazil.19 November 2007. Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/A. Brasil/Wikimedia Commons.

Lenin Moreno won the presidential elections in Ecuador and the Latin American Left, after several consecutive setbacks, has been able to take a breath of fresh air. But it is rather a sigh, for Moreno lacks the charisma, the economic resources and the popular support needed to carry on with the Correísta agenda. The challenge in Ecuador and in most Latin American countries is not to resist the end of the progressive cycle – a process with growing contradictions and setbacks – but how to rearm the forces working for progressive social change.

The news is good, for there are other forces on the left showing the way: they are pulling off micro-revolutions at the local level. Those who remain in power, and those who want to get it back, should take good notice and start reinventing themselves if they want to avoid definitely losing the battle against the steadily advancing Right throughout the continent.

End of cycle

The wave that started with Hugo Chávez in 1999 was an innovative proposal: a reaction to neoliberal policies and to the need to rebuild politics with the "kick them all out" social demand as a backdrop. Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and Lula da Silva brought new players into the political system, whole sectors of the population who had never been a part of it, and Kirchnerism too activated previously apathetic social sectors. Bolivia and Ecuador reformed their constitutions to include indigenous rights and the rights of nature. Tens of millions became middle class, public services were expanded, and wealth distribution improved.

Opponents explain that these advances were due to high global commodity prices. They indeed made it possible, but they do not explain it. There were other high commodity price periods in history, such as that of the agro-mining export model (between 1870 and the First World War), or the 1970s, which it is doubtful whether they in fact contributed to advancing rights. As opposed to these previous periods, an agenda was now in place for the extension of rights.

We have of course been talking about the end of the progressive cycle for some time now. The fall in the price of commodities left bare many of the contradictions of the region’s left-wing governments. Some critics, both on the Left and the Right, complain that these governments consolidated the extractive model, re-primarized the economy, signed free trade agreements, and implemented neoliberal adjustment plans, alienating popular sectors and indigenous groups who had been supporting them.

Most serious still, they became a force that stopped looking ahead. They entrenched themselves in government, concentrating and verticalizing power, co-opting other institutions and the media, and furiously resisting any criticism. I myself heard one of the main figures of the Workers' Party in Brazil complain about the "ungrateful" people who were taking to the streets to protest. We have recently seen the followers of impeached Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo reach an agreement with the current president, Horacio Cartes.

That is, the Left has stopped listening to the street. In the more extreme cases of late Chavism in Venezuela and Sandinism in Nicaragua, the Left has reached absolute degradation.

At the same time, the Right has been reinventing itself. It has stopped talking about the past and has begun to promise a future. With a positive discourse and plenty of colour balloons, it is now competing for public spaces by organizing marches, or choses to create political parties (the Republican Proposal in Argentina, the NOVO Party in Brazil, Creating Opportunities in Ecuador, the Anti-Corruption Party in Honduras), instead of knocking at the doors of the military barracks, as it used to do in the past.

Of course, this has allowed leaders linked to the Panama Papers to take power, it has made it possible for a bunch of deputies and senators involved in corruption cases to remove a president from office on charges of administrative irregularities, and has led a banker linked to the worst crisis in the history of Ecuador to having real chances of becoming president.

There are no contradictions this time around: the neoliberal agenda is coming back, social spending is being frozen, salary increases are being negotiated in a Spartan way, while payment to international creditors and tax exemption to mining companies are being decreed.

This is why it is crucial that the Left (in all its diversity) should renew itself. Not to romantically long for the return of those gone by, but to reinvent itself. Which means proposing again an agenda for the expansion of rights, for the redistribution of income, for political autonomy, for diversity and for defending the environment – and carrying it out.

Political experimentation

The good news is that this agenda is already under way. Not in the parties’ establishment, but in the streets. A constellation of creative initiatives is making its way, experimenting from below with new narratives and new power forms. Traditional groups and social movements which defend human rights, biodiversity, sustainable economies, inclusion and gender diversity are now being joined by actors who are also contending for political power.

The Wikipolititians in Guadalajara, Mexico, are pursuing a national strategy aiming at changing the noxious relationship between money and politics, and they are not only proposing it but actually following it.

Former Chilean student leaders who are fighting in Congress for public education are currently organizing the Broad Front, which includes Valparaiso’s municipal experience.

Porto Alegre in Brazil is experimenting with citizen candidacies. And in Brazil also, the Activist Bench has been calling upon a great variety of organizations to support candidates from different parties who defend agendas for citizen participation and the inclusion of Afro-descendants, feminists and LGBTI people.

In the Colombian periphery, a group linked to the Green Alliance won the elections, established the first open government platform in the country and is now experiencing with creative teaching in public schools.

In Nicaragua, a political party is emerging that intends to organize itself through "sociocracy", a decision-making methodology which avoids verticality. And they are all looking very closely across the ocean at the two women mayors of Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, ​​who are constantly innovating in participatory and collaborative public policy mechanisms.

For reasons of virtue, survival, or strategy, the Left must necessarily get back to listening to the streets. This is what recently elected Lenin Moreno in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and the Coalition of Parties for Democracy in Chile must face if they want to stay in power, the Workers’ Party and Kirchnerism if they want to get it back, and Morena in Mexico if they want to win it next year.

Matías Bianchi is a political scientist with a PhD from the Institute d´Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and the director of the think tank Asuntos del Sur. He tweets as @matiasfbianchi

This story was first published on openDemocracy.



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