In country after country since 1998, Latin Americans have freely elected left or progressive presidents, beginning with Hugo Chávez’s election in Venezuela. From 2002 to 2009, left or center-left candidates have won the presidency in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Having concluded that US and IMF/World Bank prescriptions that privatized state resources and prioritized neoliberal trade and investment policies failed the region, a new generation of leaders are intent on recasting Latin America’s relationship with the United States and the world at large as they seek economic and social development through homegrown strategies.
Contrary to the US media’s frequent depictions, Latin America is home to vibrant democratic societies in which organized citizens press for social changes against political elites, an openly hostile corporate media and traditional oligarchs who still control most economic activity.
Though this peaceful transition has been freely achieved through the ballot box, the mainstream US media regularly employs headlines such as “The Mad Adventures of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez,” “Chávez and the Latin American Left: Muzzling the Media?” and “Hugo Chávez increases his support for Islamist terrorism” to depict the region as a site of instability, the refuge of drug lords, transnational gangs, terrorists, guerrillas and other threats.
Despite the paranoia of the media and much of the Washington foreign policy establishment, changes occurring in the region are not driven by anti-US plots hatched in Caracas or La Habana. In fact, many in Latin America are quietly “giving up” on the United States, developing regional trade and strengthening ties with countries such as China, India, Russia and South Africa.
After 1998, progressives in the region attained power through elections and employed the democratic process to broaden civic participation, prioritizing the needs of the impoverished majority and beginning to transform the political culture.
“Civic revolutions” of the sort we have seen in Latin America are mass social movements that have achieved power through elections. Resulting governments have tended to foster socioeconomic transformations through policies supported by peaceful, massive civic engagement. Venezuela and Bolivia best express the “civic revolution” trend. Though there are significant cultural and historical distinctions between these countries, Hollywood directors couldn’t have cast more symbolically laden characters for revolutionary leaders: an Afro-indigenous Chávez in Venezuela and an indigenous Aymara-descent Evo Morales in Bolivia.
It is important to note, however, that the conditions faced by Latin America’s center-left governments are not uniform. For example, the experiences of Brazil and Chile underscore that although center-left presidents remain popular, it is unlikely they can leverage their support to elect future center-left presidential candidates.
Thus one lesson of the civic revolutionary process is that to ensure progressive changes, continued expansion of rights for citizens and immigrants, and popular reforms, social movements must take the lead and incorporate changes into the national constitutions–as has been done in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.