Understanding Populism and Political Participation: A New Look at the "New Left" in Latin America
On Monday, March 10, 2008,the Latin American Program convened a seminar to examine new forms of political participation and state-civil society interaction in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Cynthia Arnson discussed the different institutional contexts in which the "New Left's" populist manifestations have emerged and situated the discussion within the larger debate over how "new left" governments have responded to democratic deficits in the region.
David Smilde asserted that the Chávez government's policy towards participation in Venezuela has moved through four stages. In the early years, the notion of "participatory democracy" guided the government's efforts to harness a diverse and autonomous civil society. Initiatives such as the Bolivarian Religious Parliament attempted to unify civil society as part of the government's nationalist project of reform, but were largely rejected by civil associations that fiercely protect their autonomy. Growing frictions between the Chávez government and civil associations meant that by 2002 most of the latter considered themselves opponents to the government. As a result, over the next few years, the Chávez government began to sponsor and consolidate alternative forms of participation that supported the government including community media and community councils. After the landslide 2006 electoral victory began a concerted effort to centralize participation as part of its push for "21st Century Socialism." However, much of the legal framework for this centralizing push was contained in the proposed constitutional amendment that was turned-back in the December 2007 referendum. In 2008, flush with oil profits, the government has continued to funnel resources into participation. However, its continuing attempts to centralize it will likely fail given weak state capacity, obstacles posed by existing legal structures, and the still strong discourse of autonomy running through participatory organizations and the state bureaucrats and liaisons that engage them.
Luis Vicente León described the initiatives of the Chávez government aimed at creating a participatory and proactive democracy, pointing to the establishment of a direct relationship between the leader and the masses as a principal component of this governance structure. Yet in Venezuela, new forms of participation are aggregated at the local level and there are no institutions that allow for popular participation in policy creation. In fact, community-based missions are passive receivers of Chávez policies and funding, although they must organize and mobilize in order to receive this funding. León emphasized that while 53.4% of Venezuelans have benefited from the missions, they leave very little room for dissent.
According to René Antonio Mayorga , the election of Bolivian President Evo Morales was a result of the failure of political parties, as well as the decentralization that occurred under former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. The social movement which backs Morales, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), suggests that the country's democracy before Morales was exclusionary and therefore requires a complete renovation. New forms of political participation can be seen in the articles of the controversial new constitution illegally approved by the Constituent Assembly and therefore rejected by the opposition and by the eastern regions. This constitutional draft which aims at a statist economic system apparently calls for the greater participation of civil society in government promoting the creation of indigenous autonomies with the same powers as regional autonomies. This document also creates a National Coordinator for Change which would bring together all of the entities which make up the MAS to create a "super body" charged with monitoring Bolivia's processes of change subordinating the role of congress and other state institutions. The opposition, in turn, has strengthened politically through civic committees which favor the autonomy of Santa Cruz, and other provinces of the eastern lowlands. According to Mayorga, Morales is able to mobilize particularly peasant and otherpopular organizations of the Altiplano through a top-down structure that is profoundly undemocratic, and his rhetoric and practice of popular participation is not geared towards enhancing democratic participation but towards the establishment of an authoritarian populist government.
Pamela Calla stated that the MAS and the opposition party, PODEMOS, have two very different national projects. The MAS, in Calla's opinion, see itself as breaking down ethnic barriers through reforms that will allow formerly excluded members of society to ascend to political power. While this has indeed played out in the Constituent Assembly convened by President Morales, there have also been obstacles for these new actors. For example, technical terminology and legal knowledge was used to produce constitutional articles in favor of the elite. According to Calla, indigenous and popular knowledge must also be recognized within the assembly. Despite the hope that the election of Morales would bring equality, the incident involving the disputed capital of Sucre showed that racism still persists. Gains can, however, be seen in closing the gender gap, as women have started to take power.
Adrian Bonilla characterized Ecuador's political process as rooted in a tradition of clientalistic practices that substitute for the laws and in the concentration of executive power without transparency. President Rafael Correa came to power on the back of a financial and political crisis with an extraordinary victory in the second round of presidential elections. He campaigned on a plan to modernize the state and recreate the political system to be more inclusive. One of his first actions as president was to convoke a Constitute Assembly to rewrite the country's constitution, which will likely resemble the 1992 Colombian Constitution. According to Bonilla, Ecuador is not like its Andean neighbors Venezuela and Bolivia. Ecuador does not receive social assistance from Venezuela and is not a party of the ALBA. Further, Ecuador does not have anything resembling the Venezuelan-style missions. Bonilla stated that although Correa might be an example of caudillismo, he cannot be classified as a traditional populist.
Walter Spurrier concluded that during Ecuador's period of political instability, political parties were increasingly out of touch with civil society and social movements. One of these movements in particular, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador and its political arm Pachakútik promoted the inclusion of Ecuador's indigenous groups. While Pachakútik never gained widespread political power, they did support the election of Lucio Gutiérrez in 2003. It was in fact a movement of educated, Quito-based middle class youth (called forajidos, or literally, outlaws) that paved the way for the election of President Rafael Correa by overthrowing Gutiérrez in 2005. In 2006, Correa ran on the platform of participatory democracy, incorporating social movements into government institutions, and equalizing the economy to allow excluded groups to participate. Spurrier questioned the plausibility and transparency of direct democracy at the national level. He agreed with Bonilla that the current government looks like a caudillo regime, especially after the Correa-led Constitutional Assembly vote to dissolve Congress in 2007. He noted that although Correa is not a direct clone of Chávez, "he bought the political software and is running it better and faster." While it was clear that representative democracy in Ecuador was flawed, Spurrier noted that there is a clear contradiction between the participatory democracy advocated by Correa and constitutional liberalism.
Carlos Chamorro maintained that the difference between Nicaragua and the other "new left" countries in Latin America is that Daniel Ortega did not win the presidential elections of 2006 with a majority, and thus did not have the same overwhelming mandate for change as did Morales or Correa. As a result, Ortega is forced into taking a pragmatic stance when it comes to relations with the United States or other international financial institutions. On the other hand, Ortega advocates direct democracy on the domestic front primarily through Citizen Power Committees (CPCs), established by Presidential decree and led by regional Sandinista party officials. These organizations distribute the benefits of the government's social policies as well as a way to transmit the president's policies directly to the people through popular assemblies. They converge at the executive level, forming the National Citizen Power Cabinet. However, according to Chamorro, the system of direct democracy that has been put in place is fundamentally secretive and non-transparent, which runs contradictory to the basic tenants of democracy. In addition, the direct democracy imposed by Chamorro has led to clashes between other forms of civil society, the pre-existing Municipal Development Committees and the CPCs. These factors must be considered when thinking about Nicaragua's municipal elections in November and the potential consolidation of Ortega's power and support.
Alejandro Bendaña emphasized the importance of distinguishing between political content and personality when it comes to analyzing the "new left" governments of Latin America. Rather, we must focus on the real ideological content put forth by these new governments, and whether it reflects the mounting demand for the deepening of democracy and social and economic justice. Bendaña described civil society in Nicaragua as disorganized and the party of Ortega as more of an electoral machine than a programmatic party. Nicaragua is in need of autonomous civil society that that puts emphasis and leadership on women, environment, systemic inequality, and political ethics. In addition, the state should take an assertive role in the economy and be willing to facilitate the recall referendum. According to Bendaña, the current government led by Ortega has not attempted to revamp social and educational priorities. It differs from other "new left" governments in that there has been no questioning of free trade with the United States, economic programs with the IMF, collaboration with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the Millennium Challenge Cooperation and with the Pentagon in the form of Nicaraguan army training in the old School of the Americas. None of this coincides with the new platforms put forward in Latin America. Accordingly, said Bendaña, there is no significant transformation towards a new, social justice-based left in the Nicaraguan government under Ortega.