Protest politics and the ‘crisis of the Left’ in Latin America

A new book from Bath's Juan Pablo Ferrero examines the shifts in politics seen in Brazil and Argentina and asks what went wrong for the Left in Latin America.

It took just ten days after the Closing Ceremony for the Rio Olympics in 2016 for politics in Brazil to unfold dramatically. What happened then, with the impeachment and removal from office of then Workers Party President Dilma Rousseff; and what’s happened since, with the jailing on corruption charges of Rousseff’s predecessor, Lula da Silva, set the country on a radically different course. On a ticket of fighting corruption and with a string of hard-line pronouncements that would generate headlines around the world, at the start of 2019 right wing President Jair Bolsanaro – the man dubbed the Trump of the Tropics - was sworn into office.

Over the border in Argentina, a similar, albeit less dramatic shift from left to right has been observed. In 2015, right wing businessman, Mauricio Macri, replaced Cristina Fernández de Kirchner - the only woman ever to hold high office in Argentina whose Peronista politics were shaped by Argentina’s most famous family. This autumn as the country goes to the polls both rivals look set to lock horns again, against a backdrop of rising prices and unemployment that followed Macri’s de-industrialisation policies.

Charting political developments

Protest in Brazil.
The form that protests in Brazil have taken comes under the spotlight in the new book.

The trajectories of these two countries and the new state of flux in left-wing, progressive politics which had come to dominate in much of the region over the past two decades is the focus of a new book from University of Bath Latin American political specialist, Dr Juan Pablo Ferrero. ‘Socio-Political Dynamics within the Crisis of the Left: Argentina and Brazil’, co-authored with colleagues Dr Ana Natalucci in Argentina and Dr Luciana Tatagiba in Brazil, draws on case studies from both countries to explore the crisis in the so-called ‘left turn’ – that of established left wing movements – and what this means for the wider region and the rest of the world.

“Historically, social mobilisation has related to shifts in the left. The cases of Argentina and Brazil show a greater complexity about the relationship between social mobilisation and political change”, explains Juan Pablo from the University's Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies. The authors refer to the ‘left turn’ as the wave of progressive, left leaning governments in Latin America which started in the late 1990s under Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, but has since unfolded across the region. “It’s something which is quite unique in Latin America in the sense of left-wing movements and people getting to office via democratic means”, he explains. This depicts the new ‘left turn’ as quite distinct from past left-wing guerrilla movements.

Negative impacts of globalisation

Argentina's famous Plazo de Mayo.
Argentina's famous Plazo de Mayo - the scene for historic protest movements in the country.

The negative impacts of globalisation and the 2008 financial crisis both come under close scrutiny for their role in shaping a new type of politics and people’s rejection of the status quo. “Since the 2008 we’ve seen a real crisis in the narrative of globalisation on the one hand, and of the continuing internationalisation of capitalism on the other.” Juan Pablo explains how, following the Washington Consensus of the early 1990s where the IMF agreed to bail out countries in the red in return for massive structural adjustment programmes to manage debt, citizens felt powerless.

“That was perceived as a removal of national sovereignty, the suggestion that politics didn’t matter anymore because whoever you vote for you always had the IMF there, which meant the withdrawal of the state, fiscal discipline, high unemployment and the usual set of strict policies that these bodies promote all over the world.” In this sense, the left turn meant the recuperation of the political initiative. So, why did the left enter in a period of crisis?

Drawing on interviews with key actors in both countries as well as major protests to have taken place between 2011-15, the book looks at four case studies relating to social movements and activism linked to workers, gender, cyber activism and youth. It uses these examples to chart new socio-political dynamics and how this has shaped political change.

Movements pushing for change

Front cover image of ‘Socio-Political Dynamics within the Crisis of the Left: Argentina and Brazil’.
‘Socio-Political Dynamics within the Crisis of the Left: Argentina and Brazil’ focuses on the crisis the Left has faced in both countries.

Their findings suggest that in terms of workers activism, the distinctive feature in both countries is the lack of a unified trade union movement. In Brazil, trade unions had the capacity to mobilize workers behind economic and corporate demands, but they struggled to mobilise their own members on broader national issues. In Argentina, workers organised themselves in formal and informal organisations, such as the ‘popular economy’, which creates a strong link between new social movement activism and old workers’ organisational culture. The use of social networks played a key role in the movements against Dilma and Cristina’s governments. They functioned with a significant degree of autonomy from political parties. Coupled with this, in both countries there was a process of revitalising youth activism.

On the topic of gender, in Brazil women’s organisations were among the most active in resisting Rousseff’s impeachment. Her impeachment was interpreted not only as a parliamentary coup to topple the PT, but also as a reaffirmation of the power of men over women. In Argentina, the new mobilisation of women under the popular banner #NiUnaMenos (‘not one woman less’) of the grassroots movement combined past struggles with a new generation of activists.

Whilst the narrative in both countries has shifted, their results suggest that all might not be over for the left, however. Dr Ana Natalucci says: “One of the great findings is that there may be high levels of mobilisation without this implying a systemic political crisis. That mobilisation becomes a manifestation of that particular society’s history, expressing a range of different demands from actors previously unseen.”

Collaborator Dr Luciana Tatagiba adds: “In Brazil, under the pretext of fighting corruption, large groups of people went to the streets to march against Dilma, against the PT and against the left in general. What was fundamentally at stake though in this process was a fierce dispute over access to state resources and a privatisation agenda that is now beginning to be implemented.”

This link between mass mobilisation and political change is one of the book's key messages. “That’s something we will be experiencing more and more, as the distance grows between citizens and traditional political parties”, Juan Pablo adds. There are clear parallels with what’s happening across Europe, in the US and of course close to home with Brexit.

Growing up in Argentina

Looking in on the region’s politics from outside offers a unique vantage for Argentinian-born Juan Pablo. Born in 1978 with the country still under military Junta in a household where politics dominated discussion he explains his personal experiences have shaped his interest in this topic.

“I have always been interested in democracy and democratisation, but at the same time I always felt mainstream political science failed to address the social question that is embedded in the broader question on democratisation - what is going on at the societal level. What identities people have how people see themselves that informs a lot of what defines elections. And whereas normally, when we look at social mobilisation, we see deepening democratisation and expanding rights, in current times we’re observing worrying examples of de-democratisation. For me, from a young age, the idea of democracy as hope and opening stuck in my mind. This is why we need to remember that elections are very important.”

With internal disputes between left and right still playing out in both countries, he hopes the book can help make sense out the current political circumstances Argentinians and Brazilians find themselves in. But he hopes the book will resonate outside the region too. With politics across the rest of the world in such a state of flux he suggests we could learn much from the Latin American examples.

“Latin America, because its middle income, is a fascinating place in the world. We see some dynamics that apply to developed countries and some that don’t. That applies to expressions of alternatives too. The developed world is not doing everything right in terms of the nature of how it’s based its development. Latin America offers us fierce debates and examples not only about how to generate resources, but also how we distribute fairly them too.”

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Find out more about the project and Dr Ferrero's wider work.