Signs of life

The Left in the City: Participatory Local Governments in Latin America explores how progressives have been regrouping at a local level


The Left in the City: Progressive and Participatory Local Governments in Latin America
Edited by Daniel Chavez and Benjamin Goldfrank
2004, Latin America Bureau
250 pages

Reviewed by Jai Kharbanda

HAVING BEEN unable to secure victory through armed insurrection in the sixties and seventies, many on the Latin American left regrouped and gave up their weapons. The huge economic collapse of the eighties – the “lost decade” – scuppered whatever electoral plans they had and, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Left was assumed dead. Neoliberalism gripped, guided by the international financial institutions along with the wealthy nations, and took the region to where it is today: poorer, more precarious and dangerous. Still there was no sign of prosperity.

But quietly the Left has been rebuilding, regrouping, realigning with other organisations – peasants and indigenous groups – and working out a strategy for victory.

The Left in the City, edited by Daniel Chávez and Benjamin Goldfrank, is typical of the Latin America Bureau’s canon of literature on social and economic change in the region. It takes us first to Lima in 1983 when the Izquierda Unida (United Left) led by Alfonso Barrantes won mayoral elections, ushering in a period of participatory local government.

Participatory budgeting

It is exhilarating to see a book that documents how parties and organisations in Latin America have been organising new and revolutionary ways to re-enfranchise populations that had either been forgotten or ignored by national politics and neoliberalism, such as the orçamento participativo (participatory budget meetings) in Porto Alegre which drew up to 20,000 people in 2000, where people could come and “deliberate year-round and decide on both district-specific projects as well as broad municipal level investment priorities” (Gianpaolo Baiocchi, p. 38).

Other cities would undertake similar projects but Porto Alegre’s would be immortalised through the establishment of the World Social Forum, which has been held there since its creation in 1999 (except 2004). The resulting strategies represent extraordinary new methods of increasing participation and creating a real mandate for change.

All, however, is not well, as recent events in Porto Alegre showed when Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, Brazil’s activist-turned-president, was booed off the stage during his speech at the World Social Forum. Lula embodies the conundrum facing the Left of maintaining ideals but also of having to come to terms with reality.

In many ways, maintaining those ideals has been more possible at the local level where the impact of the international agenda has been more limited. The choice to succeed at a local level was partly a result of the Left reassessing its ideals as well as of its recognition that it had neither the structure, organisation, discipline or appeal of the Right.

The Left’s resurgence today may be evidence of a regional change of direction as Néstor Kirchner in Argentina stands up to the IMF and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela behaves like a rebel with a cause. This book spells out the Left’s hopes, successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses. With scholarly integrity, it considers these with great verve providing an essential contribution to the study of the Left since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Left in the City shows how an alternative paradigm for democratic politics is possible – in other words, how another world is possible.

Jai Kharbanda is a postgraduate student