New rifts in Latin America, but no confrontation

The presence at the closing ceremony of the Americas Social Forum last Sunday in Asuncion, Paraguay, of Presidents Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, José Mujica of Uruguay and Evo Morales of Bolivia was not enough to rid one of the feeling that a rift was opening between the social movements and the left governments. One central theme of the forum, which took place from 11 to 15 August, was "the challenge of change"; it produced intense debate between the defenders of these governments and their critics.

In many of the sessions the social movements condemned the progressive governments on the grounds they were continuing with an economic model based on extractive industries such as opencast mining and the monoculture of genetically modified crops like soya and sugarcane for fuel. The debates focused on the "commons", such as water and biodiversity, which continue to be appropriated by multinationals, undermining the food sovereignty of the people.

The grave humanitarian situation in Haiti seven months after the earthquake, and the abuses of human rights in Honduras a year after the coup d'etat, were pushed into the background by the revelations by Paraguayan peasants of the violence they face daily in the north of the country, now controlled by the military on the pretext of the fight against a supposed guerrilla organisation called the EPP (Paraguayan Popular Army). At the end of April, Lugo imposed a 30-day state of emergency in five departments, and shortly afterwards the parliament passed an antiterrorist law that even the military considered far too wide ranging.

The impression left by the forum was that, while the progressive presidents still enjoy widespread popular support, the social movements are increasingly unhappy and are distancing themselves from "their" governments. Many of the leaders of the Bolivian social movements, the largest single delegation present in Asuncion, insisted that they still supported "our brother president", but at the same time demanded that he keep his promises to the indigenous peoples.

Diego Faldin, of the co-ordinating committee of the ethnic peoples of Santa Cruz, who a month ago organised a 35-day march demanding autonomy, explained where the nub of the conflict lies: "We want self-determination, we want our natural resources to be administered by the Indian peoples and their communities and not by the municipal authorities."

A new generation of conflicts are now affecting the relationship between governments and Indian peoples in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, who are seeking a different development model. In Argentina, it is soya production that poses the problem, expelling thousands of peasant farmers from their lands to the urban slums or the mining operations that contaminate the rivers. In Brazil, the peasants of the Landless People's Movement (MST) reject the production of sugarcane for biofuels and the giant hydroelectric dams that Lula's government is determined to build to transform his country into a global power.

The conflicts are inevitable when the "governments of change" have opted for an economic model very similar to the one that provoked a wave of protests against the neoliberalism throughout the 1990s. Yet no movement is proposing the overthrow of governments at this point; they still enjoy enormous popularity and the improvements in the economic indicators and the living standards of the poor are undeniable.

For the moment there is no open confrontation, but something more subtle; the social movements have begun to place limits on governments. It may be the beginning of a new relationship, or a return to a time of instability.

Raúl Zibechi, a writer, journalist and researcher with social movements in Latin America.