“We might have something to learn from some of the new governments in Latin America,” I found myself saying to a staffer of Canada’s foreign affairs department one day last week.

“Oh, really?” she snapped back.

Having been carefully trained not to get into arguments with these people, I moved on. But what I was thinking about was the government’s use of closure that morning to limit debate on the future of the Canadian Wheat Board in contrast with the ever larger role played by social movements in Latin America in everything from constitution-making to decisions on mining and highways.

While Latin Americans have been busy re-inventing politics from the grassroots up, successive Canadian governments fail to understand the changes. Our politicians and diplomats decry populism and protectionism, and prescribe the old free trade medicine that no one (except the governments of Colombia and Honduras) wants anymore.

What Canada sees as populism is a re-engagement of government in the well-being of citizens (pensions, health care, education) and what it denounces as protectionism is new-found will to protect the environment and vulnerable populations from the worst excesses of corporate and transnational capitalism.

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is flanked by Evo Morales of Bolivia and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela

Some countries accomplished these changes through existing political parties and systems. In other countries, notably Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, new political movements emerged that led to more profound constitutional change. Some new sub-regional trade and banking alternatives have emerged in the ALBA and UNASUR countries.

Bolivia and Ecuador changed their constitutions to recognize the “plurinational” character of their peoples, incorporating Indigenous rights and rights of the Earth. Both incorporate elements of sumak kawsay (buen vivir or well-being) as guides for economic choices.

Not the end of history

On the other hand, better government is not the end of history or the coming of the Reign of God. Political change does not mean industrial lobbyists stopped working or that the more progressive Latin American governments can exist outside the global economy. And politicians still get confused about the use of power.

If by proposing (and now cancelling) a highway through the TIPNIS Indigenous preserve, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales has weakened his relationship with Indigenous peoples, ecologists and social movements, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, seems to have broken relations altogether.

In a radio program in 2008, he said: “Left-wing radicals who don’t believe in the oil companies, mining companies, the market and the transnationals can get out.” A year later, his government suspended the legal recognition of Acción Ecológica, a non-governmental organization (and partner of KAIROS Canada) that has worked closely with Indigenous peoples and ecological organizations on resource extraction issues. After a global outcry, recognition was restored.

In a complex referendum on a range of reforms, voters narrowly approved the government’s proposals. The campaign was messy and social movements were divided.

In a sense, this mess is the normal stuff of politics in a democracy—and a huge improvement over the governments of the 1990s that gave free reign to corporations or to the military regimes of decades past. And still: Indigenous and ecological movements remain at a disadvantage as they try to hold the president to the vision of well-being for all.

 

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