The Left in Latin America is staging a major comeback. While most publicists, journalists, academics, government and World Bank officials either celebrate or bemoan the triumph of ‘neoliberalism’, opposition is growing which in time could challenge the dominance of the whole free-market power structure. As yet only loosely associated—in forums, seminars, and international gatherings—this new oppositional force has solid roots in a number of countries and is extending its support from specific regions and classes to the construction of a number of national counter-hegemonic blocs.

To talk about ‘the Left’ in Latin America is misleading because there is more than one, and the older sort remains, like a withering vine, blocking from view the emergence of the new socio-political movements. What many casual observers and not a few journalists and academics refer to as ‘the Left’ includes ‘referents’ who have long abandoned the class struggle and in large part have been assimilated into the liberal political establishment or its ngo periphery.

What may explain the confusion is the manner of this conversion: the ex-leftists frequently resort to intellectual posturing in which they label earlier positions ‘conservative’, ‘out-moded’ or ‘orthodox’, and present themselves as the up-to-date, renovated, modernized, post-something-or-other, democratic Left.

To come to terms with the emergence of a new revolutionary Left in Latin America, it is important firstly to identify the different waves of the Left and to differentiate them; secondly, to discuss their spatial and economic focus, social base, style of political action and political perspective; thirdly, to present data documenting the growth, contradictions and political challenges that confront these burgeoning socio-political movements. Finally, relations between this new Left with past movements will be examined, along with the present confrontations with the us-led ‘neoliberal’ power bloc, and the potential for a socialist transformation.

The stronghold for the resurgence of the Left is found in the countryside: in a number of countries, the 1990s have been characterized by massive land occupation movements by landless peasantry. The most important of these is the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement in Brazil (mst). With hundreds of peasant organizers and hundreds of thousands of active supporters in the countryside, it has forced a national debate among all the political parties on the issue of agrarian reform.footnote1 Most observers of Brazilian politics agree that the mst is the most dynamic, best organized and effective social movement in Brazil today. In Bolivia, the closing of most of the tin mines, and the heavy influx of cheap imports and government-condoned contraband has weakened the mining and industrial unions. In their place the peasant confederations, particularly the coca farmers, have led major confrontations with the State and their us patrons, cutting highways and spearheading general strikes that have paralyzed the country.footnote2 In Paraguay, the National Peasant Federation is at the core of the political mobilization blocking the return of the military and forcing agrarian issues into the centre of debate. Together with other peasant organizations, they led 50,000 peasants through the streets of Asunción to the Presidential Palace and National Congress.footnote3 In Mexico, the major popular struggles have taken place in the countryside: Guerrero, Chiapas and Oaxaca have seen large-scale confrontations between peasants and the State.footnote4 In Ecuador, Columbia, and El Salvador, similar processes of peasant mobilizations have emerged to redefine the national political agenda.

Not all the instances of left resurgence are located in the countryside, however; there is also a renewal of civic unions in Columbia, the growing influence of the Chilean Communist Party in the trade unions, urban movements in Venezuela and Argentina, the emergence of an independent, ‘class oriented’ trade unionism in Mexico City and in the north among auto workers; dissident and combative sectors of the National Labour Confederation (cut) in Brazil; militant teachers’ unions increasingly led by Marxists in Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Mexico and Brazil. Nevertheless, while organized, urban, working-class movements are not absent from the struggle, and in some instances take centre-stage, the truly revolutionary action and movements in this resurgence of the Left are rural.

Many commentators and analysts, even those as distinguished as Eric Hobsbawm, have written of the political eclipse of the peasantry.footnote5 The obituaries have proved premature. There are a number of reasons why demographic arguments about the shrinking size of the rural labour force do not necessarily translate into political analysis—at least in the bulk of Latin American countries. First, because shrinking percentages do not nullify the fact that tens of millions of families continue to live in the countryside. Second, given the crises affecting urban and industrial areas, particularly growing unemployment and poverty, the cities are no longer an encouraging outlet for young peasants. Third, when land occupations are on the agenda, there can be a movement from provincial towns and cities back to the countryside—the ‘re-peasantization’ effect. Fourth, the liberal economy has battered small producers, driving down prices of staples and increasing indebtedness, creating family and social bonds between the mostly young landless sons and daughters involved in the land invasions. Fifth, ‘structural’ considerations apart, a new generation of ‘educated’ (primary or secondary school) peasant leaders has emerged over the last decade with strong organizational capabilities, a sophisticated understanding of national and international politics, and a profound commitment to creating a politically educated set of cadres. Local leaders of both sexes have intervened in regions of conflict, transforming previously spontaneous and easily defeated occupations into well planned and executed mass political actions. The combination of structural conditions and the growth of a new political leadership, built around the principle ‘every member an organizer’, has been instrumental in the swift rise of the ‘peasant movements’.