Latin America and the Caribbean: an overview

As neoliberal policies continue to define the rules of the world economy, great signs of change are being witnessed in many progressive governments of Latin America that are rejecting the Washington Consensus in favour of democratic and people-oriented models of development based on greater regional integration, cooperation and economic justice. Below is a brief overview, some key facts and further resources that relate to Latin America and the Caribbean. 



The countries of Latin America (including South America, Central America and the Caribbean) represent a new hope and inspiration for many people in the majority world, as well as social justice campaigners and progressive analysts.  After decades of economic failure in the region since the 1980s, rising populist regimes have led the way in denouncing the global development orthodoxy commonly known as neoliberalism, while US influence across the hemisphere has declined dramatically over recent years.  As new left-leaning presidents reject the US-backed model of free trade in favour of regional versions of commerce and cooperation, Latin America is being closely watched in its attempts to build an alternative economic model that prioritises pro-poor development, the redistribution of natural resources and people-led social change.

History: Cycles of Debt and Inequity

The control of the economic systems in Latin America has oscillated between the hands of the market and the state ever since the spread of independence in the early 19th century. Following an ultimately troubled period of government intervention in the economy of countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico between 1950 and 1980, diminished confidence in the competency of the state led to a renewed openness for the perceived efficiencies of the private sector.  In the context of a global recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the new acceptance of Reagan and Thatcher's radical free market economics began to take root across the region - pioneered and implemented most famously by Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship in Chile.  When the ‘lost decade' of the 1980s drew to a close, with most of the continent burdened with substantial foreign debt, the region's average GDP per capita was 8.2 percent lower than in 1980.

In the perceived absence of other possibilities, local economists and politicians opened their doors to the so-called Washington Consensus model of development as prescribed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, entailing the structural adjustment policies (SAPs) of trade liberalization, deregulated markets and the privatization of previously state-run industries. Although independent reviews of SAPs in Latin America and the Caribbean reported consequent increases in poverty, inequality and unemployment throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many local leaders readily welcomed the liberalising economic reforms.  Many pundits have since characterised the region as the ‘great neoliberal experiment of the world' - the developing continent where economic liberalisation was carried to the fullest degree under the watchful eye of the neighbouring United States.

The flaws in the World Bank and IMF's rhetoric were fundamentally exposed when Argentina, the poster child it had exalted as an example throughout the 1990s, underwent a spectacular economic collapse in December 2001.  By the time neoliberal policies peaked in influence in 1999, 43.8 percent of the region was living in relative poverty and 18.5 percent in extreme poverty, fuelling a rising tide of popular movements and a search for alternative regional economic models that benefit the poorest members of Latin American societies.

The Search for Alternatives

Led by progressive leaders such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales who both reject the dominant economic globalisation model, unions and trade agreements are forming across the hemisphere to promote and facilitate a more equitable regional integration. Often drawing upon the symbolism of Simon Bolívar, the great liberator of Latin America from colonial rule, government leaders are largely united in their interest in regional integration even though their outlook across the region differs.

Alternatives include ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the People of our Americas (a regional trade bloc based around the principles of social, political and economic integration), the Bank of the South, and UNASUR (Union of South American Nations, a South American political, financial and energy alliance modelled on the EU). Disagreement between members has hampered the successful running of some of these institutions, particularly the Bank of the South, although others have proved to be an expression of successful regional integration, most notably UNASUR which has offered solid political support to its members in the international arena.

Other regional alternatives are based around the sharing of natural resources, in particular Venezuela's oil which Chavez has used to assist other nations in times of energy crisis, or to buy up parts of fellow Latin American nations' debts. The country is making cheap oil available to its neighbours and has implemented trade pacts such as Petrocaribe, which allows Caribbean countries to purchase Venezualan oil under preferential terms of payment. Although critics express concern over a heavy reliance on the volatile commodity of oil, Venezuela does not currently appear in danger of entering into a precarious current account deficit.

As a response to the prevalence and influence of US media sources, the governments of Venezuela and other progressive Latin American countries have launched Telesur, a pan-Latin American television channel funded by participating governments and managed by sympathetic intellectuals and media figures. The region is also making a concerted effort to fully repay IMF debts in order to buy freedom from the Fund's prescriptions, and most governments have rejected the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (notoriously described by President Chavez as an "annexation plan" for the exploitation of Latin America).

The Rising Tide of Popular Movements

Historically characterized by imperialism and inequality, Latin America and the Caribbean have today become a fertile breeding ground for powerful popular uprisings. Across the region, groups of indigenous people, women, people of African descent, landless farmers, the unemployed middle classes and ordinary citizens are raising their voices to insist on social change and economic justice. Their protests, which demand not only their rights but a reinvention of the state along democratic lines, have gone hand in hand with the election of progressive leaders in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela, as well as in important cities such as Bogotá and Mexico City.

The most emblematic recent examples of protest have been the successful mass movement against the privatization of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000, and the spectacular spontaneous uprisings against the attempted coup to overthrow Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 2002 which achieved his reinstatement into the Presidential palace the following day. The multitude of movements have gained strength in numbers through a degree of regional coordination, expressed in gatherings and conferences such as the Americas Social Forum, the People's Summit of the Americas, and Hemispheric Conferences against Militarization. This unity is building against the backdrop of the global justice movement, for which Latin America has a symbolic value after hosting the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001.

Increased Social Responsibility

Although Latin America has a history of extreme economic inequality and neglect of the poor, certain governments are now undertaking serious initiatives to combat poverty. In the most prominent cases of Venezuela and Bolivia, the nationalization of lucrative resources of oil and natural gas provide platforms from which to offer services and redistribute wealth to the marginalised sections of society, and Venezuela is making use of its natural resources to support the poor around the region.

The anti-poverty initiatives include Bolivia's improved health and education systems for those living below the poverty line, Brazil's Zero Fome (Zero Hunger) plan consisting largely of family grants, Bogotá's increased attention to education and human security, Uruguay's ambitious anti-poverty plan, PANES, and Venezuela's series of Misiones, which target health and education through such innovative methods as the exchange of oil for Cuban doctors. Whilst destitution remains unaddressed in some countries across the region, most notably Haiti, in others anti-poverty initiatives are working to effect - attested to by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization's declaration of Latin America and the Caribbean as the best performing region in hunger reduction in the developing world.[4]

Agricultural Inequity

The question of land rights is a striking example of Latin American inequality. Land rights are concentrated in the hands of a staggeringly small minority, and many smaller farmers have been forced to abandon their rural livelihoods and migrate towards the burgeoning city slums. About half the farms in the region have no title deeds, which greatly jeopardises any leverage to claim rights to the lands which the mostly indigenous and afro-descendent communities have inhabited for generations.

Government implementation of promised land reform programs is still limited, however, leaving many farmers without land or lacking the infrastructure and rural credit to make it productive. As a result, farmers' discontent has contributed to the formation of influential peasant movements such as La Via Campesina, or the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) in Brazil which has successfully resettled more than a million people on idle land. The movement has also developed one of a series of independent production co-operatives which are being developed as agricultural alternatives across the region. For example, Misión Zamora  in Venezuala, a government program that functions alongside an urban land distribution initiative, has distributed land titles to over 1.2m farmers and provided them with accompanying training and funding.

Such land reform measures remain deeply controversial in Latin America, as highlighted by the ongoing class conflict instigated by Bolivia's landed elites - a country with one of the most unequal concentrations of land ownership in the world. However, by addressing inequality and helping to solidify the rights of small farmers and indigenous communities, land reform represents a great promise across the region for moving towards an agricultural system that prioritises food sovereignty.  

Rhetoric versus Reality

In some cases progressive change in Latin America is openly visible and quantifiable, but in others it remains unclear whether the rhetoric of charismatic leaders matches the reality on the ground. Economic policy is a particularly ambiguous area. Whilst countries across the region are joining regional financial institutions, many leaders who promised to transform their country's economic system when they gained power have done little to diverge from orthodox economic policy once elected.  Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Ecuador all fall into this category. As President Tabaré Vásquez of Uruguay explained at the Fourth Congress of his party, the Frente Amplio, "aspiring to the impossible is as irresponsible and reactionary as resigning oneself to the status quo". The extent of the continent's implication in the economic downturn since mid-2008, with Argentine and Brazilian stock markets falling dramatically between June and October 2008, further questions the rhetoric about decoupling from international financial institutions (IFIs). The case of Brazil sending its troops to participate in the US-led removal of Haiti's democratically elected president also raises serious concerns about regional integration. Venezuela and Bolivia are the two countries which have undertaken fundamental economic reforms, but the US government and local critics argue that the implementation of the reforms is excessively authoritarian and a threat to democracy.

Under pressure from IFIs, the United States, and certain wealthy Latin Americans who hold influential positions in financial institutions and reject the call for change, the task ahead for the new progressive governments is clearly not easy. Beyond the influence of Venezuela's oil reserves, heavily indebted nations remain at the mercy of Washington's benevolence, and the balance between submission and authoritarianism is an issue of valid contention.  However, important steps have been taken towards an economy that is at the service of the state, the people and the environment, and this alone constitutes a credible challenge to Thatcher's assertion that a fully liberalised market is the only way.

Key facts

For the first time in half a millennium, South America is beginning to take its fate into its own hands...Current developments in South America are of historic significance for the continent and its people. It is well understood in Washington that these developments threaten not only its domination of the hemisphere, but also its global dominance"- Noam Chomsky.[1]

The plight of the poor and social reform has now become part of the mainstream political discourse across most of Latin America. New movements as well as new forms of social mobilization have been unleashed that cannot be undone, and are likely to continue to impact the political agenda and shape the fortunes of political parties well into the future.[2]

"The changes that have taken place in Latin America in recent years are part of an epoch-making appears very possible that Latin America's long quarter-century of economic failure will be reversed in the foreseeable future, and that its hundreds of millions of poor people will be among the main beneficiaries" - Mark Weisbrot.[3]

Economic Alternatives

Regional trade agreements and unions aimed at integration are developing in the region. Together, they form an autonomous attempt to support Latin America's economies on the national and international stage, and to provide feasible alternatives to the dominant economic orthodoxy promoted by the World Bank and the IMF. Whilst some initiatives have been more successful than others, their significance is not to be underestimated.

Major countries in the region have moved to pay off their loans to the IMF ahead of schedule and free themselves of direct oversight from the institution.[4]

A network of labour organizations and citizens' coalitions representing more than 45 million people across the Americas has united to form the Hemispheric Social Alliance, created to facilitate information exchange and joint strategies and actions towards building an alternative, democratic model of development that benefits American peoples. It has compiled an ‘Alternatives for the Americas' report, which insists that "trade and investment should not be ends in themselves, but rather the instruments for achieving just and sustainable development. Citizens must have the right to participate in the formulation, implementation, and evaluation of hemispheric social and economic policies. Central goals of these policies should be to promote economic sovereignty, social welfare, and reduced inequality at all levels".[5]

"Latin American and Caribbean countries - which are divided due to their preferences for more or less open trade regimes or a more or less profound integration - are united by the political discourse according to which all governments highlight loyalty to regional integration schemes"- SELA.[6]

Regional Financial Institutions (RFIs): "Developing nations must create their own mechanisms of finance instead of suffering under those of the IMF and the World Bank, which are institutions of rich nations . . . it is time to wake up"- Lula da Silva, speaking at the inauguration of the Bank of the South.[7]

ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the People of our Americas, is a regional trade bloc based around principles of social, political and economic integration between the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Initially proposed by Venezuela, it was launched in 2004 and now comprises Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica and Honduras.  ALBA emphasizes justice and equality, social welfare and a reinvigorated sense of regional solidarity, which enables economically weaker countries to enter trade negotiations under more favourable terms. It offers support to the region's more fragile economies, prioritizes agricultural self-sufficiency over profit making processes and openly opposes intellectual property rights. ALBA's 5th summit in 2007 saw the establishment of a Council for Social Movements, in effect an institutionalization of the participation of social movements within the bloc. [8]

"ALBA offers a broad space to recover the public sector and consolidate Latin American identity through dialogue. It's like what Bolivian President Evo Morales says of ‘governing by listening to the peoples'" -Ximena de la Barra, UNICEF representative in the Latin American Parliament (Parlatino).[9]One of ALBA's first achievements is the health care for oil program involving 20,000 Cuban doctors and nurses providing primary, preventative community health care across Venezuela - in exchange for cheap oil that keep Cuban cars and factories running.[10]

The Andean Community is a trade pact initiated in 1969 and now running between Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Venezuela.  Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela have agreed on a common tariff although regular disagreement between member states has been an obstacle to the integration process.[11]

CARICOM, the Caribbean common Market, is an agreement formed in 1973. It now comprises all the Common-wealth countries, Suriname and Haiti. In 1992 eight members agreed on a common external tariff and the group has announced plans to move towards a common currency.[12]

MERCOSUR, the Southern Cone Common Market, is aimed at opening up Latin American economies to improve the region's position in the global market. It also strives to co-ordinate macro-economic policies and harmonize domestic legislation to strengthen the regional integration process. The initial members at its formation in 1991 were Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. It now also comprises Venezuela, and Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru as associate members. The Common Market Council is the political and diplomatic representative body of MERCOSUR, and in December 2005 the MECOSUR Parliament was created to represent the political and ideological diversity of MERCUSUR's members. Whilst economic integration has not proved straightforward, MERCOSUR "continues to progress and flourish into a deepened economic and importantly political integration which is also slowly expanding to the rest of the South American region".[13]

At a meeting to mark Venezuela's entry into MERCOSUR, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez said, "We cannot allow this to be purely an economic project, one for the elites and for the transnational companies," a not very oblique reference to the US-sponsored "Free Trade Agreement for the Americas", which has aroused strong public opposition.[14]

The Bank of the South: Together with the Southern Fund and the South American Monetary Unit, the Bank of the South is one of the three pillars of the new alternative financial architecture of Latin America. Conceived by Chavez, the bank was officially inaugurated on December 9, 2007. Its seven member countries are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. The bank serves to express financial independence from the IFIs and finance further regional programs striving for energy sovereignty, food security and intraregional trade.  However, disagreement between member states on the degree of necessary economic reform has made establishing a strategy a troublesome process, and has threatened its viability as a counter-hegemonic alternative.[15]

UNASUR: The Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, is a South American political, financial and energy alliance, modelled on the EU and inaugurated in Brasilia on May 23, 2008. Its founding treaty states: "The UNASUR member states identify with these common values: the unlimited respect for the sovereignty, integrity, and inviolability of the territory of the member states; the self-determination of its peoples; solidarity; cooperation; peace; democracy; civic participation and pluralism; universal human rights; indivisible and interdependent; the reduction of asymmetries, and harmony with nature for sustainable development."[16]

As a response to the violent attacks of separatist groups on the offices of the government of President Evo Morales of Bolivia on 9 September 2008, UNASUR met in Santiago on September 25 to consider the country's situation, and consequently stepped up to express its full and decided support for Morales' government.[17]

The significant financial resources of the RFIs are essentially managed by their own Latin American governments, a significantly different state of affairs from that of the IFIs. In the case of the IFIs, the power to make decisions is sharply asymmetric, slanted toward industrialized nations, with roles for the United States and the European Union that shut out other nations. However, in the RFIs, responsibility for the decisions made-whether good or bad-lies squarely on the shoulders of the Latin American governments. It is obvious why Latin governments, especially the progressive ones, are trying to strengthen some of these RFIs, even creating the Bank of the South, to finance their own projects without relying on the global IFIs.[18]

RFIs present great opportunities for autonomous regional development, but their operations require extensive reforms and updates. The fact that they are in the hands of Latin American governments is no excuse for avoiding reforms; rather it presents a mandate to carry out the necessary transformations.[19]

Oil-sharing economic initiatives:

Kirchner, Chávez and Lula have announced plans to build a 5,000-mile pipeline that will transport Venezuelan natural gas through Brazil to Argentina; Buenos Aires and Brasilia just signed a deal whereby Argentina will ship 1.5 million cubic meters of gas to Brazil in the summer and Brazil will provide Argentina with 700 megawatts of electricity in the winter. In March the government-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) announced that it would spend $3 billion to buy 36 oil tankers from a Brazilian shipbuilder.[20]

"Venezuela is making cheap oil available to a majority of its neighbours, including a quid pro quo with Paraguay for support of its bid to join MERCOSUR. But oil does more than grease Chávez's diplomatic wheels: Energy integration, he insists, will lay the foundation of Latin American unity"- Greg Grandin.[21]

Petrocaribe is a Caribbean oil alliance with Venezuela, allowing the purchase of oil under conditions of preferential payment. Founded in June 29, 2005, it now includes Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Surinam, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The payment system enables the Caribbean countries to buy Venezuelan oil at market value, obliging them to pay only a small amount upfront. The rest is payable through a 25 year repayment scheme at 1% interest. The Caribbean countries can purchase up to 185,000 barrels of oil per day on these terms, and as an alternative, can make repayments to Venezuela with their own produce such bananas, rice, sugar, and in the Cuban case, doctors.[22]

Plans are under way to establish PetroAmérica, the first fully integrated, Latin American energy company.[23]

Critics express concern at such alternatives' dependency on Venezuela's oil trade, since petroleum currently constitutes about 93 percent of Venezuela's exports[24] and oil prices have fallen nearly 50 percent from a peak of over $130 in July to their current $64.48 per barrel.[25] However, the statistics suggest that a situation where Venezuela runs into an unsustainable current account deficit is unlikely in the foreseeable future.[26]

"The dynamic has very largely flowed from Caracas, with the election of a leftist president dedicated to using Venezuela's rich resources for the benefit of the population rather than for wealth and privilege at home and abroad, and to promote the regional integration that is so desperately needed as a prerequisite for independence, for democracy, and for meaningful development"- Noam Chomsky.[27]

Venezuela supplied Argentina with fuel oil to help stave off an energy crisis, and bought almost a third of Argentine debt issued in 2005, one element of a region-wide effort to free the countries from the control of the US-dominated IMF after two decades of disastrous effects of conformity to its rules" - Noam Chomsky.[28]

Media alternatives:

Venezuela, along with Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Cuba, recently launched the first Latin American news channel, TeleSur, to offer an alternative to foreign corporate media.[29]

The extent and range of the development of innovative economic models in Latin America defines the continent's present identity on the global stage; nowhere else is such a break with globally accepted economic ideas being attempted. Following decades of sustained economic failure in Latin America, a number of these models promise an effective independent economic alternative to the rigid and often disastrous prescriptions of the US and the International Monetary Fund. If they achieve the sustained success promised by leaders such as Hugo Chavez, by redistributing resources and thereby lifting the millions of poor Latin Americans out of their misery, they may serve as an example of a more autonomous and equitable development strategy to further developing continents.

People's Movements

Across the continent, groups of people who have suffered decades of social exclusion and economic subjugation are mobilizing to call for change, often with significant results.

After two centuries of the United States treating Latin America as if it were its backyard, organized popular movements across Latin America are changing the dynamics of the hemisphere. By electing more popular governments in eight countries and by organizing tens of millions of people, they have put up strong resistance to the U.S. agenda of corporate-led globalization, and they have created real alternatives on the ground. These efforts, combined with the Venezuela-led effort for alternative regional integration, not only provide the strongest counter-weight to the U.S. agenda anywhere in the world, but also offer multiple paths towards a better future for millions of people in the Americas.[30]

Some of the most hopeful democratic advances in Latin America are not the result of official policies, but of social movements harnessing their own power. The thousands of poor peasants who make up the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil have claimed the right to settle on and farm close to 7 million hectares, or 43,000 square miles, of unused land-a territory a little larger than the state of Ohio.[31]

"Across Latin America a similarly explosive multiplier effect is under way, with indigenous movements redrawing the continent's political map, demanding not just "rights" but a reinvention of the state along deeply democratic lines. In Bolivia and Ecuador, indigenous groups have shown they have the power to topple governments. In Argentina, when mass protests ousted five presidents in 2001 and 2002, the words of Mexico's Zapatistas were shouted on the streets of Buenos Aires"- Naomi Klein.[32]

Movements have arisen such as the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, the Zapatista movement of indigenous people in Chiapas, Mexico, the movement of the National Indigenous Confederation in Ecuador to promote national revolts, as well as the Via Campesina movement with its collection of local peasant organizations from around the world. In many countries there are struggles for land, such as the Landless Peasants' Movement (MST) in Brazil, the indigenous peoples and peasant communities in Colombia, the Mapuche Indians in Chile and the indigenous and peasant movements in Bolivia.[33]

"There's a faith that's moving mountains, mountains of people. Which pressure will win out in the end? The pressure of the people that need to move the mountains merely to survive?...Or the pressure of the economically powerful? These popular currents benefit from being the real political majority" - Hugo Chavez.[34]

Social forums in Latin America:

April 1998 saw the first Peoples' Summit of the Peoples of America in Santiago, Chile. Held at the same time as the second official Summit of heads of state of the Americas, it signified a growing resistance to traditional power structures. This resistance is characterized by a spirit mobilization and the search for alternatives. Beyond politics, it is a movement of people demanding their very humanity. They do so by stating that nutritious food, a comfortable place to live, a clean and healthy environment, health care and education are human rights. The third Summit of the Peoples of America, held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, October 2005, engendered the collapse of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

The Americas Social Forum, a regional offshoot of the global World Social Forum process, held a successful 3rd summit in Guatemala City 7-12 October 2008. A multitude of movements, including indigenous and women's groups, found voice around the central plenary, "Failures of Capitalism: Our Struggle for Land Reform and the Integration of Peoples to the ALBA". The overall themes defined by ASF3 helped to reveal and sharpen common trends amongst the movements. Primary among these were the militarization of the Americas, bilateral trade agreements, environmental justice and sovereignty, control over resources and the criminalization of social movements.[35]

Important  examples of social mobilisation:


Venezuela, since 1989, has seen important mobilisations that inaugurated the mass social struggles against the International Monetary Fund that spread across the globe through the 1990s. Even more spectacular were the enormous popular mobilisations of April 12, 2002, spontaneous manifestations against the coup attempt to overthrow Hugo Chávez. These mobilisations directly achieved the return of Hugo Chávez to the presidential palace of Miraflores on April 13, 2002. These mass popular mobilisations are a decisive factor in the existence and survival of the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.[36]


New Year's Day 1994, the day of the implementation of the North Americas Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), saw the powerful Zapatista uprising, where farmers and indigenous people mobilized against the new trade liberalization reforms and the reversal of their constitutional right to communal land.[37]


"Cochabamba was not well known internationally before the water wars of 2000. But in that year events in Cochabamba became an inspiration for people throughout the world who are concerned with freedom and justice, as a result of the courageous and successful struggle against privatization of water, which awakened international solidarity and was a fine and encouraging demonstration of what can be achieved by committed activism" -Noam Chomsky.[38]


The renewal of progressive politics in Argentina after the country's political and economic crisis in 2001 is largely attributable to the mobilization of piquiteros, popular assembly participants, trade unionists, the middle classes who had lost their life savings, and ordinary people who protested in the streets, demanding that every last politician be removed.[39]

For many Latin Americans and analysts the greatest promise of change is in the streets, "in the protests of the indebted farmers, bankrupted campesinos, the chronically unemployed and surviving trade unionists... Latin American political and economic structures are extremely unyielding and have only ceded ground when faced with the reality or imminent possibility of massive popular mobilization."[40]

Land Reform

In Latin America and the Caribbean, one of the major obstacles to the region's development has been the inequity within its societies, particularly in the distribution of wealth, the high concentration of land tenure and unequal access to the means of production, especially for small farmers. This has lead to greater poverty and food insecurity.[41]

In the late 1990s, two percent of all farm owners continued to control 90 percent of all farmland, while at the other extreme, 50 percent of farm operations took place on two percent of the land. Such a land distribution exacerbates inequities, because small farmers are progressively restricted to unproductive, poor-quality land, whilst the most fertile land is concentrated in the ever fewer hands of the economically powerful. In the early 1990s there were 15.7 million small family farms of under 3 hectares in Latin America, but they accounted for less than 7 percent of the 700 million hectares under cultivation. About half of the family farms in Latin America and the Caribbean have no deeds; a severe threat to indigenous, peasant and Afro-American communities' control over their traditional lands.[42]

Across the continent, people's alternative agrarian initiatives are gathering momentum. Particularly striking examples in this "context of flourishing local experiences"[43] are the Beneficio Majomut coffee growers' union in Mexico and the El Ceibo cocoa cooperative in Bolivia. The Majomut Union is a social grassroots organization which unifies farmers from different communities in the processing and marketing of their coffee, through the exchange of experiences from farmer to farmer and community participation[44]. El Ceibo is an umbrella organization which markets cocoa independently and under fair trade certification, supporting farmer orientated agricultural practices and organic production to ensure the sustained development of the local population and the preservation of the rainforest.[45]

Whilst some changes have been made or promised, many farmers across the region are unsatisfied by the current extent of agrarian reform. Some families have been waiting for the expropriation of rural areas for more than five years, and many of those who have already obtained a piece of land do not have access to the rural credit and infrastructure needed to guarantee  adequate houses, basic sanitation, schools, and hospitals.[46]


In November of 2006, the Bolivian Senate passed an ambitious land reform law which aims to redistribute some 77,000 square miles of land, an area the size of Nebraska. This reform, if fully implemented, could benefit millions of poor Bolivians. The government has already given poor rural families some 8500 square miles of state-owned land.[47]  However, wealthy land owners in the Santa Cruz region have reacted strongly against their diminishing control over land and resources. In September 2008 their resistance escalated into a violent massacre of campesinos, throwing the country into political crisis.[48]


Farmers' discontent at evictions, expropriations and displacements has engendered a reactionary movement, most prominently embodied in the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) in Brazil. The MST consists of a group of landless peasant organizations demanding the right to inhabit and cultivate unused land. Through occupations of idle land, the MST has settled more than a million people on fifteen million acres whilst forcing agrarian reform to the top of the political agenda. Brazil's government has formally recognized MST's rights to farm these lands. The movement's many independent production cooperatives process, market and distribute farm products while actively promoting organic farming methods. The MST has solidarity networks around the world, most notably the FMST, the US based Friends of the MST.[49]

The struggle for land is complex. Perhaps the biggest triumph of the landless is that the campesinos have remained on their original settlements rather than adding themselves to the burgeoning belt of poverty seen in Brazil's big cities. However, beyond that their produce must compete with the goods of multinational agricultural corporations, who are often empowered by intellectual property rights and their place in the market.[50]


After the collapse of the Soviet market in 1990, Cuba responded to the consequent absence of an export market by introducing innovative agrarian reform. Strategies included the break-up of huge state controlled farms into smaller worker-owned and managed farm collectives, as well as the reorientation of agriculture towards basic human needs.  Vast monocultures of sugarcane have been replaced by a diversification of crops, crop rotation, inter-cropping, manuring and soil conservation.  The success of the initiative demonstrates the potential of a more ecologically and socially sensitive agricultural model on a national scale.[51]


Misión Zamora in Venezuela has distributed land titles to over 1,200,000 farmers, hand in hand with technical and marketing assistance, infrastructure services and funding. It has also given out land to farming co-operatives.[52] Under the new initiative, the land distributed to the peasants is still owned by the state. The government encourages the formation of peasant cooperatives and collective farms, where the state is to provide housing, health care and education. The law also gives the government power to dictate how private land can be used, based on soil conditions and the country's food-security needs.[53]

Chávez has also planned urban land reform in Venezuela as part of his program to empower the poor.. "It's based on the principle that poor people do better when they're given the tools they need to leave poverty behind. One of the means we've been using is urban land redistribution, and our goal is to redistribute 500 thousand urban land titles, which would benefit more than 2 million people in the biggest cities. And most of these people have never before owned land"- Hugo Chávez.[54]

Chávez' land reform strategies are amongst the elements of his anti-poverty plans most contested by Venezuela's rich minority, principally landowners. Others express concern that under the new law, the land distributed to the peasants is still owned by the state. The government encourages the formation of peasant cooperatives and collective farms where the state is to provide housing, health care and education. The law also gives the government power to dictate how private land can be used, based on soil conditions and the country's food security needs.[55]

In some cases progressive governments' attempts to create a more equitable agricultural system are fuelling deep rooted class conflict. In others leaders, social movements and social cooperatives are making important progress towards a system that priorities the environment, food sovereignty and the rights of rural and indigenous people over the potential profits of a wealthy minority and multinational corporations.  There is much more to be done, but the democratization of the Latin American agricultural system has begun. 

Anti-Poverty Programs

A growing commitment to anti-poverty initiatives is taking place in certain parts of the continent. This has contributed to all countries except Haiti attaining a GDP over two percent in 2006, an achievement that has not been seen in Latin America for over 20 years.[56]

Such initiatives have also contributed to Latin America and the Caribbean's status as the best performing region in hunger reduction in the developing world.[57] This status is largely attributable to anti-hunger initiatives in certain progressively governed countries, mainly in South America, whilst others, such as Haiti where over 45 percent of the population are hungry, remain starkly deprived.[58]


Evo Morales re-nationalized Bolivia's hydrocarbon reserves in 2006, the first year of his presidency. With 82% of hydrocarbon revenues now allocated to the state, the government's hydrocarbon revenues increased by an estimated 3.4 percent of GDP[59]. The increased revenue is allowing the government to pursue its plans to increase access to education and health care, and pursue a development strategy that allows productivity and economic growth to accelerate, and boost incomes among the 65 percent of Bolivia's population that lives below the poverty line.


Brazil has launched a Zero Fome (Zero Hunger) program. This includes Bolsa Família, a family grant implemented in every Brazilian municipality in October 2006 and aimed at combating poverty and encouraging the emancipation of the poorest families, which has benefited 25 percent of the estimated population.[60] The UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) states that the Bolsa Familia "has played a decisive role" in Brazil's reduction of poverty and extreme poverty rates from 2000 to 2006 by 4.2 percentage points.[61]


In Colombia, the progressive mayor of Bogotá, Garzón, has implemented various social assistance programs inspired by Brazil's Zero Fome. These include an increase in budget devoted to schools and a human security model based on community policing, with specific emphasis on the areas of the city with the highest levels of poverty and insecurity. Their success has helped to make populist politics a credible future alternative to the conservative rule of President Alvaro Uribe. [62]


Uruguay's Ministry of Social Development's (MIDES) official report reveals that Uruguay's ambitious anti-poverty program, PANES, reached 83,000 households and 350,000 beneficiaries between March 2005 and July 2006.[63]


Through Venezuela's increased emphasis on social health, including Misión Barrio Adentro, which employs Cuban doctors to administer primary and family care to Venezuela's popular sectors, the infant mortality rate fell by 30 percent between 1999 and 2003. A mass child immunization campaign has decreased infection rates by 15 percent and the injection of millions of bolívares into the country's school system has contributed to the opening of 3,000 new schools and considerable improvements to the education available to the poor.[64]

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela reduced its poverty and extreme poverty rates by 18.4 and 12.3 percentage points, respectively, between 2002 and 2006. Thanks to rapid GDP growth and the ongoing implementation of broad social programmes, in 2006 alone the poverty rate was lowered from 37.1 percent to 30.2 percent and the indigence rate from 15.9 percent to percent. This swift pace of progress considerably brightens the prospects for further reductions in poverty and significantly increases the feasibility of meeting the first target associated with the first Millennium Development Goal'.[65]

CEPAL reports that Venezuelans have the highest level of confidence in public institutions in Latin America.[66] Their confidence is reflected in Venezuela's 8.5 percent GDP growth in 2006, the second highest in the continent[67].

"These ambitious programs have distinguished Venezuela as one of the most progressive democracies in the world"- Deborah James, Global Exchange.[68]  

Further resources









[1] Noam Chomsky, ‘The Problems of Latin America and the Caribbean' Zmag, 6 October 2008, retrieved 15 October 2008, <>

[2] Anastasia Moloney, ‘The Challenge of South American's Populist Left', World Politics Review, 12 January 2009, retrieved 19 January 2009 <>

[3] Mark Weisbrot, Latin America: the end of an era , CEPR, Winter 2006, retrieved 14 November 2008, <>

[4] Mark Engler, ‘Latin America Unchained: Will the U.S. lose its influence over countries that have paid off their IMF loans?' Democracy Uprising, 16 March, 2006, retrieved 10 November 2008, <>

[5] ART, Alliance for Responsible Trade, ‘Alternatives for the Americas' ART, December 2002, retrieved 19 November 2008, <>

[6] SELA, ‘Conclusions of Meeting of Experts: "Interaction between trade policies, negotiations of trade agreements and regional integration in Latin America and the Caribbean"' Caracas, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, 22 October 2007,  p.83

[7] Mark Weisbrot, ‘A Bank of Their Own: Latin America Casting off Washington's Shackles' , CEPR, 5 November 2007, retrieved 15 October 2008,>

[8] Miriela Fernandez Lozano, ‘From Protest to Proposals for Integration' , Bilaterals, 25 October 2008, retrieved 10 November 2008,

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Deborah James, ‘World Social Forum, Venezuela: Another World is possible', Common Dreams, 4 October 2005, retrieved 13 November 2008, <>

[11] CEPAL, ‘Desarrollo reciente de los procesos de integración en América Latina' (unpublished paper, 1994, cited in Green, 2003) 

[12] Ibid.

[13] South Centre, ‘Mercosur's Experience and Progress towards true regional Integration', South Centre report, August 2008,

[14] Gwynne Dyer, Guardian, 25 October 2005; Adam Thomson, Financial Times, 11 December 2005; Mark Weisbrot, CEPR release 28 January 2006, cited in  Noam Chomsky, Failed States, New York, Owl Books, 2006, p.257.

[15] María José Romero and Carlos Bedoya   ‘The Bank of the South: The Search for an alternative to IFIs' , IFIs Latin American Monitor, September, 2008, retrieved 10 November 2008,  <>

[16] Tony Phillips, ‘The Bolivian Crisis, the OAS, and UNASUR', Americas Policy Program, 30 September  2008, retrieved 4 November 2008 <>

[17] Ibid.

[18] Eduardo Gudynas ,'An Introduction to Regional Financial Institutions in Latin America' Americas Policy Program Column, 12 August 2008, retrieved 11 November 2008,  <>

[19] Ibid.

[20] Greg Grandin, ‘Latin America's New Consensus' The Nation, 1 May  2006, retrieved 13  November 2008,  <>

[21] Ibid.

[22] PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.) ‘Petrocaribe', PDVSA,  Venezuela, 2005, retrieved 10 November 2008 <>

[23] Deborah James, ‘World Social Forum, Venezuela: Another World is possible', Common Dreams, October 4 2005, retrieved November 13 2008, <>

[24] Banco Central de Venezuela, 2008, cited in Mark Weisbrot and Rebecca Ray, ‘Oil Prices and Venezuela's Economy', Monthly Review, 18 November 2008, retrieved 24 November 2008, <>

[25] Venezuelan Energy and Petroleum Ministry, 2008, cited in Mark Weisbrot and Rebecca Ray, ‘Oil Prices and Venezuela's Economy', Monthly Review, 18 November 2008, retrieved 24 November 2008, <>

[26] Mark Weisbrot and Rebecca Ray, ‘Oil Prices and Venezuela's Economy', Monthly Review, 18 November 2008, retrieved 24 November 2008, <>

[27] Noam Chomsky, ‘The Problems of Latin America and the Caribbean' Zmag, 6 October 2008, retrieved 15 October 2008

[28] Gwynne Dyer, Guardian 25 October 2005, Adam Thomson, Financial Times, 11 December 2005. Mark Weisbrot, CEPR release 28 January 2006, cited in  Noam Chomsky, Failed States, New York, Owl Books, 2006, p.257  **

[29] Deborah James, ‘World Social Forum, Venezuela: Another World is possible', Common Dreams, 4 October 2005, retrieved 13 November  2008, <>

[30] Nadia Martinez, ‘Latin America Rising' Yes! Magazine, 25 May 2007, retrieved 15 October 2008, <>

[31] Ibid.

[32] Naomi Klein, ‘The threat of hope in Latin America', The Nation, 4 November 2005, retrieved 13 November 2008, <>

[33] German Velez, ‘Growing Diversity Project: Local management of biodiversity in Latin America. Prospects and issues for the international workshop', LA-RD Summary Report, 20 January 2002, retrieved 10 November 2008, <>

[34] Hugo Chavez, Interview with Mark Weisbrot, Znet, 2 December 2003, retrieved 13 November 2008, <>

[35] Michael Leon Guerrero,  Cindy Wiesner‘Reflections on the third Americas Social Forum', Latin America in Movement, 31 October 2008, retrieved 24 November 2008,  <>

[36] Eric Toussaint, ‘Latin America: Characteristics of the experiences underway in Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia' IV Online Magazine : IV402, July 2008, retrieved 14 November 2008, <>

[37] Duncan Green, The Silent Revolution: the Rise and Crisis of Market Economics in Latin America, London, LAB, 2003,  p.124

[38] Noam Chomsky, ‘The Problems of Latin America and the Caribbean' Znet, 6 October 2008, retrieved 14 November 2008, <>

[39] Patrick Barrett, Daniel Chavez and César Rodríguez-Gavarito, The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn  London, Pluto Press, 2008, p.32

[40] Patrick Barrett, Daniel Chavez and César Rodríguez-Gavarito, The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn  London, Pluto Press, 2008,  p.32

[41] German Velez, ‘Growing Diversity Project: Local management of biodiversity in Latin America. Prospects and issues for the international workshop', LA-RD Summary Report, 20 January 2002, retrieved 10 November 2008, p.1 

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid, p.5 

[44] John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander (eds), Alternatives to Economic Globalization, San Francisco, Berrett Koehler Publishers, International Forum on Globalization San Francisco, 2004, p.255

[45] Ibid, p.260

[46] MST Informa No. 152, ‘Fight for Agrarian Reform and for free assembly', MST, 11 August 2008, retrieved 12 November 2008, <>

[47] Mark Weisbrot, ‘Bolivia's Economy: the First Year' CEPR issue brief, January 2007, retrieved 12 November 2008, <>

[48] Share the World's Resources, Spotlight on Bolivian Crisis, retrieved 21 January 2009, <>

[49] John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander (eds), Alternatives to Economic Globalization , San Francisco, Berrett Koehler Publishers, International Forum on Globalization San Francisco, 2004, p.258; Patrick W. Quirk, ‘How to be a good friend (when you're 400 miles away)', Foreign Policy in Focus, 2 September, 2007, retrieved 13 November 2008, <>

[50] Raúl Zibechi, ‘Landless Workers Movement: The Difficult Construction of a New World' Americas Policy Program Report, September 26, 2006, retrieved 12 November 2008, <>

[51] John Cavanagh and Jerry Mander (eds), op cit., p.228

[52] Hugo Chavez, Interview with Mark Weisbrot, Znet, 2 December 2003, retrieved 13 November 2008. <>

[53] Reed Lindsay, ‘Chavez Foes Slam Land Grants' (Food First, October 27th 2003, accessed 12th November 2008, <>

[54] Hugo Chavez, Interview with Mark Weisbrot, Znet, 2 December 2003, retrieved 13 November 2008, <>

[55] Reed Lindsay, ‘Chavez Foes Slam Land Grants', Food First, 27 October 2003, retrieved 12 November 2008, <>

[56] CEPAL. ‘Social Panorama of Latin America', CEPAL, November 2007, chapter 1, p.49

[57] FAO, ‘Monitoring MDG and WFS targets: Latin America and the Caribbean', FAO Working Paper Series, February 2006, p. 23

[58] Ibid, p.9

[59] IMF, International Monetary Fund Country Report No. 06/270,  IMF report, July 2006

[60] Patrick Barrett, Daniel Chavez and César Rodríguez-Gavarito, The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn, London, Pluto Press, 2008, p.54

[61] CEPAL, ‘Social Panorama of Latin America' , CEPAL report,  November 2007 , summary, p.19

[62] Patrick Barrett, Daniel Chavez and César Rodríguez-Gavarito, ‘The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn' (Pluto Press, 2008)

[63]  Mides, ‘Perfil social de la población incluida en el PANES' (Social profile of the population included in PANES) Montevideo, Ministry of Social Development of Uruguay, 2006.

[64] Hugo Chavez, Interview with Mark Weisbrot, Znet, 2nd December 2003,

[65] CEPAL, ‘Social Panorama of Latin America' , CEPAL report,  November 2007 , summary, p. 18

[66] Ibid, chapter 1, p.95

[67] Ibid, chapter 1, p. 49

[68] Deborah James, ‘World Social Forum, Venezuela: Another World is possible', Common Dreams, 4 October  2005, retrieved 13 November 2008, <>