FLASKBACK | 1997 | Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America

“NGOs emphasize projects, not movements; they “mobilize” people to produce at the margins but not to struggle to control the basic means of production and wealth; they focus on technical financial assistance of projects, not on structural conditions that shape the everyday lives of people. The NGOs co-opt the language of the left: “popular power,” “empowerment,” “gender equality,” “sustainable development,” “bottom-up leadership.” The problem is that this language is linked to a framework of collaboration with donors and government agencies that subordinate practical activity to non-confrontational politics.”

by James Petra

Monthly Review

1997, Volume 49, Issue 07 (December)

By the early 1980s the more perceptive sectors of the neoliberal ruling classes realized that their policies were polarizing the society and provoking large-scale social discontent. Neoliberal politicians began to finance and promote a parallel strategy “from below,” the promotion of “grassroots” organization with an “anti-statist” ideology to intervene among potentially conflictory classes, to create a “social cushion.” These organizations were financially dependent on neoliberal sources and were directly involved in competing with socio-political movements for the allegiance of local leaders and activist communities. By the 1990s these organizations, described as “nongovernmental,” numbered in the thousands and were receiving close to four billion dollars world-wide.

Neoliberalism and the NGOs

The confusion concerning the political character of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stems from their earlier history in the 1970s during the days of the dictatorships. In this period they were active in providing humanitarian support to the victims of the military dictatorship and denouncing human rights violations. The NGOs supported “soup kitchens” which allowed victimized families to survive the first wave of shock treatments administered by the neoliberal dictatorships. This period created a favorable image of NGOs even among the left. They were considered part of the “progressive camp.”

Even then, however, the limits of the NGOs were evident. While they attacked the human rights violations of local dictatorships, they rarely denounced the U.S. and European patrons who financed and advised them. Nor was there a serious effort to link the neoliberal economic policies and human rights violations to the new turn in the imperialist system. Obviously the external sources of funding limited the sphere of criticism and human rights action.

As opposition to neoliberalism grew in the early 1980s, the U.S. and European governments and the World Bank increased their funding of NGOs. There is a direct relation between the growth of social movements challenging the neoliberal model and the effort to subvert them by creating alternative forms of social action through the NGOs. The basic point of convergence between the NGOs and the World Bank was their common opposition to “statism.” On the surface the NGOs criticized the state from a “left” perspective defending civil society, while the right did so in the name of the market. In reality, however, the World Bank, the neoliberal regimes, and western foundations co-opted and encouraged the NGOs to undermine the national welfare state by providing social services to compensate the victims of the multinational corporations (MNCs). In other words, as the neoliberal regimes at the top devastated communities by inundating the country with cheap imports, extracting external debt payment, abolishing labor legislation, and creating a growing mass of low-paid and unemployed workers, the NGOs were funded to provide “self-help” projects, “popular education,” and job training, to temporarily absorb small groups of poor, to co-opt local leaders, and to undermine anti-system struggles.

The NGOs became the “community face” of neoliberalism, intimately related to those at the top and complementing their destructive work with local projects. In effect the neoliberals organized a “pincer” operation or dual strategy. Unfortunately many on the left focused only on “neoliberalism” from above and the outside (International Monetary Fund, World Bank) and not on neoliberalism from below (NGOs, micro-enterprises). A major reason for this oversight was the conversion of many ex-Marxists to the NGO formula and practice. Anti-Statism was the ideological transit ticket from class politics to “community development,” from Marxism to the NGOs.

Typically, NGO ideologues counterpose “state” power to “local” power. State power is, they argue, distant from its citizens, autonomous, and arbitrary, and it tends to develop interests different from and opposed to those of its citizens, while local power is necessarily closer and more responsive to the people. But apart from historical cases where the reverse has also been true, this leaves out the essential relation between state and local power—the simple truth that state power wielded by a dominant, exploiting class will undermine progressive local initiatives, while that same power in the hands of progressive forces can reinforce such initiatives.

The counterposition of state and local power has been used to justify the role of NGOs as brokers between local organizations, neoliberal foreign donors (World Bank, Europe, or the United States) and the local free market regimes. But the effect is to strengthen neoliberal regimes by severing the link between local struggles and organizations and national/international political movements. The emphasis on “local activity” serves the neoliberal regimes since it allows its foreign and domestic backers to dominate macro-socio-economic policy and to channel most of the state’s resources toward subsidies for export capitalists and financial institutions.

So while the neoliberals were transferring lucrative state properties to the private rich, the NGOs were not part of the trade union resistance. On the contrary they were active in local private projects, promoting the private enterprise discourse (self-help) in the local communities by focusing on micro-enterprises. The NGOs built ideological bridges between the small scale capitalists and the monopolies benefitting from privatization—all in the name of “anti-statism” and the building of civil societies. While the rich accumulated vast financial empires from the privatization, the NGO middle class professionals got small sums to finance offices, transportation, and small-scale economic activity.

The important political point is that the NGOs depoliticized sectors of the population, undermined their commitment to public employees, and co-opted potential leaders in small projects. NGOs abstain from public school teacher struggles, as the neoliberal regimes attack public education and public educators. Rarely if ever do NGOs support the strikes and protests against low wages and budget cuts. Since their educational funding comes from the neoliberal governments, they avoid solidarity with public educators in struggle. In practice, “non-governmental” translates into anti-public-spending activities, freeing the bulk of funds for neoliberals to subsidize export capitalists while small sums trickle from the government to NGOs.

In reality non-governmental organizations are not non-governmental. They receive funds from overseas governments or work as private subcontractors of local governments. Frequently they openly collaborate with governmental agencies at home or overseas. This “subcontracting” undermines professionals with fixed contracts, replacing them with contingent professionals. The NGOs cannot provide the long-term comprehensive programs that the welfare state can furnish. Instead they provide limited services to narrow groups of communities. More importantly, their programs are not accountable to the local people but to overseas donors. In that sense NGOs undermine democracy by taking social programs out of the hands of the local people and their elected officials to create dependence on non-elected, overseas officials and their locally anointed officials.

NGOs shift people’s attention and struggles away from the national budget and toward self-exploitation to secure local social services. This allows the neoliberals to cut social budgets and transfer state funds to subsidize bad debts of private banks, and provide loans to exporters. Self exploitation (self-help) means that, in addition to paying taxes to the state and not getting anything in return, working people have to work extra hours with marginal resources, and expend scarce energies to obtain services that the bourgeoisie continues to receive from the state. More fundamentally, the NGO ideology of “private voluntaristic activity” undermines the sense of the “public”: the idea that the government has an obligation to look after its citizens and provide them with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that the political responsibility of the state is essential for the well-being of citizens. Against this notion of public responsibility, the NGOs foster the neoliberal idea of private responsibility for social problems and the importance of private resources to solve these problems. In effect they impose a double burden on the poor who continue to pay taxes to finance the neoliberal state to serve the rich, but are left with private self-exploitation to take care of their own needs.

NGOs emphasize projects, not movements; they “mobilize” people to produce at the margins but not to struggle to control the basic means of production and wealth; they focus on technical financial assistance of projects, not on structural conditions that shape the everyday lives of people. The NGOs co-opt the language of the left: “popular power,” “empowerment,” “gender equality,” “sustainable development,” “bottom-up leadership.” The problem is that this language is linked to a framework of collaboration with donors and government agencies that subordinate practical activity to non-confrontational politics. The local nature of NGO activity means that “empowerment” never goes beyond influencing small areas of social life, with limited resources, and within the conditions permitted by the neoliberal state and macro-economy.

The NGOs and their post-Marxist professional staff directly compete with the socio-political movements for influence among the poor, women, and the racially excluded. Their ideology and practice diverts attention from the sources and solutions of poverty (looking downward and inward instead of upward and outward). To speak of micro-enterprises, instead of the elimination of exploitation by the overseas banks, as the solution, is based on the notion that the problem is one of individual initiative rather than the transference of income overseas. The NGO’s aid affects small sectors of the population, setting up competition between communities for scarce resources, generating insidious distinctions and inter- and intra-community rivalries, thus undermining class solidarity. The same is true among the professionals: each sets up its NGO to solicit overseas funds. They compete by presenting proposals more congenial to the overseas donors, while claiming to speak for their followers.

The net effect is a proliferation of NGOs that fragment poor communities into sectoral and sub-sectoral groupings unable to see the larger social picture that afflicts them and even less able to unite in struggle against the system. Recent experience also demonstrates that foreign donors finance projects during “crises”—political and social challenges to the status quo. Once the movements have ebbed they shift funding to NGO-style “collaboration,” fitting the NGO projects into the neoliberal agenda. Economic development compatible with the “free market” rather than social organization for social change becomes the dominant item on the funding agenda.

The structure and nature of NGOs, with their “apolitical” posture and their focus on self-help, depoliticizes and demobilizes the poor. They reinforce the electoral processes encouraged by the neoliberal parties and mass media. Political education about the nature of imperialism, and the class basis of neoliberalism, the class struggle between exporters and temporary workers, are avoided. Instead the NGOs discuss “the excluded,” the “powerless,” “extreme poverty,” “gender or racial discrimination,” without moving beyond the superficial symptom to the social system that produces these conditions. Incorporating the poor into the neoliberal economy through purely “private voluntary action,” the NGOs create a political world where the appearance of solidarity and social action cloaks a conservative conformity with the international and national structure of power.

It is no coincidence that as NGOs have become dominant in certain regions, independent class political action has declined, and neoliberalism goes uncontested. The bottom line is that the growth of NGOs coincides with increased funding under neoliberalism and the deepening of poverty everywhere. Despite the claims of many local successes, the overall power of neoliberalism stands unchallenged and the NGOs increasingly search for niches in the interstices of power.

The problem of formulating alternatives has been hindered in another way too. Many of the former leaders of guerrilla and social movements, trade union and popular women’s organizations have been co-opted by the NGOs. Some have undoubtedly been attracted by the hope—or the illusion—that this might give them access to levers of power which would allow them to do some good. But in any case, the offer is tempting: higher pay (occasionally in hard currency), prestige and recognition by overseas donors, overseas conferences and networks, office staff, and relative security from repression. In contrast, the socio-political movements offer few material benefits but greater respect and independence and, more importantly, the freedom to challenge the political and economic system. The NGOs and their overseas banking supporters (Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank) publish newsletters featuring success stories of micro-enterprises and other self-help projects—without mentioning the high rates of failure as popular consumption declines, low-priced imports flood the market, and interest rates spiral, as in Mexico today.

Even the “successes” affect only a small fraction of the total poor and succeed only to the degree that others cannot enter the same market. The propaganda value of individual micro-enterprise success, however, is important in fostering the illusion that neoliberalism is a popular phenomenon. The frequent violent mass outbursts that take place in regions of micro-enterprise promotion suggests that the ideology is not hegemonic and the NGOs have not yet displaced independent class movements.

Finally NGOs foster a new type of cultural and economic colonialism and dependency. Projects are designed, or at least approved, based on the “guidelines” and priorities of the imperial centers and their institutions. They are administered and “sold” to communities. Evaluations are done by and for the imperial institutions. Shifts of funding priorities or bad evaluations result in the dumping of groups, communities, farms, and co-operatives. Everything and everybody is increasingly disciplined to comply with the donors and project evaluators’ demands. The new viceroys supervise and ensure conformity with the goals, values, and ideologies of the donor as well as the proper use of funds. Where “successes” occur they are heavily dependent on continued outside support, without which they could collapse.

In many ways the hierarchical structures and the forms of transmission of “aid” and “training” resemble nineteenth-century charity, and the promoters are not very different from Christian missionaries. The NGOs emphasize “self-help” in attacking “paternalism and dependence” on the state. In this competition among NGOs to capture the victims of neoliberals, they receive important subsidies from their counterparts in Europe and the United States. The self-help ideology emphasizes the replacement of public employees by volunteers, and upwardly mobile professionals contracted on a temporary basis. The basic philosophy of the NGO intellectuals is to transform “solidarity” into collaboration and subordination to the macro-economy of neoliberalism, by focusing attention away from state resources of the wealthy classes toward self-exploitation of the poor.

But, while the mass of NGOs are increasingly instruments of neoliberalism, there is a small minority which attempt to develop an alternative strategy that is supportive of anti-imperialist and class politics. None of them receive funds from the World Bank, European, or U.S. governmental agencies. They support efforts to link local power to struggles for state power. They link local projects to national socio-political movements: occupying large landed estates, defending public property and national ownership against multinationals. They provide political solidarity to social movements involved in struggles to expropriate land. They support women’s struggles linked to class perspectives. They recognize the importance of politics in defining local and immediate struggles. They believe that local organizations should fight at the national level and that national leaders must be accountable to local activists.

Some Examples

Let us examine some examples of the role of NGOs and their relation to neoliberalism and imperialism in specific countries:


In 1985 the Bolivian government launched its New Economic Policy (NEP) by decree: freezing wages for four months while inflation raged at a 15,000 percent annual rate. The NEP annulled all price controls and reduced or ended food and fuel subsidies. It also laid the basis for the privatization of most state enterprises and the firing of public-sector employees. Massive cutbacks in health and education programs eliminated most public services. These structural adjustment policies (SAP) were designed and dictated by the World Bank and the IMF and approved by the U.S. and European governments and banks. The number of poverty stricken Bolivians grew geometrically. Prolonged general strikes and violent confrontations followed. In response the World Bank, European, and U.S. governments provided massive aid to fund a “poverty alleviation program.” Most of the money was directed to a Bolivian government agency, the Emergency Social Fund (ESF), which channeled funds to the NGOs to implement its program. The funds were not insignificant: in 1990 foreign aid totalled $738 million.

The number of NGOs in Bolivia grew rapidly in response to international funding: prior to 1980 there were 100 NGOs; by 1992 there were 530 and growing. Almost all the NGOs are directed toward addressing social problems created by the World Bank and the Bolivian government’s free market policies, which the dismantled state institutions no longer can deal with. Of the tens of millions allocated to the NGOs, only 15 to 20 percent reached the poor. The rest was siphoned off to pay administrative costs and professional salaries. The Bolivian NGOs functioned as appendages of the state and served to consolidate its power. The absolute levels of poverty stayed the same and the long-term structural causes—the neoliberal policies—were cushioned by the NGOs. While not solving the poverty problem, the NGO-administered poverty programs strengthened the regime and weakened opposition to the SAP. The NGOs, with their big budgets, exploited vulnerable groups and were able to convince some leaders of the opposition that they could benefit from working with the government. According to one observer, commenting on the NGO role in the “poverty program”: “If this (NGO programs) did not create direct support, it at least reduced potential opposition to the government and its program.”

When the public school teachers of La Paz went on strike to protest $50-a-month wages and crowded classrooms, the NGOs ignored it; when cholera and yellow fever epidemics raged in the countryside, the NGO self-help programs were helpless where a comprehensive public health program would have been successful in preventing them. The NGOs did absorb many of Bolivia’s former leftist intellectuals and turned them into apologists for the neoliberal system. Their seminars about “civil society” and “globalization” obscured the fact that the worst exploiters (the private mine owners, new rich agro-exporters, and high paid consultants) were members of “civil society” and that the SAP was an imperial design to open the country’s mineral resources to unregulated pillage.


In Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship in 1973-1989, the NGOs played an important role denouncing human rights violations, preparing studies critical of the neoliberal model and sustaining soup kitchens and other poverty programs. Their numbers multiplied with the advent of the massive popular struggles between 1982 and 1986 that threatened to overthrow the dictatorship. To the extent that they expressed an ideology, it was oriented toward “democracy” and “development with equity.” Of the close to two hundred NGOs, fewer than five provided a clear critical analysis and exposition of the links between U.S. imperialism and the dictatorship, the ties between World Bank funded free market policies and the 47 percent level of poverty.

In July of 1986 there was a successful general strike—a guerrilla group almost succeeded in killing Pinochet—and the United States sent a representative (Gelbard) to broker an electoral transition between the more conservative sectors of the opposition and Pinochet. An electoral calendar was established, a plebiscite was organized, and the electoral parties re-emerged. An alliance between Christian Democrats and Socialists was forged and eventually won the plebiscite, ending Pinochet’s rule (but not his command of the armed forces and secret police); this alliance subsequently won the presidency.

The social movements which played a vital role in ending the dictatorships were marginalized. The NGOs turned from supporting the movements to collaborating with the government. The Socialist and Christian Democratic NGO professionals became government ministers. From critics of Pinochet’s free market policies they became its celebrants. Former President of CIEPLAN (a major research institute) Alejandro Foxley publicly promised to continue managing the macro-economic indicators in the same fashion as Pinochet’s minister. The NGOs were instructed by their foreign donors to end their support for independent grassroots movements and to collaborate with the new civilian neoliberal regime. Sur Profesionales, one of the best known research NGOs, carried out research on the “propensity for violence” in the shantytowns—information that was useful to the police and the new regime in repressing independent social movements. Two of its chief researchers (specialty: social movements) became government ministers administering economic policies that created the most lopsided income inequalities in recent Chilean history.

The NGOs’ external links and the professional ambitions of its leaders played a major role in undermining the burgeoning popular movement. Most of its leaders became government functionaries who co-opted local leaders, while undermining rank-and-file style community assemblies. Interviews with women active in the shantytown Lo Hermida revealed the shift in the post-electoral period. “The NGOs told us that because democracy has arrived there is no need to continue the (soup-kitchen) programs. You don’t need us.” Increasingly the NGOs conditioned their activities on supporting the “democratic” free market regime. The NGO functionaries continued to use their participatory rhetoric to hustle votes for their parties in the government and to secure government contracts.

One striking impact of the NGOs in Chile was its relationship to the “women’s movement.” What started as a promising activist group in the mid-1980s was gradually taken over by NGOs who published expensive newsletters from well-furnished offices. The “leaders” who lived in fashionable neighborhoods represented a shrinking number of women. During the Latin American Feminist Conference in Chile in 1997, a militant group of rank-and-file Chilean feminist (“the autonomists”) provided a radical critique of the NGO feminists as sellouts to government subsidies.


The most dynamic social movement in Brazil is the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST). With over five thousand organizers and several hundred thousand sympathizers and activists, it has been directly involved in hundreds of land occupations over the past few years. At a conference organized in May 1996, by the MST, at which I spoke, the role of NGOs was one of the subjects of debate. A representative from a Dutch NGO appeared on the scene and insisted on participating. When he was told the meeting was closed, he told them that he had a “proposal” for funding ($300 thousand) community development, and insisted on entering. In no uncertain terms the MST leaders told him that they were not for sale and that anyway, they, the MST, design their own “projects” according to their own needs and don’t need NGO tutors.

Later the women’s caucus of the MST discussed a recent meeting with rural-based feminist NGOs. The MST women pushed for a class struggle perspective, combining direct action (land occupations) and the struggle for agrarian reform with gender equality. The NGO professionals insisted that the MST women break with their organizations and support a minimalist program of strictly feminist reforms. The end result was a tactical agreement opposing domestic violence, registering women as heads of families, and encouraging gender equality. The MST women, mostly daughters of landless peasants, perceived the NGO professionals as divisive careerists, not willing to challenge the political and economic elite that oppressed all peasants. Despite their criticisms of their male comrades, they clearly felt greater affinity with the movement than with the class-collaborationist “feminist” NGOs.

In our discussion, the MST distinguished between NGOs that contribute to the movement (money, resources, etc.) to finance class struggle, and NGOs that are essentially missionary outfits that fragment and isolate peasants, as is the case with many pentecostal and USAID and World Bank sponsored NGO projects.

El Salvador

Throughout Latin America peasant militants have voiced serious criticisms of the role and politics of the vast majority of NGOs, particularly about the patronizing and domineering attitude that they display behind their ingratiating rhetoric of “popular empowerment” and participation. I encountered this directly during a recent visit to El Salvador, where I was giving a seminar for the Alianza Democratica Campesino (the ADC, or Democratic Peasant Alliance) which represents 26 peasant and landless workers’ organizations.

Part of our collaboration involved the joint development of a project to fund a peasant-directed research and training center. Together with the leaders of the ADC we visited a private Canadian agency, CRC SOGEMA, which was subcontracted by CIDA, the Canadian government’s foreign assistance agency. They administered a $25 million (Canadian) aid packet for El Salvador. Before our visit, one of the ADC leaders had held an informal discussion with one of the Salvadoran associates of CRC SOGEMA. He explained the proposal and its importance for stimulating peasant-based participatory research. The CRC SOGEMA representative proceeded to draw a figure of a person on a piece of paper. He pointed to the head. “That,” he said, “is the NGOs: they think, write, and prepare programs.” He then pointed to the hands and feet, “that’s the peasants: they provide data and implement the projects.”

This revealing episode was the background to our formal meeting with the head of CRC SOGEMA. The director told us that the money was already earmarked for a Salvadoran NGO: FUNDE (Fundacion Nacional para el Desarrollo, the National Foundation for Development), a consulting firm of upwardly mobile professionals. She encouraged the peasant leaders to co-operate and to become involved because, she said, it would be “empowering.” In the course of our conversation, it emerged that the Salvadoran associate of CRC SOGEMA who had expressed that outrageous view of the relation between NGOs (the head) and peasants (the hands and feet) was a “link” between FUNDE and SOGEMA. The ADC leaders responded that, while FUNDE was technically competent, their “courses” and research did not meet the needs of the peasants and that they had a very paternalistic attitude toward the peasants. When the Canadian director asked for an example, the ADC leaders related the incident of the “political drawing” and the role to which it relegated peasants.

This was, said the director of SOGEMA, a “very unfortunate incident,” but they were nonetheless committed to working with the FUNDE. If the ADC wished to have an impact they would best attend FUNDE meetings. The ADC leaders pointed out that the project’s design and goals were elaborated by middle class professionals, while peasants were invited to collaborate by providing data and attending their “seminars.” In a fit of annoyance, the director called the meeting to an end. The peasant leaders were furious. “Why were we led to believe that they (the Canadian agency) were interested in peasant participation, democracy, and all the other crap, when they are already plugged into the NGOs, who don’t represent a single peasant? That study will never be read by any peasant, nor will it be at all relevant to our struggle for land. It will be about “modernization” and how to swindle the peasants out of their land and turn them into commercial farms or tourist areas.”


The managers of NGOs have become skilled in designing projects. They transmit the new rhetoric of “identity” and “globalism” into the popular movements. Their activities and texts promote international cooperation, self-help, micro-enterprises, and forge ideological bonds with the neoliberals while forcing people into economic dependency on external donors. After a decade of NGO activity these professionals have “depoliticized” and de-radicalized whole areas of social life: women, neighborhoods, and youth organizations. In Peru and Chile, where the NGO’s have become firmly established, the radical social movements have declined.

Local struggles over immediate issues are the food and substance that nurture emerging movements. NGOs certainly emphasize the “local,” but the crucial question is what direction local actions will take: whether they will raise the larger issues of the social system and link up with other local forces to confront the state and its imperial backers, or whether they will turn inward, while looking to foreign donors and fragmenting into a series of competing supplicants for external subsidies. The ideology of NGOs encourages the latter.

NGO intellectuals frequently write about “co-operation” but without dwelling on the price and conditions for securing the co-operation of neoliberal regimes and overseas funding agencies. In their role as mediators and brokers, hustling funds overseas and matching the funds to projects acceptable to donors and local recipients, the “foundation entrepreneurs” are engaged in a new type of politics similar to the “labor contractors” (enganchadores) of the not too distant past: herding together women to be “trained” setting up micro-firms subcontracted to larger producers or exporters employing cheap labor. The new politics of the NGOs is essentially the politics of compradores: they produce no national products; instead, they link foreign funders with local labor (self-help micro-enterprises) to facilitate the continuation of the neoliberal regime. The managers of NGOs are fundamentally political actors whose projects and training workshops do not make any significant economic impact in raising workers’ and peasants’ incomes. But their activities do make an impact in diverting people from the class struggle into forms of collaboration with their oppressors.

To justify this approach, NGO ideologies will often invoke “pragmatism” or “realism,” citing the decline of the revolutionary left, the triumph of capitalism in the East, the “crisis of Marxism,” the loss of alternatives, the strength of the United States, the coups and repression by the military. This “possibilism” is used to convince the left to work within the niches of the free market imposed by the World Bank and structural adjustment, and to confine politics to the electoral parameters imposed by the military.

The pessimistic “possibilism” of the NGO ideologues is necessarily one-sided. They focus on neoliberal electoral victories and not on the post-electoral mass protests and general strikes that mobilize large numbers of people in extra-parliamentary activity. They look at the demise of communism in the late eighties and not to the revival of radical social movements in the mid-nineties. They describe the constraints of the military on electoral politicians without looking at the challenges to the military by the Zapatista guerrillas, the urban rebellions in Caracas, the general strikes in Bolivia. In a word, the possibilists overlook the dynamics of struggles that begin at the sectoral or local level within the electoral parameters of the military, and then are propelled upward and beyond those limits by the failures of the possibilists to satisfy the elementary demands and needs of the people.

The pragmatism of the NGOs is matched by the extremism of the neoliberals. The 1990?s has witnessed a radicalization of neoliberal policies, designed to forestall crisis by handing over even more lucrative investment and speculative opportunities to overseas banks and multinationals: petroleum in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela; lower wages and less social security payments; greater tax exemption; and the elimination of all protective labor legislation. Contemporary Latin American class structure is more rigid and the state more directly tied to the ruling classes than ever. The irony is that the neoliberals are creating a polarized class structure much closer to the Marxist paradigm of society than to the NGO vision.

This is why Marxism offers a real alternative to NGOism. And in Latin America, there do exist Marxist intellectuals who write and speak for the social movements in struggle, committed to sharing the same political consequences. They are “organic” intellectuals who are basically part of the movement—the resource people providing analysis and education for class struggle, in contrast to the “post-Marxist” NGO intellectuals, who are embedded in the world of institutions, academic seminars, foreign foundations, international conferences and bureaucratic reports. These Marxist intellectuals recognize the centrality of local struggles, but they also acknowledge that the success of those struggles depends to a large extent on the outcome of the conflict between classes over state power at the national level.

What they offer is not the hierarchical “solidarity” of foreign aid and collaboration with neoliberalism, but class solidarity, and within the class, the solidarity of oppressed groups (women and people of color) against their foreign and domestic exploiters. The major focus is not on the donations that divide classes and pacify small groups for a limited time, but on the common action by members of the same class, sharing their common economic, predicament struggling for collective improvement.

The strength of the critical Marxist intellectuals resides in the fact that their ideas are in tune with changing social realities. The growing polarization of classes and the increasingly violent confrontations are apparent. So while the Marxists are numerically weak in the institutional sense, they are strategically strong as they begin to connect with a new generation of revolutionary militants, from the Zapatistas in Mexico to the MST in Brazil.


[James Petras teaches sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is co-author of the book Neoliberalism and Class Conflict in Latin America (Macmillan, 1997).]


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