The 1992 Salvadoran peace accords ended a 12-year civil war and forced modest democratic reforms on a state long dominated by a ruthless oligarchy and military. However, the new system represented a shallow version of democracy that remained largely unresponsive to the population. For two decades the far-right Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Nationalist Republican Alliance [ARENA]) party held the presidency and used it to enact pro-business economic policies of austerity, privatization, and deregulation. In 2009, the left-wing opposition party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), won the presidential elections for the first time. Yet despite winning some notable progressive reforms, the FMLN did not seek, much less achieve, a radical break from the neoliberal policies of previous administrations. FMLN leaders opted to continue a number of pro-capitalist policies while pursuing reforms to ameliorate the worst symptoms of the system, not overthrow it. The FMLN’s shift away from revolutionary socialism is attributable to several factors: a political and media terrain that still heavily favors the right, the continued influence of the United States government, and private investors’ control over the economy. These constraints were vitally important during the tenures of FMLN presidents Mauricio Funes (2009–2014) and Salvador Sánchez Cerén (2014–2019). El Salvador’s political trajectory since 1992, and especially during the FMLN’s decade in the presidency, offers insights into the constraints facing various left-of-center governments elected across Latin America in the early 21st century.
Kevin A. Young
Washington Consensus policies evolved over time, both in Washington and among Latin American policymakers. These policies, involving trade liberalization and privatization (among other measures), were widely adopted in the region by the early 1990s. A generation of scholarly work sought to explain how and why Latin American countries embarked on economic reforms that governments had strongly resisted in the past. While many researchers focused on the top-down nature of the market-liberalization process, others called attention to its pluralist character and argued that the process had considerable public support. When the original Consensus ideas proved ineffective in promoting growth and improved living standards, technocratic Washington added new policies. By the early 2000s, Washington’s goal became that of reducing poverty while ensuring the completion of the original Washington Consensus reforms. In Latin America, however, there was a growing disillusionment with the original reform agenda and a strong challenge to key reforms. With the rise of social mobilization critical of neoliberal reforms and the election of left regimes challenging their main precepts, scholarship turned to a discussion of the nature of the new regimes and the extent to which their policies deviated from the Washington Consensus (both its original formulation and the later expanded version). While most scholars identify the left leaders of Ecuador, Bolivia, and particularly Venezuela, as offering the greatest challenges to neoliberalism, there is no consensus on the extent of the challenge to neoliberalism presented by Latin America’s left regimes. Research has also given attention to the rising demand of China for Latin American commodities as a key ingredient in the region’s left turn away from neoliberalism. The fall in commodity prices, however, set the stage for a resurgence of the political right, its business supporters, and the re-introduction of some key aspects of the original Washington Consensus.
The relationship between social movements and left governments in Latin America since the postwar period has evolved from top-down relationships of populism and vanguardism to more contemporary attempts to blend new social movement practices of horizontalism and direct democracy with the hierarchical structures of the capitalist state and the party system. This evolution represents a long and unfinished transformation in the character of popular struggles, which today stands at the crossroads between referring back to more traditional structures of resistance, and pushing forward to the creation of a new left that can feature radical democratic participation from below as its centerpiece.
In Latin America, urban popular movements emerged in the late 1940s as thousands of low-income migrants and city residents banded together to claim land, build self-help housing, and forge neighborhood organizations that fomented community participation and mobilized to demand land titles and city services. These neighborhoods were characterized by informal housing; inadequate provision of electricity, water, sanitation, transportation, and social services; and informal employment and underemployment. During the authoritarianism of the 1960s and 1970s, some urban popular movements resisted military dictatorship while others forged clientelist ties. Democratic and authoritarian leaders alike were forced to deal with the steady influx of rural migrants to cities, and regimes of all types often came to view informal neighborhoods founded by urban popular movements as an acceptable solution to some of the challenges of urbanization. In the 1980s and 1990s, neoliberal privatization of public utilities and cuts to social safety nets harmed urban popular movements, but national and local democratization expanded some avenues of participation, and the regional trend of urban popular movements expanded in numbers and extended its geographic reach. In the 2000s, socialist “Pink Tide” governments delivered benefits to low-income sectors, and many popular sectors supported these leftist regimes. Material gains proved modest, however, and state-movement alliances were rocky, leaving urban popular movements in the awkward position of being dissatisfied with national leadership, yet preferring the Pink Tide incumbents to most alternatives. And in the 2010s, a new “right turn” emerged, as conservative leaders replaced many Pink Tide presidents, threatening to reintroduce the repressive over-policing of popular sectors. Throughout these periods, the core conceptual identity of some urban popular movements shifted from the poblador (the “founder” seeking to meet his or her family’s needs) to the vecino (the “neighbor” collaborating with other movement participants through collective efforts), to the ciudadano (the empowered “citizen” who recognizes his or her needs as rights to be secured through political engagement).