Maria Pazo and Gastón Wright
Contemporary LA Politics
26 May 2014
Mobilizing the Masses: Argentina and Venezuela
For many decades, the political realm throughout Latin America relied solely on the authority of the upper elite. It has always been the government who have instituted different laws, policies, and structural changes. During the late 19th through the early 20th centuries, many Latin American countries suffered from various political and economic woes. With the inherent instability limiting the growth of many of these countries, it became necessary for new leaders to emerge. With the election of Juan Domingo Peron in 1946, a new movement of class-focused politics and development, also known as Peronism, began to alter the course of Argentina’s history. Similarly, the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1999 brought a period of replenishment and a brighter outlook on the future of the country. Although different approaches were taken, Peron and Chavez brought fundamental change to their countries by opening political and social participation to previously excluded sectors of society through the process of mobilization.
The term “mobilization” can often take on many different meanings depending on the context or topic of discussion. The term most commonly associated with the type of political and social mobilization in the emergence of Peronism and Chavism is “participatory democracy”. Participatory democracy is commonly referred to as “the use of mass participation in political decision making to complement or (in the most radical versions) replace the traditional institutions of elections and lobbying associated with representative democracy” (Hawkins 32). In other words, this form of mobilization involves the interaction and participation of the masses, including all levels of society. Therefore, mobilization, or participatory democracy, requires a large group of people coming together under a single vision or a common goal. Although they may be divided in terms of economic or social stature, the importance of mobilization is that regardless of differences all levels of society are able to come together in a single-minded manner in order to create change. Although a reoccurring theme throughout the discussion of political mobilization seems to be focused on the masses, the inevitable truth is that the process would never have occurred without the initiative of certain individuals.
Juan Domingo Peron and Hugo Chavez were two of the Latin American presidents who began to institute mobilization as a process of change within their countries. Yet, during the decades preceding their elections, political turmoil ran rampant throughout both Venezuela and Argentina. During the 19th century, political power was used quite differently than today. According to Alves, “Coercion and capital in Latin America were used unevenly…for coercion was brutal but inefficient, and scarcity of capital remained most often the rule” (Alves 20). Fortunately, this statement no longer applies to many Latin American countries, such as Venezuela and Argentina. Although the balance between coercion and capital are still used as a means of attaining power centralization, particular government officials in both countries, such as Peron and Chavez, have continued to expand the power to the people. Strict, authoritarian regimes have begun their transformations into participatory democracies.
Historically, certain groups of individuals have been excluded in the political world. For example, lower class citizens were kept excluded from political participation due to the weakness of the state. Yet, during the early years of war many Latin American citizens took important roles through grassroots organizations and rebellion groups. Cardoso states, “Whenever it is possible, the masses make their dissent known to the regime: voting against it, rioting, or just keeping to themselves” (Cardoso 51). In these early stages, their only chance at participation in this authoritarian regime was protest, which oftentimes resulted in punishment by their distinctive governments. Although violence and backlash can still result from protest today, Latin American citizens now have more of a voice and right to speak out in their countries. Yet, the overall empowerment of the lower class within the state was a slow, ongoing process.
Juan Peron’s work focused on two central items on the agenda: involvement by all and economic reform. During Peron’s first term as President, he instituted an instant reorganization of the structure of political access. The labor unions became a valuable part of the development of society and many organizations were managed through these unions, such as health care and recreational amenities. With his help, union membership increased five times to 2.3 million people by 1984 (McComb 158). As for economic reforms, one of Peron’s first main initiatives as President was to create a Five Year Plan in order to end the economic pendulum that had persisted in Argentina for many years. The overall goals of this plan included increasing employment rates and wages, as well as improving their working conditions. Although many of these reforms seemed to work, no political movement can be considered flawless. Not all of the Peronist policies created a sustainable outcome. In Argentina, “public enterprise prices increased after those in the rest of the economy; their costs rose more rapidly than their receipts” (McComb 158). Hence, the already deepening public deficit continued to grow. His presidency did not come without strict scrutiny among many scholars who later studied the successes and failures of this movement in Argentina.
In the three decades preceding the election of Peron, a new wave of political parties began to form in Argentina. After his election in 1946, the country was seemingly divided between two main political parties: the Radical party and the Peronists. The Radical party consisted of middle and upper-middle class citizens, while the Peronist party consisted of the working class and lower-middle class citizens. As president, some believe that Peron was known for “his ability to mobilize mass protests and to gain the support of the rural poor” (Lupu 61). Yet, on the contrary, there are many scholars who believe that Peron focused his attention not only on the rural poor, but all sectors of society. Many believe that “Peronist support is by no means limited to the lower class, nor are the Radical voters uniformly from the middle classes” (Lupu 67). Regardless on one’s individual opinion on the effectiveness of Peron’s tactics, it cannot be denied that he mobilized a large group of Argentinians in order to help a suffering country. Although the impact of Juan Peron’s role in the development of a suffering country cannot be diminished, there was one more person who also had a major impact: his wife, Eva.
With the marriage of Juan and Eva Peron in 1945, the Peronist party instantly became an even stronger force in Argentina. The two shared a singular vision for their community and sought to bring social justice and economic control to all citizens. While Eva Peron “might not have held an independent voice within Peronism…her participation was fundamental in increasing the effectiveness of Peron’s strategy” (Patroni 154). With the creation of the Eva Peron Foundation in 1948, Eva was able to further add the previous work of her husband in assisting thousands in Buenos Aires. By creating schools, providing homes, and donating various items, Eva continued to carry out and expand the Peronist movement in interacting directly with the working class. Although Argentina was able to utilize the process of mobilization in the middle of the 20th century, many other countries did not have such success until many years later.
Immediately after his election as President of Venezuela in 1999, Hugo Chavez took his first initiative toward reform and mass mobilization by instituting a new constitution. By having this written, the Venezuela took a crucial step toward greater equality among all sectors of society. The Constitution states that “all citizens have the right to participate freely in public matters” and “the participation of the people in the creation, execution, and control of public affairs is the required means to achieve protagonism that guarantees their complete development, both as individuals and as a collective” (Hawkins 35). Therefore, citizens are finally given the right to become “protagonists” in their own country’s political future. This addition to the Constitution is important because rather than simply being an abstract idea, circling the table of discussion, participatory democracy became a written law that could be taken more seriously by all constituents. Both government officials as well as citizens, both wealthy and poor, could feel the importance of their citizenry in the country and furthermore have the opportunity to take part in its development.
Apart from formal introduction into society by the laws of the Constitution, citizens from all parts of the community came together under many of the social programs created by Chavez. One of the main programs was Bolivarian Circles, which was a large network of voluntary associations that comprised of 2.2 million Venezuelans united under a single goal to “defend the constitution, be faithful to the ideals of Simón Bolívar, and serve the interests of their community” (Hawkins 36). Similar to the labor unions under Peron in Argentina, these various circles came together in order to seek vital change within the areas that had previously been strictly controlled by the government. Yet, without a leader at the head of the process, progress would not have been made. Many scholars point to Chavez’s “charismatic authority” as an “omnipresent source of identity and motivation among participants” as an important part of the country’s success (Hawkins 37). Therefore, Chavez was able to inspire others through his own determination and commitment, which was directly reciprocated through the creation of these various social programs.
Under the umbrella of the Bolivarian Circles, numerous programs were created to address particular issues. Many of these areas, such as poverty, health, and education, saw vast improvements during Chavez’s reign. Overall, the massive decrease in poverty level has been the most drastic change due to these programs. According to research, “The poverty rate has been cut in half from its peak of 55.1 percent in 2003 to 27.5 percent in the first half of 2007” (Weisbrot 4). With such a drastic drop, the once poverty-stricken country of Venezuela immediately began to change its course of development. Chavez was able to pull together a suffering country by bringing them together and assisting them through the installment of many of these new programs.
One of the other most significant changes during Chavez’s rule came in the health care industry. Several Health Committees, or Comités de Salud, were created as voluntary clinics that helped to administer health consultations for the community. According to Weisbrot, “In 1998 there were 1,628 primary care physicians for a population of 23.4 million. Today, there are 19,571 for a population of 27 million” (Weisbrot 10). With such a great increase in the number of health services available, the poor were more easily able to receive what they needed. Although statistics have shown slight improvements, education is still one of the sectors that has not been seriously addressed. In particular, low levels of participation in educational missions have been noted because “while food and health care are more basic…remedial or higher education is required by only a small subset, particularly because most educational needs are already met by regular public and private education” (Hawkins 46). Therefore, Chavez has done a lot to bring his country and its citizens out of a difficult period, yet there are still improvements that need to require further assistance.
The key players of both Peronism in Argentina and Chavism in Venezuela have left a profound impact on their country’s development, especially through the process of mobilization. Although happening nearly a half a century apart, both Juan Peron and Hugo Chavez realized the political calamities within their countries and sought to end the hierarchal rule of the elite. By realizing the fundamental right to participation of all citizens, both presidents initiated different reforms and programs in order to improve the current state of society. While Peron focused on direct economic development and the involvement of labor unions, Chavez created social programs to assist those in need. Overall, both Peron and Chavez led their countries through a period of initial sustainable progress, which can further be improved and developed by future presidents and leaders.
Lopez Alves, “State Formation and Democracy in Latin America, 1810-1900”
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, “On the Characterization of Authoritarian Regimes in Latin America”
Robert McComb and Carlos E.J.M. Zarazaga, “The Political Economy of Latin America in the Postwar Period: Argentina”
Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval, “Update: The Venezuelan Economy in the Chávez Years”
Kirk A. Hawkins, “Who Mobilizes? Participatory Democracy in Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution”
Noam Lupu and Susan C. Stokes, “The Social Bases of Political Parties in Argentina, 1912-2003”
E. Spencer Wellhofer, “Peronism in Argentina: The Social Base of the First Regime, 1946-1955”
Viviana Patroni, “A Discourse of Love and Hate: Eva Peron and the Labour Movement (1940s-1950s)”