Marta Harnecker: Ideas for the struggle #11 -- Popular consultations: spaces that allow for the convergence of different forces

Supporters of Uruguay's left coalition Frente Amplio.

[This is the eleventh in a series of regular articles. Click HERE for other articles in the series. Please return to Links regularly read the next articles in the series.]

By Marta Harnecker, translated by Federico Fuentes for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

1. I have previously argued the case for the need to create a large social bloc against neoliberalism that can unite all those affected by the system. To achieve this, it is fundamental that we create spaces that allow for the convergence of specific anti-neoliberal struggles where, safeguarding the specific characteristics of each political or social actor, common tasks can be taken up that aid in strengthening the struggle.

2. In this respect, I think that popular consultations or plebiscites are very interesting spaces. These can allow us to mobilise behind a single concrete task of convincing -- undertaking door‑to‑door popular education -- a large number of people and youth who are beginning to awaken to politics, who want to contribute to a better world, who very often don’t know how to do it, and who are not willing to be active in the traditional way, because many of them reject politics and politicians.

3. Moreover, this concrete door-to-door work leads towards having to directly relate to poor popular sectors and their arduous living conditions. Many can be radicalised by coming into contact with so much poverty.

4. A recent example of this was the referendum held in Uruguay on December 8, 2003, to decide whether to repeal or ratify a law supporting the partnership of the state oil company ANCAP -- that has held a monopoly over oil since its foundation in 1931 -- with foreign private capital. The new company was to be managed and run by the foreign partner.

5. The vote to reject the privatisation of the state oil company won be a wide margin (62.02% of the vote), and by a bigger percentage than was foreseen in the polls leading up to the vote (50.2%).

6. The law had been approved in 2002. Having proven that irregularities were committed by the new managers of ANCAP, the left-wing political coalition, Frente Amplio (Broad Front), and allied social and union organisations decided to promote a campaign to collect signatures in support of a referendum against the law. Around 700,000 signatures were required.

7. In the midst of the petition campaign, the financial crisis of mid-2002 occurred, the value of the dollar doubled within days, some people lost their life savings, many bank accounts were frozen, there were massive company closures and unemployment surpassed the historic high of 13%, rising to 20%, something unbearable for a country like Uruguay. Social discontent increased. The possibility of turning the popular consultation into a symbolic act of rejection of the government’s policies allowed the campaign to grow, gain strength and motivate people.

8. Even though the mass media was totally hostile and tried to ignore the existence of the initiative, the house-to-house campaign across the country to collect signatures was more powerful than the media blockade. The strong point of the campaign, once again, was the work done in the grassroots, shoulder to shoulder, talking with people in their homes and using modest local radio stations that supported the cause.

9. The initial weight of the campaign was shouldered more by the social organisations than the political instrument [party], which was somewhat hampered by its initial hesitations. But when Frente Amplio joined the campaign, it once again demonstrated its clarity in the debates and the great potential of neighbourhood, unionist and propagandistic activism.

10. The initiative was supported by all the tendencies in the union confederation, PIT-CNT, the FUCVAM, the Federación Unitaria de Cooperativas de Ayuda Mutua (Unitary Federation of Mutual Aid Cooperatives), which carried out an important mass mobilisation across the whole country, and the student movement (FEUU) also joined the campaign, although with little force.

11. The right wing took the initiative to start with, even covering the walls of Montevideo with slogans attacking Tabaré Vasquez, then FA presidential candidate, and supporting the law. Within weeks, thousands of walls were recovered and the right disappeared off the streets. From that moment on (August-September, 2003) fractures began to appear in the traditional parties: the Partido Nacional mayor from Paysandú (a large city on the border with Argentina, a former industrial centre, today in ruins) declared himself in support of abolishing the law. The same occurred with many local leaders from outside the capital and some mid-level national leaders.

12. Although the right found it hard to accept, an electoral triumph of this sort and by such a wide margin was a sign, perhaps limited but an eloquent one, of what was to come in the presidential elections set for the end of 2004.

13. Another example, if we focus on recent ones, is the consultation over the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) held in Argentina in November 2003, where more than 2 million votes were cast. It was organised by the Autoconvocatoria NO al ALCA (Self-initiated No to FTAA), a diverse and large space that brought together a growing number of movements and union, professionals, women, farmers, enviromentalists, religious, human rights, political, neighbourhood, cooperative and business organisations.

14. Even when these consultations lack legal backing, they can have important political effects. Proof of this was the declaration made by Argentina’s then head of cabinet, Alberto Fernández, who stated that the result of the consultation should be taken into consideration by the government at the time of making a decisions concerning the FTAA.

15. On the other hand, this experience allowed thousands of activists from different backgrounds to work together in carrying out the popular consultation. The participation within this large and diverse space is what enabled the proposal to reach out to different popular sectors that are usually separated among themselves, both geographically and socially.

Marta Harnecker’s bibliography about the topic

The left after Seattle, Original title: La izquierda después de Seattle, Siglo XXI España, 2002.

The Left on the threshold of the twenty first century, Part III. The situation of the left, Original title: La izquierda en el umbral del Siglo XXI. Haciendo posible lo imposible, Publicado en: México, Siglo XXI Editores, 1999; España,    Siglo XXI Editores, 1ª ed. 1999, 2ª ed. 2000 y 3ª ed. 2000; Cuba, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2000; Portugal, Campo das Letras Editores, 2000; Brasil, Paz e Terra, 2000; Italia, Sperling and Küpfer Editori, 2001; Canadá (francés), Lantôt Éditeur, 2001; El Salvador, Instituto de Ciencias Políticas y Administrativas Farabundo Martí, 2001.

[Marta Harnecker is originally from Chile where she participated in the revolutionary process of 1970-1973. She has written extensively on the Cuba Revolution, and on the nature of socialist democracy. She now lives in Caracas and is a participant in the Venezuelan revolution.]