"Never before in the history of Latin America have there been such a number of left-wing governments in power at the same time," Steve Ellner, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and professor in economic history at the Eastern University in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, told a public forum in Sydney on November 9.
The forum was organised by the Latin America Social Forum (LASF) and also featured Sarah Motta, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Newcastle. Both speakers had edited editions of the journal Latin American Perspectives earlier this year.
Ellner said some conservative writers such as Jorge Castenada divide Latin American leaders into the so-called "good left" — Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina — and the "bad left" — Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.
The reality is quite different, and very complex. Even with all their contradictions, the revolutionary governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are leading a continent-wide process of progressive change.
"These radical left governments in power propose a new form of democracy: a radical democracy which emphasises participation over liberal, capitalist democracy," Ellner said. "[Former Venezuelan president] Chavez and [current president] Maduro stress involving the marginalised sectors of society, mainly from the informal economy, in organisng and decision-making.
"All three governments are committed to 'socialism of the 21st century,' in different ways. The question of control of the state is crucial.
"The process of radical change initiated by Chavez from 1998 onwards has influenced all of Latin America. The Bolivarian dream of a united Latin America is now revived and advancing.
"Chavez and Maduro understood the lessons of Chile in 1973. In part, they include the reality that a process of change that stagnates will be defeated.
Motta told the audience the "re-imagination of the revolutionary left in Latin America" involves the widespread activity of "communities and social movements from below”.
She said: "This means popular rejection of the idea of people speaking for us, and the development of tools for self-liberation."
Motta gave examples of the factory occupation movement in Argentina, the water rights struggles in Bolivia, and the rural landless peasants' movement in Brazil. These movements challenge the neoliberal, corporate agenda for investments in monoculture, and the disposability of people and environment, she said.
"The reinvention of the left in Latin America includes the struggles of the marginalised, as well as the workers, and the politicisation of communities. Popular education and liberation theology play a crucial part in this process," she added.
"The role of women in developing these new forms of collective organisation is vital," Motta said. "Popular initiative is at the centre of rebuilding the left in Latin America.”
A lively question and answer session followed, taking up many of the critical issues facing the radical and revolutionary movement in Latin America, followed.