Social Movements and Economic Integration in the Americas

by Beverly Bell, Center for Economic Justice | Nov. 1, 2002


Original article can be viewed at:

A New Context

The growth of crossborder social movements throughout the Americas reflects a new logic based in a new political moment. The long-term, historic struggles waged by social movements in the region—for sovereignty, human rights, control over natural resources, and participation in government—are still alive today. Yet the context has changed. Today’s context is one of booming economic globalization, which is causing seismic shifts—in social relations, in forms of governance, in relations between civil society and polity and between labor and capital, in business and agricultural practices, in natural resource use, and in environmental policy. For poor and marginalized communities in the Americas, these changes are often negative ones, aggravating their absolute and relative disempowerment.

Environmental degradation; diminished local control over land, agriculture, and seeds; deregulation of the markets; dwindling power of national governments to create their own trade policies; diminished local production; destabilization of entire economies; and increasing inequality—these negative byproducts of globalization are, increasingly, affecting the lives of citizens throughout the Americas. Economic globalization is, therefore, also central to the political agendas of civil society actors in the Americas.

This new context has led to a new historical moment. The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s saw the ascendance of national liberation movements throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, with popular movements focusing on the nation-state as the target of their struggle. However, the acceleration of worldwide economic integration has, since the mid-1990s, resulted in a shift both in the focus and the form of organizing efforts in the region.

The most notable of these shifts—the primary target for advocacy and organizing work is transitioning from a sole focus on national governments to include international financial institutions (IFIs) and transnational corporations (TNCs). Even progressive, populist governments have become largely ineffective at addressing the roots of poverty and marginalization in the face of the growing power of these institutions and the policies of G7 governments that reinforce that power. This context has rendered formerly dominant forms of organizing inadequate. Since the state is no longer the primary focus of political demand making, the role of political parties is less central. Since domestic matters are no longer the primary unit of analysis, national social movements have generally become too weak to stand alone. As a result, the past five years or so have witnessed a tremendous growth in a new model of organizing: cross-border alliance building and campaigning among popular social movements.

 Definitions, Assumptions, Clarifications

For the purposes of this paper, social movements are identified as mass-based, popular movements that strive to make systemic-level change through political action. They are composed of individuals and groups who are directly impacted by the problems they address. Often, but not invariably, these are dispossessed people. An explicit and coherent identity is an important element of a movement; even if participants do not all employ the same name, they all claim membership in it. Another element is shared overarching objectives, agenda, and set of priorities among members. The ideology, strategy, tactics, and organizing culture of the constituents are similar, though there may be variances amongst them. Social movements must be large in scope, extending beyond the local community to a national, regional, and/or international level and commanding the support of huge numbers of constituents. They are owned collectively, extending beyond the control of one individual or organization. The groups’ analysis and proposed solutions typically surge up from the bottom, from the members’ own experiences.

Social movements have traditionally organized around geography (e.g., the Caribbean), sector or identity (e.g., indigenous peoples), or focus area (e.g., land rights). Today, these movements are finding common ground in what they perceive as fundamental to their poverty and related social problems: unjust trade policies in global and regional agreements, and an inequitable development model imposed by IFIs. More and more people are joining together across regions, social groupings, and issues to address economic policy and organization in an ever more integrated world. The foci include both trade and transnational capital. They integrate global policy and the local impacts of those policies.

While the organizing of these international movements is frequently characterized as “anti-globalization,” a survey of their positions and programs shows that they are as engaged in working for alternatives as against poverty, exclusion, and oppression. The alternatives being advocated transcend general principles for more participatory, rights-based, and autonomously controlled local and national economies. Many of the coalitions and networks articulate specific, detailed policy positions regarding new forms of international economic organization. These range from taxing speculative flows of capital (so-called “hot money”), to supplanting debt service payments from impoverished countries with payment of reparations for failed development projects to impoverished countries.

Working Within and Across Borders to Articulate Alternatives

Despite their best efforts, civil society in the Americas (this is less the case in Canada and the U.S.) continues to be largely excluded from political processes, such as lobbying, in which advocacy can lead to change. With the ascendance of liberal democracy in the region throughout the 1980s, a few citizens’ groups in various Latin American and Caribbean countries have developed strategies for governmental advocacy but, for the most part, opportunities for direct engagement with government do not exist in the region. Accordingly, the principle emphases in organizing, whether at the national or crossborder level, remain popular education, grassroots mobilization, and coordinated action.

One example of how people with little institutional power attempt to change economic policy is a sit-in in front of the National Palace in Haiti, in which a group of women and men hold empty cooking pots in their laps in protest of a structural adjustment program. A second example is indigenous farmers in Honduras cutting up the roads leading to Tegucigalpa so that no agricultural products can reach the capital, to protest free trade policies leading to more imported food. Organizing a popular, non-binding referendum on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) among the citizens of most nations in the Americas, notifying those governments of mass citizen discontent with the proposed pact, is another illustration.

From the point of view of a U.S. observer, these tactics may seem too diffuse and too inconsequential to make any difference. Without doubt, the power that these networks are able to amass, and their ability to change policy, is limited. That is integral to the nature of grassroots movements, which are primarily composed of poor and marginalized people, who are working principally from outsider positions. Yet, as the political scientist James Scott notes, “Under the appropriate conditions, the accumulation of petty acts [of resistance] can, rather like snowflakes on a steep mountainside, set off an avalanche.”[1]

Indeed, a collection of factors have converged to begin to shift institutional power. These include the growth in the size and strength of the movements, as evidenced by the turn-out of 50,000 to 60,000 people, from every part of the world, at this past February’s World Social Forum. Other factors include widening access to the Internet, where previously isolated people now connect to each other and to an abundance of information. They include the first-ever mass involvement of citizens of industrialized nations, since the WTO meetings in Seattle in November 1999, in protesting global trade and financial policies that many believe put profit over human need. And they include for the first time, as mentioned, substantial organizing by people across borders.

For the past ten to fifteen years, the focus of globalization protests by Latin American peoples was World Bank- and IMF-backed structural adjustment programs. Today, competing with structural adjustment programs for attention is the proposed FTAA; indeed, there is a consensus amongst international social movements in this hemisphere that the FTAA must be the target of advocacy and mobilization in the coming two years. In southern Mexico and Central America, the Plan Puebla-Panama vies for a close runner-up in dominating the agenda. While the newness of this plan renders the current level of transnational activity low, this is quickly changing as people become aware of the project.

Some popular groupings have moved beyond protest to initiate concrete actions that put alternative paradigms into practice. One example is the establishment of grassroots trade networks between and among producers and consumers in the Caribbean, skirting intervention by intermediary speculators and corporations; this has increased small-scale producers’ profits, reduced consumers’ costs, and shifted control in marketing and pricing decisions. Similarly, the more than half-million members of the Landless Workers Movement (MST, by its Portuguese acronym) in Brazil have reclaimed hundreds of thousands of hectares of formerly unproductive land from corporate, state, or latifundia ownership. A broad-based Brazilian movement also succeeded in changing the national constitution to mandate transfers of unproductive land, under certain conditions, to landless people. This wholly new program of land tenure and redistribution serves as a concrete model to which national and international movements throughout the Americas aspire.

As innovative or effective as their practice may appear, on-the-ground alternative economic projects are often finding that their victories remain insufficient if not coupled with advocacy for macroeconomic change. For example, peasant growers in Central America who are producing coffee for fair trade markets know that at any moment their businesses might be ruled illegal under the rules of the World Trade Organization. For them, therefore, adding their voices to the international call against so-called “race to the bottom” trade has become an explicit, integral aspect of their development projects.[2]

Beyond Policy: Principles of Organizing

The new spate of cross-border organizing represents not only a challenge to the political and economic policies of the dominant trade and financial institutions. It also represents an attempt at new models of social organization, premised on new forms of power.

The late 1960s ushered in an expansion of the scope and terms of struggles for justice across the globe. The voices of so-called national liberation and identity struggles had long been suppressed by socialist and social democratic movements; the latter insisted that once they consolidated their power within a nation-state, political space would then exist for other demands to be addressed. Unwilling, finally, to have their agendas deferred, in the late 1960s organized women, indigenous, people of color, and other groupings asserted themselves into the program for change.

A similar phenomenon is occurring today. Ana Esther Ceceña, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who writes frequently on the Zapatista movement, says, “Space that we weren’t able to claim for humanity with centralized socialist movements, we are attempting to claim now.”[3] Today’s cross-border movements are expanding the focus and the modalities of organizing vis-à-vis local society and the movement itself, as well as vis-à-vis global spheres of political and economic power.

The objectives of today’s international movement-building—much of which is negotiated around globalization—go beyond changing the policies and programs of dominant trade, financial, and political powers. The objectives go beyond lessening poverty and redistributing income. They include transforming the nature and application of power. Political and social organizing among grassroots movements today strives to redefine power between people, place, state, class, and social groups—what it is, how it is shared, and how it is used. New modes of organizing incorporate the belief that money and realpolitik are not the only units of analyses; morality and dignity must be integrated into the new paradigm. Leadership must be decentralized, and based on the idea of direct—as opposed to representative—democracy.

According to Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South, “how we organize reflects our goal.”[4] Dominant modes of organizing in the 1960s though 1980s reflected the goal of accessing state power—usually without a simultaneous commitment to transforming power. The principles of organizing did indeed reflect the goal and the characteristics of the groupings that dominated progressive civil society agendas: political parties and labor unions. Movements were primarily based on centralized authority and decisionmaking. Organizational structures were largely vertical. Leadership was often concentrated among men, intellectuals, and members of ethnic majorities.

Today, social movements think, look, and act differently, as they work toward different goals. The new movement against the dominant paradigm of economic integration, and for equitable and locally controlled economic alternatives, is based on: new models of leadership and self-organization, a strong committment to moralism with a central cluster of values, and new organizing practices.

New Principles Guiding Social Movements in the Americas

New models of leadership and self-organization A strong commitment to moralism, with a central cluster of values New organizing practices
  • Decentralized leadership and decisionmaking
  • Direct, participatory democracy
  • Diversity and plurality, aimed at integrating and empowering those most often marginalized: women, indigenous peoples, people of color, members of minority ethnic groups
  • Internationalism
  • Equity
  • Community
  • Dignity
  • Sustainability, reflecting the delicate balance between people and the earth
  • Opposition to all forms of alienation
  • Flexibility and fluidity
  • Subsidiarity, with a bias toward the most local level of organization available
  • An abundance of creativity and popular art
  • Common activity
  • Networking, as opposed to competition

Beverly Bell directs the Center for Economic Justice (CEJ). She may be reached at <>. CEJ’s mission is to strengthen international movements that counter corporate-driven globalization and promote more just policy alternatives. For more information, visit: and CEJ research that fed into this discussion paper was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.


  1. James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance (New Haven: Yale University, 1990), p. 192.
  2. Author’s interview with Yolette Etienne, Director, Oxfam UKI/Haiti, April 2002.
  3. Ana Esther Ceceña, from a presentation at “Movimientos Sociales y Alternativas” at the World Social Forum, Feb. 2, 2002, Porto Alegre, Brazil.
  4. Walden Bello, from a presentation at “Movimientos Sociales y Alternativas” at the World Social Forum, Feb. 2, 2002, Porto Alegre, Brazil.


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