The Madison Dialogue

The Madison Dialogue is a project that grew out of a major Havens Center conference on the "The New Latin American Left" held in the spring of 2004. The Dialogue is an ongoing collaboraton and discussion among academics and social and political leaders from Latin America, as well as Europe, Asia and Africa.



Multimedia from the conference
(in spanish): Audio recordings
Photo gallery


Overview of the Conference by Patrick Bond (in english):


"Assessing the Latin American Left"
(part 1) ZNet Commentary, May 11, 2004
(part 2) ZNet Commentary, June 30, 2004

Conference Background
[ en español]

  1. Context and justification for the conference
  2. Guiding Questions
  3. Conference format and outcome
  4. Countries
  5. Program

I. Context and Justification for the Conference

In recent years, Latin America has witnessed a rise of leftist social and political formations and electoral successes not seen since the heyday of the left in the 1960s. The developments include electoral victories by leftist presidential candidates in Brazil and Venezuela, the growing strength of leftist alternatives in Uruguay, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Colombia, and the emergence of new mass-based social movements in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Mexico. These and other developments have caught most political observers by surprise. Who, for example, could have predicted that the presidential candidate of the Brazilian Workers Party would win the office of President with the highest margin of victory in that country’s history? Or that the army, one of the most traditionally conservative and repressive institutions in Latin America, would produce victorious leftist presidential candidates in Ecuador and Venezuela? Similarly, who could have forecast that indigenous peasant movements would transform themselves into a major political force in Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico or that Argentina would see the emergence of autonomous mass-based social movements powerful enough to destabilize several governments? Or that a leftist union leader would succeed in winning the mayoralty of Bogotá, Colombia's second-most-important political office? Or that a group of former guerillas would become the leading political force in the Salvadoran Congress and win the mayoralty of the capital city of San Salvador?

To date, analyses of these developments have suffered from three principal shortcomings. First, the experiences of these countries have been examined separately, without a regional perspective. Second, they have been understood primarily in terms of what they reject (neo-liberalism), rather than in terms of what they offer as an alternative. And third, there have been few instances of critical dialogue between analysts, on the one hand, and representatives of these emergent leftist parties, governments, and movements, on the other. The Havens Center conference seeks to address these shortcomings by means of an informed regional analysis of the origins, significance, and possible future trajectory of the new Latin American left.

In the recent past, there have been various initiatives aimed at fostering a dialogue among the distinct elements of the Latin American left. One example is the “Sao Paulo Forum,” at which leftist political parties from the region have met for more than a decade. Another example is the World Social Forum, which during its three years of existence has drawn large and growing numbers of progressive social movement activists from all over the world. Yet another is the so-called “Consensus of Buenos Aires,” organized by academics Roberto Unger and Jorge Castañeda and various center-left politicians. Yet, despite these earlier initiatives, many of the movements mentioned above have yet to sit down together. Even more significantly, few have more than a limited understanding of the reality and complexity of each and every one of the others’ experiences and organizations. The Havens Center conference therefore offers a unique opportunity for a dialogue among political leaders and academics, one that will draw on the practical experiences and concerns of the former as well as the theoretical perspectives and insights of the latter. The conference will also seek to involve a broad public audience, drawing not only from the University community, but also from the larger off-campus community, and thereby encourage a dialogue among academics, political leaders, and the public.

II. Guiding Questions

The central goal of the conference, then, is to gain a deeper understanding of the similarities and differences of these emergent Latin American leftist movements, parties, and governments, including their origins and possible future trajectories. More concretely, the conference will address the following questions:
1. What explains the seemingly coincidental rise of these parties, governments, and movements at this time?
2. What, other than a rejection of the neoliberal “Washington Consensus,” do they have in common? What alternative(s) to neoliberalism do they offer?
3. Given the power of investors and global financial institutions and the hegemonic position of the United States in the region, how viable are these alternatives? What room for maneuver do they enjoy?
4. What does it mean to be of the “left” in Latin America today? Are the governments of Chávez and, to a lesser degree, Lula, leftist governments or, as many observers view them, populist governments? What is the difference?
5. What are the obstacles to moving from electoral struggle to governing? In other words, what are the barriers to transforming electoral victory into real and sustained change?
6. What national political strategies might lead to the consolidation of the left in power? In particular, how can local, provincial, and national level strategies be combined effectively? What lessons can the more incipient movements and parties learn from those that are more consolidated (for example, Brazil)?
7. What regional strategies might contribute to the consolidation of the left and offer an alternative to the heavily market-oriented form of regional integration that is currently dominant? Can Brazil lead the struggle for a more just form of integration? What role can the other leftist parties and movements play in this effort?
8. What are the vision and goals of the new Latin American left with respect to democracy? What national differences exist among the various leftist movements and parties in this regard?
9. What is distinct or novel about the relationship between the new leftist electoral and political formations and new mass-based social movements, such as the indigenous and peasant movements in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Mexico and the urban movements in Argentina?
10. What is distinct or novel about the relationship between the new Latin American left (whether movements, parties, or governments) and the military?

III. Conference Format and Outcome

The conference will begin on Thursday evening with a keynote panel, which will raise the central theoretical and analytical issues addressed by the conference. The panel will be composed of several highly regarded analysts with extensive knowledge of Latin American history and contemporary political developments. The remainder of the conference will consist of two and a half days of sessions devoted to examining the experience of the various countries (Friday morning through Sunday noon). We will proceed country by country, with the invited social or political leaders and academics leading a wide-ranging discussion concerning the origins and future trajectory of the various movements, governments, and parties that they represent. The academic participants have also been commissioned to write papers on the basis of these questions, which will serve the dual purpose of ensuring that the discussion is a focused one and of helping to disseminate the results of the conference to a broader audience. The conference will conclude on Sunday morning with a panel devoted to international perspectives on the New Latin American Left, with representatives from the US, France, India, Portugal and South Africa.The conference also seeks to encourage strong public involvement, on the part of University students and faculty, as well as members of the larger Madison community and beyond. With its long tradition of active involvement and interest in Latin America, Madison is a particularly appropriate location for the conference. This is reflected in the co-sponsors of the conference, which include the Wisconsin Coordinating Council on Nicaragua, the Colombia Support Network, Community Action on Latin America, Madison-Arcatao Sister City Project, US-El Salvador Sister Cities, WORT community radio, and Latinos United for Change and Advancement. The conference is also co-sponsored by the UW-Madison Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program, the Global Studies Program, the Women’s Studies Program, and the Sociology and Spanish & Portuguese Departments. Moreover, conference sessions will be structured in such a way as to encourage dialogue between participants and the public.

IV. Countries

The following criteria have been used to identify the Latin American countries whose experiences will be the focus of the conference:1. Leftist governments, or governments with important leftist currents or elements:
• Brazil (Lula Government),
• Venezuela (Chávez Government),
2. Leftist electoral coalitions on the rise:
• Bolivia (Movimiento al Socialismo),
• Uruguay (Frente Amplio),
• El Salvador (Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional),
• Colombia (Polo Democrático Independiente; Frente Social y Político).
3. Countries with important mass-based social movements:
• Argentina (los piqueteros y las asambleas populares)
• Bolivia (coalition of peasant, indigenous and labor movements)
• Ecuador (Pachacutic and other indigenous movements)
• Mexico (Los Zapatistas)
4. Leftist political parties in transition:
• Nicaragua (Frente Sandinista)Two individuals per country will be invited: a social and/or political leader representing the above named movements; and an academic who has followed those movements closely.