Cover image for Barrio Democracy in Latin America: Participatory Decentralization and Community Activism in Montevideo By Eduardo Canel

Barrio Democracy in Latin America

Participatory Decentralization and Community Activism in Montevideo

Eduardo Canel


$72.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03732-5

$33.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03733-2

264 pages
6" × 9"
4 maps

Barrio Democracy in Latin America

Participatory Decentralization and Community Activism in Montevideo

Eduardo Canel

Barrio Democracy in Latin America combines a fascinating history of three key neighborhoods of Montevideo with an original argument about how local associational cultures are crucial for understanding what makes participatory democracy work. This book comes highly recommended.”


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  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
The transition to democracy underway in Latin America since the 1980s has recently witnessed a resurgence of interest in experimenting with new forms of local governance emphasizing more participation by ordinary citizens. The hope is both to foster the spread of democracy and to improve equity in the distribution of resources. While participatory budgeting has been a favorite topic of many scholars studying this new phenomenon, there are many other types of ongoing experiments. In Barrio Democracy in Latin America, Eduardo Canel focuses our attention on the innovative participatory programs launched by the leftist government in Montevideo, Uruguay, in the early 1990s. Based on his extensive ethnographic fieldwork, Canel examines how local activists in three low-income neighborhoods in that city dealt with the opportunities and challenges of implementing democratic practices and building better relationships with sympathetic city officials.
Barrio Democracy in Latin America combines a fascinating history of three key neighborhoods of Montevideo with an original argument about how local associational cultures are crucial for understanding what makes participatory democracy work. This book comes highly recommended.”
“Eduardo Canel explores the limits and possibilities of urban grassroots democratization in Uruguay. He contrasts how neighborhoods differ in how deeply they democratized, as well as how they evolved under different Latin American, national, and citywide conditions. This is a ‘must’ book for anyone interested in social movements, civil society, the political sociology of cities, and democracy both in general and in the specific context of Uruguay.”
“Eduardo Canel has written a rich, compelling account of the challenges of promoting participatory democracy in Uruguay. In the process, he successfully demonstrates the importance of local contexts and histories for understanding the potential of participatory institutions at the municipal level to actually democratize local governance. By focusing on three communities with the same institutional structures, Canel is able to derive important insights into how ‘lived experiences of participation,’ different kinds of social capital, and the often conflictual nature of civil society help explain the varying levels of successful inclusion associated with participatory institutions throughout Latin America.”
“In addition to contributing to the understanding of local democratization, Canel provides a compelling window into the dynamics of deindustrialization that has relevance for Latin America as a whole.”

Eduardo Canel is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Science at York University in Canada, where he is Director of the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean.


List of Maps

List of Tables




Chapter 1. Peñarol: Participatory Decentralization in an “Easygoing” Former Railway Town

Chapter 2. El Cerro: Participatory Decentralization Among Former Militant Meatpackers and Recent Squatters

Chapter 3. La Teja: Participatory Decentralization Where Radical Politics Mix with Soccer and Carnival





In 2004 I attended a ceremony at Montevideo city hall to celebrate the inauguration of the fourth cycle of neighborhood councils since participatory decentralization was established in the city in the early 1990s. The grand Salón Azul—which is normally used to host receptions for foreign notables and prestigious guests—was packed with an unusual crowd, as more than six hundred newly elected councilors had descended on city hall with relatives and friends to celebrate their involvement in this exciting chapter in the administration of their city. Although visibly swollen with pride to be the mayor’s personal guests, these grassroot leaders looked out of place in such elegant surroundings. Waiters in black pants, white jackets, and bow ties moved through the crowd serving cocktails and canapés under crystal chandeliers suspended from twenty-foot ceilings. Councilors joked with one another about their new official roles—as if trying to downplay the status attached to these new positions—and chatted informally about politics and local issues, as family members snapped pictures to capture this remarkable moment. The excitement and the sense of accomplishment were quite understandable. For most councilors this was their very first visit to city hall in an official capacity; nearly 70 percent were newcomers to the position, this being the largest councilor renewal since the first elections were held in 1993.

Key officials from city hall, including the mayor, the directors of the city administration, and members of the municipal assembly, joined the celebrations. Underscoring the importance of the event, members of the press interviewed the guests, hoping to catch a sound bite for the late evening news, while the lights of television cameras followed the mayor as he moved through the crowd. Formal greetings came first from Ana Olivera, the director of decentralization at city hall and a former compañera I knew from our days of radical student activism in the early seventies. A seasoned leader of the Communist Party today, she offered a warm welcome to the new councilors and, with an aura of cheerful self-confidence, she briefly outlined the main accomplishments of decentralization and the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead. Her enthusiastic speech contrasted with the more subdued address by Mayor Mariano Arana, a restrained urban planner and former professor at the school of architecture. Nevertheless, his presentation was followed by a long and loud standing ovation, an indication of the popularity of a mayor who still commanded an impressive approval rating of more than 60 percent after nearly ten years in office. Once the formal speeches were over, city officials mingled with councilors and their guests in an atmosphere of informality and openness that revealed how much city politics had changed since the Left came to power in 1990, determined to build a new relationship between municipal officials and city residents.

The new system of participatory decentralization introduced by the leftist Broad Front administration created a more favorable institutional framework for citizen participation, expanding opportunities for residents to have a say in the operation of their city and making the government more accountable. A sympathetic city government responded positively to community initiatives and needs, and demonstrated an unequivocal political will to effectively redistribute resources in favor of the poor. While the reforms opened new possibilities to democratize relations between residents and the municipal state, not all communities benefited equally from these changes. Surprisingly, I found that among the communities covered in this book, the ones with the most militant traditions had the hardest time adjusting to participatory democracy, while the least radical responded most positively and benefited the most. Indeed, participatory decentralization was experienced quite differently across the city, as the new model of urban governance was not transferred mechanically and in the same manner to each barrio.

My approach differs from most studies of participatory decentralization in Montevideo, which explain the outcome of participatory processes in reference to the strengths and weaknesses of the institutional model that brought them about. The features of the model are indeed relevant. By setting the “rules of the game,” institutional frameworks define the authority and responsibilities to be delegated as well as the incentives for citizen participation. Yet institutional approaches cannot fully explain situations, such as the one covered in this book, where the same set of rules is applied uniformly across a single city but produce drastically different local outcomes. Explaining local variation within the same city, I argue, requires holding the features of the institutional model as a constant and focusing instead on the lived experience of participation in each barrio. Exploring participation from this standpoint reveals how much the distinct traditions of each community became embedded in the day-to-day workings of local institutions, thereby shaping the widely different outcomes I found across the city. Thus I argue that the outcomes of citywide participatory reforms were largely context-specific. Whether participatory decentralization produced cooperation or conflict, synergy or misunderstanding, success or failure at the district level was as much related to the features of the institutional model of participation adopted by the city government as it was to the interplay of a variety of local contingencies.

I argue that the ability of neighborhood activists to seize (or to miss) the opportunities offered by participatory decentralization depended on three distinct sets of local factors. The first factor was the adaptability of a barrio’s associational culture to the framework of participatory decentralization. Associational cultures—understood as “patterns of interactions between organizations and the state”—emerge historically under particular sociopolitical environments and create the political-cultural context in which social movements and civil society organizations operate. I argue that when these national associational cultures intersect with the specific traditions of each barrio, they generate distinct local associational cultures that frame the attitudes and outlook of activists in each community. These local associational cultures consist of the overall traditions of collective mobilization, attitudes toward political authority and the state, leadership capacities, organizational resources, and levels and kinds of social capital produced historically by each barrio. I found that the capacities produced by these local cultures varied widely across the city, and that some of them were more adaptable than others to the requirements of participatory decentralization.

The second local factor shaping the experience of participation was the impact of the socioeconomic conditions found in each district on the ability and disposition of community activists to work together within the bodies of local government. Poverty certainly constrained people’s general disposition to participate, a complaint often made by activists as they explained their neighbors’ reluctance to join participatory initiatives in their communities. In some districts, however, deep cleavages and widespread poverty actually divided residents and undermined community cooperation and solidarity. The third local contingency was the ability of individual local officials to nurture trusting and cooperative relations with community activists. The accounts narrated in subsequent chapters will illustrate how much the capacities and personalities of particular officials influenced how participation was experienced in each district. In some cases, local officials brought capacities that blended with local associational cultures and established constructive working relations with local activists. In other cases, however, they clashed with grassroot leaders, producing conflict and animosity.

Establishing Participatory Decentralization in Montevideo

Montevideo has a population of 1.3 million people, and although it is not large by Latin American standards, this capital city is home to more than 40 percent of the country’s population and is the definite center of economic, political, and cultural power. Before 1990, the city government was controlled by the country’s traditional political parties and relied on a centralized, bureaucratic, paternalistic, and clientelistic system of government. City politics rested on a large bureaucracy that administered municipal services inefficiently and was inaccessible for most city residents. A clientelistic network linked the city administration to residents through traditional neighborhood associations headed by strong political bosses who used their connections with traditional parties to grant favors in exchange for political support. This system discouraged citizen participation and autonomous community organizing because it favored personal connections, creating dependency relations between communities and individual political bosses associated with the party in power. Not surprisingly, Montevideo did not have a strong tradition of territorially based urban movements.

Following democratization, the incoming Colorado municipal administration worked hard to reestablish this clientelistic system. Soon after assuming power in 1985, the city government created the Special Projects Advisory Unit (Unidad Asesora de Proyectos Especiales, UAPE) to support social assistance and local development programs. Claiming that most city residents were not represented by existing organizations in civil society—organizations that they argued were ideologically further to the Left than the average Montevideano—UAPE declared many legitimate grassroot organizations ineligible to receive municipal funds and began to establish direct links with city residents. The city’s Emergency Food Relief Program, for example, bypassed existing food community networks—comprising forty-three soup kitchens that fed more than ten thousand people, and sixty community-based organizations that purchased and distributed food in the barrios—instead distributing food tickets directly to poor residents through newly set up “ghost” neighborhood associations linked to the ruling Colorado party.

The city government strategy helped marginalize many legitimate grassroot organizations, but it failed to restore either the Colorados’ political strength or the clientelistic networks in Montevideo. While the party regained its national political dominance—capturing the presidency in the two national elections (1984, 1989) following the end of the military regime—it steadily lost political support in Montevideo. By the end of the Colorado municipal administration (1985–89) only 10 percent of Montevideanos believed that the city government had done a good job, and only 9 percent thought that it had outperformed the military administration.

Breaking with political tradition in the 1989 municipal race, Montevideanos elected the Broad Front leftist coalition, and for the first time in the country’s history the Left seized what effectively was the second most powerful government in Uruguay. The newly elected Socialist mayor Tabaré Vázquez, a charismatic oncologist and newcomer to party politics, promised to establish a new mode of urban governance to improve the quality of both government and service delivery. Drawing from the Broad Front’s long-standing commitment to social equity and its uncompromising opposition to neoliberalism, he pledged to redistribute urban resources in favor of the less privileged in order to address the negative impact of free-market policies that had been implemented by the military and by successive Colorado governments since the return to democratic rule five years earlier. To this end, as promised during the electoral campaign, the Broad Front administration introduced a program of sweeping institutional reforms to promote political and administrative decentralization and to encourage citizen participation in the running of the city. The mayor’s vision included the creation of neighborhood councils invested with wide-ranging decision-making power. Vázquez’s plan met with fierce opposition from traditional city politicians from the Colorado and Blanco parties who feared that it would reduce their political power and eliminate what remained of their clientelistic networks.

Required to secure legislative approval for the reforms, Vázquez appointed a multiparty commission to deliberate over a new model of participatory decentralization. After intense negotiations, the commission reached a compromise and the city’s legislative assembly approved the new model of decentralization in 1993. To the disappointment of many activists in the barrios, key features of the original plan—such as the transfer of decision-making powers to neighborhood councils—were drastically altered, as the new model only conferred consultative and monitoring authority on the local bodies. The new arrangements also added a new, unelected organ of political representation—the local junta—as the highest political authority in each district. The main features of this model are outlined below.

Most analysts of participatory decentralization in Montevideo link the subsequent decline in resident participation to design flaws of the model that seriously curtailed the more novel participatory features of the original project. These researchers argue that the outcome of the political compromise illustrates the strength of the country’s political parties and the relative weakness of the city’s urban social movements. Benjamin Goldfrank, for instance, compared the initial phases of the participatory experiences in the cities of Porto Alegre and Montevideo; while in both cities the initial impetus for the reforms came from leftist administrations with similar goals, they each produced different results. In the southern Brazilian city, vibrant urban social movements pushed city officials to deepen the participatory aspects of the model. In contrast, in Montevideo, a city with weaker urban movements, the political establishment successfully constrained the most radical participatory features of decentralization. I will examine the impact of these changes to the original model in subsequent chapters when I discuss the experience of each community. For now, I only suggest that in spite of these important limitations, the political compromise brokered in the corridors of power permitted the implementation of a project of participatory decentralization that opened new opportunities for citizen involvement in municipal affairs.

The new model called for a number of institutional and administrative reforms, beginning with the creation of the Department of Decentralization at the level of the central administration. This new unit was charged with promoting and coordinating municipal restructuring through the Divisions of Local Administration and Deconcentrated Services and for implementing social policies through the Divisions of Social Promotion and Health. The reforms divided Montevideo into eighteen new districts. Map 1 shows their borders and highlights the three districts covered in this study.

The reforms clustered the city’s sixty-two neighborhoods into these larger political-administrative units. Each district was internally diverse, as it was made up of several neighborhoods with different histories, needs, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Recognizing this diversity, each of the eighteen zones was further divided into subzones corresponding to the boundaries of established neighborhoods, and representation by subzone within each district was promoted as an important element of the new structures.

The success of the reform project rested, in part, on the ability of the new city government to build the capacity of communities to participate, to promote harmonious relations within each zone, and to foster a new territorial identity based on the new boundaries. The decentralization project aimed to improve service delivery by deconcentrating municipal services and to enhance the quality of municipal governance by facilitating citizen participation. To this end, it called for the creation of three new local bodies within each of the eighteen districts—the district communal centers (centros comunales zonales), the local juntas (juntas locales), and the neighborhood councils (consejos vecinales). These three local pillars of the new institutionality became the vehicles to facilitate, respectively, administrative, political, and social decentralization.

The local juntas are organs of political representation and constitute a form of local municipal government with limited authority. These organs were added to the decentralized model during the political negotiations that led to the approval of the decentralization plan, giving the political establishment automatic representation and control over decision making in local government. The new institutional arrangements grant local juntas the status of supreme authority at the local level. Local juntas make final decisions about local issues, determine priorities over resource allocation, and supervise the overall administration of the communal centers. They have limited powers, however, as they may only make decisions within the parameters established by the central municipal government. These nonelected bodies have five honorary members appointed by the mayor from a list submitted by each political party that runs in the municipal elections. Members of the local juntas serve for a period of five years, which overlaps with the mayor’s term in office. The formula employed to allocate the five council seats in each local junta gives the winning party three seats, and the other two seats are allocated among the other parties based on the number of votes they receive. Local juntas meet twice per month in closed sessions.

Each local junta’s one full-time secretary has become the de facto central political figure in the local decentralized structures and the most visible individual at the district level. The local secretary is a political appointee who acts as the mayor’s representative at the district level and is charged with overseeing the overall operation of local government in each district. Although formally a full-time functionary of the local junta, technically the highest authority, the influence of the secretary often overshadows the authority of the part-time, honorary members. A paid official with direct access to the mayor, the local secretary acts as the central node of the whole system of local government, liaising with the three bodies of local government and linking them with one another and with the central city administration. Alicia Veneziano has argued that the extensive powers of the local secretary constitute one of the primary weaknesses of the decentralization model, an argument I will return to when I review the operation of local government in each of the three districts covered in this book.

The district communal centers act as local branches of the municipal administration and were designed to promote administrative decentralization and service deconcentration. Each communal center is managed by a locally based director drawn from the city bureaucracy, who is supported by a team of administrators, local crews, two social workers, and an urban planner. Each center offers a range of services, and has units dealing with social development, administration, and public works. These services include a variety of women’s and youth programs, day care centers, senior centers, and community development works. Communal centers are also responsible for the maintenance of public lighting and green areas (i.e., parks and plazas) and for sweeping local streets. Residents can also make administrative demands through the communal center, including requests for emergency services in green areas, repairs of public lighting or removal of garbage, and a variety of social services, such as requests for sex education workshops or milk donations to schools or social institutions. They may also use the communal center to report industrial pollution or a lack of running water.

The neighborhood councils are designed to act as consultative organs of social representation for the participation of civil society in municipal affairs. The number of council members varies from zone to zone, ranging from twenty to forty people. In contrast to the members of the local juntas who are appointed by the mayor, local councilors are elected locally every thirty months by direct popular vote in elections organized by the district communal center and community organizations. Candidates can run for councilor as representatives of a local organization or they can nominate themselves by securing ten signatures from other neighbors who endorse their nomination. To be eligible to vote or to run for councilor an individual must live or work in the area and be at least eighteen years old. Each council has a steering committee that meets weekly in addition to monthly plenary sessions that bring together all councilors. Plenary sessions are usually open to other residents who wish to attend. Decisions are made by simple majority vote among elected councilors. In addition, each council has a number of commissions focusing on specific themes relevant to the district—such as roads and public works, the environment, recreation and culture, and so forth—that are open to any interested resident.

Neighborhood councils are the bodies where representatives from the various neighborhoods are expected to negotiate the plurality of interests found within the district, to articulate demands, and to put together local development projects to be presented to local officials. As I will show, not all councils are successful in this regard, and some suffer ongoing conflicts and misunderstandings. The councils are the institutional spaces where community activists—equipped with their own histories, traditions, and expectations—construct collective practices that express their political outlook and their own understandings (or misunderstandings) of the principles of participatory democracy. Subsequent chapters will illustrate the different practices that emerge within these councils—as local traditions shape relations among activists and local government officials—and how much the boundaries separating state and civil society tend to dissolve in day-to-day operation. On the one hand, neighborhood councils are constituted as the organs for the autonomous participation of civil society and are even encouraged to define their own operational traditions and to establish relations and partnerships with nonmunicipal agencies. On the other hand, they constitute an integral component of the new institutional makeup of participatory decentralization that structures and regulates their activities in multiple ways. Oftentimes councilors feel frustrated as they try to perform their roles under these conditions. Many end up wondering whether they act as true representatives of civil society vis-à-vis the municipal state or whether they have become spokespersons of local institutions within their communities, a tension that is exacerbated when the city government fails to meet community needs and expectations.

The municipal reforms also initiated a series of participatory processes to open more fluid channels of communication between the city government and communities, with the hope that this would make public management more efficient and also ensure a more equitable redistribution of resources. One of these participatory processes was the institutionalization of consultation in the allocation of resources through the municipal budget. Participatory budgeting—as this process is called, borrowing from the successful experience in the city of Porto Alegre—involves a three-stage process of dialogue and consultation among the city government, local authorities, and community organizations. This consultation produces a management plan (compromiso de gestión) that commits the municipal government to a specific allocation of resources in each of the city’s eighteen zones, the implementation of which is supposed to be monitored by local organizations.

In addition, the city government has involved residents in a number of participatory experiences, including two city forums called Montevideo en Foro, where hundreds of community activists met to discuss the shape of decentralization and to propose ways of deepening local democracy. Another participatory experience engaged residents and other stakeholders to draft strategic development plans for each district. Called PLAEDEZ (Plan Estratégico de Desarrollo Zonal, or Strategic Plans for District-Level Development), the process involved several months of discussion within districts to identify community needs and aspirations and to agree on a common five-year local development plan. The success of this process to attract resident participation varied widely across districts, and in most cases people tended to delegate the task to the secretary of the local junta and the technical personnel working at the district level.

In spite of the many shortcomings of the project of participatory decentralization, which I will discuss in this book, it marked a significant departure from the paternalistic, top-down styles used under the old system of city politics. The new participatory spaces have offered Montevideanos opportunities to help define public policies, to shape the city budget, and to determine priorities in the allocation of municipal resources. With this program, the Broad Front administration invited residents to engage in the management of the city, participate in elections for neighborhood councils (as candidates or voters), present demands directly to local government via the district’s council, comanage projects with municipal authorities, and attend open forums at the district level. As a result, decentralization helped narrow the distance between residents and city government officials and facilitated access to municipal authorities. Nevertheless, as I point out above, not all communities were able to seize the opportunities offered by decentralization, and many in fact had significant trouble dealing with the growing challenges raised by the rapidly changing city that I describe in the next section.

Changes in the Urban Fabric: Social Fragmentation and Spatial Polarization

Every time I arrive in Montevideo I am struck by the beauty of this city, one of the southernmost capitals in the world. To get to town from the airport I always take the scenic route alongside the traditional rambla, lined with tall palm trees next to the white sandy beaches stretching for more than ten kilometers through the entire southeastern part of the city. Along the muddy-brown waters of the River Plate estuary that Uruguayans call “the sea,” luxuriant green foliage grows in the humid climate and flowers blossom even in the winter. The rambla is always thronged with Montevideanos from all sectors of society, people who come to the coast to enjoy themselves at any time of year. As I travel along the shore on my way toward Pocitos, the neighborhood where I will settle during my research stay, I see people calmly resting on benches, sipping the traditional herbal mate, joggers trotting alongside the rambla, and the occasional professional dog walker skillfully managing some twenty purebred dogs belonging to the well-to-do families that live in this part of the city. I first pass through the upper-class neighborhood of Carrasco, home to some strikingly beautiful century-old houses—the lone survivors of earlier days when the area was a beach resort for the city’s aristocracy—and some of the most stunning new residences in Montevideo. When I enter the middle-class neighborhoods of Punta Gorda and Malvin, the houses become smaller but the scenery remains gorgeous. At a distance, I can finally recognize the skyline dotted with high-rise condominiums overlooking the River Plate that announces I am close to Pocitos. So many condos have sprung up in Pocitos that they form a thick wall separating the rest of the city from its coastline and making this upper-middle-class neighborhood—with nearly ten times the average population density of the city—feel packed and overcrowded.

The city’s architecture in the neighborhoods along the southeastern coast, the marvelous art deco buildings in the traditional downtown area, the many monuments in public spaces, and the wide boulevards spread across the city speak volumes about the former period of splendor in the mid-twentieth century, when Uruguay was renowned for its high standard of living, advanced social policies, and democratic traditions. These accomplishments made Uruguayans feel proud to be different in a region marked by profound social inequalities and political instability, a feeling that was reinforced by their overwhelming European parentage that set them apart from other Latin American countries. Nor was this pride based entirely on a problematic racial/ethnic snobbery. The smallest country in the region had produced the highest levels of social development, a rich tradition of artistic and intellectual creation, and some remarkable international soccer victories that made it a mecca for soccer aficionados. Understandably, there was no shortage of adjectives to name this “urban” or “middle-class” society that saw itself as meritocratic and highly integrated, or “hyper-integrated,” to borrow a term coined by Germán Rama. Outside its borders, the country became known as the “Switzerland of America,” reinforcing Uruguayans’ feelings that this country constituted an island of modernity and equality that had more in common with Europe than with Latin America.

Montevideo is indeed a beautiful city, and not surprisingly it is ranked as the best place to live in South America, ahead of better-known urban centers like Buenos Aires, Santiago, or Rio de Janeiro. Apart from the coastline, Montevideanos enjoy much cleaner air than residents of any other capital city in Latin America and have proportionally more urban green space and trees than residents of any other city in the region. As I approach the neighborhood of Pocitos, however, I am confronted with numerous signs that tell me that much has changed, even since my last trip in 1998, and that in many respects this is no longer the Montevideo where I grew up. At each major intersection I come across groups of children darting among stopped cars, hoping to receive a few coins from drivers in exchange for cleaning windshields, selling an assortment of cheap goods, or entertaining by juggling balls. I also see garbage pickers slowly moving through the city pulling homemade carts—a few lucky ones with the assistance of visibly underfed horses—as they sift through the leftovers of middle-class families to uncover something to eat or to trade for cash. These are the faces of another Montevideo that has emerged. Montevideanos increasingly recognize that they live in a more fragmented society where people are more aggressive, and with reports of rising crime they feel increasingly insecure. The noticeably heightened security—iron bars on every window, multiple reinforced locks on every door, private security guards, and enclosed balconies even on the top floors of apartment buildings—tells me that on this side of town, residents feel themselves to be under threat.

Indeed, over the past few decades the city’s social fabric has steadily been torn apart, forcing upper- and middle-class city residents to come face-to-face with the social ills typical of urban social exclusion—rising violence, crime rate, drug addiction, street begging, homelessness—found across Latin America. An indication that the social integration that allowed Montevideanos to live in relative social harmony is over may be found in the alarming rise in poverty. Uruguay plunged into poverty during the military regime but had steadily improved following the return to democracy. By 2003, however, poverty had reached unprecedented levels in a country that had enjoyed a relatively high standard of living. According to official statistics, poverty doubled after 1993, and the number of indigent people increased by more than 300 percent during the same period. In 2004, close to one-third of the 3.3 million Uruguayans lived in poverty, 100,000 were indigent, and nearly 50 percent of children were born in poor homes. As the country fell into poverty and increasingly resembled its neighbors, clearly the comforting notion of Uruguayan “exceptionalism” no longer made sense. The feeling of uniqueness that had made Uruguayans so proud gave way to the realization that the country had become “Latin Americanized,” as Uruguayans often say in despair. Corroborating these trends, the country plummeted fifteen places on the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports world ranking, from a comfortable twenty-ninth place in 1975 to forty-sixth two decades later.

This decline left permanent scars on the urban landscape, changing the lives of city residents in multiple ways. Indeed, for the past twenty years Montevideanos have increasingly lived de facto in two separate cities, both in social and spatial terms. Map 2 shows how poor people were segregated within the city space. The map also shows poverty levels in the three districts covered in this study.

Census results show that the city core has been losing population at an alarming rate, as thousands of impoverished residents were forced to migrate to the urban periphery due to rising rents following the liberalization of the rental market and the general increase in the cost of living. In fact, while 70 percent of the city’s sixty-two neighborhoods lost population between 1995 and 2004, the few areas that experienced growth were all located in the urban periphery, experiencing disproportionately higher social problems and fewer urban services. Map 3 shows the areas of the city affected by overcrowded housing. It also shows that one of the districts covered in this study (district 17) was the area most affected by this condition, a point I will return to in chapter 3 and in the concluding chapter.

Some of the “new poor” who moved toward the periphery settled in public housing projects or built their own houses on cheap, legally acquired land, while thousands of others settled in irregular squatter settlements called asentamientos. By 2004, 10 percent of Montevideanos had found shelter in one of the 364 asentamientos that sprang up across the city, where they were crammed in high-density areas lacking basic urban services. The capital city, with slightly over 40 percent of the country’s population, became the home of three-quarters of all people living in irregular squatter settlements.

This growing spatial and social distance between social classes produced by deteriorating social conditions increasingly segregated Montevideanos as residents started to interact more with social equals than with people from other social groups, a change that undermined the relatively high levels of social integration found in better times. These trends segregated the poor in neighborhoods with strikingly higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and hunger and substantially less access to services, making it harder for them to cope with or to move out of poverty. Table 1 shows the degree to which social and spatial marginality overlap in today’s Montevideo, where neighborhoods located in the urban periphery have much higher rates of social exclusion than the upper- and middle-class neighborhoods situated in the eastern costal areas.

Increased social exclusion and poverty greatly altered life in poor neighborhoods. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the traditional working-class neighborhoods that had sprung up around industries enjoyed access to basic urban services and were relatively homogeneous in social terms. The worlds of work and neighborhood overlapped so that the solidarity produced on the factory floor spilled over into the barrio, fostering strong fraternal ties, community solidarity, and social organization. When the country’s industries collapsed and unemployment skyrocketed, as we will see in the chapters that follow, this balance was permanently upset, undermining social integration and producing all manner of social problems.

To make matters worse, some of these communities were overwhelmed by the arrival and settlement of the newly impoverished, who came with different traditions and outlooks. While earlier urban growth had been driven by European immigrants and people from the country’s interior who came to seize the expanding opportunities offered by industrial jobs, the newcomers who settled within or in the outskirts of established working-class communities were driven by growing poverty and despair. Rather than being “pulled” into the city by the prospect of improving their lives, these people were “pushed” toward the urban periphery by forces beyond their control. The fracturing of the social fabric of working-class communities—produced by the disappearance of the material basis of their existence (the jobs created by industries) and exacerbated by the influx of the new poor—made these poor neighborhoods increasingly similar to the new urban ghettos that mushroomed in other Latin American cities, where groups with contrasting traditions and cultures came together in areas with relatively high levels of social disorganization and need. These conditions undermined community organization and solidarity, as I discovered in the communities discussed in this book, and affected the operation of local government in each of the districts.

These problems were created by the country’s economic decline, caused by the collapse of the model of import substitution industrialization (ISI) and state interventionism. Uruguay’s atypical economic prosperity had been due to a fortuitous combination of ISI policies and rising prices for Uruguay’s beef exports. But those good times ended in the 1960s when the country’s economy started to show signs of stagnation. If the exhaustion of the ISI model brought industrial development to a halt, the subsequent free-market and trade liberalization policies adopted by governments since the 1980s completed the destruction of the country’s waning industrial base. The shift from state-led to market-led development policies reduced by half the relatively high share of employment that industry and the public sector enjoyed in the country’s job structure. The decline of industry accelerated in recent years, as its share of GNP fell from 29 percent in 1985 to 19 percent in 2003. The disappearance of industrial and state jobs was deeply felt across Montevideo, but it especially brought disaster to working-class neighborhoods, as I discovered through my regular visits to these communities.

The negative effects of these structural trends were exacerbated by factors beyond anyone’s control. Uruguayans have the blessing and the curse to be sandwiched between the two largest economies in South America, and they are keenly aware that their fortunes are tied to their neighbors’ ups and downs. Popular wisdom expresses this with the saying “When Argentina or Brazil catches a cold, the Uruguayan economy gets pneumonia!” Indeed the Brazilian devaluation of 1999 and the Argentinean debacle of 2002 brought havoc to Uruguay’s economy. In the first seven months of 2002 alone, the country lost nearly 80 percent of its foreign reserves, as Argentineans rushed to withdraw their deposits from Uruguayan banks, fearing that they no longer offered their usual financial security. The country’s exports collapsed (since most of them were destined for these struggling countries), GDP per capita shrank by 19 percent, inflation hit 24 percent, and unemployment skyrocketed to a historic high of 19 percent. All of this triggered a recession that would last until 2003, precisely the year I returned to the country to study community participation in poor neighborhoods.

The economic collapse also forced many to search for better opportunities abroad. As I drove by the gates of the Spanish embassy each day, I saw endless lines of people with chairs and sleeping bags determined to spend the night on the street hoping to obtain one of the few appointments handed out each morning by overworked consular staff. Sadly, the country that had previously opened its doors to thousands of immigrants was now effectively expelling their grandchildren back to Europe at a time when European governments were not keen to receive them. Some Uruguayans managed to find the birth certificates of their grandparents and reclaimed their ancestral European citizenship, thereby allowing them to return to the “old” world armed with a precious EU passport (placing them a notch above thousands of others trying to survive as undocumented immigrants). Between 1985 and 2004, nearly two hundred thousand people left the country—half of them during the 1999–2003 economic debacle—joining a diaspora of over half a million people, a figure that represents 15 percent of those still living within the country.

The Evolution of Decentralization in Montevideo

Remarkably, despite coming to power amid the worst crisis Montevideanos had ever experienced, the Broad Front administration steadily expanded its base of support fifteen years after it came to power. While Tabaré Vázquez won the city government with nearly 35 percent of the vote in 1989, five years later Broad Front candidate Mariano Arana was elected with an impressive 44 percent, an increase of almost ten percentage points, and was reelected to a second term in May 2000 (the first elections separate from presidential elections) with 58 percent of the vote. The Left appeared to have consolidated its power in the city when Ricardo Ehrlich, the new Broad Front candidate, received an impressive 61 percent of the vote in 2004 (almost double the support that had originally brought Vázquez to power fifteen years earlier), in what constituted the largest majority for any political party in the city’s history.

The rise in support was not surprising. Indeed, the record of three successive leftist administrations demonstrated that the Broad Front could be an effective manager in a city facing increasingly greater challenges, and also served as an indication that the coalition had the political will to redistribute urban resources to benefit the urban poor. After more than a decade in power, the Broad Front had an impressive record of accomplishments to its credit, including significant improvements to public works and a number of impressive social policies for low-income residents, as well as specific programs targeting women, youth, senior citizens, and the disabled. These programs became increasingly more important in light of the social emergency that hit Montevideo toward the end of the 1990s. The lack of response to this crisis from the national government prompted the municipality to direct resources to deal with issues that typically fall under the jurisdiction of national ministries (such as health and housing), demonstrating the Broad Front’s political commitment to prioritize poor city residents. Dividing the city into four areas according to different poverty levels, table 2 shows how much the areas contributed in city taxes and how much they received in the form of municipal spending, documenting that the city government did in fact redirect significant urban resources toward poorer neighborhoods. The areas with poverty levels greater than 40 percent, for instance, contributed only 11 percent of total tax revenues but received nearly half of municipal expenditures, the highest per capita expenditure in the city.

The table also shows that per capita investment was very similar in the other three areas, indicating that the commitment to redistribution did not preclude investing in richer areas of the city. The Broad Front also invested in urban infrastructure and programs that benefited middle- and upper-class residents, especially during the second and third administrations under Mayor Arana. During these periods, the city government made significant improvements to the quality of the city’s beach areas (in part helped by the removal of sewage disposal from city beaches), upgraded different parts of the valued rambla, and started several urban renewal projects, including the successful restoration of the colonial Ciudad Vieja. Through these initiatives the Broad Front demonstrated that it could effectively avoid the zero-sum dilemma of taking from the rich to give to the poor, showing that it was willing to govern for the entire city.

Most analysts identify three periods in the evolution of participation. The initial period (1990–93) generated the most spontaneous and widespread participation as thousands of residents came out to countless community forums hoping to shape the character of decentralization and to identify the needs of their communities. The second period (1993–98) started with the inauguration of the new structures of local government forced on Vázquez by the political establishment, all of which effectively disempowered the organs for the participation of civil society, but resident participation in elections for neighborhood councils continued to grow. The third phase (1998–2004) was marked by a fall in participation, high desertion rates among councilors, and declining voter turnout.

Resident participation in the elections for neighborhood councils reflects these trends, as shown in table 3. The evolution of electoral participation shows an expansive phase that peaked in 1998, followed by a slightly lower levels of voter turnout in 2001 and a decline of nearly 25 percent in the 2004 elections. After a normal period of growth, electoral participation stabilized at around 8 percent of eligible voters, a level of participation that continued until 2008, the last election for which data is available.

Most analysts attribute the decline in participation and in voter turnout to the changes in the model of decentralization that severely restricted the responsibilities and powers of neighborhood councils after 1993. While this was an important factor, the concrete experiences of participation discussed in this book will show that the decline in participation was also related to the local contingencies identified earlier in this chapter and to the deepening economic crisis affecting the country after 1999. For instance, city authorities responded to the crisis by shifting spending toward social emergency programs to address the immediate and urgent needs of thousands of Montevideanos, effectively taking resources away from the public works that had earned the government so much support. The crisis strained city coffers in more serious ways as many Montevideanos simply stopped paying municipal taxes, prompting a reluctant Mayor Arana to warn that they could not “respond to all the needs and demands of the population.” To make matters worse, a series of unprecedented decisions by national governments reduced transfer payments while demanding increased contributions from the municipality to the national treasury. These financial problems meant that the city government could not meet the avalanche of demands arising in the poorer districts, angering councilors and demoralizing community activists, and ultimately producing a decline in participation.

Models of Urban Governance and the Rise of the Left in Latin America

The introduction of participatory decentralization in Montevideo illustrates broader changes in the politics of Latin America. This experience is part of an emerging trend of participatory urban governance sweeping through Latin America that includes not only the high-profile case of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre but also hundreds of participatory experiments in other major cities in the region. Such experiments—supported by a wide range of social movements, popular organizations, NGOs, and progressive municipal governments—turned local spaces into real-life laboratories of social transformation and democratization, with different degrees of success. In so doing, they helped shape a new paradigm of urban governance based on the principles of democratic participatory citizenship and redistributive justice, aiming to democratize social and political life and to improve public delivery of services.

Over the past ten years we have witnessed an undeniable shift in the region’s political landscape, as close to 80 percent of Latin Americans opened the millennium in countries with left-of-center governments, a striking contrast with decades past when all but a few were ruled by military dictators. As the “pink tide” swept across Latin America, earlier academic and political interest in the experiences of “the Left in the city” (to cite the name of an influential book on participatory urban governance ) gave way to passionate debates about the significance of the broader changes that had finally brought the Left into the presidential palace of so many countries in the region. In focusing on these wider transformations, however, we risk overlooking the value of more localized democratic participatory experiences, such as the one discussed in this book, initiatives where some of the most exciting practical alternatives to neoliberalism have been forged.

The rise of the Left as a credible political force to lead national governments in Latin America is associated with growing disenchantment with free-market policies and liberal democracy, and with the shift toward moderation and the acceptance of electoral politics on the part of the leftist parties. Yet the growing fortunes of the Left have also resulted from years of experience in running city governments and from the innovative experiences in democratic participation that leftist city governments have introduced at the municipal level. These experiences demonstrated that the Left not only could efficiently administer some of Latin America’s largest cities (in itself not an easy task), but also that it had the political will and imagination to introduce innovative forms of governance that helped redistribute resources to the urban poor while revitalizing democratic practices at the local level. As a result, political parties of the Left, like the Broad Front coalition in Uruguay, gained political support beyond their traditional constituencies as followers of more conservative political parties cast their votes for them, either because they were inspired by the reform policies or because they no longer viewed voting for these parties as a gamble.

Changing Development Discourse and the Rise of Civil Society as an Agent of Development

The experience of participatory decentralization in Montevideo offers an alternative to the model of decentralization advocated by the “Washington consensus.” Proponents of neoliberalism conceive participation as an instrument to transfer responsibilities to civil society and the market, while reducing state involvement in production and redistribution. They view civil society as an arena of self-regulation where rational individuals pursue their own interests through a plurality of interest groups and voluntary associations. They no longer envision the state as a provider of goods and services, as in the model of the developmentalist state, but rather as an enabling force to facilitate the conditions for citizens and markets to generate well-being without direct state assistance or interference. This perspective advocates a consumerist form of “market citizenship,” which conceives citizenship as the expression of self-interested individual behavior and upholds civil and political rights while dismissing social rights as a disposable luxury. Based on the premise that the individual constitutes the basic unit of political life, the citizen becomes primarily a consumer of goods and services, who is empowered to the extent that his or her ability to make choices in a competitive market is enlarged. By turning citizenship into an individual affair, the neoliberal view hides the political character of citizenship and does away with the notion of public responsibility.

Alternative participatory experiences, such as the ones discussed in this book, promote participation as one component of a broader process to empower citizens to become protagonists in more radical processes to deepen democracy, redistribute resources, and expand social citizenship. They advocate a democratic-participatory view of citizenship, which links democratic participation, equitable justice, and public responsibility. Arguing that choices about budgetary expenditures and service delivery are ultimately political choices about resource allocation and redistribution, these experiments encourage more bottom-up democratic input, public debate, and negotiation to produce consensus on the kinds of service to be offered as well as how and where those services should be delivered. Since citizenship entails making political rather than market choices, participation becomes a vehicle to deepen democratic citizenship by facilitating the process through which citizens engage in processes to promote equitable development. This emerging view emphasizes the social responsibilities of citizenship by challenging citizens to transcend their narrow individual interests by becoming involved in shaping agendas of equitable social transformation, even when these agendas may clash with their immediate interests as consumers.

The emerging language of the “post-Washington consensus,” however, made the differences between neoliberal advocates and their opponents less obvious. Concerned with responding to growing criticisms of the failures of structural adjustment policies and the widespread social and political problems caused by the unleashing of unrestrained free-market capitalism in the context of extreme inequalities typical of Latin America, major international development institutions backed down from their aggressive neoliberal agendas, embracing notions of sustainable, egalitarian, participatory, and democratic development and advocating targeted policies to address the needs of the poor, even if this meant increased social spending. Many skeptics rightly point out that these policies constitute a repackaged form of neoliberalism (i.e., neoliberalism with a human face) and that the pro-poor policies represent compensatory measures to control market failures, rather than a serious rethinking of the role of unrestrained free markets in development. Notwithstanding these valid criticisms, the post-Washington consensus produced an agenda that is more sensitive to the poor and more responsive to demands arising from civil society than earlier and more aggressive versions of neoliberalism, encouraging mainstream international development institutions to promote institutional reforms to integrate citizens in the formulation and implementation of development programs. These mainstream institutions went so far as praising leftist municipal administrations for their efficient delivery of services to the most needy and for their innovative approaches to institutional reform. The Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) experiment of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, for example, became a high-profile case and was presented quite favorably on the World Bank’s Web page as an effective model worthy of being emulated by other developing countries.

The apparent political convergence between mainstream development institutions and their opponents is explained by the emergence of a new consensus about what constitutes development and how to achieve it, as earlier debates about priorities (growth versus equity) and models (state-led versus market-led development) gave way to more nuanced and balanced approaches. The old state-versus-market debates were replaced by a new common sense that accepted some level of state intervention and regulation and some degree of market competition as necessary to promote development. As debates about the role of the state switched from whether it should intervene to how it should intervene, researchers and policy makers shifted attention toward the ability of state institutions and state capacities to build effective governance. The shift to good governance rested on a growing consensus among all sectors of the political spectrum about the need to make the state more democratic and transparent, more responsive to societal demands, and more efficient. Important differences remained, however, especially in relation to what should be the primary aim of good government: should it be to create the conditions to make markets more efficient or to expand democracy and empower citizens?

The emerging emphasis on empowerment and capacity building to enable individuals to change their circumstances—coupled with the abandonment of models that privileged either states or markets as the exclusive engines of development—gave rise to the “third” route to welfare provision and development. Indeed, civil society, which had been overlooked in the market-versus-state debates, was “discovered” as an agent of development. In a short period of time, civil society took center stage in the development field when it was revealed that it was a rich reservoir of untapped resources—knowledge, values, bonds of trust, and capacities—that were essential to advancing the goals of development. It was argued that these resources constituted an alternative form of capital available to the poor—social capital—that was solemnly declared as the “missing link” in development. Arguing that a vibrant civil society was key to fostering democracy and economic growth, it was also proposed that civil society could help relieve states from financial burdens, avoid the kind of dependencies produced by welfare programs, and remove the profit motive that drives privatized service provision.

The discovery of civil society as a central agent of development gave rise to a new triadic model of development in which civil society was said to be an equal partner alongside the state and the market. But this “third way” model conceives civil society as complementary to the state and the market, as long as civil society organizations accepted the basic organizing principles of market societies and worked in partnerships with the state and the private sector to make capitalism more ethical. This shift in development discourse toward cooperation, partnership, and synergy between civil society, states, and markets called for citizen input in the design, implementation, and monitoring of community development projects. Further, it produced a new language to refer to the development process: community-driven, bottom-up, or grassroot development; participation, social capital, good governance; and so forth. The use of these terms reflected a shift in how the roles of states and civil societies were understood in mainstream development discourse; the former would become an enabling force of markets or community participation, while later would surrender its former role as a passive recipient of state goods and services and provide for itself. Inviting civil society organizations to abandon oppositional stances and to join state agencies as partners to foster development, this new discourse posed a true dilemma for grassroot organizations, as they had to choose between risking co-optation if they engaged in partnerships or irrelevance if they decided to refuse the invitation.

High hopes were attached to the potential of civil society actors—often referred to in the singular to underscore their unitary character—to provide the badly needed civic energy to revitalize political life, produce democratic-egalitarian practices, and promote economic development. These optimistic views about the potential contribution of civil society to development offered a healthy alternative to the state-market debate, but they were not without problems, as I will show in this book. They tended to romanticize civil society—as the place where citizens engaged with one another to transcend their narrow interests to work for the common good through deliberative democratic practices—failing to recognize that not everything that occurs within civil society leads to civility or the public good (itself a highly contested notion). My research on the workings of neighborhood councils will show that it is not uncommon for groups of citizens to refuse to put aside their corporate interests in the name of collective needs, and that even when community activists wish to cooperate to work for the public good, they may be unable to do so because they lack the capacity to work together effectively in particular institutional and socioeconomic contexts.

Another problem with some views of civil society that underpin current analysis is that they fail to recognize that civil society is “as much a creature of the state as it is of society.” Indeed, a flourishing civil society requires guarantees of both citizenship rights and democratic normative frameworks to regulate civic practices, conditions that can only be ensured by robust and legitimate state institutions. If powerful authoritarian regimes do not provide a hospitable environment for the emergence of vibrant civil societies, a claim contradicted in part by the experiences of Latin America and eastern Europe, weak states can also cripple civil society by failing to create the necessary institutional guarantees for its successful operation. Turning the face-to-face trust and cooperation that may emerge within communities into generalized trust is not straightforward, and is also contingent on the existence of strong legal guarantees provided by state institutions.

My research on participatory decentralization shows that states and civil societies constitute interdependent entities that develop “in tandem, not at each other’s expense,” as efforts to strengthen civil society are often integral components of parallel projects of state building. In the case of Montevideo, for example, the impulse to strengthen civil society and to open new avenues for citizen participation came primarily from the state, not from civil society. Elected to city hall in a municipality with frail urban movements and a disenchanted citizenry, the Broad Front charted a reform path to renew municipal politics, hoping to reinspire citizens who had become disillusioned with the “low-intensity” democracy that followed military rule. The governing coalition also hoped to reactivate its own support base. The goal of strengthening civil society and fostering citizen participation, therefore, entailed a broader process of renewing municipal state institutions and party structures. Further, my research also shows that in each barrio the lines of separation between state and civil society were significantly blurred when activists joined the bodies of local government set up by the city administration, a point I will discuss in subsequent chapters.

The construction of mutually supportive partnerships between state and civil society is central to the work of the Berkeley sociologist Peter Evans. His focus on the synergy of civil society and the state seeks to avoid the pitfalls of the romantic views of civil society while acknowledging the potential contribution of civil society and the state to processes of development and democracy. Evans argues that every actor operating at the local level—including community organizations, state officials, and NGOs—needs allies to compensate for its own weaknesses, as each party acting alone lacks all the resources necessary to pursue its goals effectively. Community organizations, for example, are often short of material resources and social capital, and may also be constrained by a preoccupation with narrow, local concerns. NGOs, in contrast, may possess resources and know-how but can only use them effectively when embedded in communities and linked up with state agencies. State agencies may possess greater power and resources, but they badly need cooperation from communities or partnerships with NGOs to implement effective programs. Thus community organizations wishing to realize their potential as effective political actors must complement internal solidarity with partnerships and alliances with other actors, such as grassroot organizations, NGOs, and state agencies. To use the language of social capital, communities must complement their internal bonds of trust (“bonding” social capital) by allying with other communities of similar socioeconomic status (“bridging” social capital) and individuals or institutions in positions of power and authority in the state (“linking” social capital). While internal community cohesion is vital to foster bridges or links with other actors, it is not necessarily a sufficient condition to nurture the capacities to do so.

In the case of Montevideo, neighborhood activists wishing to seize the opportunities offered by decentralization were challenged to forge internal bonds of trust, build bridges at the council level with other communities in their district, and establish constructive relations with municipal officials at the local and city level. The concepts of bonding, linking, and bridging social capital are closely connected to the three local contingencies identified at the beginning of this chapter as the key factors that explain the outcomes of participatory decentralization in Montevideo. As I will show, some communities possessed the necessary conditions, resources, and capacities to succeed in building these partnerships and navigating the new institutional networks created by decentralization, while others did not.

The emphasis on bridges and linkages suggests that community organizations or social movements operate within what Evans calls an “ecology of actors” and that their actions must be examined through their interactions within broad networks of interdependent agents—community organizations, social movements, NGOs, religious groups, state institutions/officials, and political parties—rather than as isolated and autonomous actors. Operating in these networks, state and non-state actors mutually influence one another in countless ways. At times, they may clash over the allocation of resources or over the definition of the values that should govern relations between citizens and states; at other times, local organizations and state officials may cooperate on specific projects. My discussion of the three districts will illustrate both tendencies and show that when cooperation among communities and between communities and state officials occurs, these actors develop synergy, increasing “their respective capacities to provide collective goods” and producing outcomes with greater effects than they may have had if each had operated individually. The ideal conditions for synergy, according to Evans, include the existence of robust state institutions that guarantee both citizenship rights and democratic frameworks, and relatively egalitarian social structures. While the first condition was met in Montevideo, the second was certainly lacking. Nevertheless, synergy was constructed in some districts, as I will show in subsequent chapters.

State and Civil Society Relations in Latin America

The election of the Broad Front and other leftist city governments across Latin America increased opportunities for synergy between civil society and the state. The prospects for that synergy, however, were conditioned by the historical patterns found across the region. Latin American civil societies emerged in the twentieth century under the shadow of powerful, authoritarian, corporatist states and operated under an overarching “state-centered matrix” that structured economic, political, and social relations. In Uruguay, as in other countries in the region, the subordination of civil society was reinforced by import substitution policies that made the state a central actor in economic, social, political, and even cultural affairs.

These conditions changed with the emergence of more vibrant civil societies during the democratic transitions of the 1980s, especially in the Southern Cone of Latin America. Nevertheless, the Brazilian sociologist Leonardo Avritzer warns us that sweeping generalizations about a Latin American state–civil society matrix are only partially useful because they tend to render invisible important differences in the patterns found across the region, especially in the post-authoritarian period. Like most researchers, Avritzer acknowledges that the region lived through similar cycles of mobilization—a surge of civil society activity in the struggles against authoritarian governments followed by a general decline in the post-authoritarian period. But he argues that these cycles produced different outcomes in the kinds of state–civil society interactions that followed democratization. These variations, he suggests, can only be explained in reference to the unique histories, traditions, and institutional developments of each country.

Avritzer identifies three distinct models of civil society that emerged toward the end of authoritarian rule. The “pre-liberal” model, which is the least relevant for this study, emerged in Andean countries like Peru and Colombia where state institutions were weak and fragmented and could not guarantee the basic normative frameworks and rights necessary for the operation of civil society. Civil society in these cases took some of the state’s responsibilities in an effort to establish peace, security, and welfare in a context marked by the absence of state capacities. The “liberal-democratic” model is typical of countries of the Southern Cone that had developed more robust institutions before the demise of democracy, where political parties had effectively mediated between society and the state. In these countries the military banned democratic institutions and political parties from all sides of the political spectrum, hoping to eliminate the “hazards” of formal democratic politics, though following democratization the political party system was essentially restored. Civil organizations in the Southern Cone, argues Avritzer, seemed content to accept the legitimacy of the traditional political system and the narrow confines of liberal democracy instead of pressing for a new kind of political democracy.

The “civic-participatory” model emerged in Brazil, where democratic institutions and political parties were less established and where civil society was weak and fragmented prior to the emergence of the military regime. Avritzer argues that the relative weakness of Brazilian political institutions provided ideal opportunities for the surge of more vibrant civil society organizations during and after the transition to democracy. In this context, Avritzer goes on, civil society embraced a new discourse of rights and fought to extend the scope of citizenship, to challenge traditional forms of political mediation, and to assert alternative social practices. It was in Brazil where civil society organizations pressed hardest for institutional reforms and for new forms of citizen participation; not surprisingly, the country produced countless innovative grassroot experiences, including participatory budgeting.

Curiously, Avritzer’s discussion of the Southern Cone does not include any references to the Uruguayan case, which I suggest shares most of the features of the liberal-democratic model that emerged in Chile and Argentina but also includes a few of the characteristics of Brazil’s civic-participatory model. Like Chile, Uruguay had strong democratic traditions and effective party systems that were restored following democratization. Similar to the other Southern Cone countries, Uruguay gave birth to a vibrant civil society during the authoritarian period that was demobilized following the restoration of liberal democracy. Civil society in these countries was unwilling or too weak to effectively redefine the matrix that framed the relationship between the state and society or to challenge the political parties’ monopoly over political mediation. In particular, several studies of the transition in Uruguay stress that the logic of political restoration triumphed over political renewal, and explain this outcome in reference to the historical centrality of the state and party system in Uruguayan political and social life.

The prominence of political institutions in Uruguay dates back to the early twentieth century, when the modern state was constructed largely in the absence of a rigid class structure and in a context of “social stalemate,” in which no single social group was strong enough to impose its own project on the rest of society. The power vacuum that resulted provided a unique opportunity to a forward-looking urban political class under the leadership of José Batlle y Ordóñez to capture a relatively autonomous state and to implement a program of social reform that was highly advanced for Latin America. The Batllista reformist project sought to create a meritocratic society based on political democracy and welfare politics. Working on the premise that the state was the central engine for societal transformation, Batllismo created a civil society that was subordinate and often mobilized but never consulted except through electoral contests. The Uruguayan state became a force of social integration and a mediator between social groups, effectively guaranteeing basic welfare and upward mobility for Uruguayan citizens and the thousands of immigrants arriving from Europe. The effectiveness of these distributive programs gave the state and the political class unusually high levels of legitimacy that ensured social and political stability until the 1960s.

Such peace was also secured through the early institutionalization of political democracy, the integration of all citizens into the political system, and the institutionalization of consensus and compromise between the country’s traditional Blanco and Colorado parties through a Swiss-style collegiate executive system and proportional co-participation in the administration of state enterprises. The effective operation of the country’s political system, coupled with high levels of social mobility, generated a political culture that cherished democratic values, accepted the central role of political parties to articulate citizen’s demands, and in general rejected extra-institutional forms of collective action. Such was the influence of the country’s traditional parties that it is often argued that in Uruguay political identity took precedence over social identity, as party traditions and loyalties became more important than class belonging in defining an individual’s identity.

The symbolic weight of political parties in national culture was also due to their proven flexibility and adaptability, their multi-class, catchall nature, and a complex set of electoral laws that created a de facto “fragmented” two-party system. Curiously, each of the two traditional parties comprised radically different ideological tendencies thanks to the country’s electoral laws, which allowed each party to put forward numerous slates of presidential candidates under a single party banner, or lema. Each slate represented the multiple political factions—ranging from the extreme Right to the left-of-center—that coexisted within each of the two traditional parties. As a result, candidates with radically different political programs ended up running under the same party banner. The lema that won the most votes would claim the presidency in a single electoral round. Then, within the winning party, the candidate with the most votes would take the presidency. This complex system allowed traditional parties to appeal to multiple social groups, to incorporate diverse interests into the political process, and, conveniently, to make it hard for other political contenders to emerge.

The political monopoly of the Colorado and Blanco parties changed in 1971 when a rainbow of leftist and left-of-center parties came together to form a coalition called the Broad Front, which presented a single presidential candidate—a retired army officer well known for his progressive democratic politics—in the elections that year. The coalition, equipped with a program that blended the progressive aspects of the Batllista project with moderate socialist ideas, appealed to the urban middle sectors, workers, and intellectuals, and received 21 percent of the vote. Members of the Broad Front became the primary targets of repression under the military regime (1973–84), suffering imprisonment, torture, disappearances, and exile. Nevertheless, following democratization the Broad Front coalition became a serious contender to win the presidency, steadily expanding its base of support through electoral alliances with splinter groups from the Blanco and Colorado parties. In a desperate attempt to prevent a Broad Front victory, the traditional parties pushed through a reform to the country’s electoral laws, which was approved by razor-thin margin in a December 1996 plebiscite vote. The new electoral law required the election of the president by absolute majority vote, if necessary through a second runoff race between the candidates who received the most votes in the first round. While this reform kept the leftist coalition out of power in 1989 when the Colorado and Blanco parties united in the second runoff vote to narrowly defeat the Broad Front, it proved ineffective to prevent the rise of the leftist coalition to power five years later.

In 2004—one hundred years after the Batlle y Ordóñez elections that marked the start of modern politics in the country—Uruguayan voters in a second ballot vote gave the Broad Front the majority it had been pursuing since its founding in 1971, effectively ending the political monopoly that traditional political parties had enjoyed since independence in the early nineteenth century. Shortly after the elections, a stunned José Mujica—a former Tupamaro guerrilla leader who had been jailed and tortured by the dictatorship and who emerged as one of the most popular and charismatic politicians of the post-authoritarian period—remarked in his typical style, “Not even García Márquez would have imagined this!” The changing political landscape clearly showed that contrary to the thesis of continuity and restoration, much had changed in Uruguay following the return to democratic rule. Indeed, the left-of-center coalition had remarkably increased its electoral support from 21 percent to 51 percent between 1984 and 2004, while the combined electoral vote of the Blanco and Colorado parties dropped from 76 percent to an abysmal low of 46 percent during the same period.

While the convincing leftist victory marked a break with political tradition, it also testified to the endurance of the country’s democratic institutions. Similar to the Chileans on the other side of the Andes, Uruguayan citizens remained committed to the ballot box and used existing political party structures to change political course, a stance that in part set them apart from their neighbors in nearby Argentina. For example, in reaction to the 2002 economic debacle, furious Argentinean citizens took to the streets chanting “Que se vayan todos!” (Let them all go!) to condemn the entire political class and to show how little esteem they had for political institutions. In contrast, Uruguayans did not respond to the economic crisis with angry demonstrations, showing instead a remarkable adherence to the institutions of representative democracy and remaining very much at the center of the political spectrum.

The Uruguayan experience differs from that of Chile or Argentina in two fundamental aspects. One difference is the frequent use by Uruguayan citizens of mechanisms of direct democracy, such as plebiscites and referenda, to voice their opinion on a wide range of issues in the period after democratization. For decades, Uruguayans had the constitutional right to call binding referenda to change the constitution or to repeal legislation—all they had to do was to collect signatures from 25 percent of registered voters—but the few referenda that were held before the military takeover were always sponsored by the Blanco and Colorado parties to approve limited constitutional amendments. In contrast, since the return to formal democracy, grassroot coalitions of social movements and parties from outside the political establishment started to use referenda to change government laws and to curb neoliberal reforms. Between 1989 and 2004, for example, citizens called eleven referenda or plebiscites. The first referendum campaign was organized in 1989 to repeal the amnesty law passed by Parliament granting immunity from prosecution to military officers implicated in human rights abuses, unleashing passionate debates about democracy and human rights in the post-authoritarian period. Although only 35 percent of Uruguayans voted to repeal the law, the experience set the foundations for more successful referendum campaigns later on. In 1992, 79 percent of Uruguayans annulled a law that had given the government carte blanche to privatize public enterprises, and in 2003 they voted to repeal legislation that that would have effectively privatized the country’s only oil refinery. In 2004, a rainbow coalition of grassroot organizations and political parties set up the National Commission in Defense of Water and Life (Comisión Nacional en Defensa del Agua y de la Vida, CNDAV), which organized a historic referendum through which Uruguayans overwhelmingly declared water a public good, and therefore off-limits to private companies. It was the first referendum of its kind anywhere in the world.

The second difference setting Uruguay apart from Chile and to a lesser extent Argentina is the implementation of participatory democracy covering nearly half the country’s population in the capital city. In this regard, Uruguay shares some of the features of the Brazilian participatory experience highlighted by Avritzer and studied by many researchers. In his study of participatory budgeting in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, for example, Baiocchi argues that the Workers’ Party government successfully installed a new mode of urban governance and fashioned an innovative “empowered-participatory” state–civil society regime. The notion of regime used by Baiocchi underscores the idea that differences in the state’s openness to societal demands and in the existing institutional mechanisms to process them may produce different patterns of relations between the state and civil society. Baiocchi suggests that the new regime in Porto Alegre included a city government that was not only sympathetic to popular demands, but also one that was willing to give up its role as the ultimate decision maker and that seriously encouraged residents to determine spending priorities among themselves. Participatory budgeting, he argues, succeeded in attracting participation because resident decisions were respected by city authorities, and also because the model tied the allocation of municipal resources to the level of participation of each community in the early stages of drafting the municipal budget.

Interestingly, Baiocchi also found that the new state–civil society regime established by the Workers’ Party did not operate uniformly across the city of Porto Alegre. In fact, he offers a rich account of the unique and diverse experiences that community activists had as they engaged with participatory budgeting in each of the three communities covered by his study. By looking at participation from the vantage point of local communities and using extensive qualitative fieldwork, Baiocchi shows how local factors generated distinct “civic practices” in each district, even though they operated within the same set of rules established by the macro-institutional framework of participatory budgeting. As a result, he documents quite convincingly the existence of strikingly different sets of informal rules among districts about appropriate forms of behavior that guided relations both among community activists and between them and municipal officials.

Through my own research I also came across considerable variation in the lived experiences of participatory decentralization in each barrio. In the following chapters I will document these differences and explain them in reference to the particular interplay of the three kinds of local contingencies identified above—namely, the nature of local associational cultures, socioeconomic conditions, and the attributes of local government officials. I will focus on specific barrios to learn how each community experienced participatory decentralization and generated its own participatory practices in light of their unique conditions. I selected three working-class neighborhoods for in-depth analysis—Peñarol, El Cerro, and La Teja—with similar socioeconomic backgrounds and levels of social capital, but with seemingly different levels of success in building participatory local government. Each of these barrios possessed a rich history of collective organizing as well as large stocks of social capital that shaped how local activists related to participatory decentralization and to the other communities they met in the structures of local government. I examine how the local associative traditions forged in these barrios played out at the district level, especially in the neighborhood councils, where activists interacted with the bodies of local government.

My reconstruction of the history of these communities reveals that they are a microcosm of the country’s development and are integrally subject to shifts in economic and social policies and to the ups and downs of the economy. The lives of people from these communities, as I will show, were affected in fundamental ways by the rise and fall of large industries—meatpacking in El Cerro and the railways in Peñarol—or by the vicissitudes of a whole range of smaller, nationally owned industries—in La Teja—that had prospered under the country’s import substitution policies but collapsed with trade liberalization after the 1980s. In each of the three areas, I met deeply committed activists who fought against difficult odds to improve the quality of life in their communities. Embedded in neighborhoods with a strong sense of identity and a rich history of collective struggle, these activists responded eagerly to the call to become protagonists in building participatory democracy in their barrios. Their remarkable stories, including their successes and failures, are narrated in the following chapters.