THOUSANDS of pensioners recently gathered at this city's central plaza in a noisy rally to pressure the federal government to increase their social security checks. The atmosphere was electric, one organizer recalls.
"I felt like the [local] Jaragua peak, because that whole group was one [entity], a mountain of people who, despite all the differences among themselves, all had one objective," says Henos Amorina, an alderman who founded a local pensioners' rights federation in 1985, part of a national movement that now boasts an estimated 500,000 members.
Such emerging interest groups are flourishing in a new era of politics in Latin America. It is an era, social scientists and politicians say, in which grass-roots organizing has begun to take the place of old-fashioned patronage politics. They note a developing sense of citizenship and political responsibility, including a growing willingness to tolerate differences and work out common solutions. In Brazil, for example, movements have sprung up in the last five years around issues such as high taxes, the
environment, consumer rights, and violence against street children.
"The potential of these social movements to express themselves implies growing political freedom.... Revolutionary messiahs and authoritarian models acting and ruling in the name of the people no longer have a holy scent," says Claude Auroi, a Swiss political scientist.
Brazilian pensioners used to let politicians "seduce them with beautiful speeches," believing their checks were favors "from heaven," Mr. Amorina says. The movement helped them to see that "they contribute, pay taxes, and are Brazilian citizens, and citizenship has to be respected."
Politics in Latin America has long revolved around an elite who traded their access to power and money for votes and social peace. In the last 15 years, this has changed: In the face of stubborn economic and political problems, military rulers in Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, and Peru have left power, and civilian governments in Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela have included more sectors of society.
Of course, old habits die hard. The recent coup attempt in Venezuela shows how hard it is for groups - in this case the military - to bend to government policies that affect them negatively. Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez also reacted according to Latin American tradition by imposing censorship on the local media, although local and international pressure quickly forced a reversal of that decision.
Throughout the hemisphere - with the glaring exceptions of Cuba and Haiti - an increasing number of free and honest elections have been taking place from presidential palaces to city halls. Television and radio have expanded their reach and censorship has ended almost everywhere, bringing information that creates new demands for political honesty and accountability, political scientists say. Governments have opened their economies to foreign trade and new influences, allowing the market to be a determini ng factor. And many former leftists have changed their ideas, as a result of experiences in exile or in government itself.
With these changes, and the fall of communism in the East, the question of whether capitalism or communism can best deal with underdevelopment is becoming irrelevant, analysts say.
"In the past, when we were under a very ideological world of politics, your ideas were necessarily linked to a recipe that, if implemented correctly, would change the world, and I think that we have come to realize that it's not that easy," says Jorge Schaulson Brodsky, a Santiago lawyer and federal deputy for the center-left Party for Democracy.
For many politicians, this realization has removed limitations. Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem, who once represented the interests of his nation's powerful labor unions, is trying to reduce that national debt by dismantling the very state machine on which his constituents depended for their livelihoods.
And Bolivia's socialist Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), ruling in concert with the conservative Nationalist Democratic Action party, has agreed to monetarist economic policies that a few years ago most leftists would have seen as traitorous.
"In the short term - two to three years - you have to use tools that don't fit your model. Monetarism has not been created by Martians, but by intelligent people who have studied the problems," says Bernard Inch, an economic adviser at Bolivia's Planning Ministry and MIR's director of international relations. MIR has helped bring Bolivian inflation down from 20,000 percent in 1984 to 10 percent in 1991.
As the old frameworks lose meaning, analysts say, politicians and voters of almost every stripe on the continent are focusing directly on problems related to economic development.
"Democracy is more efficient for politics. The market is more efficient for the economy," says political scientist Ricardo Israel of the University of Chile's Institute of Political Science in Santiago. "What do we want to do with this efficiency? ... You still have not solved the problems between the poor and the rich, done anything about the environment or about moral problems.... There is an ethical debate now about how far you can go with these huge social differences."
Using democracy to solve Latin America's deep social and economic problems will take time, analysts say, as the various participants learn its workings and build solid institutions. But at least, explains Mr. Israel, there are more reasons than ever before that this new era won't just be part of an endless cycle of Latin American elections and coups. Today, the system includes more people and more tolerance for differences in opinion. "Before, people saw democracy only as a right," says Israel. "Now, the y also see it as a duty, with responsibilities."
Above all, many Latin Americans say, only democracy and the healthy distrust of politicians it entails can prevent a return to the physical and moral violence of the recent military regimes.
"The hunger, the poverty we felt at the time of the [1973 military] coup, you couldn't go out in the street because they would shoot you, the helicopters were flying over our houses," says Olga Cortez Plaza, resident of a poor but highly mobilized Santiago neighborhood.
"We can have a lot of organizations, many parties that say let's forget this and that, but I think it's impossible."