WHEN the Brazilian Communist Party decided in January to change its name to the Popular Socialist Party, it dispensed with the hammer and sickle symbol. Immediately, a group of dissidents broke away, determined to stick to the old Marxist-Leninist ideology.
These moves are on the margin of Brazilian politics, dominated today by the center-right, but they are symptomatic of the left in Latin America, as parties, leaders, and the rank and file seek new roles amid the spread of market-based economics and pluralist democracy.
That is not easy, analysts say, in a world without a Soviet model, where mass media, political cynicism, and deepening poverty dominate.
"Progressive thinking ... is going through a very difficult moment in South America, where there is a neoconservative fashion. Because of a certain dependence [on developed countries] because of the debt problem, neoconservative policies are being implemented, and we have to try to resist this [trend] that brings us ... to a society lacking solidarity," says former Argentine President Raul Alfonsin Foulkes, a leader of the Radical Civic Union (UCR). Broad leftist views
It is not easy to define the left in Latin America, where ideology has often blended with personal political aims. Parties like Mr. Alfonss often adopt a gamut of political ideas to garner support from different groups; he belongs to the most liberal wing of the UCR, more concerned with the fate of Argentina's poor.
While "leftist" credos cover everything from armed revolutionary struggle to anti-trust laws, the region's leftist politicians today share two attributes: a long history of exclusion from national politics and popular discredit, given the recent success of market-oriented economic policies.
One of the exceptions to this rule is Bolivia's Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR). An inconclusive presidential election led the MIR to the presidency in 1985, with the support of the conservative opposition Nationalist Democratic Action party. Since then, these strange bedfellows have virtually shared power, and the MIR has had to live with conservative economic policies and the resulting high unemployment.
In Chile, the left has also changed dramatically, but with far less impact on national politics. In October 1957, Chile's Communist Party helped to organize a midnight land invasion that led to the nation's first urban squatter settlement, La Victoria.
Chile's left went on to put Socialist candidate Salvador Allende Gossens in the presidency in 1971, later forming an impressive clandestine network of resistance after Allende was overthrown in a 1973 military coup.
But last October, 33 years after the squatters' victory, communists were squabbling with socialists over how to organize the settlement's anniversary celebration. "There's a lot of division; I don't know if it's political or personal," says La Victoria resident Adela Morales. Eventually, the groups agreed on one program.
After Fidel Castro Ruz took power in Cuba in 1959 and began fomenting revolution abroad, the United States and many Latin American governments did everything they could to keep leftists far from power. In many cases, a common enemy - here a conservative dictatorship - united disparate liberals for decades.
But as world and regional politics have become more democratic and less antagonistic, socialists, communists, and liberals in general have returned from exile, come out of hiding, and emerged from official ostracism. They are finding fragmented parties and tarnished ideologies.
Last November, the Socialist International Council held its semi-annual meeting in Santiago, Chile. Delegates did not overlook the significance of the location: Just two years ago Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was ruling with an iron fist, and Cubans and Nicaraguans - present at the meeting - were more than unwelcome.
Many delegates called for a response to neoconservativism, which they criticize for neglecting the needs of the poor and concentrating wealth. But few have a precise idea of what that response should be, although the meeting produced a series of resolutions on Latin American economic integration, the Salvadoran peace talks, and the coup in Haiti, among other things. Consensus on goals
"Everyone is answering [neoconservativism] with empty speeches," complained Rolando Araya in a corridor interview. The Costa Rican delegate from the National Liberation Party says socialists, and other politicians, too, "need to see exactly what is our role in this new era and not try to live off what the rich world can give us.... We have to go our own way ... to look for political systems more adequate to our culture.... It's not a matter of if democracy or capitalism works or not any more, it's a matt er of what the Latin American spirit can give of itself."
If leftists agree on one thing, it is that they still represent the disenfranchised. "We have to reintroduce ethics into the political process and move away from a kind of sickening pragmatism," says Jorge Schaulson, federal deputy for Chile's leftist Party for Democracy, "move away from a mood of self-indulgence, a mood of 'there's no other way ... there is nothing we can do, there will always be poor people