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Handbook of International Social WorkHuman Rights, Development, and the Global Profession$

Lynne M. Healy and Rosemary J. Link

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780195333619

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195333619.001.0001

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Social Work in Latin America

Social Work in Latin America

(p.393) 60 Social Work in Latin America
Handbook of International Social Work

Irene Queiro-Tajalli

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents an overview of social work in Latin America. It covers the evolution of social work education and practice, and the scope of social work and labor realities for social workers. Latin America faces many of the same socioeconomic concerns of other countries of the Global South, including an aging population, an ever-growing population of young people, struggles with economic globalization and the fading hopes of global prosperity, the loss of jobs, the depletion of natural resources, issues of human rights, and of course poverty. Within this landscape, Latin American social workers try to create innovative approaches through grassroots movements to address the sociopolitical and economic realities of the marginalized, the impact of neoliberal policies on vulnerable sectors of society, and the social injustice that they create.

Keywords:   social work practice, social workers, social work education, grassroots movements

President Evo Morales said in his inaugural address in 2006, “… in the world there are large and small countries, rich countries and poor countries, but we are equal in one thing, which is our right to dignity and sovereignty …”

Dunkerley, 2007


The task of writing about social work in Latin America is daunting given the vast differences and population realities among its countries. There are many ways of defining the area known as Latin America, but for the sake of this chapter, Latin America includes twenty countries: the ten Spanish-and Portuguese-speaking countries of South America; the six Spanish-speaking countries of Central America; Mexico; and Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti in the Caribbean region (Brea, 2003).

Latin America is a region of tremendous beauty, vast natural resources, and rich cultural traits. Its history, languages, traditions, literature, and the like combine to create a vibrant and culturally diverse region. This Indo-Afro-Latin American continent (Dubini, 2008; Zabala Cubillos, 2002) saw the rise and fall of the Incan, Mayan, and Aztec empires. Its music and dances—tango, calypso, salsa, samba, and a rich range of native folklore—extend throughout the world. Traditional native languages such as Quechua, Kekchi, Mixtec, and Guarani are still spoken to this day. In addition, Latin America has numerous Nobel Prize recipients, including Carlos Saavedra Lamas (Peace, 1936), Gabriela Mistral (Literature, 1945), Miguel Angel Asturias (Literature, 1967), Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (Peace, 1980), Gabriel García Márquez (Literature, 1982), and Mario Vargas Llosa (Literatura, 2010). Elisabeth Shirley Enochs (1955) eloquently described the diversity and unity of the Latin American countries as follows:

Some countries still have large Indian populations living under primitive conditions. Some countries are becoming so rapidly modernized and industrialized that their major cities compare with any big city in Europe and the United States. Some cities are a blend of the old and new, and some, even the capital cities, are virtually museum pieces of Spanish or Portuguese architecture of three or more centuries ago. But all are bound together by a sense of common destiny derived from their love of freedom and dedication to republican forms of government. (pp. 299–300)

On the darker side, Latin America suffered mistreatment and abuse from the conquistadores during the colonization period, the brutality of several military dictatorships in recent history, and the current harsh effects of the “global interconnection of oppression” (Council on Social Work Education [CSWE], 2008, p. 5).

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Latin America suffered through brutal military takeovers and regimes, including those in Brazil (1964), Chile (1973), Uruguay (1973), and Argentina (1976). Some authors talk about the lost decade when referring to the 1980s; however, Latin America has experienced several lost decades in the twentieth century at the hands of military regimes and as a result of the deepening radical economic injustices created by neoliberal policies. In the struggle against such oppression, Latin America has witnessed the courageous struggles of its people from Chiapas in the north to the piqueteros and the landless in the south.

Although Latin America is rich in natural resources, poverty has brought considerable pain to the continent. Alcantara (2005) wrote that in Latin (p.394) American countries, the poor accounted for 40.5% and 43.8% of the population in 1980 and in 1999, respectively. Poverty levels vary from country to country; for example, in 2001, 22% of the population in Chile and Costa Rica was living below the poverty level. At the same time, 30% of the population in Argentina, Panama, and the Dominican Republic was living below the poverty line. In the mid-2000s, countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Paraguay experienced poverty levels of 60% and above. Citing a 2005 report from the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Saracostti (2007) reports that 40.6% percent of the population still lives in poverty. Globally, and as noted by Laszlo (2001), poverty is not evenly distributed among all; “the poorest 40 percent of the [world] population is left with 3 percent of the global wealth, while the wealth of a few hundred billionaires equals the revenue of half the world’s population” (p. 66). This is true in Latin America, where the gap between those who control the resources and those who lack the basic means of existence has increased since the 1990s despite a positive growth of the gross domestic product (GDP) (Barragán, 2001). The economic crisis of mid-2000 has hit hard the economies of Latin American, yet the region is not standing still. Governments are taking measures such as increasing public spending, creating employment, and targeting support to vulnerable groups to help counteract the effects of the crisis.

Evolution of Social Work Education and Practice

Social work as a profession crystallized in Latin America in the twentieth century, with the first school of social work created in Chile in 1925 (Healy, 2008). Through the history of the profession, one can see the diversity in its orientation and the scope of its work. This is readily visible in the curricula of social work programs, particularly at the onset of the profession, where the training of social workers, or social assistants, as they were called in some countries, was closely related to medicine, public health, home economics, and law. As mentioned by Alayón (2007), the earlier curricula were so different from current programs that it can be hard to believe that they emerged from the same profession. Also, the length of degree programs varied from a genesis of two and three years to the current four-and five-year programs. Additionally, there are several doctoral programs in the continent. The auspices for social education in Latin America consist of the public and private sectors as well as religious institutions.

Latin American social work education and practice has endured several transitions and has experienced periods of growth, retrenchment, reflection, and defiance based on the historical, sociocultural, political, and economic realities of each country. In each instance these trends have guided the evolution of the profession. Though the profession respects the unique historical characteristics of each country, social workers in Latin America are keenly aware that the profession needs to evolve based on current global realities that are shaping future educational and practice trends. This understanding has provided a broader perspective to better access the needs and social concerns of individuals, groups, and communities.

The social work framework in Latin American stemmed from the intervention of religious and charitable organizations. Early interventions were based on the importance of addressing social problems at the individual level. The intent was to reduce poverty by teaching appropriate work ethics to the poor, which in turn would help them to emerge from their precarious living conditions. Clearly, the positivist and functionalist paradigms were the main underpinnings of social work at that time. This interventive approach was later denounced by various authors (de Paula Faleiros, 2005; Maguiña, 1977) as a means of maintaining control, creating an active labor class to support capitalism, and sustaining the ruling class.

During the 1950s, social work in Latin America was influenced by social work practice in the United States. This practice model included a strong emphasis on theory and skills and was designed to produce social workers who were highly trained, nonjudgmental, and devoid of feelings. Such an approach was later criticized for being mechanical, ritualistic, and unresponsive to the societal dimensions affecting the welfare of the clients. As in previous decades, social workers were perceived as a mechanism of capitalism to enforce social control (Castronovo, 2008; Pereyra, 2008; Roig, 2002).

The well-known reconceptualization process started in the southern countries of the Americas in the 1960s and rapidly spread to the rest of the Latin American world. This process challenged the traditional role of the profession by advancing a critical analysis of the palliative nature of social work and its traditional functions in society (Alayón, 2005; Parra, 2007). The movement emphasized the need to focus less on the deficits of the individual, group, or com (p.395) munity and more on the denunciation of oppressive socioeconomic conditions that kept society in the hands of the few and powerful. Theories that guided the thinking of that time included liberation theology, conscientization, and Marxist ideology, among others (Pereyra, 2008). The goal was to create a true Latin American social work profession based on the characteristics and needs of the people. “It was a time of professional divisions between those who considered social work as a support for the political establishment  and those who believed that social work should bring social change to oppressive structures” (Queiro-Tajalli, 2008, p. 525).

While the movement was not homogeneous, it began a new dialogue among faculty and practitioners. An important guiding principle was the need to assess poverty by analyzing the forces that created it, namely the passing on of wealth to the industrialized countries. Hence, poverty and the plight of the poor were a direct result of oppressive macrostructures. During the reconceptualization period, social work was recognized as the profession best suited to understand the conditions brought about by unjust socioeconomic situations and to work within the precepts of the popular culture. The movement was guided by the conviction that the focus was to eradicate oppressive societal structures and that the poor had a key role to play in this transformation (Gagneten, 1986, as cited in Pereyra, 2008, p. 6). Such thinking is closely related to Freire’s (1970) pedagogy of the oppressed:

The pedagogy of the oppressed as a humanist and libertarian pedagogy, has two distinct stages. In the first, the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation. In the second stage, in which the reality of oppression has already been transformed, this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all men in the process of permanent liberation. (p. 40)

The emergence of dictatorships in Latin America in the 1970s aborted the process of reconceptualization. The study of social sciences was terminated from universities, causing the removal of educators from institutions of higher education and the elimination of social work jobs, particularly those aiming at popular education in impoverished communities. In the following passage, Moljo (2005) describes the takeover of the Argentine government by the military. This is just one example of the appalling times many Latin America countries went through during that decade.

March 24, 1976, started the bloodiest period in Argentine history resulting in 30,000 disappeared. All the gains that were generated in both society and social work were buried under a military regime which did not vacillate for a second to crush the hopes of so many countries that Argentina could be a free country. Unfortunately, death was the only outcome of their intervention. (p. 44)

Implicit in this passage is the fact that other Latin American countries under military rule lost one of the beacons fighting against oppressive regimes.

After the resurgence of democracy in several Latin American countries in the 1980s, academicians and practitioners began to deliberate the role of social work. Henceforth the postreconceptualization formation of social work encompassed the various transformations of the profession as it progressed to the present time. Unfortunately, the return to democracy did not mean that the profession became less vulnerable. The crescendo of neoliberal policies in the 1990s dismantled the welfare state of the Latin American countries and left social workers with fewer social policies and fewer resources to address the crushing poverty brought on by privatization, wage suppression, and unemployment (Grassi, 2003; Sherraden, 2009). As Curiel (1991) noted, a culture of structural adjustments was created even though some countries did not qualify for such adjustment given that they were in a position to pay their international debt. The author argues that this culture was created to allow privatization and financial and economic liberalization to take place.

With the collapse of labor in the twentieth century and as governments have increasingly abdicated their social responsibilities, again social work is faced with macro forces of inequality and injustice. But today, these forces include globalization and a new economic order, which in turn calls for a strong advocacy role to ameliorate the drastic effects of such policies. This advocacy is personified in the actions of social work educators and professionals. Regional social work organizations have also made many contributions, such as the Asociación Latinoamericana de Escuelas de Trabajo Social, or Latin American Association of Schools of Social Work (ALAETS); Centro Latinoamericano de Trabajo, or Social Latin (p.396) American Social Work Center (CELATS); Asociación Latinoamericana de Enseñanza e Investigación en Trabajo, or Social Latin American Association of Social Work Education and Research; and Red Latinoiberoamericana y Caribeña de Trabajadores Sociales, or Latinoiberoamericana and Caribbean Network of Social Workers (RELATS).

The Scope of Social Work and Labor Realities for Social Workers

Since social work is deeply embedded in the psychosocial, economic, political, and historical perspective of each country, it makes the profession ideal as an agent of change and denouncer of society’s human and social inequalities. At the same time, the close relationship of social work practice to national, state, and municipal governments and charitable organizations requires a less radical position when seeking social change. Castronovo (2008) pointed out that the historical role of social work is subordinate to the government as an employer and to other professions in its role of providing supportive services to those professions. Such a close link between government and social work has been seriously compromised given the wave of neoliberal policies that have overshadowed the Latin American countries and curtailed the role of the government as the benefactor of the people (Basta, 2009). Furthermore, some authors (Melano, 2007; Núñez, 2008) have raised an extremely relevant question as to whether social work has sufficient professional autonomy to create new alternatives to the neoliberal project.

Poverty was identified as a main focus of intervention in the early days of the social work profession. From the beginning, poverty was addressed at the individual and family levels. Since the mid-1990s, there have been many areas of concern for Latin American social workers due to the social cost of neoliberal policies, with poverty as the major focus of attention. As expressed by Professor Maria C. Rueda Salazar from the University of La Salle, Bogotá, Colombia, “every year we observe an increase in the poverty rate and as social workers we have to move from the discourse to the reality of the praxis” (personal communication, June 29, 2009). Latin American has a large enclave of urban poor due to internal migration from rural to urban areas, displacement due to gentrification, and immigration from bordering countries, just to name a few. Social workers have a long tradition of working with vulnerable urban populations as part of interdisciplinary teams. These teams are most often composed of health-care providers, psychologists, architects, educators, and people from other disciplines who provide a holistic response to complex challenges.

Within the discussion of poverty, Saracostti (2007) talks about how social capital can be a valuable  model to address poverty. Her perspective is that the solidarity of Latin America countries is a critical approach to reduce poverty within the region. She contends that models of community practice in social work in Latin America, which support the empowerment of poor and disenfranchised communities, must approach poor communities by integrating their viewpoints. In citing examples of programs that incorporated social capital to help eradicate poverty in Latin America, the author makes a strong claim on the potential of developing project evaluation, practice evaluation, and evidence-based practice programs to combat poverty by incorporating social capital.

Given that Latin American has a young population, social work has traditionally had an important role in child and youth welfare as well. Social workers have worked in this field of practice under the auspices of charitable organizations, government programs, and not-for-profit agencies. Latin America has a history of child-labor abuses even to this day, despite protective labor legislation. These jobs include picking bananas, mining coal, working on construction sites, working as street peddlers and shoe shiners, and working as parking lot attendants, to mention but a few.

With the advent of the global economic crisis (Mello, 2007) and massive layoffs, this situation has intensified for many children. In many countries social workers are working with the ministries of education, welfare, and health to prevent school dropouts, protect children on the streets, and find alternatives to family incomes that depend on child labor. However, this is an enormous task considering the extent of the economic crisis. For example, immediately after the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001, poor families, including children and teens, lacking any type of social protection, resorted to creating their own sources of income by searching through trash on the streets of Buenos Aires, should we delete, and replace with and? collecting paper goods for recycling. This gave birth to the well-known cartoneros movement (Hill, 2006; Koehs, 2005) and the creation of communal cooperatives that sprang up to help people survive the crisis. In some of the projects, social workers have helped the cooperatives with technical and (p.397) legal advice designed to improve how they function. However, many countries are still at loss to find resources to provide much-needed educational and training programs to keep children and youth out of the streets and away from abusive labor conditions.

On the other end of the life cycle is the older population. The Latino culture has a strong orientation toward embracing older adults within the family. However, due to difficult economic times, regional conflicts, internal relocation, and immigration, many older adults find themselves separated from their loved ones. At the macro level, older adults have suffered the devaluation of their life savings and retirement funds as well as the curtailment of social and recreational services. The IFSW (International Federation of Social Workers) International Policy on Ageing and Older Adults considers the role of the social worker as a key human services provider in the field of aging by providing social services at the micro level and creating and advocating for policies and services at the macro level to enhance the well-being of older adults (www.ifsw.org/p38000214.html). Many of these functions have been performed by social workers employed by government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and labor unions working in nursing homes, hospitals, clinics, recreational centers, and social welfare ministries.

A dilemma regarding the scope of social work is that of practice within a global context as opposed to practice focusing on territorial ethnic characteristics, needs, and potentials. By using ethnic-sensitive approaches that do not impose ethnocentric modalities dictated by those in positions of power, the social work profession can play a significant role in helping communities cope with globalized poverty, globalized injustice, and social exclusion (Estrada Ospina, 2008) while still helping them to be part of the global economy.

Connected to this thinking is the broader mission of social work, that of bringing societal change. As expressed by Capello and Mamblona (2007), there is a need for social work interventions committed to constructing a new social order free of class exploitation. Some of these discussions have been entertained in earlier periods of the profession, but there seems to be a stronger thrust to do so now by developing new competencies, reinforcing a spirit of inquiry, and building ties with the many social movements existing in the Latin American continent (Capello & Manblona, 2007; Molina, 2007).

Related to social work functions are the current realities of employment among social workers. As mentioned earlier, social workers have seen their sphere of intervention curtailed, and many times they find themselves in harm’s way when operating under military regimes. In the current worldwide economic crisis, employment security among social workers is once more compromised. A research project carried out by a group of professors and students from the University of Buenos Aires (Cademartori, Campos, & Seiffer, 2007) studied the labor conditions of social workers in Argentina. The results of this study show four troubling labor trends:

  • A deep fall in salaries due to the devaluation of the national currency dating back to the collapse of the economy in 2001, which has reduced access to amenities and services that social workers had in the past

  • Labor instability through new contractual relationships between employers and social workers; jobs are for a limited time and area based on government decisions to keep or eliminate social welfare programs

  • A trend of holding multiple jobs given the need to work in several positions to achieve a decent income

  • An increase in subemployment or partial employment since most jobs offer fewer hours and low salaries.

Although these results cannot be generalized to other regions, they may provide some insight as to the realities of professional practice in an era of economic uncertainties in Latin America. Furthermore, as social workers participate in grassroots organizing efforts to construct a social order that leads to human, personal, and socioeconomic emancipation and conscientization, the stability of their employment may be further compromised.


Latin America faces many of the same socioeconomic concerns of other countries of the Global South, including an aging population, an ever-growing population of young people, struggles with economic globalization and the fading hopes of global prosperity, the loss of jobs, the depletion of natural resources, issues of human rights, and of course poverty. Within this landscape, Latin American social workers try to create innovative approaches through grassroots movements to address the sociopolitical and economic realities of the marginalized, the impact of neoliberal policies on vulnerable sectors of society, and (p.398) the social injustice that they create. The evolving nature of social work as a profession is closely related to the new sources of power, the emerging nature of people’s needs, the economic capacity of governments and nonprofit organizations, and the self-organizing of individuals, all within the vast diversity of the Latin American characteristics.

Implicit in the discussion about social work practice in Latin America is the need to prioritize the levels of interventions (micro, mezzo, macro) and the groups that receive these interventions. Also, there seems to be a need to clarify who are the allies of social work (i.e., government, labor unions, social movements emerging in different corners of the continent), and although it may be a difficult task, social workers may need to identify the voices of those who are the casualties of the new economic and social realities of the twenty-first century.

Currently, there is a growing interest in assessing the ethical ramifications of political practices given the sociopolitical transition underway in the Latin American countries. The prolific body of literature voicing the thoughts of the Latin American social workers about constructing a profession that is reflective of the authentic characteristics of the Latin American people is extremely promising. Additionally, social workers have created alternative interventive  approaches borne from the realities, needs, and hopes of the people of this great region. Finally, throughout the recent literature there is a strong theme of social work as a profession, independent from other professions and legitimized by its unique interventive practices. The Latin American social work profession has come a long way from the days of the conquistadores, oppressive military regimes, and lost decades.


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