The article is a reply to Sara Motta's article ‘Utopias Re-imagined: A Reply to Panizza’ in this journal. It discusses the relations between representative and participatory democracy in Latin America in the light of Motta's vindication of different forms of participatory democracy. It argues that when analysing the advances of the left and the centre-left in contemporary Latin America it is difficult to ignore the strategic role played by left-of-centre political parties in winning elections and the importance of controlling the state as a crucial instrument for promoting change. It further argues that while participatory democracy is essential for a democratic polity, it presupposes a well-functioning representative democracy rather than an alternative to it. Against Motta's celebration of localised, anti-capitalist utopias the article vindicates a process of iterative yet cumulative change that shapes and reshapes the political and institutional parameters that redefine what governments consider politically possible, feasible and desirable. It concludes by noting that the twentieth century's failure of totalising utopias makes us overlook the success of other, more grounded and open forms of utopian thinking, such as political democracy and economic social democracy, which have the potential to improve the lives of millions of people in Latin America.