What We Can Learn from Social Struggle in South America
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As the economic crisis in the U.S. worsens, and the need to pressure the Obama administration looms, movements in the U.S. could seek such commonality with movements in South America. Of the countless examples of recent social movement victories in South America, here are a few that could suggest potential blueprints for social change in the U.S..
In the early 1990s, participatory budgeting was implemented by the Workers' Party in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This process, still in operation, involves thousands of residents gathering to decide how government funding should be used for city projects and development. Popular participation in this process prevents corruption, and expands the conception of democracy beyond simply voting every few years for a different political representative.
During the Cochabamba Water War in Bolivia in 2000, residents of that city expanded the meaning of democracy even further when they united against the Bechtel Corporation's privatization of their water. The privatization put everything from communally-built wells and rain cisterns under the corporation's thumb, and led to exorbitant rates few could afford. In response, people from across economic lines joined together in protests and road blockades and were successful in kicking the company out of town and putting the water back into public hands.
In 2003, when former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada tried to export Bolivian gas to the U.S. for a low price, working class residents of the city of El Alto rose up against the president and his plan. Citizens took shifts at street barricades, distributing food, spreading messages via bicycle and working together with meager resources to fight the police and military, eventually toppling the repressive Sanchez de Lozada government. That revolt paved the way to the election of indigenous president Evo Morales, and the partial nationalization of the gas industry. In his office in El Alto, Bolivian sociologist Pablo Mamani spoke of this rebellion, "During the uprising, the state was broken, it stopped existing, it died in El Alto."
Other Bolivian social movements point to potential strategies for social change as well. Much of South America's fertile land is in the hands of a few rich land owners. Landless Farmer Movements (MSTs) across region regularly occupy unused land to work it for their survival. The Bolivian Landless Movement has been instrumental in pressuring the Morales government to implement much-needed land reform. Silvestre Saisari, a bearded leader in Bolivia's MST, explained his organization's relationship to the government in this way: "Our democracy depends on us as social movements."
One story from the neighborhood of El 23 de Enero in Caracas, Venezuela is emblematic of the progressive changes taking place in that country. Juan Contreras, a radio producer and resident of the neighborhood, talked about how he and his compañeros took over the local police station -- for decades an outpost for crackdowns on leftist organizing -- and transformed it into a community radio station and cultural center.
"This place was a symbol of repression," Contreras explained to me in the studio, which still smelled like fresh paint from the recent conversion. "So we took that symbol and made it into a new one." In words that reflect the spirit of the worker occupations in Chicago and Argentina, and the need for a broad grassroots response to the U.S. crisis, he continued, "It is evidence of the revolution made by us, the citizens. We can't hang around waiting for the revolution to be made for us; we have to make the changes."
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007). He is also the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a news website uncovering activism and politics in Latin America. Email BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com.