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When Citizens Are Merely Political Spectators They Get Rolled Over by the Political Class

Those left dazed and confused by the Democrats’ rapid fall from grace would do well to look to Latin America, where similar coalitions have risen to power over the last decade.
 
 
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Two years ago, President Obama sailed into the White House on the winds of voters’ desire for widespread social change and their disgust with two wars and a massive recession associated with George W. Bush. Only two years into his presidency and the concurrent Democratic takeover of Congress, however, things are looking rough. Democrats rolled into a big majority in 2008, then got sacked in this year's midterms, losing Senate seats and the control of the House. Former excited Democratic voters were so unenthused that the president himself called them out. How, many progressives are asking, did we see the promise of hope and change rise and fall so quickly?

There are more than a few explanatory theories being tossed around, but those left dazed and confused by the Democrats’ rapid fall from grace would do well to look to Latin America, where similar presidencies have risen to power over the last decade. Journalist Ben Dangl’s new book, Dancing With Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press, November) explores how the region’s vibrant social movements have interacted with those presidents. Dangl draws on his six years traveling through the region, interacting with everyone from rank-and-file social movement members to upper-level socialist bureaucrats as he tries to figure out how social movements in the region have fared after leftist governments have taken power. Along the way, he finds varying levels of satisfaction with governments that rode into office on a tide of dissatisfaction with right-wing governments and the “Washington Consensus” and high hopes for social changes to benefit the marginalized. When those leftist governments drifted further and further rightward, popular movements reacted differently: some maintained their support, some distanced themselves slightly, and some became openly hostile critics.

Dangl recently sat down to discuss his book, what he saw in South America, and what it means for the U.S.

Micah Uetricht: You write throughout the book that the logic of social movements competes with that of the state. What does that mean?

Ben Dangl: Often, when left-leaning Latin American presidents arrived in power over the last decade, they found themselves up against the military, Washington, D.C., global capitalism, and other pressures constricting their operations. From the start, these presidents either could not, or were unwilling to, carry out the reforms they promised on the campaign trail. Movements soon realize that, after campaigning for a president, they’ve lost an ally.

Many Latin American movements followed a similar development. The landless movement in Brazil supported President Lula, many activists in Argentina backed Nestor Kirchner following the economic crisis there, the Movement Toward Socialism party in Bolivia came into power with Evo Morales with a big base of support. It’s not that the movements made mistakes by backing these presidents. However, when looking at the dynamics that emerged after these presidents came into office, we see a cycle of presidents promising much, being unable to deliver, shifting to the right to expand their voter base, and/or making concessions to foreign corporations for investments.

That’s not to say the presidents have been total failures. Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia, in particular, have expanded spaces for the public to participate in governing and major decision-making, for example in writing the countries’ constitutions. So great things can happen when a leftist president is elected following social movement victories.

There are still many gains from this leftist wave throughout the region: better access to health care, education, expanded social programs and so on. But there have also been challenges that have to do with the relationship between movements and states. How this relationship plays out in Latin America differs in every country and changes almost every year.

Over the last few years, one dominant narrative on the left on Latin America has been that one progressive Latin American president after another has been elected and everything has been going fine – if only it wasn’t for Washington and foreign corporations interfering. But the fact is that there are a lot of discontented movements in each country in the region with a left-leaning leader. Many presidents have turned their backs on the same movements that helped get them into office. This book provides a history of this relationship over the last ten years, and it’s something that doesn’t enter the debate very often when discussing Latin America.

MU: Did any of the movements get the interactions with the state and with political parties--the “dance with dynamite,” right?

BD: Some dynamic social movements exist in Brazil and Bolivia, where there’s this incredible capacity to play the electoral game and support referendums or candidates, but withdraw when it looks like such support would complicate their politics or autonomy.

MU: That's a tough model to figure out.

BD: It's definitely tough. But a lot of movements have been effective at it. Movements in Bolivia have been successful at navigating the terrain between critically supporting Morales but also trying to defeat the right wing. The CONAIE (indigenous movement) in Ecuador has been strong in its defense of the environment and has withdrawn its support from President Correa because of his policies against their movement and against the Amazon. Even with this past coup attempt, on September 30, CONAIE continued to criticize Correa for his policies. The ability to support a government when it needs defense from the right while simultaneously criticizing that government has been beneficial to various movements in Latin America.

MU: You saw mixed results from new leftist governments throughout the book. In the chapter on Venezuela, you write about a conversation with a member of the Venezuelan Housewives Union, saying, "The union grew out of the space--both real and psychological--created by the new constitution, and now operates in a symbiotic relationship with the state." So the female union members have benefited greatly from the changes brought by Chavez. At the same time, you write, “The state is seen as a fundamental legitimizing force within a system that enables programs and unions like this to emerge, but doesn’t transform the basic social and economic structure the government operates in.”

BD: A lot of wonderful social programs and political projects in Venezuela began at Chavez’s initiative. Two major questions are, once these spaces have been opened, to what extent does Chavez use them for votes, for his own benefit to concentrate his power? And to what extent has his administration allowed those new spaces to be used by people, from the ground up? In the case of the communal councils and other programs I look at in the book, there's a clear exertion on the part of people in neighborhoods to go beyond what Chavez and local mayors say; to use the tools from the Bolivarian process to transform their lives and their neighborhood without the red tape of bureaucracy, without allowing the government to corral grassroots energy out of neighborhoods and into elections. Many Venezuelans involved in state-initiated programs successfully fight to use the Bolivarian process, rather than be used by it.

MU: How do you see the movements you describe in the book faring over the long term?

BD: Every country is different, but I think we'll continue to see a well-organized, well-funded push from the right to take power back from the left, and certain social movements may be caught somewhere in-between this tug of war. The success of these leftist governments will depend on how much they respond to the movements in their countries, because most of the movements that seek government reform are proposing sustainable, democratic policies that are more viable than what the government is doing. For example, the indigenous movement in Ecuador in its struggle to protect its culture, land and the environment, and various indigenous movements in Bolivia fighting for more say in the development of government. These are the voices presidents should be listening to, not the military, the right or foreign corporations.

MU: Can you talk about the recent coup attempt in Ecuador and how social movements there have responded?

BD: CONAIE and other indigenous groups in the country put out a statement saying they reject the right among the police that were attempting this coup. But they spent most of the statement condemning Correa and explaining that his governing style of marginalizing dissenting voices invited such destabilization. They criticized him for calling for the repression of indigenous activists who resisted mining operations, privatization of water in their territories, and the expansion of the oil industry without indigenous approval. Basically, it explained that he had it coming.

In 2002, there was an attempted coup against Chavez in Venezuela. He was brought back into power, both because he had the support of the military, but more because of the outpouring of support in the streets. They mobilized because he had appealed to a massive base of people in Caracas. In Bolivia in 2008, when the right tried to destabilize the country against President Morales, there was another huge outpouring of support from movements in the country. In Ecuador, on the other hand, a coup is attempted, and Correa can't count on the most important and dynamic social movement in the country, the CONAIE, because he had repressed and marginalized them. Even though he's considered a progressive president and a member of the Latin American new left, he doesn't have the support of the indigenous movement. The future of these presidents in their fight against the right largely depends on where the movements stand.

MU: What can people’s movements in the U.S. learn from the movements you profile in the book?

BD: For progressive changes to take place in the US, more people need to become participants in politics rather than spectators. And by this I mean making revolution a part of our everyday lives, not just something we watch on TV or a vote we cast for a politician. What this means is going to be different for each person in each community, and activists in the US can learn a lot by drawing lessons from their counterparts in the South and applying and translating those lessons to their own local realities.

One tactic that I think is very important to people in the US now is not letting the fear of empowering the right dictate our actions. We saw how CONAIE responded adeptly, courageously and in a principled way to the coup attempt in Ecuador. That kind of conviction has made the CONAIE successful over the years, as it engages in this dance with the state.

Movements across the region, from farmer unions to neighborhood councils, mirror the type of society they would like to see in their everyday actions; these kinds of bonds remain regardless of who occupies the presidential palace.

There is also the moral and ethical lesson of going beyond unjust laws to survive. The landless movement in Brazil takes over unused land and transforms it into communities and farms that their millions of members thrive on. Workers in Argentina and Venezuela occupied their bankrupt factories and started running them as cooperatives. Activists in Bolivia banded together to kick out a giant corporation that privatized their water and put it back under public control.

There are many recent examples in the U.S. of movements, activists and groups that have either drawn from or share tactics with Latin American movements. In the book, I look at the unemployed worker occupation of the bankrupt Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago in 2008, a community’s fight against high water rates in Detroit, and the Take Back the Land movement in Florida, which has been pairing homeless people with empty, foreclosed homes.

It’s also about seeing the similarities between the north and the south. Corrupt bosses, free market policies, repressive governments, unjust laws – they’re everywhere. The same economic ideologies have devastated communities across borders. In some cases, it’s the same corporation that’s trying to privatize the water in Argentina, Bolivia and the US. And in the past 10 years, it’s been the Latin American social movements that have been the most successful at fighting back. Their grassroots victories have been based on the fact that they transformed politics into something more than just what happens on election day.

Micah Uetricht is a staff writer for GapersBlock.com and a frequent contributor to In These Times. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at micah [dot] uetricht [at] gmail [dot] com.
 
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