In South America, the Left and Indigenous Movements Are Searching for a Way to Co-Exist

This topic is addressed in greater detail in Benjamin Dangl’s forthcoming book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press, October 2010).


Miners in Potosí, Bolivia set off sticks of dynamite as cold winter winds zipped through the city, passing street barricades, protests, hunger strikers and an occupied electrical plant. These actions took place place from late July to mid-August against the perceived neglect of the Evo Morales administration toward the impoverished Potosí region.

This showdown in Bolivia is similar to conflicts across Latin America between the promises of left-leaning governments, the needs of the people and the finite resources of Pachamama (Mother Earth).

Diverse social organizations, miners, unions, students, local residents, and even the city’s soccer team, united in the protest in late July. The mobilizations shut down the city and many mining operations. Residents criticized what they saw as the government’s lack of attention, funding and development projects for Potosí, the poorest department in the country.

Among the demands were the completion of a highway between the neighboring department of Tarija and Potosí, a cement and metallurgical factory, an airport, and the preservation of Cerro Rico, a historic silver mine now in decay. After 19 days of mobilizations, the activists and the Morales government reached a resolution in which the administration agreed to all of the protesters’ demands.

This recent conflict in Potosí is one of many that have taken place in the country regarding the distribution of government funds, execution of development projects and access to natural resources. In mid-June, various indigenous movements from eastern Bolivia gathered for a march to assert their autonomy over the management of land and the extraction of gas and minerals in their territory.

At the heart of these conflicts is a question leftist governments and social movements across Latin America are grappling with: what should this “other world that is possible” look like?

“Is it one based on constant economic growth, even if this is ‘socialist’ and would raise the real income of people in the global South?” sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein asks about today’s Latin America. “Or is it what some are calling a change in civilizational values, a world of buen vivir [living well]?” This latter philosophy includes living in harmony with others and with nature, rather than accumulating capital and material things while destroying the earth.

Besides conflicting visions of this “other world that is possible” (from the World Social Forum’s slogan) is the divergence between political rhetoric and reality. Many leftist governments across the region lack the political will – or are constrained by economic and political forces, and the state – to carry out much-needed structural changes to allow people to live well.

Government promises and policies are empty without action on the part of both politicians and the people. At the recent Social Forum of the Americas in Asunción, Paraguay Roberto Baggio of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, told IPS News, "When we talk about agrarian reform, we're talking about making access to property more democratic and laws that make it possible to take action, because a good land reform program is not sufficient if concrete actions are not taken.”

This view reflects one of the dominant roles Latin American social movements find themselves in now. Few are seeking to overthrow governments as they did when explicitly neoliberal administrations were in power. Rather, writes Uruguayan journalist Raúl Zibechi, there is “something more subtle; the social movements have begun to place limits on governments.” From Ecuador and Venezuela, to Argentina and Bolivia, this new relationship between movements and governments is still being defined.

Another participant in this dance is the earth itself. Considering the onslaught of global warming, the soy boom, and the ecological destruction of logging, oil, gas and mining industries, the need to apply the philosophy of buen vivir is as pressing as ever.

As Nobel Prize-winning indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchu reminded participants at the Social Forum in Paraguay, “We can’t dominate the Earth; she dominates us.”

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