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As the “democracy uprising” spreads from Tunisia, to Egypt, and now to Wisconsin, it seems the whole world is starting to look a little more like Latin America. Social movements “south of the border” have been pumping out progressive change, and winning, for a couple decades now. This victorious and active Latin left goes back at least to the Venezuelan “Caracazo” of 1989, an uprising very similar to what we’ve been watching lately in Tahrir Square, Cairo. This was long before Chavez showed up on the scene, you may notice.
As the following interview of Ben Dangl highlights, leftist states such as Venezuela are not by themselves particularly revolutionary, and in fact often play a counter-revolutionary role. Democratic, participatory, grassroots social movements have always been the real engine of change. Political leaders can choose to follow those movements (“lead by obeying” in Zapatista language), or they can choose to be largely a facade for neoliberalism and reaction. The question is not the quality of the leader, but the quality of the movement holding that leader’s feet to the fire.
This is the reason President Obama has been largely a flop. As FDR said to labor organizers in 1932, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Real leadership comes from below.
Let’s hope we can follow the examples of Bolivia, Egypt, and Madison, WI and continue to work towards a global movement for justice. [alex]
Dancing with Dynamite in Latin America
by Nikolas Kozloff
Originally published by Huffington Post.
February 11, 2011.
Recently, I sat down with Benjamin Dangl, author of the recently released Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, for an interview.
NK: You’ve written an extremely ambitious book which takes the reader all across South America. One of the most impressive things about the work is that it is largely based on your own personal interviews with political participants at the grassroots as opposed to mere secondary research. How long did it take to research and what was the most fascinating country that you worked in?
BD: The book is the result of over eight years of research, traveling and interviewing across Latin America. This period of time coincided with the rise to power of most of the region’s current leftist leaders, and so the interviews I draw from in the book reflect a lot of the initial hope and subsequent disappointment among many social movements. The most interesting place I’ve worked in is definitely Bolivia, where the power of the grassroots movements is the strongest, and the impressive relationship between these movements and the government of Evo Morales is constantly changing.
NK: It can be tough in many ways to conduct research in South America. What prompted your interest in the subject matter and what were some of the obstacles that you encountered along the way?
BD: The main things that drew me to writing about politics and social issues in Latin America were the impact US foreign policy and corporate activity had on the region, and the hopeful and relatively under-reported social struggles going on. On the one hand, the connection to the US in the so-called war on drugs, and the corporate looting of natural resources, were all issues I thought more readers of English-based media in the US should know about. And the sophisticated organizing tactics, grassroots strategies and victories of social movements in the region were stories I wanted to help amplify and spread in the US, for the sake of awareness, solidarity and lessons to be learned. The main obstacle in doing this research is the actual cost of the traveling. I’ve worked all kinds of odd jobs over the years, in construction, farming, and various kinds of manual labor, to pay for the plane tickets to get to Latin America in order to conduct research and writing on the ground.
NK: Here in the U.S., many on the left idealize Chávez and the like, yet you suggest that many ostensibly leftist regimes may sap the energy of today’s social movements. How has this happened, and could one say, therefore, that “Pink Tide” regimes may ultimately exert a counter-productive or even pernicious effect upon local politics in their respective countries?
BD: The way this relationship has played out is different in each country. Some Latin American presidents, upon taking power, have been more willing and able than others to collaborate with the social movements that help bring them into office. The relationships in Venezuela and Bolivia are probably the healthiest in this sense. In other countries, such as Brazil with President Lula and the Landless Farmers Movements, the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and the indigenous movements there, the relationship has been more difficult, with the governments repressing, criminalizing and demobilizing movements when possible. Dancing with Dynamite looks at how this relationship, this dance, has played out in seven different countries. It tells a story beyond what the presidents and major politicians have been doing or saying, and focuses more on the history of the past decade from the perspective of the grassroots. And this view from below is something I think more people in the US left would benefit from focusing on, if anything to understand the full picture of what’s been driving these momentous changes over the past ten years.
NK: Of all the South American countries you describe, Bolivia seems to have the most revolutionary potential. Why is this so, and what new radical developments can we expect from Bolivia in the coming years?