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Streets of Latin America Offer U.S. a Roadmap for Social Change

By Michael Fox

From Truthout
May 8, 2011

(Image: AK Press)

Review of Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl (AK Press, 2010)

The planet is on fire. It comes from above, as bombs come crashing toward Libya in Obama’s new military exploit. And it comes from below, as people from Cairo to Madison stand up to for their rights against dictators and hard-line politicians. Not for decades have we seen such a global uprising from below. Not for decades, except for perhaps in Latin America, where, over the last thirteen years, social movements have lifted leftist presidents to power across the region. These leaders have heralded in unprecedented change, and they have been a beacon of hope during one of the darkest periods in U.S. history, with its growing military-industrial complex, an endless war on terror and a conservative crackdown at home.

Then came the financial meltdown and the “change” we could believe in. And we, too, believed that we were following down the road of our Latin American brothers and sisters, that Obama would lead us to a more just society, by and for the people and not Wall Street.

Then something happened. As the signs read in Wisconsin, the “sleeping giant has awoken.”

We realized that Obama can’t do it for us. We awoke to the fact that even with a “leftist” in power, we must stay in the streets and continue to organize. We awoke to the essential thing that movements across Latin America learned years ago when faced with progressive governments who were supposed to represent their interests and didn’t always follow through. We awoke to “the dance.”

The what?

“The dance between social movements and states,” writes Benjamin Dangl, longtime journalist covering Latin America and the editor of “Upside Down World” and “Toward Freedom.” This relationship is the focus of his new book, Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America. The book is a breath of fresh air in these challenging times. Dangl lays before us the complicated relationships between social movements and states in Latin America’s most progressive countries and gives us plenty to learn from. He takes us deep into the heart of Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Brazil and Paraguay, heralding the historic struggles of the social movements that in nearly every case helped to carry a leftist president to power. But Dangl’s book is as much about the present as the past. He dissects the complicated dance before us, and he’s not going to sugarcoat it. In his introduction, Dangl writes:

In some cases, governments in these countries brought to power by movements and social demands have completely turned their backs on movements, ignoring their proposals and demands. Others unleashed outright wars on movements, leading to harsh crackdowns on rights to assemble and protest. Some governments have worked closely with movements to develop and implement political and economic policies together, while others have sought to demobilize or co-opt movements by subsuming them into the government bureaucracy through coveted jobs and threats of exclusion….


On September 30, 2010, roughly 1,000 Ecuadoran police officers rebelled, taking to the streets, blocking intersections, occupying Congress and holding President Rafael Correa hostage for more than ten hours. “It is a coup attempt led by the opposition and certain sections of the armed forces and the police,” said Correa. He was soon rescued and the rebellion was put down, but many questions remained.

Solidarity activists in the United States went searching for answers. After the fact, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) had denied the existence of the coup, and the political alliance of indigenous movements, Pachakutik, had actually called for Correa to step down. Had the indigenous movements turned to the right? Why were they turning against their progressive president?

It’s a shame Dangl’s book wasn’t out yet.

One of the more difficult relationships between the government and the social movements is found in Ecuador. There, CONAIE helped carry Correa to victory in late 2006. As Dangl highlights, Correa has enacted some “progressive” policies, like the closure of the US military base in Manta, the announcement that Ecuador would refuse to pay nearly $10 billion in international debt and the convoking of a constitutional assembly. But indigenous movements were largely sidelined during the constituent process. Correa has continued oil extraction on indigenous land. In response to indigenous protests, he has responded with brutal repression.

“By pushing CONAIE out of the political debate and calling on police repression to crack down on their dissent, Correa has worked to undermine the indigenous movement,” writes Dangl. In response, CONAIE broke ties with the government in May 2008.

“Correa has assumed the traditional neoliberal posture of the rightist oligarchy,” CONAIE said in a statement.


Ecuador is one of the extreme cases. Elsewhere, movements and governments have danced almost symbiotically. In Bolivia, the country’s “dynamic” social movements have helped President Evo Morales’ party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) push through the new constitution and several progressive reforms that would have been impossible otherwise. Nevertheless, as Dangl points out, this has had a “domesticating” effect on the movements and their activists.

In Venezuela, under President Hugo Chavez, the opportunity for alternatives and grassroots organizing has been opened like never before. Movements understand they must both support the government and push for their demands, but there has also been a complicated blurring of the lines between the movements and the state, “particularly … during electoral campaigns and referendums,” writes Dangl.

In Argentina, the late President Nestor Kirchner helped to stabilize the economic crisis and opened the way to hold torturers responsible for their crimes under the dictatorship. But he also either isolated or co-opted social movements, pulling the rug out from under the radical organizing which had taken the country by storm immediately following the December 2001 crisis.

In Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil, formerly radical left-wing parties and candidates embraced coalitions or shifted to the center in order to appeal to a larger electoral base. The result has been moderate social policies once in office, and, in the case of Paraguay and Brazil, a complete reversal of the promise of agrarian reform – an issue that Dangl underscores with the relationship between presidents Fernando Lugo of Paraguay and Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva of Brazil and each country’s landless movement.

“Agrarian reform doesn’t happen in the government ministries. It happens in the streets, in the plazas; it happens with land occupations,” says Paraguayan land activist Pedro Caballero in the opening section of the book. Whether he is taking us along to an emblematic community in Paraguay fighting for its survival against the Brazilian soy farmers next door, or to a march 100,000 people strong in Bolivia in support of the passage of the new constitution, Dangl is a storyteller, masterfully describing the necessary reality that wherever you have an even a pseudo-leftist government, grassroots movements must decide how to support it and demand their rights while also defending their autonomy.

Pushing the Government

“With a mobilized public, it matters less what president is in office, as the president will have to answer to the power of the movements,” writes Dangl.

Perhaps above all else, this is what “Dancing with Dynamite” is all about: grassroots pressure from below – something more important than ever now in the United States, as right-wing politicians push for legislation that will slash public spending and rip away our most fundamental rights.

Now, just as in Wisconsin, people across the United States are starting to respond, and Dangl makes the connection in the book’s final chapter, “South America and the United States: Finding Common Ground in Crisis.” Dangl asks: “What can US activists facing economic crisis learn from South America’s social movements?”

Plenty. Carrying us from Chicago to Detroit and Florida, Dangl highlights several recent experiences in the United States that have gained inspiration from southern movements such as “worker occupations and cooperatives in Argentina, the fight for access to water in Bolivia, and the landless struggle in Brazil.”

Especially in these difficult times of crisis, after two years of a lukewarm Obama presidency, as conservatives are cracking down and the people are waking up, it’s time to listen, learn, organize and act.

“Obama energized a great many people,” Noam Chomsky explains in a quote in “Dancing with Dynamite.” “If they fade away, or simply take instructions, we can expect little from his administration. If they become organized and active, and undertake to be independent voices in policy formation and implementation, a great deal can be achieved – as in the past, and elsewhere today, notably South America.”

“Dancing with Dynamite” is a roadmap, a call to action to break the simplistic dualities imposed by society and place our destinies into our own hands. As Dangl writes prophetically, “How movements dance with political parties, aspiring and incumbent presidents, and the government itself will decide the future of the planet.”

It’s time to get moving.

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