Lessons From Latin America

The region's shift to the left--from leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador to the more moderate presidents in Brazil, Chile and Argentina--has grabbed headlines in recent years. But often overlooked is the role social movements and unions have played in ushering these leaders into power, and once they are there, radicalizing their politics.

Rain poured down in La Paz, Bolivia, the day Barack Obama gave his inauguration speech. But the weather didn't stop thousands of Bolivians from marching in the streets in support of a new constitution, a document set to grant unprecedented rights to the country's indigenous majority. As chants and the explosions of Roman candles from marchers echoed throughout this capital city, Obama looked out from the television screen in a La Paz bar, offering words of wisdom that were somehow connected to many Bolivians' sense that democracy and good politics depended on a mobilized public taking to the streets.

"For as much as government can do and must do," Obama said, "it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies."

Similarly, it has been the "faith and determination" of Bolivian social movements in their fight for a better world that paved the way to the election of indigenous President Evo Morales, and then pushed him to nationalize gas reserves, redistribute land to poor farmers and enshrine long-overdue rights in a rewritten constitution. The juxtaposition of Obama's orderly inauguration and the near-constant street mobilizations in La Paz brings us to the question: what can US activists facing economic crisis and a potential ally in the White House learn from South America's social movements?

The region's shift to the left–from leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador to the more moderate presidents in Brazil, Chile and Argentina–has grabbed headlines in recent years. But often overlooked is the role social movements and unions have played in ushering these leaders into power, and once they are there, radicalizing their politics. Other movements throughout the region never waited for allies in the government palace, and instead built their new worlds out of the neoliberal wreckage of the old. As unemployment skyrockets in the United States, and the challenges of cleaning up the mess of the Bush years commences, US activists could apply the successful strategies of South American social movements.

Ida Peñaranda, a Bolivian water-rights activist living in Cochabamba, understands the hopes and horizons of social movements. She participated in Cochabamba's 2000 Water War, a popular uprising that kicked out Bechtel, a multinational company that had privatized the water in everything from communally built wells to rain cisterns. Many citizens from across the economic spectrum couldn't afford the exorbitant rates set by the company, so they joined together in protests and road blockades, sending Bechtel packing and putting the water back into public hands.

Peñaranda compares the Water War, and the ongoing challenges of managing the public water system, to the current situation among US activists under the Obama administration. "It's important to think about how to take advantage of fresh energy, of the yearning for change that exists…and to not let what is urgent block out what is important for the long run. This involves not just enjoying the passing glory but planning for the future, involving everyone you can."

The challenge for many Bolivian activists in the Water War, as well as other social movements leading up to the election of Morales, was, as many movement leaders explained to me, moving from a position of "protests to proposals." This isn't to say that movements in the United States should subordinate themselves to the Obama administration. On the contrary, radicalizing Obama's politics should go hand in hand with building alternatives locally, outside the reach of the federal government.

Such has been the case with Brazil's Landless Workers Movement (MST). This movement, operating in a country with one of the most unequal distributions of land in the world, is made up of landless farmers who occupy unused land and work it to survive. When President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva failed to follow through on long-promised land reforms, the MST didn't waver; the movement continued its land occupations. Over the course of the MST's twenty-five years of work, it has expropriated some 35 million acres, land that is now occupied by roughly a million families. The settlements, which are cooperatively organized, are home to hundreds of MST-built schools, which have enabled tens of thousands of people to read and write.

One positive example of the relationship between citizens' movements and the Brazilian government is participatory budgeting. In the early 1990s participatory budgeting was implemented by the Workers' Party in Porto Alegre. This process involves thousands of residents gathering to decide how government funding should be used for city projects and development. Michael Fox, a Brazil-based journalist and co-producer of the documentary Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas, asks, "What if the $700 billion bank bailout in the US incorporated a component of Brazil's participatory budgeting, in which US citizens decided where they wanted the bailout funds to be allocated? Following Brazil's standards, citizens would then follow up to ensure that the funds actually went to where they were supposed to go."

Tens of thousands of communal councils around Venezuela also make sure government funds are used efficiently and transparently. Each communal council is made up of dozens of families who develop local projects, such as road building and electricity and water services. The council identifies the need, then develops a project proposal for the government. The government in turn finances the project.

These communal councils are only part of what democratizes the Venezuelan government under President Hugo Chávez. "There are movements in Venezuela that support Chávez but are at the same time critical," Fox explains, mentioning the Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino Front and the National Association of Free and Alternative Community Media. "These movements have an agenda rooted in the grassroots, and the president, albeit friendly, is going to have another; there are many interests at the top. Often a president–whether it's Chávez or Obama–isn't going to be able to do what he or she would like without hearing it from the people on the streets."

"The issue is not to radicalize the politics of Obama but to strengthen the movements," says Uruguayan political analyst and social movement adviser Raúl Zibechi. "The relation with progressive governments can only strengthen us, the movements, if we have very clear ideas. If not, we can expect nothing from the governments."

When Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he was far from being a leftist. The most progressive of FDR's policies were the result of grassroots pressure from below. According to widely cited legend, he once told labor constituents who were demanding radical reforms, "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it." Historian Howard Zinn wrote of that relationship, "Where organized labor was strong, Roosevelt moved to make some concessions to working people."

Now is the time for activists in the United States to run with Obama's rhetoric when he says, "We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." A movement put Obama in office. Now it's time to make Obama follow the movement.