Grassroots Lessons From Latin America

In an interview journalist and filmmaker Michael Fox talks about what lessons US activists might consider from social movements throughout Latin America, and the challenges of applying Latin American activist strategies in the US under an Obama administration.

Michael Fox is a Brazil-based independent journalist and co-producer of the new documentary Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas (PM Press). He is also the co-author of an upcoming book called Venezuela Speaks: Voices From the Grassroots, also available through PM Press and set to be released this fall. Throughout
his research for this film and book, and as a radio and print reporter
who has covered political and social issues across Latin America, Fox
has come to know to hopes and struggles of the region's social
movements, and what US activists might learn from the experiences of
these movements.

In this interview, he talks about what lessons US activists might consider from social movements throughout Latin America, and the challenges of applying Latin American activist strategies in the US under an Obama administration.

Benjamin Dangl: Taking into account the challenges posed by an Obama administration and the current economic crisis in the US, what lessons do you think US activists could learn from social movements in Brazil and Venezuela, as far as methods and strategies to radicalize and pressure politicians and combat economic strife? 

Michael Fox:
First off, folks in the states need to remember that just because Obama
is in office doesn't mean that US activists should sit back on their
heels and consider their "mission accomplished".  For Obama to be able
to push for changes, he needs to be pushed. That's just the reality. 
It can be difficult for activists in any country to maneuver the subtle
balance of demanding their rights from a friendly elected official,
while not playing in to the game the opposition (in this case the
Republicans). Nevertheless, this must be done.  In Brazil – as I wrote in an article for Toward Freedom – shortly after Lula was elected in to office, Brazil's
progressives "gave Lula time".  They were willing to work with him and
humored his embracing of international economic norms as shrewd.  A
year and a half later, they had had enough, and they formed a dissident
party called the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL).  The MST held
off on land occupations for a period, until they realized that despite
Lula's commitments to agrarian reform, the Brazilian president had
befriended the international agro-industry, and he wasn't looking
back.  In hindsight, perhaps they should have pushed harder from the
beginning of the Lula government, supporting his administration and at
the same time demanding their rights.  This is what you see often in Venezuela, although you wouldn't know it by reading the mainstream press.  

Venezuelan social movements like the Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino
Front (FNCEZ) and the National Association of Free and Alternative
Community Media (ANMCLA) are very clear that they support the Chavez
government, but that they are autonomous social movements and that they
have their own demands which they expect to be met.  It may at first
appear contradictory when you see hundreds of Venezuelan campesinos and
community media activists come marching through Venezuela's capital, Caracas,
to block a major intersection for hours, and at the same time they say
they support the President, but that is the reality.  They understand –
as activists in the United States
need to learn quickly – that they have an agenda rooted in the
community and in the grassroots, and the President (albeit friendly) is
going to have another.  There are many interests at the top.  And often
a President – even Chavez or Obama – isn't going to be able to do what
he or she would like, without really hearing it from the people on the

activists need to be aware of these dualities, and not be afraid of
what may appear contradictory. As one of Venezuela's founding
fathers Simon Rodriguez once said, "o inventamos o erramos", That's the
motto of Venezuela's Bolivarian Movement: "Either we invent or we
fail", meaning that we need to be free to take chances, leaps and
bounds, try things that seem crazy and if those things don't work, get
up and try something else. 

in this time of global economic crisis people need to come together and
look to develop their solutions in their local community.  Last fall,
my partner and I traveled all across the United Status showing our
movie, Beyond Elections, about these new democratic experiences all across Latin America.  At the same we interviewed communities and individuals from California to Virginia
about their alternatives and solutions, about their thoughts, hopes and
opinions of this ridiculous bank bailout. Nearly everyone – from urban
progressives to salt-of-the earth Midwestern farmers – said the same
thing, "Get all the politicians out of Washington"
and turn the government back over to "we the people".  We now have a
new president, elected to do just that with his platform of change, but
that is just the beginning.  

Americans know this story well, and over the last three decades a
number of experiences have been developed across the region, from which
activists in the United States
can learn. For me they are all based around democracy and place-based
organizing, two ideas which may seem irrelevant, but they can be

ask your average North American for his or her definition of democracy,
and the answer is usually free and fair elections.  But as I said
above, that is just the beginning, it's not the end.   

Latin Americans, especially in Venezuela and Brazil, have been developing these concepts and working with these themes in transformative ways.  

President Hugo Chavez came to office in 1998, Venezuelans have been
working to shift the hierarchical organizing to horizontal in local
community-based committees – first the Bolivarian circles and then
local water, electricity, land committees, etc…   In 2006, Venezuelans
all across the country have been organizing themselves in to tiny local
"communal councils" which are made up of 100-200 families which elected
spokesperson for the local community in order to carry out local
projects.  The concept is powerful, because it is the community which
decides on local issues and projects.  If the community needs to fix a
road, it develops the project, brings it to the pertinent institutions
and they can receive funding.  The concept is radically different from
the past, when the community would have to fight with the local
government for public works projects, and radically different from the
former community associations in which a select group of people decided
for everyone.  In Venezuela,
right now these communal councils are trying to put decision-making
power directly in the hands of citizens, and there is talk of expanding
the power of these communal councils out, so they would also have
decision-making power in the municipal, region, state and national
level also.  Optimally they make decision by consensus, sometimes by
voting.  The spokespersons of the council are the spokespersons- that
elaborate the project and the communal council, but not
representatives, which means that the entire community must be
consulted on important decisions. There are now tens of thousands of
communal councils all across the country, being funded by more than a
billion dollars from the Venezuelan government.   

Participatory Budgeting (PB) began in Porto Alegre, Brazil
and has now spread throughout the world. It is a process in which
everyday citizens participate in the allocation of a chunk of city
funds.  Each year community residents vote on their priorities and
demands for the next year, and throughout the year representatives hold
weekly or biweekly meetings to ensure that the community's will is
carried out.  The idea is giving communities a democratic say in the
direction of government.  While Porto Alegre's
participatory budgeting now has its problems, and some of the PB
delegates and council-members have turned in to more bureaucratic
positions, the program has become a necessary element of the local
government and citizens have learned to see themselves as part of a
larger picture, to see their needs together with the needs of those
around them.  

I mentioned, PB is now in cities and local governments all across the
planet, and is promoted as a way in order to ensure transparency in the
local government.  What if participatory budgeting were implemented in
local governments, organizations, and groups across the US?  What if the $700 billion bank bailout had an incorporated a component of participatory budgeting in which US
citizens could have participated in where they wanted the bailout funds
to be allocated?  A sector would have had to have followed up with the
implementation to ensure that the funds actually went to where they
were supposed to go, rather than the US
government handing over billions to the same people that got us in to
this mess, without any checks and balances.  Is that democratic?   

In terms of social movements, Brazil's
Landless Worker's Movement (MST) recently turned 25 and while there has
been little said about the MST for quite some time in the US
press, it is as alive as ever. As a local organizer in Brazil's
Southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul, João Amaral confirmed last July,
this is largely due to the fact that in the MST, decision-making is
rooted in the community, in the everyday MST members and in local
grassroots groups of 10-20 families that make up the base nuclei of the
movement in MST encampments and settlements.  A spokesperson
from each of these groups then joins with the spokespersons from each
of the other "base nuclei", where they also work with consensus to make
decisions or return to the local groups to debate further. Only with
this process they are: 1. Able to truly reflect the will of the
movement overall and 2. Ensure that everyone feels like their voice is
heard and is, and 3. Willing to continue with the decision of the
group, even when it perhaps was not their first choice.  

is the heart of the MST, truly one of the most radical social
movements. You feel the sense of community as you walk in to an
encampment or settlement and spend some time with those around you.  It
is astounding: one group cooks for everyone else, another group is
taking care of the children, another is planting- and that's how they
live their life.  There is a sense of oneness with those around them,
and their form of decision-making – rooted in these local groups. They
decide by consensus, and the added focus on gender neutrality ensures
that everyone's voice is heard and that everyone feels a part of the
process.   From its humble beginnings in 1984, the MST has won millions
of acres of land and says it now has 370,000 families settled across
the country and 100,000 camped.

BD: What are some of the challenges posed by transferring such strategies to the US to be applied there? 

MF: The sense of community in the above Latin American examples cannot be highlighted enough.  Oftentimes in the United States
it is easy to feel separate from one another.  Many times you don't
live near those with whom you are used to organizing, and especially in
the suburbs, our lives are created to keep us isolated from
one-another.  There are many forms of poverty across the globe, but
truly that which most affects the United States is a poverty of
community, a sickness of community, in which individuals feel isolated
and separated from one another, basing their decisions not on
communication, collaboration, deliberation, but on the fear they feel
from the negative news that is spun at American citizens through one of
the most highly consolidated media in the world.       

MST Rally in BrazilThis
is why I mentioned place-based organizing.  All of the above
experiences are "place-based", not issue-based.  They are rooted in
solving the issues of the local community, and can then move in to the
larger issues from there.  Some activists in New Orleans
are starting to develop this, such as Khalil Shahyd of the New Orleans
Citizen Participation Project, who is promoting Participatory Budgeting
in the Louisiana city.  The Survivor's Council, which takes place in the Katrina-devastated Lower 9th Ward, is inspired by Venezuela's
communal councils and is a way for community residents to connect,
debate, discuss and work towards to resolve the problems in their

also need to remember – as my Brazilian wife highlighted during our
tour around the states last fall showing our film Beyond Elections –
that the best way to support movements abroad, is to make change at

In the United States, the Left is often fragmented in to factions and issues.  How many times have you gone to an event on "Venezuela" or "Cuba"
or some specific issue in the community, and you know everyone in the
crowd, because they are the same handful of people that go to all of
these types of events.  That's great, they are active, but they are
often disconnected from the other issues, and from the community and
the issues affecting the local community sometimes only a few miles
from where the event is being held. 

Activists in the United States may be quick to protests loudly against the "illegitimate" US war on Iraq or Afghanistan, but when it comes to the internal illegitimate low-intensity warfare waged by the US government against poor communities in the United States, many middle-class activists don't make the connection.  US
activists need to bring the "buy local" banner of local farmers, in to
the activist realm – "organize local" around local issues – which are,
of course connected to the big picture.    

need to think about not only how to create organizations but movements
with grassroots committees that will ensure that everyone has a roll to
play, and that their voice is heard.  I believe that San Francisco lost a huge opportunity in 2005, when the SF People's Organization
was founded.  I excitedly asked one of the new directors when the
general assembly would meet again and if we would be setting up local
grassroots committees in the communities around San Francisco. 
He responded that we wouldn't have to meet again until the next year,
and until then, he and the two-dozen organizers would fight throughout
the year for our interests.

didn't get it.  I tell this story to my foreign friends and they
laugh.  In the United States, activists are used to getting out on the
streets to protest, e-activism – clicking buttons to sign protests and
forward urgent actions, but with all the other activities US citizens
are involved in (with music, sports, dance, art, socially etc…), many
don't want to think about joining another group.  That's not the point. 

The only way that Uruguay's
Leftist political coalition, Frente Amplio, retained so much of its
support, despite being brutally repressed and exiled during a more than
decade-long dictatorship, was because of its grassroots committees.  As
I pointed out in an article in 2007, Frente Amplio's rise to Uruguay's
Presidency in 2005 was an important victory, but by turning its back on
its grassroots activists, the coalition has lost the fervent support on
the streets which kept its dream alive for so many years.  

of these examples take time.  Consensus takes time.  Local grassroots
committees take time.  And that is not something that US activists have
a lot of.  They could, but they don't, in large part due to an
entertainment industry which ensures that we are encouraged away from
such activities.   

issue that US activists must contend with paradoxically is the
traditional lack of needs.  Participatory Budgeting, Communal Councils,
MST organizing works because the local community has a series of very
immediate needs that aren't being met: Perhaps it's electricity, or
potable water, or land.  Only by joining forces will the community be
able to accomplish their demands.  In the United States,
many communities have traditionally not had these desperate needs.  Of
course, some have, but many have not.  Which means that individuals
haven't felt the desperate need to come together because they are
content with their homes, their cars, their jobs and their cable TV.   

times are changing.  Even suburban neighborhoods are falling apart as a
result of the Mortgage Crisis. The financial crisis is growing, and
rather than correct the failures of the system, Washington
promises to hand over more to those that got us in to the problem in
the first place.  Meanwhile, unemployment is rising, homelessness is
rising, and no one has resolved the lack of health care for millions of
US residents.  These are pressing issues, and they are issues which
must be dealt with from the bottom up, from the local, from the
community out.  As they say in Venezuela, "endogenous development"  

So, in the United States, activists have to contend with: 

-people's busy lives

-lack of community

-lack of interest or needs

course, no model can ever be simply lifted up and plopped down on top
of a completely different reality and expected to work.  That concept
is part of the same hierarchical system which these experiences are
trying to correct.  These experiences must be a creative process and
collaborative.  Activists need to listen and work together.  
Deliberate and build shared space together that are rooted in faith and
love, and not fear.  And this can be done without the large funds many
in the United States believe you need for a healthy organization.  

course resources help, but if they don't exist we just need to be
creative.  Like the barter trade systems which were set up across the
Southern Cone after the December 2001 economic crisis, in which
community members came together to trade what they had for things that
they need, or things that others had to offer.
Lastly, Latin Americans are more than willing to support these experiences across the US, and to share experiences and trade ideas.  Activists in the United States just need to be willing to take chances and unite with those around them. 

learn more about these experiences in local democracy, or to watch
and/or purchase, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the
Americas, visit

For more from Michael Fox, visit www.blendingthelines.com.

Source: Toward Freedom