Common Ground: Learning from Latin American Social Movements

As the global economic crisis expands, a rapidly increasing number of people are seeking ways to combat unemployment, marginalization, corruption, repression and other problems. Such challenges have faced millions of Latin Americans for decades, and as a result, many successful grassroots solutions to economic crisis have been developed by people in communities across the continent. In this essay, I propose that strategies from Latin American social movements can be applied elsewhere in the world to build better societies.

Rather than continuing the flow of generally destructive policies, tactics and advice from the north to the south – via entities such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO, US embassies, corporate board rooms and so on – I am suggesting that the flow of knowledge be reversed, from the south to the north. This reversal should focus on liberating, revolutionary strategies and tactics for social change, rather than neoliberal policies focused on looting resources and repressing people. 

I am not suggesting that these movements' strategies be copied and applied directly to other communities and countries, or forced onto a situation without considering the very specific conditions of each community. I am suggesting that these strategies and experiences from Latin America be considered and studied by activists elsewhere, as these movements may shed light on new tactics and approaches, and developed upon when moving ahead with community-specific work toward building a new society. While it is important to share tactics and experiences between various movements from around the globe, this essay focuses specifically on Latin America in part because the region has recently been home to some of the most powerful and successful movements in the world.

From Cochabamba to Caracas

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. (See Raul Zibechi's essay, Cochabamba: From Water War to Water Management, <http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/22087>  for more on this topic.)
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." 

Brazil's Landless Workers Movement (MST) operates in a country with one of the most unequal distributions of land in the world, and 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. 

Participatory budgeting in Brazil is another strategy for combating unemployment and poor government policies. 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." 

Firing the Boss

A clear connection between social movement strategies in the north and south emerged in early December 2008, when over 200 workers at Chicago's Republic Windows and Doors factory were laid off and decided to fight back. Gathering blankets, sleeping bags and food, they occupied their plant, demanding the severance and vacation pay owed to them. 

The occupation in Chicago echoes the worker occupations of factories and businesses in Argentina during that country's 2001 economic crisis. (For an in depth look at the worker-run businesses in Argentina see this essay by Marie Trigona: Workplace resistance and self-management: Strategic Lessons from Latin America <http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/22069> ) The Republic workers began seeking ways to re-open their factory and potentially operate it as a worker-run cooperative, further imitating the movement in Argentina.

"This is a place that should've stayed open," Republic union organizer Leah Fried told reporter Meg White. The factory could be very successful in the long-run because it produces heating-efficient windows and doors. "The goal is to re-open the plant and create employment," Fried said.

In Argentina in 2001, hundreds of worker cooperatives were formed after the occupations under the slogan "Occupy, Resist, Produce". 

Argentina's crisis was similar to the current recession in the US in the sense that in December of 2001, almost overnight, Argentina went from having one of the strongest economies in South America to the one of the weakest. As the occupation of the factory in Chicago indicates, there are some tactics and approaches to combating economic crises that were used in Argentina that could be applicable during the US crisis. 

During Argentina's economic crash, when politicians and banks failed, many Argentines banded together to create a new society out of the wreckage of the old. Poverty, homelessness and unemployment were countered with barter systems, alternative currency and neighborhood assemblies which provided solidarity, food and support in communities across the country. 

Perhaps the most well known of these initiatives were the occupation of factories and businesses which were later run collectively by workers. There are roughly 200 worker-run factories and businesses in Argentina, most of which started in the midst of the 2001 crisis. 15,000 people work in these cooperatives and the businesses range from car part producers to rubber balloon factories. Though the worker occupation of Republic Windows and Doors is different in many respects to examples of worker occupations in Argentina, it is worth reflecting on the strikingly similar situations workers in both countries found themselves in, and how they are fighting back.

The Chilavert book publisher in Buenos Aires offers one example of workers taking back a bankrupt factory to operate it as a worker cooperative. "Occupy, resist and produce. This is the synthesis of what we are doing," Candido Gonzalez, a long time Chilavert worker explained to me during a visit to his bustling publishing house, with printing presses clamoring away in the background. "And it is the community as a whole that makes this possible. When we were defending this place there were eight assault vehicles and thirty policemen that came here to kick us out. But we, along with other members of the community, stayed here and defended the factory." 
Candido didn't attribute Chilavert's success to any politician. "We didn't put a political party banner in the factory because we are the ones that took the factory. All kinds of politicians have come here asking for our support. Yet when the unions failed, when the state failed, the workers began a different kind of fight… If you want to take power and you can't take over the state, you have to at least take over the means of production."

During the occupation of the factory in Chicago, workers and supporters chanted, "You got bailed out, we got sold out," referring to the fact that Bank of America – a lender to Republic – received $25 billion of the $700 billion government bail-out, only to cut off credit to Republic, leading to the closure of the factory. But after six days of the occupation, Bank of America and other lenders relented, agreeing to pay the workers approximately $2 million in severance and vacation pay plus health insurance. 

Mark Meinster, the international representative for United Electrical Workers, the union of the Republic workers, coordinated the occupation of the factory and is involved with the work to re-open the plant. In an interview, Meinster explained that in deciding on labor tactics, the Republic workers drew from examples of landless farmer occupations and worker cooperatives in South America, including those in Argentina.

"We drew on the Argentine factory occupations to the extent that they show that during an economic crisis, workers movements are afforded a wider array of tactical options," Meinster explained. "In fact, the film The Take (a documentary on worker occupations and cooperatives in Argentina) was screened in the factory during the occupation in a makeshift theatre set up in the locker room."

Learning from Latin America

The similarities between the workers' actions in Chicago and Argentina show that labor strategies to fight economic crises can be applied as internationally as the free market policies that contributed to these problems in the first place. 

One international gathering that embodies the philosophy of cross-border organizing and solidarity is the annual World Social Forum which began in Brazil in 2001 to encourage collaboration and education between social movements from across the world. In 2004, I interviewed Michael Hardt, the co-author, with Antonio Negri, of Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, about the role the World Social Forums and similar encounters can have in globalizing social justice. 

"I was at two of the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre, Brazil," Hardt explained. "At one of them, there was this sort of counter forum going on at the youth camp where there were groups from various places. I was at one meeting where we had Italians, piqueteros from Argentina and a group from a movement in South Africa that is against these electricity and water cut offs in Durban and Johannesburg. It was great having three of them talk to each other, because even in a straight forward, tactical way they are experiencing the same thing, the same kinds of police repression and the same kinds of struggles. And it was not really learning from each other, but recognizing a kind of commonality that then creates new relationships… It is that kind of thing that has to happen on a much larger scale."

These new relationships can be built in part by using similar tactics to work for social change against common challenges. Whether fighting corporate looting or repression, the same strategies can be applied across the world.

For example, in 2003, when former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada tried to export Bolivian gas to the US for a low price, working class residents of the city of El Alto rose up against the president and his plan. Citizens took shifts at street barricades, distributing food, spreading messages via bicycle and working together with meager resources to fight the police and military, eventually toppling the repressive Sanchez de Lozada government. That revolt paved the way to the election of indigenous president Evo Morales, and the partial nationalization of the gas industry. In his office in El Alto, Bolivian sociologist Pablo Mamani spoke of this rebellion, "During the uprising, the state was broken, it stopped existing, it died in El Alto."

One story from the neighborhood of El 23 de Enero in Caracas, Venezuela is emblematic of the progressive changes taking place in that country. Juan Contreras, a radio producer and resident of the neighborhood, talked about how he and his compañeros took over the local police station – for decades an outpost for crackdowns on leftist organizing – and transformed it into a community radio station and cultural center. 

"This place was a symbol of repression," Contreras explained to me in the studio, which still smelled like fresh paint from the recent conversion. "So we took that symbol and made it into a new one." In words that reflect the spirit of the worker occupations in Chicago and Argentina, and the need for a broad grassroots response to the current economic crisis, he continued: "It is evidence of the revolution made by us, the citizens. We can't hang around waiting for the revolution to be made for us; we have to make the changes."

Back in Chicago, weeks after the occupation and in the heat of the battle to re-open the factory, Mark Meinster of the United Electrical Workers reflected on the outpouring of support the Republic workers received, from solidarity rallies across the country to donations of blankets and money.

"That this support was on a scale unthinkable only a year ago is proof that this action spoke to the desire of working class people to seek ways to resist the current economic onslaught," Meinster explained to me. "On the other hand, for this event to be a spark, others will have to pick up the baton. That means organized labor will have to take some measure of risk, embracing militant tactics when necessary and abandoning its reliance on political maneuvering as the primary means for the advancement of a working class agenda." 

At the start of Argentina: Turning Around, a film on grassroots movements in Argentina, Soledad Bordegaray of the Union of Unemployed Workers spoke of the popular organizing and street assemblies that emerged during the 2001-2002 economic crisis in Argentina, "It's not like people began with the idea of running things ourselves, we weren't taught to think that way. But no existing institutions were responding to our needs for jobs, education, and health care. People got together and said, why wait for someone else? Let's see what WE can do!"