Behind the fire: Ben Dangl on struggles in Latin America

Source: Vermont Guardian

Vermont Guardian: In the research for your book, The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, what did you find to be the biggest misconception that people in the United States have about the struggles facing many of the indigenous people in Latin and South America?

Ben Dangl: There is a lot of romanticizing about the realities of indigenous struggles in South America, that these groups are all extremely democratic and united across borders. Many indigenous organizations in Bolivia for example are very hierarchical and totally dominated by men. Another misconception is that the electoral victory of indigenous president Evo Morales in Bolivia is a maximum victory for indigenous struggles in South America. It is symbolically, culturally and socially important, and can help to end a certain amount of racism and disregard for indigenous customs and culture. But outside of just being president, Evo has to do things to aid in the self-determination and empowerment of indigenous groups. For this to happen – both in Bolivia and elsewhere – there needs to pressure from below from these groups for change.

VG: The U.S. media plays a large role in shaping this perception. Are there media outlets that are covering these struggles fairly and accurately, or do most mostly follow the Bush administration’s lead?

BD: Most large media outlets don’t report on South American issues at all. When they do, it is often to push an agenda for devastating free trade policies, or demonize leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. The herd mentality among large media outlets is a big problem, so a lot of newsworthy material off the beaten path is disregarded. There needs to be a critical look at the leftist shift in politics and social movements in Latin America. It’s important to look at the history that led up to this moment. For independent media it’s important to go beyond simple cheerleading of any socialistic electoral victory. For people in the United States to understand what’s happening in South America, there needs to be media that looks at the good and the bad side of these leftist leaders and movements. It’s important to report on them honestly so that U.S. citizens can learn from the failures and successes of people like Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, the landless movements in Brazil, the coca farmers in Bolivia and the worker cooperatives in Argentina. Simply saying "there is a revolution in South America and everything is fine" without taking a look at the negative side of these movements significantly limits what US based groups could learn in order to bring social change here in the empire. Some resources in English that are doing excellent reporting on the region include,,, and

VG: What is the future for the region? What economic and social policies are succeeding that will have longevity beyond any one politician? And, what nations are next to follow in the footsteps in revolt against neoliberalism? What nations are likely to continue with neoliberal policies?

BD: There is a large move on the part of progressive governments in South America to generate a trade bloc outside the sphere of Washington and harmful neoliberal policies. This regional integration is happening now, and could provide a long term solution to corporate exploitation and U.S. imperialism. Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia are the most radical of this bloc. Chile, Colombia and Peru are further to the right, generally speaking. South American liberator Simon Bolivar had a dream and a mission to unite all of South America. This is happening today. Washington and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – long times bosses in the region – are now losing clout in South America. There is now more of an interest, among the populations and left of center political leaders, to go down a different socialistic route aimed at state control of natural resources, increased social spending, and less crippling debt to institutions like the IMF. Things to look out for in this regional integration is what kind of environmental destruction are we talking about with state-controlled mines, oil and gas industries. Another issue is whether or not these progressive governments are inclusive enough. Are they bringing diverse voices and movements into the political realm, or are they consolidating their own power, and leaving the radical voices that put them in office out of the assemblies and government palaces.

VG: Will there continue to be these ongoing struggles over access to resources, or will recent moves to put the state in control of such resources assuage these fights?

BD: If the government-run water system is sufficient and affordable, people won’t revolt. If farmers have access to land, if people see their mineral, oil and gas wealth used nationally, or going toward developments in healthcare, education and roads, there will be less conflict. If coca growers can expand their crops and produce in peace, without U.S.-funded military and police terrorizing them, then they won’t protest as much. These advances are happening across the continent, with contradictions and problems, but heading in a positive direction.

Though the state might be largely in control of gas resources in Bolivia, Evo’s "nationalization" is more of a renegotiation with corporations. Bolivia’s state company is still struggling to operate independently. The right, and the large corporations, the political elite that have a lot to lose from state-ownership will not give up fighting. They have the money, connections and experience to fight against governments like that of Chavez and Morales with the media and other means.

VG: What resources remain at issues for the people of the region, in terms of keeping control of their farmland and forests?

BD: The expansion of genetically modified soy crops in Paraguay is destroying small farmers, their crops, forests and water sources. The pesticides and herbicides used by soy companies poison water, kill farm animals and give humans headaches, stomach problems, loss of eyesight and cancer. Instead of rainforest, animal and plant diversity and healthy rivers, much of Paraguay is a green sea of soy crops. Those Paraguayans who don’t sell their land to escape the health problems are forced to leave by thugs hired by soy companies.

Outside of continued conflicts over gas, oil and minerals, conflicts over access to fresh water are likely to increase in the coming years. The Guarani aquifer in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, one of the largest sources of fresh water in the western hemisphere, is likely to be the source of a future resource war.

VG: Has the move away from the neoliberal policies that embrace more use of private companies to harvest natural resources slowed down the extraction of some resources in the region, or merely put profits from these operations into the hands of the governments?

BD: In Bolivia, the state run company is still struggling to operate with low funds and a relative lack of expertise and infrastructure. In Venezuela, this state-run industry is further along in its developments as Chavez has been in office since 1998, and Evo "nationalized" Bolivian gas just this past year. In both cases, private and state corporations are working together for extraction, refinement etc. In Bolivia, the government is making more money from this business, and has more control over it. The natural gas industry in Bolivia has gone in and out of state hands over the past century. This history shows that a state ownership of the industry can be extremely profitable for the government, efficiently run and beneficial for Bolivians. In both Venezuela and Bolivia increased revenue from partially nationalized oil and gas industries has allowed governments to increase social spending.


Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (March, 2007 AK Press). He is the editor of

This interview was first published in The Vermont Guardian.