Latin America has experienced an explosion of social movements and a leftward political shift since the beginning of the 21st century. Much of these political forces are driven by widespread discontent in Latin America for what’s been called the "Washington Consensus", a mixture of free trade economic policies pushed by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, WTO, and other corporations and governments since the 1970s. These policies have led to the vast privatization of public works and natural resources, cuts in social spending, and an opening up of countries to foreign investment or exploitation. This political-economic ideology, often referred to as ‘Reaganomics’ here in the US, is known in most of the world as neoliberalism.
Benjamin Dangl has worked as an independent journalist throughout Latin America, writing for publications such as Z Magazine, The Nation, and The Progressive. He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine covering activism and politics in Latin America. Dangl won a 2007 Project Censored Award for his coverage of US military operations in Paraguay. An essay of his was recently published in the McGraw-Hill college textbook Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Latin American Issues. He is the author of the book, The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia which was published in March, 2007 by AK Press. (Visit www.boliviabook.com for information on the book and the book reading tour).
Brian Yanity: It has been over a year since we had our last interview with you in insurgent49, how has Latin America changed over the past year? Is the abundance of hope you described back in 2005 still palpable?
Benjamin Dangl: These last few years were full of presidential elections where left of center leaders were expected to win. Latin America is now living the results of those elections. In some cases, the left’s popular option won (Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Nicaragua). In others the left’s option lost (Colombia, Peru and Mexico, for example).
Instead of fighting against entirely repressive, neoliberal governments, social movements now have many allies in the government. How will social movements adjust their position from one of resistance to 20th century neoliberalism, to one of proposals and critiques of a left of center government? As a landless movement leader told me recently in Bolivia, the success of the government depends on the people, the social movements to hold the government accountable and pressure it for radical change. Some marches have arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, and the government often warmly receives them. When marches arrived in the capital before, they were met with bullets. Now they are received, in a sense, with bags of coca, tractors and a meeting with the president. This is a new scenario which social movements need to adjust to in order to remain effective and autonomous. The political leaders, in turn, have to fulfil their radical campaign promises for state control of national resource, redistribution of land etc, while also expertly managing these policy changes.
The relationship with international lending organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank is changing in Latin America. For a number of reasons, the influence these institutions had in shaping neoliberal policy in most countries is waning. A new player has entered the scene that is taking their place: Venezuela with Hugo Chavez as the president. His administration is lending money to nations such as Bolivia without as many strings attached. In the past the strings attached to loans were privatization of public services and natural resources, militarization and high interest rates. The backlash of 30 years of intense neoliberalism is fully rearing its head. It is now politically in vogue to say no to Washington. Washington, in turn, needs to realize that Latin America is a neighbor, not a backyard, of the US.
BY: Augusto Pinochet died recently. Do you think that in contemporary Latin America, a military coup could happen like that of Chile in 1973? Do you think that the institutions of civil society and democracy which have developed on the continent over the past three decades prevents such a military coup from happening now?
BD: There is always the possibility of a coup happening again in Latin America. However, the political and military landscape in the region is much different now than it was in the 1960s-70s. The US government sponsors a number of groups that operate as fronts for the state department or Pentagon. In some ways they are performing the tasks in open that the CIA did clandestinely 30 years ago. These groups impact government policy the way a coup could thirty years ago. Take the example of the National Endowment for Democracy, (see NED at www.inthenameofdemocracy.org) At the same time, the US government and powerful corporations conduct mini-coups throughout Latin America each day, interfering and strong-arming sovereign nations without an all out military intervention. A coup isn’t necessary if the markets are open, the natural resources are cheap, and the military is on your side.
The amount of solidarity between governments in Latin America is also growing. When there have been so called "threats" of a coup in Bolivia, Chavez in Venezuela steps up and says his country would fight against such an intervention. You also have Latin American political and trade blocs such as MERCOSUR and other alliances which would be against an all out coup. The most recent example of this happening is the US-backed coup in 2002 against Chavez in Venezuela. It was very short lived because the people protested, mobilized, united against the intervention and were successful. This was a historical event that illustrates the support leaders like Chavez have in their countries. I think a similar civic outpouring of support would happen in Bolivia if a coup was attempted there against Morales. All of these factors make an all-out coup in Latin America much less likely than one would be 30 years ago.
BY: Tell us a little about your new book, The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia.
BD: It is a comparative study of resource conflicts and social movements throughout Latin America, with a focus on Bolivia. Though it includes historical information to add context to recent events, the book focuses on the last six tumultuous years, when corporate interests have clashed with empowered people’s movements. These years have been full of conflicts over what I call "the price of fire", access to basic services and elements of survival, such as water, land, gas, coca and employment. Though it focuses considerably on Bolivia’s drug war, water conflicts, neighbourhood council organizations and Evo Morales, I link the occupation of land by landless farmers in Bolivia to the occupation of factories by unemployed workers in Argentina. I analyze Venezuela’s use of oil wealth for national development, and how many progressive Bolivians would like to use their gas reserves.
The book is based on many bus rides through South and Central America, interviews with ex-Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua, coca farmers in Bolivia, hip-hop artists, student activists, Evo Morales and more. My hope is that it is a primer for people interested in learning more about Latin America, while also providing interesting stories, analysis and reportage for long time Latin Americanistas. It also a great resource for people that want to know more about what led to this current political leftist shift in Latin America.
BY: Here in Alaska, the state government is seeking to strike a deal with major energy corporations to build a gas pipeline from the North Slope. In your work with social movements involved with the nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas industry, what advice do you have for us?
BD: It depends on what you want out of this deal, and if you want it at all. In Bolivia, the Morales government has entered in renegotiations with gas companies to give the state more wealth out of the business and clout in the industry. This is one option. Questions for this route are: How much control of the industry does the state have over exploration, transportation, sales, and where does this new state wealth go to?
Something else, which hasn’t really been grappled with sufficiently in Bolivia, is what impact the deal would have on the environment. Another issue is – does this pipeline need to be built? Sure, the demand for this gas is there, but what energy alternatives should be looked at, invested in, before building yet another gas pipeline?
Once these issues are confronted, as some of them have been in Bolivia, the labor and social movements of Alaska could unite to pressure the government and companies involved. In Bolivia, they organized road blockades, strikes, protests and hunger strikes for weeks on end until the president was ousted and the gas deal changed or was rejected entirely. Alaska could go down that road.
BY: In addition to Bolivia, you have spent some time in Venezuela over the past few years. CITGO, the Houston-based subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, has started donating heating oil to poor Alaska Native villages for this winter because our Republican-controlled state legislators rejected a similar measure last year. A few weeks ago, the editors of the Anchorage Daily News, the state’s largest newspaper, claimed that Chavez is "using" poor Alaska villages". For opponents of these CITGO donations, the main argument is that Hugo Chavez is "anti- American" or an "America hater". Correct me if I am wrong, but didn’t the word "America" originally refer to the continent of South America?
BD: The fact that elected officials in Alaska are blocking people’s access to cheaper heating oil is ridiculous, especially in Alaska where it gets really cold. Chavez and many other leftist leaders and activists in Latin America regularly separate their critique of the powerful right in the US and their solidarity with the people of the US. The people and the government/corporations in the US are two very different things, and Chavez knows that.
Many in the US forget that there are other Americans south of the US border, South Americans. I imagine the same people that say Chavez is "anti-American" also say people like Chavez are "freedom-haters" or "democracy-haters." These Latin American political leaders and social movements are recuperating the meaning of democracy, freedom and what it means to be an American in a unified Americas against imperialism and corporate looting.
BY: What kinds of "responsible tourism" can politically aware, progressive North Americans like yourself do these days in Latin America? What kind of activities or programs do you recommend we do if we visit El Sur?
BD: I think it is important to evaluate why you want head to El Sur. A lot of people come to Bolivia or other countries from abroad and have this guilt, and this supposed knowledge of how to "fix" the situation in this country, or that village. What a lot of people I know end up learning is that it’s the local villagers that in the end help the foreigner.
When visiting, it is great to support most tourist businesses linked to labor or social organizations. For example, in Argentina there are a few hotels that have been recuperated by the workers and run as cooperatives. In La Paz, the feminist group Mujeres Creando owns a hostel and restaurant. These types of set ups exist all over, you just have to look a bit, and go off the well-beaten gringo path.
It’s also a good idea to speak with the locals – people that aren’t well represented in many books or media in English. It is easy to find out what a politician thinks about a topic by watching TV, so when you go, try talking with more bus drivers, newspaper vendors, mothers, miners and farmers. They will offer a perspective that is less represented in the English-based media. Making as many people to people connections is important. Developing friendships and personal and activist connections between the Empire and El Sur is a powerful form of a people’s globalization. Often, many folks are interested to hear of the reality in the US outside of Hollywood depictions, and vice versa. It is these kinds of connections that cut through corporate media representations and the trend to make the world McDonald’s.
Brian Yanity is a graduate student at UAA, activist and freelance writer. He resides in an undisclosed location in Southcentral Alaska, and can be reached at email@example.com. This interview was originally printed in Alaska’s progressive publication, Insurgent 49