Good news : Latin American democratic movements


Richard Moore

    The most exhilarating and the most promising things going on
    at this particular moment in history have hardly made news in
    the USA, or bits and pieces have without a summary that says:
    Latin America is on fire with revolutions that suggest how the
    world might change, for a change, for the better.


Orion   September | October 2005

Fire in the South

If you want to see what democracy could be, look to Latin America

By Rebecca Solnit

The most exhilarating and the most promising things going on
at this particular moment in history have hardly made news in
the USA, or bits and pieces have without a summary that says:
Latin America is on fire with revolutions that suggest how the
world might change, for a change, for the better.

The current fire season began in the spring of 2000 when the
people of Cochabamba, Bolivia, kicked out Bechtel Corporation,
the San Francisco-based multinational that had privatized
their water and raised rates beyond what the poor could
afford. Since the victory in Cochabamba, mass mobilizations of
Bolivia's largely indigenous population have ousted two
presidents and prevented the privatization and sell-off of the
country's considerable natural gas resources.

These fires, in Bolivia and beyond, are attempting to burn out
neoliberalism: the ideology of unfettered capitalism
manifested as deregulation, as privatization of resources and
services, as drastically reduced social services, and as
dismissal of the value of community, civil society, and the
public-as in public lands or public good.

Or, in a nutshell, the opening of a place to unregulated
plundering. Neoliberals assert that their activities provide
widespread benefits despite massive evidence to the contrary.
Or perhaps widespread benefits were never really a serious
concern for those who subscribe to this system of spreading
environmental degradation, sabotaged rights, and starvation

In December of 2001 there was a splendid conflagration in
Argentina, the nation that was supposed to be neoliberalism's
poster child until its economic policies led to a collapse.
Then, the proud middle class became poor, the country ran
through several presidents in several days, and the people
took to the streets, banging pots and pans and shouting, "¡Se
vayan todos!";-"All of them [politicians] out!" Since then
Argentina has become a brilliant laboratory of social
experiments, from the shuttered factories reopened and run by
workers' co-operatives to consensus-based neighborhood groups
functioning as both salons and soup kitchens. And more
recently Nestor Kirchner, who became president in 2003,
directly defied the International Monetary Fund, recognizing
that its policies are what brought the country to its knees in
the first place.

Meanwhile Brazilians, led by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores
Rurais Sem Terra, the powerful landless rural workers'
movement, chose former steelworker and union organizer Luiz
Inacio Lula da Silva as their president in 2002. Though the
MST has been bitterly disappointed by Lula's failure to bring
about profound land redistribution, his administration has
done some noteworthy things, such as leading third-world
nations to defy the World Trade Organization in Cancun in
September of 2003.

And the fires keep spreading. As the investigative journalist
Greg Palast recently put it, "Ecuador has a new president, and
George Bush has someone new to hate." Palast recounted how, in
April of 2005, "100,000 angry Ecuadorians, from Indians to
accountants, forced the last president to flee the country.
They called him 'Sucio Lucio' (Dirty Lucio) Gutierrez, for
going along with demands of George Bush and the World Bank to
cut government spending on health and education." Former
vice-president Alfredo Palacio, who assumed the presidency,
shows signs of being more genuinely democratic and concerned
with the plight of the poor.

Ecuador has oil, but Venezuela has more: it supplies 15
percent of the U.S.'s huge oil diet, which has kept the oil
barons at the helm of our country both attentive and
resentful. Populist strongman Hugo Chavez, first elected in
1998, has distributed Venezuela's oil profits more equitably
to try to lift more people out of poverty. He has so angered
the Bush administration that it helped sponsor a coup against
him in 2002-one overturned by people in the streets of
Caracas-and blames him for "unrest," as they call it, also
known as insurrection, elsewhere across the continent.

And last November, while the world mourned the re-election of
Bush, the people of Uruguay elected their first left-wing
president and passed a plebiscite forever preventing the
privatization of water.

Of course you can trace these radical stirrings back much
further, to the administrations of Salvador Allende in Chile
and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, which the United States helped
to overthrow in 1973 and 1954 respectively. But those regimes
and the movements that sprang up in their defense were
squashed again and again, sometimes with U.S. tax dollars and
intelligence operations. This time the chances of success seem
better, in part because the U.S. has been both weakened and
distracted by its misadventures in the Middle East-better even
though Chavez is a strongman building up a cult of
personality, Lula has compromised too much, and even Kirchner
is far from being a revolutionary hero. After all, it's not
really about presidents, but about the people who put them in
power, or take them out, and who never surrender the right to
determine the fate of their nation. The anonymous masses of
people who have launched these changes are the real heroes,
and they are only at the beginning of their power and

This is what is truly exciting about South America: the sense
of populist movements and indigenous insurgencies feeling
their way through the dark to the idea of what a just society
might look like. Or perhaps what is most significant in this
incendiary era, this continent on fire, is the passion and the
power of the people who fight these battles for water, for
justice, for a voice in their society.

In my own society, even our dreams seem to have been
privatized. Up here in the north, neoliberal policies have
demolished the American dream for many Yankees who can no
longer afford education, or decent housing, or who are
bankrupted by illness. The great gains brought about by union
struggles, the New Deal, and the Great Society have been
whittled away steadily since Ronald Reagan was first elected
and brought the neoliberal agenda to power with him.

But too many in this Horatio Alger nation fail to see the
situation as a political crisis with political solutions that
can be realized collectively. Nowhere is this more deeply
apparent than in the obsession with home ownership and home
improvement, where the power to live well and change things is
confined to the tiny compass of the personal, privatized
realm. Our dream has been reduced to a couple of thousand
square feet at 6 percent interest, rather than that old
sea-to-sea vision of justice and equality, that sense that
one's own fate is inseparable from that of one's fellow
citizens, or that a whole society or country can be the home
you love and work for (which summons up the amusing notion
that revolution is remodeling on the grand scale).

What is it that makes Latin Americans so much more politically
potent than Yankees? Is it the memory of how horribly things
can go wrong, that the doors of even the nicest houses can be
bashed in by death squads? Is it fear? After all, the era when
much of South America was governed by dictators and when
torture, murder, and disappearance were common is not very far
in the past. Or is it hope, the hope of cultures where not all
dreams have been privatized into the realm of the apolitical,
where individual good is still connected to civil society and
social justice?

Poverty, violence, and environmental devastation are still
terrible problems for Latin America, but the region is rich in
people-power, and the future that power may shape looms on the
horizon. As my brother David says, when it comes to the real
practice of democracy, the U.S. is an underdeveloped nation
that needs help from abroad. Nowhere are the lessons more
inspiring than to the south. And we're going to need a lot
more people-power in one version of the future, in which we
need to stop our own government from once again preventing
South America's move toward the kind of democracy we should
dream of, and could.

Rebecca Solnit lived in Peru when she was two years old and
hopes to return to South America soon. She is a regular
columnist for Orion Magazine and contributor OrionOnline. Her
latest book is A Field Guide to Getting Lost from Viking

Robert S. Rodvik
Author/media analyst
"Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure
was forgotten, the lie became the truth."
 George Orwell - 1984


"Apocalypse Now and the Brave New World"

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