Working In These Times
‘Dancing with Dynamite’: The Future of Latin America’s Leftist Movements
What happens after you win?
That is, as fearless grassroots social movements have brought leftist, pro-worker parties to power in one after another Latin American country during the past decade, how do these movements maintain true democracy and commitment to the rights of the marginalized once faced with the challenge of a neoliberal global economy?
After the wave of worker factory takeovers following its economic collapse a decade ago, such questions played out on smaller scales in Argentina. Taking cooperative control of the factories was only the first step; the workers had to actually run them competitively in a capitalist economy. Similarly, after movements of union members, indigenous activists and other previously marginalized people bring leaders like Bolivian Evo Morales and Venezuelan Hugo Chavez to power, how do they make sure their struggles aren't declawed and co-opted by the new government?
In his captivating book Dancing with Dynamite, to be released in September or October, Ben Dangl explores the complicated choreography between unfettered popular struggle and the state institutions that are necessary to a functioning civil society—yet by nature are forces of moderation, compromise and cooperation.
Using a very literal metaphor, Dangl invokes Bolivian miners to describe the “dynamite” of uncompromising popular struggle. The miners and displaced former miners who played a major role in bringing current president Evo Morales to power are part of a movement forged through intense repression and violence, followed by perhaps even more insidious economic suffocation.
In 1964, the government sent in troops against miners in Oruro who were protesting the government’s bloody crackdown on labor rights activists. A miner named Domingo spoke of the violence that began when the soldiers attacked his community. “They even entered into houses of families and took people out, forcing people into the streets in their underwear and killing them. We miners in Itos tried to defend the mines. We put up a fierce resistance with dynamite...” The soldiers won the battle, and Domingo has suffered from insomnia ever since.
Bolivian mines were privatized and closed in the 1980s in keeping with larger neoliberal restructuring of the continent, breaking the “backbone of the country’s radical workers’ unions” as Dangl describes it.
In Argentina, Dangl describes how neoliberalism’s strangulation of the labor movement gave rise to the processes that would ultimately topple the status quo and a series of presidents within months:
Neoliberalism undermined the base from which many workers were organized. There were fewer factories employing people due to deindustrialization. Closed factories meant losses for unions which had taken decades to form. Many of the jobless had been previously employed in public energy and service industries privatized by (former president Carlos) Menem.
Thus was born the piquetero movement which drew from waves of unemployed workers. Piqueteros—the name is based on the word piquete (picket or road blockade)—hit the streets together to demand work and social assistance. This movement set itself apart from the dominant Peronist labor movements and federations in which workers called for better conditions and salaries, partly because the older movements had been repressed extensively under the dictatorship, and because economics were changing the country, forcing social movements to change with it.
With previous movements weakened by neoliberalism, the piqueteros rose up from the wreckage of the 1990s as a formidable force in 2001.
In Argentina's economic crisis of 2001, formerly middle-class people suddenly found themselves unemployed and desperate, becoming instantly politicized with a sharp new understanding of the class system.
Dangl describes this dynamic among the workers who took over a quarry in early 2003. The company had told workers to take a sudden unscheduled, unpaid vacation over the holidays, and when they returned they saw their employer had left town without paying them severance or other wages. The workers armed themselves with shotguns for self-defense and proceeded to occupy the quarry. It became a grueling exercise in survival as they ended up using the guns to hunt rabbits and fished from the lagoon. By that spring a judge awarded the workers legal control of the quarry, and it’s run as a cooperative business to this day.
But Dangl notes that while countless such worker-run businesses are still flourishing in Argentina, the forces of political intransigency meant the leftist shift after the economic crisis – including the election of president Nestor Kirchner and later his wife Cristina – has not born a fundamental change in the neoliberal policies or class structure of the country. He explains:
First of all, Kirchner effectively demobilized and bought off the middle class…After applying these divisive, demobilizing, and repressive tactics, the government used the simple strategy of patience and attrition while public activism died down.
A similar thing happened in Uruguay, where Tabare Vazquez of the left Frente Amplio party was elected in 2005. As Dangl describes it, he proceeded on a
…reformist route, sprinkling his own neoliberal projects with social programs that didn’t address the root causes of poverty and exclusion. And yet, given the record of past governments, these small nods to social change were enough to placate many voters.
Current Uruguayan president Jorge “Pepe” Mujica, also a beloved man of the people and former leftist guerilla, summed up the typical transformation from radical to reformer himself, as Dangl quotes, telling business leaders he is a “wild cat that has turned into a vegetarian.”
The examples Dangl puts forth of popular politicians and movement leaders essentially selling out and going soft time after time is a somewhat depressing drumbeat. But he sees the rise of leftist, popular governments in Latin America overall as a promising and unstoppable trend wherein the path may not be straight but will ultimately lead to greater democracy and human dignity.
In this dance, the urgency of survival trumps the law, people acting based on the rights they were born with makes the state irrelevant, and anything is possible when the community moves.