Journalist and author Ben Dangl has spent much of the past decade touring South America and has observed social movements bring down neo-liberal governments and replace them with new ones. Now a few years into the experiment, Dangl has written a new book about the dynamic between those social movements and the governments they helped elect. He notes that in the cases of Ecuador and Bolivia, some of the most influential groups have now become vociferous critics of the governments they helped bring to power.
Produced by Jesse Freeston.
JESSE FREESTON, PRODUCER, TRNN: Over the past decade, a series of left-wing governments took power in South America, in many cases representing the first time in modern history that business and military elites lost direct control over their national governments. Journalist and author Ben Dangl spent much of the past decade reporting from the region. He spoke to The Real News about his new book, Dancing with Dynamite.
BEN DANGL, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Platforms were developed by presidents that were very much influenced by social movements in various countries, social movements fighting for access to water, fighting for state control of gas reserves, fighting against US militarization in the drug war. And presidents across the region pulled up these demands from movements and rode that momentum into the political office and won. And my book looks at the relationship between social movements and these governments.
FREESTON: The book chronicles Dangl’s experience in seven such South American countries, but takes its name from Bolivia.
DANGL: Dynamite in Bolivia is a tool used by one of the most historically powerful movements in the country, which is the miners movement. Miners in Bolivia were pivotal in the revolution of 1952 in working to nationalize the mines, working to grant voting rights to a majority of the population, access to health care and education for indigenous people. And when miners arrive in La Paz to protest against governments, to protest against ome unpopular presidents, to demand for reforms in the mining sector, they use dynamite—not to destroy anything, but as a kind of firework to scare the heck out of politicians. And it’s worked. In 2003, during the Gas War against a plan to export Bolivian gas to the US for a very low price, a pivotal sector in this movement were the miners. And when they arrived in La Paz in October 2003, throwing their dynamite around, that was when Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada left the country in a plane to the US, escaping the conflict and resigning.
FREESTON: Current president Evo Morales was a congressman and leader of the opposition during the gas wars. At the time, he supported the moderate position of raising the taxes on foreign companies. But the social movement pushed him to advocate for full nationalization, and two years later he was elected president, due in part to a pledge to nationalize the gas industry.
DANGL: He also helped convene a constitutional assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution, which granted access to water, electricity, and basic services as a human right to people. That has also arisen out of movements against water privatization in the country and the fight for better services. Morales, as well as other presidents, have institutionalized a lot of these changes that were won in the streets.
FREESTON: After a landslide reelection win in 2009, Morales has come under fire from some of the same forces that propelled him to power in 2005. Óscar Olivera, a renowned leader in both the Cochabamba Water War and the gas wars that helped bring Morales to prominence, said the government has, quote, “excluded, ignored, and even smeared those who want to have an independent voice.”
DANGL: —been a tendency in the Morales government to—when confronting a critical movement or activist group, saying that they’re allies of the right or funded by the US. This is largely untrue. There is a very powerful right-wing movement in Bolivia connected to civic committees in the eastern part of the country—right-wing governors, politicians, and political parties. They pose a very real threat to the Morales government. There are also incredibly powerful movements and activists around the country which have well-founded critiques of the government.
FREESTON: During the gas wars, the city of El Alto was a central battleground. Neighborhood councils blocked the main access road to the capital of La Paz. On multiple occasions in 2003, security forces opened fire on protesters, killing dozens. The backlash led to the the fall of President de Lozada, and in 2005 El Alto voted heavily for Morales. FEJUVE, the federation of El Alto’s 600 neighborhood councils, has since become a harsh critic of the government. Their most recent declaration demands new labor laws, the removal of all foreign corporations, and threatens that they’ll take action to demand Morales’s resignation if progress isn’t made. According to Dangl, Morales isn’t the only popular South American leader to face opposition from some of the same people who brought them to power in the first place.
DANGL: In Ecuador, for example, Rafael Correa was elected on a platform to nationalize that country’s oil reserves, create more protection for indigenous rights, culture, territories. And the CONAIE, the indigenous confederation of Ecuador, has come directly against many of Correa’s policies. So whereas they supported him in his election in 2006 as the lesser of two evils, he has come out to actively repress the indigenous movement when they protested against his government. And the most direct confrontations have arose in Ecuador between extractive industries and the indigenous communities, in mining, oil, and gas industries, which are incredibly environmentally destructive throughout the Amazon, throughout Ecuador. Indigenous communities have risen up against these policies to both defend their territory from this pollution and fight for more input into how this industry is carried out and how the exploitation happens, neither of which has happened to a sufficient scale. And the CONAIE broke away from Correa in 2008, defining themselves in opposition to the government.
FREESTON: Since then, CONAIE and other indigenous organizations in Ecuador have returned to the direct action tactics that helped topple the three previous governments, actions that led to Correa taking power in the first place. When they organized a protest outside a summit of Latin American presidents attended by Correa in July, three leaders were charged with terrorism for breaking the public order. Correa has called the groups agents of foreign organizations and threats to modernity, adding in July that, quote, “To say no to petroleum and mines, no to using our non-renewable resources, it’s like a beggar sitting on a bag full of gold.”
RAFAEL CORREA, PRESIDENT OF ECUADOR: We can leave this meeting with much improved policies for indigenous people without submitting to the extremism of certain groups that seek to hold the country back.
MARLON SANTI, CONAIE PRESIDENT CHARGED WITH TERRORISM: The people are tired of your insults. We have rule of law here that all officials need to respect. You must abide by the Constitution. Instead, the rule of law is violated by the president and his entire administration by imposing undemocratic processes that the indigenous movement won’t accept.
FREESTON: On September 30, the depth of the division became clear. When rebellious police held Correa hostage for 12 hours, CONAIE didn’t mobilize to defend the president they helped elect, despite strong indications that the police actions were part of a failed right-wing coup d’état.
DANGL: Socialist, state-led projects, no matter how revolutionary and how much money they create in the extractive industry, cause a lot of pollution and displace communities. And that’s been one of the sources of conflicts and tension in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, where you have economies that are largely based on extractive industries, mining and oil particularly. And when these industries come into conflicts with communities, the government isn’t interested in negotiating with them or working with them closely.
FREESTON: Both Correa and Morales oversaw the passing of plurinational constitutions, which enshrine the rights of indigenous communities to consultation and sovereignty. At the same time, both maintain high levels of popularity for developing extractive industries and redistributing the revenues. Both also face organized and hostile opposition from the traditional oligarchy, international corporations, and foreign governments like the United States, which frequently provides funding and training to dissidents of all stripes. But social movements are bringing forward real debates rooted in real differences of opinion in how decisions should be made over natural resources, and worry that these governments are attacking the messengers instead of the messages.
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