In this interview Benjamin Dangl talks about his work reporting from Latin America, and discusses the social movements, grassroots media projects and natural resource struggles in the region.
Tell us a little about yourself and your recent work in Latin America.
I graduated from Bard College in NY in 2003 with a degree in writing and literature. During my time in college I traveled abroad via study programs to India, Mexico and Argentina. Traveling outside of the US, and figuring out how to do that, has been a kind of full time hobby of mine for a while now. At this point I’ve traveled in over twenty five countries. Writing has always a key part of these trips.
My current interest in South American social issues began while I was stuck in road blockades in Bolivia during protests against coca eradication plans. A few weeks later I began a semester of studying in Mendoza, Argentina during the country’s 2002 economic crisis when protests filled the streets, most of the universities were on strike, factories were taken over by unemployed workers and barter systems were developed to replace pesos. People were forced to do these things in order to survive. Over the course of two weeks, they went through five presidents
During these two experiences, in Bolivia and Argentina, I became fascinated with the politics and history of the region. I learned Spanish and started talking with people in Bolivia about their thoughts on the drug war. In Argentina, I talked with people about the situation in the country; the crisis at the time was impossible to ignore.
One great friend of mine in Mendoza, Lucas Palero, was always handing me music to listen to, books, magazines, newspapers to read, and helping to create this kind of hands-on, crash course in Latin American studies.
From Argentina, I traveled to Nicaragua and Cuba, and began writing about current events and doing interviews with more people. Since then I’ve been to Latin America a number of times, writing stories on the 30th anniversary of the military coup in Chile, Cuban media and public opinion, the worker-run factory movement in Argentina, community radios and unions in Venezuela, the World Social Forum in Brazil, Bolivia’s gas related conflicts and so on.
While writing from South America, I started www.UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine about politics and activism in the region. It began as a simple collection of my own articles. Now we publish two original pieces each week from different writers, many of whom are based in South America, and offer a Cyril Mychalejko just joined UDW as an assistant editor. He has a lot of experience covering free trade issues in Central America.
There is a lot of hope in this part of the world, especially compared to the dismal situation in the USA. Leftist and socially conscious presidents are being elected across the board in South America. It’s great to be able to share news about this movement with others and help to create more solidarity and awareness about what’s happening in the region.
What are a few important things that North Americans should know about the vast social movements of Latin America?
There is an incredible history of union and political organizing in South America. The US has a similarly radical history, but this legacy is all but gone now. From the 1960s into the 1980s, there was broad enthusiasm among workers, regular citizens and students in Latin America for socialism. These movements were successful in Chile with the election of Allende, Nicaragua with the Sandinistas and of course, Cuba. This enthusiasm was met with harsh oppression from military and political groups against these aspirations. As a result, many dictatorships arose throughout this time, many of them funded and supported by the Unites States. Unfortunately, this regional move toward socialism was held back by harsh crackdowns, killings, torture and kidnappings which crippled the movement. But something akin to this momentum for change is happening right now, for somewhat different reasons.
Nowadays, there is 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, corporations and governments which amount 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; all of the things which trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA involve.
Thirty years after many of these policies were first introduced, Latin American countries are finding themselves poorer than ever. Argentina was hit particularly hard by these policies in 2001-2002. For years, it served as the IMF’s testing ground for various free trade and neo-liberal plans, which ended up working as a kind of economic house of cards. After years of privatization and foreign investments, the economy collapsed.
Citizens across Latin America understand that this "Washington Consensus" is a bankrupt system. Right now, we’re seeing the backlash to these policies with elections in Uruguay, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil and Chile, where left of center presidents have been elected. None of these leaders are perfect, but they represent this clear desire for change among citizens. Many presidents who strictly adhered to Washington’s policies were recently forced from office by massive protests in Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia.
Most, if not all, of the social movements in Latin America today, have roots (and in many cases, leaders) from the movements of the 1960s and 1980s for socialism. Today their enemies are politicians as well as corporations that are hungry for gas, oil and cheap labor.
In the US, there hasn’t recently been broad unity between students, union workers and so on, for a common front – not on a massive scale. This is not the case in many Latin American countries today. Some movements and unions, like the miners in Bolivia and the landless farmers in Brazil, have incorporated themselves into larger coalitions, while still fighting for, say, land or higher wages. In Bolivia, for example, miners, students, teachers’ unions, transportation unions and coca farmers have united within the last few years against the exploitation of the country’s natural gas reserves.
What are some key struggles in Latin America involving the oil and gas industry?
The two struggles I know the most about are in Bolivia and Venezuela, where most of South America’s oil and gas are located.
Recent uprisings in Bolivia have revolved around the gas exportation issue. From September-October 2003, a month long campaign of protests and road blockades left nearly 80 people dead and hundreds wounded, all from confrontations between protesters and security forces. During that month, the country was paralyzed by demonstrations against the exportation plan, which was being pushed by the president at the time, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, or Goni, as he is called in Bolivia. After massive protests demanding his resignation, Goni left in a plane to Miami. I believe he still lives in the US.
Under Goni’s plan, Bolivia was to receive a meager sum of the gas profits, around 18%. Bolivia is the second poorest country in South America and most protesters wanted the gas nationalized, similar to what’s done in Venezuela, so that most, if not all of the profit from the gas could go to social programs to build much-needed schools, hospitals, roads and so on.
Vice president Carlos Mesa took office after Goni left, and presided over the country until June 6th of this year, when he was also forced from office by protests related to the gas exportation issue. There will be elections in the country this coming December. I believe a referendum on what to do with the gas is to take place sometime this year as well. The destiny of the gas is still very much in question. Unless full nationalization of the gas takes place and a president is elected who truly represents the majority of citizens, I expect massive protests, road blockades and strikes will emerge in Bolivia again.
Venezuela is a thorn the Bush administration’s side for various reasons. It is in part because Chavez is so outspoken, speaks poorly of the Bush administration and is leading a very democratic, socialist revolution in Venezuela. This makes Washington nervous. Yet if Venezuela didn’t have the vast amount of oil it does, the US wouldn’t be as concerned as they are about the situation there. It’s also possible that Venezuela’s current political process wouldn’t be that successful without the oil money.
Did you visit any of the innovative worker cooperatives in Argentina?
Yes, on my last visit to Buenos Aires this past winter I wrote a few articles on these cooperatives. They’re very inspiring. So much of the solidarity and grassroots momentum that developed out of necessity in the Argentine 2002 crisis is gone now. A lot of the middle class people who were protesting in the streets in 2002 now have jobs again and are living somewhat comfortably, so there’s less class consciousness and solidarity among workers, activists and citizens.
One of the strongest remnants of 2002 is the worker-run business movement. When workers were thrown out of their jobs in many cases they took over the factories and businesses to run them themselves. It was a matter of survival. There are over 200 worker-run businesses in Argentina, which isn’t a huge number compared to the normally run businesses, but it’s still significant.
One worker-run business that I visited was Hotel Bauen, located in the center of Buenos Aires. This place used to be frequented by corrupt politicians like former president Carlos Menem and business leaders. It’s now a worker cooperative which operates as a kind of central gathering place for unions, workers, students and activists. They have a lot of press conferences there, organizing meetings, cultural events, lectures and so on. It’s a kind of leftist hang out and operational base in the center of town, a very exciting place. Many of the workers there said they preferred working in a cooperative because now they are in charge of the business, they feel they have a stake in it. The hours are longer now, because of meetings and making decisions through consensus, but the workers I talked said it was worth it. It’s also managed better now than it was under the previous owner, who was corrupt and a poor administrator.
I also interviewed Celia Martinez, a worker from the Brukman textile business. The history of this factory is an incredible one. Just before the economy crashed in late December 2001, the Brukman boss began gradually paying the workers less and less money because he was going bankrupt. One night the workers at the factory said they weren’t leaving until the boss brought them their back pay. He left and never showed up again. A legal and political battle ensued. Police evicted the workers and they returned. Road blocks were placed in front of the factory, the workers set up a camp on the sidewalk, refusing to leave until their demands were met. Four years later, the workers are still there, and are now in charge of the factory.
When I spoke with Celia, she explained that before they occupied the factory, many of the workers were not leftist at all; they just needed the money to support their families and so took over the factory. Gradually they became radicalized and now are one of the leading forces in this worker-run business movement in Argentina.
Chilavert book publishing house is another cooperative I visited. It’s run by less than a dozen workers who all earn the same salary and operate through consensus. Like many of the other worker-run businesses, they have a cultural aspect of their operation. Salsa lessons, film screenings, poetry readings and so on take place regularly in an area on the second level of the building.
Chilavert is very linked to its surrounding community, an aspect most worker-run businesses share. They’ve made an effort to reach out to their neighbors so that their business isn’t separate from the community it’s situated in, but a part of it. In many cases, this arose from solidarity between neighbors to help workers start up the cooperative. Over 300 neighbors and workers from other businesses showed up to support the Chilavert workers when the police came to evict them.
When talking with Candido Gonzalez, a worker from Chilavert who had been there for over forty years and had spearheaded the worker takeover, he showed me a large safe with the name of the old owner on it. He said something like "this is where the old boss used to put all of his papers and money. Now, this is where we keep the whiskey." And he pulled out a bottle.
Describe some of the independent, grassroots-type media operations you
witnessed in Latin America:
LA Vaca, (Lavaca.org) in Argentina is a great resource in Spanish on social movement and political related stories in Argentina. They came out with a great book on the recuperated, worker-controlled business movement called Sin Patron. They update their site weekly. There is excellent writing there, with great analysis, humor and inside scoops.
Calle y Media, (Street and Media), in Venezuela is a great media operation as well. Their website is www.calleymedia.org. I ran into a member of this collective at the World Social Forum in Brazil this past winter, when he screened his documentary called " Venezuela Bolivariana, People and the Struggle of the Fourth World War." It’s an excellent film, very moving. The Calle y Media cooperative is located on the top of a hill in a very poor neighborhood in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. The group teaches local kids how to use cameras and photo/film editing programs and so on so they can make their own media. Some of the projects include a radio station, newspaper and weekly film screenings where the week’s news, gathered by teenage journalists working with Calle Y Media, is shown on a screen in the neighborhood. These news projects offer alternatives to the mainstream media’s focus on the violence in the barrios. Calle y Media covers issues relating to sports, youth and local news from the neighborhood.
Probably the most impressive national grassroots media project I’ve ever seen was the community-run radio stations in Venezuela. They were all over the place. Small towns had them and bigger cities had up to seven community radio stations. Most of the ones I visited were run by people who supported Chavez’s political process, but were free to be critical of it on air when they felt they needed to be. They received up to 25 percent of their funding from the government but did not feel restricted in any way. I can just speak for the ones I visited, which were four in a few different towns and cities.
They had programs on local history, health, family issues, global, national and local news, commentary, local music and culture – all run voluntarily by members of the community. Anyone could come in and create a show. This was very inspirational, a great antidote to globalized corporate media.
Hecho En Buenos Aires, or Made in Buenos Aires, (there’s one for many Argentine cities, Hechos en Cordoba, Hecho en Mendoza etc) are small magazines with art, news, commentary, interviews, photography which address social and cultural issues. The way the magazine is distributed is very unique. The people who write and organize the publication give it to homeless people in the cities to sell so that they can make some money. It’s a way to distribute the magazine widely, but also help out these people in need.
What are some good sources of further information on social movements in Latin America?
I already mentioned, upsidedownworld.org, a site I edit. www.towardfreedom.com is another website I edit. We often publish great articles on South American topics as well.
North America Congress on Latin America, (www.NACLA.org) is an excellent resource that’s been around for a long time. On their website they also list a large number of helpful resources on social movements, politics and so on in South America.
Latin America Press (www.lapress.org) based in Peru, is another great weekly online resource in English.
www.Venezuelanalysis.org is the best site in English on what’s happening in Venezuela.
www.Counterpunch.org and www.zmag.org also regularly have excellent articles on Latin America.
World War 4 Report (www.ww4report.com) often has well investigated stories on South America you won’t find in the mainstream press.
Narco News, (www.Narconews.com) has a great network of writers all over Latin America, covering a variety of topics.
The Resource Center of the Americas, (www.Americas.org) is a regularly updated site with a variety of resources and articles.
La Vaca, (www.lavaca.org) which I mentioned before, is a great source of information on what’s happening in Argentina.
Jim Schultz’s Democracy Center Blog (www.democracyctr.org/blog/) on what’s happening in Bolivia is great for news and analysis you often can’t find anywhere else.
http://www.rebelion.org/ is another great publication on South America.
Keeping a close eye on different www.Indymedia.org sites for each country is also a good idea.
You are now editor of www.towardfreedom.com, a Vermont-based publication that was a printed newspaper for decades, but now has switched to a web-only format. Which of the two formats (web or printed) is best for progressive activist operating on a shoestring budget? What do you think some of the pros and cons or either format?
Nothing will ever beat holding a newspaper, magazine or book in your hands. It’s so much more enjoyable than staring into a glowing computer screen. With a computer, people are more likely to just skim read. If they’re holding a paper in their hands, it’s natural to take more time with it.
However, running a website is definitely cheaper than running a magazine. You can also reach a wider audience with much less money (and paper) with a website. People from all over the world can easily access a website, but it can be much harder to get your hands onto a printed publication. It’s also easier to publish up to date material with a website. With a magazine, if it’s, say a monthly or weekly publication, you have to make sure the articles you publish aren’t going to be out of date by the time the magazine comes out. A website’s easy to update with breaking news, it’s immediate. There are a lot of web programs out there that allow virtually anyone with internet access to start up their own website or blog for free or for a small price. This is totally changing the way media is made.
Ben’s email is Ben@upsidedownworld.org
This interview was initially published in Insurgent49.com, independent media for progressive Alaskans