Book Review: Learning from Latin America’s Social Movements

Until the Rulers Obey is a major advance in the effort to acquaint North American leftists with the Latin American grassroots. The book brings together interviews with representatives from some 70 organizations in 15 South and Central American countries, ranging from indigenous women in a Zapatista community in the mountains of southeastern Mexico to members of an anarchist collective in urban Uruguay.

Clifton Ross and Marcy Rein, editors. Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements. PM Press, 2014.

One thing most social movements have in common is a striking ability to take the experts by surprise.

At a forum in New York last year, a senior analyst from a leading DC-based progressive research group admitted that until a June 2009 coup forced former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya out of office, “Honduras wasn’t on our radar.” The analyst’s organization was one of the best sources of information on the country in the months following the coup, but before the headline-grabbing event it overlooked one of the most interesting political developments in the hemisphere.

A mass movement had grown up in Honduras over the previous decades based on militant unions, increasingly assertive organizations of indigenous and African-descended Hondurans, campesinos demanding effective agrarian reform, and rapidly growing feminist and LGBT groups. This mass movement was the force behind President Zelaya’s shift to the left, the elite’s frightened decision to overthrow him, and the unexpectedly powerful popular resistance actions that followed the coup. Moreover, these events fit into a regional pattern: similar social movements have developed throughout Latin America and the Caribbean since the 1970s, providing the momentum underlying the “pink tide” that has swept left and center-left governments into power over the last 15 years.

In the United States, the media and the experts focus on the rise of leaders like Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa without acknowledging the context in which they emerged: the growing power of los de abajo, “those from below.” This concentration on the idea of “great men” sometimes influences even the best U.S. progressive thinkers, leading them to ignore the role of grassroots social movements.

“A Higher Level of Consciousness”

Until the Rulers Obey is a major advance in the effort to acquaint North American leftists with the Latin American grassroots. The book brings together interviews with representatives from some 70 organizations in 15 South and Central American countries, ranging from indigenous women in a Zapatista community in the mountains of southeastern Mexico to members of an anarchist collective in urban Uruguay.

Editors Clifton Ross and Marcy Rein provide coherence to the extensive material by arranging the interviews by country, with informative and balanced essays by specialists introducing each section. But there’s another, more basic, coherence to the anthology. As we read through the interviews, we see a recurring theme: the neoliberal economic policies imposed on the region over the past 40 years and their impact on people’s lives.

In Argentina the piqueteros’ roadblocks and the workers’ takeover of failing businesses arose from protests against the structural adjustments decreed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the “Washington Consensus.” Chile’s powerful student movement grew up in response to the massive privatization of education recommended by Milton Friedman’s “Chicago Boys” and implemented by Augusto Pinochet. Other movements have grown from direct confrontations with the multinationals. The Salvadoran community of San Isidro organizes around resistance to the Canadian-based Pacific Rim’s plans for a highly polluting gold mine, while campesinos in Paraguay’s Popular and Agrarian Movement (MAP) struggle against the monoculture of GM soy that threatens their way of life and, through the massive use of insecticides, their physical existence.

These struggles broke out at a time when the political left and the trade union movements had been seriously weakened in most Latin American countries by repression from the U.S.-backed military dictatorships of the 1960 and 1970s—and sometimes by an internal process of ossification as well. The result was that the movements against neoliberalism had to take new forms, often based on organizing in local communities around issues like women’s rights and LGBT rights, or resistance to the centuries-old oppression of indigenous and African-descended peoples. Any imagined contradiction between “economic demands” and “identity politics” quickly became irrelevant, and liberation theology mixed surprisingly well with Marxist analysis and indigenous concepts like suma kawsay (“buen vivir,” good living”).

For all the variety of these forms, the grassroots movements haven’t lost sight of their essential unity, and this is an important source of their power. Latin America “has a higher level of sociopolitical consciousness,” Humberto Cholango, a leader in the Ecuadorian indigenous movement, explains in a 2008 interview—an awareness based on Latin Americans’ refusal “to continue being used by multinational businesses or foreign powers or by a small group of people in each country.” This “higher consciousness” is what now leads students in Santiago de Chile to march in solidarity with the struggles of the indigenous Mapuche and the opponents of mines and dams in the country’s distant south, just as in January 1994 tens of thousands of city dwellers marched in the Mexican capital to keep the military from crushing the Zapatista rebellion.

Confronting the Differences

The underlying unity doesn’t mean there is any shortage of political differences among the many social movements. Until the Rulers Obey confronts these differences, letting advocates of conflicting positions speak for themselves.

One important issue is the relation between the grassroots organizations and the leftist and left-leaning governments that have taken power since the 1990s. At one extreme we hear from government supporters like Rosangela Orozco, a Caracas community organizer with an unwavering admiration for the late President Chávez. Still, she admits in a 2012 interview that even the more radical officials in the Chavista government are “caught up in their own internal struggle about the form the state should take.” She adds that she and her coworkers “believe in self-management instead of relying on the president.”

At the other extreme, Bolivian sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui contends that the Movement to Socialism (MAS) party of Evo Morales actively harms the social movements. MAS coopts grassroots leaders, she says, “a cooptation that leaves the movements discontented.” She also criticizes the Morales government for talking about “this great Pachamama [“Mother Earth”], as an enlightened position internationally, [while] internally what they want is a developmentalist policy with hydroelectric [dams] that would drown indigenous lands, forests, and highways, all for an alliance with Brazil.”

The analysis from Latin America is often subtler than the either/or arguments we usually find in the United States. The veteran Peruvian leftist Hugo Blanco views the “pink tide” governments from an historical perspective. “I think that [Chávez’s concept of] socialism of the 21st century is very important chiefly because of its anti-imperialist character,” he tells Uruguayan writer Raúl Zibechi. “But when it comes to their confrontation with the indigenous people because of extractivism”—the exploitation of natural resources—“I support the indigenous people. For that reason, I think that these are intermediate governments that we have to support sometimes and fight against [at] other times.”

“To Recover Politics for the People”

The editors have done an amazing job in managing to assemble such a broad range of interviews, often locating the subjects and carrying out the interviews themselves with few of the resources available to mainstream reporters. Inevitably, some interviews are more informative than others, and there are gaps that Ross and Rein might want to fill in future studies.

One area that progressives here need to know more about is the innovative organizing strategies and protest tactics that have emerged in Latin America over the past decades. How, for example, did so many of these movements manage to grow despite the repressive machinery of the old military dictatorships? How do they organize the mass encampments, the hunger strikes, and the factory takeovers that have been so effective over the last 20 years? What are the mechanics involved in the grassroots plebiscites through which hundreds of thousands of Chileans and Mexicans voted on street corners or in community centers on propositions that the governments refused to put on the ballot?

After all, the point of studying these movements isn’t only to understand events in Latin America. The neoliberal program that pushed Latin Americans into action came to the United States later, even though it was imposed from here: in school privatizations, pension “reform,” austerity measures, strip mining, hydrofracking. Meanwhile, climate change and the international economic crisis are by their very nature global. Will neoliberalism have the same effect here as in Latin America and the Caribbean? Will U.S. grassroots movements also take the experts by surprise?

U.S. media often treat events and people in the rest of the hemisphere as distant and exotic, but in reality the actors in social movements there are “ordinary people” like ourselves; many now live among us, driven to immigrate to the United States by these same neoliberal policies. The experts breathed a sigh of relief when Occupy Wall Street appeared to fold, but the Occupy actions were never really more than a foretaste of what could happen here.

Grassroots activists in Latin America certainly see the connections. “Bolivia is in a very profound process of questioning all that is going on, as in the world in general,” Oscar Olivera, a leader of Bolivia’s “water war” against the Bechtel Corporation in 2000, told an interviewer in January 2012. “In the United States, in Spain, in Egypt a year ago, generally in Arab countries…. People want to construct something different: what we were proposing in 2000 and 2003, a new kind of economy, a way to recover politics for the people.”

David L. Wilson and co-author Jane Guskin are working on a revised edition of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007). Wilson also edits Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of news from Latin America and the Caribbean.