Grassroots lessons from Latin America
An interview with Michael Fox
By Benjamin Dangl
Michael Fox is a Brazil-based independent journalist and co-producer of the new documentary Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas (PM Press). He is also the co-author of an upcoming book called Venezuela Speaks: Voices From the Grassroots, also available through PM Press and set to be released this fall. Throughout his research for this film and book, and as a radio and print reporter who has covered political and social issues across Latin America, Fox has come to know to hopes and struggles of the region’s social movements, and what US activists might learn from the experiences of these movements.
In this interview, he talks about what lessons US activists might consider from social movements throughout Latin America, and the challenges of applying Latin American activist strategies in the US under an Obama administration.
Benjamin Dangl: Taking into account the challenges posed by an Obama administration and the current economic crisis in the US, what lessons do you think US activists could learn from social movements in Brazil and Venezuela, as far as methods and strategies to radicalize and pressure politicians and combat economic strife?
Michael Fox: First off, folks in the states need to remember that just because Obama is in office doesn’t mean that US activists should sit back on their heels and consider their “mission accomplished”. For Obama to be able to push for changes, he needs to be pushed. That’s just the reality. It can be difficult for activists in any country to maneuver the subtle balance of demanding their rights from a friendly elected official, while not playing in to the game the opposition (in this case the Republicans). Nevertheless, this must be done. In Brazil - as I wrote in an article for Toward Freedom – shortly after Lula was elected in to office, Brazil’s progressives “gave Lula time”. They were willing to work with him and humored his embracing of international economic norms as shrewd. A year and a half later, they had had enough, and they formed a dissident party called the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL). The MST held off on land occupations for a period, until they realized that despite Lula’s commitments to agrarian reform, the Brazilian president had befriended the international agro-industry, and he wasn’t looking back. In hindsight, perhaps they should have pushed harder from the beginning of the Lula government, supporting his administration and at the same time demanding their rights. This is what you see often in Venezuela, although you wouldn’t know it by reading the mainstream press.
Autonomous Venezuelan social movements like the Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino Front (FNCEZ) and the National Association of Free and Alternative Community Media (ANMCLA) are very clear that they support the Chavez government, but that they are autonomous social movements and that they have their own demands which they expect to be met. It may at first appear contradictory when you see hundreds of Venezuelan campesinos and community media activists come marching through Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, to block a major intersection for hours, and at the same time they say they support the President, but that is the reality. They understand – as activists in the United States need to learn quickly – that they have an agenda rooted in the community and in the grassroots, and the President (albeit friendly) is going to have another. There are many interests at the top. And often a President – even Chavez or Obama – isn’t going to be able to do what he or she would like, without really hearing it from the people on the streets.
US activists need to be aware of these dualities, and not be afraid of what may appear contradictory. As one of Venezuela's founding fathers Simon Rodriguez once said, “o inventamos o erramos”, That’s the motto of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Movement: “Either we invent or we fail”, meaning that we need to be free to take chances, leaps and bounds, try things that seem crazy and if those things don’t work, get up and try something else.
Especially in this time of global economic crisis people need to come together and look to develop their solutions in their local community. Last fall, my partner and I traveled all across the United Status showing our movie, Beyond Elections, about these new democratic experiences all across Latin America. At the same we interviewed communities and individuals from California to Virginia about their alternatives and solutions, about their thoughts, hopes and opinions of this ridiculous bank bailout. Nearly everyone – from urban progressives to salt-of-the earth Midwestern farmers – said the same thing, “Get all the politicians out of Washington” and turn the government back over to “we the people”. We now have a new president, elected to do just that with his platform of change, but that is just the beginning.
Latin Americans know this story well, and over the last three decades a number of experiences have been developed across the region, from which activists in the United States can learn. For me they are all based around democracy and place-based organizing, two ideas which may seem irrelevant, but they can be transformative.
You ask your average North American for his or her definition of democracy, and the answer is usually free and fair elections. But as I said above, that is just the beginning, it’s not the end.
Latin Americans, especially in Venezuela and Brazil, have been developing these concepts and working with these themes in transformative ways.
Since President Hugo Chavez came to office in 1998, Venezuelans have been working to shift the hierarchical organizing to horizontal in local community-based committees – first the Bolivarian circles and then local water, electricity, land committees, etc… In 2006, Venezuelans all across the country have been organizing themselves in to tiny local “communal councils” which are made up of 100-200 families which elected spokesperson for the local community in order to carry out local projects. The concept is powerful, because it is the community which decides on local issues and projects. If the community needs to fix a road, it develops the project, brings it to the pertinent institutions and they can receive funding. The concept is radically different from the past, when the community would have to fight with the local government for public works projects, and radically different from the former community associations in which a select group of people decided for everyone. In Venezuela, right now these communal councils are trying to put decision-making power directly in the hands of citizens, and there is talk of expanding the power of these communal councils out, so they would also have decision-making power in the municipal, region, state and national level also. Optimally they make decision by consensus, sometimes by voting. The spokespersons of the council are the spokespersons- that elaborate the project and the communal council, but not representatives, which means that the entire community must be consulted on important decisions. There are now tens of thousands of communal councils all across the country, being funded by more than a billion dollars from the Venezuelan government.
Participatory Budgeting (PB) began in Porto Alegre, Brazil and has now spread throughout the world. It is a process in which everyday citizens participate in the allocation of a chunk of city funds. Each year community residents vote on their priorities and demands for the next year, and throughout the year representatives hold weekly or biweekly meetings to ensure that the community’s will is carried out. The idea is giving communities a democratic say in the direction of government. While Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting now has its problems, and some of the PB delegates and council-members have turned in to more bureaucratic positions, the program has become a necessary element of the local government and citizens have learned to see themselves as part of a larger picture, to see their needs together with the needs of those around them.
As I mentioned, PB is now in cities and local governments all across the planet, and is promoted as a way in order to ensure transparency in the local government. What if participatory budgeting were implemented in local governments, organizations, and groups across the US? What if the $700 billion bank bailout had an incorporated a component of participatory budgeting in which US citizens could have participated in where they wanted the bailout funds to be allocated? A sector would have had to have followed up with the implementation to ensure that the funds actually went to where they were supposed to go, rather than the US government handing over billions to the same people that got us in to this mess, without any checks and balances. Is that democratic?
In terms of social movements, Brazil’s Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) recently turned 25 and while there has been little said about the MST for quite some time in the US press, it is as alive as ever. As a local organizer in Brazil’s Southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul, João Amaral confirmed last July, this is largely due to the fact that in the MST, decision-making is rooted in the community, in the everyday MST members and in local grassroots groups of 10-20 families that make up the base nuclei of the movement in MST encampments and settlements. A spokesperson from each of these groups then joins with the spokespersons from each of the other “base nuclei”, where they also work with consensus to make decisions or return to the local groups to debate further. Only with this process they are: 1. Able to truly reflect the will of the movement overall and 2. Ensure that everyone feels like their voice is heard and is, and 3. Willing to continue with the decision of the group, even when it perhaps was not their first choice.
This is the heart of the MST, truly one of the most radical social movements. You feel the sense of community as you walk in to an encampment or settlement and spend some time with those around you. It is astounding: one group cooks for everyone else, another group is taking care of the children, another is planting- and that’s how they live their life. There is a sense of oneness with those around them, and their form of decision-making – rooted in these local groups. They decide by consensus, and the added focus on gender neutrality ensures that everyone’s voice is heard and that everyone feels a part of the process. From its humble beginnings in 1984, the MST has won millions of acres of land and says it now has 370,000 families settled across the country and 100,000 camped.
BD: What are some of the challenges posed by transferring such strategies to the US to be applied there?
MF: The sense of community in the above Latin American examples cannot be highlighted enough. Oftentimes in the United States it is easy to feel separate from one another. Many times you don’t live near those with whom you are used to organizing, and especially in the suburbs, our lives are created to keep us isolated from one-another. There are many forms of poverty across the globe, but truly that which most affects the United States is a poverty of community, a sickness of community, in which individuals feel isolated and separated from one another, basing their decisions not on communication, collaboration, deliberation, but on the fear they feel from the negative news that is spun at American citizens through one of the most highly consolidated media in the world.
This is why I mentioned place-based organizing. All of the above experiences are “place-based”, not issue-based. They are rooted in solving the issues of the local community, and can then move in to the larger issues from there. Some activists in New Orleans are starting to develop this, such as Khalil Shahyd of the New Orleans Citizen Participation Project, who is promoting Participatory Budgeting in the Louisiana city. The Survivor’s Council, which takes place in the Katrina-devastated Lower 9th Ward, is inspired by Venezuela’s communal councils and is a way for community residents to connect, debate, discuss and work towards to resolve the problems in their community.
Activists also need to remember – as my Brazilian wife highlighted during our tour around the states last fall showing our film Beyond Elections – that the best way to support movements abroad, is to make change at home.
In the United States, the Left is often fragmented in to factions and issues. How many times have you gone to an event on “Venezuela” or “Cuba” or some specific issue in the community, and you know everyone in the crowd, because they are the same handful of people that go to all of these types of events. That’s great, they are active, but they are often disconnected from the other issues, and from the community and the issues affecting the local community sometimes only a few miles from where the event is being held.
Activists in the United States may be quick to protests loudly against the “illegitimate” US war on Iraq or Afghanistan, but when it comes to the internal illegitimate low-intensity warfare waged by the US government against poor communities in the United States, many middle-class activists don’t make the connection. US activists need to bring the “buy local” banner of local farmers, in to the activist realm – “organize local” around local issues – which are, of course connected to the big picture.
Activists need to think about not only how to create organizations but movements with grassroots committees that will ensure that everyone has a roll to play, and that their voice is heard. I believe that San Francisco lost a huge opportunity in 2005, when the SF People’s Organization was founded. I excitedly asked one of the new directors when the general assembly would meet again and if we would be setting up local grassroots committees in the communities around San Francisco. He responded that we wouldn’t have to meet again until the next year, and until then, he and the two-dozen organizers would fight throughout the year for our interests.
He didn’t get it. I tell this story to my foreign friends and they laugh. In the United States, activists are used to getting out on the streets to protest, e-activism – clicking buttons to sign protests and forward urgent actions, but with all the other activities US citizens are involved in (with music, sports, dance, art, socially etc…), many don’t want to think about joining another group. That’s not the point.
The only way that Uruguay’s Leftist political coalition, Frente Amplio, retained so much of its support, despite being brutally repressed and exiled during a more than decade-long dictatorship, was because of its grassroots committees. As I pointed out in an article in 2007, Frente Amplio’s rise to Uruguay’s Presidency in 2005 was an important victory, but by turning its back on its grassroots activists, the coalition has lost the fervent support on the streets which kept its dream alive for so many years.
Many of these examples take time. Consensus takes time. Local grassroots committees take time. And that is not something that US activists have a lot of. They could, but they don’t, in large part due to an entertainment industry which ensures that we are encouraged away from such activities.
Another issue that US activists must contend with paradoxically is the traditional lack of needs. Participatory Budgeting, Communal Councils, MST organizing works because the local community has a series of very immediate needs that aren’t being met: Perhaps it’s electricity, or potable water, or land. Only by joining forces will the community be able to accomplish their demands. In the United States, many communities have traditionally not had these desperate needs. Of course, some have, but many have not. Which means that individuals haven’t felt the desperate need to come together because they are content with their homes, their cars, their jobs and their cable TV.
But times are changing. Even suburban neighborhoods are falling apart as a result of the Mortgage Crisis. The financial crisis is growing, and rather than correct the failures of the system, Washington promises to hand over more to those that got us in to the problem in the first place. Meanwhile, unemployment is rising, homelessness is rising, and no one has resolved the lack of health care for millions of US residents. These are pressing issues, and they are issues which must be dealt with from the bottom up, from the local, from the community out. As they say in Venezuela, “endogenous development”
So, in the United States, activists have to contend with:
-people’s busy lives
-lack of community
-lack of interest or needs
Of course, no model can ever be simply lifted up and plopped down on top of a completely different reality and expected to work. That concept is part of the same hierarchical system which these experiences are trying to correct. These experiences must be a creative process and collaborative. Activists need to listen and work together. Deliberate and build shared space together that are rooted in faith and love, and not fear. And this can be done without the large funds many in the United States believe you need for a healthy organization.
Of course resources help, but if they don’t exist we just need to be creative. Like the barter trade systems which were set up across the Southern Cone after the December 2001 economic crisis, in which community members came together to trade what they had for things that they need, or things that others had to offer.
Lastly, Latin Americans are more than willing to support these experiences across the US, and to share experiences and trade ideas. Activists in the United States just need to be willing to take chances and unite with those around them.