Orion September | October 2005
Fire in the South
If you want to see what democracy could be, look to Latin America
By Rebecca Solnit
The most exhilarating and the most promising things going on at this
particular moment in history have hardly made news in the USA, or bits and
pieces have without a summary that says: Latin America is on fire with
revolutions that suggest how the world might change, for a change, for the
The current fire season began in the spring of 2000 when the people of
Cochabamba, Bolivia, kicked out Bechtel Corporation, the San Francisco-based
multinational that had privatized their water and raised rates beyond what
the poor could afford. Since the victory in Cochabamba, mass mobilizations
of Bolivia’s largely indigenous population have ousted two presidents and
prevented the privatization and sell-off of the country’s considerable
natural gas resources.
These fires, in Bolivia and beyond, are attempting to burn out
neoliberalism: the ideology of unfettered capitalism manifested as
deregulation, as privatization of resources and services, as drastically
reduced social services, and as dismissal of the value of community, civil
society, and the public-as in public lands or public good.
Or, in a nutshell, the opening of a place to unregulated plundering.
Neoliberals assert that their activities provide widespread benefits despite
massive evidence to the contrary. Or perhaps widespread benefits were never
really a serious concern for those who subscribe to this system of spreading
environmental degradation, sabotaged rights, and starvation wages.
In December of 2001 there was a splendid conflagration in Argentina, the
nation that was supposed to be neoliberalism’s poster child until its
economic policies led to a collapse. Then, the proud middle class became
poor, the country ran through several presidents in several days, and the
people took to the streets, banging pots and pans and shouting, “¡Se vayan
todos!”;-“All of them [politicians] out!” Since then Argentina has become a
brilliant laboratory of social experiments, from the shuttered factories
reopened and run by workers’ co-operatives to consensus-based neighborhood
groups functioning as both salons and soup kitchens. And more recently
Nestor Kirchner, who became president in 2003, directly defied the
International Monetary Fund, recognizing that its policies are what brought
the country to its knees in the first place.
Meanwhile Brazilians, led by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem
Terra, the powerful landless rural workers’ movement, chose former
steelworker and union organizer Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as their president
in 2002. Though the MST has been bitterly disappointed by Lula’s failure to
bring about profound land redistribution, his administration has done some
noteworthy things, such as leading third-world nations to defy the World
Trade Organization in Cancun in September of 2003.
And the fires keep spreading. As the investigative journalist Greg Palast
recently put it, “Ecuador has a new president, and George Bush has someone
new to hate.” Palast recounted how, in April of 2005, “100,000 angry
Ecuadorians, from Indians to accountants, forced the last president to flee
the country. They called him ‘Sucio Lucio’ (Dirty Lucio) Gutierrez, for
going along with demands of George Bush and the World Bank to cut government
spending on health and education.” Former vice-president Alfredo Palacio,
who assumed the presidency, shows signs of being more genuinely democratic
and concerned with the plight of the poor.
Ecuador has oil, but Venezuela has more: it supplies 15 percent of the
U.S.’s huge oil diet, which has kept the oil barons at the helm of our
country both attentive and resentful. Populist strongman Hugo Chavez, first
elected in 1998, has distributed Venezuela’s oil profits more equitably to
try to lift more people out of poverty. He has so angered the Bush
administration that it helped sponsor a coup against him in 2002-one
overturned by people in the streets of Caracas-and blames him for “unrest,”
as they call it, also known as insurrection, elsewhere across the continent.
And last November, while the world mourned the re-election of Bush, the
people of Uruguay elected their first left-wing president and passed a
plebiscite forever preventing the privatization of water.
Of course you can trace these radical stirrings back much further, to the
administrations of Salvador Allende in Chile and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala,
which the United States helped to overthrow in 1973 and 1954 respectively.
But those regimes and the movements that sprang up in their defense were
squashed again and again, sometimes with U.S. tax dollars and intelligence
operations. This time the chances of success seem better, in part because
the U.S. has been both weakened and distracted by its misadventures in the
Middle East-better even though Chavez is a strongman building up a cult of
personality, Lula has compromised too much, and even Kirchner is far from
being a revolutionary hero. After all, it’s not really about presidents, but
about the people who put them in power, or take them out, and who never
surrender the right to determine the fate of their nation. The anonymous
masses of people who have launched these changes are the real heroes, and
they are only at the beginning of their power and invention.
This is what is truly exciting about South America: the sense of populist
movements and indigenous insurgencies feeling their way through the dark to
the idea of what a just society might look like. Or perhaps what is most
significant in this incendiary era, this continent on fire, is the passion
and the power of the people who fight these battles for water, for justice,
for a voice in their society.
In my own society, even our dreams seem to have been privatized. Up here in
the north, neoliberal policies have demolished the American dream for many
Yankees who can no longer afford education, or decent housing, or who are
bankrupted by illness. The great gains brought about by union struggles, the
New Deal, and the Great Society have been whittled away steadily since
Ronald Reagan was first elected and brought the neoliberal agenda to power
But too many in this Horatio Alger nation fail to see the situation as a
political crisis with political solutions that can be realized collectively.
Nowhere is this more deeply apparent than in the obsession with home
ownership and home improvement, where the power to live well and change
things is confined to the tiny compass of the personal, privatized realm.
Our dream has been reduced to a couple of thousand square feet at 6 percent
interest, rather than that old sea-to-sea vision of justice and equality,
that sense that one’s own fate is inseparable from that of one’s fellow
citizens, or that a whole society or country can be the home you love and
work for (which summons up the amusing notion that revolution is remodeling
on the grand scale).
What is it that makes Latin Americans so much more politically potent than
Yankees? Is it the memory of how horribly things can go wrong, that the
doors of even the nicest houses can be bashed in by death squads? Is it
fear? After all, the era when much of South America was governed by
dictators and when torture, murder, and disappearance were common is not
very far in the past. Or is it hope, the hope of cultures where not all
dreams have been privatized into the realm of the apolitical, where
individual good is still connected to civil society and social justice?
Poverty, violence, and environmental devastation are still terrible problems
for Latin America, but the region is rich in people-power, and the future
that power may shape looms on the horizon. As my brother David says, when it
comes to the real practice of democracy, the U.S. is an underdeveloped
nation that needs help from abroad. Nowhere are the lessons more inspiring
than to the south. And we’re going to need a lot more people-power in one
version of the future, in which we need to stop our own government from once
again preventing South America’s move toward the kind of democracy we should
dream of, and could.
Rebecca Solnit lived in Peru when she was two years old and hopes to return
to South America soon. She is a regular columnist for Orion Magazine and
contributor OrionOnline. Her latest book is A Field Guide to Getting Lost
from Viking Books.
Robert S. Rodvik
“Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.”
George Orwell – 1984