Finding Common Ground in Crisis: Social Movements in South America and the US

Finding Common Ground in Crisis: Social Movements in South America and the US

By Benjamin Dangl

Thursday, 18 December 2008

People in the US seeking ways to confront the economic crisis could follow the lead of South American social movements. From Argentina to Venezuela, many movements have won victories against the same systems of corporate greed and political corruption that produce economic strife across the hemisphere. These movements also have experience holding politicians’ feet to the flames once they are elected, a tactic that will be essential once Barack Obama takes office.

A recent connection between activist strategies in the north and south emerged earlier this month when over 200 laid-off workers from Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors factory occupied their plant, demanding the severance and vacation pay owed to them.

The occupation in Chicago echoed the worker occupations of factories and businesses in Argentina during that country’s 2001 economic crisis, and is now looking even more like the movement in Argentina: the Republic workers are currently seeking ways to re-open their factory and potentially operate it as a worker-run cooperative.

“This is a place that should’ve stayed open,” Republic union organizer Leah Fried told reporter Meg White. The factory could be very successful in the long run as it produces heating-efficient windows and doors. “The goal is to reopen the plant and create employment,” Fried said.

In Argentina, hundreds of worker coops were formed after the occupations under the slogan, “Occupy, Resist, Produce.” During the occupation of the factory in Chicago, workers and supporters chanted, “You got bailed out, we got sold out,” referring to the fact that Bank of America – a lender to Republic – received $25 billion of the $700 billion government bailout, only to cut off credit to Republic, leading to the closure of the factory. But after six days of the occupation, Bank of America and other lenders relented, agreeing to pay the workers approximately $2 million in severance and vacation pay plus health insurance.

A foundation created by the Republic workers called the “Window of Opportunity Fund,” made up in part from the donations received from around the US and the world to support the workers during the occupation, will be utilized to seek ways to restart the factory.

The similarities between the workers’ actions in Chicago and Argentina show that labor strategies to fight economic crises can be applied as internationally as the free market policies that contributed to these problems in the first place.

One international gathering that embodies the philosophy of cross-border organizing and solidarity is the annual World Social Forum which began in Brazil in 2001 to encourage collaboration and education between social movements from across the world. In 2004 I interviewed Michael Hardt, the co-author, with Antonio Negri, of Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, about the role the World Social Forums and similar encounters can have in globalizing social justice.

“I was at two of the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre, Brazil,” Hardt explained. “At one of them, there was this sort of counter forum going on at the youth camp where there were groups from various places. I was at one meeting where we had Italians, piqueteros from Argentina and a group from a movement in South Africa that is against these electricity and water cut offs in Durban and Johannesburg. It was great having three of them talk to each other, because even in a straight forward, tactical way they are experiencing the same thing, the same kinds of police repression and the same kinds of struggles. And it was not really learning from each other, but recognizing a kind of commonality that then creates new relationships… It is that kind of thing that has to happen on a much larger scale.”

As the economic crisis in the US worsens, and the need to pressure the Obama administration looms, movements in the US could seek such commonality with movements in South America. Of the countless examples of recent social movement victories in South America, here are a few that could suggest potential blueprints for social change in the US.

In the early 1990s, participatory budgeting was implemented by the Workers’ Party in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This process, still in operation, involves thousands of residents gathering to decide how government funding should be used for city projects and development. Popular participation in this process prevents corruption, and expands the conception of democracy beyond simply voting every few years for a different political representative.

During the Cochabamba Water War in Bolivia in 2000, residents of that city expanded the meaning of democracy even further when they united against the Bechtel Corporation’s privatization of their water. The privatization put everything from communally-built wells and rain cisterns under the corporation’s thumb, and led to exorbitant rates few could afford. In response, people from across economic lines joined together in protests and road blockades and were successful in kicking the company out of town and putting the water back into public hands.

In 2003, when former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada tried to export Bolivian gas to the US for a low price, working class residents of the city of El Alto rose up against the president and his plan. Citizens took shifts at street barricades, distributing food, spreading messages via bicycle and working together with meager resources to fight the police and military, eventually toppling the repressive Sanchez de Lozada government. That revolt paved the way to the election of indigenous president Evo Morales, and the partial nationalization of the gas industry. In his office in El Alto, Bolivian sociologist Pablo Mamani spoke of this rebellion, “During the uprising, the state was broken, it stopped existing, it died in El Alto.”

Other Bolivian social movements point to potential strategies for social change as well. Much of South America’s fertile land is in the hands of a few rich land owners. Landless Farmer Movements (MSTs) across region regularly occupy unused land to work it for their survival. The Bolivian Landless Movement has been instrumental in pressuring the Morales government to implement much-needed land reform. Silvestre Saisari, a bearded leader in Bolivia’s MST, explained his organization’s relationship to the government in this way: “Our democracy depends on us as social movements.”

One story from the neighborhood of El 23 de Enero in Caracas, Venezuela is emblematic of the progressive changes taking place in that country. Juan Contreras, a radio producer and resident of the neighborhood, talked about how he and his compañeros took over the local police station – for decades an outpost for crackdowns on leftist organizing – and transformed it into a community radio station and cultural center.

“This place was a symbol of repression,” Contreras explained to me in the studio, which still smelled like fresh paint from the recent conversion. “So we took that symbol and made it into a new one.” In words that reflect the spirit of the worker occupations in Chicago and Argentina, and the need for a broad grassroots response to the US crisis, he continued, “It is evidence of the revolution made by us, the citizens. We can’t hang around waiting for the revolution to be made for us; we have to make the changes.”