In recent years, hopes rose high among long-oppressed peoples across South America, only to be disappointed as one new, supposedly leftist leader after another moved towards the predatory right. What happened? In this short, dense, fascinating book, Benjamin Dangl brings on-the-scene reporting, pertinent history, and informed analysis to the shifting and often problematic relationships - the dances - between the governments of seven nations and the popular movements that helped put them in power.
Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay Venezuela, Brazil, and Paraguay each get a chapter. Apart from Hugo Chavez and Venezuela, which have their own issues, the question is, Why have these governments shifted to the right of these movements, sometimes becoming merely "the lesser of two evils," sometimes actually betraying the movements and the people? I asked as I read, Why has Obama done this too?
The answers are complex, vary from nation to nation, and to some extent remain state secrets. Mr. Dangl describes each dance well and goes far to explain it. Bureaucracy, corruption, the perceived need to get along with international capitalism and to woo moderate voters, the ever-present threat from the right and pro-exploitation pressures from the US all help to call the tune. Yet except perhaps in hapless Paraguay, the peoples of all these nations seem to be largely better off than they were before. US corporations still poison land, water, and humans, though in fewer places than before. And hope remains, especially to the extent that popular movements maintain their integrity, autonomy, and effectiveness. The last chapter makes a strong case for activist movements in the US.
"The challenges for movements are similar in the north and south," Mr. Dangl writes. "The same type of economic ideology seeks [to] undermine workers rights from Buenos Aires to Chicago.... The same emphasis on corporate profit over human needs displaces people from Brazil to Miami.... South American nations have been grappling with the horrors of neoliberalism for decades, so it makes sense that US activists might consider successful tactics and strategies from the south. ...
"When connections are made across borders to identify both the systems of oppression and the strategies to overcome them, a better world will indeed be possible.... How movements dance with political parties, aspiring and incumbent presidents, and the government itself will decide the future of the planet."
I take exception to Mr. Dangl's conclusion, for which he quotes Howard Zinn, that, "Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for ... direct action by concerned citizens." Don't both matter? More votes for Gore would have saved the planet from the worst US President ever. Fewer votes for Obama would have placed the fickle finger of Palin a McCain heartbeat from the nuclear button.
This point aside, this book is important for everyone who cares about the inevitable collisions between political ideals and reality. I dare say it is essential for everyone who cares about the potential of social movements to take the lead in their dance with power.