Beyond Elections Documentary Trailer

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Beyond Elections is a new feature-length documentary by Michael Fox & Sílvia Leindecker, distributed PM Press. Watch Film.

Mas Allá de las Elecciones es un nuevo documental por Michael Fox y Sílvia Leindecker, distribuido por PM Press. Ver Película.

Além das Eleições é um novo documentário por Michael Fox e Sílvia Leindecker, distribuído por PM Press. Olhar Film.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Community From Beyond Elections is Evicted

Brazilian authorities are forcibly removing low-income Brazilian communities in the name of the 2014 World Cup; this time in Porto Alegre’s Chocolatão—a neighborhood involved in the city's participatory budgeting, which appears in Beyond Elections. The community is set to be evicted this week. If you speak Portuguese, here's a short video on the situation and the injustice. You can visit this blog post for more information on the increasing forced evictions around the country. Image of the front entrance to the Chocolatão, 2009.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A People’s Budget – Fighting Back on Tax Day

By Michael Fox

It is tax day. A day when we should be proud to contribute to our country; to pave our roads, to fund our social services, and to pay our teachers, police officers, firefighters and civil servants. But “proud” is not the word I would use. Just look at where our money is going. Now embroiled in a third war overseas, our congressmen have decided to increase the already-inflated defense budget over the next year. All told, over $1 Trillion will be spent on the U.S. military over the next year, while funds are cut from social services and education. With less federal support, state budgets are in the red. Local governments blame the unions and—like in Wisconsin—are peddling legislation to weaken our rights. Thousands of teachers will be laid off.

As we point out in our new documentary, Crossing the American Crises: From Collapse to Action, the nation’s priorities are skewed. Inequality continues to rise. Homes are boarded up while homeless sleep on the streets. The sick are still turned away because of a lack of health care. The banks are bailed out, while the people are left to suffer. Hard-working Americans pay the bulk in taxes, while multi-millionaires hide their assets abroad. Corporations are subsidized or encouraged to move their production overseas. We are gutting the American dream—if there ever was one.

But there are answers. As The Nation pointed out last week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has drafted a "People's Budget," which members, Representative Michael M. Honda (D-CA) and Representative Raul M. Grijalva (D-AZ) say, “eliminates the deficit, stabilizes the debt, puts Americans back to work, and restores our economic competiveness.”

According to their calculations, with the “People’s Budget,” we could be running a surplus of over $30 billion by 2021. How? By implementing a fair tax code, rebuilding the economy and bringing the troops home.

Not bad, but it’s still missing a key component: Participation.

"So far, the White House and the Congress have completely sidelined the public in the budget processes," writes Jeffrey Sachs in the Huffington Post.

Daniel Altschuler and Josh Lerner, believe they have the answer. In their recent Christian Science Monitor article, “Government can't solve budget battles? Let citizens do it,” Altschuler and Lerner argue that we should “Look south!”

“’Participatory budgeting’ (PB), a model popular throughout Latin America, may offer a way to do more with less, and to reconnect citizens with government,” they write.

As we show in our film, Beyond Elections, the Brazilian Workers’ Party first implemented participatory budgeting in the city of Porto Alegre two decades ago, under a wave of democracy that engulfed the country following the fall of Brazil’s brutal two-decade-long dictatorship in 1985. Since it began in 1989, thousands of city residents have directly participated in the allocation of millions of dollars of city funds. The process has been replicated across the globe, and the World Bank now promotes participatory budgeting for “developing” nations.

Alschuler and Lerner (co-director of the Participatory Budgeting Project) are now on tour across the country promoting the process in the United States. In 2009, Chicago’s 49th Ward became the first district in the country to implement PB. Citizens participated in deciding how to distribute $1.3 million of annual discretionary funds. Seven new candidates, who won office in Chicago’s February elections, have also pledged to implement PB. “Elected officials and community leaders elsewhere – from New York City to San Francisco and from Greensboro, N.C. to Springfield, Mass. – are considering launching similar initiatives,” write Lerner and Altschuler write.

This is an important moment. As journalist Mark Engler points out, Tax Day 2010 “was probably the apex of the Tea Party movement.” Now, the tides have changed. From Wisconsin to California, New York to Detroit, people are fighting back: demonstrating, marching, occupying, resisting and organizing (even around PB). We are fighting to defend our basic rights.

Perhaps, as we contribute to this year’s budget, we’ll remember the bitter irony of the country’s twisted priorities, but also the proud truth that it is our responsibility to demand our rights.

“And those who tell us that we can't,” said president-elect Barack Obama on election night 2008, “we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can.”

Michael Fox is the Associate Editor of NACLA. He is co-director of the documentary films Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas and Crossing the American Crises: From Collapse to Action, both available through PM Press. More of his work can be found at

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

South of the Ballot Box

A Review of Beyond Elections by NACLA

by Todd Miller

Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas (DVD, 2008), a documentary film directed, filmed, and produced by Silvia Leindecker and Michael Fox, PM Press/Estreito Meios Productions,104 mins.

After the midterm elections in November, headlines throughout the United States trumpeted the news of the great Republican comeback. The voters had spoken, and once again it was time to go home and wait until the next opportunity to vote. But what if elections weren’t the exclusive focus of democratic practice? Anyone interested in the question of radical democracy, more in practice than in theory, would do well to watch Beyond Elections. The documentary turns to the urban neighborhoods, rural communities, immigrant organizations, and worker collectives that span the Americas, from Argentina to the Bronx—all of them experimenting with collective decision making in the spaces where they live and work.

The filmmakers travel to many of the same places that Oliver Stone covered in his documentary South of the Border (2009), and their film serves as a good supplement to Stone’s depiction of the Latin American left. Call it South of the Ballot Box: Unlike Stone’s documentary, which is dominated by exclusive interviews with presidents from the region, Beyond Elections focuses on ordinary people, particularly those involved in social movements and organized communities and neighborhoods—the very force of people who brought left-leaning leaders to power to begin with. Democratic practice in this documentary is an everyday affair, involving countless meetings, assemblies, conversations, and arguments.

The film begins in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where community-based assemblies decide on public budgets. Started in 1989, participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre—also the home of the World Social Forum—is a process by which ordinary citizens identify and prioritize community needs such as housing, economic development, infrastructure, health, recreation, and culture, and help allocate public funds to address those needs. Budgets are hammered out not in board rooms, but assembly halls. It isn’t always pretty. These assemblies often bring together more than 1,000 people into crowded assembly halls and gyms and things often get raucous and emotional as communities debate the most pressing and sometimes divisive issues.

The next stop is Venezuela, where the film looks at the communal councils established by federal law in 2006. Since then, tens of thousands of such councils have been established in the country, and critical decisions about projects and development plans are made at a neighborhood level in citizen assemblies, optimally by consensus, however voting is often used. Community spokespeople to carry out the projects are also elected in these meetings, which can involve the participation of as many as 150 people drawing from 400 families in any given area.

Like Brazil’s participatory-budget assemblies, Venezuela’s communal councils are elected within neighborhoods and directly oversee policies, projects, cooperatives, and work committees, while coordinating with and receiving funding directly from different levels of government. “We are the ones who know the problems in our community,” says Cecilia Rodríguez, a communal council member from Caracas, “so who better than us to organize the community and to improve our community and do our own projects?” The film’s coverage of this localized version of participatory democracy, promoted by the Venezuelan federal government, offers a good dose of nuance to the North American view of Venezuela as autocratic.

Beyond Elections also examines labor democracy. Borrowing footage from The Take (2004), Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’s film about an Argentine work cooperative, it documents factories taken over by workers, who not only share the work of managing the factory but also the profits. “We’ve formed a democratic business,” says José Abellí, a leader in the recuperated factory movement in Argentina, “a business of people, not capital.” In New York, the filmmakers talk to the Green Worker Cooperatives in the South Bronx, which are geared toward creating worker-owned and environmentally friendly cooperatives as a response to the area’s chronically high unemployment and history of environmental racism. The filmmakers also interview members of immigrant organizations such as the Movement for Justice in El Barrio, which started by fighting gentrification in the East Harlem neighborhood in New York, but now are confronting some of their most difficult problems in the United States—particularly draconian immigration laws, low wages, and wage theft.

While most Latin American countries have had electoral democracies at least since the 1990s, “people really didn’t have real decision-making power—not for the future, not in the planning, nor in the development of the country,” according to Venezuelan Adalnel Pantoja, community social worker for the Caracas mayor’s office. But now many communities, towns, cities, and even countries have sought not to reject electoral democracy, but to move beyond it and build people power—what they insist is true democracy. This is inevitably a small-scale effort, at least for now. As Brazilian political science professor Leonardo Avritzer says in the film: “The question today in the southern countries is how to think about the democratization of things like the budget, health policies, education policies, urban policies, and the democratization of life where you live.”

Beyond Elections plunges into the rowdy realm of popular democracy, where opinions clash and people take the idea of consensus so seriously that they are willing to engage in long, painstaking meetings. The filmmakers omit no opinions from the debates they cover, taking the time to show participants explaining the projects under discussion, providing very little narration. The film reflects the ambitious vision of the democracy it depicts, making the film rather lengthy, almost two hours. Although the film sprawls a bit, this is also the film’s beauty—the close attention it pays to the wide-spanning locales where new concepts of democracy are arising and being worked out.

In doing so, comparisons with U.S. notions of democracy are inevitable. Without describing the U.S. political system in much detail as a point of comparison, the film will nonetheless come across as a critique of it. Electoral democracy, so triumphantly glorified and even promoted abroad, is not only insufficient but also a betrayal of democracy “in the name of democracy,” as Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano says in the film. Indeed, the United States has created a monopoly on the definition of democracy, says Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos. “But in reality,” he says, “democracy is a work in progress.”

Todd Miller is NACLA’s editorial assistant.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Uruguayan & Honduran Elections – In the Name of Democracy

Saturday, November 28, 2009

By Michael Fox

In modern day, democracy is more than the norm, it’s the rule. Elections are the thermometer of legitimacy. But this weekend, this adage is being put to the test.

This Sunday, citizens from a pair of tiny Latin American countries hit the polls. But the results are set to have two completely different outcomes, regardless of the electoral winner.

In Uruguay, a country of 3.5 million rooted in a deep tradition of democracy, residents head back to the polls to vote in the second round of the presidential elections. The leftwing candidate for the incumbent Frente Amplio coalition, Jose “Pepe” Mujica won the first round last month with 48 percent of the vote, but failed to achieve the 50 percent necessary to avoid the runoff.

A Mujica win would mean another five years at the helm for the Frente Amplio coalition. Few in Uruguay can deny the success of the current Frente Amplio administration, with an approval rating of over 60 percent and social programs which have decreased poverty, and lifted Uruguay into steady economic growth despite the economic crisis.

Because of Mujica’s radical past—as a Tupamaro guerilla and a political prisoner—and extravagant persona (people either love him or hate him), it appears that Sunday’s elections will be a close race. Despite the potential outcome, few electoral surprises are expected. There is no fear of fraud. As usual, Uruguayans will calmly head to the polls; their thermoses and mates (South American green tea) in hand, and this tiny country between Argentina and Brazil will carry on its democratic course. Regardless if the individual voters are happy with the outcome, Uruguayans will trust that the democratic rules have roughly been respected, and regardless of who is elected, the people will continue to believe in the system.

Honduras is another issue.

Hondurans take to the polls on Sunday beneath a curtain of fear and a shadow of doubt. Underlining everything is the coup d’etat that knocked President Manuel Zelaya from power in late June, and the continued national and international condemnation of the illegal de facto government of Roberto Micheletti. Zelaya has now been holed up in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa since September. Protests have raged in the streets for five months.

The Micheletti government has declared a state of emergency prior to the elections, emitting decrees restricting the freedom of press, deploying the armed forces to support the national police in guarding the poling places, and replacing the pseudo-independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal with the de facto Secretary of State to oversee all November 29th electoral activities.

Honduran social movements have vowed to boycott the elections. Progressive electoral candidates have pulled themselves from the rosters in protest the de facto government’s stubborn refusal to heed international law and step down. Brazil's foreign minister Celso Amorim said on Thursday that recognizing the election would be paramount to legitimizing the coup against Zelaya.

"A coup is not acceptable as a means for political change," said Amorim.

"On November 29, Honduran democracy will not be strengthened. On the contrary, it will be weakened because the elections will consolidate a new version of coup d'etats, one where the use of force coupled with weak institutions threaten the rule of law," said Viviana Kristicevic, executive director of the Center for Justice and International Rights (CEJIL) on Tuesday.

The elections threaten to set a dangerous precedent in a region of left-wing leaders, progressive policies and conservative oppositions with powerful ties (many to the United States).

The international community has unanimously condemned the June 28th coup against Manuel Zelaya, but the United States has conveniently walked the line between condemning the de facto government and supporting it. The U.S. called for dialogue but refused to completely cut aid, then lambasted Zelaya for attempting to enter his own country. Then recently, the U.S. State Department announced they would accept the results of this Sunday’s elections. Zelaya condemned the U.S. decision. International leaders say it is tantamount to legitimizing the June 28th coup.

For centuries, criminal regimes have attempted to legitimize themselves in the face of both national and international public opinion, carrying out pseudo-elections, but holding on either by force, or fear or corruption.

Elections are the international rule, but that doesn’t mean they can be used to legitimize an illegal regime. It is important to remember why Micheletti and his cohorts awoke President Manuel Zelaya by gunpoint in the early morning of June 28th, and threw him on a plane to Costa Rica. That day, Zelaya was planning to hold a non-binding referendum to ask the Honduran people if they wanted to carry out a constituent assembly to re-write the Honduran Constitution.

"Today's proposed referendum was non-binding and merely consultative. Thus no one could argue that allowing it to go forward could cause irreparable harm," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research on the day of the coup. "There was no excuse for the Honduran military to intervene, regardless of the constitutional issues at stake."

Supporters of the coup said that Zelaya was attempting to change the constitution to eliminate term limits (unconstitutional in Honduras). Zelaya’s supporters said he was simply trying to put more power in the hands of the Honduran people.

Democracy is complex. It is a work in progress. It is an ongoing process. Elections are one form of democracy. The constituent assembly is a legitimate recourse that multiple Latin American countries (Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador) have used over the last two decades in order to give their citizenry more active participation in the foundational laws which governs their lives, their community and their country.

Numerous experiences of local participatory democracy have sprouted up out of the new constitutions. Participatory Budgeting (PB) was implemented in Porto Alegre in 1989, the year after the founding of Brazil’s 1988 constitution. PB was then implemented across Brazil, and much of the planet. Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution is the cornerstone on which many of Venezuela’s social movements have based their struggle. It laid the foundation for the creation of now more than 30,000 communal councils, where community members can participate in decisions in their neighborhood and can receive resources directly from the national government for community projects.

In these countries, the constituent assembly was a means of breaking with a hierarchical, neo-liberal, or dictatorial past, where the citizenry had little active participation over their lives. It was a means of spreading the responsibility, a means of letting the people decide. Increasingly the conservative opposition has fought against the constituent assemblies, as they have seen their passage potentially affect their traditional interests. There is little doubt that this was at the heart of the June 28th coup d’etat against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

Elections work when they are built on participation, process and confidence in the independent systems, to ensure transparency and accountability. Electoral participation was a central component of the peace accords in El Salvador and Guatemala that ended the country’s civil wars in the 1990s. But in order to be valid, they must be held by a legally-recognized government and they must be held legitimately—without force, fear or cohersion; independently monitored; and organized by an independent institution. None of this appears to be the case this weekend in Honduras.

On the other side of South America, Uruguayans know this story well. They lived beneath a brutal dictatorship from 1973-1985. They know what cohersion is, and they know what real elections are. Presidential candidate, Jose Mujica was repeatedly tortured during his14 years in prison during the country’s dictatorship. In Honduras, hundreds of human rights abuses by the de facto Micheletti regime have piled incessantly one of top of the next.

Regardless of this weekend’s winners in both Uruguay and Honduras, what matters is the democratic process.

Elections will never legitimize the illegitimate.


Michael Fox is a journalist, a reporter, and a documentary filmmaker based in South America. He is codirector of the 2008 documentary Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas and coauthor of the upcoming book, Venezuela Speaks!: Voices from the Grassroot.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Lançamento de Beyond Elections no Brasil


Gostaríamos de convidar a todos e a todas para participar do "Lançamento do Documentário Beyond Elections no Brasil".

(Beyond Elections) Além das Eleições: Redefinindo Democracia nas Américas
Nesta próxima segunda-feira, dia 20 de julho, as 19:30
Sala de cinema do SindBancários (CineBancários)

Rua General Câmara 424 - Centro - Porto Alegre.

Após a sessão haverá um debate com os Diretores - Sílvia Leindecker e Michael Fox.

Breve Resumo de Beyond Elections:

(Beyond Elections) Além das Eleições: Redefinindo Democracia nas Américas é um documentário que percorre vários países, desde o Norte ao Sul das Américas, mostrando modelos de Organizações Democráticas de Base, que criam alternativas sustentáveis e autônomas, além dos muros limitados do sistema político no qual estão inseridos. As imagens captadas ilustram suas lutas e a forma democrática na qual estão organizados, a partir das necessidades sentidas e discutidas por toda a comunidade. O documentário busca unir estas experiências por todas as Américas para responder uma das perguntas mais importantes do nosso tempo: O que é Democracia? Servindo também como uma ponte, entre o Sul e o Norte, auxiliando na busca de alternativas frente a crise econômica e de valores simbólicos que enfrentamos.

As experiências documentadas mostram desde os Conselhos Comunais em Venezuela ao Orçamento Participativo no Brasil; As Assembléias Constituintes em Bolívia e Equador; Os Movimentos Sociais nos Estados Unidos e México; Fábricas recuperadas em Argentina e Movimentos Cooperativistas por todo o hemisfério. Entrevistas com os membros das comunidades, representantes eleitos, cooperativistas, acadêmicos e ativistas. Bem como entrevistas com Eduardo Galeano, Amy Goodman, Emir Sader, Marta Harnecker, Ward Churchill e Leonardo Avritzer.

O Documentário foi oficialmente lançado em Outubro de 2008 nos EUA e desde então tem sido mostrado em países como África do Sul, Canadá, Espanha, Irlanda, Guatemala, EUA ,Venezuela entre outros. Chegando agora ao sul do Brasil.

Para maiores informações, visite nossa página Web,

Direção e Produção: Silvia Leindecker e Michael Fox.
Estreito Meios Produções, 2008
Duração: 114 minutos


Sílvia Leindecker e Michael Fox


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Grassroots Lessons From Latin America: An Interview with Michael Fox

From Toward Freedom
Written by Michael Fox
Tuesday, 16 June 2009

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.

To learn more about these experiences in local democracy, or to watch and/or purchase, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas, visit

For more from Michael Fox, visit

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Beyond Elections in the Americas: An Interview with Michael Fox

from Toward Freedom
Written by Benjamin Dangl and Michael Fox
Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas: Produced by Michael Fox and Sílvia Leindecker. Purchase from PM Press

ImageThe new documentary Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas proves that democracy can and should be more than casting a ballot every four years. This empowering film gives hopeful and concrete examples from around the Americas of people taking back the reigns of power and governing their own communities. Beyond Elections is a road map for social change, drawing from communal councils in Venezuela and social movements in Bolivia to participatory budgeting in Brazil and worker cooperatives in Argentina. The film gracefully succeeds in demonstrating that these grassroots examples of people's power can be applied anywhere. Particularly as activists in the US face the challenges of an Obama administration and an economic crisis, this timely documentary shows that the revolution can start today right in your own living room or neighborhood.

In this interview, Michael Fox, Co-Producer of Beyond Elections, talks about how the film was created, what its aims were and what the films impact has had among viewers in the US.

Benjamin Dangl: How did you decide on the focus and message of Beyond Elections?

Michael Fox: I’ve been living and working in Latin America for many years, studying and reporting on, above all else, the experiences in participatory democracy- cooperatives, communal councils, participatory budgeting, social movements, community radio, etc… Sílvia (my wife, who grew up in Southern Brazil, and who is also Co-director of the film) and I were living in Venezuela in 2006 when the communal councils law was passed, and local communities all across the country began to come together and take on this new form of organizing. You could see how it was empowering people on an individual and local level.

In March of 2007, Sílvia and I found ourselves in Porto Alegre, Brazil – where we now live – at the same time that the 2007 Participatory Budgeting cycle was about to begin. We realized that although there have been many local videos on the experiences of participatory budgeting, cooperatives, social movements and even some on the recently-formed communal councils, there was no documentary film that tried to give both the big and local picture of these new participatory concepts of democracy across the hemisphere.

This concept is almost completely absent in the United States, and yet, it is absolutely necessarily for people to understand what is going on across Latin America, and also extremely important for activists and people in the United States to understand the failures of our own system and the lack of participation and input from everyday citizens.

We originally planned the film to focus only on participatory democracy, but quickly realized that the only people who would want to see it would be activists that are already doing this type of work. We needed to open it up to the very concept of democracy itself.

This was important to us, because time and again in the United States, pundits, elected officials, everyday folks and even journalists use the word "democracy" as an excuse to de-legitimize extremely democratic groups and governments. They say, "Venezuela is threatening democracy in the region", and yet depending on your definition, Venezuela is perhaps the most democratic country in the region – much more so than the United States. But these realities are very subtle, and if you have never been to Venezuela, or Brazil or Bolivia or Ecuador (or if you go and only stay at the resorts and the upper-class part of town), then you’re never going to know what to believe because the mainstream media is quick to repeat the manipulations.

There are some mainstream media that actually call Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a dictator, despite the fact that during his ten years in office there have been more than a dozen free and fair elections in Venezuela legitimately-recognized by international observers from around the world, and that he has always respected the Venezuelan Constitution and the laws. He may be a very charismatic, domineering, and powerful figure, but he’s not a dictator.

Then the real question is, "What is democracy?" And that’s where we wanted to focus our attention – giving people the space to tell their stories across the Hemisphere.

As the Portuguese Sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos says, (and you can find the link to more of his work on our website,, the United States has created a monopoly on the definition of democracy- U.S. style hegemonic representative politics.

But Sousa Santos points out that in reality, democracy is a work in progress. As he says, "democracy without end."

His colleague, Leonardo Avritzer, professor from Brazilian Federal University of Minas Gerais, points out in our film, "What we've tried to stress, is the idea that democracy is an open concept and the frontiers of democracy are always imprecise. For instance, in the 19th century you could say that it's democratic to expand suffrage. And that's true. It was democratic at the end of the 19th century to expand suffrage to women. Or at the beginning of the 20th century it could appear democratic to expand democracy to the countries of the global South. So the question today in the Southern countries is how to think about the democratization of things like the budget, health policies, education policies, urban policies, the democratization of life where you live."

Of course, it’s not always easy. Especially when you are trying to make a film for not one audience, but audiences in various languages all across the Hemisphere. But that’s what we set out to do, and I think we succeeded.

BD: Could you talk a bit about the process of making your documentary?

MF: This is very important, because we wanted the making of the film to reflect as much as possible the "democracy" that we are trying to portray. We used very little narration- only about two and a half minutes worth –because we wanted people to tell the stories in their own words. We tried not to change the scenery where we were filming. We only used music from local musicians, and tried to only use it when it was part of the scene. It is also a testament to what two people can do without any external resources or really expensive equipment.

The entire budget came out of our own pockets and Silvia and I filmed nearly the entire film with our Panasonic 3CCD handycam, and edited it all on our aging G4 Powerbook.

Of course, we had more than a half a dozen individuals and groups that supported with b-roll, and either shot for us, or allowed us to use footage they had already filmed in areas that we couldn’t make it to like Ecuador, Bolivia, and the Bay Area.

The SF-based musician and sound editor, Ben Bernstein, donated his time to post-produce our audio, which came out great. The Venezuela-based film group, Panafilms was a huge support, as were hundreds of folks all across the region.

BD: What was the response among viewers during your tour in the US?

MF: We did our tour last fall from mid September straight through till two days before the 2008 Presidential elections. We drove from the East Coast to the West Coast and back, covering our costs with donations from the nearly two-dozen showings all across the U.S.. It was an amazing experience. Of course, we were organizing the tour ourselves, so our audiences varied from a couple hundred people at some Universities all the way down to a living room showing with a few people in Oklahoma City. But really, the response was the best we could have hoped for, and both Silvia and I were impressed with the diversity of opinions. Some viewers were struck by the amount of local democracy and participation in Venezuela specifically, especially with the negative press that it gets in the United States. Many viewers were impressed with the democratic experiences, and the fact that people all across the region are all participating in similar ways. Others were shocked because so little of this is happening in the U.S.. Others felt the movie really put things in to a perspective that they had rarely seen or heard of before. This was the case of one gentleman in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans where we showed Beyond Elections with a projector on the side of a building. He said, "Wow, I’ve always known all of this, but I had never understood that everything was connected. I feel like I have a new perspective on things."

Without a doubt, the biggest and only major critique was that it was, and remains, a long documentary- just under two hours, which we’ll keep in mind for our next documentary. The DVD version of the movie is divided in to chapters, which can each stand alone, so it can easily be used in university and high school classrooms according to theme. The right hand side of the website, has dozens of links to additional information, all also sorted according to the chapter and the theme.

We tried to build the film in order to give people an understanding of the realities, and also leave them with a sense of hope. Because these experiences anywhere; be it in Latin America or the United States, in the local government, the community, the office, the school or the home can only happen if we take the steps to open the democratic spaces of participation. This is the exciting thing about the film and I believe that people could feel it. The film gave people an idea about some of the things that are being done, and some of the things that they can also do. As Sílvia often said in our after-film discussions, "the best thing you can do to support these democratic experiences abroad is to make change in your own communities, attempt to open democracy in your own community." As a Brazilian, she knows the affect that this can have.

In our discussions after nearly all of our showings, we tried to stress this point; how we can open up these democratic experiences in our own lives. After numerous requests, we actually developed a "Beyond Elections Democracy Discussion Guide", which attempts to help people to do just that, Bring Democracy Home. It is also available to download halfway down the right-hand side of our website, under "Beyond Elections Materials."

And that is our job now- to spread the word about the film, and open up the space for democracy where wherever you are. As we wrote shortly after the 2008 US Presidential elections, "We can no longer leave important local, regional or national decisions in the hands of our elected representatives alone. They should be held accountable, not to their campaign contributors, but to the citizens who they are supposed to represent." (See this link)

Please let us know if you are interested in supporting Beyond Elections, finding out more, or setting up a showing in your own community. We would love to be able to support your local efforts.

Originally Posted with Toward Freedom


To schedule a screening contact mike(at)

Previous Screenings

Outubro 17, 2009- Novo Hamburgo, Brasil
Sabado, Outubro 17 @ 18hr

Seminário Estadual do Acampamento Intercontinental de Juventude - Forum Social Mundial, 10 Anos (FSM)
Sociedade Gaúcha Lomba Grande
Novo Hamburgo, RS

Outubro 15, 2009- Esteio, Brasil
Quinta-Feira, Outubro 15 @
Casa de Cultura Lufredina Araújo Gaya

Esteio, RS
*Debate com os diretores

September 28, 2009- Tshwane (Pretoria), South Africa
Monday, September 28 @ 4pm
The Institute for Democracy in Africa (IDASA)

357 Visagie Street (corner Prinsloo), Pretoria
**Q&A w/ Directors, Michael Fox & Sílvia Leindecker

September 16, 2009- Austin, Texas
Wednesday, September 16 @ 8pm
MonkeyWrench Books,
110 E. North Loop, Austin, Texas

July 19-21, 2009 - Cape Town, South Africa

The While You Were Sleeping Collective will be hosting screenings of Beyond Elections at the Labia Cinema on Orange Street, Cape Town, on the following dates:
Sun 19 July 6:15pm
Mon 20 July 8:30pm
Tue 21 July 8:30pm

Julho 20, 2009 - Porto Alegre, Brasil
Segunda-feira, 20 de julho, as 19:30
Sala de cinema do SindBancários (CineBancários)
Rua General Câmara 424 - Centro - Porto Alegre.

Julho 21, 2009 - São Leopoldo, Brasil
Terça-feira, 21 de julho, as 10:00 am
São Leopoldo Fest, Espaço Pensamento

La Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala, 6 de Mayo, 2009, 7pm, Blanco y Negro: 7pm, Zona 1, 9a calle entre 6a y 7a Avenida, Pasaje Aycinena.

Atlanta, Georgia, 4th Annual Latin American Caribbean Film Festival 2009

Orlando, Florida,
February 13, 2009, 3:30pm, FL Interactive Entertainment Academy, Orlando Latin American Film Festival

World Social Forum, Belém, Brasil, January 31, 2009, 4:30pm, The Federal University of the Amazon (UFRA) Theater – CASA PAN AMAZÔNICA


Baltimore, Sept. 11, 2008, 6:30 pm, Red Emma's

New York City, Sept. 14, 2008, 7pm
, Bluestockings
Chicago, Sept. 16, TBA

Milwaukee, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008, 7pm,
People's Book Cooperative

Madison, Friday, Sept. 19, 2008, 7 pm,
Electric Earth Coffeehouse (546 W. Washington Ave, Madison, WI)

Minneapolis, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2008, 10 am,
Resource Center of the Americas
Saturday, Sept. 20, 2008, 7pm, Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul
(Davis Lecture Hall, Student Center, SW corner of Grand & Snelling) MAP

Bay Area, California, Sept. 27-30
Global Exchange

San Diego, Oct. 1-3
Monte Perdido

Santa Fe, New Mexico, Friday, Oct. 10, 2008, 7pm,
The Santa Fe Complex. Click for directions.

Oklahoma City, Monday, Oct. 13, 2008,
house party, call for directions

New Orleans, Thursday, Oct. 16, 2008, 6pm,, 6018 El Dorado Street

Atlanta, Georgia, Sunday, Oct. 19, 2008, 5:30pm
, Little Five Points Community Center, 1083 Austin Ave, Room 105 (call 404.610.2807 for more information) Presented by the Latin American and Caribbean Community Center

Asheville, North Carolina, Monday, Oct. 20
, 2008, 7:30pm, Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company (77 Coxe Avenue)

Washington DC, Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008, 7:30pm, The People's MEDIA Center, ( 3142 Georgia Ave., NW, Located between Kansas & Taylor, 4 blocks North of Petworth Metro
Green/Yellow Line Metro. Bus #64, 70, 71)

Philadelphia, PA, Friday, Oct. 24, 2008, 7pm, Prometheus Radio Project (Calvary Church, 48th & Baltimore Ave. West Philly)

New York City, Sunday, Oct. 26, 2008, 7pm, The IRT Theater (154 Christopher St #3B, btw Washington & Greenwich Streets)

New Paltz, NY, Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2008, 5pm, SUNY, New Paltz,

(CSB Auditorium, click for directions)
Amherst, Mass., Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008, 7:30pm, Hampshire College (Franklin Paterson Hall in the East lecture Hall)

Boston, Mass., Thursday, Oct. 30, 2008, 8pm, MIT (Building 7, 4th floor, Audio Visual Lab, 77 Mass. Ave)

Washington DC, Saturday, November 1, 2008, 11 pm,
Busboys & Poets (5th & K, 1025 5th St, NW)

Arlington, VA, Sunday, November 2, 2008, 8pm, Busboys & Poets (Busboys @ Shirlington,
4251 South Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA)

Other Beyond Election Presentations
Halifax, Canada,
Thursday, October 9th, 2008, 7 pm, Weldon Law Building, 6061 University Ave, Room 105

Toronto, Canada, Thursday, October 16, 2008, 7:30- 9:30pm, Learning Democracy by Doing Conference, (University of Toronto, 252 Bloor St. West)

Burlington, Vermont, October 16, 2008, 7pm, Burlington College (95 North Avenue, Burlington)

St. Paul, MN, Friday, Dec 5, 2008 • 7 PM, House Party! 464 Dayton Ave #4, St Paul, MN 55102, (Contact Sarah Humpage, 651-592-9693 cell or 651-340-9336) Resource Center of the Americas

Los Angeles, CA, Saturday, Dec 6, 2008 • 7 PM, Eastside Café, 5469 No. Huntington Dr., El Sereno, CA 90032

Oakland, CA, Tuesday, Dec 16, 2008 • 7 PM, Niebyl-Proctor Library, 6501 Telegraph Ave
OAKLAND (Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas)