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
Benjamin Dangl: Taking into account the challenges posed by an Obama administration and the current economic crisis in the
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
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
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 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
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
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
Participatory Budgeting (PB) began in
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
In terms of social movements,
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
MF: The sense of community in the above Latin American examples cannot be highlighted enough. Oftentimes in the
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
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.
Activists in the
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
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
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
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,
So, in the
-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
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
To learn more about these experiences in local democracy, or to watch and/or purchase, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas, visit www.beyondelections.com.
For more from Michael Fox, visit www.blendingthelines.com.