Struggle of the Landless: Dancing with Dynamite

“We are the landless,” Caballero, a slight young man with shoulder length black hair, explained while peeling an orange for his young daughter. As a settler on the land, he works with his neighbours and nearby relatives to produce enough food for his family to survive. But he is up against a repressive state that either actively works against landless farmers, or ignores them. “No one listens to us, so we have to take matters into our own hands,” he said. Caballero spoke of the need to occupy land as a last resort for survival. “The legal route isn’t working, so we have to go for the illegal route, which does work.”(1)

Caballero was a long-time friend and supporter of current Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo. He worked on the president’s campaign, and held out hope that after taking office, Lugo would implement much-needed land reform for the thousands of landless farmers in the country. Now he believes the president has “turned his back on the sector that gave him everything.” But Caballero, along with many other landless farmer leaders, has not stopped his militant actions. “Agrarian reform doesn’t happen in the government ministries. It happens in the streets, in the plazas; it happens with land occupations.”

He tells stories of the community’s many confrontations with Brazilian landowners who are taking over Paraguayan land to grow soy—a rapidly expanding crop which, through a dangerous cocktail of pesticides, corrupt judges, and armed thugs, is displacing Paraguayan campesinos [small farmers] at an unprecedented rate. The threat of this toxic crop, protected and encouraged by the state, literally looms on the horizon for Caballero and his family: beyond his own small farm, a soy plantation is climbing down a neighbouring hill toward the river. The pesticides used on the soy are already polluting their local water supply. So far, the community has resisted the encroachment with machetes and community organizing.

Ramón Denis, Caballero’s uncle, is adamant that his self-built community will resist eviction. “We will not permit even one meter of soy in our community,” Denis said. “In this community we work together. When the community is apathetic, nothing is possible. When the community moves, anything is possible.”(2)

The story of Oñondivepá is part of the complicated relationship at the heart of this book: the dance between social movements and states. In this dance, the urgency of survival trumps the law, people acting based on the rights they were born with makes the state irrelevant, and anything is possible when the community moves.

Desperation tends to push people together, and a transformative and irrepressible power can grow from that bond. The situation a majority of people across South America find themselves in today is as dire as it was for many in the US during the Great Depression.

John Steinbeck writes movingly of the solidarity that rose from that anguished period in The Grapes of Wrath:

The causes lie deep and simply—the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times… The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have a little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “we have little food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. (3)

These words speak of the hunger that pushed people to organize, that pushed them to join unions and fight against exploitative economic systems and ideologies. Decades later, a Brazilian slum dweller, Carolina María de Jesús, writes of the poverty in her community: “Hunger is the dynamite of the human body.”(4) Hunger’s dynamite can be self-destructive, but it can also force people to take radical, liberating action.

Hunger pushed Bolivian miners in the Revolution of 1952 to use their dynamite as a tool to overthrow a military dictatorship. Descending into the city of La Paz on April 10, 1952, with full moon lighting their way, miners laid siege to the city, ushering in a new government. The “reluctant revolutionaries” brought into office had to be pushed from below to enact changes in the country. (5)

Miners fought and won ownership over their mines. Landless farmers occupied large estates, forcing the government to follow through with land reform. Responding to grassroots pressure, the reluctant revolutionaries granted universal voting rights and broader access to education.

At the time, the US State Department said of the revolution in Bolivia that “the whole complex of lawlessness, combined with the government’s apparent unwillingness or inability to control, added to a considerable degree of anarchy in the country.” Historian Vijay Prashad writes “‘anarchy’ for the United States was popular democracy for the Bolivians.”(6)

Still, the greedy moderates administering the Bolivian revolution from above would only go so far. Eventually, overcome by their own lust for power and pressure from Washington, they cracked down on the rebellious population. In the 1950s and the following decades, the government led a wave of violence against the same grassroots sectors that had swept it into power.

But the dynamite of public demands continued exploding. In 1964, the government sent in troops against miners in Oruro who were protesting the government’s bloody crackdown on labor rights activists. A miner named Domingo spoke of the violence that began when the soldiers attacked his community: “They even entered into houses of families and took people out, forcing people into the streets in their underwear and killing them. We miners in Itos tried to defend the mines. We put up a fierce resistance with dynamite… They didn’t let us leave. We made a cordon and stayed awake all night from eight until dawn.” The soldiers won the battle, and Domingo has suffered from insomnia ever since. (7)

The dance between the government and the people can be explosive and tragic. It can also reap benefits for marginalized sectors of society. In 2007, decades after miners fought their traitorous government, they took to the streets again with their dynamite in Oruro. This time they had a different objective: to defend the government of Evo Morales from the violent and racist right wing, and help push through a new constitution. In this case, the interests of the movements intersected with those of the government. Their dance is emblematic of a larger relationship between movements and states across South America today.

This book deals with the dances between today’s nominally left-leaning South American governments and the dynamic movements that helped pave their way to power in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Brazil, and Paraguay. The discussion surrounding the question of changing the world through taking state power or remaining autonomous has been going on for centuries. The vitality of South America’s new social movements, and the recent shift to the left in the halls of government power, make the region a timely subject of study within this ongoing debate. Though often overlooked in contemporary reporting and analysis on the region, this dance is a central force crafting many countries’ collective destiny.

Dancing with Dynamite concludes with a suggestion that lessons from South American social movements could be applied in the US by activists facing similar state, party, and economic challenges.

From Paraguay to Detroit, people are working from below to build their utopia today. They know a better world can be created by walking toward it. “She’s on the horizon,” Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano writes of utopia. “I go two steps, she moves two steps away. I walk ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps ahead. No matter how much I walk, I’ll never reach her. What good is utopia? That’s what: it’s good for walking.”(8)

Notes:

1. Author interview with Pedro Caballero, April 2009.

2. Author interview with Ramón Denis, April 2009.

3. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Penguin Classics, (New York: Viking Press, 1939).

4. The Unedited Diaries of Carolina Maria de Jesus, (Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, December 1, 1998).

5. Herbert S. Klein, A Concise History of Bolivia, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 212.

6. Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, (New York: New Press, 2007), 135–136.

7. Quoted in June Nash, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mines, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 274–275.

8. Eduardo Galeano, “Window on Utopia,” in Walking Words (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995); reprinted in The Nation (June 12, 1995).

Benjamin Dangl, Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, AK Press (2010), 206 pp.

The author has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America for the Guardian Unlimited, The Nation, and the NACLA Report on the Americas. He has written The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, and is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events and UpsideDownWorld.org, covering activism and politics in Latin America.

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