Translator, filmmaker, and author Clifton Ross says most Latin American social movements began among the indigenous people and urban poor during the 1970s and 80s as a response to neoliberal economic policies and limited citizen access to the political process.
Movements working toward collective change continue in Latin America to this day – ongoing activism and unrest in Venezuela suggests ongoing dissatisfaction with the political and economic situation – however various factors distinguish Latin American social movements from those in the United States.
Ross says that the United States’ Protestant heritage can be seen in the treatment of Native Americans and a firm respect of authority. Discrepancies between United States’ and Latin America’s legal rules governing protest shape collective demonstrations accordingly.
“You’ll find in Latin America when you're in a taxi at two in the morning and there's a red light the taxi driver looks both directions and drives on through,” Ross says. “That never happens in the United States. We're people of the book. We're Protestants.”
In contrast, Ross says that a strong indigenous and Catholic presence and influence throughout Latin America creates a strong sense of identity and community. The study of Marx across academic disciplines throughout Latin America combines with this sense of community and shared identity to set the stage for collective social movements.
“[These] three things that make for very communitarian, collectively designed protests,” Ross says.
Although violence and confrontation are not inherent characteristics of Latin American protest, Ross says that group identity may explain persistent social action in the face of state violence.
“They're individuals who go up against the state and we really have a tendency to obey much more than Latin Americans,” Ross says. “They are much more willing to go out against [the state], especially in a collective way and demonstrate.”
Ross says that careful questioning of the motivations behind protests and social movements is necessary to generate productive dialogue.
“I think it's really important for us to ask questions, especially solidarity activists,” Ross says. “We need to ask questions. We need to debate.”
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Clif Ross, Welcome to World Views.
ROSS: Thank you. It's great to be here.
GRILLOT: So you've done some very interesting work. You're very engaged in Latin America, focusing on social movements and activism in Latin America. Can you characterize what you mean when we talk about social movements in Latin America?
ROSS: Social movements are generally talked about as groups of people who are trying to change their status in society. In Latin America, the current wave of social movement activity is generally traced back to the seventies. And I would argue that this current wave of movement activity really started off in '89, '90 with the collapse of the Soviet Union - not that it was directly related, but there were a lot of forces unleashed at that point, particularly the indigenous people. We could look at Ecuador as being one of the main areas of activity in 1990. There was also the Caracazo, which was, some would call, an urban riot, some would call it uprising against neoliberalism. This was at a time when the Left was in power in some places and coming into power, but it was implementing the neoliberal reforms, structural adjustment programs, so it essentially discredited itself among the general population, the poor. So the movements rose up trying to change things, trying to gain a little bit of ground. And they saw no possibility in the political parties that existed, the two party systems throughout Latin America.
GRILLOT: So I want to kind of go back to this phrase you used - "changing their status." When you refer to indigenous peoples, you talked about neoliberalism and kind of economic development and the way in which these countries were developing economically within this kind of global model of capitalist systems, are you talking about class? Are you talking about voice in the political system? Both? I mean this is kind of one big movement, would you say? And is that fairly consistent across all of Latin America since you've studied many countries?
ROSS: Yeah. I think it's pretty consistent all across Latin America that people are really wanting to be seen. They want to be heard. In 1990 when the indigenous people took Quito, Ecuador, occupied the cathedral and the downtown, a lot of people saw indigenous people for the first time in their lives. They'd been there all along, but they'd never been even seen. They'd certainly never been heard. Their voices hadn't been heard. So, yeah. The idea is that they wanted to be heard. They wanted their voices to be heard. They wanted to be recognized. They wanted their agenda to be taken into account. They wanted to improve their economic status from starvation, to at least sustainable living. So I think that’s in Ecuador and among indigenous people we saw the same thing with the Zapatistas in Mexico. It was a different vehicle. The urban poor in Caracas and throughout Venezuela. Then we saw the picateros in Argentina, the movement of the unemployed, the people at the bottom of society. So generally when we're talking about social movements, the ones that we've worked with in the book we're talking about people at the bottom of society.
GRILLOT: So poverty is obviously a driving force, but you mention a couple of things here. Earlier you talked about riots, uprisings some would call riots, you just mentioned in Ecuador occupation. If you look at your book there are various methods or ways in which Latin Americans have engaged in protests. Of course protest is a global phenomena. We see it around the world, but some often characterize protests in some parts of the world - or the way in which, as you said, they're trying to make their voices heard - in different ways than here in the Untied States, where someone might comment, "Wow! The way in which people protest in Latin America or try to have their voice heard is very different than how you might have it here." Can you characterize that for us a little bit? And tell us why these protests and uprisings seem to turn violent in Latin America, as opposed to some other parts of the world?
ROSS: I'm not sure that they necessarily turn violent, but I say there is a big difference between the protest movements of the United States and the movements of Latin America. I'd say there are three main reasons for that. First of all, are the indigenous people still there and still integrated in society? They're in the margins, but they're part of society. They're recognized as being there to some degree. In the United States, it's related to another part of this, which is Protestant. North America, when we colonized the United States, we had a very Protestant perspective of purifying the land, destroying, killing all the people, and emptying them all out onto reservations and marginalizing them. And then taking the land. In Latin America they tended to marry into the indigenous people. That was reasons of colonization, but it also had a lot to do with Catholicism and Protestantism. And I think that also explains a lot of why you'll find in Latin America when you're in a taxi at two in the morning and there's a red light the taxi driver looks both directions and drives on through. That never happens in the United States. We're people of the book. We're Protestants. So I think that's a very important feature. The fact that people are really organized by community. So those two elements - the indigenous and the Catholic - give people a sense of identity with community. And they go out together. They do things together. They do everything together. They do things as community. And then I think there's another element to this, which anyone who travels in Latin America recognizes. You go into the bookstores and Marx is omnipresent. We've purged him out of anything, any discussions in the United States. Marx is not talked about, but in Latin American Marx is sort of a cornerstone. I met a student in Philosophy at the University of El Salvador, and the first semester they study Marx. I found that kind of interesting. I thought you did that in economics. I didn't realize you did that in Philosophy too. So I think those are three things that make for very communitarian, collectively designed protests. When people make a decision to move in a particular direction they don't stop because they whole group has agreed that this is what they're going to do and you don't violate the group in most Latin American cultures. So they come into confrontation. Maybe that might explain some of the violence, that the states are more likely to use lethal force against people, large groups of people. In the United States we'd break up and go home.
GRILLOT: That's what I was going to ask. If maybe one of the big distinctions is the way in which the state or police forces respond to resistance. That there's a different type of response you might see in Latin America and in other places than you might see here. But also there seems to be lots of laws about how to gather and how to protest in the United States. Is that also the case in Latin America where it’s very strict in terms of how and when and where you can protest? There's a lot of limitation on how you can protest in the United States. That also might be a significant distinction in terms of the legal obstacles to gathering of large groups of people, but also the police response or the state response to resistance to the state.
ROSS: Yeah. We have a real problem with police killings in the United States. I was just in Albuquerque and they've had twenty-three killings in just a number of months, but they're individual killings. They're individuals who go up against the state and we really have a tendency to obey much more than Latin Americans. They are much more willing to go out against, especially in a collective way and demonstrate.
GRILLOT: So let's talk quickly about Venezuela. You've produced a documentary film about the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, focusing on what Hugo Chavez tried to do there. Tell us a little bit about that film like what motivated you and what you did with that film, but could you bring us up to date and tell us what's going on in Venezuela today? We see some of these lingering effects kind of anti-regime in Venezuela today.
ROSS: Well, it really goes back to the 80s when I was working in solidarity with the Sandinista Revolution. I was a solidarity activist. I was an Anabaptist. Part of an Anabaptist organization in Berkeley. I was very much impacted by liberation theology. I went down to Nicaragua to participate with the Christian communities, faith communities there. I started doing translation of poetry and political documents. Then I did a book of translation of political documents from the Zapatistas in 1994. So I've been doing a lot of solidarity activist work for a number of years. I went back to Nicaragua in 2004. I was interviewing a poet, Ernesto Cardenal. He said you know, you've really got to go down to Venezuela and see what's going on there. I think that's the most interesting thing that's happening today in Latin America." So I had to go down. And I went down December of 2004 and really wanted to go back and find out what was happening there. So i moved down in 2005 and lived there for a year and started, I took my video camera. I started doing a lot of interviews and filming just going around the country. I was part of the World Poetry Festival and so that got me in touch with a lot of poets and artists and then I started meeting all sorts of people. So I made a film in 2008 and I was really interested in the way Chavez was trying to build what he called the Socialism of the 21st century with cooperatives. So I was really focusing on the cooperatives, but I was seeing even in my film there are really big questions that were emerging about whether these were viable and it looked like they really weren't. They weren’t' given enough backing from the government in terms of information, organizing, but it really looked very good. I was very optimistic, very hopeful. He was developing, Chavez was developing neighborhood clinics. He was developing colleges, universities. You could go to school. He was even paying people to go to school, get their Ph.Ds., which was quite a remarkable thing for me. At that time I was teaching in a community college and it was a struggle for all my students even to go tot he community college. So I was really excited about that and the metacales, the grocery stores with subsidized food, the cafes where people could eat. So there was a very clear commitment to poor people in the country and that really was very hopeful. But as I went back and continued going back, in 2010 and 11 and then again in 2013 I was noticing some real problems and things that I hadn't seen before. I didn't know the history of populism in Latin America and what it actually meant. And how it was so dependent upon a leader and an unquestioning obedience to a leader. At that point I was already in academia and came to think more critically about everything. So I began asking questions and doing more research and as I did more research I saw that there were some really severe problems emerging in Latin America, in Venezuela. So when he died, I went back a month and a half later for the elections and saw Chavistas violently attacking protestors who were just out there demonstrating peacefully. I saw a lot of things that really disturbed me. I also was starting to follow the economics of the situation and seeing that oil production is dropping, inflation is at 56%, 80% in food, so it's really impacting the poor. And at the end of populist phases this is what we see happen. The economy blows out and the only salvation is the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It’s really a tragic cycle, but that's what I’m starting to see in Venezuela. Now I'm asking questions about it. I think it's really important for us to ask questions, especially solidarity activists. We need to ask questions. We need to debate this. I have withdrawn my support publicly from the government of Venezuela, but that doesn't mean I opposed the process of change in the country. I think it's more important now than ever, but I think the kind of change they're implementing now is not going to work out in the long run.
GRILLOT: Well very interesting experience you've had, Clif. Thank you so much for being here with us today and sharing this story as we continue to watch what happens in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America. The comments you just made about the cycle and how these things come back around - I think that's something we'll continue to pay attention to. Thank you very much for sharing that with us today.
ROSS: Thank you for inviting me.
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