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Dancing With Dynamite: @narchy and #occupy no. 3

“Occupy, Resist, Produce” – this is the slogan of the landless farmer movements in Brazil and Paraguay, and the strategy that guided the occupations of factories, hotels and other businesses in Argentina following the country’s economic crash in 2001.

The following excerpt from Dancing with Dynamite traces the story of Pedro Caballero, a landless farmer in Paraguay whose experience is emblematic of other activists across Latin America; when the system failed, Cabellero took matters into his own hands. And that is what is what thousands of activists are doing right now within the Occupy Wall Street movement; instead of looking to the president or the banks for solutions, they are looking to each other.

In addition to examining the precious dance between grassroots movements and left-leaning governments in Latin America, Dancing with Dynamite examines these connections between movements in the north and south. For example, the 2008 occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago reflected the strategies of unemployed workers taking over factories in Argentina in 2001, and movements for access to water in Detroit and Atlanta mirrored struggles in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where in 2000, popular protests rejected the multinational company Bechtel’s water privatization plan and put the water back into public hands. The Take Back the Land movement in Florida, which organized homeless people to occupy a vacant lot and pairs homeless families with foreclosed homes, shares the tactics and philosophy of the landless movement in Brazil. Participatory budgeting in Brazil, which provides citizens with direct input on how city budgets are distributed, is now being implemented by communities across the US.

These are just a handful of movements and grassroots initiatives that provide helpful models (in both their victories and failures) for decentralizing political and economic power, and putting decision making into the hands of the people. As the OWS movement has demonstrated, movements for justice around the world share common tactics and philosophies, from Occupy Wall Street to the landless occupations in Paraguay.

–Ben Dangl, November 2011

The motorcycle thundered off the highway onto a jungle road of loose red dirt framed by trees, families lounging in front of their farmhouses, and small herds of disinterested cows. We pulled up to a dusty store to buy food for our stay in the rural community of Oñondivepá, Paraguay, and asked the woman behind the counter what was available. She nodded her head, picked up a saw, and began hacking away at a large slab of beef. We strapped the meat and a box of beer on to the back of the motorcycle and roared off down the road.

A volleyball game was going on when we arrived in the area where landless activist Pedro Caballero lived. His wife offered us fresh oranges while his children ran around in the dirt, playing with some wide-eyed kittens. The sun had set, so Caballero’s wife lifted a light bulb attached to a metal wire onto an exposed electric line above the house, casting light on our small gathering of neighbors. Suddenly, the dogs jumped to action, joining in a barking chorus, and lunged toward the edge of the woods. They had found a poisonous snake, a common cause of death in this small community far from hospitals.

“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 neighbors 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.”

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 neighboring 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.”

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.

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.” Hunger’s dynamite can be self-destructive, but it can also force people to take radical, liberating action.

Dancing with Dynamite 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.