Rain poured down in La Paz, Bolivia, the day Barack Obama gave his inauguration speech. But the weather didn’t stop thousands of Bolivians from marching in the streets in support of a new constitution, a document set to grant unprecedented rights to the country’s indigenous majority.
As chants and the explosions of Roman candles from marchers echoed throughout this capital city, Obama looked out from the television screen in a La Paz bar, offering words of wisdom that were somehow connected to many Bolivians’ sense that democracy and good politics depended on a mobilized public taking to the streets.
“For as much as government can do and must do,” Obama said, “it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.”
Similarly, it has been the “faith and determination” of Bolivian social movements in their fight for a better world that paved the way to the election of indigenous President Evo Morales, and then pushed him to nationalize gas reserves, redistribute land to poor farmers and enshrine long-overdue rights in a rewritten constitution. The juxtaposition of Obama’s orderly inauguration and the near-constant street mobilizations in La Paz brings us to the question: what can US activists facing economic crisis and a potential ally in the White House learn from South America’s social movements?
The region’s shift to the left–from leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador to the more moderate presidents in Brazil, Chile and Argentina–has grabbed headlines in recent years. But often overlooked is the role social movements and unions have played in ushering these leaders into power, and once they are there, radicalizing their politics. Other movements throughout the region never waited for allies in the government palace, and instead built their new worlds out of the neoliberal wreckage of the old. As unemployment skyrockets in the United States, and the challenges of cleaning up the mess of the Bush years commences, US activists could apply the successful strategies of South American social movements.
Ida Peñarada, a Bolivian water-rights activist living in Cochabamba, understands the hopes and horizons of social movements. She participated in Cochabamba’s 2000 Water War, a popular uprising that kicked out Bechtel, a multinational company that had privatized the water in everything from communally built wells to rain cisterns. Many citizens from across the economic spectrum couldn’t afford the exorbitant rates set by the company, so they joined together in protests and road blockades, sending Bechtel packing and putting the water back into public hands.
Peñarada compares the Water War, and the ongoing challenges of managing the public water system, to the current situation among US activists under the Obama administration. “It’s important to think about how to take advantage of fresh energy, of the yearning for change that exists…and to not let what is urgent block out what is important for the long run. This involves not just enjoying the passing glory but planning for the future, involving everyone you can.”