Latin America may be the last place on Earth that still has widespread and vibrant grassroots social movements. This superb collection of essays and interviews with activists, scholars, and writers sheds light on the history, the successes, and the challenges these movements face. Having spent time in twelve of the fourteen countries profiled in this book, I thought I knew many of the issues and the movements. I knew nothing.
Here are a few things I learned:
Nicaragua: A 1980’s literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country by more than 37% in six months. It was advised by Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian educator, and overseen by Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal, who organized poetry workshops all over the country in order to create “a nation of poets.” Every social class took part: academics, policemen, prisoners, farmworkers, housewives.
Brazil: I knew that this great, bloated riot of color and beauty and movement and grace had a tumultuous history. But I didn’t know about the quilombos. The quilombos consisted of runaway slaves (Brazil was the last country in Latin America to abolish slavery – in 1888). Hunted down by the military, the survivors escaped to the jungles and formed autonomous villages. It’s estimated that around 5000 still exist today, nearly a third of which are currently attempting to acquire legal titles to their land. As ever, they will need to fight political parties, land elites and the supporters of agribusiness, the modern-day oppressors and heirs of the militias that forced the slaves into the jungle in the first place.
Bolivia: At the end of the eighteenth century, when the Spanish conquistadors controlled half of the continent, an indigenous rebel leader called Tupac Katari emerged. His army laid siege to La Paz for three months, and his rallying cry for a return to indigenous rule was heard throughout the Andes. Eventually he was captured, but before being executed he uttered one of the great lines that will echo through history: “I will return, and I will be millions.”
Readers may gravitate towards the extraordinary stories: the heroes, the midnight chases over the rooftops, and the great cinematic sweep of history, but in this book we get to hear the voices of the little-known grassroots activists who work day after day, year after year. And we find that their voices are vital and compelling.
Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements (ed.s Clifton Ross and Marcy Rein, PM Press, 2014) is an astonishingly good book. Anyone interested in the challenges of present-day Latin America, and how these challenges are being met by the people, needs to read it.