Making the Rulers Obey

Against the Current, No. 172, September/October 2014

Diana C. Sierra Becerra

Until The Rulers Obey:
Voices from Latin American Social Movements
By Clifton Ross and Marcy Rein, editors
Foreword by Raúl Zibechi
PM Press, 2014, 528 pages, $29.95 paper.

UNTIL THE RULERS Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements, edited by Clifton Ross and Marcy Rein, is a collection of interviews of social movement participants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. While Marcy Rein has a labor and community organizing background, Ross is a filmmaker and writer with experience in Latin America.

Contributors such as Marc Becker and Mario Murillo provide introductions to each country. More importantly, the book highlights the political visions and critiques of organizers active within feminist, labor, environmental, indigenous, student and popular education struggles, to name a few. Interviews with leftist party members and public intellectuals are also included.

Despite differences in national contexts, all movements live under the shadow of neoliberalism. Implemented since the 1970s, neoliberal policies have deregulated markets, privatized social services, and expanded militarization and corporate access to labor and natural resources.

Interviewees raise several important questions and tensions: How should social movements engage with neoliberal states and center-left governments? How can anti-neoliberal governments utilize resource wealth to improve social welfare while also meeting demands for environmental sustainability and indigenous sovereignty?

How does U.S. intervention shape activist responses on the ground? What are the competing visions of socialism and the strategies to get there?

The spectrum of responses and the lessons that activists share make this book worthwhile. For example, the University Front of Roque Dalton, based in the National University of El Salvador, stresses organizational autonomy from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a former (predominantly) peasant insurgency turned political party.

The students argue that autonomy enables the development of new leadership and proposals to pressure the FMLN to fully reject neoliberal policies. Despite its second presidential electoral victory, the FMLN leadership has not voiced its intent to reverse CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) and the U.S. dollar as the national currency.

These “reforms,” the handiwork of former Salvadoran rightist administrations and U.S. policy makers, have devastated the national economy, forcing Salvadorans to migrate north. The faces of migrant youth in U.S. detention centers is the living proof of the devastation caused by neoliberal policies and the long history of U.S. support of military regimes in the region.

The reader might assume that abstention from elections is a possible route for Salvadoran organizers, but Miguel Rivera, an anti-mining activist in the department of Cabañas, offers an important lesson: Autonomy does not mean that elections are irrelevant or void of material consequences.

The right-wing party ARENA (National Republican Alliance) has used intimidation and fraud to win local elections to grant mining concessions to multinational companies. As a result, Miguel’s community partially focused their struggle on electoral accountability.

In the collective memory of most Salvadorans, an ARENA victory also means a return to the violent repression of the civil war. ARENA’s party founder Roberto d’Aubuisson organized death squads during the 1970s and 1980s to murder leftists.

Some of these same death squads have reemerged to win control over profitable regions abundant in natural resources. In fact, the body of Miguel’s own brother, Marcelo, was found at the bottom of a well with markings of torture. Marcel paid with his life to keep water clean and accessible.

Read together, these interviews with urban and rural-based Salvadorans activists, highlight the interplay between the FMLN and social movements. In winning the executive branch, the FMLN has provided a window of opportunity for social movements. As social movements flex their muscle, they can push the FMLN further to the left. And if the FMLN wishes to remain in power, they will have to deliver demands to appease their militant base.

Venezuela Controversy

One particularly controversial section is the analysis on Venezuela. Co-editor Clifton Ross, who provides the introduction to the Venezuela section, argues that the Venezuelan revolution, as headed by the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) is authoritarian, capitalist in nature, corrupt, co-opts activists, and should be rejected by the left.

Unfortunately, Ross often does not qualify or support his sweeping statements with evidence. For example, he highlights the views of opponents who claimed the 2013 presidential victory of Maduro to be “fraudulent and illegal.” (180)

Ross is silent on the fact that international bodies, even the United States — which supported an attempted coup against Chavez in 2002 — have now recognized the recent presidential electoral results.

Ross adds that a “growing majority views the ruling [Chavista] party as illegitimate, incompetent, irresponsible, and corrupt.” (180) He doesn’t define what constitutes a “growing majority,” nor does he analyze the goals of the opposition. But the recent violent protests of right-wing students in elite neighborhoods and their demands to oust Maduro’s government, despite PSUV victories on the presidential and municipal levels, should give any reader pause about opposition claims, especially when juxtaposed with poll data that show Venezuela to be relatively democratic, as estimated by its own citizens. (See

Ross would quickly point out that leftists also oppose Chavismo. He cites the Democratic Unity Coalition (Mesa de Unidad Democratica, MUD) as an example, which incorporate “sectors of the old left, disaffected Chavistas, and social movement activists, as well as business and right-wing sectors.” (182).

Ross fails to explain why this is not the dominant position of the Venezuelan left. Most leftists have legitimate critiques of Chavismo, but do not want to topple the government.

This is more true of Venezuela than of other left-of-center governments in the region. For example, in Ecuador or Bolivia there is actually a more substantial left that is downright opposed to the government. (A theme also discussed in the book).

Furthermore, Ross fails to explore possible critiques, let alone tensions, of left-right alliances, thus missing an opportunity to allow the reader to understand exactly what is at stake with this strategy.

Overall, Ross takes the hierarchical and bureaucratic tendencies of the PSUV to be representative of the Bolivarian process as a whole. His framework can lead one to dismiss the Venezuelan revolution as a farce, popular groups as dupes of PSUV leaders, and left-right alliances as necessary.

Ironically enough, this framework perpetuates right-wing stereotypes of Latin American social movements, in which a caudillo or strongman leads the “blind” masses. Even if we entertain Ross’ characterization of the Bolivarian revolution as a top-down model, he nonetheless fails to answer an important question: what do grassroots actors hope to accomplish by participating and why does the majority of the Venezuelan left continue to defend both Chavez and “el proceso” (the revolutionary process)?

A Dialectical Framework

The unmeasured anti-Chavista commentary of Ross contradicts the more nuanced analysis of interviewees. Rosa Angela Orozco, a long-term participant of El Panal 2021 Commune, provides the reader with compelling answers. She states, “We Venezuelans who identify with this process want it to deepen. But we know that we need to reinvent our politics. Chavez is not a guarantor of this process. Only the people can guarantee that the process continues to move forward.”

She adds “We believe in self-management rather than relying on the president [Chavez]…We do all this [so that] in the event of a bosses’ strike, they will not be able to pressure the public or the government by cutting off delivery of basic goods such as food.” (188, 189)

Orozco sees autonomy and the defense of the Maduro government both as strategic necessities. In building autonomy, activists are in a better position to win demands, including from state bureaucracy (which Orozco critiques as an impediment to social movements).

In defending the Maduro government against right-wing attacks, activists defend the political space to continue their work. As several important works have argued, including most recently George Cicciariello-Maher’s 2013 book, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, the Bolivarian revolution cannot be understood through the figure of Chavez and the state alone.

El pueblo bravo (i.e. students, informal workers, peasants, women and Afro-Venezuelans) gave rise to Chavez and have radicalized, defended, and sustained the Bolivarian Revolution via a fierce struggle to decentralize the state “from below.” The Chavista grassroots base is more interested in destroying the capitalist state and democratizing power rather than seizing the state.

As an activist who studies history, I have learned that a dialectical framework allows us to understand the interplay between “revolution from above” (top party leaders and state officials) versus “revolution from below” (rank and file members).

Grassroots organizers often seize electoral openings in order to push party leaders or revolutionary governments farther to the left, thus radicalizing reforms whose original modest nature appeased political and economic elites. The willingness of leftist leaders to unleash, rather than contain, the militancy of grassroots actors has had life-and-death consequences, not only for their own positions of authority but the fate of the revolutionary process itself.

The case of Salvador Allende, the socialist elected to the Chilean presidency in 1970, is one example. Yarur textile workers seized upon Allende’s electoral victory to demand expropriation of their factory and they in fact succeeded. The workers’ vision of socialism advocated workers control, participation, and the right to self-defense from fascists.

In contrast, Allende advocated a legal avenue towards socialism and fought to maintain nationalization plans strictly under his control. Allende did not attack the institutional power of elites in order to avoid alienating them, or so the logic went.

 Tragically, Allende’s strategy of containing worker militancy partially enabled the right to organize itself. In 1973, Pinochet staged a coup, ushering in an era of state terror against leftists. This case study provides an important lesson: the closing of a political opening, including an electoral victory, can have devastating consequences for the left, including the very lives of activists.

Despite the limitations of some of the editorial commentary, Until the Rulers Obey is useful for organizers and students hoping to understand the challenges and critiques of Latin American social movements, articulated in the words of those who have dared to dream.

September/October 2014, ATC 172

1 comment

  1. I’m posting this comment on behalf of Clifton Ross, one of the editors of the book reviewed here, who was unable to post the comment directly himself because of technical issues:

    * * * * *

    Writers and editors are always grateful for reviews, no matter how far off the mark they are. So thanks to Ms. Becerra for her review of the book I co-edited with Marcy Rein. I’m glad she caught the nuances of El Salvador, but wish she had been a bit more complete, and had more honestly represented our chapter on Venezuela, which I introduced. While she accuses me of “unmeasured anti-Chavista commentary” in what most other reviewers (at Ceasefire, Library Journal, Upsidedownworld, to name a few) have viewed as critical but balanced, Becerra goes on to mention only the interview with the “roja-rojita” Chavista included in the section. She passes over comments made by the other, more critical Chavistas we included and ignores the interviews with opposition social movement actors like the Pemon activist, Alexis Romero, or union activist, Orlando Chirino. To make her case on my perceived “bias” she seems willing to misrepresent my intro to Venezuela when she accuses me of highlighting “the views of opponents who claimed the 2013 presidential victory of Maduro to be ‘fraudulent and illegal.’ (180).” In what way were they “highlighted”? I mentioned that the 1.5 percent margin of victory was, and continues to be, questioned by many in Venezuela, especially as Maduro had all the resources of the petro-state at his command, which he used illegally to promote his political campaign by availing himself of PDVSA vehicles, money, and personnel for his campaign. The “assisted voting,” and the fact that there was never the recount he promised the day after the elections continue to raise questions about that election. I’ve written about that elsewhere in detail, but thought it was worth mentioning in the intro to the country. It was one point made in a long list of crises the country faced, and continues to face, but it was hardly “highlighted.”

    Her “unmeasured” support for the Bolivarian government dominates a good part of the latter half of her review, most of which is not supported by anything other than the theory of dual power presumably at work in the Bolivarian process. She raises a question she says I fail to raise: “what do grassroots actors hope to accomplish by participating and why does the majority of the Venezuelan left continue to defend both Chavez and ‘el proceso’ (the revolutionary process)?”

    The question makes assumptions that, I would argue, need to be questioned. The most important assumption is based on the Chavista narrative that Venezuela is in a “revolutionary socialist” process, rather than what others, including myself, see as a populist project, akin to what the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Juan Peron in Argentina, and other “caudillos” undertook throughout the 20th century. And a process that is failing, just as those did. As to “what grassroots actors hope to accomplish by participating,” in such a context, it usually consists in capturing some portion of the oil rents. Certainly that doesn’t characterize everyone in the Chavista movement, but it does indicate the central focus of many as the economy sours. Sociologist Margarita López Maya (who ran for public office on the Causa R ticket years ago) mentions in one of her studies that while “community organizers”employed by the government could tell interviewers what their government wanted, they couldn’t do the same for the communities they were supposedly organizing. I dedicate some forty pages in my book, “The Map or the Territory” to critiquing at the Chavista narrative and looking at it as a populist project based on patronage. But Becerra and others who are interested might also look at Carlos de la Torre’s 2010 book, “The
    Populist Seduction in Latin America” understand why we are critical of Chavismo. As de la Torre puts it, these so-called “grassroots actors” suffered ‘problems of autonomy because they were created from above.” In fact, all the projects Chavez rolled out were aimed at centralizing his control, supplanting grassroots democratic institutions (like the autonomous neighborhood associations, thepopular education centers, the community organizing projects) with government and oil-funded community councils, and the Missions directly under the command of “el Comandante Eterno,” Hugo Chávez.

    Nevertheless, our book was no place to develop my critique of the Bolivarian
    process. Statements I made there are adequately documented in the footnotes to my introduction to Venezuela, and I attempted to the best of my ability to represent the claims of both sides, and we included social movement actors from both sides. If anything, I erred on the side of giving credit to the Bolivarian government in agreeing with my co-editor to include an interview with a Chavista funded by Chavez — the member of the Patriotic Pole that Becerra quoted and referred to at length. We didn’t want to engage in polemics in “Until the Rulers Obey,” but rather to, as objectively as possible, introduce the histories of the fifteen countries covered so as to represent a cross-section of perspectives held in the social movements as expressed in our 70 interviews.

    I have, however, done a fuller critique of the Pink Tide governments in general, and Venezuela in particular, in my book mentioned above, “The Map or the Territory,” and I invite her to read that short volume if she feels I haven’t made an adequate case about Venezuela as a populist project based on patronage and clientelism, rather than a “socialist revolution.” In this latter work I fit my critique of Venezuela into the context of the history of the US anti-imperialist/solidarity movement and suggest new directions and approaches to doing the work of opposing imperialism and doing solidarity.

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