Latin America

The Other Insurrections

People power south of the border


In the wake of two strikingly successful, mostly nonviolent, and essentially democratic insurrections, a major magazine bemoaned the upheaval under the headline "The Downside of People Power." "The military coup may be a thing of the past," its editorialist declared, "but the popular coup is in vogue." If the language sounds familiar, it might be because it unconsciously echoes The Guardian's famous description of the Ukrainian revolution as a "postmodern coup d'etat." But this article did not appear in The Guardian, and the revolts it rebuked did not take place in Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan or Lebanon. The piece was in the May 9 Business Week, and the rebellions were in Ecuador and Mexico.

Latin America's outbreak of people power hasn't received as much stateside attention as its counterparts in Central Asia and the Middle East. This is presumably for the same reason media accounts of nonviolent Arab movements often ignore Palestinian resistance to Israel's "security barrier": The uprisings aren't aligned with U.S. interests. Official Washington has not been celebrating South America's turn to the left—three-quarters of the continent's people now live under left-wing governments—and popular protest is generally regarded as a part of that shift. So it gets left out of the narrative of democratic transformation, and when it does surface, it's treated rather differently than its Asian equivalents. Instead of Business Week's Jason Bush describing the Ukrainian and Georgian protestors as "democratic political movements," we have Business Week's Geri Smith complaining that "citizens are taking to the streets, rather than the ballot box, to register their political grievances." (Actually, they've been taking to both.) She also quotes Moisés Naim of Foreign Policy, who calls the ferment "the politics of race, revenge, and resentment." The solution, Smith concludes, is for the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank to subsidize "solid government institutions."

Smith and Naim aren't alone. When The Christian Science Monitor's Danna Harman filed a solid report on the Latin American upheaval, published April 29, the voice of caution was Vinay Jawahar of the establishment group Inter-American Dialogue, who told Harman that it was "hard to argue that this sort of instability is good for a country." You'd think it harder to argue that it's good for a president to dissolve his country's Supreme Court, which is what happened in Ecuador before the subsequent protests reversed his illegal decision and forced him out of office. Or for a ruling party to trump up charges against its most popular opponent to keep him off the ballot, which is what happened in Mexico before popular discontent rode to the rescue. Some sorts of instability are good for a country, especially when the status quo is hardly stable itself. The growing popularity of these tactics has a positive spillover effect as well. Long before the demonstrations in Ukraine and Lebanon, unnoticed by most observers, people power was undermining not just violent regimes but violent revolts.

For much of the twentieth century, the chief means of overthrowing a government were guerilla warfare and military coups. Nonviolent resistance existed—at times it thrived—but it was generally regarded as an odd aberration that rarely worked. But since the '70s, for a variety of reasons, the trend in revolution-making has been a gradual global shift from violent "people's war" to nonviolent people power. In an important new book, Unarmed Insurrections, the Rutgers sociologist Kurt Schock points out that there were 31 major nonviolent rebellions in the second and third worlds from 1978 to 2001, starting with the Iranian revolution of 1978-79. (It's important to distinguish the overthrow of the Shah, a classic example of people power, from Khomeini's later consolidation of state power, a much more coercive affair.)

Nonviolent resistance, Schock reminds us, is not the same thing as "passive resistance." It's a set of tactics, not a politically correct lifestyle; it's aimed not at persuading leaders to change their policies, but at making it impossible to enforce those policies. Gene Sharp has been cataloging those tactics for decades, listing 198 of them in 1973's three-volume study The Politics of Nonviolent Action and citing several more since then. They fall into three general categories: methods of protest and public persuasion (e.g., a march), of organized noncooperation (e.g., a tax strike), and of "nonviolent intervention" (e.g., a land occupation). Contrary to the conventional wisdom, such methods have frequently worked under repressive dictatorships as well as under relatively benign systems; many times they've succeeded where guerilla tactics have failed. In 23 of those 31 rebellions, from Bolivia to Bulgaria and from Mongolia to Mali, the uprising contributed directly to regime change.

And that statistic understates what has happened, since it focuses on the most visible sort of success. More substantial changes can occur without the government formally changing hands. Of the recent turbulence in Latin America, the most interesting event may be the revolt of the Bolivian Indians. They were the backbone of the protests that drove President Sanchez de Lozada out of power in 2003, and of the more recent turmoil as well, but that's not what I'm referring to here. I'm referring to the fact that about a fifth of the country's population now lives in villages that run their own affairs, outside of the capital's control. This power was not ceded to them. They simply took it.

That's a rural phenomenon, but it has urban echoes: The state has had a hard time governing El Alto, the overwhelmingly Indian city at the heart of the 2003 rebellion. Similar semi-autonomous zones exist in other South American countries. The Nasa Indians of Colombia, for example, gradually took back their traditional lands from the 1960s to the 1990s, and do what they can today to fend off incursions by government officials, right-wing paramilitaries, and Marxist guerillas.

Then there's a social movement that's rarely regarded as a movement at all: the squatters who occupy unused, usually government-owned land in and around most major third world cities. There they've built vast, self-governing neighborhoods that, despite some serious social problems, are usually more pleasant places to live than the legally sanctioned slums. Some, indeed, have evolved into middle-class neighborhoods. (In Shadow Cities, his account of life among the squatters of Brazil, Kenya, India, and Turkey, Robert Neuwirth notes that mainstream Brazilian businesses have started to set up shop within the illicit favelas, in "the squatter city version of gentrification.") In such territories, simply building a house is, technically, an act of civil disobedience, but millions of people have constructed not just homes and enterprises but decentralized systems of self-government—a civil society that can then resist, often successfully, when the state attempts to crack down.

This shouldn't be alien to North American audiences. U.S. history is filled with similar rebellions—and not just the famous revolt against Jim Crow. Our own rural squatters settled the West in enormous numbers, their claims eventually ratified by state occupancy laws and federal preemption acts. The nation's law libraries are littered with rules that were rendered a dead letter by disobedience before they were formally repealed or reversed, from sodomy bans to the regulations governing CB radios.

If Latin Americans, in the words of Business Week, "are taking to the streets, rather than the ballot box, to register their political grievances," that's no reason to mourn. The power to disobey unjust laws and unjust rulers is an essential part of political liberty. So is the ability to create grassroots institutions with the resilience to withstand repression. Real self-government is not a mere spectator sport, a matter of politely casting a ballot every few years—especially, as in Ecuador and Mexico, when the last gang to get elected is actively undermining the rules of the game.