‘Latin America is land of resistance to all forms of oppression’

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Left to right: Kairos Center’s Shailly Gupta Barnes, CUSLAR Coordinator Tim Shenk, Fidel Santana Mejía and CUSLAR Advisory Board member Alicia Swords. Photo: Scott Nolasco.

By Elba Morales

Dominican sociologist Fidel Santana Mejía shared perspectives with CUSLAR members and alumni on social movements in Latin America at the organization’s 50th anniversary celebration on September 26.

Santana noted, “Since Westerners arrived, this land has been the land of resistance to all forms of oppression.”

Santana was among several speakers who engaged in thoughtful analysis on key challenges that face the hemisphere and what a “new internationalism” would entail.

Santana began his participation by discussing domination and resistance in Latin America broadly and historically. His perspective stems from direct observations and experiences in his home country of the Dominican Republic and throughout Latin America, as well as extensive study. Santana experienced firsthand the aftermath of the 1965 U.S. military intervention, a scarring chapter in Dominican history that he said has led to many of the social and political issues seen today in the Dominican Republic, problems common to many Latin American nations.

He explained that many social movements that carried out resistance to foreign occupation and exploitation were stopped or undermined in violent ways.

Santana noted that as capitalism expanded throughout various territories, it displaced traditional indigenous communities. He emphasized that with the expansion of capitalist ideologies you start to have the phenomenon of urban areas made up of millions of people that have been displaced from the rural lands. This creates the conditions for new modalities of resistance. It is no longer just the resistance of peasants and indigenous people, but also laborers.”

According to Santana, who resisted, how they resisted and why, depended on both local and global issues that might affect each country in Latin America differently. Therefore, some struggles pertained to the treatment of indigenous people, peasants or laborers. Others focused on the opposition to territorial occupation by foreign forces.

In many instances, people resisted local oligarchies, too. “The resistance in these cases is against governments that repress and oppress the population and steal the common resources,” Santana said. “Governments that are not providing the basic services to their populations around health, water and education are also often met with protest.”

In Argentina in the last decades, he said, the fight has become against unemployment. In many countries, including Bolivia, a wide range of opposition has come together to fight the impact of free-market models that obstruct development. He highlighted the Bolivian people’s victory after the government briefly allowed transnational corporations to privatize basic national resources such as water. Behind the slogan, “el agua es nuestra, ¡carajo!” social movements forced the retreat of companies that attempted to charge families even for rainwater they collected.

Santana identified a major tendency with regard to Latin American social movements in the era of neoliberalism, a period since the 1970s marked by privatization and the erosion of worker rights and protections and the welfare state.

“Neoliberalism has forced the weakening of some social agents in society and strengthened others,” he said. “That is, in the countries where neoliberalism has weakened the import substitution industrialization (ISI) model, the social subject that is the laborer has been weakened in favor of other subjects.”

He also noted that neoliberalism has negatively affected rural populations and peasant movements in Haiti and the Dominican Republic due to economic migration of Haitians to the Dominican Republic. The presence of a foreign undocumented and underpaid labor force has made it difficult for the local labor force to exercise their right to a decent wage.

On the other hand, he explained that “in some cases, the indigenous people and peasant struggles have been strengthened in their capacity for struggling for their identity,” like in Bolivia and Ecuador. However, in the case of Haiti, its rural economy has dissolved entirely, according to Santana. “As a result,” he said, “the majority of the population is classified as proletarian.” This refers to wage workers or working-class people.

Santana said, “In this sense, contrary to what is happening in most places in Latin America, a very strong class-based workers’ movement on the rise in Haiti.”

Furthermore, Santana declared that criminality has weakened progressive political movements throughout Latin America. Drugs have demobilized many formerly organized communities, and “the war on crime” has given corrupt police forces carte blanche in poor communities to repress social movements. Exorbitant profits to be made in the drug and arms trafficking industries in Mexico and Colombia have given rise to paramilitary, or privately funded armed groups, which are similar to military entities. He asserted that recently this has also become the case in the Dominican Republic. This larger-scale organized crime, often with collusion in governments, is a bigger problem for Latin American countries than petty crime, he said.

Sometimes, Santana continued, working-class movements are strong enough to win elections and control national governments, but not strong enough to combat the interests of global capital in their country.

“In Brazil, we have a strong government that has been supported by the large worker movement and also the landless peasant movements. These movements have allowed for the emergence of a political project that has been able to govern in Brazil,” stated Santana. “Paradoxically, this government, which has been supported and created by social movements, was what helped introduce the neoliberal model to Brazil.”

Last, Santana explored Ecuador’s situation. According to Santana, Ecuador is going through a political crisis, where president Rafael Correa, initially backed by social movements, has become more of a technocrat, or a member of a class of leaders tasked with carrying out an elite agenda. Santana lamented that Correa has turned his back to the cries of his people who demand social change and has even gone so far as to criminalize organizations that criticize his administration.

Santana left the audience with several challenges facing Latin American social movements today. For example, “we must force governments to be at the service of people in Latin America,” as opposed to the other way around.

“We must find again the roots and traditions of resistance of the people of Latin America,” Santana said. “Also, it’s our job to contribute to resurgence of the social actors who today have been weakened. And create possibilities for change for social and citizen mobilization.”

What is a social movement?

The term ‘social movement’ has been used to signify a wide variety of collective attempts to bring about a change in certain social institutions or to create an entirely new order. This term is used broadly in political and religious matters, as well as in movements that represent particular identities or groups, such as the women’s movement.

In Latin America, social movements gained momentum at the beginning of the 19th century in the attempt to establish independence from European colonial powers. Two centuries later, progressive social movements continue to mobilize power to maintain and expand individual and collective rights. Meanwhile, December’s election results in Venezuela and Argentina show that social movements can also emerge to curtail these rights in favor of the interests of national and global elites.

About Fidel

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Photo: Scott Nolasco

Fidel Santana Mejía, Dominican sociologist and professor at la Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, spoke about social movements at CUSLAR’S 50th Anniversary celebration at Cornell University on September 25 and 26.

In the 1980s, Santana participated in the student movement Frente Estudiantil Flavio Suero (Feflas) and was a founder of Frente Estudiantil de Liberación Amín Abel (FELABEL). From 2004-2010 he was the principal organizer of the Foro Social Alternativo, an alliance of over a hundred popular organizations addressing social struggles in the Dominican Republic. He is currently president of a center-left political coalition, Frente Amplio.

Elba Morales is a senior politics major at Ithaca College.

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