Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Benjamin Dangl


Benjamin Dangl , Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America , Oakland : AK Press , 2010 . ISBN 978 1 84935 015 0 ( paper ).

If the 1980s were the “Lost Decade” of stagnant growth and the 1990s saw the spread of neoliberalism across Latin America, the 2000s represented the (re)emergence of the left across the region. While much of the US media coverage has focused on charismatic leaders like Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, social and political transformations were generally pushed by a diverse array of social movements. Environmental, labor and women's movements, to name only a few, challenged structural adjustment policies and demanded greater attention to social welfare. As left-of-center governments assumed power and implemented largely moderate reforms, social movements have been faced with a series of difficult decisions about the extent of their collaboration with the state. In Dancing with Dynamite, Benjamin Dangl explores the dynamic and complex relationship between states and social movements in seven South American countries.

Recent decades have seen a growing number of academic and popular studies focus on social movements in Latin America. Much of the early work in the 1980s and 1990s offered a celebratory view of the power and potential of identity-based movements to transform societies characterized by stark inequalities (Alvarez et al 1998). Some critics suggested that new social movement theorists, ironically like proponents of neoliberalism, saw the state as a fundamental problem and obstacle to social change (Bebbington 1999). Books like Marc Edelman's (1999)Peasants Against Globalization, which examined the efforts of rural social movements to defend the Costa Rican welfare state, were an effort by academics to reengage with the state and acknowledge that movements do not operate independently of state institutions. More recently, research has focused on the efforts of social movements to carve out spaces of autonomy within capitalist and liberal democratic systems (Escobar 2008). Although Dancing with Dynamite is a highly accessible history of Latin American social movements, the book is situated firmly within these intellectual debates. By highlighting the dynamic “dance” between governments and social movements, Dangl demonstrates that despite the autonomist goals of many movements, popular sectors are forced to negotiate constantly with the state.

As the book explores the struggles of Latin American social movements, it employs a comparative framework that stretches across international boundaries and old divisions between class and ethnic movements. Much of the literature on Latin American social movement consists of in-depth examinations of movements in one or several countries. In contrast, Dangl's book is a useful resource for those that want to gain a broader perspective on contemporary social movements and political parties across the region. From the Ecuadorian indigenous confederation CONAIE and Brazil's Landless Movement (MST) to the piquetero (or unemployed worker cooperatives) movement in Argentina, Dangl offers an overview of prominent social movements and their often conflictive relationship with the state. Similarly, although a great deal of research in Latin America has focused on indigenous movements (Nash 2003; Sieder 2002), they are less frequently discussed alongside peasant, landless and urban movements as they are in Dancing with Dynamite. Despite a tendency to represent national-level groups as representative of all social movements in a country, Dangl does a good job of documenting the diversity of movements and their tactics in Latin America.

The case studies offer impressive detail about recent conflicts between leftist governments and their social movement allies. In the first chapter, Dangl documents the occasionally tense alliance that has existed between Evo Morales’ government and a plethora of social movements in Bolivia. Other chapters examine Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution, the history of the Frente Amplio in Uruguay and the disappointing tenure of leftist president Fernando Lugo in landlocked Paraguay. The historical overview of politics and social movements in each country is complemented by interviews with activists and public officials. This is particularly the case in Bolivia, where Dangl uses insights from a number of political actors to look beyond the label of “a government of social movements” under Morales and to critique the government's efforts to demobilize and co-opt certain social movements. Similarly, he suggests that while Chávez's socialist policies have afforded new opportunities to Venezuela's poor, these changes only exist “within the confines of existing state structures” (105).

Throughout the book, Dangl argues that leftist governments in South America have consistently disappointed radical social movements. After relying on popular forces to win elections, once in power these governments have often moved to the right and repressed protests. Others have maintained lip service to progressive reforms while blocking the radical social transformations proposed by social movements. The primary example of the state's betrayal is seen in the figure of Rafael Correa, Ecuador's populist president who relied on a tenuous alliance with the national indigenous movement CONAIE to win power. After Correa supported the industrialization and privatization of natural resources, CONAIE broke with the government (as it did with former ally Lucio Gutierrez in the mid 2000s). Social movements followed similar paths after disappointments in Paraguay, Brazil and other countries, although the threat of the right's return has often forced social movement to quietly support their former allies in government. For Dangl, tactical retreat from nominally leftist governments is an important strategy for social movements (but not the only one) to retain their autonomy when dealing with political actors focused primarily on maintaining power.

Dancing with Dynamite does an admirable job of outlining the complex relationship between social movements and left-of-center governments in South America. However, the focus only on recent politics obscures the rich history of leftist governments in the region. Including such a historical perspective would allow us to understand the cooptation of contemporary social movements as part of a longer struggle between states and popular movements in Latin America. In Mexico, for instance, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) maintained its 70-year one-party rule by co-opting labor unions and other social sectors. Revolutions in Bolivia (which Dangl discusses briefly) and Peru in the 1950s and 1960s, respectively, adopted progressive social policies by forming corporatist and often oppressive relationships with peasants and miners. Like current leftist governments, these alliances were often based on the reassertion of state control over natural resources and continued dependency on the export of primary products. A closer examination of these historical continuities could provide further insights into the opportunities and limitations facing contemporary movements.

The book also could have benefited from a greater focus on the transnational character of social movements and leftist politics in Latin America. Each of the seven case studies is treated largely in isolation from the others, which means that initiatives like the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) or Brazil's more informal challenge to Washington's free trade policies are overlooked. While these state-led initiatives have had little impact so far, Dangl also largely leaves out the extensive transnational civil society networks that have been constructed since the 1960s, especially indigenous rights, environmental and peasant movements (Brysk 2000; Keck and Sikkink 1998). In the conclusion, however, Dangl points to several intriguing connections between social movements in the global South and contemporary activism in the United States. Challenging the traditional premise that tactics and alliances must begin (or at least be centered) in the North, Dangl suggests that those striving for justice would do well to pay attention to struggles in the South. Through a detailed discussion of the struggles encountered by social movements, as well as their occasional triumphs, Dancing with Dynamite offers a compelling account of the possibilities for meaningful activism in a world marked by continuing power hierarchies and social inequalities.