Review: Dancing With Dynamite

Dancing with DynamiteDynamite is dangerous stuff. Drop it and you visit the clouds. Misuse it and you might just blow up the neighborhood. This is why Benjamin Dangl’s title for his book on Latin America’s leftish surge is so apt. Social movements can be explosive.

In Dancing With Dynamite, Dangl — long-time reporter, founder of the on-line magazine Upside Down World, and author of The Price of Fire –examines the relationship between popular movements and the leftist governments they helped put in place.

This is a daunting task for a 175-page book, but Dangl fills it with on-the-spot reporting and historical background that avoids sputtering into an academic treatise or an anecdotal travelogue.

Dangl brings to this project his depth of experience in the region and his contacts with social movements: landless groups in Uruguay, factory workers in Argentina, and indigenous groups in Bolivia and Ecuador. Through him, people talk about land reform, local political power, pesticide use, and the relationship between social activism and governance.

The background for Dangl’s book is the so-called “pink tide” that has swept much of Latin America. But he is less interested in leaders like Lula da Silva (Lula) and Hugo Chavez than in the grassroots organizations that formed the backbone of the political movements.

Dancing examines the history of social movements in seven countries and their relationships with the leftist governments they helped elevate to power. The tensions between grassroots activism and the business of running a state are neither new nor unique to South America. Indeed, many in the United States will recognize parallels to the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements.

“For movements in South America that engage the state, the relationship involves a tightrope walk between cooperation and genuine collaboration,” Dangl writes. At times, he continues, that cooperation ends up demobilizing the social movements. At other times, a progressive government allows grassroots movements to expand. In short, it isn’t simple and one size doesn’t fit all.

Dangl can be critical of progressive leaders. For instance, he is uncomfortable with Hugo Chavez’s personality cult. But he doesn’t lose sight of why the former colonel is so popular: “Chavez is the first president who even knows we are here,” a grandmother in Caracas tells him. “Our houses are still tin and cardboard but my grandchildren receive two meals a day in school…and there are several doctors within walking distance who will see us and give us medicine for free.”

The relationship between mass movements and left-leaning governments is enormously complex. The subject requires careful handling. You don’t have to agree with all of Dangl’s characterizations of Latin American leaders to get a great deal from this thoughtful and well-reported book. Dancing succeeds in illuminating the gray zones between passion and power that must be negotiated on the road to building a humanist society everywhere.

Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus. His writings can be seen at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com.