IGNORING THE GRASSROOTS IN LATIN AMERICA
Powerful Popular Movements Invisible to Mainstream—and "Progressive"—Media
by David L. Wilson, World War 4 Report
During several days in early August 2009, thousands of Haitian workers walked off their jobs at assembly plants near the airport in northern Port-au-Prince and marched into the center of the city to demand an increase in the national minimum wage. Supported by public university students—who back in June had added the wage increase to their own list of demands—the strikers tied up traffic, surrounded government offices, tore down United Nations flags, and threw rocks at vehicles of the 9,000-member UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), a military force which has occupied Haiti since 2004. At one point the vehicle carrying US embassy chargé d'affaires Thomas Tighe was damaged, although the embassy insisted he hadn't been a target of the protests.
These dramatic protests barely got a mention in the US corporate media. This is not surprising: US opinion makers want us to believe that the workers, mostly young women who stitch garments for big US and Canadian apparel companies, are grateful for the chance to work at backbreaking jobs for starvation wages (they were calling for a raise to $5 a day). In fact, just as the workers were protesting, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, now the UN special envoy for Haiti, was pushing a plan to expand Haiti's assembly plant sector. Thousands of wildcat strikers marching on the capital clearly had no place in the corporate narrative.
What is more surprising is the apparent silence of the progressive US media about the protests. Important alternative sources like The Nation, In These Times, Alternet, and "Democracy Now!" seemed to have nothing to say on the subject.
Waiting for the New York Times
Unfortunately, this fits a pattern. Our independent media tend to ignore grassroots struggles in Latin America and the Caribbean until something happens that gets them covered by NPR or the New York Times.
For years a vibrant movement was growing in Honduras, bringing together labor organizing with struggles for the environment, for the indigenous and Garífuna peoples, for women's rights and LGBT rights. Most progressives in the United States didn't know about this movement until the Honduran oligarchy tried to crush it with a military coup last June. Our independent media paid little attention to the cocalero (coca growers) movement in Bolivia before its leader, Evo Morales, was elected president in 2005, or to indigenous struggles in the remote Mexican state of Chiapas before the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) seized control of San Cristóbal de las Casas on January 1, 1994.
Part of the problem, of course, is just budgetary. Leftist publications simply can't afford to maintain bureaus throughout the hemisphere. But this is less of a problem than it was 20 years ago. Many of the region's grassroots movements are now on line. We can often get news feeds, photos, and videos direct from the organizations themselves; there are even internet news services like Adital and the Minga Informativa de Movimientos Sociales that specialize in covering developments from the grassroots movements.
The real reason for the lack of coverage, in my opinion, is that the US left retains a middle-class view of what's newsworthy. Like the mainstream media, we tend to overlook the concerns and activities of "ordinary" people so that we can focus on the people with guns or government offices. This weakens us significantly—and not just in our coverage of Latin America.
Reaching Our Own Grassroots
For one thing, this orientation cuts us off from much of our potential audience. We complain that US workers show little understanding of Latin American developments, and even less interest. But what they get from the mainstream media is often just demonization of individuals like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. On the left we frequently try to compensate by focusing on the same individuals, but presenting them in a more favorable light (and sometimes treating them as virtual demigods). Is it any wonder that working people here think of news from the hemisphere as a wonkish abstraction with no relation to their own lives?
But in fact, working people in the United States are very concerned about hemispheric affairs. Think of outsourcing and immigration; these are bread-and-butter issues for people who work for a living. The problem is that the way people think about these issues is shaped by a corporate media presentation designed to turn US workers against their counterparts to the south. Progressives should be leading the struggle against this. We should be showing people that Honduran and Haitian workers don't actually want to work for low wages and take away our manufacturing jobs—US-trained cops and UN "peacekeepers" tear-gas them when they demand higher wages. We should be explaining that Mexicans aren't "flooding into" our country or "invading" it—they are being forced out of their own country by the same US banks and corporations that brought us the Great Recession.
Above all, we should be informing people here about the many grassroots struggles that they can identify with: about family farmers being driven off their land because they can't compete with subsidized US agribusiness; about parents and students fighting cutbacks in education and services; about the olvidados, the forgotten people, fighting for housing, for medical services, for decent pensions, for equal pay, for freedom from discrimination.
Solidarity Among the Forgotten
If we were really doing our job, the olvidados of the United States would be out in the streets demonstrating when they see Honduran and Haitian workers being attacked by soldiers, or when they see 44,000 Mexican electrical workers suddenly thrown off their jobs.
And solidarity can go two ways. Working people here need to know about the militant and imaginative ways working people in other countries fight back, about the mass hunger strikes, the land occupations, the "liberations" of toll highways that Latin American activists routinely use to resist budget cuts, layoffs, and corporate seizures of personal or communal property. Methods of struggle can be globalized too, after all. The sit-in by 200 laid-off workers at the Republic Windows and Doors plant in Chicago in December 2008 was inspirational for many US labor activists. What most people didn't realize was that the workers were largely from Mexico and Central America, where workers have repeatedly occupied factories to protest illegal plant closings.
Right now the grassroots movement in Haiti is finally getting some of the coverage it should have gotten last summer, mostly as a result of January's massive earthquake. But it's not clear how long the interest in Haitian movements will last.
In 1972 a major earthquake in Managua exposed the corruption of the Somoza family dictatorship and hastened a revolution that toppled the government seven years later. The failure of the Mexican government to respond to the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City forced residents to organize themselves and led to the growth of the powerful urban movements we see in Mexico now. A similar process already seems to be under way among earthquake survivors in the encampments in Port-au-Prince. Will we hear about it?
David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007) and co-editor of Weekly News Update on the Americas.
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Raising Up Another Haiti
by Beverly Bell
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From our Daily Report:
Mexico: electrical workers plan hunger strike
World War 4 Report, April 13, 2010
Haiti: more strikes hit maquilas
World War 4 Report, Aug. 26, 2009
Haiti: maquila workers march for wage hike
World War 4 Report, Aug. 12, 2009
Honduras: coup regime says FARC funds Zelaya backers
World War 4 Report, July 30, 2009
Bogotá claims FARC link to Ecuador's Correa
World War 4 Report, July 18, 2009
Evo: Bolivia won't "kneel down" to US on drug war
World War 4 Report, Oct. 18, 2008
Chicago: workers occupy factory
World War 4 Report, Dec. 8, 2008
HONDURAS: IT'S NOT ABOUT ZELAYA
by David L. Wilson, MRZine
World War 4 Report, July 2009
Special to World War 4 Report, May 1, 2010
Reprinting permissible with attribution