Arts & Events

Book Review: Dancing With Dynamite

By Conn Hallinan
Tuesday December 14, 2010 - 11:28:00 AM

Dancing With Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America

By Benjamin Dangl, AK Press, 2010, $15.95

Dynamite is dangerous stuff. Drop it and you visit the clouds. Misuse it and you might just to blow up the neighborhood. Which is why Benjamin Dangl’s use of the word in the title of his book on Latin America’s leftish surge is so apt. Social movements can be explosive. 

In “Dancing,” Dangl—founder of “Upside Down,” long-time reporter, and the author of “The Price of Fire”—examines the relationship between popular movements and the leftist governments they helped put into place. 

It is a daunting task for a 175-page book, but Dangl manages to fill it with on-the-spot reporting and historical background in a way that avoids an academic treatise, on the one hand, and an anecdotal travelogue, on the other. 

One of Dangl’s strong points is his experience in the region and his contact with landless groups in Uruguay, factory workers in Argentina, and indigenous groups in Bolivia and Ecuador. Through Dangl, people talk about issues of 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 over much of Latin American, but the author is less interested in leaders like Lula da Silva, Rafael Correra, and Hugo Chavez, than in the grassroots organizations that formed the backbone of the political movement that put those progressives into power. That relationship can be a troubled one, and the “dance” between social needs and political power makes for complex choreography. 

Dangl 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, most Americans will see immediate parallels to the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements in the U.S. 

“ For movements in South America that engage the state, the relationship involves a tightrope walk between cooperation and genuine collaboration,” he writes. At times, Dangl argues, that cooperation ends up demobilizing the social movements. But, 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 like Hugo Chavez, whose personality cult makes him uncomfortable. 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 governments is enormously complex. One does not 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. The subject is explosive and very useful, no less for those of us in the U.S. than for landless soy farmers in Uruguay. Coming to grips with the delicate formulas that negotiate the gray zones between passion and power is central to building a humanist society everywhere. 

Conn Hallinan’s writings can be seen at