‘Amplifying voices not usually heard’

By Hazel Schaeffer

Journalist, author and activist Benjamin Dangl spent last Tuesday at Macalester and gave a lecture on the relationship between leftist Latin American governments and social movements. The author of Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, Dangl has also been published in The Guardian Unlimited, Al Jazeera, The Nation Magazine, The Progressive, Utne Reader, CounterPunch and Alternet. In 2003 he founded a publication on Latin American politics and social movements, Upside Down World, which he still edits. “I see Benjamin Dangl as one of the most significant journalists covering Latin America today,” said Latin American Studies director and Political Science professor Paul Dosh, who organized the visit, in an email. “Because of Ben Dangl’s commitment to both publishing in English and Spanish, his reporting and his activism are accountable not only to U.S. and European audiences, but also to the grassroots movements and communities he studies and often supports. When he published his first book, ‘The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia’ in Spanish, he hand-delivered courtesy copies of the book to every interview subject who appeared in the book. That is an extraordinary and near-unrivalled commitment to reciprocity, especially when you consider that less than 1 percent of U.S. writers covering Latin America publish their findings in Spanish. And the impact on his writing is substantial; that accountability to the communities he studies usefully forces him to constantly return to and incorporate the voices that struggle against imperialism.” Currently, Dangl is getting a Masters in Latin American History at the University of Vermont while teaching at Burlington College. Robert Strickling ’12, a Political Science and Latin American Studies double major says he finds Dangl’s “career path pretty inspiring.” He got to join Dangl for dinner at restaurant La Cucaracha and found that, “he’s basically been teaching and writing books on a BA.” During his visit Dangl sat down with The Mac Weekly for an interview. He shared his insight on the challenges and rewards of journalism, from rubber bullets to starting his own publication. How did you get involved with journalism? I was a reporter for my newspaper in high school and college. Both those experiences I really enjoyed, and I’ve always enjoyed writing and reading poetry and fiction. Journalism seemed a natural extension as a way to write things that people would actually read. In Latin America, I was a student of Spanish and literature, and I studied in Argentina. I was there in 2001 and 2002 during that country’s economic crisis, and it was a period of profound economic and political transformation and social mobilization, and that had a very politicizing effect on me. I became immersed, trying to educate myself in what was happening, reading the newspapers, and going to activist meetings, and that piqued my interest to continue to going back to Latin America. It was a mixture of various things as to why I worked in Latin America and have been over the past ten years. In Bolivia, a lot of the politics and social movements that were at work there were fascinating and inspiring and dynamic, and at the same time almost totally unreported on in the US in the English media. So I felt that, while on the one hand there was this inspiring stuff happening, there was also this the huge disconnect: nobody in the US was reading about it. I kept on going back to Latin America and writing about these things as a way to help share and amplify stories of hope and grassroots struggle and also connect the realities of Latin America to US foreign policy, what US businesses were doing in the region, what the US government was doing in the region. Was it difficult to get that work published? Well, this was 2002; 2003 was when I started doing this more for a living and at a time that the Internet was more widely accessible [than previously]. There’s sometimes less competition for publishing online than in print because there is endless space on the Internet. I started pitching stories and the benefit of being based out of La Paz [Bolivia], where the rent was $60 a month, was that I could actually survive on the salaries that I was making as a freelancer. So living in Latin America helped both having a good angle and a good pitch and also surviving economically. What prompted you to start your own publication on Latin American politics, Upside Down World? I felt that there was a lack of news in the English-based media on Latin America politics and activism, so I felt that we were filling a void. I was working with other writers, other kind of lefty or alternative journalists like myself in America, that were looking to publish their work or had some ideas that didn’t quite fit into the places that they were pitching to. I said, Oh, well you can publish your work on my site. It started out really as a network of friends and people I knew who were writing about Latin America and also politics in the US, and it just took off. It continues to amaze me that the site is still going and still thriving. I’m sort of more in a managerial role where I keep the website going technically and do the editing, but it’s really powered by the writers and the readers, and the fact that so many of our writers are on the ground in Latin America uncovering different stories. What are the benefits of publishing journalism in an alternative publication? Alternative outlets generally try to tell the story that isn’t represented in other places or that amplifies voices that are silenced elsewhere. How do you navigate being an activist, scholar and journalist? I’m in grad school for Latin America history right now. I teach at a college. I work as an activist, depending on how you define that, and in journalism. I think that these different spaces communicate with each other and have overlap from what I can draw from each. For example, to understand very current Latin America politics, it’s kind of the work more of a journalist to investigate that, but to really understand that, you have to understand the history and the roots of why people might be demanding the nationalization, the state ownership, of mines in Bolivia, or why the indigenous president of Bolivia might be fighting for indigenous rights in the new constitution. What are the historical roots for that? So naturally understanding history is very helpful for that. On the other hand, to understand what these social movements are fighting for, whether it’s access to water or a landless farmers’ movement, I’ve found the most helpful way to gain insight into those realities is to interview a ton of people, and that way I had a more interesting story to tell. I had more color to tell these stories. I was less of an intermediary interpreting other people’s history. Being someone who identifies as an activist helps me understand what other activists are working on. I think that’s been helpful both to understand their perspective and also to gain their trust as a fellow activist. I think it’s helpful just to have an open mind and not see too many boundaries and borders, but just kind of see them all working together toward the same end: working toward a better world and spreading information, empowering people, amplifying voices that are not usually heard in the US. How do you go about getting new contacts? I’ll reach out to people I know and have worked with and see what leads to what, and often their recommendation to that person will help gain their trust or their time. In other cases, it will just be a process of hounding people and calling them over and over again, waiting two hours for them to show up, spending a whole day or two to try and get one interview. It takes a whole bunch of things, but persistence and being kind and also being prepared and knowledgeable and not just blowing in and not knowing anything about the topic, and also knowing as much as possible about the person I’m interviewing. Being very
well prepared has helped to get interviews and contacts, to gain their respect. And one of the things that has always been important to me is not just parachute in and leave and take the story and only publish it in English, but try to get my work translated into Spanish… I want to come back with a final product in Spanish for people who don’t read English, so people, love it or hate it, could check it out and see what it was that I did. So there’s this process of reciprocity with the final product that I think is important to developing long-term relationships so they know who you are and what your work is and how their work is reflected in that. What drives your interest in Latin American indigenous movements? Bolivia is a country where 70 percent of the country self-identifties as indigenous. The history and politics of indigenous society and culture informs and empowers a lot of the movements and politics of the left in the country in many different ways. … Awareness of that indigenous history is very important to the formation and consciousness of many indigenous and even just neighborhood movements in Bolivia. Understanding those roots, whether it’s the miners’ movements or Cochabamba with the cocalero (indigenous coca producers) movement, everything has its roots at least partially in this history. So it was important for me to understand what was happening. Especially with the election of Evo Morales in 2005. He’s an Aymara man, and indigenous politics have played a very important role in his life and work in politics. In almost every country, especially in the Andes, but also in Paraguay and certain parts of Chile and Argentina, some of the most creative and liberating and democratic visions for a better society are grounded in indigenous spirituality and philosophy. It can shed important light on how Bolivians are working to transform the state and make it reflective as a place of various indigenous nations. Reporting on political violence, have you ever feared for your personal safety? I have definitely felt in danger in many cases: covering protests, being shot at with rubber bullets or in crowds of people who were being beat up by the police. That’s been the case many times. It’s always a terrible feeling. I always try to be as safe as possible and not try to be this tough guy who’s going to the most dangerous place or trying to show off or anything. That’s definitely foolish. So, for example, in Paraguay I’ve been in some tough situations covering stories on landless farmers that are occupying space that’s next to soy plantations. The soy farmers hire thugs to repress and sometimes murder and displace them. I’ve been in situations that have been very tense, but that’s the reality that millions of people live in every single day. So it’s been an inevitable part of putting myself out there to get the different interviews and to understand the reality of different communities: I run these kind of risks sometimes. Luckily, I haven’t gotten into too much trouble. How has your identity as a white American male impacted your ability to research and report in Latin America? As far as being a white American, it has ironically helped me in unexpected ways. For example, when I’ve written on right wing racist groups in Santa Cruz, Bolivia … Rather than portraying myself as a leftist journalist who is anti-racist and pro-indigenous, I went into their offices and said I was a journalist from America and wanted to interview them. They were very welcoming to me. I didn’t explain my politics or tell them about my website. They assumed that because I was from the US, I was right wing and racist like them and had the same kind of economic and political ideology. So I interviewed them and ended up painting a pretty terrible picture. They were racist in all of their comments and it was pretty damning to them, what they told me. I wrote an article and published it, and they read it and they hated it and wrote me a lot of hate mail. So that’s that. I haven’t been back to their office since. And has your nationality ever made it difficult to get sources? Typically wherever I’ve gone people have understood the difference between US government, US business, US foreign policy and the actual citizens like myself. They say, “Well, my government doesn’t reflect my views either, so don’t hold it against me that my government is bad.” Also, I was very meticulous about trying to educate myself as much as possible before interviewing anybody to understand their history, to understand their organization’s history, to understand the context of what I was interviewing them about to the best way I was able. Especially when going into an interview—whether it was with Felipe Quispe who is an indigenous leader in Bolivia or members of neighborhood councils in El Alto—with people that are typically and understandably resistant to trust gringos because they have been manipulated by development organizations, even politicians, and have been misrepresented by journalists. Typically US journalists will come in, generally the stereotype whether they are from US or wherever, and say, “I don’t know anything about your organization, I don’t know anything about your history. What do you think about this, about Evo Morales wanting to nationalize the soccer team?” Coming in and trying to be someone who is informed and respectful and once people generally understand, “Oh, he knows about this meeting that we had last week, or he knows about this book that I wrote or he read the book, he doesn’t just come in [having] read Wikipedia for half a second and decided to waste my time,” it’s always helped. The network of whose trust you gain or who know you expands over time and that’s been definitely helpful for me over time and that’s been definitely helpful for me in overcoming the natural distrust that people would often have toward gringos. That was sort of part of the reason I went back and said, “Here’s the book. Hate it or whatever, but here it is.” I’m not just going to disappear, and I’ve tried over the years to maintain contacts. Every time I go back and meet with people and not just be someone who disappears, but someone who is committed to this political project and the process of sharing information and reciprocal learning which in the end was the analysis of my last book: that movements should be learning from each other across borders and not just be living in a vacuum. refresh –>