When the Democratic Party wrestled a slim majority in Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, the punditry was quick to pronounce it a "revolution." But while lefties may have raised a hopeful fist on election night, nobody could legitimately claim that the shift in power stemmed from an energetic, organized, dedicated grassroots movement. Latin America is a different story.
The flourishing progressive political climates of Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Nicaragua represent, to varying degrees, the triumph of decades of political organizing.
"Overall, these changes were a long time coming," explains Teo Ballvé, editor of the NACLA Report on the Americas, a bimonthly magazine that publishes some of the best reporting on the region. "Progressive groups have been engaged in movement building and political organizing for decades. During the '70s and '80s, there was a leash on those organizations, because they were under the U.S.-supported right-wing governments. Now that more space is being afforded those groups, there have been dramatic gains."
The NACLA Report offers its readers a front-row view of these changes. The magazine is the primary work of the North American Congress on Latin America, an organization founded in 1966 to provide an alternative to the mainstream media's coverage of President Lyndon Johnson's 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic. The NACLA Report's formula is to uphold academic standards of research and sourcing, but to deliver the information in writing that anyone can understand.
This mix of substance and style has won the journal a loyal following; it is the most widely read English-language magazine on Latin American affairs. Most of the work is commissioned, says Ballvé, from academics and journalists who are happy to write for a periodical that affords them the space to dig deep. "The result is a form of intelligent journalism that's pretty rare," Ballvé says.
In addition to shorter reports from various regions, the magazine typically collects related articles in a feature section. A recent issue explored Caribbean politics, with articles ranging from a report on the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti to a study of Jamaican gang violence. Another ambitious package called "The Bio Politic" offered wide-ranging analysis of international politics and biology, including the appropriation of native plants, the global trade in human tissue, and the use of digital technology to enforce borders.
NACLA has served as a catalyst for activism in the United States, although that work has languished as the organization struggled for survival. "We began our life as a hybrid activist organization," explains Steve Volk, who has been with NACLA since 1969 and sits on the board. The information in the NACLA Report forms one arm of its activism; the other consisted of building networks among organizations interested in Latin American policy. "We had a staff of 8 or 10 people on two coasts," Volk says. But as budget pressures constricted the staff, "we withdrew more and more into the office and we lost that vital connection with the grass roots."
In recent years, the organization has taken steps to reconnect, beginning with a dramatic turnover in staff. Editor Ballvé, 27, represents the new face of the organization. "We brought a lot of younger people on board," he says, "so the organization could take a new direction. We are a new generation of activists, arising in part from the Seattle World Trade Organization protests, and we're building new, organic ties to the wider movement."
A central tool in creating these ties is NACLA's web presence. The group is about to launch a new site that will add breaking-news reports to the NACLA Report's in-depth coverage. It will also, says Volk, help to forge ties between activists in the United States and Latin America.
Recent shifts in Latin American politics have made such ties even more important. Progressives in the United States have a lot to learn from Latin American groups, and NACLA is uniquely positioned to facilitate collaboration across borders. "The Internet allows community and coordination that were inconceivable a few decades ago," Ballvé says. "Back then, you were lucky if you could raise the money to bring a handful of Latin American labor leaders up here for a week. Now you can be in constant contact with them."