Hope at Midnight:
Democracy Rises in Latin America

by Rebecca Solnit

Most of the acute despair felt in the wake of the US election has faded into general depression or a sense that all the effort, or even any effort, is futile. But I still wonder about the intensity of that gloom. And I’m still an advocate for hope.

One of the starkest contrasts of the campaign was that Bush was selling hope – even if false hope, something pretty indistinguishable from lies. After all, his good news consisted mostly of the assertion that the economy was doing great, the war was being won, and the US was safer. Kerry had the sorry job of saying that actually the war was a disaster, that we’d made millions of new enemies, that we were a whole lot less safe, and that the economy was tanking. Kerry never figured out any creative way to frame the bad news and the demands that such news makes.
Massive street protests against the economic policies of Argentine President Fernando de la Rua and his economic minister Domingo Cavallo led to government’s resignation on December 20, 2001 and new elections. Photo: [latinacoop@hotmail.com]

As a product, Bush was more tightly packaged, prodding the US people along with the carrot of false hopes and the stick of false fears. Or perhaps displaced fears is a better term – for the feelings are real but the phenomena onto which they are projected aren’t.

Late in the election season, I vowed to keep away from what I thought of as “the Conversation,” that tailspin of mutual wailing about how bad everything is, a recitation of the usual evidence against us that just dug any hope and imagination down into a dank little foxhole of curled-up despair. Now I listen to people having that conversation, wondering what it is we get from it – the certainty of despair? Is even that kind of certainty, a despair as false as Bush’s hope, so worth pursuing? Let me try to make instead the case for realism and for not giving up.

Locating the Future
What strikes you when you come out of deep depression is the utter selfishness of misery, its shallow, stuck, inward gaze. Which is why the political imagination is better fueled by looking deeper and farther. The larger world: it was as though it disappeared during that season, as though there were only two places left on the planet – Iraq, like hell on Earth, and the United States rotting out from the center.

But there are places we hardly notice where it looks like the future is being invented – notably South America. In Uruguay, after not four years of creepy governments, but 170 years – ever since Andrew Jackson was president here – the people got a good leftist government. As Eduardo Galeano joyfully wrote:

A few days before the election of the President of the planet in North America, in South America elections and a plebiscite were held in a little-known, almost secret country called Uruguay. In these elections, for the first time in the country’s history, the left won. And in the plebiscite, for the first time in world history, the privatization of water was rejected by popular vote, asserting that water is the right of all people.…The country is unrecognizable. Uruguayans, so unbelieving that even nihilism was beyond them, have started to believe, and with fervor. And today this melancholic and subdued people, who at first glance might be Argentineans on valium, are dancing on air. The winners have a tremendous burden of responsibility. This rebirth of faith and revival of happiness must be watched over carefully. We should recall every day how right Carlos Quijano was when he said that sins against hope are the only sins beyond forgiveness and redemption.

The US is in many ways the world’s big problem; South America is one place that looks like it’s coming up with solutions. In Chile, huge protests against the Bush administration and its policies went on for several days, better than any we’ve had at home since the war broke out. Maybe Chile is the center of the world; maybe the fact that the country has evolved from a terrifying military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet to a democracy where people can be outspoken in their passion for justice on the other side of the world matters as much as our decline.

Despair there in the Pinochet era was more justified than here under Bush. And as longtime Chile observer Roger Burbach wrote after those demonstrations, “There is indeed a Chilean alternative to Bush: it is to pursue former dictators and the real terrorists by using international law and building a global international justice system that will be based on an egalitarian economic system that empowers people at the grass roots to build their own future.”

In Venezuela last August, voters reaffirmed “Washington’s biggest headache,” anti-Bush populist Hugo Chavez, in a US-backed referendum meant to topple him. This spring, Argentina’s current president, Nestor Kirchner, backed by the country’s popular rebellion against neoliberalism, defied the International Monetary Fund; Uruguayans voted against water privatization; Bolivians fought against water and natural gas privatization so fiercely they chased their neoliberal president into exile in Miami in October of 2003.

Which is not to say, forget Iraq, forget the US; just, remember Uruguay, remember Chile, remember the extraordinary movements against privatization and for justice, democracy, land reform and indigenous rights in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, and Venezuela. Not one or the other, but both. Latin America is important on the face of it because these communities are inventing a better politics of means and of ends. That continent is also important because 20 years or so ago, almost all those countries were run by violent dictators. We know how the slide into tyranny and fear takes place, but how does the slow clambering out of it unfold? That’s something we are going to need to know, because Bush is halfway through an eight-year reign, not at the start of a 1000-year Reich, so far as we can tell.

Counting Backward, Looking Forward
Stories of liberation have been running concurrently with the rise of the Bush administration and its leap into war. This is what the world usually looks like, not like Uruguay this fall, not like the US, but like both. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” His forgotten next sentence is, “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” You wonder what made Nelson Mandela hopeful in 1973, what made Czech dissident Vaclav Havel keep poking at the authorities in 1979, what kept the indigenous peoples of the Americas going from 1492 to 1992 when their fortunes began to turn a little, what made the people of Uruguay bother to come out to vote after 170 years of bipartisan oligarchy, the people of Chile continue resisting at hideous cost against the Pinochet regime. And you remember that the world turned on Pinochet in 1998, that his own country will likely try him as a criminal, that his old crony Henry Kissinger is afraid to leave the United States for fear of international justice. Is it so impossible then, with another 20 years or so of heading in the direction the world’s been heading, the direction the US government is trying to head off, to imagine that Bush may one day find himself in a war-crimes tribunal?

The last 15 years in Poland and Venezuela, in rural Mexico and downtown Seattle are the wide-open present in which we live. And what distinguishes all these hallmarks – the case for the defense of hope – is that they are about the power that lies on the edges, in the shadows, with forgotten, discounted, marginal and ordinary people, not the privileged and spotlighted. It is that power on the edges, the power of the powerless, that undermines the WTO, troubles Monsanto, overthrew a president in Bolivia, and makes the war in Iraq unwinnable.

Hope at the Edges
The US election was bound to be depressing, since its very nature was to fix our gaze upon national electoral politics, the arena in which they have lots of power and we have hardly any. At these times, the world is organized like a theater; politicians are what’s on stage; and the message is that this and nowhere else is where the fate of the world is decided. It’s easy to let your gaze lock onto the limelight, helped along by all the mainstream media. And staring at a bright light makes it hard to see in the dark areas around and beyond. It takes time for your eyes to adjust. The brightly lit stage is an arena of tremendous power, but of almost no creativity. Much is decided there, but what is at stake comes from elsewhere. I wonder nowadays if the fear of the Other – communists, immigrants, terrorists – displaces into safe terms the very real recognition that change comes from the edge. Those with a stake in the status quo are there to protect the center not just from assault, but from imagination and transformation. But change will come anyway.

The Wobblies used to say, “Don’t mourn, organize!” Do both. The election was deeply depressing, and I’m not arguing against being depressed. I’m just arguing against giving up. And for broadening the arena of evidence under consideration, since the world is larger than the United States and mostly in defiance of it, not to mention utterly unpredictable.

And besides which, if you give up, you’ll hate yourself in the morning. If you act, you may or may not have the impact you intend, but you know what the consequences of passivity are. Insurrection is the honorable way to go, and you can be a small victory just by being in public, in touch, and outspoken – one person who hasn’t been conquered. Don’t do the Administration the favor of conquering yourself.

Rebecca Solnit is a writer and activist based in San Francisco. This article was adapted with permission from her book Hope in the Dark (Nation Books, 2004).