Vale Roger Burbach — an activist dedicated to a better world

Issue 
'Fire in the Americas', co-written with Orlando Nunez, was perhaps Roger Burbach's most notable book.

A great companero, colleague and friend, Roger Burbach, passed away on March 5 at the age of 70.

I had the privilege of working with Roger on a book we co-authored, together with Michael Fox, titled Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Socialism.

Despite being almost double our age, Roger was without a doubt the driving force behind this project, which turned out to be his last book published while still alive.

Roger was truly a remarkable man who never let adversity get in his way.

In 1989, a tragic swimming accident left him paraplegic and in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Then in 2004, Roger was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and told he only had three to five years to live. Enduring constant medical treatment and a stem cell transplant, he defied doctors' predictions to go on producing another 11 years of fruitful and invaluable work.

Roger will perhaps be best remembered for his writings and research, but he was above all an activist dedicated to the fight for a better world and a passionate supporter of the struggles of Latin America's peoples.

In a moving tribute to Roger, North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) contributing editor Fred Rosen explained how Roger came to devote so much of his work to the struggles in Latin America: “From 1971 to 1973, while conducting research for his Indiana University doctoral dissertation in Chile, he worked with dependency theorists Andre Gunder Frank and Theotonio Dos Santos at the Center for Socio Economic Studies in Santiago.

“He paid a brief visit to Berkeley in 1972 and then returned to Chile later that year, remaining through the coup.

“With the overthrow of President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973 and the death of his friends Frank Teruggi and Charlie Horman at the hands of the Pinochet dictatorship, he became a dedicated campaigner for human rights and social transformation.”

Roger went on to become a staffer at NACLA throughout the '70s and '80s, and later sat on the editorial board of its magazine.

He also wrote several seminal books, the first of which was Agribusiness in the Americas (1980), which he co-authored with Patricia Flynn. Looking at the role of US agribusiness at the time, it is still regarded by many as a classic in the research of transnational agribusiness corporations and their exploitative role in Latin America.

Inspired by the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution, and determined to do whatever he could to prevent it suffering the same fate as Chile’s democratic socialist experiment, Roger spent much of the '80s travelling through Nicaragua and El Salvador.

He spent his time exposing US intervention in the region because, as Rosen explained, Roger saw his research and reporting as “weapons to advance the cause of liberty and justice for all”.

His research on the popular resistance to US intervention led him to work with the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s (FSLN) Directorate of International Relations on a project established to analyse US foreign policy.

In 1983, he published Listen, Companero: Conversations With Central American Revolutionary Leaders, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua. It was one of the first attempts to bring these voices directly to an English-speaking audience.

Roger also co-wrote with Orlando Nunez what was perhaps his most notable book, Fire in the Americas: Forging a Revolutionary Agenda (1986). The book was a powerful call to activists around the world to look at the lessons of the Central American revolutionary experiences, particularly their ability to overcome differences and forge powerful, united left forces.

The FSLN went on to award Roger the Carlos Fonseca Award for the book.

After the collapse of the old Soviet Bloc, Roger threw himself into studying the impacts of globalisation and the rise of new horizontally based social movements. He saw them as the potential base for what he controversially referred to as “postmodern socialism”.

This new area of research led him to author and co-author several books, including Globalisation and Its Discontents: The Rise of Postmodern Socialisms, Globalization and Postmodern Politics: From Zapatistas to High-Tech Robber Barons, and September 11 and the US War: Beyond the Curtain of Smoke.

His interest in these developments explains why Roger became so keen to write about the new social movements in South America and their quest for a new 21st-century socialism.

Never afraid to raise his concerns or point out the contradictions of these processes, Roger nevertheless saw them as clear signs of “hope for a world afflicted by economic crises and war”.

For most of his final years, he continued to travel to Latin America while being the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He was also working on an autobiography right up until his death.

Today, Roger is no longer with us and activists right throughout the Americas will no doubt notice his absence. However, his writings and example will remain, providing a powerful beacon for us all.

[Federico Fuentes is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia, editor of Bolivia Rising and co-author of Latin America's Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Socialism with Roger Burbach and Michael Fox, published by Zed Books in 2013.]

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.