New Challenges for Radical Social Movements

September 25, 2007

“There were no social classes that day,” says Jorge Jara, recounting the protests of December 20, 2001. “You’d look, and we were all equals. ‘Let’s go!’ someone would say. And we’d all start moving.” Those protests brought down the ineffective Argentine President Fernando de la Rúa, albeit at the cost of dozens of lives. “Me,” he adds, “an unemployed worker, and right next to me a guy in a suit and tie. None of it mattered…. When those sons of bitches would shoot, they wouldn’t ask your class.”

Jorge is speaking with his friend Orlando as they sit in the community center of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement (MTD), a piquetero group, in Solano on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, reminiscing about how they had spent that day downtown. A passerby chimes in: “It’s that our struggle erases differences,” he says. Another member of the MTD tells me that on the 20th he saw a student and two young piqueteros gathered on a street corner speaking with nearby residents and motoqueros (motorcycle delivery drivers who that day served as the lines of communication between groups). He describes how in a matter of seconds, the small group made the decision to take cover while still holding its ground against the approaching police. It seems that each person’s know-how quickly multiplied into collective, non-hierarchical, horizontal knowledge. In the face of danger, and perhaps even death, the different backgrounds gave strength to the fight.

The Buenos Aires events do not stand alone in recent Latin American history. For example, a series of protests in El Alto, Bolivia led to the resignation of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada on October 17, 2003. And indigenous uprisings in Ecuador, campesino land seizures in Paraguay, anti-privatization rebellions in Peru and scores of other rural and urban social actions throughout the hemisphere can be understood in the same light. Since Venezuela’s street protests of 1989 (dubbed the “Caracazo”), Latin America’s popular protests have managed to topple governments, derail privatizations and have, above all, made those at the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder—the excluded and the marginalized—into the central protagonists of social struggles.

Many of these grassroots movements, however, often become prisoners of their own success. When social justice movements develop the ability to mobilize large numbers of people and gain influence in the political arena, they create a new scenario that frequently turns against them. Too often, their success weakens and even divides them, thereby leading to a period of withdrawal and demobilization. This is the essential paradox and challenge of popular struggle.

Latin America has seen an astonishing rise of center-left governments, or at least governments that promised an anti-neoliberal program before assuming power. In Peru, Alejandro Toledo gained office thanks to a broad-based movement that ousted Alberto Fujimori. Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez rose to the presidency of Ecuador largely due to the support of a powerful indigenous movement. Bolivia’s Carlos Mesa assumed the presidency following popular insurrections throughout 2003. In Argentina and Brazil, Néstor Kirchner and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva were elected in the wake of vast social movements that weakened or caused crises in the prevailing neoliberal model. Tabaré Vasquez recently won the presidency in Uruguay on a wave of fierce resistance by the labor movement against the privatization of key public services and other neoliberal policies. The so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” headed by Hugo Chávez would never have gained its current momentum without the Caracazo, which marked the beginning of a deep crisis in the Venezuelan party system.

The rise of these governments has ushered in a new phase for popular movements. In some ways, they have lost much of their dynamism by dangerously relegating their initiatives to a state composed of politicians who intermittently use the language of the movements, wave similar banners and claim to defend identical objectives. Although one can question the sincerity and motives of these new governments, one thing is cetain: their existence has produced a radical change in power relations.

As time passes, the movements discover they have helped install governments that seek to strengthen the state—an apparatus routinely undermined by neoliberal policies. In other words, the existence of “progressive” governments, today the majority in South America, was made possible by social struggles that debilitated the neoliberal model and brought a degree of crisis to both political representation and the nation-state itself. These governments are now devoting themselves to providing renewed legitimacy to the state. To do so, they work to co-opt and divide the movements along with their most capable leaders, because active and mobilized movements necessarily undermine a government’s capacity to govern.

On the other hand, progressive governments allow popular movements wider spaces and opportunities. These opportunities arise, however, as long as the movements in some form accept being embedded into state institutions, which weakens their ability to inspire social mobilization. In none of the countries mentioned above, though, have these new difficulties put an end to social mobilization. In some cases, movements have even managed to strengthen themselves among new social sectors.

But these dilemmas have raised some hard questions for social movements. How, for example, should they relate to electoral forces with which they share common features? How can they move between mobilization and some form of action not based on confrontation? Should they participate in government or remain in the opposition? How can they continue building their own movements when the government seeks to divide and co-opt their leaders? These questions have no simple answers, and they represent both the opportunities and the dangers for existing movements as well as those yet to come. We see this in the cases of the piquetero movement in Argentina, Bolivia’s popular and indigenous movement and the Ecuadoran indigenous movement.

For starters, the social movements and the new governments usually differ in their sense of priorities and timing. Popular movements typically respond to the priorities of their own communities, but increasingly they must also respond to the timing dictated by institutional politics and state power. This often creates tension between movement leaders and the rank and file. Recent events show that changes in government leadership provoke readjustments within social movements. This is especially true when these movements find themselves caught up in the institutional agenda of state power and, in the process, abandon the priorities of their own constituencies.

Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) is a notable exception. It has generally maintained its dynamism by asserting its autonomy from the government and is currently creating spaces to re-launch mass mobilizations. In Argentina and Bolivia the situation is more complex. Amid the internal divisions of the social movements, the presidents of both countries have managed to build bridges and develop policies partly reflecting differing social groups’ demands. Both administrations have successfully exploited these internal fissures to their advantage.
Argentina’s piquetero movement has suffered serious fragmentation since the inauguration of the Kirchner Administration. One of its largest and most influential groups, the Federation of Land and Housing, directed by Luis D’Elía, opted to become the piquetero arm of the Kirchner government. By doing so, the organization assured itself a permanent flow of resources but consequently lost its credibility as an ethical and political role model within the larger piquetero movement.

At the other extreme, groups linked to leftist political parties—Communists, Trotskyists, Maoists and Guevarists—have committed themselves to continued street mobilizations as a way of facing a political conjuncture marked by a “generous” government attitude toward the poor. Only a few groups have managed to escape the two extremes of co-optation and endless, exhausting and generally unfruitful mobilizations.

The ways the different piquetero sectors organize themselves provide some clues that help explain the political paths chosen by each sector. The groups with vertical and caudillista structures are much more prone to government alignment, not only because they need the resources to feed clientelistic practices, but also because maintaining caudillos in positions of power can be an expensive enterprise. At the other end of the spectrum are the so-called autónomos—groups that most forcefully protect their autonomy and have the most horizontality in their structures and practices.

The groups co-opted by the government probably constitute a little over a third of the entire piquetero movement; those with ties to leftist parties represent another third and the autónomos the rest.1 The party-affiliated piquetero groups are the most active on the streets, reproducing the forms of struggle used as the broader movement was growing—primarily, road blockades. But fewer and fewer members heed their calls to action, and their protests have less and less public resonance. As for the autónomos, they are the most creative and seem to be the wing of the movement actually seeking new social relations.

Significantly, activists involved in some sectors of the piqueteros and other Argentine movements—namely, the neighborhood assemblies, occupied factories and campesino collectives—are working to build new social relations from below against the logic of the state. The MTD piqueteros in Solano, for example, grow a portion of their food in community gardens, have built health clinics and have begun opening schools. They have even established reciprocal exchanges with other groups beyond the formal marketplace.2 Recovered factories and neighborhood assemblies have also made tangible links with piquetero groups, particularly in the distribution and commercialization of products.

Popular urban sectors throughout the continent are creating initiatives that indicate a shift from providing services to becoming producers. Not only do they grow food, but in many cases produce clothing, shoes and other products. Moreover, they have taken to providing various necessities of their daily lives that were once within the realm of state provision: health and education being the most noteworthy. In sum, they are creating community, producing and providing for their own lives based on criteria of solidarity and personal initiative. They are not only concerned by what they do, but more importantly, how they do it.

In recent months, an important reconfiguration of the movements has been gaining momentum, creating new horizontal spaces between groups. Non-institutional fora established for movements to share experiences, engage in open debates and exchange strategies or ideas are a growing phenomenon. These encounters bring together diverse groups—piqueteros, human rights groups, indigenous organizations, and labor and student groups among others—with varied constituencies under a banner of solidarity and common solutions.3

In bolivia, the powerful social movements that converged to overthrow the neoliberal government of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada split in two when Carlos Mesa assumed the presidency. On the one hand, the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB), the landless groups, the Confederation of Campesino Workers (CSUTCB), the Coordinator in Defense of Gas and the Federation of Neighborhood Associations of El Alto (FEJUVE) that constituted the core of the October 2003 insurrection and that maintain the struggle to nationalize gas have clearly established a place for themselves on the political scene. But their power to reach new constituencies has been weakened by a government that makes selective concessions and seeks to isolate them. On the other hand, the cocalero (coca growers) movement, led by Evo Morales along with the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, took a more conciliatory approach, and for several months acted as important bases of support for the Mesa government. This led many observers to suspect that the MAS and Morales were positioning themselves for the December 2004 municipal elections in which the MAS turned out to be the most voted-for party. The municipal elections were largely seen as a launching pad to the presidency for Morales in 2007.

The division between these sectors came to a head over the July 18, 2004, nationwide referendum on the future of the country’s vast natural gas deposits. The vote led to a confrontation between a boycott of the vote championed by Aymara leader Felipe Quispe, who considered the referendum a trap, and Morales’ institutional strategy for political victory at the ballot box. This division in the popular sector has allowed President Mesa to continue his plan to keep the country’s natural resources in private hands.

Characterizing the growing rift among the movements, Raquel Gutiérrez, a long-time observer of Bolivia, wrote, “If in 2003, the confluence of social energies was dedicated to a common objective that trounced sector-specific demands—the recovery of the nation’s gas reserves—then in 2004, the popular and indigenous movement has not been able to present a coherent autonomous narrative for its actions. Over the past year, the political rhythms were established by the state.”4 Indeed, over the last year, all the social movements have had to respond in successive rear-guard actions to policies from the political establishment. In the process, they have lost much of their autonomy in formulating proposals and actions.

According to Quispe, however, “A strategy is emerging that seeks to replace all state authorities with our own traditional authorities” in the provinces near La Paz. Echoing the rallying cry of many of his constituents, the Aymara leader has called for the building of an “Aymara nation.” This constitutes an incipient form of self-government that is moving toward “making our own laws, exchanging the political constitution of the state with our own constitution, replacing the capitalist system with a communal one and changing the tri-colored flag [of Bolivia] for our seven-colored flag.”5

The Aymaras are forging a strategy that differs markedly from the one adopted by Mexico’s Zapatistas, who have chosen to build autonomy within the existing framework of the Mexican nation-state [See “Resistance and Autonomy...” p. 34]. It also differs from the demands of Ecuador’s indigenous movement for plurinationality. The Aymaras do not talk in terms of a single “state” but rather a nation. They don’t seek to occupy or seize the existing Bolivian state. Instead, the Aymaras plan to replace the sharply polarized Bolivian state with a nation self-governed by communities. This is a much more radical project than the ones promoted in Chiapas or Ecuador, albeit obviously much more difficult to implement. For that reason, the relationship of the Aymaras to the Bolivian state is rife with conflict and without any apparent solution that would not lead to some form of social civil war—which, in fact, they have already declared.

The Ecuadoran context provides an interesting contrast to the Bolivian case of the Aymara nation. In Ecuador the government succeeded in co-opting important sectors and leaders, producing a deep division through the heart of the social movement united by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).

Since 1990, the Ecuadoran indigenous movement has been the chief social and political actor in its own country and an obligatory point of reference for social movements throughout Latin America. It has been one of the broadest, most powerful and mature movements in the region. Since the Inti Raymi uprising in June 1990, CONAIE has managed to unite the indigenous communities of the highlands, the coast and the Amazon region while at the same time developing a potent form of social action that has led to several militant uprisings. This mobilization not only modified the national political agenda, but also succeeded in toppling two presidents: Abdalá Bucaram in 1997 and Jamil Mahuad in 2000.

The Ecuadoran case provides many insights into both the possibilities and the pitfalls of social movements’ involvement in government, and it represents a unique case in movement-government relations in Latin America. CONAIE has exercised almost every political option available to movements: popular insurrections, construction of broad political alliances with a diversity of sectors, creation of a political-electoral front, direct participation in elections, taking power nationally for several hours and integration into government. Moreover, it has the experience of leaving government and returning to the opposition and militancy in the streets. Today, the indigenous Ecuadoran movement is trying to heal the wounds it suffered from its failed participation in government.

In 1996, CONAIE along with some other movements, created Pachakutik, an electoral-political entity designed to make it a powerful actor in formal politics. The foundation of its political proposals was the demand for “plurinationality”—a demand that implied the reconstitution of the Ecuadoran state. According to sociologist Pablo Dávalos, “The plurinational state is the axis of a theoretical and political hinge that allows the Indians of Ecuador to make the transition from a social movement to a political entity.”6 Luis Macas, a founder of CONAIE, explains that plurinationality implies a profound reform of the first article of the Constitution in order to recognize that Ecuador is made up of several “nations.” Practically speaking, says Macas, this would “permit indigenous communities [or ‘nations’] the legal administration of their internal affairs under the rubric of a plurinational state.”7

Pressure from grassroots movements in 1998 resulted in the convocation of a Constituent Assembly to define the characteristics of a new state. As Dávalos points out, through their proposals the indigenous movement sought a new prescription for the state. This was a task that implied debating “the epistemological contents of difference, mainly in the construction of new subjects like the communal subject, and of new institutions, such as the administration of indigenous justice, communal economic institutions, etc. These definitions of difference would be the basis for the new principles of the state.”8

But the political class resisted and diverted the aspirations of the movement. By formulating the rules for the election of representatives for the Constituent Assembly, the political elite favored established political parties, thereby placing the delegates of the popular and indigenous movements at a distinct disadvantage. In other words, the authoritarian mechanisms of traditional power still held force at the time of the election.
Although the electoral process occurred within the framework of a significant social mobilization, including popular assemblies and the election of a People’s Constituent Assembly, popular demands were sidelined. Worse yet, many popular demands were formally accepted by the elite but with no practical consequences; much like the political practice of the colonial era when the motto for colonizers was “accept but don’t comply.”
“The strategic error of the indigenous movement,” says Dávalos, “was to underestimate the political system and to think that the Pachakutik political movement was by itself sufficient to confront and resolve disputes with the political system.”9

In 1999 CONAIE led two uprisings in reaction to the growing paralysis and decomposition of the state. In this critical context, however, the indigenous movement took an unprecedented turn. CONAIE became an alternative power. Its leaders separated from the bases and adopted a tactic of conquering state power, which had little to do with the original project of building a plurinational state. CONAIE went from being an alternative social movement that pressured for major reforms to becoming a political actor that competed for room in the existing institutional political arena. In doing so, it adopted the logic of the state. In taking that step, it risked a lesson learned over more than a decade of accumulated political and organizational experience: in Dávalos’ words, “to assume the logic of power can mean destroying the experience gained as a counter-power.”10 As a result, by 2000 the political space that the grassroots indigenous movement had been successfully reclaiming since 1990 was suddenly closed off.

The CONAIE then supported the presidential candidacy of Lucio Gutiérrez and for six months formed part of his administration. Once the movement adopted this political strategy, it became imprisoned in a logic that inevitably led to its self-destruction. In the end, the decision to withdraw from the government was the only way to avoid its complete dissolution. The blame for attempting to destroy, divide and subdue the movement cannot be laid exclusively on the Gutiérrez government, since the movement itself had already made decisions that allowed the government to weaken it.

The Ecuadoran indigenous movement is hotly debating how to proceed. On August 21-23, 2004, the Amazonian Parliament of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadoran Amazon (CONFENIAE) devoted sessions to analyzing the current delicate moment. One of its historical leaders, Antonio Vargas, is now minister of Social Well-Being in the neoliberal government of Gutiérrez. In the assembly, Vargas announced he would soon deliver $300,000 to the different nationalities of the jungle if they agreed to sign a deal between the Confeniae and the Minister’s office. The indigenous parliament became sharply divided and confusion reigned. Only the Achuar, Shuar and Kichwas of Pastaza rejected the majority position to accept the government aid. That divisive session of the new indigenous parliament left a bitter memory with many participants, who viewed it as a betrayal of the movement’s principles.

“This instability of the indigenous movement,” commented Kichwa parliamentarian Mónica Chuji, “can be traced back to the alliance made by the Pachakutic movement that directly involved the CONAIE with the Gutiérrez Administration without consulting the rank and file of the organization and without any discussion or programmatic agreement.”11 Chuji reiterated the importance of undertaking a profound self-critique and going back to the grassroots to “start to solidly rebuild the road we lost during the last period of representational participation in the so-called political democracy of the established power.”12

The outcome of the Second CONAIE Congress held at the end of 2004 seems to have injected new life into the movement and provided a much-needed opportunity for self-critique. The election of Luis Macas, a movement stalwart, as CONAIE’s president signals a return to the basics for the organization. In a speech delivered to the Congress Macas harshly criticized Pachakutik and the institutional strategy it represents. He proposed a return to “collective leadership” and reminded the audience that power is “built from below … from the communities.” The new president argued against tactics that reproduce the same strategy of “Latin America’s so-called democracies…, which like a fishing hook, only bring up the mere few they dredge from the bottom.”

As proposed by Chuji and Macas, the recovery of the movement will most likely be carried out at the community level. Much like other periods of uncertainty and confusion, it is often from the bases that feasible and sustainable responses emerge to rebuild and create more solid foundations.
This panorama of Latin American social movements confirms there are no sure-fire models or recipes. Certainly, the more progressive a government is, the more possibilities will be open to movements. But at the same time, these governments confront the grassroots movements with new challenges for which they are ill-prepared. In Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador new governments have caused new divisions in social movements and co-opted some popular sectors by integrating them into government. No certain solutions exist, but the safeguarding of autonomy seems necessary if the social movements are to fend off situations that can potentially, and perhaps irreparably, damage them.

About the Author
Raúl Zibechi is a member of the editorial staff of the Montevideo-based weekly Brecha, a teacher and researcher on social movements at Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina and an adviser to several social groups. Translated by NACLA and the International Relations Center.

1. Raúl Zibechi, Genealogía de la revuelta. Argentina: una sociedad en movimiento (La Plata: Letra Libre, 2003).
2. MTD de Solano y Colectivo Situaciones, La hipótesis 891, Más allá de los piquetes (Buenos Aires: De Mano en Mano, 2002). And Raúl Zibechi, Genealogía de la revuelta.
3. Indymedia Argentina, “Encuentro por la Resistencia desde la Diversidad”, October 3, 2004.
4. Raquel Gutiérrez, “Bolivia: El temblor viene de abajo, carajo,” Ojarasca, supplement to La Jornada, November 8, 2004.
5. Ximena Ortúzar, “Entrevista a Felipe Quispe,” La Jornada, October 26, 2003.
6. Pablo Dávalos, “Movimiento indígena, democracia, Estado y plurinacionalidad en Ecuador,” Revista Venezolana de Economía y Ciencias Sociales, Vol. 10, No. 1, January-April 2004.
7.Luis Macas y Pablo Dávalos “Base ideológica del Movimiento de Unidad Plurinacional Pachakutik,” Nuevo País, July 2001.
8. Pablo Dávalos, “Movimiento indígena, democracia, Estado y plurinacionalidad en Ecuador.”
9. Pablo Dávalos, “Movimiento indígena, democracia, Estado y plurinacionalidad en Ecuador.”
10. Pablo Dávalos, “Movimiento indígena ecuatoriano. La constitución de un actor político,” Cuestiones de América, No. 7, November 2001.
11. Mónica Chuji Gualinga, “Asamblea Extraordinaria de la Confeniae,” .
12. Mónica Chuji Gualinga, “Asamblea Extraordinaria de la Confeniae.”

Tags: social movements, protest, neoliberal, politics, communities, indigenous

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