Times of Collapse, Times of Possibilities: Latin American Societies in Movement (disponible en español)

Massive popular mobilizations are the only way to prevent the state and capital from defining the post-pandemic future.

June 10, 2021

The send-off of the Zapatista delegation sailing to Europe (Enlace Zapatista)

Es tiempo de nuevo para que bailen los corazones, y
que no sean ni su música ni sus pasos, los del
lamento y la resignación.

Insurgent Subcomandante Moisés, October 2020

Translation by George Ygarza

In a reflexive move, the movements and pueblos of Latin America confronted the pandemic by turning inwards, pivoting towards their territories and spaces. They situated themselves while seeking security in the deepest folds of daily relationships, which had turned into shelters from the uncertainty.

The moment of withdrawal was necessary to safeguard collective and community health, avoid mass infection, and strengthen the peoples’ own sovereignty. Community self-defense groups played a decisive role, both in rural and urban areas, such as in cities like Cherán, Michoacán and in spaces like the Acapatzingo community in Iztapalapa, Mexico City.

This impulse to protect oneself from the outside, guaranteeing the nourishment of bodies and spirits through intensified cultivations and the circular ritual of assemblies alongside lagoons and sacred sites, happened approximately between March and July 2020, which I have detailed in the book Times of collapse: Peoples in motion. The movements saw no other way to limit damages and to reorganize before taking broader collective action. If they had not turned to such radical measures to overcome state and parastatal violence—especially deadly in regions with Indigenous, Black, and peasant majorities and in the urban peripheries—they would have suffered severe internal destabilization.

As of mid-2020, communities began to leave their territories. This departure represents a break from the multiple sieges that hung over their communities. It is an important move, necessary for continued existence, yet risky since a misstep can have dire consequences and force us to operate in even worse conditions. However, these are necessary risks for those of us who want to end capitalism.

These sieges have two dimensions. One is physical: the military, paramilitary, and narco siege. These sieges are seen in what the Nasa and Misak communities of Colombia’s Cauca region are under; the thousands of soldiers in barracks surrounding the autonomous Zapatista communities; the invasion of the Wallmapu Mapuche territory by the Carabineros (the militarized Chilean police) and the Chilean army, and so on. The second dimension is the informational siege: the silence and the distortion of the media. We can see this in the way the Peruvian media has gone after the presidential candidate Pedro Castillo.

As the months passed, movements learned new ways of dealing with diverse viruses, from the invisible microparasites like Covid-19 to the terrible and fearsome macroparasites like the police, military, and paramilitaries. They came to understand the link between the two, as William McNeill taught us in his two wonderful works, Plagues and People and The Pursuit of Power.

Understanding the forms of domination deployed during the pandemic is imperative if we wish to break through and neutralize the multiple meshes of “control capitalism.” But it will require time and above all the ability to recognize the physical and metaphysical walls that immobilize us. Beyond the use of overt weaponry, we have witnessed other devices of domination—"the pandemic as politics," in Agamben's words. Viruses (microparasites) have enabled the deployment of old and new forms of population control (macroparasites) to consolidate and expand the dominance of the richest 1 percent. Here, armed personnel and digital networks run parallel: the brute force of overt violence moves alongside the instantaneous flows of information and data that are centralized by large communications companies.

Despite all the difficulties that peoples and movements face in these times, it seems clear that the massive, orderly and determined exit from the enclosures of the state has been the only practice that has allowed us to sustain ourselves as collective subjects to continue to challenge domination. Outbursts of rage, no matter how justified they may be, cannot overcome this situation. On the contrary, they can reinforce the already significant social support for the extreme right. After violence and social uprisings, calm ultimately returns, but only after the initial rage is quelled by repressive force.

* * *

I believe that the breaking of the siege is not and cannot be a definitive event, but rather it is an extensive process that involves several challenges over time. The first is to prepare ourselves to face the inevitable reactions of those who were overwhelmed, of those who will continue their harassment and persecution under new conditions. The second involves deciding what paths to take once we cross the fences: where to walk, and what to build in the new spaces. Historical experience tells us that these processes of breaking the fence can be a watershed for the forces of change, because they can deploy their initiatives under more favorable conditions. However, they can also fall into new sieges, not so much military as political. The co-optation of rebel social and political forces is one of the best-known strategies designed to demobilize, which we can interpret as putting those who had won their freedom into a new immaterial cage.

Two examples come to mind. One is the 1934-35 Long March of the Chinese communists, when the nationalist army’s fifth encirclement was exhausting the Red Army’s resistance. The communists covered 12,000 kilometers from the center of the country to the remote and almost depopulated north in about a year. The withdrawal was a success, although it managed to save only 10 percent of the Red Army fighters. In the long run, breaking the encirclement allowed the communists to win the war against Japan and against the Chinese right wing. Other complex challenges of authoritarian and patriarchal state capitalism eventually followed.

The second example comes from feminism. In the 1960s, feminists were harassed by the Catholic Church, the right wing, their own families, and the vast majority of society. They were ignored by the political and social Left, accused of dividing the working class, and sometimes expelled from their organizations. Feminists, not to mention those who claimed queer identities, suffered a social, cultural, and political siege. However, they persisted, holding thousands of workshops, meetings, and encounters. In recent years, at least in Latin America, millions of women proudly call themselves feminists, and they have taken to the streets and carried out women's strikes and other activities that show that the siege has been lifted. The risks are different now. Perhaps the main one is the division of the movement and co-option by parties and states, with the aim of restoring patriarchal-capitalist domination.

Many movements and initiatives are breaking the siege. Notable examples within the last year include the actions of the Mapuche people in southern Chile; the Indigenous, Black, and peasant peoples of Cauca, Colombia; the Zapatistas in Chiapas; and important mobilizations in Peru, Chile, Bolivia, and Guatemala.

In July 2020, the hunger strike of 27 Mapuche prisoners shook the communities of southern Chile, which began a wave of mobilizations in support of the detainees in the prisons of Temuco, Lebu, and Angol. The strikers denounced the denigrating conditions in prisons and demanded compliance with ILO Convention 169: allowing them to serve their sentences in their communities and for the review of preventive detention.

In the first days of August, groups of peasants set up massive roadblocks in at least 70 points in Bolivia to protest the postponement of the elections by the coup government of Jeannine Añez. The blockades were lifted when the government agreed to hold elections on October 18, which the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) won resoundingly with more than 55 percent of the votes, far surpassing the disputed 2019 result. The massive vote for the MAS was a rejection of a far-right, repressive, and privatizing government that emerged from a coup to install a reactionary provisional government.

On September 30, demonstrations began in Costa Rica against an agreement with the International Monetary Fund that proposed an increase in taxes and greater austerity in public spending. Faced with the wave of protests, on October 4 the government announced the suspension of the IMF negotiations to open a forum for public dialogue.

On October 5, the EZLN issued the first statement since it closed the caracoles on March 16, 2020 due to the pandemic. They reported that in those months, 12 people had died from coronavirus. Unlike many governments, they immediately assumed responsibility for the deaths, deciding "to face the threat as a community, not as an individual matter." They bet on the global mobilization against capitalism and announced plans for their first tour of Europe, which they would then extend to other continents, with a delegation made up mostly of women. Five women and two men set sail for Spain on May 4.

The Zapatista rupture of the military, paramilitary, and political siege imposed by the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has had very harsh consequences for the Zapatistas’ support bases. The EZLN also broke the siege in August 2019 with the creation of seven new caracoles (before there were only five) and teaching new autonomous municipalities. These initiatives increased Zapatista centers to 42 spaces of autonomous resistance.

The Mexican government and the state of Chiapas reacted with what amounted to paramilitary attacks on the EZLN support bases in the Moisés Gandhi region and in the Nuevo San Gregorio community. It has been an extremely cruel war of attrition that aims to suffocate and starve the younger communities and regions by fencing off water sources, grazing lands, and health and education centers. Despite breaking the siege, the resistance must now be intensified in order to face the new challenges.

At the end of October 2020, a minga was held in Colombia. The Indigenous, Black, and Peasant Minga started in the southwest region of Cauca, continued in Cali, and visited several cities and towns before arriving eight days later in Bogotá. Throughout its journey, the minga, which is a term meaning community work but has also come to describe a form of collective protest, spoke with populations that share the same pain in a country that is bleeding from narco-military-paramilitary violence and the assassinations of hundreds of social leaders.

The nucleus of the Colombian resistance are the original peoples of Cauca. In 1971, the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) was founded within the framework of a vast struggle for land recovery, resulting in the expropriation and dispersal of the big landowners. The Nasa people, who launched their “life projects” in the 1990s, are one of the best organized communities in Colombia.

In April 2021, a tax reform that attacked the income of workers and the middle classes sparked a 24-hour strike that turned into an ongoing youth and popular uprising in large cities across the country. The government of President Iván Duque responded with repression causing around 40 deaths in two weeks and imposed a curfew starting at noon to clear the streets. There were also reports of armed men in civilian clothes attacking Indigenous demonstrators in Cali on May 9. Duque would later single out the CRIC, urging the movement to return home to “avoid confrontations.”

The latest Colombian uprising echoed a similar start to massive protests in Chile in 2019. On October 18, 2020, one year after the start of the 2019 social uprising, thousands of Chileans once again took to the streets to commemorate the protest. The Carabineros detained 580 people, and one person died in the repression.

On October 25, the Chilean people voted overwhelmingly to draft a new Constitution to replace the one inherited from the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The popular mobilization for the referendum is a clear continuation of the revolt that started in October 2019 that changed the face of the country, delegitimizing the government's neoliberal and repressive policy.

Finally, in Peru there was a notable popular mobilization as a result of the illegitimate dismissal of President Martín Vizcarra. The move, popularly considered a coup, installed a corrupt government through the maneuvers of members of parliament most of who face accusations of corruption. A week of massive demonstrations represented "a turning point" in Peruvian politics, as anthropologist Rodrigo Montoya has noted. The coup leader Manuel Merino was forced to step down just days after assuming the presidency, creating the unprecedented situation of cycling through three presidents in a single week.

* * *

Massive popular mobilizations are the only way to prevent the state and capital from defining the post-pandemic future. Some of these movements continue to walk along the cornice of ungovernability, seeking to avoid making the same errors that have neutralized their capacity for transformation.

The future will not emerge from the ballot box but from the ability of movements and peoples to continue moving through the cracks opened by uprisings, deepening them until they neutralize the model of death that expropriates water and land. There are no valid arguments to stop supporting collective creations.

Capital and extractivism have continued to advance during the pandemic—with more dispossession and appropriation of land, water, and common goods across Latin America. These systems do not stop; they continue to take advantage of the pandemic to accumulate more wealth. Therefore, being disorganized is synonymous with leaving a clear path for them.

This reveals a problem of political culture. Feminist and anti-patriarchal movements have shown enormous energy, obtaining the approval of the decriminalization of abortion in Argentina in December 2020, and Indigenous and anti-colonial movements show their willingness to resist the current model. Yet every time elections are called, energies are once again channeled into the polls.

It is true that the credibility of institutions and elections is weakening. But in the face of challenges, significant sectors return again and again to what is familiar: the leaders, the institutions, the state. Something has changed, however. Those of us who are here to build from below—not to reach the top but to build strong foundations—are a minority but no longer marginal. This is a fundamental change that encourages us despite enormous difficulties.

Raúl Zibechi is a writer, popular educator, and journalist who accompanies organizational processes in Latin America. He received an Honorary Doctorate from Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (La Paz, Bolivia) in 2017. He has published 20 books on social movements in which he has criticized the old "state-centered" political culture. He publishes in various media in the region, including among others La Jornada, Desinformémonos, Rebellion, and Correo da Cidadania.

George Ygarza is an organizer, accomplice, and PhD candidate dwelling within the undercommons.

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