Social Movements: The Transition of 2007

It was a transitional year. South American social movements carried out few major actions. For them, the year constituted a slow re-composition of forces, while many affirmed their autonomy from left and progressive governments. In 2007, social movements confronted two new fronts: the consolidation of a second and new wave of neoliberalism (based on commodities) and a correlation of forces, on a regional level, in which “progressive” governments play the dominant role.

Raúl Zibechi

It was a transitional year. South American social movements carried out few major actions. For them, the year constituted a slow re-composition of forces, while many affirmed their autonomy from left and progressive governments. In 2007, social movements confronted two new fronts: the consolidation of a second and new wave of neoliberalism (based on commodities) and a correlation of forces, on a regional level, in which “progressive” governments play the dominant role.

There may not have been mobilizations of major significance, but debates within the movements and their close associates grew in depth and scope. Nonetheless, the lack of common issues, such as the battle against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), made it difficult to create convergences and common agendas. In sum, there were advances, but they were hardly visible.

In Peru, movements once squashed by the dirty war between the military, the Shining Path, and the repressive Fujimori regime have begun to reemerge. Communities affected by mining and cocalero groups were two actors that will be sure to play a notable role in the years to come, along with the combative teachers’ unions. In Chile, among the Mapuche people, students, and working-class sectors, a renewed sense of social struggle has emerged. They are joined by urban sectors that have grown restless with the botched launch of the new public transportation system, Transantiago. In both countries, movements seem to be coming out after a long neoliberal offensive. In Chile, however, they confront with vigor and great difficulty a government that claims to be progressive.

In other countries, large parts of movements have managed to resist the temptation of government cooptation. In Argentina and Uruguay, the main social forces have affirmed their autonomy despite government efforts—especially in the former case—to domesticate and integrate some movement leaders. Besides affirming their autonomy, like those just mentioned, Brazil’s Landless Movement (MST) has repositioned itself in an important way. The group is confronting the second neoliberal wave head-first and attacking agribusiness monoculture (soy and sugar cane) as well as the ambitious agro-fuels policies championed by the Lula government.

In Paraguay, long-standing campesino resistance seems to have finally opened a crack in the rigid political hegemony of the Colorado Party. The political and electoral advances made by anti-neoliberal forces—even if former Bishop Fernando Lugo fails to win the next elections—will continue to have enormous influence in Paraguayan political landscape. In Colombia, the movements continue to suffer the effects of the war, but in large cities they are beginning to create new capacities for resistance as an alternative to the government of Álvaro Uribe.

The case of Venezuela shows that fears about popular movements entering into the government fold proved to be simplistic. The result of the recent constitutional referendum shows that support for the Bolivarian process in barrios has not diminished, but that does not mean they give the president a blank check. Abstention was greatest precisely in the same barrios that led the Caracazo uprising in 1989 and the resistance to the 2002 coup; this means people want to keep discussing and debating the process.

The situation in Bolivia is worrisome. The machine that had once so effectively dispersed state power by and for the grassroots, that formidable popular machine that produced the Water War in 2000, the Gas Wars in 2003 and 2005, and that took Evo Morales to the presidency seems to have ground to a halt. What’s worse, it is now the separatist-autonomist right that is demonstrating its ability to utilize similar forms of actions (sometimes identical) as those created by the popular movements: mobilize hundreds of thousands, hunger strikes, road blockades, civil disobedience to overthrow Evo, and all the while using autonomy as the rallying cry.

It won’t be easy to disarm the spurious machinery put into motion by the right, and it won’t be able to happen from the state or the government, because these are machineries that are anti-state and anti-governmental. Only movements from below and on the streets will be able to stop the right by confronting it on its own terms with the same methods it has chosen to use. Machine against machine, and the winner will be that which functions with the most energy from below. This can’t be put into action from above. That is one of the most important lessons from the Venezuelan process: it was mobilized popular sectors, without apparatus or formal direction that reversed the coup and the oil strike in 2002-2003.

This New Year could be one of change in which the movements once again play a greater role. The systematic crisis of the epicenter in the United States and Europe became evident in 2007 and it will certainly affect the countries of the Third World, particularly “emerging countries,” which see themselves as immune from this turbulence. But a return to crises would find the movements much better prepared than they were at the start of the 1990s when the first neoliberal wave picked up steam. They have accumulated two extremely rich experiences: the fight against privatizations and, in this new stage, resistance against state cooptation and the new forms of neoliberalism associated with this second stage. It is the very center of the movements that have grown richest, and this will be the best resource for confronting the new and imminent challenges ahead.


Raúl Zibechi is a member of the Editorial Board of the Brecha weekly in Montevideo, Uruguay. He is also professor and researcher at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and consultant to various social movements. This article was originally published by the Mexican daily La Jornada.
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