Latin America Now: An Interview with Raúl Zibechi

Zibechi is a Uruguayan journalist, editor of the newspaper La Brecha, analyst, professor and author of various books on Latin American social movements. His most recent book is Dispersar el poder: Los movimientos como poderes antiestatales, which deals with the social movements in El Alto, Bolivia.

Benjamin Dangl: In an article recently published in the La Jornada, you wrote that in Bolivia "It was during those days [in October 2003 and May-June 2005] that hydrocarbons were nationalized, because the decree Evo Morales signed on May 1st did not do anything more than legally sanction something that had been won in the streets." And that "The insurrectionary moment passed to the institutional moment." How have the social movements of Bolivia opened a space for the Morales victory? Do you think that the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS, the party of Morales) is now co-opting the social movements? How and why?

Raul Zibechi: The social movements have been able to de-legitimize the neo-liberal model and have put the social and political forces that supported it on the defensive. They have broken the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and later that of Carlos Mesa, not leaving any exits other than the election of a government FROM the movements. But the movements cannot govern, and so they do it through a force like the MAS.

I do not know for sure that the MAS has co-opted the movements. I believe that is an old concept that is not adapted to the relations that are happening now between progressive or leftist governments and the movements in South America. The co-optation concept was used in the period of welfare, when there was a pact between state, industrialists and unions. Or later on when the right governments "bought" the leaders with positions or material benefits.

Here something different is happening. In fact there is an "encounter" happening. The panorama is like this: the movements and the governments – who often have identical, or very similar, origins -come together. They recognize each other, they find themselves in a different situation than before. The governments recognize that they cannot govern against the movements, and the movements see that they cannot always be in the street. They find people who are good at communicating in the new governors. This is happening in Bolivia, and other countries. The case of Hebe de Bonafini [Mother of the Plaza de Mayo] in Argentina is very clear, where there is a mutual recognition: Hebe recognizes the role of Kirchner as far as the human rights, and he recognizes her as worthy fighter and feels like the inheritor of her fight.

This does not solve the problem, but that raises it in other terms, different from the previous ones.

BD: What are the greatest challenges that the Evo Morales government has?

RZ: To construct a new, stable, lasting, non-colonial state and a new stable governability that will endure time. Take into account the real possibilities of doing it, mainly the great legitimacy that Evo has. But additionally take into account the stumbling blocks: the regional and world-wide reality is very unstable, that instability can affect a project of changes that must be prolonged since one can’t do these things in few years.

On the other hand, the United States is going to play very hard to isolate and to double the counter-hegemonic projects. Bolivia cannot do anything but be in the sight of the great powers, including Brazil, because of its hydrocarbon reserves. But the population is not going to wait a long time for the changes to arrive either, and these two opposite forces can be a problem for the governability that the MAS government tries for.

BD: Many people say that a movement from the "left" was growing in these last six years in Latin America, with social movements and in the government palaces, in elections. In several ways, we have seen electoral victories of this type in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Venezuala, Uruguay and perhaps in Mexico. Also there has been the Piquetero movement in Argentina, the MST in Brazil, what happened in El Alto in October 2003, amongst many others. In this sense, how do you see Bolivia regionally? How do you see the role that Bolivia has in this regional movement?

RZ: It seems to me that the difference in Bolivia, with respect to the other countries with progressive or leftist governments, is the power of the movements. Without a doubt, it is the country where the movements have gone farthest, where they have not only been able to de-structure neo-liberalism, but to have advanced to form whole regions outside the control of state power. A source of uncertainty about the future resides there. What will happen to this enormous historical and social force?

We cannot forget that the Bolivian people have already had a revolution in 1952, which obtained agrarian and educational reform. Now the topic is more arduous. A new social revolution took place, but the today the topic is the state, or at least people feel that it is. It is necessary to decolonize the Bolivian state. If MAS makes progress in this process, it will obtain a very important legitimacy on the continent and will be an inescapable pole of reference for the Indian people that are, in fact, the most active sector in the movements.

BD: You have written that there is a great and independent power in El Alto in the neighborhood councils to construct and manage collective public projects and to make decisions. These local meetings have created their own "micro-governments" that function to occupy the vacancy left by the state in El Alto. Simultaneously, there is a lot of necessity, poverty, corruption, lack of basic services in El Alto. How do you explain the difference the local meetings are making and what they fail to do? Can they be successful facing these challenges, and to what extent?

RZ: What does it mean to be successful? It depends on what we believe they want. If we think they want a democratic government, water, light, houses, etc., it is possible to obtain these in a time interval of, shall we say, ten years. But I believe the deep force of the Aymara culture leans towards the dispersion of the State, then the time interval is different, and we are talking about half a century at least.

My impression is that in El Alto it is very difficult to stabilize a hegemonic government in the long term. Condepa [political party] had greater stability and it did not even last one decade. It seems to me that conflicts between Alteños are inevitable, and for this reason I know the legitimacy of the municipal authorities will continue being questioned, by one side or another. Here there is a structural problem that has to do with the Aymara question: ultimately the state continues being something foreign.

BD: What do you think of the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (ALBA, trade agreement)? What challenges and opportunities does it have?

RZ: For now, I see that it is difficult for ALBA to consolidate and grow. The key in South America is the role that Brazil and Argentina adopt. Both are not very interested in anything that is not Mercosur, and there are still great difficulties in deepening the relationship.

BD: And of the People’s Trade Agreement that Morales has signed?

RZ: It is a deal with very modest objectives, that mainly affects the small producers. But it has the advantage that it is not considered to be the solution to all the problems of all the countries of the continent. That is, it doesn’t compute in the same way as ALBA, nor with MERCOSUR nor with the South American Community of Nations. Let us say that it looks for niches in commerce and cooperation in a very concrete sector and that can allow it to grow and consolidate itself.

BD: How are the policies of the free trade blocking regional integration?

RZ: Integration and free commerce cannot go hand in hand, unless it is an integration in which the weak submit to the strong. Like FTAA [Free Trade Area of the Americas] or a regional integration like IIRSA with Brazilian hegemony. The great problem of MERCOSUR is indeed the free commerce. The asymmetries between Brazil and Argentina have been created by the markets, by free commerce, and that is the main tie for integration. With freer commerce those asymmetries grow and are deepened.

BD: How do you see these small and bilateral treaties that the Bush administration is proposing instead of a great FTAA for Latin America? Are they more dangerous than a large treaty?

RZ: They aren’t more dangerous, but they could have the same effect in the medium term. I insist: everything depends on path Brazil takes. If Brazil decides on a path towards great power, inevitably it will sign a species of TLC with the United States. It will collide with the interests of the small and medium countries in the region, who will see how integration is nothing more than the subordination. But Brazil can choose Latin America, to forge a strong block that inevitably must collide with the USA. This does not depend on will only, and less still on declarations, but instead on a change in favor of endogenous development inside Brazil, development of the internal market and not of the financial market. So far Lula has avoided deciding, but a time will come when he must make a definite choice.

BD: Do you think that we are going to see more resistance to these type of treaties?

RZ: I don’t know. I believe that this isn’t the moment for resistance, on an interstate scale, but instead a moment for proposals. That is where they gamble on the immediate future.

BD: I was in Uruguay when Tabare Vasquez assumed power. There was a lot of joy and hope in the country. Now it seems to me that this administration has many problems and broken many promises. Can you give a critique of the Vasquez government? And also can you comment on the challenges that the Frente Amplio has with its president in power now?

RZ: There are changes in the subject of the human rights and continuity in the economy. Fundamentally there is little margin for profound changes, from the state’s point of view, and the continuity is weighing down a population that is seeing the possibility of Uruguay taking another course escape. In any case, the worst thing is that the country does not appear to be a model alternative to neo-liberalism. Anyway Vasquez has great popular support and will continue having it in the next few years because there is nobody – neither parties nor people – who can overshadow him.

BD: Can you make a comparison between the water war in Cochabamba, and what happened in the referendum on water privatization in 2005 in Uruguay? How were they different and similar?

RZ: In my point of view they have no relation, other than the subject. Cochbamba was a victorious popular insurrection, carried out by the most excluded people who pushed the population. In Uruguay it was one more vote, like so many others, without great mobilizations but a common reflection that water shouldn’t be privatized.

BD: The momentum from the social movements in the last six years has led to electoral victories in several countries in Latin America. Have the social movements lost anything with these victories? Are these "progressive" governments closing the windows to radical change?

RZ: They have won, not lost. It is good that there are progressive and leftist governments for many reasons. They don’t repress, they engage in a dialogue, sometimes they listen and other times they take the same course as the movements. They certainly don’t do everything that the movements demand, but you have to take into account that the state can’t make the profound social changes mobilized societies need to. Profound changes are not laws or decrees, they don’t consist of what land or gas happens to pass from one set of hands to another. It is something much more deep, and the best example we have is the role of the women in the world. They changed the world without having power, without structural reforms, but by changing their place, their self-esteem, their capacity and their potential instead. And that does not have reverse gear. Now the women are not going to return to their houses to clean their spouses’ clothes, but gas could be re-privatized if the forces above it change.

BD: Do you believe something regional can happen that has nothing to do with electoral victories or with state power? How do you see these types of grass-root movements, outside of the state structure? How can it happen?

RZ: They are happening. You don’t need to do anything more than go to a neighborhood or a community and to see everything that happens there. To see how the unemployed people, without land, the indians, are organizing their own daily life without depending on the State. Today, to a great extent the daily routine, from work to leisure, does not happen through institutions but through people’s self-organization in their territories. This is what I call a new world that is born of the people who are in movement, that is, not of movements as institutions but of people who move – slide – from the inherited place to a new uncertain place which they are constructing. They do it how they can but it is made on a base of their dreams and cultures.

Benjamin Dangl is the editor of, a progressive perspective on world events and, a website uncovering activism and politics in Latin America. For more of his work, go here:

Thanks to for the use of the photo.