Social Movements and Progressive Governments: The Current Veins of Latin America

Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar is a small and intense woman. With an academic background in mathematics and sociology, her C.V., nevertheless, focuses mainly on the unstable political sands of Latin American politics. She began in her native Mexico with exiled El Salvadorians of the FMLN, and 20 years later she continued her work in Bolivia, where she was arrested in April of ’92 on charges of armed uprising and numerous other charges, for having been part of the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army (EGTK). In the raid, she fell alongside her companions, amongst whom were Felipe Quispe, current leader of the Pachacutik Indigenous Movement-MIP, and Alvaro García Linera, Bolivia’s brand new vice-president elect.

Raquel was released from jail on April 25, 1997, thanks to a hunger strike that forced her legal situation, and to an endless number of international protests that pressured for her liberation. In 2001 she returned to Mexico, where she currently lives and works along with a group of women, all former political prisoners. It’s logical therefore that her current work is that of linking processes so different from one another like the Mexican and Bolivian social movements.

With this history at her back, practically unknown in Argentina, Raquel arrived in Buenos Aires to share in a round table of chatting and mate in the recuperated printing press Chilavert, along with members of different local social experiences. People from MTD of Solano, MTD Maximiliano Kosteki of Guernica, the Escuela Crediendo Juntos de Moreno (the Growing Together School of Moreno), the Grupo de Arte Callejero (the Street Art Group), the UNT de Avellaneda, and several individuals from here and there came together to share, for almost three hours, an exchange over the situation of the three different countries that share a common challenge: what to do from here. The hosts of the meeting were members of the Colectivo Situaciones (Situations Collective), and were responsible for weaving together the threads and sowing the questions.

"We won but we lost"

Raquel recently touched down -literally- from several days of work at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés de La Paz with indigenous and intellectual movements from Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Bolivia. So with a notebook full of notes in hand, she began her chronicle of what she had processed there. She began quoting the sentence that had had the greatest impact on her, spoken by the leader of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (CONAIE), Miguel Guatemala: "What’s been happening for us is that we’ve triumphed, but we’ve lost: or we lost, but we won".

The disconcertment that this winning and losing generates, all together and at the same time, was one of the threads that lead to the Raquel’s look at the red-hot Latin American process. "We’ve been advancing, the social movements have achieved objectives, concrete successes, but within those triumphs there are hidden defeats".

This is said to explain that the social emergency in Ecuador is the same in Bolivia, after the earthquakes that compromised its institutionalism, splitting it until opening a crack wide enough to let the first indigenous president, Evo Morales, sneak in.

After summarizing, with various details, the process that led to this outcome, Raquel explained what makes up the so called Constituent Assembly that has that taste for defeat, so bitter for the social movements that gave birth to it, forged it and fought for it. Raquel explains: the convening law of the Constituent Assembly rebuilds the institutional system. Upon authorizing only the political parties and citizens’ groupings to participate init, the only groups left out are the social organizations that gave their sweat and blood to this project, dreaming of an instant of reformulation of the social pact, capable of giving birth to a new Bolivia more together and inclusive. In those same days in La Paz, Raquel heard an Aymará call (the community in which originated a whirlwind of disturbances) that synthesizes the current moment:

"We who started all this, will be left outside, barking like dogs at the wall".

With such a situation, the very debate that’s cooking with high heat this same week in all of Bolivia is whether or not to enter in that game.

Entering represents for many social organizations making a pact with one of the electoral emblems authorized to participate in the Constituent.

Staying outside represents going through the effort of organizing another Constituent and making visible the division drawn from power.

There isn’t much time left to make the decision about where the future of the Bolivian tension will be in play for the next stages: in April the lists must be officialized. And so the electoral timeline is tyrannical, certainly a creation of one of Raquel’s old comrades: the now vice-president Alvaro García Linera.

The strategy of Evo’s government is sprinkled with resources that here sound familiar: giving economic support, and with it visibility, to minor social organizations, in order to minimize the more autonomous ones. Raquel characterizes it as "a systematic attempt by Evo to pacify the autonomous dissidence in order to make MAS a consolidated political instrument", which signifies, – among other things – that Evo didn’t come to power as the leader of a party recognized by all the movements as their own space, but rather as the emergent of a social movement that converged in MAS with distrust.

What’s more, the movements have the perception that the margins are causing problems because the chance of Evo’s government is everyone’s chance. "If things go badly for Evo, things go badly for us". The question then is how to confront it.

After an exchange on the situation in Argentina and a brief recess to give the guest a break, Raquel turned the page and started on the current situation of the Zapatista movement. The theme, of course, was The Other Campaign, that national caravan with which Zapatismo seeks to converse with those social sectors that are willing to do so, on the condition that they fix on the Sixth Declaration. It represents, simplifying things, talking about what to do, as long as what it discusses is about doing something else.

The first thing that Raquel talks about is the jumping off point of the campaign: the need to get out of the communities, of the territory. This need originates in something very concrete: the Zapatista communities had decided to cut off any kind of aid coming from the Mexican State and this represents an endless number of practical and serious consequences. Among them, surviving on a mere subsistence economy. From these limitations and from the birth of resistance struggles in other Mexican territories, Zapatismo goes on the search for support for a battle that is known to be long, but more and more lonely. "The Other Campaign has as its principle merit [making visible] antagonism" summarizes Raquel. In an election year, with Fox melting like ice under the fire of his own political clumsiness, the horizon saw the arrival of López Obrador, who with a leftist discourse is getting closer to power due to his ability to add [sumar] by the right.

Raquel rescues this jewel that Zapatismo has given to Latin-American resistance: its notion of time. The Other Campaign is more of the same: "we’re going to create our own time to put together the cartography of the two Mexico’s".

Lastly, Raquel dares to draw a possible link between the different experiences that she’s discussed. She turns to a phrase that she heard in upturned Bolivia:

"We resist because we want to continue being who we are, but we fight because we don’t want to end up where they hang us".

In the second of the three days that Raquel dedicates to Buenos Aires, the talks with La Vaca are now in front of a recorder in an old port café.

Inaugurating ways of living

-From here, the news that we’re getting from Bolivia is hard to analyze if one takes the longer history into account. Or rather, to that memory of the insurrectional Bolivia of the miners, to this indigenous one. What are the greatest differences of these two historic moments?

-I feel that there is a process comparable with the things that I know in Argentina. The miner with a stick of dynamite in hand, as a disciplined army in the capital, that could perfectly pass from being an army of extraction of riches from the earth to being a combat army because the rhythms of behavior and relationships were similar, is done with. Because that world, that type of stable, long-term, work with a lifelong contract is over. Especially that of the mines, with its particular characteristics, because they were work camps, or rather, small populations where only workers lived, and therefore easily convertible into general barracks from which collective actions were planned. That ended like it ended here. A few traces remain, I don’t know about here, but they did in Mexico, where they persist under other rhythms and forms of control. So, what do those people do? Those miners, who are relocated starting in ’85, sit down and organize themselves in other places, intermingling with others. Basically those miners go, the majority to the Alto, a few others to Chapare, to plant coca, and a few others go east. And do they put into practice? What unfolds in those places? Their experience. A sensitive experience, that isn’t just intellectual, but rather a form of life. And starting from that they once again build their basic social roles. In all of the places they reach, they are settlers that are inaugurating ways of living. It seems to me, even considering that Bolivia and Argentina are very distinct realities, that the process is no different from that which takes place in those territories where the piquetero movements flowered. It’s people who have had to invent a new way of living, like Raúl Zibechi paints in his book ("Dispersar el poder – Los movimientos como poderes antiestatales", Editorial Tinta Limón, from which Raquel wrote the prologue). And starting from that a new form of struggle has also been invented, that later has a lot to do with that disciplined form with which capital is confronted when they were stable workers, when it was said that the way to confrontation was to take the space of production, to then arrive at the general strike that would take us to taking power, and the whole set of things that were linked starting from that identity. Okay, that started to not be like that because the people had to live in another way, they had to build their life, their daily existence and to create other forms of links with their community. In the same way other forms of struggle appeared in Bolivia and from something that I also found similar with Argentina, although perhaps more urgent: starting from a great plundering. A plundering from which a common sense is generated that says: no more. No more! It’s a stitch that’s made from the same material as the Zapatista ‘stitch’. Or rather, a choice for breaking away. In Bolivia it’s very clear. It’s clear in the No to privatization of water, for example. Enough, final. And that social fabric that shouted out was politicized in a different way, in the sense that it burst onto the public scene in order to dispute the prerogative to decide, that was monopolized by the neoliberal government. Of course I’m trying to draw very general lines, that will have the defect of getting around particularities, but I see myself trying to draw bridges, to translate things, so that we can understand these experiences. –

How does this process unfold in the interior of indigenous communities that were such leaders of the uprisings?

In the Highlands the same process happens. We’re talking about communities that have been bled dry by neoliberal policies. Because of the business of free imports that breaks the internal market for cheese. That signified for those communities ending up with no possibilities of trading the little that they had to get a bit of money, leaving them reduced to an entirely domestic economy, small, but -at the same time- absolutely efficient if one takes into account that they had to produce at an altitude of 4000 meters. The beginning of the indigenous struggle is also the start of the fight against the Water Law, and there different struggles joined that appear as great blockades that end up overthrowing governments. This is where we see the thread of continuity, in the basic material of the struggle. And that’s why I insist on this formulation that I quoted yesterday: the people resist in order to continue being, which is a fight to move from the space where they’ve been placed. Resistance and struggle are two sides of the same coin. Two moments in the same life. And if we analyze it along the measure of those great eras that you mentioned, it’s a case of those same miners and their children that had that experience of fighting who emerge in the moment of confrontation as willing tools for the resistance. And this is not a question of just strategies, but of life experience in general. That willingness to convert the struggle into something collective, that willingness to link oneself. The mining proletariat already had that.

Radios and mines

– Yesterday you mentioned in passing the role that community radios have had in this linking process. How would you describe it?

– That’s also something that comes from the memory of the miners’ fight. Because of the radios’ channels the possibility of the articulation of the social movement is linked and grows. The radios build great choreographers, makes them audible. But there is something there that’s important, which is the national will that these struggles have. Not of the state, but national. That sense that gives knowledge of something: "I have to appeal to others like me, who I know exist and by this means, with this microphone that puts my voice out there, I can link up with them. I know it, because it was like this in the mines". And it was like that, because even if all the miners belonged to the same company, they found themselves spread out from North to South, crossing all of Bolivia. So you had a geography that occupied over 1000 kilometers bordered to the North by a chain of miner transmitters. That allowed the miners’ movement to move in a totally coordinated manner. And right now, the radios -from the most successful to the smallest- are linked and have been in a small way the vehicle of uprising, supporting that willingness to advance in a unified manner.

-Where does this spirit of unity come from?

– A possible explanation is that Bolivia is a central state. It’s not organized like Mexico or like Argentina. That means that there aren’t a lot of mediations, because you have, for example, a local struggle who’s first negotiator is the central government. Instead, in an organization with municipal, provincial and federal steps, there are more instances to dilute the administrative game. In Bolivia, in contrast, with its organization that is so centralized, any conflict, no matter how small, is a direct confrontation with the central State. The prefect -that until this last election was not elected by vote- was a person named by the central State. A feature of the colonial structure. It’s that state structure that in some manner makes struggles take place on the national stage.

My daughter is not your servant

-From here, for a lot of people, the figure of Evo Morales represents a social movement leader, and, according to what you told us yesterday, is not perceived like this by the very movements that are going through a moment of profound disconcertment in the face of the Constituent Assembly. How would you synthesize that current scene, taking into account the general Latin American panorama where this model of the reconstruction of power starting from the appropriation of the social movements’ agenda is repeated?

-The scene in the Constituent Assembly represents for me, without dough, the institutional, organizational, and political design for the contention of the advance of social movements. It’s a desperate search of the scars of the cracks that opened the social insurrection. Following with the series of metaphors that we were using to build bridges, let’s consider that between 1998 and 2005 there was a series of breaks throughout the continent, with different intensities and forms, but that were building this great tear, that advance in their profundity, different in each place, but that shows a fracture from what neoliberalism did: to build two countries in every country, at the least. That of the dispossessed and that of the dispossessors. In Bolivia, I feel that the fracture is more profound because it’s the longest in time and because of the national characteristics, as I explained earlier, that has been. When it started, in 2000 and 2001, the fracture was profound. It was represented by that shout that Felipe Quispe embodied saying: "I rise up because I don’t want my daughter to be your servant". That became attenuated, but became expanded. Both territorially and socially. Perhaps that moment has some similarity with the slogan "piquete y la cacerola". That moment when other social sectors added their voices saying: no more. Obviously it’s the allies that will go the soonest, but that are important in order to reveal the energy of that profound break. Finally, by 2005 we were already facing a general convulsion throughout the entire nation. And at the same time as the countries were turning into an open sore starting from 2001 or 2002, a willingness to staunch that was also being conceived. And that stabilizing willingness is contrary to the willingness of the movements that produced the break, but that at the same time fell into a hole that they didn’t know how to get out of. They shouted "everyone out" here, and in other places we shouted other fairly similar things and later we said "what do we do now? And sides appeared. Sides that perhaps are much more reflected on here in Argentina. In that sense, as I see it, -if we were to think of ourselves as a species of the body- it’s that Argentina has been a sort of laboratory of reflection of these new sides. The most interesting theoretical questions about horizontality are here, the clearest critique that I’ve read about forms of representation is here, everything related to the vindication of the assembly’s decisions is here. In other places we went along in a more intuitive manner. But what’s certain is that in the end, some of us stayed. If it’s true that you analyzed the sides in order to have written down where you wanted to go, nobody could contest what we did after stopping the train. We couldn’t contest it. Everyone did what they could, but the question still hasn’t been resolved. I feel that it’s a good moment to ask ourselves again what we should do, because the others do have a plan. And the plan that they had was to staunch the opening, to mend the tear. And they’ve started to do it. I don’t dare to analyze the case of Lula, but I will say that Kirchner began that process of restoration, Lucio Gutiérrez in a manner very anomalous in Ecuador, and Evo Morales and Alvaro García are doing it in Bolivia. Distinct, but similar. It’s true that I haven’t been able to figure out Kirchner, where he’s from, why he’s doing what he’s doing now, or if there’s a thread of continuity with what he’s done previously. I’d like to read a biography about him. But in the case of Bolivia, it’s clear to believe that such a brutal tear had to come from a more radical and popular representative.

-Does Evo represent that?

-Up to five months ago, Evo Morales was very clear about why he couldn’t lead alone, although it’s been noted that he wanted that, because he was nothing on his own and because the structure of MAS was nothing. He was sympathetic to social movements, mainly in Cochabamba, but he didn’t have any more force than that: the sympathy of a few social movements. That’s changed now. Now he’s the president of the country and has the entire State structure to build something else.

The soap opera’s stellar episode

-Is that the current tension?

-That’s the tension that makes us fight with the closed readings. With those theoretical readings that make us say: okay, there’s a closing here, in the election of Kirchner there’s a closing. In reality the election of Kirchner is a moment of tango and it’s the moment in which the kid jumps up and down up to here (she makes the gesture laying a figure down on her leg). But the dance isn’t over. We’re still dancing. That’s a bit of my fight in Bolivia. I refuse to accept that we don’t admit that we’re crossing through a happy moment. Right now no one is going to kill us. Right now no one is going to put us in jail. Maybe they will tomorrow. Put right now, March 2006, they’re not going to come because those who are here are here, because we tried and we could. And surely they’re going to do some silliness, but right now we’ve won. We’re managing to revolutionize that which exists in a process that doesn’t have a final note.

-That final note that represented the model of taking power…

-Actually we’re going to have to get rid of those biblical tales, in order to be able to go forward thinking about an open history, a history without end, without direction and necessity. I mean, we have to rid ourselves of the basic paradigms of modernity. What are they? Among others, the notion of lineal, progressive, and ascending history. We’ll have to learn to work without that, to spin finely, to learn uncertainly. And not to ask ourselves: is this an advance or a regression? But rather to understand that that question has no place.

-The problem is that to propose not taking power signifies not raising the theme of power again…

-It’s that that was a major problem. A premise. I mean: to write in the first line "we cannot raise strategies like in the 70’s of taking the power in order to change this world". Premise number one. That which is pending is the premise number two. And it continues to be pending. The theoretical question of how to overcome the problem of power. Then, we rule out that that’s not the path, but that doesn’t get rid of the problem of power. Power as a social relation, as a system of beliefs and as an institutional and normative system. Power is a problem. And I think we’re moving in that direction. If we take the real history of Latin America as a soap opera, we have yet to see the stellar episode where we start to deal with this problem.

The institutional shell

– Has the decision by assembly manner of organization been stopped in this debate, upon transforming itself into a tool for action without the need of resolving the problem of power? Or rather, could it continue, even if the problem of power isn’t resolved on another scale.

-It’s that within the problem of power, in that theory that we still haven’t written, we need to include a subheading titled "the problem of the State". Right now the only thing we’ve said about it is: how ugly, how ugly. And we’ve worked on the more practical things, the things that need doing. But there are other problems, like that of the State, like that of the articulation of the local, the national, and the global, like the other form of exchange. What happened here with a group of people who in a given moment used their own currency of exchange…that is a chingonería (she is referring to the experience of bartering). That is an emblem of a collective capacity to try and resolve a problem in one’s own way. It stayed there, but it’s also there as an experience. What I see is that in the face of the tear that we spoke of, what do we as activists do? Well, we put ourselves to the task of analyzing the tear and to trying to contribute to all the possible ways of making the tear the most profound that we can make it. And I think that that was good. But we didn’t do it. Because capital, the dominant classes, or whatever represents power today, also saw it and also started thinking about how to staunch it. And that saw that they couldn’t restore it in the same way. So, they tried -I think- to play the game of admitting one part, in order to stabilize it. And this happened through the democratic elections where the candidates that this time could win, but that once they put themselves within the institutional shell they try and fit themselves into it.

-It would seem that the old trick of the elections is still a great request of the restoration of power, to which the social movements don’t know how to answer.

-It’s that the electoral moment -and I quote here Luis Tapia- is the moment of the greatest irradiation of the state on society. Now: if we’re facing a moment of struggle between the working society and the State and capital, let’s say that we’re at war, like the Zapatistas tell us. And that we should be guided by Tsu Zu. When the enemy advances, we retreat; when the enemy retreats, we advance. When the enemy is afraid, we go on the offensive; when the enemy is on the offensive, we protect ourselves. It’s a dance. When we talked with Oscar Olivera (of the Bolivian social movements) during the height of the campaign era, he was told: go on vacation, to the beach, hurry along, dance, read the books you never read. It’s the party moment for them. They didn’t invite us and we didn’t want to go. We’re going on vacation to regain our energy.

-It’s hard to imagine Oscar Olivera on vacation, and that’s part of the problem…

-But one’s getting fed up with dealing with the electoral process. Because you’re fed up with anger and it doesn’t matter what happens during it, until you find out the result.

Zapatista poker

-Another option is the one you talked about that the zapatismo is trying now with The Other Campaign: creating another resort where it’s obvious who doesn’t participate in the electoral party.

-That’s a very risky bet. And as we say in Mexico, the Zapatistas are here betting the pot, like in poker. In fact, the Zapatistas have already tried the tow. In the last campaign they didn’t say anything, they went on vacation. In this one they’re saying: there’s a party, we’re making another one. And we’ll see if we can do it. It’s another way of continuing to deepen the tear. But we must take into account that what’s happening in Argentina and what appears to be happening in Bolivia will shortly take place in Mexico. Not only because López Obrador is on the horizon, but also because if it’s true that in Mexico there hasn’t been a struggle beyond that of zapatismo, in these recent times there’s a slow but consistent re-articulation of the other resistances.

-And what role are the leftist parties playing in this process?

-What leftist parties? They don’t even exist! They play their partisan market games, because it’s all a business, participating in the contest, that’s paid with concrete resources that serves them to maintain the systems. In Mexico, zapatismo has included many small parties, that have their roots in trotskyism, that in some moment have participated in the elections, with those that have talked during the Sixth Meeting and now they’re lending them some necessary resources so that they can concretize The Other Campaign, the minimal logistics to be able to move themselves outside of the communities. I think, in any case, that there is a certain intention of the zapatismo that has barely been hinted at of building some kind of party-type tool, but even so the participation of these leftist parties is absolutely marginal. In terms of Bolivia, right now the strident voices of the troskyist parties are being listed to somewhat, but they’re listened to because the social movements aren’t talking. As soon as the movements start to say something, those voices will cease to be heard.

When Kirchner talks of those guilty of genocide

-Nevertheless, those strident voices are enough to fill the void that the social movements are leaving, for example, when we refer to the continuity of the model. The question is ¿does the word continuity suffice to define this process in which governments that don’t abandon neoliberal politics appropriate discourses that arise in social movements?

-In Bolivia, the processing of the moment is very fast. And that displaces very quickly as well. A month and a half after winning Evo went to visit a community, and they were already telling us there: "now is not the moment for blockades, because this is our government. It’s that things can’t go badly for Evo, because ultimately Evo is representing the Indian, so we can’t do anything that will be bad for him, but we can’t just let him do what he wants because he’s going to do things against us". Here although it may be different, I feel it’s a bit the same. It’s not easy to say "Kirchner, son of a bitch" when he says that the military officials committed genocide. You have to feel vindicated because of that, but at the same time you know that it’s true that Kirchner is saying it with his best penguin face. You know he’s going to go back on his word, that he’ll give you a cat for a rabbit. With which leaves you in a very difficult situation. Because in the general choreography that is a country it’s as though we didn’t know where to stop. Where do I put myself? It’s very clear in Bolivia with the theme of the Constituent, because if we understand electoral issues as the moment of greatest irradiation of the State on society, the Constituent was conceived as the moment of greatest irradiation of the State on society. And in order to do so, we put up some dykes. Facing that, where do I stop? I would finish with a phrase that left me turning round and round ever since I heard it a week ago in an assembly, in El Alto. At one point, a guy stopped and said: "It’s that the problem of the government is the problem of MAS. But the problem of power continues being here". To me that way of looking at it seems totally valid. Our problem today is getting ourselves to debate power, as a second point in that writing that starts saying: "we don’t want to take this power".


This article was originally published in Spanish in, and is translated and republished here with permission from the author, Claudia Acuña, an editor at La Vaca. The interview was translated by Kirsten Daub.