Latin American Directions in Popular Struggle

Richard Stahler-Sholk

Recently I went with friends to visit Alberto Patishtán Gómez, a Tsotsil indigenous schoolteacher and social activist from the Chiapas highlands municipality of El Bosque who is 13 years into his 60-year prison sentence on charges of participating in the 2000 killing of seven police officers.

The case of “El Profe” Patishtán illustrates many aspects of contemporary Latin American social movements that find it necessary to continue the struggle for justice outside of state institutions, even after the supposed metamorphosis of the authoritarian regimes of yesteryear. Supporters say Patishtán was framed on preposterous charges because he is an activist. He is an adherent of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, a sympathizer of the Zapatista movement. The 1994 rebellion of mostly Maya indigenous, poor peasants in the southeast corner of Mexico was part of an upswing in the Latin American cycle of protest going into the 21st century (Stahler-Sholk, Vanden & Kuecker 2008). The Zapatista rebellion has struck a chord with a wider disillusionment with the political class that continues to fuel resistance across Latin America and beyond, as seen in recent creative protests from Spain to Turkey to Brazil.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), notwithstanding its name, broke from the old vanguard revolutionary model of armed seizure of state power to focus on empowerment from below, from within society. The uprising of January 1, 1994 had long roots (Harvey 1998), but was timed for the date the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect, symbolizing the groundswell of popular protest across Latin America and beyond against the devastating global impact of neoliberalism.

Neoliberal policies of austerity, deregulated “free trade” and privatization in the 1980s and ‘90s disrupted established patterns of state-society relations, imposing hardship on the poor that generated waves of protest (Eckstein & Wickham-Crowley 2002). Social movements also took the lead in bringing down the military and other authoritarian regimes that had dominated the region in the preceding decades. Creative forms of grassroots mobilization had necessarily emerged under authoritarian regimes that suppressed conventional politics. The return of the old political class and their institutions (hailed by some as a wave of “transitions to democracy”) has generated ongoing struggles with popular movements committed to horizontal, anti-hierarchical ways of doing politics; and a corresponding academic divergence between liberal (Weyland 2013) and radical (de Sousa Santos 2007) conceptions of democracy.

Procedural democracy with little meaningful popular participation or substantive justice has generated new waves of frustration, along with direct action to implement new ways of doing politics. In Latin America the “pink tide” of progressive governments, swept into office in the early 2000s by social movements, initiated participatory processes of drafting new constitutions and reconstituting the state for a “post-neoliberal” era (Hershberg and Rosen 2007; Goodale and Postero 2013) in which natural resources would be nationalized and the state would redirect the proceeds into social programs for the poor.

But as social movements in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela moved inside or uncomfortably close to the state, they confronted the limits of state-directed transformation within a global capitalist framework; as well as potentially depoliticizing and clientelistic effects of state anti-poverty initiatives such as Brazil’s vaunted Bolsa Família program (Reyes 2012). One of the central dilemmas for Latin American social movements today is how to define their relations with the state, even (or especially) under left governments (Dangl 2010; Oliva Campos, Prevost and Vanden 2012; Webber and Carr 2012).

A specific aspect of this dilemma is “neo-extractivism” (Gudynas 2010, Ruiz Marrero 2011), the new turn toward state-led resource development, portrayed as an improvement over the old model because the enterprise is nationalized and/or the resources more equitably distributed. The implications for the environment and indigenous rights have been problematical, as illustrated by the irony of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, allowing Brazilian investors to begin construction of a highway through the TIPNIS indigenous territory and ecosystem as part of a mega-project. The tensions are compounded by the fact that Bolivia and Ecuador’s left governments, in power thanks to indigenous mobilizations, have incorporated elements of indigenous ecology and cosmovision such as the concept of buen vivir (“good life,” based on sustainable development where Mother Nature is recognized as having rights) into their legal and constitutional frameworks (Gudynas 2011).

Indigenous groups, reasserting group rights and a collective relation to land and nature, have figured prominently in the contemporary surge of Latin American social movements. Disillusionment with liberal democracy (Robinson 1996) and with neoliberal “development” have fueled a questioning of the individualist construct of citizenship, forged when the modern nation-state was grafted onto colonial societies (Quijano 2005; Yashar 2005). From Tahrir Square to Occupy to the Chilean student movement to uprisings across Asia (Katsiaficas and Rénique 2012), there is a backlash against the feeling of political and economic exclusion, echoing the “¡Ya basta!” of the Zapatista Maya rebellion and their call for “a world in which many worlds may fit.”

Like “El Profe” Patishtán who identifies as Tsotsil, Mexican, peasant, schoolteacher, Liberation Theology catechist, and social activist in a globally networked cause, the region’s indigenous are claiming multiple and fluid identities and strategies of self-representation (Jackson and Warren 2005). Diverse cultures and identities are key in the mobilization of social subjectivities (Alvarez, Dagnino and Escobar 1998)—including indigenous and Afrodescendant peoples, women’s and LGBT groups, and transnational communities—and there are tensions and contradictions inherent in both identity politics and “globalization from below” (Edelman 2001). States in the neoliberal era scrambled to coopt and reencapsulate multiculturalism in a safer form (Hale 2002).

When the gates clanged shut behind us as we entered Prison Number 5, where Patishtán and fellow prisoners brought us coffee and gave us a tour of the facilities, there was an odd feeling that we had entered liberated territory. A striking feature of today’s movements is their quest to occupy and democratize social spaces. This altered spatialization of power (Hesketh 2013) has created what Zibechi (2012) calls territories in resistance. In contrast to the fixed and contiguous concept of territorial space, these spaces fundamentally consist of everyday practices of solidarity and equality (Motta 2009) as well as horizontality of social relations (Sitrin 2012), unlike Leninist and other statist organizational models.

What Motta (2013) has called the reinvention of the lefts has involved remaking politics from below, in participatory practices that build new collective identities and shared values. The urgent need for alternatives to an alienating and exclusionary global phase of capitalism is fueling a multiplicity of efforts at prefigurative politics (Maeckelbergh 2009), recapturing the commons and modeling alternative worlds (on the street barricades of Oaxaca, the landless encampments of Brazil, the worker-occupied factories of Argentina, the occupied spaces of Zuccotti Park and Hurricane Sandy relief), without waiting for authorization from the state.

Reflecting on the visit with Patishtán on the bumpy ride back to San Cristóbal, we talked about the strong political culture of collectivity in so many Latin American popular struggles. Possible factors include vestiges of precapitalist social relations, evident incapacity of the state to deliver on basic promises, and the sheer survival imperative of personal networks and complicities. As “El Profe” summarized his struggle with quiet dignity, “They themselves have given us the weapon; the system itself has opened our eyes.”

[Note: since this essay was first published, Patishtán has been freed.]


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