Latin America: From ungovernability to chaos

Police charges during the National Strike in Bogotá. Photo: Colombia Informa

Raúl Zibechi is perhaps one of the most significant and lucid writers today on “social movements” in latin america. Below, we share a recent text authored by him, in translation.

We also share a conference-conversation with Zibechi and Rita Segato (in spanish). We close the post with websites/news sources where Zibechi publishes regularly.

Latin America: From ungovernability to chaos

Raúl Zibechi

El salto diario (27/05/2021)

The pandemic is becoming a watershed in Latin American societies. The oppression and corruption are evident while the quality of life and services deteriorate in an ostensible manner. The peoples rebel and the right-wing and repression are radicalised.

The end of the progressive cycle was not followed by the installation of right-wing governments, something that did in fact happen but in a different way than the usual, as a period of crisis of governance coincided with it.

What we learn with the efforts of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Lenín Moreno in Ecuador and, at the time, Jeannine Añez in Bolivia, to which Sebastián Piñera in Chile could be added, is the enormous difficulty in stabilising their governments. This new reality is not mechanically detached from the economic situation, because they were confronted by societies with little willingness to accept authoritarianism and the deepening of extractivist neoliberalism.

Even before the pandemic, there were popular uprisings that questioned the plans of the right, particularly in Ecuador and Chile, while in Bolivia a phenomenal succession of blockades in August 2020 prevented the coup government from continuing to delay the call for elections. In Brazil, unlike the aforementioned countries, the manifest incapacity of the civil-military government is at the base of its progressive deterioration.

However, in countries governed by progressive governments, especially Argentina, governance is not in good health either. Although the pandemic management model is completely different from Bolsonaro’s, with long periods of restrictions similar to those in Europe, infections have soared even above what happens in Brazil, if we can trust the figures provided by the authorities.

The low performance of Alberto Fernández in managing the pandemic, with a new wave of infections and a very slow progress of vaccination, shows a population that is reluctant to accept restrictions and, even more, that is willing to bypass the prohibitions: among the middle classes, with loud demonstrations in private vehicles, while among poorer people, there is the impossibility of abiding by the recommendations of social distancing and confinement in one’s home.

Societies in motion

After a year of pandemic, Latin America is mobilised. From the original peoples of Mexico and Central America to the popular classes of the entire region, who seem to take turns in rejecting not only governments, but also a predatory model of life that leaves millions of young people exposed, without the slightest future except to wander between the most varied forms of precariousness: from work to health, through to housing and ultimately life itself, haunted by more than just viruses, by institutional and paramilitary violence.

The movements extend from the great avenues of cities to the most remote corners of the countryside. The cities of Colombia have overflown with young people for a month, without interruption; the polls in Chile filled with votes for independent candidates – linked to social movements -, surpassing the right and the established parties.

In spaces far removed from media attention, something similar happens. There is an irrepressible overflow from below. For example, Wall Mapu [territory inhabited by the Mapuche people in Chile and Argentina]: the Interior Ministry reported that in the first quarter of 2021, land re-appropriations – which it describes as “usurpation” – increased by 688% compared to the previous year. In the first three months of the year, 134 land seizures were registered, compared to 17 that occurred in the same period of 2020.

My impression is that the revolt begins on the margins and gradually reaches the big cities. This is what happened in Colombia. In October 2020, an impressive Indigenous, Black and Popular Minga was born in Cauca, traveled more than 500 kilometers and arrived in Bogotá where it was received by an enormous multitude.

The Colombian revolt was preceded by protests in 2017 in medium-sized Pacific cities, protests which have given forms to the ongoing uprising: “They organised with medical and food committees, learning about ways to pressure the State, but they also learned to negotiate. Local alternative media were articulated and they got the authorities to come to their territory to negotiate, they did not move from their cities and communities and they followed the same steps as the indigenous people of Cauca ”, reflects researcher Alfonso Insausty from Medellín.

The month-long strike is a turning point in a country where during the last seven decades protest has been limited to rural areas, leaving cities as spaces dominated by large companies and police forces. However, since the signing of the peace accords with the FARC in 2016, large cities have become the new epicenter of a mobilisation led by young people who have no future in the neoliberal economy and who for the first time are experiencing the worst side of the system.

The radicalised right

Throughout the region, the many right-wings are buckling, they are increasingly intransigent with the peoples, they show their genocidal face. This authoritarian closure has several facets: from the purely repressive, as in Colombia and Chile, to a growing militarisation of society, state institutions and even the education and health systems.

What we must understand, and the Mapuche case is eloquent, is that we are facing a defensive reaction to the advance of the peoples, as the Mapuche case attests. When the Piñera government decides to militarise Wall Mapu it is because it cannot find any other way to stop the rise of land re-appropriations. Not only does it send the military to control the communities, but it encourages civilians to arm themselves to confront them.

On August 1, 2020, something happened that can be considered a profound turn in Araucanía. “Hundreds of civilians, armed with stones, sticks, clubs, bats and even firearms, came to the municipalities of Curacautín and Victoria to evict Mapuche community members, who had occupied the municipal offices, in support of the hunger strike of some twenty community members, among them the machi Celestino Córdova.”

Exactly the same reaction that has been seen in Cali by the city’s elites, who reacted with violence against the Indigenous Guard and the black and popular youth. The Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace produced a report on the existence of mass graves and “casa de pique” — where people are dismembered to make them disappear— in the outskirts of Cali.

We are facing a new scenario, very different from the one that characterised the dictatorships of the 1970s. Now the State has neither the capacity nor the will to control societies, it has ceded the monopoly of violence so that other agencies – drug traffickers, paramilitaries and occasionally armed persons – make use of arms with the complicity of the legal repressive forces.

In Brazil, there are 6,157 active or reserve military personnel occupying civilian positions in the Bolsonaro government, which represents an increase of 108% compared to 2016, the year in which President Dilma Rousseff was removed from office. The militarisation of the State reaches unsuspected levels in areas such as education, as revealed in the report of the Sindicato Nacional dos Docentes das Instituições de Ensino Superior (Andes) of Brazil [National Union of Higher Education Teachers of Brazil], entitled “Militarisation of the Bolsonaro government and intervention in federal educational institutions.”

The military occupy the main echelons of the health care system and they are moving into education with the creation of “civic-military schools” and with intervention in universities to veto and control the election of rectors. The report highlights that 216 civic-military primary schools are being created that use “the model based on the pedagogical practices and the teaching patterns of the military schools of the Army Command, military police and military fire brigades.”

Beyond the chaos and repression

It is possible that the pandemic is becoming a watershed in Latin American societies. The oppression and corruption were made evident, while the quality of life and services have deteriorated in an ostensible way. Despite the exceptional measures and the serious restrictions on mobility and meetings, the movements not only did not weaken but are launching challenges that were unthinkable years ago.

The radicalisation of the right-wing and the growing mobilisation of the peoples allows us to venture some hypotheses. The repressive solution is on the table, with an intensity that takes us back to the 1960s, with death squads and clandestine cemeteries. However, it doesn’t seem like the most likely way out, in addition to being deeply undesirable.

There is the possibility of new progressive governments, such as that of Gustavo Petro in Colombia and Pedro Castillo in Peru. But they would not have the slightest chance of appeasing the ruling classes, nor would they be able to demobilise the peoples. Something similar can be said in the rest of the countries. Whoever governs will have the field of action completely tied down, so that changes will be minimal, at least in the short term.

It is a good opportunity for the people to take initiatives in other directions. Regional projects are a real possibility. That the urban youth of Cali have called on the Indigenous Guard for their defense, that the Mapuche flag is the most waved in the Chilean revolt, shows that the autonomous territories in resistance have become a real and concrete alternative for broad sectors of these societies.

Raúl Zibechi at the Brecha, Outras Palavras, Traficantes de Sueños.

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