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The political cultures and agendas of social movements
Raúl Zibechi*
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A brief overview of the most important demonstrations in recent years, such as the massive demonstrations of millions of Brazilians in 353 cities in June 2013, may help make visible the new actors who star in Latin America’s social activism. The 84 percent of protesters had no political preferences, 71 percent were participating in protests for the first time, and 53 percent were under 25 years old.1

The Brazilian uprising focused on people’s rejection of the increased price of urban transportation as part of a broader struggle for access to the city and against police repression. The group that organized the mobilizations, the Passe Livre Movement (MPL), is a small network established in dozens of cities and made up of middle class college youth who mobilize every time the price of transportation in Brazil increases (one of the most expensive in the world). Over the years, the movement has evolved into a demand for the right to access the city, which the youth feel is limited by the cost of transportation and urban speculation.2

The protests in Brazil have some similarities with the movement Yo Soy 132 of Mexican university students who demanded the democratization of the media during the presidential elections of 2012.3 Although both protests quickly dispersed, the groups that were at the heart of the Brazilian mobilizations were organized long before and continue on even after the height of street protests.

In the past 10 years, there have been so many movements that it is difficult to create a list including all of them. Among the best known are the student movement in Chile — grouped in the Coordinating Assembly of Secondary Students (ADES) —,  the dozens of local mass meetings against mining and the extractive economic model in Argentina,4 coordinated by the Union of Citizen Assemblies, and the powerful resistance to mining in the department of Cajamarca in northern Peru, in particular against the Conga project, with the Andean indigenous communities as protagonists. To these three we would have to add the countless local movements, such as the Malvinas Assembly Fighting for Life, which managed to stop Monsanto from settling in a small town near the city of Córdoba, Argentina.  Or we would need to add the strong resistance to property speculation in Rio de Janeiro which is related to the recent World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.5 
Social and thematic blocs
In the Latin American continent, we can identify three main blocs of movements by their social affiliation: the indigenous, peasants, and the urban popular sector
. Each one is based in different environments and, in principle, each raises different demands. The indigenous, rooted in their ancestral territories, reclaim the defense and recognition of these territories to face the expansion of extractive mining and agricultural exports, but they also demand self-governance based on their customs as well as decision-making power on key aspects of education and health policies affecting their communities.

The activities of peasant movements revolve around land. Like the indigenous, peasants also confront agribusiness, in particular the expansion of soybean cultivation that cause migration and contaminates waters and settlements. Their list of demands ranges from land reform (like the case of the Landless Movement in Brazil) to demanding credit for production and prices for their products. In recent years some peasant groups, such as the National Table of Agrarian Unity and dozens of peasant organizations in Colombia, have increased mobilizations against the effects of free trade agreements with the United States and have even demanded the repeal of these agreements.6

The third bloc consists of the popular sectors that live in the suburbs of large cities. In these environments, sometimes also referred to as territories, live families who were displaced by agribusiness, wars and the violence of paramilitaries, drug traffickers, the military and guerrillas, but also formal workers whose companies went bankrupt in the recent crisis and migrants from countries in the region. They built their living spaces based on family labor, community space and facilities (schools and health clinics in some cases) and through cooperation and reciprocity (minga). In general, these are families that survive with “informal” employment, but we also find low-paid workers who are employed in construction, domestic work and street vending.

The demands of social movements have undergone some changes over the years. If we had to look for some common characteristics among the three blocs, we would find the rejection of inequality and the struggle for structural changes. However, many of these movements start by demanding for something as simple as to be able to live. Máxima Acuña Atalaya, her family and her neighbors demand something like that: to be able to stay on the land they bought 20 years ago, which is now claimed by a multinational mining company in Laguna Azul, in Cajamarca.7 To end the impunity of perpetrators of femicide and hate crimes, women and gender diverse people have also put the right to life in the public agenda of many countries in the region.

Indeed, the struggle for water, land and housing rights, even for those living in favelas (slums) and precarious settlements, is a common struggle among the peasants, indigenous and urban popular sector. But as these demands become mobilizations, from local to national, they conflict with the various facets of inequality (from access to the media to representation in the political system). At this point, they face what Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano calls “coloniality of power”:  a pattern of asymmetrical race, gender and generational relations that always hurts the indigenous, blacks and mestizos, and particularly the women and youth of these sectors.

The birth of community and popular feminism as well as feminism among the indigenous and peoples of African descent is part of the rooting process of social movements among the subaltern groups, showing clear differences with the first generation of feminists who developed in schools and political parties and that spilled over to NGOs and institutions.8 One feature of this new reality is the emergence of women’s groups (like FEMUCARINAP9) that do not identify as feminists but that fight for the emancipation of women.

A similar process can be observed among youth. Through expressions such as hip hop, black youth in cities like Rio de Janeiro look for a place in a society that excludes them.10 The media outlets born in the villas (slums) of Buenos Aires, where youth groups express their cultural differences, teach the undomesticated politicization of poor youth in the large Latin American cities.11
A new political culture
The political cultures the movements express are as important as their demands. These are about addressing what neither the political programs mention nor what is included in the lists of demands or the slogans they express in the streets. We know that today’s movements fight against mining, agricultural and urban extractivisms and for more freedoms and rights. But it is also important how they do it, how they work, how their forces are organized within collectives and groups.

The new movements show other methods of organizing, a political culture that the MPL summarizes with five features: autonomy, horizontality, federalism, consensus for decision-making and non-partisanship (which differ from anti-partisanship). In parallel, they often position themselves against a wide range of sources of oppression: class, gender, race and generation, in addition to their defense of nature. Almost every movement assumes various identities — without the limitations of one identity — which is a feature of youth movements.

The latest batch of movements was born in a period characterized by the crisis of the old patriarchy and the delegitimization of institutions based on representation, such as parties, trade unions and parliaments. In both cases, the new subjects (particularly women and youth) tend to build organizations that shun hierarchies, the type of structures governed by males, where the masses are subject to the will of the leadership and have little chance to make sure their views are taken into account.

I would like to highlight five aspects that I consider are shared by the majority of the most dynamic and creative movements and that make up the core of the emerging political culture in today’s social and political activism.

- They create small and medium-sized organizations where face to face relationships replace the figure of representation in large organizations of the “masses.” The preference for small groups has not hindered mobilization efficiency. In these groups, strong bonds of camaraderie and trust are created, similar to the bonds of a community. These, not the massive bureaucratic apparatus, are the bonds that enhance sustained and long-term collective action. This also facilitates their autonomy from the state and political parties.

- To coordinate actions between a large number of groups, they establish specific, “light”, coordinations that are able to assemble in a short time period and that tend to fall apart when they are no longer needed. This peculiarity of youth and women groups tends to disconcert men who are anchored in the “old” political culture, as there is a clear mismatch between the ability to mobilize and stability and the visibility of organized nuclei.

- Horizontality, understood as the absence of permanent and fixed hierarchies, is one of the main features of the current movements. Instead of representatives, they elect spokespersons; instead of leaders, they appoint individuals to coordinate each meeting, assembly or activity, who generally are not the same people who performed these tasks previously. In more than a few cases, they use rotations or shifts, characteristic of the indigenous cultures, although most of the time they do not refer to them as such.

- An obvious rejection to a type of destructive growth of nature and socialization among people is perceived. They reject pollution and economic growth that does not add to the quality of life of communities. In some cases, they adopt the slogan of “Good Living” to describe the kind of society to which they aspire, although other movements prefer to speak of “socialism”. Not all movements reject developmentalism, although there is growing trend of criticism of the model of perpetual growth.

- Finally, one of the most novel features of the social movements is that they do not only express their demands to the states and governments, but they also create their own spaces where they start to build social relationships that differ from hegemonic relationships. Inspired by the indigenous communities and youth cultures, they are determined to build now the world of their dreams.

* Journalist, international analyst and Uruguayan writer, follows social movements in Latin America and is the author of numerous publications on this topic.
1 Secco, Lincoln. “As jornadas de junho”, in Cidades rebeldes, Boitempo, Sao Paulo, 2013.
2 Legume, Lucas and Toledo, Mariana. “O Movimento Passe Livre São Paulo e a Tarifa Zero”, 2011, in <
http://passapalavra.info/2011/08/44857, accessed August 2, 2013.
3 Muñoz Ramírez, Gloria. Yo soy 132, Ediciones Bola de Cristal, Mexico, 2011.
4 Young members of the assembly create their website:
5 Zibechi, Raúl. “Debajo y detrás de las grandes movilizaciones,” Osal N° 34, Clacso, Buenos Aires, November 2013, pp. 15-36.
6 “Declaración de las organizaciones campesinas de Colombia,” October 24, 2011, in
7 See
8 Use these, among others, as reference:  Gargallo, Francesca. Feminismos desde Abya Yala, Desdeabajo, Bogotá, 2012; Bidaseca, Karina and Vázquez, Vanesa. Feminismo y poscolonialidad, Godot, Buenos Aires, 2011; Rivera Cusicanqui, Silvia. Bircholas, Mama Huaco, La Paz, 2002.
9 National Federation of Peasant, Artisan, Indigenous, Native and Salaried Women of Peru.
10 Oliveira, Denilson. “Territorialidades no mundo globalizado: outras leituras da cidade a partir da cultura  hip-hop na metrópole carioca,” Universidade Federal Fluminense, Niteroi, 2006.
11 La Garganta Poderosa, monthly magazine of the cooperative La Poderosa, circulates between 12,000 and 40,000 copies. 


Thousands of people have mobilized to protect the lakes that would be destroyed by the gold mining Conga Project in Cajamarca, Peru. / Servindi.org
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