Raúl Zibechi: Latin America Today, Seen From Below

Raúl Zibechi offers a wide-ranging look at the geopolitical reality of the continent from the perspective of social movements, touching on the organizing model of the indigenous Chilean Mapuche and Mexican Zapatistas, conflicts occurring over the extraction industries in many countries, and the increasingly dominant role of Brazil in the region.

Here Raúl Zibechi offers a wide-ranging look at the geopolitical reality of the continent from the perspective of social movements, touching on the organizing model of the indigenous Chilean Mapuche and Mexican Zapatistas, conflicts occurring over the extraction industries in many countries, and the increasingly dominant role of Brazil in the region.

Raúl Zibechi is a Uruguayan writer, professor and analyst whose newest book “The New Brazil: Regional Imperialism and the New Democracy” was just published in English by AK Press.

Original interview published in the June 2013 issue MU Magazine, from the La Vaca popular media collective in Buenos Aires. Translated by Margi Clarke.  Reprinted with permission.


In Ecuador there is a government that proclaims a “citizen revolution” and that has a constitution with explicit environmental values that speaks of Well Being and the rights of Nature.  At the same time, there are 179 or 180 indigenous leaders and activists accused of sabotage and terrorism for doing what they always have done: blocking roads and occupying public land to protest and stop the mining projects that threaten their livelihood and communities.  The greatest struggle of the social movements right now is to defend water and to halt open-pit mining.  President Correa calls them “full-bellies” (‘pancitas llenas’) who have plenty to eat and can dedicate themselves to criticizing the government and the mining industry alongside their imperialist NGO allies (non-governmental organizations).

MU: Bolivian President Evo Morales also calls out NGO’s as organizations promoting imperialist interests with the intention to erode Latin American state power.

Yes, Correa and Morales accuse the social movements of being manipulated by the NGO’s, as if the indigenous communities were underage children.  Ecuador and Bolivia have several things in common: one, the popular movements are strong; another is that the governments call themselves ‘revolutionary’; and in both countries there is an fierce confrontation between the governments’ modernization policies with the social movements who are criminalized and persecuted.

But an interesting fact is that the dominant classes in Bolivia as well as in Ecuador are changing rapidly.  The financial bourgeoisie in Guayaquil (in the south) has collapsed and today it is the financial sector in Quito (the northern altiplano) that is dominant.  At the same time, new analyses coming out of Bolivia speak of a new bourgeoisie in which the Aymara and Quechua indigenous leaders have an important role.  This contradiction was evident in the conflict over Tipnis, when a huge indigenous mobilization halted a highway project into their ancestral lands, which are part of a national park.  In Tipnis the conflict is between the coca-producers who are now part of the ruling structure against the indigenous [whom they had previously been allied with to bring Evo Morales into power].  We see this process happening in several countries.

MU: So, what does the power map look like now?

Basically what we have on the one hand is the old ownership class, and on the other hand the “management” class (‘gestores’).  People who are not the owners of the banks but who manage the banks, those who control the pension funds, the capital that is the raw material for financial speculation.  These managers are now the critical players, they are paid well and they are part of the ruling class even though they do not own the industrial means of production.  They dominate the financial-economic circuit that reproduces capital.  We see contradictions in these countries between the owners and the managers who are allied with each other in some ways, but not in others.  It is interesting to see how the dominant class that has become more complex and where there are conflicts.  And how parts of the ruling class make use of the popular sectors and others depend on other social sectors, in service of their own interests, and that there are points of unity and points of conflict between and among them.  Basically we are seeing a re-structuring and re-positioning of the ruling classes and we see these shifts very clearly in Bolivia and Ecuador.


Bolivia is where the social movements are strongest and have gained the most and have intersected the most in the dominant systems.  They have the great virtue of being very diverse.  There are the Aymara of the highlands, and the peoples of the lowlands.  In many cases the exploiters are multinational corporations, but in other cases the threats are from Aymara or Quechua economic sectors.  This creates a very complex web in which at this time the lowlands are at the bottom of the power structure.

We see an interesting reconfiguration of the ruling class which is no longer the bourgeoisie that speaks ‘gringo’ but another group that wears a poncho and speaks in Aymara or Quechua, for example Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera.  He is the theorist of the new practices of the dominant structure, the hinge between the western and the indigenous we might say.  Bolivia is the ideal laboratory for this process: we can see from the perspective of the elite when an indigenous movement contests for power the government tries to create a parallel power structure.  There is a process of cloning that creates confusion, coopting leaders and creating brutal divisions with the goal of muddying the waters.  This slows things down, allowing the elite time to reposition itself and continue to promote its projects.  We are seeing dominating practices that are much more refined than before.

MU: What has happened to the concept of ‘dispersion of power’ that you speak about in your book about Bolivia?

Bolivia continues to have those practices.  We see for example, the monthly magazine called Pukará; we have the katarista movement which had some connection with Alvaro Garcia Linera but which has maintained a certain autonomy.  We have feminist groups like Mujeres Creando (Women Creating): they are the ones saying “This continues to be a colonial state, though we call it pluri-national.”

This is an interesting statement because it clearly describes the situation.  If we look at the Latin American indigenous movements today we see two clear tendencies: the “pluralistic state” which is the most visible but which has not fundamentally transformed the Nation-State; it continue to be the same colonial model but with a multi-colored stamp.  And we see the autonomous indigenous movement, represented by the Mapuche, the Zapatistas, some Colombian organizations, and all those who do not defend that plural State as their goal.

The plural state has been a little door that the colonial Nation-State has opened but allows it to perpetuate its practices.  A state is not transformed simply by writing a new Constitution.  The state is made up of practices.  There is a very interesting piece by Bolivian writer Luis Tapia who expressed this very clearly.  He asks: “How can it be a pluralistic State if we have a presidential office with more power than ever, with the ability to serve three terms?”  If government is highly centralized and does not distribute power, where is the pluralism?  Bolivia is a case where those above try to mask themselves with the poncho, and those below are permanently denouncing them.  There is a line of independent thought and action and in the long run that is the most powerful force.


I was recently in Peru [in 2013] and I can say that the principal struggle today is over mining.  In Peru there are 30-40 places where there are conflicts over mining, and 200 environmental conflicts.  A key case is in the north, in Trujillo where the Conga gold mine has faced a lot of local resistance.  In Peru there are lots of long-standing organizations: the Peasant Confederation whose representative is Hugo Blanco; the National Agrarian Confederation which is linked to APRA; the CGT, the General Workers’ Confederation.  And there are new organizations like the National Confederation of Communities Affected by Mining.  Yet, none of these established groups plays a decisive role in these struggles.  The resistance today is outside of institutional organizations.

So who is organizing the resistance?  It is the communities in the highlands themselves organizing based on their own traditions.  For example, look at the peasant councils: the villages have always organized local watch committees: originally to guard against cattle thieves, then to protect themselves from the military, then from the paramilitary, then from the Sendero Luminoso rebels; and now it is against incursions by the mining companies.

MU: Are these watch patrols armed?

Yes, these are villages that arm themselves to provide night patrols.  It is self-defense.  And the watch councils have become over time an organization called the Guardians of the Lake.  The lagoons are the principal sites of conflict with the mining companies.  The big problem with mining is that is contaminates the water sources that the community uses.  In order to stop that, they organize collective self-defense mechanism to protect the lakes from contamination.  They camp there to prevent mining operations from setting up.

MU: How does the government respond?

The government of President Ollanta Humala is inclined to favor the multi-nationals. In his first two years in office there were two significant crises.  Both of them had to do with local resistance to mining.  He dismissed his whole cabinet.  The government tried to establish a state of siege and militarize the areas of conflict.  The mining companies organized “white guards” (death squads).  There was a whole military and paramilitary apparatus set up, along with media coverage and governmental administrative efforts: but even with all this, they have not been able to turn back the resistance.  On the contrary, the anti-mining struggle is at a high point.  Together with Guatemala, Peru is today spearheading popular action against mining and is the most important example in the continent.

MU: What is the impact of the resistance?

They have succeeded in stopping several projects, for example the Conga gold mine is at a standstill.   And while there are many communities who stand up to the mining projects in order to negotiate benefits, there are also those who intend to stop the projects altogether and they are winning.  In the south of Peru they succeeded in stopping a Brazilian mega-construction project that would have built 5 dams on the Inanburi River.

MU: What characterizes the strength of the resistance?

This popular resistance does not have political party structures, does not have institutional organizations, but rather is based in struggle, is community-based and is strong, achieving local and intermediate levels of organization that coordinates to address particular timely topics but without establishing permanent coordinating structures.  Some analysts question this:  Isn’t it curious that such strong struggles have not given birth to powerful organizations? Do they lack structure or do they not want structures?  This is a reality in Latin America today: struggles are occurring and resistance is strong without the need to generate political apparatuses, at least not purely in service of the particular struggles.  But perhaps this is not a defect but an important lesson.


I was in Chile in January [2013] and saw two large struggles: high school student organizing (in addition to the university student movement); and widespread Mapuche organizing.

The high school students have created the Coordinating Assembly of Secondary Students which had participation of more than 100 high schools at the peak of the 2011 mass rallies for reforms in the educational system; today they still have 60 schools actively participating.  They have created a horizontal space for debate and political consciousness-raising that is enormously participatory where the students have marvelous experiences of self-expression, organizing and advocacy.

This year [2012-13] they carried out a national campaign called “No, I will not give my vote” in the city elections and 60% of the eligible voters did not participate.  And now a group of intellectuals has taken up the same campaign calling for a boycott of the next elections.  This electoral abstention is a form of disobedience.  Another micro-example is fare-evasion in the Trans-Santiago, the public transit system in the capital.  Fare-evasion exceeds 30% of passengers.  The government put young people to work as vigilantes in red shirts denouncing those who do not pay the fare.  But even with that, the refusal to pay is very high.  I think there is an important process of civil disobedience, at least in Santiago, led basically by the youth of the popular [poor] neighborhoods.

In terms of the indigenous Mapuche organizing we see the true paradigm of dispersed power.  There is not a single Mapuche organization: there are dozens.  Perhaps this is what has allowed them to always have a sector that is never co-opted.  Today there is a lot of dynamism created by a new generation of Mapuche activists and intellectuals.  For example, there is a collective of historians that has produced a great deal of very illuminating work.

We have to realize that the Mapuche are perhaps the only people in the world with five centuries of resistance (against colonial oppression) and of victories.  Many people do not know that the Mapuche defeated the Spanish militarily and forced them to recognize the existence of a Mapuche Parliament in Valdivia.  For two centuries the Spaniards could not cross south of the Bio-Bio River.  But the Mapuche are not farmers; they are ranchers.  For that reason they never established larger towns, rather they live in dispersed villages.  They have local family and clan leaders.  There is no single Mapuche authority, there tons.  There is a richness that those of us outside it are just beginning to see.

MU: How does this differ from the other indigenous resistance movements who have mentioned?

The Mapuche do not feel they are Chilean.  In their minds their identity has nothing to do with the concept of the Nation-State.  Neither Pinochet nor democracy succeeded in domesticating them.  While it is true the Mapuche society has a lot of machismo, it is a strong patriarchy, in all the other ways this movement is very disruptive and breaks with the mold (of the left).  What I have noticed recently is the strong links between the student movement and the Mapuche.  The young people go to Araucania (southern Chile) and work together with them. They don’t just offer solidarity from the cities; they go and work with them.

MU: What is the difference?

It is difficult to work with them.  If you think they are fragmented you are wrong although it is true.  There is a unique historical Mapuche corpus (body of work) that has a thousand tentacles.  This is how they learned to struggle, not in a single unified form.  On the other hand, in Chile we have a so-called anti-terrorist law that is only applied against the Mapuche.  They have many leaders in prison with very long sentences. Why? Because their struggle has not been symbolic, it is real.  En Mehuin for example there is a Mapuche coastal fishing community.  A company wanted to build a mega-project and the authorities were requiring an environmental impact study.  But the Mapuche thought: “If we let them to do the study we have lost.”  So with their fishing canoes they surrounded the ship that brought the experts to do the study.  They did not let them come.  It was a naval battle, canoes against a modern ship. And the Mapuche won.


I am pro Zapatista. And from that sympathy, I am enthusiastic that they have gone into hiding in the last 6 years, disappeared according to conventional media.  But in those 6 years of silence they have become ever more autonomous: they have their health system, their educational practices, their own production, their power, their own armed forces.  They are their own society, their own world.  Last December [2012] they decided to demonstrate this with a march: forty thousand participants with hoods marching without saying a word.  Forty thousand people who had to come from very long distances, some having to walk 2 or 3 days to get to the nearest county seat. And they did it. Their level of logistical organization has no precedents and it clearly shows their level of organizational development: forty thousand people doing the same thing at the same time.  All walking in silence, their fists raised, the only sound their boots marching on the paving stones, without speaking and the men carrying the children.  This was the evidence of what they have been doing for the past several years.

MU: So what is Zapatismo at this time, in terms of social organization?

In the state of Chiapas there are 5 “caracoles” (snails), which are areas controlled by the Zapatistas, each with slightly different levels of development.  The most well-known are Oventic and La Realidad deep in the Lacandon jungle near the border with Guatemala.  In these zones of control they have Good Government Councils, production cooperatives, primary school and secondary school and a hospital.  They are truly autonomous communities.  A special aspect of the health system is that nearby villagers, even if you are not a Zapatista you can be seen for free.  All this they have done without money and without the State and without international cooperation: they have support of some Mexican civil society groups who are in solidarity and from their own labor.  The caracoles in this way have built everything they need to live and their own power structures to administer it all.  At the community level the ruling body is the assembly.  A gathering of 30 communities is an autonomous municipality.  The network of municipalities makes up the Good Government Council, which controls the caracol. The caracol is thus the physical zone of autonomy, and the Good Government Council is the political space.

MU: How does the Council function?

Through the elected representatives from each autonomous municipality.  The interesting thing is that these representatives change every 15 days or every month.  The Councils have between 10 and 20 members, with men and women in equal numbers.  A caracol can include up to 200 communities, which means we are talking about 20,000 people or more.  These people participate in a rotating political system: there are no permanent representatives.  Every 15 days or every month, the governing body’s composition changes.  Imagine what this means in real terms: calculate how many people over all these years who have had a concrete experience of what power and representation means.

MU: What is most inspiring to you about the Zapatista experience?

I would not say that it is a general tendency (in Latin America) but I do say that there is a growing political tension that puts in question the role of the State, and among the Zapatistas this is true in way not seen in any other popular movement.  And now they have gone another step further: they have created a Zapatista political school.  It is only be invitation and they invitation says: ”Well, you who never spoke against us when that was the fashion, can come to this school.  We are not going to pay your way here, but once you are here you can share our food and our home with us.”  When you get to the school you find that the villagers are the professors.  The students come to listen and learn.  These special invited students are intellectuals, unionists, social movement leaders, we who are more accustomed to speaking and being listened to, not to learning and much less going to school to listen to others.  How could I not be inspired by an experience like this?


Venezuela without Chavez means many things.  It means that the process has a timeframe; that the process [of popular power] has come to a plateau with a certain maturity but at the same time, in my view, has become corrupted, is failing.  We have come to a turning point: continue to walk alone, or continue to look up.  I believe it is time to walk alone, time to stop looking up at traditional seats of power and walk our own path.  The processes of change in Latin America, but specifically in Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina, have already given what they can give.  From the standpoint of liberation those processes are not going to give more.  They have achieved what could be expected and now the people need to choose.  I believe the people need to self-organize and walk into their own future, and then see what to do with the governments.  I believe we can no longer keep waiting, and that is the message to take from Chavez’s death.


I see in Argentina the very best and the very worst.  I see a society where the powerful and the media are in a fierce downward spiral.  I believe there are few countries in the region where the political decomposition is so deep.  In few countries have there been media scandals like Lanata [a scandal revealed in WikiLeaks regarding the Kirchner government’s pressure on the media through censorship and threats].  It almost seems like a joke doesn’t it?  It is like a Machiavellian fable, outside of reality.  I say this because this trend [of corruption of the media in service of the government] reflects how low the level of debate has fallen and reflects a headlong path of political decomposition.  But on the other hand I see another society that is fighting against this.  When I go into the barrios I see a lot of garbage, but I also see interesting things going on.

I was in a little health post in the Villa 31 (slum in Buenos Aires), that the young people from the medical school created.  They are training health promoters and they are doing it with a high degree of political consciousness.  I saw real commitment and real work.  There are a lot of these examples in all fields that I find very hopeful.  I don’t know who will win the elections but that does not seem so important either.  What is important is to recognize that the political collapse is not something one administration or another is going to stop because it has deeper roots than that.  In the slums like Villa 31 we see some going into drugs and bribes.  But we see others creating new realities.  But we have to see that both of these realities are occurring, they are inter-related.  I think in Argentina we are in a moment like the end of the 1990’s [when the economic policies and corruption produced the 2001 financial crisis].  I am not saying there will be another crisis like the one in 2001 but we are coming to another crossroads.  What gives me hope is that I see many people learned from the last time.  We already know what can happen and what to do.


Uruguay is an artificial country.  I had a professor who said: “Uruguay in reality should be called Ponsonbylandia”, in honor of Lord Ponsonby who negotiated the creation of Uruguay so that Argentina and Brazil would stop having border wars.  He was a British bureaucrat who called his strategy “Putting a piece of cotton between two crystal glasses.”  What he did not say was that this strategy also guaranteed waterways for British commerce.  Today this history is repeating itself.  Uruguay is going to build a huge port at Rocha.  Many of us suspect, although there is little information available, that this deep-water port is the ideal place for the U.S. Fourth Fleet to be anchored.  If you look at the map you can see this is the closest location to the Brazilian oil reserves at Paloma on the southern Atlantic coast.  Rocha is an ideal geo-political site for US imperialist interests.

MU: What is the US imperialist strategy toward Latin America?

The US strategy toward Brazil is the same as its strategy vis a vis China.  Surround it with conflicts, which is why the US seeks to destabilize Brazil’s principal allies Venezuela and Argentina.


My intent in analyzing the role of Brazil in the current conjuncture is to point out several things I think are important for social movements to be aware of.  Number one: we must be alert to the importance of geo-politics.  We have to pay attention to geo-political trends and to understand them in order to understand how they affect us.  Number two: it is important in and of itself to understand and pay attention to Brazil.  It is important to understand what is happening in Brazil not just from the moment of the rise of Lula [Brazil’s Workers Party President from 2003-2011].  What Brazil is today is built on what happened long before.

In particular, Brazil’s importance in the continent today began with the creation of IIRSA in 2000 under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.  IIRSA is the mega-construction and engineering company that became the cornerstone of the UNASUR/MERCOSUR (South American Union/Common Market) strategy to integrate trade and infrastructure throughout the continent.  Now named COSIPLAN, this is a set of mega-projects to connect Latin America with 12 cross-continental corridors that run from the Atlantic to the Pacific and two north-south corridors — among them the Parana-Paraguay highway — to accelerate the movement of goods.  These are projects of the Sao Paolo bourgeoisie with the support of the international banking system that Cardoso initiated and Lula continued.  Some things were changed but basically they are the same: they are multi-modal corridors of highways, air corridors, ports and fiber optic cables, everything oriented to industrial communication and trade.  The concept is that these are infrastructure mega-projects that can only be built by Brazilian construction companies. And the only bank that has sufficient resources to finance them is the BNDES (National Development Bank of Brazil).  So it is a perfect circular business.

MU: In your view this is also something more: the project that best illustrates Brazil’s emergence as a World Power.

The Brazilian ruling class is not just any elite [in the region].  Brazil is the 6th largest economy in the world so its ruling class is therefore the 6th largest as well.  In addition, Brazil had its own Peron, who was Getulio Vargas [Dictator 1930-45, and President 1951-54] who broke the old landowning oligarchy, built up Brazil’s industries, and outlined the main systems of today’s Brazil.  One of Vargas’ key creations was the War Academy of Brazil (Escola Superior de Guerra).  I would invite anyone interested to take a look at their website and see what you find.  Today it is the biggest think tank in the global south.  The topics they investigate and analyze include globalization, climate change, soy monoculture and many others.  This is where much of the Brazilian elite studies and they take on a strategic perspective that does not exist in the elites of other countries in the continent.

MU: So is neo-liberalism part of this ideology?

Well not in the sense of neo-liberalism as the dominance of US corporate intervention in Latin America, as in Argentina or Chile.  But yes in other ways: Fernando Henrique Cardoso was the great privatizer of Brazil.  Two example of how Brazil is unique.  One: the Health Minister under Cardoso was Jose Serra from the Brazilian far right.  But it was Serra who, in the 1990’s, led the fight against the pharmaceutical sector to allow generic drug production.  Two: All the privatized national assets ended up in the hands of Brazilian capitalists, not foreign corporations.

MU: Is this then state capitalism?

No State Capitalism is China’s model.  Brazil is a more complex capitalism in which the power is shared among the State, the Brazilian capitalists, the military and the unions.  I return to my first concept: it is the capitalism of the manager class (gestores).  A capitalist model with greater strategic integration.  And that is where the War Academy comes in: there they give courses in strategic planning.


My intent is to alert the popular movements to become more familiar with two things:

  • One: Strategic Planning: This is having a long-term vision.  We have to think not just about what we will eat tomorrow but what our grandchildren will eat.  That’s where we need to focus our work.  When we see the people in the slums and they talk about Father Mujica [current leftist President of Uruguay], or in the industrial complex of Cordoba and they speak about Tosco [union leader who led the 1969 uprising against the Argentine dictatorship], you realize that the people have never met these leftist leaders but they share their vision of where we need to go in the long term.  I think this is how we must think: what are we leaving behind for the next generation to build on.

  • Two:  Geo-politics:  This is a having a global view that permits us to see the changes occurring the world.  Within 50 years, US imperialism will be history.  So we are in a moment when we can influence what comes next in our future.  These are times to think about what we can achieve and to believe we can do it.  I know it is a dangerous time for Latin America, precisely because of the great crisis that is beginning to shake the North.  There is no Plan B for the extractive economic model.  And I know that the Good Governance model has no electoral traction, and that we do not get out of the extractive model with votes.  We are seeing that the transition from the extractive model will be full of brutal crises. But we will come out of that crisis if we have solid alternatives to offer society.  There are small spaces that are telling us: It is possible to live autonomously.  These are the spaces that we need to sustain today because they have strategic value: they tell us there is an alternative and we need to create things differently that what we have today.

MU: is it possible to change everything from a small perspective?

I am very tired of groups that say: “We have to leave local work to do politics on a bigger scale.”  That is how you lose, along with Lanata! [who sought support for freedom of the press by going to US Embassy to help him against the Argentinian government’s censorship].

It is in local efforts that we do the real work: sustaining a cooperative, creating a project, without knowing what will happen tomorrow.  That is not small: that is fundamental.  The key is not elections: create a great campaign and win 5% of the vote.  The key is to have certain spaces that are viable.  Because those spaces in the process of transition to a new society have the potential to be the regenerative nuclei of a new social structure.

The other day when I was in Villa 31, Dora who is a Paraguayan immigrant woman of about 50 years old was there to inaugurate a women’s center, that offers among other things, self-defense classes.  And she says to me: “This is something clean.”  There was nobody imposing conditions on them with the funding, nothing like that.  Dora, whose family lives in one of the worst homes in the slum, spoke of something ‘clean’.  She spoke with great internal peace.  This is what we need.  Clean things.


Uruguayan writer Raul Zibechi works as a journalist with the cooperative magazine “Brecha” (Breakthrough), created by Eduardo Galeano and Mario Benedetti among others.  Since 2001 Zibechi’s work has focused on popular movements throughout Latin America, which he researches by traveling wherever he is invited.  His book “Genealogy of the Uprising” is the best analysis of the Argentinian popular revolt of Dec. 19-20, 2001.  “Politics and Misery” gained him recognition as one of the most valuable intellectuals in the Global South.  His most recent book is “The New Brazil: Regional Imperialism and the New Democracy” is published in English by AK Press.