Anarchism, ethnicity, and culture: resistance in Latin America

Part six in a series of articles discussing the anarchist movement as it relates to non-European peoples and cultures.

Latin America is, as far as the planners in Washington have always been concerned, the United States’s “backyard.” As such, it has been acquianted with US imperialism and the reality of the global “free market” doctrine far longer than most other places on the planet. Jason Adams, whose Non-Western Anarchisms: rethinking the Global Context has been a vital resource in writing this series, explains this unique context;

The development of anarchism in Latin America was a process shaped by the unique nature of each country within the region, as well as by those factors which many of them had in common. One thing they all had in common was their subordinate relation to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine which held “the Americas” under the tutelage of the one country that arrogantly refers to itself as the only “America” — that is, the United States. As such, shortly after independence was achieved from Spain and Portugal, the Western Hemisphere was promptly re-colonized — unofficially – in the name of U.S. interests. It was in this subordinate context that the first anarchist movements in Latin America arose, all too often under the iron fist of dictators imposed from above, in El Norte. In addition, it is important to note that the Latin American governmental context was far more influenced by the thinking of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas than it was by liberalism, the largest philosophical influence in the Anglo-Saxon democracies (Erickson, 1977, p. 3). Here, corporatism was the major philosophical force, espousing a view of the state as “organically” reflecting the moral will of the people, rather than as a “referee” for different political forces in society as in North America. The ironic result of this was that all oppositional forces would be seen by much of society as essentially anti-liberatory. The ideological process of corporatism involved a sly combination of officialistic cooptation of revolutionary movements and violent repression of those who would not accept such moves. The prevalent role of the Roman Catholic Church in society combined with the tradition of Roman law made up the other two primary factors that set Latin American societies apart from much of the North. This meant of course, that the anarchisms that developed there were qualitatively different as they arose in a significantly different political environment.

As has been the case across most of the planet, anarchists in Latin America have always faced similar problems to European anarchists in building a mass movement. Most acute amongst these, in the Americas, was the later rise of state socialism, far more readily coopted to reaction and authoritarianism.

The most notorious case of this, of course, is Cuba. There, anarchists laid the groundwork for revolution after the United States took Spain’s place in occupying the island. However, they faced harsh repression from the state. This allowed for the takeover of the largely anarchist Confederación Nacional Obrera Cubana (National Cuban Workers Confederation – CNOC) by Communists, who were quick to hand them over to the police. After the success of his 26th of July Movement in ousting Batista, Fidel Castro would do the same with anarcho-syndicalists in the Confederacíon de Trabajadores de Cuba (Cuban Workers Confederation – CTC).

Now, Cuban anarchism survives largely through the Movimiento Libertario Cubano (Cuban Libertarian Movement – MLC). As they expalined in an interview with A Las Barricadas, ““the changes” happening in Cuba are merely cosmetic and only attempt to generate a “liberalizing” image that doesn’t change the basic functioning of the regime and the institutional power structure.” However “what is changing is the general attitude of the people: today you can see that the people are losing their fear of repression and have begun to conquer space; the hardships of everyday life can no longer remain hidden and everybody knows it; there are the beginnings of protest more or less organized, etc.”

MLC also offers a radical critique of the supposedly “revolutionary” movements building across the region at present;

The surge of populist ideas certainly gives the Cuban political regime some breathing room, but also alienates it from the most lucid and radical revolutionary and autonomous sectors since these harbor no illusions with respect to governments such as those of Chavez, Morales, Correa or Ortega and certainly Cuban diplomacy will be set against popular mobilizations in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador or Nicaragua. On the other hand, one needs to place the current populist cycle in Latin America as only an attempt to develop a regional capitalism. It is a fragile cycle still subject to multiple oscillations that don’t afford the Cuban government any guarantees long term. This is one of the reasons why we understand that this government is running against the clock and playing for time. Meanwhile, the populist governments act as an ideological-political rearguard but the most pressing problem for the Cuban government isn’t that but the fact that it can’t even provide decent food for the people and it has to solve this problem before such a regional Latin American capitalist block is formed with a minimum of solvency. explains the dilemma posed by the “populist cycle” in relation to Venezuela;

The attempt to fuse anarchism with concrete collective struggles was made more apparent by the reappearance of El Libertario in 1995, whose working group called itself first, the Comisión de Relaciones Anarquistas – CRA (Commission of Anarchist Relations), and after 2007 the Collective Editorship of El Libertario. It is the most lasting publication in local libertarian history, publishing 5 editions every year and with a significant circulation compared with other local and continental publications. Side by side with El Libertario are numerous core groups and initiatives with various areas of intervention and which are located in diverse regions, highlighting the working of specific spaces( such as the CESL in Caracas, the CEA in Mérida and the Ateneo La Libertaria, first in Biscucuy and then in the rural area to the southwest of Lara), the organisation in January 2006 of the Alternative Social Forum in Caracas, the activity of the Anarchist Black Cross, the persistent publication of various informative materials, and the impulse given to distinct events of social protest and cultural agitation. This process has had to overcome the test of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’, led by Hugo Chávez, which for anarchists represents a demagogic, corrupt, militarist and inefficient swindle which has deceived a large sector of local and international socialists, making the development of autonomous popular movements, a course of action promoted by Venezuelan anarchism, more difficult.

Across Latin America, then, statist and authoritarian “revolutionaries” have co-opted populist sentiments for their own purposes. The challenge is how to overcome these tendencies. One particularly acute problem is that, although ultimately reactionary, such leaders as Chavez or Daniel Ortega in Nicuragua hold an appeal in the rest of the world simply for the fact that they are in opposition to the imperialism of the United States. Most anarchists are quick to realise this and are able to offer positions that are critical of US actions without being supportive of the governments in Venezuela, Nicuagua, Cuba, or elsewhere. Or vice versa. However, the stance can cause frictions.

A particular example of this is the El Libertario article “Chomsky as Chavez’s Clown,” which criticised Noam Chomsky for the supposedly “weak and untenable posture the celebrated North American linguist and essayist holds in support of the current Venezuelan government.” As I pointed out in Chomsky’s defence, the reality is that “Chomsky is critical of the “potentially dangerous” corruption and authoritarianism in the Chavez government. However, in this specific context, he is also critical of the “hypocrisy” apparent in otherwise “fair” criticisms of “an official enemy.”” In other words, Chomsky qualified his words so that criticism of America did not equal support for Chavez. As I said at the time, “anarchists need to be wary of borrowing from the rhetorical devices employed by the corporate media and those servile to established power.”

Returning to the main point, the significant pitfall for anarchists in Latin America is that, even to their contemporaries elsewhere, they are obscure by comparison with “populists” such as Chavez. In the early years of the twentieth century, European anarchists such as Errico Malatesta displayed remarkable solidarity with their Latin American comrades, offering both moral and physical support in their struggles. Today, though that solidarity does still exist, it is harder to come by. It is especially evident for the Zapatistas, who have built up an network of autonomous communities in Mexico and are perhaps the most succesful contemporary anarchist movement in the region. It is not so obvious in relation to those whose struggle does not involve (at present) American imperialists and their clients but the “socialists” who have arisen as a rival form of authoritarian statism.

As MLC point out, the newly-formed Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) trade bloc is not “anti-imperialist” but rather “an attempt to develop a regional capitalism” to rival the US-led Organisation of American States (OAS). Anarchists need to recognise this fact and reaffirm their critiques of “socialist” state-capitalism. If we do not, then we cannot begin to understand the cultural context of struggles in Latin America, let alone show effective solidarity.


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