Activists met in Uruguay for the fourth Latin American Conference of Popular Autonomous Organizations in February. Over 300 activist delegates from Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Uruguay organized this year’s annual event as a space to strategize autonomous organizing and coordinate direct actions. This year’s conference, held February 24-26, focused on building popular power in Latin America among organizations autonomous from the state, political parties and NGO’s.
The participating organizations orient towards class struggle and libertarian practices-grass roots organizing, direct democracy and mutual solidarity. Within the debate of how to build popular power, delegates discussed how people can solve their own problems without depending on the state or any other institution. The current context of Latin American governmental politics emerged as a focal point during the two-day meeting. In each of the corresponding nations, social organizations have faced new challenges due to the resurgence of “progressive” social democratic victories. Take, for example, the case of Uruguay’s social movements. Many of Uruguay’s social movements have demobilized after the inauguration of Tabare Vazquez. All eyes looked to Bolivia with the recent victory of MAS leader, Evo Morales. In all of the workshops, participants discussed how to prevent growing expectations in social democratic governments from impeding the accumulation of popular power.
Everything at the congress was auto-gestionado (self-managed), from the olla popular (collectively cooked meal) to cleaning and maintenance. Artists performed spontaneous theatre and Afro-Uruguayan popular music, Candome, into the wee-hours of the night. The 200 participants represented a diverse array of activist work and focuses that included human rights groups, community centers, alternative media outlets, anarchist organizations, unemployed worker organizations, student groups, popular education teams, movement of card board collectors, and several worker unions participating. Beyond each group’s focus, activists within each country are working to create venues for political formation and popular education as part of a larger plan for an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist Latin America.
The workshops focused on the construction of popular power at a grass roots level on each front- Human rights (impunity and historic memory, political prisoners, criminalization of protests), Syndical (worker movements, classist tendencies, recuperated enterprises), Barrio (neighborhood organizations, territorial organizing, unemployed worker organizations and community radios), Student (student movements, autonomy), Earth and Natural resources (land and production, privatization of natural resources).
Galpon de Corrales, a community center in a working class neighborhood in Montevideo, coordinated the conference. The Galpon also features a community radio station, community library and a large space to hold cultural activities. Several times a week they organize a collective pot and take pride in the fact that the Galpon is completely self-sustained and managed. The Galpon works with residents from the surrounding barrio, children and many of unemployed adults. One of the challenges facing the Galpon is meeting urgent needs of participants while moving away from traditional forms of social work. During the conference I interviewed Gustavo, who helped build the Galpon de Corrales as a political space. Gustavo advocates a platform similar to anarchists like Errico Maletesta who argued that anarchist organizations need to carry out a political agenda.
In the interview, Gustavo summarized expectations for the conference and expressed a desire to for groups to work on a territorial level because of diverse needs within working class struggles. “We’ve organized this congress as a way to see other experiences and exchange ideas with social organizations in Latin America, to familiarize ourselves with another global reality in Latin America. This practice is needed so we can put into practice the central focus of this Congress: popular power. The first congress was held in Brazil in 2003, the second in Cochabamba, Bolivia and the third in La Plata, Argentina in February 2005. During the fourth congress we will discuss the theme of building popular power. We need to create a strategic perspective of social struggle, while bringing this perspective from all the popular fronts where social movements are organizing. It’s fundamental that the people exercise popular power and that they raise class-consciousness as part of this strategic perspective. During the congress, we discussed the debate of how to build popular power: to create participatory spaces and an atmosphere for struggle. We also need to adopt a new political concept, which is the territorial struggle. Resistance on a territorial level is fundamental because the working class is very diverse and fragmented A territorial struggle implies building a space for construction, participation and socialization. We look to the historic banners from society in the beginning of the century, taking from historic examples like the worker councils where they built popular power and values from our class.”
The workshop on human rights focused on the increasing criminalization of protests and campaigns for the release of political prisoners. Throughout the conference, participants concluded that progressive governments are increasing attacks against social protest and autonomous organizing.
In Uruguay, thousands rallied last year for the release of four prisoners detained during Anti-Bush demonstrations in Montevideo that concurred with the fourth Summit of the Americas held in Mar del Plata, Argentina. They were held for over six weeks. Currently the Patagonian city of Las Heras, in Argentina’s southern province of Santa Cruz, is under siege. Striking oil workers stormed a police station, killing a police officer and injuring 15 others, to free a jailed union leader in February. The government sent over 300 national guardsmen to Santa Cruz to disperse protestors in response to the clash. Oil workers have reported that the situation is very tense, with regular attacks and threats against unionists. In Chile, social acitvists and the indigenous Mapuche people face permanent repression, imprisonment and killings on part of the Chilean state. Since the return to democracy in 1990, hundreds have been arrested for struggling against injustice. More than 30 activists have been murdered since Chile’s return to democracy.
According to Maio, a Mapuche activist from the Encuentro por la libertad, social organizations in Chile need to work at both the macro and micro levels. She, for example, has worked for many years for the release of political prisoners in Chile. “Our organization is building a space to fight for the freedom of the people, freedom for social activists. We are working against the anti-terrorist laws implemented in Chile and against the criminalization of protests because working for the release of political prisoners isn’t enough. If we don’t get to the root of the problem, political repression will continue to be a revolving door.”
“In Chile, a large number of political prisoners were released after the dictatorship. However, Chile’s first democratic government of Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994) arrested a large number of new political prisoners. While everyone said that democracy returned to Chile, it wasn’t the case. They built a high-security prison to imprison social activists from Frente Patriotico Manuel Rodriguez and the MIR. We’ve come to this congress to strategize of how we can effectively fight for the release of political prisoners. First we have to break with the image of political prisoners as terrorists, so that the population doesn’t imagine a hooded criminal. We want the people to associate the term terrorist with torturers, those who are in government and politicians ordering police repression. The government accuses social activists fighting against oppression of terrorist acts and they throw us in jail.”
“In the workshop on human rights we talked about the criminalization of protest. We strategized over how we can reverse human rights abuses in our daily organizing efforts. How can we stop the system from advancing? We always talk about this on a macro level, we talk about neoliberalism and capitalism. But how do we deal with oppression on a day to day basis? We also need to strategize how to deal with the aggressions, when we don’t have food for our collective meals, when we don’t have shoes to put on our children’s feet when they go to school, when there’s no jobs.”
During the workshop on syndicalism, participants debated strategies for workplace struggles. Alex, from Brazil’s National Movement of Collectors of Recycled Material-
Movimento Nacional dos Cartadores de Material Reciclavel (MNCR) says that workers organizing need to develop new tools against exploitation. He said that workers clearly can’t depend on state-run unions or bourgeois labor laws to protect workers from unsafe conditions or firings.
“During the congress we’ve met with compaÃ±eros who are struggling, people who discuss strategy and at the same time are truly fighting. The bourgeois control most of the unions, but they are disguised as union leaders. They are paid a lot of money to run a union. I’m talking about Latin America as a whole. Most of the bureaucratic unions are allied with the government. The union decisions don’t come from the workers. The government works so that workers can’t unite. We’ve agreed with a lot of what has been said here at this conference.”
“We concluded during the workshop: first that all workers should be unionized, even the workers who don’t have jobs. Unemployed workers and informal workers also form part of the working class in struggle. Second: for the unions to be completely independent from the government. We also talked about how the labor laws are developed to favor the capitalist. The laws are all pro-bourgeoisie. Laws are used to institutionalize unions. The laws are all bourgeois which is why we can’t look to them as tools for struggle.”
During the conclusions, participants agreed to coordinate a number of actions against Free Trade Accords throughout the region. The Fifth Latin American Conference of Popular Autonomous Organizations will be held in Chile next year.
Marie Trigona forms part of Grupo AlavÃo. She can be reached at email@example.com