Anarchism in Latin America

A short article on anarchism in Latin America

The following is an adaptation of a the text of a presentation given by Nelson Mendez, member of the editorial collective of El Libertario, an anarchist paper and group in Venezuela, at the International Anarchist Congress at St Imier in Switzerland in August 2012

I'll try to give here a comprehensive introduction to the history, characteristics and prospects of anarchism on our continent. For this, I will consider four historical moments:

1) The 19th century: its European origins and its implantation in Latin America

2) The first third of the 20 th century: the rise of anarcho-syndicalism and the libertarian presence in social struggles, political dynamics and cultural and intellectual scene on the continent.

3) Its reflux and its virtual disappearance from the 1930s to the early 1990s.

4) From the end of the 20 th century to the 21st century: hope for a resurgence faced with the challenges of new realities and the test of the potential of the libertarian idea.

This timeline does not seek to establish the exact sequence of what happened in our countries, because circumstances were different in each of them. For this reason, the perspective must be adjusted to each specific context.

A major obstacle to the knowledge of anarchism on the continent is the silence imposed by the official historians, whether positivist, liberal or Marxist. Fortunately, there is a preceding text of extraordinary value, the preface entitled "Latin American Anarchism", written by Angel Cappelletti in 1990, for the anthology Anarchism in Latin America .

European origins and roots

During the 1870s and the 1880s, whilst the Anti-Authoritarian International was being born, anarchism arrived in Latin America, and gradually adapted and took root in this new reality. We must first of all bear in mind how large sectors of the oppressed identified the libertarian positions with egalitarian and collectivist traditions which, for many indigenous peoples, Aztec or Inca, were present before European imperialism, and who for people of African descent were present before their enslavement.

The effort towards the "acclimatization" of anarchism occurred very early. It was reflected in the "Escuela del Rayo y el Socialismo" in Mexico, Enrique Roig San Martin and the newspaper Il Productor in Cuba, Manuel González Prada in Peru, and and the unrest in the the Río de la Plata region, where Uruguayan and Argentinean sections of the International were founded, both with a markedly anarchist orientation.

Anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian struggles

With the 1900s, the birth of the FOA and then the FORA in Argentina, the FORU in Uruguay, the Operária Confederação Brasileira, the Federación Regional Obrera Paraguay, indomitable libertarian union activity in Cuba, persistent illegal propaganda of the Mexican Liberal Party of Ricardo Flores Magon to organize workers, are all signs that show how anarcho-syndicalism converted into the most popular expression (but not the only) of anarchist ideas and praxis in Latin America during the first third of the last century.
All official interpretations from the right and the authoritarian left have ignored, downplayed and distorted the deep traces of anarcho-syndicalistm in the social history of Latin America Cappelletti opposes himself to this, based on documented references for each country, later expanded in quantity and quality through valuable and profound historical surveys. Some examples: Biófilo Panclasta El Eterno Prisionero (1992) by Colectivo Alas de Xue Colombia El anarquismo in Cuba (2000) by Frank Fernández, Magonismo: Utopia y revolución, 1910-1913 (2005) by Ruben Trejo; Historia do anarquismo do Brasil (2006-2009), two volumes compiled by Rafael Deminicis, Daniel Reis and Carlos Addor; La Choledad antiestatal. El movimiento en el anarcosindicalismo Obrero Boliviano (2010) by Huascar Rodríguez, the content of web pages of the group JD Gómez Rojas of Chile and the Anarchist Archives of Peru

During the first decades of the 20th h century and even before, there was in Latin America an explosion of experiments, tests and proposals to pave the way for the immediate construction of the free world proposed by Anarchism: self-managed cooperatives, solidarity and mutual aid funds, schools freed from ecclesiastical and State tutelage, experiences of community life, publishing efforts, non-profit, independent projects of cultural creation and dissemination. It is not surprising that a large number of artists and intellectuals felt attracted to a way of thinking and doing that proposed in lively manner breaking the suffocating conservatism that governed society at the time.

At the dawn of the 20th century there developed on the continent an anarchist theory adapted to the specific features of our reality. Latin American Anarchism did not wait for the light to come from Europe, it gave new and coherent answers to questions such as oppression, racism and brutality suffered by peasants and indigenous peoples , the aggressive advance of external imperialist capitalism associated with the local semi-feudal reactionary cultural hegemony of the Catholic Church, the exploitation of women; it was to make a socio-political movement resolutely rational and modern that anarchism sought to achieve its objectives.
Decline and virtual disappearance

According to Cappelletti, there three reasons for the decline of Latin American anarchism from the 1930s and 1940s. I would add a fourth, which complements them.

1 The authoritarian wave that swept through Latin America: Machado and Batista in Cuba, Vargas in Brazil, Uriburu in Argentina, Terra in Uruguay, et a sinister et cetera in other countries.

2 The foundation of the Communist Parties on the continent, and their relative growth (in some cases at the expense of anarchism) had much to do with the "revolutionary prestige" of the Soviet Union, which controlled and supported them in their role as the international instruments of state policy.
3 The emergence of populist nationalist currents (Apra in Peru, PRI in Mexico, Peronism, Acción Democrática in Venezuela, Batllism1 in Uruguay, etc.) which, with the support of emerging agents of power, were able to spread a reformist pro –State vaguely patriotic ideology.

4 The defeat of the Spanish Revolution and its effects in terms of crisis and decline for Latin American anarchism.

The survival even of groups, publications and anarchist initiatives was difficult. Certainly, Latin American anarchism of the late 1930s to about 1990 has not disappeared, but in too many places it seems to have disappeared without a trace or survived only through a few aged spokespeople of the idea. The arrival of a large number of Spanish exiles scattered across Latin America after 1939 could not change this trend. To make matters worse, Marxism-Leninism claimed in 1961 by the leaders of the insurrection that has been called the Cuban Revolution appeared to many as the only way to carry out revolutionary and progressive changes in our continent, a faith claimed within branches of radical populist nationalism (e.g. MIR in Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia) or by Catholic grassroots activism, including liberation theology, which merged seamlessly with Marxism. Isolation made that a part of the anarchist movement turn to an abstract of nostalgia for a glorious past, while another part of the movement advocated rapprochement with Marxism (e.g. refusing to criticize Fidel Castro, assuming the ambiguous discourse on "national liberation" and / or adopting Guevarist-militarist myths around the armed struggle).

Reasons for hope for a revival

The Soviet Union's collapse and failures of authoritarian Marxism in our countries have furnished "politically correct" alibis for all opportunism. With the collapse of the certainties in force during the previous decades, libertarian ideas and practices won a rehearing, however without showing an immediate growth. Some external influences made themselves felt sometimes, when it was clear that in the rest of the world, it was the libertarian camp which provided the revival of social struggles, collective organization to bypass the obsolete Leninist model, or the definition of revolutionary proposals. Today, throughout Latin America, a growing number of activists, young critics, women, indigenous people, students, workers, intellectually curious people are coming to anarchism with an unprecedented interest since the beginning of the 20th century. Around 1995-1996, in Latin America, the Internet, as a novelty for a minority, became a means of contact, exchange and dissemination of anarchism as it favours models of horizontal relations, of non-hierarchical coordination and of action through networks, always anarchist practices.

The past twenty years have seen what I would call at a pinch the return of Latin American anarchism: the growth of periodical publications (printed as well as virtual), renewed efforts to distribute libertarian books and pamphlets, whether classic or recent; the continuing birth of collectives and spaces of libertarian inspiration (even in areas with no previous anarchist presence); many creative expressions of cyberactivism, the rebirth of anarchist activism, symbols and proposals in the social struggle; direct and specific interventions in the most diverse cultural areas, art, theatre, music, literature, and socio-historical thought and research. All this somehow evokes the libertarian continental panorama of a century ago, but it lacks the primacy of approach and of anarcho-syndicalist action that existed at that time.

Present difficulties
It would be a disaster for our movement if it could not define the autonomous course that was our strength in the past; it must avoid isolation and not dilute its objectives. Since the 1930s and 1940s, Latin American anarchism faces a challenge: how to oppose the demagogic nationalist populism, whose varieties in mutation are still dominant players on the political scene? The current wave of "progressive governments" is the new mask of the old enemy, which it is vital to fight by giving appropriate practical and theoretically coherent responses As evidence of the urgency of this challenge, the confusion and persistent damage that anarchism has suffered for not having faced this, we are now stuck with "anarcho-Chavists” in Venezuela, as if the unfortunate parodies of "anarcho-Peronism" of "anarcho-battlisme" in Uruguay, and "anarcho-Castroism" were not enough.

I emphasize that which I believe to be essential for the hoped for return of Anarchism to be firmly rooted: we must consolidate anarchy as a viable and constructive tool for autonomous social struggles today, in a revolutionary perspective. No doubt the current renaissance in Latin America has its roots in processes of mass culture such as punk, in efforts to revitalize an audience for libertarian ideas and in political processes such as the emergence of the neo-Zapatistas since 1994 and the movement against globalization after Seattle in 1999. However, if these processes have subsequently been able to maintain themselves, it is because, in many ways, they are in line with collective demands and conflicts. Although they are not as strong and broad as we would like them to be, these links exist and provide opportunities to us that would be unforgivable to miss.

I share the assertion that anarchism will be social action or it will not be. To associate or subordinate such action to exemplary acts , to prophecy, to attempts at “days of rage” or “free lifestyle” is a pretext for isolating oneself in an anarchism turned towards purely intellectual pleasure or simply an aesthetic anarchism, would be to condemn our idea to sterility and inertia.
The above appeared in Issue 80 of Organise! the Anarchist Federation magazine