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People Power in Argentina
“Que se vayan todos!”

"El zapatismo es una metáfora sobre lo que es posible hacer"
-- Colectivo Situaciones

by Sirena Pellarolo
Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

The following speech by Sirena Pellarolo was given at the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS) conference in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico June 28-July 1, 2006. The title of the conference was "Transnational Chicana and Chicano Studies: Linking Local and Global Struggles for Social Justice."

Sirena Pellarolo.
Sirena Pellarolo. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Before I get into the topic of my paper, I would like to contextualize it. This presentation was conceived as part of a panel titled “Transnational Zapatismo: From Los Angeles to Patagonia.” Unfortunately, two of the panelists had to cancel, so there were only Chris Zepeda’s and my paper left, which means that the approach envisioned in organizing the panel got lost. In addition to that, the decision to have this panel at this particular meeting of the NACCS conference, on the importance of linking local struggles for social justice with the global -- specifically those from the Americas -- responded more to an activist perspective than to an academic one. As Zapatista-inspired activists working towards autonomy in different Los Angeles-based spaces, and as adherentes to La Otra Campaña launched by the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) on January 1st of this year and embraced by a growing network of grassroots organizations both in Mexico as abroad, our intention was to disseminate the tenets of urban Zapatismo from an observing participant perspective, and to map-out its international dissemination throughout the Americas. The panel description highlighted the following,

Since the 1994 Zapatista uprising, the EZLN has depended on and helped mobilize both Mexican and international civil societies against the onslaught of neoliberal restructuring and global capitalism. The creation of these networks of struggles and resistances inspired thousands of grassroots organizations throughout the world. (…) [Presenters would] discuss the complex relationship between Zapatista-inspired local autonomy to capital and state funding, the [case of the] autonomista movement in Argentina, (…) and the need for communities of color to recover and create "safe" spaces to heal from the wounds of racism, sexism and colonialism within the U.S. and abroad.

While preparing the proposal, participants exchanged ideas electronically, discussed about the importance of this panel in the conference as a whole, and about our approach and methodology for the delivery of this information. Reflecting on our role as observing participants in our work with the Eastside Café, Estación Libre and the Autonomous Peoples’ Collective, one of the panelists wrote the following. I will quote extensively, as the communication is telling of our political choices in our dual role as academics and activists,

i am very serious about looking at our approach as a contribution because it juxtapos[es] community participation and the theoretical work differently -- as a non-hierarchical, integral, and complementary component. The main point is that our position is not so much one of participant observers but more of observing participants. (...)
It is my view that the observing participant position can be accomplished without the primacy of academic identity. In other words, we are holistically observing participants; as we participate, we are inextricably and inseparably observers, students and involved in a community-wide process, learning everything we can from our collective practice. We see our role as initiating a process of reflection, in many ways deepening already existing processes. We also see in our holistic methods the intent of facilitation of the community moving itself from practice to analysis to reflection and planning goals, through trials and errors, analysis and summaries, re-planning and creating; through the development of small theory. (...) This small theory (theory that concerns the local) approach is also respectful of the difference that difference (in context and culture, knowledge) makes, and therefore part of the horizontal approach to a transnational liberation process.
(personal communication)

It is in vein with this “small theory,” that “concerns the local” and advocates for a “horizontal approach to a transnational liberation process,” and respecting our collective method of reflection, that I incorporate this voice into my paper, responding as I do this, to the concerns of another of the panelists who was not able to make it, as to the validity of our presentations (Chris’ and mine) , now that the delivery of the holistic nature of our production of knowledge has been blunted.

To talk about urban Zapatismo in Argentina -- that inspiration in the work of the EZLN that is a constant point of reference for the development of grassroots struggles everywhere, as John Holloway sees it (168-9) -- is to bring into the conversation the collective voices of Raúl Zibecchi, the members of HIJOS, el Colectivo Situaciones and la agencia de contrainformación y anti-copyright La Vaca. It is to recall the smells of freshly baked pan dulce (factura we call it in Argentina), in the wee hours of the morning as we were waking up inside our sleeping bags in the recovered factory Tupuypaj -- a quechua expression that means “para todos” -- in the ruins of what used to be the industrial belt of Southern Buenos Aires, during the Encuentro Enero Autónomo 2005, mateando with members of the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados de Solano, and listening to the children beating on the drums of their murga “Alegre rebeldía.”

To link Zapatismo to the Autonomista Movement in Argentina is to relive the damp freezing air of the early morning of January 1st 2006 in Los Altos de Chiapas, more precisely, the Zapatista community of Oventic, el “Corazón céntrico de los zapatistas delante del mundo,” on the eve of the launching of La Otra Campaña, when, pressed for sleep, the musicians of the local band, “El Nuevo Amanecer ,” decided to stop playing their political cumbias and rancheras, to get some hours of rest before their march on San Cristóbal de las Casas, and stage an indigenous retaking -- peaceful, this time -- of the zócalo of the colonial capital of Chiapas. And how, as the band members were putting away their sound system, a small group gathered beyond the stage, on the wet grassy area where hundreds had danced their cumbias in celebration of the twelfth anniversary of the January 1st 1994 insurrection, attracted by the tunes of a guitar that was playing the soundtrack of my generation, música de protesta de Victor Jara, Mercedes Sosa, Quilapallún, Alí Primera, and that anthem, “Hasta siempre, Comandante!” that celebrates the life of struggle of my compatriot, el Che. It was Nicolás and Marcela, two members of the organización HIJOS (Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio), la agrupación hijos de desaparecidos, asesinados, exiliados y presos políticos durante la aplicación del terrorismo de Estado en la Argentina y el resto de Latinoamérica. The offspring of the ’70s “disappeared,” participating in the launching of La Otra Campaña, that deepening in the commitment to create a global social agenda from below -- abajo y a la izquierda -- subscribed by a network of thousands of grassroots organizations from Mexico and beyond, working towards the construction of a “world where many worlds fit.”

It was interesting to note that on that precise night, the children of the dead of my generation -- extensively my own children! -- would be reminding us that the struggle is global and intergenerational and that it honors the work of our ancestors; that Chiapas, Atenco, Argentina or the South Central Farm are important and paradigmatic sites of resistance against the same enemy: those who favor death and destruction on behalf of their own profit, in contrast to the persistent affirmation of life, dignity and justice of the social majorities who are obstinately betting on the creation of an alternative world.

HIJOS’ slogan, “reivinidicamos la lucha revolucionaria de nuestros padres y sus compañeros,” foregrounds the very important link between the new social movements that originated throughout Latin America in the mid-’90s (with the Zapatista insurrection as the most successful example), and the imposition of neoliberalism, privatization and the globalization of market economy of the early ’70s, a time when these “structural adjustments” were implemented in South America by the force of the boot of military regimes that changed the history of our countries forever.

The young members of HIJOS have done a thorough evaluation of the political context in which their parents struggled, and even of their methodology for transforming the world towards social justice. They have also critiqued many of the doctrines by which their parents’generation operated, coming mostly from revolutionary leftist movements, as a number of them were active in the “guerrilla guevarista” of their time. This yearning to understand and celebrate their parents’ plight has led them to an honest deconstruction of long-held truths of revolutionary movements, such as the need of a vanguard class to “enlighten” the masses towards revolutionary action, the top-down model that assumed an unconfessed superiority over the communities that these usually middle-class youth claimed to represent, a belief in the need to take over the power of the State in order to install a revolutionary government that would “emancipate” the masses and bring equality among all, a need to hegemonize a political line to ensure homogeneity in the praxis, and the consequent repelling of differences manifested in sexist, racist and homophobic attitudes among their ranks. These critiques that HIJOS have developed collectively as part of their communal healing process, have many similarities with what John Holloway sees as

aspects of the Zapatista uprising that have found echo in the cities of the world (…) their Ya basta! turns (…) against a Left that had grown stale and stiff and alienating. It is the rejection both of revolutionary vanguardism and of struggle. Confrontation is then the pivot of social struggle. (…) What is central now is not the confrontation with the other side (capital), but the construction of our own world. We try to focus on our own doing, to push confrontation to one side. (…) in so far as possible, we seize the initiative, we seize the agenda. We make capital follow our agenda, so it becomes clear that the aggression comes from them, not from us. (172-3)

These new social movements, as the Zapatistas, and many others in Latin America, have understood that the struggle against capital is enormous, it is unequal, and consequently, have decided to put their energies instead in the construction of that “imagined”world from their present situation. As they turn their back on the State, traditional political parties and unions, and capital, they work towards “autonomy.” And, even if it is impossible to be completely autonomous within a capitalist system, as Holloway remarks,

we can push our autonomy as far as possible. Capital is the negation of autonomy, the ever-repeated negation of our self-determination. If we see confrontation as the axis of struggle, then we are anticipating and therefore participating in this negation. By making the development of our own creativity (our own power-to-do) the centre of the movement, capital is revealed as a parasite, forced all the time to run after us. (173)

It was out of a need for survival of what was later called the “Autonomista Movement” in Argentina that these sectors of the social majorities, impoverished due to the structural shrinking of the Welfare State and unemployment, decided to take their destiny in their own hands, and stop relying on a government that had long ago failed to respond to the needs of its population.

Argentina faced the total dismantling of the welfare state in the ’90s by the neoliberal, U.S. friendly, IMF (International Monetary Fund)/World Bank-pleasing government of president Carlos Menem, who privatized every State-ran enterprise he could get a hand on -- from the national oil company to the telephones, the national airline -- Aerolíneas Argentinas -- and all other transportation systems and utilities. The private, foreign-owned corporations who bought the national patrimony at bargain prizes implemented massive lay-offs, and unemployment rose to over 20%, and underemployment to 17%, leaving thus roughly half of the population in poverty. The impoverished people of Argentina responded with the creativity, power and knowledge that they had rehearsed in the every-day experience of the networks of citizens who had learnt to go underground during the repression of the military junta during the ’70s and early ’80s. It was an option for survival, and thus, extremely creative projects were born from the coming together of the people, who met in asambleas populares vecinales in a horizontal fashion, mistrusting of the old-school politics of traditional Leftist or populist parties and unions whose leadership had sold-out to the hand-outs and bribes of the corrupt Menem government in bed with neoliberalism.

HIJOS, as a node in a network that prioritizes the creation of a new subjectivity as the first step towards the construction of a new world, bases its political praxis on an unrelenting faith in the power of autonomy and self-determination. Projects like bartering clubs that also trade in the exchange of services, a massive unemployed workers’ movement that runs micro-enterprises for their sustainability, recovered, worker-ran factories that organize in the form of cooperatives and are run in a participatory, horizontal fashion, independent media centers, and the like are some of the responses to the economic crisis that erupted in the popular insurrection of December 19 and 20, 2001 that toppled a president and the head of the Ministry of Economy. Hundreds of thousands of citizens came out of their houses on the night of December 19 banging pots and pans to express their outrage to a political situation that had them in absolute mercy to the greed of foreign banks who had frozen their assets due to a failure in the payment of the foreign debt by the government. The collective cry of “Que se vayan todos,” meaning “let all the politicians go” signified the total collapse of the social pact between the Argentinian people and their elected representatives, thus, the full questioning of a representative, parliamentarian system. It was people’s power manifested in the streets, rebellious, courageously challenging the repression of the system that followed suit.

This nuevo protagonismo social, as the Colectivo Situaciones has called these new historical social agents, has been able to create alternatives to the war declared by neoliberalism practicing self-governance and self-organization . This rebellion exemplified in a very clear manner what Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Prakash, in their insightful look into the "remaking of the soils of our cultures" by the reclaiming of our commons, call “people power,” the coming to terms that these social majorities are fully equipped to take their lives and destinies into their own hands,

the post-modern challenge is for “the people” to grasp what they already possess; and, shaking off the oppressive minorities, to begin exercising their power for their own common good. (…) Slowly discovering the power they already have, “the people” are beginning to focus on things that can be done and practiced now, today. These entail profound transformations in marginalizing the State and society that has marginalized “the people.” (Esteva 162-3)

In Argentina, el Colectivo Situaciones’ work as observing participants is to accompany the affirmation of life and creativity of these popular movements in given political situations. "For us, politics is not the practice of politics. It is the development of new values, relationships, that’s the area where we can act, create, exist." Situaciones is a group of young intellectuals and activists who practice what they call a "militancia de investigación," an updated form of action-research with a high level of productivity, who have decided to start their own press in order to preserve their autonomy. Their members -- that partly overlap with the membership of HIJOS -- warn us that there is a challenge to this social energy that erupted in 2001 in Argentina, represented by what they call "la nueva gobernabilidad," a political situation that refers to the new "progressive" governments that have assumed power in many South American countries, from Lula to Chávez, Kirschner to Morales (I should add that we have our own home-grown example of "nueva gobernabilidad" with Antonio Villarraigosa as mayor of Los Angeles).

la "nueva gobernabilidad" explains Situaciones, (...) alude a una posibilidad, a una dinámica favorable a los movimientos que se puede desarrollar o bloquear por parte tanto de los gobiernos como de los movimientos mismos. (...) esta nueva dinámica emerge como una posibilidad conflictiva de articulación (...) entre el empuje de la autonomía de los movimientos y la necesidad de los gobiernos de regular su inscripción en el mercado mundial (2006).

The threat that the heterogeneity and autonomy of the social response to the neoliberal crisis poses on governments installed by popular mobilizations is diffused by cooptive mechanisms of the State in partnership with capital (see again our home-grown example in the struggle for the South Central Farm). This new governmentality uses the rhetoric of human rights and even of emancipatory discourses, but promote the implementation of what Situaciones calls a "gobernabilidad neoliberal de la existencia." This two-sided aspect of this new governmentality is the challenge that Situaciones points out in the current political situation.

Situaciones’ interest in the work of the Zapatistas has taken them to Mexico, where they conducted a series of interviews around the topic of la Sexta Declaración de la Selva Lacandona and La Otra Campaña, published as Bienvenidos a la selva, diálogos a partir de la Sexta Declaración del EZLN. Their particular reading of the Sixth Declaration is that this document is a call to link-up the diverse autonomies ("nunca más una lucha aislada," as the macheteros de Atenco declared after their success in defeating the plans to build a mega-airport on their communal land), and to make a clear demarcation from the new forms of governmentality (in Mexico clearly represented by the PRD candidate Manuel Andrés López Obrador to the presidency). It is from the creation of this new political space networked from below, that political strategies can develop.

"Si nosotros dejamos pasar esta crisis," warns Subcomandante Marcos in his most recent interview published in the current issue of Revista Rebeldía, referring to the credibility crisis of the different Mexican parties, "y dejamos que se solucione arriba," meaning, allowing a "progressive" platform, basically the one proposed by AMLO, to solve the political crisis, "el costo para todo el movimiento social, no sólo el de la izquierda definido como izquierda, sino incluso el espontáneo, es la muerte." In this way, Marcos sees La Otra Campaña as the last opportunity in galvanizing and giving some kind of organization to the impetus of the rebellions from below.

Situaciones recognizes that the Argentinian social movements failed to anticipate the consequences of this new governmentality as the Zapatistas did a year before the elections, and counter-attacked with a pre-emptive plan of action for the creation of an anti-capitalist network from below. The call of La Otra Campaña has gone global, and Situaciones, as so many other collectives in the Americas and the world, have subscribed to the call of la Otra Campaña as they know how to: as observing participants, accompanying the grassroots, documenting the path, creating networks, and calling on the manipulations and repressions of those in power when the situation asks for it. Exactly the type of work me and my compas are doing in the belly of the beast towards the affirmation of life, creativity, and dignity.

About the author: Sirena Pellarolo is a cultural critic, educator, and activist born in Argentina. She lives in Los Angeles, California. She is Associate Professor of Latin American Cultural Studies at California State University, Northridge and works with the Eastside Cafe, El Sereno, an autonomous space in Northeast Los Angeles. She is the author of Sainete criollo/ democracia/ representación. El caso de Nemesio Trejo, Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 1997, a study of the popular and ethnic theater of Buenos Aires at the turn of the XX century. She is currently working on an experiential and theoretical study of the aesthetics and politics of resistance in Latin American autonomous movements (namely Chiapas and Argentina).


Colectivo Situaciones. Bienvenidos a la selva; diálogos a partir del Sexta Declaración del EZLN, 2005.

"¿Hay una nueva gobernabilidad?" La Fogata 1, marzo 2006.

Esteva, Gustavo and Madhu Suri Prakash. Grassroots Post-Modernism: Remaking The Soil of Cultures. London and New York: Zed Books, 1998.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Holloway, John. “Zapatismo urbano.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 29:1.

La Vaca. "Colectivo Situaciones y la nueva gobernabilidad"

Rodríguez Lascano, Sergio. "El elemento extra: la organización. Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos." Revista Rebeldía 3, 42. mayo 2006.

Sitrin, Marina (ed.). Horizontalidad: voces de poder popular en Argentina. Buenos Aires: Chilavert, 2005.

Published in In Motion Magazine July 16, 2006.

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