Latin American Social Movements

Social movements include forms of social protest and political engagement and, in Latin America, they develop after the end of Spanish or Portuguese colonial rule, when Latin American countries gained their independence and became self-governing.  Some countries gained independence in the mid- to late nineteenth century, others at the beginning of the twentieth century. The struggle for independence and to attain a national identity grew out of collective struggle and evolved into social movements which extend into the contemporary period (Eckstein, 2).  For example, in Mexico some of the most widespread collective struggles took place during the 1980’s, following an infamous debt crisis (Escobar, 1).

Weak economic power, the struggles of minority groups, and/or attempting to protest the status quo maintained by a greater economic power, usually including the ruling elite and government, all account for the development of Latin American social movements. (Eckstein, 3) Economic relationships and changes that occur within these relationships are the prime motivation for social protest movements, but equally important to social movements in Latin America is the political situation. Latin America has withstood some of the most horrific and repressive military regimes, and people under these regimes have faced a multitude of human rights injustices, such as false imprisonment and torture at the hands of corrupt officials. Political injustices, carried out to assert the power of the government and cow the population into obedience, have instead inspired widespread protest among the people as they fight for social justice (Escobar, 1).

Forms of protest and social activism can be divided into two types of action; active and passive. Active protest involves open opposition to the dominant power and can manifest itself as public protests, labour strikes, and guerrilla movements. Passive protest is more subversive and less public; it can take the form of foot dragging, noncompliance, slander and more everyday forms of resistance. Passive protests are often the beginning stages of what may become active protests, but these passive methods may also be used when more obvious forms of opposition are inadvisable, for example if the protestors are reliant on the dominant power for work, or if overt actions will put protestors in personal danger under a repressive government. (Eckstein, 5)

Both active and passive protest can be seen in the Sendero Luminoso Rebellion in Peru’s Ayacucho region, during the 1980’s. The Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, was a brutal and fanatical guerrilla movement that declared the recently elected Peruvian government fascist and reactionary, and began a violent campaign to bring them down. (Eckstein, 61) In spite of their extremist views and violent tactics the Sendero Luminoso enjoyed the support of the people in Ayacucho, so that even if  they were not active members of the guerrilla group the people provided a network of support to help the guerrillas. The active protesters are obviously the full members of the Sendero Luminoso, who actually participate within the guerrilla movement, but the people providing the network of support are engaging in passive protest, providing food, medical attention and a small degree of protection to the guerrillas. (Eckstein, 62)

Women can play an integral role in any form of protest, but often social movements are spearheaded by groups of women to address problems experienced specifically by women, but that affect the community at large. In Latin America women’s groups have a long history of social mobilization including the Movement for the Liberation of Chilean Women (MEMCH) in the 1930’s, and the Frente Unico Pro Derecho de la Mujer, a collective of 50,000 women representing hundreds of different organizations in Mexico. In the 1980’s with the second wave of feminism came an increased presence of women in the politics of Latin America and a rediscovery of a progressive women’s history (Escobar, 41). In Argentina this rediscovery led to women using their roles as mothers, daughters and sisters to draw attention and demand justice for those people who had disappeared because of the military regime, openly opposing the government when many other groups did not. In Chile women converted homes and neighbourhoods into sites of collective resistance during the Pinochet dictatorship. In both cases the efforts of the women helped significantly to topple the governments. (Escobar, 41)

Social movements have also developed in response to changes on land rights and agricultural reform. In Peru during the 1970’s a rural justice group known as rondas campesinas (not to be confused with the military-run vigilante patrols of the same name who fight the Shining Path guerrillas) emerged to provide community-run patrols against cattle thieves and developed into a more collaborative community justice program that began to deal with problems ranging from wife beating to land disputes, providing an alternative to the slow and often corrupt city government officials. (Escobar, 89) The rondas campesinas spread and became more organized over the years so that in 1990 they were able to protest a dramatic increase in interest rates and denounce  the government’s agrarian policy. These peasants, spurred by inefficient government policy, mobilized to take control of their land, property and community. (Escobar, 90)

In Mexico the most famous social movement to arise out of land disputes is the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) based in Chiapas. Naming themselves after Emiliano Zapata, an agrarian reformer during the Mexican Revolution, and adopting many of his ideologies as their own, the group arose to protest the North American Free Trade Agreement, which had several articles that threatened the agricultural livelihood of many of the peasants. The Zapatistas felt that the increased trade with the US would flood the market with cheap mass-produced agricultural products, which would unfairly compete with the produce of local farmers. The EZLN declared war on the Mexican government in 1994, and a period of violence began, ending in 1995. Now the EZLN is primarily a protest group, committed to defending indigenous land rights, protesting against government policy, and promoting the idea of collective good as an alternative to capitalism. (Chasteen, 317-318)

A rich and complex web of social movements has developed in Latin America since the end of the colonial period. Individual movements differ based on geography and circumstance, but all the people involved in the organization of social movements share the belief that it is only through engaged political activism that they can improve the quality of life for themselves and the future generations of their country. Even in the face of great opposition and repression, in the form of military governments or dictators, and at great risk to their own safety, the people of Latin America have always found a way to make their voices heard. Every attempt by the governing power to repress people caused an equally powerful resistance movement to form. Numerous political and social protests have occurred all over Latin America during the twentieth century, and continue today.

Sarah Sharpe

Fall 2011

Works cited 

Chasteen, John Charles. Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Eckstein, Susan, ed. Power and Popular Protest: Latin American Social Movements. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Escobar, Arturo, and Sonia E. Alvarez. The Making of Social Movements in Latin America. Boulder, CO: Westview Press Inc, 1992.

This entry was posted in Movement for the Liberation of Chilean Women (MEMCH), Peru, popular protest, rondas campesinas, Sendero Luminoso, social activism, Social movements, Uncategorized, Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). Bookmark the permalink.

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