Javier Sethness, “Communalist, Autonomous, and Indigenous Movements in Latin America: Concrete Hope for an Alternative to Capitalism”


Javier Sethness, Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation

Comments presented at the July 14 launch of the Coalition for Peace, Revolution and Social Justice at a public meeting at the Westside Peace Center, Culver City

Communalism: relating to the community or Commune; referring to communal or popular power; also collectivism

Autonomy: resisting the State and capital

Indigenous: Native, non-mestizo; most oppressed

“Concrete hope”: Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hopeconcrete utopia

  • “concrete” here in its Hegelian sense as con crescere, a dialectical growing together of tendencies and latencies
  • The struggle for liberation is a constant effort to realize “the Not-Yet-Become, towards viable possibilities of the light”


The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Angel Cappelletti’s Anarchism in Latin America, forthcoming from AK Press. Reproduced with permission.


The environmentalist and ecological movements in Latin America have produced their own martyrs, including Chico Mendes and Berta Cáceres, as well as Mariano Abarca and Bernardo Vásquez Sánchez, anti-mining organizers from Chiapas and Oaxaca, respectively, together with countless others. Indeed, ecologists and land-defenders have been singled out for repression at the hands of States and private interests in Latin America, with hundreds of organizers killed annually in the past few years. The severity of such suppression reflects the fears of the ruling classes regarding the potential for autonomous indigenous, communalist, and anarchist movements engaging in radical ecological praxis: recovering and communizing the land, expropriating the expropriators, employing agroecology, abolishing or at least minimizing alienated labor, completely redistributing wealth and resources, redesigning the cities for collective living and sustainability, overthrowing pollution and productivism, halting economic growth, delineating biosphere reserves, and equilibrating the overall relationship between humanity and nature.

Against such ends stand arrayed foreign and domestic capital and the State. Canadian capital, for example, owns between 50-70% of all mines in Latin America, and for this reason is responsible for vast environmental destruction and widespread human-rights abuses. In many cases, Latin American States serve as facilitators of these extractive ventures, or themselves greatly accelerate domestic extractivist projects, as seen in the “Pink Tide” countries of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Uruguay that are pursuing a “Twenty-First Century Socialism” that closely mimics neoliberalism. Such productivism in turn belies these States’s claims to be environmental champions: while Brazil commits itself to the goal of “zero illegal deforestation” by 2030, researchers project that the majority of Amazonian tree species will be extinct by mid-century at current rates of clearance. The Brazilian Labor Party has also encouraged the construction of hundreds of dams in the Amazon, with the most notorious being  the Belo Monte mega-dam on the Xingu River, a project that would flood vast expanses of the rainforest, forcibly displace tens of thousands, threaten the survival of indigenous peoples, and affect peasants both in Brazil and regionally. The stipulation that nature or Pacha Mama has a right to be “comprehensively respected,” as enshrined in the Ecuadorean Constitution since 2008, has hardly ensured that the highly biodiverse Yasuní National Park not be opened up to extract petroleum. For its part, the resistance of the US government to any contemplation of a regional decriminalization or legalization of drugs effectively perpetuates the power of the cartels, whose paramilitary-capitalist operations involve considerable environmental damage, while its direct military support for the Mexican and Colombian States’s counter-insurgency operations and its coordination of hemispherical trade and investment are directed at maintaining the ecologically and socially suicidal business as usual.

Let us now turn to considering revolutionary indigenous movements in Colombia and Mexico that represent dialectical inversions of the dominant, globally ecocidal and thanotic trends.

In Mexico, in parallel to the contemporary authoritarianisms that took the lives of thousands in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, the “Dirty War” of the 60s and 70s saw the full repressive power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) directed against leftists, youth, organizers, and the landless peasantry in the wake of the Tlatelolco massacre of October 2, 1968. The State murdered hundreds of students in Mexico City that day, and the PRI forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed thousands more as part of its counter-insurgent strategy to suppress the generalized societal outrage provoked by the same. The EZLN itself was founded in 1983 as a union between landless indigenous Chiapanecxs and urban-based mestizo and European-descended militants from the Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional (FLN), which had been created in 1969—much as the ten-year Colombian civil war known as La Violencia that claimed thousands of lives catalyzed the founding in 1964 of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army). The neo-Zapatista insurrection on January 1, 1994, proclaimed a radical halt to the ceaseless ethnocide targeting indigenous peoples since the Spanish conquest. The rapid response of domestic and international civil society to the uprising limited the intensity of direct repression by the Mexican Army, resulting paradoxically in the PRI’s resorting instead to employing paramilitary terror against Zapatista support-bases and Zapatista-sympathizing communities in Chiapas—a strategy that continues to this day. Following the inevitable breakdown of negotiations with a racist State failing to observe the San Andrés Accords (1996), the EZLN focused intensely on furthering communal autonomy by strengthening the participatory alternate institutions that comprise the movement which exists alongside the military structures, including cooperatives, autonomous education processes, the public health sector, and popular assemblies. This project of autonomy advanced importantly in 2003 with the announcement of the Good-Government Councils (JBG’s), comprised of delegates, sometimes as young as adolescents, who rotate in the administration of the five regions of Chiapas in which the EZLN has a presence.

Hence, while it is true that the EZLN’s initial uprising sought to inspire a regional- or country-wide revolution to take over the State—with the Zapatistas hoping to march on Mexico City and liberate it once again—the neo-Zapatista movement has distinguished itself from other Latin American guerrilla struggles by the anti-electoralism and anti-statism that has defined the development of its autonomy. A decade ago, the EZLN launched La Otra Campaña as an effort to unite a nation-wide anti-authoritarian left alternative to political parties and the State amidst the ongoing battle for power between the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the social-democrat candidate, in the 2006 elections. Yet now, after having greatly emphasized such autonomy as alternative for some time, the EZLN joins its comrade-representatives from the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) in endorsing the proposal for an Indigenous Government Council (CIG) and in presenting the Nahua traditional healer María de Jesús “Marichuy” Patricio Martínez as CIG spokesperson, councilor, and candidate for the 2018 presidential elections. The CNI describes this move as “going on the offensive,” and it paradoxically claims not to want to administer power but rather to dismantle it. Since the announcement, Marichuy and comrades have stressed that the focus is not on the ballot but rather favoring “organization, life, and the defense of territory.” Yet the conclusion of the Fifth CNI in early 2017 is clear: the CIG is meant to “govern this country.” It remains to be seen how this move will play out, and how it will affect the Zapatista movement and autonomous indigenous movements elsewhere in Mexico and Latin America. This shift toward electoralism is presumably being met with a degree of resistance within Zapatista ranks, particularly among the youth.

Next, in southwestern Colombia, the Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca (Regional Indigenous Council of the Cauca, or CRIC), is a collective organization of 120 indigenous council governments comprised of Coconuco, Nasa, Misak, Totoró, Ambalueño, Quizgüeño, Heperara, and Inga peoples. Founded in 1971, the CRIC is engaged in the recuperation of the commons, the expropriation of privately-owned lands, the furtherance of cooperatives, the maintenance and expansion of indigenous government, resistance to mega-mines, organizing in favor of political prisoners, and advocating a popular and reconstructive resolution to the country’s civil war. Yet in parallel to the repression faced by the EZLN, the seizure of lands by CRIC communards for purposes of communal subsistence often meets with direct military and paramilitary repression, particularly during days of collective labor. Paramilitary violence against organized indigenous-campesinx communities in Cauca seeks to clear the way for capitalist maldevelopment, such that only the “the dedicated and sincere organization, actions in solidarity, and struggle of all the oppressed social classes and sectors” can do away with “the unhappy world of mineral and agro-industrial exploitation of the land and labor.”


In several states of southern Mexico, communal self-defense groups and autogestive processes have arisen in recent years to resist caciques (local bosses), the State, foreign extractive industries, and narco-traffickers alike, thus continuing the more than half-millennium of resistance to capitalist oppression on the continent. In Guerrero, the Regional Coordinator of Communal Authorities-Communal Police (CRAC-PC) have defended scores of indigenous communities from these forces for two decades, while In April 2011, women from the P’ur’hépecha community of Cherán K’eri, Michoacán, rose up to overthrow the hegemonic drug cartels engaged in mass-deforestation, establishing an emancipatory Commune in the process. In 2013, autodefensas surged elsewhere in Michoacán to resist societal domination by the Knights Templar cartel, leading President Peña Nieto to send the Army in to quell and disarm the revolt. Though these autodefensa brigades, some of which explicitly organized in the model of popular security, achieved a great deal in a short period of time, many of them ultimately integrated into the State or the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, rivals to the Knights Templar. In contrast, in Ayutla de los Libres, Guerrero, home of several of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa who were forcibly disappeared by the State in Iguala in September, 2014, the majority of neighborhoods and communities opted for autogestión via popular assemblies during a vote in June 2017, thus exercising their right to associate according to indigenous “uses and customs” and so reject political parties and electoral politics. This right, recognized by the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, is hardly binding on States, being part of international law: indeed, current events and the history of Latin America clearly reveal a systematic disregard from above for indigenous autonomy, human rights, collective liberation, and environmental balance. Within such a context, amidst the utter failure of capital and authority to address such radical demands, these hegemonic forces must be swept away so that the rest of us can get on with doing so. Today, a hundred years since the Russian Revolution, the time is ripe for another global rebellion against capital and the State: another Mexican Revolution, a worldwide neo-Zapatista uprising.

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