by Jeff Abbott
It is hard to deny the authoritarian tendencies that Donald Trump has shown in his first 100 days as president of the United States. These tendencies have drawn comparisons to the classic image of a Latin American dictator, and more specifically the caudillo — or strongman leader — by commentators from across Latin American. From his taste in decor and his adversarial relationship with the media, to his fundamental assault on human rights, the similarities are hard to contest.
Our neighbors to the south have a long history of resisting authoritarian and fascist regimes, which often were supported by the U.S. governments. They were able to survive under difficult situations and — thanks to social movements — move the region in a more progressive direction. After decades of struggle, here are four lessons that movements in Latin America can teach those in the United States organizing against their own authoritarian leader.
1. Defend public services
Today, as Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos move to further dismantle the public education system and impose a neoliberal model of education, the Chilean mobilization against the U.S.-imposed dictatorship can provide a guide for the defense of public services in the United States.
In 1973, the CIA sponsored a coup d’état led by General Augusto Pinochet against the democratically elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende. Following the coup, Pinochet began to implement the first neoliberal economic reforms to the economy. Public institutions, such as education, health care and pensions were privatized. These reforms were led by the former economic students of Milton Friedman from the University of Chicago.
María Loreto Muñoz Villa was only one-year-old when Pinochet seized power. At age 13 she became the president of her class, and eventually participated in the student movements of the 1990s. Today she continues to work to challenge neoliberalism in Chile.
“Neoliberalism creates an illusion of well-being, that is really not there. In Chile, the debt, the long work hours, requires that people mobilize,” Muñoz Villa said. However, it is difficult, “for people to mobilize because of debt, because if they stopped working, they couldn’t pay their debts. Since 2000, the movement has worked with people to see this as the product of neoliberal politics.”
These impacts led people to organize around certain slogans, such as free education. In 2011, tens of thousands of students took to the streets to demand a free public education. The movement looked to challenge the privatized educational system that was established by the Pinochet dictatorship. The privatization denied an affordable quality educational system to the majority of Chileans.
Chile’s student movement has led to changes in Chile’s educational system — including free higher education to 50 percent of the country’s poor — following victory of socialist presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet in 2013. She did this through the implementation of a 25 percent corporate tax to raise money for public education.
Faced with increasing poverty, pensioners and other community activists also began organizing during the administration of Bachelet to demand the end of the Pinochet-era privatized pension system. They argued that the current pension system provides very little to pensioners, all while the companies that manage the pensions earn massive profits. There were massive protests that drew hundreds of thousands to the streets. These efforts led to the recent announcement by Bachelet that her administration will begin to overhaul the country’s pension system.
These campaigns and movements all arose from a shared understanding that neoliberalism is at the root of social inequalities in Chile. According to Muñoz Villa, the rise of Trump means that movements must organize against both his more overt repressive policies and the social impacts of neoliberalism.
This defense of public services, such as education, is already well established in the United States. Teachers of the Chicago Teachers Union have led the charge to protect the public education system. Their movement has been strengthened through their connections with teachers in Mexico and in South America. These relationships need to be strengthened across the country as the struggle to defend public services heats up in the coming months.
2. Build territorial autonomy
The historic dispossession of indigenous lands and territory in the United States has continued into the 21st century. Within the first weeks of his administration, Trump systematically dismantled legislation to protect the environment from extractive industries. He has also repeatedly expressed his interest in expanding mining activities, pipelines and hydro energy, which will continue to threaten indigenous land. These assaults on indigenous territory in the United States reflect the trend in Latin America, where over the last 30 years, indigenous communities have built movements across the hemisphere in defense of their land from the expansion of mega-projects.
These communities are empowered through international agreements on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, such as the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, as well as the United Nation’s 2007 declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. These accords have galvanized the resistance of indigenous communities to the expansion of extractive industries.
The defense of territory has generated new means of communal power and social changes across the hemisphere. Groups in South America, such as the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, have worked to create autonomous, horizontal forms of education within the classrooms in their communities. Other movements, such as the Zapatistas in Mexico, have utilized their territorial autonomy to construct an autonomous educational system, as well as healthcare systems that incorporates ancestral medicinal practices with modern medicine.
The movement at Standing Rock began to build bridges to these communities across the hemisphere. At the height of the encampment, indigenous leaders from countries like Guatemala and Mexico traveled to South Dakota to share their experiences and lessons from their movements. Among the primary messages that the indigenous leaders brought was that their struggles — and their enemies — were one in the same. In this sense, the camp became the point of interchange between indigenous peoples from Latin America and from around the world. Despite the camp’s destruction in February, the foundations for a long resistance to protect indigenous land have been put in place.
3. Build new means of labor organizing
Politics as usual has failed most rank-and-file workers in the United States. Despite the support that Trump received from the working class, his election means disaster for workers and organized labor. Trump’s war on unions has included nominating an outspokenly anti-union lawyer to the National Labor Relations Board, and putting forward a number of anti-union candidates for Labor Secretary. As neoliberalism continues its assault on workers, the lessons from South America can also provide organizers with another means of how to organize in the workplace at times of crisis.
The 2001 economic crisis in Argentina that forced millions out of work and led to the collapse of financial services triggered the piquetero, or picketer, movement. This mobilization brought together vast numbers of impoverished unemployed workers to demand and obtain a sustainable livelihood. They were forced to construct alternatives to the neoliberal capitalist system.
Protesters adopted the slogan “Que se vayan todos,” or “They all must go,” and sought to replace the corrupt political system that led to the 2001 crisis. In the course of two weeks, four presidents were forced to resign due to the popular protests. Furthermore, the movement contributed to the emergence of direct democracy on street corners, where neighbors would come out and work together to resolve problems within their neighborhoods.
“The piquetero movement did not only resist the neoliberal politics, they created productive ventures,” said Raul Zibechi, a Uruguayan journalist, author and social movement analyst. “They ended their dependence on the state, and began working on autonomy. Not an ideological autonomy, but a practical autonomy.”
Workspaces were recuperated by employees who returned to work to find locked doors and shuttered businesses. Following the crisis, more than 180 cooperatives were formed by their workers. By 2014, this number had expanded to 311 businesses that employed 13,462 workers.
The rise of the movement eventually contributed to the narrow victory of Néstor Carlos Kirchner in the May 2003 presidential. His administration’s first steps were to renegotiate the country’s debt, and to break ties with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
4. Move beyond political power
The story of Argentina also serves as a warning to the movement in the United States about the danger of focusing solely on winning electoral victories without also building alternative forms of power beyond the state. Zibechi argues that the rise of Kirchner led to the decline of the piquetero movement and is an example of how a movement can be co-opted by politicians in order to achieve power.
“Kirchner’s policy consisted of simultaneously enacting strategies to integrate, co-opt and discipline the piquetero organizations,” wrote sociologist Maristella Svampa.
Kirchner spoke out against the popular protests, stating that the piqueteros should use more traditional democratic means, such as voting, rather than blocking roads and picketing. Furthermore, many middle-class voters, who made up many of the neighborhood associations, were taken in by the Kirchner campaign, believing that it was an anti-neoliberal administration. But his administration never led to a move towards a social and economic alternative.
The failure of the subsequent administration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to fully transform the political situation led to the eventual return of the neoliberal influence in Argentina, and the election of right-wing politician Mauricio Macri in 2015.
A key lesson from the piquetero movement in Argentina and the movements against neoliberalism in Chile is that finding the means of constructing new forms of social relations outside the neoliberal and traditional political structure is a necessity for those organizing against Trump. These local solutions can provide communities with the means of building sustainable movements to resist the draconian policies of any government.