Latin America: Counterinsurgency and Poverty. Interview with Raul Zibechi

The Uruguayan journalist Raul Zibechi is one of the best, and best known, political analysts in Latin America. He has worked with numerous publications in the region and has a long list of books to his name. His latest, Latin America: Counterinsurgency and Poverty was published in June of this year in Bogotá Colombia, by desdeabajo . The book is critical of the current wave of progressive governments in the region, in particular regarding the Poverty Reduction Policies most of them have adopted. Zibechi calls these a new form of domination.

The principal problem, according to the author, is that these policies adopt the language and methodology of World Bank programmes, dividing and sub dividing the population into groups of ‘beneficiaries’ of programmes that do little more than smother the appetite for the structural change. To make things worse, the very social movements that until recently lead the fight for change have not only become institutionalised, but now form the leading edge of attempts by governments to create a world in which everything is resolved peacefully through a type of lop sided negotiation.  This is a world with only two ‘actors‘ : the state and business.

According to the author: “The strategy of domination and control of populations, of consolidation of states without problematic dissidence’, is taking on new forms and is becoming a reality in many places. This book allows us to get inside the details of these new forms, known by the name of the ‘Integrated Action Doctrine’, applied in Colombia with full force, but also in the majority of Latin American countries by means of the Poverty Reduction Policies promoted by the Multilateral Banks after the defeat of the United States in Vietnam.”

In the following interview Raul Zibechi answers questions about his book and the negative impact of this type of policy.


Interview with Raul Zibechi


Gerard Coffey

18th August  2010

G.C. Your book appears to be calling for revolution, or rather a non frontal resistance in the small spaces of daily life in order to overwhelm the capacity of the state to control, and from there go on to achieve structural change.

R.Z. I’m not in the habit of calling for anything in particular, least of all revolution. My interest in writing this book, is to make the new forms of  ‘open sky’  oppression and domination visible (the  idea  comes from Gilles Deleuze) , because I think that  by making domination visible it’s easier to neutralise it. I’m not someone who thinks that taking control of the state is a good idea, I do think that the best idea is to resist in the small spaces of daily life and, as a result, create non state forms of power in order to defend those small spaces. That’s where that “other possible world” can be created, not from above, nor through the state.

GC. You say that the fight against poverty, at least in the way it is carried out by progressive governments in Latin America is a mistake, that wealth, not poverty is the real problem.

RZ. Of course poverty is a problem, but poverty can’t be resolved with crumbs but rather with basic changes that impede a greater accumulation of capital at one end of the societal scale.  I’m not against fighting poverty, but I am opposed to onlyusing this type of mechanism, because it’s something that doesn’t address the real issues. It’s like trying to cure a serious illness with aspirin. It helps alleviate the pain a bit, but the illness is still there. And this particular illness is called neoliberalism, whether due to accumulation by eviction or by robbery, as David Harvey has pointed out.

GC.  And these poverty reduction policies are nothing more than a form of governability, a way to make sure that the social movements lose ground vis a vis the state, and only serve to cover over the structural problems and dissipate the fight for structural change.

Compensatory poverty reduction policies, i.e. those that based on monetary transfers that compensate the loss of the right to an income, domesticate social conflict and push social movements into a dynamic of vying to present the most attractive projects in order to resolve the smallest problems. For example, pregnancy amongst rural adolescent girls. That’s fine, it’s a problem, but by presenting the issue like this you lose the wider perspective, which is that these families are being ruined because their land is being taken from them, or because they’ re being pushed into abandoning the countryside so that increasing amounts of soya or sugar cane can be produced for biofuels.  So while it is possible to apply a policy such as this as part of a structural reform, as an isolated proposal it achieves nothing. What it does do, is weaken social movements.

GC. Isn‘t this era of progressive governments inevitable after decades of right wing or corrupt administrations? And isn’t it also inevitable that, despite the risks involved, people are  willing to abandon the fight  when a government appears that gives them a good part of what they have been asking for during those decades of struggle for rights?

RZ.  Of course. An important phase of struggle has come to an end and people need something. And that something, whether it be a little or a lot, are progressive governments that do have some positive characteristics:  they have put poverty on the agenda, they’ re not so repressive, some have nationalised oil and gas; they have a more sovereign stance. It’s no small thing viewed from a historical perspective. There’s been a major change of direction in Latin America, a change that can be summed up by the reduced domination of the United States. To me this is all to the good, but it’s not enough. And if the consequence is that social movements are weakened, then there will be no one left to defend these progressive governments.

GC. If the only way to fight for real change is to break with the state and its social policies and challenge the NGO’s and the International Aid Agencies that have a negative effect on the social movements,  and in fact have had no effect on poverty or inequality, does this imply that that these institutions and their staff are always a problem rather than a solution, no matter that they  work in good faith.

RZ. My impression is that things are not black and white.  In the period when labour struggles were important, in the factory the foremen and other company people whose job it was to control, often sided with the workers, or at least maintained a neutral position that benefitted them. So it’s not always that clear. Although times are different, it’s the social workers on the ground, in the local areas, who are putting the policies into practice, that have now assumed that role. Many of have an activist background, at one time were part of a social movement, and this is an attractive for Social Development Ministries.  In the future these workers could play an important role, that is if they side more with those that receive the benefits rather than those that provide them.  It’s the same situation with many of the people that work for NGO’s, people who have a moral commitment to the people they work with. They can all be allies of the social movements, and in fact it’s evident that they’ re often very unhappy with these social policies.

GC . Isn’t it likely that the social movements will revive when these progressive governments start to lose legitimacy and are replaced by right wing governments more aligned with business and capital?

RZ. The movements were never inactive, even when some of them were co-opted by governments. And there are new social movements that have cropped up under these progressive governments. For example, in Argentina the fight against mining involves the more than 100 members of the Union of Citizen’s Assemblies; in Brazil the urban ‘Sin Techo’ movements that were fairly weak before Lula arrived on the scene, have acquired a new urgency; in Chile youth movements are an important element, and in Bolivia the lowland, i.e. Amazonian, indigenous groups are very active. We don’t know what’s going to happen, what’s  certain is that if the Right gets back into power it will be difficult for them to govern, but what is clear is that they’ll keep  using the same social policies.

GC. And you think that because the fundamentals of domination are no longer questioned, that’s  why financial power groups are willing to work –  given certain conditions of course – under governments led by left wingers, and even ex guerrilleros such as José Mujica in Uruguay where 1,500 business leaders pledged to work with his administration?

RZ. That’s the point of view of Chico de Oliveira, a Brazilian sociologist and a founder of the Workers Party (PT) but who has since left the organisation. And I share his analysis. When domination isn’t questioned, anyone can govern; the dominant classes don’t need to take control of power directly, or even indirectly. Now the businessmen and the rich say: the best way to maintain the Status Quo is for you, the leftists and ex guerrillas take charge. But don’t start questioning wealth. And if you don’t, then not only can you govern with no problem, we‘ll also give money to help the poor thought eh social responsibility of the companies who are paying their taxes. And they are right. The ex leftists look after their wealth and also look after the crowd.  That is, until the crowd wakes up to the illusion and begins to rebel.  This is what I’ve been writing about all these years, about dispelling the illusion.

GC. You talk about extractivism as another stage of a neoliberalism, a neoliberalism that hasn’t  been defeated, but simply changed its shape. On the other hand in Bolivia the state depends on, and presently has much more control over, natural resources such as oil and gas. Not only that, but the struggle to control these resources has been one of the major political changes that have taken place in that country. What’ s your opinion?

RZ. I don’t think that there is such a thing as good extractivism and bad extractivism. It’s a matter of defending the environment and of a system that creates exclusion. Whether the resource companies belong to the state or not doesn’t change this. Almost a century ago the same debate took place in the Soviet Union. It was said that when the companies belonged to the state there could be no exploitation. But when you go to a factory, and see that it functions on the basis or Fordism or Taylorism, with work rates like those in Chaplin’s film ‘Modern Times’, and you put yourself in the place of the worker, there’s  not the slightest difference.  In the USSR it took decades to wake up to the reality. These days in Bolivia they say that because the mines and the gas are state property there’s no problem. But the indigenous people are fighting for control over their resources, and this is a conflict that has no solution within the framework of the state, plurinational or not. There’s also conflict in Venezuela with the Yupka, and in Ecuador over water and mining, and conflicts are increasing in all parts of the continent.

GC.  In the Soviet Union everyone was expected to sacrifice for the good of the revolution, but here, now , we’re not talking about sacrifice. So isn’t it possible to resolve the problem by improving working conditions? And then if the government redistributes the income from the copper or gas or whatever, and improves the living conditions of the general population, doesn’t that legitimise the extraction?

RZ. The problem is that extractive industries employ very few people and the consumption takes place outside the country. So increasing salaries doesn’t change anything. And redistribution is exactly what they are doing now. How?  They haven´t nationalised gas in Bolivia for example, they’ve negotiated new contracts and the increased income has been distributed, even though it might be a small proportion, to the general population. Of course this increases the legitimacy of extractivism , but the population becomes dependent on subsidies and not work, which from my point of view affects self esteem as well as personal and collective sovereignty.

GC.  As a last question, if Brazil is now a middle class country, and increasingly powerful, what implications does this have in the medium term for the rest of the countries of the region, above all vis a vis the presence of the United States?

RZ. These are two different issues. That Brazil is a middle class country implies that the internal market is going to grow a great deal.  This offers the chance to depend less on the global market, and above all the North, which is in crisis and can’t buy what it previously imported. On the other hand, Brazil is the fifth ranking economy in the world and its reserves of oil and uranium and other resources are amongst the largest in the world, as are some of its multinationals. So you could say that its economy is in a major expansionary process. To complete it, Brazil needs South America as its back yard, in the same way that a century ago the Caribbean was, and still is, the United States backyard. On the one hand this is positive, because the United States will no longer be the region’s dominant power, but on the other the fact that Brazil could take its place would not be quite so positive. For the moment we’re are in an era of transition and this is important because in all situations of change cracks open that the marginalised sectors can use to exert influence on the process.


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