Hello from Chile, my name is Henry Renna, a member of the movimiento de pobladores en lucha (MPL) and coordinator of the campaign for alternative education.
The Movimiento de pobladores en lucha came about in 2006 during land occupations in the Peñalonen community, a place with a long history of taking back land with the power of those with nothing in order to find a small piece of earth within the city. In that manner, in 2006, the day that Michelle Bachelet was sworn in as President, we began a wave of land occupations. We did it not just with the goal of reclaiming parts of the city but to also unmask the “progressivism” of the government and its actual politics of repression and privatization that keep the same bosses that established themselves under the dictatorship in the same seat of hegemonic power.
So since 2006, we started to open a route that offers the people an alternative form of struggle for liberation and emancipation that, in the construction of autonomy and people’s power, builds our own socialism, a socialism that has material impact in the transformation of land and in everyday life through our social relationships and social production. It’s to say, the full objective is to prefigure tomorrow’s society today. It’s to live today’s life as the alternative life we want, a life of dignity. From that perspective, our organization was born and has stood up to all the system’s attacks for the past seven years.
What did the MPL come out of? What were you doing before 2006?
Our organization has concrete origins in the land take over of Nasur in 1999, the last big occupation of the people’s movement where they claimed space for 5,000 people. That occupation was the seed of that sprouted many of our leaders and dozens of base organizations. Our’s was one of those that formed with the intention to take our struggle beyond just the home and situate it in the transformation of land and transformation of the capitalist system, under the concept that our struggle didn’t fit within four walls but was larger than the question of housing. We hoped to make a qualitative leap in a people’s movement that was formed around petitioning and reacting and refocus it toward the construction of autonomy and people’s power. It’s to say, a transition where we leave behind making demands to the state and start making alternatives from within ourselves.
So, we’ll be publishing this interview on September 11, a historic day for Chile and now for the US. Can you explain its significance for Chile and how you commemorate or remember it?
September 11, 1973 was the coup against President Salvador Allende and the installation of the longest dictatorship in our history, led by General Pinochet. The 17 years of dictatorship that our country lived through was not just that but also a rigorous installation of a new model of production that, looking at it today, transformed our culture as well. But despite all of that we don’t feel in anyway defeated.
Instead, we see our movements as an unfinished project of the people that started with land takeovers in La Victoria in 1957 and continues up to today.
What we do see with the military defeat of 1973 and later the political defeat in 1988 when the bourgeois reformists within the left represented by certain parties turned the back on the people and established a negotiation that gave life to a democracy tied at the hands by a neoliberal economy.
Without a doubt 1973 and the defeats of 1988 and 89 are significant breaks in the advance of our organizations as well as the well being of poor people. But in no case, never did we believe that this meant a break of the people. It was a break in the way to do politics. Because it had to do with the way we saw emancipation where, a way that centered all its energy on the taking of state power whether it was through a path of reform or a political-military route. But both efforts, armed and electoral reforms, demonstrated to us the consequences of limiting all organizational and social production toward the goal of taking the state. It signified to us the reproduction of power relations as they are and the existing system of power.
What we learned was that needed to construct dual power, a parallel route where the people fortify their own capacity, their own power, and practice the construction of economy, politics, and culture.
On the other hand we also can’t believe that that September 11, 1973 was a coincidence or something that we should have been surprised by. Instead we should understand it as the general state of things; the state against insurgency that has used violence any time the people have developed a road that might lead toward their own interests. One clear example of this is the three constitutions we’ve had in our country, each written under a state of emergency (estado de sitio). The constitution of 1933, 1925, and in our case, 1980.
Many of you have your roots in the resistance to the dictatorship either as children or parents, can you talk about the lessons learned from that time?
We believe it marks a deep change within our concepts on the left. Before when we talked about process, we thought of the subject of the revolution as the man, adult, urban, salaried worker, and what the resistance in the periphery of the city did was bring the women and the youth into the streets, into community work, into cultural work, and later in the night, all the direct action of barricades in the streets to destabilize the social order. So in pushing the entire process forward by 1980 it signified not just that people’s movements were a protagonist in taking down the hegemony of the dictatorship but also in redrawing the face of the subject of revolution. In this case, protagonists became women, youth batallions, revolutionary people’s organizations that stood up to Pinchip and reframed what we had known as the proletariat.
Can you talk about your theory of change? I’ve heard that you all stand on three pillars: struggle, self-sufficiency or self-management (autogestion), and popular education. How did you arrive at those as your fundamentals?
First and foremost, we understand “struggle” as a permanent state of being in which we tear down the walls and barriers that the rich and powerful have constructed against the advance of the people. Self-sufficiency we understand as the capacity to recover the power to create our own politics, economy, and culture based in the class of the people. In all forms of social life colonized by the state and by capital, its to say, that the people newly gain the confidence in their own powers and begin to realize that they themselves have the tools to construct their own solutions. And third, popular education we understand as the effort and process that contributes to the birth of a new human being. The three; struggle, self-sufficiency, and popular education were far from choices for us to make but rather we took to each one out of necessity. We had the need to struggle to retake the land, and once taken we had the need to self-manage in order to design and build our own housing and then later we had the need to educate ourselves to build a new community and rid ourselves of the individualist and ego-centric paradigms that we inherit from the neoliberal system and substitute them with cooperative values , of class solidarity, and self-determination. En effect, with time and with the road we’ve walked over the years, with our tactics and strategies, struggle, self-management, and education are a form of struggle that has become a way of being in the world and a movement of a certain form.
In Peñalolen, we have housing for 400 en the building stage with 120 already built. We have three or four pieces of land that we’ve collectivized for the organization. In our town we have similar efforts. In Santiago there’s a perfect case wehre we’ve seen terrible gentrification in the past 15 to 20 years. Similar to other cities where the clean-up of poor and working class neigborhoods brings immediate investment and speculation. In Santiago, its been more than 40 years since they’ve been any low-income housing. But then the city was hit with an earthquake in 2010. All public policy focused on damaged properties but none focused on the impact on renters. So we, as MPL, organized along with the workers of the city, specifically in the Franklin/Matadero neighborhoods and decided that, like in Peñalolen, we didn’t want people without housing and we declared that in Santiago Centro we didn’t want houses without people. We didn’t want to see spaces that were just waiting for values to increase to benefit the speculators and finance capital. We decided to initiate a process of occupation of public housing and from there reclaim the construction as our own housing and we developed the recovered estates through self-management.
And when you’ve reclaimed land, it hasn’t solely been for housing but for schools and other uses as well.
Exactly, in 2008, after our first congress, we realized the necessity to advance the formation of political-ideology within our organization that would combat the teachings implanted in us by the system and at the same time produce new emanicipatory knowledge. We created an education arm that is the Center for study and popular education. Within it is the goal to promote self-managed education and critical thinking within all levels of the education system. In 2009-2010 we created a school where graduates receive a diploma in Latin American Social Movements and Self-developed Communities. We’ve had more than 250 members of organizations participate from Santiago and the rest of the country as well as about 40 or 50 educators nationally and internationally like Gabriel Salazar, Raul Zibechi. And we’ve had the participation of sister organizations like the Movimiento Popular La Dignidad in Argentina, Blocks Together from Chicago, compañeros from Peru, the Federation of Cooperative Housing from Uruguay and the Urban Land Comites from Venezuela.
We’re also talking about making the diploma available via distance e-learning that would allow us to offer it to our friends in the US and the North. Like Rodrigo says, our struggle for liberation requires movement in the South as well as the North.
And from all of this, you all have now entered the electoral process as well?
Before entering into the electoral question, after the diploma, we’ve also created our own children’s garden; the epuwen (dignity) people’s garden. And this year we’ve formed a Paulo Friere school for youth and adults that we’re expecting to receive state recognition. For us it will constitute a major victory in that it will be the first college controlled by social movements and under the control of its workers that is actually recognized by the state.
So then, in recent years we’ve problematized the question of the state and elections. More than the electoral question, it has to do, I believe, with a larger lens toward the limitations and difficulties and risks that come with the process of constructing autonomy. in that sense, if one were to do a scan of the historic autonomous experiences, if it were an anarchist-communist or a social Christian, we’d observe distinct difficulties in critical points that have been impossible to break. One of those critical points relates to the problem of violence. There is no autonomous experience that has been maintained without a direct confrontation with power. The second point relates to the problem of the state... And finally, we can observe that there’s no autonomous process that, by staying local and on the margins, has overcome the ability of capitalism to consume it.
So recognizing that, we put forward the following question. Our autonomy is condemned to defeat, cooptation, or localism? And we said, we have to deal with the question of violence, the state, and religion. With question to the state, we defined that the process of constructing autonomy must reach all of society, including the state. Some thought that we could turn our back on the state and the power relationships would fall by themselves. But unfortunately, in politics, different than the physical, bodies don’t have from their own weight. Even more so, because it must be the people themselves that develop the tools to kick out those bodies. So we said, we have to build as well, as an organization, and make ourselves part of the construction, a political tool that allows us to dispute the state, not to reproduce it but to destroy it.
We required a real and concrete proposal to deal with the problem of the state and come out of it, we hope, successful.
Since 2007-2008, along with other organization, we’ve come to construct Igualdad, a tool of the people to dispute certain spaces of representation within the state.
And you all have actually won elections.
First, I believe to dispute the state, and here, we should remember that the state, when we dispute its elections, we are playing in their arena. Autonomy, for example, requires its own territory because it requires its own arena to develop all the greatness of its abilities. In terms of our participation in the state, although it has been with full political conviction, we haven’t found the results we expected. And I believe we haven’t attained those results because, as in all processes, we need to move at the pace of the slowest. And let’s remember that to understand and bet that a candidate from the working class that represents it in local government, that process of rebuilding confidence in our own power doesn’t happen overnight. In that sense it’s not that our social movement is about supporting political candidates...no, in no way. Our movement is there because every organization has its own candidates. That’s why we say “que el pueblo mande” (that the people are in charge). And I think one of those basic principles to break away from that delegate democracy, is to occupy that space, to transgress it, to come in with a spear to break the chains and open the doors so all our people can finally enter, to govern not only the territory, but the state as well. And we think that we must start from the state’s legs, which are the local governments, to create free and autonomous communities.
That’s how in recent years we’ve come to propose, not without significant debate within the left, that our struggle against the state, is without the state, and also from within the state. That’s to say that it’s against the state, initiating processes of civil and street disobedience against the apparatus of repression and order, to be capable of dealing with the problem of violence, although it may be less today. Two, a struggle without the state that has to do with everything we’ve discussed now about the autonomous processes that take place on the margins, beyond institutions of the state. And also, always complex and full of difficulties and full of risk because of co-optation and depoliticization, the digestion that has to do with the struggle from within the state and that happens through people’s administration of fiscal funds, successful policies that benefit the well-being of the working class, and obviously the dispute over certain spaces of representation. We will no longer make the mistake of subordinating the struggles to the goal of conquest of the state, but we also won’t omit the state from our emancipatory politics. It is in this way we are convinced that today that popular projects and the building of autonomy should especially deal with the predicament of the state, especially for the cities because at least those of us here in Santiago, Chile, unlike other organizations, the state is more present than ever. Unfortunately we’re not in Chiapas nor are we in a community of the landless. And within the realm of the city and the realm of neoliberal urbanization, the politics of coercion, privatization and social control, and the state’s various technologies of social control are more present than ever.
And in the U.S. you know this well.
So sure, it’s very different to build autonomy in the city than in the countryside. So, for us I think there is an urban dimension to our organization that makes it very unique, very unique, to the characteristics of the neoliberal city of the twenty first century.
So, you all have something like seven years building MPL. How do you all feel? Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic? Where are you going? Tell me about the vision for the future.
Look, we're satisfied because when we began with this, there dominated in Chile a learned desperation, of the defeat of the dictatorship, of the disappointment of these damn progressive governments and these bad governments, and a general desperation among the people and the revolutionary left-wing. And today fortunately we see a flourishing of hope, a flourishing of rebellion, the strongest feeling of insurgence against the current order, so today… we think we’re in a much more favorable position than yesterday. Now unfortunately as well, our correlated forces within the system causes that our role within the development of the class struggle continues to be reduced. And I think it continues being reduced because we have deepened our levels of autonomy, the students have deepened their ability to convene, organized labor has advanced an autonomous proposal for combative sindicalism, the Mapuche people continue on the warpath against the colonial state, but unfortunately although these voices, each with their own strong dreams, have yet to find strength with the little unified capacity.
So then, I believe that to, after 20 years of focusing within, of sewing together a militant confidence within the people, now, we have to begin to tend bridges between other sectors of the struggle. We begin with staking out and building the strength amongst the people and build the capacity to make economy, politics, and culture like we pointed out, so that we’d be capable not just of imposing an alternative but also of defending it. On September 11, 1973 we weren’t capable of defending the project we were developing or the interests and needs of the people. In the future we believe there are winds of change not just for Chile but for all of Latin America. At the same time there are profound problems within the popular movement and the left. One of the foremost problems to address is the politics against patriarchy in our organization. We have to get over machismo and the patriarchy within the left and popular movements. We also need to make defense of the environment and nature, central to the work, especially opposing the extraction model of neoliberalism.
Recently we went to Ecuador with family and shared with sister organizations that were struggling against the exploitation of Yasuni where there was finance for social policies but at the cost of depradation of mother earth with incalculable consequences. Third and finally, I believe that something more complex that we have to do is look at our revolutionary politics as a spiritual project, not meaning something religious, but something where we must develop and construct, from the bottom up, a new way of understanding what it means to be in the world and to relate to each other and to nature as human beings. At the least, for the future, beyond a sense of growth, we can instill in the movement these three principles: anti-patriarchy that ends machismo, a focus that disputes the extraction impulse within neoliberal “progress,” and a search of a spiritual project, one that many of us can find in the cosmological visions of our indigenous people.
Thanks for all of these answers. Is there anything you’d like to add or anything we missed? Can you talk more about the elections and local power? What does it mean to have an alderman for the people? Here if someone gets elected, the expectation is that they make one or two reforms before just responding to capital. Can you talk about what it means to be elected by the movement there?
Its not more or less than changing the focus, to change the lens, and leave behind the waiting or thinking that solutions come from above. No solution will come from the top down, not from the executive or the legislative. The only solution is that the people lead, govern, and self-govern. In that sense when we create our own political tool, it has to relate to the possibility of autonomy. Like I said before we increase the possibility of self-determination as we make our own politics, we’d have to create our own tool just like we had to create our own ability to do construction for our housing. In the political arena we had to create our party, Igualdad, seeking to find a fissure within the institution that allowes us to keep opening more space for self-governance.
That’s where the real question lies, autonomy is a quest not an assumption. In distinct moments, we’ll reach into the toolbox of history to find different options to move forward, the same way that guides us into new interventions in any moment. It’s what allows us to dispute the state, especially when your organization reaches a certain level, of internal communication, militancy, etc its possible to contest that space beyond what was possible before. No one may dream of it but it becomes real. Its to say that in this world that allows for many worlds, we have to overcome the resistance of those who benefit from how things are today. We have to convince those who would benefit from radical change to rise. We don’t want to make the mistakes of the past, we can’t consider what forms our desires to be the same as the people’s. And the state is always there, ever present. More than anything we have to open a debate as Miguel Mazeo says on two fronts. Within those who promote socialism from just one party and those who promote it in just one neighborhood. The challenge we face is continuing to construct an integrated project for emancipation and liberation, to say, a socialist project that goes beyond the parties and beyond the neighborhood….
Finally a message of support for our Presidential candidate Roxana and a message of solidarity in struggle to all those in the North.