Defining Autonomy: Part One of Four

by nosotroslospobres

mst okupapiketero march

“Autonomy” and “autonomous movements” are some of the terms most widely used to describe Latin American social movements. We believe that autonomous social movements are a vital development in the struggle for a more just world; we also believe there is an urgent need to define what we mean by the term “autonomy”, and this four part article is an attempt to do that.

Part One: An Introduction to Autonomous Movements in Latin America

Toward a Definition of Autonomy

Autonomy is a current in world social movements, which rejects action through governments and political parties. Instead, autonomous movements and organizations operate through the direct action of the people involved in any given struggle. This current is particularly prominent in Latin America, where it has been in development since at least the 1990s. Groups which are considered as autonomous to one degree or another can be found from the tip of Patagonia to the Mexican border with the United States. These diverse movements have certain characteristics in common, again, to varying degrees. Many of them explicitly reject the tutelage of political parties. As institutions, they tend to function horizontally—that is, decisions are taken by the entire membership, in assembly, as opposed to relying on an executive committee or a single leader. They employ the tactics of direct action, from strikes and roadblocks that have paralyzed entire cities, to armed struggle and forcible expropriation. Most autonomous organizations decline to pursue or accept funding from government or corporate sources, although there are exceptions. They operate, as far as is possible, on the basis of the resources they are able to expropriate, reclaim or produce, in solidarity with other similar movements throughout Latin America and the world. Some, like the Zapatistas in Chiapas, can rely on the goodwill and support of a broad network of sympathizers internationally.

Some of the most prominent autonomous movements are:

Empresas Recuperadas

Empresas Recuperadas are factories which are taken over and run by their workers, who make administrative decisions in assemblies where every worker has one vote. The movement is most significant in Argentina, where there are 350 factories run by and employing more than 25,000 workers. The workers in these factories regularly act in solidarity with other autonomous social movements.


The self-managed workers of Brukman textile factory

The model of the Empresa Recuperada has spread throughout Latin America, especially to Uruguay and Brazil. In Venezuela, the left wing of the labor movement has taken workers’ autonomy as its banner, and the workers of the SIDOR steelworks carried on a long battle for workers’ self management against the conservative wing of the Chavista bureaucracy.


Unemployed Workers Movements (Movimientos de Trabajadores Desocupados, or MTDs) are another phenomena of Argentine social movements. These groups, which have on occasions mobilized hundreds of thousands, were born out of the privatization of the oil and other industries in Argentina in the 1990s. They are known as piqueteros because of their tactic of roadblocks, or piquetes, which they use to bring attention to the plight of displaced workers. These groups are militant in their confrontations with the state, and also practice solidarity with the Empresas Recuperadas and other autonomous movements.

Movimiento Sem Terra

The largest of Latin America’s many land occupation movements, the MST in Brazil claims to be the largest social movement in the world. Its members, mostly landless rural workers, occupy and work formerly unproductive land belonging to wealthy landowners or international agricultural corporations, in a country in which 80% of the land is concentrated in huge estates and is often left fallow. The MST practices solidarity with urban labor movements. It has also battled Brazilian neoliberal governments of both the right and the left.


In Bolivia, resistance to neoliberal policies regarding gas, water and other resources created a mass movement which, among other things, put the management of the water system of the city of Cochabamba directly into the hands of popular organizations. The groundwork for this uprising had been laid over the last twenty years, as, through a series of legal and constitutional changes, power and resources were gradually decentralized.


The movement exercised a “popular veto” over government policies in the 2011 gasolinazo

The movement produced the Movimiento al Socialismo party of Evo Morales, but it also left enough power in the hands of grassroots social movements that they have been able, through direct action, to effectively wield a veto over government policies that threaten the interests of working and oppressed people.


Possibly the most celebrated of autonomous movements in the world, the Ejercito Zapatista de la Liberacion Nacional has held sway over a large region in the Mexican state of Chiapas since its initial uprising in 1994. The EZLN distinguishes itself from other armed groups in Latin America in a number of ways. Among these are that, instead of taking aim principally at the Mexican state, the Zapatistas directly confront global neoliberalism. In addition, the decision making process in the autonomous region, which permits the exercise of considerable power by the civilian residents over the military arm of the movement, is through popular assemblies, often involving plebiscites of the whole region.


The autodefensas, or self-defense groups, in the Mexican states of Guerrero and Michoacan, are one of the most recent manifestations of the autonomist current in Latin America. They are a movement of armed citizens who have taken it upon themselves to combat the drug cartels which, in Mexico, are often closely associated with the far right and have clandestine ties to the army and the political parties. Particularly relevant in the wake of the execution of the disappearance of 43 student protesters in the town of Iguala in Guerrero, the autodefensas have rejected government demands that they lay down their arms. The ideology of the groups varies, but in Guerrero in particular they are part of a tradition of autonomous armed struggle dating back at least to the Mexican Revolution.

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Two examples of the people in arms in Mexico

Around the world, similar movements exist. The resistance to the displacement of hundreds of thousands by the construction of big dams in India has been principally an autonomist movement, as has the criticism from the left of the ANC government in South Africa. In Europe, movements with autonomous characteristics have existed since at least the 1970s (in Italy) and the 1980s (in Germany, Holland and Scandinavia). Again, in Latin America there are millions of indigenous peoples involved in movements which can, to varying degrees, be described as autonomous, some inspired by the EZLN in Chiapas, others with a very different character. However, the complexity of these movements’ relationship with electoral political parties and with the dominant culture of Latin America as a whole places them outside of the sphere of autonomous movements as such, and therefore beyond the scope of the present article.

This is the first part of a four part series. Below are the links to the other published sections:

Part Two:

Part Three: