The development of anarchism in Latin America was a process shaped by the unique nature of each country within the region, as well as by those factors which many of them had in common. One thing they all had in common was their subordinate relation to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine which held “the Americas” under the tutelage of the one country that arrogantly refers to itself as the only “America” — that is, the United States. As such, shortly after independence was achieved from Spain and Portugal, the Western Hemisphere was promptly re-colonized — unofficially – in the name of U.S. interests. It was in this subordinate context that the first anarchist movements in Latin America arose, all too often under the iron fist of dictators imposed from above, in El Norte. In addition, it is important to note that the Latin American governmental context was far more influenced by the thinking of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas than it was by liberalism, the largest philosophical influence in the Anglo-Saxon democracies (Erickson, 1977, p. 3). Here, corporatism was the major philosophical force, espousing a view of the state as “organically” reflecting the moral will of the people, rather than as a “referee” for different political forces in society as in North America. The ironic result of this was that all oppositional forces would be seen by much of society as essentially anti-liberatory. The ideological process of corporatism involved a sly combination of officialistic cooptation of revolutionary movements and violent repression of those who would not accept such moves. The prevalent role of the Roman Catholic Church in society combined with the tradition of Roman law made up the other two primary factors that set Latin American societies apart from much of the North. This meant of course, that the anarchisms that developed there were qualitatively different as they arose in a significantly different political environment.
In Latin America, the anarchist movement was without a doubt strongest in South America; and in South America, anarchism was without a doubt strongest in the “southern cone” countries of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. It was the largest social movement in Argentina from around 1885 until around 1917 when state-socialists took control of the large union federations (Joll, 1971, p. 218). The movement was extremely contentious due to the prevalence of the latifundia system in which a very few families controlled almost all of the land. This extreme social stratification set the stage for Peronism, a system in which the old elite families ruled with impunity over the masses of newly arrived immigrants in an extreme aristocratic fashion. Since the only legal means of affecting change in this society was voting, the fact that up to 70% of the urban population was legally disenfranchised did not endear many to the system; in fact, it created a social situation ripe for the development of anarchism.
Anarchism was most popular amongst Argentina’s working class sectors: it really never attained a high degree of organization amongst the peasantry. However, there were some attempts to organize anarchist student unions in addition to anarchist labor unions (Joll, p. 222). Stirnerist individualist anarchism never found much audience here and so as in many countries around the world, the movement was a balance between anarchist-communists in the tradition of Kropotkin and anarchist-collectivists in the tradition of Bakunin; however there was very little conflict between the two streams. The Italian anarchist-communist Erricco Malatesta immigrated in 1885 and within two years had organized the country’s first Baker’s Union in 1887. This move helped to set the stage for the organizing of the Resistance Societies, an affinity-group form of worker organization that was the backbone of the FOA, which in 1904 became the FORA.
From 1905 — 1910 the anarchist movement exploded in popularity, generalizing into the popular movements and pulling off general strikes in Buenos Aires and other places. Society became so unstable that martial law was routinely imposed for short periods of time. Workers were shot at Mayday demonstrations, others imprisoned at Tierra Del Fuego, and torture was rampant. Simon Radowitsky, a youth who threw a bomb at the Chief of Police’ car quickly became a well-known martyr when he was sentenced to life in prison. In fact he was so popular that eventually determined comrades organized to a plan to successfully break him out of jail (p. 219).
La Semana Tragica— the Tragic Week — was an important event that occurred in 1919 when a general strike was declared but was brutally put down by Colonel Varela, resulting quickly in his assassination. By 1931, the military had taken over and the anarchist movement was suppressed through a combination of death squads, prison sentences and general intimidation. When martial law was finally lifted nearly two years later, all the anarchist newpapers and organizations that had previously been at odds discarded with the past and published a joint declaration called Eighteen Months of Military Terror. The intense repression in Argentina had resulted in a great deal of solidarity and mutual aid amongst different types of anarchists, leading to a number of joint publications and actions that transcended diverse ideologies. It was from this new solidarity that both the FORA and other anarchist organizations sent delegations to the International Brigades for the Spanish Civil War against Franco. But soon Argentina would have it’s own fascist government to contend with. General Peron officially seized power in 1943, forcing the FORA to go underground again, along with La Protesta Humana. When the Peron regime finally fell, another joint publication involving all anarchist tendencies was issued called Agitacion. Other publications included El Descamisado, La Battallaand La Protesta Humana, the paper with which Max Nettlau and Erricco Malatesta were involved. In the face of such repression, much of the population had accepted the strategic cooptation of popular movements by the Peronist state; those who didn’t accept it often looked to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia as proof that anarchism was no longer a viable idea. The eventual failure of the Spanish Civil War didn’t help matters either, and eventually anarchism became of marginal influence (p. 230).
As in Argentina, Uruguay’s anarchist movement was largely composed of immigrant European workers who had come from industrialized societies, this meant that anarchism was in the early years primarily a working class rather than a peasant movement. Here too, it was the largest revolutionary movement in the first quarter of the 20th Century. The movement was largely based on affinity group based Resistance Societies affiliated to the FORU, which formed in 1905. Malatesta soon became involved in the FORU as well, influencing it away from Bakuninist collectivist anarchism and towards Kropotkinist communist anarchism. The FORU worked on a wide variety of issues, well outside the scope of the business unions. For instance, a major campaign against alcoholism was initiated, as well as initiatives to set up cooperative schools and libraries. These developments came largely due to the anarchist focus on the importance of creating a parallel anarchist culture. While much of this came out of the FORU, most anarchist culture, including plays, poetry readings and other events of the time, came out of those affiliated with the Center for International Social Studies (CIES) in Montevideo (p. 224). The CIES was heavily involved as well in the anarchist press, with such publications as La Batalla – presumably named after the earlier Argentine paper of the same name — which was published continuously for over fifteen years.
Dynamic in many ways that other anarchist movements were not, the Uruguayan anarchists were very internationalist in scope as well; some would say too much so. When the Mexican revolution erupted onto the global stage in 1910, Uruguay’s anarchist movement sent delegations to help the Magonistas; they likewise aided the CNT-FAI with International Brigade soldiers in the thick of the Spanish Civil War (p. 226). The eventual decline of anarchism in Uruguay stemmed primarily from the successful Bolshevik revolution and the enormous ideological loyalty-based splits that emerged in the movement between the FORU and the USU as a result.
The final anarchist movement of the southern cone countries we will examine that which developed within the massive nation-state of Brazil. Within the context of Brazilian latifundia, corporatism and authoritarianism in which large landholders held great sway over the destiny of the vast majority of the population with the backing of the military and the state, mutual aid societies and cooperatives were the only recognized legal form of organization. But as in Argentina and Uruguay, clandestine affinity-group based Resistance Leagues formed the backbone of militant Brazilian unionism, protecting anarchists from repression. However, this anarchist unionism was limited largely to skilled artisans and other workers, leaving the majority of other types of workers such as immigrants and women without union representation.
As in China and South Africa, the Brazilian communist party, the PCB, grew out of the ruins of the once-volatile anarchist movement (Chilcote, p. 11, 1974). However, anarchism had the greatest influence in Brazil primarily from 1906 to 1920, mostly amongst urban immigrant workers. It was in this context it became the predominant stream within the labor movement by 1906, far more important in fact, than state-socialism (p. 19). Anarchist labor militants, active in the Congresso Operario do Brasil (COB) are remembered for helping the Brazilian working class to win the eight-hour day as well as significant wage increases across the board. The Sao Paolo General Strike of 1917 marked the first of three years of militant anarchist activity within the labor movement. During these years, a strategy of repression combined with cooptation became the strategy of the corporative state. Anarchists did not initially call the General Strike, rather it was initiated by those masses of female textile workers whom anarchist organizers had ignored. At first this self-activity of working women and other sections of the industrial working class put male anarchist leaders on the defensive. But ultimately the anarchists accepted female leadership and chose to work with them rather than against them (Wolfe, 1993, p. 25).
The anarchist movement in Brazil began its decline for several reasons; one was that it often failed to adequately reach out to the rural majority population. Another is that the success of the Bolshevik revolution spelt the beginning of the end anarchist ideological hegemony. As in Argentina and Uruguay, anarchist movement split evenly into two camps: pro-Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik. Many of the most active anarchists would soon move on to become heavily involved in the activities of the PCB as a result of this split. The party shunned those who did not do so, and internal purges eventually ousted those who retained some anarchist sympathies (p. 33). The final nail in Brazilian anarchism’s coffin was the Revolution of 1930, which marked the beginning of a new era of the officialistic, paternalistic, cooptative system of “corporatism.”
While anarchism in the southern cone countries impacted the global movement to an extent, the anarchist movement that most affected and influenced the direction of anarchism throughout Latin America and much of the rest of the word as well was that which developed in Mexico. This began in 1863, when a Mexico City philosophy professor of Greek descent named Plotino Rhodakanaty formed the first anarchist organization in the country, a coalition of students and professors called the Club Socialista de Estudiantes (CSE). The CSE proceeded to spread their ideas through organizing anarchist labor unions amongst the urban working class; shortly this lead to the first strike in Mexican history, to organizing amongst Indian populations in southern Mexico and eventually to a new organization called La Social, which featured activists from the Paris Commune in exile, eventually reaching a peak level of 62 member organizations nationwide (p. 9). For all of this considerable activity, Rhodakanaty and many of his comrades were eventually executed at the hand of Porfirio Diaz.
As elsewhere in Latin America, the postcolonial period had been marked by dictatorship after dictatorship and then finally a major social revolution in 1910. In this revolution, the cause of the Mexican worker and peasant was taken up by a temporary alliance between Ricardo Flores Magon, Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and Pascal Orozco. Of these, Magon can be characterized most accurately as being an anarchist; his brother Enrique and he published a popular anarchist newspaper called Regeneracion beginning in 1900. Of Zapotec Indian background, the two were driven largely by a determination to ensure the autonomy of Indian peoples in whatever social arrangement would arise out of the revolution (Poole, 1977, p. 5). By 1905, they had formed the anarchist-communist oriented Mexican Liberal Party (PLM); named as such in order to not drive people away, while still remaining thoroughly anarchist in demands. This strategy worked well eventually leading to two armed uprisings that involved members of the IWW as well as anarchists from Italy (p. 22).
Activists with the PLM crossed borders freely to relocate to Los Angeles, San Antonio and St. Louis, several cities in Canada, as well as numerous cities throughout Mexico. In doing so, a loose network of anarchists from all over the world participated in the project of building an anarchist contingent within the Mexican Revolution. Yet this relationship was not always healthy: at one point Magon was even forced to write an angry anti-racist essay in response to a statement by Eugene Debs that Mexicans were “too ignorant to fight for freedom” and that they would surely lose any attempt to rise up (p. 88). The essay pleaded with North American anarchists to take the PLM seriously; “Throughout the world the Latin races are sparing neither time nor money to assist what they recognized immediately as the common cause. We are satisfied that the great Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic branches of the army of labor will not lag behind; we are satisfied ignorance due to language difficulties alone is causing a temporary delay” (p. 90) Then in 1910, Francisco Madero published his “Plan de San Luis Potosi” which called for an uprising starting November 20 of that year; the uprising spread quickly until it became a nationwide revolt led by Magon, Zapata, Villa and Orozco.
Amidst the uprising, one of the few honest elections ever to occur in Mexico took place, which Madero won easily. Before the election occurred, however, Magon, Zapata and their followers had already broken sharply with Madero over the issue of land reform and Indian autonomy and as a result had published their own Plan de Alaya. The Zapatistas and Magonistas took up arms together, bound by a common southern Mexican tribal background that within a few years had lead to the successful encirclement of Mexico City. Huerta’s dictatorship continued as the revolution continued to grow, then, when Huerta resigned and Venustiano Carranza became president in 1917, the Mexican Constitution also came into effect. Due to the influence of Zapata and Magon, many extremely progressive features were included such as the right to an education free of charge, the right of Indians to collectively run farms (ejidos), and other social and land reforms. Unfortunately, Carranza exploited the divisions between anarchist-syndicalists and anarchist-communists and successfully bribed the anarchist-syndicalist Casa del Obero Mundial to organize “Red Battalions” to fight against Zapata and Villa. By 1919, Mexican Col. Jesus Guajardo had ambushed and murdered Zapata, ridding the Carranza regime of their main populist enemy. But once Carranza had been overthrown, Obregon, Calles, as well as a long line of other centrists came to power, opposing the domination of the clergy but supporting foreign investment into Mexico; this development marked the beginnings of the PRI dictatorship and the end of first wave anarchism.
Cuban anarchism developed in the mid-19th Century due to the early intellectual influence of Proudhonian mutualism in the workers movement. By the late 1800s it had reached a higher level of maturity with the rise of the anarchist leader Roig San Martin, the paper he edited El Productor, and the national anarchist organization Alianza Obrera (Fernandez, 2001, p. 20). As with Chinese, Indian and Mexican anarchism however, Cuban anarchism cannot be properly understood solely within the confines of the Cuban nation-state; much important activity occurred in Cuban immigrant communities in Key West, Merida (Mexico) and Tampa as well. In fact, in October 1889 a general strike broke out in Key West with solidarity and support from Cuban workers in Havana, Tampa and Ybor City. Just months before this historic strike, San Martin had died of a diabetic coma, with over 10,000 Cubans coming from all over the island to attend the funeral.
By the turn of the century, the fight for Cuban independence had become a major source of division within the anarchist movement; the working class anarchists accused the independentistas of “taking money from tobacco capitalism” (p. 30). Eventually however, most anarchists rallied around Jose Marti and his Partido Revolucionario Cubano (PRC) which was analogous in its advocacy of democracy and decentralization to Mexico’s PLM. In Europe, anarchists such as Elisee Reclus helped to helped to form international solidarity organizations to support the independence movement. But shortly after independence the United States occupied the island; Errico Malatesta decided to move from New Jersey to Havana to help the anarchist movement there. The Mexican Revolution deeply impacted Cuba’s anarchist movement, and the Magon brothers found their way over to Cuba several times both in the pages of Regeneracion and in person. But the Cuban anarchist movement finally fell into a period of steep decline with the rise of the October Revolution (p. 51). It is remembered however, that it was the anarchists who paved the way in Cuba for both the trade union movement and the socialist revolution that occurred later.