March 19, 2018

Other Democracies: Indigenous Women, Leadership, and Democracy in Northern Argentina


In this series of posts on “Other Democracies,” non-state form of democratic spaces are examined that help strengthen an understanding of how democratic practices beyond the state can do well in the twenty-first century. Many innovative forms of democratic practice emerged from the electoral and financial crises of 2001 in Argentina. Today we will take a look at an organization from the northern province of Argentina of Jujuy that successfully practiced assembly decision-making, women’s leadership, and other hallmarks of democratic self-governance for over a decade. 

The organization is known as Organización Barrial Tupac Amaru (OBTA), and was characterized by a large percentage of their membership of Indigenous women, migrant women, and women of color, and also by a strong leadership role by lesbians and other women. The province of Jujuy is widely known as a part of Argentina with large segments of the population lacking health care, quality housing, and other basic necessities. Beginning in 2003, the organization successfully campaigned for health care, decent housing, and access to economic resources after an initial success at building low-income housing. By 2015, the organization had successfully gained over 70,000 members both female and male, and employed many local residents in several factories and over 250 cooperatives.

Even though Argentina as a nation and Jujuy as a province practice electoral democracy, many poor, indigenous people, and migrants from Bolivia that live in the area had experienced significant difficulties obtaining access to basic needs. While many think of elections as non-violent approaches to governance, elections are also places where nation-states make decisions about policies that at times have lethal consequences. For example, when a government is elected to carry out economic policies that are known to impoverish many people in the nation, then the electoral process is carrying out those forms of violence that poverty causes: death from lack of food or shelter; injury from insufficient health care; and other violence.

In the case of Argentina, the violence of elections were demonstrated recently in a more direct fashion in the campaign leading up to recent, high-stakes midterm elections. The 2017 midterm elections were widely seen as a referendum on the policies of the center-right ruling coalition of the President, Mauricio Macri. Shortly before the elections were held in October, 2017, an indigenous rights activist, Santiago Maldonado, was found dead in a river in the Patagonia region. The ruling party had been quick to defend the security forces that had evicted him and other activists from an indigenous rights protest on the day that he was last seen. Maldonado’s activism had been a thorn in the side of the ruling party up until his disappearance some two months before the election. By having Maldonado killed, the security forces were able to remove a prominent opponent of Macri’s government, and the Macri government was successful in the midterm elections. This violence also lowered the visibility of indigenous criticisms of the elected government, reducing their ability not only to have a say in national affairs but also in governing their own affairs as they are shaped by electoral government policies.

OBTA is important for considering democracy because of its successes over a decade in gaining access to basic needs for many people in Jujuy, and for the methods that they used to do so. These methods include the use of member assemblies to make important organizational decisions, a practice that we have seen in many other locations is central to effective practice of self-governance.

These member assemblies are mechanisms that many communities and social movements deploy to prevent narrow interests from taking control of the process of governing their affairs, their democratic practices. In the province of Jujuy, for example, electoral democracy had come in the post-war period to serve primarily the interests of the white, male social elites that were repeatedly successful at running for electoral office in the province.

Yet in addition to their deployment of assembly decision-making, OBTA also took as their leader and spokesperson the charismatic Indigenous woman, Milagro Sala. Sala’s leadership style disrupted business-as-usual in the state of Jujuy, allowing her to become a tough advocate for the poor, for women of color, and for immigrants in a state previously known for its conservative electoral politics. By not conforming to traditional feminist gender roles that often legitimate women’s political participation in this region, Sala came to be labelled a “transvestite” and “un macho en pinta” or a macho look-alike by her political opponents. This created a social space that made possible the social acceptance and political effectiveness of not only lesbians and other non-heterosexual social roles, but also queer activists and others who do not wish to reproduce established gender and sexual norms.

Sala was quite successful in confronting several powerful opponents of OBTA, included leading figures in the union movement in Jujuy, which had supported past white, male conservative governments in the province. The traditional unions were opposed by the unemployed movement that successfully mobilized Indigenous people and women of color, the movement out of which OBTA emerged.

The attention that Sala’s leadership style gained also became part of a campaign by her opponents to attack her after the 2015 national election of the conservative government of President Macri and the 2015 election of a conservative provincial governor, Gerardo Morales. The election of Governor Morales meant the end of some fifteen years of progressive party leadership in Jujuy, and the return of the conservative party that had ruled Jujuy for thirty years up until 2003. After the 2015 elections the successful tactics of OBTA, such as setting up tent encampments in town squares, were attacked by legal changes and by decrees from Governor Morales, and Sala herself found herself under arrest. An initial arrest in January, 2016 was compounded when further charges were added to the initial charges, previous legal cases were re-opened, and earlier charges were replaced with more serious charges. More than a dozen other leaders of the organization also found themselves charged with various legal offenses. Ultimately, many of the benefits gained by the Indigenous and poor of Jujuy from the OBTA successes have been lost as a result of this concerted campaign against the OBTA leadership.

The political and legal campaign of the conservative elected government against OBTA shows that reliance on an individual, such as Milagro Sala, or a small group of leaders, leaves a movement vulnerable to attack and even destruction by its opponents. Many democratic movements have avoided this vulnerability by training all of their members in leadership skills, and by carefully controlling the public representation of the organization to prevent focus on any single individual or small group.

One risk that democratic movements run is opposition by those serving in elected governments that claim democracy, yet that have also proven over decades that they serve only narrow interests. The conservative government under Governor Morales’ leadership is one such elected government. By being unresponsive to social movements advocating for the poor, as they were up until 2003, electoral democratic practices failed in Jujuy to serve the general interest.

Yet for those movements like OBTA, who sometimes have been successful at advocating for the interests of those who often do not benefit under electoral governments, caution must be taken when developing leadership. If leadership is highly centralized, as it often is in social movements and many communities, the centralized structure can make it easier for a movement’s opponents to successfully block further success and even to destroy the movement. Decentralized organizational structures can be much more effective at responding to attacks from political opponents, and more successful over the long term in advocating for member interests.