Scholars of Latin American social movements since the 1980s have sought to explain the apparent upswing in cycles of contentious politics, the innovative characteristics of these new movements, and variations in how they interact with or sidestep conventional institutional politics. The regional context for these developments is very different from the postmaterialist conditions said to have spawned European “new social movements” since the 1970s revolving around identity and values, such as ecology, peace, gay rights, and women’s movements. Relevant causal factors for Latin America’s contemporary movements include popular reaction against neoliberal policies imposed by international financial institutions and brokered by national governments. Another factor was the transition from military authoritarianism in much of the region, inaugurating a struggle between political elites with a liberal-representative vision of democratization and social movements favoring radical/participatory democracy. The era of globalization also brought reexamination of the citizenship pact and of the hegemonic (mestizo) construction of the nation-state, fueling a reinvigoration of indigenous movements, some with their own cosmovisions of buen vivir (living well) that destabilized mainstream notions of the political. The interplay between party-electoral politics and grassroots movement activism took place against the backdrop of the “pink tide” of elected leftist governments, which swept much of the region in the first decade of the 21st century and subsequently appeared to recede. Throughout this period, scholars and activists alike debated whether fundamental change could best be achieved by movements pushing parties and governments to use state power to enact reforms or by movements themselves adopting radically horizontal and inclusive patterns of organizing—“new ways of doing politics”—that would transform society from below.
The January 1, 1994, Zapatista uprising among mostly Maya peasants in the poor southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, launched the day the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, became emblematic of new ways of doing politics from below. What began as a rebellion of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional [EZLN]) quickly morphed into a social movement that both criticized national and global power structures and sought to empower local communities through everyday practices of de facto autonomy. Negotiations with the state over indigenous rights and culture quickly broke down, but the Zapatistas proceeded anyway to develop their own structures of self-government, autonomous education, healthcare, justice, and agrarian and economic relations, among other innovative practices. The Zapatista movement continues to raise important issues such as the role of culture and identity in popular mobilization, the social spaces for organizing in an era of globalization, the new characteristics of movements that practice alternative forms of prefigurative politics, and the possibility of redefining power from below. Scholars of the Zapatista movement have also posed probing self-reflective questions about the adequacy of conventional definitions of politics and Western positivist epistemologies and about the need for decolonizing research in indigenous and other oppressed communities.