Somewhere in the world there is a social movement unfolding even as we speak: perhaps in India Maoists are engaged in organizing armed opposition to a transnational mining corporation; or possibly members of Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), are holding a meeting to discuss actions to be taken against the eviction of their supporters from occupied lands outside of São Paolo. Over the past decade, we have seen countless mobilizations of people on regional, national, or even global scales, but despite many of these movements having something to say about development, they are rarely treated with seriousness in relation to development or policy change.
There are certainly features of social movements that determine their strength, credibility, power and endurance. It is because of their sporadic creation and engagement, and their internal diversity, that movements are at a greater risk than other more organized institutions of falling apart, and thus fail to have a lasting impact on the aspect of development that they were trying to change.
Looking at the example of the Arab Spring and specifically the Egyptian deposition of Hosni Mubarak, the uprising that took place was one that happened very quickly and with immense force. It was like an unexpected punch to the stomach. Although it was effective in ending the dictatorship that was oppressing the nation, it left an internally divided group of sexists and feminists, Muslims and Christians, men and women, rich and poor people standing confused in the middle of Tahrir Square, not knowing what to do next. One of the biggest problems social movements eventually face is how to coordinate themselves.
#YoSoy132, a Mexican student movement that started in May 2012, took no longer than the Arab Spring to evolve. It began as a protest for the democratization of Mexico’s media, and later for the reform of the political system, all the while repeating the slogan of “por una democracia autentica” (for an authentic democracy). After the presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto visited the Universidad Iberoamericana and was met with protests by students, the press reported that they were not real students and were only few in number. Outraged, 131 students of the university posted videos on YouTube with their student IDs, stating they were at the protest. With YouTube videos going viral and claiming the Top Trends on Twitter, it was a matter of days before Mexicans inside and outside the country began to respond and formalize the movement, tweeting #YoSoy132 (I am 132) to show their support. The passion that it created in its members was beautiful: it crossed class divisions, age groups, and geographical distance. It provoked creativity of all possible forms, with a whole branch of the movement dedicated to arts. It presented an alternative truth to the Mexican public by exposing the lies that had for so long been told by their state and media.
Some of these lies included the popular image created around Peña Nieto by Mexico’s main television network Televisa. The network strategically offered a full coverage of his wedding with a famous soap actress and glorified his handsomeness to female viewers, but failed to mention that the state he was governor of, Estado de Mexico, had the highest murder rates of women. They downplayed how he allowed government forces to beat up and rape civilians in the town of Atenco with the excuse of preserving public order, and they forgot to explain his close relationship with ex-president Carlos Salinas, the most hated character in Mexican politics. Furthermore, during his candidacy, Peña Nieto exceeded his campaign budget without receiving any form of penalty, and many other dishonest election procedures, such as vote-buying and manipulation, have become evident since.
YoSoy132 evolved because Mexicans no longer wanted to stand by and watch. But what is the potential of this movement? In the first weeks of #YoSoy132 emerging, people started comparing the movement to the Arab Spring and specifically the Egyptian deposition of Hosni Mubarak. (In fact, it was often dubbed the “Mexican Spring”). While there is little comparison between the Mubarak regime and Mexico’s current political and institutional reality, there is one thing in common: Whenever a grassroots movement with no clear agenda, vision, values, or follow-through plan is able to cluster different groups together in order to eliminate or threaten a common enemy, it may be effective in damaging or removing the unwanted player from the mix, but dangerously ineffective in providing a long-term outcome which benefits all those who pulled together.
Already the movement’s second assembly on June 11 at the Universidad Iberoamericana was proof of some of the weaknesses it would face in the coming months. Seventy four chosen representatives of Mexico’s universities came together to discuss a plan of action. Seventy four people went up to the microphone, making emphatic declarations during their two minutes of fame, ending them with “Hasta la victoria siempre!” (Until victory, always!) and the name of their university, in an attempt to remain anonymous. Twelve hours later they emerged with no leaders and 250 declarations, ranging from increasing funding for arts to putting Calderón (Mexico’s former president) on trial. It was clear that everyone involved was excited to be a part of something, much like was the case during Occupy.
What has threatened both Occupy and #YoSoy132, however, is their boneless structure. Although the number of people involved #YoSoy132 is truly fascinating, what is holding back the movement the most is its multiplicity of demands and its horizontal structure of leadership. Romantic as it may be to believe in the equal voice of everyone, for a movement to have directionality it needs a defined person or group of people to lead it. If only one of the 74 spokespeople is interviewed by the media, the others will get jealous; if he focuses on one silly proposal while failing to address the other 249, anger will rise. Not only could this lead to confusion and conflict within the movement, but it would make infiltrations from the outside easier.
Unfortunately, with the recent “election” and inauguration of Enrique Peña Nieto as Mexico’s president, a big blow has been dealt to the strength of the movement. Whether or not #YoSoy132 could have prevented this by changing their structure is unsure, but it is important that the movement reforms itself now so that it can continue opposing the injustice in their country and put pressure on their new president. It should not lose force just because it lost its first battle of outing Peña Nieto’s lies. The students of Iberoamericana know that they must continue exposing the truth: they recently launched a new tourist walk called the Peñatour, ending in the toilet where their new president once sought refuge from hundreds of protesters.
The movement may not have succeeded yet in changing the development of the country on a political level as happened in the Arab Spring. But it has certainly changed the way people think. The majority of once apolitical Mexican youth has been replaced by thousands of young people who make demands and scrutinize their representative’s every move. Their next challenge will be to structure the movement in a way that works for everyone.
Why do you think many social movements fail to translate to major political and policy change? Leave a reply below.
Carolynn Look is a Research and Communications intern at INESAD.
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