Community Development in Organización Barrial Túpac Amaru, Argentina

Waves of radical planning through community organizing in Jujuy, Argentina

By Raksha Vasudevan


Organización barrial Tupac Amaru. See the main source here.

This case follows the rise and fall of Organización Barrial Túpac Amaru (hereafter Túpac Amaru) in the province of Jujuy, Argentina. In 1999, Túpac Amaru, led by political activist and indigenous leader Milagro Sala and other indigenous women, queer women, and women of color, emerged as a social movement responding to the neoliberal, inequitable policies of then-President Carlos Menem through overt activist actions such as protests and strikes. Between 2003 and 2015, the organization achieved a period of “consolidation” (Tabbush & Gaona, 2017), taking advantage of left-leaning Presidents Néstor and Cristina Kirchner to implement a variety of community-based housing and development programs. At its peak, the organization also created its own political party and secured multiple seats in the legislature. However, since the election of current President Mauricio Macri and provincial governor Gerardo Morales in 2015, Túpac Amaru has faced threats of the removal of state funding, questions of the organization’s legality and continuing gender-based criminalization.


The development of Túpac Amaru took place in three stages in response to a shifting political context (Tabbush & Gaona, 2017). The social movement was founded on the principles of self-organization and right to employment (McGuirk, 2014); following the election of Nestor Kirchner as President and his implementation of the Federal Programs in 2004, federal government funds became available for community work. During this second phase of organizational “consolidation”, Túpac Amaru started growing and organizing its community development work:

Milagro Sala, woman grassroots leader. See the main source here.

“‘We are and we aren’t a revolutionary organization,’ says Milagro. ‘We are not revolutionary in the sense that we don’t carry weapons and we don’t believe in violence. But we are revolutionaries in that we understand that we can change how people think. Through dignified work and a change of consciousness and by guaranteeing health, education and work, people can become better. We don’t want to be in competition with the government. Because it is the state that has the obligation of guaranteeing health, education, and work to the citizens. So the organization works with the state but we focus on the people with the most needs, people who don’t have easy access to a school or a hospital or a house. Túpac Amaru is wherever there is a need.’” (McGuirk, year, p. 59)

Túpac Amaru’s strategies during this phase were based on the philosophy of collective action and followed a cooperative model (McGuirk, 2014). Circumventing the provincial government, the organization initially utilized funds earmarked for housing by the National Emergency Housing Fund to address social welfare, education, employment, and healthcare needs in the province (Tabbush & Gaona, 2017).  By 2015, Túpac Amaru had 70,000 members, provided work for 5,000 individuals in the organization’s five factories, and had over 250 cooperatives, with most of the workers being women (McGuirk, 2014; Tabbush & Gaona, 2017).  Leadership was also primarily queer and indigenous women, not only in the movement-building but also in the execution of the homes, unsettling the public-private binary. Túpac Amaru provided community amenities such and healthcare facilities, as well as structures based on indigenous architecture for religious and other festivities to honor past and present indigeneity despite state cultural erasure and racism.  Swimming pools and water parks allow an alternative futurity to be imagined for the people living in these neighborhoods, and the stamps of Túpac Amaru II and Che Guevara’s faces on homes represent spatial subversions and also provide examples of transformative community building.

In the third and current period in the life of Túpac Amaru, the election of President Macri at the national level and Morales at the provincial level and the arrest of Milagro Sala has, in a sense, necessitated insurgent movement/coalition-building once again. However, this time around, national and international organizations have organized committees around the liberation of Sala, with international organizations such as OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the UN’s working group on arbitrary detention questioning the human rights violations around the extended pre-trial detention of Sala (Bio, 2019). Additionally, artistic interventions and social media campaigns have also brought about national and international recognition, and academics have focused their work on the gendered and racialized dimensions of the extended imprisonment of Sala.


Women and barrios-based organization. See the main source here.

The case demonstrates the need to learn from the long history of critical political thought and movement building by indigenous communities, and specifically indigenous women. As Perry and Rappaport (2013) note, indigenous peoples have long been simultaneously knowledge producers and political actors with a long history of mobilizing identity-based movements despite oppressive, colonial contexts. By looking at such movements that build on a lived critique of coloniality, planners are able to re-focus on decolonizing methodologies that uncover alternative imaginaries of democracy and citizenship.

Tabbush & Gaona’s (2017) identification of three stages in the history of Túpac Amaru is useful to demonstrate the ways in which the concept of ‘radical planning’ (Friedmann, 1987; Friedmann, 2011) might assume various forms in response to a given political context. Instead of being necessarily anti-state, radical planning re-centers the political actions taken by civil society groups; in this case, Tupac Amaru’s focus on being pro-woman, pro-indigenous, pro-queer, and pro-poor makes Túpac Amaru’s community development work “radical” despite the organization’s direct reliance on federal funds at times. While strategically utilizing “invited spaces” (Miraftab, 2009) to gather government funds for operations, autonomous self- organizing continued under the management of local councils. Today, work through physical and digital “invented spaces” (ibid.) continues. Given that Friedmann’s theorizing of ‘radical planning’ does not extensively deal with the nuances of cultural context, perhaps radical planning needs to look to the ways in which indigenous groups creatively reorient tactics to respond to a long history of oppressive colonial and patriarchal regimes.  For example, in the same vein that Beard (2002) expanded radical planning to include ‘covert planning’ to describe the social transformation in non-liberal, non-democratic societies, perhaps radical planning also needs to leave room for strategic and temporary alignments between indigenous social movements and the state, particularly in unpredictable political contexts.


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