Beyond its umbilical association with the vast global electronic territory, free software has established a solid home base, even an “adopted” homeland, in Latin America. Far from being a chauvinist derivation, this metaphor nevertheless proves to be realistic enough to illustrate the singular fertility that has developed over the last twenty years between the free software movement and the social transformations taking place in the South American continent.
Like in other parts of the world, the regional “freeist” movement resembles a Milky Way of scattered and multi-sectoral initiatives, with little systematisation or study, in which there is neither regional confederation or centralised leadership nor actual organising as a group. Their identities, as well as their ideological and organisational affinities, are diverse and even antagonistic. Yet cohesion exists. It lies in their strong affinity with the ethical principles of free software and its modus operandi enhancing direct networking, which during the last two decades has found in Latin America the central aspiration to strengthen social ties, or even give them a new meaning, under an inclusive and egalitarian logic. The development of free software, i.e. collaborative intelligence at the service of universal and sovereign access to IT resources, represents the implementation of common modes of sharing, the creation of communities of activists and users and horizontal promiscuities with multiple social and professional spheres. Is that enough to make a real continental movement? Not necessarily. But beyond the perceptible categories, it is important to grasp the fertility of the process that supports this regional Milky Way and to draw the most significant constellations.
The first is undoubtedly the vivacity of the regional freeist wave. One of the most evident manifestations is the Latin American Free Software Install Festival (FLISoL1) which held in April 2016 its twelfth edition in over 200 cities across the continent. Since 2005, this decentralised festival is nothing less than the most numerous international popular mobilisation devoted to free software. It is in keeping with other specialised regional events, such as the International Free Software Conference, the Regional Free Software Days or different subregional meetings. They are all intertwined with the proliferating groups of freeist users and experiences rooted at territorial and national levels. Another sign of this dynamism is expressed in economic terms. According to International Data Corporation, the growth of the GNU/Linux system in the regional digital industry in 2004 was twice the worldwide trend of 32% of annual growth2. While the success of open distributions in server infrastructure is well established globally, this trend has demonstrated the advantage that free systems locally have to respond to a still unequal context of digital development, where the digital industry favours adaptive systems and lower costs. Note that Cuba, Venezuela and Uruguay are at the top of the world list with the highest number of Linux-based personal computers3.
A second constellation concerns the power of histories and the blending of freeist identities with various socio-political processes. This is a curiously undeveloped angle in the thinking of the movement itself, while holding a central place in reality. Even if there is a self-referential identitarian foundation in the culture of free software, it tends to follow the moving lines of an associative identity, i.e. an ability to syncretism with regard to other political issues and problems. Different groups of hackers and free software activists were part of the foundational moments of the World Social Forum Social in 2001 in Brazil, which later gave birth to the World Forum of Free Media in 2009. Several networks joined the territorial struggles and social identities, from movements of feminism, citizen and post-extractivist resistance, popular or alternative media and communicators, certain political parties and social movements, the mutualist sector and SMEs, university networks, and most recently the new urban movements. Sometimes giving rise to ad hoc or sectoral associations, standing back from the verticality of the traditional political arena, these hybridisations however have not hesitated to facilitate the passage from technical and political activism to the institutionalisation of public policies at national or provincial levels, and to a lesser extent at regional level, where the communication policies are for now in the prototype stage. From Mexico to Argentina, the aim of free software and technological sovereignty has moved circularly from the social bases to the highest levels of governments, especially in the case of popular and progressive political projects. Clearly it will take more to sustainably generalise a paradigm of technological sovereignty. But the social gains in the field of digital rights, the transformative effect of a radically participatory mode of construction and the break from isolation of the technological discourse are fundamental breakthroughs that will continue to act firmly on the collective imaginaries.
Finally, a third constellation, with contours that are still to be designed, is that of the roadmap of the freeist movement. While it is too ambitious to establish a collective strategy given the spreading of the freeist movement, it is nevertheless necessary to reinvest its transformative imaginary and frameworks of understanding. We have resolutely entered a new technical-political phase with the emergence of the giants of the digital industry, their capture of a large part of the freeist modality in their accumulation strategies and the entry of microelectronics in major geo-strategic relations. The issues of sovereign network infrastructures, their re-territorialisation, the struggles for democratic communications, digital rights, and citizen control of code and algorithms are now a more unified battle. The libertarian affirmation has remarkably democratised the first stage of deployment of micro-informatics. With the current installation of a “realistic” scheme in the electronic space, it is time to lay the foundations of a new regulation pact and deepen the strategic alliances with the rest of society.