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Rebellion in Argentina
Nogueira, Josh Breitbart, & Chris Strohm
Since Argentina's economy collapsed due to an unsupportable external debt, street protests are the mildest of the daily occurrences. Many banks have been occupied and smashed, their windows now replaced with sheets of metal to protect the capitalism inside from the democracy outside.
Several times a week, in the middle of busy business days, people who have savings trapped in the banks come down to the financial district to pound on the metal walls and try to tear them off. It is a surreal site: men in business suits spray painting typically anarchist slogans on street walls, women taking sledgehammers to bank windows, and diverse groups conducting spontaneous street-sits in multiple locations around bustling Buenos Aires.
The initial source of anger is a government-placed corralito—or fence—on people's bank accounts. The corralito is a restriction on withdrawals and conversion of dollar savings accounts into devalued government bonds as a way to secure payments to foreign investors in the face of bankruptcy and a $140 billion debt.
If there's one outfit that has its fingerprints all over this country's corpse, it's the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In 1991, in exchange for a loan package, the IMF pressed Argentina to peg its peso to the U.S. dollar as a way to “stabilize the economy.” While this plan lowered inflation, it also rendered the country's exports uncompetitive and required a continual influx of high-interest loans to support it.
To pay for these, the IMF demanded that Argentina cut social services. In September 2000, with the economy crumbling, the IMF directed Argentina to cut salaries to civil servants by 12 percent, pensions by 13 percent, and emergency employment program salaries by 20 percent. The bait was a $20 billion dollar loan. The average Argentine never saw the benefits of that conditional loan, since foreign investors milked $27 billion out of the country in interest rates alone that year.
The IMF's hard-to-swallow prescriptions promised that economic production would rise and unemployment would fall. But by early 2001, industrial production fell by 25 percent and money was flowing abroad—up to $750 million a day. Unemployment is now at 18.3 percent and the official poverty line is at 44 percent.
Every Friday night in a show of national unity, families bring out their pots and pans to bang on in the streets in protest of these economic policies (in Buenos Aires, they do it in front of the pres- ident's headquarters). These caserolazos are a traditional form of Argentine protest and they contributed to the delegitimization of ex-president Fernando De La Rua and three successive presidents in a period of two weeks in December 2001. Many of these people have never associated themselves with activism, much less the anti- corporate globalization movement, leading many to believe that the uniqueness of the Argentine rebellion is the fact that it is comprised mostly of the so-called middle class. Some say that when the money trapped in savings accounts is returned to these people, the rebellion will quiet down.
But since the mass protests against foreign debt in December 2001 that saw 32 people killed by police, the middle class has also supported the blockades of the nation's major trade arteries including a dock, the occupation of an oil refinery, and the takeover of several factories, where the bosses who attempted mass firings have been locked out and workers' collectives have taken over the coordination of production.
The most militant actions have been orchestrated by piqueteros, a loose term for describing coalitions of poorly paid and unemployed workers, who have been striking and protesting for months across the country. They frequently blockade the bridges and highways leading in and out of the city, a tactic previously common only to rural areas. During February, they temporarily shut down the city's oil supply by blockading the entrance to the local refinery and Dock Sud, where oil could arrive by boat. These are the poor of Argentina who have nothing to do with the current fiscal crises, but whose plights have come into sharp focus for the suddenly conscious middle class.
“When women no longer have the resources to feed their children,” says piquetera Rosa, “the government is coming down, no matter what type of government it is.” Laura, another piquetera says, “The middle class is fighting for something very concrete, which is the theme of getting the deposits in the bank. But slowly they are realizing through different politics that they have to change the system.”
Some common points have already been found between diverse groups who have agreed to withhold payments for taxes, public services (until there actually are some), and foreign debt.
A waiter or cab driver will tell you that he has no problem with piqueteros making their voice heard by stopping traffic with burning tires, as long as it does not get violent. (It seems that no one here considers blockades or other forms of property destruction, like smashing ATMs or McDonald's windows, to be violence.) Despite the fact that some piqueteros in the north are armed for self-protection, there is a general sense that violence is a symptom of weakness, especially on the part of the state.
Though the police have mostly backed off in Buenos Aires, they continue to be violent and aggressive elsewhere. Towards the end of February, when piqueteros marched peacefully in the northern tourist town of Salta, police moved in with batons, bloodying many, mostly women and children, while detaining nine people. Diego Rojas, a delegate of the asamblea popular of San Cristobal, interviewed at the workers' national assembly, says “In order to stay in power, the government is going to go against the people with blood and with repression, but we are organizing in this way also,” he said.
The memory of the 32 people killed is very fresh and it has revived the memory of the military dictatorship that ended less than 20 years ago, which oversaw the murder of 30,000 and the exile of 2 million. Nonetheless, many see the outpouring of anger that forced out De La Rua on December 20 as a breakaway from the culture of compliance that the dictatorship created in Argentina. “After the dictatorship, any form of democracy was welcomed and accepted for the little that it was,” says Soledad, a resident of Buenos Aires. “Until now, politics has been something you don't talk about. But what happened in December was so profound that people have opened that discussion up again.”
In the midst of all the protest, Argentines have indeed found time to begin to develop alternative institutions for material production, economic exchange, political decision-making and information distribution.
At the Brookman suit factory in Buenos Aires, just as in the Zanon Ceramics factory in Neuquén, workers have taken over operations. “On December 18, 2001, while we were here working in the factory, the bosses went out supposedly to get money to pay us. But they never came back,” says one Brookman factory worker. “But we came back the next day and kept up production and since then, we have been doing that, maintaining the factory so that we maintain our jobs. Of everything we sell, we divide the profits equally among all the people who work here.”
In Neuquén, when the owners abandoned the Zanon plant, the largest tile factory in Latin America, the workers rebelled. This was in October 2001, months before the general uprising, and there was a quick response by the state. But the people of Neuquén came out to support the workers and were able to force the police to retreat. The workers have been operating the factory ever since; everyone fills their same roles but without an owner or a boss. Everyone also shares equally in the profits.
On February 9, an assembly of hundreds of delegates representing workers, both employed and unemployed, gathered from around the country at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to share experiences of similar worker takeovers and to demand that the government respect these spaces.
That same Sunday, and every Sunday since December 20, thousands gathered for the Asamblea Interbarrial at Parque Centenario. The asambleas are neighborhood meetings held all over the country in various cities, in multiple worker-controlled factories, and in over 80 “barrios” in Buenos Aires alone. They meet weekly to agree on a list of demands and proposals for change and then gather at these larger Interbarrio Asambleas where a rotating spokesperson reads off that list of proposals to members of other asembleas, a number that reaches 4,000 or 5,000 on any given Sunday. They vote on the proposals by show of hands.
“Que se vayan todos”—or, “they must all leave”—best sums up the sentiment there. Seeing how the political class has completely failed them, Argentines are putting a lot more faith in the process of direct democracy as the tool to lift the country out of its crisis. No one believes political authority has rushed out of Congress and into the neighborhood gatherings, but everyone has heard a loud creak as it shifted slightly in that direction.
“The principle goal is to coordinate activities and put forward proposals from all the neighborhoods to know what each other is doing and what issues are of most concern,” says Mateo, one attendee at a local asamblea. “It is unique because it is comprised of neighborhoods, small businesses and merchants, and a mix of the citizenry.” Interestingly, the corralito is rarely mentioned at these meetings.
What is talked about is the cancellation of the illegitimate foreign debt, the complete rejection of the current political model, and the setting up of a new kind of democracy. They talk about the health crises and how they can replenish the shortage of medicines in hospitals; they vote on how they think the provincial and national budgets should be allocated; and they brainstorm new forms of organization to replace those of the crony capitalist politicians.
The centerpiece of what is happening is a questioning of the regime, a questioning of all the institutions of the bourgeois, the Congress, the Supreme Court, all of them,” says Julia Saavedra of Isquierda Unida, a progressive political party. “That is why the people are organizing direct democracies. That is what the asambleas are. They want to decide for themselves what to do with the hospitals, the budget, the external debt, the banks. These are the things they discuss, not just that they want their money back.”
“We are discussing how to take power from the government,” says Diego. “For example, there was a food kitchen in our neighborhood where poor people go to eat and the government did not give the place money. So we made a demonstration in front of one of the corporate supermarkets and made [them] give the place hundreds of kilos of food.” He feels that the asambleas are not going to achieve decision-making power over how money is spent until the government is controlled by the working class. “Until we have the power, we are going to fight.”
Argentines are also making headway in the alternative economic realm. Pockets of microeconomic resistance have opened up in the form of trueques—or fair trade barter exchanges. Similar to swap meets in the United States, they have been around for quite awhile in Buenos Aires, but since December they have increased exponentially.
One trueque, held twice weekly at the Mutual de Sentimiento, a building operated by a former prisoners' organization, has grown from a few hundred participants to a few thousand. On Saturdays and Wednesdays, people line to get into the building and trade everything from old video games and cheap merchandise to homemade food or skilled services, like haircuts or cardiograms. No government money is allowed. To facilitate the exchange, the trueque organizers have printed up credit slips that function as a micro-currency.
The people on the street are thinking much further ahead than just resolving what many say is just a symptom of a much more profound political and economic crisis, and they are not about to be pacified with some token budgetary reform. In addition, party politics are close to banned at asambleas.
“What we are trying to do is reclaim direct democracy. What surfaces in the inter-neighborhood assemblies, despite the difficulties they raise in terms of organizing them, is that we don't have a recipe. In the 1960s and 1970s everyone had a recipe for what should happen. Today we are recreating it as we go, because no one has, or wants, a formula, or a hegemony of the movement in terms of the direction it should take.”
Given that, there remains an ardent debate about tactics. “There were 6,000 people blocking a highway, but only 600 blocking the oil refinery,” Fabián Pierucci, of the Unemployed Workers Movement of Solano, points out. “But the government let the highway blockade stand and sent 1,000 police officers to clear the piqueteros from the refinery. What does that tell you?”
Media is also a major issue. During bank protests, people often stop by corporate news agencies to let them know that they do not get off the hook for failing to tell the real story. “When the people fight, the media misinforms and that is a constant reality,” says Emiliano. “The problem is that the media serves the dominating class. They have reduced the social movement to the issue of the corralito.”
In response, Argentines are building an alternative media network. The Argentina Independent Media Center was less than a year old on December 19. The small group of Buenos Aires-based volunteers involved with the project used the Indymedia network to produce some of the only international and English-language coverage of the situation in Argentina leading up to the explosion of December 19 and 20.
Since then, the IMC has allied with other political media and art groups to form Argentina Arde, which publishes a weekly paper, puts on photo exhibitions during caserolazos, holds film screenings and info-parties, and provides puppet shows and other entertainment at some rallies.
“The day the country exploded, Indymedia exploded,” says Sebastian Hacher, one of the founders of the Argentina IMC. “We are getting 20 or 30 posts a day…and there were photos and stories and videos of what happened that day. When people realize that anyone with a video camera can do this, or even a disposable camera, they immediately take ownership of it.”
“I am constantly taking news from there to share with the workers,” says Juan Carlos Acuña, Press Secretary for the Union representing the Zanon workers. “We also post our news to the site for people to see and to distribute to the rest of the country. We hope it reaches the world because this is a fight of all workers.”
The site became the place to find where and when neighborhood assemblies were meeting, to see what resolutions had been passed, and to comment on them.
When asked what specific lesson the international community can take from Argentina's experience, many say holding politicians and corporate governments accountable. “In the United States, in Nice, Prague, and Genoa, the people didn't fight against the imperialist governments. I think the anti-globalization movement has to look a little higher and not only go against the transnational corporations, they have to go against the imperialist governments,” says Diego.
“In Argentina, we are fighting not only against Repsol [a multinational oil corporation] but against the government that allows Repsol to exploit the workers. I think the youth of the United States should fight against Bush. We need you, the young people and the working class of the United States, to go against the government of Bush so our movement can succeed.” Z
Ana Nogueira is a NYC-IMC reporter who helped found the Argentina IMC in 2001. Josh Breitbart is with NYC-IMC, and Chris Strohm is with DC-IMC.