The People's Assemblies in Argentina
The People's Assemblies in Argentina
In December of 2001, Argentina's economy collapsed under the weight of debt, IMF advice, and a government that, unfortunately, followed that advice. The collapse and the economic policies that led to it are well documented. The response of the people, who took to the streets with pots and pans and threw out four successive presidents in two weeks, has also been documented. But the people of Argentina have also been building something, experimenting with direct democracy, in interesting ways, and in many parts of the country.
The Immediate Crisis
What do things look like on the ground in Argentina today? First off you have to think of Argentina like you think of Spain or Italy. Buenos Aires has a subway system, commuter trains, tall office buildings, street cafes, a broadway like theater district, etc... People buy their food from supermarkets, and in general there is very little of the informal economy which is dominant in poorer countries. Outside the capital people are generally less European and more poor. About a third of the population lives in Buenos Aires. The piqueteros are the more working class part of the movement, and are suffering more.
The piqueteros have been protesting by blocking major highways and oil refineries. The cacelerazos, of a more middle class background, have been protesting by banging pots and, increasingly, trashing banks. One person said, they call the cacelerazos middle class (protests where they bang pots and sometimes smash up banks), but they are really just the people who make a few hundred dollars a month and were able to have enough extra to put money in a savings account. The Piqueteros are going hungry and that is why they are blocking roads. While some are advocating radical change and revolution, their direct demands are of food and jobs. Basically they eat some bread and drink lots of mate. There are lots of different groups of piqueteros with a range of politics from social democracy to socialism on the less radical end to maoism, trotskism, and anarchism among the radicals. Many piqueteros groups are connected to unions or political parties.
Even given the situation, many Argentines are still going about their daily business. There are still people in restaurants, buying food, going to work, and in general trying to make the best of it. A year ago, everybody in Buenos Aires seemed like they were depressed. Today the situation is objectively worse, but there is some hope of kicking the IMF out. Everywhere you go people denounce the IMF. Berating the IMF has become a national pastime. The reason is that when push comes to shove everybody knows that the IMF has way more power in Argentina than anybody else.
The Assembly Movement
People's Assemblies are becoming an important means of organization. In Buenos Aires proper, for example, while plenty of neighbourhoods do not have assemblies (often neighbourhoods with a strong political party presence), there are about 80 'people's assemblies', and still more in the outlying areas.
The assemblies work like this. People were pissed off over the corilitos (restrictions on banking), so they started going out in the streets and banging pots. For the most part this wasn't organized by any group, but when people heard pots banging they went out in the streets and joined them. After December 20th when they overthrew the De La Rua they
continued to hold protests. People were able to find neighbors who were also upset due to the loud pot banging. From there people just started talking. It seems, then, that the assemblies were truly spontaneous. There were lots of organizers who took up working on them but they are not the project of any preexisting group. In fact there has been a lot of tension within the assemblies where they are trying to force out any leftist parties and potential leaders who might coopt the assembly movement.
The assemblies, then, are aggressively oriented towards direct democracy. The assemblies see implementing a system of direct democracy as a way of rejecting politics. Politics in Argentina is in some ways similar to the US. You have two major parties which run expensive media saturated campaigns but have no substantive policy differences between them. Unlike the US, however, the political and economic system is held up by a much stronger system of patronage and corruption. The parties are very much political machines.
There have been many very strong political movements in Argentina and all of them get subverted by this coopation of the leaders and the organization in to the system of privilege. The people of Argentina are rejecting representative democracy because there is no option for change within that system. This isn't a theoretical debate. You can read editorials in the paper about how Dualde (current president) needs to just find the leaders so he can buy them off. This is what happened to the three major unions, and many other groups in the past.
So, the people didn't come to direct democracy through a intellectual critique of the coercion of systems of representation but rather because they want and need real change and they see this as the only way out.
The assemblies also have some class diversity. Assemblies are based in neighborhoods --so in wealthy neighborhoods the participants are wealthy and in poor neighborhoods they are poor. In general the cacelerazos are considered 'middle class', and the piqueteros are working class, but the assemblies are both.
Each assembly is 'autoconvacado' meaning self convening. They generally have something like working groups which meet separately from the barrio (neighborhood) assembly. The working groups (again an English term that doesn't directly translate), meet once a week and report back to the assembly. The assembly is where proposals for other assemblies to adopt are created. Basically the way it works is a barrio assembly with come up with a proposal. Usually to have a protest on this or that day, take some
sort of action in solidarity with piqueteros, or to denounce neoliberalism and demand the appropriation of all foreign capital and investments in the country. The barrio then votes on it. People can vote three ways. Yes, No, or abstain. If the no's win the the proposal is dropped. If the Abstains count for a large portion of the votes then it goes back to be reworked and can be presented next week. If the Yes's win then it is adopted. Similar processes work at the local barrio assemblies, interbarrio's, and the national. None of the proposals are binding. Votes are based on everybody in attendance not on a one assembly one vote system. It's a rough majority system although to be honest it is in flux and nobody counts the votes very closely. In the interbarrio I saw people contest a vote. Basically they do that by yelling and getting upset. Then they redo the vote and the vote counters count more closely.
The interbarrio is organized by a rotating group, three local assemblies each week. Each assembly gets a person to speak, first to give a little political polemic speech then to give their assembly's proposal. Somebody writes them down and after a few hours of this they get to voting. The indymedia folks (and others) write them down and post them to the web for people who weren't there. Many local assemblies also post their minutes/notes/decisions to indymedia.
It is hard to tell how much of the population is involved in this activity. Greater Buenos Aires has a population of about 10 million and there are about 1000 to 3000 people at the interbarrios. There is very clearly widespread opposition to the government and especially the IMF.
I recently read an article where it talked about politicians getting attacked when they were seen and identified in public. The people in the assemblies are for the most part taking their first step in to politics.
They really do represent somewhat of an awakening of the apathetic silent majority. People who had been working hard, thinking about their families, and letting politicians be. Now they are pissed and they don't think that any sort of politician or party can fix things. I think i heard there were 60 to 80 assemblies in Buenos Aries with more starting all the time. I did hear that the numbers of people participating had been declining some even though the number of assemblies was growing and their political commitment was deepening. This is why if the assembly movement is going to continue to grow they need to be fueled by the fire of collapsing neoliberalism.
Repression and Apathy
The authorities' response to the people's movements in Argentina has been mixed. The army / police are nasty at some demonstrations and are seriously repressive, but other times they aren't. Like at one blockade of the major road into Buenos Aires there were only half a dozen cops and they stayed a mile down the road. One time I was sitting in a restaurant and a small protest, maybe a 1000 people, was blocking traffic outside. They were just marching around the city blocking major intersections, sitting down for a while then moving on. All the police did was work to redirect traffic. Plenty of time the cops basically just let people attack the banks. Sometimes when they felt they had the upper hand they did push people away from the banks. There was a blockade of the a major oil refinery which there were 2000 cops that showed up when the finally wanted to clear it. In general there is not apparent police presence at any of the assemblies. In congress when we interviewed people the congress people seemed to not take the assemblies very seriously.
I think the police have orders not to start confrontations unless they really have to because they are worried things will get out of hand.
Perceptions by the population
The militant action in the streets and the assemblies have the sympathy of many. Every day you can see in the news people in business suits attacking and smashing banks. The TV sucks and is right wing, but they are covering what is going on. In the papers they have articles about the barter systems. They cover the weekly interbarrio assembly, but they of course aren't supportive. Although the media system is fundamentally corporate and right wing many of the journalists are hit by the same problems as everybody else.
When I asked a cab driver what he thought of of the piqueteros he said 'what else are they supposed to do' and that blockading the roads 'was an important part of the struggle.' That said, there are large portions of the population who wouldn't have even heard of the assemblies.
Central to the assemblies' agenda is the rejection of representatives. In this, they are really supported by the general population. The center-left paper, pagina 12, did a poll where they found that 61% of the population didn't believe in representative democracy. That's a big deal.
Of course the neoliberals are saying it means people want a dictatorship or some chavez/castro type, but that's not true. People are demanding democracy and representative democracy has failed and that is why they are looking to other options.
Other direct-democratic activities
Argentinians have done more than create assemblies. Workers have occupied factories and are running them without the owners. There are definitely parts of the movement which are being strategic and targeting the oil industry to shut down the government. I
know one of the assemblies is working on building a coalition with the hospital workers in their neighborhood to create alternate systems of providing health care. I think in some ways what Argentina needs for things to move forward with the project of radical change is a combination of continued IMF imposed insanity and the assemblies and other political forms to start developing their own systems for providing the functions of government which the government is failing to do. This process takes time, and is driven by the government's continued attacks on the social and economic system. Given that the IMF is totally unwilling to consider an alternate model and the government is the IMF's lapdog, it looks like there is a possibility for a positive outcome.
Evan Henshaw-Plath, an indymedia activist, is in Argentina, reporting on the situation there. Dru Jay is an indymedia activist in Canada. Justin Podur is a ZNet commentator.
Indymedia is in Argentina conducting interviews. Here are some good ones: