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"Throw them all out"

Argentina's grassroots rebellion

By Roger Burbach*

2 July 2002
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A grassroots rebellion is taking place in Argentina with the common refrain "que se vayan todos", or "throw them all out". It is directed against the entire political leadership of the country as well as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and transnational companies doing business in the country.

One sticker slapped on banks around Buenos Aires reads: "No More Extortion by Foreign Banks and the International Monetary Fund." José Luis Coraggio, an economist and the rector of General Sarmiento National University in Buenos Aires, angrily declares:

The leadership in Washington that dominates IMF policy is responsible for this economic catastrophe. We are to be made an example of because Argentina has no strategic importance, no major oil reserves, no illegal drugs, and we do not flood the US with immigrants. Our political class bankrupted the country in the 1990s by implementing Washington's neo-liberal economic prescriptions. Now we are told that the only solution is to turn over the bits and pieces that remain of our national economy to foreign lenders and to slash government social spending even further to get 'rescue financing' from the IMF."(1)

Whether or not the IMF attempts to "rescue" the Argentine political establishment with new loans, history will record that the Argentine people rose up against the post-Cold War order of neo-liberalism and corporate driven globalization. Two previous rebellions that transformed the country have occurred against the dominant order in modern Argentine history. In 1945 the descamisados, the shirtless workers of the international meat packing plants of Buenos Aires, along with other sectors of the popular classes took to the streets. They were protesting against the imprisonment and deposition of Juan Domingo Peron as labour secretary and vice-president, largely because of his ambitious populist policies favouring the working class. The second uprising took place in 1969 with the Cordobazo, when tens of thousands of workers rose up and seized control of Argentina's second largest city, Córdoba, precipitating the eventual downfall of the military dictator, General Juan Onganía.

The current rebellion erupted on 19-20 December 2001, when the government of Fernando de la Rúa froze domestic savings accounts in an attempt to salvage the country's domestic and international banking interests. The government's repression of the protests resulted in the deaths of 32 demonstrators. De la Rúa fell the next day and was succeeded by four presidents in a period of less than two weeks. Since early January, the current administration of Eduardo Duhalde has been under constant siege by protesters and mass demonstrations. There have been an astonishing 11,088 protests nationwide since the beginning of the crisis five months ago.

The demonstrations that erupted in December are commonly referred to as caserolazos, protests in which participants bang on empty pots and pans to symbolize their inability to purchase the basic necessities of life. Many of the demonstrators march under the banners of the communities they come from after gathering in asambleas populares, or popular assemblies. These barrio gatherings have rapidly become autonomous centres of community participation that include a wide variety of groups and individuals, ranging from the unemployed and independent trade unionists, to housewives, human rights activists and members non-mainstream left political parties.

In addition to mobilizing demonstrations that converge on the historic Plaza de Mayo of Buenos Aires on a weekly basis, the popular assemblies often take on local issues and concerns. In one barrio the assembly organized pickets to prevent the authorities from evicting a baker who could not afford to pay his rent. Other local assemblies are urging people who own their homes not to pay property taxes and instead to turn the revenue over to hospitals in their area that are in desperate need of medical supplies. The assemblies also take up discussions of international issues. As Lidia Pertieria, an assembly organizer in Buenos Aires notes, "One of the rallying cries coming from our communities is 'no more foreign loans'. New loans only mean more swindling and robbery by our government officials."(2)

One of the more fascinating episodes illustrating the potent relationship between the popular assemblies and local economic initiatives occurred in late May in the barrio of Pompeya, Buenos Aires. As the owner of a printing plant began to shut it down and turn it over to his creditors, the workers seized control and formed the Chilavert Cooperative. One week later they began printing a book called Que son las Asembleas Populares? or What are the Popular Assemblies?, a collection of articles written by renowned intellectuals as well as workers and participants in the assemblies.(3) On behalf of the creditors, a local judge ordered the seizure of the enterprise. Police and infantry troops, along with armoured vehicles, fire trucks and unmarked police cars surrounded the cooperative, demanding that the workers leave the facilities. But then the popular assembly of Pompeya called on barrio residents to take to the streets and block the entrances to the printing facility.

A violent confrontation appeared imminent until local policemen began to express their solidarity with the workers in the plant and those they faced on the barricades. Police authorities then back-pedalled, successfully appealing to the judge to rescind his order to seize the printing facilities. After the release of the book, the workers began printing other texts, including quality art catalogues, while preparing to run new editions of the book on popular assemblies that will recount the latest episodes and experiences of the people who are organizing in the barrios.(4)

The popular assemblies are emblematic of the upsurge in grassroots organizing that is occurring throughout the country. The first major protests against neo-liberal government policies began in the interior of the country in 1996 and 1997 when unemployed workers called piqueteros, or pickets, blocked major highways demanding jobs. By 2001 the blockading of strategic commercial arteries had spread to the entire country. The piqueteros are loosely organized in the Movement of Unemployed Workers. They have held two national assemblies in August and September of 2001, which brought together a variety of social and nongovernmental organizations along with the unemployed.

After the uprisings on 19-20 December the activities of the piqueteros exploded on the national scene with roads and major arteries being blocked around the country on a daily basis. According to Rosendo Fraga, the director of the Centre for Studies of the New Majority: "From a political perspective, the piqueteros are evolving as an insurgent social protest movement similar to the Zapatistas of Mexico and the Landless Movement (MST) of Brazil."(5)

The piqueteros are notable for their participatory leadership. They usually negotiate in large groups or assemblies with local and regional governmental leaders to demand publicly financed jobs in exchange for the lifting of blockades. Bargaining is done in open groups to prevent government clientelism, a long-standing practice of Argentine political leaders in which they negotiate separately with a handful of representatives and promise them jobs or give them bribes in order to sell out the rest of the movement.

The National Front Against Poverty (Frenapo) with over 60,000 members is another organization that has moved into the spotlight with the country's political crisis. It was established in 1999 by a group of economists, sociologists and trade unionists to propose alternatives to the neo-liberal order. In its first initiative, the group collected over a million signatures for a plan that was presented to Congress and dubbed "shock redistribution", an ironic reference to the economic shock treatment imposed on many developing countries by IMF. The redistribution plan argues that the only way to reactivate the economy is by putting funds into the hands of the country's poor, not by slashing social programs and implementing financial policies that favour the rich, as the IMF prescribes. In 2000 the front set up polling booths around the country and held a referendum in which over 3 million people voted for the redistribute plan.

As Norma Filgueiras, one of the Front's organizers who participates in the popular assemblies notes: "Today, with almost half of the country's 37 million people falling below the poverty line, we are discussing real alternatives that could help us at the community level."(6) A widely distributed pamphlet by the front points out in easy-to-understand language how neo-liberal economic policies can be reversed by funding local housing projects, by helping small enterprises produce many goods (including medicines) that are currently imported, by renationalizing industries that were sold off by corrupt government officials, and by encouraging economic solidarity and cooperation among individuals and groups rather than "free market" competition. The front calls for taxes on banking and corporate interests to provide the additional revenue for these initiatives.

The popular movement in Argentina is extremely dynamic, with different organizations and social movements seizing the initiative, depending on the particular political and social conjuncture. On 29 May, Buenos Aires and most of Argentina were paralysed by a massive strike and road blockages led by the Argentine Workers Central (CTA) and one of the main groups of piqueteros, the Combative Class Current.(7) Frenapo, student organizations, cooperative bank associations, popular assemblies, rural workers and farmers participated in marches, blockades, street theatres, occupations of government buildings and the blocking of critical commercial arteries with tractors. The head of the CTA, Victor De Gennaro, declared: "This is a national rebellion against hunger, unemployment and the selling out of the country."(8) One of the major slogans of the mobilization proclaimed: "Organize to Confront the Neo-liberal Model."

In the final pages of the Chilavert Cooperative's What are the Popular Assemblies?, a series of questions are posed about the nature of the upheaval in Argentina: What is the future? Are we witnessing the rise of a new type of militancy? What is the relationship between popular assemblies and political organizations? If we "throw them all out," what and who will we put in their place? Will new political subjects emerge? As one reviewer of the book concludes: "The people will have the final word."(9)


Notes

1. Interview with author, Buenos Aires, 28 April 2002.

2. Interview with author, Buenos Aires, 29 April 2002.

3. See Pagina/12, 10 June 2002.

4. See Argentina Arde website for information on this factory takeover and the popular assemblies.

5. Quoted in Terra, 5 April 2002.

6. Interview with author, Buenos Aires, 8 February 2002.

7. The CTA is the third largest trade union, behind the CGT and the breakaway dissident CGT-Moyano. The latter two are generally supportive of government policies, particularly of the Peronist Party currently in power. The CTA is the most dynamic and rapidly growing of the three trade unions.

8. Quoted in Pagina/12, 29 May 29 2002.

9. Miguel Bonasso, "Libro de las asambleas," Pagina/12, 10 June 2002.


*Roger Burbach is director of Global Alternatives at the Center for the Study of the Americas (Censa), Berekely, USA.

© Roger Burbach


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