(fwd from Jim Drysdale) Popular Assemblies in Argentina

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Sat Feb 16 11:40:56 MST 2002

Les, if not yet known you may want to place this on Marxmail.


February 14, 2002 by the Inter Press Service

Argentina's Rebellion in the Neighborhoods

by Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 13 - Neighborhood assemblies are springing up in
cities throughout Argentina, particularly in the capital and
surrounding areas, as a groundswell of people seek to change the
political landscape amidst the country's social and economic

Many assembly participants are young people who are fed up with the
political parties they say have betrayed their ideals. But there are
also many unemployed, out-of-business shopkeepers, retirees, teachers
and professionals also taking an active role in the meetings. Many
had never taken part in any citizen-based mobilization before in
their lives.

There are several common denominators among the assemblies held each
week since late December in more than 50 neighborhoods, such as the
rising anxieties of the most desperate and the increasing calm among
those attempting to organize grassroots participation to make their
demands heard.

The vast majority of the neighbors participating in the assemblies
believe that political leaders are ignorant of the people's needs. In
many cases residents do not personally know their elected city
council members and local legislators, nor where they live. They are
seen as mere representatives of political parties.

Now, however, independent citizens are adopting the terminology
characteristic of party politics: assemblies, agendas, motion for
order, moderators, committees, and liaison commissions.

But few assembly participants have grand hopes for change. They say,
at least, that they want to remain alert to the government's
measures, channel their need for participation and expression, and
try to put some new faces in the political arena, even if the new
politicians lack experience.

"Everyone is completely fed up with corrupt politicians. We are not
against democracy, but the neighbors seem to be allergic to anything
that smells like politics," Carmen Fernández, a teacher from Buenos
Aires' Palermo neighborhood and head of her district's Education
Committee, told IPS.

There is a great deal of talk at the assemblies about the "common
enemy", which everyone agrees are Argentina's political leaders. The
neighborhood organizations have been careful to maintain a horizontal
structure, in which everyone has the right to make proposals, and
leaders seem to emerge based on who best facilitates participation.

Usually someone offers a warehouse for a meeting site in case of
rain, and someone else offers a printing press to print posters or a
newsletter. At one assembly, young filmmakers proposed to record the
sessions for a documentary. Attorneys, accountants and doctors offer
their professional services.

The slogan heard most often is "all the politicians out", but the
assembly-goers insist this is not a call for an end to the democratic

"On the contrary. To get out of this crisis requires more politics,
but real politics. These meetings of common people on the street are
the fundamental form of doing politics," Roli Sampieri, an accountant
in charge of the Press Committee for the Almagro neighborhood
assembly in the capital, told IPS.

"When a married couple decides to separate, that doesn't mean that
they won't go on to marry someone else. This is the same thing: we
don't want these politicians. We want a change," Sampieri said.

Only the ongoing street protests by the Argentine people can convince
the career politicians to think of the common good and not about
personal gain, according to the activist. In the long term, there
will have to be a change in leadership that is founded on a more
community-based conception of politics, he added.

Another Almagro neighbor, Mario Colombati, agrees. "We are not
satisfied with merely casting a vote at election time. We want to
participate and we want them to listen to us more often, because that
is the main problem, they don't listen to us," he said in a
conversation with IPS.

In last October's legislative elections (the vote is compulsory in
Argentina), Colombati annulled his ballot in protest to express his
discontent with the political parties. But, he said, "we cannot live
without politicians, because that would be anarchy. We want those who
robbed us to leave, and we want to closely monitor those who replace
them," he said.

Most of the neighborhood assemblies were founded after the first major
"caceroleo" protest, when Argentines came out in masses, banging pots
and pans in protest against then president Fernando de la Rúa, who
resigned Dec 20.

At first it was just a handful of neighbors who gathered together,
concerned about preventing the new government from being made up of
the same leaders with a different disguise.

With the series of political turnovers and the ever-deepening social
and economic crisis, the meetings have achieved greater impact, and
new leaders are emerging. The neighbors at the assemblies choose
delegates who participate every Sunday in an inter-neighbourhood
plenary session, which draws some 4,000 people.

There, representatives from middle-class districts mix with those
from the wealthiest and the poorest neighborhoods Their proposals
often become radicalized, and protests are expressed on behalf of an
array of groups: the unemployed, merchants, former party activists,
and savers who have been hurt by the government's economic measures
of the last two months.

The non-governmental organization 'Poder Ciudadano' (Citizen Power)
offered the assembly participants a free course in institutional
monitoring. The program is called "Citizens as protagonists of
change" and seeks to provide practical tools to the movement that
expresses itself in 'cacerolazos', neighborhood meetings and marches.

But there are many who appear already to possess some working
knowledge as a result of their activism in student organizations,
political parties or labor unions.

"The assembly shall be considered constituted when at least 20
neighbors are present. All who live in the neighborhood may
participate with voice and vote," reads a woman, aided by a brand-
new megaphone, on a street corner where more than a hundred residents
have gathered.

"The executive committee shall meet 15 minutes prior to the assembly
to draft the agenda with the proposals provided by the neighbors,"
she says, handing the word - and the megaphone - over to
the "moderator". It is clarified repeatedly that "here, no one is in
charge, we are going to take turns."

One of the proposals made during the assembly was to set aside 15
minutes each week on a neighborhood radio program to provide updates
about the movement. The proposal was readily accepted.

But when the moderate announced that a television news program has
sent a reporter and a camera operator, the reaction is one of
absolute rejection, with the neighbors shouting for the media
representatives to leave.

The reporter is from a program whose host has supported the
government's economic reforms in the past few years and who now is
seen as inciting protest with a right-wing discourse. The neighbors
make it clear they do not want anyone to use them to advance a cause
they do not agree with.

In fact, in the assemblies and in mass e-mails, Argentines are
calling not only for the removal of the career politicians and
entrenched union leaders, but also for the rejection of the
privatized entities entrusted with public services and of the news
media which, they say, are not accurately portraying the population's

"I am very surprised because there are people participating who
otherwise never left their homes. My 70-year-old neighbor had never
taken part in anything, but now she has such an extremist stance that
it is truly astonishing," said Palermo neighborhood assembly
participant Fernández.

She said one of the slogans repeated in her neighborhood is "the
politicians must go because they do not understand a thing."
Fernández explained that this reflects the sentiment that political
leaders no longer comprehend, nor can they express, the citizenry's
problems because they are too far removed from that reality.

For Sampieri, the national crisis was a long time in the making and
these assemblies are a response to the loss of credibility of the
political system in general. "Politics continues to be the only way
to express one's self, but the people reject the political parties,
and therefore are gathering in the streets," he said.

Some of the initiatives coming out of the assemblies include
organizing a volunteer corps to provide assistance to retirees and
the unemployed and to help with the needs outlined by hospital
personnel, but the priority is ultimately to take their proposals to
the national level.

The neighborhood assemblies are planning a march on the legislative
palace when the lawmakers gather to debate the government budget,
protests outside bank headquarters to protest the transfer to pesos -
the national currency - of dollar deposits, and demonstrations
against the representatives of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)
who visit Argentina.

"I don't know if this will lead to change, but at least it is
teaching us to be more alert," said one resident as she headed home
after an assembly meeting.

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