Forwarded from Roger Burbach (Argentina)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Feb 20 07:14:30 MST 2002

The Argentine Rebellion
By Roger Burbach

Argentina is erupting in an unprecedented social upheaval that could pose a
new threat to the international financial system and transform the
country's politics. With an international debt of $140 billion Argentina is
the first country in years to formally default on its loans. In the
capital, Buenos Aires, the popular movement has taken to the streets since
mid-December with the slogan, "Que se vayan todos," or "everyone has to be
thrown out." It is a call for the removal of the entire political
establishment, including the current president, Eduardo Duhalde, who took
office in early January. Along with Duhalde, the popular repudiation
extends to the two main political parties and alliances that back the
government, the Supreme Court, the national congress, and the financial
interests that dominate the country.

As Jose Luis Coraggio, the rector of a university in Buenos Aires who is
active in the opposition movement, declared:  "The repudiation of the
politicians and the economic elites is complete. None of them who are
recognized can walk the streets without being insulted or spit upon. It is
impossible to predict what will happen. Next month, or next week, Duhalde
could be deposed, we could be in a state of chaos, or we could be building
a new country that breaks with neo-liberal and capitalist orthodoxy."

Although Argentina captured the world's attention with the massive social
explosion in late December that ushered in five presidents in less than two
weeks, the crisis had been building for years. Its foundations are in the
neo-liberal model that Argentina adopted in the early 1990's under Carlos
Menem who served as president from 1989 to 1999.  The head of the old
Peronist movement, or Justicalista party as it now called, Menem along with
government and party bureaucrats grew rich as national companies ranging
from petroleum and airline enterprises to telephone and water utilities
were sold off to foreign interests.

Menem by the mid 1990s had tied the country firmly into the international
financial system by pegging the Argentine peso to the US dollar at the
exchange rate of one to one.  A rentier class came to dominate the country
as Argentina's productive and industrial capacity was gutted. With the
fixed exchange rate Argentine exports became uncompetitive in international
markets while cheap imports flooded the country. Even Argentine's once
dynamic agricultural sector went into a state of decline. Today cereals are
the nation's only significant source of foreign exchange, as its once
world-class beef industry has lost its major export markets.

The massive demonstrations that erupted in December are commonly referred
to as "caserolazos," or protests in which demonstrators bang on empty pots
and pans symbolizing their inability to purchase the basic necessities of
life.  In Buenos Aires, the caserolazos usually occur every Friday when
thousands of demonstrators descend on the historic Plaza de Mayo, the site
of the presidential palace and the national congress. Many of the
demonstrators march under the banners of the barrios they come from where
they gather in popular assemblies. These barrio assemblies are rapidly
becoming autonomous centers of community participation that include a wide
variety of groups and individuals, ranging from unemployed and independent
trade unionists, to human rights organizations and members of left or
non-mainstream political parties.

Smaller, but very militant caserolazos have also been organized against the
banks. The middle class in particular is furious with the banks, as the
government has frozen long-term savings accounts, many of which were in
dollars. Starting in the middle of 2002 the government promises to repay
the deposits--which total close to $20 billion dollars--in eighteen monthly
installments in the national currency that will be devalued by at least 40
percent. While proclaiming the government simply doesn't have the money to
pay off the savings accounts, Duhalde has reneged on his early promise to
not pay back the international debt.  He has also announced financial
policies that amount to a currency subsidy for large Argentine corporations
when they repay their foreign loans. It is small wonder that many middle
class demonstrators, sometimes in suits, smash bank windows and spray-paint
slogans on bank walls such as "thieves," "traitors" and "looters."

In addition to mobilizing demonstrations, the popular assemblies in the
barrios often take on local issues and concerns.  In one barrio for example
the assembly organized pickets to prevent the authorities from closing down
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, to instead
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 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

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 picketers, 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 that held two national assemblies in August and September that
brought together a variety of social and nongovernmental organizations
along with the unemployed.

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 the
government from engaging in what is called "clientalism," a long standing
practice of Argentine political leaders in which they negotiate with a
handful of representatives who are separated from their membership and
promised jobs or given bribes in order to sell out the rest of the
movement. The Peronist party, which was founded in the 1940s with a large
working class base, became particularly astute at corrupting the labor
movement by providing perks and special favors to labor leaders in exchange
for their support and allegiance to the party.

The National Front Against Poverty with over 60,000 members is another
organization that has moved into the spotlight with the economic crisis.
It was established in 1999 by a group of economists, sociologists and trade
unionists to propose alternatives to the neo-liberal order. In their first
initiative, they 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 third world
countries by the International Monetary Fund.  In contrast to the IMF, this
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 favor the rich.
In 2000 the Front set up polling booths around the country and held a
referendum in which over 3 million people voted for the redistributive plan.

As Norma Filgueiras, one of the Front's organizers who participates in the
popular assemblies notes:  "Today with 40 percent of the country's 35
million people falling below the poverty line we are discussing real
alternatives that could help us at the community level." A widely
distributed four page 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
articles (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.

During the four years that Argentina has been in economic recession an
alternative barter economy has emerged. It is estimated that over two and a
half million people are participating in local exchanges called "nodos."
People take their products or commodities to the exchanges-fruits,
vegetables, chickens, jams, clothing, etc.,--where they get credit slips
they use to pick up products they need in return. One local textile
manufacturer who was on the verge of bankruptcy called together his workers
and told them that since he could no longer pay many of their salaries he
would instead turn over blankets produced in the factory which the workers
could either sell or take to the local nodos to exchange for other

As Ricardo Malfe a psychologist on the social science faculty of the
University of Buenos Aires commented:  "Who knows what this will all lead
to. In World War II Argentina was cut off from international markets and we
had the biggest manufacturing boom in our history. We Argentines,
especially the middle classes, have been noted for our individualism and
narrow self-interest mentality.  Perhaps this crisis will force us to
reshape the very way we view ourselves, run our economy and organize our

This of course would be a positive scenario for the popular movement in
Argentina. Military intervention appears to be out of the question for the
moment as the military is ranked even lower than the political class in
opinion polls. This is a consequence of the human rights movement, and
particularly the "Madres de la Plaza de Mayo," a group of mothers who began
to march regularly in the plaza in the late 1970s to protest the military's
assassination of their sons and daughters in what is called Argentina's
"dirty war." Today the Madres are a critical part of the popular movement
against the political and economic elites.

There are however long term scenarios discussed in Argentine political
circles that suggest a civic-military alliance with the backing of the
national bourgeoisie. Carlos Menem, who led the country into the
neo-liberal nightmare, is thought by many to be scheming a political
comeback against Duhalde. Menem would be the coalition's primary political
mover, although not its titutlar head since he is prevented by the
constitution from holding the presidential office again. But for now it
looks like such an alliance is check mated as all of its potential members
are discredited by a mass movement that would not tolerate a return of the
neo-liberal order that sold the country out to foreign interests and
precipitated the country's economic catastrophe.

For the moment the piqueteros, the caserolazos and the popular assemblies
are driving the political process, although where they will be able to take
the country is uncertain. Setting aside rosy and totally unrealistic
economic projections by government officials, virtually no one sees an
early end to the deep economic crisis, meaning that social and political
instability will prevail for some time to come.  As one political
commentator stated, "the only certainty in Argentina is that the future is

Louis Proyect
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