[Marxism] The Piqueteros and Us

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Mar 3 14:50:43 MST 2004

That's the title of an interesting article by Jim Straub that can be 
found on Tom Engelhardt's website at: 
http://www.nationinstitute.org/tomdispatch/. It was also picked up on 
ZNet. It can best be described as a defense of the autonomist/Zapatista 
perspective but without the preciousness of John Holloway's "How to 
Change the World Without Taking Power".

Straub is described in Mike Davis's preface as "a fascinating figure: an 
intellectual with dirt on his boots and Che's Motorcycle Diaries in his 
backpack." I would only add that it is too bad that Jim did not find 
room in his backpack for Carlos Tablada's "Che Guevara: Economics and 
Politics in the Transition Period", which is less exciting than the 
motorcycle diaries but far more useful politically.

Straub believes that the Piqueteros are more relevant to the North 
American experience than either the Brazilian Landless Movement or the 
Zapatistas (two other favorite movements for autonomism) since 
Argentina's social and economic structure is more like ours.

"Given the fact that the U.S. is far more similar to Argentina than, 
say, to Bolivia or India, these new Argentine social movements have a 
nuts-and-bolts significance for those of us in North America hoping to 
someday chase a few corrupt presidents out of office with our own mass 

Straub cites Paul Krugman to the effect that Bush's high-risk fiscal 
policies might lead to an Argentina type crash and the aftermath of high 
unemployment. In those conditions, the traditional trade union might not 
have much to offer the chronically unemployed. The "piqueteros" 
(picketers) were people in Argentina who took things into their own 
hands and formed unemployed associations that stressed militant direct 
action. In Argentina's "rust belt", such groups remained "autonomous" of 
the corrupt political parties and trade unions.

While there is no doubt that their activism has had a substantial impact 
on Argentina's politics over the past 4 or 5 years, the piqueteros are 
ultimately limited in what they can do since they are outside of the 
productive process and ultimately outside of politics as well--as a 
matter of choice.

For "autonomist" movements (and their second cousin anarchism), state 
power is something that must be avoided like the plague. Instead, it is 
desirable to build up "counter-institutions" that will not be tainted by 
"verticalism" and corruption. Straub writes:

"At the grassroots, these Piqueteros are devoting themselves to 
developing alternative paths out of poverty for their communities and 
have undertaken an enormous variety of mutual-aid activities, including 
the collective construction of community or health centers, housing 
occupations, the planting of organic gardens, the raising of livestock, 
the creation of youth programs, the organization of festivals, and the 
creation of an impressive number of collective neighborhood soup 
kitchens. Piqueteros work together in modest vegetable gardens on 
occupied land, then cook their produce in those collective kitchens, and 
finally serve food in public neighborhood dining halls where the jobless 
and hungry can eat with a genuine sense of dignity and solidarity."

And whatever they can't grow or produce by themselves, they can extort 
from the rich:

"For example, at one particular road-blockade this past December, the 
Piquetero organization MUP-20 obstructed the entrances to some enormous 
supermarkets and malls on the day before Christmas, the biggest shopping 
day of the year. Such economic disruptions put direct pressure on 
Argentine businesses, and indirect pressure on the government to address 
unemployment or face continuing retaliation like this. Not least of all, 
those participating often experience immediate material gains. At this 
Christmas eve blockade, the supermarkets eventually gave hundreds of 
packets of sweetbreads to the families of MUP-20 in order to bring the 
action to a close -- a not-irrelevant victory, given what it means for 
long-unemployed people to be able to bring food home to their families 
on Christmas eve."

Although the last thing I'd want to do is pooh-pooh sweetbreads or soup 
kitchens, it appears to me that we are selling ourselves short by 
forsaking a bid for state power. When you have control over the state, 
anything is possible. In the first few years of the Cuban revolution, 
unemployment was wiped out completely, all the land was seized from the 
agrarian bourgeoisie and the economy was redirected to benefit the poor.

It is understandable why the piqueteros would reject the sectarian left 
in Argentina which has opportunistically tried to raid their movement. 
However, it is just as much of a mistake to rule out a bid for 
socialism, which lies at the core of autonomist thought.

With the rise of Kirchner, there apparently has been pressure on the 
piqueteros to adapt to his new initiatives. Goverment funds have been 
doled out to piquetero neighborhood groups who then become coopted in 
the process, just as occurred during the 1960s when militant black 
nationalists were sucked into the war on poverty. Those who do not "get 
with the program" are targeted for retribution by Kirchner--at least 
this is Straub's claim.

As they work through these problems, some are beginning to think about 
the capitalist system in a more theoretical fashion, but hope to avoid 
the "old rhetoric of the left and many of the mistakes of the past". 
Although I would be the last to speak against fresh thinking, it might 
make sense to study things that *have worked* rather than to invent 
something totally new.

Despite the general animosity toward the Cuban revolution in autonomist 
circles, it is noteworthy that the lives of the impoverished in Chiapas 
have probably been far more affected by Cuban "verticalism" than by any 
of the initiatives of the much-heralded Zapatista movement.


Cuban health workers arrive to help in impoverished southern Mexican state


Mon Jan 20, 5:30 PM ET

MEXICO CITY (AP) - Cuban health workers are in southern Chiapas state to 
help officials cope with a with a sudden spate of infant deaths at a 
rural hospital, the governor said Monday.

Cuban Deputy Health Minister Gonzalo Estevez is among four Cuban doctors 
visiting the state to advise officials on possible improvement in the 
health care system, state officials said. In an interview with the 
Televisa network, Gov. Pablo Salazar said the doctors were discussing 
the possibility of bringing "epidemiological brigades" to Chiapas.

He did not specify what sort of health workers, or how many, would come. 
State health officials said no deal had been reached.

The death of 25 infants at a hospital in Comitan during December and 
several more since then drew national attention to long-existing public 
health concerns in Chiapas, one of Mexico's poorest states.

Alarmed by the medical crisis, local officials invited experts from the 
federal government and Pan American Health Organization to investigate 
the deaths. State prosecutors also are investigating the deaths.

According to the health experts' report, many of the mothers whose 
babies died in Comitan had not received any prenatal care before 
arriving at the hospital to give birth. Others had arrived only after 
their children developed problems.

"We need to attend to the mothers ... to make the pregnancy safe and the 
birth successful. That implies an impressive multiplication of human 
resources," the governor added.

A recent state government news release said Salazar's administration 
took office in late 2000 amid "a true health emergency."

"For 50 years there were bad educational policies, bad health policies, 
and for many years not a peso was invested in infrastructure," Salazar 

He said the state needs at least 500 more health centers and 2,500 
additional medical workers.

Cuba's socialist government has made heavy investment in health a point 
of pride, and has sent thousands of doctors and nurses on missions to 
impoverished or disaster-stricken areas in Africa and the Americas.

Cuba's health system, while short on medicines, specializes in 
preventative and neonatal care.

Salazar said the medical assistance is part of a broader agreement under 
which Cuba has already sent agronomists and other experts to his state.

Cuba has made a point of offering aid to nations with both friendly and 
hostile governments. Relations between Mexico and Cuba have been tense 
over the past year.


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