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Synthesis/Regeneration 32   (Fall 2003)

The Argentinian Autonomist Movements
and the Elections

by Graciela Monteagudo, Argentina Autonomista Project

The Argentine social movements are at once young and old. They were born in 1945 with the spontaneous mass mobilization that brought Peron to power. They were also born in 1959 in Cuba. From 1975 to 1982, the people of those movements were disappeared, tortured, and eventually killed, first under a peronist government and then under a military dictatorship. Thirty thousand people were disappeared so that today the IMF could dictate Argentina’s economic policies. We can say, with Cesar Vallejo, that those movements were killed but did not die.

In December 2001, they took the streets with direct democracy and direct action. The disenchantment and rage of those who participated in the mass demonstrations of December 19–20 of 2001, and in the mobilizations that followed, are symptomatic of the crash and failure of neoliberalism. Upper and middle-class folks were fed up with an economy that devoured their lifelong savings and rendered their streets unsafe as many people roamed around homeless and jobless.

...masses of people disillusioned by a corrupt system, using methods of direct democracy and direct action, can pressure the government to produce certain changes...

These were the same folks who successfully ignored the brutal repression of the 1976 dictatorship. They welcome the privatizations and the peso-pegged-to-the-dollar during the neoliberal government of Carlos Menem, a conservative peronist elected in 1989. They believed they were living in the first world. They had always believed it. When illusions of first-world privilege seemed to come crashing down during the De la Rua government, it aroused their frustration and anger. Fernando de la Rua became president in 1999 as part of a coalition between center left peronists and radicals, the middle class side of bipartinsanship.

As upper classes and youth were beginning to turn against the system, the struggle of the unemployed families was brought to the forefront. These people had been blockading major highways (piquetes) in the interior of the country since the mid-nineties. They had been organizing direct actions through direct democracy. The popular assemblies were born out of a fresh anger and dissillusionment with political institutions.

They also grew from an older tradition of assemblies in the work place, in the schools, and in the colleges. The tradition can be traced to anarchist organizing in the labor movement in the 1920s. Their direct democracy methods also stem from the piquetes (road blockades) in the interior of the country. In the cities, the poor and working-class activists met middle-class neighbors, as all banged on empty pots and pans, and passed the tradition along. Soon many people without any experience in organizing learned the ropes of direct democracy and used new tools to confront the economic and social crisis that they faced.

The process highlighted by December 19–20 shows us that masses of people disillusioned by a corrupt system, using methods of direct democracy and direct action, can pressure the government to produce certain changes, most notably the lack of payment on the debt. At no point in this process, however, were the assemblies able to organize themselves as an alternative to the centralized power of the government. Political forces operating within the assemblies, such as the progressive peronists and leftist political parties, made that impossible. By the time some of the trotskyist parties decided to destroy the assemblies, because they could not control them, the participation of the middle class had already declined. This occurred partly because of the brutal repression that met virtually every one of the protests, but also because many people became frustrated, having found no immediate solutions.

Although the actions were huge, the movement did not recognize itself, nor was it conscious of its power. Although the actions of December 19th and 20th collectively opposed the representational political system, opposed neoliberalism, and advocated for civil liberties, most of the participants were not aware of the significance of their actions. Furthermore, these people failed to recognize themselves as a powerful movement that could build an alternative to the IMF/local-government model. This failure explains how Congress was able to appoint a candidate who had lost the presidential elections of 1999, even after two weeks of falling administrations.

Eduardo Duhalde, the conservative Peronist candidate who lost the elections to De la Rua, had been a close buddy of Carlos Menem, until he himself decided to run for President. A few months prior to December 2001, Duhalde had a meeting with G.W. Bush in which a potential succession to the presidency was discussed—in case the De La Rua government failed. The possibility of the coup is discussed in the Argentine courts.

The massive mobilizations unleashed incredible forces and creative methods of struggle. They reinforced the struggle of the piqueteros and supported the recuperation of 200 factories under workers’ control, in which 10,000 people managed the production and commercialization of everything from bread to tractors throughout the country. It created the popular assemblies (neighborhood spaces for discussion of these new politics), community services and coordination of direct actions.

Ezequiel Adamovsky, from the Cid Campeador Popular Assembly, points out that it is because of this movement that the complete destruction of the Argentina economy and its working class was avoided. For example, massive direct actions, the movements halted the negotiations between the government and the IMF. Through this pressure, the government defaulted on its payment for a whole year. Protests stopped the devaluation of the salaries. These movements have also created a new radical culture that is transforming politics.

Patricio McCabe, associated with the Encuentro de Pensamiento Autonomo,suggests that the impact of the movements can be assessed by what the government was forced to do in response. Such measures include brutal repression of actions, evictions of community centers and some recuperated factories, and state terrorism, as in the execution of activists like Dario Santillan of the piquetero organization Anibal Veron.

While a young movement is not likely to be able to contest a presidential election, it should, however, strive to establish new solidarity networks that will heal those broken by the dictatorship...

On the economic level, the government was forced to implement massive welfare plans, which were nonexistent in Argentina before the piquetes and the mass mobilizations. The savings confiscated in December 2001 were returned to the middle class, however devaluated. The monolithic media’s bombardment of propaganda in favor of “democracy” and against the road blockades served as a strong tool to alienate the unemployed from the middle class. The brutal eviction of the Brukman factory demonstrated the government's interest in asserting control over the situation before the elections.

Although the elections helped the government by bringing the focus back to representational democracy, as opposed to the ongoing direct democracy, they also exposed a marked weakness of the system. Appointed by Congress as an interim president, with the task to call for elections in the near future, Duhalde ignored his status and held onto power for over a year. Responding to pressure from the Governors of the Interior and to hints from the IMF, the government ordered the repression of a massive road blockade.

The repression resulted in hundreds of injuries, some of them from lead bullets, and two piqueteros, Maxi Kosteki and Dario Santillan, dead. Dario, a 21 year old organizer, was executed pointblank by the police while helping Maxi, a 23 year old artist involved with the movements. In the social upheaval that proceeded the repression, with thousands of people protesting against state terrorism, the government called for elections—but only presidential elections. At that point many activists felt strongly that the elections were a fraud. To participate in them would be to turn the movements of December 2001 into an electoral farce.

The electoral process revealed an apathetic and fraudulent system, especially after Menem’s withdrawal from the run-off. When taking into account the 20% who did not vote, the newly elected president, Nestor Kirchner, won thanks to a mere 16% of the electorate. Another symptom of this crisis is a highly fragmented society and with it, the end of bipartisanship. The lack of interest in the electoral process was followed by strong illusions from different sectors on the center left signals emited by the newly elected president, Nestor Kirchner.

A vote for Kirchner was conceptualized as a vote against neoliberalism. In this sense, the vote was progressive. This belief will most likely soon be exposed as the same kind of ilussion that motivated people to elect De la Rua as an alternative to Menem. De la Rua’s administration resulted in high unemployment, confiscated savings,lootings, and murderous repression of massive spontaneous protests. Kirchner’s administration had already allowed several evictions of recuperated factories and repression of direct actions.

People feel that Menem and his gang should be kept out of power and rightly so. The change they hope for will not come until they recognize an alternative to the system he represents.

Despite significant achievements, these movements were never close to running the country. While a young movement is not likely to be able to contest a presidential election, it should, however, strive to establish new solidarity networks that will heal those broken by the dictatorship; it must continue to grow and learn from its mistakes. Such networks are being built every day in Argentina and structures of international support are emerging.

The workers who run their own factories, the popular assemblies that initiate community-building programs, the campesinos who reclaim their land, indymedia argentina and others who act independently of government-controlled media, and the radical art collectives, together, constitute newly reclaimed spaces where new movements will find resources to grow.

Graciela Monteagudo is an Argentinian human rights activist and community artist, who spends time in Vermont and Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is currently coordinating the Argentina Autonomista Project (aap). Graciela is currently touring “que se vayan todos: a cardboard piece.” This puppet show was created in Buenos Aires in February 2003, in collaboration with Bread & Puppet artists Damiano Giambielli and Cristina Discaciatti. The show depicts the challenges of life in Buenos Aires following the economic and political upheaval of 2001 and the roles of social movements working to create positive change for the people of Argentina. For more information, see: http://www.autonomista.org

[12 sep 03]

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