The police killing of a public school teacher on April 4 in the Southern Province of Neuquen has sparked massive protests in Argentina and reawakened the slogan: Que Se Vayan Todos or All of them Out! Argentina’s teachers and trade unions participated in a nationwide strike Monday April 9, to protest police violence against teachers in Neuquen. The province may be on the brink of a rebellion, with a deep political crisis shaking up the Patagonia.
Teachers led massive marches throughout Argentina to demand justice for Carlos Fuentealba, a 42-year-old public educator who died on April 6 after a policeman shot him at close range in the head with a tear gas canister. A police officer from the NeuquÃ©n provincial force shot a tear gas grenade at close range at Fuentealba who was seated in the back seat of a car during a protest. Police clashed with demonstrators on Wednesday April 4 during a road blockade that the provincial teachers union organized as a protest action, after a month long strike to demand a pay raise and public education grants.
In the province of Neuquen, unionized teachers continue to block the major highway leading to Neuquen’s capital, where tensions remain high. Teachers and public workers have built a protest camp outside the provincial government house, with demonstrators camped out 24-hours a day. Unionists, human rights groups and local organizations are demanding the resignation of Governor Jorge Sobisch and they want members of his ruling right-wing party, the Popular Movement of Neuquen (MPN), to leave with him.
The teacher’s death has fueled opposition to the local government and coalition efforts among workers’ organizations. Social movements in the region have grown in the past years since Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis. Students, teachers, public workers, unemployed workers and indigenous communities protesting have faced increasing hostility from the Popular Movement of NeuquÃ©n (MPN), Neuquen’s ruling right-wing party.
Up until the teacher’s death, Sobisch had been campaigning for presidency along with business tycoon Mauricio Macri. His campaign quickly fell apart, receiving criticisms from President Nestor Kirchner.
MPN has governed Neuquen for 40 years, gathering local power tied to petrol dollars and the 1976-83 military dictatorship. The province is rich in petroleum, which Repsol-YPF (the Spanish multi-national petroleum company which bought the former state petroleum company) has profited billions of dollars while firing oil workers and polluting Mapuche Indigenous land. The province suffers from epidemic poverty; a 2006 survey reported that 32 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Provincial health and education workers have led protests for salary increases. Salaries for teachers are less than 300 dollars a month, while the cost of living is 600 dollars a month. Public workers have been punished not only with low salaries but with a wave of attacks against unionists speaking out against the local government. The provincial teachers union ATEN-Association of Education Workers of Neuquen had been protesting for months, but Governor Sobisch and his ministers had been unwilling to negotiate. On April 4, ATEN blocked a major highway during Easter week, when locals travel for the holiday.
Leopoldo Reyes, a worker from the FASINPAT (Factory without a boss) ceramics factory in Neuquen participated in the massive march in Buenos Aires. He said that the government executed Fuentealba to warn off other protestors. “Evicting the teachers from the road blockade wasn’t the only objective, they sought out to hurt and arrest protestors. Fuentealba was practically executed. This isn’t the first time a death of a worker protesting has occurred.”
He added that workers in the region are organizing a massive campaign against MPN’s violent tactics. “Jorge Sobisch gave the order to brutally clash with protestors because they wanted to clear the highway for tourists. We are demanding that Jorge Sobisch resigns and that the politicians guilty for Fuentealba’s death go punished.”
Legacy of repression
The MPN government has maintained a long legacy of repressive tactics dating back to the military dictatorship which disappeared 30,000 people. “The death of the teacher Fuentealba reminds us of the dictatorship era,” said Nora Cortinas from the human rights group Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. “We can’t forget and repression will continue if we don’t fight to stop it.”
In the past year Sobisch has pushed for an Integral Security Plan, investing 20 million dollars in the direct purchasing of security equipment to crack down on protests including: two helicopters with night vision, a surveillance camera network for the entire city especially in areas where protestors hold actions and equipment for special police groups. All of this equipment violates the provincial Constitution.
Neuquen’s current education minister, Mario MorÃ¡n, served under the military dictatorship until 1983. Subsequently, public education has deteriorated. High-school students protesting against cut-backs in public school budgets and deteriorating schools reported illegal arrests and tortures inside provincial police precincts in 2006. Two students were arrested and burnt with cigarettes inside a police precinct in 2006.
Police officer, Daniel Poblete, has been arrested for shooting the tear gas canister that killed. Fuentealba. Tear gas canisters need be shot at a minimum distance of 30 yards from the target and manufacturers recommend shooting at an upward angle so as to prevent direct impacts. Witnesses say Poblete who shot Fuentealba was seven feet from the victim.
Carlos Fuentealba is not the first worker to be killed for protesting in the province of Neuquen. His death coincided with the 10-year anniversary of the killing of Teresa Rodriguez, a janitor shot by a police officer during a protest in Neuquen on April 12, 1997. Police shot by-stander Rodriguez as she crossed a bridge that unemployed workers had been blocking in the oil town of Cutral-CÃ³ during one of the first piquetes (or road blockades which later became the method adapted by piqueteros nationwide.) Teresa Rodriguez has become a symbol for the piquetero movement but her murder goes unpunished; the four police officers charged with murder have been released and pardoned.
Neuquen: Mecca of resistance and mutual solidarity
Rodriguez’s parents participated in the march to demand justice for Fuentealba’s death, and resignation of Governor Sobisch, reminding teachers of the government’s legacy of repression. More than 30,000 people marched in Neuquen on April 9.
Argentina’s main teachers union held a 24-hour strike, while the state-worker umbrella unions held a 2-hour work stoppage. Public transportation workers on strike virtually had Buenos Aires at a stand-sill. Buenos Aires subway union delegate Carlos Taborda said that workers were outraged when they heard the news of Fuentealba’s death. “Every worker is affected by the death of the teacher. It doesn’t surprise me that so many people protested today because when workers’ human rights are violated, the working class here in Argentina mobilizes.”
Teachers in white work smocks led 50,000 marchers in Buenos Aires, carrying letters which spelled out “Nunca Mas” or “Never again”. Tens of thousands throughout the country went to the streets to send the message: no more violence against workers.
Sobisch has said publicly that the repression was justified and legal. During a press conference, he told media that the teachers provoked a violent response. President Kirchner has avoided the issue of the teacher’s death, but has attacked Governor Sobisch for ordering the repression.
Alejandra Bonatto is a Buenos Aires public school teacher from the Union of Education Workers: “This protest is against Governor Sobisch. I think us teachers deserve to be at the forefront of this struggle because we are the future of this country. The death of a companero is the death of all us; the students, education, teachers and the future of the nation.”
In Argentina Since 1995, more than 60 people have been killed during protests. According to Julio Talabera, an activist from H.I.J.O.S. – an organization of Children of the Disappeared says that governments support police brutality to instill fear and criminalize protest. “The national government that says it defends human rights has been reported to the Inter-American court of human rights because every 72 hours a young kid is killed by police in the streets of the Buenos Aires province.” Only a handful of police have been tried for violence and police brutality.
Huberto Iraola, a public school teacher from the northern province of Jujuy said that teachers nation-wide are united in the fight for justice and better salaries. “We don’t want any more work smocks or chalkboards stained with blood. We are here not only to repudiate the death of Carlos Fuentealba, but to prevent these acts of violence similar to what occurred 30 years ago (referring to the dictatorship) from happening again.”
Marie Trigona is an independent journalist and radio producer based in Argentina. She can be reached at [email protected] To watch videos on the protests visit www.agoratv.org