Labor Repression in Argentina

On Monday, February 16, 1998, in Usuhuaia, the

Argentina’s southernmost city in Tierra del Fuego, the courts finally declared the

innocence of steelworker leader Oscar Martinez. Accused of "inciting to

violence", Martinez had been blamed by the government for the April 1995 repression

of a strike that resulted in one steelworker dead and dozens wounded. The prosecution had

argued that Martinez was to blame since he called on the strikers to defend themselves

from the charging police. In a previous trial, in 1996, Martinez, together with several

dozen other union leaders and activists, had been sentenced to two months in prison and to

pay the trial costs.

The fact that Martinez was declared innocent was a triumph for the

labor movement of Tierra del Fuego. However, this does not cloud the fact that there is

something new in the Argentine horizon, as far as repression goes. Over the past two

years, labor and left activists in Argentina have discovered that more than one thousand

of their comrades are on trial throughout the country. This has several advantages, from

the point of view of the government and big business. First, it ties much need resources

in the legal defense of activists. Second, it gives repression a legal mantle, thus

maintaining the niceties of the formally "democratic" state. And third, it

attempts to win the public opinion battle by associating, in the media, violence with the

left. Thus, it is not the police who repress but rather the activists who cause the

repression by their reprehensible behavior. In this sense, it was not an accident that

Martinez was both a labor leader with predicament among the rank and file, and a member of

the Trotskyist Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS).

Already in 1996 other left labor leaders were affected by this new

tactic: Alcides Christiansen, the leader of the construction workers of Neuquen, together

with Horacio Panario and Basilio Estrada of the Unemployed Workers Coordinating Committee,

went on trial for organizing a demonstration demanding unemployment insurance. A year

later, in 1997, in the province of Cordoba, labor leaders Luis Bazan and Angel Tello went

on trial. That same year the tactic was broadened from labor to include activists as a

whole. Over two hundred people, arrested in demonstrations against President Clinton’s

visit to Argentina, have been tried during the past six months. Since the beginning of

1998, hundreds of activists have been charged and will be tried for organizing protests,

demonstrations, or blockading highways, all constituting "violence" in the

government’s eyes.

The effect of these repressive tactics has been telling. Throughout

1999 the number of strikes, demonstrations, and confrontations with the police, abruptly

descended. And, whenever there was a struggle, it quickly reached extremely high levels of

violence. What has resulted is in a social guerrilla warfare, of a myriad small groups

struggling at local levels for concrete solutions to specific needs. The State’s response

has been according: the number of paramilitary squads and trigger happy police has grown

exponentially over the past three years. Over one thousand people, most of them young,

dark skinned, shanty town youths, have been killed "resisting arrest". At a

popular level, the State has ceased to exist as such, and it has become either an army of

occupation or else an outside force that destructively raids popular neighborhoods.


South American

Democracy in the 1990s

By Pablo Pozzi

In 1980 most South American nations were

subjected to dictatorships; scarcely one decade later these regimes had given way to

democratic openings. Even Paraguay’s General Stroessner -the continent’s longest lasting

dictator-had been overthrown to give way to an elected government. The resurgence of

democracy in South America in the last decade or so came as a surprise to many who saw the

continent as producing conditions which favored only the exercise of tyranny. Still, as

John Markoff wrote, South American democracy will indeed remain surprising to those who

think of democracy as a single, fixed ideal which nations at one time or another more or

less attain.

If we ask questions about what kind of democracy has developed and

in whose interests, about the constraints on democracy in the nation-state of

transnational capitalism, then it may be possible to see that it really amounts to, at

best, a periodic exercise of the vote. Perhaps the masses are permitted democracy only

when the alternatives for the elite seem worse, or when prospects for change are remote.

If so, then the possibilities for a fuller democratic system seems grim indeed. Most

theorists and politicians in South America today would disagree with this assessment:

believing that democracy is an imperfect system, but the only one acceptable considering

the imperfection of human beings. Thus, Hobbes, rather than Rousseau, is the guiding

light, giving the old notions of Lockean republicanism a particularly negative (and

repressive) bent.

In fact, development over the past few years indicates that

democracy in South America is being severely limited due to the increase in repressive

components to buttress unpopular economic reforms that have, up to now, produced a radical

redistribution of income upwards. At the same time, these limitations in the democratic

systems of the area have transformed the forms of doing politics reinforcing elite control

over political parties. A result of this situation has been that protest and opposition,

unable to obtain redress, has been channeled outside institutional means possibly creating

serious legitimacy problems for governments in the area. The dialectics between

elite-inspired economic policy and popular participation in politics has been such that

the contents of institutional democracy have been changed over the past decade. As such,

the region has also given way to a dialectic of repression and resistance that seems to

lead towards increases in the levels of violence, new forms of authoritarianism and

crisis, rather than to a consolidation of democratic processes.

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