T he world’s gaze is on the people of Argentina, who are trying to refashion a country from the ashes of the havoc wrought by the IMF,” articulated Arundhati Roy to some 15,000 audience members during her talk on “Confronting the Empire” at the third World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Many among the left are looking to Argentina as an innovative and effective example of grassroots organizing. This year’s World Social Forum and many forums within the forum were no exception. Argentina’s social movements—the unemployed workers movement, neighborhood popular assemblies, and worker-controlled factories generated some of the most inspiring discussions of experiences, strategy, and vision for anti-capitalist projects and global resistance.
Described as an experiment in autonomous resistance, Argentina has been the breeding ground for some of the most exciting community projects and resistance to globalization. The world was stunned when the economic crisis spontaneously brought thousands into the streets with the demand, “Que Se Vayan Todos” (All the politicians out) on December 19 and 20, 2001. After two days of popular rebellion, a state of siege, 33 deaths, and former President Fernando de la Rua’s flight from the presidential house, a new nation was born. Once tokened as Latin America’s success story in neoliberal economics, today’s Argentina struggles with growing numbers of unemployed or underemployed. Social movements organize community resources to meet the immediate needs of the 53 percent of the population living below the poverty line. They are implementing viable projects completely outside of government and state funds. Movements are not simply providing a solution to the crisis, but transforming society.
Hundreds of Argentines traveled to Porto Alegre, Brazil to share perspectives and to further Argentina’s participation in the global resistance movement. Many participants noted that grassroots movements are less and less comfortable participating in the World Social Forum and that alternative spaces within the forum are necessary.
S ome 200 neighborhood popular assemblies sprung up in Buenos Aires shortly after December 2001. Assemblies are neighborhood groups that took root in the city as meeting spaces where residents make proposals, plan projects, activities and actions, and collectively arrive at decisions regarding issues of local concern. “People came together to decide that they needed a system of representation outside of the system,” notes Ezequiel Adam- ovsky, an anti-capitalist participant in the popular assembly movement. He also participated within Life After Capitalism, a forum within the forum created for anti-capitalists to share and debate, where he talked about the experience of the popular assemblies after a year of organizing. “We are creating spaces where people can make their own decisions and live the way they want to live.” In this particular assembly, Cid Campe- dor, assembly members have diverse political experiences. When they first came together the only thing that they had in common was the slogan, “Que Se Vayan Todos.” “Lack of confidence in the state, politicians, and unions has led to absolute rejection of traditional politics and is leading to a new political culture dealing with autonomy. For the upcoming elections we are organizing a boycott.”
In July 2002, Cid Campedor community members occupied a former bank that stood vacant for over five years. Many assemblies, workers, and homeless reoccupy spaces for community projects and to create jobs. In the past year popular assemblies have implemented many projects—free meal programs, social activities, youth activities, and education workshops. They work closely with other social movements such as the cartoneros (cardboard collectors), unemployed workers movement, and the homeless.
In response to the growing concern over democratic practices of the World Social Forum, alternative forums have been created. Intergalactika, a laboratory for global resistance, is one such alternative space where pockets of activism came together to share ideas of horizontal organizing, direct action, and autonomous movements. “We could exchange ideas on many issues from horizontal organizing to direct action. The priority should be to keep on learning from other movements and sharing our own experiences with others,” notes Adamovsky, primary organizer of Intergalactika. He used the Piquete Urbana (urban blockade), an action that popular assemblies organized on December 19, to shut down the financial district in Buenos Aires as an example of ways movements learn from each other. This particular protest was distinct for Argentina because of its use of strategies commonly used in North American and European anti-globalization protests. Solidarity actions also took place around the globe.These actions reached as far as Yugoslavia, where over 600 people came together in solidarity with the people in Argentina. “People are going out into the streets, taking legitimacy from political institutions and putting power in the hands of the people with assemblies and alternative economic networks. You can’t imagine how much this was an inspiration for all of us in Yugoslavia,” notes Adrej Grubacic historian and professor. During the Life After Capitalism panels, he described Argentina, “as the most exciting place as far as participatory democracy without a state.”
T he unemployed workers movement has been at the forefront of creating spaces for participatory democracy. Since the mid-1990s the piqueteros, as the unemployed workers are known, have been organizing throughout the country, primarily in Argentina’s interior where former industrial centers have been replaced with crumbling, abandoned factories. “We are maintaining our dignity through being piqueteros,” explains a pique- tera with strong emotion and sadness about the extreme poverty in Argentina during a seminar on piqueteros at the WSF.
Community initiatives are taking root throughout Argentina’s most marginalized neighborhoods to cope with immediate needs within communities. “We are building autonomous projects to advance new actors, thoughts, and questions. These projects for social change are simple—popular bakeries, community gardens and clothes donation and repair, all outside of capitalism,” explains Alberto Spagnola, participant in Movimiento Traba- jadores Desocupados (MTD, Unemployed Workers Movement), one of the most radical branches of the piquetero movement. In MTD, Lanús, a neighborhood just south of Buenos Aires, other projects include sewing groups, copa de leche where a cup of milk is given to children each afternoon, community kitchens, the building of a library, and a bakery where bread is sold at cost.
In a packed room in Porto Alegre, some 100 people from all over the world came to hear a seminar on piqueteros’ approaches to organizing and activism. “We organize to create an open space where participants with different perspectives are respected,” notes Mariano a young militant from MTD. “We are doing localized organizing with greater democracy to raise communities’ consciousness.” Communities are transforming themselves from the ground up and are inspiring examples of resistance and community building. “There are no delegates here. Every Thursday there is an assembly where we make collective decisions. Last week for example we discussed the participation in [a] March,” says a young MTD organizer named Celina. She has been working for more than two years as an activist with the MTD in Lanús. Women make up 65 percent of the participants in the piquetero movement.
The people of Argentina are building models for social change from which movements around the globe can learn. The World Social Forum, as a place where people come together and talk about strategies for social change, should embody the type of organizing happening in Argentina. “The forum is important for the third world, but is very dominated by Europeans. It is dangerous to say that another world is possible when the organizers of the forum already have another possible world,” declares Hebe di Bonafini, President of Argentina’s human rights association Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. She reaffirmed this sentiment with the concern that the forum needs more organizational control from movements. Open participation needs to be ensured so that celebration and collaboration of activism like Argentina’s take place and include more diverse perspectives.
It is clear that Argentina’s movements are not just responding to a crisis. People don’t want things to return to the state in which they were. They want something new. What makes Argentina such an inspiring place for social change is that radical change is being demanded completely outside the realm of traditional electoral politics. Unlike Brazil and Venezuela, where success has been through political parties, Argentina is a success because movements are fighting against reformist measures. Argentina now illustrates a total collapse of a neoliberal model and corrupt politics. People are not trying to rebuild systems, but create a new life outside of systems that constantly put profit before people.
Marie Trigona is an independent journalist and activist currently based in Argentina.