Imagine you lost your job and the government closed down the banks, so you couldn’t get out your savings. What would you do?” asks the narrator of the new film, Argentina: Hope in Hard Times. In the case of Argentina’s economic crisis in 2002, the situation brought about a renewal in grassroots democracy. This film covers the movement that broke out in Argentina during that crisis, taking the viewer on a wild ride to street protests, worker-controlled factories, barter fairs and a Citibank transformed into a community center. It discusses the rise and fall of a country that, in a matter of days, went from being one of the richest nations in the region, to one of the poorest.
For decades, Argentines enjoyed a higher standard of living than many of its neighbors. Yet due to corrupt politicians and pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to develop new economic policies, these glory days came to an abrupt end.
During an interview in the film, Abraham Leonardo Gak, Rector of the School of Business at the University of Buenos Aires, explained that during the nineties the Argentine government’s control over the economy was gradually shifted into the hands of the market. “There’s an idea that the market is the best way to manage resources,” Gak said. “It’s been preached continuously for more than 27 years. It was installed, not just in the economy, but in the minds of the people. Imports replaced local manufacturing and investment capital could go in and out of the country at any moment. It seemed like the economy was growingâ€¦”
“But wealth became more concentrated in the hands of a few and unemployment went up,” explained the film’s narrator as the camera cuts to a shot of pedestrians walking below a giant Coca-Cola sign. “Argentina privatized public services. The government laid off workers and cut regulation of business. This was supposed to free up the private sector for an economic boom.”
The house of cards fell in December 2001. In an attempt to stop the flow of dollars out of the country, the government froze everyone’s bank accounts. Middle class people became poor, unemployment skyrocketed and protests filled the streets. The country went through four presidents in less than a month.
In the midst of this crisis, people worked together to develop the many creative solutions that are the focus of this film. One visit is to a barter fair in Palermo, a neighborhood in Buenos Aires that before the crisis was economically well off. At this fair they use creditos, an alternative currency to the official Argentine peso. People use this new currency to buy shoes, shirts and tools as well as hire painters and plumbers for housework. Few had official pesos, so creditos worked as a survival measure. “I don’t get paid that often, so I try and get by in other ways,” one customer at the fair explained.
The film also includes interviews at a barbeque held in another formerly upper-class neighborhood. The event is a fundraiser to pay for tetanus shots for cartoneros, people who search the garbage for recyclable material in order to earn a meager amount of money. A man helping out at the event explained, “I’ve lived here for seven years and only knew two people. Now I know my neighbors.”
“It’s fashionable now to help others,” another woman said.
Other phenomena which the documentary depicts are the popular assemblies which sprouted up in Argentina during the crisis. The assemblies were basically made up of distraught neighbors gathering in the streets, trying to figure out what to do next.
Referring to the politicians that had helped to create the economic mess in the first place, one citizen at an assembly said, “Everybody out! Get rid of them all! This new force that is emerging in the neighborhoods and factories could someday replace the current system.”
“People should give money that we were paying to the government to the popular assembly now,” a young man commented.
The film crew also visits a poor neighborhood in Quilmes, outside Buenos Aires, where a community of people occupied land to live on and grow their own food. In interviews with the workers there, one woman discussed the essential function of their community cafeteria: “Three hundred children come here each day because they don’t have anything to eat.”
The film includes a number of interviews with formerly wealthy people who were well-dressed, but could not afford to feed themselves. It was this group that was finding out, possibly for the first time in their lives, what it meant to be poor. Out of necessity, these newborn activists joined the popular cry, “Que Se Vayan Todos!” (Throw them all out!), banged pots and pans against bank windows and began, along with other social sectors, to create grassroots networks and projects that helped their communities survive the crisis.
Unfortunately, the amount of solidarity between Argentine citizens has plummeted significantly since 2002. Whereas poverty still affects much of the country, and some social sectors are working for change, many who were forced to protest and organize with their neighbors in order to endure the crisis now have steady salaries and aren’t as inclined to participate in such activism.
Argentina: Hope in Hard Times provides an exciting look at this social movement in its heyday. It takes an exhaustive, panoramic shot of Argentine activism in 2002, capturing the grassroots power people felt as they transformed the broken pieces of their country into new opportunities. This is best documentary yet on what was a pivotal moment in Argentina’s history and should be required viewing for anyone who is interested in working for a better world.
Benjamin Dangl studied in Argentina during the country’s 2002 crisis and has since written from there on the worker-controlled factories movement in Buenos Aires. He is the editor of www.TowardFreedom.com, an online magazine which offers a progressive perspective on world events, and www.upsidedownworld.org a website about politics and activism in South America.