Argentina Now: A Democratic Revolution


Argentina is in the midst of a severe socio-economic crisis. By all accounts, the country is essentially bankrupt: burdened with a 150 billion dollar foreign debt, which saps 30% of the GDP in interest payments alone, the unemployment rate has soared over 20% and the ecomomy’s growth rate has plummeted from 8% to less than 1% in the last five years. Austerity measures – a prerequisite for IMF and World Bank foreign debt repayment loans – have been felt heavily by the population, which has seen its purchasing power halved since 1997. Faced with an ever-shrinking tax-base and an economy grinding to a halt, recent governments have relied on relentless salary cuts and appropriation of social security funds in order to meet their budgetary needs. A 13% cut in wages and pensions, for example, was implemented by former president de la Rua in October 2001, and a draconic freeze of all private bank accounts, limiting monthly cash withdrawals to less than $1000, followed suit in early December. A massive public outcry against these measures ensued, and Mr. de la Rua was ousted from the presidency, by popular demand, on December 20h, 2001.

 

Cacerolazo of December 19th 2001 (Buenos Aires, Argentina) Thousands of peaceful demonstrators, gathered before the Pink House (government headquarters), demand resignation of president de la Rua.

 

To the rest of the world, these events may not appear particularly noteworthy. After all, aren’t all countries facing similar difficulties, to a lesser or greater degree? That is certainly true. However, there is an amazing element to this uprising in Argentina which deserves special attention: it’s a story of regular people demanding that their voices be heard, and discovering that it is indeed possible to effect change. A country’s highly unpopular president was ousted, not via a military coup or congressional edict, nor by armed rebels or even via plebiscite or vote, but by a spontaneous, non-violent outpour of thousands of citizens, simply banging pots and pans before government buildings across the nation, demanding the immediate cessation of their discredited president’s term in office. And it worked!

 

At face value, this may seem like a condemnable, rather than a commendable, act – an anarchical, destructive and regressive impulse. However, the slightest familiarity with the socio-political history of Argentina would make it clear that this unprecedented event demanded great courage, and that it was rooted in a positive determination to find novel working solutions to the country’s endemic problems. The Cacerolazo of December 19th (named after the cooking pots, or cacerolas, which were banged incessantly during the peaceful protest) undoubtedly carried the frustration of a people overburdened with continual economic stress, and a widespread and deep-felt outrage at the corruption and impunity of their political leadership. But it also served to catalyse an amazing transformation in the political life of a country: it has awakened people’s sense of empowerment and control of their own lives, and is giving new meaning to the term “democracy”.

 

Disenchantment with one’s elected officials is an integral part of the Argentinean psyche. During the last quarter century, however, this disenchantment has intensified and progressively transformed into an effective disenfranchisement. This is yet another paradox of Argentine politics, since that period of time corresponds to a transition away from military rule, and toward democratically-elected civilian governments. However, two major currents have contributed in creating a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness in the economic and political spheres of Argentine life of the last 25 years. Both are intimately related with the impunity of the governing classes.

 

The first important, and lasting, influence which has impaired the democratic evolution of Argentina in the recent past has been the experience of its last set of military governments – the most brutally repressive period in all of Argentine history (1976-1983). While nominally undertaking an all-out campaign to eradicate armed leftist guerrillas, the military regime established a rule of terror and was responsible for tens of thousand of deaths and disappearences, and an even greater number of tortures, exiles and imprisonments. In reality, even before the 1976 coup, the armed ranks of the militant left (Montoneros and ERP, the People’s Revolutionary Army) had already been virtually eliminated and numbered less than 1,000 – in contrast to the 200,000 members of the national military forces. Under the pretext of fighting a war against these rebel groups, however, the military established a ruthless dictatorship intent on quelling any and all dissent to its policies and national ideals. The regime was particularly brutal in its repression of individuals working on issues of social and laboral justice, regardless of whether those groups were violent, or not (the latter being most often the case). Mere criticism of the regime, for example, was sufficient grounds for sentencing civilians to death, without due process, under the general philosophy of “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” Under these conditions, a culture of fear and silence was established; democratic yearnings were buried deep within the politcial conscience of the country.

 

In the early 1980s, mounting economic difficulties (severe hyperinflation) and the lack of any further left-wing terrorist threats resulted in a growing national sentiment in favour of a return to civilian rule. However, it was only after the tragic fiasco of the 1982 Falklands (Malvinas) Islands War that the country was emboldened enough to demand the military abdication of power and a return to democracy. This took place in 1983, with the election of Raul Alfonsin to the presidency. An important element of his platform, strongly backed by the general public, was a promise to bring the military officers and leaders of the previous regime to justice, trying them for the human rights abuses perpetrated during their administration. This process was indeed undertaken, and hundreds of cases of brutal repressive acts were exposed and published in a book called Nunca Mas (“Never Again”) – a testimony to a national conscience determined never to allow such excesses to occur again. Five members of the Argentine military Juntas of 1976-83 were convicted and given jail sentences, ranging from four and a half years to life imprisonment, as a result of these trials. Hundreds of lower-ranking officers were also scheduled to appear in court following the Junta leaders’ trial, but intense pressure from the military establishment suspended this process and ultimately contributed to President Alfonsin’s stepping down from power early, in 1989.  Alfonsin was succeeded by another civilian president, Carlos Saul Menem, marking the first time in 60 years that Argentina experienced two consecutive constitutionally-elected presidents. During his first year in office, however, Menem issued a presidential pardon granting complete amnesty to all military personnel involved in the 1976-83 regime, including all convicted members of the leading Juntas – thereby releasing them from prison. His rationale was to foment a spirit of reconciliation and national unity, to help the country face and overcome its socio-economic troubles. However, a solid majority of the Argentine people were opposed to the pardons and saw them as an affront to the country’s judicial system.

 

On the economic front, Menem fared well in the first few years of his administration. He pursued an aggressive program of privatization of major service and commodity industries (e.g., telephone, electricity, railroads, oil), bringing an influx of foreign investment which temporarily revitalized the ever-struggling Argentine economy. He also established a rigid monetary system, pegging the national currency (peso) to the dollar in order to cap any inflationary pressures. Menem was re-elected into office for a second term, but the lustre of his earlier policies gradually faded under pressure from a sluggish global economy and the country’s expanding foreign debt. Argentina‘s severe indebtedness has its primary origins in the 1976-83 military regime, during which time the national debt increased sharply from US$ 8 billion to US$ 43 billion. This trend continued during the civilian presidencies that followed, with the foreign debt reaching over US$ 80 billion in Menem’s second term. It currently stands at US $ 150 billion.

 

While the country’s economic difficulties continued unabated, allegations of severe corruption of high-ranking public officials – including the presidents themselves – were rampant during both Alfonsin and Menem administrations. Disproportionate and illicit enrichment of government officials abounded, and former President Menem was brought under house arrest in July 2001 under charges of illegal arms sales to Ecuador and Croatia. A Congressional Committee, spearheaded by Congresswoman Elisa Carrio, issued a report in November 2001 which further implicated Menem and his associates in money laundering activities related to illegal arms trading, drug trafficking and gold commerce. In that same month, however, the Argentine Supreme Court absolved Menem of his charges and released him from house arrest. The ruling did not surprise the bulk of Argentineans: that very same Supreme Court had been enlarged by Menem, back in 1989, from a 5-member to a 9-member body, and filled with loyal appointees which have guaranteed a pro-Menem majority in all rulings against the former president since that date.

 

This is the setting, therefore, in which one must frame the social and political upheaval which is currently taking place in Argentina. The people are fed up with the shameless corruption and absolute impunity of its political leaders and institutions, and with the stark contrast between their excesses and the basic needs of a country on the brink of economic collapse. Frustration, desperation and hunger are emboldening people to have their grievances heard, and a clear mood of defiance – toward injustice and impunity – has irreversibly taken hold of the population. There is a common understanding that the country has hit “rock bottom”, and that there is now nothing left to lose. In this atmosphere, Argentineans are shedding the last remnants of political silence and fear borne of the years of military repression, and are beginning to stand up for their basic needs and rights with intense determination.

 

An early sign of this growing tide of active discontent was the massive boycott of Congressional elections held in October 2001. More than half of the electorate either abstained completely from voting at that time, or cast a protest vote in favor of fictitious political candidates, such as Clemente – a popular cartoon character chosen for his inability to steal (he’s a squiggly creature with no hands). Keep in mind that voting is mandatory in Argentina, and voter participation is typically greater than 80%. In the nation’s capital city, Buenos Aires, only 45% of it’s 2.5 million voters cast a valid vote in October 2001; 28% abstained completely, 23% cast adulterated votes for fictitious characters, and the remaining 4% left their votes blank.

 

The dire economic situation also led to increasing crime and unrest of the poorest sectors of the population throughout 2001. At present, 40% of Argentina‘s 37 million people live below the poverty line; of these, 5 million live in conditions of extreme poverty. A prolonged, 5-year recession and rising unemployment levels proved too much to bear for the poor, and waves of protest by jobless workers swept across the country numerous times in 2001. The piqueteros, as the impoverished lower-class protestors are known, have characterized their demonstrations by blockage of major roadways, and their claims range from a simple call for food donations to repudiation of government economic policies. In the first few weeks of December 2001, food requests to supermarkets by the hungry poor intensified, and although these were at first carried out in an orderly and self-controlled manner, they eventually degraded into violence and outright looting.

 

 

 

 

 

Poor citizens seeking food donations Hungry and unemployed, people solicit food donations from supermarkets (Dec. 19th 2001, Buenos Aires suburbs)

 

 

 

Around the same time, president de la Rua’s government imposed a freeze on all private bank accounts, in an attempt to forestall an impending crash and insolvency of the Argentine economy. This highly unpopular, arbitrary and unconstitutional move was particularly alienating towards the middle-class, which shortly thereafter became a major force demanding the president’s immediate removal. On the night of December 19th, president de la Rua declared a state of curfew in response to the latest wave of supermarket lootings by thousands of poor citizens. No sooner had he concluded his speech announcing the curfew, however, did the sound of banging pots and pans start to grow across the middle-class suburbs of Buenos Aires. At first, the protest was shy and scattered, but the sounds did not relent and gradually grew in frequency and intensity. People started coming out onto the streets and gathering in street corners – itself an act of defiance, since the state of curfew forbade public gatherings of more than three people. TV stations started reporting this spontaneous, peaceful outbreak of dissent, thereby adding further momentum to the protest. By midnight, tens of thousands of people spanning all sectors of the population – including older citizens and families with their children – had converged before the government headquarters in Plaza de Mayo. Banging their cacerolas in protest, exuberantly but peacefully, they chanted for de la Rua’s resignation.

 

The government’s response was to drive the demonstrators out of Plaza de Mayo with tear gas, rubber bullets and the heavy hand of clash police. The protestors were dispersed, but they reconvened a mile away before Congress and continued their demonstration. By dawn, Plaza de Mayo was full again with thousands of citizens intent on ousting President de la Rua and his entire Cabinet. A second wave of violent repression was unleashed on the crowd, and intense clashes between the police and the demonstrators continued throughout the day. Fires and barricades were set up on the streets to slow down the charge of the police. Some demonstrators resorted to violence at this point, setting fire to street shops, banks and cars with Molotov cocktails. Most people, however, were there to have their voice heard, armed simply with their cacerolas, their determination, and their life. Despite an onslaught by the police forces which left several dead and resulted in 4,500 arrests, the protestors were back in Plaza de Mayo by late afternoon on December 20th, and president de la Rua finally resigned – escaping from government headquarters by helicopter. The “Night of the Cacerolas” was over, but not without its cost: a nationwide death-toll of 35 demonstrators, and hundreds injured, victims of the government mandated police repression.

 

Repression of protestors: Tear gas, rubber bullets, violence Violent government response to demonstrators leaves death- toll of 35 people nationwide, hundreds injured, and thousands arrested. (Dec. 20th 2001, downtown Buenos Aires)

 

A month later, Argentina‘s political future is still in the balance. The political cataclysm set in motion by their own effort has empowered and emboldened the population. More than ever, Argentineans are feeling their capacity to define and determine their own destiny. However, there is a growing sense that the intrinsically reactionary impulse of the December 19th uprising must make way to the positive forces behind it, to constructive vision, if it is to generate the lasting changes which are so desperately desired by the entire country. This is a very delicate task, and it is not yet clear how this process shall evolve. The middle and lower classes are united in their repudiation of recent government policies, and have even gone as far as coordinating demonstrations together – an unprecedented development, given the traditional mistrust and animosity between these disparate sectors of Argentine society. Their confluence of interests is tenuous, however, and important differences still remain between these two groups. On economic grounds, for example, the lower classes are far more likely to be in favor of nationalization of major industries, to revert the neoliberal policies of foreign-investor privatization implemented by Menem. On the other hand, the middle class is quicker to point out the tremendous (and historically proven) inefficiency of vast government-run monopolies in Argentina, and would be reluctant to have the economic pendulum swing so far back in that direction. The question of the foreign debt repayments is also closely related, and equally daunting and divisive.

 

Despite these uncertainties, the hopes for true change have been rekindled in Argentina: hopes of ridding the country of corrupt, self-serving political leaders; hopes of establishing a judicial system with integrity, which shall uphold the rights of citizens; hopes of overcoming a mammoth economic crisis with sustainable, rational policies which capitalize on the vast natural and human resources of the country. There is a hunger for new solutions, epitomized by the cry of demonstrators in Plaza de Mayo on the night of December 19th: “Que se vayan todos!” (“We want all of them out [of office]!”). Out with politicians who steal while the country is in ruin! Out with politicians who don’t listen when we speak! Out with Supreme Court justices who grant impunity to corrupt politicians, and to military institutions which brutally violate our human rights! Out, out!

 

Inter-district Coordinating Assembly: Democracy in Action Representatives of local neighborhood assemblies meet to decide goals and coordinate demonstration efforts (Jan. 27th 2001, Parque Centenario, Buenos Aires)

 

The distillation of all these hopes, as well as the resolution of the uncertain road ahead, converge on one central goal: the restructurization of the Argentine political leadership by popular vote, starting with general elections for establishing a new president. Immediately upon de la Rua’s resignation, however, the Legislative Assembly (Congress and the Senate) appointed an interim president, Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, to lead the country provisionally for three months before general elections would be held. The general population did not contest this appointment right away, but remained highly skeptical of its prospects and scrutinized its progress closely. When it became apparent that the unpopular freeze on bank accounts would remain intact, and that Mr. Saa did not even count with sufficient support for his policies within his own Cabinet, a new cacerolazo fell on Plaza de Mayo and Mr. Saa submitted his resignation. His presidency lasted less than a week.

 

The Legislative Assembly once again scrambled to fill in the political vacuum, and on January 1st, 2002, Eduardo Duhalde was appointed and sworn in as president. Dissatisfaction and suspicion on the part of the general public was still significant. Mr. Duhalde’s presidency, for instance, would no longer be a temporary three-month term, as with Mr. Saa, but rather a two-year appointment extending until December 2003 (the official end of ousted de la Rua’s presidency). In addition, his close ties with former president Menem’s administration and corruption scandals also aroused strong antipathy. Immediate popular pressure against Mr. Duhalde was not massive, perhaps in response to his proposal to cautiously abandon the peso-to-dollar parity – a measure understood by most as being long overdue. As a 40% devaluation of the peso went into effect, however, major discontent erupted over the lack of aid from the government in alleviating the burden of increased dollar debts of the general population. In addition, Duhalde’s government submitted an unpopular proposal which, although reducing some limitations on bank account cash withdrawals in the short term, actually extended the partial freeze until the end of the year 2003, significantly beyond it was originally intended to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In response to this situation, citizens organized renewed demonstration efforts aimed at rejecting the government and its policies, and calling for popular elections. It was during this period that the piqueteros and the middle class protestors began a dialogue and started joining forces during demonstrations. In addition, a remarkable new political phenomenon started to take hold across the nation: public meetings began to take place in neighborhood parks, where local residents would gather in large groups to discuss events and plan their course of action. These local assemblies are themselves represented at even larger, coordinating assemblies, where the multitude of city districts can ensure a united, concerted front in their protest efforts. It is democracy at work, in a direct, elemental and powerful way. Weekly protest sessions demanding the resignation of all members of the Supreme Court are now occuring, and demonstrations in Plaza de Mayo are gaining further momentum. On Friday, January 25th, a massive nationwide cacerolazo against President Duhalde was organized, eliciting hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across the country. The date of the protest coincided with the anniversary of the assassination of journalist Jose Luis Cabezas, in 1997 – a murder perpetrated by a Buenos Aires police officer, in relation to Cabezas’ work in uncovering drug trafficking rackets. Mr. Duhalde was governor of Buenos Aires at the time and was highly criticized for his poor handling of the case, which even raised suspicions as to his own involvement in the affair. The national cacerolazo of January 25th was, as always, rooted in non-violence. However, police repression and intimidation were again brought upon the demonstrators by the government. Thousands of protestors were prevented from reaching Plaza de Mayo from the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires, by shutting down train service from those areas and by blocking the passage over key bridges with infantry divisions. Organizers received death threats, and neighborhood power black-outs were used as intimidation tools, “warning” citizens that anyone caught in the dark would be free game for the police forces. Notwithstanding the blockades, thousands of demonstrators still made it to Plaza de Mayo that night. Government brutality eventually prevailed, however, and the peaceful protestors were driven out by tear gas and rubber bullets.

 

Anti-Duhalde National Cacerolazo (January 25th 2002, Buenos Aires) Tens of thousands of demonstrators nationwide protest against president Duhalde’s economic policies. In this picture, the Popular Assembly of a Buenos Aires suburb (Belgrano) marches toward Plaza de Mayo.

 

 

 

Argentina is at a major crossroads – morally, politically, economically – and it is hard to tell how things will unfold in the days ahead. President Duhalde has clearly chosen a path of repressive violence for leveling his playing field, and for subduing the raging waters that threaten the ship of political accomodation and privilege of his country. As a former vice-president and governor of the province of Buenos Aires, with a history of tight liaisons with the dreaded and notoriously corrupt Buenos Aires police force, he may well be better equipped to perform this duty than his most recent predecessors. The Argentine population, however, has shown an extreme resolve in standing for its universal battlecry of “Enough is enough!”. In a matter of a few weeks, the country has undergone an incredible about face, politically speaking, and is currently experiencing a transformation which is nothing short of a democratic revolution. Practical matters are certainly at play here: hunger, unemployment and impoverishment are all major driving forces for demanding justice and change. But the deepest determination of Argentina‘s recent demonstrators comes from an absolute conviction that it is time to break the spell, of silence and fear, wrought by the triumvirate of corruption, impunity and ruthless repression which has characterized its national leadership for the last 25 years. It is the conviction which drives Congresswoman Elisa Carrio to follow through with her investigative commission on money laundering activities by the Menem administration, despite receiving numerous death threats for doing so; it is the courage which drives a young woman to open her arms before clash police, pleading for them not to use their guns during a demonstration; it is the determination of thousands of regular citizens to spontaneously and peacefully defy a state of curfew, in a country with a history of tremendous disregard for the dignity of life by the security forces. I pray that the incalculable value of this determination be recognized, and that it be put to work in doing what it wishes most to do: to heal the country’s wounds and develop its wondrous potential. May it be so. 

 

 

 

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