Argentina’s Piqueteros and Us


[Introduction by Mike Davis: Events in Argentina have little urgency to most Americans, even to hardcore anti-globalization activists. Yet, as Jim Straub shows in this powerful report, it is time that we started paying close attention to that vast land under the Southern Cross. Argentineans, thanks to an exterminist military dictatorship and its elite civilian successors, have spent a generation as the guinea pigs of IMF-mandated "structural adjustment" and neo-liberal austerity. Their rewards have been depression, deindustrialization, and mass pauperization. But unlike the similarly ruined masses of the ex-Soviet Bloc, Argentineans have drawn upon rich traditions of working-class protest and urban populism to fight back against the iron heel of neoliberalism. Buenos Aires, as Straub points out, has become an extraordinary laboratory of resistance: an urban Chiapas full of luminous lessons.


 


Straub himself is a fascinating figure: an intellectual with dirt on his boots and Che's Motorcycle Diaries in his backpack. He likes to write from the thick of trouble, but always with analytic depth and historical understanding. There is a touch of Jack London about him and I look forward to reading more of his astute dispatches from the barricades of the South.]


 


 


In 1999, the global justice movement first captured mainstream attention in the U.S. when, on the streets of Seattle, it protested and shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization. The motley, if energetic, collection of groups ranging from environmentalists to trade unions to anarchists to farmers who coalesced into a single movement at that time were taking on nothing less than the preeminent economic development of the age: corporate globalization.


 


Since then, the forces of global justice have become perhaps the largest and most inspiring progressive movement seen in North America in three decades. But auspicious beginnings do not automatically mean victory; with a stated goal of nothing less than the reorganization of the global economy for the benefit of the planet rather than corporate profit, the global justice movement, as the past five years have shown, will simply have to get much bigger if it is to have any hope of succeeding. To this end, the movement has begun to look to the global south for inspiration. There, mass movements have been fighting the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other global economic institutions for decades.


 


But while rural organizations like Mexico‘s Zapatistas and Brazil‘s Landless Movement have much to teach us, there is a limit to the practical usefulness of such groups as organizing models here in the US. In the global north, we need to find modes of organization that are applicable to a highly urban, modern, partially de-industrialized country, where much of the population has historically had relatively high living standards. As globalization’s “race to the bottom” pushes down on these living standards, progressives and radicals in the United States hoping to turn dissatisfaction with corporate power into a mass movement would do well to consider another “downsized” nation that has recently seen a prolonged nationwide uprising: Argentina.


 


Long known as “the European country in South America,” Argentina once had a social structure akin to those of the developed world. Of its 34 million citizens, 87% live in cities, where a cosmopolitan and literate populace long enjoyed the least unequal class structure in Latin America. But over the past 20 years, Argentina‘s relatively large middle class and well-off industrial working class have gradually had their living standards worn away by corporate globalization. (In this sense, Argentina may give us a peek at the economic future of many northern cities and rust belt states in the U.S.) Once the world’s breadbasket and an industrial power, plant closings, wage losses and social cutbacks have gradually plunged many of its city dwellers into poverty and economic insecurity.


 


As unemployment and inequality rose throughout the 1990s in Argentina, the International Monetary Fund’s “star pupil” — so called, because Argentina‘s rulers applied the IMF’s dictates of privatization and social cuts more rigorously than almost any other nation in the world — eventually entered an economic tailspin that plunged startling numbers of its once-comfortable citizens into poverty. The final and dramatic economic crash, in December 2001, sparked a mass uprising that brought literally millions of enraged Argentines into the streets against their government with the slogan, “All the politicians must go.” In the first ten days of this popular insurrection, no less than four presidents were installed and overthrown.


 


Even more significantly, millions of those who came into the streets stayed there, and created a rich and inventive set of new social movements. In 2002, it was estimated that half of Argentina‘s population was actively participating in these new movements, which ranged from factories first occupied and then managed by their workers to democratic Neighborhood Assemblies where entire communities undertook to plan new forms of mutual aid and political protest together.


 


Given the fact that the U.S. is far more similar to Argentina than, say, to Bolivia or India, these new Argentine social movements have a nuts-and-bolts significance for those of us in North America hoping to someday chase a few corrupt presidents out of office with our own mass movements. Of course, similarities between the United States and Argentina are only relative and can be overstated: for one thing, ordinary Argentines were never as well off as many ordinary working- and middle-class U.S. citizens. For another, the U.S. is a much more multiracial society than Argentina, especially significant since in North America the ill-effects of corporate globalization fall disproportionately on people of color; and, of course, our recent political history bears little resemblance to Argentina‘s. There, tens of thousands were murdered during a military dictatorship that lasted from 1974-83. However, for concrete examples of building a mass movement against corporate globalization in an urban, semi-deindustrialized society where millions have gradually lost once-high living standards, the Argentine uprising, or Argentinazo, is second to none right now.


 


Besides which, there may be another looming similarity between the U.S. and Argentina. Mainstream, pro-corporate economists, like columnist Paul Krugman of the New York Times as well as former Bush and Clinton economic advisers, have recently begun claiming that the current Bush administration’s economic insanity — vast tax cuts for the rich combined with vastly ramped up military and security spending, in the context of an impending Social Security crisis — is driving the U.S. to the edge of its own financial cliff. Krugman has explicitly warned that if the U.S. continues on its present course it is headed for an Argentina-style economic crash. If this proves true, all the more reason to look to Argentina now.


 


The Piqueteros


 


“Piqueteros” is the name that has been given to one of these new social movements. The Piqueteros are a movement of hundreds of thousands of un-and under-employed Argentines, organized into dozens of different “federations” with different goals as well as differing politics and strategies. What they share is a common constituency and tactical methodology. Essentially, the Piqueteros are the organized voice of the unemployed poor from Argentina‘s de-industrialized suburban slums.


 


To understand who the Piqueteros are and appreciate their significance, you have to know a little about Argentine society, which for a long time had not only a large middle class, but also a large industrial working class. For decades, these workers formed the backbone of populist president Juan Peron’s political machine, and were traditionally organized into large, strong unions, though these lacked independence and were subordinated to the president’s Justicialist Party. Nonetheless, Argentina‘s workers won many reforms and material gains. Compared to the rest of Latin America, the Argentine working class was relatively well-paid and well-organized.


 


However, economic policy changes demanded by the IMF and the international financial community and enacted by a succession of Argentine military and then civilian rulers since the mid-70s led to massive layoffs in traditionally stable, well-paying and organized industries. As Argentines lost jobs in factories and the public sector, they were limited to low-wage, un-organized and unstable work wherever they could get it. Meanwhile, decades of bureaucratic corruption gradually turned what remained of Argentina‘s unions into little more than a mafia.


 


Hence the job and organizational base of what used to be Latin America‘s biggest and toughest industrial working class were essentially decimated. Argentine industrial workers, who had grown accustomed to union power, semi-fair wages, and rights on the job, became a liability as multinational corporations moved production to other lower-wage countries in the region and beyond. This gradual shift of industrial production away from Argentina greatly resembled the wave of plant closings and job losses that have decimated our own “rust belt” since the 1980s — the industrial suburbs of cities like Buenos Aires, Cordoba and Neuquén now resemble devastated US cities like Detroit or Cleveland.


 


Not surprisingly, all this has radically changed Argentina‘s social class structure. In a country which used to be known for its great productive capacity and powerful industrial engine, more than 25% of Argentines are now unemployed, and the jobs remaining are in nonunion service industries or the “informal sector” of the economy (aka the black market). And so an enormous chunk of Argentine society is now essentially superfluous to the market plans of what is left of Argentina‘s elite. These people live mostly in the de-industrialized, impoverished suburbs of its cities. They are extremely poor, and more than that, completely marginalized — culturally, economically, politically, and socially. This slum underclass in poverty-stricken suburbs consists in part of people downsized from the country’s old industries, and in part of immigrants from even poorer countries like Bolivia and Peru — a combination that resembles the situation in hundreds of poor communities in cities in the United States. Walking around abandoned factories and slum housing areas on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, one could almost mistake the surroundings for North Philadelphia or East Saint Louis.


 


Unlike the poor of the rust belt, however, the inhabitants of the poor suburbs of Argentina began organizing themselves in the mid-90s into associations of unemployed people. As these groups grew, they benefited, ironically enough, from being overlooked by the country’s traditional left. Peronist party bosses and Marxist vanguardians, usually eager to find any group of poor people to lead, largely failed to recognize the growth of unemployed organizations in Argentina in those years.


 


As a result, many of these groups broke with traditional leftist practices, turning instead to a number of strikingly participatory, directly democratic ways of acting and mobilizing. The emphasis was on broad participation and internal equality in decision-making, which came to be called “horizontalism.” They also rejected the “clientelism” which political parties in Argentina have long used to co-opt popular organizations (in which an organized community’s votes are simply traded for favors, money, or bags of groceries); and they staked out a fierce independence from all existing Argentine politicians (a strategy of political independence that they call “autonomy”). Horizontalism and autonomy can be seen as the conceptual heart of the Piquetero movement — fundamentally new political strategies used by the poorest of Argentina in their fight to create a new economy.


 


Later, after the Piquetero movement had mushroomed, the left realized what it was missing and began to “copy” its methodology, organizing similar groups with their own agendas. But although there are now Piquetero groups allied with Peronist politicians and old-left parties, many of the federations remain more or less horizontal and autonomous, and have their own fresh tactics and demands.


 


New tactics, new strategies


 


What are these tactics and demands? The Piqueteros do cortas de ruta, or road-blockades, to press for their demands. Placed as they are on the outskirts of cities, they are particularly well-situated to stop the flow of resources from the rest of the country to its ports (and then on to the developed world), by occupying and blockading vital highways or bridges. These road blockades, where members of Piqueteros utilize burning tires as barricades and sticks and masks for safety from the police, are an extremely effective form of direct action, though requiring enormous amounts of careful planning and calm, disciplined militancy. The use of this tactic by the Piqueteros is in many ways a brilliant innovation — for those who are unemployed or marginally employed cannot go out on strike. But with these road-blockades, the Piqueteros have identified a potential weak link in their country’s already weakened profit-system — namely, the transportation of goods.


 


For example, at one particular road-blockade this past December, the Piquetero organization MUP-20 obstructed the entrances to some enormous supermarkets and malls on the day before Christmas, the biggest shopping day of the year. Such economic disruptions put direct pressure on Argentine businesses, and indirect pressure on the government to address unemployment or face continuing retaliation like this. Not least of all, those participating often experience immediate material gains. At this Christmas eve blockade, the supermarkets eventually gave hundreds of packets of sweetbreads to the families of MUP-20 in order to bring the action to a close — a not-irrelevant victory, given what it means for long-unemployed people to be able to bring food home to their families on Christmas eve.


 


As splits are developing in the Piquetero movement, some groups have stopped using the road-blockade as a tactic. Many in the movement see this as betrayal, since the ability of blockaders to mix immediate demands (such as for food) with a broader program of militant pressures on their country’s economic system, is largely seen as the reason for many of Piquetero victories. For instance, last year the Piqueteros forced the government to enact a nationwide unemployment program that pays 150 pesos (about $50) each month to the unemployed. This is still not nearly enough to feed a family adequately, but it’s a significant step forward from the underfunded and disorganized welfare programs that preceded it. And notably, the program is often administered directly by the Piquetero groups themselves.


 


This victory, of forcing the state to allow the political organizations of the unemployed to self-administer welfare, has led to a great deal of collective neighborhood organization-building (with Piquetero groups able to pool unemployment funds to construct neighborhood health clinics or community soup kitchens); unfortunately, it has also started to bureaucratize the movement. The presence of money to be divided among organizations has changed the political stances of some Piquetero groups, with leaders of some of the larger groups moderating their demands and supporting the current president in return for political connections and welfare spoils. These are the groups which have stopped using road blockades and quieted their demands for real change.


 


Now, however, the government is, in turn, attempting to “reform” this welfare program by taking it out of the hands of the Piqueteros. It remains to be seen what will become of these “moderating” groups once deprived of their state patronage.


 


“All the politicians must go”


 


Most members of these groups do not want to see their organizations turn into just another bureaucracy administering an inadequate welfare plan. At the grassroots, these Piqueteros are devoting themselves to developing alternative paths out of poverty for their communities and have undertaken an enormous variety of mutual-aid activities, including the collective construction of community or health centers, housing occupations, the planting of organic gardens, the raising of livestock, the creation of youth programs, the organization of festivals, and the creation of an impressive number of collective neighborhood soup kitchens. Piqueteros work together in modest vegetable gardens on occupied land, then cook their produce in those collective kitchens, and finally serve food in public neighborhood dining halls where the jobless and hungry can eat with a genuine sense of dignity and solidarity.


 


This process — of people long cast aside by the economy coming together to work again at something which directly contributes to their collective well-being — has in turn generated many of the Piqueteros’ demands. Rather than simply asking for more crumbs from the pie, or repeating staid leftist solutions like the nationalization of industry, the Piqueteros are demanding a break with corporate globalization and its model of economic development — and its replacement with something that can give them “genuine work,” and “social justice.” Of course, these things are hardly possible under international corporate capitalism, leading many Piquetero groups to larger conclusions about capitalism, hierarchy, and exploitation itself.


 


In the process of working together at the bakeries, gardens and workshops they have founded, and also fighting for economic concessions in the streets and along highways, it does seem as if the Piqueteros are creating a new, grass-roots formula for working-class anti-capitalist organizing, lacking both the old rhetoric of the left and many of the mistakes of the past.


 


At the same time, the Piqueteros are facing serious challenges and attacks. The current Argentine president, a “reformer” named Nestor Kirschner, has been quite clear that his strategy for dealing with unemployment in Argentina does not involved a real break with past economic policy. Instead, Kirschner is endeavoring to woo a minority of the Piquetero groups to his side by offering small concessions to their members and political benefits to their leaders; and to then repress, even smash, remaining groups insistent on advocating for real economic changes. In the face of this likely coming onslaught, the Piquetero movement is experiencing numerous splits and divisions, with a rise in sectarianism and political opportunism.


 


However, the general belief is that whatever the current state of Piquetero politics, the changes in the political consciousness and organization of Argentina‘s suburban underclass will prove lasting. One of the “autonomist” Piquetero groups in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, MTD Solano, exemplifies this ongoing Piquetero spirit. They have a garden and raise livestock for use in a neighborhood communal soup-kitchen which they’ve set up in an abandoned factory. In the exact place where, decades ago, industrially-organized Peronist workers labored at manufacturing refrigerators, some of those same people and their children are at work hoeing, weeding and cooking. If this is the politics of survival, it is also a politics with a good dose of class-consciousness and militant organization.


 


Though experiencing locally the drop in participation (and the fragmentation) the Piqueteros are experiencing nationally, MTD Solano can still draw support from hundreds of thousands of poor people in the Solano area for future confrontations with the Kirschner government and its pro-corporate agenda. What’s more, this January 11th, MTD Solano hosted an international autonomist encuentro, hoping, like the Zapatistas of southern Mexico before them, to connect with and draw support from others around the world searching for revolutionary but autonomist strategies like theirs.


 


With 900 attendees from all over South America and even in a few cases North America, this “autonomous encounter” proved that the day may not be far off when people in impoverished slums worldwide learn direct lessons from Argentina‘s Piqueteros. Perhaps, with enough organizing, even we in the USA may see the day when the poor and unemployed descend from the housing projects of de-industrialized cities onto the palatial lawns of the White House. “All the politicians must go,” indeed.


 


Jim Straub is an organizer based in Richmond, VA. He is currently in South America. He can be reached at [email protected]


 


Copyright C2004 Jim Straub


 


[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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