[Introduction by Mike Davis: Events in
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
Since then, the forces of global justice have become perhaps the largest and most inspiring progressive movement seen in
But while rural organizations like
Long known as “the European country in
As unemployment and inequality rose throughout the 1990s in
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
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
Besides which, there may be another looming similarity between the
“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
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,
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
Hence the job and organizational base of what used to be
Not surprisingly, all this has radically changed
Unlike the poor of the rust belt, however, the inhabitants of the poor suburbs of
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
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
However, the general belief is that whatever the current state of Piquetero politics, the changes in the political consciousness and organization of
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
With 900 attendees from all over
Jim Straub is an organizer based in
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.]