Argentina: Societies in Movement or Politics as Usual?

We arrived in Argentina and everything in Buenos Aires looked about the same as two years ago, and the year prior, and the ones before that for that matter; a city somewhere between first and third world in infrastructure.

The political stencils change, but remain consistent in quantity and most everyone has a strong political opinion. Being close to election time, the conversations on the street were dominated more by the question of state power than usual, but not over much. Will Cristina Kirchner win again or will the far right dominate? And there was, of course, the usual political scandal.

But looks can be deceiving. On the surface Argentina has a progressive government, is struggling with its economy, but is doing better, while traditional party politics dominate the political sphere.

However, another reality is also brewing, one just below the surface and sometimes even right in front of you if you are willing to see it. The other reality of Argentina is one of a Society in Movement – to borrow from Raul Zibechi’s description of the new movements around the world – movements that are creating alternatives from below, looking to one another for power rather than to formal institutions. This piece is a brief introduction to some of these societies in movement by way of personal reflections noted while in Argentina in January 2015. Subsequent articles will delve into many of the experiences referenced below.

We arrived in our hotel, by far one of the least expensive based on the size of our room and location in the very center of Buenos Aires – Callao at Corrientes. The hotel is now in a slightly dilapidated condition, although it once had a four star rating. The lobby is still grand, with wide hardwood floors, bronze handrails, old mirrors with lead embedding, a number of meeting rooms and an auditorium. The hotel has a cafe bar called Utopia – and this is the first indication this is not just any old hotel and bar. Upon entering the hotel, if one looks closely, there is a small bronze plaque reading Cooperative Callao. This is a recuperated workplace – run horizontally by the workers with regular assemblies and equal pay for all. I was fortunate to have been living in Argentina at the time of the takeover of the hotel, and remember with great emotion what it was like back in 2003; sitting in the lobby of a boarded-up hotel, with workers from other recuperations around the city as well as neighbors, assembly participants and unemployed, all supporting the process of a takeover. And now, 12 years later, it is still moving to be here in this same hotel with my partner and young toddler and talking with people from the various movements around the city.

Our first meeting was with someone who has been an active part of supporting and diffusing the concept and practice of worker recuperations in Argentina since 2002, Andres Ruggeri. He meets us in the Utopia Cafe and shares information about the dozens of new workplace recuperations. Over half a dozen of the many new takeovers are restaurants. All run horizontally – meaning that each worker has an equal say in decisions regarding all aspects of running the restaurant. While there is some difference in job description, each person is paid the same and they try, as much as possible, to ensure that each person works the same amount. We then went to eat at one such restaurant near the Park Centenario, where the assembly of assemblies took place after the 2001 popular rebellion. This particular restaurant is well-known in the neighborhood, and serves huge portions of amazing parilla (grilled meat for which Argentina is famous). We enjoyed a fabulous meal and, had we not known it, would have had no idea that this was a restaurant run by the workers.

We visited a few more recuperated restaurants, met a few friends and then headed north to Cordoba to learn directly about a number of struggles, ranging from those in defense of the earth and against pesticides, to recuperated workplaces such as daily newspapers, health clinics and printing presses. Here again, as in Buenos Aires, one arrives in a city with infrastructure somewhere between Cochabamba and Barcelona, and there is no indication that there are so many people creating a different reality for themselves and their communities. But if you look a little closer, you see an entirely different place. We first went to the Clinica Junin, a recuperated medical clinic where since 2002 the workers have run it in common. We spoke with a few people and made plans to interview Estevan, the president of the cooperative – formally the head of maintenance and cleaning.

The following day we met with people from the Assembly of Malvinas, a town outside Cordoba city where, for the past two years, neighbors have organized against Monsanto – and actually won. What would have been the largest genetically modified seed processing plant in the world was stopped by popular power. Hundreds of neighbors organized what became the Assembly of Malvinas and with their bodies blocked the construction of the Monsanto plant. This struggle became symbolic of so many of the struggles defending the earth in Argentina and people came from all over the country to show solidarity: from Corrientes, where they are fighting deforestation, to La Rioja where they have prevented the exploitation of Mt. La Famatina from mega mining projects, and from many other regions in the country; also from the indigenous to unemployed movements. And they won. After two years, the construction project has been stopped. The Assembly of course remains vigilant, but for now it is a major success. People say they have stopped a monster.

The people in the town of Malvinas have already had experience with toxic companies fumigating the soy in the regions surrounding the town as well as contaminating the water. Children in particular have suffered high rates of leukemia and cancer due to pesticides. Mothers in the town began organizing a few years ago, again organizing in the assembly form and using their bodies to block the insertion of toxins into their communities, and again they won. The spraying in the area around the town has been stopped. We met with a number of these inspiring fighters against toxins and contamination.

We also met with workers from the recuperated daily newspaper, Comercio y Justicia.

In 2002, rather than face the closure of their newspaper, the workers, from journalists to machine operators and cleaners, together decided to organize assemblies and take back their workplace. They have been running the paper ever since, making all decisions together in their assemblies and have a tremendous circulation and popularity in the region of Cordoba. There are almost one hundred workers involved in the production and circulation of the paper, and they are a part of a regional and national network of newspapers and printers.

We plan to go to an expanse of land to the south of the city that has been taken over by Bolivian migrants together with people from the city of Cordoba. They also organize in horizontal assemblies, make all decisions together, do not have formal hierarchies or leaders, and are together cultivating the land in a way that is in harmony with the land – meaning without pesticides or toxins and in a way that is regenerative of the earth.

This article is merely an introduction to what we have found in less than two weeks in two cities in Argentina. What appears to be a country solely involved with national elections and a recent political scandal, is also a country with workers increasingly taking over workplaces, communities organizing in assemblies to defend the earth and winning, and women leading the struggle to recreate their relationships to one another, their community, and the land.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Michael January 28, 2015 2:27 pm 

    Having lived in Argentina a number of years, now in the U.S., it’s great to see this kind of article that, as basic as it is, goes beyond the usual scandal and disaster that most articles detail about other countries in the mainstream media. While the current scandal of the death of a prosecutor is important, this is all we will read, even in the august NYTimes. This writer gives substance and insight and links to something much more important that is happening throughout Latin America, significant, long term changes.

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