The Argentine Rebellion


Argentina is erupting in
an unprecedented social upheaval that could pose a new threat to the
international financial system and transform the country’s politics. With an
international debt of $140 billion Argentina is the first country in years to
formally default on its loans. In Buenos Aires, the popular movement has taken
to the streets since mid-December with the slogan, “Que se vayan todos,” or
“everyone has to be thrown out.” It is a call for the removal of the political
establishment, including the current president, Eduardo Duhalde, who took office
in early January. Along with Duhalde, the popular repudiation extends to the two
main political parties and alliances that back the government, the Supreme
Court, the national congress, and the financial interests that dominate the

As Jose Luis
Coraggio, the rector of a university in Buenos Aires who is active in the
opposition movement, declared:  “The repudiation of the politicians and the
economic elites is complete. None of them who are recognized can walk the
streets without being insulted or spit upon. It is impossible to predict what
will happen. Next month, or next week, Duhalde could be deposed, we could be in
a state of chaos, or we could be building a new country that breaks with
neo-liberal and capitalist orthodoxy.”

Argentina captured the world’s attention with the massive social explosion in
late December that ushered in five presidents in less than two weeks, the crisis
had been building for years. Its foundations are in the neo-liberal model that
Argentina adopted in the early 1990s under Carlos Menem who served as president
from 1989 to 1999. The head of the old Peronist movement, or Justicalista party
as it is now called, Menem, along with government and party bureaucrats, grew
rich as national companies ranging from petroleum and airline enterprises to
telephone and water utilities were sold off to foreign interests.

By the mid 1990s,
Menem had tied the country firmly into the international financial system by
pegging the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar at the exchange rate of one to
one. A rentier class dominated the country as Argentina’s productive and
industrial capacity was gutted. With the fixed exchange rate Argentine exports
became uncompetitive in international markets while cheap imports flooded the
country. Even Argentine’s once dynamic agricultural sector went into a state of
decline. Today cereals are the nation’s only significant source of foreign
exchange, as its once world-class beef industry has lost its major export

The massive
demonstrations that erupted in December are commonly referred to as
“caserolazos,” or protests in which demonstrators bang on empty pots and pans
symbolizing their inability to purchase the basic necessities of life. In Buenos
Aires, the caserolazos usually occur every Friday when thousands of
demonstrators descend on the historic Plaza de Mayo, the site of the
presidential palace and the national congress. Many of the demonstrators march
under the banners of the barrios they come from where they gather in popular
assemblies. These barrio assemblies are rapidly becoming autonomous centers of
community participation that include a wide variety of groups and individuals,
ranging from unemployed and independent trade unionists, to human rights
organizations and members of left or non-mainstream political parties.

but very militant caserolazos have also been organized against the banks. The
middle class in particular is furious with the banks, as the government has
frozen long-term savings accounts, many of which were in dollars. Starting in
the middle of 2002 the government promises to repay the deposits—which total
close to $20 billion dollars—in 18 monthly installments in the national currency
that will be devalued by at least 40 percent. While proclaiming the government
doesn’t have the money to pay off the savings accounts, Duhalde has reneged on
his early promise to not pay back the international debt.  He has also announced
financial policies that amount to a currency subsidy for large Argentine
corporations when they repay their foreign loans. It is small wonder that many
middle class demonstrators, sometimes in suits, smash bank windows and
spray-paint slogans on bank walls such as “thieves,” “traitors,” and “looters.”

In addition to
mobilizing demonstrations, the popular assemblies in the barrios often take on
local issues and concerns.  In one barrio for example the assembly organized
pickets to prevent the authorities from closing down a baker who could not
afford to pay his rent.  Other local assemblies are urging people who own their
homes not to pay property taxes, to instead turn the revenue over to hospitals
in their area that are in desperate need of medical supplies. The assemblies
also take up discussions of international issues. As Lidia Pertieria, an
assembly organizer notes, “one of the rallying cries coming from our communities
is “no more foreign loans.” New loans only mean more swindling and robbery by
our government officials.”

The popular
assemblies are emblematic of the upsurge in grassroots organizing that is
occurring throughout the country. The first major protests against neo-liberal
government policies began in the interior of the country in 1996 and 1997 when
unemployed workers called “piqueteros,” or picketers, blocked major highways
demanding jobs. By 2001 the blockading of strategic commercial arteries had
spread to the entire country. The piqueteros are loosely organized in the
Movement of Unemployed Workers that held two national assemblies in August and
September that brought together a variety of social and nongovernmental
organizations along with the unemployed.

The piqueteros
are notable for their participatory leadership. They usually negotiate in large
groups or assemblies with local and regional governmental leaders to demand
publicly financed jobs in exchange for the lifting of blockades.  Bargaining is
done in open groups to prevent the government from engaging in what is called
“clientalism,” a long standing practice of Argentine political leaders in which
they negotiate with a handful of representatives who are separated from their
membership and promised jobs or given bribes in order to sell out the rest of
the movement. The Peronist party, which was founded in the 1940s with a large
working class base, became particularly astute at corrupting the labor movement
by providing perks and special favors to labor leaders in exchange for their
support and allegiance to the party.

The National
Front Against Poverty, with over 60,000 members, is another organization that
has moved into the spotlight with the economic crisis. It was established in
1999 by a group of economists, sociologists and trade unionists to propose
alternatives to the neo-liberal order. In their first initiative, they collected
over a million signatures for a plan that was presented to congress and dubbed
“shock redistribution,” an ironic reference to the economic shock treatment
imposed on many third world countries by the International Monetary Fund. In
contrast to the IMF, this redistribution plan argues that the only way to
reactivate the economy is by putting funds into the hands of the country’s poor,
not by slashing social programs and implementing financial policies that favor
the rich.  In 2000 the Front set up polling booths around the country and held a
referendum in which over 3 million people voted for the redistributive plan.

As Norma
Filgueiras, one of the Front’s organizers who participates in the popular
assemblies notes:  “Today with 40 percent of the country’s 35 million people
falling below the poverty line we are discussing real alternatives that could
help us at the community level.” A widely distributed four-page pamphlet by the
Front points out in easy to understand language how neo-liberal economic
policies can be reversed by funding local housing projects, by helping small
enterprises produce many articles (including medicines) that are currently
imported, by renationalizing industries that were sold off by corrupt government
officials, and by encouraging economic solidarity and cooperation among
individuals and groups rather than “free market” competition.

During the four
years that Argentina has been in economic recession an alternative barter
economy has emerged. It is estimated that over two and a half million people are
participating in local exchanges called “nodos.” People take their products or
commodities to the exchanges—fruits, vegetables, chickens, jams, clothing,
etc.,—where they get credit slips they use to pick up products they need in
return. One local textile manufacturer who was on the verge of bankruptcy called
together his workers and told them that since he could no longer pay many of
their salaries he would instead turn over blankets produced in the factory which
the workers could either sell or take to the local nodos to exchange for other

As Ricardo Malfe
a psychologist on the social science faculty of the University of Buenos Aires
commented:  “Who knows what this will all lead to. In World War II Argentina was
cut off from international markets and we had the biggest manufacturing boom in
our history. Argentines, especially the middle classes, have been noted for our
individualism and narrow self-interest mentality. Perhaps this crisis will force
us to reshape the very way we view ourselves, run our economy and organize our

This, of course,
would be a positive scenario for the popular movement in Argentina. Military
intervention appears to be out of the question for the moment as the military is
ranked even lower than the political class in opinion polls. This is a
consequence of the human rights movement and particularly the “Madres de la
Plaza de Mayo,” a group of mothers who began to march regularly in the plaza in
the late 1970s to protest the military’s assassination of their sons and
daughters in what is called Argentina’s “dirty war.” Today the Madres are a
critical part of the popular movement against the political and economic elites.

There are,
however, long-term scenarios discussed in Argentine political circles that
suggest a civic-military alliance with the backing of the national bourgeoisie.
Carlos Menem, who led the country into the neo-liberal nightmare, is thought by
many to be scheming a political comeback against Duhalde. Menem would be the
coalition’s primary political mover, although not its titutlar head since he is
prevented by the constitution from holding the presidential office again. But
for now it looks like such an alliance is checkmated as all of its potential
members are discredited by a mass movement that would not tolerate a return of
the neo-liberal order that sold the country out to foreign interests and
precipitated the country’s economic catastrophe.

For the moment
the piqueteros, the caserolazos, and the popular assemblies are driving the
political process, although where they will be able to take the country is
uncertain. Setting aside rosy and totally unrealistic economic projections by
government officials, virtually no one sees an early end to the deep economic
crisis, meaning that social and political instability will prevail for some time
to come. As one political commentator stated, “the only certainty in Argentina
is that the future is uncertain.”            Z