These are interesting times for the world’s eighth largest country. Are there lessons for the rest of the world? Vanessa Baird reports from Buenos Aires.
A stylish couple dances the tango in front of the Recoleta Cemetery – the capital’s great baroque and over-the-top celebration of mortality. The pair’s moves are bold, provocative, challenging.
The same might be said of the style and policies being pursued by Argentina today, under the leadership of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Challenges have been issued on various fronts:
To the vulture funds that are threatening to tip Argentina into another almighty default on its debt.
To the British government, accused of behaving like ‘a colonial power’ as Argentina musters international support for its reiterated claim on the Falklands-Malvinas Islands.
To the World Trade Organization, as Argentina goes its own way and applies import restrictions and currency controls – to the dismay of some of its trading partners.
To Argentina’s judiciary as the President tries to push through radical reforms to ‘democratize’ the courts.
And to the powerful Clarín group, as she tries to break up its media monopoly and restrict the number of cable licences it can hold.
Through its many outlets, Clarín tears into the government, blaming it for crime, corruption, economic slowdown and rising inflation. It also accuses the President of ‘authoritarianism’ and of trying to gag the ‘free press’. In April this year, massive protests brought more than a million Clarín supporters on to the streets of Buenos Aires.
These stories have featured prominently in the national and, to some extent, the international media.
But there is another story that generally slips under the mainstream media radar. A story not of government or policies or nationalism or media power, but of people and how they organize to survive. Of the challenges they face – but also those they present to business-as-usual.
It is a story of growing significance to people in parts of the world that are still struggling to survive the fallout of 2008’s catastrophic global financial crisis.
For, 11 years ago, Argentina was in the throes of its own total meltdown. In 2001-02 the country experienced the biggest debt crisis in history. Banks closed. The economy froze. Factories went bust. Hunger and poverty soared. Protesters set up roadblocks and seized food from passing trucks. Governments, politicians and their parties lost all legitimacy. Taking to the streets, banging their saucepans and chanting ‘Que se vayan todos!’ (‘They all must go!’), ordinary citizens saw off five presidents in the space of just two weeks.
What emerged from that rupture was a wealth of popular initiatives that included pickets, neighbourhood assemblies and barter systems. Decisions were made by consensus. As direct democracy grew, so did the dream that this could radically transform society.
Today, it is clear that some of those dreams have fallen by the wayside. Some groups and initiatives have been co-opted by political parties, with divisive consequences.
But there remains a powerful, living and growing legacy of what writer and Argentina expert Marina Sitrin calls ‘everyday revolutions’. Of people interacting with each other, on an equal footing and with respect, to meet their needs, improve their lives and create a measure of social justice.
Most resilient have been the ‘recuperated’ workplaces. Today, if a business looks as if it’s about to go bust, workers don’t despair. They take it over and run it for themselves. There are over 200 such workplaces in Argentina today – and the number keeps growing. More than 70 per cent operate ‘horizontally’, with equal pay and without bosses.
There are also enterprises that were born out of the crisis, like Eloisa Cartonera. This is a workers’ co-op that publishes handmade books with individually painted covers made from cardboard which it buys from the city’s cartoneros or urban rubbish pickers. This year, Eloisa Cartonera celebrates its 10th year and its catalogue has grown to almost 200 titles, with many leading writers donating their work for free. Miriam, a former picker who now helps make the books on the premises in the working-class neighbourhood of La Boca, says simply: ‘Eloisa Cartonera changed my life.’
Then, there are the thousands of neighbourhood co-ops – 6,024 new ones created in 2012 alone. If adults have missed out on education, can’t find work, and struggle to buy food or to pay for childcare, they don’t fall into jobless destitution. They work and learn together within autonomous neighbourhood co-ops.
In the area of human rights, progress has been phenomenal. Over the past few years, Argentina has moved from being a human rights pariah to a pioneer. The determination of the mothers, grandmothers and, more recently, children of the disappeared, is finally putting dictators, torturers and their accomplices behind bars. The country also now has the most progressive laws defending the human rights of transgender people and in 2010 was one of the first to legalize gay marriage.
These are not all simple success stories or uncomplicated victories. Some struggles still have a long way to go – justice and equality for the country’s indigenous people, for example. And measuring success remains a contested issue.
Some complain that the governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner co-opted militants from the social movements, offering them jobs in ministries, thus effectively ‘demobilizing’ revolutionary organizations. Others say that the exchange and interaction between progressive movements and the government has delivered vital changes and a measure of stability. Poverty has been drastically reduced. Healthcare has been extended. There is now a welfare net of sorts. Life has improved considerably for the majority of people since the election of the first Kirchner government in 2003.
The relationship between the top-down state and the bottom-up social movements may be awkward and ambiguous. But the radical principles of self-generation, equality and horizontalism are still alive, kicking and growing in Argentina today. What’s more, they have a global impact. ‘Argentina has played a tremendous role in shifting the global conversation among activists on how to bring about change in the most empowering way,’ observes Marina Sitrin.1
From Cairo to Athens to Madrid, from Occupy Wall Street to St Paul’s London, horizontalism has been the default mode of organizing. The popular assemblies that have become a feature of survival in Greece and Spain are in many cases modelled on those created by Argentineans a decade earlier.
And the example of worker-run factories is inspiring similar attempts in Europe.
In February this year, workers in Thessaloniki, Greece, restarted production at a building materials factory, Vio.Me, abandoned by its owners two years ago. Facing 30-per-cent unemployment, the workers and their community held a series of popular assemblies and decided to occupy the factory and run it themselves.2
It is too early to say whether such European initiatives will have a lasting effect on their country’s political, social and economic future, as they have in Argentina. Or whether the staying power of Argentinean popular action will be replicated elsewhere.
In downtown Buenos Aires there is a former children’s home and hospital called El Patronato de la Infancia, in which around 40 families currently live. Some of them first occupied the abandoned building in 1984 and they were still in the process of getting legal ownership when they were violently evicted in 2003. The building was partly demolished by the conservative city authorities. In April last year, the families came back and re-took El Patronato. ‘They’re trying to move us out again, but we have a right to live in the city centre, just like anyone else,’ says Maria Elena Justiniano, one of the original occupiers.
Outside, police are posted around the clock to stop the families bringing in building materials so that they can make repairs. But the housing co-op is highly organized and ‘defeat’ does not seem to be part of its vocabulary.
Inside the hallway is a sign that says it all: ‘A struggle is never lost – until it’s abandoned.’