Reporter’s Notebook from Argentina

BUENOS AIRES, April 24 (NY Transfer)–“Don’t cry for me, Argentina, the truth is I never left you,” implores the romanticized persona of Eva Duarte in the musical “Evita.” But the powerful fact today is that millions do not long for her, or her husband, deceased dictator Juan Domingo Perón. The cry instead is for justice, and struggles breaks out everywhere as the velocity of the crisis impelling them continues to accelerate at a breathtaking pace.

In April, a top delegation of representatives of the International Monetary Fund, headed by Anoop Singh, arrives in Buenos Aires to impose draconian conditions for loans, billions of dollars that will only increase the country’s impossible $142 billion foreign debt-funds destined for the coffers of so-called lenders and the country’s rich. The marching orders, which include demands for provincial budget cuts of up to 60 percent — meaning bone-deep — public service sector layoffs and further slashes of already eviscerated social programs-are leaked to the media, some of whose representatives confront Singh. They are written in English.

The daily newspaper Página 12 captures the scene in a front page photo. The headline: “Si, bwana,” “Yes boss” — the caricatured, servile expression popularized by Hollywood of the African colonial to his metropolitan master, many years ago.

* * *

The statistics of the financial collapse of the Argentine economy here — the third largest in Latin America, after Mexico with three times, and Brazil, double the population of Argentina-provide a context to understand explains the breadth of popular anger.

The currency “adjustment,” which shattered the one-to-one convertibility of the peso to the dollar last December, has devalued money here by 70 percent. This sparked an immense, decentralized, virtually anarchic mass uprising which, coupled with a general strike and the events of December 19-20, led to a sequence of five presidents in a matter of weeks.

Since then, prices have risen 42 percent. This has gutted wages and evaporated pensions. During the week of April 1, the costs of goods and services rises 3.5 percent, indicating an annual rate of 180 percent.

More than three million Argentine workers are unemployed, a percentage of over 23 percent of the workforce. This is the “official” figure. More than 170,000 workers have been laid of since January 1, 2002, including 65,000 March alone — an increase of 1,800 percent since the same month last year.

Building and home construction and repair has ground to a halt, with some 300,000 construction workers unemployed. “We want to work,” says a new poster, pasted to walls in downtown Buenos Aires, put up by union members.

Since January, 30,000 shops in the province of Buenos Aires, with about a third of the country’s population, have closed — 13 an hour, everyday, since the beginning of 2002.

A survey by the government indicates that 49 percent of the people — and 56 percent of its children — of Argentina now live below the poverty level, with nearly a quarter of the population “indigent” — unable to purchase the weekly minimum of food. Of every ten people newly impoverished, six are from the middle class — an indication of the level of destitution that affects the vast majority of working people.

Homelessness, which did not exist in the capital a decade ago, has leaped, from 1,200 last year to 3,500 today.

Aguas Argentinas, the privatized national water system, declares bankruptcy in mid-April, as protests in barrios against it mount. Some residents are paying hundreds of pesos every two months for drinking water.

According to Clarín, a prestigious bourgeois daily, and the Los Angeles Times, the Argentina ruling elite has spirited $106 billion out of the country to foreign safe havens and an additional $30 billion in untouchable securities — “legally,” both newspaper note — while for the middle class, personal savings, drastically devalued to $8 billion, are frozen in banks, locked corallitos [playpens]. Transfers can only be made for spending on big-ticket items, like cars, durable goods, and mortgage loans.

It is Enron as a country — and Enron of Argentina still operates on the 17th floor of a high-rise office building on the edge of downtown. It is the world economic crisis bursting at the weak seam of Argentina, which, like other Latin American debt slaves, has already paid off the principal of its initial loans, but now groans under continental arrears of $750 billion, as interest payments mount. In some national budgets, debt service has reached 40 percent of state expenditures. Buenos Aires has defaulted on, and ceased such payments.

It is to the pillage of the Argentine people that the IMF brings its ball and chain. It demands a restructuring of the national budget, the end of circulation of provincial bonds — a palliative used by debt-ridden regional governments to juggle provincial budgets — and the elimination of laws on the books it considers “obstacles” to foreign investment. This spells sharp layoffs of government workers at the federal and provincial level, and slashing tattered social programs, while opening up Argentina for even deeper penetration by foreign capital further looting the country as it turns it into an export platform.

“The only thing lacking is for us to pull down the Argentine flag and replace with the IMF’s,” says the San Juan provincial governor.

“Without pain,” says IMF director Horst Kohler, Argentina “will not escape this crisis.” His recently appointed second-in-command, former World Bank chief economist Anne Kruger is equally adamant.

“The difference with Anne and Horst Kohler,” says a colleague in the weekend edition of the Financial Times of London, “is that they both want to play bad cop.”

“We are a banana republic without bananas,” says a cab driver. He explains his net daily income has dropped 80 percent since last year.

I suggest that the IMF wants blood.

“I want blood, too,” he says, as a small pennant stitched with the name of his two little boys dangles from the rear view mirror. “The blood of the politicians.”

What does the future hold, what can be done to halt the crisis?

“Nobody knows,” he says. “But I want my kids to study so they can leave the country. When they grow up they can send me emails..”

On April 18, the federal government declares, according to the Financial Times, “a complete and indefinite suspension of all banking activity in the country, in a sign of its desperation at money leaking out of the shattered financial system.” Federal judges, under popular pressure, have issued rulings enabling some withdrawals, raising the possibility of a run on the banks. The New York Times reports that “$100 million a day” was being taken out, prompting the suspension. Neither Washington, nor the IMF have any public comment on Duhalde’s decree.

On April 21, the Peronist president tells Clarín the entire financial system faces collapse, sticking to the freeze. “I don’t have a Plan B,” he says, as people stock up on food. “The only plan is to solve the problem we have and obtain help from the IMF.”

On April 22, he defends the measure in front of the congress, despite protests outside. “Let God’s will be done,” he says.

* * *

It is impossible to calculate the number of protests that unfold hourly across the country. They touch every sector of wage labor.

A demonstration of hundreds of workers from the national atomic energy union, demanding back pay.

A one-day strike of subway conductors opposing cutbacks of train routes, while pressing for salary increases.

The announcement by 500 farmers in the Rural Associations of Argentina of a pending strike.

An alert by bus drivers about a coming strike against slashing service, and for wage increases.

A march of 1,000 against a proposed nuclear waste dump in Patagonia.

A demonstration of 3,000 in Tucumán of unemployed workers and their families — desocupados — pressing for benefits and demanding food. “You fight hunger with food, not speculation and constitutional reform,” says a leader of the protest.

“We are eight of us,” says a teenager, whose parents are laid off, “and we don’t have food.” A kitchen is set up in the central park.

A protest of 300 bingo parlor workers demanding they be paid.

A teachers protests in Neuquén, demanding three months back pay — as they continue to work.

A street action by fans of the Independent soccer team in front of the club’s building — the team is on the verge of bankruptcy and the fans want to help keep it afloat.

A weekly march in front of the Palace of Justice by retirees whose benefits have shrunk to virtually nothing, protesting the court’s refusal to act against the government and private employers who are chiseling them out of pensions. “I have nothing, nothing, nothing,” says a retired electrician, “luckily, my children are working and they support me.” His bankrupt employer has ceased all pension payments.

The government now contemplates a “subsidy” package of 100-150 pesos a month, a maximum of $50 at the current exchange rate. “What can you buy with that?” asks a retiree at a protest.

A brief, virtually unpublished Associated Press dispatch reports from Buenos Aires that cops fire rubber bullets at “thousands of state workers” on April 18 in the cities of Jujuy, in the north, and Rawson, in the southwest, where they marched to demand back pay dating to December. Similar protests take place in Buenos Aires and Chaco provinces, while in San Juan, in the center of the country, “state workers set fire to the door of the local legislature and occupied several government buildings.”

These conflicts are entirely defensive in nature, waged by workers in independent unions, or in the official Peronist federations with permission. Servility by the Peronist bureaucrats of the Central General de los Trabajadores (CGT) to the employing class and its various governments — including the Radical Civic Union regime overthrown by the mass eruptions in December — has enabled the bosses to deal punishing blows to organized labor here.

Only 20 percent of the working class is organized into trade unions, down from 90 percent a decade ago. The union tops are referred to popularly as gordos, the fat ones, since they only sit behind desks. The course of the crisis, and resistance to it, are impossible to understand without a grasp of what Peronism is.

* * *

Popular illusions in Peronism, embodied in the ruling bourgeois Justicialista party — the present name of the pseudo-labor party formed by Perón — and in the two rival, but indistinguishable, ossified labor bureaucracies — both of whose federations bear the name CGT — are weaker than ever. Conflicts against their hegemony break out daily across this country, rich in natural resources, where economic, social, political and moral crises deepen and expand with overwhelming speed.

The Peronist apparatus seeks to save Argentine capitalism not, as in the past, with concessions to working people, but by wresting concessions from them.

The country’s ruling rich — neutral in World War II — reaped big profits and trade surpluses from commerce with Allied and Axis powers. A key member of the ruling military regime, Perón served as minister of labor, and won election to the presidency. As the man on the white horse, appearance to balance between capital and labor, his government postured as an ally of the people. His rhetoric and was marked by populist demagogy, laden with nationalist and anti-imperialist phraseology, honed by his wife Eva, benefactor of los descamisados — the shirtless toilers.

As masses of workers swelled union ranks, winning significant wage gains and broad social benefits — as a result of struggle and the World War II bounty Argentine exports — the illusions in Peronism sank deep roots.

When the great man was no longer necessary to the rich he was deposed, and went into exile in Spain. When working-class and popular struggles exploded in the late 1960s in the industrial center of Córdoba — the mass uprising known as the cordobazo — Peron was recalled for service to quell the storm, but died before completing his task. His widow Isabel failed in an attempt to recreate the charismatic demagogy of the long dead Eva.

The crisis of Peronism would deepen, preparing the way for the 1976 military coup.

* * *

The image of angry Argentines, banging pots and pans in front of banks, is familiar. These protests, which occur regularly across the country, animate sections of the middle-class whose savings accounts, depleted by the crisis, are “by law” inaccessible. The ahorristas — those who hold the accounts — surround banks, invade them, chanting, “give us our money,” leave graffiti on walls, raise a ruckus. They represent the fury of the middle-class, betrayed, its illusions shattering, its security destroyed.

But unlike the fights launched by workers and their organizations, they have no special progressive character, in and of themselves, although they enjoy popular support. Lacking the weight and power of labor protests, they are impotent, as bankers, protected by the courts, the government, and entire economic system, simply fold their arms, with supervisors appearing beleaguered by the intrusion. Because of their limited focus and populist rhetoric, they run the risk of drizzling into the right — which currently has no mass base, owing to massive repudiation of the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, and to which such forces are historically joined at the hip.

After the fall of the thug regime, political activists engaged in escraches — public exposures of known henchman of the tyranny who sought to live in anonymity. Graffiti identifying torturers and murderers, demanding their prosecution, would appear on doors. They face heated denunciations by groups in public places, cafes, and theatres.

Today, bourgeois politicians of the “neo-liberal” regimes that succeeded the dictatorship, figures from the Peronist Menem government, the UCR administration which followed, along with bourgeois politicians in the current legislative, executive, and judicial branches, are the targets of escraches.

“They can’t go to cafes,” says one telephone company technician. “People see them and go to their tables and yell at them.”

Recently, a top Supreme Court justice is forced to flee a Davis Cup tennis match, after being spotted and becoming the target of massive derision.

Piqueteros, marching groups of unemployed workers, routinely block traffic to focus attention on demands for emergency relief and benefits. These include mobilizations of radicalized youth. Nearly 1,000 march across, and paralyze a key bridge in Buenos Aires, to protest the arrival of the IMF team. A smaller group invades the lobby of an upscale hotel near the airport where the international loan sharking operation initially sets up camp. Before the cops can arrest them, they slip out of the lobby, burn a U.S. flag on a nearby lawn, and sing the Argentine national anthem.

These actions signify motion without direction, the dispersal of energy that has yet to be focused. Out of them, Argentine leftist groups, from the traditional Communist Party to self-proclaimed Maoist, Trotskyist, and anarchist organizations seek recruits.

The anarchist slogan, “communism without a state” seeks to capitalize on popular disgust with the status quo — particularly among unemployed youth — while reinforcing an anti-political attitude that keeps such actions moving in circles.

All of these groups trace their lineage to the fractured left — then larger, whose illusions, divisions, weaknesses and errors were utilized, with a vengeance, by the Argentine armed forces high command to topple the Peronist regime in 1976 and replace it with brutal military rule, “disappearing” 30,000 militant workers and revolutionary activists in the process.

The Videla coup decimated guerrilla groups — whose military campaigns, carried out by groups ranging from left-Peronists and focista partisans of Cuba to Trotskyists, were carried out under the banner the Argentine born Cuban communist Che Guevara. Despite heroism and courage, none of these organizations absorbed understood that Che’s teachings on armed struggle included the clear admonotion that as long as an “inch” of bourgeois democracy remained, such actions were impermissible and wrong-headed.

Referred to generically as los partidos, the current incarnation of the left is even more split and divided, encumbered and entombed by the past, whose “dead hand,” as Karl Marx once explained, “weighs on the brain of the living like a nightmare.”

The repetition of history, “first as tragedy” — the lost opportunity of a pre-revolutionary situation, characterized by one of Latin America’s greatest strike waves, popular mobilization, and series of working class, labor-led urban uprisings — and the consequent settling of scores by the military junta — plays itself out in the sloganeering of the left “as farce.”

At the same time, a new mass movement — with no central, authoritative leadership, diffuse, and uncoordinated — begins to emerge from the crucible of a crisis that even the IMF Anoop Singh offers upon arrival in Buenos Aires “is the most difficult that any country has ever experienced.”

Thousands of working people, unemployed, and youth, families, and middle class people attend the popular assemblies. At their best, these public gatherings — in community centers, or, outdoors, like the one held in Parque Centenario April 7 of 1,000 people — serve as settings for democratic discussion about the crisis.

“We never really attended meetings,” says Alberto, a semi-employed architect over dinner, “now we go discussions a lot.”

“When some piqueteros stopped traffic, middle class people got irritated,” he notes. “Now, they say, ‘these people have a reason.’ We have naked capitalism. We see the emperor has no clothes.”

“It’s like this,” he says, putting his hands far apart, moving one toward the other. “This is the middle class, this is the working class.” His hands slowly come together, touching each other. “And here is what happens. The middle class is now this close to the working class.”

His wife Alejandra, a laid-off engineer, agrees, but she adds a word of caution. “I have friends who are middle class, and they see a piquetero or a march and they say, ‘oh, here comes the horda [horde].’ They say fascist things. It makes me sick. I think, ‘I’m with the horde.’ ”

They do not know what will happen next, but both agree it will get worse. “I have totally changed since December,” Alejandra says, recounting the fear and excitement of the huge mobilizations. If conditions worsen, there will be struggle, “I am sure. The people are waking up.”

Even their comfortable middle-class neighborhood burst out in noisy protest when de la Rua declared a state of siege last December, the final straw for the Argentine masses.

For now, Alberto says, “there is a tense calm. Yes, a tense calm.”

What is the way out for the people? Alberto is not sure, a new government, yes, with more participation, more democratic. “But we cannot speak of taking power,” he says.

* * *

“The Peronists have ruined our country,” says Pina, under a light rain and whipping winds in front of the Casa Rosada, the official presidential residence. She is wearing a white scarf on her head, with the slogan of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, written in blue cross-stitching: “the disappeared are ghosts with life.” The end of this month marks 25 years of weekly marches — “the weather does not matter,” says another mother — where these women have protested the deaths of their sons and daughters at the hands of the dictatorship, demanding “trial and punishment.”

“Imagine, a country so rich as ours,” Pina says, “with oil, uranium, and there are people from the middle class looking through the garbage in the night, here in the plaza!” At a distance, a squad of 20 police in bullet-proof vests stand watch.

Some 50 women march, followed by 50 supporters, several of them students from France, Germany, and the United States. One, from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, is staying with a local family as she studies at the University of Buenos Aires.

“I have dollars so I don’t feel the crisis that much,” she says.

Her friend, a student from Villanova, near Philadelphia, says for the family she stays with, the situation is serious. “They don’t have much food, they don’t each much, they don’t sleep well, they’re worried at lot.”

I ask another mother, Carmela, a petite, energetic woman, what she thinks the way out of the crisis is. She replies without hesitation. “A government of the left, very left. We need new leaders, young leaders, with fresh ideas,” she says, then pauses, thinking for a moment. “We need Fidel. We need many Fidels,” she says, animated, her eyes flashing.. “And we will have them!”

* * *

“Who will be Judas?” asks a big headline on a full-page article in Página 12. The pointed question refers to Washington’s search for a Latin American government to introduce in Geneva a resolution condemning Cuba for supposed violations of “human rights” at the upcoming meeting of the United Nations commission of the same name. Dropped by secret ballot from the body last year, its entreaties to the Czech Republic declines to repeat its sponsorship of the slanderous document this year, the U.S. is on the hunt for a shill.

Both house of the Argentine congress vote against condemning Cuba, and favor abstention in Geneva, a parliamentary riposte which Duhalde, utterly dependent on Washington, shrugs aside.

On April 5, Alejandro González, Cuba’s ambassador to Argentina speaks at the University of Buenos Aires Law School to hundreds of people in a broadly supported meeting, whose size is all the more impressive because until the eve of the event, organizers could not get a room.

Later, he speaks at the headquarters of the Mothers of the Plaza, a big space that houses a café, a bookstore, and hosts political and cultural classes.

Febe Bonafini, the president of the organization, also speaks. There are 100 people in the room, from Cuban diplomats to students, as well as veterans from the fight against the dictatorship.

“For us,” Bonafini says, “solidarity with Cuba is in everything we do, everyday.” She recounts meeting with Cuban revolutionary Manuel Piñero — the legendary Barbarroja [Redbeard] in her first visit there. For many years, Piñero coordinated Cuba’s collaboration with Latin American revolutionary movements.

“He knew my son,” Bonafini tells the crowd, referring to her disappeared child. “I felt like I was home.”

The meeting is the first of a series of celebrating 25 years of struggle by the Mothers of the Plaza. “We chose to begin with Cuba to transmit to the new generation what solidarity is, why it is so important.”

For Cuba, “solidarity is giving your body,” she explains. “It is not just words, or even deeds, it is giving your body, it is everything.”

González, a solidly built Cuban speaks in a steady, baritone voice, his crisp delivery dripping with contempt for those who vilify his nation. He denounces all efforts to “judge Cuba,” in Geneva or anywhere else, or any foreign intervention in Cuban affairs.

“No one tells us how much money to spend on public education,” he says, referring to IMF budget cutback demands in Argentina. The room bursts into applause. “No one tells us how much money to spend on the Latin American School of Medical Sciences,” he explains, referring to the institution training 4,000 students from across the continent in Cuban medicine.

Listening carefully are the seven newest students set to depart to the school from Argentina — bringing the total from the country to 270. “We are,” says Reubén, after the meeting, “descendants of the Mapuche,” one of the nation’s indigenous people. They come from villages, some as small as 100, which have not had doctors for years.

Is this their first trip out of the country?

Three answer in chorus. “It’s our first trip to Buenos Aires.”

Washington, the Cuban ambassador tells the crowd, “will find its Judas” — later announced as the government of Uruguay. “But that does not matter to us,” González says. “Sooner than later, Judas will be expelled from the temple.”

On April 12, 500 defenders of Cuba — members of Argentine-Cuba friendship societies, non-governmental organizations, and los partidos march to the Foreign Ministry, a garish, high rise office building, flanked by small tasteful apartment houses, their balconies overflowing in flowers. The ministry is ringed by barricades, behind which stand police in bullet-proof vests. There are cameras, lights, drummers, a few people banging pots and pans, many chanting in favor of Cuba and against the government’s lamebota [bootlicking] stance.

“For dignity,” one huge banner reads, “vote for Cuba.”

The crowd also protests the business-military overthrow in the democratically elected Chavez government of Venezuela. Just 24 hours later the pro-U.S. regime will shatter under the pressure of an immense mobilization of hundreds of thousands of working people and youth, who will pour from the proletarian neighborhoods in the hills above Caracas. Tonight this stunning turn of events has yet to come.

Instead, among the images televised from Venezuela, which dominates the news, is one of Pedro Campora, the “business leader” who has voided the constitution, cleared out provincial legislatures, nullified congress and shut down the Supreme Court — reason enough to be saluted by the White House as “President of Venezuela.”

Campora is speaking a big salon, shouting that his Venezuela will not sell “one drop of oil to Cuba.” He is livid, trembling with anger as he issues the proclamation, to the rowdy delight of a room packed with the well-heeled of Caracas society, capitalists, bosses, businessmen and women. They are dressed to the nines. A few of the women are draped in fur stoles, jewelry on their fingers, wrists and around their throats. The rich are chanting as Campora denounces Cuba, “ni un paso atras, ni un paso atras! [not one step back!],” gleefully appropriating a slogan of the popular movement.

At the same time a mob makes its appearance at the Cuban embassy, rips up sidewalks, cuts electrical cables to the building, and smashes and burns cars belong to embassy staff and those who seek refuge within its walls.

In these snapshots the utter odium of the Cuban revolution, its example, and the fear of its emulation, is palpable. The overwhelmingly white crowd roars its approval of Campora’s cessation of oil shipments to Havana. It is feral hatred of the deepest kind — class hatred — driven by the fear that the Venezuelan horda will seek to emulate Cuba, taken the Cuban road, and go beyond chavismo.

The complexion of the celebrants is noteworthy in a country whose vast majority is a people enriched by African and Indian ancestors — a fact noted in a chart in the April 18 New York Times, which indicates 79 percent of Venezuela is of “mixed race,” Black, and Amerindian.

The visceral abhorrence of all things Cuban — “Castroist” — that rise like bile from the guts of the “elite” as Campora rails against Havana is the real attitude of Latin America’s enfeebled, dependent bourgeoisie towards Cuba — its working class, its internationalism, its socialism — fangs out, exuberant in a moment of triumph, a show of counterfeit courage stoked by the empire.

It is the national component of an entire continental Judas class from which Washington will chose to do its unfinished dirty work in Venezuela, where everybody’s cards are on the table and history offers the working people, the youth, the poor, what was denied the masses of Chile in 1973 and Argentina in 1976 — a second chance to prepare. Argentina’s Duhalde, like other Latin American presidents, issues a condemnation of the coup, but it is all hat and no cowboy. He and his beleaguered class also fear the horda will go beyond banging pots and pans, escraches, and defensive strikes, and apply Cuba’s lessons to Argentina.

The cab I am in turns right off avenida 9 de Julio — one of a series of parallel avenues that form a broad, spacious central artery, abutted by rows of handsome buildings and divided by islands of grass. It heads down Suipacha, towards the small hotel on Suipacha where I’m staying. At that exact moment, 20 feet away, two pistol shots split the night air. That’s a gun, I say to the taxista.

“Someone’s robbing a bank,” he says matter-of-factly. Just then, a figure hurtles out of a doorway, slips, falls, gets up, and scampers away. “Nothing unusual,” he says, shrugging off the incident. Sensational media coverage about a wave of “street crime” — including numerous assaults on supermarkets, is widespread, but it has no real resonance, since millions believe the real looters and thieves run the country and government. This is a refreshing way to address the question of who are the real criminals in Argentina, and elsewhere.

* * *

The Casa Argentina-Chile, a community center in the working class section of barrio San Telmo is jam-packed with people. Every Wednesday, for the last year there’s been a trueque [place of barter] set up there. People — parents, grandparents, some with small children or accompanied by teenagers — bring a variety of goods to swap. The list of items is endless, from socks and underwear to cakes and pies, used flatware and plates, jeans, typewriters, lighting fixtures. For each time the goods are brought, the bearer gets a ticket indicating a credit. It is used to for exchange. “There’s no money here at all,” says Teresa, a volunteer.

Over a loudspeaker crackling with static, a plumber offers his services. Vendorsr can trade their items for a visit and work, or someone can offer their credits, which the plumber can use to get any merchandise, or a sausage sizzling on the grill. “We have other food too,” says Teresa, “but no meat. There’s not much meat in this neighborhood.” Or money.

Despite the cramped quarters — hundreds of people shoulder to shoulder, with small children underneath — there’s no friction, no bickering, no shoving or shouting, just the din of conversation, the squeal of babies, music from some place, the amplified announcements.

Some trueques are stationary, have their own established center. Others take place in community center like this. They crop up in working class neighborhoods across the city as a popular, emergency defense against the rash of indigence sweeping the country.

Who organized this one?

“We did, the people of the barrio,” says Teresa, as she greets people at the door, signs them in, and gives out the credits.

* * *

In the upscale Buenos Aires Recolecta neighborhood — a more classical, tree-shaded version of the toney upper East Side of Manhattan, or the homes and apartments of Beacon Hill in Boston — the elegant cafes and excellent restaurants that dot quaint streets, are cheap now, as are the taxis to get you there, If you have lots of pesos, or better, dollars.

“You should see this place at night,” says Franklin, a waiter and an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. The restaurant he works at is right across from the famed Recolecta Cementary where, the rich and famous of Argentina are buried, their coffins in rows of mausoleums. The Duarte family tomb is there, too, and behind its barred windows is the coffin of Eva Peron, the main attraction for tourists.

My favorite tomb is that of the great Argentine boxer, Luís Angel Firpo — the “Wild Bull of the Pampa” — who fought, and lost to Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight championship of the world. He is cast, larger than life in bronze, in trunks and robe.

“The are private cars everywhere, no buses, private cars, nice cars,” Franklin says, pointing to a nearby avenue that passes the cemetary, “and lots of people are selling their cars to live, so you know there’s money.” Tourists come mostly from Mexico and the United States, and Britain, he says.

The level of social tension is not like Mexico, where units of machine-gun toting soldiers patrol the airport in the capital city. The international airport on the outskirts of Buenos Aires is less militarized than its U.S. counterparts.

Bullet-proof vests are standard for Argentine police, but there are virtually no armed guards — as is common in Mexico City — in front of stores, banks, money exchange centers. The rich may be worried, but they are not yet shaking in their boots.

On Fashion TV, a cable channel, maybe a thousand gleaming, healthy faces watch a Giordano show from Mar del Plata, the exclusive resort. The models, “proof of Argentine beauty,” the announcer gushes, stroll down the aisle, braless in transparent tops, the cameras angling up from the edge of the runway for the best shots of what’s revealed by microscopic thongs the models wear under tiny miniskirts, or as bikinis.

The crowd oohs and ahhs, the men grin, the announcer, is in his cups. His cohost, a women, tries to explain the significance of the frocks.

Diversions remain for the rich and their hangers on, from European-style auto-racing to the track for the horse crowd, golf, and tennis tournaments at pricey clubs.

Couples and families saunter into restaurants, dropping $100, 200 $pesos for late dinner — sumptuous beef, grilled to perfection, consumed with rich, locally produced red wines.

I watch a hefty couple eat from a huge parilla, a heaping stack of barbecued beef, chops, chicken, sausages, sweetbreads, and tripe. They leave half the platter of protein uneaten.

* * *

On a crisp Friday night, the grand Teatro Colón opera house — bigger than La Scala, in Italy — opens it doors for the Buenos Aires premier of the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. This acid metaphor of life in the Weimer Republic — polarized by crisis, riddled with corruption, pregnant with possibilities of change — is best known for haunting melody, Moon of Alabama, which has been covered by artists ranging from the Doors to Dave Van Ronk.

Brecht and Weill wrote the opera between 1927-30 in Berlin, the real life city of Mahagonny, where the “worst crime is to have no money.”

The staging is both stark and garish, laden with garbage. The Colón’s orchestra plays the Weill score — a gripping, discordant, menacing, bracing symphony — with almost athletic enthusiasm. The cast — all Argentines — sing in the original German, with subtitles in Spanish flashed high above the broad stage.

It’s opening night and here comes the cream of Buenos Aires society.

I make the mistake of going in the front entrance, where I briefly mingle with enough fur to orphan a generation of minks. I am in the middle of a New Yorker ad that speaks Spanish, with men in $1,000 suits and lean women gleaming to be seen in state of the art cosmetics.

I remember an earlier observation made by a young street vendor in La Boca, the wildly painted river neighborhood first settled by Italian immigrants in the 1920s. “All the rich women in Buenos Aires look the same,” he says, “because they go to the same surgeon.”

I am informed by the usher, in pantaloons, tights, and a powdered white wig, “that’s the wrong entrance.” I leave the building, go to the side door, up the elevator with the riff-raff, to the fourth balcony, stage left, up there with the students, and others who pay for cheapest tickets, 40 pesos. I crane my neck to see the performance and read the translation, at the same time. Even the pigeons are cold.

As the city of Mahagonny goes bankrupt, characters trudge “for rent” signs and place them across the set. They are in Spanish, with Buenos Airs phone numbers, the kind you see throughout the city. All that is missing it the most common sign: liqudación total.

This punctuates the obvious, as references about the social and economic crisis and moral decay written more than 70 years ago deprives prevent those who come to the Colón for a diversion from the all-consuming calamity. This is not Italian dancing clowns, nor the far less political Three Penny Opera by the same authors. Some in the audience are clearly dismayed, but many stand and cheer the cast during a long curtain call.

I am no connoisseur of opera but I know what I like, and this — in its musical grandeur, its acrid deconstruction of bourgeois society, its stunning imagery — is something to behold as if fuses past and present with eerie precision.

Afterwards, the cab I hail on a side street pulls up alongside a chauffered late-model Mercedes. The passengers, elegantly garbed gentlemen and ladies fresh from their encounter with the people of Mahagonny, stare ahead, silent and stone-faced.

These plutocrats are, perhaps, among the anonymous candidates solicited by Diego Guelar, Argentina’s ambassador to the United States, to save the country. “The richest are also the most responsible,” he writes, in a full-page op-ed piece in Clarín, for this task. The article is entitled, “What’s missing is refounding a real capitalism in Argentina.”

Guelar deploys his argument by first explaining the theory of surplus value and the exploitation of wage labor for private profit, elaborated by “Karl Marx…the only economist that scientifically explained capitalism.” For the Marxists, this form of economy is “evil and must be abolished by the proletarian revolution.”

For those who “are not Marxists,” however, this system is “the motor of social progress,” the ambassador states. Except in Argentina it is not working. How can “a real capitalism” be brought to the country?

“Any 30 businessmen must throw the first stone,” Guelar urges, “they must repatriate of what they have legally expatriated” — the $106 billion they have disappeared from the country. By doing this, they can “be even richer, but, this time, as the saviors of an Argentina on the edge of chaos and disintegration.”

This modest proposal, floated on April 8, is met with dead silence in subsequent editorial pages.

Such cynical posturing has already appeared elsewhere, earlier. The Los Angeles Times, in an editorial entitled “Argentina’s Test of Faith” suggests that the country’s government “should urge jittery investors who sent money abroad to repatriate a fraction of it as an investment in Argentina’s future. This would be a show of good faith. The people of Argentina must demonstrate that they believe in their country before they can rightly ask others to do so.”

The editorial appears on April Fool’s Day.

* * *

“The idea is not to just occupy the factory, and not just to produce,” says Raúl Godoy, a central leader of the independent Ceramic Employees and Workers Union in Neuquén, at the Zanón factory, some 700 miles from Buenos Aires. “It is to have a social program, to demand jobs for the unemployed to increase production. This is not about a contract”

Lean, intense, Godoy is addressing 40 or so workers, most of them women, in the relaxed atmosphere of the Brukman garment factory they have occupied since December. A modern, full production shop, the six-story plant a couple of miles from the center of the city produces men’s suits. The bosses disappeared before the social explosion, and with them, supervisors and secretaries.

The ceramisistas of Neuquén began their occupation in October last year. Some 330 workers continue to produce building tiles, working two shifts, and maintaining ovens on a third in a factory, Godoy tells the garment workers, that is about an acre in size.

These two groups of workers are trying to figure out how to unite Argentina’s fragmented labor movement and the fight-back efforts workers are mounting. Theirs are among the most advanced such battles.

Godoy tells the Brukman workers — there are 55 altogether, about half of the pre-occupation labor force, “you work twice as hard as we do, you do double work, as workers, and as women.” The women nod.

He describes the need to build a new labor movement, “independent, democratic, that defends the workers.” He explains that no one is on full time at Zanón, that the factory assembly can remove members of the executive committee of the independent union at any time, that everyone has equal voice and vote. The union has reached out to the unemployed, works with the piqueteros, and cut key routes in the city to focus attention on the struggle. The union has won recognition from the provincial courts that the bosses locked them out, that the occupation “is legal,” Godoy says.

Local university professors and students in solidarity with their struggle help them without accounting and engineering challenges. They have had marches and protests involving youth and the unemployed. The seeds of a social movement have been planted.

The Zanón workers, like those at Brukman, are demanding the provincial governments assume ownership of the two plants, and that they continue to operate under workers control.

The assembly is marked by easy going give-and-take, real questions, no sloganeering. The assembly approves an appeal to call supporters together in a few days to advance awareness of their common struggles, provide a platform for others, and take a step forward in organization and coordination.

“I was born as a worker in this factory,” says Celia Martínez. She is a leader of the elected six-member Commission of Internal Struggle, which has assumed direction of production and distribution of suits that once bore Christian Dior and Pierre Cardin labels, the commercial apex of the 51-year operation.

Short, strongly built, effervescent, she says she “never dreamed of the changes that have taken place. The whole world has changed. We have proven what we can do. We don’t need them.”

Late last year, the workers were ousted by cops but returned as hundreds took to the streets to defend them and the police evacuated the building. Some sleep in the factory as a defense detachment. Supporters and workers staff a street kitchen. Banners and streamers from the building announce the occupation. Security admits customers to the show room, where they try on, and buy suits.

I try one on, a gray, pinstriped, double-breasted wool-polyester blend, and buy it. Celia asks if I want a label sewn in. I tell her they need one that says, “made under workers control.” She smiles. I tell her that when I speak about Argentina, I’ll wear it, to show what the workers can do without bosses. A bigger smile. “That’s the best promotion,” she says. “We can produce other things. There are hospitals in Buenos Aires that need sheets. We can make them. We are investigating other markets.”

It is business as usual, but very unusual. Through their struggle, the workers discover the real books of the bosses. They are learning the secrets of management.

“I’ve been in three garment factories in 40 years in the industry,” says Matilde, who must have started work in her early teens. “This is my third plant. The Peronist union delegate for this industry today is the some one who was a delegate when I first started work. The same!” She laughs.

“We never knew each other here until six months ago,” she says. Workers were divided by gossip, work, petty irritations that the bosses used against them. “That’s pretty much gone. You saw some one for 10 or 15 years on another floor and you never talked. That’s over.”

The owners, interviewed by a Boston Globe correspondent, are outraged that production continues. “We have a business that’s been hijacked,” says one, “the workers are staging a big show of tears.”

But, the Globe article notes, the “two sides agree” on the fact that for two weeks last year the workers got paid $5 a week.

The Globe reports that workers “at 11 other factories making anything from tractors to flour and steel have seized production and operation of their bankrupt companies, after owners disappeared or were kicked out.” The February issue of Perspectiva Mundial publishes interviews with several workers from these factories, at length. It is clear that such efforts are critical part of rank-and-file fighters reaching out for class solidarity, as they struggle to find way to respond to the tremendous blows of the employers and the state. “We have won much support from other workers, in spite of the police who are always here trying to intimidate us,” says a worker from EMFER, where 150 members of the Metal Workers Union have occupied their freight car repair facility.

According to Clarín, ceramisista leader Raúl Godoy tells me,”there are 5,000 work sites in some kind of conflict with employers in Argentina today, some are becoming cooperatives because of the workers, or there has been an occupation, or the owner is trying to create a cooperative of his own to make money.” Because of the fragmentation of working-class organization, these militants face the challenge of simply finding each other.

Raul, Celia and I talk around a table on the sixth floor of the plant, along with a supportive lawyer, a couple of young videographers. Some sip mate, the potent Argentina national beverage, an herbal tea infusion, taken through a steel straw, drunk hot, from a cup that looks like a small water pipe. It is rarely found in the cafes of the capital, noted for rich coffee. The taste for mate, I learn quickly, is acquired.

What does tile factory workers’ leader think of the Argentine ambassador’s proposal that “any” 30 rich people should repatriate some of their billions to “save” the country?

“Only 30 parasites, no more?” Raúl says, smiling as he exhales a plume of smoke from a cigarette.

“The workers will save the country,” Celia says.

“We are very few,” says Godoy of the factory occupiers. “This is very hard what we are doing. But the leaders of the official unions do nothing, they ignore the workers. We are beginning something.”

Later in the week, as many as 2,000 people, including several Zanón workers, who travel 1,200 kilometers to Buenos Aires, women and men from Brukman, their working class allies, and many unemployed, take to the streets to defend the struggles. There is a meeting of “chiefs” — government representatives, bosses from Brukman, top union officials — to discuss the situation. It last for eight hours, nothing is resolved. There is no media coverage of the march.

On April 13, Calle Jujuy is blocked off by rows of tires. The sun comes out after a week of gray skies, and up to 500 people, overwhelmingly workers, many young people, most unemployed, fill chairs in front of Brukman in a Meeting in Defense of Occupied Factories. Many who can’t find seats stand. A light breeze teases the air with the aroma of sausages volunteers are grilling on the outdoor workers kitchen.

The police are far away, at either end of the block. The Brukman and Zanón workers explain in detail their struggles, their aims: increased labor unity, militant defense of salaries, the creation of jobs, solidarity, national coordination of struggles, increasing sources of information.

“This is the struggle in Buenos Aires,” says Oscar Bayer, a journalist for Página 12, respected by all progressive currents and a new generation of young journalists for his stands against the military regime. “It is not very well known, but it is very, very important. This encuentro will help, I hope.”

He is introduced from the platform and addresses the crowd briefly. “This is the beginning of something new,” he says, “something necessary.”

Fifteen workers speak, some of them local delegates in independent unions, others in fights with Peronist bureaucrats, who are trying to oust them. They are in their 20s and 30s, only a handful appear older. On the platform with Godoy and Martínez is the leader of a garment factory occupation of 135 overwhelmingly female workers, from Monteviideo. Most of the worker-representatives are from Buenos Aires province, a few from nearby states. The main exception is the delegation from the Zanon workers, the ceramisistas who have taken a day long bus ride to get here.

The speakers include workers from the railroad industry, public transportation, high school and university teachers, contract trash collectors, metal workers, municipal and government workers and many others. A significant minority are women. They report on their struggles, including a new occupation in a small metal working shop in Buenos Aires. Workers read messages of solidarity from several fronts of conflict across the country, giving the gathering a national flavor. They all urge participation in a giant May Day march in the Plaza de Mayo, “a huge assembly of workers” to demonstrate an alternative to the institutions responsible for the crisis. This May Day will not be ceremonial or traditional.

“Unemployed or employed,” says a teacher’s leader, “you are a worker.” The crowd cheers.

There is discussion of putting together a national paper to circulate information about these struggles, networks of communication, actions of solidarity. There are reports on potential strike actions.

Celia Martínez speaks. She is dressed in the blue work smock the garment workers wear. She details the efforts of the garment workers at Brukman. She stumbles a bit, apologizes, but no one is bothered, everyone listens carefully. “This is the first time I’ve every spoken to so many people,” Celia says.

But the struggle in the plant, and what she and her coworkers have done these past five months has given her and them confidence. She continues.

“We have shown we can run the factory,” Celia says, her voice filling the block on this balmy day in Buenos Aires, as the crowd erupts in applause, “and we can run the country.”

Copyright (c) 2002 by Jon Hillson, NY Transfer News.

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