Latin America / ARGENTINE - SOCIAL MOVEMENTS
'Looked at from the outside, it's pretty chaotic,' says Hebe de Bonafini. 'A useless Government, completely dependent on the International Monetary Fund. There's no work. Children have been dying of hunger for a long time, though this has only recently been reported in the newspapers. The political quarrels, the Peronists, the Radicals - most people are no longer interested in that kind of politics. Only a tiny minority votes, because there's no-one to vote for.'
Hebe de Bonafini is one of the more vocal among a remarkable group of women. The Madres ('Mothers') of the Plaza de Mayo1 have turned up on the square outside the Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires every single Thursday for 26 years. They have demanded to know the whereabouts of their children - 'disappeared' with perhaps 30,000 other people during the Dirty War waged by the military on its own population between 1976 and 1983. The residue of that war lingers like poison in the land. But the Madres, for many years alone, have been the antidote. They have made themselves heirs to a poignantly inverted inheritance - what their own children stood and died for.
Argentina is a land of irreducible truths. Children die of hunger in a country that overflows with food. Most of its people, once among the wealthiest on earth, are now among the most impoverished. Here you cannot ignore, barefaced and brazen, the meaning of a ruinous global orthodoxy.
From the outset, neoliberalism was imposed on Argentina by force - the Dirty War. Since then it has made ample use of a uniquely Argentinean tradition of populist, personality-cult patronage known as 'Peronism' - so called after President Juan Peron and his wife Evita in the 1940s.
The latest embodiment of this cult is Carlos Menem. As President during most of the 1990s Menem pursued a policy of self-enrichment through privatization, foreign loans and gunrunning that was hailed by the IMF and the US Government at the time as a 'model' - until there was nothing left to sell off and the loans could no longer be repaid. All it took was 'contagion' from the Asian financial crisis in 1997, and the 1999 devaluation of the currency in Brazil - Argentina's major trading partner - for the house of cards to fold.
At this point Menem judiciously left office, while the debts were offloaded on to the Argentinean people. Factories shut down, banks closed their doors (the infamous corralito), the currency was unhooked from the US dollar and the savings of the urban middle class - excluded from the insider trading of the élite - were simply stolen. The banking district of Buenos Aires, just by the Plaza de Mayo, is still under siege, battered and defaced.
Its ill-gotten gains stashed away outside the country, the oligarchy soon discovered that one of its most profitable options was to buy up, at knockdown prices, its own country's 'foreign' debt - of which it is now thought to own more than half.2 So the Argentinean people are being starved to pay an oligarchy that derived much of its wealth from stealing the original loans. It is a straightforward scam of positively Wagnerian proportions.
On 19 and 20 December 2001 the official declaration of a 'state of siege' provoked a spontaneous uprising in which more than 30 people were killed. The popular slogan, Que se vayan todos - which translates loosely but quite faithfully as 'Go to hell the lot of you!' - referred to the entire political class, which declined to oblige. A bizarre sequence of aspirant leaders eventually stopped with the appointment by Congress of President Eduardo Duhalde - the Peronist party boss of Buenos Aires. Another presidential election is scheduled for 27 April 2003. Hardly anyone is expected to participate. The only significant contest is for the Peronist nomination - and Carlos Menem has been deploying a small part of his personal fortune in trying to secure it. Not one thread of democratic legitimacy remains.
Meanwhile, on 1 February 2003, La Nacion newspaper in Buenos Aires ran two headlines. One cited official statistics showing that 21 million Argentineans now live in poverty - close to 60 per cent of the population and an increase of nearly 7 million on the previous year alone. Almost 10 million are 'indigent', living in absolute poverty. The other headline reported a phone call from President Bush to President Duhalde to celebrate the repayment of billions of dollars of Argentina's 'foreign' debt. The two stories are one - the catastrophe compounds itself.
'I think this country is more in our own hands now than ever before,' she says. 'First, because of our asambleas, our popular assemblies that have been meeting since 20 December 2001. The traditional Left just wasn't listening - it doesn't know how to listen - and tried to sabotage them. But they have survived, which is wonderful.
'Then there are the piqueteros ['flying pickets' - see below]. They are reinventing work: they come together to produce, they invest their labour with other compañeros to produce what they need.
'And then we have the occupied factories - there are more than 200 of them now, and the number is increasing all the time...
'This is a very special moment. For many years the Mothers have believed that everything we have should be at the disposal of others. Above all: el otro soy yo ('I am the other'). If the other suffers, so do I; if the other eats, so do I; if the other doesn't have medicine, neither do I. In Santa Fe you can see food shipped out of the country while pigeons and rats eat the spillage. Right beside them children are dying of hunger... Well, I am a revolutionary. Revolution lives inside me. I'm convinced that if there are no revolutions in Latin America then we'll never be liberated.'
The 'revolution' that is taking place now is not like the uprisings of the past. Rather than seizing traditional institutions of power, Argentineans are ignoring them and building their own. In the cafeteria Hebe introduces Alejandro and Juan. They are from the Zanón ceramics factory in Neuquén, 1,000 kilometres to the southwest of Buenos Aires. When it closed down, 18 months ago, about half the 600 workers occupied it. Now, using just a fraction of its productive capacity, they pay their own wages and are taking on more workers from the local organization of the unemployed.
How to survive, where to turn, what to believe in a society that has collapsed? Tabaré Álvares works at the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos (CTA)3. The CTA is a relatively new trade-union confederation which has broken with the corrupt Peronist bureaucracy and makes a point of organizing among unemployed workers, who now comprise more than 20 per cent of the population. Most people I talk to agree that if there is to be a relatively bloodless resolution of the Argentinean catastrophe then the CTA - the nearest thing there is here to the Workers' Party in Brazil - will have to play a prominent part in it. That could take time, when for hungry and humiliated people time is short.
'We are quiet at the moment,' says Tabaré. 'We could be sinking. Or we could be surfacing with new ideas, a new aesthetic, and we won't recognize ourselves any more - rather like what happened with the beards and long hair of Fidel Castro in Cuba. But what's going on here has less to do with Fidel than with the Zapatistas in Mexico - that's where the aesthetic of the piqueteros comes from.'
Carlos Sánchez of the Federacion de Tierra y Vivienda (FTV - 'Federation of Land and Livelihood') arranges to meet us at a crossroads outside La Matanza. Taxis from the Capital do not enter here casually, and there are no detailed street maps. La Matanza ('The Slaughter') is a sub-city of some 1.5 million people. Once an industrial centre dominated by the Peronists, now it is a camp for people who have nothing.
To make their presence felt in the Capital they must set out, on foot, the previous day. So, in the late 1990s, people in their thousands began blockading the nearby national highway, Ruta 3, to demand work, food, respect. The same thing happened right across the country. The piquetero organizations, like the FTV - which is linked to the CTA - have been making inroads in La Matanza for several years.
Carlos takes us on a tour of community centres run by the FTV. A sparse grid of surfaced roads soon gives way to broad, dirt tracks between an assortment of tiny, flat-roofed houses sometimes sharing their plot with a car that hasn't moved in years.
We stop at a brightly painted house. A group of a dozen women mends and cleans old garments for redistribution. From the silver lining of disused wine cartons, collected from the streets of the Capital by cartoneros, it takes one person one week to make an intricate cortina, sold for about three dollars and hung over open doors to let in the air and keep out the flies. From reclaimed clear-plastic bottles people without food craft decorative centrepieces for dining tables. Everywhere, the recycling of poverty.
The women say they know this is 'palliative' work - except for the bakery. In the yard is a clay oven built with skills that come from Tucuman in the far north of the country. Every day bread rolls and sweet pastries are baked. Most of the bread in La Matanza seems to be made this way now.
Nearby, a larger group of women sits around a table in the whitewashed interior of an empty shop. 'We are people who can't pay,' says Angélica. 'We're all in this struggle together. What we're constantly up against is this wretched individualism and egotism. Who knows where it came from, but now we know it's got to go. Individually we can't do anything. So this is our family, where we share maté, food and conversation.'
'The piqueteros are often portrayed as violent,' says Carlos Sánchez. 'But we are not. We have been violated. We are simply trying to create the space that any citizen should have in this benighted country. We don't just denounce things. We're a broad movement that creates things all the time. We have recovered from dictatorship. Now we aim to recover democracy.'
We go to a new barrio still being built on the rural fringes of La Matanza. In front of us is a lake. On the other side of it is an extraordinary sight - an imposing jumble of fairy-tale buildings in the style once favoured by Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. This, the private Neverland of some crazed oligarch, is slowly, relentlessly being engulfed by La Matanza.
How do these people survive? It's impossible to say. There is a government programme, the copa de leche, which distributes milk to children. Schools still function without fees, though children who lack shoes or food do not always attend. There are 'plans' funded by the World Bank. The Jefes y Jefas de Hogar ('Heads of Household') programme is supposed to provide about $50 a month to every unemployed family - roughly half of what is needed to stay alive. But the distribution of even this money is venal and, as elections approach, constantly preyed upon by the Peronist party machine and its dreaded punteros políticos ('political point-men' or 'officials').
'It's not new, just different and better,' says Andrés Fernandez. 'We started from the premise that we have to break with the old, classical structures of the political parties, including the parties of the Left, which were very closed in their perceptions and are now obsolete. We've also broken from the Catholic Church, which is incredibly powerful, from the municipality and from the national government. In fact, we've discarded all the props we used to use, in favour of what we call "autonomy". We don't know how long it will take, nor yet if we'll succeed.
'But if people come to us they have to understand, truly realize, what we're doing. I don't read very much. But we all think a lot about the Zapatistas in Mexico, we identify with them, even though they face a very different reality from ours. There's a common logic to the way capitalism dominates us all, through its hierarchies, "verticalism" and the like. Breaking with that, creating "horizontalism", is one of the most powerful weapons we have.'
The MTD in Solano has rejected all forms of hierarchical 'party' organization - and palliative work. Instead they have focused on productive activity 'as far as we can possibly get from the rules of supply and demand'. There's a more relaxed, discursive and egalitarian mood here, where women seem to participate on equal terms as a matter of course.
This impression is confirmed when I return to La Matanza. Some 30 MTD members have occupied the buildings abandoned by a small private school. Inside there's a library and a silk-screen printing studio - as well as the inevitable bakery. There's also a workshop making denim skirts. I ask whether they've ever thought of making jeans - I've been in search of a fairly traded pair for years. Well, they say, that might be an idea. In the corner of the yard are the first shoots of a new garden, vegetables sprouting up between golden masks hung from washing lines.
Toty Flores has compiled a book, De la culpa a la autogestión ('From Blame to Autonomy'), which the MTD in La Matanza have published themselves. It's a brilliantly lucid account of their struggle. They sell enough to pay the printing costs; the rest they distribute freely in their community.
And there will be a popular school. It will start with the first primary year. As the children grow, so will the school, into a university. The children will be taught not just how survive, but that another La Matanza, another Argentina, another Latin America, another world is possible - and that they, the children, are creating it.
I make a promise I shall try to keep, should I live that long - to return when they graduate. What strange and wonderful things they will surely have to tell me.
Humiliation is slowly being supplanted by a sense of solidarity with those in other Latin countries who have endured similar conditions for very much longer. There are also large numbers of migrants from these countries (particularly Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia) living in the barrios of Argentina. The new social movements here, and their attitude towards political, economic and cultural orthodoxy, are now widely known and influential across the continent. In their turn, Argentinean movements have been inspired from Bolivia, Peru and the Andean countries as a whole, where the tactic of blocking roads, for example, has been in use for very much longer. The unorthodox ideas of the Zapatistas in Mexico - 'autonomy' and 'horizontalism', rejecting hierarchical political parties and placing the encuentro or asamblea at the centre of decision-making processes - are now remarkably pervasive. All Latin America's social movements know that behind the electoral victory of Lula in Brazil lie groups like the Landless Movement (MST) and their urban equivalents.
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