Argentina’s left-leaning President, Nestor Kirchner, has only just repaired the largest-ever default on national debt in his country with a swap that leaves bondholders with 35 cents in the dollar. Now he faces an unprecedented wave of strike action in the public sector.
Although the economy is rebounding from the crisis that captured the world’s attention more than three years ago, half the population is in official poverty and unemployment is reminiscent of the Great Depression. Hunger still haunts the nation. Hunger! In a country with a capacity for food production many times beyond its own needs and with a history of prosperity and social security! But the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 and another 20 years of privatization and deregulation put an end to that.
Popular mobilization is permanent and building. Not a week goes by without new marches and protests – for education, health, food, housing and labour rights – in every corner of the country. In the central industrial city of Cordoba a broad alliance of social and union organizations battles against the provincial government for democratic control of health service bodies. In the north-eastern province of Entre Rios teachers and other education workers initiated a caravan, which is spreading to other provinces and ultimately to Buenos Aires. In the first week of May this year, the strength of a nationwide strike by university professors took everyone by surprise. A national caravan of children is taking shape in the northern part of the country and is due to leave Tucuman early in June, also bound for the capital.
And in Buenos Aires itself the State Workers Association (ATE) completed a province-wide week of co-ordinated marches on local education councils, hospitals and municipal town halls in May. The programme was well-defined: wage increases, regular status for contracted workers, a universal children’s allowance, more money for education and health, and legal recognition for more than 2,000 new labour organizations.
ATE is at the heart of the Argentine Workers Central (CTA) – founded in 1992 as an alternative to the official and often corrupt General Confederation of Workers (CGT), which is controlled by the Peronists, President Kirchner’s party. The CTA is a new-style union, affiliating the unemployed into its ranks, struggling for worker-controlled factories and building a base for united action among the piqueteros who have been so successful in protests against unemployment and hunger.
On 1 May – International Workers’ Day – the CTA assembled on Argentina’s common borders with Chile, Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay, along with sibling organizations from those countries, making a common call for a Latin American alternative to the US version of free trade. President Kirchner has demonstrated his ability to navigate the rough waters of international finance. The months ahead will be the true test of his Government’s commitment to its people.