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Essay By Benjamin Backwell


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'They all have to go'
There’s a good deal more than chaos in Argentina. Benjamin Backwell describes how people have started to take matters into their own hands.

There's a good deal more than chaos in Argentina. Benjamin Backwell describes how people have started to take matters into their own hands.

On New Year's Eve 2001 the US Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, rang the Casa Rosada, Argentina's Presidential Palace in the centre of Buenos Aires, and asked to talk with the President. After several unsuccessful attempts, Powell called a 'more private' number, only to be told by a low-ranking functionary that 'there is no President at the moment'.

The incident came after a period of little more than 10 days which had seen three presidents leave the Casa Rosada, two of them as a result of mass mobilizations and street fighting, all to the deafening sound of hundreds of thousands of middle-class Argentines banging cooking pots from their balconies.

The strongest sentiment expressed on the streets  now is a visceral hatred of all politicians. They are routinely insulted - and sometimes attacked physically - on the streets, in restaurants, in aeroplanes and even on the golf course. Most politicians have stopped going out in public at all. They spend large amounts of time in the countryside, in neighbouring Uruguay - or in Miami - or take elaborate security measures. Former President Menem no longer comes to Buenos Aires at all. The Mayor of Buenos Aires, Aníbal Ibarra, has shaved off his beard in order not to be recognized, while former 'superminister' Domingo Cavallo - currently under arrest for an arms-smuggling scandal - for months employed a decoy in a Cavallo mask. Even leaving Argentina is no guarantee of safety. Zulemita Menem, daughter of the former President, was recently forced by angry Argentine exiles to abandon the plush gym complex she frequented in an exclusive area of Miami, while Foreign Minister Ruckauf was surrounded by an angry crowd at Madrid airport.

The country's key institutions have fared little better. The Supreme Court, the two Houses of Congress, the health and social-security services, the main trade-union federations: all are seen as little more than criminal conspiracies. The electoral process is thought of as a bad joke. In last October's congressional and gubernatorial elections, a record 22 per cent cast blank votes or abstained. Many inserted photos of Osama Bin Laden or white powder (to represent anthrax) in the voting envelopes.

Today no established politician commands more than a tiny minority in the opinion polls. Those with the best standing are Elisa Carrió, a former Radical Party member who rose to fame with high-profile denunciations of corruption scandals within the Government and the banking system, and Luis Zamora, a former Trotskyist influenced by autonomist ideas who is practically unknown outside the capital.

Where does all this leave Argentina's democracy? On the one hand, conservative commentators warn of the danger of anarchy, the emergence of populist leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, or even a nascent fascism. Others, on both the Left and Right, warn darkly of a return to the military regimes of the 1960s and 1970s, or some form of 'autocoup' in the style of Peru's disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori.

For now - in contrast with the period leading up to the last successful military coup in 1976 - there seems to be little support for authoritarian solutions. The so-called carapintada ('face-painted') leaders - junior officers who led coups against the Alfonsín regime in the 1980s - are riding even lower in the polls than the politicians. Attempts to create a bandwagon for the release from prison of former coup leader Mohamed Seineldín have so far fallen flat.

Moreover, there are signs of a wholly new type of democratic impulse - although one which does not present any easy solutions. Within weeks of the chaos of  last December, hundreds of 'neighbourhood assemblies' had sprung up in Buenos Aires and in many towns and cities in the interior. Nobody is quite sure where they began, although the mechanisms were similar in most neighbourhoods.

'After De la Rua's speech on 19 December, you could hear people banging pots and pans, and I went downstairs to see if anybody was going to do anything,' says Ricardo, an electrician from the lower-middle-class neighbourhood of Almagro. 'There I met up with five or six neighbours. We started to ring all the bells of the intercoms in the apartment buildings and say to the people "come down!". Within 20 minutes there were 100 of us on the corner. We talked for a while and then we set off together to the Plaza de Mayo. After that we started to meet every week.'

‘uncertainty can be good terrain on which to construct something new. Why should we settle for anything less at a moment like this?’

According to a survey carried out by the daily newspaper, Página 12, more than a third of the three million inhabitants of the capital have taken part in some sort of protest. The neighbourhood assemblies are often noisy, chaotic and can even end in brawls among the myriad groups of Argentina's fractious Left. In many barrios, however, the assemblies have played a unique role in reconstructing a badly frayed social fabric - and, according to some, in constructing a new type of political awareness that does not depend on the principle of representative democracy.

For sociologist Oscar Landi, the assembly movement and the political crisis marks the latest stage in the transition from the 'citizen-party-member in 1983 (during the restoration of democracy), to the citizen-consumer of the 1990s, to the social-citizen of this latest crisis, who has broken links with the political leadership'.

Luis Zamora, probably the only member of Congress who can appear at public protests without fear of being spat upon, describes the movement as 'a permanent revolution in the heads of millions of people. a new kind of culture constructed from below, made up of practices from below that are different from those of capitalism, instead of trying to transform society from above.'

In many areas the assemblies buy essential goods, run crèches, maintain canteens in schools, prevent evictions of non-paying tenants or mortgage holders, negotiate with electricity and gas companies and even run embryonic vegetable gardens in public parks - as well as organizing a never-ending series of protests and political debates. Regular barrio get-togethers on themes such as 'how to get out of the crisis' attract hundreds of neighbours, many of whom have never taken part in any kind of public debate before.

The new way of doing things has roots not in politics but in the economic crisis itself. With unemployment rates at 25 per cent, the shedding of thousands of jobs by the private sector and the near-bankruptcy of central and local government, there is little to link people in the neighbourhoods to the wider economy. Pensions and salaries have been cut and many government agencies now pay in bonds, a kind of 'pseudo-money' which is far from universally accepted. Hundreds of thousands of people participate regularly in the trueque - a market where people can exchange goods and services using paper 'credits'. Old bicycles are being refurbished by people unwilling or unable to pay for expensive private transport.

'It is clear that the Government is not capable of fulfilling the most basic needs of most people,' says Malena from the Parque Patricios barrio. 'We need to see this as both a problem and an opportunity to do things in a completely new way.'

Once a week the Buenos Aires assemblies meet for an inter-neighbourhood assembly in Parque Centenario. Motions are passed on everything from the local health budget, to condemnations of the US and the IMF, to the nationalization of the banking system. Perhaps more important than the inter-neighbourhood assembly are local committees that co-ordinate actions within the different zones of the city. These are able to mobilize large numbers of people to protest against the electricity utilities or supermarket chains that raise their prices.

But what kind of future does the movement have? Practically the only slogan that unites all the members of the assemblies is 'que se vayan todos' ('they all have to go'). Beyond this, there is an almost uniform hostility to all organs of government - including local councils - to all political organizations based on hierarchy and to the principle of representative government. 'After people's experience of "democracy" over the last decade, people are reluctant to delegate even on the smallest scale,' says Jorge, a sociologist and activist in the Buenos Aires journalists' union.

In the early days, many left-wing groups saw the assemblies as embryonic 'soviets', with the inter-neighbourhood assembly acting as a kind of general command for the revolution. The Left tried to push through votes in favour of elaborate programmes and constant marches that made Argentina appear something akin to St Petersburg in 1917, and were euphoric when the motions were passed. They soon realized, however, that winning a vote did not necessarily translate into winning members or influence for their parties - or even being able to mobilize people around their priorities.

'This is a completely different moment,' says Jorge. 'Nobody can impose a programme on this movement, which is completely destructured and diffuse. The movement comes together in given situations with incredible power, when people's individual desires coincide. But no one person or group can decide when this happens.'

A recent essay by a group of sociologists describes the role of the traditional Left in the assemblies as that of 'a character from a Western who strays into an Italian neo-realist film. He is acting on a completely different script from that of the other protagonists. At times the scripts appear to come together, but this is purely coincidental.'

Many people question the ability of the assemblies to maintain a constant level of mobilization, faced with a wall of institutional support for current President Duhalde. Others suggest that if the Government is overthrown again nobody has any idea what would replace it. Many sections of society, especially outside the politicized capital, have assumed a cautious attitude of 'wait and see'.

Moreover, given that the assembly movement has so far shown neither the desire nor the capacity to become involved in the electoral process, likely winners of anticipated elections would be President Duhalde's Peronist Party - albeit with a large section of society voting for protest candidates such as Zamora or Carrió and many abstaining from voting at all. The latest polls show Zamora, Carrió and Duhalde tied in first place - but none commands much more than 10-per-cent support.

Zamora says that fear of a political vacuum shouldn't frighten people away from the protests:

Benjamin Backwell is a freelance journalist living in Buenos Aires, currently working on a book on the crisis of representative democracy in Argentina.

'There are many people who are afraid of uncertainty, who say "be careful, don't push Duhalde until we have an alternative". But uncertainty can be good terrain on which to construct something new. Why should we settle for anything less at a moment like this?'

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