Behind Argentina’s Revolt: Que Se Vayan Todos – They All Must Go
By Jenny Schockemoehl
On Dec. 19 and 20, 2001, the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina was ablaze with protest. The demonstrators were enraged with the falling economy and called for the resignation of the economic minister and the president, expressing themselves through marches to the capital, the traditional Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, grocery store looting and street fighting. Overwhelmingly the chant heard on the streets those days and one that continues among popular assemblies and street demonstrations is, “Que se vayan todos, que no quede ni uno solo,” which roughly translates to “They all must go. Don’t leave even one there.” This cry calls for the resignation of all politicians and an end to the political corruption. To Argentines this was not an empty demand – they wanted every single politician to step down, but they did not plan to let their country fall into chaos. They had hoped to form a very organized anarchy, facilitated through popular assemblies, resembling other historical examples such as the Paris communes, the Juntas in Spain, Popular Assemblies in Bolivia and the Popular Parliament in Ecuador.
The protests in December were successful enough to cause both the economic minister, Domingo Cavallo, and the president, Fernando de la Rua, to step down, as well as three more successive presidents. This popular coup was one of the first in Latin American history to be enacted by the people, as opposed to militaries or foreign governments. The movement that exploded in December, which left up to thirty demonstrators dead, did not begin or end on those days. This movement, comprised of different tendencies, has been active since December and has important implications throughout the Americas.
Many different elements of the Argentine society have been involved in social and political organizing. Demonstrators continue to mobilize daily, criticizing the economic situation, the intervention of the International Monetary Fund, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and to work for real democracy, jobs, living wages and simple electricity.
The piqueteros are working class demonstrators who come from the poorer sections and outskirts of the city. They have been using street blocking tactics for over a decade to call attention to their lack of jobs, food and access to water and electricity. They are most well known for burning tires to block streets. In addition to the recent demands for food and housing, they have long been involved in takeovers of oil refineries, factories and businesses such as real estate and construction that have refused to pay their workers. Perhaps the most militant and strongest of the piqueteros are the Corriente Classista Combativa and the Bloque Nacional Piquetero. An increase in state repression has undermined the successes of these groups. In July, two piqueteros, Maximiliano Kosteki and Dario Santillan, were murdered by Argentine police.
This middle class movement is fueled by the loss of money in their savings accounts and a monthly limit on how much money can be taken out. Most of the middle class has lost more than a third of their savings because the value of the peso has fallen in reference to the U.S. dollar. The ahorristas, or those who have their savings in the banks, began demonstrating this December by taking to the banking district with ferocity, smashing sticks and hammers against the walls of the banks. They are also called cacerolistas (well known for banging pots and pans together) and have turned the banking district from a commercial zone into a political forum. Thousands of flyers about protests litter the streets and wheatpastes cover the walls of former banks announcing their demands. Tin protects all of the foreign banks and the ones that are still functioning must be accessed through a tiny door with a guard.
The actors in this movement include mothers clanking their pots, grandfathers smashing glass bottles together, bank workers, men in suits and middle aged women in overcoats who bring hammers to smash the walls of their targets: Bank of Boston, Citibank, Banelco and Banco Frances. The middle class uniquely suffers from the devaluation of the peso, because the rich have most of their money safely hidden in foreign banks and the poor have never had enough money to store in savings. There is working class resentment towards the ahorrista movement because they are merely demanding their money back, not calling for a revolutionary change in politics. After all, the working class truly suffers when middle class business owners cannot take enough money out of the banks to pay their employees.
The two largest union organizations are the CGT (General Workers Center) and the CTA (Center of Argentine Workers). The unions had little to no input in the demonstrations that took place in December, but have since been mobilizing steadily, calling strikes monthly. Both organizations are a mixture of thousands of different unions and tend to represent the voice of the workers, albeit often a coerced and even unrealistic voice. Hugo Moyano, who presides over the CGT, originally came out against the IMF but has since changed his opinion. Most consider Moyano a politician, well known in Argentina to be exceedingly corrupt, and it seems likely that his hands are very deep within the politician’s pockets.
Movements such as the Mothers of the May Plaza and the MTD (Unemployed Workers Movement) have also played a crucial role in mobilizing Argentine society since December. The MTD had been organizing workers for at least the five years preceding 2002. The mothers, who have continued to march weekly since the 70s, call for the return of their disappeared children.
Popular Assembly Movement
Argentine communities have converged to help solve their problems together through self-organized popular assemblies. In every neighborhood, community members, students, workers, unemployed, middle class and older folks get together once a week. The meetings are held in the streets at night in order to be accessible to as many as possible. They shut down the road, put up a banner and bring out a sound system with a microphone so that everyone has a chance to talk. People from other assemblies come to give updates and announcements and to discuss how to work together. The assemblea plans community events, solidarity marches and discussions on the movement. The police, of course, make their presence known, but more importantly, so do the unemployed, the homeless and the otherwise struggling. The assemblea has also become a soapbox for the voices of those suffering the most at this moment of crisis.
There are several stories about the origins of the assemblea. By all accounts, the community meetings were inspired by the demonstrations of Dec. 19 and 20 and started spontaneously, not by any specific organization or group. There are anywhere from 60 to 80 assemblies in Buenos Aires, in each of the five boroughs of the city, with more starting every day in and out of town. They function by having one weekly meeting and creating working groups such as women’s issues, health, education, solidarity and protection. The interbarrio, where different assemblies get together and meet weekly, usually hosts three assemblies at a time, where each assemblea has the option to bring up their own proposals, and decisions are voted upon by a simple majoritarian basis.
The assemblies are an important and refreshingly new part of a long-term effort, waged by many social groups including Poder Cuidadano (Citizen Power), to curb the profound corruption of Argentine politicians like Carlos Menem. The widespread lack of faith in politicians was demonstrated in June when over half of the Argentine population, in a poll by the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarin X, agreed that all Argentine politicians are thieves. In 1990, Menem ran on a Peronist platform, advocating pro-union social reforms, but reversed his campaign promises and started implementing free market reforms, privatizations, and dollarizing the economy. Menem managed to pull the country out of recession without increasing workers wages by borrowing freely from the World Bank. The money Menem borrowed never reached the people, but was proven to be hidden away in his fraudulent bank accounts. Most recently $33.5 billion was found in a Swiss Bank. Menem’s profound corruption is only one more example of why popular assemblies have said no to aid in the form of IMF loans, money which seems to only fall through the holes of politicians’ pockets.
The assemblies are demanding an end to such corruption, but they are also consciously excluding any leftist party influence from the neighborhood meetings, so that the assemblies will not be co-opted by the similarly and notoriously corrupt left. Many of the regular members of the assemblies are not long-term political actors, although some members do come from communist, Marxist and anarchist traditions. The critique of representative democracy coming from the assemblies does not come from an academic perspective, party line or even an intellectual critique. The move towards direct democracy comes from an honest and urgent need for change that cannot and will not be met by representative democracy. They find no possibility for change within the current system and see community organizing as their last option.
“They Are all Enron. We are all Argentina”
The most common motto at the demonstration in New York on Feb. 4, 2002, in opposition to the annual World Economic Forum meetings was, “They are all Enron. We are all Argentina.” Beyond the show of solidarity and the intentional polarization this statement is meant to make, it is also painfully true. Enron purchased an oil deal in Argentina, with the coaxing and support of both Bush Jr. and the U.S. Ambassador to Argentina, Ted Gildred. One of many quick-fix mega projects neoliberal economics attempt, the oil pipeline project was an effort to get foreign money into the desperate Argentine economy. Adolfo Terragno, appointed to oversee the “gasoducto” project, had no interest in signing a contract with Enron, who were not willing to pay even 20 percent of what the project was worth to Argentina, even before the consideration of environmental pillage and the displacement of rural people. Terragno was forced to sign with Enron, however, after repeated phone calls from Bush and the ambassador telling him that it would be “good for Argentine relations with the United States.”
The Enron connection in Argentine is just the latest in 150 years of U.S. corporate exploitation of and in Latin America. Enron’s influence in Latin America alone is exorbitant. In addition to their intervention in Argentina, Enron was involved in a Bolivian oil pipeline that burst in 2000, which destroyed vital forests in Bolivia, as well as displaced several indigenous populations such as the Uru Muratos. Enron has used the IMF and World Bank as a tool to protect their profits in exactly the same way as other U.S. corporations have done in Latin America.
Argentina Needs our Support
Argentina is not the site of one small resistance movement. Argentines are fully aware of a long term worldwide movement against neoliberalism and their participation and connection to that movement. Demonstrators confront IMF representatives every time they come to Buenos Aires, such as the first week of August, when IMF reps were met by 10,000 people in the streets telling them to go home. An enormous demonstration on the border between Argentina and Brazil in July visualized a joint resistance to the impending FTAA. Argentines blame their desperate economic situation on the IMF – and increasingly blame the United States as well, for their complicity and support of IMF regulations, neoliberal policies and U.S. corporations. Recent demonstrations against the IMF have brought out Argentines burning the American flag, and many demonstrators carry signs that read “Out Yankees!”
Despite the collective voice in Argentina against the IMF, IMF regulations and austerity measures continue to be pushed through the Congress. The resistance movement is strong and visible, yet everyone in Argentina knows that the IMF has more power than anybody else. Meanwhile, the economic crisis is expanding across South America through Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay and Paraguay. Argentina, once the model for IMF free market reforms, now suffers from 25 percent unemployment, a 75 percent devaluation of the peso and hyperinflation, with no relief in sight. In Brazil, South America’s largest economy, the value of the real has dropped more than 20 percent and government bonds have fallen to half their face value because of fears of government default. Paraguay and Uruguay fear a banking collapse and deepening recession, trying to hold off on debt by getting more loans from the IMF. These countries fear the collapse of their economies, but are already drowning in debt. Ecuador’s debt amounts to $16 billion, equivalent to 95 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Therefore, only 5 percent of national earnings can be allocated to social spending.
At the beginning of August, the IMF issued a new, $30 billion loan to Brazil. This loan seems to be a conscious attempt by the IMF to force the South American economy toward neoliberalism and to quickly implement structural adjustment programs in Brazil, when pushing IMF reforms in Argentina has proved a slow and painful process. The loan also seems to be a conscious effort to try to keep South America fertile ground for the FTAA agreement, and it makes our resistance to these policies even more urgent.
Uruguay and Paraguay have waged similar demonstrations, including grocery store lootings, cacerolistas and street blockades, protesting structural adjustments and even calling for the resignation of their presidents. The crises in neighboring economies have left their governments desperately calling for U.S. and IMF aid. We must even more urgently denounce IMF intervention. South Americans have made the connections obvious, by clearly condemning U.S. compliance and outright support of IMF backed structural adjustments and free market reforms which have only further strangled South American economies. In the United States, we must make it clear that we, too, deplore our government’s interventional push for neoliberal reforms. Demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank in Washington DC and around the world must come out strongly against the IMF involvement in Argentina. Perhaps we should burn tires in the streets, learn Argentine union songs, bring hammers and tin sheets to demonstrations, and screen print t-shirts with Maxi and Dario’s names. In every way possible, we must use our access to international attention to support the demands of the Argentines. We must all insist, “IMF out of Argentina!”