A month ago, Argentina was a symbol of the disaster of the free market. Years of recession had driven unemployment to nearly 20 percent and pushed one-third of the population into poverty.
And all President Fernando de la R?a and his hated economics chief Domingo Cavallo could offer was more austerity–slashed wages, layoffs, spending cuts, privatization.
But Argentina today is the symbol of something else–the hope of a better future. In mid-December, ordinary Argentinians said “no” to the misery of a system run by bankers and bosses. By December 20, every city and town in Argentina, including Buenos Aires, was paralyzed by mass demonstrations.
Cavallo was the first to go. Then de la R?a. And one week after that, a new wave of demonstrations brought down another government.
JAMES PETRAS has worked for the past two years with the unemployed movement in Argentina. Petras is the author of numerous books on Latin America–the most recent, co-authored with Henry Veltmeyer, is Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century. He talked to ALAN MAASS about the uprising.
WHERE DID the spark for the December uprising come from?
THE DRIVING force for these massive mobilizations has its roots in the large-scale, sustained activities of the unemployment movement.
The unemployed workers’ movement has been gaining strength for the last five years. But in the last year, it’s spread throughout the country and has played a major role in securing subsistence programs from the government and public works for at least a sector of the unemployed.
Its tactics are to paralyze the circulation of commodities and transportation. So the piqueteros, as they’re called, meaning “the picketers,” block off major highways in order to make their demands.
The ranks of the unemployed movement include a preponderance of women, especially woman heads of households, which has grown with the unemployment.
In some areas, unemployment is probably 50 to 60 percent. So many of the piqueteros are factory workers with trade union experience. Many are young people who’ve never had a job.
They organize and block the highways. Traffic piles up, trucks can’t move, factories can’t get supplies. These are the functional equivalents of factory workers downing their tools. In this case, instead of directly stopping production, they stop the inputs and outputs from production.
Then the government can send the police down, in which case there’s a whole confrontation. People have been killed, five or six recently in the north of Argentina.
But the fear for the government is that if the confrontations continue, the crowds come in from the huge slums, and it could turn into a mini-civil war. So the government usually–after threats and mobilizations of police–negotiates an agreement.
These agreements are discussed by the participants themselves. They don’t delegate any leaders to go downtown. They make the government come to the highways, and the people there discuss what they should demand and what they should accept.
Their experience with delegated leadership is that they go downtown, they sit in a big room with the government or with the trade union bureaucracy, and they usually get bought out. The leaders get some payoffs, even the militant leaders. Or they get drawn into some tripartite agreement, and the rank and file is sold out. So their activity is about direct representation, direct negotiation, direct action.
These demonstrations have been enormously successful within the limited areas in which they operate. But recently, as early as September of last year, there were two national meetings trying to coordinate the committees from all the different cities and the regions and suburbs of Buenos Aries, and they created a kind of coordinating committee.
But what they taught the population as a whole was that you can’t rely on the politicians. You have to take action for yourself and from below.
HOW DID the piqueteros’ struggles set the stage for the December demonstrations?
I THINK that spirit began to manifest itself, even in downtown Buenos Aires, shortly before this latest uprising. There were several cases where grievances emerged, and shopkeepers and others decided to close off downtown streets.
There was a huge debate within the movement, because the so-called progressive trade union leadership thought it could win over the middle class by blocking main streets but allowing alternative streets to function. This was opposed by the more militant unemployed movements, which said you either close the streets, or you don’t.
So this spirit captured the imagination of not only employed workers and, of course, the young people, but also the impoverished lower middle class, and even sectors of more affluent petty bourgeois, including shopkeepers, small businessmen and others who had accounts in the banks.
When the government finally confiscated the savings–billions of dollars in savings–of the middle class, these layers also became involved in street demonstrations. This is an impoverished, radicalized middle class.
It’s a mistake to think of it as simply the middle class. These are people who’ve lost all their savings. They don’t have money to pay their grocery bills, or their rents, or go on vacations, or what have you. So under the example of the unemployed workers, you had a coming together of various strands of the population.
You had the great mass of unemployed who were involved in some kind of informal economy. You had employed workers who hadn’t been paid because the accounts of their employers are frozen. And you have a great mass of public employees and shopkeepers and others forming a very broad front against the bankers.
The bankers have been able to get their money out. By using the purchase of Argentine stocks on the New York Stock Exchange, they have no problem getting their money out of the country.
So this is very much a class phenomenon, in which the unemployed workers formed one pole, drawing the workers, the petty bourgeois and sectors of the middle class to the politics of extra- parliamentary struggle–to the politics of rejecting the major bourgeois parties.
This, I think, is the dynamic. Now whether this middle class will be a strategic ally–whether they’ll get a deal which allows them to take their money out of the banks–is an open question.
But I think the most important factor in this is that mass action, more than all the ritual strikes of the trade union bureaucracy, led to the ouster of the main leaders of neoliberalism and the main spokesmen for U.S. banks and U.S. imperialism in the government at that time.
Each time, they’ve been replaced by new faces, all coming within the framework of neoliberalism. There’s no way that the debt can be paid without precipitating a mass uprising–in which case, I think, the bourgeois parliamentary system will go down, and perhaps you’ll have a civil war, with the military coming into the picture.
Nothing in the bourgeois press captures the degree of tension and polarization that exists in Argentina today. On the spot, activists and revolutionaries describe it as a pre-revolutionary situation. And certainly the degree of hostility to all the bourgeois parties and the degree of militancy of great masses of people would describe a pre-revolutionary situation.
There isn’t at this time an organized revolutionary party with roots and support. There are thousands of local activists and militants who engage in these activities, and there is a broad radicalization of consciousness among hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Argentinians today–unprecedented in recent times in Latin America.
But the little left parties–all the Trotskyist and Marxist parties–spent most of their resources recently in electing officials to an impotent parliament. And nowhere have these parties–or the center-left, of course–exercised any kind of leadership. They’ve been out of sight. They issue manifestos; they sell their newspapers. In none of these growing mass confrontations–that are reaching proportions of hundreds of thousands in different cities–has there been any organized vanguard.
There are militants from the unemployed movement, who have some kind of street-fighting experience and preparation. Programmatically, they’re clear as far as their immediate demands– which is massive employment projects, living wages, unemployment benefits, and of course, no payment of the debt. And some sectors are calling for the renationalization of the strategic sectors of the economy.
WHAT WILL Duhalde’s new government be like?
THE CURRENT government of President Duhalde is clearly a provocation. He’s a man of the right, and he’s organized, in the past, a political apparatus of thugs.
Despite what the press says, he is capable of putting right-wing street fighters out–fascist-like groups that can draw on lumpens and some disoriented unemployed to challenge for hegemony in the streets and take pressure off the police. There already has been one major confrontation with, of course, police taking the side of Duhalde’s Peronist thugs.
But this is, I think, a dress rehearsal. There is no honeymoon period for Duhalde. Right as we’re speaking today, there are massive demonstrations in Argentina, and there are preparations for a big show of force when he announces his economic program late this afternoon.
More than any recent events, we’re dealing with a country that has a long tradition of trade union, collective action. General strikes are more common in Argentina than in any country in the world.
This is the country that has the biggest concentration of unemployed industrial workers in the world today. And thirdly, this is the country with the largest number of unemployed workers organized and engaged in direct action.
What is, I think, necessary or missing in this context is a recognized political leadership that can carry this dynamic process forward to the creation of a workers’ government. I think the ensuing struggle is going to raise that question very acutely.
We should keep in mind that the leadership in Washington will not rest until it buries that movement. And I think what you might see is the maintenance of the civilian political facade and the return of the military as a determining factor in politics.
And that’s like throwing wood on the fire. As we saw in the earlier dictatorship of 1976, it took 30,000 dead and disappeared to bury that movement. This time, there are many, many more activists and militants than there were at the height of the mobilizations in the 1960s and 1970s.
YOU TALKED about the conservatism of labor leaders and the unions’ “ritual” general strikes. But haven’t the unions played a role in the resistance?
YOU CAN’T just speak of a general strike in Argentina. There are general strikes, and there are general strikes. And everybody knows that in Argentina. You can talk to a cab driver, who, when you ask, “What do you think of this general strike?” will tell you that the bureaucrats are using it to blow off steam.
They’re one-day affairs with no active mobilizations or factory occupations. The employers know it, and the government knows it–that if they sit on their hands for one day, everything goes back to normal.
So they have little consequences. There’s little mobilization and little in the way of activating the class and creating class consciousness. They’re decided from above, and they’re shut off from above.
There are three trade union confederations in Argentina. The official trade union is the CGT, which has allied itself with every government since the dictatorship–and even had arrangements with the dictatorship.
There’s the CGT-Moyano–the dissident CGT led by Hugo Moyano, which has been critical of the official CGT for being so closely tied to the government. But in turn, this federation is run by another set of bureaucrats who utilize their opposition to the status quo to pressure the government to make concessions to their followers while maintaining a distance from any structural challenges.