BUENOS AIRES, Feb 13 - Neighborhood assemblies throughout Argentina are springing up, as a groundswell of people seek to change the political landscape amidst the country's social and economic collapse.
Many assembly participants are young people who are fed up with the political parties they say have betrayed their ideals. But there are also many unemployed, out-of-business shopkeepers, retirees, teachers and professionals also taking an active role in the meetings. Many had never taken part in any citizen-based mobilization before in their lives.
There are several common denominators among the assemblies held each week since late December in more than 50 neighborhoods, such as the rising anxieties of the most desperate and the increasing calm among those attempting to organize grassroots participation to make their demands heard.
The vast majority of the neighbors participating in the assemblies believe that political leaders are ignorant of the people's needs. In many cases residents do not personally know their elected city council members and local legislators, nor where they live. They are seen as mere representatives of political parties.
Now, however, independent citizens are adopting the terminology characteristic of party politics: assemblies, agendas, motion for order, moderators, committees, and liaison commissions.
But few assembly participants have grand hopes for change. They say, at least, that they want to remain alert to the government's measures, channel their need for participation and expression, and try to put some new faces in the political arena, even if the new politicians lack experience.
"Everyone is completely fed up with corrupt politicians. We are not against democracy, but the neighbors seem to be allergic to anything that smells like politics," Carmen Fern?ndez, a teacher from Buenos Aires' Palermo neighborhood and head of her district's Education Committee, told IPS.
There is a great deal of talk at the assemblies about the "common enemy", which everyone agrees are Argentina's political leaders. The neighborhood organizations have been careful to maintain a horizontal structure, in which everyone has the right to make proposals, and leaders seem to emerge based on who best facilitates participation. Usually someone offers a warehouse for a meeting site in case of rain, and someone else offers a printing press to print posters or a newsletter. At one assembly, young filmmakers proposed to record the sessions for a documentary. Attorneys, accountants and doctors offer their professional services. The slogan heard most often is "all the politicians out", but the assembly-goers insist this is not a call for an end to the democratic system. "On the contrary. To get out of this crisis requires more politics, but real politics. These meetings of common people on the street are the fundamental form of doing politics," Roli Sampieri, an accountant in charge of the Press Committee for the Almagro neighborhood assembly in the capital, told IPS.
"When a married couple decides to separate, that doesn't mean that they won't go on to marry someone else. This is the same thing: we don't want these politicians. We want a change," Sampieri said.
Only the ongoing street protests by the Argentine people can convince the career politicians to think of the common good and not about personal gain, according to the activist. In the long term, there will have to be a change in leadership that is founded on a more community-based conception of politics, he added.
Another Almagro neighbor, Mario Colombati, agrees. "We are not satisfied with merely casting a vote at election time. We want to participate and we want them to listen to us more often, because that is the main problem, they don't listen to us," he said in a conversation with IPS.
In last October's legislative elections (the vote is compulsory in Argentina), Colombati annulled his ballot in protest to express his discontent with the political parties. But, he said, "we cannot live without politicians, because that would be anarchy. We want those who robbed us to leave, and we want to closely monitor those who replace them," he said. Most of the neighborhood assemblies were founded after the first major "caceroleo" protest, when Argentines came out in masses, banging pots and pans in protest against then president Fernando de la R?a, who resigned Dec 20. At first it was just a handful of neighbors who gathered together, concerned about preventing the new government from being made up of the same leaders with a different disguise. With the series of political turnovers and the ever-deepening social and economic crisis, the meetings have achieved greater impact, and new leaders are emerging. The neighbors at the assemblies choose delegates who participate every Sunday in an inter-neighbourhood plenary session, which draws some 4,000 people. There, representatives from middle-class districts mix with those from the wealthiest and the poorest neighborhoods Their proposals often become radicalized, and protests are expressed on behalf of an array of groups: the unemployed, merchants, former party activists, and savers who have been hurt by the government's economic measures of the last two months.
The non-governmental organization 'Poder Ciudadano' (Citizen Power) offered the assembly participants a free course in institutional monitoring. The program is called "Citizens as protagonists of change" and seeks to provide practical tools to the movement that expresses itself in 'cacerolazos', neighborhood meetings and marches.
But there are many who appear already to possess some working knowledge as a result of their activism in student organizations, political parties or labor unions. "The assembly shall be considered constituted when at least 20 neighbors are present. All who live in the neighborhood may participate with voice and vote," reads a woman, aided by a brand- new megaphone, on a street corner where more than a hundred residents have gathered. "The executive committee shall meet 15 minutes prior to the assembly to draft the agenda with the proposals provided by the neighbors," she says, handing the word - and the megaphone - over to the "moderator". It is clarified repeatedly that "here, no one is in charge, we are going to take turns." One of the proposals made during the assembly was to set aside 15 minutes each week on a neighborhood radio program to provide updates about the movement. The proposal was readily accepted. But when the moderate announced that a television news program has sent a reporter and a camera operator, the reaction is one of absolute rejection, with the neighbors shouting for the media representatives to leave.
The reporter is from a program whose host has supported the government's economic reforms in the past few years and who now is seen as inciting protest with a right-wing discourse. The neighbors make it clear they do not want anyone to use them to advance a cause they do not agree with.
In fact, in the assemblies and in mass e-mails, Argentines are calling not only for the removal of the career politicians and entrenched union leaders, but also for the rejection of the privatized entities entrusted with public services and of the news media which, they say, are not accurately portraying the population's suffering.
"I am very surprised because there are people participating who otherwise never left their homes. My 70-year-old neighbor had never taken part in anything, but now she has such an extremist stance that it is truly astonishing," said Palermo neighborhood assembly participant Fern?ndez. <>She said one of the slogans repeated in her neighborhood is "the politicians must go because they do not understand a thing." Fern?ndez explained that this reflects the sentiment that political leaders no longer comprehend, nor can they express, the citizenry's problems because they are too far removed from that reality.
For Sampieri, the national crisis was a long time in the making and these assemblies are a response to the loss of credibility of the political system in general. "Politics continues to be the only way to express one's self, but the people reject the political parties, and therefore are gathering in the streets," he said.
Some of the initiatives coming out of the assemblies include organizing a volunteer corps to provide assistance to retirees and the unemployed and to help with the needs outlined by hospital personnel, but the priority is ultimately to take their proposals to the national level.
The neighborhood assemblies are planning a march on the legislative palace when the lawmakers gather to debate the government budget, protests outside bank headquarters to protest the transfer to pesos - the national currency - of dollar deposits, and demonstrations against the representatives of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) who visit Argentina.
"I don't know if this will lead to change, but at least it is teaching us to be more alert," said one resident as she headed home after an assembly meeting. Copyright ? 2001 inter-agency press service