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D20 Argentina: 2 Years Later Piqueteros, Neighborhood Assemblies and Occupied Factories

Last week was the two-year anniversary of a popular uprising and economic crisis that profoundly changed social and political life in Argentina. For years, corporate globalization and capitalism have been causing increasing hardship and suffering in Latin America. But by late 2001 in Argentina, a particularly bad economy went into a complete free-fall that lit the final spark under a smoldering population. more...

Also see "Horizontalidad en Argentina" by Marina A Sitrin at...
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D20 Argentina: 2 Years Later Piqueteros, Neighborhood Assemblies and Occupied Factories

by Jim Straub

Last week was the two-year anniversary of a popular uprising and economic crisis that profoundly changed social and political life in Argentina. For years, corporate globalization and capitalism have been causing increasing hardship and suffering in Latin America. But by late 2001 in Argentina, a particularly bad economy went into a complete free-fall that lit the final spark under a smoldering population.

Argentina exploded in a torrent of popular anger on December 19 and 20, with spontaneous marches of millions of people converging on the President's House from all directions banging pots and calling for him to get out. Then-president de la Rua fled the country he'd formerly governed, and helped corporations loot, in a helicopter that day. Over the next ten days four more presidents were installed and overthrown. By the time the smoke cleared and a president managed to hang onto power in early January, dozens of protesters had died, politicians and the wealthy were practically in hiding, and Argentina's history had taken a sharp left turn--- taking a chunk of Latin America and the world with it.

Not as if those days of unrest marked the end of the "Argentinazo", or nationwide uprising. Far from it. With an entire social, economic and political order upended and an entire nation in the streets, a plethora of social movements emerged on a mass scale--- many of them looking unlike anything the world had really ever seen before. In every barrio, street and poor de-industrialized suburb in Argentina, unemployed workers' movements called "piqueteros" were blocking highways with burning tires to demand relief or revolution; spontaneously-formed neighborhood assemblies were using direct democracy to decide everything from how to keep the neighborhood's families fed to which politian's house to march to that day; factories and workplaces began being taken over by their workers; and millions of Argentines were relying on barter markets and mutual aid---instead of the corporate free market and devastated national currency---to survive. The streets had barely cleared of smoke in January 2002 before they started to fill with people, movements, organizations and social experiments.

Meanwhile, everyone from mainstream Argentine politicians, to neoliberal businessmen, to the burgeoning international global justice movement were running to catch up to the people in the streets, trying to figure out what Argentina's uprising meant for them. Would this spark flare up only to burn out, like so many momentary popular rebellions against the IMF and World Bank that have rocked the global south (and, recently, the north as well) for years? Or, on the other hand, would the forms of resistance, organization and survival that had sprung up in Argentina during it's economic catastrophe---largely new and semi-spontaneous innovations---be able to persist, flourish, and even, eventually, succeed in their aims?

Two years later, the word on the streets in Buenos Aires is: Yes, and no.

Some say mostly yes, and others, mostly no. The demonstrations that commemorated and continued the Argentinazo here yesterday, bringing tens of thousands to multiple protests and marches in Buenos Aires alone, indicated that the new Argentinian social movements are here to stay---but the question of whether or not they are also here to win is anyone's guess. While some neighborhood assemblies and organizations have dwindled or died, others have grown and flourished. Everything from the number of popular organizations to the amount of Argentine external debt is increasing, indicating that further confrontations between international capitalism and angry Argentines are fairly certain.

However, the movement is also facing a number of crises. At this two-year anniversary juncture, it might benefit people opposed to coporate capitalism and oppression worldwide to look once again to Argentina. For the moment at least, this South American nation of 35 million seems to be a sort of advanced laboratory for the left---in particular, to non-authoritarian, horizontal, anarchist, or autonomist trends in revolutionary resistance.

Argentina's uprising also provides an example of how a largely urbanized, postmodern, industrialized society accustomed to some first-world standards of life responded when those living standards were worn away first by neoliberalism and then destroyed completely by economic crisis.

The social movements that followed in Argentina, therefore, may have a great deal of concrete and practical importance for societies in the global north which are undergoing similar processes of deepening inequality and social disintegration under corporate globalization.

Unlike other exemplary and exciting moments of new resistance in Latin America, such as the Brazilian Landless Movement or Mexico's Zapatistas, the Argentinazo is a nuts and bolts model for remaking an urban and (de)industrialized society from the ground up through democratic and militant social movements after neoliberal impoverishment and economic collapse. North Americans should take note-- if all neoliberal roads can lead to Argentina, it'd benefit us to be heading there with eyes wide open.

What follows is a summary of three of the most important components of the Argentine social movements: The Piqueteros, the Neighborhood Assemblies, and the Occupied Factories.

The Piqueteros

'Piqueteros' is the name that has been given to one of the most exciting and powerful of the new social movements in Argentina. It refers to a large number of different federations (more than a dozen in just the Buenos Aires metro area) of organizations of the poor and unemployed.

These groups tend to have different goals, politics and strategies, but share a common constituency and tactical methodology. Most estimates of their numbers or membership are in the low hundreds of thousands.

To understand who the Piqueteros are and appreciate their significance, you have to know a little about Argentine society. For a long time, Argentina had not only a large middle class, but also a large industrial working class. These workers formed the backbone of populist president Juan Peron's political machine, and were traditionally organized in large, strong unions--- which lacked independence and democratic participation, and were subordinated to the president's Peronist Party. These workers won many reforms and material gains under Peron however, and in general the Argentine industrial working class was (compared to the rest of Latin America) relatively well-paid and well-organized.

This sector of society collapsed under neoliberalism and Peronist corruption. For decades one Argentine politician after another pursued a corporate economic path that gradually de-industrialized the country. Argentines had grown accustomed to a semblance of union power, semi-fair wages and conditions, and rights on the job. As a result, many multinational corporations have moved production out of Argentina (the same way they've moved a great deal of production out of the US rust belt). Things that were once made in Argentina, are now made in northern Mexico or China. At the same time, the main unions, whose beauracracies were never very progressive, have become more and more corrupt over the years, to the point where the main labor federation today, the CGT, is little more than a mafia. So both the job base, and the organizational base of what used to be Latin America's biggest and toughest industrial working class, have both been smashed.

This has changed the dynamics of class oppression in Argentina.

Unemployment is now at more than 25% of the population, and many of the jobs that are available are in the non-union service industry or informal sector. This has produced an enormous chunk of Argentine society who are essentially superfluous to the elites' market plans. These people live mostly in the de-industrialized, impoverished suburbs of the cities. They are extremely poor, and more than that, have been completely marginalized--- culturally, economically, politically, socially--- from the rest of Argentina.

This is the population that began organizing themselves in the mid-90s, into associations of unemployed people. As these groups slowly grew over several years, they benefitted from being overlooked by the country's traditional left. Peronist party bosses and Marxist vanguardians, usually eager to find any group of poor people to lead, largely failed to recognize the growing momentum of unemployed organization in Argentina in the late 90s. As a result, many of the early unemployed organizations broke with traditional leftist practices. They used a number of strikingly participatory, directly democratic means such as common assemblies to make decisions, and emphasized broad participation and internal equality in decision-making. Many also rejected the historical abuse of working-class organization by clientelist political parties and opposed electoral participation entirely. These strategies came to be called "Horizontalism" and "Autonomism" in Argentina.

Later, after the Piquetero movement had mushroomed and grown immensely, the left realized what it was missing and to some degree 'copied' the Piquetero methodology, organizing similar groups with their own agendas. But although there are now Piquetero groups allied with Peronist politicians and old-left type parties, many of the federations, notably the Unemployed Workers Movement "Anibal Veron", remain more or less 'horizontal' and 'autonomous', and have their own fresh tactics and demands.

What are these tactics and demands? The Piqueteros do 'cortas de ruta', or road-blockades, to cause economic disruption to the system and press for their demands. Placed as they are on the outskirts of cities, these groups are particularly well-situated to simply stop the flow of resources from the country to the ports and then the developed world, by bringing a couple hundred folks to a highway, blocking it with burning tires, and barricading it to make sure traffic is stopped. The widespread use of this tactic by the Piqueteros is in many ways a brilliant innovation--- those who are unemployed or marginally employed can not go out on strike. But with these road-blockades, the Piqueteros have identified a potential link in the capitalist profit-system-- namely, the transportation of goods--that is vulnerable to their collective action.

In one recent road-blockade, one Piquetero organization blockaded the entrances to some enormous supermarkets and malls on the day before Christmas, the biggest shopping day of the year. Such actions have resulted in direct pressure on the corporations by economic disruption, and indirect pressure on the government. Not least of all, those participating experienced immediate material gains, as the supermarkets in the end gave large amounts of food for the families of the Piquetero organizations. This ability to mix immediate demands and gains with a broader militant pressure on the capitalist system is one of the Piquetero's main strengths, and something that activists in the global north would do well to pay attention to if they hope to build or support similar mass movements.

In addition to winning temporary gains like food, last year the Piqueteros won a nationwide unemployment program. This program pays 150 pesos (50 dollars) per month to unemployed individuals (the same amount, no matter the size of family); in comparison to what came before, and other Latin America countries it is a step forward, but still not nearly enough to even feed a family adequately. A significant aspect of this program is that it is distributed directly by the Piquetero groups themselves. While this has had some beneficial aspects for the groups, allowing a great deal of collective neighborhood- and organizational-building, it has also started to 'beauracratize' the movement. As of now, the largest 'Piquetero' groups are the 'officialista' ones grouped under a leader named D'Elia, who are becoming little more than adjuncts to the President's welfare plan (or, more simply, poverty pimps). Leaving these groups aside, however, it seems that all Piquetero organizations that participate in the welfare-distribution plan are getting increasingly beauracratized and caught in political contradictions.

An alternative path to the welfare-distribution can be seen in the Piqueteros' other main activity, which is the enormous variety of mutual-aid activities in their barrios. These include everything from collective construction of community or health centers, housing occupations, utility pirating, alternative pirate media, organic gardens and livestock raising, youth programs, festivals, and a large number of collective neighborhood soup kitchens. Piqueteros work together gardening or baking bread, then cooking, and then that food is served in popular kitchens where the jobless and hungry eat with genuine dignity and solidarity.

This process, of people long cast-aside by the economy coming together to work again at something meaningful which directly contributes to their collective well-being, has generated the Piqueteros' demands. Rather than typical old-left demands such as nationalization of industry, they have their own types of demands, for things like "genuine work," social justice and an end to neoliberalism. Of course these things are hardly possible under capitalism, leading many Piquetero groups to larger conclusions about capitalism or hierarchy and exploitation itself. In the process of working together at the bakeries and gardens and workshops for their collective well-being, and also fighting in the streets and highways to disrupt the economy with physical force to win certain concessions, it really does seem as if the Piqueteros are forming a new, grass-roots reformulation of anti-capitalist organization, without outdated rhetoric or mistakes.

At the same time, the Piqueteros are certainly facing some serious challenges and attacks. The new reformist government of Nestor Kirschner has given some concessions to the unemployed, which has resulted in a general demobilization, and some Piquetero groups are actively advocating working with Kirschner. President Kirschner, meanwhile, has been totally open that his strategy is to woo a minority of the Piquetero groups to his side by offering small concessions to the members and political benefits to their beauracracy; and to then repress and smash the remaining Piquetero groups who maintain indepdence and political demands. In the face of this likely-coming onslaught, the movement is undergoing numerous splits and divisions, with sectarianism sadly flourishing and political opportunism on the rise.

There has been a drop in participation as a result of these problems. The anniversary protests marking December 20 should be an indicator of Piquetero strength in the Buenos Aires region but there were three different protests: one by the 'officialista' or sold-out groups, who are the largest and who celebrated the day with a big rally for the President in a football stadium; another by the 'Autonomistas' tendency; and another large and spirited one by the 'duros', who are viewed as most radical and which include most of the Marxist-organized Piquetero groups. All three put together mobilized probably less than 100,000 people, which is certainly significant, but a far cry from the millions in the streets two years back. Many also say that right now some Piquetero federations are actually mobilizing for too many protests too often, and wearing their members out.

However, the general belief is that whatever the current state of Piquetero politics, many of the changes in the consciouness and self-organization of the suburban underclass in Argentina are going to be lasting. One of the Autonomista groups, MTD Solano, which recently split off from the Anibal Veron federation, may exemplify the Piquetero spirit.

They have a garden and raise livestock for use in their neighborhood's communal soup-kitchen in an abandoned factory. In the exact place where, decades ago, industrially-organized Peronist workers labored at manufacturing refrigerators, today those same people and their kids are at work hoeing and weeding and growing carrots and tomatoes for a neighborhood soup kitchen. The politics of survival, perhaps, but one with a good dose of class-consciousness and militant organization. Currently divided and suffering a drop in participation, the Piquetero has the potential to draw support from the hundred thousand-some poor people of the Solano area in future confrontations with neoliberalism. This January 11th, the MTD Solano Piquetero plans to host an international autonomist encuentro, hoping to, like the Zapastias before them, connect with others around the world searching for a similar revolutionary, but autonomist, strategy.

The Neighborhood Assemblies

As the Argentine economic crisis worsened in the late 90s, a number of people in neighborhoods across the country began meeting to discuss and try to make sense of the complex economic catastrophe that was destroying their lives. At first these were small, feverish, unplanned encounters on streetcorners but as the crisis worsened, these meetings became bigger, more regular, and moved into the streets themselves. By the time Argentina exploded in December 2001, entire neighborhoods were having enormous, generally-open meetings regularly. Assemblies at first were largely for people to just meet neighbors and empathize, then were forums to coordinate neighborhood participation in citywide demonstrations, and went on to found soup kitchens, mutual aid programs, barter markets, skill exchanges, rallies or protests, murals or public art, housing occupations or defenses, study or discussion groups, or any number of other things in their respective neighborhoods. Similar to the Piqueteros, these assemblies were strikingly different from the old left, and were organized as horizontally and democratically as possible--- often at great, great pain and difficulty. Many of the participants were radical young people without any political affiliation, but with the crisis worsening they gathered an enormous amount of general participation and legitimacy in their respective neighborhoods. This brought enormous numbers of ordinary Argentines into political resistance, and on their own terms, in effective and innovative ways. An Inter-Assembly was created, which every other assembly in the city sent one reprsentative to, which then met and attempted to do cityiwde coordination of resistance and mutual aid.

One aspect of the Neighborhood Assemblies was that they undoubtedly appeared much more middle-class in origin than the Piqueteros. This was to some degree true, although it might be more accurate to say that they were heterogenous, or mixed, with regards to class. Years of neoliberalism had plunged most of the working class and lower middle class into poverty; the economic crash of 2001 pushed much of the rest of the middle class down the ladder as well. As a result the Assemblies, who were constituted not along specific class or ideology lines but rather geographically, were quite a mixed bag.

At their best, they exemplified the diverse spirit of Buenos Aires, which has long had a heterogenous neighborhood life in most non-elite barrios--- it's the kind of city where an aluminum workshop might be next door to a psychoanalysts' office, where tenements and middle-class homes coexist in some areas. One participant explained how his neighborhood assembly "in the run down middle class barrio of Parque Patricios, includes unemployed people from the nearby shanty town, a trombone player from Buenos Aires' philharmonic orchestra, a tango professor, several nurses and hospital workers, journalists, an evangelist minister, some mechanics and the owner of a struggling art gallery."

However, at their worst this ecclectic variation paralyzed Assemblies. Factions from different ideologies would often fight viciously while ordinary people lost interest; at times middle-class people with resources and education often defined the Assemblies and steered them more towards middle-class agendas like recovering bank savings the government had frozen.

Put together with the Piqueteros, the Neighborhood Assembly experience moved many outside commentators to belive that the movement in Argentina was approaching a state of "dual power", or on the brink of total revolution which would remake society from the ground up in totally non-heirarchical, directly-democratic, anti-capitalist ways. This was, alas, a grave overstatement.

The Neighborhood Assemblies did many great things, but were also plagued by problems. The process of formulating and learning direct democracy, on such a widespread scale so quickly, was very uneven. Some assemblies were enormous and accomplished much. Others devolved in bitter arguments or power-struggles between different sects or tendencies as soon as the mass mobilizations started dying down.

The intuitive innovation of forming groups that were not defined by political idenitity but by geographic location helped the Assemblies grow as fastly as they did initially, but led to many internal problems and divisions down the road. And while general political goals could sometimes be agreed upon, doing the nuts and bolts concrete work in as democratic and decentralized way turned out to be vastly more difficult. As of right now, some Neighborhood Assemblies are still meeting, organizing, and doing work. But many no longer exist.

The Occupied Factories

As noted before, Argentina is a very de-industrialized country. However, there are of course still tons of factories and companies of all kinds, which do employ large numbers of people. During the 90s, since the politicians did not have a real solution to the growing unempoyment, a variety of subsidies and incentives were made available to companies that hired more people than they actually needed. Although this periodically lessened the growth of unemployment, in general it worsened the problem in the long run. One thing that happened repeatedly was that owners of factories or companies would hire too many people, rake in subsidies, get rich, let the company go bankrupt, and then buy it again at rock-bottom prices on auction afterwards without any legal obligation to pay employees the back wages they were owed.

The accumulating grievances from workers who'd been screwed once or even multiple times from this same scam eventually emboldened some workers. Owed back wages and seeing the factories they'd once worked in abandoned, they occupied and seized their workplaces. Across the country, hundreds of different kind of comanies or factories have been taken over in this manner, usually by radical organizations of workers owed back wages who then self-manage their workplace as a more egalitarian worker-owned co-op. There are chocalate, aluminum, ceramics, concrete and clothing factories, as well as printshops, orchards, and other enterprises seized by their workers.

This is, of course, an extremely exciting political development. The seizure of the means of production by the workers' themselves is the backbone of just about every revolutionary left ideology that exists. However, it should be noted that although these workplaces are in general self-managed democratically and for the workers' benefit, they are still entirely forced to exist inside the capitalist market. They mostly still have administrators, and certainly some of the workers involved are more concerned with saving their jobs than any socialization of the means of production.

That said, a number of the occupied factories are indeed centers of worker militancy, especially the Brukman textile plant in Buenos Aires and the Zanon ceramics facotry in Neuquen, to name just two. At the height of the crisis, when an estimated 7 million Argentines were relying on barter markets, and not the formal economy, to get by, some of these factories were producing for the barter markets, which raised many hopes about eventually transcending the capitalist economy itself in Argentina.

Currently, there are at least 200 occupied factories, and many other enterprises in grey areas of worker-occupation and legality. Information is just beginning to be collected and analyzed on the movement, and radicals in the sociology department of the Buenos Aires University just put out a book analyzing and compiling the existing data on a number of occupied factories. What is generally known, however, is that while the economic weight of just these 200-some factories may be relatively insignificant, their symbolic worth is immeasurable. In a time when forces for liberation have, sadly, lost their ability to even think in terms of taking over and managing the work and wealth of society for the benefit of all instead of for the owners, the occupied companies of Argentina are a blazingly bright spot for all of us.



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jim Straub is an anarchist and organizer involved with labor, anti-war and global justice organizing in Richmond, VA. He is currently in Latin America to study spanish, social movements and history (as well as fill his heart with revolutionary ardour). He would appreciate feedback at  jimstraub@riseup.net.

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