Shortly after 11pm on 19th December, 2001, residents of Buenos Aires began streaming out of their homes, blocking streets in their neighbourhoods and marching towards the Plaza de Mayo. Soon, the banging of pots and pans—a form of protest coined as a cacerolazo—could be heard throughout the capital.
Street protests were nothing new in Argentina at the time. With the economy in its third year of recession and unemployment approaching 20%, piqueteros (picketers) frequently cut streets to demand government support while labour unions had called regular general strikes. The situation had deteriorated since the beginning of December, when Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo imposed restrictions on cash withdrawals from banks, leaving many angry clients unable to access their savings.
But this night was different.
Moments earlier, President Fernando de la Rúa had called a national state of emergency in a televised address. The measure was designed to put a stop to the unrest and looting that had for days been escalating in the impoverished outskirts of the city, turning increasingly violent. Instead, in a spontaneous display of collective anger and defiance, the public—significantly, the middle class—took to the streets with a simple message for the political leadership: “que se vayan todos” (get out, all of you).
It was the point of no return for De la Rúa, who had become a political pariah, even within his own party. The president would leave office at 7pm the following day, departing ignominiously by helicopter from the roof of the presidential palace as police violently suppressed the street protests below, killing five people in the city centre. In total, 39 people lost their lives in two days of unrest.
Yet this was more than just the removal of an unpopular government. The uprising of the 19th and 20th—later known as the Argentinazo—represented a rupture between the Argentine people and the discredited political establishment. There were no partisan banners or chants in the protests, just a collective rejection of the ruling class and the economic paradigm that had been implemented 25-years earlier with the military dictatorship and intensified during the neo-liberal frenzy of the 1990s.
In the chaotic fortnight that followed, the country had four different presidents who, between them, enacted both the biggest debt default and currency devaluation in global history. As the rebuilding process began in 2002 under President Eduardo Duhalde, half of the population lived under the poverty line; among the other half, many chose to emigrate. The damaged – but not broken – democratic institutions faced a new social reality, with a intolerant public that had, temporarily at least, put aside class distinctions to combine and magnify the impact of the piquete and cacerolazo.
Ten years later, the immediate effects of the crisis are now barely noticeable, but its legacy lives on in today’s policies, social movements, and local attitudes.
In the coming month, The Argentina Independent will revisit this historic turning point in a series of articles ten years on from the crisis. In part one, starting tomorrow with testimonies from the protagonists of the Argentinazo, we will hear the personal stories of those who lived through those days, and analyse the role of the key players – both inside and outside of the country – who led the country into the abyss.
In the second half of the series, we will examine the Argentina that emerged from the ruins: the popular assemblies, bartering clubs, and recuperated factories that typified a new era of social activism and participation; the political hole that would be filled by kirchnerismo; and the resurrection of the internal market as the pillar of the economic model.
The reconstruction of the State, the evolution of social movements, and the search for justice are complex and unfinished processes, even a decade later, and we cannot aspire to cover all aspects of the ‘2001 effect’ or answer all the questions that remain from those fateful days. Neither is our intention to condemn or romanticise the path that the country has taken on its ongoing recovery.
However, as the paradigm of free market capitalism and corporate-led politics comes under strain in the developed world, a better understanding of the new Argentina – including all of its flaws and idiosyncrasies – can only enrich the contemporary debate.
This is what we hope to provide, and encourage you, our readers, to participate with your own comments, questions and experiences.
Update: below are the links to the articles in this special series.
2001-2011: The Day That Changed Argentine History
2001-2011: The Making of a Crisis
The Indy Eye: December 2001 and 2011
2002-2012: Kirchnerism and the Rebuilding of the State
2002-2012: The Social Movements that Re-imagined Argentina