Bearded, battle-scarred and bolshie, Raúl Castells is chalk to his presidential rival Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s cheese. She is the wife of president Néstor Kirchner; he was imprisoned by him. She is manicured, coiffed and made-up like a TV star; when we meet, he is scruffy and casual in jeans and a poncho.
Castells has been one of Argentina’s major socialist protestors – known here as piqueteros – for decades, a thorn in the side of numerous successive presidents. Now, in 2007, he’s running for the top job himself.
Two weeks out from the elections, he managed to fit The Argentina Independent into his busy schedule of media appearances.
Why did you decide to run for president?
To represent the most humble sectors of society in this country. I am part of an organisation called the Independent Movement for the Retired and Unemployed. In this country there are around five million pensioners, and 4.5 million unemployed people. We also fight for Argentina’s 2.5 million rural poor.
Our struggle is for an Argentina that is more just and equitable than the one we’re currently living in.
If you were elected on 28th October, what would your government do for Argentina?
The first step would be to nationalise gas, petroleum and mining. We are the only country in the world in which all the natural resources have been handed over to foreign owners. All of them – 100% of our petroleum, 100% of our gas, 100% of our mines, are all in the hands of foreign capitalists.
The second step would be to stop debt repayments to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Last year, Argentina paid back US$10bn, and this year US$13.7bn – and yet still we owe them 160 billion dollars. We would suspend these payments on external debt and use this money to revitalise the Argentine economy, by increasing salaries and pensions and giving credit to small and medium producers in the countryside and the city.
Thirdly, we would nationalise our natural environmental resources. Fifty-two percent of Argentina is owned by 6,200 large landholders. The Italian company Benetton owns 800,000 hectares of our country, and US national Douglas Tompkins owns 370,000 hectares, including lakes and lagoons containing potable water. No one should be able to buy a lake! Selling off our mountains or waterfalls or natural reserves is unacceptable – we propose to nationalise all this.
Are your politics influenced by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez or Bolivia’s Evo Morales?
Yes. We are proposing a process that would be similar to that implemented in Venezuela by Chávez in particular, but there are also parallels with Bolivia. We see them as anti-imperialist, nationalistic, progressive movements of the workers and the people. We would like to see something similar for our country.
If you’re not elected, what will you do to continue to the fight for the Argentine people?
We have been struggling for these things for years. We have been severely repressed by this government, and we reject them. We will continue the fight with popular mobilisation of workers and peasant farmers, whatever the results of the election.
Some have described you as an Argentine Robin Hood, robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Do you see yourself like that?
The idea of Robin Hood is something more individual – we are a collective. But yes – we think that there does need to be a redistribution of wealth.
We don’t agree with the fact that in Argentina, 55 children under five die every day from malnutrition. We don’t agree with the fact that 17,000 people die every year from hunger in a country like ours – a global food producer! We are the fifth biggest food exporter in the world, and today, 55 children are going to die of hunger.
We don’t accept that people should be dying of malnutrition in our country. But we’re not planning to rob the rich – what we mean by popular mobilisation is that we must guarantee food access and survival for everyone. For example, right now a pensioner receives US$6 per day, but a kilo of tomatoes costs him US$5, a kilo of meat US$4. And there’s no relation between what people are earning and the prices of food – it doesn’t add up.
A year and a half ago you opened a soup kitchen in Buenos Aires’ richest suburb – Puerto Madero. Is it still in operation?
It is – but as a cultural and political centre, because three months ago the government banned us from serving food. The soup kitchen is just 100 metres from the government buildings and 150 metres from the Hilton Hotel. At the Hilton guests pay US$300 a night to stay there, and because President Kirchner doesn’t want them to have to look at poor people, he has forbidden us to make any more food.
Nina Pelozo, my co-leader in this movement, is to face trial on 16th October – yet all she did was to make a simple dish of guiso (a typical Argentine stew) and serve it free to people who had nothing else to eat.
Every weekend in the afternoons we still do activities there – but as of three months ago we are no longer allowed to serve food to poor people.
Why did you decide to open the soup kitchen there in Puerto Madero?
Because out of the three million people who live in the centre of Buenos Aires, 10,000 are homeless and live in the streets and the plazas. Some 150,000 live in impoverished shantytowns and another 70,000 live in crowded, substandard housing. There are many many poor people living alongside very rich people – in Puerto Madero there are 82 restaurants in a row where it costs something like US$100 for a meal. We think poor people too should have the right to eat. It is a form of protest to open a community soup kitchen there. The government doesn’t want to see poor people eating there – they put up with us for a year and a half, but now they can’t put up with us any longer.
While we’re talking, on a central street corner, two elderly passers-by come up to Castells and warmly shake his hand. “Good luck with your struggle,” they tell him. “Keep up the good work.” As I leave, they are taking turns to pose for photos with him.
Like Robin Hood, Argentina’s most famous piquetero is a controversial figure, revered by some and reviled by others. He might not become the country’s next president – but he’s still be here, making sure Argentina knows what he’s fighting for.