Tag Archive | "neighbourhood assemblies"

2002-2012: Remembering the Social Movements that Reimagined Argentina


In the Argentina of today, looking back on the country’s crushing economic crisis of 2001-02 a decade ago can sometimes become an oversimplified exercise: things were bad, people got angry, now everything is fine. With unparalleled economic growth since 2003, and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s landslide re-election victory, it is easy to forget just how the country climbed out of those dark days of December. While many attribute former President Néstor Kirchner with creating a new economic model that reigned in a private sector run wild, it was the Argentine people whose unyielding protests during the 1990s and through the turn of the century would ultimately bring about change.

As historian Ezequiel Adamovsky writes in Le Monde Diplomatique, “It was the constant threat of looting, targeting of politicians, of rebellion, of occupations, of roadblocks, and those assemblies that disciplined both management and local and international financial sectors, opening an unimagined space for politics.”

This unimagined space included the unemployed, labor unions, and the middle classes alike, who took to the streets in the final days of 2001, uniting under the slogan “Que se vayan todos!” (They all must go).

Batering in lieu of cash (Photo: Oriana Eliçabe)

From a vacuum of political power and severe economic necessity grew new formations outside of traditional party politics. Hundreds of neighborhood assemblies came together to meet peoples’ most basic needs and create a space for local dialogue. Bartering clubs (with their own forms of currency) experimented in alternative economics, and workers of bankrupt businesses began to occupy and run enterprises on their own.

Ten years on, with fewer street protests and U.S. trademarks like Starbucks and Subway encroaching on the capital, what remains of this anti-neoliberal angst? How have the political and social formations, whose “horizontal” nature inspired not just Argentina but the entire world, faded into the background of the political landscape? Which projects have survived? Though the country may be far from the chaos of economic collapse, is the economic model the Kirchner governments have so exalted crisis-proof?

Long Time Coming: 1990s and the Piquetero Movement

The neoliberal model exercised in the extreme by Carlos Menem in the 1990s took its toll on society. Unemployment reached 17% in 1996 and infant mortality rate from 1995-97 was 20.4 (20.4 of 1000 infants would die before their first birthday). At the same time, the country had no social safety net or unemployment centers to help the poor subsist and find work. As sociologist Maristella Svampa details, “there were no policies to compensate the effects of labor ‘flexibilisation’ measures or massive firings that accompanied the privatisation of state enterprises, not to mention these companies’ adjustment to a new open­market context.”

The poor suburbs of Buenos Aires in addition to rural provinces like Salta and Jujuy were the hardest hit, with entire neighborhoods left to fend for themselves without paved roads, electricity, sewage, transportation, and whole communities out of work. Big unions were ineffective, striking deals with the Menem government to remain docile while ignoring the growing ranks of unemployed.

“You saw people deteriorate very quickly,” says Fabián Pierucci, economist and former piquetero with the Movement of Unemployed in the neighborhood of Solano. “Because how long can people go without eating, without being able to buy their medicine? You saw friends get thin and die like flies.”

Piqueteros cutting off Puente Pueyrredon (Photo: Manuel Palacios)

From these forgotten neighborhoods the piquetero (road blockade) movement of the unemployed was born. Living on the outskirts of the city, residents regularly witnessed the food and goods they sorely needed pass their precarious homes on the way to the centre. Seeing no alternative, they began to blockade major roads with burning tires as a way to draw attention to their destitution and demand government assistance.

Blockades were met with police repression and a minimal response by the Menem government, including the Plan Trabajar (Work Plan), that put the onus on non-profits to propose local improvement projects and then subsidise residents to work on them. As Svampa writes, the subsidies were “aimed at containing social disruption” and “constituted neither unemployment insurance, nor targeted financial assistance, nor job relocation policies.”

As the economic situation deteriorated in 2001, the piquetero movement began to gain legitimacy within the middle classes who joined them in the streets in response to additional pension and salary cuts implemented by a government scrambling to avoid the inevitable debt default. The country was on the brink, and hit breaking point with the mass uprising on 19th and 20th December that finally forced out President Fernando De la Rúa and ended 25-years of neo-liberal economic rule.

Collapse, Chaos, Creativity

By the time Eduardo Duhalde was appointed interim president at the start of 2002—the country’s fifth leader in less than two weeks—political legitimacy was lost. The year would begin unlike any other: with newfound popular power, a sense of intra-class solidarity, and innovative propositions for local decision-making.

Neighborhood Assemblies in 2002 (Photo: Oriana Eliçabe)

From initial citywide gatherings made up of thousands, assemblies began to form based on neighbourhoods. While at first meeting in plazas and on street corners, they began to occupy buildings and organise themselves into work committees around press, culture, employment, services, health, political action, and community purchases. Assemblies organised neighbourhood surveys to determine local needs; set up soup kitchens, community gardens, tutoring programs, and radio stations; and continued protesting the banks by staging direct actions and occupations.

Meanwhile, the lack of cash meant that clubes de trueque or bartering clubs – which had existed prior to the crash – tripled in number throughout the country, reaching 5,000 in 2002 with an estimated 4 million participants. Members invented their own forms of currency and began to trade food, goods, and services, creating an alternative economy based on principles of solidarity.

Simultaneously, another movement of workers was occupying bankrupt factories and businesses that had been abandoned by their owners. As journalist Marie Trigona explains, “most of the worker takeovers were to guarantee that the owners wouldn’t be able to liquidate assets before filing bankruptcy to avoid paying workers indemnities and back salaries.” But as the occupations continued, “demands steadily grew from a measure to safeguard their jobs to the idea of implementing a system of self-management.” Knowing that former owners were never going to compensate them nor reinvest in the business, workers planned and began production, laboring under a new cooperative model with equal pay for all and no bosses.

New Values, New Identities

It wasn’t simply what Argentines jumpstarted after the crisis, but how they did it that was so groundbreaking. Guided by principles of autonomy, equal participation, and democracy, these new formations were an implicit rejection of the hierarchies of the traditional political parties and private businesses that had so deceived the people.

Neighbourhood assemblies referred to themselves as “autoconvocados” (self-convoked) and made decisions using a consensus model in which all had equal say and majority voting was often a last resource. There was also a renewed sense of solidarity between classes, as assemblies in middle-class neighbourhoods directed many programmes to the poor and unemployed. In Villa Pueyrredon, the assembly set up daily lunches for the growing number of cartoneros, those who collect and recycle cardboard in return for a small stipend. In a country where inequity often pits the poor against the middle class, this kind of solidarity was unique and critical.

By the same token, solidarity, democracy, autonomy were the core values of the recuperated factories movement. At odds with a capitalist business model that looks to maximise profit often at human expense, for the cooperatives, in which workers are also owners, layoffs are not a tool for balancing the books.

Fabian Pierucci (Photo: Patricio Guillamón)

Through Argentines’ experiences in these “horizontal” projects, new forms of social relationships and new identities emerged based on values of mutual support and solidarity over individualism and exploitation. Fabián Pierucci, who after organising with the unemployed workers’ movement began working with the 180-room recuperated BAUEN hotel says that the most important part about the recuperated enterprises has been the “possibility of constructing a new imaginary” that directly questions the logic of private property.

“It puts hierarchy into question when organizations like this one that can move forward by way of assembly and doesn’t need employers with their managerial placards who come to administrate.”

Though faced with countless uncertainties, Argentines’ efforts led to what Adamovsky calls the “permanent installation of a new left culture, absent in political traditions of the past.”

The Kirchner Effect

It was in this context of amplified political activity that Nestor Kirchner was narrowly elected president in May of 2003. Often seen as the political knight in shining armor, Adamovsky terms Kirchner’s election as “unthinkable without the political vacuum that 2001 created.” The immediate steps his government took to renegotiate international debt and cut ties with the IMF and World Bank, Adamovsky believes would have been “impossible without the underlying detail of people in the streets and the profound questioning of financial institutions.”

Yet for the majority of the movements that sprung up in the late 90s and throughout the crisis, the Kirchners have been a demobilising and contentious force. For the piquetero and unemployed workers movements, the minimal increase in state assistance came to be the dangling carrot with strings attached. Still without broad solutions for unemployment, assistance plans multiplied and were left up to the piquetero organizations and political party leaders to distribute, usually in exchange for political loyalty.

“Nestor Kirchner’s policy consisted of simultaneously enacting strategies to integrate, co-opt, and discipline the piquetero organizations,” writes Svampa. She details how the piquetero movement as a whole became limited to acquiring and maintaining government funds, leaving aside goals of broader social reform. While not all piquetero groups could be co-opted, those that have chosen to ally with the government have been rewarded with economic and organisational resources.

In many cases, the so-called political leaders charged with giving out funds to impoverished neighbourhoods—commonly referred to as punteros—have used their role as distributor in order to turn a profit.

“The puntero is the same in any neighborhood,” says Fabián Pierucci, “where a leader from the Workers Party or Kircherist or Duhaldist says, ‘I’ll give you a plan if you give me money.’” Disheartened by the decline of the piquetero movement he reflects on these assistance-based politics. “To me the question has to do with what kind of alternative politics one represents, and if reproducing forms of clientalism is the alternative, or if it’s something else.”

Neighbourhood assemblies also dwindled, with some of the largest having disappeared altogether. Initially assembly spaces were politically diverse due to members’ newness to social activism and differing backgrounds.

“We were neighbors. We didn’t have anything else in common other than our neighbourhood, no kind of ideology,” says Eva Sinchecay of the Villa Pueyrredon assembly. It was something that turned out to be both a strength and a weakness as assemblies were more independent but became susceptible to the agendas of left groups that used them as a means of recruitment. “It began to dissolve,” says Sinchecay, whose assembly splintered after the uncooperative participation of a communist group.

Much of the middle-class that made up the bulk of the neighbourhood assemblies was captivated by Kirchner’s presidency. The rejection of neoliberal economics and opening up of human rights cases against former members of Argentina’s military junta gave many new hope that this government would be different. But the Kirchners’ reforms were not the radical move toward alternative economic and social relations that the assemblies had once proposed.

“What we wanted is for them all to leave,” says Sinchecay, who says she is doesn’t identify with any political party. “Hardly anything has changed. I’d like to see better distribution of wealth, more education, more healthcare. There is terrible corruption.”

Adamovksy puts the Kirchners’ role into perspective, explaining that “as much as some of their followers imagine Kircherism as a spearhead for ‘liberation’ or a fight against capital, the government has made it perfectly clear that it’s goal is a ‘normal’ country with a representative state and ‘serious capitalism.’”

One of the laborers busy at work in the recuperated factory 'IMPA' (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

It has been the recuperated enterprises that have turned out to be one of the most enduring projects to emerge from the crisis. From 2001 until today, there have been 205 functioning recuperated enterprises that run the gamut of chocolate and shoe factories to printing presses and hotels. Rather than laying off workers, 77% of these cooperatively-owned businesses have taken them on, paying more than other companies in similar industries. The country’s largest recuperated enterprise Zanon, a tile factory occupied in 2001 and renamed FASINPAT (short for factory without boss) currently employs 470 workers in the province of Neuquén.

In 2009, Neuquén’s legislature voted to grant legal expropriation to FASINPAT, a victory that has given other cooperatives hope. Yet with no overarching federal law, each recuperated enterprise must navigate its own way through provincial courts and live with both eviction threats and the remaining debt of former owners.

Tools for the Future

With little doubt the social movements that flourished during the 2001-2002 crisis have left their mark on Argentina. Though they may not have achieved all they had hoped, they pushed the boundaries of political imagination and showed the creative capacity of ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

Still for many, specifically those on the independent left like Fabián Pierucci and Eva Sinchecay, the movements missed a historic opportunity for structural change. Despite Argentina’s economic growth, they say the economic model is still based on instable and short-term factors like the international price of soy and exploitation of natural resources.

“With a globalised economy, you can have all the reserves you want and have the foreign debt under control, but does that mean you are financially autonomous?” asks Pierucci. “How long will the model last? One year, two years, five years?”

Sinchecay, who still helps cartoneros in her community collect cardboard, says the social programs have been insufficient in combating poverty. “We have seen three generations of people without work,” she laments.

Pierucci believes Argentina has not seen the last of economic crises, and that despite the relative calm, another collapse could be on the way. “We can’t lose perspective that crisis is cyclical in the economy, and that each time it will be deeper,” he says.

With the economies in Europe and the U.S. in turmoil thanks to some of the same runaway financial practices that so hurt Argentina, it’s no wonder that people around the world have looked to the country’s vibrant social movements for inspiration. Though weakened, these movements have imprinted the culture and consciousness of the Argentine people with an irreplaceable spirit of solidarity and possibility. That same spirit may be the foundations upon which future movements will build and, perhaps, move beyond.

A version of this article was published in UpsideDownWorld.org

Posted in Analysis, Economic Crisis, TOP STORYComments (0)


Follow us on Twitter
Visit us on Facebook
View us on YouTube

Five years on from the death of ex president Raúl Alfonsín, we look back at those emotional days in 2009 and reflect on the legacy left by 'the father of democracy'

    Directory Pick of the Week

Magdalena's Party in Palermo

Magdalena’s Party has daily 2 x 1 Happy Hour specials til midnight, and the "best onda".
Sign up to The Indy newsletter