Remembering the Social Movements that Reimagined Argentina: 2002 – 2012

A decade after Argentina’s economic collapse, what remains of the popular movements that demanded change and inspired the world?

Protests in Argentina in 2001A decade after Argentina’s economic collapse, what remains of the popular movements that demanded change and inspired the world?

If 2011 was any indicator, 2012 will be a year of further popular resistance to government austerity and a finance sector spun out of control. Whether it’s the occupy movements in the U.S. that have spread to the U.K., the indignados of Spain, or the general strikes in Greece and Italy, the people of the world when faced with economic crisis and tired fixit schemes are saying in near unison: Now it’s our turn.

Though refreshingly new, these movements have a South American predecessor: Argentina 2001, when popular protest put an end to destructive neoliberal policies and forever changed the political terrain of the country.

Ten years later, with the country’s 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 diffcult days. Though many attribute former President Néstor Kirchner with creating a new economic model that reigned in a private sector run wild, it was the 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 months of 2001, uniting under the slogan “Que se vayan todos” (They all must go). It was a powerful indicator that the entire political system was broken, and that not just the president and the economic minister, but all of Congress had abandoned and sold out its people. In less than two weeks the country saw the popular ousting of five presidents. For a people who not long before had lived under a military dictatorship in which any inkling of social protest could cost one their life, it was a moment of political reconstitution and reclamation of popular power.

From a vacuum of political power and severe economic necessity, grew new political 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 formations whose “horizontal” nature inspired not just Argentina but the entire world, faded into the background of 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.

Years of neoliberal policies had taken their toll on the Argentine people. Unemployment reached 17 percent 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 ‘flexibilization’ measures or massive firings that accompanied the privatization 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 entire communities out of work. Big unions were ineffective, striking deals with the Menem government to remain docile and failing to organize 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.”

From these forgotten neighborhoods the piquetero (road blockade) movement of the unemployed was born. Living on the outskirts of the city, residents regularly witnessed food and goods they sorely needed trucked past their precarious homes and into the city. 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 repression as well as a minimal response by the Menem government such as the Plan Trabajar (Work Plan) that put the onus on non-profits to propose local improvement projects and then subsidize 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. The corralito, implemented on November 30, froze bank accounts and limited withdrawals to 250 pesos per week (while banks transferred millions abroad), further exacerbating the anger of the middle class that took to the streets in large cacerolazos, banging on pots and pans and on shut doors of banks. The country was on the brink.

Collapse, Chaos, Creativity

Rather than appeasing the unrest and alleviating the burden of a collapsing economy, president De la Rúa declared a state of siege of December 19. It was a decision that would spell the end to his presidency. Cacerolazos, street blockades, and organized lootings broke out throughout the country. Outside the Casa Rosada crowds chanted, “Que boludos, que boludos, el estado de sitio, se lo meten en el culo” (What idiots, what idiots, they can shove the state of siege up their ass.)

Mounted police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition into crowds, wounding hundreds and killing thirty. But the repression merely fanned the flames of popular resistance, and both the economic minister Domingo Cavallo and president De La Rúa resigned within 48 hours, the later being helicoptered away from the Casa Rosada. After three more presidents attempted to bring order to the situation, Congress appointed Peronist Eduardo Duhalde to act as an interim president. But political legitimacy was lost.

The year would begin unlike any other: with newfound popular power, sense of intra-class solidarity, and innovative propositions for local decision-making. From initial citywide gatherings made up of thousands, assemblies began to form based on neighborhood. While at first meeting in plazas and on street corners, they began to occupy buildings and organize themselves into work committees around press, culture, employment, services, health, political action, and community purchases. Assemblies organized neighborhood 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.

With a lack of cash, Clubes de trueque or bartering clubs – which had existed prior to the crash – tripled in number throughout the country, reaching 5000 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, a movement was growing of workers occupying their then bankrupt and abandoned factories and businesses. 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

But 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.

Neighborhood 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 neighborhoods directed many programs to the poor and unemployed. In Villa Puerrydon, 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 have been the core values of the recuperated factories movement. At odds with a capitalist business model that looks to maximize profit often at human expense, for the cooperatives in which workers are also owners, layoffs are not a tool for balancing the books.

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 organizing with the unemployed workers’ movement began working with the 180-room recuperated BAUEN hotel. He 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 organization 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 demobilizing 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 organizational resources.

In many cases, the so-called political leaders charged with giving out funds to impoverished neighborhoods—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.”

Neighborhood 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 neighborhood, no kind of ideology,” says Eva Sinchecay of the Villa Puerrydon 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 neighborhood 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 by no means have the Kirchners’ reforms been a radical a 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 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.’”

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 percent 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 these movements 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 globalized 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 of 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 foundation upon which future movements will build and, perhaps, move beyond.

Francesca Fiorentini is an independent journalist based in Argentina and contributor to