Occupy Buenos Aires: the workers’ movement that transformed a city, and inspired the world

Source: The Guardian Unlimited

The Hotel Bauen in downtown Buenos Aires looks like its best days are behind it. The art deco interior is crumbling, three of the lifts are out, and the whole place looks like it could do with a lick of paint. It’s an unlikely candidate to be at the centre of perhaps the most successful worker occupation movement in the world.

Bauen was opened in 1978, thanks in no small part to a subsidy from the military junta of the time, to provide five-star accommodation for travellers to the World Cup held in the country that same year. The 22-floor hotel suffered many ups and downs over the ensuing years before being declared bankrupt in late 2001. Two years later, the workers occupied the dormant hotel, took control of operations, and tried their best to run it themselves.

It was the latest domino to fall in the burgeoning movement of empresas recuperadas (recovered businesses) which began in the late nineties but picked up a head of steam in the aftermath of the cataclysmic financial crisis of 2001, which saw Argentina suffering the biggest sovereign debt default in world history.

In the aftermath, workers went back to factories that were lying empty after the companies went under. As bankruptcies were declared, the workers had to win the right in court to take over possession of the property and machines. The movement achieved many early successes, and was depicted famously in Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’s 2004 film, The Take.

When the movement began, the motto was “Occupy. Resist. Produce”. In 2016, the workers of Buenos Aires are still doing that. Hotel Bauen has spent well over a decade under worker control, as have many other businesses in Buenos Aires.

The success of the model, of course, has implications far beyond Buenos Aires. Despite the Occupy movement in the US and UK capturing the public mood in 2011, it died down not long after it started, and is now, it seems, ancient history. As cities around the world are increasingly given over to corporate interests and public space sold off, Buenos Aires is an example of a reverse trend – the capture and retention by citizens of their own spaces.

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