Argentina: new president, continuing misery

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FRFI 173 June / July 2003

The Argentinean ruling class, led by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been on the offensive. It has slashed the living conditions of the population to such an extent that Argentina, through a policy of starvation (see FRFI 169), is actually increasing its foreign currency reserves (now $10.5 billion) and paying back state debts. Exports of wheat, soya, corn and meat increased during 2002, with a current balance of payments surplus of $8.8 billion, whilst hunger ravaged the country. The gross domestic product fell 15% and half a million jobs were lost over the last year. Accordingly, in January, an IMF deal saw $6.6 billion of debt ‘rolled over’ again, with loans covering obligations up to August. The IMF vultures are ‘optimistically’ planning an intense squeeze over two years, whilst 20% of children are already malnourished. ALVARO MICHAELS reports.

The ruling class brought the presidential election forward by six months to forestall growing grassroots action. Now, under slogans of ‘no more social spending’ and ‘security is a priority’, the state has directed more intense attacks on the organisations of the poor. Last June the Federal Police received 6.45 million pesos from Buenos Aires City government to buy firearms, vehicles and computers. Picket organisations, which protest by blocking major routes, are now heavily targeted. On 19 February police blocked the piqueteros for 10 hours from marching to the Ministry of Welfare to demand reactivation of social programmes. In March police brutally attacked 89 families residing in Padelai, an abandoned building in San Telmo occupied for 19 years. During the eviction residents and supporters were teargassed, shot with rubber bullets and beaten, 86 were detained and 40 injured, among them minors and elderly.

With this reassertion of state power, the preliminary round of the presidential elections took place on 27 April. To the immense relief of the establishment, the three Peronist candidates collectively received 60% of the mandatory vote. This meant that a deal could be cut to force the corrupt and discredited Menem to withdraw. With Menem’s withdrawal, the 18 May second round was quickly called off.

The Governor of Santa Cruz Province, Nestor Carlos Kirchner, was sworn in without further ado, but with the smallest-ever vote, instead of the anti-Menem landslide predicted. Kirchner is now a president under the shadow of his sponsor, outgoing President Duhalde, using Duhalde’s economy team.

The establishment will continue its brutal assertion of control. Argentina’s unemployment rate is officially at least 21.5% and 22 million of its 36 million people (around 60%) live in poverty. This compares to 40% in December 2001. Real wages fell 40% last year. Thus in the city of Rosario, middle class areas have collapsed into dependence on food parcels. Thousands of Argentineans are fleeing to Spain. For the first time in 200 years, malnutrition is a serious problem, causing daily deaths among children and the old, in the world’s fourth biggest food exporter. Officially 15% of children are below ‘normal’ weight for their height. The situation is unfavourable compared even to the crisis in the 1930s, when Argentina’s GDP dropped by 14% in three years.

Yet during the first round of the presidential elections, no large political opposition to the establishment developed. Why then have the workers not yet organised to throw out the ‘political class’? Even the US State Department expressed surprise that the workers have not reacted more strongly. No new party has grown to escape the dominance of a fractured Peronist party. This is not simply because of the increased repression. Astonishingly, the 78% turnout saw the corrupt ex-President Menem (who threatened to put the army on the streets to fight ‘crime’ and automatically supported US foreign policy) and Nestor Kirchner (a provincial governor and creature of President Duhalde) gain most votes.

The middle class
After international ‘creditors’ (foreign banks), the middle class vote is a priority for the ruling class. It must be thrown the first available crumbs, redirected from the labour of the poor. For the moment they are given straws to clutch at. A successful cat and mouse game has been played with their frozen dollar bank deposits, which they demand back through the courts. The state in turn deposits bonds in the banks to sustain their operations – paper ‘promises’ to replace dollars owed to international lenders. In this way the middle class is tied to the establishment. Yet to pay back state debt Kirchner must now force even greater suffering on the workers than President Duhalde imposed. The recent tragic floods of 8 May in Santa Fe province, with up to 1,800 dead, 130,000 homeless, 2 million hectares of land spoiled and property losses of $970 million, cannot be properly addressed. Without absolute austerity for the poor and increased returns for the rich, the estimated $100 billion of private Argentinean capital stashed abroad will not return. Indeed new President Kirchner ‘saved’ the public finances of his own oil-rich province by transferring savings to accounts in Switzerland and Luxembourg and implementing severe spending cuts.

The struggle from below
Though many workers retain illusions in Peronism, the state still has to deal with the growing class consciousness of those with least to lose. Over the last six years Los piqueteros – picketers – have organised extensively amongst the unemployed, forced to live in misery in shacks on the outskirts of bigger towns and cities. They were central to the mass movement that deposed the government in 2001. By blocking the major roads they forced the state to provide them with a pittance – 150 pesos a month ($45) for those men or women piqueteros who have children younger than 18, or other dependants. This comes from World Bank 15-year loans. 2.4 million poor people receive such handouts to prevent tuberculosis, dengue fever, yellow fever, HIV, chagas, bronchitis and so on spreading. The growing seriousness of the situation can be seen when only $140 million was budgeted for state health and education last October and $100 million the preceding March.

The poor have built new forms of social organisation and protest. They have their own security arrangements to combat police infiltration. Everyone participates locally in each of the slum districts. Countrywide it acts broadly as three movements, but has also attracted political or social activists dispossessed of their previous posts and ambitions. So lower middle class activists have been drawn in, with a range of narrow, partisan and dogmatic ideas. The destructive petty bourgeois habits and sectarianism of such sections have hindered the movement, often driving away the unemployed workers and preventing them from developing their national political activity, driving them back to their communities and local action. We find a mix of political standpoints attracted to the original activities of the piqueteros movement.

There are three main trends. The first of these is the Pickets Block which has many militant communists and Trotskyists, who view their own actions as part of a popular revolution. The second is the Anibal Veron Coordination which sees the fight against hunger as the start of a similar campaign. It has attracted rebel Peronists, human rights’ militants, and ‘Guevaristas’. It is currently made up of 15 area movements of the unemployed in places like Quilmes and Lugano. In all the groups the women push hardest and march at the front. The third is the CTA, with ex-priest and Provincial Deputy Luis D’Elia and trade unionist Juan Carlos Alderete as spokespersons. It is involved in the actual state and provincial elections. It does not want to break off such a public discussion or weaken its membership with ‘aggressive’ picketing. Alongside it marches the Class Combat Current (CCC).

Despite the piqueteros National Programme (see FRFI 165) there are tactical arguments arising from different political arguments, for example: whether to completely or partially block major routes during a protest; whether to attack the police directly when threatened; whether to wear hoods when in action. In these examples the CTA and CCC opt to allow public transport to pass to allow neighbours to go to work, but also not to upset the lower middle classes whom they see as potential allies in their struggle. The other two groups allow no one to pass. For them, with 75 children dying of hunger each day, the fight is for life itself. Entire families march, press cameras are unwelcome. Fighting the police is always a case of self-defence. The system in which they live is violent. The police aim to destroy the effectiveness of their pickets and marches and so deny them justice. A constant economic demand is for larger payments for the unemployed and these are co-ordinated right across the country.

The large assemblies that make daily decisions, especially concerning the next picket site, are constantly aware of police threats, threatening phone calls, provocateurs in disguise, false arrests and gun threats to intimidate. Homage to the memory of the 30,000 ‘disappeared’ under the dictatorship is common at the large assemblies. They prepare to face a time when the state pittance may be withdrawn. Conscious of the threat of manipulation, they reject plans from above, insisting that all spending be in the interest of everyone in each community. But any movement to create a new political party has now missed the curtailed election campaign. In February the government reopened a case brought last June charging the piqueteros with threatening national security in a further move to drive away potential support.

Factory occupations reversed
On 18 December 2001, the workers of Brukman’s textile factory took it over after the owners abandoned it. From 1995 Brukman had difficulties even with nine-hour days, overtime usually of two more hours and work taken home on top. Piece wages were cut. On 18 December the workers demanded an end to this constantly increasing exploitation and the directors fled. ‘We say that it wasn’t us that took the factory, but the factory that took us,’ said Celia, a worker there for nine years. On 20 December 2002, supported by the National Pickets Movement and the Anibal Veron Coordination, they attempted to meet at the Ministry of Labour to demand nationalisation under workers’ control. They were tear gassed. Two months later the police attacked the women and their children in an attempt to dislodge them. As the presidential elections loomed, on 17 April 300 infantry took over the factory for the third time in 16 months, and three days later attacked a counter-demonstration of 3,000 workers, wounding 30 and arresting 100 workers. The workers continue to fight for the return of their factory.

Workers have occupied many other factories, such as Zanon Ceramics where the workers have been threatened for weeks with imminent eviction. In April 2002, at Carapachay (the bankrupt Medved Panifacacion 5 Bakery) the police attacked workers within two hours of their occupying the closed factory. With neighbourhood assemblies and left groups outside, and workers barricaded inside, the police were repulsed for 45 days. The left parties and part of the local assemblies wanted the local authority to pay wages and provide raw material – a local ‘nationalisation’, a demand seen as naive by the occupying workers when the state could not even provide medicines for the hospitals. The workers formed a co-operative, El Aguante, formalised by a legal order from the provincial chamber of deputies, forcing the local authority to provide a start-up subsidy.

This sort of solution cannot be a general one. Subsidising the occasional small business after expelling the local capitalist, when the whole economy is strangled, will not solve the problems of the urban proletariat or the suburban slum dwellers. In these actions however, the lessons are being learned that must see the development of a national political party that can fully express and defend the demands of the workers.