Argentina: Starving the workers – only way out for imperialism

FRFI 168 August / September 2002

Argentinean GNP fell 16.3% in the first three months of 2002, following Argentina’s default last December on its foreign debt and the subsequent massive devaluation of the peso. Both domestic and external trade have collapsed, as have tax collection and state spending. Six million workers, 45% of the working population, are now unemployed or underemployed, 1.6 million more than in May 2001. For the 11.3 million with jobs there are shorter hours, massive inflation and a scarcity of goods to buy. With half the population plunged into poverty, Argentineans are now facing starvation. Malnutrition is common throughout the country. In the Pilar district of Buenos Aires there is an 80% increase in infectious illness. Health Minister Garcia has said ‘I’m afraid that we’ll experience something similar to Russia when they lost seven years off the average life expectancy in their last macro-economic crisis’. Spanish, French, US, Brazilian and Venezuelan organisations have given medicine, clothing and food worth £4 million this year but this a drop in the ocean given the needs of the burgeoning numbers of the hungry poor.

In the face of this catastrophe the government can no longer enforce the extortionate demands of Washington made via the IMF. The ‘political class’ has no credibility with the masses. IMF chief Horst Koelher has described the ‘lack of faith in the political system’ as ‘the most difficult problem’. He means that there needs to be a tougher approach by imperialism, if needs be, a military coup.

President Duhalde has seen the writing on the wall. On 9 February he proposed ‘constitutional reform’ as a bourgeois initiative to maintain political power as a social explosion develops beneath. He proposed a parliamentary democracy, ‘more accountable’ (but of course not fully), ‘closer to the people’, (but of course not for the people), ‘and more efficient’ (in ensuring profits for the owners). The masses rejected this, seeing it as an attempt to strengthen the Argentinean bourgeoisie against the political demands of the working class.

Since the December default there have been daily marches and protests throughout the country. Banks and shops are attacked and dozens of workers have been shot dead. The middle class is being plunged into despair; with work disappearing they sack the servants and are utterly at a loss as to what to do. Thousands are desperate to emigrate to the very countries whose capitalists have organised this crisis. The international loans (tied by secret IMF agreements to privatisation and exchange rate policies) that have allowed billions of dollars to be extracted from the country have brought Argentina to ruin. Since 11 February, banks have again been providing depositors with their money but at the now massively devalued dollar-peso rate, effectively further robbing a broad swathe of the middle classes.

Unable to impose further cuts without sparking massive and open revolt, the unelected Duhalde has declared that congressional elections will be held six months early in March 2003. This announcement was made just before a huge anti-IMF/corruption march organised by the piqueteros. This movement, based on the poorest section of the working class, the unemployed, has a clear programme demanding radical social and political change. It seeks to unite all the radical elements in Argentina on an open and democratic basis. On 26 June, police attacked demonstrators in Buenos Aires with shot-guns, rubber bullets, tear gas and batons, murdering two young piqueteros. So open were these killings that the government was forced to detain several police officers, but this did not prevent further protests focusing on this state brutality.

The bourgeoisie are now arguing over their next government. Carlos Menem, the master of corruption, with friends in Washington and Wall Street, and the President who pushed through the privatising ‘reforms’ that created the crisis, was first off the block. But with seven months to run, neither the congressional right nor the left have a programme that will deal with the growing demands of the workers for radical change.

The poor, new and old, are now forced to create their own local organisations to survive. The newly proletarianised lower middle classes have created barter groups which swap services and personal property. The increasing number of poor in the shanty-towns rummage through the rubbish to use in one form or another. But what will happen when the rubbish the rich throw out becomes insufficient to sustain those who depend on it to survive? The workers have no alternative but to organise, to fight imperialism, or starve!

Alvaro Michaels