Insurrection and popular struggle in Argentina: "El Argentinazo"

This is another eye-witness account of recent events in Argentina from S.S. de Jujuy, Argentina. It also looks back at the events of the past decade which eventually led to the masses coming out onto the streets.

"The post-electoral deceit was almost too easy for the president. After the events of the last few days, another similar scam might just trigger a movement of popular fury so strong that it would not stop at the gates of the Casa Rosada or of the ministers' residencies, but feed the desire to mete out exemplary punishment to those responsible for this fresh disappointment. And if this does happen, every policeman in the country will not be enough to contain the people pushed by sheer desperation to resolve, through direct action, a situation that the nation's institutions are completely incapable of dealing with." (Atilio Borón)

In order to explain the events of the last few months in Argentina, we must at first take a look at what happened during the 1990s. Carlos Menem of the Justicialist Party (Peronist) became president in 1989 promising wage rises and a "revolution in productivity". However, within a few months of his election, he dropped these undertakings and, in alliance with the representatives of finance capital, embarked on a Thatcherite type programme, which included the privatisation of state-owned companies (in the water, electricity, gas and telecommunications sectors as well as airlines, oil companies, motorways, etc), the deregulation of the economy and the virtual dollarisation of the country through the law on convertibility, amongst others.

The IMF and the World Bank heaped praise on the Argentinean government and its Economy Minister, the "rising star" Domingo Cavallo and the "Argentinean model of development", as the monetary fund's directors liked to call it.

The billions of dollars of loans that poured into the country went straight into the coffers of big business and enriched a whole layer of corrupt civil servants, responsible, by the way, for getting the country into such huge debt. As a result, the gap between rich and poor widened massively and the unemployment rate shot up in a few years from around 6% to 14%. Menem left the country in ruins, with a foreign debt burden of over 130 billion dollars, a fiscal deficit of 12 billion dollars, 40% of the population living in poverty and over 30% of the population with difficulty finding work.

In 1999, after ten years of brazen laissez-faire policies, Fernando De la Rua won the elections (beating Eduardo Duhalde of the Justicialist Party), with an alliance of parties, on the promise that his government would reverse the economic policies of "Menemismo", create jobs and fight against corruption.

The De la Rua government was undoubtedly one of the most useless and inefficient in all of Argentine history. Instead of fulfilling its promises, it actually intensified the policies of the former president Menem and almost bankrupted the state's finances. Unemployment continued to rise, reaching almost 20% (if we add the number of under-employed to this figure, almost 50% of the working population in Argentina have trouble finding work), and the foreign debt burden shot up to 170 billion dollars.

Clearly, the IMF's medicine was turning out to be a cruel recipe for poverty and unemployment, yet these international organisations continued to demand more austerity for the masses and less spending on public services, etc.

The workers fight back

However, in response to government policy, several "anti-model" (i.e. the Argentinean model of development - see above) movements sprung up in Argentina in the first years of the 1990s. The various opposition trade union federations (MTA, CTA, CCC) participated in this struggle side by side with the unemployed workers, who played a major role in the decade's events.

There were the so-called "provincial crises" during which the state-sponsored trade unions led movements against the Thatcherite policies of the provincial governments. The first such movement took place in Jujuy province in 1991. In 1994 there were similar movements that succeeded in kicking out those governors who had unsuccessfully tried to apply austerity programmes and sack state employees. In 1993 there was the "Santiagazo", in the province of Santiago del Estero, which was a mass demonstration against local policing methods, during which the governor's residence, as well as the houses of the main local political leaders accused of corruption, were burnt down by demonstrators. In other provinces such as Catamarca, Tucumán, Chaco, Formosa and Corrientes, the workers also mobilised against the "model" and the destruction of the region's productive apparatus by Menem's policies.

In about 1996, the unemployed workers' movement broke through onto the political stage with its fresh forms of struggle such as pickets and roadblocks. These protests first took place in the province of Neuquén and then in Jujuy, Salta, Santa Fe and Buenos Aires (La Matanza). The roadblock became the concrete expression of their struggle at the time as well as a forum in which could be seen the needs of a whole layer of workers that had been thrown out from the productive process by Menem's brand of free market capitalism, whose main feature was the social exclusion of whole swathes of the population. The "young" unemployed (i.e. those youth who had never worked because they had never found any work) and the "old" unemployed (e.g. agricultural workers, miners, oil workers, former state employees etc.) - are the main heroes of this story. Since 1996, they have strengthened their organisation and intensified their struggle to become one of the main pillars of the "anti-model" fightback in Argentina today.

This brings us to the most recent period and another important moment of the "anti-model" struggle - the moment in which large sections of the middle class joined the movement. These layers of society, which up to then had been against the workers' demonstrations and frequently critical of the roadblocks too, were hit hard by the policies imposed by the government in the last few years (wage cuts, hikes in taxes etc). They were in fact radicalised by this and forced into the struggle. These middle classes made their voice clearly heard during the elections of October 2001, by using what became know as the "angry vote". This event represented a further stage in the Argentinean people's struggle as it moved on to the electoral plain. In fact, the number of people who turned out against the government's policies (blank ballot papers, abstentions, spoilt ballot papers, etc) constituted the largest political force in the country, obtaining more than 9,500,000 votes in total.

This brings us to December and the "Argentinazo" or "uprising". Heinz Dieterich Steffan gives a good explanation of the process that Argentina and other Latin American countries have been through recently: "The neo-colonial model which is crushing Latin America is not only making survival impossible for its masses but also increasingly so for its middle classes. By rising up against the neo-colonial yoke of the international and national bankers and their political elite, they many a time have been able to neutralise the repressive military apparatus and to overthrow or replace the Thatcherite governments imposed by Washington." The so-called "Argentinazo" was the explosion of 10 years of pent up anger against the same corrupt and anti-working class policies that failed so miserably in Fujimori's Peru, Bucaram's Ecuador, Perez's Venezuela, Salinas de Gortari's Mexico etc.

"El argentinazo" - a step by step account

In first few days of December 2001, the government was slow in acting to stop the flight of money out of bank deposits (around 20 billion dollars had already been withdrawn with the complicity of top civil servants and bankers). De la Rua's Minister for the Economy, Domingo Cavallo, imposed restrictions on the withdrawal of money for small savers - for a period of 90 days they would only be able to withdraw a maximum of 250 dollars per week. These measures created a certain amount of panic in certain layers of the population who began to fear that the whole banking system would collapse and that they would lose their entire savings.

On December 5, and after much to-ing and fro-ing, the IMF demanded more austerity measures and stated that it would not release the funds that it had agreed to send Argentina (1.3 billion dollars) thus pushing the country into an even more difficult situation. With respect to the IMF and its policy towards Argentina, the Nobel Laureate for Economics, Joseph Stiglitz, said the following: "They thought that fiscal austerity would restore confidence. However, the figures for the IMF's programme were a sham; any economist would have been able to predict that the policy of spending cuts would lead to a recession and that the budgetary targets would not be met. Needless to say, the IMF's programme did not fulfil its objectives. Very rarely is it possible to regain confidence when an economy falls into a deep recession and unemployment shoots up into the double digits."

On December 13 a general strike called against the government's economic policies paralysed the country, increasing the tension even further. Furthermore, on this very same day, the official unemployment rate was published; it was now 18.3%.

On December 14, the poverty-stricken population started to loot shops and supermarkets in search of food. The desperate situation of millions of Argentines was underlined by these events. They were actually forced to steal food in a country that was not only rich in agricultural produce but literally starving its inhabitants to death. However, at the same time, these contradictions had also sounded the death knell for the country's political elite.

During the days that followed, the struggle became even more militant with large sectors of the workers, unemployed, youth and other impoverished layers of society going directly to the large supermarkets in search of something to eat. This mass of people could be divided into two distinct groups; one group was comprised of the most organised layers with the clearest demands, e.g. the unemployed workers' movement, the trade unions and the political parties, which demanded that the large foreign-owned hypermarket chains (Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Norte, etc) supply the population with food free of charge whilst the other was comprised of poorly organised groups of impoverished residents of poor suburbs and towns who looted everything that they could get their hands on - from small shops and big supermarkets alike. The president gave no inkling as to the seriousness of the situation and declared that "All this is being played up. It's not that serious, apart from some problems in the Greater Buenos Aires area". However, in reality, the whole country was rising up and eleven provinces had reported incidents of mass pillaging.

On December 19 after the looting of thousands of shops right around the country, the Argentine government declared a state of emergency for 30 days. Faced with a rapidly deteriorating situation, parliament took back the special powers that it had granted the Minister for the Economy some time before. De la Rua then broadcast a televised message to all the country accusing the protests of being organised by "enemies of the republic". The president continued to not give any information on the gravity of the economic situation, whilst the victims of the clashes with the police crept over 10, two of which were minors.

On the morning of December 20 a spontaneous demonstration of thousands of people banging saucepans made its way to the Plaza de Mayo, (30,000 according to certain sources) demanding the resignation of Cavallo, De la Rua and the end to their destructive economic policy.

Cavallo finally tendered his resignation whilst thousands of demonstrators banged saucepans in front of his house. A few hours later De la Rua himself was forced to throw in the sponge as his own party refused to continue to support him. The police clampdown on the demonstration was very violent and caused many deaths (around 35). Amongst the thousands of injured were a number of elderly women from the "Mothers of Plaza de Mayo" organisation, who were attacked by mounted policemen and fired on with rubber bullets. More than 5,000 demonstrators were arrested.

The end of the De la Rua government marks the end of the alliance between the political authorities and the representatives of financial capital. It also demonstrates the following:

  • That saucepan-banging protests and popular uprisings are able to topple both governments and rulers alike; henceforth the latter will have to pursue policies that benefit the majority of the population and not the elite.
  • The complete and utter failure of the Thatcherite economic model and of the restructuring policies.
  • The failure of big business (financial sector, corporations, etc), that added insult to injury by accumulating wealth and power through the impoverishment of the majority of the population, with the help of the main governing parties.
  • The clear failure of the policies proposed by the multilateral lending organisations (World Bank, International Monetary Fund, BID, etc).

Epilogue

Following President De la Rua's resignation, parliament chose the Justicialist Party (Peronist) governor Rodríguez Saa as his provisional successor until the elections of March 3. His first measures included a moratorium on the payment of foreign debt (a measure celebrated by the people as a whole), the issue of bonds (called "Argentinos") to pay salaries and to help with the creation of a million jobs. However, after three days the government fell due to a demonstration called against the new administration's lack of real solutions and because many of the ministers nominated by Rodríguez Saa were suspected of corruption.

Within a week, on December 30, the new president resigned his post due to a lack of support from his very own Justicialist party.

Parliament then chose as the next president Eduardo Duhalde, who went on to confirm the suspension of foreign debt payments and a number of his predecessor's measures, such as the creation of jobs and increased social security spending. In his speech of acceptance, he declared: "I am committed to ending a spent and used method (...) and to creating a new model capable of boosting production, creating work for the Argentine people, expanding the domestic market and ensuring a more just and equitable distribution of wealth."

We now come to the present situation, which is changing day by day. The people have given no blank cheque to the government and are watching its every move. The leaders of the various political parties are very wary, as this permanent state of mobilisation on behalf of the masses is by no means the normal state of affairs. There are continuous saucepan-banging protests, roadblocks and spontaneous protests in response to the various problems effecting society as a whole: e.g. the confiscation of bank deposits, the Supreme Court, the supply of food, the lack of medication, social services etc. The masses have shown a high level of maturity through the use of new forms of democratic action and of pressure to force their rulers to carry out what they promise. The whole of society has been radicalised by the recent events and the government is well aware of this. There is now absolutely no room left for unpopular measures. The time has now come to build a new, better country fit for everyone to live in.

Fraternal greetings from Jujuy province, Argentina

January 2002

This is an English translation of the Spanish Original

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