The Argentine Crisis, Part II

Against the Current, No. 104, May/June 2003

James Cockcroft

[The first part of this report from Argentina appeared in our previous issue (ATC 103), focusing on factory takeovers spear headed by women textile workers. James Cockcroft, the author of many books on Latin America, spent two weeks in Argentina late last year, as a guest of the Popular University of Mothers of May Plaza, lecturing on the challenge of imperialism to Latin America.]

THE NUMBER OF hard-core committed activists, always a minority, seems to be holding steady, if not increasing, while demands are becoming more inclusive and revolutionary.

One day after two piqueteros were killed on June 26, 2002, there was a huge outpouring of street demonstrations. In August, a mobilization of labor and popular forces drew 80,000 in Buenos Aires alone.

That same month, at a little-publicized four-day Argentina Social Forum, 10,000 persons showed up to call for defeating U.S. imperialism’s attempt to annex or re-colonize Latin America through the proposed FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) and U.S. military control.

The United States has been constructing several military bases all over Latin America. It has poured huge sums of money, armaments and personnel into Plan Colombia, Plan Puebla-Panama, Plan Dignidad in Bolivia, Operation Cabanas 2001 in Argentina, the Regional Andean Initiative, and similar operations that constitute FTAA’s military arm.

In early September, at the worker-controlled Brukman factory [see part 1 of this essay –ed.], the Second National Meeting of Occupied Factories and Companies in Struggle drew 2000 delegates from workplaces, neighborhood assemblies, piquetero organizations, and student, teacher and professional groups.

They set up a National Strike Fund to aid all workers in struggle. Under the banner “Si nos tocan a una, nos tocan a todos” (“An injury to one is an injury to all”), they passed resolutions of unity with neighborhood assemblies and piquetero movements across the country.

As in the First National Meeting held at Brukman in April with less than half the number of delegates, they called for breaking the labor unions’ truces with the government, and replacing the unions’ leadership with people who would fight for public works programs and the indexation of wages and retirement plans in line with the costs of minimal everyday needs.

They called for equal pay for equal work; decriminalization of abortion; full reproductive and sexual rights; and provision of free contraceptives in hospitals and clinics.

They also defended the rights of people with disabilities and of immigrant workers. The militant, anti-capitalist REDI (Disability Rights Network) has been active at many public rallies. For decades Argentine employers have been hiring and firing hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans and Bolivians with no respect for their human rights.

Finally, on December 20, the first anniversary of the Argentinazo, up to 100,000 people streamed into Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo to honor fallen comrades and call for the removal of President Duhalde.

Many had walked many miles as part of the National Piquetero March that brought together such groups as the Movimiento Barrios de Pie (barefoot neighborhoods movement), el Bloque Piquetero Nacional, el Movimiento Independiente de Jubilados y Desocupados (pensioners and unemployed), Polo Obrero (piquetero arm of the Trotskyist Partido Obrero), and the Coordinadora Anibal Veron (unemployed workers).

Other organizations dispersed their actions around Buenos Aires’ many neighborhoods and the nation’s cities and towns in order to make police repression more difficult. Consequently, untold numbers marched and protested throughout the nation.

Other developments and trends include: An elimination of the culture of fear that had been created during the years of the military dictatorship’s dirty war (1976-1983) and persisted until the year leading up to the Argentinazo.

Elaboration: It is obvious that the December 2001 uprising known as the Argentinazo, despite a savage repression taking the lives of thirty-three people, radically changed everything.

People in the streets, neighborhoods and workplaces have generated broad dynamic movements for creating “a new Argentina,” one freed from the culture of fear of the forces of repression or, in the case of the middle classes, fear of the unemployed (despite rising crime rates).

For example, when authorities ordered trains carrying cartoneros (impoverished, self-organized cardboard collectors and recyclers claiming the right to go through city refuse) not to stop in one “classy” Buenos Aires neighborhood, the residents there blocked the tracks until the order was revoked.

Actually, the elites seem more afraid than the masses. Politicians still risk personal harassment when they appear at restaurants. Known torturers and unpopular politicians or their appointees continue to face escraches (loud mass protests) in front of their homes.

Noisy escraches also haunt banks, stock markets and utility companies after each new currency devaluation or IMF-imposed hike in utility prices.

Some police and soldiers are bold enough to say they intend to refuse any orders to repress popular protests. More than 500 police in Buenos Aires, following the example set by the police union of Curaco (Brazil), are trying to form a union based on the premise that police must not obey orders to repress social, political, religious, or human rights activities.

The police recently laid down their arms rather than obey an order to remove 200 tons of wool from the Lavalan de Avellaneda factory, occupied by workers with whom they verbally declared their solidarity.

Nonetheless, these multiple movements have faced intensified state harassment and repression, as Argentina’s bourgeoisie scrambles to set up and win national elections in April 2003.

The ruling class hopes to put back together the fallen edifice of a capitalism dominated by national monopolies, allied with U.S. and European imperialism’s big banks and corporations. This raises questions about the fragility of elections and what the Argentine military and imperialism will do, especially the dominant U.S. imperialism.

Voting is obligatory in Argentina, and the majority of votes cast in the last election, two months before the Argentinazo, were either leftist (25%) or blank, swear words, or nullified. Since then, new elections have been announced, cancelled, and postponed.

Leading the polls among presidential candidates is “none of the above.” Three candidates vie for second place: two Peronists of the PJ (Justicialist Party) and the very religious Catholic Elisa Carrio of the virtually divided centrist and “socialist” Assembly for a Republic of Equals (ARI). All three run on populist platforms opposed to corruption but in favor of private property, the market, and “free competition,” in other words “capitalism,” a word little in favor these days.

Former Trotskyist and ex-political prisoner Luis Zamora of the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist AL (Self-Determination and Freedom) once led the polls but has now declared he will not run, using a Zapatista-style argument that “taking power” is not what he or his organization are about.

Many activists are calling for a boycott of elections. Some favor voting for one of the many Trotskyist, Communist, and anarchist-oriented leftist and socialist parties or groups, or even ARI’s Carrio. If a first round of elections is actually held, a second round between the two candidates obtaining the most votes will follow (“none of the above” or nullified votes may win both rounds).

The unpopular Armed Forces remain well armed to intervene, as they have done so often in the past. Yet most members of Argentina’s military and police are aware of how difficult it would be to control hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets, among whom are some of their own relatives who have fallen into the ranks of the poor or unemployed.

Meanwhile, police and paramilitary goon-squads — mercenaries hired by the bosses and union bureaucrats — carry out Argentina’s stepped-up repression. Also, death squads like the notorious “Triple A” [Argentine Anti-communist Alliance, an arm of the military dictatorship’s “dirty war” of the 1980s] have reappeared.

In November, Carlos Menem, who as president in the 1990s had pardoned and freed the leaders of the dirty war, called for a state of siege and assignment of public security duties to the military.(1) President Duhalde loudly criticized Menem for this — then raised the possibility of reforming the Internal Security Law that prohibits the military from intervening in internal affairs.

The U.S. military is present and ever more threatening, not just in Argentina but all over Latin America. “United States Space Command Vision for 2020,” released to the press in June 2002, discusses plans to intervene in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama and Peru, that is, “failed States” whose “viability” would depend on U.S. “aid.”

This is a doctrine readily applicable to Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and other countries. In 2002, Green Beret instructors and elite U.S. army units specializing in freeing hostages arrived in Buenos Aires to train special groups of Argentina’s Federal Police.

To the northwest, in Salta, Green Berets operate with no authorization from the Argentine Congress. On the island of Tolhuin in Tierra del Fuego a U.S. military base is being set up to conduct “nuclear studies with peaceful goals.”

The remote “tri-border area” of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, where a small Arab population resides, is crawling with CIA personnel and U.S. military in the hypocritical “war on terrorism.” This is an echo of the “war on drugs” used in Plan Colombia to militarize a situation and use the army instead of police to put down popular movements.

Actually, this asserts imperialist pressure on the progressive movements in all three countries, plus Uruguay, Bolivia and Peru, where leftist movements and/or presidential candidates have been gaining strength and blocking the International Monetary Fund’s and U.S. Treasury Department’s remaining privatization plans.

Congressmen in Washington speak of a Latin American axis of evil: Presidents Castro (Cuba), Chavez (Venezuela), Lula da Silva (Brazil), and Gutierrez (Ecuador), even though the last three have assured the IMF and Washington they will honor economic commitments made by the prior presidents (all neoliberals).(2)

Argentina is a perfect example of how imperialism’s neoliberal economic programs have dismantled or debilitated the nation state, drying up the spaces for so-called “progressivism” or “nationalism.” The failure of the De la Rua center-left Alliance, 1999-2001, reflected that.

In Argentina, as in the rest of Latin America, traditional class structures are nowhere to be found. The working classes are fractured by different levels of unionization and wages (lower each year), rising unemployment, and the flexibilization” (instability and precariousness) of work.

Most of the middle classes are racing toward the poverty line or already have fallen below it. Peasants are often proletarians, immigrant labor is widespread, slavery is being reintroduced, sex trade in women and children is booming, and most people, facing poverty, unemployment, or unavailability of jobs, work long days and nights in the “informal economy.”

This helps explain the alliances between the unemployed and the working and middle classes that have sprung up in Argentina. Chaotic and uneven, they are opening the doors to potentially revolutionary changes unimaginable in the 1990s. They still lack detailed, cohesive programs, although an articulate minority of anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist activists are, when not arguing with one another, trying to come up with them.

However, most employed and unionized workers are not fully involved in the popular movements yet, and the Duhalde government’s limited social welfare program does reign in some of the unemployed. One might say that the old Argentina is falling while the new one has barely begun to walk — but in a manner that clearly shows the failures of capitalism and does pose the great challenges ahead.

What is taking place is nothing less than the fight for a second revolution for independence about which so many Argentines and Latin Americans speak today, “the second revolution for economic independence” (the first revolution having been for political independence in the 19th century).(3)

Class polarization is intensifying and self-organization is spreading, but there are not yet enough cohesive coalitions with a common vision capable of organizing all the popular forces newly committed to the fight for a different economy and society.

Besides a military coup or direct U.S. annexation or occupation, there are only two likely possibilities in Argentina’s future. On the one hand, an economic genocide may continue, managed by a corrupted kleptocratic capitalism and a state beholden to imperialism practicing increased repression.

On the other hand, more factory occupations, nationwide strikes, protests and national assemblies may take place, leading to a participatory democratic socialism based on expropriation of capitalist enterprises to be managed and controlled by working people themselves.

In both cases imperialism seems to be considering the possibility of converting Argentina into an economic protectorate of sorts, through direct and indirect military intervention. Therefore, the need for internationalist solidarity is manifest. Whether that can be developed beyond the types of regional social forums held in conjunction with the World Social Forum in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Florence and other cities remains to be seen.

Argentine activists are busily planting the seeds of what can grow into an original participatory socialism<197>or be crushed under the iron heel of military fascism or U.S. economic and military intervention.


  • Menem apparently thought this might improve his trailing position in the presidential election polls by winning over those elements of the middle classes who were participating less in the neighborhood assemblies or might be nostalgic for the more prosperous days of his 1990s’ administration. His idea was widely rejected, however, and he did not gain in the polls.
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  • Ernesto Herrera, “Entre el `argentinazo’ y el `efecto Lula,’” America del Sur, Dec. 26, 2002; La Jornada, Sept. 1, 2002; James D. Cockcroft, “El imperialismo estadounidense en America Latina y los movimientos de resistencia y su inter-nacionalizacion,” in press for journal of Centro de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias of Mexico’s National University (UNAM, Ciencias y Humanidades, 2003).
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  • James D. Cockcroft, Latin America: History, Politics, and US Policy (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/International Thomson Publishing, Second edition, 1998), 673-674.
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  • ATC 104, May-June 2003