Argentina - assemblies, occupied factories and Piquettes- a living laboratory of struggle


On Sunday May 18th Argentineans went to the polls and elected Nestor Kirchner - widely considered a puppet of the former populist president Eduado Duhalde. Yet on December 19/20th 2001 Argentineans "churned through 3 presidents in a row" as thousands poured into the streets. Their slogan: "que se vayan todos" (everyone must go). Yet quite clearly "everyone", in the shape of an old school populist president, is back. This begs two questions. Firstly how did such a formidable protest/popular movement evolve, and secondly where is it now?

"Argentina has become a living laboratory of struggle, a place where the popular politics of the future are being invented"
John + Jennifer Whitney

What happened in Argentina was rooted in the economic crisis bought about through the government's slavish obedience to the dictates of the International Monetary Fund in 1990s. When, finally, the government had to give in and decouple the peso from the dollar there was 40% unemployment (official figure 21%) and those who could afford to save saw 30% of their savings wiped out. Obviously this led to resentment!

Preceding the real crisis, though, was a huge movement which began in the rural interior of Argentina, the Piquettes. These were mass roadblocks involving up to thousands of desperate people - poor labourers and the unemployed. Without even the power to strike they built large community based groups which blockaded highways, forcing concessions from local governors and later from central government. The Piquettes showed the way.

When the economic crisis began to hit hard at white-collar workers, and even the middle class, they quickly began to organise in a similar manner. This struggle led to two vital developments. Firstly the beginning of neighbourhood general assemblies organised on a street or area basis.

The second was the reoccupation of factories left vacant by bankrupt owners. There are now up to 200 "Fabrica Ocupada", some of which have actually become quite profitable. For example, the occupied Frigorifico Yaguané meat packing plant is now the leading cold storage plant in Argentina.

Though attendance is dropping at neighbourhood assemblies there is still a very large and undefeated social struggle. Occupations and assemblies continue. The Piquettes movement remains strong in many areas.

However there is no doubt that the political parties have swarmed out of their lairs and are busy "reoccupying space". It seems that the establishment have adopted a carrot and stick approach.

On the one hand repression has increased. Recently the occupied Brukman plant was evicted by a massive force of riot police. The 115 female employees, along with 7,000 supporters, attempted to get back in but where beaten back. Hundreds of police chased protestors all the way into a nearby hospital, firing tear gas into wards. This one incident does demonstrate that resistance is still high and the state is ready to use a lot of repression.

Secondly assemblies have begun to be taken over, first by Trotskyists and Leninists, later by more conventional reformists. Unfortunately the reaction to this points out, for me, the biggest problem: apoliticism

The movement has continuously rejected all forms of "politics" ("que se vayan todos"). This is understandable. However the state and the establishment never ignore politics.

The assemblies and the Piqeuttes movements have been very localised and fought to preserve this autonomy. Unfortunately by not joining together, federating and strengthening their positions they are losing ground. Many 'real people' are now abandoning the assemblies which were mass, popular and vibrant, leaving behind hollow fronts for different left parties.

The mistake was not to build alternative politics nationally - to federate - unite and coalesce to build an alternative poll of attraction to the state, which is now filling the vacuum. Our anarchist comrades in the OSL (Organisation of Libertarian Socialists) have continuously pointed this out.

As one OSL supporter wrote on "their critique spells out the danger of apolitical popular organising ... In Argentina the extreme right is organised, have political parties and get government funds. They are shrouded in populist imagery and sentiment and appeal to many in the poorer classes".

The popular movement in Argentina has not been defeated. The newly elected president will go on the offensive with all the powers at his disposal. However the assemblies, occupied factories and Piquettes will resist and may even experience a new growth. But until they can organise on a national scale and point to a strong libertarian alternative they face an uphill struggle.

Conor Mc Loughlin

This page is from the print version of the Irish Anarchist paper 'Workers Solidarity'.

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This edition is No76 published in August 2003