Political explosion spreads
as Argentine crisis grows
Workers, students take to streets;
four presidents resign
BY MARTÍN KOPPEL,
AND ROMINA GREEN
Thousands march to presidential house on evening of January 1 to protest congressional appointment of Peronist leader Eduardo Duhalde as president of Argentina.
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina--An eruption of mass protests across the country, including the capital city of Buenos Aires, forced President Fernando de la Rúa to resign halfway into his four-year term. In face of continuing street mobilizations, his replacement, Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, stepped down barely a week later. On New Year's Day, hours after the Argentine Congress appointed Peronist leader Eduardo Duhalde as president--the fifth in 12 days, thousands of protesters were once again in the streets, chanting, "I didn't vote for him!"
On December 20, with tens of thousands of angry demonstrators in front of the presidential house defying a newly imposed state of siege and chanting "Out with him!" de la Rúa announced his resignation, climbed to the roof of the building, and took off in a helicopter.
The protests by working people, as well as by middle-class layers, were a response to increasingly unbearable economic conditions, together with outrage at de la Rúa's declaration of a state of siege and the unleashing of police violence. Some 30 people were killed in cities around the country December 19-20, many of them fatally shot by police.
Since the fall of the de la Rúa government, many protesting workers and young people have expressed a sense of increased confidence that they can have an impact on the course of events. "What do I feel? A wonderful anger!" said Carolina, 25, demonstrating in the Plaza de Mayo, site of the Casa Rosada (Pink House), as the presidential residence is known here. De la Rúa, she declared, "wasn't removed by the military or the cops. We were the ones who got rid of him."
'People have lost their fear'
"People have lost their fear," remarked Esteban Soria, 51, a laid-off train conductor staffing a protest tent organized by a group of rail unionists in front of the Congress building.
Streets protests have continued daily, from rallies by public employees against cutbacks to demonstrations against police brutality in working-class neighborhoods.
Argentina has been ravaged by a four-year-long depression. One out of five workers is jobless, and even higher numbers are underemployed, such as the growing numbers of cartoneros--workers who scratch out a living by selling cardboard, pieces of aluminum, and other discarded items.
This South American nation is being squeezed by a foreign debt to U.S. and other international banks that surpasses $132 billion. The government has been unable to keep up with the massive interest payments that drain Argentina's wealth.
To meet the relentless demands of the imperialist creditors, de la Rúa's regime, a coalition led by the bourgeois Radical Party, carried out economic measures that have hit working people the hardest, such as slashing public employees' wages and pensions by 13 percent, hiking taxes, and undermining union rights. The cuts have been particularly devastating in the provinces, where wages are lower and unemployment higher. The administration continued the drastic social cutbacks initiated by his predecessor, Carlos Menem of the Peronist party, who sold off most state-owned industries, leading to layoffs of hundreds of thousands of workers over the past decade.
Since the Menem administration, the government has pegged the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar in the name of monetary stability. Prices of many consumer goods in Buenos Aires today are not much below those in New York, although wages are substantially lower. High school teachers, for example, typically earn about $400-450 a month; many retired workers must survive on monthly pensions of $150.
While there have been numerous social eruptions in the provinces and seven general strikes since de la Rúa took office in 1999, public protests accelerated in mid-December as working people reacted to the tightening grip of the capitalist economic crisis and government austerity measures. On December 12 unemployed workers blocked roads and held rallies across the country, while rail workers and teachers held actions to demand payment of back wages. The next day a general strike by the unions shut down the country to protest the government's economic policies.
Small businessmen and other middle-class layers of the population joined the marches and cacerolazos, or pot-banging protests. Already squeezed by debt and high interest rates, they reacted with outrage to a government decree limiting bank withdrawals to $1,000 a month to prevent a run on deposits. Many workers, especially in the provinces, were not directly affected by this measure simply because they have no bank accounts.
State of siege backfires
In cities across the country, large crowds of pauperized working people--men, women, and children--began to storm supermarkets, taking food and clothing. The daily Clarín reported that hundreds of stores had been sacked by December 19.
That day de la Rúa announced the "resignation" of the hated economy minister Domingo Cavallo, associated with the austerity measures. He also decreed a state of siege--a political miscalculation that precipitated his downfall.
"Within minutes of his speech, there were cacerolazos in neighborhoods throughout the city," Christián Laffrata, a Buenos Aires schoolteacher, told the Militant. "Thousands of people were banging pots and pans from their windows. People poured out of their houses and into the streets and began to head to the Plaza de Mayo. I was leaving the school around 10 p.m.--a little early because there were rumors that something might happen--and I saw the first streets being blocked." Entire families marched downtown with their kettles, whistles, horns, and other noisemakers.
"I saw 10 blocks of people marching through my neighborhood from the west," said Ezequiel García, who lives in the northern district of Floresta. "I'd never seen anything like this before," added García, 25, who works as a messenger.
The huge crowd in the Plaza de Mayo called for lifting the state of siege and demanded of de la Rúa, "Que se vaya!" (Out with him!). It included workers, housewives, men in business suits, students, and others.
There was a large middle-class participation in this action, "but most of the demonstrators were workers," said Gabriel Calvo, 26, an active member of the Independent Union of Messengers and Couriers (SIMECA).
Rulers seek to play on fears to divide
The ruling class sought to undercut the protests by contrasting the "peaceful" middle-class protesters with the "violent" workers who had sacked supermarkets. The police and big-business media spread false rumors in middle-class and working-class neighborhoods that mobs were heading from the shantytown suburbs known as villas miseria (povertyvilles) to loot private homes. Some panicked residents boarded up their windows and came onto the streets with weapons to drive back the supposed looters, but these never materialized, reported Marina Girondo, 28, who is active in the human rights group HIJOS.
Tens of thousands of people filled the Plaza de Mayo the night of December 19. "In the middle of the night, the police began to repress people without provocation," Laffrata reported. Mounted police charged the demonstrators, clubbing and tear-gassing even members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo--mostly working-class women, today in their 70s and 80s, who for decades have fought to demand justice for their sons and daughters, "disappeared" by the U.S.-backed military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.
The following day, a noisy crowd of demonstrators gathered in front of the Casa Rosada calling on de la Rúa to resign. "All kinds of people were there--workers and the middle classes, political tendencies from the left to the right," said Girondo. This even included, she said, a small but visible presence of supporters of Mohamed Alí Seineldín, a fascist-minded former military officer who uses radical, nationalist rhetoric such as advocating the cancellation of Argentina's foreign debt. Seineldín remains in prison for leading a failed military revolt in 1990.
As the crowd grew, it was brutally attacked by the cops. Downtown Buenos Aires became a battlefield for more than seven hours. Cops drove protesters out of the Plaza de Mayo but the crowd kept surging back into the square. The Buenos Aires Herald reported, "The scene was repeated time and again. The greater the repression, the more people returned. Later on, it spread all across the city center." Cops fired waves of tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannon, as smoke clouded the sun. "Protesters and passersby noisily cheered the dozens who were arrested as if they were martyrs."
The police killed five demonstrators in the Plaza de Mayo that day; about 30 were killed and several thousand arrested nationwide.
"We picked up people wounded with lead bullets," Carlos Arca, an ambulance driver who works at the Argerich hospital, told the Militant at a December 30 public employees' rally.
Union of messengers and couriers
"Two motoqueros [couriers on motorcycle] were killed by the police and another two were wounded," said SIMECA union member Calvo. Many young messengers took part in the demonstration. They also helped to rescue protesters being assaulted by the police and take the wounded to the hospital.
SIMECA, established a year ago and not yet recognized by the Ministry of Labor, organizes messengers and others such as pizza delivery workers--mostly workers in their teens and early 20s who face low wages, no benefits, and employer abuse. Calvo emphasized, "Unlike most unions today, we have no full-time officers--all our members work. The decisions are made at regular membership meetings, not by paid functionaries." The distrust of the officialdom of the CGT (General Workers Confederation) and other established unions by the messengers was echoed by many of the youth and workers at the mass demonstrations, where the organized labor movement was largely absent.
When de la Rúa resigned, some of the couriers rode their motorcycles down Avenida de Mayo spreading the news to clusters of demonstrators who would burst into cheers.
De la Rúa was briefly replaced by the Senate president. Rodríguez Saá, the Peronist governor of San Luis province, was then chosen by the Congress to serve until elections projected for March. Rodríguez Saá got off to a rocky start, however. "When asked by a reporter whether 'the priority will be the [foreign] debt or the people,' he replied 'the debt,' but quickly corrected himself and said, 'the people,'" the December 21 Clarín reported.
Seeking to demobilize the mass protests, Rodríguez Saá announced a temporary moratorium on debt payments and promised to create 1 million new jobs. In practice, the de la Rúa government, virtually bankrupt, had already defaulted on debt payments after the International Monetary Fund refused to release $1.3 billion of a previously approved $22 billion loan.
Rodríguez Saá also announced that a third currency, the argentino, would be issued. The new currency would be used to pay back wages and other domestic debts. But many working people interviewed have remarked that the plan basically amounts to printing more money and that the currency--like the one-year bonds already used in the provinces to pay public employees--would be increasingly worthless. They are already affected by the de facto devaluation of the peso.
Two measures, however, sparked further outrage. The Supreme Court ratified the continuation of the partial freeze on bank withdrawals, a measure known here as the corralito, or small corral. And the president appointed former Buenos Aires mayor Carlos Grosso, notorious for his corruption, to head the new cabinet.
The night of December 28, a cacerolazo spread through neighborhoods--both working-class and middle-class--across the capital. "I heard the cacerolazo and I joined the marchers in my slippers," said Celia Ascheri, a schoolteacher. "The boulevard from the Congress to the Plaza de Mayo was filled with tens of thousands of protesters." Many chanted slogans against both major parties, the Peronists and the Radicals, and demanded the resignation of the Supreme Court as well. Some chanted, "They should all leave" and "Criminals! Thieves!" attributing the economic crisis to corruption by establishment politicians. Graffiti painted near the legislature declares, "There's helicopters for everyone," inviting members of Congress to follow de la Rúa's example.
While several of the small left-wing parties were present in this and other demonstrations, those organizations too are widely discredited, especially among newly radicalizing youth.
Ascheri said the police fired volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets at the demonstrators, who fought back and sent 11 cops to the hospital. A group of youth made their way into the congress building and began to throw sofas, chairs, and busts of politicians down the steps, setting fires inside until they were evicted.
Members of HIJOS, the organization of the children of the disappeared, said they were convinced the government used police provocateurs to encourage incidents such as the vandalization of the Congress building in order to smear opponents of the government and justify the police violence. At a January 1 press conference, HIJOS representatives disassociated themselves from fake leaflets that have been circulating with the name of their organization and provocative slogans such as "Let's take the Government House" and "We must avenge the bloodshed."
In the wake of the December 28 outpouring and continuing protests, Rodríguez Saá announced his resignation after only a week in office. For almost a day there was no head of state. After a fourth president came and went, Congress, on New Year's Day, appointed Duhalde, a Peronist and former governor of Buenos Aires province who had lost to de la Rúa in the 1999 elections. Both Radical and Peronist legislators voted to support him.
The congressional announcement that Duhalde would serve till 2003 rather than quickly organizing new elections, however, sparked yet another street mobilization that night of several thousand people, mostly young workers, students, and low-paid professionals. One marcher, Julia, a 23-year-old University of Buenos Aires student who asked that her last name not be used, said, "We demand the right to a popular vote to elect the president."
Diego, 26, a musician who walked two hours from Buenos Aires province to join the protest, said he was against both Radicals and Peronists but was not sure what he was in favor of--a common response by many of the marchers interviewed.
The next day, as Duhalde was sworn in, counterposed demonstrations of Peronist organizations and opponents of the new president took place. Duhalde is a leader of a wing of the Peronists that has maintained a more "populist" posture than the Menem wing of the party, which is associated with austerity measures.
Protests against cop brutality
Meanwhile, other social protests continue to bubble. In Floresta, a working-class neighborhood, a security guard who is a retired cop shot to death three youths who had argued with him over the previous week's police repression in the Plaza de Mayo. In response, hundreds of local residents took to the streets, demanding the killer be prosecuted. The hatred for the police and their brutality has become increasingly vocal among working people, and demonstrations against cop "impunity" sometimes become intertwined with the long-standing campaign by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to bring to justice those responsible for the torture and murder of their children. Members of HIJOS, who work together with the Mothers, took part in the Floresta rallies.
City employees have been protesting as well. They held a rally December 30 in front of the municipal legislature to oppose moves to pay them in bonds, reduce medical coverage, and extend working hours.
In an indication of the growing social tensions, angry passengers burned down nine rail cars December 28 after a labor dispute temporarily stopped service on a commuter line. The 3,000 workers, members of the Railway Union, were demanding payment of back wages. While the focus of the passengers' vandalism was not the workers but the company, the company used the incident to fire 150 unionists.
In yet another action, 200 laid-off railroad conductors have maintained a protest tent in front of Congress since they lost their jobs two years ago after the privatization of the Belgrano line. Esteban Soria noted that 100,000 rail workers were left jobless in the 1990s as a result of the Menem government's sell-off of the state-owned railroads.
"Conductors are now working 12-hour shifts," Soria said. "In fact, many other workers in Argentina are working 12-hour days today because of the government's 'labor flexibility' laws."
'Now it's happening in Buenos Aires
Soria noted the changing attitudes among working people here. "People in the provinces were the first to lose their fear because conditions there were the worst and we had nothing to lose," he said, pointing to the 1993 working-class rebellion in his province, Santiago del Estero. Then the revolts spread to other provinces, he said.
"Now we see the same change in moods in Buenos Aires. That's new."
Several workers remarked in interviews that the U.S. government and other imperialist powers are concerned about the social explosions in this country. Diana Fasoli, a city employee who works at the Colón Theater, one of the demonstrators in front of the city legislature, said Washington recently conducted joint military maneuvers in northern Argentina, which has been a focal point of protests by jobless workers. "And my sister, who lives in Tolhuin, Tierra del Fuego, says there are reports that the U.S. government wants to establish a military base there." The target of the U.S. military, she noted, was not "terrorism" but working-class unrest.
On December 20, the U.S. Senate approved the so-called Andean Initiative. This expands the previous "Plan Colombia" that, under the cover of "fighting drug trafficking," is aimed at expanding the U.S. military presence in Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and other South American countries.
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A team of workers correspondents that includes Perspectiva Mundial editor Martín Koppel is in Argentina to bring readers of the Militant and PM firsthand coverage on developments there including the revolt that has erupted against soaring unemployment and brutal cutbacks in living standards imposed by the capitalist government, social polarization the crisis engenders, and discussion among working people on how to confront the capitalist collapse.
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