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Argentina: Riot or revolution?
by Dan Feder
Email: dan (nospam) thestudentunderground.org
20 Feb 2002
Nicolas, an anarchist activist and student living in Boston, speaks about the turmoil he wintnessed first-hand when he returned home to Argentina this December
Nicolas, a native of Buenos Aires, currently attends school in Boston. He is active in the Barricada Collective (a Boston-based anarchist group) and a member of NEFAC (the Northeast Federation of Anarcho-Communists). Nicolas went back to Argentina during Christmas break to find his country in chaos. Emergency "austerity" measures taken by the government in response to a deep recession had slashed wages, pensions, and led to massive unemployment. Massive demonstrations and riots have led to seven deaths, the resignation of three consecutive presidents, and a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the Argentine economy.
Many blame the current problems on Argentinaís adherence to IMF recommendations and a dogmatic free-market structuring of the economy. Many in the worldwide anti-globalization movement are now pointing to Argentina as a case example of the failure of the "neoliberal" program of globalization. When the riots broke out, Argentina had hit nearly 20% unemployment, with 40% of the population below the poverty line. This despite the countryís enormous natural resources and educated workforce.
What brought you back to Argentina in December?
My [favorite] soccer team was going to win the championship for the first time in 35 years, and Iíve always been a crazed fanatic. Iíve always made sure that I had enough money saved up so that if the time ever came, I could go back and be there.
Did you have any idea that something like this was going to happen?
No. I mean, we all knew that Argentina was in a recession, that there was high unemployment, but I donít think we ever expected things to explode the way they did.
When did you fist see rioting break out?
It was December 19th, and I was trying to get tickets to the game. We all thought it was odd that there were 10,000 of us, a near-riot over the tickets, and there were no police. Argentines are known to be very, very troublesome when it comes to soccer, and there are usually hundreds, if not thousands of cops around. But there was nobody. Eventually we found out it was because people were trying to loot supermarkets in the area, and main streets were all blocked off.
I went home and went to sleep, because I hadnít slept the night before, and when I woke up, it was like the country had fallen apart. What had happened was, right after I had gotten to Buenos Aires was when they declared the emergency economic measures, which limited how much money you could take out of the bank, how much money you could take out of the country, and so forth.
On the surface it could seem unimportant, because among the Argentine working class and unemployed, nobody has $250 to take out of the bank anyways. But what happened was, it cut off the flow of cash. These [poor] people depended on the small cash they could get from selling things, from street sales and things like that, for their day to day living. Since the people with more money - the Argentine middle class - didnít have cash on them, this wasnít trickling down to the poor. So people found themselves with no way to live, to subsist even, from day to day. So what did they do? They took what they needed from the supermarkets.
That spread slowly, from the outskirts of the capital, into the city. The middle class, also, was in arms. Especially the small business owners. What [the government] wanted to do was to channel the economy from under the table to create tax revenue by forcing people to use banks, and debit cards, and things of that sort. But the company that you had to get the debit machines from only had 16,000 in stock. There were 400,000 shops that needed them. So you had 384,000 that didnít have a way of getting any revenue.
So, yeah, on this day, the looting started, spreading slowly. Around 10 pm, the president made a speech on TV. It lasted around four minutes. Here, the whole countryís in arms, people are hungry and fed up - itís basically a disaster. And this man gets on TV, and basically all he can say is, the violence is regrettable and needs to stop, and Iím declaring a state of emergency.
That was really the last straw. People started pouring out on the street, banging their pots and pans. They went to the economy ministerís house in a really upscale neighborhood. There were like 5,000 people there, one or two thousand at the presidential residence, then 10,000 at the Plaza de Mayo, the presidential palace. And that goes into the repression, which started at 4 or 5 in the morning, and so on.
Is there a lot of solidarity between the working class and middle class?
There is. I think from a strictly theoretical perspective, thereís obviously conflicting interests. But there has been a sense of solidarity. In the streets themselves, definitely. On the 20th, which was the day of the heaviest fighting, when seven people died in the fight around Plaza de Mayo, there was really no class distinction.
The press ignored this solidarity. They tried to make it out that on the 19th, it was the Argentine middle class, the good working Argentines. But on the 20th, on the other hand, it was the bad elements, and the radicals. Thatís just a blatant lie. And thereís a reason for that lie. The message it puts forward is normal people donít fight back. Normal people bang their pots and pans and then they go home. Whereas only crazed radicals fight police.
The fact is that I was there, and there were at least 60,000 people, of which the leftist march had no more than three or four thousand. And then there were syndicalists and whatnot. But total, that probably adds up to 10,000. So thereís still 40,000 people there, who you canít tell me are all rabid leftists. If they were then weíd be in a much better situation [laughs].
You saw old men trying to convince people to go fight more, and people on their work break in suits and ties with rags over their faces. It was incredibly diverse. You saw store owners letting people go into the stores, giving them water and a place to rest. So you canít say that it was just the "usual elements."
Do you think there is a revolution happening in Argentina?
Well, I think itís a revolutionary situation, but not necessarily a revolution. For there to be a revolution I think you need to have a rejection of the current system, which is to a large extent present. Itís not overwhelming, but itís significant.
But you need a viable alternative. Right now, neither the anarchists nor the Marxist left is in any position to put forward a viable alternative on a massive scale, that people can take as their own and go forward with.
The seeds of it are there. There are the popular general assemblies, which to me are anarchism in action.
Could you describe the general assemblies?
Well, to begin with, itís really direct democracy in action. Theyíre decentralized, theyíre federated together in inter-neighborhood general assemblies, which they have once in a while. In the capital and the outskirts, if I remember correctly, there were over 50 different neighborhood general assemblies going on. Theyíre attended by anywhere from 50 to hundreds of people, and theyíre the ones that are putting forward the mobilizations every once in a while, and organizing mutual aid in the neighborhoods.
Itís kind of a crude anarchism, just because people donít realize that what theyíre doing is anarchism, and therefore they canít structure it better, and give it a better form, and really make it be the seeds of a dual power that can eventually, completely undermine the power of the state and capital in Argentina. It is there; itís just a matter of fomenting it, channeling it, so that the leftist opportunists, for example, canít take advantage of it.
What was it like to come back and be in New York for the WEF demonstrations?
It was quite a shock. On December 20th, I was in the whole fight around the Plaza de Mayo, and you saw people just, all day, in their shorts and t-shirts, showing no fear - Iíve never seen anything like it. They were pushing the police back.
The Police were shooting tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, real bullets - you never knew if it was a rubber bullet or a real bullet they were shooting at you. Still, people advanced blocks and blocks, and pushed the police back into the corner of the Plaza de Mayo.
And we really thought - it seems delusional, in hindsight - but we really thought that if we just made it to the Plaza de Mayo it would be over. That nobody would ever be able to get us out. Thatís a powerful thought. Iíd like to think that my anarchism is strong. Iíve had it for many years. But for a few hours there, I thought, weíll get in there, weíll raise the red flag and weíll do things right, and that will be the end of it.
Of course, you canít say this now; people say youíre insane. Fair enough -- but at that time we all had this mindset, and thatís why we all were able to push forward like that, even though seven people died.
To see the different age groups, and everybody fighting, it wasnít the usual question of violence vs. nonviolence, or the morality of it. That argument just wasnít present.
To go back from that, to North America, was very different. To see these people, the black bloc, with masks and shields and helmets, just turn and run when the police come, was so frustrating. People were speaking of solidarity with Argentina, everyone chanting, "We are all Argentina," I think that kind of solidarity is to a large extent lip service.
In North America, I see the same discussion - always - about whether itís right to engage in confrontation with the police or property damage. To me itís a non-issue, to be tackled from a political standpoint and a tactical standpoint, and not an ideological standpoint. The fact is, sometimes [fighting police and damaging property] is politically advantageous, and sometimes itís politically disadvantageous. Sometimes itís tactically a good idea, and sometimes itís tactically not a good idea.
On a different note, I thought that in this particular case it was not politically or tactically a good idea to engage in confrontations with the police. Simply because of the situation there - the balance of power wasnít favorable, the politics of it. The sound of broken glass in New York City right now is probably not what people want to hear.
What my concern was, as an organized anarchist and a member of NEFAC [the Northeast Federation of Anarcho-Communists] was to see a strong and visible anarchist contingent, that would be able to say, hey, we didnít disappear because of September 11, and thereís still problems, and they havenít gone away, if anything theyíve gotten worse.
So my concern was to make it from point A to point B and be very visible. And we didnít even manage that. We were dispersed before we even made it out of Central Park. We might as well not have even been there. So that was very disheartening.
There were upsides to it. I think the estimates of 15-20,000 are very much inflated, but there were 7-10,000, definitely. And thatís really good, considering that there was such a campaign of scare tactics by the police; that so many people came out is a good sign. And hopefully these people will go back to their communities and do serious work there. Hopefully the next time we have a show of strength like this, weíll keep growing, and try to make up some of the years that I think we lost after September 11.