Revolutionary Crisis Rocks Argentina
- Frontlines Exclusive
Revolutionary crisis rocks Argentina
By Sebastian Robles
With Correspondents at the Frontlines
This post contains a main article and three more recent updates.
Argentina is in economic default, its banking system shut off,
stricken with massive bankruptcies. Unemployment has risen to 2.5
million (22%). This figure does not include the 1.2 million
unemployed (11% of the population) in the "Black Economy" - informal
Earlier this week, the Argentinean government fell twice in 48 hours.
First, the massive and spontaneous protests, massive looting of Super-
Markets in twenty cities in ten different provinces, including the
country's capital, forced the entire cabinet to resign. Then the
President himself resigned when the opposition Peronists refused to
join a National Unity government.
Hours before de la Rua's resignation, Washington told him he was on
his own. Around a week ago, the IMF refused to give Argentina the
$1.3 billion scheduled for disbursement. No money, no bailout or
renegotiations, no liquidity for the economy, despite the fact that
de la Rua was the first Latin American president to commit troops to
the peace force in Afghanistan (which also produced indignation among
the people) and that he was inclined to accept or at least negotiate
with the US to erect American military bases in northeastern
Argentina on the borders of Brazil and Paraguay. According to the US,
this is a pro-Bin Laden enclave because there are numerous Arab
residents in the area.
Despite ferocious police repression, there have only been 2000 people
arrested all over the country, 350 in Buenos Aires. Around 30 people
were killed and over 900 wounded on Thursday, December 20. In working
class neighborhoods, people organized self-defense committees, cut
off access roads to their areas of control and erected barricades.
Tens of thousands are marching in downtown areas of the country's
The now ex-President, Fernando de la Rua, was from the traditionally
liberal Radical Party. He was elected two years ago in coalition with
some center-left politicians and in alliance with a segment of the
Peronist Party. The election gave the Radicals some relative mass
support once again.
But the government continued the previous Peronist government of
Carlos Menem's policies of shock, privatization and cuts in
government spending. Widespread discontent with these policies led
two ministers of the economy to resign within 72 hours of each other
last year. The buck finally stopped with Domingo Cavallo, who had,
ironically, also served as Menem's minister of the economy. This
government imposed the dollarization of the economy, which failed.
The stock market was soon in ruins.
Unemployment rose, services were cut. Over 40% of public employees
were fired and the wages of those remaining were cut twice in the
last year, the last one announced last week (20% once, 20% the second
time). Wages for pensioners and retirees were also drastically cut.
Many provincial governments owe their employees 4-7 months back wages.
A year ago, the Vice-President Carlos Alvarez - a dissident Peronist
allied with the Radicals resigned when de la Rua insisted on
retaining two members of his cabinet who had been implicated in a
congressional bribery scandal. No replacement had been found, further
souring the pickle of the Argentinean ruling class when de la Rua
Then came a massive general strike and more than 300 other labor
actions since March.
In October, the government's alliance lost the elections to the
Peronists - formerly a populist party, now a fragmented confederation
of right wing, conservative and center right factions , who recovered
control of both the House and the Senate.
The Peronists also control the majority of the governors' mansions.
But the Peronists were not the real winners of that election. More
than 25% of the Argentineans who went to the polls to vote that day
either did not mark any candidate or spoiled their ballots in
protest. The fragmented left (including the Communist Party and four
Trotskyist parties) got over 1 million votes.
Most of the million were cast for the Trotskyists, scattered
throughout four different small parties leftover from splits in the
Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), arguably the largest Trotskyist party
the world has ever seen. The MAS, which virtually became THE left in
the eary 80s, exploded in different factions when they shifted their
traditional revolutionary policies.
One of these fragments only ran candidates in Buenos Aires and got
20% of the vote, electing two Congressmen. The Humanist Party (who
some consider a left party) also had a good election, with more than
240,000 votes nationwide.
Argentina will officially default on its foreign debt in January, but
banks are already running out of money. The Central Bank can no
longer guarantee the value of the money. Many Argentineans were
already withdrawing their savings accounts for fear of losing them in
the looming default. The Argentine government responded by freezing
bank deposits and restricting withdrawal or transfer of funds to $250
a week, leaving citizens to get by as best they could on their credit
card transactions at a cost as high as 30 cents on the dollar.
In this situation, a couple of days ago, with Christmas fast
approaching, desperate people began to loot some supermarkets,
particularly in the provinces, which are poorer and have a much
higher unemployment rate. De la Rua denounced the looting as the work
of "subversives" and "terrorists." As he concluded his speech,
spontaneous demonstrations erupted on the streets in every major
city, including the capital.
Every Thursday, like clockwork, in front of the Presidential Palace
in Downtown Buenos Aires, a demonstration is held in memory of the
more than 20,000 Argentinean activists, intellectuals, artists, and
writers "disappeared" by the military dictatorship during la Guerra
Sucia (or "Dirty War"). On Thursday, December 20, more than 10,000
transformed this demonstration into one demanding the government's
One eyewitness wrote about the initial moments of the protest:
"I was like every Thursday for the last 10 years or so - at the
Madres de la Plaza de Mayo´s rally for the disappeared. While I think
Madres have gone nuts (their leader said she was happy on September
11) and that they are trying to form an alternative extreme left wing
organization, they are the only ones preserving the memory of
the "dirty war"... in any case, I was there with several hundred
others in Plaza de Mayo when thousands of people started to show
up ... at the beginning I could not believe that so many people would
be attending the Madres event ... but they weren't ... they were
there to demand that De La Rua resign ... the Madres, who are not
stupid and had a sound system and banners - the only ones in the
entire park - started to organize the people, gave speeches. The
Madres formed protective lines separating the people from the mounted
police ... and when the whole thing went to hell, they were the ones
who stood their ground (after all they stood their ground against the
military dictatorship) and gave people some sense of direction... but
they were the leadership by default, not design ..."
Tens of thousands more demonstrated Buenos Aires' neighborhoods, and
in every City in the country. Everywhere the demonstrators clashed
with the police.
"In my neighborhood, yesterday, we all got together after the
President´s speech," remembers Hugo B., a teacher. "No one organized
it. We just walked out of our houses to scream at each other about
what a son of a bitch he is. People were looting supermarkets because
they are hungry ... and he called them subversives and terrorists ...
I don't even know who was the first one who proposed to march to the
Plaza del Mayo ... soon we were about 1,000 people marching down the
streets ... Every time we reached another neighborhood, more people
would join us, not individually, but in large groups ... half of the
people or more were young, most were shirtless ... when we were on
Entre Rios avenue I looked back and I could not see the end of the
demonstration, so many people were there ... the only flag we had was
a huge Argentinean flag we picked up from a secondary school's
Committees are being organized in working class neighborhoods and
starting to link which each other on a more or less regional basis.
This tradition harks back to the revolutionary struggles of the 70s.
While still in its infancy, this could develop into a truly genuine
expression of the mass movement, since the disintegration of industry
due to the crisis limits the development of a channel exclusively
based in the workplaces.
The labor bureaucracy also serves as a certain brake on the
development of factory committees as well. BG, a union activist in
the Northern suburban area of the Capital wrote that, "We still
remember the last general strike organized by the unions. It was
great and showed that the rank and file wanted to fight and the
success and participation was incredible. But the labor leaders did
not follow up ... they just thought of it as a de-compression valve."
There are now neighborhoods firmly in the hands of demonstrators.
Dozens of gun shops and neighborhood police stations have been looted
for weapons. In the provinces, reports of assaults of local police
stations abound. The army reported that thousands of rank and file
soldiers - who are allowed to return home on weekends and most nights
to save money during the economic crisis - did not return to their
The resignation of the President opened up a constitutional crisis.
Without a Vice-President (who, again, resigned a year ago), the House
and the Senate will meet hold a joint meeting on Saturday to elect a
new President. The proposed new President, Rodriguez Saa, is a
conservative Peronist who is the present governor of the province of
San Luis. Saa belongs to an oligarchic clan that has controlled San
Luis for the last 20 years. (See Updates Below)
The Provisional President of the Senate, Ramon Puerta, assumed the
post of interim President on Friday. He told the media: "I will be a
President for 48 hours or for two years, never mind for 90 days."
Puerta is a Peronist of one of the most right wing, pro-imperialist
wings of the party - now fragmented in at least 10 warring factions.
Puerta is also a member of the so-called oligarchy. A landlordist,
owner of massive yerba mate plantations in Misiones and other semi-
rural industrial concerns and lots of real estate.
If Puerta can command the support of the various Peronist factions,
he may be Washington's man. Otherwise, Bush may very well negotiate
with other factions of the Peronist Party or with the now-evident
block of ultraconservatives and Peronists that are talking to high-
ranking Army officers).
But the coup d'etat strategy is a risky proposition. The Argentinean
Armed Forces have a shadow of their former social support and
logistical strength. They are widely despised by a majority of the
population. People remember the Dirty War.
But there are other right wing sectors of the Armed Forces, those who
retired immediately after the advent of the new "democratic process."
They have staged numerous failed attempts against democratic
governments of the last two decades. In the late 80s, this sector
formed political parties that elected people to Congress and even a
couple of governors who later informally joined the Peronists. They
may very well be a reserve option to change the political regime if
Thousands of former left wing activists who entered a protracted
crisis in the 90s are now re-activated. But these activists are not
responding to those organizations, but rather intervening in events
on their own, without leadership.
These are the most visible political forces of the left:
Communist Party: split into at least three factions, two of them
public operating of their own accord. They lost most of their
influence in the 80s because the rise of the MAS.
MAS (Trotskyist): Lost most of its active members and its huge
periphery of the 80s in the 90s. It is now reduced to less than 500
members divided in factions. In the last election, they formed a
block with the Workers' Party, another Trotskyist party.
MST: A more moderate faction of the MAS. It has about 1,000 active
members. In the last election, they preserved their historical
alliance with the remnants of the CP - Izquierda Unida. The Coalition
elected a House member.
PTS: Another split from the MAS. They have about 500 members, very
sectarian, with some influence among students. They have the best
publishing house of all the Trotskyists. It is a quasi cult.
Patria Libre: A Stalinist/Castroist current, traditionally very
weak, reinforced lately due to the crisis in the CP. Maybe 300 active
Revolutionary Communist Party / Party of the People and Labor: In the
1970s, they used to have up to 20,000 members, but the rise of
Trotskyism condemned them to two decades of irrelevance. After the
MAS exploded, the RCP/PPL grew, particularly in extremely poor areas,
some areas of the working class, particularly in the provinces. They
are today the strongest left tendency in the unions and among all
other left organizations. Probably 2,000 active members but they also
command a wide array of sympathizing groups.
There are at least another 10-12 Trotskyist groups with memberships
ranging from a couple dozen to about 100 or so active members. There
are also half a dozen of proto-guerrilla groups, all of them very
small. For now.
While there is definitely an uprising in progress, its leadership has
yet to materialize. The main slogan now is "Que se vayan todos!" (All
Must Go!) The uprising is a massive and widespread, but it is mostly
spontaneous. This may progress as time goes by.
So far, judging from their leaflets and other materials, none of
these left organizations saw the writing on the wall. While they all
celebrated the electoral results of last October, they did not draw
all of the conclusions from it or the last two years of political,
social and economic events. For example, not one of them pointed out
that the government should resign AND NEW GENERAL ELECTIONS SHOULD BE
CALLED after its defeat last October. Nor did they raise a series of
demands to confront the crisis.
The left in Argentina, in answering their own crisis of the 90s (that
they never fully understood as te decade of capitalist counter-
offensive worldwide), raise mostly a combination of very reformist
slogans tinted with very ultra-left rhetoric. None of these
organizations were able to advance the events of this week even
though all the signals had been there at least since the October
Revolutionary crisis without a revolutionary situation
It is obvious that, save one, all the conditions that define a
revolutionary situation exist today in Argentina: economic crisis,
division of the ruling class, mass upheavals, the inability of those
on the top to continue governing and those under them refusing to
continue to be governed. The missing condition is the existence of a
Workers or Socialist party enjoying mass support. That is why we can
talk about a "revolutionary crisis" without a revolutionary situation.
Given the present circumstances, the situation will continue to
deteriorate in the coming months. The remaining political capital of
the Peronists will be spent trying to stabilize the country. Violence
and repression are likely to continue. The crisis will deepen with a
desperate working class and popular sectors continuing to realize, as
they do today, that they have nothing to lose by revolting.
The effects of the situation there will have enormous repercussions
in Latin America since Argentina, despite the crisis, is still
considered the third largest economy in Latin America (behind Brazil
and Mexico), and also because, more than Brazil or even Mexico,
Argentinean politics have had a more continental influence
Common Sense in Action
The conventional wisdom among ruling class experts is that no one
with political aspirations will accept the Argentinean presidency
during a social, political and economic catastrophe. Puerta counts on
the support of a number of the internal factions of Peronism and that
of former President Carlos Menem. Menem also announced few weeks back
that he would like to be President once again.
There are strong sentiments in layers of the population
that "everyone must go." This puts pressure on the government to hold
elections in 90 days or less. But Menem and others in the Peronist
movement would like to see a President named for the next two years,
for, among other reasons, because Menem served two terms as President
and cannot serve a third term before another President serves at
least one complete term. If elections are called in 90 days, Menem
could be disqualified as a candidate if the elections are called just
to replace De la Rua.
There are many echoes for a call for a General - not only
Presidential - elections and a Constituent Assembly, but no group or
political party is presently pushing for that position.
The Mass Movement
Demonstrations continued on Friday, but somewhat receded in some
cities to bury those killed yesterday and to regroup and because the
announcement of De La Rua´s resignation. Testimony from a number of
participants shows that many feel they won a battle by forcing the
resignation of the cabinet and De La Rua. That perception is building
up confidence in many layers of society.
All day Friday, there were meetings and assemblies in
neighborhoods across the country, some with as many as 2,000
participants, some with only a few dozen in attendance. Improvised
public meetings with free for all speakers from all tendencies and
unaffiliated activists are being held on street corners in downtown
Buenos Aires and in every major city.
Leaflets are starting to circulate calling for a mass demonstration
on Christmas Day, others call for a mass demo on Monday. It is very
possible that Christmas will be marked by new protests, in a place
where Christmas and New Year celebrations are usually calm.
CTA and other labor groups called a general strike. Transportation
workers are driving their vehicles to allow people to cross the
cities. But activists are discussing whether or not a general strike,
particularly if it is declared for an indefinite period of time,
would not be a maneuver by the Peronists to cool down the situation
to allow their party to take the Presidency.
Another proposal made in factories and by left activists is to call
for the lately abandoned active strikes. Active strikes mean workers
would go to work and at 10 AM, they would organize assemblies and
meetings and then march to a central meeting place, usually in parks
in front of government houses.
"We have had more than 200 general strikes since the 1930s," wrote
PA, a union activist who is formally a member of the MST in a food
factory, "but the labor leaders, at different times, used that weapon
for different purposes. In the 1970s, it was an active weapon to
organize the workers in each factory. In the 1980s, it was just to
let off steam and continue with the status quo. Of course, sometimes
the labor bureaucrats planned something and the rank and file went
beyond their desires ... but that is more difficult."
There are many neighborhoods completely in the hands of the locals
and at least one of the main access bridges to the capitol was in
the hands of demonstrators this morning. Roads and routes across the
country have been cut and demonstrators are there, burning tires and
setting up barricades.
There is no question that the issue of factory sit-downs to protect
the factories from being dismantled (something that workers in Villa
Constitution discussed yesterday in their general assembly after the
company announced its bankruptcy); the taking over the banks and
financial institutions (to protect wages and deposits, the money in
the vaults) by their workers and the occupation of food industries
and supermarkets by elected committees of neighborhoods and workers
(to organize the distribution according to the needs of workers and
stop the looting)are not simply propagandistic slogans, but something
that must be done in order for the working class to survive.
What's Up with the Cops?
There are discrepancies about the number of people killed that ranges
from 23 to 40. One of the questions circulating is why the police
were absent from the province surrounding the capital for the last
two days, accounting for the relatively low casualty rate. It is
speculated that Antonio Francisco Cafiero, the Peronist governor,
ordered the police to not repress those attacking supermarkets and
businesses to precipitate the crisis of the Radical Party government.
The new appointed President, a Peronist as Cafiero, warned him that
we could order the Federalization of the Provincial police if he did
not mobilize it immediately to impose "law and order." Obviously,
the first shot of the electoral process: Cafiero is one of the
potential candidates for the Presidency, but is opposed by Menem,
Puerta and others.
Meanwhile, back to the Capital:
Another participant in Plaza de Mayo wrote that: "The Federal Police
were out in force. But I noticed something peculiar. They were not
interested in defeating the demonstrators, just in keeping a safe
ground for them around the public buildings. They erected barricades,
used water cannons and when they felt overwhelmed by the crowds they
launched the cavalry and shot live ammunition ... and then they
retreated back to their positions around the buildings ... but it was
a defensive war, not an offensive one. Some of the cops looked
pretty scared to me ... in addition, I saw only few older and more
experienced cops among those repressing ... most of them were pretty
"We need a Chavez here...," said a young demonstrator at the
Obelisco, one of the main public monuments in Buenos Aires where
thousands of demonstrators fought with the police for over 10 hours
and destroyed the local McDonald and Citibank and numerous other
shops. He is referring to left populist President of Venezuela, Hugo
Chavez. Others talked of the first period of Peronism in the mid-40s.
What this means is that many will readily accept a someone who will
enact a number of emergency measures non-payment of the foreign
debt, nationalization of the food and bank industries, massive
distribution of food and the creation of even provisory sources of
jobs and income.
But it is difficult to imagine such a leader emerging from the
Peronist, the Radical Party or their allies, so much are these
organizations in the pockets of US imperialism and the IMF.
Update: December 21, 2001
Today, the Peronist majority in both chambers of Congress agreed on
the game plan for tomorrow's Legislative Assembly:
1. Elect Governor Saa President for 60 days.
2. Vote on their proposal for new elections for President and Vice
President that will be held on Sunday, March 3
3. Establish that the electoral system for this particular election
be shifted to "Single Transferable Voting" system or
the "Sistema de Lemas."
Through this system parties present Lemas (name of the party)
followed by a list of several candidates of the same party for the
same position (as many as they need or want). Then, once the winner
in each lema is determined by simple plurality of votes, all the
other votes for other candidates of the same party are added to the
winner and then the result is compared to the results on all other
winners from each party.
This system has never been used in Argentina before, though it was
employed in neighboring Uruguay for decades, before being dropped for
The selection of this voting system indicates that the Peronists will
only agree to take over the Executive and call elections. They want
to decide their internal differences through a general election
rather than a primary, as is the custom in Argentina. This will
partially offset the mobilizing character of the apparatus that is
required to win a primary and will give more power to money and
4. The Legislative Assembly has also to decide whether this election
will be to elect a formula to complete the 2-year period left from De
la Rua's term or if they wish to make this a complete new term
De la Rua, before leaving the Government House, lifted the State of
Siege. But Puerta, the interim President, re-imposed it, but just
for the Province of Buenos Aires, where looting of supermarkets and
businesses continued today. According to the local electronic media,
over a dozen supermarkets were assaulted on Friday.
At least two judges ordered De La Rua and his former Minister of
Interior not to leave the country and announced their intention
to investigate the responsibility of both in the killings and
violence of the last few days.
This followed the announcement that Cavallo, De la Rua's Minister of
Economy left the country in a presidential aircraft immediately after
resigning on Thursday. He did so despite a court order requiring him
to request permission before leaving the capital. The outstanding
court order was related to the investigation of arms trafficking to
Croatia and Ecuador underway for the last year or so. Menem was also
indicted and cleared of the same charges.
Friday's demonstrations were much smaller in the Capital. The MST,
the CP and their electoral block organized a small demo. So did
another dozen or so different left and Peronist groups. But the
demands, for the most part, did not exceed the call for a moratorium
and/or cancellation of the foreign debt.
Both the PTP/RCP and different groups of the Peronist Party were
actively intervening in neighborhood assemblies. The Peronists had
the line of cooling off the situation. The line of the PTP/RCP is not
clear, but reports indicated that they were mobilizing numerous
cadres to intervene.
Senator Yoma, of the Peronist Party announced that they were looking
for a) moratorium and/or re-negotiation of the foreign debt; 2)
floating the peso in relation to the dollar and the "pesoization"
of the economy, including the transfer of all contracts in
dollars to pesos; c) protection of money from small investors in
banks and d) establishment of an emergency food program. Yoma offered
no details. Others in Congress, however, insisted that devaluing the
peso was a must do. This could trigger yet another catastrophe for
It is unlikely Saa would continue running for office, thus his
election as President for 60 days. Interim President Puerta gave a
press conference and announced that he was taking over until
tomorrow's legislative assembly and informed the media that the new
president may look into the formation of a government of "National
Unity" for sixty days, inviting all sectors and political parties to
The US government declared that Argentina must follow the
instructions and plans proposed by the IMF without hesitation. But it
is clear that whatever the plans of the ruling class, Argentinean or
otherwise, Argentina's future will be decided in the streets rather
than the government houses.
Update: December 22
Anger at the killings of over 30 people last Thursday grew
exponentially today when it was disclosed that many of those killed
by the police were children 9-14 years old. In one case, a 14 years
old girl was shot point blank on the back of the head when she was
running away from a super-market with one package of dry pasta. Her
family, was disclosed, had been eating only bread for the previous
A sector of the "piqueteros" was calling to a national conference for
today, Saturday, to respond to the political situation. The
¨piqueteros" is a national movement that organizes picket lines at
super-markets and negotiate with their owners free distribution of
food. At this writing, delegates from different cities and
coordinating groups were arriving at the meeting.
Meanwhile, the legislative assembly approved all the Peronist
proposals: elected Saa Rodriguez President, called presidential
elections in 90 days under the single transferable voting system and
announced that they were intent in forming a government of "national
To Be Continue
The author of these reports can be contacted by writing to: