People's Assemblies in Argentina
- News for Anarchists & Activists:
The People's Assemblies in Argentina
(in response to questions by Dru Jay and Justin
Podur--presented here by Justin Podur)
by Evan Henshaw-Plath
March 08, 2002
In December of 2001, Argentina's economy collapsed under the
weight of debt, IMF advice, and a government that,
unfortunately, followed that advice. The collapse and the
economic policies that led to it are well documented. The
response of the people, who took to the streets with pots
and pans and threw out four successive presidents in two
weeks, has also been documented. But the people of
Argentina have also been building something, experimenting
with direct democracy, in interesting ways, and in many
parts of the country.
The Immediate Crisis
What do things look like on the ground in Argentina today?
First off you have to think of Argentina like you think of
Spain or Italy. Buenos Aires has a subway system, commuter
trains, tall office buildings, street cafes, a broadway like
theater district, etc... People buy their food from
supermarkets, and in general there is very little of the
informal economy which is dominant in poorer countries.
Outside the capital people are generally less European and
more poor. About a third of the population lives in Buenos
Aires. The piqueteros are the more working class part of the
movement, and are suffering more.
The piqueteros have been protesting by blocking major
highways and oil refineries. The cacelerazos, of a more
middle class background, have been protesting by banging
pots and, increasingly, trashing banks. One person said,
they call the cacelerazos middle class (protests where they
bang pots and sometimes smash up banks), but they are really
just the people who make a few hundred dollars a month and
were able to have enough extra to put money in a savings
account. The Piqueteros are going hungry and that is why
they are blocking roads. While some are advocating radical
change and revolution, their direct demands are of food and
jobs. Basically they eat some bread and drink lots of mate.
There are lots of different groups of piqueteros with a
range of politics from social democracy to socialism on the
less radical end to maoism, trotskism, and anarchism among
the radicals. Many piqueteros groups are connected to unions
or political parties.
Even given the situation, many Argentines are still going
about their daily business. There are still people in
restaurants, buying food, going to work, and in general
trying to make the best of it. A year ago, everybody in
Buenos Aires seemed like they were depressed. Today the
situation is objectively worse, but there is some hope of
kicking the IMF out. Everywhere you go people denounce the
IMF. Berating the IMF has become a national pastime. The
reason is that when push comes to shove everybody knows that
the IMF has way more power in Argentina than anybody else.
The Assembly Movement
People's Assemblies are becoming an important means of
organization. In Buenos Aires proper, for example, while
plenty of neighbourhoods do not have assemblies (often
neighbourhoods with a strong political party presence),
there are about 80 'people's assemblies', and still more in
the outlying areas.
The assemblies work like this. People were pissed off over
the corilitos (restrictions on banking), so they started
going out in the streets and banging pots. For the most part
this wasn't organized by any group, but when people heard
pots banging they went out in the streets and joined them.
After December 20th when they overthrew the De La Rua they
continued to hold protests. People were able to find
neighbors who were also upset due to the loud pot banging.
From there people just started talking. It seems, then, that
the assemblies were truly spontaneous. There were lots of
organizers who took up working on them but they are not the
project of any preexisting group. In fact there has been a
lot of tension within the assemblies where they are trying
to force out any leftist parties and potential leaders who
might coopt the assembly movement.
The assemblies, then, are aggressively oriented towards
direct democracy. The assemblies see implementing a system
of direct democracy as a way of rejecting politics. Politics
in Argentina is in some ways similar to the US. You have two
major parties which run expensive media saturated campaigns
but have no substantive policy differences between them.
Unlike the US, however, the political and economic system is
held up by a much stronger system of patronage and
corruption. The parties are very much political machines.
There have been many very strong political movements in
Argentina and all of them get subverted by this coopation of
the leaders and the organization in to the system of
privilege. The people of Argentina are rejecting
representative democracy because there is no option for
change within that system. This isn't a theoretical debate.
You can read editorials in the paper about how Dualde
(current president) needs to just find the leaders so he can
buy them off. This is what happened to the three major
unions, and many other groups in the past.
So, the people didn't come to direct democracy through a
intellectual critique of the coercion of systems of
representation but rather because they want and need real
change and they see this as the only way out.
The assemblies also have some class diversity. Assemblies
are based in neighborhoods--so in wealthy neighborhoods the
participants are wealthy and in poor neighborhoods they are
poor. In general the cacelerazos are considered 'middle
class', and the piqueteros are working class, but the
assemblies are both.
Each assembly is 'autoconvacado' meaning self convening.
They generally have something like working groups which meet
separately from the barrio (neighborhood) assembly. The
working groups (again an English term that doesn't directly
translate), meet once a week and report back to the
assembly. The assembly is where proposals for other
assemblies to adopt are created. Basically the way it works
is a barrio assembly with come up with a proposal. Usually
to have a protest on this or that day, take some sort of
action in solidarity with piqueteros, or to denounce
neoliberalism and demand the appropriation of all foreign
capital and investments in the country. The barrio then
votes on it. People can vote three ways. Yes, No, or
abstain. If the no's win the the proposal is dropped. If the
Abstains count for a large portion of the votes then it goes
back to be reworked and can be presented next week. If the
Yes's win then it is adopted. Similar processes work at the
local barrio assemblies, interbarrio's, and the national.
None of the proposals are binding. Votes are based on
everybody in attendance not on a one assembly one vote
system. It's a rough majority system although to be honest
it is in flux and nobody counts the votes very closely. In
the interbarrio I saw people contest a vote. Basically they
do that by yelling and getting upset. Then they redo the
vote and the vote counters count more closely.
The interbarrio is organized by a rotating group, three
local assemblies each week. Each assembly gets a person to
speak, first to give a little political polemic speech then
to give their assembly's proposal. Somebody writes them down
and after a few hours of this they get to voting. The
indymedia folks (and others) write them down and post them
to the web for people who weren't there. Many local
assemblies also post their minutes/notes/decisions to
It is hard to tell how much of the population is involved in
this activity. Greater Buenos Aires has a population of
about 10 million and there are about 1000 to 3000 people at
the interbarrios. There is very clearly widespread
opposition to the government and especially the IMF.
I recently read an article where it talked about politicians
getting attacked when they were seen and identified in
public. The people in the assemblies are for the most part
taking their first step in to politics.
They really do represent somewhat of an awakening of the
apathetic silent majority. People who had been working hard,
thinking about their families, and letting politicians be.
Now they are pissed and they don't think that any sort of
politician or party can fix things. I think i heard there
were 60 to 80 assemblies in Buenos Aries with more starting
all the time. I did hear that the numbers of people
participating had been declining some even though the number
of assemblies was growing and their political commitment was
deepening. This is why if the assembly movement is going to
continue to grow they need to be fueled by the fire of
Repression and Apathy
The authorities' response to the people's movements in
Argentina has been mixed. The army / police are nasty at
some demonstrations and are seriously repressive, but other
times they aren't. Like at one blockade of the major road
into Buenos Aires there were only half a dozen cops and they
stayed a mile down the road. One time I was sitting in a
restaurant and a small protest, maybe a 1000 people, was
blocking traffic outside. They were just marching around the
city blocking major intersections, sitting down for a while
then moving on. All the police did was work to redirect
traffic. Plenty of time the cops basically just let people
attack the banks. Sometimes when they felt they had the
upper hand they did push people away from the banks. There
was a blockade of the a major oil refinery which there were
2000 cops that showed up when the finally wanted to clear
it. In general there is not apparent police presence at any
of the assemblies. In congress when we interviewed people
the congress people seemed to not take the assemblies very
I think the police have orders not to start confrontations
unless they really have to because they are worried things
will get out of hand.
Perceptions by the population
The militant action in the streets and the assemblies have
the sympathy of many. Every day you can see in the news
people in business suits attacking and smashing banks. The
TV sucks and is right wing, but they are covering what is
going on. In the papers they have articles about the barter
systems. They cover the weekly interbarrio assembly, but
they of course aren't supportive. Although the media system
is fundamentally corporate and right wing many of the
journalists are hit by the same problems as everybody else.
When I asked a cab driver what he thought of of the
piqueteros he said 'what else are they supposed to do' and
that blockading the roads 'was an important part of the
struggle.' That said, there are large portions of the
population who wouldn't have even heard of the assemblies.
Central to the assemblies' agenda is the rejection of
representatives. In this, they are really supported by the
general population. The center-left paper, pagina 12, did a
poll where they found that 61% of the population didn't
believe in representative democracy. That's a big deal.
Of course the neoliberals are saying it means people want a
dictatorship or some chavez/castro type, but that's not
true. People are demanding democracy and representative
democracy has failed and that is why they are looking to
Other direct-democratic activities
Argentinians have done more than create assemblies. Workers
have occupied factories and are running them without the
owners. There are definitely parts of the movement which are
being strategic and targeting the oil industry to shut down
the government. I know one of the assemblies is working on
building a coalition with the hospital workers in their
neighborhood to create alternate systems of providing health
care. I think in some ways what Argentina needs for things
to move forward with the project of radical change is a
combination of continued IMF imposed insanity and the
assemblies and other political forms to start developing
their own systems for providing the functions of government
which the government is failing to do. This process takes
time, and is driven by the government's continued attacks on
the social and economic system. Given that the IMF is
totally unwilling to consider an alternate model and the
government is the IMF's lapdog, it looks like there is a
possibility for a positive outcome.
Evan Henshaw-Plath, an indymedia activist, is in Argentina,
reporting on the situation there. Dru Jay is an indymedia
activist in Canada. Justin Podur is a ZNet commentator.
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