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People's Assemblies in Argentina

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  • Clore Daniel C
    News for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo The People s Assemblies in Argentina (in response to questions by Dru Jay and Justin
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 9, 2002
      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
      collapsing neoliberalism.

      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 options.

      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.

      Dan Clore

      Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_

      Lord We├┐rdgliffe:
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      "It's a political statement -- or, rather, an
      *anti*-political statement. The symbol for *anarchy*!"
      -- Batman, explaining the circle-A graffiti, in
      _Detective Comics_ #608
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