March 1, 2002

`Throw the Bums Out' -- Argentines Seek Break from Begging Loans

By Roger Burbach

As Argentina's implosion continues, no one here will predict what may happen next.

"Next month, or next week, (President Eduardo) Duhalde could be deposed, we could be in a state of chaos, or we could be building a new country that breaks with neo-liberal and capitalist orthodoxy," said Jose Luis Coraggio, rector of the National University of General Sarmiento in Buenos Aires.

Ministers have just returned empty-handed from negotiations in Washington with the International Monetary Fund. Argentina is the first country in years to default on its international debt — $140 billion — raising new questions about the viability of an economic order based on the unfettered flow of international finance capital and the privatization of national industries.

Cities and towns are in the throes of an unprecedented social upheaval. Here in the capital, a popular movement demands, "Que se vayan todos," or "throw out everyone." It is a call for the removal of the entire political establishment, including the current president, Eduardo Duhalde, who took office in January.

In a bitter revelation to some 500,000 government workers expecting salary checks on March 1, Duhalde told Argentine media in recent days, "We don't have the money so we can't pay." Tax receipts have nose-dived since the beginning of the year.

"Repudiation of the politicians and the economic elites is complete," Coraggio says. "None of them who are recognized can walk the streets without being insulted or spit upon."

Argentina captured world attention with a widespread social explosion in December that ushered in five presidents in less than two weeks. The crisis had been building for years. Its foundations are in the neo-liberal model that Argentina adopted in the early 1990s under President Carlos Menem. The economy became tied firmly into the international financial system, with a fixed exchange rate of one peso to one dollar. That overvalued Argentine exports — such as its world-famous beef — while permitting cheap imports to flood local markets.

The IMF demanded pri-vatization, and along with government and party bureaucrats, Menem grew wealthy from corrupt deals as national companies ranging from petroleum and airline enterprises to telephone and water utilities were sold off mainly to foreign interests. Prices for some utilities soared.

The massive demonstrations held since December are called "caserolazos," where demonstrators bang on empty pots and pans, symbolizing their inability to purchase basic necessities. Much of the organizing takes place in local communities, where residents often gather in groups known as popular assemblies. Rapidly, the assemblies are becoming autonomous centers of community participation that embrace a variety of organizations and individuals, ranging from unemployed and independent trade unionists to human rights groups and members of left or non-mainstream political parties.

The middle class in particular is furious with the banks, since the government has made it more difficult to withdraw funds from long-term savings accounts, many of which were in dollars that will be repaid in devalued pesos. While proclaiming the government simply doesn't have the money to pay off the accounts, Duhalde has reneged on an early promise that he would not pay back the international debt: now he's continuing to negotiate with the IMF to find a way to pay it. He has also announced policies that amount to a currency subsidy for large Argentine corporations when they repay foreign loans. Middle-class demonstrators, sometimes in suits, are smashing bank windows and spray-painting bank walls with the words, "thieves," "traitors" and "looters."

Neighborhoods don't shy from discussing international issues. "One of the rallying cries coming from our communities is `no more foreign loans,'" said Lidia Pertieria, an assembly organizer. "New loans only mean more swindling and robbery by our government officials."

The neighborhood assemblies are emblematic of the upsurge in grassroots organizing occurring throughout the country. Unemployed workers called "piqueteros," or picketers, are blocking highways and strategic commercial routes, demanding jobs. The piqueteros usually bargain in large groups, to end the old government practice of negotiating with a few representatives who can then be bribed to sell out the rank and file.

The National Front Against Poverty, with over 60,000 members, has also moved into the spotlight. Established in 1999 by economists, sociologists and trade unionists, the Front collected more than a million signatures for an alternative plan to the neo-liberal model. Presented to Congress and quickly dubbed "shock redistribution" — an ironic reference to the economic shock treatment imposed on many third world countries by the IMF — the plan argues that the only way to reactivate the economy is by putting funds into the hands of the country's poor, not by slashing social programs and implementing financial policies that favor the rich. Some 40 percent of the country's 37 million people fall below the poverty line. Congress took no action on the plan.

The crisis may have an upside. "In World War II, Argentina was cut off from international markets and we had the biggest manufacturing boom in our history," said Ricardo Malfe, a psychologist on the social science faculty of the University of Buenos Aires. Middle class Argentines have a reputation for a narrow self-interest mentality, Malfe notes. "Perhaps this crisis will force us to reshape the very way we view ourselves, run our economy and organize our lives."

Military intervention appears out of the question at the moment — the military is ranked even lower in polls than the political class. For now, the picketers, pot-bangers and popular assemblies are driving the political process, although where they will be able to take the country is uncertain.

Roger Burbach (censa@ is director of Global Alternatives at the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and co-editor and contributor to the just-released anthology, "September 11 and the U.S. War: Beyond the Curtain of Smoke," (City Lights Publishers).

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