Neo-liberalism has claimed another victim: Argentina. Since the 1970s, a brutal transference of resources from the poor to the rich has taken place here. The wealthy have exploited the tools of neo-liberalism to make fast profits for themselves and international interests without a thought for the country's future. On the 19th and 20th December 2001, Argentines took to the streets in their millions and said "Enough!" to the plunder: they called it the "Argentinazo", and their demand was "que se vayan todos""out with the lot of them"the corrupt politicans, the interfering IMF, the rapacious foreign companies and international banks. Two years on, it is clear that the Argentinazo was a turning point in the political life of the country. It was a wake-up call to citizens that they need to be more involved in the running of the country, or soon there will be no country left to run. We Are Millions looks at the politics which led to mass poverty and unemployment and describes the rich and varied social responses to economic meltdown and political crisis.
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Marcela Lopez Levy
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'The politicians have stolen our future.· The Guardian, April 25 2002
The roar of the people and their pots and pans
December 19th 2001: across Argentina, crowds had been looting supermarkets for days. At nearly 11 o'clock on that hot summer night, President Fernando de la Rúa went on TV to declare a state of siege, suspending all constitutional rights and guarantees. With hindsight he admitted it would have been better to let the press office make the announcement. Instead, he personally faced the people through the cameras and condemned 'the enemies of order and the Republic who are taking advantage to try to sow discord and violence ...' The man who had stated in days previous that 'there is no cause for alarm' at the social situation in the country took off his glasses on air to give emphasis to his words, much as an exasperated parent would confront a recalcitrant teenager.
After two years of government so weak it was hardly noticeable, and with the country on the edge of a breakdown, his reprimand sparked off the largest unplanned march on the seat of presidential power ever seen in Argentina. It was the last straw from a president who had proved unable to keep any of his promises and had led the country to the brink of default – by default – with an indecisiveness that protracted the dire economic state of the nation.
The rumble of discontent became audible – anger at his words, at his inability to act, at the audacity to declare a state of siege in the face of peoples desperation. Less than a minute after he spoke the words, scattered individuals began banging metal pots on their balconies and in their windows. Slowly, as it spread, the banging of pots and pans became more distinct and insistent as groups of people moved to the streets. Entire families poured out of their homes, meeting at corners, still banging, metal on metal. More went down to join them, the crowds swelling to thousands as ever increasing groups of enraged citizens marched towards the city centre in Buenos Aires and onto public squares across the land. There were people of all ages, moved to action of their own volition. There was no call from a political party, a union or the media. The only banner on the streets was the light blue and white national flag.
The uprising drew on the collective knowledge of 'puebladas', peoples' rebellions, although recent ones in the 1990s and earlier historical examples were often violent, sporadic and localised. This protest was peaceful and occurred over and over again during the next several weeks. Earlier in December, the banging of pots and pans that provided the soundtrack to the demonstrations had been increasing in intensity. These demonstrations were known as 'cacerolazos', where cacerolas (pots and pans) become a verb (cacerolear), an act of assertion and repudiation. The events of the 19th and 20th of December would be known at the biggest cacerolazo of them all, a country-wide protest remembered as the Argentinazo, when what was at stake was the nature and future of Argentina.
Peoples frustration overflowed and they began to express their thoughts and feelings in vociferous profanity. Swear words are a common communication short cut and among the angry and frustrated epithets, many original chants emerged that night: 'boludo, boludo, el estado de sitio te lo metés en el culo' (you bastard, you bastard, up yours with the state of siege). Another phrase taken up by young and old became the signature tune of that hot summer, and resonated throughout the world: 'que se vayan todos, que no quede ni uno solo ...' (out with the lot of them, every single one) – the corrupt politicians, the interfering IMF, the rapacious foreign companies and the national economic elite.
The Argentinazo began late on the 19'h and continued through the next day. Citizens showed they were not going to be cowed by the threat of repression and took to the streets to show where the politicians' mandate truly rested. Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo resigned at about lam on December 20th and the crowds in the Plaza de Mayo demanded that President de la Rúa follow suit. Throughout the 20th, people returned to the streets wanting to defy the state of siege, to participate in whatever would happen next, to be part of history in the making. It took a whole day of street battles between mounted policemen lobbing gas canisters into the crowds and young men returning fire with stones for de la Rúa to leave the presidential offices, the Casa Rosada, in a helicopter.
On the 20th many watched the events on TV, waiting to see what would happen, wondering whether to risk taking to the streets. Others had already decided and from the early morning on, women in suits, men with briefcases, housewives and grandparents and all sorts of people congregated in the Plaza de Mayo. In one corner of the square the mounted police regrouped between attempts to disperse the crowds. In their recounting of events, many people said afterwards that it was the 1V coverage of police horses rearing over the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (see Glossary) that provoked the outrage that brought them out on the streets.
For many, this was the first time they were part of a demonstration. Nobody had asked them to come and most did not imagine the level of repression President de la Rúa would unleash upon them. One newcomer to protest was Gustavo Benedetto, who was killed by a lead bullet shot from inside the offices of a bank near Plaza de Mayo. A year on, writer Naomi Klein recorded,
'Benedetto loved reading books about history and economics. According to his older sister, Eliana, "he wanted to understand how such a great country could have ended up in such a mess." [...]
The mood ... is one of mourning, nowhere more so than at the corner of Avenida de Mayo and Chacabuco, in front of the headquarters of HSBC Argentina, a hulking 28 storeys of Darth Vadertinted glass. It was on this same piece of asphalt that 23-year-old Gustavo Benedetto fell to the ground exactly a year earlier, killed by a bullet that came from inside the bank. The man charged with the murder – who had been in a group of police officers caught on video shooting through the banks tinted glass – is Lieutenant Jorge Varando, chief of HSBCS building security. He is also a retired elite military officer who was active during the 1970s, when 30,000 Argentines were disappeared, many of them kidnapped from their homes, brutally tortured and then thrown from planes into the muddy waters of the Rio de la Plata.'
Of the 29 people who died in those 48 hours, most were killed by the security forces, making it clear that standing up to a repressive state carries real risks. Hundreds more were arrested, intimidated, and injured.
The driving force for this uprising was largely a gut reaction, an intuitive grasp of the underlying problems of the country, too long hidden under wishful thinking and illusions. The fabric of lies woven during the 1990s – when consumerism was conspicuous and the poor who couldn't afford it were ignored – was left in tatters. It was a heady time steeped in a sense of shared destiny when people bypassed politics as usual. They protested for several weeks while the political establishment reasserted its control, after five successive presidents ruled during two weeks in late December and the first days of January. The pots and pans expressed the palpable anger which hit the streets. It was a spontaneous uprising nobody had called for and no organisation could take credit for. The moment of overflowing rage is remembered now as the Argentinazo, the time when the majority said, 'Enough'!
From riches to rags
Argentina's political temperature had been rising since December 1st, when Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo announced state intervention over private bank accounts, limiting cash withdrawals to 250 pesos (or dollars) a week. This restriction was immediately dubbed the corralito, literally small enclosure, also popularly the name for a playpen. Argentinians were being treated like infants by a government without real solutions. The reaction was a prolonged rattling of the cage, partly in desperation and partly in fury.
Most Argentinians receive their salaries and pay their rent, utilities, food – some even buy homes – with cash. Suddenly there was hardly any money flowing through the system, which affected people at all social levels. Everyone from shoe salespersons to domestic workers were not paid, so many of them, in turn, could not pay their debts, buy Christmas presents or put food on the table.
Although it was only known much later, it surprised no one that de la Rúa himself had been caught with over US$1 million in the corralito. His plight was put down to ineptitude, certainly not an ethical stand to be 'with the people'. The limits on bank withdrawals were implemented after massive capital flight took place throughout 2001; it intensified in the last months of the year, haemorrhaging some US$15,500 million out of the country. The bulk of the money exiting Argentina belonged to very wealthy individuals and companies, the latter mostly foreign as national capital has traditionally been kept outside the country, in permanent 'flight'. Banks have not been able to show reliable balance sheets for that year and the suspicion persists that they spirited millions out of the country as they saw devaluation loom.
It was not only bank vaults where shelves were being cleared. In December 2001, in supermarkets across the country, looting – some organised and some spontaneous – began to add to the panic. Not only President de la Rúa watched in horror as the looting was broadcast on 1V The population at large understood that the situation could not be contained any longer and those outside the country wondered how Argentina's downfall had come to pass. Everyone remembered the frantic ransacking which announced the fall of Radical President Raúl Alfonsín in 1989. That time there were 14 deaths, 80 wounded and 14 arrested. In 2001, looting again resulted in fatalities.
The corralito and looting precipitated the massive street demonstrations that culminated in the resignation of de la Rúa and seven-day President Adolfo Rodríguez Saá who followed him. The dire situation also gave life to the continuous cacerolazos in 2002, which in turn became the seedbed of a new social phenomenon, the neighbourhood assemblies. But the fuse which ignited the explosion that was the Argentinazo had been smouldering for years. It was fuelled by peoples despair at not being in the first world, at being in Latin America after all, at finding themselves in crisis again but in a much worse condition, worn down by 25 years of economic instability. The Argentinazo reminded people of the economic crises the country had suffered throughout the twentieth century. As they contemplated the ruins of the country, they lost confidence in their leaders, although conversely they regained it in themselves. That surge in confidence occurred even as the country fell deeper and deeper into crisis.
The new year saw yet another president in office, Eduardo Duhalde, the Peronist loser of the 1999 elections. After much backroom negotiating, he was selected by Congress to finish de la Rúa's term. As expected, one of his administration's first measures was to devalue the peso. The results were unpredictable and so made people fearful, but they could at least be certain that they had made their deposits in dollars, and so would be able to ride out the peso's loss of value. Nobody had bargained for the next policy decision: the corralón (big playpen), which consisted of the forced conversion from dollars to pesos of bank accounts at a rate established by the government.
Many Argentinians call the year following the Argentinazo the worst in the country's history. 'Capicúa' numbers, palindromes, are meant to bring good luck in Argentina, and everyone checks their bus ticket to see if the number mirrors itself. Yet the capicúa year 2002 could well break that particular superstition. It was Argentina's own annus horribilis, when by the government's own estimation, one person fell under the poverty line every four seconds. More than five million households were poor, accounting for 22.3 million people. Of these, 11.9 million people were extremely poor, a euphemism for the fact that they were hungry. All told, 61 per cent of the population was poor or extremely poor. Trade unions demanded a raise in salaries to combat the inflation that reached 45 per cent during 2002, but was closer to 80 per cent if only basic foodstuffs are counted. After the January 2002 devaluation, Buenos Aires went from being the most expensive capital in Latin America to the fourth cheapest in the world, just three away from Asunción, capital of Paraguay and, to many Argentinians, a byword for backwardness.
The anger expressed during the Argentinazo had deep roots and the specific events leading up to it had echoes in the past. Argentinians perceived the crisis as the culmination of a long historical process that included the policies of the 1990s, but had its antecedents in the economic era consolidated by the dictatorship of 1976. Moreover, the social response of revulsion toward Argentina's political institutions and representatives drew on an entire twentieth century of only fitful democracy and an unsteady deterioration in the hopes of becoming pan of the first world.
Argentina was cursed with spectacular success during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the twentieth century that economic development supported social mobility and an ever-expanding middle class. The country was, and remains, the most developed in Latin America, and for a time figured among the richest nations in the world. Enough progress was achieved for Argentinians to not-so-jokingly refer to themselves as the best of the continent and to assume a misplaced sense of superiority over the rest of Latin America.
After being battered by dictatorship and economic instability for the best part of 20 years, the sense of having made it peaked during the 1990s, when dollar-peso parity gave Argentinians both an inflated purchasing power and a sense of having put chaos behind them. On the surface the country regained its aspirations: it felt part of the worldwide fashion of market economics and trumpeted its benefits. Yet the possibility of consumerism for a few was based on an overvalued currency, and on a precarious and tacit accord that allowed those in power to pilfer in return for the stability. After the experience of hyperinflation, a reliable currency that was worth the same year in year out became invaluable to Argentinians. The new peso allowed the shrinking middle class to travel, access credit and feel part of the first world. But there was nothing for the increasing number of people left outside the charmed circle, who protested more and more vocally, but to no avail. The reigning economic model had a place for those not in the financial system: out in the cold beyond state concern, to fend for themselves.
So the world's forecast of greatness for Argentina never truly materialised, and on the contrary, in the late 1990s Argentina became stuck in a downward economic spiral. In 2001 it became clear that the way to achieve greatness had not been found in over 100 years. Argentina fell to earth with a thump and found itself at the bottom of a long Latin American continent, one among many nations struggling to stem poverty. Instead of fulfilling the great shared expectations, the country was at risk of losing its place in the world.
During 2001 the country was mesmerised by the rising level of 'risk' assigned to Argentina by foreign investors and banks. Everybody watched and few understood what the figures of riesgo país (country risk premium) stood for in practice. Country risk rating is all about the standing of a nation among the international investment community, from the large creditors to the individual speculators who move 'hot' money around the globe in seconds. Yet its symbolic meaning, as the numbers stared back from the front page of the newspapers, was that the risk-rating escalation stood not only for the falling confidence of the world in Argentina, but also for the fear of Argentinians themselves who watched their fortunes spiral out of their control once more.
The concept of risk, in Argentina, is one filled with justifiable foreboding. Since the early 1970s, financial insecurity had been the norm, the result of attempts to maximise profits while reducing the power of salaried workers, and also a consequence of international changes in financing development. At each juncture of crisis, a few benefited from the possibilities of speculation, those with the wherewithal to not care about the outcomes. For the majority, each new downturn brought deep and well-founded panic: will I have a job? Will I have enough money to buy food? Will my savings be safe? In 1976, 1985 and 1991, wages were frozen; in 1975 and 1985 inflation skyrocketed and in 1989 and 1990 reached 'hyper' levels, so incomes hardly covered the basic necessities of the majority; between 1974 and 1983, political or social dissent was met with extra-judicial murder; in 1990 and 2002 the savings of private individuals were confiscated by the state and returned in part, in bonds or not at all. The fears were not idle.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "We Are Millions"
Copyright © 2004 Marcela López Levy.
Excerpted by permission of Practical Action Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The Argentinazo, 8,
2 Great Expectations, 17,
3 Risk and Responsibility, 46,
4 High Hopes, 74,
KEY DATES, 138,