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Argentine workers take to the streets in new protests
The struggle continues

March 8, 2002 | Page 5

HECTOR REYES reports on the ongoing fight in Argentina.

(Also below, see "We must unite in a great storm," an interview with Raúl Castells.)

WORKERS TOOK to the streets of Argentina again in late February in protests against the government of President Eduardo Duhalde.

In Buenos Aires, 4,000 members of the unemployed workers' movement, known as the "piqueteros," surrounded the National Congress to denounce the "hunger, misery and unemployment" budget that was being debated inside.

Meanwhile, a coordinated demonstration of neighborhood asambleas populares--the popular assemblies that have sprung up in metropolitan Buenos Aries and across Argentina--rallied in front of the Casa Rosada, the presidential mansion.

And in several cities, piqueteros, joined militants of the retired workers' movement to block roads leading to the facilities of Argentina's privatized oil company Repsol YPF. They demanded 50,000 jobs, the number lost when the government sold off the oil industry.

These mobilizations come two months after the Argentinazo, the mass uprising in mid-December that toppled the government of Fernando de la Rúa. After two weeks of chaos, the National Congress installed Duhalde of the Partido Justicialista (PJ), known as Peronists, as president. But the struggle has continued.

The Argentinazo was an explosive challenge to the free-market policies that drove Argentina into a devastating economic crisis.

Although the country's three main trade union federations--the CGT, the dissident-CGT and the CTA--organized seven one-day general strikes in the months leading to the uprising, none took the lead in calling for the overthrow of the government.

But many participants had gained extensive experience through years of local and regional struggles against the government's policies of privatization and austerity.

Today, both the CGT and the dissident-CGT support Duhalde's government. The CTA, representing many public-sector workers who have suffered severe pay cuts because of the crisis, has a significant presence in the piqueteros movement.

But it was the uncompromising struggles of the independently organized piqueteros that set a militant example that even sectors of the middle class began to imitate, leading to the Argentinazo.

In the months following the uprising, the country's economic crisis has grown worse by the day. Official unemployment has reached 22 percent. When the government let the peso "float" on international markets last month, the currency lost more than 50 percent of its value. Hyperinflation is a real threat, with the price of staples such as oil and flour jumping by 35 and 60 percent, respectively, in just two weeks.

Even the conservative Catholic church criticized "business groups that made so much [money] in the last few years" for not funding food and unemployment subsidies to deal with the impact of the crisis.

Duhalde's support inside the PJ has eroded, with several factions loudly calling for early elections. But how workers respond will determine Argentina's future.

Workers at the Cerámica Zanón factory, who occupied their plant after management locked them out, have shown the kind of determination that will be needed for the battles to come. As a Zanón workers' statement put it, "They will have to take us out of here feet first."

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"We must unite in a great storm"

RAUL CASTELLS is a leader of the militant retirees' movement Movimiento Independiente de Jubilados y Pensionados (MIJP). He is under house arrest, serving a two-year sentence for the "crime" of leading a group of hungry, elderly people in demanding food from a Wal-Mart store in 1998.

The food was readily handed out by Wal-Mart management--at a cost of about $2,000. But the government put Castells, a socialist who has played a leading role in Argentina since the 1970s, on trial anyway--to try to set an example against the growing popular mobilizations that exploded into the Argentinazo.

Last month, Socialist Worker's LEE SUSTAR talked to Castells on the day after a march to the National Assembly that Castells had endorsed.

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WHAT WERE the demands at the demonstration?

THE MOBILIZATION yesterday had two or three main points. The first was the repudiation of the government's socioeconomic policies. We demand what all Buenos Aires and all Argentina are proposing--that everyone in the government must go. Let the people govern.

We proposed renationalizing privatized industries--in particular, what is today Repsol YPF. At the same time, we want the plan for jobs announced during [Interim President Adolfo] Rodríguez Saá's government, which Duhalde said he would honor. But to this day, no one has seen anything, and we go on like before.

Also, we demand the liberty of all the political prisoners--an end to the prosecution of all those involved in the people's struggle.

IS THERE union support for the struggle today?

THE UNION federations in Argentina have been controlled by the bureaucracy for some time, and they are supporting the current regime.

It would have been very difficult for this entire economic plan to be implemented in Argentina if it weren't for the union bureaucracy's complicity. So we don't count on any type of backing.

But we do make a distinction. We're talking about the bureaucracy in general, but the CTA is not exactly the same as the CGT. There are some unions that have broken with or overcome their bureaucracies, but they are still isolated.

As for factory workers, I think that what they feel is the weight of the bureaucracy. And one of the problems now is the tremendous unemployment, which acts as a pressure on unionized workers--that they feel like they can't go out and do battle, that they can't break with this situation.

HOW DO you view the wave of pot-banging protests, the cacerolazos, and what do see as the next steps for the movement?

WE SEE the cacerolazos as something important, because these protests have brought out sectors of the middle class that weren't participating in the popular struggle.

These sectors have historically been a base of strength for the regime. Today, they're confronting the new regime, and along with the economic crisis, they've added to the political crisis that is creating instability for the regime.

In terms of the sector where our main strength is, there's a plan for national assemblies of employed and unemployed workers. The goal is to begin building an alternative in the midst of the country's political and economic crisis–an alternative from the point of view of workers.

One of the big problems that the popular rebellion faces is that it has no direction. There is no organization that can bring people together.

As someone was saying, we are drops that must unite in a great storm. But there isn't a force that combines all the drops into a flood. So a little of what we're trying to do is take a step in this direction.

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