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On the eve of the WSF in Porto Alegre
Where is the struggle headed in Argentina?

January 28, 2005 | Page 2

THE FIFTH World Social Forum (WSF) opens this week, with more than 150,000 people expected to gather in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Since it was first convened in 2001, the annual WSF has brought together social movement activists, trade unionists, left-wing organizations and representatives of non-governmental organizations for days of panel discussions, workshops and other events. Last year, the WSF was held outside Porto Alegre for the first time--in Mumbai, India.

Brazil itself exemplifies how the political issues confronting attendees have changed since the last WSF in Porto Alegre. President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, of the left-wing Workers' Party, is now in the second year of his presidency. He has disappointed supporters who hoped his victory would mean a break from the pro-business, free-market policies known as "neoliberalism."

In a preview of the issues that will dominate discussion at this year's WSF, LEE SUSTAR reports from Latin America on the continuing crisis in the continent's second-largest economy and Brazil's neighbor, Argentina.

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SOCIAL MOVEMENT and labor activists across Latin America are debating how to respond to the new center-left governments that have taken office across much of South America. The question is especially sharp in Argentina.

The government of President Néstor Kirchner has demobilized sections of the working-class movement with a few concessions--while maintaining the substance of the free-market, or neoliberal, policies advanced by its predecessors.

At the same time, however, a growing economy has given certain groups of workers the confidence to fight back--most notably, telephone and subway workers. A subway strike last year won the six-hour workday with no cut in pay and hundreds of additional jobs. Another walkout to enforce the demands was set for January 24 as Socialist Worker went to press.

Kirchner's main concession has been to lift immunity from prosecution for former government officials under the military dictatorship of the late 1970s and early 1980s. This won Kirchner the support of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose sons and daughters were among the tens of thousands "disappeared" during the military's "dirty war" against the left.

He's also used nationalist and populist rhetoric to denounce the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and foreign creditors--the source of Argentina's debt crisis which led to a spectacular default on government bonds during the economic crisis of 2001.

Kirchner belongs to the same party--known as the Peronists, after the populist president Juan Perón of the 1950s--as former President Carlos Menem who implemented the disastrous neoliberal policies that led to Argentina's crisis.

But Kirchner's government has been adept at using the language of the left and co-opting a number of social movement leaders into government positions. "They've mastered the art of speaking in someone else's language," said a social movement activist at the University of Buenos Aires.

Kirchner's main appeal is to the middle class, sections of which participated in the massive "Argentinazo" uprising of December 2001 that ousted four presidents in two weeks.

Yet Kirchner's offer that Argentina will pay 40 percent of its debt is still a concession to extortion. The country's $100-billion-plus debt was run up during the 1990s under Menem, who used the loans to favor his cronies as he presided over the corrupt privatization of much of the Argentine economy. "The reason Kirchner is offering 40 percent is simply that they aren't able to pay more," given the scale of the debt, said Eduardo Lucita, a member of the group Economists of the Left.

The government's continued debt repayments has allowed European and U.S. business to siphon off much of the benefits of the country's rapid economic growth rate of about 8 percent in each of the last two years.

The growth was spurred by a devaluation of the Argentine currency, the peso, by two thirds, which made Argentina's agricultural exports cheap on the world market. But behind the new atmosphere of prosperity in central Buenos Aires and upscale neighborhoods, Argentina's social crisis continues.

Real wages, already low, were reduced by the devaluation and haven't increased much since. The number of unemployed remains at 5 million in a country of 29 million. More than 40 percent of the population lives under the poverty line--including 6 million who are indigent--in a country that used to have living standards approaching some European countries. Kirchner's proposed payments to creditors would foreclose the possibility of significant social spending.

In the crisis of 2000-2001, movements of the unemployed--known as piqueteros, or picketers--played a central role in the uprising that ousted the government, pulling employed workers and the middle class along with them. To prevent a recurrence of such militancy, Kirchner has renewed the traditional Peronist practice of clientelism--funding temporary programs, food handouts and other small benefits through local governments. Many piquetero groups are themselves involved in administering such programs.

At the same time, the government has sought to criminalize protests, pushing prosecutions that could send militant activists to prison for years. The government is also squeezing the workers at 160 factories that were occupied and run under workers' management after their owners closed them during the crisis.

At the same time, the "social movements have failed to put forward an alternative, instead focusing on their own local struggles," the university activist said. Lucita agreed. "There is a repetition of the same activities--blocking roads and oil pipelines--without a larger perspective," he said.

The revolutionary socialist left, while significant in size and well rooted in the struggles, remains fragmented, impeding efforts toward more united struggles. An anarchist current known as autonomist is influential in social movements, but is also divided.

The subway workers' strike, however, showed the potential to give new social weight and direction to the movements--and to build a broad left-wing challenge to Kirchner.

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