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How did the establishment regain control?
Four years after the Argentinazo

January 27, 2006 | Page 10

FEDERICO MORENO reports from Argentina on the state of the struggle four years after an uprising that drove out a hated government and struck a blow against Washington's neoliberal agenda.

FOUR YEARS ago, Argentina ended 2001 on a revolutionary note. A sudden plunge in the country's economic crisis sparked a popular uprising against the policies of privatization and cutbacks, known as neoliberalism, widely seen as responsible for the crisis.

In two weeks, four presidents were overthrown, one after the other, and the Congress building was sacked as the call that would represent the movement began to ring out: "Que se vayan todos! Que no quede ni uno!" (They've all got to go! Not one must be left!)

Looking back as 2005 drew to a close, however, one can see that nobody left. The same political establishment that ruled Argentina before the Argentinazo, as the December 2001 revolt is known, is comfortably celebrating an annual economic growth rate of 9 percent, while real wages hit historic lows. Inflation is driving up the price of food and utilities, and President Néstor Kirchner, to add a cynical twist to his holiday lump of coal for Argentinians, announced he would pay off the country's entire $9.8 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund--without the slightest opposition forming on the streets.

How did a ruling class in shambles--whose political parties were completely discredited and whose politicians could not show themselves in public without getting jeered by spontaneous crowds--reestablish its position so completely?

The Argentinazo was spearheaded by the radical organizations of the unemployed, or piqueteros, who pulled the lower middle class along with them. A favorite tactic of the piqueteros was to shut down the country's transportation system until their demands were met. In the midst of the uprising, there was a rise in factory occupations. Hundreds of facilities that owners had abandoned were occupied and put back in production by workers.

But when the government was defeated, the movement had no organizational bodies that could fill the political vacuum, and the ruling class eventually regrouped and began to shift the status quo back in place.

Throughout the downturn in struggle that followed the Argentinazo, the government waged an aggressive campaign to return occupied factories to their owners. Of the factories that were not successfully retaken, most were drawn into one of two pro-government co-operative networks.

The piqueteros were also targeted by the government's campaign of co-optation. A number accepted more subsidies and, in return, required their unemployed members to mobilize for demonstrations in support of the government in order to receive their subsidies.

A few piquetero organizations, mostly led by the revolutionary left, have refused to give up their political independence, and they have carried out an impressive campaign for social change and working class unity these past years.

But finding themselves increasingly isolated, they have also fallen into a kind of clientelism--where many unemployed workers in the piquetero groups come to demonstrations called by left organizations solely to ensure their subsidies, and not to participate actively in the groups' decision-making. Overall, while still organized on a mass basis, the piquetero movement is in crisis.

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ONE OF the main weaknesses of the Argentinazo and a principal reason that the ruling class was able to reestablish itself so quickly was the absence of the employed working class. During the December 2001 upheavals, the pro-government unions stayed on the job and off the streets. But in the last couple years, there has been a resurgence of struggle among the rank and file of this sector of the population.

The late entry of the employed workers into the process begun by the Argentinazo started in April 2004, when rank-and-file subway workers in Buenos Aires won the six-hour day with a four-day strike, organized in spite of their union leaders, who opposed a walkout.

Since then, there has been a steady rise in strikes and rank-and-file militancy. Workers have struck and won better conditions in important sectors like the meat industry, health care, the telephone giant Telefonica, and, more recently, in the airline Aerolineas Argentinas and the Cronica media corporation.

A key element in these victories is that they have been led mostly by union delegates who, organizing at the rank-and-file level, have broken through their stale union bureaucracies. These mostly young workers radicalized by the events of the last few years are the vanguard of Argentina's divided left. They fall into one of two categories: militants of revolutionary left parties and activists from the anti-party or autonomist sector.

Amid the current upsurge in struggle, however, there are various proposals for left groups to come together around workplace struggles and to coordinate with each other politically. If these attempts to forge real united struggle begin to take shape, it could mean the emergence of a stronger left--with roots in a radicalized working class and political weight on a national scale.

With the entire region moving steadily left, these developments will have an important impact on the struggles to come.

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