Argentina’s New Social Protagonists
The poor, as everyone knows, are invisible when you speed past their homes on the highway. But when things are the other way around, and the poor get out on the road and set up roadblocks, people say, “Piqueteros, damn it!” They set fire to tires, stop traffic, and everything changes.
Bety, Angel, Silvina, and Luis are piqueteros. Women and men with worn-out shoes. Homeless. Sometimes they use sticks or throw stones; sometimes they know why, and sometimes they have no idea. They go out and block the road. There, they might be shot and killed. Or not. They might return home, to a house with a tin roof and mud walls; or a new day might come.
What do the piqueteros do when they are not demonstrating? What do Bety, Angel, Silvina, and Luis do after the smoke has cleared? For almost a month, Clarín followed the three major piquetero organizations. We visited their neighborhoods, homes, gardens, and community soup kitchens. We listened at meetings, talked to their leaders, and traveled with them by train, bus, and, mostly, on foot.
What we found was an organization that covers all of Greater Buenos Aires, is based on neighborhood social work, and has its own, sometimes strange rules. One which, despite its contradictions, is creating a new social network for the homeless, and a political strategy that does not rule out violence. Its strict internal organization is based on obligatory community work financed by the government’s welfare plans and monthly payments that the piqueteros contribute to the organization.
Tuesday, Aug. 13: A typical discussion in the piquetero movement on the dirt-floor patio of Bety Ruiz Díaz, in Monte Chingolo. She is talking to Nicolas Lista, coordinator of the Anibal Verón organization.
“The day that you get involved in politics, I leave,” threatens the woman, who has just given glasses of milk to 50 children.
“But you are already in politics,” says Lista, trying to convince her.
“Maybe, but the politics I like is this,” she says, looking at the floor.
Like Bety, the great majority [of piqueteros] have no experience as activists and joined the movement out of hunger. She lost her house three years ago, has been without work for six, and her two children walk barefoot to the soup kitchen with its tin roof, two pots, clay stove, and table.
Such “collective” experience dominates day-to-day life among the piqueteros. Most important for the organizations are the community kitchens, where children and parents are fed. But in addition there are libraries, gardens, help with school, nursing apprentices who provide vaccinations, and even clinical labs.
Those who work in these places are the same people who, wearing masks or not, set up roadblocks or set bonfires to block access to the capital. The only money the piqueteros receive is the welfare payments they fight to get from the government. They are supposed to live off this 150 pesos (US$41) a month. And pay their monthly 3 peso quota to finance their organization’s expenses—including the leaders’ cell phones—and buy food for the kitchens. They have to pledge to be at the action centers four hours per day, Monday to Friday. Here roll is called, and those who do not show up have their names taken off the welfare lists.
The drill is always the same: A road is blocked, plans are made, poverty is shared. It does not matter which neighborhood is involved, or if the organization is the Corriente Clasista y Combativa (the biggest), or the Bloque Piquetero, or Anibal Verón, whose members included Darío Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki, murdered by the police on June 26 [on that day, police outside Buenos Aires clashed with rioting demonstrators demanding jobs and food, killing two people and injuring and arresting dozens more—WPR]. All the organizations are similar, unlike their leaders, who often argue.
They have the same base: poor people who have nothing to lose. And all sprang from the same source: the events of June 20-26, 1996, in the small town of Cutral-Có, when workers laid off by Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales [the state oil entity] and their neighbors blocked National Route 22, a key road linking Neuquén province with Patagonia. Those days left their mark: The piqueteros were born. The roadblocks reached Greater Buenos Aires in two neighborhoods, Florencio Varela and La Matanza, which became known as “the capital of the piqueteros.” Their activities expanded, with more or less violence, as the economic crisis did: According to the state census agency, there are now 19 million poor Argentines.
A study by the New Majority Studies Center says that in Buenos Aires province, there were 23 roadblocks in 1997. In 2002 so far, there have been 1,107 in the same area. The growth is throughout the country. In the first half of 1997, there were 77 roadblocks in the nation, and in the first half of this year, 1,609.
In La Elvira, an ingenious oven made out of a 200-liter drum is used every morning to bake 80 kilograms of bread, which is sold for 1.20 pesos a kilo, versus 1.80 in the bakeries. With this money, the piqueteros buy flour from a wholesaler and feed 160 children from the 50 poorest families in the area.
Angel Carrizo is in charge, his face blackened from the oven. He used to run errands for a mechanic, but his car hasn’t run for years for lack of spare parts. He is not just any activist: He has installed a stove kitchen in his patio. The stove is made of two old washing machines cut in half, with an opening for wood fuel. There is also a clothing bank and two sewing machines.
“The sewing machine was donated by a woman who made clothes at home. She did not have any work,” explains Mónica Bodeman, Carrizo’s wife. With the sewing machines they have created a clothing bank. Women sort clothing donated by neighbors, recycle it, and provide it to the needy for little or nothing: 50 cents for a sweater, 2 pesos for pants, etc. They turn rags into pillowcases and napkins. Piquetero reality: The garbage can is always empty.
The houses “donated” by neighbors are action centers for all the movements. They are organized by neighborhood, with each center having a delegate and two sub-delegates. They make up the leadership for each organization.
But not all are alike. The piqueteros in the Argentine Workers’ Center [an opposition labor organization] are the most top-down, with strong leaders such as Luis D’Elía and Juan Carlos Alderete. The most egalitarian is Anibal Verón, which has 15,000 piqueteros and a coordinating committee with rotating membership, but never fewer than 12-15 people. In the middle is the Bloque Piquetero, which is egalitarian but where the Partido Obrero (Workers Party) plays a major role.
Division of labor is crucial for the functioning of each group. Members take care of security during roadblocks, man the soup kitchens and libraries, raise funds, ask local merchants to donate food. Committees are formed in the meetings. They gather to discuss things like pressure from the police and late welfare payments.
Silvina is 19 and wanted to be an anthropologist. She enrolled at the University of La Plata but did not have enough money for the bus or for photocopies. She is one of the many would-be university students who end up with the piqueteros.
Now Silvina works in Villa Argentina, in southern Greater Buenos Aires, in a community kitchen run by the Movimiento Teresa Rodríguez (MTR), in the ruins of a factory—bare brick walls, no roof, no windows. It is on a big lot, with an abandoned swimming pool. The place was used before by a gang of youths who hung out, robbed people, did drugs, and drank. One day the movement took over the place and planted its flag. When the gang came back, its members were told that the factory belonged to the MTR. If they wanted, they could join.
The piqueteros tore down the unstable walls, cleaned up the lot, and pulled the weeds. The neighbors, who had been the gang’s victims, started coming when the movement set up a soup kitchen. The piqueteros are considering reconditioning the pool and letting kids swim there next summer. They have set up a chicken house with a rooster and four or five hens. Piquetero reality: All the chickens are skinny.
Silvina works in the literacy campaign, one of the hardest jobs in the piquetero movement. “It is harder to teach how to read than to study, it’s more responsibility,” she says. She still has a bullet in her leg from the repression on June 26. The doctors say they can’t take it out. But it hurts.
La Fe, a neighborhood in Lanús, does not exist. Or at least you can't find it in the Filcar Guide. It used to be a giant vacant lot, but has been squatted by its neighbors, piece by piece, over the last seven years. One of them is Luis Salazar, 35, a robust man who spreads his arms wide as he explains: “In this neighborhood, eight out of every 10 people never eat breakfast.” What you see are houses made of scraps, some with brick walls, two or three with satellite TV dishes. Lots of barking dogs. The streets are not paved and the drains don’t work, so the standing water attracts dirt, rats, and disease.
In La Fe, the Unemployed Workers Movement, part of Coordinadora Verón, has set up a brickyard. The yard makes up to 120 concrete blocks per day, but only if it has cement. The man who used to be in charge of the brickyard was Santillán, who was just 21 [when he was killed by police]. The piqueteros mourn his death, for there are few dedicated workers like him.
“The movement is important because of the struggle. Look, Santillán was 21, and he could have given in to any of the vices of the young. But he did this,” says Luis. He does admit that 14- and 15-year-olds still do not join. They hang out on the corners, sitting on the scrap-metal pile that was once a car, drinking the world’s worst wine.
This is the reality of the piqueteros: living with poverty on the streets and inside their homes. The struggle for bread, for health, for warmth. Faced with these struggles, they bring their bodies and sticks. With their roadblocks, they block highways and city streets. Behavior that is criticized as violent. But that Bety, Angel, Silvina, and Luis will defend to the death.