Argentina Seeks Escape from Anarchy

Looting in Argentina, Argentina's Financial Crisis
Demonstrators in Buenos Aires' central Plaza de Mayo chant anti-corruption slogans around a bonfire, Dec. 29, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

President Adolfo Saá's caretaker government had just begun to feel comfortable—dispensing smiles for everyone and meeting even with the militant Madres de Plaza de Mayo, mothers of those who had "disappeared" during Argentina's military dictatorship—when hell broke loose again.

On Dec. 28, citizens beating pots and pans took to the streets, filling the air with the same threatening rhythm that brought down former President Fernando De la Rúa barely a fortnight ago in the midst of the bloodiest police repression in recent memory.

Thousands marched from Buenos Aires' residential neighborhoods toward the Plaza de Mayo, a central square facing the presidential palace, beating pots, pans, and anything else at hand. "Down with corruption," they chanted. "Supreme Court members resign now!" "We want our money back!" "Argentina! Argentina! Argentina!"

Although the marchers represented a cross section of Argentine society, many appeared to be middle-class professionals. The only visible banners were those of spontaneously-formed groups such as "The Neighbors' Permanent Assembly," or "The Shop Owners' Popular Assembly." These demonstrators politely asked those who did try to raise a banner from a political party to pocket them, fearing that if the demonstrations were associated with a party, it would diminish the impression that the protests represented an Argentine population united in its demands.

At Plaza de Mayo, the police seemed noticeably uneasy as the demonstrators approached, though at first they treated the protesters politely. More and more protesters arrived throughout the evening. At about two in the morning some youths crossed police barriers, began tossing rocks at the Casa Rosada, Argentina's presidential palace, and tried to climb to its windows, all the while shouting slogans protesting political corruption and the cap on bank withdrawals, or calling for the resignation of the Supreme Court justices.

Left-wing Argentine newspaper Página 12 reported one encounter between a protester and a policeman:

"We are people as you are. Why did you kill us like dogs?" one protester reportedly shouted at a policeman, referring to the five deaths in the previous march.

"No, please, I am not to blame," the policeman begged, according to Página 12.

"Is that so? Then why not join us instead of repressing us?"

"We are just doing our job," the policeman reportedly replied. "I understand how you feel and we are against corruption too, but look at what those kids are doing, burning things and climbing windows."

It cannot have been long after this conversation took place that fury broke out in Plaza de Mayo. The crowd threw rocks at the police and the police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. A crowd captured a policeman and began kicking and beating him in front of TV cameras. The skirmishes spread to other areas, including the home of Argentina's congress.

The police tried in vain to ward off the attackers. As the police retreated temporarily, protesters forced open the doors to Argentina's congress building and began throwing curtains and furniture onto a bonfire outside. The police then charged and drove the protesters back.

At all small kiosk in an outlying neighborhood of Buenos Aires, three young men gathered around a television set to watch images of the police officer being beaten in the Plaza de Mayo. A police officer guarding the kiosk watched next to them. Looking at the screen, one of the young men said to the police officer, "OK. That's for what the police did last week!"

"Basta! (Enough!)" the policeman shouted, placing his pistol against the youth's temple and pulling the trigger. The young man fell to the ground. There was a quick scuffle and the policeman shot the man's two friends as well. Witnesses, neighbors of the killed civilians, furiously rushed the police officer. More police arrived. A battle ensued between neighborhood residents and the police, who claimed the killings were in self-defense.

The violent protests led presidential adviser Carlos Grosso—accused of corrupt practices during the previous presidency of Carlos Menem—to resign. Soon after, caretaker president Rodríguez Saá's entire cabinet followed suit. Rodríguez Saá met with representatives from Argentine banks, urging them to pay retirement pensions and treat people well, before rushing off to a seaside vacation resort to meet with Peronist governors to try to come up with a solution to the boomeranging crisis.

The crisis in Argentina is as much a crisis of faith in politicians as it is in the country's finances. In legislative elections last October, record numbers of Argentines wrote in the name of popular cartoon character Clemente. Politicians are so widely distrusted here that the elections scheduled for March 3, meant to institutionally "normalize" the country, run the risk of producing an overwhelmingly blank vote. That mobs have brought down two governments in the space of one week calls the efficacy of the entire political process into question.

Argentina faces an increasingly chaotic political situation and an economic disaster that presents no short-term solutions. Meanwhile, the economy continues to worsen as the government's income declines. The cap on bank withdrawals is likely to continue indefinitely—the banks simply do not have the reserves to pay for its lifting. Meanwhile, the suspension of payments on Argentina's US$130 billion dollar foreign debt is denting imports at a time when the economy is strongly dependent on them.

Peronist Sen. Oscar Lamberto, speaking to TV cameras on Dec. 28, reacted to news of the riots thus: "Those who are banging pans should be given 24 hours in government to see what wise decisions they might find."

Next in Line

If Argentina continues going through presidents at its current rate, some of those protesters may get their turn. Following the protests over the weekend of Dec. 28-30, the Argentine legislative assembly unanimously accepted President Rodríguez Saá's resignation on Jan. 1, 2002. The assembly chose Eduardo Duhalde—a senator from Buenos Aires province, a lawyer, and a longtime critic of Argentina's economic policy since the 1976-82 military dictatorship—to succeed him.

Argentine commentators greeted Rodríguez Saá's unilateral decision to default on Argentina's foreign debt payments with nervous applause. Although many economists praised his "courage" in using the payments on the US$132 billion dollar debt to supply jobs and food, others questioned his failure to consult with others before taking this decision. His plan to print a third Argentine currency also came under fire. But it was his insistence on maintaining caps on bank withdrawals that brought the middle-class protesters who had toppled Fernando de la Rúa back into the street.

An news announcer for Buenos Aires Radio 10 described the end of Rodríguez Saá's week tenure in office as a "flight." The president had left Buenos Aires in a hurry, tailed by menacing demonstrators beating pots, to meet with the governors of Argentina's 23 provinces at a fashionable resort. When only five of the provincial governors showed up, Rodríguez Saá calculated the extent of his political support and resigned.

Rodríguez Saá's unconcealed interest in remaining president until what was supposed to be the end of De la Rúa's term in 2003, cost him the support of many politicians within his Peronist party, who saw him as too ambitious and headstrong.

In addition to winning the support of most Peronists, Duhalde found support from important figures within the "Alianza," the party of former president De la Rúa. But there was less of a consensus outside the assembly's grounds. As Argentine lawmakers handed Duhalde a resounding mandate, Duhalde's supporters and leftists clashed in the streets nearby, hurling rocks and slogans at each other. This new bout of street violence, which has become almost commonplace over the past month, is a clear sign that the new government will have to act quickly and efficiently if it hopes to avoid the fate of De la Rúa and Rodríguez Saá.

Although Argentina's future economic policy is still under discussion, most observers now say that Rodríguez Saá will likely remove the peso from its peg against the dollar. This would make it easier for Argentina to export its goods to neighbors with cheaper currencies, bring money into the economy, and allow Argentina to resume payments on its national debt. But devaluing the peso would also wipe out whatever savings remain in middle-class bank accounts. Roughly 37 percent of Argentina's population lives below the poverty line. They are already on the brink of starvation. Devaluing the currency could bring economic ruin on Argentina's already beleaguered middle class.

In a short but vigorous address after his inauguration, President Duhalde promised to investigate whether speculators who withdrew millions of dollars from Argentine banks in mid-December, which in turn forced De la Rúa to cap bank withdrawals to save the banking system, had acted criminally. He also said he would send negotiators to the United States to renegotiate Argentina's foreign debt, in an effort to save the country's credit rating.

In addition to confronting Argentina's formidable economic problems, President Duhalde must restore the population's confidence in the integrity and efficacy of the government. It is perhaps with this in mind that he promised to rid the judicial system of its alleged corruption and political favoritism. Unless he can convince Argentines that he has genuinely listened to their complaints, they will likely take to the streets again. And few observers see a cure for the country's myriad woes unless politics moves out of the streets and back into the halls of government.