Running out of Patience

Protests Argentina
A man kicks the security screen of a bank in Buenos Aires, Feb. 20, 2002. The woman in the background is writing "Thieves" (Photo: AFP).

Every Sunday crowds of men, women, and children pack into Centenario Park in Buenos Aires to vent their spleens against banks, corrupt politicians, and judges, to demand justice for victims of political repression, and to organize pot-and-pan banging demonstrations (cacerolazos) and other audacious forms of political protest.

They are distrustful of politicians, trade union leaders, government officials, big business... in short, anything that smells of the traditional power structure in this crisis-ridden country. They are not the black-clad anarchists one might imagine. They are middle-class professionals, merchants, office workers, housewives, students, those caught in the corralito—the severe banking restrictions imposed in December 2001 to stop a run on accounts—and voters who cast blank ballots to protest congressional by-elections in October 2001.

The Inter-neighborhood Assembly—a spontaneous, "anti-organization" that grew up as a result of the lootings, protests, and police crackdowns that led to the domino-like fall of five presidents in December 2001—coordinates the cacerolazo protests.

Almost every day, in cities across Argentina, one can hear the metallic echoes of pots and pans. They are an acoustic witness to Argentina's dramatic economic collapse. Although the protests have alarmed the Argentine and international political and financial elites, participants say they have now recovered a lost sense of solidarity. They also feel they have discovered a hitherto-unknown power to make themselves heard.

"At first I was depressed by the violence, then I began to realize that something new was being born," one protester explained at a recent rally in Buenos Aires. The protesters are bound together by a shared mistrust of politicians of all stripes, whom the protesters accuse of corruption, opportunism, and of financing ostentatious lifestyles with inflated salaries while 20 percent of the population is unemployed and more than 40 percent live below the poverty line.

The banking system is the protesters' primary target. Banks are accused of enormous profit-taking during the 10 years when the Argentine peso was pegged to the dollar, which ended in a multibillion-dollar run on bank assets, the corralito, the declaration of a de facto default on the country's US$140 billion foreign debt, and the devaluation of the peso.

Most middle class Argentines were caught with their meager savings in dollar accounts. As these are converted to pesos, Argentines are watching helplessly as their savings evaporate. Every day, long lines of bank customers form in front of bank branches—many of which are newly protected with high chain-link fences. The customers heatedly argue with bank employees on what to do with their tied-up accounts. Meanwhile, many workers and employees have not been paid because of banking backlogs and speculation on the exchange rate.

One imaginative family even set themselves up at a bank with swimming trunks, beach balls, and folding chairs. In a TV interview aired on Buenos Aires' Channel 13, the father explained that since they couldn't go on vacation, the family decided to spend it at the bank. They quickly became celebrities. TV crews flocked to their impromptu camp and print journalists, seduced by the spectacle, jostled to interview them.

The banks claim they simply do not have the money to return it. But customers are suspicious. According to reports in the Argentine press, 30 armored trucks reportedly carried off an estimated US$26 billion in the midst of the crisis. The police and the courts have yet to discover those responsible. "The Central Bank sells off dollars to keep the nonofficial exchange rate down, but those dollars it sells are our life savings," one angry bank customer complained.

At the Inter-neighborhood Assembly gatherings, local neighborhood groups send representatives to present proposals for popular vote. Anyone can speak; the only restrictions are that speeches must be limited to three minutes. After everyone has spoken, the group votes on the proposals on the basis of a simple majority. The leadership of the Assembly rotates from weekly to prevent individuals or groups from seeking political advantage.

Although "politics" is a dirty word among the most of the protesters, they certainly seem to be engaged in politics in the most essential sense of the term.

The most popular demands include the nonpayment of Argentina's foreign debt, forcing the banks to return savings in dollars locked in bank accounts, the complete reform of the Supreme Court—accused of complicity with the banks and of dragging its feet on important corruption cases because it had been "stacked" during President Carlos Menem's 1990s term of office— jobs, a drastic reduction of politicians' salaries, and, yes, the resignation of the entire government.

Speaker after speaker insists that concrete actions are needed, not ideological discourses. The participants guarantee that by jeering anyone who speaks in favor of any particular political organization. No political banners are allowed.

"Politicians have missed the message and continue ripping us off," said one leaflet circulated from hand to hand, "So we are organizing all over the country, in every neighborhood, to peacefully overthrow once and for all this corrupt and inhuman sytem." The reference was to the "neo-liberal," or free-market, economic policies that administration after administration has attempted to impose since the military dictatorship of the 1970s. President Eduardo Duhalde's speeches in support of free market solutions, and his rejection of so-called "populist" measures seem to indicate that he will not deviate too far from the

Protests Argentina
Protesters converge in Buenos Aires' central Plaza De Mayo, Feb. 20, 2002 (Photo: AFP).
course charted by his predecessors.

Protesters continually demand an investigation into the deaths of 26 demonstrators during the mid-December protests that forced President Fernando de la Rúa to resign. When angry but peaceful demonstrators beating pots and pans marched toward the Presidential Palace in Plaza de Mayo, police shot at them first with rubber bullets, then with tear gas, and finally with real bullets. Mounted police also charged at the "Madres de Plaza de Mayo," a group formed by mothers of victims of the 1976-1982 military junta. In the confusing incidents that followed, protesters fought back with rocks, sticks, or anything at hand, striking not only police, but nearby banks and shops.

The protesters also complain of foreign, and especially Spanish, ownership of key Argentine institutions. In the 1990s, President Menem sold many of Argentina's public utilities to raise badly needed cash. The Spanish bought half the country's telephone service, won majority stakes in a number of banks, got a near monopoly on toll highways, and made good headway in other service companies. "They should be ashamed," said one protester jokingly, "It wasn't enough to send their conquistadors, now they milk all the money they can from us." Protesters are organizing campaigns to unhook telephones, transfer accounts to national banks, and, in some cases, call for returning privatized companies to government ownership.

Another popular demand is for the government to refuse to pay its foreign debt. "Let the thieves pay!" one elderly woman shouted. Someone nearby snickered, "We've already more than paid for the loans thanks to the high interest rates they charge." Another shouted, "No more begging!" to a standing ovation.

The increasing contacts between the mostly middle-class pot and pan beaters and the piqueteros—residents of Buenos Aires' slums and unemployed workers who block roads asking for food or jobs—could constitute a barrier to the "market economics" solution to the crisis advocated by Washington and international financial institutions. At least momentarily, both sectors of Argentine society share common causes. This was clear during a recent piquetero march from Buenos Aires' outlying slums to Plaza de Mayo, at the center of the city. Merchants and residents beating pots and pans egged them on, providing them with bread, water, fruit, and sandwiches, amid shouts of "Piquete and Cacerola [road blocker and pan beater], we're both in the same struggle!"

Addressing the pot-and-pan protesters, Piquetero leader Luis D'Elía said, "The bankers who robbed your savings are the same who have left us without work. Let's work together to end this obscene economic system."

Originality appears to be the guiding principle of alternative politics as they are developing in Argentina. Recently, in Jujuy province, half a dozen protesters, including Catholic priest Jesús Olmedo, "crucified" themselves for five hours, demanding work and an end to political corruption. One of the women who hung themselves from crosses, who identified herself only as María, was accompanied by her five young children. Around her neck she wore a sign reading, "We are hungry. No more corrupt governments." A short time later, a man who described himself as a debtor followed suit, "crucifying" himself in front of the national Congress building.