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Running out of Patience
World Press Review Correspondent
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Feb. 27, 2002
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 corralitothe severe banking
restrictions imposed in December 2001 to stop a run on accountsand
voters who cast blank ballots to protest congressional by-elections
in October 2001.
man kicks the security screen of a bank in Buenos Aires,
Feb. 20, 2002. The woman in the background is writing
"Thieves" (Photo: AFP).
The Inter-neighborhood Assemblya 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 2001coordinates 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 branchesmany
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 Courtaccused 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
converge in Buenos Aires' central Plaza De Mayo, Feb.
20, 2002 (Photo: AFP).
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 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 piqueterosresidents of
Buenos Aires' slums and unemployed workers who block roads asking
for food or jobscould 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.