Argentina: Eyewitness report

The crisis in Argentina deepened and became more intense in the last two or three years because of the application of extreme neo-liberal policies in the country under De La Rua’s government.

Eyewitness account

With every passing month the government was compelled to apply more and more unpopular measures to meet its "agreements" with the bankers, the IMF etc in order to pay the internal and external debt. As a result there was little delay in the reaction of the workers and the middle class which bought down the government. They put themselves in opposition to the neo-liberal model and consequently against the capitalist system itself.

December 13 th saw the eight general strike since Rua came to power. This strike was a massive success. The uprising of the masses, which began on the 19 th and 20 th of December, was initially directed firstly against the Minister of the Economy, Domingo Cavallo, and then against the President of Argentina, Fernando De La Rua.

With hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets – it is estimated up to one million throughout the country – a revolutionary crisis was opened that became know throughout the world as the "cacerolazo" – the mass banging of empty pots and pans.

The conflicts on the 19 th and 20 th of December demonstrated that a "locomotive" intervention was needed in this process to begin the process of building a future section of the CWI.

I arrived in Buenos Aires on the 22 nd of December and straightaway went to the centre of the MST (Argentinean section of the UIT) to try and get information about what exactly was the likely prospect of the "cacerolazo" of the 19 th and 20 th exhausting itself and what the general situation would be in the country following this explosion.

The MST members met me and gave me the following analysis:

  • During the two years of De La Rua’s government attacks had been carried through against specific sections – in particular in the state sector – which was not offered a wage adjustment because of the privatization policy; in the case of the retired workers Cavallo had imposed a reduction of 13% in their pensions and a series of other attacks relating to small and medium commercial enterprises.
  • The most recent attacks had not only affected specific sectors but everybody: this was reflected in the "corralito" – the measure implemented by Cavallo which limited to 500 pesos per month the amount that anybody could withdraw from their bank accounts. On the 19 th of December the first "cacerolazo" exploded. The same day when the suspension of the "corralito" was to be implemented Cavallo fell. De La Rua decided to maintain it doubling the amount that could be withdrawn for the holiday period. This was a very fragile situation against the background of general strikes, lootings, protests etc which took place throughout the country. Faced with this situation the government decided to take the offensive against the population to its ultimate consequences. The government that night declared a ‘State of Siege’ throughout the country.
  • The ‘State of Siege’ was a fatal error by the government. Within minutes of De La Rua declaring the ‘State of Siege’ hundreds of thousands of people began to take to the streets in protest against this decree and began demanding that the head of the President. On the 21 of December De La Rua fell.
  • The uprisings of the 19 th and 20 th took a spontaneous form with a massive participation by the middle class. It also included a big participation by the workers but on the outskirts of the cities.

The question of the National Assembly of Pickets.

This is made up mainly of unemployed workers and has a leadership that is mainly of a Maoist character.

When De La Rua declared the State of Siege the ‘pickets’ concluded that the bourgeoisie was in a position to firmly go onto the offensive against the working class. Flowing from this estimation of the situation, in some provinces the ‘pickets’ went underground.

The facts demonstrate that exactly the opposite was the real situation. As night follows day the government had less and less social base to maintain the ‘State of Siege’, much less to carry through a military coup. In fact who passed onto the offensive were the masses demanding the end of the ‘State of Siege’ and the resignation of De La Rua.

In the provinces where the action of the youth, workers and unemployed were the most radical (such as in Salta) the masses built barricades to fight the police and carried out "lootings" in an unorganized way without any intervention from the ‘pickets’ who are present in this region.

Throughout my stay in Buenos Aires, in which I participated in all the main demonstrations, including the storming of the National Congress and Legislative Assembly on the 22 nd of December, I did not see any material at all produced by the ‘pickets’, and they did not exist in reality.

The only time I saw them was when they met with President Rodriquez Saa who called them to a meeting in the Casa Rosada. This was the only occasion when I saw an intervention by the ‘pickets’. They demanded the release of all political prisoners, non-payment of the foreign debt, nationalisation of private companies and the banks. However, they did not say this was only possible to implement by a workers’ government and not the Saa government. They adopted an uncritical position towards the new government which had taken over.

Demonstrations between the 22 and 27 December.

On Saturday the 22 nd of December at 18.00 hours a protests was called by the left organizations in front of the National Congress where the Legislative Assembly was to meet to nominate a new government following the resignation of De La Rua.

About 10,000 participated on this protest. Amongst them was the MST (about 800 people), PO( nearly 500), the PTS (about 300) PC (about 100), FOS( about 20) and others.

The slogans of the MST on this protest were: ‘The PJ and the UCR are the same thing’, ‘For a workers’ and popular emergency plan’, ‘A leftwing workers government’ and ‘constituent assembly’.

The United Left (IU) was debating whether to put forward aname for President to the Legislative Assembly. This could be Luis Zamora (the former members of the MAS and MST who today is a member of a party called Autodeterminacion y Liberdad) or the federal deputy Patricia Walsh – an independent who is a member of the IU. Neither of these names was put forward.

This protest ended at 23.30 with a call by the MST for people to attend the funeral of one of their members the following day who had been killed by the police on the 20 th of December. Very few participated at the funeral.

At 11.00 on the 27 th of December a strike of state employees began in La Plata, the provincial capital of Buenos Aires.

About 2,000 participated on the demonstration including some teachers, some university teachers, some health workers and left organizations such as CCC(Corriente Classista Combativa – 200), MST (about 50) and the main state employees trade union ATE (Associacion de Trabaajadores de Estado). The largest sector without doubt were 700 steel workers from the naval base.

The demonstration began in a park and marched on to the Ministry of Employment. When it arrived various ATE leaders met the Minister. After a few hours they announced that the government had conceded some points (for example the withdrawal of some privatization plans in public education). On the demand for payment of wages for the holidays to the steel workers the government announced it was not viable because they had no money. The ATE leaders proposed to the workers present that they go home and call local assemblies to discuss what to do. There was no proposal to consider payment by the government. The workers decided to march on the Casa de Govierno de Buenos Aires. When they arrived the governor met the ATE leaders and after some hours of negotiation they announced the government had found US$500,000 for holiday payments for the naval workers.

The only company left for naval construction is the state company since all others were forced to close because of the crisis.

This sector used to employ 30,000 workers but today employs no more than 1,800. This includes workers on part time lay offs and temporary contracts. The workers agreed that the 500,000 dollars would be divided equally between all workers – full time, laid off etc.

This sector of workers were united and extremely combative in this protest and they were also amongst those sectors who gave most support to the general strikes called by the trade union confederations. The left parties that have some influence amongst this layer are the PTS and perhaps the MST. During the protest I was able to strike up a good dialogue with some of the workers taking up some of their ideas and explaining that sooner or later a similar crisis as in Argentina would explode in Brazil and in other countries of the world.

In relation to the new government of Rodriguez Saa (who had been in power for almost a week) they said that some of them were Peronists, some even members of the PJ, but that they would not put their hand up for this government. On the other hand they had some illusions saying, "not all the Peronists are like Menem. Some more good and honest people do exist." It illustrated that there are some hopes that somebody may improve things if they keep their eyes closed.

They regretted that the left was so fragmented and lacking in unity. These workers thought that if these weaknesses could be overcome then perhaps the left could be a good alternative.

It will be very difficult to recruit people like this but it was possible to discuss with them and it is worth keeping in touch with them to get information about the struggles of this layer of workers when they are on strike etc.

Other protests also took place on the 27 th December such as the strike of the railway workers in Sarmientos, and the bus drivers strike which last a few hours in Buenos Aires.

The uprising on 28 th December.

Following the nomination of Adolfo Saa as President on the 23 rd December by the Legislative Assembly, the mood began to chill.

A very smiling Saa, immediately announced a series of measures to be implemented by his government. Amongst them were the following proposals:

  • Cancellation of the 13% cut in pensions.
  • Generation of one million jobs throughout the country.
  • Creation of a third currency – the Argentino.
  • Increase in the minimum wage.
  • Suspension of the ‘State of Siege’
  • Declaration of a moratorium on payment of the debt.

The most pronounced effect of these populist proposals was that it created an expectation of change. The holiday period had also begun and there was a downturn in mobilisations. Everything seemed quiet and then…

One of the main changes that people wanted to see was the government ending the "corralito", but it announced it was going to keep it!

The "corralito" stipulated that nobody could withdraw more than 250 pesos a week from their bank accounts. A federal judge, Martin Garreton, then authorized a magistrate to withdraw 200,000 dollars deposited in the Banco Ciudad!

In addition to this unpopular announcement, Rodruguez Saa nominated a Chief of Cabinet of the Government a Peronist leader, Carlos Grosso, against who there was a vast list of accusations of corruption. When questioned about the suitability of his nomination, Grosso replied: " I was nominated for my intelligence not for my record." This was too much too swallow.

On the 28 th of December at 22.00 hours the first echoes of the sound of banging metal could be heard as people began to go out onto the streets to begin a mass demonstration – another "cacercolazo". At 22.30 there were only a few of us – no more than 100 people – who began to assemble in front of the National Congress. One hour later we were thousands!

The few police who were guarding the main entrance to the Congress simply vanished. The crowd control barriers that had been used to block the steps up to the Congress were now used by us to block off the streets!

The staircase was totally taken over and with every minute that passed more and more people arrived to occupy the square in front of the Congress.

By midnight more than 15,000 voices were chanting that we should go forward to take the Casa Rosada – the Presidential Palace. The Avenida de Mayo that links the Plaza de Mayo with the Casa Rosada and the National Congress had a few people passing through it. Arriving in the Plaza de Mayo dozens of thousands more were assembled in front of the Casa Rosada.

Following the brutal repression that the police carried out on 19-20th December, in which 30 people were murdered, including youth of 13 and 14 years of age, the order was given not to use repressive measures, for the moment, as a gigantic protest was taking place at the gates of the Casa de Govierno. The few police that guarded a part of the front of the Casa Rosada, when confronted with the people who jumped over the railings simply vanished so they would not be noticed.

At this point there was not a single policeman in the hall to the Casa Rosada the taking of which had become the easiest task in the world. The objective had not only been to take the hall but the Casa Rosada itself. In a few minutes an enormous wooden door opened to give access to the interior of the Casa de Govierno and to see the first forces of repression.

The demonstration had taken a peaceful form and had chanted against Menem (ex-President), the official CGT leader (Daer), the dissident CGT leader Moyano and Carlos Grosso – of the supreme Court. You could see young and old together. They carried the Argentinean national flag and all sang protest songs and demanded profound political change in the country.

At 2.30 the riot troops arrived and began to brutally repress the demonstration using tear gas and plastic bullets. However, they could not easily disperse the crowd which regrouped as they were dispersed to do battle with the riot squads. After this battle in the Plaza de Mayo the masses decided to return to the National Congress. It was about 4.00 in the morning when the demonstration was finally dispersed after a series of running battles with the police and attempts to re-occupy the Plaza del Congresso.

The masses managed to do in the National Congress what they could not do in the Casa Rosada. The main door was open and some people managed to enter the National Congress while tens of thousands stood outside chanting, "They will all go"

Sofas, curtains, pictures, bronze busts, everything they found in the National Congress were taken down the steps to a massive bonfire around which the people chanted and sang, "In Argentina – They will rob no more".

Not much later police re-enforcements arrived about 5.00 in the morning which dispersed the demonstration which had mobilized up to 50,000 people.

Effects of the 28 th December.

In the middle of the night of the 28th and 29 th the Chief of the Cabinet of the Government, Carlos Grosso, faced with the beginning of the uprising which was unfolding in various regions throughout the country, submitted his resignation.

On the 29 th the already weakened government of Rodriguez Saa began to collapse like a stack of cards as all the Ministers and Secretaries submitted letter placing themselves at the "disposition" of the President.

On the 29 th Saa made a public announcement regarding the events of the previous night and calling a meeting of all Provincial Governors from the Peronists asking them for their co-operation in strengthening support for his government.

On the 30 th only five of the 14 Governors called to the meeting attended. Without the support of his own Peronists, Saa was left "suspended in mid air" and on the same day he announced that he could not continue as President of Argentina.

Ramon Puerta, who assumed the Presidency after Saa was also forced to resign. Eduardo Camano, President of the Chamber of Deputies, then assumed the post of President of the Republic for a few hours. He convened the Legislitive Assembly to elect a new President on January 1 st.

Duhalde – will he last until 2003?

On the 1 st of January at 14.00 hours the Legislative Assembly began its session. The Peronists proposed Eduardo Duhalde as President with the support of the UCR (Radical Civil Union) and FREPASO (coalition alliance) and other smaller capitalist parties.

The ARI (Alianca por Una Republica de Iquales – a centre-left grouping) began by saying it would abstain. Following a hysterical intervention by a Peronist Senator denouncing the left the ARI decided to vote against Duhalde.

The United Left put forward Zamora-Walsh. Luiz Zamora and Patricia Walsh made interventions in the assembly. When Patricia Walsh was speaking the majority of the assembly began to hiss and boo. The President of the Congress intervened to say this was not acceptable and that the only form of protest allowed was clapping – so they all started to clap her intervention!

Duhalde was elected by a big majority of the assembly to govern until 2003. Opinion polls taken in Buenos Aires between 26th and 29th December indicated that if elections were to take place in March the results would be:

  • 20% did not know who they would vote for.
  • 12% would cast a blank vote.
  • 10.2% would vote for Elisa Carrio of ARI
  • 9% would vote for Carlos Ruckauf – Peronist Governor of Buenos Aires.
  • 7.4% would vote for Nestor Kirchner Peronist Governor of Santa Cruz.
  • 7% would vote for Jose Manuel de La Sota governor of Cordoba
  • 3.5% was the highest vote for a UCR candidate Senator Rodolfo Terragno.

The calling of an assembly of Deputies and Senators to elect a new president was denounced by the left as a farce. The called a protest outside the congress in front of a protest called by some Peronists. In reality the Peronists had mobilized a layer of lumpen workers to wave flags and shout slogans in support of Duhalde.

A fight broke out which was reported as between leftwing militants and Peronists. The police intervened and attacked the left wing protesters. In this protest the MST, Convergencia Socialista (Argentinean sympathizing group of the LIT), PC, PO and the IU were all present. The total protest was no bigger than 400.

At 23.00 on the same day (1 st of January) another demonstration – semi spontaneous and probably convened via the internet – took place involving about 5,000 mainly young people. The main thrust of the protest was against Duhalde being elected President until 2003 and the cancellation of elections in March 2002 which had been agreed when Saa resigned.

This demonstration had a very clearly anti-party character and with another section supporting Carrio as President. Carrio is gaining in support mainly because he is fighting on an anti-corruption ticket and the "re-establishment of ethical government".

It is clear that the conditions exist to build a section of the CWI in Argentina. We need to develop the intervention with this as a clear objective in the next weeks and months.

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