“The first to revolt in Argentina, already since the 1990s, were the so-called piqueteros. The movement of the unemployed, many of them victims of Menem’s privatizations, that had adopted the road blockade as a tactic (and later on the blockade of boulevards, bridges, supermarkets, as well as government buildings) in order to highlight the social, political, and economic problems of the country.
Yet the piquetero movement never managed to mobilize the masses or capture the support of middle-class Argentinians in its challenge to the country’s political and economic status quo; at least not until the so-called corralito: the banning of cash withdrawals higher than 250 pesos per week (1000 per month) that the De la Rua government and Finance Minister Domingo Cavallo imposed.
Only after they were denied access to their banking accounts did the middle classes — the ladies with the cacerolas and the pensioners that you may remember from TV — take to the streets. And it was exactly at that moment that things got dangerous for the system.
In an excellent documentary by Giorgos Avgeropoulos and his team, Exandas, there is a shocking scene: amidst protests against the coralito, and amidst screams referring to the thieves in Parliament (does it ring any bells, my Greek compatriots?), there appears an old man, presumably a pensioner, who faces the camera and cries out:
“Now we are fighting? Now that our pocket has been picked? Welcome coralito, it is one stage beyond consciousness. If that’s what it takes for the people to take to the streets, welcome coralito… the sheep have rebelled. The revolution of the animal farm.”
He was right. And the system knew it.
-“Que se vayan todos!” the Argentinians were shouting. Away with them all!
-“Να φύγουν όλοι!” they were shouting in the squares of Greece. Away with them all!
And their discontent was targeted towards similar directions: the Argentinians were protesting against the IMF for the debt and the neoliberal reform conditionalities it was demanding, but also against the country’s political establishment which it considered corrupt. The Greeks, on their part, are protesting against the Troika for the debt and the neoliberal reform conditionalities it demands, as well as against their country’s political establishment, which is characterized by corruption, nepotism, and clientelistic relations. And there’s one more thing the Argentinians and the Greeks have in common: they both started doubting the dominant economic paradigm as such: capitalism.
And if in Greece the squares have just started to learn how to ‘breathe freely’, to self-organize, to decide and act together, in Argentina things had become more dangerous for the political and economic status quo.
The piqueteros started coordinating with each other, started occupying workplaces and established workers’ cooperatives for their administration (watch Naomi Klein’s and Avi Lewis’ The Take for a wonderful impression of this alternative system of ‘grassroots socialism’), while at the same time they began experimenting with economic systems based on barter, or direct exchange.
The piqueteros also started operating communal kitchens, came up with neighborhood assemblies, and launched cooperative efforts to run bakeries, construction teams, and libraries. According to Benjamin Dangl, in Dancing with Dynamite, this process gave birth to more than 200 worker-run factories and businesses throughout the country, with more than 15.000 people working in these cooperatives in sectors as diverse as car-part production and balloon factories. All of this took place during the one year of Eduardo Duhalde’s transitional government.
In summer 2002, Eduardo Duhaldo resigned after backing Nestor Kirchner as his favorite successor. Elections were announced, and the main two competitors were Carlos Menem, the man who more than anyone else represented the Argentinian crisis, and Nestor Kirchner, a political outsider, former governor of Santa Cruz province – the only option for the Argentinean left.
Menem won the first round but, seeing that it would be virtually impossible to beat Kirchner in the second, he stood down. And so, Nestor Kirchner was elected President of Argentina, with the smallest ever percentage gained by a presidential winner: a mere 22 percent of the votes.
Upon his election, Kirchner refused to implement the IMF’s conditionalities, which included further cuts in social spending and a shrinking role for the state in the economy, while at the same time announcing that he would pay back to the country’s private creditors 30 cents on every dollar that it owed to them, using the effective threat of a total default instead. Of course, he paid back the IMF in full, but refused to continue receiving loans (and orders) from it.
In addition, Kirchner introduced policies that raised the minimum wage, protected workers’ and unions’ rights, and expanded social security programs to more unemployed and workers in the informal sector. He increased public spending on education and housing, and put limits on the prices of the formerly state-owned enterprises privatized by Menem. Moreover, Kirchner’s government took a solid stance on the prosecution of criminals involved in the 1976-83 dictatorship.
And of course, Kirchner did little to hide his intentions, which were to save the Argentine state from implosion and reconstruct the capitalist system in the country, reversing the extreme neoliberal measures that the previous governments had taken and replacing them with a more humanistic or social democratic orientation.
Kirchner’s measures brought middle class Argentinians back home from the streets — to the normalcy they were asking for. At the same time, while it cannot be denied (and it should not be underestimated either) that this certainly helped middle and lower class citizens to get back on their feet, it should also be noted that Kirchner’s measures clearly played a decisive role in the demobilization of the country’s once powerful social movements.
Some piquetero leaders were coopted and given positions in the government while certain civil society organizations were offered state subsidies. Those who insisted in their resistance were treated with police repression, isolation, and exclusion from the public sphere.
The rest was a matter of time. Soon, the radical experiments on direct democracy and life beyond capitalism lost their momentum, giving way to Kirchner’s ‘capitalism with a human face’ (which, no matter how you mask it, remains capitalism, albeit slightly more regulated by the state). “In other words,” As Benjamin Dangl summarizes, “Kirchner was handing out crumbs, when what many demanded was revolution.”
In a way, the challenges faced by the piqueteros were nothing new. Throughout history, social movements around the world have been faced with an eternal and seemingly intractable dilemma: how to bring about lasting social change? While some have opted for a revolutionary road to capture state power, others chose the electoral road to obtaining state power. Others still have chosen to ignore the state altogether and build alternative institutions of direct democracy and autonomous self-management from the grassroots up.
Ahead of the Greek elections, and against the backdrop of widespread excitement around Europe about the expected electoral victory of a ‘radical’ left-wing party, maybe we should turn back and try to remember what happened in other parts of the globe when a left-wing party answered the eternal dilemma facing social movements with a decisive choice for the ‘parliamentary path’ to state power.
Maybe then we‘ll be able to answer the question asked by James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer: “Why do social movements consistently lose out to electoral institutional politics once the center-left takes over a regime?” And maybe then, at last, we will realize that we need to come up with new slogans to keep the Greek squares from falling prey to the same fate as that befell the piqueteros of Argentina.”