Argentina: Twenty Years of Democracy. Kirchner and the Piqueteros.

01 January 2004

The Argentine New Year was preceded by a series of "celebrations" and "memorials": the first six months of the new Kirchner administration, the twentieth anniversary of constitutional democracy after the military dictatorship of 1976-1983; and the anniversary of the great rebellion of 19/20 December 2001. The first of these anniversaries was marked by official celebrations but also by the widespread support and optimism the Kirchner administration has elicited amidst the population at large, projecting for the first time in many years, a certain optimism with regards to the future. Public opinion surveys give Kirchner an approval rate of more then 80% higher then previous democratic administrations in their first six months of government. This is quite significant given the fact that Kirchner received only 22% of the vote in the last April presidential election, a little less then Menem, who thereafter withdrew from the elections so as to emphasise the low initial legitimacy of the new administration, presumably to thus prepare for the eventual return to power of a government more compliant to the establishment. Of course, he also withdrew from the election because surveys showed that 70% of the population would have voted for Kirchner over Menem.

Kirchner, from the very start of his administration, surprised friends and foes alike with a series of measures that changed the political and social climate in Argentina, initiating a new debate on a series of important issues. He changed the military cupola so that nowfew officers remain who were active during the military dictatorship; he received human rights organisations and installed in government some famous activists; he promoted the withdrawal of three judges from the corrupt menemista Supreme Court, nominating in their place several prestigious judges, one of whom is Carmen Argibay, at present a member of the International Court of Justice at The Hague, progressive in many respects, feminist and pro abortion; the laws of Punto Final and Obediencia Debida passed under the Alfonsin administration in the 1980s were abolished which has allowed a series of high ranking officers of the armed forces to be tried for human rights violations during the military dictatorship. In his inaugural speech in Congress, flanked by Fidel Castro, Lula, and Chavéz, Kirchner emphasized that he was a man of the seventies and was not going to set aside his convictions on human rights issues; that a new foreign policy was to be set forth, far away from that based on "carnal relations with the US" to use the unfortunate expression coined by the late former Chancellor Guido Di Tella; and that Argentina´s defaulted foreign debt would only be paid if the economy grew and came out of the profound prevailing crisis . In essence, what was needed, according to Kirchner, was a new institutional setting after the long night of neo-liberalism that had wrought not only corruption and impunity, poverty, unemployment and misery, but also the worst crisis - social, economic and political - in the history of Argentina.

On the foreign affairs front, Kirchner emphasized the importance of strengthening Mercosur and, in particular, Argentina´s strategic relations with Brazil. This, in many respects, implies establishing a certain autonomy with regards to the US, and a certain resistence to the formation of ALCA (Free Trade Zone of the Americas). In this respect, Kirchner is also seeking to reconstitute good relations with Cuba and Venezuela, and eventually to recreate a sort of Latin American Union that would combine Mercosur with the countries of the Andean Pact (Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Perú). Relations with Europe are also important, but at the present juncture are marked by Argentina´s default on her foreign debt and the fact that after the privatisation spree of the 1990s, European companies control production and distribution of energy, water, gas, petroleum and telecomunications, amongst other activities. Apart from this, a series of European pensioners are stuck with defaulted Argentine bonds, which the government is renegotiating drastically, offering to pay only one-fourth of their face value.

The Foreign Debt and the Economy

This brings us to the issue of the huge foreign debt confronting Argentina, part of which, was declared in default by the ex-president for a week, Adolfo Rodríguez Saa, in late 2001. The Kirchner administration tried to present the negotiations with the IMF on this matter as a triumph, since a primary surplus of no more then 3% of GNP, that is the difference between government income and expenditures prior to the payment of interest, was agreed. This percentage, which is lower than the IMF was seeking, and below what Lula in Brazil agreed to pay, is nonetheless in real terms almost three times the average primary surplus Argentina generated in the 1990s. The extreme structural adjustments of succeeding governments lead to the present debacle, with an unemployment rate of more then 20% of the labour force and more then 50% of the population living below the poverty line. The new winds that presumably are blowing with the Kirchner administration, do not seem to be strong enough to bring Argentina out of the profound economic depression, the greatest crisis in Argentine history. Nevertheless, due precisely to the fact that the government has not been following strict neo-liberal orthodoxy in economic matters, and is trying to manage the economy in a different way from how it was managed under Menem and De la Rua, a certain reactivation has come about and, according to official sources, the economy is to register a growth of about 6 or 7% in 2003.

Another reason why the economy was reactivated somewhat in the past year is that government has serviced only part of Argentina´s foreign debt, that which pertains to international financial organisations. After signing an accord with the IMF in September, only interest on the debt with the IMF was paid. No agreement was reached concerning Argentina´s private debt, however, which represents about 100 billion dollars out of the approximate total foreign debt of 180 billion. This matter, as well as pressure by foreign companies for an increase in public rates, and compensations sought by the banks for their loses after the devaluation of 2002, are some of the focal points leading to the impasse in the present negotiations between the IMF and the Argentine government.

The government knows that if it gives in to the pressure of the IMFF and other international organizations, and agrees to what bankers and privatised companies are demanding, not only will there be no recovery from the crisis, but the social situation will worsen, and probably become unsustainable. No government in Argentina, after the 19th/20th December 2001, can fail to consider the social demands of the new social actors that have emerged forcefully in Argentine society in recent years.

Twenty Years of Democracy

This brings us to the two other memorials: the twenty years of democracy, and the 19thand 20th of December. As the tango says:"Veinte años no es nada" (twenty years is nothing). The last twenty years of uninterrupted civilian rule is considered to be quite unique in Argentine history, at least in comparison with the previous half century. This does not mean that transitions from one administration to another went smoothly. Alfonsin resigned in 1989, 5 months prior to the conclusion of his legal term in office, having been beset by lootings of supermarkets and hyperinflation. And De la Rua was almost literally thrown out of office by the popular rebellion of 2001. All along, confidence in constitutional government has been eroded. It is now clearly seen that Alfonsín´s promise in 1983 that with democracy society would eat, cure and educate has shown to be false, essentially due to the impact of neo-liberalism. A measure of this is the increased proportion of people who either do not vote or issue blank votes (voto en blanco- the vote is obligatory in Argentina). This was also reflected in the battle cry of the asambleas populares that emerged in the wake of the 19th/20th December: "Que se vayan todos" (throw them all out). Of course, reference was being made to the highly corrupt political establishment and the Supreme Court. True, the present crisis of Argentine society has much to do with this crisis of representation and to the fact that succeeding governments have only caused havoc for the living conditions of the majority of the population. In the past two years, there has been some debate concerning the need to reform the Constitution, so as to favour a more participatory democracy. But this ended, at least temporarily, with the call for elections. As the French Philosopher Alan Badiou, mentioned in a talk here in Buenos Aires, this "solution" to this lack of legitimacy of the political system is similar to what occurred after the May of ´68 in France.

In the case of Argentina, after the election of a new president, legislative elections, and those for governors, the slogan seems to have been transmuted: "Que se vayan todos" was transformed into a "se quedaron todos menos uno" (all remained except one). The political establishment made a comeback, this time burying the radical party but, on the whole, consolidating the Justicialista (Peronista) Party, though with a great variety of factions, only some of which support the Kirchner administration. In essence, this apparently was the means the new government had for constructing its institutional support. But the profound flaws in the political system, which led to the present crisis, remain.

The Social Situation and the 19th and 20th

Many important matters remain unresolved, mostly related to the socio-economic situation. Unemployment remains particularly high, if consideration is given not only to those overtly unemployed but also the underemployed, that is, people who do not have a full-time job. Poverty, hunger and misery remain rampant. Wages fell drastically, not only throughout the 1990s, but in particular after devaluation in 2002, and most of those employed are precariously employed. What future can there be in a country where 75% of the young are living in poverty? While the government is confident that growth will permit it to manage the economy and tackle these problems, the urgency these problems pose for Argentine society is great, especially after the 19th and 20th.

The 19th and 20th of December 2001 is seen as a landmark in recent Argentine history. While social protest movements had been developing throughout the 1990s and early years of the new millenium, after the December rebellion, they acquired a new visibility and political significance. During these two days, more then 37 people were killed, 5 in the vicinity of the Plaza de Mayo. The huge "cacerolazo" of the evening of the 19th , with thousands of people converging on the Plaza de Mayo or demonstrating in their barrios, was a massive, spontaneous and non-violent act of civil disobedience in response to the State of Siege declared by the De la Rúa government. This occurred mostly in Buenos Aires but also, to some extent, in the interior of the country. The next day the police sought to remove the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, and other human rights activists from the Plaza de Mayo. Thus began a repression that was to continue throughout the day. While the police usually use rubber bullets to break up demonstrations, this time they used lead bullets and shot to kill. Several of the dead were "motoqueros" (motocyclists) who played an important role in neutralising the mounted police force. Judge Ana María Servini de Cubría is investigating the role of De la Rúa and his cohorts in the repression: who gave the order to kill, when and why?

The crisis and social protest led to the creation of a series of new "social actors" and "social movements". On the one hand, the Asambleas Populares that blossomed throughout 2002 in different barrios of Argentina´s main cities and were attended mostly by the more impoverished middle class neighbours. Then there are the more than 120 factories taken over by their workers after their owners either abandoned them or went bankrupt. But the more important movement that has emerged is that of the picqueteros, representing the unemployed that have managed to organise themselves, pressuring the government for unemployment subsidies (the so-called planes trabajar), but also organising productive activities and maintaining a constant political presence with regards to national and international issues. In the past two years, the government has distributed more then 2 million planes trabajar. Each plan trabajar represents 150 pesos, about 50 dollars, clearly not sufficient for the subsistence of a family. They are managed mostly by the Intendentes (Mayors) of different districts and political punteros mostly of the Justicialista Party. The movement is vast, but highly fragmented. One segment of the piqueteros is the most autonomous of all, not responding to the official or opposition parties. There is another segment associated with several parties of the left.

In November and December 2003, the piqueteros came under the scrutiny of the press and certain middle class sectors that claimed that their freedom to circulate freely was impaired by the intense activity of the piquetero movement that essentially blocked the circulation of vehicles on numerous occasions. The government did not respond well to these claims and did nothing to control the trend towards the criminalisation of the social protest. Furthermore, there is a tendency to associate the piqueteros with the climate of insecurity that currently prevails given the series of kidnappings carried out in the Province of Buenos Aires, where the police force - notorious for its corruption - has been attacked by the government. But nothing much has been done to change its structure. The criminalisation of the social protest in the last days of 2003 became an important issue, which showed a cleavage between certain of the middle class and the piquetero movement.

Miguel Teubal is a former fellow of TNI. Norma Giarracca is a sociologist who has published extensively on the social protest in Argentina. They are members of, Red de Intelectuales, Artistas y Académicos por la defensa de los Derechos Fundamentales (RIAA).