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Indybay Feature
Report on Argentina
by tristan
Sunday Dec 29th, 2002 12:34 PM
Afriends report of experiences from Argentina, one year conmemoration of last years uprising
One year before we arrived in Buenos Aires, the banks closed their doors on the Argentinian people as they rushed to retrieve their savings. The banks were ordered to freeze accounts and soon the government defaulted on its payment to the International Monetary Fund. Overnight, the middle class shrunk as thousands lost their life savings, thousands lost their jobs, and thousands were forced out onto the streets flooding the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada (Pink House, as opposed to the US White House), the seat of the executive branch of government. Four presidents were thrown out by the people of Argentina over the course of two weeks. 33 people were killed by security forces throughout the country on the 19th and 20th of December 2001.
One year after the latest crash, fat and fuzzy Santa Clauses lined the sweltering streets downtown. During the day, certain pedestrian malls are still filled with families and the bustle of Christmas shopping. At night the same streets are filled with formerly middle class moms in high heels sorting through trash with their children for food and recyclables.
Since then, we have learned that most of the richest individuals and businesses had pulled all of their money out of Argentinian banks just before the crash, and tucked it away in foreign currencies. As the majority of the middle class lost their life savings and the poor were hunger-driven to looting supermarkets, the richest of Argentina were and are enjoying a spending spree. Their foreign money is now worth 3 and a half times more than it was before in the markets of Buenos Aires. As we walked through the bustle of Christmas spending on December 19th, masses of people were blockading roads in other parts of the city shouting "Que se vayan todos!", "They ALL must go!" They, of course,meaning all the politicians.
The "ahorristas", or "savers" who lost their life savings when the government froze all bank accounts last December, still gather every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to tour and deface the banks in the city center. These are not black clad youth, these are people in heels and business cloths. A friend of ours "toured" with 50-75 of them on the 18th. He watched a grey haired woman spray paint a gallows with a hung banker on one bank and a coffin on another. People pulled hammers out of their pockets and purses to beat on the metal sheeting which has been in place to protect the windows and ATMs since people took sledgehammers to them one year ago. He saw men in suits setting a fire in front of one bank, women wearing latex gloves painting "Thieves inside, Danger" on the walls. Every bank closed as they approached, as they do every Monday Wednesday and Friday. At one bank they got the metal door loose, women in heels were jumping on it to destroy it while others cracked the glass door inside. This may sound rather shocking to folks in the US, but imagine if you had $10,500 in the bank one day, and the next day it was $3,000 that you couldnt access.
Graffitti is everywhere. Fountains are everywhere and so are the weird winter-oriented decorations (its summer here). You cannot walk through the streets without sensing that something is very very wrong. The surfaces on which the angry citizens scrawl undeniably militant statements about the corruption of all politicians, banks, neoliberalists, free traders and capitalists are constantly cleaned and painted over. Marble is not so quickly cleaned, however, and the sight of graffitti on any and all government monuments and buildings is difficult to ignore.
The crash, of course, did not happen all at once. The economy of Argentina has been on the rocks for years, and government debt began during the ¨Dirty War¨ in the 70s. Much of this tumult is directly related to structural adjustment programs of the IMF and World Bank and the privatization of everything from street signs to social security. After privatizing Social Security, the government had to borrow even more massive amounts of money to make up for lost revenue (around $100 billion US). The deficit created by Social Security privatization is almost exactly equal to the government budget deficits that Argentina ran during this time. Argentina was forced to pay a high interest rate on these debts, and each loan has strings attached. Namely, cuts in social services such as education and health care. This is only one aspect of the privatization process which has been disastrous for the people of Argentina. The people, however, have not been silent throughout the economic turmoil.
During the mid 90s, groups of unemployed in the provinces of Argentina started blockading roads with burning tires and making demands of the government. Namely, demands for jobs. These "piqueteros" arrived en masse on December 20th this year to the streets of Buenos Aires, led by a line of young men and women beating on trashcans and marching drums. As piqueteros have been violently attacked by the police in the past, each group was surrounded by a chain of their own security - lines comprised of individuals wearing vests painted with their party or nieghborhood faction, each carrying a large stick, a club, a metal pipe or a baton. I am talking about grandmothers, teenage boys, young girls and their fathers. They were linked together by holding the ends of eachother´s sticks and marching forward towards the Casa Rosada, behind a line of militant drummers and the occasional explosion of fireworks preceding. The sight was incredible. The numbers were overwhelming.
After the latest structural incarnation of the Casa Rosada (Pink Palace - seat of executive power, etc.) at the end of the 19th century, the particular shade of pink used to paint the facade was created by mixing the fat and blood of cattle with lime. As we arrived at the Plaza de Mayo, the black silhouette of riot police in front of the Pink Palace came into view behind an eight foot high fence, bolted permanently to the ground. Also behind this massive black fence, a silver fountain continued to flow undisturbed by the tens of thousands arriving in the park with their drums and demands.
This is the surreality of Buenos Aires. The vision of normalcy which the government and businesses strive to impose just cannot contain the chaos which is being unleashed in the country. There are just not enough cans of paint to cover up all of the graffitti. The economy has crumbled. Half of the country is living in severe poverty, but the fountain in front of the Casa Rosada is still flowing as night falls on the 20th of December.
The morning of December 21st we walked back through the Plaza de Mayo. The Cabildo (old town hall) which had been covered in graffitti the night before had already been restored to its -almost- pristine sheen. The graffitti was still visible on the walkways but business people rushed by . The circle A's we're barely visible beneath white paint on the center statue, but "gracias madres", in reference to the mothers of the disappeared, remained. Families were taking photographs in front of the Casa Rosada, not even knowing, perhaps, that last night tens of thousands were drumming, setting off explosive fireworks, spraypainting, singing, demanding that all of "them" must go. The police in black were nowhere to be seen. Two booths selling Argentinian flags and baubles stood where a giant grim reaper had been the night before.
On December 20th 2002 thousands marched on a pilgrimage to shrines built where protestors were murdered by police during the uprising one year ago. Apparently the police tactic yesterday was to let people shout and scream and spraypaint and beat on the rails. They just took the damage, because the riots would have been much worse if they did not. The masses left flowers and poems on the shrines and marched into 9 de Julio, the largest street in the world, blocking all 25 or so lanes of traffic.
While the drumming went on into the night in front of the Pink Palace, we talked to a girl in her mid twenties who was sitting on the windowsill with us. Her name was Eva. She was at the protest with her father, a Hungarian immigrant. He used to work for Fiat and lost his job when the economy started yet another major decline four years ago. It was incredible to see the fury in her eyes, because from all outside appearances, she looked like your average college kid from the suburbs in the US. Nice pastel cardigan, tasteful jewelry, sensible attractive haircut. The type of person who would most likely scoff at political types under different circumstances. Eva is college educated, speaks near perfect English, and is a trained professional in public relations. She has an illegal job at the moment (no health benefits) that pays the equivalent of US $120 per month. Her family lost their life savings in the crisis. She is trying to find a way to live in the United States because there is no future for herself here. She is angry because she won't be able to. She says the US is causing this trouble, and is now closing its doors to people who are trying to find a way out of the turmoil in their own country. While the borders are loosening up for international capital, they are tightening up for the movement of people. She, like so many in increasing numbers in the future, will not be able to seek a better way of life but will have to stay in the chaos that has been created in her country. She is not a political person. She said she wants a life of independence and dignity. She was at the protest out of necessity. She is participating in the neighborhood "asembleas" out of necessity.
And this is the beauty that arises from the tumult. In the midst of this chaos, a new and unprecedented movement is growing. Everywhere. I am still so new to Argentina - but everywhere we have walked in the last few days we have seen flyers for popular assemblies (neighborhood meetings - localizing decisionmaking and power) - and many of them gathered on street corners selling goods. We walked past even upscale apartment buildings where meetings were being held in the lobbies. The residents, out of necessity, have done away with managerial positions and were making decisions collectively. This community-oriented democratic process is strengthening everywhere.
Over 150 factories have been occupied by and are now being run by the workers. Over 100 of these have been officially recognized by the government. Since the crisis, Gaia Ecovillage (the first eco-village in South America, located about 90 minutes outside Buenos Aires - http://www.gaia.org.ar/english) has had five thousand visitors. People, whose worlds have been shaken, are looking to alternative ways of thinking and living.
After building energy-efficient wood-burning stoves with families (requiring one tenth the fuel of an ordinary wood-burning stove) in Navarro, the people at Gaia delivered some proposals to the local government. They said they had the tools to develop larger programs that would help the town to remain stable through the crisis. Imagine - people of one town in the countryside could have been shielded from the full impact of the economic collapse by realistic and practical means. They have the tools to help and they were offering to work tirelessly to do it.
Needless to say, they never heard back from the mayor. The solutions will not come through government-sponsored programs. They ALL must go. We have to take it into our own hands to build resilient and self-sustaining communities. The people of Argentina are.

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