The Battle of the Plaza de Mayo

[In a period of a few short weeks in December and January, Argentina’s middle class, workers, and unemployed finally got fed up with years of government cuts, layoffs, privatization, and other schemes designed to integrate Argentina into the global economy. This process began when Argentina pegged its peso to the U.S. dollar, a move backed by Bush senior, and culminated in December when the government froze everyone’s bank accounts and cut salaries.

The result: massive food riots, a state of emergency, spontaneous popular mobilizations, over 30 dead (including a small girl shot point blank for stealing a bag of pasta), and four administrations toppled.

Argentina had followed the directions of the International Monetary Fund to the letter. It had privatized state enterprises such as the post office (which is now facing bankruptcy), raised interest rates to ward off inflation, withheld public employee salaries for up to seven months, cut public sector salaries by 35 percent, and fired 40 percent of its public employees. As a final blow, the government limited all bank withdrawals to $250 per week in a country where most salaries are deposited and credit cards carry 30 percent interest rates.

Argentina has now devalued its currency and stopped payment on its crushing $132 billion foreign debt, but has yet to revoke the freeze on bank withdrawals. The political crisis and default will cast a shadow on negotiations over the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and will have a serious impact on the region. The collapse of once-prestigious foreign banks that now claim to be broke and unable to meet their local commitments makes any quick return to the policies of the recent past doubtful.

This is a first-hand account of the uprising that toppled the government of Fernando De la Rua and his Minister of the Economy, Domingo Cavallo. Under a previous administration, Cavallo was responsible for pegging the peso to the dollar; he was brought back late last year to appease the IMF and U.S. business interests. After their government fell, De la Rua and Cavallo both defied court orders and fled Argentina.]

It began on Monday, December 17, with a wave of food riots led by thousands of poor families. Massive looting of supermarkets and trucks transporting food gradually swept the whole country.

By Wednesday night Argentina’s economic minister had resigned, and by Thursday Argentina had a new president. At long last the defensive struggles of the Argentine people had turned into an offensive fight. But all the labor federations were caught off guard. They were absent during the uprising and afterwards as well. The outcome of this massive outpouring of workers’ anger is in doubt because of the complete absence of even the most basic platform of labor’s demands.

On December 19 the government attempted to stop the wave of protest by instituting a state of siege, giving the government wide leeway to deploy police and troops, and eliminating civil liberties such as freedom of assembly. This only succeeded in drawing the ire of the rest of the population. In the capital, Buenos Aires, a “noise protest” slowly began inside people’s homes with banging of pots and pans. The protest spilled out into the streets, and culminated in great spontaneous marches that converged on the Plaza de Mayo, the central square where the government is located.

By midnight, tens of thousands of people were protesting and demanding the resignation of Economic Minister Cavallo. The same occurred in other areas throughout the city and in many other cities. It was a peaceful demonstraton, mostly of middle class families, almost joyous. No leader of the traditional political parties had drawn people together or was even present. At 1:00 am Cavallo resigned. But the people would not leave and began demanding the resignation of the president himself.

Then, all of a sudden, the repression began. Tear gas, rubber bullets. It was hell. Some groups remained and resisted with a few stones and great courage. The central labor bodies called for a one-day general strike to protest the repression and the state of siege.

Argentina had followed the directions of the International Monetary Fund to the letter.

Little by little, with the break of dawn, office workers, the first wave of activist youth from the barrios, and union activists began to arrive at the plaza and joined the people who were still out resisting. The battle of the Plaza de Mayo was engaged. The police dispersed them, and they regrouped and returned. People kept joining the ranks of struggle, and soon there were thousands. The struggle lasted more than eight hours and extended all around the Congress and throughout downtown Buenos Aires.

The repression was brutal. Water guns, tanks, horses, and even firearms were added to the tear gas and the rubber bullets. By evening there were seven dead, and hundreds more injured and detained. But the sacrifice was not in vain, and Fernando De la Rua was no longer the president of Argentina.

Charges were placed against De la Rua due to the repression, and the chief of the federal police resigned and was booed by a Legislative Assembly that had just named a new provisional president.

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The disorderly retreat of De la Rua, Cavallo, and their cronies was a joyful occasion. It seemed that each and everyone, from the most humble of origins, played a leading role in this triumph of the working class.

To look at the positive side of the unions’ role, the social explosion of December demonstrates the accumulation of all the struggles of the last decade, and unions certainly contributed to this build-up with their speaking out, strikes, and mobilizations.

WHERE WERE THE LEADERS?

But when the riots began, union leaders were silent. When the people took to the streets after the state of siege was announced, they weeble-wobbled.

Later, when the demonstrators were already demanding the resignation of the government, union leaders belatedly called for a strike-but only demanding an end to the state of siege and the violence. They did not participate nor support those who were fighting the police, although many workers did so on their own.

Later, when the government fell, union leaders ended the strike. They did not even present a minimum set of demands to the Legislative Assembly nor to the new President, at least not publicly. They didn’t demand freeing the prisoners, honoring and compensating the victims, revoking the salary cuts, nor the resignation of the Supreme Court. (The Supreme Court has played a scandalous role in these past years, and the Court was one of the factors that provoked the outburst on December 19 by overturning a lower judge’s injunction ordering the banks to free up everyone’s salaries.)

The last few years have seen a progressive divorce between unions and others sectors of the population that have organized their struggles outside union structures. Unions’ standing also dropped because of leaders’ cooperation with the government’s adjustment policies and its internal corruption. (It must be said that the press also helped to put all unions in the same bag-those that fought and those that collaborated.)

CAUGHT OFF GUARD

The CTA, the smaller and more radical of two Argentine labor federations, was in the middle of a fight for unemployment insurance, and was not able and did not want to see the magnitude of the crisis. The CTA was caught off guard and was even distrustful of those who were fighting in the streets-even when a majority of their own activists were there and demanding the CTA join them.

A huge debate is going on inside the CTA and its unions because of how it acted during the rebellion, and this debate may force the federation to reevaluate its strategic positions.

Argentina’s largest labor federation, the CGT, joined the CTA in earlier strikes protesting government austerity policies, but it is closely allied with the Peronist party that seized power after De la Rua’s departure.

Now, in mid-January, the new government is very weak because it can count only on the support of the politicians who have lost all credibility, and it is under pressure from the two camps of big business. The people are cautious and waiting, but they trust no one.

Mobilization is happening around mostly sectoral issues. The critical issue is that the banks have retained all the deposits-savings, salaries-especially those in dollars, and the government’s proposal is to free up this money in uncertain and very far-off stages: 2003, 2004, etc. For the working class, the prospect is truly dark: inflation, recession, unemployment, and a loss in purchasing power.

The strength of the people and their will to fight-so vividly shown by the new generation of activists who have cut their teeth in the marches, strikes, and road blockades of recent years-was finally put to the test in all the streets of the republic.

But the outcome demonstrated once again the enormous void made visible in the last legislative elections: the absence of an alternative vision from the labor movement to get Argentina out of the crisis.

Daniel Ximenez is Labor Notes’ correspondent in South America. Teófilo Reyes translated this article. For the original article in Spanish, click here.