By DAVID TURPIN
On Dec. 19 and 20, a spontaneous mass explosion drove Argentine President Fernando de la Rua and his economics minister, Domingo Carvallo, from office. The president had to be evacuated in a helicopter.
Demanding bread and work, tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on the Plaza de Mayo in the center of Buenos Aires. In disregard for the truce with the government arranged by the trade-union bureaucracy, they confronted police repression. After several hours of pitched battles with riot police, demonstrators forced the de la Rua government to throw in the towel.
As this article goes to press the ruling-class parties are scrambling desperately to put together a government that can withstand the pressure from below and force through the budget and wage cuts required to meet payments on the foreign debt.
The country’s fifth president in two weeks, Eduardo Duhalde, a former senator and governor of the Peronist party, took office on Jan. 2. He is supposed to serve out the remainder of de la Rua’s term, which ends on Dec. 10, 2003.
Duhalde promised immediately that he would give a kick-start to Argentina’s economy, now in its fourth year of recession.
He announced a devaluation of the peso, abandoning its one-to-one match with the U.S. dollar established by the former Peronist government several years ago. Parity with the dollar had made Argentine goods non-competitive on the world market and had boosted prices on food and other domestically produced consumer items.
Duhalde also reaffirmed the pledge by interim president Adolfo Rodriguez Saa that the government would refuse to pay its huge foreign debt.
The backdrop to the recent uprising is the near collapse of the Argentine economy under the crushing weight of the debt. The draconian measures required to satisfy foreign bondholders have led to unemployment rates of 20 percent and plunged millions into dire poverty.
A mighty mass upsurge is overflowing the containing walls of bourgeois rule in Argentina. It cannot be foreseen how far it will go. But already the tempo and development of the events that culminated in the December rebellion offer activists inspiring lessons about the power of mass movements.
The school of class struggle
Argentine workers have had far less time than workers in this country to experience the frustrations of big business “democracy”-the choice between capitalist party candidates. However, the Argentines have learned very quickly in the school of hard knocks, the brutal economic crisis driven by draining foreign debt payments.
In fact, in 1989, only six years after the collapse of the military dictatorship imposed in 1976 and maintained by the murder of 40,000 people, President Alfonsin was brought down by an explosion of anger by the masses, who would not wait six months for his term to expire.
This momentary victory of the working people, however, was reversed by secret negotiations between the traditional parties.
The deal allowed President-elect Carlos Menem, a representative of the Peronist party, a bourgeois party that gets most of its votes from the workers, like the Democratic Party in this country, to take power before his inauguration date.
The sustained offensive that has left Argentina’s ruling class reeling, dumping ministers and whole cabinets willy-nilly, shows that Menem inadvertently taught workers and the poor another vital lesson-don’t ever give the enemy a chance to recover.
Even though Menem took power only a few short months after the insurrection that brought down Alfonsin, the new government moved quickly to regain the ground that the ruling class had lost. Argentina’s workers suffered defeat after defeat, as major strikes were broken and key state industries were privatized.
Menem’s economic policies, implemented by minister Cavallo, who would reappear in a tragic repeat of history in de la Rua’s cabinet, sowed the seeds of the present crisis. While Cavallo’s measures brought inflation under control, they did so through cuts in real wages and layoffs.
Massive layoffs led to double-digit unemployment rates. At the same time, Cavallo’s tying of the peso to the U.S. dollar and his “liberalization” of foreign trade rules led to a balance-of-trade deficit that made the economy entirely dependent upon foreign investment.
These policies, commonly dubbed “neoliberal,” amounted to an offensive aimed at lowering the workers’ standard of living and raising the capitalists’ profits, while selling off lucrative state enterprises at give-away prices. Menem’s offensive, however, did not take the fight out of the working class.
In 1994, the city of Santiago del Estero exploded in rage, initiating an upsurge of the workers and the poor that undermined the Menem government. A key element of this renewed militancy was the discrediting of the trade-union leadership, which backed Menem’s administration. The treachery of the bureaucrats did not go unnoticed by the rank and file, and the “Santiaguenazo,” as it was called, marked the beginning of the end for the Peronist party’s traditional hold over the organized sections of the working class.
Sensing the historic loss of prestige of its principal party, Argentina’s bourgeoisie prepared a “left” alternative to channel the rising discontent: the Frepaso, which together with the Radical Civic Union (UCR), would replace the Peronists as an alternative in the 1999 elections.
The merry-go-round of elections did not save Cavallo, who was brought down by a series of general strikes in 1996. The bureaucrats of the two union federations, the CGT and the CTA, however, saved Menem.
Together with the Alliance, a coalition between the UCR and the Frepaso parties, the trade-union bureaucracy succeeded in controlling and defusing the upsurge. The bureaucrats led the workers to the election booth, where they voted in de la Rua’s Alliance government, hoping it would bring them relief from the crisis.
Brazil’s currency devaluation in 1999, however, forced the government to tighten the screws even more, as the debt began to devour the country.
Workers forge new alliances
The New York Times, the voice of the more mealy-mouthed U.S. imperialist ideologues, has characterized de la Rua as “indecisive.” Yet any serious analysis of the new government’s immediate resumption of Menem’s attack on workers would indicate that de la Rua knew exactly what he was doing. What he could not foresee was how quickly the workers and the unemployed would respond.
The de la Rua government’s first crisis came almost immediately after the approval, thanks to the shameless bribery of practically the entire congress, of a series of anti-labor reforms to workplace legislation. The reactionary reforms set off a demonstration 30,000 strong to the capital’s Plaza de Mayo.
Shortly thereafter, on May 5, 2000, the government was shaken by the first of several general strikes. Unemployed workers played a vanguard role in the fightback, leading mass insurrections in several regions.
The new role played by the unemployed is one of the most striking characteristics of the upsurge that has shaken bourgeois rule in Argentina. Organized in committees of picketers, called “piqueteros,” the unemployed have cut vital arteries for the transportation of goods, led popular insurrections-in the face of brutal repression-and, most importantly, deprived the bourgeoisie of one its traditional weapons against workers: scab strike breakers.
In effect, the developing alliance between Argentina’s militant rank and file labor movement and unemployed workers has been a powerful antidote to the traditional demoralizing effect of prolonged recessions on the working class.
Moreover, the piquetero movement, which enjoys greater freedom from the labor bureaucracy, allowed Argentina’s working class to outflank the bureaucrats at key moments. De la Rua’s second crisis came about precisely because the piquetero movement was able to break the truce imposed by the bureaucracy following the first general strike.
The initiative of the unemployed set off another wave of the working-class counterattack, forcing the bureaucracy to convoke a 36-hour general strike on Nov. 23, 2000.
This strike, which paralyzed every branch of industry, was much more active than the previous two general strikes because the piqueteros took control of roads and some municipalities during the action. Rather than stay home, the striking workers took to the streets too.
Imperialism cuts the rope
The combined pressure of the masses from below and imperialism from above precipitated de la Rua’s third crisis. Early in March 2001, Economy Minister Jose Luis Machinea resigned after Washington made it clear there would be no more IMF credits until de la Rua found a finance minister who could discipline the workers.
On March 16, the new economy minister, Ricardo Lopez Murphy, arrogantly announced new austerity measures, threatening the masses with the specter of economic catastrophe if payments on the foreign debt were not met.
Yet this threat of chaos in the capitalist economy, which is very real, did not have the desired impact on the masses. Only hours after Lopez won accolades from a crowd of investors gathered in Argentina’s stock market, students took their desks out into the streets, where they held classes, while the teachers union announced a strike.
The spontaneous mobilization forced the bureaucracy to make plans for another general strike on March 21 and yet another on April 5. Even before the strikes, however, Lopez resigned on March 18, beaten only 48 hours after having accepted his portfolio.
The spontaneous response to Lopez’s threats marked a watershed in the developing class consciousness of the Argentine masses. The fact that the working class and its allies did not cower before the very real danger of economic chaos, a threat which came directly from Lopez’s masters in Washington, shows that while Argentina’s workers have yet to develop the mass-based organizations required for a revolutionary seizure of power, they appear already to have intuitively accepted many of the risks involved.
De la Rua falls
The heady days of March, and Lopez’s sudden resignation, left the working class somewhat off balance, like a boxer who swings too wildly against his opponent on the ropes, and needs to regain his balance before he can deal the knock-out blow. The bourgeoisie rapidly seized upon this hiatus in the class struggle to appoint Cavallo, Menem’s minister, to pull the irons out of the fire.
Cavallo was granted extraordinary legislative powers, with the parliamentary support of both the Peronists and the Frepaso, yet he moved cautiously, imposing austerity measures in a piecemeal fashion so as not to give the workers an easy target. The labor bureaucracy gave the new minister a helping hand by ordering yet another truce, leaving many strikes and actions isolated.
The financial crisis, however, notched up another tick on the onset of the world recession in the fall of 2001, finally forcing Cavallo to announce what he called the “Zero Deficit Plan.”
Although the reaction to Cavallo’s plan was not as rapid as the working-class counterattack that brought down Lopez, the upsurge that began this November and continued through the year-end festivities embraced almost every sector of society. It culminated in spontaneous marches and the sacking of supermarkets in the capital.
De la Rua declared a “state of siege” on Dec. 19. But the police repression only infuriated the masses more. Indeed, one sharp observer noted that it was the government that was under siege. The ferocity of the insurrection forced the bureaucracy to convoke a general strike, not to be lifted until de la Rua resigned. This was the final nail in the government’s coffin, and in the evening of Dec. 20, Cavallo resigned, followed a few hours later by de la Rua.
The new president, Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, immediately suspended the country’s debt payments. Upon approving the measure, congressional representatives chanted, “Argentina, Argentina,” in an attempt to mask their past betrayal of the Argentine people. The masses, however, were in no mood for more games.
On Dec. 29, demonstrators sacked the Congress, pulling the building’s furniture out into the streets, where they made mockery of the pretense that passes as democracy in the not-so-hallowed legislature. Rodriguez resigned shortly thereafter.
Shuffling ministers and officials-while leaving in place an economic program favoring the monopolies, big banks, and foreign investors-will not offer the Argentine working people the real democracy that they are thirsting for.
Only an assembly representing workers, students, small shopkeepers, the unemployed, and all sectors of the great majority who must labor to live can approve the economic program required to pull the country out of disaster, and appoint-subject to immediate recall-a government to carry out this program.
For a government of the workers!
Even before the dust settles, it is clear that the December events in Argentina constitute a setback for imperialist intervention in Latin America, for they will complicate both the military expression of this intervention, Plan Colombia, and its economic expression, the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
The battles waged and won in Argentina will serve as an impetus to other mass movements in the Americas, and the southern tip of Latin America in particular.
Outside of Latin America, the suspension of payments on Argentina’s debt objectively constitutes a blow against capitalist globalization. It will surely provide more momentum for the worldwide movement of activists demanding an end to IMF austerity measures and the economic exploitation of the Third World.
What is more, the successes scored by the Argentine masses come as a counterpoint to the U.S. military victory in Afghanistan and offer the world’s oppressed an example of the power of mass movements, as opposed to the failure of guerrilla strategies and terrorism.
In effect, Argentina’s workers have shredded the credibility of bourgeois democracy, leaving the regime built to replace the military dictatorship in tatters. The debt crisis has put before them the challenge of taking political power and establishing a government of the workers. It is clear that another bourgeois government will only impose a new austerity package, since the neoliberal offensive is the inevitable result of a capitalist system in crisis.
The only alternative is a government of the workers, which would immediately be forced to call on other debtor nations to declare a moratorium on debt payments. Forming a bloc of debtor nations would aid Argentina in challenging the world economic order that condemns the overwhelming majority of humanity to misery. Challenging this order is a hard road to hoe, but there is no third way.