Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Chip Mitchell, "Leftist rulers put poor people’s movements in a fix," Latinamerica Press, June 8, 2006.

Some Argentine piqueteros join Kirchner’s government, dividing a movement.

Presidential races in Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua each have at least one contender who blames poverty on free-market reforms of the 1990s and who pledges a stronger government hand in the economy. And purported leftists have already taken power in several Latin American countries.

But it is debatable whether any of these governments has taken significant steps against poverty. This has put organizations fighting for economic justice in a quandary: Should they support a president who says all the right things but often lets them down?

Nowhere is the debate hotter than in Argentina. Three years into Néstor Kirchner’s presidency, a third of Argentines remain mired in poverty. And a movement of unemployed protesters that enabled Kirchner to take power has split apart over what to do about it.

The unemployed protesters emerged as a force in the late 1990s, when the country’s economy was wallowing in recession. They became known as piqueteros, or pickets, because of their trademark tactic: the roadblock. After the collapse of Argentina’s banking system in 2001, the piqueteros helped bring down four presidents within two weeks. Kirchner, at the time a left-leaning governor, filled the power vacuum when he won the 2003 presidential election.

Piqueteros still hold protests, but participation has waned. The movement lost strength for two reasons,” says Rosendo Fraga, a leading Argentine political analyst. “One, because unemployment dropped. And, two, they negotiated with the government and accepted [welfare] money.”

A place in government

But there’s another reason the piqueteros are making less noise these days: Kirchner has appointed some of their leaders to his administration. “This government gives the piqueteros a place within the state that has divided the movement,” says Uruguayan journalist Raúl Zibechi, who follows Latin American social movements.

The examples include Jorge Ceballos, who in 2001 helped form Barrios de Pie, a piquetero network focused on the fight against poverty and hunger. Ceballos not only coordinates the network but, since 2004, he has directed the community aid program of Argentina’s Social Development Ministry. He accepted Kirchner’s appointment, he says, because “the movement today faces a new political reality,” namely a president who expresses sympathy for the piquetero cause.

Ceballos’ group now rarely protests unless Kirchner condones it, as the president did last year during a boycott of Shell gas stations for alleged price gouging. Appointing piqueteros to government posts has also helped Kirchner find campaign volunteers. That base helped the president’s wife, Cristina Fernández, win a key Senate seat last October.

But other piqueteros say working with Kirchner amounts to treason. Their anger increased in January, when the administration paid off Argentina’s nearly US$10 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Kirchner himself had blamed IMF loan conditions for the 2001 economic meltdown. Piqueteros had called on him to repudiate the debt and invest the money in social programs.

“The government discourse is always that it’s necessary to reform the neoliberalism of the 1990s, but they don’t confront the empire,” says Juan Carlos Alderete, national coordinator of the Classist and Combative Current, a piquetero group aligned with the Revolutionary Communist Party, Argentina’s main Maoist political organization.

Other piqueteros believe that economic transformation depends on actions by society’s poorest members. These activists are pioneering self-help approaches — from cooperative housing to community gardens, from sewing workshops to “factory recoveries” (worker takeovers). “We’ve already tried models in which decisions are made from the top,” says unemployed nurse Patricia Duró, who helps run a collective bakery in Claypole, an impoverished Buenos Aires suburb.

Brazil’s case

These piquetero cells often cite Argentina’s neighbor, Brazil. Impoverished Brazilians had high hopes when former union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected president in 2003. But Lula has taken a go-slow approach to agrarian reform, which has disappointed peasants. Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, known by the Portuguese acronym MST, has responded by distancing itself from the president and accelerating its takeovers of idle plots. That tactic, legal or not, has provided parcels to hundreds of thousands of Brazilians.

Zibechi, the Uruguayan journalist, says the lesson is clear. “It’s important for poor people’s organizations to maintain autonomy and make their own decisions,” he says. “And that means strong internal democracy.”

The Argentine and Brazilian experiences have reverberated throughout Latin America. Bolivian President Evo Morales nationalized gas and oil production May 1, but his fiercest critics may not be the foreign energy companies required to renegotiate their contracts. Morales also faces battles with people at home — labor unions, coca growers, landless peasants and others — who say he is not living up to his campaign promises.

Organizing autonomously does have its perils. A group that spurns contact with the government and major political parties risks isolation. And, just a quarter century ago, much of Latin America was governed by military dictators, many of whom took power in the name of restoring order amid radical street protests.

Noticias Aliadas/Latinamerica Press 2005
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