[mgj-discuss] Naomi Klein: "Elections vs. Democracy in Argentina"
hvoss at soaw.org
Fri Jul 4 14:23:45 EDT 2003
column | Posted May 8, 2003
LOOKOUT by Naomi Klein
"Elections vs. Democracy in Argentina"
The "V" sign - in most of the world, it's the sign for peace, but here in
Argentina it means war. The index and middle finger, held to form a V, means
to his followers, Menem vuelve, "Menem will return". Carlos Menem, poster
boy of Latin American neoliberalism, president for almost all of the 1990s,
is looking to get his old job back on May 18.
Menem's campaign ads show menacing pictures of unemployed workers blockading
roads, with a voiceover promising to bring order, even if it means calling
in the military. This strategy gave him a slim lead in the first election
round, though he will almost certainly lose the runoff to an obscure
Peronist governor, Nestor Kirchner, considered the puppet of current
president (and Menem's former vice president) Eduardo Duhalde.
On December 19 and 20, 2001, when Argentines poured into the streets banging
pots and pans and telling their politicians, que se vayan todos, everyone
must go, few would have predicted the current elections would come down to
this: a choice between two symbols of the regime that bankrupted the
country. Back then, Argentines could have been forgiven for believing that
they were starting a democratic revolution, one that forced out President
Fernando de la Rua and churned through three more presidents in twelve days.
The target of these mass demonstrations was the corruption of democracy
itself, a system that had turned voting into a hollow ritual while the real
power was outsourced to the International Monetary Fund, French water
companies and Spanish telecoms -- with local politicians taking their cut.
Carlos Menem, though he had been out of office for two years, was the
uprising's chief villain. Elected in 1989 on a populist platform, Menem did
an about-face and gutted public spending, sold off the state and sent
hundreds of thousands into unemployment.
When Argentines rejected those policies, it was hugely significant for the
globalization movement. The events of December 2001 were seen in
international activist circles as the first national revolt against
neoliberalism, and "You are Enron, We are Argentina" was soon adopted as a
chant outside trade summits.
Perhaps more important, the country seemed on the verge of answering the
most persistent question posed to critics of both "free trade" and feeble
representative democracies: "What is your alternative?" With all their
institutions in crisis, hundreds of thousands of Argentines went back to
democracy's first principles: Neighbors met on street corners and formed
hundreds of popular assemblies. They created trading clubs, health clinics
and community kitchens. Close to 200 abandoned factories were taken over by
their workers and run as democratic cooperatives. Everywhere you looked,
people were voting.
These movements, though small, were dreaming big: national constituent
assemblies, participatory budgets, elections to renew every post in the
country. And they had broad appeal. A March 2002 newspaper poll found that
half of Buenos Aires residents believed that the neighborhood assemblies
will "produce a new political leadership for the country."
One year later, the movements continue, but barely a trace is left of the
wildly hopeful idea that they could someday run the country. Instead, the
protagonists of the December revolts have been relegated to a "governability
problem" to be debated by politicians and the IMF. So how did it happen? How
did a movement that was building a whole new kind of democracy -- direct,
decentralized, accountable -- give up the national stage to a pair of
discredited has-beens? The marginalization process had three clear stages in
Argentina, and each has plenty to teach activists hoping to turn protest
into sustained political change.
Stage One: Annoy and Conquer. The first blow to the new movements came from
the old left, as sectarian parties infiltrated the assemblies and tried to d
rive through their own dogmatic programs. Pretty soon you couldn't see the
sun for the red and black party flags, and a process that drew its strength
from the fact that it was normal -- something your aunt or teacher
participated in -- turned into something marginal, not action but
"activism." Thousands returned to their homes to escape the tedium.
Stage Two: Withdraw and Isolate. The second blow came in response. Rather
than challenge sectarian efforts at co-optation head-on, many of the
assemblies and unemployed unions turned inward and declared themselves
"autonomous." While the parties' plans verged on scripture, some autonomists
turned not having a plan into its own religion: So wary were they of
co-optation any proposal to move from protest to policy was immediately
These groups continue to do remarkable neighborhood- based work, building
bread ovens, paving roads and challenging their members to let go of their
desire for saviors. Yet they have also become far less visible than they
were a year ago, less able to offer the country a competing vision for its
Stage Three: Just Don't Do It. Argentina's screaming and pot banging went
on, and on, and on. Just when everyone was hoarse and exhausted, the
politicians emerged from hiding to call an election. Incredulous, the social
movements made a decision not to participate in the electoral farce -- to
ignore the churnings of Congress and the IMF and build "counterpowers"
Fair enough, but as the elections took on a life of their own, the unions
and assemblies began to seem out of step. People weren't able to vote for
the sentiment behind December 19 and 20, either by casting a ballot or by
boycotting the election and demanding deeper democratic reforms, since no
concrete platform or political structure emerged from those early, heady
discussions. The legitimacy of the elections was thus left dangerously
uncontested, and the dream of a new kind of democracy utterly unrepresented.
The campaign slogan that won the first round was the astonishingly vague
"Menem knows what to do and he can do it." In other words, maybe Nike was
right: People just want to do something, and if things are bad enough, they
will settle for anything.
Politics hates a vacuum. If it isn't filled with hope, someone will fill it
Film Showing at "La Casa" (3166 Mount Pleasant Street NW) in Washington, DC
Wednesday, July 16 - 7pm
The Land, The Street, The Square
Argentina and Italy Indymedia, 2001, 40 min.
(Spanish and English with subtitles)
A massive popular uprising - triggered by the economic collapse in 2000
radically reshaped the political landscape of Argentina. An inspiring direct
democracy movement sprung up, gaining momentum from a frustrated populace
with little left to lose. There are currently over two hundred factories
taken-over and under worker control, more than three hundred coordinated
cooperatives organized by unemployed women and men, countless neighborhood
associations formed, and many other autonomous popular initiatives. Through
interviews and footage of direct action, protests and clashes in the streets
this documentary brings us to the front lines of social turmoil in
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