Recent events in Argentina are both a condemnation of neo-liberal economic polices and an exciting, possibly dangerous, experiment in people’s power. Interviews with several of the country’s activists, academic and politicians at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil shed light on the situation.

According to Jose Suani of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO), Argentina has gone much further along the road to privatization than any other country on the continent. Then these same companies were sold to the highest foreign bidder.

“Foreign ownership of formerly public enterprises was almost total, and profits were leaving the country,” said Suani. “For example, foreign companies used profits from Argentina, which had by now the highest phone rates in the world, to fight for deregulation of telephone rates in Europe.”

In addition, as soon as there were economic problems, the foreign capital withdrew, producing a steep rise in unemployment to 23 per cent. People started to fight back. Because the two traditional trade union centrals are tied to the Peronist Party and practice mostly business unionism, a new trade union, called the General Workers’ Confederation (CTA), was formed.

“In a unique move, the CTA decided to include the unemployed in their ranks from the beginning,” said Suani.

In 1995, the movement of unemployed began to block roads as a way of demanding jobs. They became known as the piqueteros. Public sector workers, who were hardest hit by the economic crisis, soon joined the unemployed. The piqueteros spread. Not only did they engage in road blockades, they also did a lot of public education about the impact of neo-liberal policies on the Argentine economy.

Finally, as has been widely reported, Argentina experienced a severe debt crisis and then- economic minister, Domingo Cavallo, froze bank accounts. This action pushed the middle classes, who were already upset about foreign control of their economy, into the streets. They are the ones who demonstrated by banging pots and pans.

Suani told a story that symbolizes the present situation. “Last week, a group of piqueteros marched all night to join the demonstration of pots and pans in Buenos Aires. Merchants came to the gates to meet them and said, ‘We have turned out backs on the piqueteros in the past, and for that we must self-criticize.’”

There is now a powerful alliance of the workers, the unemployed and the middle class. At nightly demonstrations, people have demanded not only the resignation of several presidents, but also of the country’s supreme court. This is total crisis of legitimacy. Neighbourhood assemblies that were at first spontaneous meetings are now developing structure. The universal demand from these assemblies is for elections.

“There is a rejection of the political class,” said Suani, “but not of politics. The assemblies are demanding democracy, but a different kind of democracy — participatory and with self-organization.”

Fernando Melillo, a national deputy from the Argentine Workers Party, told me that joining a centre–left coalition had been a total disaster. If they had stayed independent, he said, they could have been the government today.

When asked if the people were more sympathetic to leftwing politicians, he replied, “Not much, but they won’t lynch us if we go into the streets.”

As for the danger of a military coup, Emilio Taddei, also from CLACSO, said it is possible but unlikely. “During the last coup, the military had the support of the middle class. Now they do not. Also, the U.S. would find it very difficult to support a military coup in the middle of their war against terrorism.âe

No one I talked to has any idea how this will end, but one thing is clear: everyone who thought they had the answers has to think again.

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick is one of Canada’s best-known feminists. She was the founding publisher of , wrote our advice column and was co-host of one of our first podcasts called Reel Women....