— Daniel Ximenez
We present here a first-hand account of the December 19-20 uprising, written last December 21 by Daniel Ximenez, a longtime Argentine labor activist and a member of the staff of the Workshop for Labor Studies (TEL) in Buenos Aires. The translation of this article is by Dan La Botz. As the social explosion in Argentina continues, we will offer more in-depth analysis in future issues.—The editors
AT LONG LAST the resistance of the Argentine people, their defensive struggle waged over all these years went over to the offensive. The new economic cutbacks and repression that the government attempted to impose in the past few days were the straw that broke the camel's back.
The experience accumulated first in the struggles against [former president] Menem, and later against his successor and imitator Fernando de la Rua, was brought into play in the last forty-eight hours.
It began Monday [December 17, 2001] with a wave of looting of supermarkets and food delivery trucks, headed up by thousands of poor families, and then spread across the country. On Wednesday the government attempted to hold back the wave by declaring a national emergency (called "state of siege") giving itself extraordinary police powers.
This only aroused the entire population, especially in Buenos Aires, beginning with a noisy protest from people's houses (banging on pots and pans and other objects), then into the streets and culminating in huge spontaneous marches that flowed into the Plaza de Mayo, the great square where the government offices are located.
At midnight there were tens of thousands of people demanding that Domingo Cavallo, the Minister of the Economy, resign. The same kind of thing occurred in many other parts of the city, and other cities throughout the country.
It was a peaceful, one could say happy, demonstration, mostly of middle-class families. No political leader of the traditional parties had called it, nor were any of them present.
At 1:00 a.m. the Minister resigned. But people didn't leave, and they began to call for the resignation of President de la Rua himself.
Hell in the Plaza
Then surprisingly, the repression began. Gas, rubber bullets. It was hell. Some groups remained, resisting with a few rocks and a lot of courage. The labor union federations called for a general strike in repudiation of the repression and against the state of emergency.
Little by little, with the first light of day, workers from the downtown offices, the first young activists from the neighborhoods, and union activists joined with those who had resisted through the night. And the battle of the Plaza de Mayo began.
The police dispersed them—and the people regrouped and returned. New fighters kept arriving and within a few hours they were thousands. The fight lasted more than eight hours and extended into the area of the Congress, then throughout downtown Buenos Aires.
The repression was brutal. In addition to the gas and rubber bullets, they brought out the water cannons, tanks, horses—even firearms. By nightfall there were seven dead demonstrators and hundreds of wounded and arrested.
But the sacrifice had not been in vain, and de la Rua was no longer president of the Argentines. The legal authorities charged the president with responsibility for the repression, and the chief of the Federal Police was hooted out of the Legislative Assembly, which had just named a new provisional president.
Toward People's Power
We are happy with the rout of de la Rua, Cavallo and their followers. I think that everyone, each one from our humble place, all of us have been actors in this historic triumph of the working class.
We know that this is only one step and that there is still a long road ahead, but now we are more conscious of our forces. I want to remember and render homage to the prisoners, the wounded and especially to those who have given their lives, twenty-seven all around the country.
Now is the time to carry forward their struggle, to insist on justice and to demand that the charges be dropped against the thousands of fighters for social justice and an amnesty for all those convicted.
The absence of almost all the important political and labor union leaders where the fighting took place and where the issue was decided, and the lack of at least a platform for immediate demands which would have allowed workers to intervene with their own point of view to defend their rights and the dignity of the nation, must cause us to reflect and take up the challenge.
The people's power and will to struggle were put in play these last few days by new layers of activists created and shaped in the marches, strikes, demonstrations and highway blockades of recent years. These days in the streets make evident again the weakness that was apparent in the last legislative elections: the lack of a working-class alternative program for getting out of the crisis.
This is a lack we intend to fill by creating a social movement that puts forward a program and practice which represent a real alternative to the neoliberal capitalist globalization model.
POSTSCRIPT: EVERY DAY Argentina slides further into crisis. In December industrial production fell by 20%. Official bodies believe that more than fifteen million can now be classified as poor, five million of them in extreme poverty.
The emergence of popular assemblies in the capital, Buenos Aires, and throughout the country is the major phenomenon of recent weeks. The movement is spreading already to the popular neighborhoods and to the provinces.
The assembles consist of about 100-200 people per neighborhood, breaking up into smaller groups when they reach several hundred. An "assembly of assemblies" coordinates the assemblies of Buenos Aires every Sunday at the Centenario Park; nearly 4000 attended on Sunday, February 3.
A social vanguard of several tens of thousands of people is coming into being, involving new generations but also the remobilization of thousands of revolutionary militants and ex-militants.
—from a report by Oliver Besancenot and Francois Ollivier, Buenos Aires
from ATC 97 (March/April 2002)