Argentina's Elections

by Andres Lopez, Tim Jack, & Marie Trigona

Z magazine, July/August 2003


Before the April 27 elections in Argentina, interim President Eduardo Duhalde, who served for 16 months, assured the country that he had accomplished his objectives to "strengthen political institutions and more importantly, preserve democracy. "

Yet, the pre-election atmosphere had an authoritarian feel, to say the least. Sunday, April 27, streets in Buenos Aires were filled with thousands of police to ensure a "democratic" electoral process. Lines of police, trucks, and tear gas tanks patrolled the streets to impose Argentina's constitutional law banning public acts during pre-election night and on election day.

In the weeks before the elections the national government had stepped up repression with a zero tolerance for protests. A clear example was Brukman, a suit factory that had been occupied and operated by its workers. On April 18, hundreds of police evicted Brukman. "They sent 600 police to evict the 4 workers guarding the factory. This was illegal and irrational," says Maria Zalamon, a lawyer defending the factory. Clouds of tear gas and the unrelenting sounds of shots accompanied the retreat of 7,000 protesters, who were being continually attacked. Police pursued supporters as far as 30 blocks away, beating and detaining people indiscriminately. There was an atmosphere of terror as protesters defended themselves against repression.

"This looked like the military dictatorship. Without the workers

in the factory there will be no negotiations," exclaimed Raul Godoy, a worker from Zanon, a reoccupied ceramics factory. The night's events left 60 injured and 120 detained. Miguel Bonasso, a well-known journalist, was one of those detained. Before news cameras, Bonasso showed an empty red cartridge, signaling that the police had used live ammunition. The human rights organization, CELS (the Center of Legal and Social Studies), charged that such use of force is illegal. This repression sends chilling reminders of Argentina's dictatorship (1976-1983) in which 30,000 were disappeared.

In an attempt to criminalize sectors of the unemployed workers movement, four piquetero activists from the town of Mosconi in the Northern province of Salta were detained. Jose "Pepino" Fernandez, still in custody, was arrested on the steps of National Congress after negotiations with senators. The arrests came with government worries that if negotiations went bad, as they did, piqueteros would begin massive road blockades in Salta. "They [politicians] don't ask us anything except for our vote. The poor vote for politicians, but if we fight they hit back hard with rubber bullets, tear gas, and sending the National Guard out. Today we want to fight for dignified work and for the future of our children and grandchildren, for those suffering from starvation in Mosconi," reflects Rosa, piquetera from Union de Trabajadores Desocupados (Unemployed Workers' Union) in Salta.

The government also cracked down on the anti-electoral campaign. Many sectors from Argentina's social movements generated this campaign, arguing that the elections were a fraudulent attempt for politicians to regain trust and create an illusion of a nation without social conflict. The night before the elections three popular neighborhood assemblies organized a Carnival Against the Electoral Fraud. As the street party began, police arrived, beating and detaining some participants. The carnival continued in front of the police station where those detained were being held until they were finally released.

The same night, during a spontaneous film showing, 200 people watched documentaries in a plaza next to Brukman. Sitting in a plaza together, citizens watched Brukman workers in the struggle for dignified work and piqueteros' self-defense against capitalism. "The intention of this film showing was to break the law, there is a difference between law and legitimacy. What's important for us is not the elections, which we consider a farce, but manifestations of struggle that we deal with in our films. Tonight is a small act of resistance," noted Fabian Pierucci, activist from the film collective, Grupo Alavo.

Institutional Crisis

The last presidential elections, held in 1999, had a shaky start and a dive-bomb ending. The vice-president stepped down just a few months after assuming office, and President Fernando De la Rua did the same on December 20, 2001.

The popular rebellion of December 19 and 20, 2001 provoked an institutional crisis. The government was unable to make a payment on its $128 billion debt and Argentina defaulted on its IMF loan. IMF imposed austerity measures and the speculation of a peso devaluation led to an economic paralysis. Massive social cutbacks, frozen bank accounts (the famous corralito), and lack of hard currency circulating generated a popular response, uniting the demands of the middle class and poor. In the ensuing days thousands went into the streets with the demand, "Que Se Vayan Todos" (all the politicians out). Supermarkets were looted and banks attacked. After two days of protests, a state of siege, 33 deaths, and former President Fernando de la Rua's flight from the presidential house, Argentina's political institutions were left in a state of crisis.

What followed were three short-lived presidencies. Then, on January 1, 2002, Eduardo Duhalde assumed office, installed by a legislative assembly. Duhalde was forced to announce these early elections just a week after police killed two piquetero activists on June 26, 2002. The government repression led to the deaths of Dario Santillan and Maximiliano Kosteki and injured over 100. "Duhalde is truly responsible for our companeros' deaths and his hands are stained with piquetero blood," reflects Luis Salazar, piquetero from MTD.

In the weeks before the elections political campaign posters were plastered throughout Buenos Aires's streets, selling the same names and campaign slogans. After the first round of elections, two candidates-Nestor Kirchner and Carlos Menem-emerged to compete in a second round.

President Duhalde hand picked Kirchner as the candidate for the official Peronist party. Kirchner, claiming to be social democratic, called for negotiating with the IMF and for installing economic policies well known to Argentina-among them a floating currency.

Ex-president Carlos Menem, a champion of privatization, maintains positions that go hand in hand with corrupt politics and transnational corporations supporting his campaign. He wanted to implement the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, a false convertibility to the dollar, and allow the military to cooperate with the police in the repression of social unrest. Along Buenos Aires's major avenues, posters with a photo of Menem under the words, "Menem-President Bush in power," reflect the population's opinion of his interests.

This same system doesn't permit a democratic decision making process. The only thing this election does is reproduce a system that denies our participation," declares Moia, an independent journalist. Politicians and the mass media have dedicated immense energy to construct the illusion that these elections mark a change. Under the guise of new projects and vision, the same mechanisms of repression and economic exploitation continue.

"Candidates won't do anything more than repeat the politics of hunger and misery," declares an assembly flyer against the elections, reflecting deep questions on the state of Argentina's democracy.

A few days after the April elections, John Dornsworth, IMF representative, and his team, interviewed both candidates, evaluating their positions. The IMF's interest is to ensure continuing policies of free trade, austerity measures, and flexible labor. Claudio Katz, Professor of Economics at the University of Buenos Aires, suggests, "The Minister of Economy in the next government is going to continue to be the same person, Anoop Singh, representative from the IMF. He is the man that decides how the government votes, which proposals are approved, and the methods and decrees the government adopts. Continuing the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, there is no possibility of instrumenting the emergency measures that the nation needs to recover and reconstruct its economy. "

Kirchner expressed no intention to depart from economic policies leading to levels of unemployment and poverty never seen in Argentina before. Today 8 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 44 percent are either unemployed or underemployed.

Kirchner decided that Roberto Lavagna was to continue as Minister of Economy. Lavagna was appointed thanks to the advice of the

Inter-American Development Bank. "Argentina has never paid so much in interests in respect to the foreign debt as last year," says Claudio Katz. In August Argentina is due to pay $30 billion towards the debt and Lavagna is prepared to pay it by selling out the future of Argentina's poorest sectors, now the majority of its citizens.

Kirchner assumed office with a somewhat stabilized economy, but with more than half the population excluded from society. Solutions for Argentina's poor are not what this government is interested in. Kirchner is selling methods of social control to keep the poor quiet with police sticks and instability, not long-term solutions. These elections were an attempt by the state to recover lost legitimacy and reflect only a superficial change.

Delia Garcilazo de Rios, whose son was killed by prison guards 10 years ago, forms part of an association of family members of victims of police violence. She reflects, "I don't believe in democracy anymore. I think this system isn't any use to us. It doesn't serve us at all because we don't govern ourselves. My hope is that with our struggle someday we can break the system. My hope is in our struggle. "

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