Argentina's road to change

SUN JOURNAL

Protests: Small armies of the unemployed have made traffic blockades an effective political tool.

May 11, 2002|By Reed Lindsay | Reed Lindsay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LA MATANZA, Argentina - In this sprawling, poor outskirt of Buenos Aires, where an estimated 40 percent of the work force is unemployed or underemployed, help-wanted signs disappeared years ago.

So when Jose Eduardo Valenzuela lost his job as a taxi driver last year, he didn't bother looking for another one. Instead, he signed up with the local branch of the leftist Classist and Combative Current (CCC), a militant grass-roots organization that specializes in anti-government highway-blocking protests called piquetes.

"I used to watch the demonstrations, and I thought: `Why don't they look for a job?'" says Valenzuela, 40. "But then it happens to you and you realize why people are protesting."

As the nation's economy has fallen to pieces during the past four recession-racked years, thousands of jobless Argentines like Valenzuela have enlisted in a growing army of full-time protesters led by the CCC and other leftist organizations.

Called piqueteros, the jobless protesters rarely seek their demands through official channels. Instead, they rely on a combative, and perhaps more effective, battle plan: illegally blocking traffic on major highways until the government folds and agrees to negotiate. More often than not, authorities have reluctantly given in. Protests, however, have also ended in clashes with riot police.

Now, with leading political figures warning of an impending "social explosion" less than five months after looting and protests left 26 dead and toppled two presidents in as many weeks, the government is handling the piqueteros with kid gloves.

Fearing a resurgence of social unrest, caretaker President Eduardo Duhalde has broken with the hard-line stance taken by previous administrations and has met with the piquetero leaders face-to-face.

And he has proposed a "universal" welfare program - the first of its kind in Argentina. Duhalde says the program, which would provide 1.2 million heads of household with 150-peso ($54) monthly welfare checks, will ensure that "no Argentine family is left without an income after May 15."

"Duhalde wants to finish his term in 2003, and he knows that the success of his administration is tied to two factors: the dollar and social unrest," says Eduardo Feinmann, a political commentator in Buenos Aires.

"He has the dollar more or less in check now. What he has to avoid is what happened to [recently ousted President Fernando] De la Rua - people in the street calling for his removal."

Not long ago, the piquetero protests here would have been inconceivable. Unlike other countries in Latin America, Argentina had not registered significantly high levels of unemployment since the Great Depression. That changed under the administration of former President Carlos Saul Menem(1989-1999).

The nation's once-mighty industry collapsed, buffeted by a broad reduction of import tariffs, and workers were laid off in droves after the wholesale privatization of state-owned enterprises. The unemployment rate has more than tripled in 10 years, skyrocketing from 6 percent in 1991 to an estimated 22 percent in recent weeks.

Valenzuela was among the victims of the nation's economic meltdown. Six years ago, he was earning a thousand dollars a month as a refrigerator repairman. Now, every centavo he can scrape together goes to feed his family and pay for cigarettes, which he says help kill the hunger.

"It happened so fast," says Valenzuela with a resigned smile. "In my Argentina, I never thought I'd be begging for the salary I'm hoping for now."

Valenzuela is on a waiting list at the CCC to receive one of the 160-peso ($58) monthly "work plans" the organization administers with governmental approval.

The plans are essentially welfare checks that require beneficiaries to participate in 20-hour-a-week community projects, such as sweeping sidewalks or working in soup kitchens.

While he waits, Valenzuela must prove his commitment to the organization by attending weekly meetings and participating in CCC-sponsored social work in his neighborhood. Most importantly, he must help block Route 3 in the piquetes the CCC uses to twist the government's arm for more work plans and other subsidies.

Critics say this arrangement between the piquetero rank and file and their leaders amounts to extortion - of both the government and the unemployed who turn to the organizations for help.

"A distinction needs to be made between the piquetero leaders and the needy, humble, poor people who are looking for work plans," says Feinmann. "In exchange for blocking the highway, setting tires on fire and causing disturbances, people are given work plans controlled by the piquetero leaders. They are being used for political ends."

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