Petras on Argentina: “You have to take action from below”
From the Editors:
Argentine society has been stirred to its depths. Protests are continuing in the
wake of the spontaneous mass outpourings in December that ousted several
presidents in a row. Peronist leader Duhalde, presenting himself as a
“populist,” but also bringing out thugs to attack demonstrators, is seeking
to defuse public outrage and stifle protest, but whether Peronist deception and
trickery — or the use of goons — will succeed in stabilizing the discredited
capitalist system remains to be seen.
In an effort to inform our readers about this
fast-moving, rapidly changing, and potentially earth-shaking situation, we
reprint the following interview with longtime socialist activist and author
James Petras, dated January 11, 2002. We highlight the following passage to
emphasize the significance of the ongoing events in Argentina.
“Nothing in the bourgeois press captures the degree of tension and polarization that exists in Argentina today. On the spot, activists and revolutionaries describe it as a pre-revolutionary situation. And certainly the degree of hostility to all the bourgeois parties and the degree of militancy of great masses of people would describe a pre-revolutionary situation.”
In this interview Petras correctly points to the
absence of a revolutionary party having a mass base and capable of leading the
working class and popular masses to a resolution of the crisis that would meet
the needs and interests of the great majority, rather than the privileged few.
But he seems clear that such leadership is needed to bring the situation to a
positive outcome and avoid worse disaster.
During the past two years Petras worked with the
unemployed movement in Argentina. Petras is the author of numerous books on
Latin America — the most recent, co-authored with Henry Veltmeyer, is Globalization
Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century.
This interview with Petras previously appeared on the
web site of Z magazine and in Socialist Worker, newspaper of the
International Socialist Organization, for which he was interviewed by Alan Maass.
Petras also has an article on Argentina in the January issue of the socialist
magazine Monthly Review.
A month ago, Argentina was a symbol of the disaster of
the free market. Years of recession had driven unemployment to nearly 20 percent
and pushed one-third of the population into poverty. And all President Fernando
de la Rúa and his hated economics chief Domingo Cavallo could offer was more
austerity — slashed wages, layoffs, spending cuts, privatization.
Argentina today is the symbol of something else — the
hope of a better future. In mid-December, ordinary Argentinians said “no” to
the misery of a system run by bankers and bosses. By December 20, every city and
town in Argentina, including Buenos Aires, was paralyzed by mass demonstrations.
Cavallo was the first to go. Then de la Rúa. And one
week after that, a new wave of demonstrations brought down another government.
Question: Where did the spark for the
December uprising come from?
Answer: The driving force for these
massive mobilizations has its roots in the large-scale, sustained activities of
the unemployment movement. The unemployed workers’ movement has been gaining
strength for the last five years. But in the last year, it’s spread throughout
the country and has played a major role in securing subsistence programs from
the government and public works for at least a sector of the unemployed.
Its tactics are to paralyze the circulation of
commodities and transportation. So the piqueteros, as they’re called, meaning
“the picketers,” block off major highways in order to make their demands.
The ranks of the unemployed movement include a
preponderance of women, especially woman heads of households, which has grown
with the unemployment. In some areas, unemployment is probably 50 to 60 percent.
So many of the piqueteros are factory workers with trade union experience. Many
are young people who’ve never had a job.
They organize and block the highways. Traffic piles up,
trucks can’t move, factories can’t get supplies. These are the functional
equivalents of factory workers downing their tools. In this case, instead of
directly stopping production, they stop the inputs and outputs from production.
Then the government can send the police down, in which
case there’s a whole confrontation. People have been killed, five or six
recently in the north of Argentina. But the fear for the government is that if
the confrontations continue, the crowds come in from the huge slums, and it
could turn into a mini-civil war. So the government usually — after threats and
mobilizations of police — negotiates an agreement.
These agreements are discussed by the participants
themselves. They don’t delegate any leaders to go downtown. They make the
government come to the highways, and the people there discuss what they should
demand and what they should accept.
Their experience with delegated leadership is that they
go downtown, they sit in a big room with the government or with the trade union
bureaucracy, and they usually get bought out. The leaders get some payoffs, even
the militant leaders. Or they get drawn into some tripartite agreement, and the
rank and file is sold out. So their activity is about direct representation,
direct negotiation, direct action.
These demonstrations have been enormously successful
within the limited areas in which they operate. But recently, as early as
September of last year, there were two national meetings trying to coordinate
the committees from all the different cities and the regions and suburbs of
Buenos Aries, and they created a kind of coordinating committee.
But what they taught the population as a whole was that
you can’t rely on the politicians. You have to take action for yourself and
Q.: How did the piqueteros’ struggles set the stage
for the December demonstrations?
A.: I think that spirit began to
manifest itself, even in downtown Buenos Aires, shortly before this latest
uprising. There were several cases where grievances emerged, and shopkeepers and
others decided to close off downtown streets.
There was a huge debate within the movement, because
the so-called progressive trade union leadership thought it could win over the
middle class by blocking main streets but allowing alternative streets to
function. This was opposed by the more militant unemployed movements,
So this spirit captured the imagination of not only
employed workers and, of course, the young people, but also the impoverished
lower middle class, and even sectors of more affluent petty bourgeois, including
shopkeepers, small businessmen, and others who had accounts in the banks.
When the government finally confiscated the
savings — billions of dollars in savings — of the middle class, these layers
also became involved in street demonstrations. This is an impoverished,
radicalized middle class.
It’s a mistake to think of it as simply the middle
class. These are people who’ve lost all their savings. They don’t have money
to pay their grocery bills, or their rents, or go on vacations, or what have
you. So under the example of the unemployed workers, you had a coming together
of various strands of the population.
You had the great mass of unemployed who were involved
in some kind of informal economy. You had employed workers who hadn’t been
paid because the accounts of their employers are frozen. And you have a great
mass of public employees and shopkeepers and others forming a very broad front
against the bankers.
The bankers have been able to get their money out. By
using the purchase of Argentine stocks on the New York Stock Exchange, they have
no problem getting their money out of the country.
So this is very much a class phenomenon, in which the
unemployed workers formed one pole, drawing the workers, the petty bourgeois,
and sectors of the middle class to the politics of extra-parliamentary
struggle — to the politics of rejecting the major bourgeois parties.
This, I think, is the dynamic. Now whether this middle
class will be a strategic ally — whether they’ll get a deal which allows them
to take their money out of the banks — is an open question.
But I think the most important factor in this is that
mass action, more than all the ritual strikes of the trade union bureaucracy,
led to the ouster of the main leaders of neoliberalism and the main spokesmen
for U.S. banks and U.S. imperialism in the government at that time.
Each time, they’ve been replaced by new faces, all
coming within the framework of neoliberalism. There’s no way that the debt can
be paid without precipitating a mass uprising — in which case, I think, the
bourgeois parliamentary system will go down, and perhaps you’ll have a civil
war, with the military coming into the picture.
Nothing in the bourgeois press captures the degree of
tension and polarization that exists in Argentina today. On the spot, activists
and revolutionaries describe it as a pre-revolutionary situation. And certainly
the degree of hostility to all the bourgeois parties and the degree of militancy
of great masses of people would describe a pre-revolutionary situation.
There isn’t at this time an organized revolutionary
party with roots and support. There are thousands of local activists and
militants who engage in these activities, and there is a broad radicalization of
consciousness among hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Argentinians
today — unprecedented in recent times in Latin America.
But the little left parties
— all the Trotskyist and
Marxist parties — spent most of their resources recently in electing officials
to an impotent parliament. And nowhere have these parties — or the center-left,
of course — exercised any kind of leadership. They’ve been out of sight. They
issue manifestos; they sell their newspapers. In none of these growing mass
confrontations — that are reaching proportions of hundreds of thousands in
different cities — has there been any organized vanguard.
There are militants from the unemployed movement, who
have some kind of street-fighting experience and preparation. Programmatically,
they’re clear as far as their immediate demands — which is massive employment
projects, living wages, unemployment benefits, and of course, no payment of the
debt. And some sectors are calling for the renationalization of the strategic
sectors of the economy.
Q.: What will Duhalde’s new government be like?
The current government of President Duhalde is clearly a provocation.
He’s a man of the right, and he’s organized, in the past, a political
apparatus of thugs. Despite what the press says, he is capable of putting
right-wing street fighters out — fascistlike groups that can draw on lumpens and
some disoriented unemployed to challenge for hegemony in the streets and take
pressure off the police. There already has been one major confrontation with, of
course, police taking the side of Duhalde’s Peronist thugs.
But this is, I think, a dress rehearsal. There is no
honeymoon period for Duhalde. Right as we’re speaking today, there are massive
demonstrations in Argentina, and there are preparations for a big show of force
when he announces his economic program late this afternoon. More than any recent
events, we’re dealing with a country that has a long tradition of trade union,
collective action. General strikes are more common in Argentina than in any
country in the world.
This is the country that has the biggest concentration
of unemployed industrial workers in the world today. And thirdly, this is the
country with the largest number of unemployed workers organized and engaged in
What is, I think, necessary or missing in this context
is a recognized political leadership that can carry this dynamic process forward
to the creation of a workers’ government. I think the ensuing struggle is
going to raise that question very acutely.
We should keep in mind that the leadership in
Washington will not rest until it buries that movement. And I think what you
might see is the maintenance of the civilian political facade and the return of
the military as a determining factor in politics.
And that’s like throwing wood on the fire. As we saw
in the earlier dictatorship of 1976, it took 30,000 dead and disappeared to bury
that movement. This time, there are many, many more activists and militants than
there were at the height of the mobilizations in the 1960s and 1970s.
Q.: You talked about the conservatism of labor leaders
and the unions’ “ritual” general strikes. But haven’t the unions played
a role in the resistance?
A.: You can’t just speak of a
general strike in Argentina. There are general strikes, and there are general
strikes. And everybody knows that in Argentina. You can talk to a cab driver,
who, when you ask, “What do you think of this general strike?” will tell you
that the bureaucrats are using it to blow off steam.
They’re one-day affairs with no active mobilizations
or factory occupations. The employers know it, and the government knows
it—that if they sit on their hands for one day, everything goes back to
normal. So they have little consequences. There’s little mobilization and
little in the way of activating the class and creating class consciousness.
They’re decided from above, and they’re shut off from above.
There are three trade union confederations in
Argentina. The official trade union is the CGT, which has alliedd itself with
every government since the dictatorship
— and even had arrangements with the
There’s the CGT-Moyano — the dissident CGT led by
Hugo Moyano, which has been critical of the official CGT for being so closely
tied to the government. But in turn, this federation is run by another set of
bureaucrats who utilize their opposition to the status quo to pressure the
government to make concessions to their followers while maintaining a distance
from any structural challenges.
The third major union is the progressive CTA, which
emerged as a rejection of the CGT and has many of the public-sector
workers—workers who haven’t had any relief with the shutting down and
cutting off of services and the firings of hundreds of thousands.
The Moyano trade union bureaucracy has been more eager
to engage in general strikes and to mobilize around specific issues. They use a
great deal of populist rhetoric, but later negotiate on more narrow sectoral
issues, constantly negotiating behind the backs of the workers. That’s why
they’re distrusted by many sectors of the working class as being essentially
an opportunistic opposition that is capable of putting people in the streets,
but is also quite capable of bringing them out of the streets.
The CTA has been the most active and radical of the
trade unions, led by the ATE, the public employees union. They have been
involved with the piqueteros and the unemployed. They have raised very important
structural issues. However, they have not at any point called into question the
capitalist system. Moreover, they have a tendency to engage in militant actions
and then step back and negotiate. They have been conscious of their position as
state employees—and therefore very much engaged in negotiating with the state
and paying lip service to the rest of the working class.
They say that we ought to unify the unemployed and the
public employees. But the experience of the unemployed workers with the national
leadership of the CTA —
and, particularly, the ATE — has been that they become
auxiliaries. And when the real negotiations take place, it’s over cutbacks in
employment in the public sector. That’s why the unemployed decided to go and
organize for themselves.
Now, there are powerful sectors of the public employees
unions, plus sectors of the teachers union, that have engaged in mass struggle
and confrontations — and have suffered some injuries and deaths even in these
I think one has to distinguish between the national
leadership — particularly of the CTA and to a lesser degree the Moyano
group — and the rank and file. This is especially true in the provinces, where
you will find very radical, very militant trade unionists, local leaders even,
as well as the rank and file. For example, in Córdoba, in Salta, and in Neuquén,
where the petroleum industry is located, you have a great number of trade union
activists, some of whom have been influenced by the piqueteros, who have joined
Q.: What do these links between the unemployed
movements and rank-and-file union members look like?
A.: I can give you an example.
Hospital workers in Neuquén were protesting for weeks, trying to get rid of an
abusive director. Finally, the director called the police in to stop the
strikers from blocking the entrance to the hospital.
Word got back to the unemployed. They jumped into their
cars and buses—whatever transport was available—and went up there 300
strong. In less than an hour, the director was out, and the hospital workers
elected a new director.
That was an example of the kind of solidarity between
the health workers and the piqueteros that occurs frequently in the interior of
the country. I think this is a very promising development. But it has to be seen
The pronouncements coming from the general leaderships
are not representative of what they do — and certainly don’t correspond to the
kinds of alliances which are building up at the grassroots level. That’s the
I’m not saying that there aren’t individual leaders
in some particular sector of industry who’ve displayed militancy. But the
militancy today has to be understood in a very concrete sense. Where were the
leaders of the ATE and the CTA during the December 20 protests? The militants
tell me that they were under the bed. They were notable by their absence in
those great days that brought down the de la Rúa government. They don’t show
face, as they say in Argentina. And that is very important, because action tells
you a lot more than the speeches and programs.
Q.: Where do industrial workers fit into this picture
of the labor movement?
A.: The bulk of industrial workers
are unemployed today. They used to be 40 percent of the labor force. They’re
under 20 percent today. So we have to think of the unemployed not as some kind
of poor, urban street vendors. We’re talking about Argentina. We’re talking
about guys that worked in auto plants, who were steelworkers, who were
metallurgy and mechanical workers. When I spoke last May at a meeting in
Argentina, I met a great many workers who had backgrounds in the trade unions.
And what’s even more interesting are the wives of
former industrial workers. One of the things I’ve noted is the militancy and
high levels of participation of wives of industrial workers—wives who’ve
taken on even more family responsibilities because their husbands have become
disoriented, in part because of long-term unemployment.
The women are the ones to call them out on the picket
line — to go down and be active in order to get a job. Because if you’re not
on the road blockage, you’re not there to get a job when the assembly meets.
To understand the union movement, think that the U.S.
[AFL-CIO President John] Sweeney and the mainstream of the AFL-CIO would be in
the CGT. The left-of-center of the AFL-CIO would probably be with Moyano, the
dissident. Very few trade unionists would be with the CTA. And of course, the
militant section of the CTA would be totally foreign to American trade
unionism--or even most of European trade unionism today.
We have to put this in perspective. The mass action and
mass confrontations beginning on December 20 did more to change the political
agenda and the physiognomy of the government than all the general strikes and
symbolic protests of the trade unions in the last five or ten years. The general
strikes are important when they have a social content—when the workers occupy
the factories and come out and face the government.
That’s what I think these movements of the unemployed
have. These are desperate people today. These are not employed workers fighting
against a particular cutback. They’ve lost all their savings. They’ve been
out of work for a long time. Many of them haven’t seen meat for months. This
is a whole desperate mass of people that cuts across class lines — but in which
class demands are articulated.
Q.: What are the prospects for the development of an
organization or party that can take up the big political questions ahead?
A.: The organizing principle of the
struggle has been hunger. That’s what started the sacking of supermarkets in
December, and the organization of these road blockages before that. You had what
we might call survival demands for jobs — even low-paying public works jobs at
$200 a month — and for food.
Out of that struggle and organization, some of the more
advanced workers in the movement — with trade union experience and some
political experience — began to raise other issues, structural issues like
repudiating the debt, large-scale public investments, and the renationalization
of strategic industries.
There are Marxists and socialists who are involved in
some of these organizations. But they are there as militants within these
movements. They are not, certainly, the dominant force. And they certainly
don’t have the following in these movements to give leadership and
direction — at least at this time.
I think what you have is three levels. One is the grass
roots, which is suffering horrendous deprivation. Here’s a country that is one
of the leading meat and grain producers in the world, and the workers are
hungry. They don’t have beef, they don’t have pasta, they can’t feed their
kids — and they watch the trains taking tens of thousands of tons of meat to
Buenos Aires to ship to Europe.
So this is a provocation. Here’s one of the most
fertile areas in the world with large-scale unemployment and with
hunger — unprecedented in the history of Argentina.
That’s one level. The second level is the emerging
leadership, which has a conception of structural changes that we might call
anti-capitalist and populist. And then we have a third level, in which the
issues of socialism and of revolution come into play.
While the government continues to avoid measures to
ameliorate the problems, increasingly the power within these mobilizations is
moving toward the left. A month ago, the issue of foreign debt repudiation was a
left-wing issue. Today, it’s the mainstream. The issue of massive public works
was a left-wing issue. Today, it’s moved over into the mainstream. The
renationalization of basic strategic industries had a very small group of
supporters. Today, it’s gaining tens of thousands of adherents. Intervention
in the banks was an issue for the minority. Today, it’s become a major issue.
So the whole political debate has moved to the left, as the left begins to gain ideological hegemony. But it’s the ideas, not an organized left.