On Domination and Inequality: The Case of Patronage Politics in Contemporary Argentina

Article excerpt

I. FIELDNOTES, JULY 20, 2004

Daniel lives with his sister, Jimena, in Flammable shantytown (real name, despite the irony); a poor enclave located in Dock Sud, Avellaneda, in the province of Buenos Aires, adjacent to a large petrochemical compound that houses Shell-Dapsa and Petrobras among other large companies. What follows is the transcript of part of a dialogue that the three of us had in July 2004. We were talking about their ways of making ends meet - i.e. their survival strategies in the face of persistent unemployment (neither of them has had a stable job in the past two years).

Jimena - It's really difficult, because Daniel doesn't have a job or a plan [an unemployment subsidy known as Plan Jefas y Jefes de Hogar - Program Head of Households]. He can't even get a plan, because the punteros [political brokers] here are all sons of bitches. They give you a subsidy and they keep 50 pesos (subsidies consist of $150 per month).

Javier- Do they take money from you?

Jimena - Yes, they take the money...

Daniel - If you don't want to work, you get $100, and you have to give them $50.

Jimena - And if you go to work, you have to give them $20 or $30... the subsidy should be free, but do you know how many times they left me out? ... If the brokers asked me for $50 I would go and denounce them...

Daniel - No, no! Wait! Do you know how many brokers I know? Go and try to denounce them...

Javier - They cut you off the plan...

Daniel - They cut you off...

...

Jimena - You have to do what they say...

II. OF RALLIES AND BUSES

During the 1990s, the Peronist Party shifted its urban organization from union to clientelist networks (Levitsky, 2003; Levitsky and Murillo, 2006). The mutually reinforcing processes of state-retrenchment, hyperunemployment, and mass-immiseration (Auyero, 2000) substantially increased the influence of local brokers and party bosses who provide access to scarce state resources. As Brusco et al. (2004:67) assert, "The recent shift to pro-market policies and the downsizing of the state seem not to have eliminated political clientelism, contrary to some expectations.... Neoliberalism may have revived clientelism." Patronage politics is hardly new in Argentina (Rock, 2005), but its social, political, and cultural relevance has escalated since the early 1990s - coincidentally, at the time when radical neoliberal reforms were undertaken by the Menem administration. During the 200Os, we witness the consolidation of this political practice. In order to introduce the main subject of this paper, let me provide a snapshot of the way in which patronage works on the ground.

Manuel Quindimil has been the mayor of Lanus, a municipality located in Greater Buenos Aires, for the last twenty years. He is, according to the slogan of the last electoral campaign, "the last caudillo" (this slogan has been reiterated during, at least to my knowledge, the last decade). During the last presidential election (2003), Manolo sent seventy-five buses loaded with his followers to the main rally organized by the current president, Nestor Kirchner, in the River Plate soccer stadium. Below is an edited description of the day of the rally and of the dominant political practices in the district as seen by a foreign observer:

Estela Cabrera, who lives in a shantytown [in Lanus], attended [the rally]. With Argentines set to vote for a new president this Sunday, such rallies - with their massive banners and loud drums - are an everyday part of life here, especially for shantytown residents such as Cabrera. Cabrera, a mother of 11, is separated from her husband and has, for the past five years, been unemployed. But she is a busy woman. She cares for her youngsters, works 20 hours a week in a nearby soup kitchen to earn a monthly unemployment subsidy and, until the early morning hours, knits pullovers for less than a dollar each, allowing herself only five hours' rest before her hectic day begins again. …