Magazine article New Internationalist

'They All Have to Go': There's a Good Deal More Than Chaos in Argentina. Benjamin Backwell Describes How People Have Started to Take Matters into Their Own Hands

Magazine article New Internationalist

'They All Have to Go': There's a Good Deal More Than Chaos in Argentina. Benjamin Backwell Describes How People Have Started to Take Matters into Their Own Hands

Article excerpt

On New Year's Eve 2001 the US Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, rang the Casa Rosada, Argentina's Presidential Palace in the centre of Buenos Aires, and asked to talk with the President. After several unsuccessful attempts, Powell called a 'more private' number, only to be told by a low-ranking functionary that 'there is no President at the moment'.

The incident came after a period of little more than 10 days which had seen three presidents leave the Casa Rosada, two of them as a result of mass mobilizations and street fighting, all to the deafening sound of hundreds of thousands of middle-class Argentines banging cooking pots from their balconies.

The strongest sentiment expressed on the streets now is a visceral hatred of all politicians. They are routinely insulted - and sometimes attacked physically - on the streets, in restaurants, in aeroplanes and even on the golf course. Most politicians have stopped going out in public at all. They spend large amounts of time in the countryside, in neighbouring Uruguay - or in Miami - or take elaborate security measures. Former President Menem no longer comes to Buenos Aires at all. The Mayor of Buenos Aires, Anibal Ibarra, has shaved off his beard in order not to be recognized, while former 'superminister' Domingo Cavallo - currently under arrest for an arms-smuggling scandal - for months employed a decoy in a Cavallo mask. Even leaving Argentina is no guarantee of safety. Zulemita Menem, daughter of the former President, was recently forced by angry Argentine exiles to abandon the plush gym complex she frequented in an exclusive area of Miami, while Foreign Minister Ruckauf was surrounded by an angry crowd at Madrid airport.

The country's key institutions have fared little better. The Supreme Court, the two Houses of Congress, the health and social-security services, the main trade-union federations: all are seen as little more than criminal conspiracies. The electoral process is thought of as a bad joke. In last October's congressional and gubernatorial elections, a record 22 per cent cast blank votes or abstained. Many inserted photos of Osama Bin Laden or white powder (to represent anthrax) in the voting envelopes.

Today no established politician commands more than a tiny minority in the opinion polls. Those with the best standing are Elisa Carrio, a former Radical Party member who rose to fame with high-profile denunciations of corruption scandals within the Government and the banking system, and Luis Zamora, a former Trotskyist influenced by autonomist ideas who is practically unknown outside the capital.

Where does all this leave Argentina's democracy? On the one hand, conservative commentators warn of the danger of anarchy, the emergence of populist leaders like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, or even a nascent fascism. Others, on both the Left and Right, warn darkly of a return to the military regimes of the 1960s and 1970s, or some form of 'autocoup' in the style of Peru's disgraced former President Alberto Fujimori.

For now - in contrast with the period leading up to the last successful military coup in 1976 - there seems to be little support for authoritarian solutions. The so-called carapintada ('face-painted') leaders - junior officers who led coups against the Alfonsin regime in the 1980s - are riding even lower in the polls than the politicians. Attempts to create a bandwagon for the release from prison of former coup leader Mohamed Seineldin have so far fallen flat.

Moreover, there are signs of a wholly new type of democratic impulse - although one which does not present any easy solutions. Within weeks of the chaos of last December, hundreds of 'neighbourhood assemblies' had sprung up in Buenos Aires and in many towns and cities in the interior. Nobody is quite sure where they began, although the mechanisms were similar in most neighbourhoods.

'After De la Rua's speech on 19 December, you could hear people banging pots and pans, and I went downstairs to see if anybody was going to do anything,' says Ricardo, an electrician from the lower-middle-class neighbourhood of Almagro. …

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