Argentina and the politics of survival

by Marcelo J. García and Ximena Schinca

The fresh images of public anger over belt-tightening policies written by technocrats coming from Europe seem over a decade old for those of us looking from Argentina. When the crisis reached its climax in late December 2001, Argentina had lost its currency, defaulted on a mammoth debt, swallowed the public’s savings and thrown more than half of its population into poverty. The political system entered a power vacuum: an elected president resigned and Congress had to appoint a replacement, who also resigned and passed the hot potato to another interim leader who the international press referred to as 'caretaker.'

The Argentine people, in the meantime, designed a battery of survival strategies.

Each class in a society fragmented by a decade of neo-liberal policies found its own way to survive. The unemployed working class gathered in organized groups of picketers and neighbourhood grassroots organizations demanding unemployment subsidies and ultimately jobs. The urban low-middle class sought economic refuge in hundreds of bartering clubs, which grouped over 2.5 million people at the peak of the crisis. The high-middle classes staged stubborn pot-banging protests on the banks that kept them away from their savings. Workers losing their jobs to firms going bankrupt took command of the workplaces and kept business going – the “No-Boss movement includes some 170 firms nationwide.

The economic crash brought to surface the country’s social default after decades of denial. The year 2001 signaled the climax of a crisis of belief for Argentina, a country that seemed to have accepted, most especially through the neo-liberal 1990s, that public debate was a perk for a just few and development a dream of yesteryear or a mere individual determination. With a dismantled State and no social security nets on hand, many political matters would be settled within the closed doors of people’s homes. In that context, women’s role grew to be recognized as an issue of key public relevance. 

Picking up on a long tradition of women struggles – epitomized by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo during the last military dictatorship – women took to the streets along with their children claiming for food and employment, led and developed barter economy to survive, organized and assisted popular kitchens to feed children and the elderly, and often took the economic reins of their homes. In 2002, women’s participation in picketers’ organizations was estimated at 65%, 30% of household heads in the country’s largest province were women, and they run some 10.000 popular refectories around the country.      

The political class, meanwhile, has struggled to reinvent itself, but there have been some noticeable changes.

The run-up to the peak of the Great Argentine Crisis of the turn of the millennium was dominated by a growing anti-political class sentiment. Argentines cast a congressional vote in October 2001, two months before the peak of the crisis. The star of that election was a so-called “Anger Vote” which included the largest percentage of no-shows for a national vote since the country’s return to democratic rule in 1983 and also an avalanche of purposely “negative” votes, with people casting blank votes or spoiling their votes altogether by slotting insults instead of ballots into the ballot boxes. The Congress elected by “anger” in October 2001 was, paradoxically, the Congress that ended up picking up a succession of short-lived interim leaders deprived of much legitimacy that December.

In the decade that followed, Argentines saw their country’s economy bounce back to a period of growth few could have imagined during the heated (and long) hours of the debacle. Pending issues still abound (from stubborn structural poverty and wealth asymmetries to foreign insertion and gender violence), but many of the groups that kept the ultimate advance of neo-liberalism at bay found some (not all) of their demands met by an actor that seemed to have been self-secluded for years: the State.

The gender agenda is one example of public demand turned policy, and a positive outcome of the economic and social default. As women were forced to leave housework isolation to survive, they found new to fight for empowerment in a traditionally chauvinistic society, pushing forward own demands and causes. In recent years, Argentina achieved significant changes in gender terms, from the establishment of retirement pensions for housewives and all-inclusive social security for children to same-sex marriage, gender identity and legislation to fight gender violence. And now the Parliament is due to pass a law introducing femicide into the Criminal Code. 

The country, of course, also has now its first elected female President. When Cristina Fernández de Kirchner bagged 54 percent of the votes last October to win a re-election and a third term overall for the political era inaugurated by her late husband in 2003, one ruling party legislator said that “votes belong to rights won.” Many of the groups that were on the protest path a decade earlier felt some of their demands had been or could be met in the future. 

The horizon, once the clouds of the crisis had vanished, continued to lie on the field organized citizen participation in the form of politics and – as long as it continues to be the best system of the systems available – the democratic resolution of conflicts. If there is anything the Argentine people has to share is that exit ways require more rather than less politics. And that citizen empowerment and organization, once the agony of the trenches is over, needs to move to the next step of changing the concrete policy orientation of the State, the ultimate representative of the public’s greater interest.

This is a follow-up article of Development Vol. 55.2 Citizenship for Change produced in partnership with Hivos. Click here to read the other contributions on citizenship related issues for DevelopmentPLUS.


Marcelo J. Garcia (@MjotaGarcia) coordinates the Communication Department of SID's Buenos Aires Chapter (SIDbaires). He holds a degree in Communications and graduate studies in International Relations (University of Buenos Aires, Argentina). He writes a weekly column on Politics and Press for the Buenos Aires Herald and contributes on communication issues with several other publications.

Ximena Schinca (@XimeShin) coordinates the Gender and Diversity Department of SID’s Buenos Aires Chapter (SIDbaires). She holds a degree in Communications from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina; and works in research on journalism, communications, translation and intercultural studies.   


Photo: Joel Mann_flickr