by Liz Mason-Deese.
December in Buenos Aires is known for its propensity to heat up. It was the eruption of protests on December 19th and 20th sixteen years ago that overthrew the neoliberal government of Fernando de la Rúa. Those days saw the emergence of an unprecedented cross-class alliance as the unemployed and middle classes joined together to defy the government’s state of siege with a massive convergence on the Plaza de Mayo, forcing de la Rúa to step down. Following Decembers have been subdued in comparison, but unexpected mobilizations, strikes and road blockades, and looting sprees occur on a semi-regular basis. There is a sense that anything can happen in December, angers held in check throughout the year might suddenly explode, a seemingly consolidated social consensus might suddenly rupture, new subjects might emerge, new alliances might be formed, and old fears might be overcome. Now, the 18th will be added to the list of days in December that will be talked about for years to come.
The Battle of Congress
On the afternoon of Monday, December 18, 2017, for the second time in less than a week, the plaza in front of Argentina’s National Congress Building became the site of a brutal battle between protesters and national security forces. As the lower house of Congress prepared to open debate for the second time on a controversial social security reform, tens of thousands of protesters filled the square, along with all the surrounding streets. Trade unions, neighborhood and grassroots organizations, student organizations, feminist groups, movements of the unemployed, organizations of informal sector workers, and many others marched together in opposition to the “reform” which would not only cut pension benefits, but also benefits to veterans, the disabled, and children. They were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons. Police brutally beat protesters, running them over with vans and motorbikes. Over sixty people were arrested, in most cases chased down as they were trying to leave the plaza. Around one hundred people were injured, some quite seriously. But protesters fought on, even after the tear gas and rubber bullets emptied the plaza, returning various times to attempt to take back the space, then fleeing throughout the city as repression intensified.
The first attempt to pass the social security reform, the previous Thursday, had been cut short as Congress was forced to suspend the session while fierce clashes between protesters and the gendarmerie took place outside. The sense of victory from that day – despite the nearly eight hours of brutal police repression, the law had not been passed – propelled people into the plaza. For many of us, this was our fourth major protest in less than a week. Thursday’s protest that stalled the reform had been preceded by a massive march on Wednesday organized by the Confederation of Popular Economy Workers, the territorial organization Barrios de Pie, and other social movement organizations. The previous day, a peaceful and joyful march against the World Trade Organization, which was meeting in the city, had also been met with repression as police chased and arrested protesters as the march dispersed.
Yet, the repression of the previous week had not succeeded in intimidating people. A flyer circulated on social media about how to take care of each other in moments of repression, advising about legal aid and teargas remedies. In the plaza, people passed out lemons and vinegar-soaked handkerchiefs in preparation for teargas. As in the preceding Thursday, the loudest chant was “workers’ unity, and if you don’t like it, fuck off!” Other chants and slogans criticized the President of Argentina, Macri, for being a pawn of international lending institutions, for his neoliberal policies, and for his government’s use of repression. In some ways, it was a march like any other – the different organizations marching under their banners and occupying their spaces in the plaza – yet there was something different, a sense of fear as we prepared for the repression which would surely come, and a sense of excitement: anything could happen.
Heating Up: Reforms, Resistance, Repression
The social security reform that the governing Cambiemos coalition was so intent on passing changes the formula used to calculate pension benefits, a move critics claim will greatly reduce benefits for retirees. It will also force many people to work longer before receiving benefits and will especially hurt people – such as domestic workers and other informal sector workers – whose employers have not contributed to social security on their behalf. After protests on Thursday forced Congress to stop the session, the government agreed to give retirees a one-time bonus, which still falls far short of making up for the losses they will face over time. Besides affecting retirees, the reform also cuts benefits to children (the Universal Child Allowance), veterans of the Malvina’s War, and people with disabilities. This bill is also part of a larger set of economic “reforms,” including labor and tax reforms designed to transfer wealth to the upper class and appease the IMF and other creditors. Thus, the protests must be seen as not only protecting pensioners but also in a wider context of growing frustration with the return of neoliberal policies and austerity measures and growing national debt.
As the government was “gradually” introducing these policies, 2017 was also a year of intense mobilization. While it seemed like the major opposition parties and union federations were acquiescing to the government’s re-imposition of neoliberal policies, new actors were leading an unexpected resistance. On October 19, 2016, women – fed up with the violence that was costing them their lives, and connecting this violence to the constant devaluation of women’s work – organized the first women’s strike. A growing web of women’s organizations and feminist interventions in existing organizations, would mark the opposition throughout 2017. Then, in March of 2017, as a new school year was setting to start, teachers went on strike over cuts to their wages and to education in general. Women went on strike again on March 8 as part of the International Women’s Strike. In one march, workers drove the leaders of the CGT off stage for their failure to call a general strike, ultimately forcing the leaders to call a strike in April. The Confederation of Popular Economy Workers – an independent union made up of thousands of workers from the informal and precarious sector – has also played an important role in organizing massive and militant mobilizations, bringing together street vendors, workers in clandestine textile workshops, domestic workers, cartoneros, and the unemployed, along with many others in these growing unregulated sectors.
Then in May, a Supreme Court ruling threatened to reverse some of the efforts that had been made to bring repressors to justice for the crimes against humanity committed during the last dictatorship. The so called “two for one” decision would have reduced the sentences for many of those who had been found guilty for torturing and murdering people during the dictatorship, in which 30,000 people were killed. The response was immediate: hundreds of thousands of people filled the Plaza de Mayo and protested all around the country in response to the proposed law, forcing Congress to pass a law to prevent the decision from being repeated. Finally, a victory for the unified mobilization.
However, state repression continued to increase, especially outside of Buenos Aires, where repression against indigenous people and peasants fighting for their land has been a constant. On August 1, Santiago Maldonado, a young backpacker and artisan, went missing during a brutal act of repression by the gendarmerie against the Mapuche community of Pu Lof en Resistencia in Cushamen. The Mapuche had recovered this piece of their ancestral land from the transnational corporation Benetton and since faced constant violence from the Argentine state. Maldonado’s disappearance sparked comparisons to the disappeared during the dictatorship. Once again, massive marches filled the Plaza de Mayo, but this time without results: two months later Maldonado’s body was found near where he had last been seen fleeing the gendarmerie. While the state continues to maintain that Maldonado drowned on his own, the autopsy results were inconclusive and the conditions of his disappearance remain suspicious. Then, on November 25, in another act of repression, a young man from a Mapuche community, Rafael Nahuel was shot and killed by a special command of the Argentine naval prefecture.
Electoral victories by the Cambiemos party in October further cemented its sense of having a broad popular consensus and approval to enact its desired economic and social policy. The opposition was largely demoralized. Following the recent violence against protesters and the targeting of reporters, the Center for Legal and Social Studies recently declared that the right to protest is in danger. A new report by the Coordinator Against Police and Institutional Repression (CORREPI) shows that on average more than one person has been killed per day by the state since Macri took office in December 2015. Repression of this type has not been seen since 1983.
Shaking off the fear
Following the repression on Monday, those of us who could headed to our homes, some friends hid in a bar while they watched the gendarmerie pass by with their weapons out and ready to attack, others took refuge in a union building. Many, of course, had been arrested, and others were still being treated for their injuries. There was a sense, if not of defeat, of pure exhaustion, of disbelief of what we had just experienced, of fear for what might come next. Then, around 9 pm, came the call for cacerolazos. A picture arrives from a friend in the neighborhood of San Telmo: hundreds of people taking the streets and banging pots and pans. Leaving my house, I only have to walk three blocks before finding a group of neighbors banging, not only pots and pans, but muffin tins, computer keyboards, anything that will make noise. Some guys from the neighborhood murga band show up with their drums, various parents come with their small children. Later we walk another few blocks to join up with a larger group. These neighborhood cacerolazos happen all over the city, joining up with each other, until they surround Congress again.
But this time the climate is different, instead of running in fear from tear gas and rubber bullets, we are dancing and singing in the street, this time managing to claim the public space for ourselves. It is an incredibly diverse crowd, now not separated in columns, but mixing happily. The chant of workers’ unity sounds again, but now also from people who look quite middle class, people who yesterday might not have identified with the workers’ struggle. Mixed with this chant, comes the famous que se vayan todos, reminding us of that December 19th and 20th sixteen years prior. Chants popularized by the piquetero movement at the beginning of the century mix with feminist and queer chants and those calling for the return of Peronism to office. More than anything, the cacerolazos are a refusal to let fear and repression win.
Early Tuesday morning, the bill was passed, but it’s hard not to think that this will have important political consequences for the governing coalition, which has lost a good deal of legitimacy for the use of repression and back-handed deals used to get the reform through Congress. It is at least clear that Cambiemos will not have an easy time pushing through their desired legislation and that they have not won the debate over popular opinion. The editorial board of the magazine Crisis succinctly states: “In the battle of Congress, Cambiemos lost the possibility to deploy an unprecedented hegemonic horizon. They crossed a threshold, in an irreversible direction. In front of everyone, Macrism revealed the two qualities that define it in a crystal clear way: austerity and repression.”
And, while perhaps more difficult to discern, these days of protest also seem to be marking the recomposition of anti-Macri forces – new alliances and forces growing up in the streets. In times when macro and micro fascisms abound – seen in Argentina not only in the repression of dissent but also in racist policies targeting immigrants and indigenous people, as well as a series of “lynchings” carried out by private citizens against people accused of crimes such as theft – it becomes increasingly difficult to trust strangers and build community. Yet that is exactly what we did this week: take strangers’ hands as we were running from tear gas, stopping to pick each other up off the ground, looking each other in the eyes as we turned around to face the repression again. In the cacerolazos we met with our neighbors, some of them known, some unknown, and collectively shook off our fear and took the first steps toward constructing something new.
Liz M-D is a member of the Viewpoint editorial collective and currently teaches geography at George Mason University.