National Sections of the L5I:

Argentina: on the road to revolution

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The pro-IMF hunger administration of President Fernando de la Rua has fallen only one day after imposing a state of emergency. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets across Argentina, outraged by de la Rua’s declaration that their democratic right to protest had been suspended.

The president’s action followed the mass street protests, the general strike and the outbreaks of looting which gripped the country on December 19 and 20. What the country witnessed was a mass popular uprising against hunger. Then De la Rua’s decree tried to rob the people of their democratic right to protest just as he had already robbed them of their jobs, their wages, their pensions, their savings.

The immediate reaction by the people was to defy his decree and continue demonstrating, indeed besieging the presidential palace itself. Not satisfied with being tossed the head of the hated neo-liberal economy minister, Domingo Cavallo, they went on to force the resignation of de la Rua himself who fled the presidential palace in a helicopter to the thunderous cheers of demonstrators.

Workers, unemployed, students, the Mothers of the Disappeared, had all confronted the horses, tear gas grenades, water cannon and rubber bullets of the police for twenty four hours. At least 26 demonstrators had been killed in the repression. Earlier, demonstrators actually set fire to the economy ministry.

There can be no doubt these were revolutionary events. The working class, leading all the other popular forces, crushed the attempt to impose “order” for the IMF. These events mark the opening of a profound revolutionary situation in Argentina. There is a near total disillusion with the Radicals, with the opposition Peronists and with the whole political class. Nor do any of these politicians know what to do to solve the crisis.

The main danger now is that the Argentine bourgeoisie can nevertheless – because of its control of the political and state apparatus and the economy – block the road to the development of the struggle into a social revolution.

The reasons for the unrest are well expressed by the demonstrators themselves, by their banging of empty pans and by the looting of food stores. Wide sections of the unemployed and urban poor are actually going hungry. Of Argentina’s 36 million population, 15 million are living on or below the poverty line: five million are unemployed.

As many as one third of those who are still employed have not been paid their wages for months. Government employees have had their wages cut by 13 per cent. The recent government measure barring access to bank savings has hit the middle class and the workers too.

That is why women and their children have been to the fore in the expropriation of food from shops and supermarkets, now stuffed with goods for the Christmas festivities – celebrations that that so few of them can afford. Some police disobeyed orders rather than attack them.

Argentina has faced four years of grinding recession. Across the country unemployment stands at 18-20 per cent according to official figures. But at least as many again are underemployed, that is, they have part-time, irregular, insecure, employment. Such work does not pay enough for a family to live on.

In cities like Rosario and Concordia, where food riots and demonstrations have been severe, unemployment stands at 22.8 per cent and 19.5 per cent respectively. But even in cities like Mendoza with “only” 13.5 per cent out of work there have been food riots too.

Dozens of stores were ransacked in the capital, Buenos Aires, and in the northern Entre Rios province, while in the second-largest city, Cordoba, workers protesting at government plans to further reduce wages actually set fire to the town hall.

The reason for the acute crisis of Argentina’s economic system is not hard to find. It lies in capitalism itself – and on top of that the absolute subordination of Argentine capitalism to the “economic superpowers” of the G7. In 1991 in an attempt to escape a situation of hyperinflation (4,000 per cent in one year alone) Cavallo put Argentina in the straitjacket of a “peg” of one peso to the dollar.

At first it seemed to do the trick and foreign investment flowed in to benefit from the mass sell-off of state assets. But in 1998 Argentina went into crisis. Now its exports are too expensive for the Latin American market and other countries’ imports are much cheaper. Companies have gone bankrupt in wave after wave, sacking their workers and ruining their middle class investors.

Over the last three years there have been eight austerity packages which have reduced wages, slashed services like health and education, privatised and closed factories and industries.

Each of these measures met stiff resistance from the workers but they got through in the end thanks to a lack of a leadership equal to the militancy of the rank and file fighters. Now at last it appears that the Argentine workers, the unemployed and even the middle classes have stood up and said a resounding and united “ No More!”

On 13 December the eighth general strike in two years closed down factories, offices, and public transport across the country. There were also roadblocks and pickets in many provinces. The support of transport workers contributed to the strike’s success. The general strike was called by both the “official” and by the so-called “dissident” wings of the General Labour Confederations (CGT) and the Argentine Workers’ Congress (CTA).

Official CGT leader Rodolfo Daer and dissident CGT leader Hugo Moyano denounced the measures imposed by the government. But only recently they joined in a rotten “pact” to control social unrest “in the interests of the country”, arguing that “people do not want any more strikes”.

It may be true that workers were indeed becoming sick and tired of one day or 36-hour general strikes that got no results. But it is now clear they are straining at the leash for real action which promises an end to the ongoing crisis and misery – namely, that the IMF austerity plan is immediately renounced, that workers are paid their full wages, and that food, clothes, etc, are distributed free to the unemployed and underemployed.

A general strike, drawing in the unemployed, the road pickets, the students, the youth, the women, “Tous ensemble” – all together as the French workers say – can unite all these sectors behind the working class and prevent the bourgeoisie from playing one off against another.

The aim must be to arm the working class with the capacity to launch a general strike when the government launches its inevitable counter-attack on the masses. In every district of the biggest cities and in every smaller city and town, delegates need to be elected in every workplace and from every fighting organisation. Such delegates must be elected not only in the factories and offices but in the pickets’ assemblies, in the schools and colleges too and unified at a national level.

These delegates – recallable at will by their electors – can form powerful councils to run the strike and force all union leaders to follow the wishes of their members, preventing their sell-outs and betrayals or replacing them directly. From instruments of struggle they can rapidly become organs of power.

Another key task is the organisation of the most fit and active workers, students and unemployed into a militia to undertake the acquisition and equitable distribution of food, keep order in the popular districts and protect the demonstrations, picket, workers’ centres and districts. Then if the government tries to uses the police and the army again to impose its will it will be possible break or halt their first attacks and agitate to win them to the side of the people. Such a revolutionary general strike could bring down any government that tries to impose austerity in a matter of days. But what then?

Certainly the Peronists led by Carlos Menem will be no better. Nor would a “government of national unity” which is in reality a government of bourgeois unity against the working people, the poor and indeed the middle classes too. Clearly a weak interim government will not be able to impose the IMF’s $3bn cuts which the masses have just defeated on the streets. But such a government may simply let the economic crisis rip, claiming it cannot control it. They will hope that worsening economic conditions will demoralise and demobilise the masses.

A forced default on the debts will lead to a mass flight of capital. Argentina will be treated as a pariah by the international bankers and corporate investors. The already terrible recession will be deepened still further with an even more disastrous rise in unemployment.

A devaluation on the other hand will lead to a massive increase in poverty since most people’s household debts and mortgages are in dollars. It will also lead to a big peso increase in the value of this debt.

Hence the burning need to expropriate the banks and finance houses who hold these debts and put them under workers’ control. Indeed in a situation of deepening economic crisis workers must impose their control over the factories, offices and banks. They must refuse to let the investors, foreign and Argentine, close them down and walk away with the proceeds whilst workers are thrown onto the streets.

The Argentine bourgeoisie and its politicians have shown their complete incapacity to run the economy. Hence the need for the workers to take over the ownership and running of it. The bankrupt Radicals and Peronists could try to retain power by resorting to the ballot box – to new elections. Given the workers and poor of Argentina do not have their own party this could be an easy way of swindling the masses out of a victory they won on the streets. Faced with such a trick militants should argue not for old-style, normal parliamentary or presidential elections which only the hated and corrupt politicians who caused this crisis can win.

Instead, revolutionaries must argue for the election of recallable deputies to a sovereign constituent assembly. In such elections it would be vital for workers’ delegates, delegates of the urban and rural poor, to stand to make sure that it was not dominated by the corrupt politicians of the rival oligarchies.

But even if a constituent assembly were to be elected what sort of sort of government, armed with what sort of programme, should emerge from such an assembly? What does Argentina need today?

First the $132bn debt to the international financiers must be renounced. Second, banks, factories and other enterprises, need to be put under the control of their workers. Third, an emergency plan must be launched to feed, house and educate the masses and provide them with medical care. This could employ all the unemployed and underemployed thus striking a double blow at poverty and social exclusion. It must all be paid for by expropriating the foreign companies and the riches of the Argentine business and land-owning oligarchy. The main levers of the economy must come into the hands of the workers at all levels.

To carry out such a programme a revolutionary government of the workers and the poor is needed; one based on the democratic councils of delegates. But who is to argue and fight for such a strategy? In the first phase of a revolution the spontaneous militancy of the masses plus the courageous initiatives by the vanguard fighters can achieve miracles. So it has been in Argentina. The working class, leading all the oppressed and exploited, have overthrown a government carrying out the policies of the IMF.

Now the question is, can the masses prevent ANY government from carrying out the next “solution” imperialism comes up with to make the poor pay? More than that, can the working class come up with its own solution? Here the experience of all past revolutions over the last 150 years indicates that spontaneity and improvisation will not be enough to do this. Conscious leadership – an action programme and a party capable of fighting for it inside the working class – are needed for this. These are not easy to improvise. But without them the second, social, working class, phase of the Argentine revolution will not succeed.