In the midst of political chaos, poor people are creating their own economic system
RECENT HEADLINES painted a pretty grim picture of the situation in Argentina. In the year since its ailing economy virtually collapsed, reports from South America?s second-largest country have told much the same story: Spineless politicians can?t meet international banks? demands. Marauding bands of thieves terrorize the countryside. Mass protests and growing public distrust have left the country an ungovernable mess.
That?s all true. In December 2001, fearing a run on the banks, the government froze accounts, enraging a public that was already nervous about losing their life savings. Millions took to the streets throughout the country, banging pots and pans and chanting ??Qu? se vayan todos!? (?They all must go!? or, roughly, ?Throw the bums out!?) Police fired on demonstrators, killing 22. The president resigned and the government cycled through two replacements in as many weeks. Within a month, Argentina defaulted on $132 billion in foreign debt. Since then it?s been a downhill slide, with unemployment pushing 25 percent, crime mounting, and widespread hunger threatening the population for the first time in over a century.
But that?s only half the story. What?s most interesting?and most hopeful?about recent events in Argentina is all that?s happening beneath the headlines, as middle and lower classes join in a grassroots movement.
The protesters, not content just to demonstrate, have filled the power vacuum created by the country?s political and economic crisis by spontaneously creating an astonishing array of grassroots democratic organizations. The most ubiquitous of these are the asambleas populares (popular assemblies). Every week people gather in parks and plazas across the country?including over 200 neighborhoods in Buenos Aires alone?to address the problems facing their communities: food distribution, health care, day care, welfare, and transportation. ?The spirit on the streets and in the assemblies is that people can govern themselves,? report John Jordan and Jennifer Whitney in the British anarchist magazine SIC (September 2002). According to one poll, they note, one third of Argentines have attended a popular assembly, and ?35 percent say the assemblies constitute ?a new form of political organization.??
The local assemblies have helped propel the spread of the huertas, community vegetable gardens that are popping up across the country. According to Ben Backwell in The Ecologist (October 2002), these gardens appeared in rural provinces in the mid-1990s when the economy first began to soften. But it wasn?t until the current crisis hit that they spread to Buenos Aires. ?With unemployment benefits and social security almost nonexistent,? says Backwell, ?many people have been thrown back on their own resources to survive.?
Now, vacant lots, parks, and schoolyards throughout the capital are planted with huertas. There are some 450,000 of these gardens across Argentina, covering 10,000 acres of land and providing food to 2.5 million people (nearly 7 percent of the population)
On another front, workers facing factory shutdowns have taken them over and turned them around?testing out new modes of self-management and worker ownership. Many people have disengaged themselves from the formal peso economy by joining ?barter clubs??neighborhood-based economic networks, often with their own currency, that let citizens trade goods and services without dealing with the banks.
?Argentina is explosive right now?anything could happen. It?s an enormous social experiment that could well prove to be the first great popular rebellion against capitalism of the 21st century,? Jordan and Whitney write.