The "Piquetes": Argentina's unemployed build direct democracy for basic needs

The following is an excerpt of a conversation between the Situaciones Collective and multiple members of the Unemployed Workers Movement of Solano (Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados Solano) that originally appeared in the book La Hipotesis 891: Mas alla de los Piquetes, Ediciones de mano en mano, November 2002, pages 54-62.

Submitted by wojtek on May 25, 2012

When Argentina's economy collapsed in January of 2002, thousands of Argentinians lost their jobs, and others lost their life savings when foreign banks closed suddenly. In the face of massive unemployment which existed well before the collapse, unemployed workers formed collectives to democratically petition the government for temporary employment ("plans"). After being consistantly ignored, the poorest of the unemployed, often starving, began to set up roadblocks (piquetes) on important Argentinian roads in support of their demands for work. They have also set up bakeries, bartering systems, and occupied abandoned factories and restarted business as usual--without the owners and with a radically democratic model of organizing.

Middle class and poor Argentinians alike have rallied around the slogan "que se vayan todos". This means, roughly, "they must all go," an accusation of universal corruption in the national government. But instead of finding new, uncorrupted politicians to represent them, Argentinians have quickly come to take issue with the very idea of representation. Indeed, many familiar ideas have been reexamined in the light of the basic needs for survival and dignity. Many unemployed groups have found much in common between the seeming idealism of direct democracy and the basic pragmatism of survival; having used the tools of radical decentralization and direct democracy to achieve survival and dignity, these groups are now using their new means of existence to fashion a new kind of democracy and mutual aid throughout Argentina.

MTD Solano: I think that the piquetes blasted away our sense of helplessness, but in a new way. We shook the country out of the lethargic dream that [President] Menem and his politics were selling, like a bolt of bright new light. Together with many other struggles, we woke the country from the sweet dreams of post-modernity. They branded us with a name--the Piqueteros--but for us the piquete became the only way in which we could talk with the rest of the country, our way of telling them that there were other methods of struggle, other ways to fire up our lives with dignity.

Collectivo Situaciones: How did this idea arise? How did you get organized?

Sol: The piquetes began in the interior, in Cutralco, Tartagal, Mosconi, Santiago del Estero, and they spread throughout the country, blocking the trade routes that fed the most important cities. Once that had started, people started to take the piquetes seriously as a way fighting, even here, in Buenos Aires, but there were tremendous arguments over the plans; over whether it was correct to ask for the work plans (1). Some said that we were only up to reformist self-help schemes. Instead of getting embroiled in that argument, we decided to put it into practice. At that point our organizing had only reached the level of church groups, but we were always talking about a greater struggle. We were always talking about taking over the Municipality, raising the stakes, and then there was the first road blockade. The first was somewhat improvised, and some of our companeros were arrested. But, little by little, it started to come into evidence that a new way of fighting had been developed. The most important thing, however, was that our numbers started to grow; we started to build productive workshops, to enable people, to teach what we were learning, all of those things that are so much more important than the blockades. The blockades are only the most visible element, and so it seems that they are all there is to see, but the struggle is really what we had been doing before.

It's important to make it clear that from the beginning all of the left, including the progressives, accused us of begging, self-help, reformism, and did not see what the central demands of the organization entail: work, dignity, social change. At first, in the first blockades, we kept our faces completely uncovered, we did have some rocks, kept hidden, and we did not reveal them because we did not want to frighten people. It was a process; we suffered escalating repression and we started to cover our faces, so that we could not be identified. We only used violence as self-defense. We did not start to throw sticks and stones in order to attack, but to defend ourselves.

There were some hard moments in the first blockades. We had strong disagreements on whether to keep our faces covered or not. It took time for people to understand that we needed some kind of self-defense, that the security companeros could not show their faces to the militias. We took that to the assembly, and the assembly decided that we might as well abandon the piquete if we were forced to go unmasked. The system considers the blockades as crimes. They are illegal, but to us they are entirely legitimate.

Sit: We understand that what makes you different from other organizations of the unemployed is that you organize workshops, projects, task groups, that you have a burgeoning collective life: how does this difference manifest itself in the conception of the piquetes?

Our common development, our formation, holds all of this together. That's its bedrock. Nobody imposes a drinking ban, or stops a companero from drinking; we talk about these things at the assemblies. Basically, the coordinators don't get to decide whether drinking is forbidden or not, rather, we look for a consensus; we discuss the reasons why it might not be prudent. That's the great difference; it's not because you happen to wear a hood, or carry the biggest stick.

Sit: We have discussed the heterogeneity of the piquetero movement on several occasions. How do you explain this heterogeneity?

Sol: Our difference to that of other movements is becoming increasingly apparent. Many others still work in the classical way: they say, "we seize power from above and then we change things;" while we say "from below, without any desire to seize power, we struggle." Those other organizations see themselves as political actors and they have revolutionary strategies; we see ourselves, like the Subcomandante Marcos says, as rebels seeking social change. For example, they say that what we call popular education deforms people rather than informing them. They don't make any attempt to tie popular education to political education, on the contrary. We were below, at the bottom, and we don't want to rise, we want to stay there; we will always be rebels. We are at the bottom and we don't want to come up. We have a lot of companeros that stand out, but none that aspire to lead. We all lead, all of the time.

In any case, these differences won't let us lose sight of the fact that we have to organize, that we have to coordinate and articulate, that it is necessary to go on discussing things and coming to agreements, struggling together. We are not saying that we know the truth and the others don't. We know that we build things differently, but these differences can be coordinated, just as long as we keep raising the call for social change, for dignity, and that we don't take advantage of people, say, by using them to win elections.

I have heard some piquetero companeros complain that they felt "useless," "forgotten," or "left behind," in their everyday lives, yet, at the blockades they feel different. They feel "empowered;" they feel that they "have a choice."

Sol: It's true. It's a liberated zone, the only place where the cop won't treat you like trash. There, the cop says to you, "pardon me, we come to negotiate." That same policeman would beat you to death if he saw you alone on the street.

It's true that you feel yourself to be in control of an area during a blockade, but I believe that the companeros are aware that organizing empowers them; that it is not only the blockade, but the organization that makes you strong.

Sit: People say that some of the companeros have a purely pragmatic relationship with the movement; that they only come to get the plan. How does this actually work out in the piquetes?

Sol: The majority of the companeros that join the movement--more than eighty per cent--start out only because they have concrete necessities. They need something to eat, they don't have groceries, they don't have work; they have nothing. At first they come for the plans, but once there is a real process, things change, they begin to feel the excitement and the need to get organized. But yes, some companeros only go because the assembly voted that those failing to attend the blockade don't get a plan.

Sit: Some say that taking to the streets is a way of saying "no" to a model, "no" to a system. I think that this can be understood in two different ways: in the first we speculate that the model failed and that you represent the moment when the victims stand forth: those that are "left-out," those that beg, the impoverished, the forgotten. But, there is another way to see the issue, one where the model did not fail, where exclusion simply does not exist because there is no place of inclusion, where exploitation is merely a desirable variable in the system. Things being as they are, we feel that the stance taken by most of the people that participate in the piquetes is not that of the victims, rather, they present a very clear subjective desire to work and think actively.

Sol: We don't want to be included. At least, I know that I don't want to be exploited ever again, to have Fortabat or Macri as bosses again, that's for sure. I have not struggled just to return to exploitation. I believe, personally, and I believe that many companeros share this belief in regards to themselves, that I am not made to be included, but this is something else altogether.

One of the things that we know with certainty is, precisely, what we don't want; getting organized makes this clear. To discover where we want to go, what it is that we are building, that is what is uncertain, new, and this is something that has not been closed-off, it's unfinished, something that we think anew every day. The organization is dynamic, it changes and it reflects upon its changes. It's true that the blockades are exciting, but what is truly exiting about the organization is that it brooks no dissociation between that excitement and our everyday lives. That's where the reality of the organization lies; the piquete can only express what we have managed to build in our everyday life, otherwise it is useless. The system has nothing to offer us in regards to this task, and we are forced to build an alternate history. We don't demand things because we want to be included; we only demand things in order to continue getting organized.

Sit: How is a piquete agreed upon, how and where do you block the road; who makes the decisions?

Sol: Each and every zone reports on their situation. Then, depending upon each neighborhood's situation, a battle plan is proposed. We discuss whether we will march or blockade. Each neighborhood assembly decides upon their action first, then, at the table, we try to reach a consensus based upon the choices made by the different assemblies. We begin to see what we may be able to achieve as the proposals are presented. We never talk about the specific location that we intend to block at the assembly, for security reasons. We choose the method but not the details.

In the assemblies we determine the roles and the zones. For example, we determine which of the companeros will take care of food, security and any injuries. That is to say, the different zones coordinate particular activities and then there is someone who is elected to serve as a nexus for all these zones. In contrast, other organizations have leaders who decide who does security; yet the location of the blockade and, therefore, the security zone itself--in our experience it is security that decides where a blockade will occur--remains unclear to the leaders. There are many different kinds of organization.

Sit: It seems as if security and the political criteria of the blockade always respond to the internal needs of the organization, rather than to the political conjuncture or to any possible external support.

Sol: Yes, but these internal necessities entail much more than our "economic needs." For example, we blockaded because of the events at Mosconi; those events implicated our identity, because if a companero is affected in Mosconi, well, that also concerns us, even if it is something that does not seem to affect us directly in Solano.

Likewise, we blockaded the Pueyrredon Bridge because the companeros at La Matanza were under the threat of repression; we said to the government, "to repress over there, you'll have to also repress over here." We saw that they were beating our brothers (despite D'Elia and Alderete), so we had to come out to fight for them. Keep in mind, though, we do not build toward the conjuncture. We are not interested in elections, whether people should vote or not.

Another example: when [Labour Minister] Patricia Bullrich organized an offensive (5), we said, "we have to come out because they want they want to cut our plans, they don't want to renew them." It was an attempt to put a stop to our organization. What we never do is to come out when a super-structural power tries to convene us, when an organization with a pre-determined political agenda tries to mobilize us; we analyze and decide upon a situation according to our own agenda.

We don't want to foreclose anyone's space; we don't want to be a vanguard. We build because there is a reality that needs to be transformed, and we organize and join-up with those that are changing their situation. We are not interested in going to La Matanza to harangue and agitate, just in order to gain space. We don't conceive politics in that manner. Yes, we believe that the base needs to be organized, but it is up to the companeros at La Matanza to organize their own area. We want to coordinate our movement with those that are building theirs, but we don't dispute them any political space.

It can't be said, as others claim, that we are just a "base" movement. We do have a political project. In fact, we do know how to read the current political conjuncture, but our project occurs at the neighborhood level, with the people. Our analysis is more comprehensive, precisely, because we work in this manner. They can't reproach us for lacking a strategy and a guiding political structure; that's a lie. The movement itself is a political tool; all of us, all the companeros in the movement, constitute this tool and we all work on the analysis. When we are asked what our political project is, we explain that it is this: politics from below, a comprehensive politics from below. Our goal is the complete formation of the person, in every possible sense. Everything counts, everything is important.

We don't believe that we need a national front, one that encompasses the entire country, in order to succeed. I don't believe that there will be an alliance or a front that will take power; there will be many fronts.

Translated from the Spanish by Ivan A. and eleusa.

Retrieved from The Dominion on 25th May 2012.