A short history of cacerolazos

Quebec’s student protest turned into something much bigger y diversified when Charest’s government adopted bill 78 on May 18, in various ways limiting rights to assemble and protest. A few days later, people of all ages and backgrounds starting hitting kitchen pans to make noise and express their discontent to this tired, corrupted and incompetent government. First on their balcony, later in the streets. Les casseroles also gained regions outside Montreal, traditionally less inclined to protest and take the streets. How this original form of protest came about? Where does it come from?

A cegep political science profesor first proposed the idea on facebook. François-Olivier Chené thought it could represent a good way to protest without disobeying bill 78, since people would stay on their balcony to protest. Protesters quickly got taken away and les casseroles took the streets. He had heard that Chileans had protested against Pinochet’s dictatorship doing cacerolazos. The first protesters to use this technique were indeed Chileans, but were upper class right-wingers protesting the socialist government of Salvador Allende – killed during a military coup led by Pinochet in 1973. Later, the other camp performed cacerolazos to protest Pinochet’s repressing regime. It also spread to other Latin American countries living under dictatorships. Members of my family in law were proud to show me that some of their pans were in bad shaped, due to the bagging received during the last months of the Uruguayan dictatorship (1985), when they would get on their roof during cacerolazos.

Cacerolazos came to be known worldwide following Argentina’s economic and political crisis starting in December 2001. Following the collapse of its financial system and the uncontrollable capital flight, the government imposed a corralito, strict restrictions on banking activity, forbidding people to take their economies. When the pesos devaluated, many lost their life savings. To draw a parallel, imagine Greece had to leave the Euro and went back to the drachma, individual savings would lose most of its value, just as it happened in Argentina. Hopeless and angered by their collective and personal bankruptcies, middle and upper class Argentineans took the streets, armed only with kitchen pans. First in Buenos Aires, los cacerolazos then spread all over the country. It allowed people to show loudly their discontent and probably letting off some steam in a tense moment.

Casually, while Quebec protesters where making noise with casseroles, some Argentineans took part in new cacerolazos in Buenos Aires. While a small movement, they did get some attention. The 2012 cacerolazos are denouncing the government (centre-left) power abuses and corruption. Because they take place only in very wealthy neighbourhoods, many think these new cacerolazos are mainly due to new restrictions imposed on changing American dollars, in an effort to strengthen the Argentinean peso (Argentina has a double currency system, in which houses or cars are bought with dollars and day-to-day spending with pesos).

It is not clear why hitting on a saucepan has become a popular protest technique. It could be because it symbolizes private citizens making direct pleas to government officials – noise coming out of the kitchen to be heard by authorities. That people love being part of something bigger, feeling as they are not alone to feel anger. Or, it could be that people just enjoy bagging shinny objects… In any case, it seems very interesting to me that protesters can appropriate for themselves another culture protesting tradition and that it could spread so quickly. We will see with time if les casseroles become a traditional form of protest, resurfacing occasionally, when people are upsets, as it was the case in Argentina.

Masthead photo courtesy of jazzjava’s photostream on Flickr

Las Malvinas conflict

In addition to the end of the world, 2012 marks the 30 years “anniversary” of the Malvinas/Falkland islands war, fought between Great Britain and Argentina in 1982. In part for this symbolic year, this conflict has made its way back in the news. In the last few months, Argentina’s government has put pressure on Great Britain and on other countries to force negotiations concerning the control over the tiny islands, home of 3000 people, mostly British descendants. President Kirchner got most Latin American countries to denounce what she considers being British colonialism. She even left the Summit of the Americas early to protest the absence of the issue in the final resolution. For its part, the British government has maintained a none negotiable hard line, sending war ships and, beware Argentineans, Prince Williams to reinforce its military presence on the island. Nothing to worry about, neither country is looking for a war. What is all this about then?

A little history first, the Malvinas are under British rule since 1833, following French, Spanish, and short-lived Argentinean occupations (destroyed in 1829 by an American war ship). Because of its proximity with mainland (464 km), the fact they were expulsed by force and their past possession of the islands (including Spanish rule before independence), Argentina never recognized British authority over the islands. One must also note a long tradition of British imperialism in Argentina, mostly economically, but also militarily, such as the consecutives invasions in 1806 and 1807. Which brings us to 1982. An incompetent and corrupted military dictatorship, faced with its own failure to redress Argentina’s economy and eager to move the attention away from its terrible human rights record (about 30 000 individuals “disappeared” during the dictatorship), saw the invasion of the British Islands as great national cause that could get them popular support. Which it did for a few weeks, until Margaret Thatcher decided to response with force. The British navy crushed an inadequately equipped and formed Argentinean military. The truth is, the generals thought Great Britain would negotiate or maybe even let go of the islands. Result, more than 900 deaths, and the end of Argentinean military dictatorship who was completely discredited both in Argentina and abroad.

In the 21st century, Las Malvinas plays a similar role it has played in 1982. Faced with slower economic growth for the first time since 2003 (although Argentina still enjoys an enviable economic situation and is still far from recession), Kirchner and her government are stimulating national fervor around Las Malvinas issue. Denouncing Great Britain, asking to negotiate the islands’ return to Argentina comes with no internal political cost and it gives Kirchner an image of power in front of imperialist countries. It brings together left wing entities – Imperialism, to this day, is part of many left wing discourses – and right wing groups – trying overcome of a national humiliation -. In my opinion, this is the main reason why this conflict has reappeared in diplomatic circles, combined to the fact that Las Malvinas are surrounded by immense reserves of offshore oil. Argentina is in dire need of energy sources, as the recent expropriation of the oil company Repsol-YPF shows, and could settle for a deal that would include share exploitation of these reserves.

The British point out to auto determination principles (most islanders want to stay under British rule) while the Argentineans underline some historical and geographical reasons to back their claims. At the end of the day, that the small community of las Malvinas are Argentinean or British matters little in the actual conflict. It is more a question of internal politics and interests than international law. Even if nothing comes out of these diplomatic and media actions, it would have served the simple political purpose of bringing Argentinean behind a national cause once again.

A look at hockey from South America

artbrom / flickr

I have been living in Buenos Aires for 4 years now. Usually people do not know much about Canada. Sometimes I get weird face when I say I’m from Canada even if I clearly speak with a french accent. First thing Argentineans mention is how cold it must be. Some think we don’t even have a summer. The second element most associated with my home country is ice hockey (“ice” is necessary since grass hockey is quite popular in Argentina).  The other day, I was working in a café when a saw NHL images on TV, I was very surprised since argentinean media do not even cover the Stanley cup finals –except its riots of course. Unfortunately, the TV show was presenting images from the Rangers/Devils game that started with a few fights, with the title “Ice hockey or boxing?” As too often, I felt a little bit of shame, as a hockey fan, but also as Canadian/Quebecois. It is somewhat difficult to explain to Argentineans that I enjoy watching hockey, it is a sport of speed and beauty and hockey is part of my culture. Hockey’s image here is limited to fights, violence and dirty hits, closer to Ultimate Fighting than anything else.

Fighting has been part of hockey for so long that it seems almost natural to canadian eyes. However, when you see it from the outside, it seems ridiculous, even idiotic. Try to explain to someone not familiar with north american hockey that fighting is allowed but not really because it is punished; referees let players fight, if they previously  agreed to it; and that it does not have anything to do with the object of the game (scoring goals), except maybe “change the momentum”… Believe me, it is impossible to make any sense out of it. Take any other sport, even very physical ones such as rugby or football, and insert fighting in it… it just looks silly and pathetic. I always thought fighting was not a very important part of hockey and that we could easily do away with it, but its absurdity really hit me a few years ago. I was in my hometown with my uruguayan girlfriend. She was getting familiar with our culture and asked to see a hockey game. Since I was bringing here to a small town, semi-pro game, I warned her that it could get violent. She thought I was talking about physical plays, much like rugby… she was horrified when came the staged fights, she could not believe it. There was not much I could say, it is true that if one has not been desensitized to it from a young age, it does seem barbaric.

As for anything else, change can be tough to come about. If you are old enough, you might remember the old days when car belts were not mandatory or when people could smoke in bars, restaurant and hospitals… Although it seems ridiculous now, many resisted when we collectively decided to modify these situations. I believe we came to a point fighting has to be completely eliminated from our national sport. We could not accept this kind of health risk in any other profession. We do know now that hitting someone’s head repeatedly damages his brain permanently… shocking that it took us so long to figure this one out. Still, how can we accept to see young adults hurting each other like this, for something not even directly related to the game itself, as last year’s death of a few “enforcers” forced us to see. With rare exceptions in the russian KHL, fighting does not exist in international and european hockey, nor does it in the NCAA, and canadian junior is seriously talking about banning it as well. Hopefully, the NHL will follow this trend. It might be difficult to get there, considering that the Bruins just gooned their way to the Stanley Cup. Even the Canucks have recently travelled back to the 80s by adding muscles and “enforcers” to their lineup… The biggest problem remains that some important NHL market keep selling hockey using violence. Added to the NHL extremely conservative management, fighting might very well keep making me ashamed of our national sport in front of my argentinean friends. I might have to start pretending I like baseball…

Martin Renauld – The Activist Scholar

Who are you?

My name is Martin Renauld. Even though I´m only 31 years old, I have been considered old for more than a decade… since I am both extremely wise and have grey hair. I´m Québécois, currently living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I am pursuing a PHD in social science, studying the Argentinean ecologist movement.  I also teach history at the UADE (Universidad Argentina de la Empresa).

What do you do for fun?

I enjoy playing basketball, drink wine and arguing with people. The last one is my favorite, some would say discuss, but I enjoy discussions when they become passionate and sometimes a little uncomfortable.  I think a little provocation is often useful to challenge others´ opinions and hopefully mine as well.

What is your Favorite Community and why?

My favorite community is Montevideo, Uruguay. Even though the city counts 1 million inhabitants, “barrio” (neighborhood) life is central. Montevideans have managed to make their city quite friendly by knowing their neighbors and fomenting local activities. Every barrio has its own farmer market (blocking a street once a week to sell agricultural goods), sport teams, a candombe group (music and dancing with drums) representing the barrio during carnival, a cultural center and a strong sense of belonging.

What is your superpower?

I would say my analytical and critical sense. It can get on people´s nerves once in a while, but I´m very good at finding what´s wrong (in general and for very specific issues). I am trying to work on the finding solution superpower, not as easy…

How do you use your superpower to build community?

Constructive comments would be my main contribution to humanity, sometimes to specific communities.

My Three Favourite Things About Martin Are…

1. Wool Socks. Whether it’s the middle of winter, middle of summer, during a basketball game, or when he’s not wearing anything else, Martin Renauld wears wool socks. Some have argued that this is a throw-back to his family’s historical roots as a notorious coureurs de bois collective, while others argue that he just really, really likes the way the fabric feels against his skin. Personally, I don’t care – when you look that good in something – anything – it doesn’t matter why you wear it.

2. Adventurous Tri-lingualism. Martin’s grasp – perhaps tenuous grasp – of three and a half languages (native French, Spanish, English, Portuguese) reflects his passion for exploring vibrant cultures around the world. I’ve known Martin since our days together as undergraduate students at Bishop’s University, where I edited many of his essays – I can safely say that, in addition to throwing the word “the” everywhere in his text, Martin’s ideas were/are as brilliant in English as they are in any other language…except, maybe, Portuguese.

3. Love of Debate. Wal-Mart? Hockey? Healthy living? Neo-colonialism? Kurt’s contradictory socio-economic views? Proper pronunciation my name in English? How Steve Nash would be better if he wore wool socks? You name it, Martin will debate it. Correspondent/My Special Lady, Michelle Burtnyk, spent nearly a month with Martin in his Buenos Aires home. Every morning Michelle, Martin and I engaged in (at least) four hour breakfast debates that totally solved all the world’s problems. We probably should’ve written things down. After all, Martin could do it in three languages!

As told by John Horn…

Argentina’s presidential elections and Occupy Wall Street

As the world is noticing the emergence of a popular movement that sparked in Spain last spring, Argentina is holding presidencial elections next week-end. What do these two things have to do with one another you might ask? Not much on the surface, but the almost inevitable reelection of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchener in Argentina on sunday proves that people are willing to experience and support other economical and
financial models, just as Wall Street occupiers are demanding.

To make a long story short, starting at the end of the 80s, Argentina experienced a period of hyper inflation, followed by a near textbook case of neoliberalist reforms. The welfare state was dismantled, most public enterprises were privatized (phone, water, transportation, etc.), financial and commercial markets were deregulated to attract foreign capital. It created a growth bubble in the 90s based on speculation and rising
unemployment, the model crashed in 2001. Basically, Argentinians experienced
what Americans could have experienced if the US did not have the capacity
borrowed limitless to bail out banks in 2008. They had to live by capitalist
rules while the US did not…The country went bankrupted, it could not pay its
bills. It meant 25% employment, millions of people losing their life savings
and a lot of people upset and manifesting in the streets. After almost two
years of political crisis, disillusioned Argentinians elected president a relatively
unkown politician from a small province named Nestor Kirchner. His widow is now
running for reelection, pools give her winning by a comfortable margin.

Kirchernismo basically did what FDR had to do in the 30s, go against orthodox economics and confront financial interests. Both Nestor and Cristina have negotiated hard to pay only a small portion of Argentina’s national debt and have mobilized
national financial resources to promote economic growth aiming at creating
jobs. In short, Argentina has had to live without the approbation of Moody’s or
Fitch, without access to international financial market to borrow. What most
economics would call a context of uncertainty for investments. If one listen to
orthodox economists that should have resulted in a disaster. But helped by a
devaluated pesos and rising prices of commodities (in particular soy beans),
the economy grew by 7 or 8 percent a year since 2003. The state used an important part of its revenues for social and economic programs, notably to stimulate job creating
sectors – which exporting natural resources is not-. Don’t get me wrong, Kirchner’s government has been far from perfect, what I am highlightening is the state interventionism that is associated with such economic growth.

Going back to the Occupy Wall Street, los indignados or les indignés movements, people involved in them have different preoccupations, but all of them are upset about the concentration of wealth and the injustices associated with it. What the argentinian example shows is that state intervention in the economy does not mean economic disaster, quite the contrary. I believe most people in the streets now and an important portion of the silent majority understand that reality. While it is true that protesters
do not propose clear and defined solutions, they imply a reconsideration of how
our economic and financial system works. Growth for the sake of growth is
futile. Economic growth is a mean to better the common good. To do so, state
intervention is necessary. As the argentinian model shows – but also most
industrial countries in the post-war period- is that it is possible to combine
economic growth and wealth redistribution. I would go further, saying that
wealth redistribution is necessary if one wants to maintain a healthy economic
growth.

As I wrote earlier, Argentina’s actual government is far from being perfect. However, it strongly relates to what protesters in Wall Street are asking for. Furthermore, Kirchner’s more than probable reelection demonstrates that when people experience a relatively
effective – while not always efficient- state interventionism, they tend to embrace it because they benefit from it. What is most impressive about the oncoming elections is that the biggest media outlets have been extremely critical of the actual government using right wings arguments (need for less state, less taxes, etc.), but guess who is second in the polls? A moderate socialist…

Masthead photo courtesy of David_Shakbone

I´ve read that book!

A few years ago, I taught history in a Cegep (for those not familiar with the concept, Cegeps are Québec educational institutions that regroup technical formations with pre-university ones, more or less the equivalent of 12th grade and first year of university put together). Even though I met very interesting and dynamic students, I perceived a few major flaws in their formation and interests that would make their university studies and their capacity to be informed citizens compromised, to say the least. One of them was their inability to read effectively and their simple lack of interest to do so. Obviously, many could and did read, however they did not represent a majority of my students. In my own modest opinion, it helps explain that their writing and critical thinking abilities were “limited”. I am not referring to writing complex dissertations about Nietzsche’s conception of God here. More in the lines of backing an opinion with clear arguments, making full sentences or conjugate properly. Many teachers tend to blame laziness and partying to explain poor student performances. Of course, that was common too, however many students were indeed trying hard to write papers or exams but could not do it. They did not possess basic abilities necessary to write a coherent text. Reading might not be the only they lacked, but it would definitely have helped. Briefly put, I am deeply convinced reading is an essential part of academic formation, but more than that, it represents a crucial mean to open our mind and broaden our culture.

That brings me to a great citizen project that was created a few years ago in Argentina and that spread to other Hispanic countries (Spain, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Uruguay and others). Yo leí este libro (I have read that book) leaves books in public spaces – bus stops, parks, etc.- so random people can pick it up and read it. Each book contains directions asking to read the book o leave it there so someone else can read it. In the case a stranger wants to read it, he or she is asked to sign it on the last page and leave it again in a public space. Yo leí este libro intent is to create a solidarity chain of books. This way they hope to stimulate curiosity toward reading, give an opportunity to a person that normally does not read and make people feel part of something bigger, knowing that others want him or her to read.

The fact this initiative emerged in Argentina is not accidental. Argentineans are great readers, at least some sectors of the population. Writers are well known and presented as public figures. Buenos Aires is filled with book stores, often opened until late at night. I am not idealizing Argentina’s reading culture, since my teaching experience here did not show a much better situation than what I saw in Quebec a few years ago. However, I appreciate the idea that many Argentineans perceive reading as a social cause and want to do something about it. I never felt this urgency to preserve and promote reading when I was living in Canada, even working in education…

As for the project Yo leí este libro, I doubt it can ever have a notable impact. After all we are talking about a small project within funding, competing with playstations, internet, cable TV and the rest. Nonetheless, I am impressed with the effort…

Spanish revolution

Since the 15th of May, thousands of Spaniards have taken over plazas all over the country. Mainly composed of young citizens, the 15-M -as this movement has been called- has emerged in a context of economic distress in which more than 40% of youth is unemployed and government is making drastic cuts to face the financial and economic crisis. Even though the roots of the problem might seem economic, their criticisms are profoundly political.

Their slogan “Democracia real ya” (real democracy now) and “No les votes” (don’t vote for them) denounce a sterile bipartidism, consequence of an unrepresentative electoral system, in which citizens involved in 15-M do not feel represented and think decisions are made for the benefits of wealthier members of society. 15-M is not an organization per se; we could label it a protest community: there is no leader or spokesperson, nor do they have a detailed program. Essentially, 15-M refers to a loose red of organizations and individuals sharing similar demands. Decisions are taken in asambleas following opened and free discussions. These assemblies allow any one to participate and usually seek consensus or at least overwhelming majorities to approve resolutions or decisions. This combination of heterogeneity (unions, unemployed, students, retirees, etc.) and “horizontalism” makes it very difficult for authorities or political parties to control or co-opt the movement. Most people involved have abandoned traditional canals of representations, such as political parties, to reject an economic and political system they feel excludes them.

In front of this innovative protest community, a few questions emerge. Can this engender long lasting changes? Does it represent a new way of making politics? Will 15-M disappear as fast as it emerged or will it become an active actor in Spanish politics? Forecasting the future is beyond my capacity, however looking at the 2001-2002 Argentinean experience might give us a few hints of what could happen next. In 2001, after a decade of neoliberal reforms, Argentina’s financial system collapsed. The economy already in a bad shape did the same. In reactions, people took the streets. On one side, piqueteros –unemployed groups who had appeared in the 90s- blocked streets to demand direct help (jobs, food, housing). On the other, upper and middle classes performed cacerolazos; basically going in the streets with kitchen pots making as much noise as one can. They chanted “Que se vayan todos” (they must all leave), directed at Argentina’s “political class”. Middle class neighborhood also saw the apparition of asambleas, horizontal and usually independent from political parties. Just as in Spain now, Argentineans rejected their political parties and perceived economic reforms as deeply unjust. At the end of it, they saw 5 presidents swear oath in a month…

A decade after the events, most of this intense mobilization has disappeared from Argentinean politics. Some piqueteros organizations still exist, but they have lost legitimacy in the public eye. Others have been integrated in the political structure, receiving government aid and unconditionally backing the actual center-left government. For their part, asambleas have almost completely vanished. People lost interest or could not keep up with a form of mobilization entirely dependent on individual involvement. Those that have managed to survive are marginalized and radical in their positions, pushing “moderates” citizens out. Sure these events and collective actions have inspired other groups, but as political actors, both asambleas and piqueteros could not maintain their presence and influence in national politics.

Who knows what will happen to 15-M. They might obtain some kind of electoral reforms, which would open the door to new political forces. However, their window of opportunity can close quickly. As the Argentinean experience shows, it is very difficult to keep mobilizing thousands of people without formal leadership and some sort of centralized structure.

Got Lost in the Andes, but Found Community

[Editor's Note: this article is from a Daily Gumboot spinoff blog called "Steph Bowen: Girl on the Run" - as you can imagine, it's from one of our favourite guest bloggers, Stephanie Bowen. The words below were originally published on March 26, 2011, but they are truly timeless. Thank you for the story of self-finding, misadventure, balls-out-adventure, and community, Ms. Bowen. Safe travels home.]

“When one is lost it is not the number of days that matter, but the absolute uncertainty that claims every moment.”
-Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow

Roughly two weeks ago I arrived in Bariloche, a mountain town at the northernmost tip of Patagonia. Bariloche is at once eerily familiar and totally foreign: it incorporates German architecture, Argentine food (and the Argentine party ethic) and Vancouver Island-esque scenery. It’s beautiful, but only a shadow of what the surrounding wilderness has to offer.

After a mellow tester-hike, my newfound partner in crime (a sunny Californian girl with a similar appetite for the extreme) and I decided it was do-or-die: time to launch ourselves into a three-day mountain trek and hope for the best. We loaded our packs with -15 sleeping bags, dried food and canteens, consulted our map, and hopped a bus to the trailhead.

Our first day, we had been told, would consist of a simple 5 hour trek to a refugio, a small mountain cabin heated by wood stove, with bunks for rent for roughly $12 CAN a night. It was explained that the last quarter of the hike was challenging (a 900m climb in 2 km), but nothing we couldn’t handle.

Those canyon walls? We hiked up ‘em. No big deal. 

After 6 hours of bushwhacking, slogging through marshland, and scrambling up loose scree slopes, we’d yet to encounter anything resembling a refugio. We were, in fact, at 2000 meters in an unmarked valley in the Andes, with night coming on rapidly. By now our party had swollen to 5, to include two Dutch boys on the third hike of their lives, and a Swiss optometrist.

At the base of yet another shaky ascent to a narrow traverse between valleys, we decided to stop and take stock. Grudgingly, as the wind picked up and the landscape shifted under the receding sunlight, we admitted that we were lost.

To put this into context, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi is 7500 square kilometres and boasts hundreds (maybe thousands) of trails of varying difficulty, not all of which end with a refugio. Or even exist on a map. Also, temperatures in this part of the Andes routinely drop well below freezing. Getting lost is not just a nuisance – it represents legitimate danger.

Lost in an unmarked valley with night coming on? Time for a photo shoot! 

After much discussion and a totally necessary group shot, we decided to double back along the valley and look for the original trail markers we’d been following. There was a good chance we wouldn’t make it to the refugio before dark, in which case we would break out our sleeping bags and spare food (and the two bottles of wine the Dutch boys had brought along), make a fire in a no-fire zone, and attempt to stay warm as the temperature went down. It was a mildly alarming prospect, but the only reasonable plan of action given the circumstances.

Luckily after a further 3 hours of haltingly retracing our steps, we arrived at our intended destination. On shaky legs, we settled in for dinner and conversation in the toasty mountain cabin.

I come from city stock: my first camping trip occurred at the tender age of 18 and true hiking only made its way into my life 5 years ago. I have little experience with the peculiar sensation of being at the mercy of the natural world, but I will say this: I kind of love it. The soaring adrenaline and immediacy of the problems you face bring out your most essential self. In those moments, nothing really exists except your surroundings, and your survival.

The next two days passed without (negative) incident, and describing the sights I saw is virtually impossible. We climbed towering peaks, contended with gale-force winds, made a (planned) detour to a mountain-top lake, drank wine from plastic bottles while huddling around a wood stove, forded streams using guide lines, woke up in the snow, and bonded in a way only the woods can inspire.

Sunrise at Tronador 

And at every crossroad, with every step, we witnessed the splendour of the Patagonia Andes.

On the second morning, while new friends and fellow hikers slept on, I woke to see the sun rising. Shimmying to the window in my mummy bag, I pressed my nose to the cold, cold glass and watched the sky move from blue, to pink, to brilliant red over the silhouette of a thousand peaks. It was so profoundly beautiful that I couldn’t speak, or reach for my camera, or even breathe. It was so beautiful it made me ache.

The last year of my life has been replete with change and all kinds of wonder. Moving to Vancouver was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time, and even from a distance the life and friendships I’ve built there inspire me on a daily basis.

But being in the quiet of the mountains, surrounded by the natural world, powered by sheer determination, has brought me back to myself in a way I couldn’t have anticipated.

I have lost, and found, myself in the Andes.

La muerte de Nestor Kirchner

Last October 27th, Nestor Kirchner passed away at the age of 60. In the following days, hundred of thousands of Argentineans gathered to collectively grieve their former president. They cried, brought flowers, and sang political chants to pay tribute to head of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations), ex-president (2003-2007) and husband of the actual president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Economic and social reforms implemented during his government and continued under his wife’s made Argentineans either love or despise him. A story of political polarization and significant social change.

In the post-war period, Argentina built a relatively successful welfare-state, making it the most egalitarian country in South America. The 1976-1983 dictatorship, in addition to assassinating or “disappearing” 30 000 individuals, started destroying an economical model based on state intervention. After a difficult return to democracy in the 80s, the right wing Peronist Carlos Menem (president from 1989 to 1999) continued these changes by applying the IMF neoliberal recipe: privatization of public companies, deregulation of economic and financial activities. It resulted in a growing economy essentially based on wealth concentration, massive unemployment and an explosion of social distress (poverty, urban violence, drug abuse). The Argentinean upper class, and part of the middle class, lived the first world dream during the 90s, thanks to the liquidation of public assets and an inflating foreign debt. The whole model collapsed in 2001, with a gigantic financial and economic crisis. Many lost their life savings through the banking system decomposition; unemployment grew to 30%; food riots sprung up. From December 2001 to May 2003, Argentina lived through 5 presidents. In this disastrous context, appeared a relatively unknown governor from the Santa Cruz province. Kirchner obtained 22% of the vote in the 2003 first round election. His opponent, former president Menem, cowardly refused to run in the second round, consequently making Kirchner president.

Kirchner proposed to reactivate the “national-popular” matrix based on state intervention, industrialization (industries had been considerably weakened during the previous 3 decades), and assistance to lower classes. In a nutshell, his government reformed the highly ineffective Supreme Court, suspended payments on the foreign debt, rejected IMF recommendations, implemented economic measures to protect and stimulate industrial activities; increased taxes on exportats (mostly agricultural products); promoted actively human rights, notably by facilitating trials related abuses perpetuated during the dictatorship; increased the minimum salary, public pensions; amplified social programs in poor neighborhood. Politically, Kirchner revived the Peronist party (yes, the same as Menem, but another fraction), getting strong support from lower and working classes. He also built alliances with powerful unions, social movements and some economical actors.

Under his wife’s government, starting in 2007, he maintained a very active role. Initiatives such as the asignación universal (basically providing poor parents with an allocation per child – about 60 $ Canadian a month- while obligating them to attend school, take routine medical exams and have their vaccines in order), the nationalization of pensions funds, a media reform aiming at promoting major diversity, all reflect  a clear continuity between Cristina’s and Nestor’s governments.

On the left, critics have accused Kirchner of paternalism and being too close to some economic interests (mining companies, some industrial actors). On the right, accusations of corruption and clientelism dominate their discourse, often associating social programs with buying vote and manipulate the population’s lower classes. Generally speaking, mainstream private media have been very hostile to both Nestor and Cristina.

Even though he died only a few weeks ago, Nestor Kirchner has already been transformed in an Argentinean myth, alongside Juan Peron, Evita, Maradonna, Che Guevara and Carlos Gardel.

From my humble perspective, Kirchner deserves this public recognition. His government concretely improved lives of millions of people, especially those who had been left behind and marginalized by the neoliberal models initiated during the dictatorship and concretized by Menem in the 90s. He was able to do so because he courageously confronted international organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank. Obviously, el kirchernismo is far from being perfect. It reflects both Argentinean political tradition – dominated by polarization and strong leaders- and Peron’s inheritance.  Even though he successfully reformed the Supreme Court, he could not or did not want to reinforce and profoundly reform the state apparatus. Despite some success in implementing specific programs, for example the asignación universal, Argentinean bureaucracy enjoys very little independence and in many respects is inefficient. To give one simple example, the INDEC (the national organization equivalent to Statistics Canada) has started manipulating stats under Kirchner to systematically publish underestimate inflation figures – inflation is one of the main economic problem- and poverty rates, to the point that nobody takes these figures seriously. Furthermore, both Nestor and Cristina have based their discourse on a polarizing narrative, personalizing debates and limiting them to a with us/against us dichotomy.

After 7 years of kirchnerismo, Argentina is still a polarized society, both economically and politically. Nonetheless, Kirchner has contributed to put a stop to the neoliberal nonsense of the 90s. Imperfect, sometimes contradictory, reforms has made it possible for an important segment of the population to hope again in face of Argentina future. Urban poor, members of the lower middle class, many young people have seen that politics could make social change happening, for better or worse. At least, it is now clear that Argentina will not go back to a neoliberal model and can hope to being, once again, a society dominated by middle and working classes, even if there is still a very long way to go.

The Case of Esquel, Argentina

In an ideal world, citizens´ desire to participate would create and build communities. In our less than perfect world, communities often get strengthened when facing an external threat.  Because they tend to affect everybody, environmental hazards frequently play that role, reinforcing existing communities by forcing them to mobilize. That is to say, sometimes good things come out bad ones.

That brings me to discuss the case of Esquel, a small town situated in the argentine south, in the Chubut province. This community has organized a successful movement to oppose an open pit mining project and has contributed to the formation of a nation-wide network aiming at protecting the environment and natural resources.

Even though mining exploitation has been a relatively marginal activity in the past, since the neo-liberal reforms of the 90s, the country has become very attractive for mining investments, mostly because of very low royalties, 100% deductions of investments and little or no environmental control by provincial authorities (in charge of natural resources). Multinationals basically do what the want and pay very little to the country or affected communities.  In this “favorable” context, the Canadian based company Meridian Gold proposed a gold mining project near Esquel.

Alarmed by the prospect of polluted water caused by the extensive use of cyanide, some citizens started gathering information about other open pit mines and possible consequences associated with this type of exploitation. In 2002, they formed the Asamblea de Vecinos Autoconvocados de Esquel to increase awareness and organize a civic and political resistance. It is worth mentioning that the assembly is based on horizontal, democratic and participatory principles, which means a total absence of hierarchy within the organization. They organized numerous actions such as manifestations and educational activities. In collaboration with the Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia, they also made public scientific information to clarify the possible environmental consequences of open pit mining. They also initiated legal actions to stop mining projects.

Supported by this popular mobilization, the local government (municipality) organized a referendum on the issue in March 2003, in which 81% of the population rejected open pit mining. More importantly, that same year, the provincial government passed a law forbidding open pit mining and the use of cyanide on its territory. It is worth mentioning that people of Esquel stay mobilized, because different mining companies maintain interest.

In definitive, citizens of Esquel successfully organized a classic NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) campaign, reinforcing community ties and identity in the process. Following this victory, the assembly started helping other communities getting organized. Members of the assembly informed and supported other towns facing similar mining projects, basically “exporting” their knowledge, organizational model and strategies. Dozens of similar assemblies were formed in different provinces, to the point that they all formed the Red de Comunidades Afectadas por la Minería (Network of Communities Affected by Mining) in 2003, which will become the Unión de Asambleas Ciudadanas (Union of Citizen Assemblies) en 2006 in order to integrate organizations preoccupied by other environmental and social issues.  The UAC clearly emerged out of the Esquel experience, for that matter, it adopted the same horizontal, participatory and democratic principles. This wide network is basically a community of communities, including more than 70 local assemblies and popular groups (peasant, indigenous organizations). It facilitates the diffusion of information and mobilizes thousands of people. This social-environmental movement has accomplished many political gains in the last 8 years or so. It has pressure many provincial governments to pass laws restricting open pit mining. More recently, the Argentine Congress has voted a law protecting Andeans glaciers, which represent essential sources of fresh water in many dried regions of the country. This national law will most definitely offer new instruments to resist mining project, especially in provinces where local governments “are in bed with the industry”.

In many South American countries, high demand for natural resources has contributed to better economic times. However, natural resources exploitation often comes with extremely negative environmental consequences. In the case of mining in Argentina, small town citizens, such as those of Esquel, have confronted multinationals and more often than not, their elected officials to protect their communities against environmental hazards. Going beyond local issues, they have forced a debate about the nature of these resources, so as to start considering them as “social assets” and not only commodities to be exported for the benefits of a few.  In the process, they have strengthened their local communities and have built a strong community of communities.

Esquel http://www.noalamina.org/english

UAC http://asambleasciudadanas.org.ar