On New Yearâ€™s Eve of 2001, the US Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, rang the Casa Rosada, Argentinaâ€™s Presidential Palace in the centre of Buenos Aires and asked to be put through to the President. After being cut off several times, Powell called a â€œmore privateâ€ number, only to be told by a low ranking functionary that â€œthere is no President at the moment.â€
The incident followed 10 days of mass mobilisations and street fighting, which saw three presidents leave the Rosada, all to the sound of hundreds of thousands of middle class Argentines banging cooking pots from their balconies. The first, Fernando De La Rua, left the Rosada in a helicopter amidst a quixotic wave of police repression that left 27 people dead. The third, Adolfo Rodriguez SaÃ¡, flew back to his province after 10 days of extravagant promises and ill-considered appointments, and a night of street protests which saw demonstrators enter and burn parts of Argentinaâ€™s Congress. Perhaps Rodriguez SaÃ¡â€™s only truly popular achievement was to finally declare default on Argentinaâ€™s enormous foreign debt.
The protests were both extremely violent and euphoric. Masked youths building barricades and setting traps for mounted riot police rubbed shoulders with families carrying toddlers or pushing prams. The protestors did not carry banners or placards, although many carried cooking pots, the Argentine flag, or wore the shirts of the countryâ€™s football team. The only widely heard slogan: â€œQue se vayan todosâ€ (They all have to go).
Throughout December and January, the nightlife of the unbearably hot Buenos Aires summer nights was transformed by the endless series of marches and protests. The mass pot banging processions to the Plaza de Mayo â€“ on foot, sometimes for five or ten kilometres – became the new thing to do on a Friday night. People seemed reluctant to go home. I would find myself making arrangements to meet in the early hours of the morning at city centre landmarks, with old friends that I hadnâ€™t seen for years. The protests would normally take place after midnight, and at three or four in the morning groups of teenagers would be sitting outside Congress around bonfires drinking bottles of beer and making out. People had become used to the gymnastics of confrontation with the police as well. Some lemons and a bottle of mineral water â€“ both of these help with the tear gas â€“ have become part of the kit of most young people on the marches.
Walking up the Avenida de Mayo in the centre of Buenos Aires after midnight in early January I was struck by how much things had changed since December. The traditional social composition of political marches had mushroomed into something more representative, unformed, chaotic, diverse. Along with the usual bearded student types, families, people in suits straight from work in the â€œCitiâ€, shanty town dwellers with missing teeth, people who donâ€™t have a clue what to do on marches. Some kids with their faces covered by masks and scarves appear to our left, closely followed by cameras from the sensationalist CrÃ³nica TV. They petrol bomb the Bank Boston branch on the corner. Boom. The first sound of tear gas, or plastic bullets, people start running, you can get knocked over. Swept along by a rush of people down into the tube station, I trip over a woman in her 50s, impeccably dressed and made up in the best style of Buenos Airesâ€™ elite Barrio Norte. Back on the street, some residents of the still plush apartment blocks on the Avenue are letting the more frightened marchers in to take refuge in the hallways of the buildings. Further up the block, the younger marchers, those who are most â€œup for itâ€, have gone to the front, and a running battle is taking place.
The authors of a book on the events of the 19th and 20th December describe the protests as a kind of mass, unorganised violence, â€œwith a level of intensity which has its background in football stadiums and rock concerts in the neighbourhoods (barrios), rather than in the mythical actions of the guerrillas of yesterday. These forms do not have explicit rules and are regulated by codes which are unintelligible for any external agent.â€
Faced with the spectre of insurrection, congressmen and senators from the discredited Radical and Peronist parties closed ranks and appointed Eduardo Duhalde as interim President. Duhalde, a veteran political operator, seems determined to stay in power until mid 2003, despite derisory levels of support among the Argentine public. His ailing government has failed to arrest the slide in the economy, repay peopleâ€™s bank savings or restore faith in political life, and compounded its unpopularity in June by presiding over the cold-blooded murder of two demonstrators by Buenos Aires policemen.
People are angry. Complaining, melancholia, and a sense that the country is going to the dogs is nothing new for Argentina, after decades of economic stagnation, corruption and violence. But this is something different. Conversations with unknowns seem to take the form of an uninterrupted flow of rage, bitterness, disbelief, hatred. Mild mannered 40 year olds will tell you that what is needed is â€œa good civil warâ€ or describe graphically how they intend to gut government officials.
The poorest of the poor in the huge suburban belt that surrounds Buenos Aires, who had long been â€œorganisedâ€ at voting time by Peronist Party point men through hand outs of food, building materials and state subsidies are on the march, now grouped in the â€œpiqueteroâ€ organisations. And in contrast to the mainly joyous marches of the city dwellers, they come in columns, stewarded by lines of men â€“ and women â€“ carrying pick axe handles and iron rods. They arrive on foot, with their extended families, often in the poring rain, from Avellaneda and La Matanza, 20 km or more away. Exhausted, they picnic in the Plaza de Mayo, looking up from time at the grand Parisian style buildings that surround them.
Previously, such shows of militancy by what had been sneeringly referred to as â€œla negradaâ€ (the blacks) by well to do PorteÃ±os, would have caused fear and horror. Now the piqueteros are applauded and handed thermos flasks by well wishers awaiting them at the entrances to the city centre.
The government finds this new social map hard to deal with. At the end of June, two young piqueteros were chased into the station at Avellaneda after an aborted attempt to block one of the main bridges which leads to the capital. Inside, they were killed by a group of policemen firing live rounds from shotguns at point blank range. The government initially supported the police action, and unleashed a well prepared media campaign which showed home made guns supposedly recovered from the piqueteros, marchers charging the police with sticks, and suggested that the fatal bullets had come from the demonstrators themselves. Video footage from inside the station was suppressed, and witnesses threatened. A day later, the government had been forced to carry out a u turn. The main daily newspaper, ClarÃn, published a series of photos revealing the murderers to be policemen â€“ among them the officer in charge of the operation. Video footage and photos continued to appear, and with it a public outrage. Soon the policemen were under arrest, the heads of the Buenos Aires provincial force sacked, and Duhalde was condemning what he now called a â€œferocious police huntâ€. A few days later, in a freezing winter rain storm, some 40,000 people marched from the train station in Avellaneda to the Plaza de Mayo to demand Duhaldeâ€™s resignation, supported by nearly every organisation outside of the establishment political parties. At the head of the demonstration, the piquetero groups, and the white head scarves of the mothers of Argentinaâ€™s â€œdisappearedâ€ from the 1970â€™s â€“ a previous generation of young people culled by the men in uniform.
Standing in the rain in the Plaza during a silence to remember the dead, among the grieving angry faces, the poor faces of always, the new poor, the not yet poor, I realised that the new protest movement is perhaps more durable than any of us had supposed.
But what is it that unifies the movement? Stronger than the uniform resentment towards the US and the IMF, is a visceral hatred for all politicians, who are insulted and sometimes attacked physically – on the streets, in restaurants, in aeroplanes and on the golf course, in actions which are known as â€œscratchesâ€.
High profile targets have been Foreign Minister Carlos Ruckauf, former President Raul AlfonsÃn, former President Carlos Menem, Senator Eduardo Menem (brother of Carlos) â€“ who suffered one of handful of â€œairborneâ€ scratches, De La Rua and his children, Duhalde’s first Finance Minister Jorge Remes Lenicov, writer and former Culture Minister Jorge Asis, and former Finance Minister Roberto Alemman. Attempts to gain sympathy for the elderly Alemann â€“ who was kicked and spat upon in the centre of Buenos Aires financial district â€“ and other victims, have been unsuccessful, and it is hard to pin the violence on a small band of extremists. In June, De la Ruaâ€™s son â€œAitoâ€ was in mid flow, surrounded by cameras, when he received a resounding slap in the face. When the cameras swung round, they revealed a woman in her nineties, wearing a fur coat and holding a small dog with her free arm. â€œShameless son of a whore!â€, the woman was shouting.
Most politicians have stopped going out in public at all, spend large amounts of time in neighbouring Uruguay â€“ or in Miami â€“ or take elaborate security measures. Former president Menem avoids coming to Buenos Aires at all. The cityâ€™s mayor, AnÃbal Ibarra, has shaved off his beard in order not to be recognised, while former â€œsuperministerâ€ Domingo Cavallo for months employed a decoy in a Cavallo mask.
The only politicians who enjoy anything approaching popularity are Luis Zamora, a former Trotskyist now influenced by the views of radical psychoanalysts and European postmarxist philosophers such as Toni Negri, and Elisa CarriÃ³ (the “fat woman”), a crucifix wielding former provincial beauty queen who has made her name pursuing corruption scandals in the heart of Argentina’s political and financial establishment.
With hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on the streets, one would have expected Argentina’s left to be the biggest beneficiaries. And yet traditional oppositional movements seem as questioned as every other sector of Argentine society. Attempts by Argentinaâ€™s historically powerful union leaders to capitalise on the movement by calling general strikes have also been met with scorn. The homes and offices of union bosses such as Hugo Moyano and Rodolfo Daer have themselves been targets of â€œscratchesâ€.
Zamora, who until recently travelled the city on a bicycle to sell the books from which he makes his living, owes his popularity to the fact that he is seen as completely apart from party politics. He is a harsh critic of the “One Party” model, and is unsure whether forming a party at all is a good idea, preferring the notion of “networks” – much to the exasperation of those who see him as the left’s next great leader.
As Zamora himself says: â€œWe are always being asked â€œwhy doesnâ€™t the left unite, you have a responsibility?â€. And yet we donâ€™t have any such responsibility, this isnâ€™t a term that captures what is happening.â€
In the neighbourhoods, a new “micropolitics” seems to be replacing the traditional oppositional models. Faced with the appearance of widespread hunger for the first time in Argentina, organic vegetable gardens have sprung up in public parks and derelict plots of land. Around the capital, shut-down bars and restaurants have been occupied and reopened as communal kitchens. In the suburbs, the piquetero movements have formed their own emerging economies. Groups such as the MTD (Unemployed Workers Movement) make their own bricks, and use them to construct homes on the land they have occupied. Food comes from their own allotments and bread factories.
Political debate is conducted in hundreds of neighbourhood assemblies that sprung up spontaneously in December.
The assemblies are almost impossibly heterogeneous. Pauperised unemployed workers discuss how to put pressure on the local government to hand over bags of food, while classically well to do middle class participants are mainly concerned about their frozen savings or rising mortgage payments. Others are involved in setting up organic vegetable farms and communal buying, while others have become involved in campaigns to prevent local schools and hospitals from collapsing. My assembly, in the run down middle class barrio of Parque Patricios, includes unemployed people from the nearby shanty town known as â€œ21â€, a trombone player from Buenos Airesâ€™ philharmonic orchestra, a tango professor, several nurses and hospital workers, journalists, an evangelist minister, some mechanics and the owner of a struggling art gallery. It is not always easy to get on, and assemblies frequently split, reform, multiply, move on.
Often, when an assembly show signs of becoming dominated by traditional opposition groups, people merely drift off and form a new gathering a couple of blocks away. Attempts by Argentinaâ€™s myriad and quarrelsome far left groups to set up centralised co-ordinating committees for the neighbourhood assemblies – as a kind of proxy Buenos Aires soviet – have quickly produced empty shells.
The only truly mass protests have been largely spontaneous. Attempts to orchestrate consciously the curious alchemy of insurrection that Argentina witnessed at the end of 2001 have been unsuccessful.
For a group of Buenos Aires sociologists and activists it is no accident that political and union organisations remained marginal in the days of December.
â€œIt is as if the central character in a western had strayed on to the set of an Italian neorealist film. Each of the filmâ€™s protagonists has scripts that tend not to coincide at any point. Even when they do appear to coincide, this is merely an illusion, a transitory scene where the dialogues simulate agreement.â€
Colin Powell probably felt even more confused when he called the Rosada at the end of 2001. What had happened to Argentina, unconditional US ally, and 1990â€™s showcase for liberal democracy, IMF sponsored reforms and orthodox financial management? And who were all these people in the street?
Argentina was the first Latin American country to undergo full-scale, if precarious, industrialisation and urbanisation. By the late 1940â€™s the country enjoyed a higher standard of living than most European countries, and rates of literacy and social standards that contrasted sharply with its impoverished Latin American neighbours. Argentinaâ€™s burgeoning internal market allowed the formation of a large middle class â€“ especially in Buenos Aires â€“ involved in retail and small scale production, the health and education systems, and the leisure industries.
With Argentinaâ€™s transformation to an urbanised society came populism in the form of Juan Domingo PerÃ³n and his regime, which combined mass unionisation, public works, and the state paternalism best categorised by the leaderâ€™s favourite adage to workers: â€œfrom the home to the workplace, and from the work place to the home.â€ Workers were automatically affiliated to union organisations controlled by a centralised bureaucracy. The pliant – and corrupt – union leadership was given control of the considerable funds checked off workers wages by employers. With these, the unions controlled a system of hospitals, sports facilities and holiday resorts that were the envy of trade unionists the world over. Agreements over wages and conditions were negotiated centrally between employerâ€™s federations and the recognised unions. Troublemakers were discretely fired with the connivance of the unions, or faced physical intimidation and violence from the union leaders and their hired help.
Coercion apart, the 1940´s saw the emergence of a new sense of citizenship based on mass electoral support for PerÃ³n’s Justicialista Party (PJ), the consciousness of rights accruing from membership of corporate institutions such as trade unions, and participation in consumption and the mass spectacles of football, boxing and the cinema.
A vicious combination of foreign exchange crunches, recession, and the determination of Argentinaâ€™s traditional elite to recapture its diminished share of control over society and its surplus led to PerÃ³n’s removal by the military in 1955. A relentless spiral of coups, social protest, urban guerrilla warfare, and attempts to implement an emasculated democratic rule, which excluded the Peronists and their working class supporters from government, followed. This culminated in the repression of the 1976-83 military regime, which murdered some 30,000 people â€“ most of them through extra-judicial â€œdisappearancesâ€, and then collapsed in the aftermath of the disastrous Malvinas/Falklands adventure.
While the repression of the 1960s and 70s was unprecedented in scale and brutality, attempts to dismantle what historian Tulio HalperÃn Donghi calls â€œthe Peronist Stateâ€ were largely unsuccessful. While Argentina had long ceased to be a model of prosperity and had fallen way behind its erstwhile rivals in Europe and the United States, the welfare state, trade unions, a corporatist system of negotiations, and a relatively prosperous middle class was still mainly in place.
It was only with the hyperinflation and rioting of 1989, and the rise to power of maverick Peronist Carlos Saul Menem that a comprehensive effort was made to demolish the structure of the Peronist State.
With the strong support of US economic pundits and the Washington based financial institutions, Menem, and his economics â€œsuperministerâ€ Domingo Cavallo pegged the Argentine peso to the US dollar, lowered import tariffs, abolished restrictions on capital flows and privatised almost the totality of government owned assets.
The result was euphoria, at least among establishment gurus such as the MIT’s Rudi Dornbusch, who wrote in early 1997 that:
â€œEver since Argentina got its new currency in 1991, a dramatic change has taken place. Argentina is the only country that today enjoys both price stability and vigorous growth. As Argentinaâ€™s experience shows, stable money is the beginning of economic prosperity and political stability.â€ (Dornbusch, Argentinaâ€™s Monetary Policy Lesson for Mexico, the Wall Street Journal, 26/2/1997)
With the Menem years also came a new, more exclusive conception of citizenship, that of the citizen as consumer.
The strong peso and a massive expansion of consumer debt allowed the middle class access to a steady flow of imported goods like televisions, cell-phones and the expensive 4-wheel-drive cars that invaded Argentinaâ€™s once peaceful beaches in the 90â€™s. This ensured the so-called â€œliquifierâ€ vote for Menem â€“ people who voted for the status quo because they were heavily indebted in dollar denominated quotas after buying consumer goods or apartments, and were worried about the possibility of devaluation under another government.
The nervous subjects of Argentinaâ€™s fragile democracy were kept satisfied by their participation in what philosopher and psychologist LeÃ³n Rozitchner calls the â€œsolitary rites of consumption.â€
Mixed with the promise of continued consumption was a thinly veiled threat: attempts to meddle with the economic policy would lead to hyperinflation, and with it, to a return of the terror of the 1970s. A single word – â€œstabilityâ€ was the slogan for Menem’s 1995 reelection campaign.
Accompanying the consumption bubble was flexibilisation of work practices, the appearance of mass unemployment for the first time in living memory, and a steady deterioration of Argentinaâ€™s schools and hospitals. Dense networks based on workplace or local ties and common experiences began to break down. Violent street crime appeared as an unwelcome and terrifying novelty, and those that could afford it moved out to heavily guarded communities in the suburbs called â€œcountriesâ€, or hired bodyguards.
The counterpart to the consumption boom was corruption on a scale unprecedented in Argentina. Menem’s family became suddenly and ostensibly wealthy, while friends were awarded key privatisation contracts such as the customs and postal services. Witnesses were bought off, intimidated and sometimes murdered. Menem’s daughter Zulemita, famous for spending more time in Miami than in Buenos Aires, even bribed university professors to allow her to pass exams. Students who joked about her chronic absenteeism to reporters received death threats. Menem and his coterie made little serious attempt to hide their involvement in graft. Rather, a Faustian pact seemed to endure: the middle classes grudgingly admired Menem’s stealing, as long as the consumer goods kept coming.
Towards the end of Menem’s rule, tolerance was becoming exhausted. The implication of close Menem associate Alfredo YabrÃ¡n in the 1997 murder of photographer JosÃ© Luis Cabezas was a bridge too far for the regime. YabrÃ¡n committed suicide when it became clear he was to be arrested, and eight people, many of them policemen, were sentenced to life imprisonment. The killing led to huge protests and an international outcry, sending Peronist politicians scrambling to distance themselves from Menem.
The consumption boom, moreover, was built on sand. The strong peso depended, not on the productivity of the Argentine economy, but on a doubling of the countryâ€™s foreign debt to around $145 billion by the end of 2001, and the constant sale of (finite) state assets. By the end of the 1990â€™s, the foreign money had run out, Argentine industry and exports had been priced out of the market by the strong peso, and Argentina was finding it near impossible to meet around $19 billion dollars annually in interest payments on the foreign debt.
The response of Argentinaâ€™s sponsors at the IMF was to grant successive â€œaidâ€ packages, while insisting that Argentina reduce its government deficit by cutting spending. This was always a doubtful proposition, given that the government deficit was due, to a large degree, to ever-greater foreign debt payments.
In the event, spending cuts pushed the economy into recession and thus reduced tax collection rates, further increasing the fiscal deficit, and provoking new IMF demands for spending cuts.
Neo Keynesian economist Paul Krugman describes the behaviour of the Fund as similar to that of â€œmedieval doctors who insisted on bleeding their patients, and repeated the procedure when the bleeding made them sicker.â€ (Krugman, Crying with Argentina, the New York Times, 1/1/2002)
Argentinaâ€™s political establishment, whose greatest preoccupation was to continue enjoying the fruits of corruption, tried to mask the growing evidence of crisis with the illusion of continuity and immutability.
In mid 1999, as Menem prepared to step down after his second term, delegations from the PJ and its main rival, Fernando de la Rua’s Alliance (made up of the Radicals and the centre left Frepaso) were holding meetings in a Central Park hotel to assure investors and journalists that the forthcoming elections would not result in any changes to economic policy, regardless of who won.
De La Rua, a faceless veteran of the centre Radical party, won the elections and promised â€œboringâ€ government. The uncharismatic Luis Machinea was put in the hot seat at the Finance Ministry and officials were soon making their usual rounds in New York, armed with laptops and power point presentations, selling long term â€œglobal bondsâ€ to fulfil Argentinaâ€™s yearly finance programs. Employees from the self appointed â€œratings agenciesâ€ such as Standard and Poors and Moodyâ€™s continued to receive the red carpet treatment at the Rosada, before enjoying drinks with the so called â€œSushi clubâ€ â€“ young Turks attached to the government by their ties to the Presidentâ€™s son (and chief advisor), Antonio. Romance was in the air, in the shape of the union of Antonio and the Colombia pop star Shakira.
Within days of De La Rua’s victory, however, it became clear that the apparent consensus was becoming meaningless in the face of an economic situation that was becoming clearly more unsustainable by the day. In the first year of his short lived government; De La Rua announced several billion dollars in spending cuts and reduced salaries and pensions by 30%, plunging the economy still deeper into recession. A $40 billion â€œrescue packageâ€ agreement with the IMF in December 2000 â€“ with its usual â€œconditionalityâ€ â€“ did nothing but exacerbate the situation.
The IMF’s individual-consumer-citizen, meanwhile, was looking very fraught.
The ritualistic visits – by those who still could afford to – to the controlled environments of the â€œshoppingsâ€ â€“ described by Portuguese writer and philosopher JosÃ© Saramago as a modern version of Platoâ€™s Cave – seemed to do little to stem a sense of nostalgia and loss produced by the progressive destruction of Argentinaâ€™s social fabric. Social ghettoization, violence, the stretching and breaking of once fluid relations between persons from different classes and social groups, and the omnipresent threat of unemployment and social descent had left the consumption dreams of the Menem era increasingly ephemeral and empty.
All over Argentina, impoverished groups of masked piqueteros were blocking motorways and bridges to demand food and subsidies. Demonstrations in Buenos Aires were recovering a force not seen for a decade. The spectre of social upheaval was once again in the air.
In March 2001, De La Rua brought back Domingo Cavallo as finance minister, in order to see whether the architect of the convertibility straight jacket held the key to its unlocking. He didnâ€™t. An ever more desperate looking Cavallo presided over billions more in spending cuts and carried out a series of acrobatic policy changes, but could not stave off the steady, and now obvious slide towards insolvency and a default on Argentinaâ€™s foreign debt. The word from Washington was that no more â€œaidâ€ would be forthcoming. The writing was clearly on the wall for Argentinaâ€™s politicians.
On October 14, Argentina went to the polls for congressional and gubernatorial elections. Around 48% of electors either did not show up, or cast blank or spoilt votes. One of the most popular expressions of happiness with the existing state of affairs was to place newspaper photos of Osama Bin Laden in the envelopes, or white powder to represent anthrax. De la Rua’s Alliance cast a full five and half million votes less than in 1999, while the Peronists lost over a million votes. The clear â€œwinnerâ€ of the elections were the non-voters, totalling seven and a half million.
In mid December, Cavallo, faced with a run on the banks announced the freezing of Argentinesâ€™ savings accounts and the effective confiscation of their privatised pension funds.
On 19th December, a wave of looting broke out across the country, to which De La Rua responded with the declaration of a state of emergency. Minutes after his speech, the pots and pans began to sound, first in a few homes and neighbourhoods, and then in a deafening wave that crossed the city from the middle class areas of the north to the working class strongholds of the south.
The sense of historical closure of the 1990â€™s had become, quite simply, â€œboringâ€.
How can we understand the consequences of the rebellion that broke out on 19th and 20th of December? What is perhaps most striking is the way in which the policies associated with the IMF and Washington have led to the emergence of new subjectivities and practices which were unexpected, and almost inconceivable both for the establishment and for the traditional left.
IMF inspired economic policies aimed at creating an individualised, consumer based culture and eroding traditional structures and negotiating practices have led, not to robust representative democracy and pragmatic voting behaviour, but to a complete de-structuring of Argentine political life, where almost all of the countryâ€™s institutions are called into question.
The market driven attack on trade unionism, the welfare-state conception of rights and the old nationalist identity of Peronism have given way, not to a free market orientated â€œpro-sumidorâ€, but to an oppositional or social individual. Faced with the progressive closure of traditional forms of insertion in public life through the old institutions, and the shattering of the brittle illusion of consumerism, the individual reached out on the December nights to find himself in a kind of euphoric reunion with his hitherto estranged peers.
â€œThe hitherto subdued subjectivity began to recognise its own power when it is inserted in a collective which is united for the same objectives,â€ says Rozitchner. What emerged was the possibility to overcome terror and recreate the possibility of a renewed social power.â€
Furthermore, the social individual burst forth on the scene, not through corporations, parties, or electoral â€œrepresentativesâ€, but directly as an individual, as though unwilling to allow any type of mediation to subtract from the joy of return to a scenario that had become remote and estranged.
This rejection of mediation through traditional mechanisms is a consequence of the fact that the oppositional individual possesses a novel degree of reflexivity and scepticism, having lived through the failure of both state-led models of development and the yuppie pyrotechnics of the Menem era.
Having appeared on the streets as a subject on the 19-20 December, the oppositional individual seems reluctant to disappear again.
In contrast to PerÃ³n’s “from home to work, and from work to home”, the oppositional citizen often has no work (with unemployment at 30% or more), nor lives a rigid separation between what happens in the private sphere of his home and what is happening in the neighbourhood or beyond.
Survival dictates new forms of sociability. In many areas it is the assemblies that carry out communal buying of essential goods, run crÃ¨ches, maintain canteens in schools, prevent evictions of non paying tenants or mortgage holders, negotiate with electricity and gas companies and run vegetable gardens. Staying at home is not a good option. Formerly unknown neighbours act as kind of proxy family, intervening constantly to help the worse-off to overcome â€œlimit situationsâ€ such as the suspension of electricity or not having enough coins to take a bus to the hospital. In my neighbourhood, an occupied house plays the role of social centre, Saturday night disco and even cinema. The only real cinema in the area has long been sold and turned into an evangelical church, while the â€œmultiplexesâ€ of the shoppings are now out of reach. The need to travel on foot or on bicycle has meant the forced discovery of neighbourhoods that were previously little more than dormitories for their inhabitants.
The very geography of Buenos Aires seems to have been transformed by the events of December. Groups of people are huddled together on every street corner. The variations of work-shopping-blockbusters-home have been replaced by variants of home-assembly-canteen-march-party.
Perhaps to speculate as to the ultimate outcome of the movement is to miss the point, given its almost conscious rejection of final aims or goals, and the lack of any impulse to form stable political institutions or parties.
There is certainly no end in sight for the current crisis of legitimacy in Argentine politics. It is unlikely that the political elite will be able to create a new political consensus when everything coming from Washington – particularly since the onset of the Bush era – tends to further destabilise, delegitimise, and undermine the traditional basis for social cohesion.
At the same time, however, how long can a movement based on reconstructing solidarity survive the process of economic degradation and marginalisation that Argentina continues to suffer, where every month sees the shedding of some 80-100,000 jobs? Does growing desperation mean that Argentinaâ€™s cities are doomed to become urban battlegrounds, like those of Brazil or many other Latin American countries, where mere survival becomes a matter of â€œall against allâ€?
And how long can the movement co-exist with a political establishment, that, while wounded, still controls the considerable resources of the state and seems determined to hold on to power no matter what? Will the movement eventually fade in intensity and find new forms of reaching institutional outlets for its aspirations? Or will angrier oppositional voices, the â€œmen of actionâ€ of always, emerge to rebuild a harsher Argentine nationalism on the ashes of the assembly movement?
Or probably none of the above. After all, uncertainty, as the people in the barrios say, is the fertile ground from which emerges the unimaginable.
Ben Backwell is a freelance journalist and researcher who lives in Buenos Aires. He is currently working on a book on the events of the 19/20 December in Argentina.