Power or counter power? The dilemma of the Piquetero movement in Argentina post-crisis

Power or counter power? The dilemma of the Piquetero movement in Argentina post-crisis

Dinerstein, Ana C

This paper explores a significant dilemma brought about by the crisis of December 2001 for the Unemployed Workers Movement in Argentina: the construction of a political movement to dispute institutional power or the development of territorial community work directed to the construction of a counter-power. The argument put forward is that the differences between these two projects might represent a false dichotomy. This will require further interrogation on the relationship between the state, the labour movement and the anti-institutional forms of resistance which emerged in December 2001. This is a dilemma for the politics of resistance worldwide.

The profound political and economic crisis of December 2001 in Argentina brought in its wake differences within the labour movement on what form of class action to take to radically transform society. After the crisis, as a recomposition of political and economic power was taking place, divisions among different sectors within the Piquetero movement intensified between those who advocate the construction of a counter-power, based on the creation of new values through territorial community work, and those who search for the construction of a new power of the working class. Whereas the former claim that the search for dignity is the driving force for social change, the latter believes that the struggle for income distribution constitutes the basis for a political project based on national autonomy and democratisation. This paper explores the dilemma, faced by the labour movement, of whether to support the power or counter-power road by looking at some of the current developments of the labour movement, particularly the Unemployed Workers Movement.

The unemployed workers movement

One of the novelties in the recomposition of the Argentine labour movement during the 1990s was the emergence of the unemployed workers movement. The neo-liberal transformation produced significant changes in social and labour conflict and protest. Decentralised and non-institutionalised forms of protest emerged, run by whole communities, social organizations and the unemployed, with the support of trade unions; the most effective of which were roadblocks. These roadblocks were the scene of the emergence of the Piquetero identity and the organization of the unemployed into a ‘movement’ (Dinerstein 2001).

Some of the local organizations of unemployed workers joined the Argentine Workers Central (Central de Trabajadores Argentines CTA), created in 1992 to organize fragmented struggles against unemployment and for welfare provision and to integrate the unemployed and those who were technically ‘socially excluded’ (Dinerstein 2001). The CTA integrated into its structure one of the organizations of the unemployed in La Matanza, Great Buenos Aires: Land and Housing Federation (Federacion Tierra yVivienda, FTV) and have close relations with the Classist Combative Current (Corriente Combativa Clasista, ccc). The FTV leaders became members of the executive committee of the union and both manage the unemployment programmes for the region.

Other sectors of the unemployed formed locally and independently from labour and political organizations. The Unemployed Workers Movement (MTD) Coordinadora de Trabajadores Desocupados AnibalVeron (CTDAV) is one such case. It comprises fourteen independent organisations of the unemployed in the south of Great Buenos Aires, and is guided by a criterion of territoriality. It co-ordinates the activities of different neighbourhood organizations, according to local needs, by means of a system of alternate delegates and communication networks, as well as organized workshops and seminar discussions. Significant features of the Coordinadora are the lack of leaders, the practice of direct democracy and horizontal organisation. A third sector, the heterogeneous Bloque Piquetero National, comprises several organizations that are closely linked to left political parties and differ from the other two groupings in that they believe that in December 2001 Argentina entered a revolutionary situation, which is why they see the role of the Piquetero movement as paramount.1

Piqueteros: power and counter power

The December crisis and its aftermath served to intensify the differences within the Piquetero movement. Whereas the FTV and ccc matches the institutional logic of the CTA trade unionism, the CTDAV rejects traditional forms of political and labour representation, presenting a more radical proposal that attempts to change the logic of power and capitalist work. To the CTA leadership trade union’s power is the capacity to articulate geographical, political and social differences and experiences of resistance: ‘we cannot separate trade unionism from politics. Trade unionism is eminently political in terms of the capacity to construct power and the construction of power is inextricably linked to the most elemental workers’ demands’ (De Genaro, author’s interview 1997). The CTA aims to build a political movement mirroring the experience of the PT in order to promote ‘Income Distribution Shock, National Autonomy and Democracy’ (www.cta. org.ar/instituto/notas1803). On 20 June 2002, the CTA together with the FTV and ccc launched a new social and political front: ‘we will only throw the FTA out of this country if we build up a government of popular unity’ (Alderete in Paginal 12, 21.6.02: 8). On this platform the leader of FTV launched his candidature to run for governor of Buenos Aires for New Democracy, thus deepening the divisions between power and counter-power factions within the movement.

Unlike the CTA, the CTDAV claim that it does not want power: Our struggle is not about how to reach power in a system impregnated by values which don’t have any response to society.’ The starting point for changing the world is the construction of something new from below: ‘we are concerned with recovering what is human, with creating collective solidarity relations among our mates’ (Fernández cited by Viales 2002). The MTD is ‘a source of counter-power’ (MTD Solano 2002). Its members argue that change comes from below, without thinking of taking power: ‘We are below and we don’t want to go anywhere. We will be always rebels.’ (Interviews in Colectivo Situaciones 2001b). The struggle for dignity contains a fundamental critique not only of unemployment but of capitalist work and the social relations which reproduce and expand it. Their aim is to move beyond the struggle for ‘income distribution’ and ‘social inclusion’ which characterizes the strategy of the unemployed workers movement joining the CTA. Dignity, rather than the demand for income distribution and job creation, is the driving force behind their movement, their motto being ‘Work, Dignity and Social Change’ (MTD 2002).

The CTA and the struggle for income distribution

The demand of income distribution is central to the CTA’S idea of building trade union’s power. Accordingly, the ‘inclusion’ of the unemployed into the labour market, as well as the increase in the number of employment programmes and state welfare provision for the unemployed, would revitalize the role of the working class in resuscitating the economy. This would provide the basis for the creation of a new power for the leaders of the CTA, FTV and CCC.

The demand for income distribution was made apparent through (i) the significant participation of the Piqueteros de La Matanza, led by the FTV and ccc in the national roadblocks of July and August 2001 against the ‘zero deficit’ plan implemented by Cavallo (ii) the involvement of the CTA in the creation of the National Front against Poverty (Frente Nacional contra la Pobreza, FRENAPO) in 2000 (iii) the popular referendum launched by the CTA and FRENAPO five days before the crisis broke out, wherein two and a half million out of three million people spontaneously voted in favour of the demand for the implementation of a universal unemployment benefit of $380 per month for all bread-winners. The proposal entails a comprehensive political strategy of income distribution. Unlike the governmental patchy and assistance-based employment programmes, the CTA’S project would impact on the level of demand and the development of the domestic market towards the reactivation of the economy, to overcome recession and to discipline capital to the needs of the population (see IDEP-CTA 2000, 2001; Lozano 2002).

Beyond income distribution: alternative economy and new social values

But the Piqueteros of the CTDAV claim that their project ‘is fundamentally against exploitation’. They do not struggle to be ‘included’. The defence of capitalist work is extraneous, as ‘dignified work is not compatible with exploitation…we don’t want to be exploited again…We are not completely against the state; we are constructing “from below” something different to this repressive state’ (MTD Solano and Colectivo Situaciones, 2002: 63 247, 59).

The CTDAV’S use of roadblocks to demand employment programmes involves also the rejection of workfare assigned by local authorities and the creation of ‘productive projects’: bakeries, brick factories, popular education and child care. In other words, they demand the redefinition of the tasks individually assigned to the unemployed (e.g. cleaning roads) and demand the use of individual programmes for communitarian projects.

They do accept state employment programmes, which consist of a monthly allowance of $160 per capita but, unlike the FTV and ccc who are involved in the management of the unemployment programmes for the country of La Matanza, they do not handle the money. The money is deposited by the government in an account, which is used collectively. These projectos productivos are not individualized survival strategies, but tools for fighting against the commodified form of production. The object is to direct them to the production of use values according to people’s needs.

The creation of an alternative economy based on solidarity and dignity depends on the possibility of developing these productive projects where the needs of the community rather than money are the central motivation. Another example of the struggle for solidarity is the way that they distribute the goods purchased by collective shopping. Each family contributes with the same amount of money to the common shopping pot (e.g. 35$), irrespective of their size, thereby increasing the consumption of some families who otherwise would have been disadvantaged (MTD Solano and Colectivo Situaciones 2002).

Maxi and Dario: the dangers of dignity

On 26 June 2002, the CTDAV organized a roadblock in the industrial district of Avellaneda, Great Buenos Aires, one of the main arteries connecting the city of Buenos Aires with its outskirts. They demanded an increase in the amount and number of subsidies to the unemployed, a family subsistence allowance, health services and access to education for the unemployed, the end of the criminalisation and repression of their struggles. During the demonstration, Maximiliano Costeki (aged 25) and Dario Santillán (aged 21) were assassinated by the police, whilst others were injured and more than 100 people were imprisoned. Although this was not the first time that Piqueteros were killed at a roadblock by the police the death of these two young activists, which turned out to be a calculated murder, led to a political scandal which accelerated the electoral process. Moreover, it fostered cross-class political mobilization and solidarity with the struggles of the CTDAV.

Three massive mobilizations brought the CTDAV together with other organizations of the unemployed, participants in neighbourhood assemblies, trade unions, and activists from human rights, social movements and the political left. They marched to the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires unified by the slogan ‘tonight… all of us are Piqueteros!’ (Dinerstein 2003). On the 26th of every month, at the bridge Pueyrredon in Avellaneda, the CTDAV holds a vigil in memory of Dario and Maximiliano and demands the end of the government repression of the unemployed.

The June events made apparent the political significance of the CTDAV. The murders of Maxi and Dario revealed the state’s intolerance with those sectors of the Piquetero movement which are not content with the negotiation of their ‘inclusion’ in the capitalist system based on exploitation and repression, but aims to move beyond this, by working on new values led by ‘justice, democracy and freedom’ (interviews in Vinelli 2001) and their assertion of dignity and their ‘silent revolution’ in conditions of social misery in post-crisis Argentina (Dinerstein 2003).

The CTA called immediately for a general strike to repudiate police brutality. But the Piqueteros of the FTV and ccc did not participate in that roadblock. The day previous to the murders, the government had publicly threatened the Piqueteros with repression if they blocked access to the capital city. The response from the FTV to this was: ‘we were aware of the government’s repressive plans…The CTDAV is responsible for the lives of their members’ (D’Elía, author’s interview 27.6.02). The murders fostered a bitter discussion within the CTA, between those members who wanted to participate in the solidarity demonstration called by the CTDAV to repudiate state terror unleashed against the Piqueteros (human rights activists, left wing unions joining the CTA) and those CTA members who preferred to organize an independent demonstration (the leaders of the FTV and ccc). Beyond tactical matters, there had been an unfortunate ‘complicity’ of the FTV and ccc with state repression against the anti-institutional ‘anarchist’ attitude of the CTDAV, which could harm the CTA’S will to build a social and political movement.

The re-composition of economic and political power

During 2002, there was a recomposition of political and economic power which ended with the election of Dulhalde’s candidate, Nestor Kirschner, on 25 May 2003, after his opponent former president Menem withdrew when it became clear he was destined for defeat. Kirschner’s appointment has stabilized the country. Popular expectations arose as his appointment entailed the defeat of neo-liberal Menemism. The new presidential appointment was celebrated in Buenos Aires by Latin American presidents Fidel Castro, Lula Da Silva and Hugo Chavez and has reenergized populist sentiments and policies to tackle the problem of unemployment, public work, tax and education together with the restructuring of the external debt and the revitalisation of MERCOSUR (a free trade grouping which includes Argentina). However, by reaffirming his predecessor’s policy towards the power of big corporations and IMF intervention the prospect of more poverty, unemployment, and economic difficulties seems likely.

In January 2002, the Duhalde administration succumbed to IMF demands to contain inflation, minimise the fall in industrial output, to reestablish trust in the financial system. At the behest of the IMF (2002), the administration pushed through policy and legislative amendments/changes including (i) cancelling the Bill of ‘Economic Subversion’ (Subversion Economica) that was in place to ensure the legal prosecution of those responsible for the flight of capital leading to the financial collapse (ii) amending the Bankruptcy Code in order to ‘protect enterprises from creditors for a certain period of time as well as give time to reschedule company debts’ (Cibils et al 2002) (iii) achieving a compromise with the provincial governors to reduce deficits by 60%. The agreement with the IMF was to ‘unlock funding’ for social programmes to help recreate a sound fiscal framework to restore the confidence in the banking sector (IMF survey 2003: 1).

Duhalde’s devaluation coupled with the ‘pesification’ of debts previously held in dollars and tax exemption, favoured concentrated economic groups such as the powerful new Association of Argentine Entrepreneurs (Asociacion de Empresarios Argentines, AEA) constituted by forty-seven executive members of the most important financial, industrial and service enterprises who practically own the country. Duhalde’s ‘rescue plan’ in June 2002 allowed them to save 6,500 million dollars (Basualdo et al 2002 mimeo).

Devaluation also produced inflation hence perpetuating the tendency towards regressive income distribution and increasing poverty and unemployment. Unemployment national rate for February 2002 was estimated at 21.8 per cent (i.e. 3,200,000 people). As an absolute record, almost seven million people fell into poverty between October 2001 and October 2002. There are twenty one million people out of a total population of thirty seven million below the poverty line, out of which ten million are considered extremely poor.

In tune with the spirit of the usBritish ‘war on terror’, and the pressure of the us government concerned with Latin America as a ‘volatile region’ (La Nación 7.2.03), a new Parliamentary project aimed to allow again the use of intelligence services to repress ‘domestic terrorism’ defined as ‘all those activities which take place within national boundaries’ by ‘groups or individuals who use force in order to achieve their political, social, religious, economic and cultural objectives’ (Verbitzky 2003; see Project S-02-2239, Argentine National Congress). During 2002, repression increased against the Peasants Movement (MOCASE), workers from occupied factories and participants in neighbourhood asambleas and human rights organizations.

Power and counter-power: a false dilemma?

In the same way in which the creation of the CTA in the early 1990s was crucial in recovering combativeness against neo-liberalism and challenged the General Workers Confederation (Confederation General del Trabajo CGT) coopted by Menem, the inspiring work and radical project of the CTDAV has challenged the CTA: it forms part of a new form of thinking politically in post-crisis Argentina, which requires to be acknowledged by the trade unions. The popular insurrection of December 2001 put forward a deep critique of the system of political representation, including trade unions and left wing parties. This critique or ‘anti-polities’ was reflected in the forms of mobilization and participation which, like the asambleas barriales, advocated direct democracy and defended self-determination and the autonomy of neighbours, workers and social and human rights activists. Within the context of the deep political, social and economic crisis, the anti-institutional reconciliation with politics has been a crucial moment in the recovering of the power of collective action and a sense of dignity: this is a prerequisite for further development of democracy and the politics of resistance (Dinerstein 2003b).

But whereas some take the slogan ‘all of them out!’ as the driven force for their resistance, the questions are whether this is enough to confront the imperial power of capital and whether it is possible to build a political movement able to discuss the problem of income distribution and ‘hunger’ and, simultaneously, encourage the territorial and communitarian development of alternative social relations and values driven by the search for ‘dignity’. This is not just an Argentine but a worldwide ‘dilemma’ for the politics of resistance, which has been intensified in Argentina due to the deepness of the crisis.

The anniversary of 19 and 20 December revealed a decline in social mobilization, as well as intestine divisions within the Piquetero movement. Kirschner’s appointment has had different impacts on different sectors of the movement too. On the one hand, the CTA has expectations in the new administration in that it will give impulse to the construction of the social and political front recently launched, as well as provide a sympathetic ear to the demand for income distribution: hunger affecting 57.5 percent of Argentineans millions is one of the most important political issues of post- crisis Argentina.2 Despite differences among them, the CTA shares with a range of institutions and organizations the call for the implementation of a ‘income distribution shock’ to stop ‘the social genocide’ (Left Wing Economists, Economistas de Izquierda (EDI) at www.geocities.com/ economistas_de_izquierda).

On the other hand, on 26 June 2003, during the first anniversary of the murders of Maxi and Dario, the CTDAV and its supporters reminded the new government that they remain loyal to their conviction that the creation of a ‘new Argentina’ cannot be achieved by super structural agreements with the labour movement around income distribution and employment programmes, rather it requires a deeper change ‘from below’ and more fundamentally, autonomy. Are these two projects incompatible? Does the dilemma between power and counter-power represent a false dichotomy for the Piquetero Movement and for the politics of resistance in Argentina? The answer to this question requires further interrogation about the relationship between the state, the labour movement and the anti-institutional forms of resistance which emerged in December 2001. The answer depends also on global resistance. The Piqueteros of the CTDAV suggest: ‘we walk, we don’t run, because we go far…’ (MTD Solano, 2002b: 144).


CCC: Classist Combative Current (Corriente Combativa Clasista).

CTA: Argentine Workers Central (Central de Trabajadores Argentines)

CTDAV: Unemployed Workers Movement Aníbal Verón (Coordinadora de Trabajadores Desocupados AníbalVerón)

FTV: Land and Housing Federation (Federación Tierra yVivienda)

MTD: Unemployed Workers Movement (Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados)


1. Among them, the Polo Obrere (PO), the Movimiento Teresa Rodriguez (MTR) and the Movimiento Territorial de Liberacion (MTL) . For the purpose of my analysis, I am leaving this group aside, although it deserves special attention.

2. As a matter of fact, the government has launched, on the first week of July, a National Programme against Hunger.


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