- Elections vs. Democracy in Argentina
- by Naomi Klein
Original article appeared in The Nation
In most of the world, it's the sign for peace, but here in Argentina
it means war. The index and middle finger, held to form a V,
means to his followers, Menem vuelve, Menem will return. Carlos
Menem, poster boy of Latin American neoliberalism, president
for almost all of the 1990s, is looking to get his old job back
on May 18. Menem's campaign ads show menacing pictures of unemployed
workers blockading roads, with a voiceover promising to bring
order, even if it means calling in the military. This strategy
gave him a slim lead in the first election round, though he will
almost certainly lose the runoff to an obscure Peronist governor,
Nestor Kirchner, considered the puppet of current president (and
Menem's former vice president) Eduardo Duhalde.
On December 19 and 20, 2001, when Argentines poured into the
streets banging pots and pans and telling their politicians,
que se vayan todos, everyone must go, few would have predicted
the current elections would come down to this: a choice between
two symbols of the regime that bankrupted the country. Back then,
Argentines could have been forgiven for believing that they were
starting a democratic revolution, one that forced out President
Fernando de la Rua and churned through three more presidents
in twelve days.
The target of these mass demonstrations was the corruption of
democracy itself, a system that had turned voting into a hollow
ritual while the real power was outsourced to the International
Monetary Fund, French water companies and Spanish telecoms--with
local politicians taking their cut. Carlos Menem, though he had
been out of office for two years, was the uprising's chief villain.
Elected in 1989 on a populist platform, Menem did an about-face
and gutted public spending, sold off the state and sent hundreds
of thousands into unemployment.
When Argentines rejected those policies, it was hugely significant
for the globalization movement. The events of December 2001 were
seen in international activist circles as the first national
revolt against neoliberalism, and "You are Enron, We are
Argentina" was soon adopted as a chant outside trade summits.
Perhaps more important, the country seemed on the verge of answering
the most persistent question posed to critics of both "free
trade" and feeble representative democracies: "What
is your alternative?" With all their institutions in crisis,
hundreds of thousands of Argentines went back to democracy's
first principles: Neighbors met on street corners and formed
hundreds of popular assemblies. They created trading clubs, health
clinics and community kitchens. Close to 200 abandoned factories
were taken over by their workers and run as democratic cooperatives.
Everywhere you looked, people were voting.
These movements, though small, were dreaming big: national constituent
assemblies, participatory budgets, elections to renew every post
in the country. And they had broad appeal. A March 2002 newspaper
poll found that half of Buenos Aires residents believed that
the neighborhood assemblies will "produce a new political
leadership for the country."
One year later, the movements continue, but barely a trace is
left of the wildly hopeful idea that they could someday run the
country. Instead, the protagonists of the December revolts have
been relegated to a "governability problem" to be debated
by politicians and the IMF. So how did it happen? How did a movement
that was building a whole new kind of democracy--direct, decentralized,
accountable--give up the national stage to a pair of discredited
has-beens? The marginalization process had three clear stages
in Argentina, and each has plenty to teach activists hoping to
turn protest into sustained political change.
Stage One: Annoy and Conquer. The first blow to the new movements
came from the old left, as sectarian parties infiltrated the
assemblies and tried to drive through their own dogmatic programs.
Pretty soon you couldn't see the sun for the red and black party
flags, and a process that drew its strength from the fact that
it was normal--something your aunt or teacher participated in--turned
into something marginal, not action but "activism."
Thousands returned to their homes to escape the tedium.
Stage Two: Withdraw and Isolate. The second blow came in response.
Rather than challenge sectarian efforts at co-optation head-on,
many of the assemblies and unemployed unions turned inward and
declared themselves "autonomous." While the parties'
plans verged on scripture, some autonomists turned not having
a plan into its own religion: So wary were they of co-optation
any proposal to move from protest to policy was immediately suspect.
These groups continue to do remarkable neighborhood-based work,
building bread ovens, paving roads and challenging their members
to let go of their desire for saviors. Yet they have also become
far less visible than they were a year ago, less able to offer
the country a competing vision for its future.
Stage Three: Just Don't Do It. Argentina's screaming and pot
banging went on, and on, and on. Just when everyone was hoarse
and exhausted, the politicians emerged from hiding to call an
election. Incredulous, the social movements made a decision not
to participate in the electoral farce--to ignore the churnings
of Congress and the IMF and build "counterpowers" instead.
Fair enough, but as the elections took on a life of their own,
the unions and assemblies began to seem out of step. People weren't
able to vote for the sentiment behind December 19 and 20, either
by casting a ballot or by boycotting the election and demanding
deeper democratic reforms, since no concrete platform or political
structure emerged from those early, heady discussions. The legitimacy
of the elections was thus left dangerously uncontested, and the
dream of a new kind of democracy utterly unrepresented.
The campaign slogan that won the first round was the astonishingly
vague "Menem knows what to do and he can do it." In
other words, maybe Nike was right: People just want to do something,
and if things are bad enough, they will settle for anything.
Politics hates a vacuum. If it isn't filled with hope, someone
will fill it with fear.