The Piquetero Movement: Organizing for Democracy and Social Change in Argentina's Informal SectorSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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In countries where top-down economic policies have ravaged the lives of many, one wonders whether the chronically unemployed and participants in the informal economy can take part in social activism and organize themselves under the guise of workers. The rise of the piquetero movement (piquetero in Spanish literally means "picketer"), which has united impoverished unemployed workers in an effort to secure a sustainable livelihood in Argentina, would suggest that such activism is possible. This is true even after the country's economic collapse in 2001, which left over 50 percent of those in the greater Buenos Aires area below the poverty line and more than two-thirds of the urban workforce jobless. This new social movement has not only helped to redefine the traditional idea of the "labor" movement, but also provides a new model for collective organizing in the regional struggle against unjust economic policies.
The piquetero movement gained national and international attention during Argentina's economic collapse in December 2001, which removed the country from its position as one of the most stable and prosperous in Latin America. Angered over the government's perceived mishandling of the country and its economy, thousands took to the streets in protests that brought together Argentines from nearly all socioeconomic sectors. The piquetero movement did not originate with the December 2001 crisis, however. While the crisis may have fueled the bonfire of social discontent and provided the movement with impetus for rapid growth, several years had elapsed since participants in the movement had begun to kindle sparks throughout the country against the conditions slowly bearing down on Argentina's poor.
Economic inequality and social exclusion had increased greatly since the 1980s as governments across Latin America began implementing what are commonly referred to as neoliberal policies: deindustrialization, deregulation, and the decentralization of educational and health service. In addition to other consequences, these policies served as a catalyst for increased labor flexibility and the growth of the informal sector of the economy. Not only were many low-wage workers thus pushed to the margins of economic life, but the stigma of being a desocupado (unemployed person) also forced these workers outside of social acceptance.
Trade unions might have provided an outlet for desocupados to voice concerns, had these organizations not been so thoroughly weakened by repressive policies of former dictators and presidents, and had restrictive patron-client relations not been such a persistent force in union organizing. Furthermore, even if trade unions had still had muscle, they offered little support for those without jobs because the unemployed did not correspond to unions' traditional base and few unions wanted anything to do with the desocupados.
Without the support of traditional unions, or workplaces in which to strike, Argentina's unemployed had to seek another way to express their discontent. Recognizing the power of disrupting commerce to gain the attention of government officials, those itching for change took to the streets, employing a tactic called corte de ruta or piquete in which protestors impede the movement of traffic and merchandise on provincial, national or international routes by cutting off access to thoroughfares. Here originated the name piquetero to refer to these protestors, and the corte de ruta soon became a recognized form of collective action. Their ability to obstruct important transportation and trade routes has endowed piqueteros with the power to interrupt commerce and government functions, giving these activists political leverage on a large scale, showing that the corte de ruta can be as powerful a weapon in disrupting commerce as the work stoppages of industrial workers.
Cortes de ruta began in the mid 1990s in the rural interior of Argentina and spread to the rest of the country during the late 1990s, fueled by the extreme impoverishment and marginalization in urban areas. As the movement grew and began solidifying its organization and structure, different ideologies and goals engendered diverse approaches to the movement, and separate lines, or coordinadoras, developed with distinctive regional bases, organizational styles and political alliances. Despite differences, the various coordinadoras have often joined forces, in several instances staging national cortes de ruta which in some cases have succeeded in temporarily paralyzing the country's economy.
In these ways the piquetero movement established itself as a powerful instrument for mobilization and change even before the crisis of December 2001, one that addressed in new ways the needs of a population previously ignored by Argentine social and labor mobilization. December 2001, however, provided a catalyst for the immense growth and expansion of the movement as the failures of the government became ever clearer and the entire country participated in demonstrations for change.
While all branches of the piquetero movement have afforded desocupados a greater visibility and voice on Argentina's political and social stage, some arms of the movement have provided more novel forms of social protest than others and offer more promising models for democratic organizing. The non-hierarchical and neighborhood-based models used by such branches differ greatly from traditional patron-client style labor organizing in Argentina. Rather than relegating decision making to designated leaders and relying upon clientalistic networks to distribute benefits, these new organizing models seek to empower desocupados to create and execute their own survival strategies and fight against the structures that have caused their situations of poverty. The Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (MTD), the focus of the research which led to this paper, employs such a model.
Calling for "collective autonomy" from the state and political parties, the 17 autonomous blocs of the MTD are unique among the piquetero organizations in their socialist doctrine based around the principles of popular education (like those advocated by Brazilian pedagogical theorist Paulo Freire) and horizontal decision-making in asambleas (assemblies) in order to maintain horizontal leadership. Rather than seeking to wrest power from the state as a revolutionary political party might, this doctrine advocates the gradual construction of alternative social structures with the ultimate aim of creating a "parallel society."
The motto, as it were, of the MTD is "Trabajo, Dignidad y Cambio Social" ("Work, Dignity and Social Change"). This guiding principle is reflected in the three requirements of participation in MTD Lugano: to join in the plan de lucha; to work; and to participate in the governing body, the asamblea. Taking part in the plan de lucha involves participation in the cortes de ruta and other such protests, as well as educating oneself in the principals of MTD. Classes de formación provide the setting for this education, in which current and new compañeros (participants) discuss their reasons for participating in the lucha, the MTD's principles of collective action, etc. All decisions of each MTD are made through the asamblea, which meets weekly, and all members must participate. Adherence to this consensus-based model informs all facets of the MTD's work as it struggles with the difficulties of establishing and maintaining collective organizing and equal representation within the organization.
The MTD prides itself on being one of the few piquetero organizations that has set up a system of productive workshops and enterprises, like local construction teams and self-sustaining neighborhood bakeries, in an effort to become, in the future, independent from the social aid the government currently provides and instead rely on their own alternative system. This goal stems in part from the MTD's distrust of government institutions, but also from the knowledge that government assistance will not last forever. Until autonomous economic sources are created, however, the MTD has had to rely on benefits bestowed by both the national and municipal governments. Principal among these benefits are the Planes Jefes de Hogar, the state subsidies given to the unemployed. In response to the devastating conditions created by the 2001 crisis, the government instituted this program to provide monetary assistance—150 pesos monthly—to unemployed heads of household in exchange for fours daily hours of work, community service or job training.
During interviews conducted in April and May 2003, several MTD members who live in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires admitted that the 150 pesos—hardly enough to live on but certainly more than the nothing that many were earning—had initially lured them into joining with the MTD. Inés (as we will call her) explains that she has come to like her participation in the MTD because "we don't have a boss, we work how we want, we all decide everything...This is what's good, that we don't have a master."
Inés indicates that she enjoys the often exhausting cortes in which she as a piquetera must participate. "I like the marches because I learn many things. I learn to share, I meet more people from other [piquetero groups], how it is...since I started it seems I have more strength," she says. Pedro, another MTD member who joined with the organization when it first began in his neighborhood, agrees, and is pleased by the progress he has seen in the neighborhood since then. "I am very proud to be with them," he explains, "because we are not doing these things in vain. We go out to the street to demand and we always get something. It is wonderful to come [to the MTD meeting place in the neighborhood] and see the things we have between what we had when we began...the bakery, the construction team, the cleaning team, the soup kitchen."
Despite all these successes, the power of the piqueteros is being challenged by increasingly harsh government policies. Judicial blocking of piquetes on particular roads is one of the tactics current President Néstor Kirchner has begun to employ in an effort to stop cortes de ruta and undermine piquetero organizations. Arguing that he must preserve the social peace, Kirchner has also attempted to foment conflicts between the various piquetero organizations. Such attempts to discredit the piquetero struggle eases the pressure on Kirchner to make fundamental changes like creating secure sources of jobs, instead of the short-terms subsidies currently offered.
The inconvenience cortes de ruta cause commuters has also greatly diminished middle class support for the movement, a marked change from the euphoria of December 2001, when inter-class solidarity was so high that it inspired the phrase "piquete y cacerolazo, la lucha es una sola" (piquete and cacerolazo, the struggle is the same), referring to the cacerolazo (a protest tactic involving the banging of soup pots—cacerolas—in the street) as the protest mechanism of the middle class. The loss of middle class support for piqueteros is also a result of the stigmatization of piqueteros. President Kirchner has publicly highlighted what he sees as the distinction between "legitimate" and "politicized" protest, not considering cortes de ruta one of those legitimate forms because he says they disrupt "civil order."
As an alternative to the piquete, Kirchner suggests that piqueteros use the ballot to express their opposition to government policies, calling voting "the only concrete and legitimate way of living together that a country and modern, progressive democracies can have." Given that in the last election many piquetero organizations urged their members to vote with blank ballots, and that the rates of voter turnout were unusually low among the poorest sectors, Kirchner is correct that voter participation is lacking. However, in Argentina the mandate of the vote is not held in quite the esteem Kirchner would like, as demonstrated by the December 2001 resignation of four presidents in less than two weeks due to popular protest. Besides, Kirchner's definition of democracy leaves much to be desired. Protest has been, and remains, a form of political participation in all democracies. Those with political or economic power lobby and form interests groups; those without such power raise their concerns in the streets.
Protest, therefore, remains an important and necessary part of a functioning democracy, especially in Argentina where civic participation has at times been stifled violently. Besides, piqueteros serve the necessary role of reminding the country of its problems and its responsibility to address them; while levels of unemployment and poverty remain extremely high, the role of the piqueteros remains a necessity. Middle class Argentines want to push such statistics out of their minds, but piqueteros insist daily that their hunger and pain be seen, heard, felt, and most importantly, transformed.
While it has yet to radically transform structural poverty, the piquetero movement has forged a practical link between growling bellies and specific policies for a sector long silenced by its daily struggle for survival and its marginalization both from mainstream society and the traditional labor movement. As members of the MTD expressed in interviews, before participation in the MTD they hardly ventured from their doorstep and certainly did not venture into critical political analysis. Going out onto the streets, however, opened their eyes to the systems that had relegated them to life in a shantytown. Said an interviewee, "I went from my house to school [to pick up my children] and from school to home. I would watch TV and [the protests] would seem ridiculous. Why do they go out to cut off the roadways? But now I realize that no, you have to fight for what belongs to you." By engaging in consensus-based collective action these piqueteros have awakened their own political consciousness and demanded recognition from the government and labor unions that have often ignored them or silenced them with patron-client handouts.
The popular protest that peaked in December 2001 in Argentina symbolizes the greater shift throughout Latin America toward more outspoken and visible questioning of the current economic model. Like the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil fighting for land reform; Zapatistas in Mexico struggling for autonomy; and the struggles against privatization in Perú, Paraguay and Uruguay; piqueteros have come from the margins of society to demand social, economic and political inclusion. These movements represent a change in social mobilization in the region, because although for years many small movements across Latin America have voiced discontent, most have mobilized for only specific and short-term goals, like food subsidies. Recently, however, these protests have evolved into demonstrations against the policies that created the need for such subsidies in the first place.
In the privatized, multi-national corporation setting of neoliberalism, the ability of corte de ruta—like the traditional union strike—to disrupt commerce has made the piquetero movement effective in securing many of its demands. In addition to its disruptive power, however, piqueterismo has nurtured another transformative and progressive strength: production. The community soup kitchens, bakeries, gardens and other enterprises of the piqueteros constitute important alternatives to the big-business model that has been so disastrous for many in Latin America. This do-it-yourself style plays an important role in repairing the dangerous disconnect between macroeconomic policies and people's lives. Additionally, the MTD-style asamblea model employed by many piqueteros is particularly useful to this disruption/production model because it provides an archetype for alternative forms of power that are inclusive rather than exclusive, empowering rather than clientalistic, generative rather than destructive.
Moira Birss graduated in May 2004 with a B.A. in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from LSA and Social Science from the Residential College at U-M. She is now working as an organizer for a non-profit environmental organization in Michigan.