Piqueteros: the revolution without face or time

  • January 3, 2014

Movement & Mobilization

Inspired by the Zapatistas, the piqueteros of Argentina have been developing their own project of autonomy through cooperatives and mutual aid networks.

By Tomás Astelarra, translated from Spanish by Leonidas Oikonomakis.

When in 1997 in the North and South of Argentina the first piquetero movements were born, and those of us from the globalized and intellectualized metropolis woke up to the news of a new revolutionary form of political protest and popular expression taking off, those piquetero heads in pasamontañas inevitably brought to mind the Zapatistas.

We had read Subcomandante Marcos, his interviews with Montalban, Zibechi’s book, some comrades had even already traveled there. But while everything seemed very distant from the internet, some rumor was making our hearts beat faster. There was another way of doing things, another logic, and an icon was spreading all over the continent, intuitively replacing in many rooms and cultural centers the famous photo of Che. This wasn’t communism, it wasn’t the taking of state power, it did not end up as a guerrilla war. As its principal actor it had the indigenous people who at the same time opened up a window of communication to the outside world — with us, gringos,  hopelessly affected by a bloody globalized present and all of its effects and consequences.

Somebody once told me that the revolt in Chiapas may have been the first stone thrown in this entire series of popular explosions that started to appear in Latin America ever since 2000, expelling governments, generating new political conditions, but also generating a new consciousness.

The Argentine Experience

It may be that the government of the Kirchners in Argentina has vindicated the deaths and the human rights violations of 30 years ago; but they have kept intact the same machinery of power that is today murdering young kids and movement leaders in their homes, while maintaining a network of corrupt local governments, police, paramilitary forces and multinationals dedicated to soy or mega-mining in the indigenous and rural territories, just to give a couple of examples. But we will always keep the image of those kids in hoods who reminded us of the Zapatistas, and the possibility of building a new world — not through the government but rather through autonomy, self-management, and alternative communication, using globalization in reverse.

Those kids in hoods who could have been the indigenous from Chiapas, or Colombian peasants, or Palestinian teenagers, or Greek anarchists, or intellectuals from Buenos Aires, advanced through the national territory and one day surrounded the Federal Capital, just like the Zapatistas marched to Mexico City or the Aymaras surrounded La Paz, or just like the People’s Congress, la Minga de los Pueblos, came out of Cauca towards Bogotá. And this social force not only changed governments but also put on the agenda previously invisible problems.

Following the rise of the piqueteros, the powerful had to put in place new governments that would pay attention at least to a small part of society’s grievances. In order to calm us, they had to lie to us, pretending to be leftists, pachamamistas, ecologists, accepting minimum claims even though it was obvious that they were of the past. Because history constructs as well. And there was also, spell-bound by new discourses and new possibilities, someone from us, some comrade who went towards the state. Many, now bought by comfort or blinded by power, ague for a certain pragmatism; a certain limit to street politics, in the creativity necessary to change the powerful causes behind this horrible world. But we are not going to deny it: many who continue to function as infiltrators help us pull some strings and improve the access to state resources for many social and cultural movements.

And even if many citizens who went through this entire experience with the pickets and the cacerolazos, the assemblies and the marches, returned to the comfort of their conventional homes after the revolutionary outburst, many others adopted new forms of life, production, and economy. “Not all people can be activists,” Naomi Klein told us in the year 2005, in an interview with Hecho en Buenos Aires, a social enterprise that provides work for around 100 homeless people publishing an independent magazine that touches on topics that fifteeen years ago would have been unthinkable. “It needs a huge effort,” Klein continued, “a huge shift of consciousness. But the fact that many Argentinians have lived this experience of 2001 will surely not leave them indifferent to such reflections.”

Hecho en Buenos Aires is one of a number of independent media projects in Argentina (others include Sudestada, Mu, THC, Marcha, Barcelona, Al Margen, Agencia de Noticias Rodolfo Walsh, La Garganta Poderosa, FM La tribu, Indymedia), which have managed to sustain a different type of communication with positive social and economic results, communal interchanges, organizing events and building up a considerable circulatory network of people, movements and information on the other world we wish to see — the world the Zapatista movement first opened a window to.

The Legacy of the 2001 Uprising

Only some bits and pieces are left from those experiences. But now we had people to do things with, there was a society that could give more. Not to make a violent revolution, but to appropriate more instances of participation and decision-making. We turned around our aspirations of wanting to change everything in one go. We had to accommodate ourselves to what some public policies were telling us was possible in order to consolidate our self-managed, productive projects. Some of these projects, ten years later, are still working, like the blocks-factory project that Darío Santillán started.

This is what Pablo Solana told me on the tenth anniversary of December 2001. Pablo was back then the spokesperson of the Frente Popular Darío Santillan (FPDS), a social movement that arose out of the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (MTD — Movement of Unemployed Workers) in the Southern zone of wider Buenos Aires. Later they made alliances with peasant movements, students and workers, always under the horizontal logic of the popular assembly, of the alternative economy, having as its reference point the Zapatistas and the landless workers’ movement of Brazil, accepting and demanding social projects from the government, but always multiplying those resources through their own work and without allowing those gifts to permit the interference of the state in their own organizational structures.

For Solana it is impossible to analyze the distance between 2001 and 2011 without taking into account 2003. In his understanding, Kirchnerismo was a response of the system to 2001. “From above” certain policies were granted, like human rights or the renovation of the High Court, the financial situation of the “comrades” was improved, and they returned to their small jobs and precarious work. “From below”, the government arranged to disarm all the proposals of popular participation and self-management that were born in 2001. What also contributed in that direction, according to Solana, is that these kind of experiences had become risky after the criminalization of social protest and the murders of the 19th and 20th of December 2001 and the 26th of June 2002. It is a paradigm that keeps being repeated all over Latin America and that holds a sword of Damocles over the heads of many movements, dividing them into institutional and “reactionary” ones, dragging leaders who are looking for personal gains into negotiations with the state. However, some of these social constructions continue on their path of autonomy, and some claims — however small — are leaving a sense of victory.

In the Roca Negra (Black Rock), the occupied property that the FPDS maintains in Lanús, there’s also a silkscreen printing workshop, a construction and blacksmith cooperative (Trasinpat), an editorial collective (El Colectivo), a garden, a library, a popular education center and a communitarian radio, as well as an online media agency (Prensa del Frente). “One may say: it is at small scale and ten years have passed, but for us these are elements of change that are leaving behind historical footprints. It is not that the society changed neither did so the logic of thinking of production, but it has been demonstrated at a testimonial scale that the comrades are able to work and live with a distinct subjectivity, less alienated, less exploited,” clarifies Solana.

In Roca Negra there are 80 workers associated with the cooperative, plus 50 or 70 more in the peripheral neighborhoods, adding up the professors of the popular education center and other collaborators; around 200 people in total directly linked to the MTD of Lanús. As for the rest of the Frente, according to Solana: “we could be some hundreds of comrades with these characteristics.”

The surplus gains of the cooperative work of these past 10 years were used to buy land and to supplement the social projects with salaries that range between 1.200 and 4.000 pesos, depending on the working hours, the political dedication and certain technical skills. Everything is decided in assemblies with direct votes at the neighborhood, regional and national levels. And if there is time, the comrades of the kitchen make empanadas for the university students of the region that are in exams period or the cooperatives dedicate themselves to painting the walls of the Escuela Especial 507.

Building Networks of Production

The FPDS is a wide and complex network, almost like a state or a multinational company; its productive projects are extended all over the country, the favors come and go. It is possible to meet workers of Mar del Plata working and living the experience of the productivos of the Cultural Center Olga Vázquez de La Plata (which has its own pizzeria, blacksmith and printing workshop). On the other hand, the Network Tacurú does door-to-door deliveries of FPDS products, as well as those of recuperated factories, peasant or indigenous movements and social enterprises like the Burbuja Latina, which makes cleaning materials at the Cultural Center De La Sala.

In an assembly in the Southern region of the FPDS it may very well be decided that the surplus gains of Trasinpat are to be spent on the order of a small truck for the delivery of vegetables for the Unión de Trabajadores de la Tierra (UTT — Union of Land Workers), a rural cooperative of La Plata. “It is important that our projects are interrelated and that we can consume our own things. But each collective has its own autonomy, its own independence, making decisions without having anyone overseeing them, without anyone giving orders, but with a responsible stance regarding the time of the assemblies, where they submit and present the works to be done. Now, that has allowed us to consolidate and make some sales, above all for internal consumption,” explains Leo Santillán, seated on a cement block in front of the storehouse of the cement factory, which was also renovated with surplus funds of the MTD.

When Leo speaks of internal consumption, he does not refer to Argentina, but to FPDS and the sale of blocks for the constructions in the neighborhoods, or to the MTD of Esteban Echevarría. Also to the Envión, a youth activity center that is planned in one of the abandoned storehouses of the Roca Negra and that is now being taken care of by a group of workers of the Fasinpat. “If you would come ten years ago you’d probably meet us burning tyres or maybe we would have even hit you. Now we have food, we have work, and we can even consider other things, like how to host you well,” says Carlos, old Peronist hippie, follower of the Maya Calendar, one of the first who came to Roca Negra. “Once I said that if we wanted to change reality we would need to have a school. I said it as a dream. Today the school has graduates.”

There are comrades who show me the flowerbeds made of recycled tyres, to demonstrate that they are not used anymore. “Leave the picket buried in the past,” is the advice of Jorge. Others want to switch the D of “disoccupied” workers for the D of “dignified”. Pablo is skeptical, for him the whole thing moves more slowly. “In the name of the piquetero movement barbarism has been committed. We are not ashamed, but today for sure we are something more complex, much richer. But if we have to burn tyres again, we’ll do so.”

This year the FPDS suffered a strong hit; in the form of a division having to do with the question of whether or not to participate in the elections. Some organizations, generally tied in the university and the more intellectual network, decided to position themselves on the political road and left the FPDS for the Corriente Nacional, participating in the elections in Rosario and the Federal Capital. Another group preferred to continue with the grassroots work, in the neighborhoods, the productive projects, fighting against the government in order to achieve better living conditions.

It is a back and forth, a give and take, a rhythm of pachakuti that we, the gringos, understand very little of. But we did see a little bit of light in this bridge towards another world that was generated by Zapatismo, and we have learnt to anticipate this alliance between old and new people, looking for the roots, exploring new worlds — and and of course, occasionally messing up in one way or another. We are the people without face or time.

Tomás Astelarra is an Argentine journalist, writer, musician, economist and professional chamuyero. He has written for Rolling Stone, Hecho en Buenos Aires, Sudestada, Al Margen and Marcha. He has also published the books Andanzasenabarcas and Por los Caminos del Che. Right now Tomás is working on his latest book, with Bolivia and its process of change as its topic. He also writes at: http://astelarra.blogspot.gr/.

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