Argentina in the Grip of Crisis

Street Fighting and Economic Meltdown

Revolutionary Worker #1134, January 13, 2002, posted at

Argentina is being shaken by profound economic and political crisis, huge anti-government protests, and street clashes between the people and police. One stark indication of the depth of the crisis: In the space of two weeks in December and January, Argentina went through five presidents.

The immediate spark for the crisis was the government's declaration in early December that individuals and small businesses would only be allowed to withdraw $250 a week at most from banks. This was a desperate--and cold-blooded--measure by President de la Rúa and the Argentine ruling class to prevent a complete collapse of their banking system. Warned in advance by the government, big investors had already pulled their money out of the banks. But the withdrawal limit hit the common people very hard.

Even before the bank measure, government austerity measures had battered people's lives. The Argentine government owes over $150 billion in debt to international banks and investors. In order to make the enormous interest payments, the ruling elite has slashed people's living standards. This summer, the government made major cuts in wages of government workers and pensions of retired workers. One in three people live below the official poverty line. Huge "villas de miseria"--shantytowns of the homeless poor--have grown around the cities, and a generation of working class kids have been forced out into the street looking for ways to survive. The austerity measures sparked a wave of resistance that washed over Argentina in July and August--the whole country was shut down by general strikes and roadblocks of burning tires.

The bank withdrawal limit and the resulting cash shortage immediately impacted the lives of millions of Argentineans--from street vendors and others in the "informal" economy to small shop owners. People fearing that they would lose their small savings rushed to the banks, only to be turned away. Soon, many people were hard pressed to buy food and other daily necessities.

In the provincial capital of Rosario, shantytown residents and newly impoverished middle class people began breaking into supermarket stores to seize meat, vegetables, cooking oil, and other necessities. The storming of the supermarkets quickly spread from the poorest provincial areas to other parts of the country, including the capital city of Buenos Aires.

In the city of Cordova, workers protesting wage cuts and other government austerity measures took over the municipal building and set it on fire. In Buenos Aires, demonstrators threw eggs and stones at de la Rúa as he left a meeting. And in a Buenos Aires shopping mall, two government officials were chased by a crowd of people shouting "Thieves! Thieves!"

Broadly among the people, there has been a sense that the whole class of rich and powerful at the top is corrupt and not fit to rule. A woman living in Martinez, a working-class neighborhood of the capital, told the Los Angeles Times, "They have sold us out until we have nothing left. I cry for Argentina. Pity those of us who have very little, because those with more have taken it and left." A government clerk, who was taking part in protests for the first time in her life, said that de la Rúa was paying off the foreign debt with "the blood of the people."

On December 19, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets of Buenos Aires and other cities. As many banged pots (in a form of protest known as cacerolazo), huge crowds poured into the famous Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to denounce the government and demand the resignation of the top officials.

That evening, the hated economic minister Cavallo was forced to resign. De la Rúa, however, not only refused to quit but declared a state of siege and ordered tens of thousands of police out into the streets.

Protesters who had cheered the ouster of Cavallo were outraged at de la Rúa. Thousands stayed at the Plaza de Mayo through the night of the 19th, and bonfires burned around the city.

The next day, Thursday, December 20, more people arrived at the Plaza. Running street battles broke out with the police who tried repeatedly to break up the protests. The police used tear gas and rubber bullets, charged with horses, and finally resorted to live ammunition. At least five youth were killed by the police. Some were motoqueros (couriers who work on motorbikes) who heroically defended the people from the attacks by the mounted police.

Faced with massive resistance in Buenos Aires and other cities around the country, de la Rúa himself was forced to resign. The Congress then went through two temporary presidents before picking Adolfo Rodriguez Sáa--from the Peronist wing of the ruling class--as a replacement for de la Rúa.

But even as the international press reported that protests were "subsiding" in Argentina, the masses once again rose up. People were outraged that the new president was continuing policies such as the limits on bank withdrawals and naming politicians known for their corrupt history to top posts in the government.

On Saturday, December 29, thousands of cacerolazo protesters and others entered Plaza de Mayo, while others gathered outside the Congress. The police moved to forcibly disperse the crowds of protesters. At the nearby Casa Rosada--the presidential house--demonstrators climbed up the front gates as the police attacked with tear gas and batons. Groups of demonstrators attacked banks and other targets and fought with police up and down the main avenues. At the Congress, protesters broke into the main building, smashed windows, and set fire to the curtains before riot police moved in with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The renewed protests and street clashes forced Congress to dump Sáa--just a week after de la Rúa's hasty departure. On January 3, Eduardo Duhalde became the fifth head of state since December 20.

Known for his "populist" rhetoric, Duhalde declared that he would make major changes in government policy and resolve the economic crisis. But one of the first actions he announced was the devaluation of the peso, the Argentine currency. Devaluation means people will be able to buy even less with their money, while prices of food and other basics rise. This will further devastate the masses of poor and workers as well as middle class people in Argentina.

The Argentine bourgeoisie fears a total collapse of the economy. And their U.S. imperialist backers worry that such a collapse will ripple through Latin America and their international financial system. But their only answer is the capitalist "medicine" of squeezing more out of the people. These cruel attacks on the people could trigger even greater revolts against the rulers in Argentina.

For further background on the crisis in Argentina, see "Shutting Down Argentina: General Strikes and Roadblocks of the Unemployed" in Revolutionary Worker #1114; available online at

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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