Thoughts on Argentina's Conjunctures :: Recuperating Work, Recovering Life (2005-2007)

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Piqueteros continue to paralyze the city of Buenos Aires, public support continues to dwindle

For the second time this week, piqueteros have congested traffic coming in and out of Buenos Aires, causing massive traffic chaos: Los piqueteros acampan en el acceso al Puente Pueyrredón (Clarin, agosto 18, 2005).

Countrywide, the most recent piquetero protests have been fighting for a raise in the national unemployment subsidy "Plan Trabajar" (the closest Argentina comes to a universal welfare policy) from $150 pesos to $350 pesos. The protesters plan on camping out on the vital arterial bridge that links the city of Buenos Aires to the southern suburb city of Avellaneda until tomorrow, guaranteeing to cause a major traffic nightmare between the heavily populated southern suburbs and Baires's business district.

During my five and a half week stay in Buenos Aires between July 8 and August 16, there were at least a half a dozen piquetero protests that held the city of Buenos Aires's almost two million cars, trucks, and buses hostage during peak traffic hours. I walked into several of them in the Callao and Corrientes cross streets in the tourist district of downtown Baires. A piquetero protest in front of the legislature building of the city of Buenos Aires on Peru and Av. de Mayo even prevented me from meeting with a city official I was scheduled to interview on Aug. 6. Despite the best efforts of the piquetero movement, however, there is no indication that Argentina's current center-left Peronist government of President Nestor Kirchner will increase welfare planes any time soon. (The protest in front of the city of Buenos Aires legislature.)

Started in the mid-1990s in the interior of Argentina at the height of the Menem's neoliberal auction of Argentina's national assets and industries, the growing unemployed poor that were once part of Argentina's powerful working classes organized to form the greater piquetero (literally translated as "placard carrier") movement. The movement leadership is made up of various leftists and trotskyists. The movement as a whole falls under the loose banner of the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (Movement of Unemployed Workers, or MTD). The MTD movement enjoyed broad support between the late-1990s and 2002, when Argentina's relationship with extreme market liberalization started to show its deep flaws. The MTD movement's political apogee reached its peak with the movement's active participation and mobilization in the months leading up to and following the Argentinazo of Dec. 19 and 20, 2001. Since then, their main tactic of blocking Argentina's major transportation arteries has fallen from public favour. Most middle and working class Argentines that are not actively involved in the MTD movement now view the roadblock tactics of the piqueteros as traffic nuisances at best. Many consider them victims of or, at worst, abusers of Argentina's chronic clientilism or, as Toty and Soledad put it to us a month ago when we visited the headqurters of the autonomist MTD La Matanza, assistentialism.

Confirmed in countless casual conversations I had with a wide cross-section of Argentines, the political force and public legitimacy of Argentina's piquetero movement has substantially declined since 2001. That piquetero protests are a common feature of glib daily traffic reports on Buenos Aires radio stations is perhaps indicative of the dwindling political legitimacy of the movement. This contrasts with the wide public support enjoyed by Argentina's recovered enterprises and factories movement; the empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores (ERT) are still seen by most Argentine's as sites of valiant and worthy struggles to save Argentina's precarious job-base.