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

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Argentina’s ERTs, Hugo Chavez, and economies of solidarity

Eduardo Murúa, president of MNER, has recently been spearheading a working relationship with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, as Murúa confirmed to me in a conversation I had with him in mid-August of 2005. Mainly through the efforts of Murúa, in August 2005 MNER managed to strike a favourable loans deal with Chavez by piggy-backing on a greater regional economic accord negotiated between the Venezuelan and Argentine governments to more closely integrate the two economies. This greater accord is part of Chavez’s alternative to the US-proposed FTAA that he calls the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas and the Caribbean (La Alternativa Bolivariana para América Latina y el Caribe, or ALBA). A proposal that could have benefits for all of Argentina’s ERTs, the greater economic agreement between the two countries will see the Chavez government invest, via debt bond purchases, $500 million US primarily into Argentina’s fledgling national oil sector. From this fund, $5 million US in low-interest credits will be funneled to the growing alternative economy being forged by Argentina’s ERTs and other micro-enterprises (microemprendimientos). Monies would flow directly to the ERTs via the Banco de la Nacion Argentina through an as yet-to-be-worked-out distribution mechanism. At the time, the hope expressed by some of Argentina’s ERT protagonists was that this infusion of cash, while modest, would begin to help the country’s ERTs replace old machinery, grow new markets, and ultimately kick-start an undeveloped export component by producing myriad products also useful to Venezuela’s increasingly nationalized economy.

This initial infusion of cash into the ERT movement was bettered by Chavez’s second commitment announced in late October 2005 at the First Latin American Encounter of Recovered Enterprises in Caracas, Venezuela. At this historic meeting of 400 worker protagonists from 235 recovered enterprises from across Latin America, Chavez proposed to make available in 2006 a fund worth $50 million US for Latin America ERTs. The purpose of the fund is specifically destined to assist the region’s ERTs in their efforts to expand production, forge new inter-regional alliances, enter new markets, and provision much-needed investment capital. Chavez views this fund as a critical first step for facilitating the productive efforts of ERTs in Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru, the seven Latin American countries with ERTs thus far. He also views the fund as a crucial first step for spearheading what in the region is beginning to be called a greater “economy of solidarity” across Latin America.

The economy of solidarity envisioned by the participants of the Caracas meetings is to be an alternative to the “imperialist” designs of the FTAA and its multinational interest groups. Moreover, it is to be grounded in grassroots, socialist, and democratic economic initiatives led by workers’ self-management. Indeed, as Chavez outlined in his inaugural speech at the conference, he views the experience of the region’s ERT workers as the “soul” of contemporary Latin America, underscoring how the experiences and values of the region’s ERT protagonists symbolize the antithesis of all that the FTAA represents. Chavez proposed to call this alternative economy of solidarity “Empresur,” envisioning it as an intercontinental economic network that would engage in not only traditional forms of trade between the regions’ ERTs but also see ERTs engage with each other outside of the neoclassical market. Such non-monetary, solidarity interactions will include the sharing of technical know-how, the creation of funds for “fair loans and investments,” the provisioning of raw materials rooted in bartering, and transnational cooperation offering political support to legal hurdles faced by ERTs and other self-managed entities across the region.

Besides completing 75 contracts and promissory agreements between ERTs across Latin America, the conference participants also managed to cobble together what has come to be called the Caracas Accord (Compromiso de Caracas). The accord details the vision for a multinational, worker-led entity such as Empresur. It also takes a strong stand against US-led, neoliberal economic designs in Latin America. Additionally, it urges the region’s governments to set aside capital investment funds for ERTs and draft national laws and constitutional reforms that would better support worker recovered enterprises and other forms of micro-enterprises.

One recently-launched initiative that could be foreshadowing how this alternative solidarity economy might be implemented (and implemented sooner rather than later) is the ERT-specific e-commerce site The Working World. The Working World's non-profit e-commerce site is an excellent example of how the the strategies of online product provisioning and e-commerce might be appropriated by the movement. Indeed, The Working World is an actual example of how the movement could tap into the decentralized and globally-available capabilities offered by internet communication technologies to meet the grassroots needs of ERTs and their protagonists in each respective country. This type of initiative could also fund the fledgling workers' self-management with much needed cash, expand markets, and build relays of affinity with the growing social justice movement around the world. Launched in Dec. 2005 and spearheaded by a collective of North and South American radical journalists and activists such as Avi Lewis, Esteban Magnani, and others, the e-commerce site currently only provisions products produced by a few of Argentina’s ERTs. The initiative is purposefully tapping into a world-wide market increasingly interested in products made from firms that engage in non-exploitative and environmentally friendly labour practices. It also serves as a site for information dissemination as a customer-focused information portal, provides marketing services to ERTs, offers ERT website development, and is also a webspace that has the capabilities of collecting donations for a “fund that provides productive capital directly to workers through fair loans and investments.” Currently focused on Argentine ERTs, the initiative has hopes of extending its non-profit, online initiative to similar movements around the world in order to help build an “international solidarity economy, where economic justice and self-determination replace exploitation and inequality.”

Argentina’s pioneering role in the Latin American ERT movement

Argentina’s most recent experiments with worker self-management have played a crucial role in both inspiring other ERTs in other countries in the region and in the recent push for an intercontinental economy of solidarity articulated in Caracas in October of 2005. Because of the legitimacy of the Argentine movement, gained through its long struggles with worker self-management, it was no surprise that MNER’s Murúa was one of the key players in organizing the first meeting of Latin American ERTs in Caracas. And because Argentina also has the most ERTs by far of any country in Latin America, it perhaps is also no surprise that the 300 Argentine worker delegates that attended the Caracas meetings in October of 2005 represented the gathering’s largest contingent of workers. Subsequently, Argentina secured the most business contracts and memoranda of understanding at the Caracas meetings which will serve to not only enhance the likelihood of longterm success for the Argentine ERT movement but will also facilitate realizing Chavez’s vision for ALBA. Finally, it is illustrative to note that Chavez views the Argentine recovered enterprises movement as a model for his own vision for nationalizing major sectors of Venezuela’s economy which includes the planed expropriation of more than 700 bankrupted Venezuelan firms in 2006. Murúa succinctly summed up the role of the Argentine delegation of ERT workers at the Caracas meetings thusly:

From Argentina, we brought all of our experiences [to Caracas]. We have [in Argentina] 182 recovered enterprises and we arrived [at the meeting] with more than 300 workers. We are, perhaps, the initiators of this path dating back to 1998, and our delegates were consulted the most by the compañeros from the rest of the continent at the meeting.
~Eduardo Murúa