March 09, 2002
An interview with Evan Henshaw-Plath

Evan is an activist working with Mobile ((i)). He has spent several months in Argentina and Bolivia, helping local indymedia activists set up computers, web sites, and get things started.

I asked him about the democratic activity that is emerging in Argentina--its origins, short term goals, and long term viability.

posted by dru in interview

According to various Indymedia reports, local or neighborhood-based assemblies have sprung up, and meetings have been taking place. How widespread is this phenomenon? Is it just in Buenos Aires, or are there assemblies all over Argentina?

As far as i could tell there were about 80 assemblies in Buenos Aries proper, and more in the outlining suburbs which didn't attend the BA weekly interbarrio assembly. There are assemblies in plenty of other cities around they country also. That said, there are plenty of barrios which do not have assemblies also. I know sometimes that is because one or another political party is really strong in that barrio.

How seriously are the effects of the economic trouble? Are people desperate for food, or are things relatively stable, just generally poorer?

First off you have to think of Argentina like you think of Spain or Italy. BA has a subway system, commuter trains, tall office buildings, street cafes, a broadway like theater district, etc... People buy their food from supermarkets, and in general there is very little of the informal economy which is dominate in poorer countries. Outside the capital people are generally less European and more poor. About a third of the population lives in BA. The Piqueteros the more working class and are suffering more. One person said, they call the Cacerolas middle class (protests where they bang pots and sometimes smash up banks), but they are really just the people who make a few hundred dollars a month and were able to have enough extra to put money in a savings account. The Piqueteros are going hungry and that is why they are blocking roads. While some are advocating radical change and revolution, their direct demands are of food and jobs. Basically they eat some bread and drink lots of mate. There are lots of different groups of Piqueteros with a range of politics from social democracy to socialism on the less radical end to maoism, trotskism, and anarchism among the radicals. Many Piqueteros groups are connected to unions or political parties.

Even given the situation, many Argentines are still going about their daily business. There are still people in restaurants, buying food, going to work, and in general trying to make the best of it. The situation a year ago when i was in BA was bad, but now it feels in some ways worse but more hopeful. Last year everybody just seemed like they were depressed. Today there is some hope of kicking the IMF out. Everywhere you go people denounce the IMF. It is like the national pastime to berate the IMF. The reason is that when push comes to shove everybody knows that the IMF has WAY more power in Argentina than anybody else.

Who is organizing the assemblies? Are they truly "spontaneous", or is there an organizing force behind them?

Basically they organized like this. People were pissed off over the corilitos (restrictions on banking), so they started going out in the streets and banging pots. For the most part this wasn't organized by any group, but when people heard pots banging they went out in the streets and joined them. After December 20th when they overthrew the De La Rua they continued to hold protests. People were able to find other of their neighbors who were also upset due to the loud pot banging. From there people just started talking. As far a i can tell the assemblies where truly spontaneous. There were lots of organizers who took up working on them but they are not the project of any preexisting group. In fact there has been a lot of tension within the assemblies where they are trying to force out any leftist parties and potential leaders who might coopt the assemble movement.

People elsewhere seem quick to refer to the assemblies, El Treuque etc. as forms of anarchist activity. Is the direct democratic activity that is going on considered to be radical by the people participating, or are people just doing what they can to respond to the economic problems?

They do seem to be anarchist forms of organizing but they are most definitely NOT anarchists who are organizing things. The anarchists i met were very interested in what was going on, and they participated in their local assembles but they were not the driving force either organizationally or ideologically. The direct democracy comes from a different source. Basically the assemblies see implementing a system of direct democracy as a way of rejecting politics. Politics in Argentina is in some ways similar to the US. You have two major parties which run expensive media saturated campaigns but have no substantive policy differences between them. Unlike the US the political and economic system is held up by a much stronger system patronage and corruption. They are very much political machines. There have been many very strong political movements in Argentina and all of them get subverted by this coopation of the leaders and the organization in to the system of privilege. The people of Argentina are rejecting representative democracy because there is no option for change within that system. This isn't a theoretical debate. You can read editorials in the paper about how Dualde (current president) needs to just find the leaders so he can buy them off. This is what happened to the three major unions, and many other groups in the past.

So, the people didn't come to direct democracy through a intellectual critique of the coercion of systems of representation but rather because they want and need real change and they see this as the only way out.

Do participants in assemblies come from a large range of incomes?

Yeah, assemblies are based in neighborhoods so in wealthy neighborhoods the participants are wealthy and in poor neighborhoods they are poor. In general the Cacerolas are considered 'middle class' and the Piqueteros are working class but the assemblies are both.

What role (and how large of a role) is Indymedia Argentina playing in this? How many people does it reach? Is there a print publication?

It's a little hard to tell exactly how large a roll indymedia Argentina is playing. First off the situation with imc ar is a bit complex. I was down here last year working with the anti-ftaa coalition and trying to help start an imc. It's a long history but there ended up being two imc's one which was funded by Alternatives (the canadian ngo) and one of which has gone on to become the Argentina imc. The one that survived initially had to groups involved, both pro-direct action internationalist radicals. One was connected to the PTS, a trotskist party which advocates direct democracy (similar to the assembles we see now), an other group was Primavera de Praga (an anarchist / autonomist group which had be a core to organizing argentine participation in the PGA global days of action). Unfortunately the PTS folks put more time in to the project and it became known as associated with PTS. They have done an honest job at combating that reputation and become an open non-sectarian organization. After December 20th the Argentina indymedia folks pushed to create a broader coalition, Argentina Arde, (arde means burns and it's a reference to a radical media / arts coalition from the 70's). Argentina Arde has about 120 people showing up to their weekly meetings and has a number of working groups. Arde produces a pretty good paper which they sell to cover costs. There are also a number of video collectives that work with both indymedia and arde. Honestly the line is a little blurred, and there has been some debate back and forth about whether or not Arde is a broad coalition of media activists and artists or a trotskist coalition.

That said, the Argentina indymedia site gets a HUGE number of posts. Just from looking at it i'd say they get more posts than the global indymedia site per day. All the resolutions and notes from the assembles are posted to the site and if they don't get typed up and posted within a few hours the indymedia people start getting angry emails. So by that rather unscientific measure i'd say that indymedia is pretty well used by the movement.

Apart from local assemblies, barter markets, and strikes, what other kinds of direct democratic activity are taking place?

Well there is the occupying the factories and running them without the owners. There are definitely parts of the movement which are being stratigitic and targeting the oil industry to shut down the government. I know one of the assemblies is working on building a coalition with the hospital workers in their neighborhood to create alternate systems of providing health care. I think in some ways what Argentina needs for things to move forward with the project of radical change is a combination of continued IMF imposed insanity and the assemblies and other political forms to start developing their own systems for providing the functions of government which the government is failing to do. This process takes time, and is driven by the government's continued attacks on the social and economic system. Given that the IMF is totally unwilling to consider an alternate model and the government is the IMF's lapdog, it looks like there is a possibility for a positive outcome. :)

How is militant activism perceived by the mainstream media or the general population?

Well it's interesting. Basically every day you can see in the news people in business suits attacking and smashing banks. The TV sucks and is right wing, but they are covering what is going on. In the papers they have articles about the barter systems. They cover the weekly interbarrio assembly, but they of course aren't supportive. I think that although the media system is fundamentally corporate and right wing many of the journalists are hit by the same problems as everybody else.

When i asked a cab driver what he thought of of the Piqueteros he said 'what else are they supposed to do' and that blockading the roads 'was an important part of the struggle.' There are large portions of the population which are basically ignorant of the political world around them. One guy in the park just a few hundred feet from interbarrio assembly when asked didn't even really know what assembles were.

Central to the assembles agenda is the rejection of representatives. In this way they are really supported by the general population. The center left paper, pagina 12, did a poll where they found that %61 of the population didn't believe in representative democracy. That's a big deal. Of course the neoliberals are saying it means people want a dictatorship or some chavez/castro type, but that's not true. People are demanding democracy and representative democracy has failed and that is why they are looking to other options.

How are assemblies organized? Is decision making reached by concenus or vote, or does it vary?

Each assembly is 'autoconvacado' meaning self convening. They generally have something like working groups which meet separately from the bario (neighborhood) assembly. The working group's (again an English term that doesn't directly translate), meet once a week and report back to the assembly. The assembly is where proposals for other assemblies to adopt are created. Basically the way it works is a barrio assembly with come up with a proposal. Usually to have a protest on this or that day, take some sort of action in solidarity with Piqueteros, or to denounce neoliberalism and demand the approiation of all foreign capital and investments in the country. The barrio then votes on it. People can vote three ways. Yes, No, or abstain. If the no's win the the proposal is dropped. If the Abstains count for a large portion of the votes then it goes back to be reworked and can be presented next week. If the Yes's win then it is adopted. My understanding is the similar processes work at the local barrio assemblies, interbarrio's, and the national (although they had their first of these while i was in BA). None of the proposals are binding. Votes are based on everybody in attendance not on a one assembly one vote system. It's a rough majority system although to be honest it is in flux and nobody counts the votes very closely. In the interbarrio i saw people contest a vote. Basically they do that by yelling and getting upset. Then they redo the vote and the vote counters count more closely.

The interbarrio is organized by a rotating group three local assemblies each week. Each assembly gets a person to speak, first to give a little political polemic speech then to give their assemblies proposal. Somebody writes them down and after a few hours of this they get to voting. The indymedia folks (and others) write them down and post them to the web for people who weren't there. Many local assemblies also post their minutes/notes/decisions to indymedia.

My feeling was that there was a fair degree of variation within the assemblies and that they are very much a forming thing.

How much of the overall population is involved in direct democratic activity?

Hard to tell. Greater Buenos Aries has a population of about 10 million and there are about 1000 to 3000 people at the interbarrio's. There is very clearly widespread opposition to the government and especially the IMF. I read recently an article where it talked about politicians getting attacked when they were seen and identified in public. The people in the assemblies are for the most part taking their first step in to politics. They really do represent somewhat of an awakening of the apathetic silent majority. People who had been working hard, thinking about their families, and letting politicians be. Now they are pissed and they don't think that any sort of politician or party can fix things. I think i heard there were 60 to 80 assemblies in Buenos Aries with more starting all the time. I did hear that the numbers of people participating had been declining some even though the number of assemblies was growing and their political commitment was deepening. This is why if the assembly movement is going to continue to grow they need to be fueled by the fire of collapsing neoliberalism.

On voting and police activity:

In Argentina you are required to vote, but in the activist have a campaign to 'vota lista blanca' which is basically voting for nobody. The army / police are nasty at some demonstration and are seriously repressive, but other times they aren't. Like at one blockade of the major road in to BA there was only half a dozen cops and they stayed a mile down the road. One time i was sitting in a restaurant and a small protest, maybe a 1000 people, was blocking traffic outside. They were just marching around the city blocking major intersections, sitting down for a while then moving on. All the police did was work to redirect traffic. Plenty of time the cops basically just let people attack the banks. Sometimes when they felt they had the upper hand they did push people away from the banks. There was a blockade of the a major oil refinery which there were 2000 cops that showed up when the finally wanted to clear it. In general there is not apparent police presence at any of the assemblies. In congress when we interviewed people the congress people seemed to not take the assemblies very seriously.

I think the police have orders not to start confrontations unless they really have to because they are worried things will get out of hand.

On Bolivia:

There are towns here in Bolivia where they have also kicked out the police, army, and government and are running things using traditional indegenous democratic assemblies. They have some problems like only married adults are allowed to particpate. Also the blockades here in Bolivia, there are always at least three or four higways blocked are defended at times with arms. Yesterday i heard a report on teh radio about a blockade that the police tried to clear, 31 police were hurt and only three piquateros. If the government does what the US wants and really goes after the coca growers then many comentators are saying as much as half the country could cease to be under government control. The activists i meet say that if the cocaleros and other social movements had guns there would be a revolution. It feels like the government knows this too, as the places feels like a police state, military checkpoints and cops carrying uzis all over the place. On one 14 hour bus trip i think we must have gone through half a dozen or more checkpoints.