Roused by Economic Crisis, Argentina's Middle Class Finally " Gets Involved"

By: Larry Rohter

The New York Times, February 4, 2002

Buenos Aires, Feb. 2. With its traditional political parties discredited by the country's collapse, Argentina is confronting a political vacuum. Daniel Algarbe is no politician, but he is convinced that he and thousands of middle-class people like him have found a way to fill it.

The national motto here is said to be "Don't get involved," but in a matter of weeks a new and increasingly assertive civic movement known as the "self-convened neighborhood assemblies" has sprung up. On street corners and in parks, ordinary Argentines are now meeting after work and on weekends not just to vent their wrath at politicians but also to organize and to debate solutions to the country's crisis.

A principal demand at those meetings and marches has been the elimination of a two-month-old government freeze on bank accounts. In a decision that left President Eduardo Duhalde visibly troubled and movement members heartened, the Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the restrictions were unconstitutional and ordered them lifted.

The nonpartisan, nonviolent assembly movement is the offspring of the spontaneous street demonstrations that forced Fernando de la Rúa to resign the presidency on Dec. 20. The night before, people from all over the capital had taken to the streets to bang pots and pans, a traditional symbol of protest in Latin America, and to march on Congress and the presidential palace.

"A bunch of us who met during the march that night decided that what we were doing should become a permanent, directed effort and not be just a one-time thing," said Mr. Algarbe, 43, a graphic designer who is one of the founders of an assembly in the middle-class Parque Chacabuco area of the city. "We wanted the fall of de la Rúa to mark the beginning of something, not the end."

Others came to the same conclusion, and now most neighborhoods in cities and towns across the country seem to have their own assembly. The movement is largely unstructured, with individual units communicating through Web sites, and deliberately informal, with members ranging from middle-aged professionals in Lacoste shirts to students with spiked hair and nose rings.

To those who have found themselves involved in civic life after years of passivity, Argentina's fundamental problem is not economic or even political. Above all, they say, the country is confronting a moral crisis more severe than any it has ever faced before.

"We have been asleep for far too long, and it's about time we woke up," said Noemí de Marco, 52, owner of a cookie store that went bankrupt as the economy faltered. "Through our own indifference, we have allowed the country to be stolen from us by corrupt politicians who have no respect for the law or their fellow citizens and who see the state only as a tool to enrich themselves."

For many, especially those who came of age during the military dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983, which kidnapped and killed as many as 30,000 people, the assembly movement is their first participation in civic life as adults. Jorge Oneto, a 42- year-old engineer, recalled two neighbors his age who disappeared in 1977 after they were arrested for distributing pamphlets criticizing the right-wing military junta.

"Instead of just rapping those kids on the knuckles and saying, `Don't do that again,' they killed them," Mr. Oneto said. Though the military dictatorship fell almost 20 years ago, "something like that sticks with you and discourages you from getting involved."

"There is still a lot of fear out there," he said, "and we are only now beginning to overcome it."

Others admit to having been anesthetized by the outward prosperity of the 1990's and say that they now feel guilty about it. President Carlos Saúl Menem's decision in 1991 to tie the peso to the dollar at a value of one to one prompted a flood of foreign investment and imports that fueled a period of conspicuous consumption — now just a fading memory — unlike any in Argentine history.

"Everybody was so content with the apparent stability brought by Menem that they didn't react to all the bad things that were going on and turned a deaf ear to the poor," said Paula Finkel, 41, a high-school literature teacher. "Any sense of solidarity or vigilance was lost, and it is time for us to recognize our error and recover those sentiments."

The prescriptions for what ails Argentina, however, seem to differ from one assembly to the next, making it difficult for the movement to articulate common positions. Many groups have been demanding that the Supreme Court resign, others want to repudiate the foreign debt, while some are calling for Mr. Duhalde and all other elected officials to step down so that elections can be held. A nationwide outdoor assembly of the groups in Parque del Centenario in the capital a week ago did not result in any broad agreement.

"Each assembly is sovereign, so you are never going to find unanimity," said Adrián Rosa, 45, a mechanical engineer in the Parque Chacabuco group. "This is the purest, most direct form of democracy."

Despite their lack of a united agenda, the assemblies are regarded with alarm in some quarters. The country's leading business newspaper compares the groups to "soviets," while Sylvina Walger, a sociologist and the author of a best-selling book about the Menem era, detects in the movement what she calls "a dangerously anarchistic and antipolitical whiff" that "reeks of fascism."

The once-silent middle-class majority "has not engaged in any sort of self-criticism and is desperately seeking its scapegoats," she wrote in an essay in La Nación, a daily, last week. "The corrupt were born of families that integrate this society," but Argentines have ignored "that we freely elected them and bought their lies because we cannot tolerate that anyone would place in doubt the idea that this is the richest and greatest country in the world."

The one common thread that seems to unite assembly members is their rage at Mr. Duhalde's decision to maintain a freeze on bank accounts, which was decreed by his predecessor nearly two months ago. As a result of that and other banking restrictions, many middle-class account holders have watched helplessly as their life's savings have been converted from dollars into pesos, no longer tied to the dollar, at a rate that assures them heavy losses.

"Would all these people be out there marching if their money wasn't tied up in the banks?" said Mariano Grondona, author of "The Reality: The Awakening of the Argentine Dream," a recent best seller here. "I don't think so."

Political parties view the movement as a potentially rich source of recruits but have been rebuffed; the government appears unsure of how to respond. "Because there is no formal leadership, there is nobody for them to make a deal with, and that puzzles them," Ms. Finkel said.

At the open-air meeting here, members of assemblies from all over the country decided that they would continue to sponsor weekly protest marches on the presidential palace. But even those committed to the movement admit that they are unsure what comes next.

"Maybe this will lead to a new political party, or maybe it will go in an entirely different direction," Ms. de Marco said. "All I know for certain is that we need to be heard."

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