On a muddy piece of squatted land in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Florencia Vespignani is planning her upcoming tour of the United States, where she will be speaking with students and activists about Argentina’s resistance movements.
“I’m a bit scared,” she confesses.
“Of the war?” I ask.
“No. Of the plane. We have wars here all the time.”
Vespignani, a 33-year-old mother and community organizer, is a leader in the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (MTD), one of dozens of organizations of unemployed workers, known as piqueteros, that have emerged out of the wreckage of Argentina’s economy.
When Vespignani describes life as war, it is not a metaphor. In a country where more than half the people live in poverty and twenty-seven children die of hunger each day, she has learned that to stay alive, you have to go to the streets and fight–for every piece of bread, for every student’s pencil, for every night’s rest.
From the perspective of the International Monetary Fund, the piqueteros are the collateral damage of neoliberalism–a fluke explosion that happened when rapid-fire privatization was mixed with “shock” austerity. In the mid-1990s, hundreds of thousands of Argentines suddenly found themselves without paychecks, welfare checks or pensions. Rather than disappearing quietly into the scavenged shantytowns that surround Buenos Aires, they organized themselves into militant neighborhood-based unions. Highways and bridges were blocked until the government coughed up unemployment benefits; abandoned land was squatted on to build homes, farms and soup kitchens; a hundred closed factories were taken over by their employees and put back to work. Direct action became the alternative to theft and death.
But that’s not why Vespignani describes life in Argentina as a war. The war is what happens next, after she and her neighbors dare to survive: the visits by armed thugs, the brutal evictions from squatted land and occupied factories, the assassinations of activists by police, the portrayal of piqueteros as menacing terrorists. Last month Buenos Aires police used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear sixty families out of an abandoned building near the trendy Plaza Dorrego. It was the most severe repression in the city since two young leaders of the MTD were killed by police during a road blockade last June.
The police said they were concerned about the safety of the squat, but many people here think the violent eviction was simply part of the latest economic adjustment being cooked up at the Sheraton Hotel, where IMF delegations have been meeting with bankers and candidates in the upcoming presidential election for weeks now. The IMF hopes to assess whether Argentina can be trusted with new loans: whether it will pay off foreign debts while continuing to cut social spending. But there is another criterion, left unspoken, that presidential aspirants must meet to merit foreign capital: They must show that they are willing to use force to control those sectors hurt by such agreements. Squatters, piqueteros–even the cartoneros, the armies of scavengers who comb through garbage looking for cardboard to sell–are under siege. According to the former owner of the city’s largest privatized garbage company, now running for mayor on a platform of “Let’s Take Back Buenos Aires,” garbage is private property and the cartoneros are “thieves.”