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.”
In short, the desperate quest of millions of Argentines to stay alive is a threat to the economy’s recovery and must be stopped.
John Berger recently wrote, “Without money each daily human need becomes a pain.” In Argentina, any attempt to alleviate that pain is becoming a crime. That is the war Florencia is talking about, and as she travels across the United States, she will have the difficult task of trying to make that case to activists who are almost exclusively focused on ending a different kind of war, one in which the strategy is “shock and awe,” not daily brutality and mass marginalization.
Standing amid the torn-up cobblestones outside the squat on the night the sixty families were evicted, with tear gas still hanging in the air and dozens of people in jail, I found myself thinking about the calls for “peace” coming from Europe and North America. The antiwar message resonates forcefully here, and tens of thousands participated in the global day of action on February 15. But peace? What does peace mean in a country where the right that most needs defending is the right to fight?
My friends in South Africa tell me that the situation there is much the same: Families evicted from miserable shantytowns from Soweto to the Cape Flats, police and private security using bullets and tear gas to force people from their homes, and, last month, the suspicious murder of Emily Nengolo, a 61-year-old activist fighting water privatization. Instead of devoting their energy to securing food, jobs and land, social movements around the world are being forced to spend their time fighting the low-level war against their own criminalization.
The great irony is that these movements are actually waging the real war on terrorism–not with law and order but by providing alternatives to the fundamentalist tendencies that exist wherever there is true desperation. They are developing tactics that allow some of the most marginal people on earth to meet their own needs without using terror–by blockading roads, squatting in buildings, occupying land and resisting displacement.
February 15 was more than a demonstration–it was a promise to build a truly international antiwar movement. If that is going to happen, North Americans and Europeans will have to confront the war on all its fronts: to oppose an attack on Iraq and reject the branding of social movements as terrorist. The use of force to control Iraq’s resources is only an extreme version of the force used to keep markets open and debt payments flowing in countries like Argentina and South Africa. And in places where daily life is like war, the people who are militantly confronting this brutality are the peace activists.
Because we all want peace. But let’s remember, it won’t come without a fight.