Argentina: Who won the rural crisis?

August 14, 2008

With the July 16 vote against Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's proposed tax increases on agricultural exports in the Senate, following the biggest social and political confrontation since the 2001 uprising the overthrew several presidents in one week, the right has scored a clear victory.

The Argentine Rural Society, which unites the country's large landowning oligarchy, headed an alliance that involved medium and small producers, the urban middle classes, right-wing, centre-left and even some far left parties, as well as individual politicians from a diverse origins. This bloc defeated the Fernandez government.

Even the decision by the Fernandez's government to put the tax to a vote in a parliament controlled by the coalition that supported her presidential campaign last October was not enough to avoid defeat. Coalition members voted against the regulations, throwing her government in a deep crisis.

Behind the crisis

How was it that this alliance, made up of some of the most despised politicians in country — many of them targets of the 2001 demonstrations — together with hated reactionary organisations, some of whom participated in the military dictatorship of the '70s and '80s, defeated Fernandez's government just six months after her overwhelming electoral victory?

There are many reasons.

It can not be explained by simply saying that the Fernandez government is not a left-wing government and that many of its decisions have not helped the poor.

The reality is that the parliamentary defeat came after a defeat on the streets. Every mobilisation organised by the government was responded to by another bigger mobilisation by the ruralistas against the tax increases.

Using many of the tactics of the 2001 rebellion, pickets, strikes and demonstrations were organised in all parts of the country. A central tactic was picketing, with tractors and trucks, to blockade the country's main roads.

Of course, the super-exploited rural workers were never allowed to stop working while their bosses took over the streets.

In the cities, the middle classes once again came out onto the streets as they did in 2001 with their pots and pans. However, unlike previous conflict these mobilisations did not occur in the middle of a financial catastrophe or hyperinflation.

This time, they were led by the upper middle class, banging away on their expensive teflon pans.

These protests quickly took on a very reactionary character as sentiments shifted from one of support for the farmers to "reject the tyrants", referring to Fernandez and her husband and former president, Nestor Kirchner. Another slogan raised was "end the human rights campaigns", referring to the trials against these involved in the crimes of the military regimes, and generally protesters blamed the country's problems on the poor for being lazy.

This all met with favourable coverage in the corporate press.

Reinvigorated right

The right wing was reinvigorated by this revolt. Now they are trying to consolidate their victory and shift the government rightwards — putting an end to the protests in order to return to business as usual.

Meanwhile, the government is reeling from its defeat. It bet all or nothing on its confrontation with the agricultural oligarchy and lost. Only months after Fernandez's electoral victory, she has lost significant support, dropped sharply in the polls and can no longer count on the support of the middle classes.

Her parliamentary bloc has crumbled, her coalition is at breaking point, allied state governors have drifted away and her Peronist party, Partido Justicialista, is becoming increasingly divided as old faces reappear to challenge the control exercised by the Kirchners.

In analysing this defeat, three causes stand out.

Firstly, there was the unwillingness of the government to promote any popular mobilisations outside of the classic structures of the Peronist party, the traditionally Peronist-controlled General Confederation of Workers (the largest union confederation), and social movements such as the piqueteros (unemployed organisations famous for their use of road blockades to demand jobs and benefits) and human rights organisations that have been coopted by the government.

It preferred to keep a tight grip on any mobilisation. Perhaps the fear of another rebellion like that of 2001 has frightened those in power, who prefer to focus on rebuilding the government.

Secondly, the government was not willing to break with the bankers and industrial bosses who demanded an end to the confrontation.

Thirdly, there is the growing distrust of the people with a government that says one thing and does another. Lying about inflation figures, protecting their allies in the business sector, accepting the right to protest for farmers while repressing other protests and exaggerating the threat of an coup — all this didn't help its cause.

What these events have revealed that the Peronist movement has been deflated, losing any vestiges of the popular movement it once was. Today, it is a merely a structure capable of winning elections or controlling the state.

Left divisions

A plethora of progressive non-Peronist intellectuals gave the government support during the crisis. For them, Fernandez lost because too much was at stake for the establishment, which threw its weight behind the farmers against a supposed governmental project of wealth redistribution.

What they can't comprehend is that just because a government faces a right-wing attack, it doesn't make it a popular government. They confused political rivalry with social allegiance.

They think that the conflict was lost because the government mishandled the issue, not because of its commitments to the banking and big business interests.

On the other hand, most of the left took the position of opposing the government. However, unlike during other conflicts, its influence was diluted.

One reason for this was the alignment by part of the left with the rural protests led by the agricultural oligarchy. These organisations supported the protests in the name of defending the small producers.

They have labelled the right-wing victory a popular triumph, arguing that a massive movement was behind it. They are right — there was a massive movement, but this doesn't make it progressive.

Another section of the left abstained from the dispute, arguing it was simply a battle between two capitalist blocs.

Over the last four months, the country has been polarised. Yet no credible alternative to either the government or the conservative forces was presented. This is a very concerning situation because the situation could repeat itself.

During the 2001 crisis, a "de facto" alliance between the unemployed and the middle class was created. This alliance expanded when organised labour joined the fight.

In 2001, the left understood the need to help strengthen that alliance, defending the rights of the small investors against the greedy banks.

Lack of alternative

The Kirchner government came to power in 2003 in order to break this alliance and over the last five years it has achieved this goal. The problem now is that, due to the lack of action by the government and the absence of a working-class alternative, the middle class is drifting rightwards.

Progressive forces have a big responsibility to change this situation.

It is a big mistake to think that the proposed tax on agricultural exports is simply an issue that the capitalists can fight over without it affecting the workers. This is a question of economic policy aimed at delinking local prices from international prices.

Motherhood statements like "all capitalists are the same", or "this is a battle between two blocs of capital" are not real responses to the real political problems confronting the oppressed.

There was no real attempt to intervene into the crisis with a left program that aimed to connect the problems faced by the middle class with those of the popular sectors.

For instance, the plight of rural workers — one of the most exploited sectors in the country — was hardly mentioned. There was no attempt to draw them into the conflict, and in doing so change the correlation of forces.

This is just one example of what could have be done.

The government crisis has opened a new chapter in the class struggle. New struggles have developed across the country, but they are particularly acute in two areas.

In Cordoba, the state government's attempts to cut workers' superannuation are being challenged by public service unions, who have decided to use road blocks against a governor that only months ago was supporting the farmers who blockaded the very same spots.

The other big conflict involves workers in the three biggest tyre manufacturing companies. They have been on strike for more than two weeks and solidarity between the workers and the community is growing.

How the left relates to the new political framework in the aftermath of the victory of the right and the government crisis will be crucial to determining the future of Argentinian politics.

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