Argentinian Diary – Anti-cuts meeting and demonstration in La Plata

SUTEBA meeting, La Plata

SUTEBA meeting, La Plata

Argentinian Diary – Anti-cuts meeting and demonstration in La Plata

On Monday 3rd December I was asked if I would like to attend a meeting called by one the Buenos Aires Teachers Unions, SUTEBA (Sindicato Unificado de Trabajadores de la Educación de Buenos Aires), in the city of La Plata – about an hour’s drive from central Buenos Aires and the Legislative centre for the Buenos Aires Province. On that day the legislature was meeting to decide the budget for the coming year.

For anyone who has an interest in the attacks that social and public services are undergoing throughout the world under the auspices of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank they will not be surprised to read that the Trade Unionists were fighting to protect public education in general (it is still free to University level in Argentina) as well as the conditions of work for the teachers and the level of support provided by the state so that a future generation can have a decent start in life.

It will also come as no surprise that the so-called leaders of the province – behind their barricaded Congress Hall with the presence of hundreds of police – decided that the best way forward for the country was to cut the education budget – as well as other social welfare schemes.

As I’ve written so many times in various posts on this blog I just cannot understand why ordinary working people still have any faith in these people, of whatever political colour, who put themselves up for election and then do what they wanted to do in the first place, i.e., maintain their privileged position in society and let the rest go to hell.

However, SUBTE still believes in the electoral process and decided to have a meeting (what they call a press conference) in front of the very barricades in the Plaza de San Martin (known as the ‘Liberator’ in many South American countries) that were protecting the legislature from the anger of those they are supposed to represent.

A meeting is a meeting – even thought the sun was shining and people were sheltering from the sun – so many demonstrations I’ve been in Britain we would have been sheltering from the rain. Pictures in the gallery will give an impression of what was taking place.

Here I want to make a couple of points.

At the very start of the meeting there was the call for a minute’s applause as we were almost exactly four months since the death (on August 2nd 2018) of a deputy director and an assistant in a school in the city of Moreno, about 36 km to the west of Buenos Aires. A faulty gas appliance, which the authorities refused to repair, blew up as they were preparing for the start of the school day. A few minutes later the room would have been full of children.

Applause for Sandra and Ruben

Applause for Sandra and Ruben

Immediately after the event there were demonstrations in the city by teachers, parents and students protesting that such unnecessary accidents are a direct result of government cuts in education. On the day that the local government was planning further cuts in the education budget it was important that the needless deaths of these two union members was remembered and commemorated.

But what these teachers did to celebrate and remember these fighters for workers’ interests was to have a minute’s applause – not a minute’s silence – which in any Argentinian city is an almost impossibility anyway. I have never come across this before, in any Latin American country, and don’t know if it has become the norm. But isn’t that something more positive than just standing there counting the seconds in a minute’s silence and doesn’t it actually require some level of participation?

What I also thought was strange was the fact that although the teachers had organised (and got permission) for their meeting so close to the legislature they were not really interested if other trade unions (also facing the same sort of cuts in the budget) would be taking action as well. As soon as we arrived in the city it was obvious that something else was going on as a demonstration was forming up in the Plaza Italia. But my companion didn’t know anything of this beforehand, even though she is a full time union official.

I can understand the power of spontaneity when it comes to demonstrations but I also believe in the movement working towards a common goal. In Britain, and in the rest of Europe from my knowledge, the aim is to get as many people on the streets at the same time over similar, if not the same, issues. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in Argentina.

There was a common issue which brought trade unions, neighbourhood organisations and political parties together and that was the G-20 of the week before. If it can be done (with all, the possible conflicts which I mentioned when writing about the G-20 demo) for something exceptional why isn’t it done all the time. The State is always organised and knows exactly what it is doing. Why isn’t the Argentinian working class thinking in the same way? Or am I just missing something here?

Anyway.

As the teachers meeting was coming to an end this demonstration, that had taken over the whole width of the road (it being blocked to vehicular traffic as the extra ‘protection’ for the building had made it impossible for any more than pedestrian traffic to use the street) came along.

And with such vocal force. In front was a large, flat back truck on which was installed a sound system that would have made a 60’s concert goer weep. Huge speakers amplified the words of a couple of women who were taking terms calling out the legislature for what it was. Without a break. No time for empty space. Denunciation followed denunciation. Challenge followed challenge. Insult followed insult.

The March arrives

The March arrives

And behind them the road was filled with fluttering banners – representing people’s political or neighbourhood allegiance rather than that of their work – which might say a lot about the difference between political activity in Argentina and a place like Britain – at least in the past.

Here I became slightly bemused. Although the amplification of the teachers meeting was more than adequate for the task in hand (there being no traffic against which it had to compete) now, getting closer and closer were these loudspeakers, bigger than me, blasting out an anti-government message and behind them groups of drummers banging out a message of ‘we are here’.

But SUTEBA had a programme and they were going to stick to it – which included a musical performance by a Chilean Andean music group – which just got drowned out by the ambient noise of this mass of people coming into the square. But this was just treated as normal by everyone but me.

So I have to accept that I was the odd one out.

The square filled up with people and the truck was parked right in front of the Legislative Building, right next to the reinforced ‘vallas’. Behind them stood ranks of riot police, taking it in turns standing out in the sun or in the shade.

A fireman's work in Argentina

A fireman’s work in Argentina

Earlier I had seen firemen running out hoses, I assume in readiness for an attack on the building on the part of the demonstrators. In Argentina the fire brigade is still part of the police. It was in Britain but I don’t realise that until I went to Liverpool and heard the term ‘fire bobbies’, meaning fire fighters. Although they still follow a very much military structure there has been a significant change in attitude over the years. Pictures from the ‘Bloody Sunday’ events in Liverpool in August 1912, during a transport strike, show the firemen of the time working with the police in ‘riot control’. This is noted in the difference in their helmets.

However, in Argentina, and in many parts of the world, there’s still a close link between fire fighting and the police and that means it’s just in a day’s work for firemen in La Plata to be running out the hoses to be used against the protestors. I assume it is also the same people who would man (and women) the water cannons on the streets.

I would like to think that the fire fighters in Britain have matured enough to become true members of the working class to refuse to carry out such tasks if called upon to do so in Britain. That would have to be taken on by the military – the scabs (strike breakers) in past fire fighters disputes. Perhaps this is one reason why we’ve never seen water cannons used against British protesters.

But, as usual, I digress.

But that Monday in La Plata the State had obviously decided that it didn’t need the bad publicity. Just as it didn’t want bad publicity at the time of the G-20 lock-down – which anyway made any confrontation extremely difficult – it was prepared to just look on, some from the roof of the Congress building.

So nothing ‘happened’ that day in La Plata.

Speeches are made denouncing budget cuts

Speeches are made denouncing budget cuts

The people complained. Speeches were made and drums were beaten in response.

The budget was cut – for all social services. As expected.

In the Clarin newspaper the following day there was no mention at all about the demonstrations. Reporters and TV crews were there to record what happened inside the legislative building but seemed blind to what was going on outside. Such is the ‘free press’ under a capitalist system.

Marches will continue to happen. Governments might or might not change. The poor will get poorer and the rich will get richer.

Everything changes but nothing changes.

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Argentinian Diary – The Anti G-20 demonstration in Buenos Aires

Anti G-20 Demonstration - November 2018

Anti G-20 Demonstration – November 2018

Argentinian Diary – Day 7 – Part 2

The Anti G-20 Summit Demonstration

The Argentinian State had done all it could to reduce the scale of the demonstrations called by local workers’ organisations against the G-20 Summit but still thousands of people turned up to show their hated and distrust of the oligarchs who had, effectively, taken over their city.

As I’ve stated before public transport to and from the city centre was virtually non-existent. In the morning there was more movement than I expected but even so that was very limited. As the demonstration assembled and the riot police got prepared those few access roads were closed down. Vehicular traffic was virtually zero and pedestrians had a much longer walk from certain parts of the centre. More as a matter of design, I would have thought, rather than ignorance meant that there was no clear information of what exactly was closed.

The meeting up place was at the crossroads of Avenidas 9 de Julio and San Juan, at the very edge of what had been declared as a no-go area. On the other hand the very wide streets, devoid of vehicles made it a good, and safe, place to start.

I don’t intend to write too much about the demonstration itself providing the reader with the opportunity to see a number of videos which, I hope, capture the sense of occasion, the number of people involved, the colour, the noise and the intensity of feeling that the holding of this short summit in Buenos Aires had created amongst the working population.

Here I want to make a number of observations which came to me in the few hours I was on the street as well as what I’ve learnt from other information that I been able to gain by the very fact of being here.

The official start time was 15.00 (I arrived about 14.30) and already there were a lot of people lining up behind their respective banners. I assume that a later than normal start (midday I believe is the norm) was to allow people to get from the outskirts of town. In the blog that talked about the demonstrations in the centre of town which I came across, purely by chance, on Monday I mentioned how Argentinians are almost tribal when it comes to sticking with their group.

The principal organiser seems to have been the MST (Unemployed Workers Movement) as they held the pole position and a line of their stewards were in place to prevent any other group take the space planned for their about to arrive supporters. I did notice a few confrontations which didn’t come to violence but there were definitely stand-offs with people holding their corner.

Although the MST help the lead they did cede to a small group that included a couple of Madres of the Plaza de Mayo. Obviously out of respect for their long-term struggle but I would have thought it unlikely the women would have been there for more than a token period of time. It was a hot afternoon and demonstrations take an age to get a short distance.

As a publicity stunt the first line of the MST contingent was a line of women carrying the groups slogan against the G-20. Eight of them were bare-breasted and had the top parts of their bodies and faces painted in the colours of eight of the countries represented at the summit – the UK wasn’t amongst that group of eight. I assume the plan would have been to represent the twenty but they couldn’t get enough volunteers – one space was taken by a male with false, painted breasts.

By the number of press photographers shoving to get the right angle, and the number of interviews I saw as I went back and forth, their tactic worked. I’m sure those images went around the world – even if the message that the demonstration was giving to the world might not have been. There are some images in the gallery below.

I decided to record the event rather than be part of it. I would have walked alone and that didn’t make sense. By seeing the totality of the march I was able to get a sense of the number of political parties, obviously from the ‘left’, that exist in Argentina. I’m an outsider and haven’t really studied Argentina but I’m sure the differences between some of those groups are like the stones on an Incan temple, you would have difficulty in pushing a knife between them.

When you have a sizeable contingent which are supposed to be a United Front and then there are still separate groups then the united front isn’t very united.

I’m certainly not pushing for unity for the sake of it but the only winners with this division of the left throughout the world is then very people and interests this demonstration was against.

In all gatherings in Latin America, and I’ve seen it here whenever more than a handful of people get together, it’s not long before the street hawkers are swooping. With thousands of people standing around in the sun for a few hours the ice cream, cold drinks and even the sandwich sellers were making a killing. One near to me can be seen at a table where they were making sandwiches to order can be seen on one of the videos.

Police presence was very low-key until the march took the turn down the road to the Congress building. What the authorities didn’t want was for anyone to go straight ahead. This is the logic of the road but down there the Summit was being held.

To prevent that happening a wall of these metal ‘vallas’ had been created, the ‘L’ shaped metal Meccano like barriers which could be made as long as you like. Behind this barrier could be seen the heads of some of the 20,000 police who were there to ‘maintain order’. Their helmeted heads peeking out like Kilroy. Behind them stood all the technology developed to be used against people who a modern state can provide – the power of which I wouldn’t have a clue.

(I did pass small groups of police in riot gear along the route of the march as I overtook the main march after ending my recording. But they were discreet and many of the marchers would have been unaware of their presence, yet there was one group I passed who were being taunted with the chant below.)

On reaching this area many of the groups would start a chant which basically meant that what they wanted was for the federales to ‘fuck off’. I’ll try to (eventually) post that chant here.

And that last point is worthwhile stressing. Demonstrations, for those who can remember when people were prepared to fight for what they believed in and against injustice were like being in a morgue. Some people would chant something but after a while everyone else would get bored and silence would resume.

Not in Buenos Aires. A singer, with amplification, would start a chant and it would go on forever. Often accompanied by drummers and other instruments. When I say forever I mean from before the march moved off to when I arrived at whatever its eventual end would have been. And this was all amongst all the different groups.

The march moved off, hesitatingly, at just after 15.30 and arrived at the Congress Building about two hours later. From there the march broke into different groups following a route they had planned beforehand, taking the message to the people living in that area and then (I learnt afterwards) heading towards the Teatro Colon where a Gala was to be held at more or less that time. I’m sure the ‘dignitaries’ had all arrived there in plenty of time to avoid being molested by the hoi poloi.)

I made a mistake in my last post saying that this Gala was to be held on the Saturday night. That would have meant them staying in the country for a few more hours and no one really wanted to do that. Once the photo calls and press conferences had been endure it was time to go home.

I had a long diversion to get around the blocked streets but ended up in a bar a little before 19.00. I then had the very dubious ‘pleasure’ of being able to watch this Gala performance.

First came the group photo with all the world’s most powerful ‘leaders’ having made sure they weren’t by their worst enemy.

Then the Gala.

As I watched this mercifully short (about 40 minutes) performance I honestly started to feel sorry – but only for a few seconds – for these people who were forced to watch such performances and do so with a smile. It was supposed to have represented Argentinian culture, especially the tango dance and its regional varieties. But I though the choreography was banal and generic. What might work with a couple doesn’t necessarily do so on a full stage. I’m sure all the 19 ‘heads of state’ and the EU would have liked to have been anywhere else.

(But the theatre looks like it would merit a tour once the hype of the weekend is forgotten. Perhaps when I return to Buenos Aires later in my stay.)

Then they all went off for a meal, the cost of which would have kept an Argentinian worker in food for a year.

They do it because they can. Why do we let them?

(There are a series of ten videos, of varying length, which I’ve posted on YouTube. The first of these can be found at The mass demonstration against the G-20 in Buenos Aires, November 30th 2018.)

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Argentinian Diary – Demonstrations in central Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires Demonstration - 26th November 2018

Buenos Aires Demonstration – 26th November 2018

Argentinian Diary – Day 3

The day of the demonstration – or two

I was lucky on my first Monday morning in Buenos Aires/Argentina. I was looking for a shop to get a local SIM card. I didn’t find the place I was looking for but in the process came across people congregating for a demonstration – or was it two?

It seems that the little garden area to the south of the Obelisk, on Avenida 9 de Julio, in the central part of Buenos Aires is the traditional starting place for workers’ demonstrations. Arriving at that part of the city at around 11.00 on Monday 26th November 2018 I noticed a number of banners and went to investigate.

It was immediately obvious that this was a left-wing, anti-government gathering. The first banner I saw was one of the MST (Movimiento Sin Trabajo – Unemployed Workers Movement) but this was still in the early stages of people arriving and others were in the process of fixing their banners to their carrying poles.

In various Latin American countries there’s a form of displaying your banners and statements which is nation specific. Many countries don’t use poles at all and the banner is carried in the hands of the supporters. In many ways these banners are not designed to be preserved but address a particular issue. Here in Argentina they seem to go closer to what was the British tradition. That’s having a distinctive and long-term banner which indicates who the organisation is that is supporting the aims of the march.

Whilst not being as ornate as some of the Trade Union Banners that used to be paraded through the streets of various cities and towns of Britain (many of which, with factory and whole industry closures many of these are now only seen in the museum context of the People’s History Museum in Manchester) some of the banners had had significant time and effort expended upon their creation.

There was a variety of Party Political banners (not all of their political allegiance I could work out) but also a number of very local neighbourhood (barrio) banners. I liked that approach, in a way, as it was good that people are demonstrating in a way that shows solidarity based on where they lived. Trade Unions having been attacked and seriously challenged in all countries for various reasons what the working class needs are organisations which bring people together with something in common. ‘Issue politics’, which is becoming dominant throughout the world divides us rather than unites us. Where the working class live is still a positive uniting and organisation positive.

As we got closer to midday more and more people started to arrive. This demonstration was not going to be damp squib. But at that time I didn’t know of the strange situation that existed, but which all those there did.

One matter that struck me as I walked amongst this crowd (which had a higher presence of women than most of the demonstrations I have been on) was that this was not a representative selection of people from Argentinian society. I’ve only been here for a few days but on the streets there’s a mix of people from those with European features to those whose roots are obviously from a pre-Columbian culture. The latter tend to be shorter and with a darker complexion.

The overwhelming features of the crowd congregating close to the Obelisk were with an indigenous background. This is not really surprising. Throughout Latin America those with roots pre-Hispanic invasion are lucky to have survived. Those who have will almost invariably get the dirty end of the stick. Racism is as rife in Latin America as in other parts of the world. This ‘racial divide’ indicates that Argentina still has some way to go if the workers want to face the severe situation that is worsening by the day.

What was surprising, and disappointing, when I had the chance to think about my chance experience, was the lack of any organised, working class, trade union presence at this gathering. If they were there then I didn’t see them and there were certainly no work related banners. Organised labour was absent and that has obvious serious consequences for any struggle. It just demonstrates the effectiveness of the ruling class in being able to divert any struggle into a local matter (however important) rather than confront issues from a class standpoint.

This ‘neighbourhood environment, however, did have its positives. There was evidence that the ‘barrios’ had organised food for the people who had come to the demonstration. Some of them marched as a group to the meeting place, together with their drummers. As a foreigner I could see that people wanted to be with those they knew, their neighbours and friends. The jockeying for places was something I’ve never seen in the many demonstrations I’ve been on in my political life.

Without any announcement, at least which I heard, at 12.00 a section of the crowd moved away from the garden in the middle of what I understand is supposed to be the widest road in the world and started to form up at one of the slip roads.

Remembering two martyrs

Remembering two martyrs

But I should be giving an explanation of why this demonstration was taking place at all, To the best of my knowledge it was a reaction to the murder of a 36 year old activist, Rodrigo Orellana, who was involved in the occupation of a piece of empty land in an area to the south of Buenos Aires. He was shot in the back by the police very early in the morning of Thursday 22nd November. Another activist, Marcos Jesus Soria was killed by police in Cordoba last Saturday. There were other issues, there always are, in a time when the working class throughout the world are still paying the cost of the last capitalist crisis with the next one only around the corner, but Rodrigo’s and Marcos’s murders seems to have been the main reason for the calling of this demonstration, when the week itself was full of events due to the G20 meeting.

If I have read the situation correctly it was very impressive that so many people could have been called out onto the streets in such a short space of time.

Ready for action

Ready for action

Up to now there had been no obvious police presence. That changed when the first part of the demonstration moved away from the garden and onto the road. At first I was pleased that so many people were on the streets and would cause traffic chaos. But however many people were there it was all controlled by a couple of motorcycle, city police who were at the front of the march. The hundreds, thousands, of people who were on to the road would only be allowed to cross an intersection if the chaos of people blocking junctions could be minimised.

For reasons that make no sense, other than making a statement that the state is always ready to stand up against any workers manifestation of defiance, at the very place where the head of the march formed up, a contingent of about 30 riot police, with all their ‘necessary’ equipment were standing on the pavement, letting the demonstrators (many of whom were with very young children) know who was really in control. These miserable lapdogs of the ruling class are a carbuncle on society – in whatever country they might appear – and a rational approach to how to deal with them is something that should be in the thoughts of all revolutionaries. As a demonstration of female inclusiveness there was one woman, at least, in this group of state-sponsored and armed thugs.

Slowly more people joined the others on the road and the area around the garden started to empty out and eventually the MST banner mentioned above was at the rear. For some reason there appeared to be some hesitation to move off but when it did I was bemused to see that there were still hundreds of people, and a not inconsiderable number of banners still by the Obelisk – and there was no sign that they were going to move. All kinds of thoughts came through my mind. Was there some sort of political schism that I was unaware of and there had been a decision to split the march? I certainly hadn’t been aware of any animosity when I was mingling with the crowd. I just couldn’t work it out.

The march moves off

The march moves off

I followed the march for a few blocks to just before it turned right off the main avenue, heading in the direction of the Congress Building only a few more blocks away. I didn’t know what to do. I would have liked to have seen the march to its end but wanted to try to find out the reason why those who had not joined the march did so.

(From my political point of view I did see a banner and a flag of an organisation calling itself the ‘Partido Revolutionario Marxista-Leninista – which doesn’t seem to have an Internet presence (which I personally is over-rated but must be there if for no other reason that to direct people to Party publications and activities) so don’t know if it is a realistic entity. Depending upon my future plans I will attempt to search out this group in the coming weeks.)

Arriving back at the meeting point it was soon obvious that this was very much a neighbourhood event (ALL the banners were displaying that fact) as speakers were making their thoughts known. However, the PA system was far too inadequate for any but those really close to the speakers to be able to hear anything. Being at a busy traffic intersection didn’t help. This rally was also about deaths at the hands of the authorities and probably had been planned for some time – the reason that two separate demonstrations were taking place at the same time.

I don’t know if that rally was to later go on the streets and make their feelings known at a government building as the rally seemed to be going on forever and there was no sign of movement. Later that evening, reading a newspaper in a bar, a lot of my questions were answered – even more so the next day when the big demo that had moved towards the Congress Building was reported in Tuesday’s papers. I didn’t see any mention of the rally.

I can see that there might have been a desire on behalf of the organisers and supporters of this neighbourhood rally to have their case separate, in the hope of giving the issue more publicity but I don’t really understand why some effort wasn’t made to incorporate the original cause in the wider movement.

An efficient and effective PA could have been set up and the speakers could have addressed the whole of the crowd that had assembled. Then together the expanded group could have marched to the Congress. Nothing will change based on either of those two events but it would have been a move forward to unite all the grievances of the people against the ruling class of Argentina and the world.

(When I first planned this post I wasn’t aware that the 2018 G20 summit was due to take place here at the end of this week. That presents a couple of issues. First is that the area I am staying in will be virtually shut down from Thursday night until late on Sunday. That creates a logistical problem as I have a flight to the south early on Friday morning and, as of now, have no idea how to get to the airport as all the buses and transport are seriously disrupted. The other issue is that I would like to be here as I know there are a number of demonstrations planned and I’ll miss out. Hopefully, the Argentinian National Airline, Aerolineas Argentinas, are planning strike action this week and that might give me the opportunity to change my flight and stay for another few days. Time will tell.)

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