Argentina: Winners and losers of the agricultural conflict

Continuing Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal’s presentation of various positions in the debate within Argentina’s left around the rural crisis, we publish an exclusive translation of a recent article by Claudio Katz, an economist, researcher, professor and member of Economista de Izquierda (EDI -- Left Economists). Translated by Janet Duckworth. For previous articles on Argentina, go to http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/147

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The most important social and political conflict since the 2001 rebellion ended with a clear win for the right. The Sociedad Rural[1] shared an unforeseen victory with Patricia Bullrich, Elisa Carrio, Eduardo Duhalde and Luis Barrionuevo.[2] They celebrated the defeat of the variable export duties in the Senate with the kind of enthusiasm they have not shown for decades.

Reasons for the victory

The conservative bloc managed to swing the vote in the upper chamberof parliament because it had first won the battle in the streets. This street presence split the government bloc since the right defeated Peronism in the traditionally adverse terrain of the multitudes. Its crowds were twice as big as those supporting kirchnerismo in all rallies and it snatched the capital from them after having imposed themselves in Rosario. The shift from scenes of the road blocks to parliament -- with a huge spontaneous gathering around the ruralista tents near Congress -- highlighted the rural presence. All of the praise for the way in which the institutions functioned hid this shift to extra-parliamentary pressure, which included provocations and public denunciations. Cobos’ pathetic decision to cast his decisive vote obeyed an old legislative principle about guessing which way the wind is blowing. He didn’t vote according to conviction, since he has absolutely no principles. Trained in bourgeois politics, he sensed that the time was ripe to change sides.

Ruralismo won because it channelled a change in direction by the middle class which has gone from questioning corruption (“All of them must go”) to a conservative revolt. This shift began with Blumberg, was strengthened with Macri´s victory and culminated in a low-budget epic. This shift was confirmed on innumerable occasions during the conflict. The best known was that of the deputy president of the CRA who, accustomed to mistreating the farm workers on his estate, suggested dissolving Congress.

The reactionary climate was also reflected in the teflon “cacerolazos” (demonstrations in which participants bang pots and pans) which extolled the virtues of “the homeland united with the countryside”, announced their rejection of “tyrants” and demanded an end to the “human rights theme”. In some skirmishes -- all well covered by the media which discovered that blocking roads is legitimate when there are gringos and tractors involved -- voices were raised against “blacks”, “lazy bums” and “montoneros”.

Right-wing ideology was revived by the nature of a revolt championing profitability and consummated by a lockout. The bosses withstood four months of conflict because their workers never stopped working.

The ultimate joy of the rightists contrasts with the sorrow their spokesperson manifested when the outcome was still uncertain. At that time they tormented themselves over the appearance of “an invented conflict” which showed the “worst of Argentinean politics”.[4] They were angry because there was no stability in which to exercise unhindered domination and they called for capitalism to function without traumas. The same fantasy haunts the oppressors in any latitude when they look in the mirror of a more successful equal.

However, victory improved their mood and now they are advising Christina. Unlike past crises, this one did not include financial catastrophe or hyperinflation. Therefore nobody is demanding a change of presidents. Cobos’ action is different from Chacho Alvarez’ resignation as vice president [in 2001], as it comes at a time when economic circumstances leave some room for a the government to rebuild itself.

The right wants to shore itself up by encouraging the government to become more conservative and this could begin with a ministerial shuffle and an increase in [custom] duties. Its spokespeople think that “the government has an opportunity to start anew” if it abandons the ”Kirchnerist style”. In the immediate future what they want is peace and quiet. The demonstrations that had the government cornered have done their job and are now irritating the owners of power.

The causes of the defeat

The government received an angry blow. It staked all or nothing and was rewarded with a mighty slap in the face. A few months after taking power it has suffered the erosion of its electoral support, lost popularity and distanced itself from the middle class. Its parliamentary bloc broke discipline, several governors changed sides and the Radical K [members and ex-members of the Civic Radical Union that support Kirchner] are preparing an exodus. In the Peronist ranks, the option led by Duhalde and Rodriguez Saa and other experts at adapting to the reactionary mood (Sola, Reutman, Schiaretti) has recovered its strength.

Nestor Kirchner’s backsliding is attributed to his obstinacy, whims and autism. However, it in fact followed a course that had been rehearsed by many presidents before. It is not only the desire for power that links the Alfonsinist[5] dream of creating a third historic movement from the capital in Viedma with the Menem-like manoeuvres for re-election. All strategic projects have sought to consolidate presidential power.

The government lost out in the confrontation with the rural movement because of a series of blunders and desperate acts which made it appear to have completely lost control. For four months, the government oscillated between economic concessions and political provocation. Using mob-style language accompanied by authoritarian gestures, it demanded “unconditional surrender” from its adversaries, all the while accepting the requests from the rural faction, except the emblematic Resolution 125.

In spite of having a fairly large fiscal surplus to go up against the considerable harvest stored up by agrobusiness, the Kirchners only managed to get a momentary breathing space when the roadblocks were lifted. The winners never lost the initiative.

The first reason for this failure was the government’s refusal to encourage popular mobilisation outside of the regimented framework of the Partido Justicialista (Peronist), the CGT and the coopted organisations. They didn’t build up this support during their five-year administration and neither did they come up with anything during the crisis. The fear of reviving the 2001-2002 uprising made cowards of a couple who got to the presidency to rebuild the state and dissipate any signs of an uprising from below.

Second, the government lost because it never distanced itself from the bankers and industrialists who demanded that the confrontation be brought to an end. This alliance prevented the trumpeted income redistribution in an inflationary context. If the government did not significantly increase wages and pensions it is because it advocates a neo-developmentalist capitalism that is incompatible with such improvements.

The third reason for the right’s victory was the lack of trust shown by the majority in a government whose discourse is divorced from practice. The population’s sixth sense can tell that INDEC’s [National Institute of Statistics and Census] tricks indicate there will be no movement in wages, and not just against any movement in income from indexed securities. The Menem stamp on the bullet train doesn’t go unnoticed either and the exaggerated attacks by Kirchner against “civilian commandos and work groups” only highlighted the lack of credibility of a policy that turns close allies into enemies overnight.

This radicalism discourse which Luis D’Elia[6] and Hebe de Bonafini[7] were the first to put into practice made the right very angry but aroused no popular support since a shower of accusations does not correct political orphanhood. While Alfredo De Angelis[8] managed to fire up his conservative base, the government’s words did not meet with a similar reaction.

The people’s distrust has been generated by the government’s duplicity. The tolerance for the rural sector’s protest contrasted with the repression dished out to the impoverished in Jujuy by a Kirchnerista governor. The same unequal treatment was seen again in the favourable way the government reacted to the tents near Congress whereas those who attempted to hold a popular demonstration in the Plaza de Mayo were beaten back with truncheons.

But what explains all this is the fact that Peronism as a popular movement has been worn out. The political structure allows it to win elections and manage the state, but arouses no enthusiasm. What is currently being recreated in Venezuela has gone into decline in Argentina. The Kirchners lost because they head a movement laden down with the baggage of too many disappointments and which cannot rebuild a popular project.

Justifications for the progressives.

For the intellectuals who support the government the success of the right only goes to show how big the challenge facing it is. They think that the Kirchners confronted the interests of the establishment over a project to redistribute income and that it lost because of the extremely explosive nature of the interests at stake.[9]

However the conservatives’ reaction to it does not make the government a champion of popular causes. This role should be demonstrated by the way it -- and not the opposition -- behaves. Increasing inequality and the subsidies to the powerful show that the government is not in the oppressed’s camp, notwithstanding the rejection it gets from the establishment. What people think about a government should be based on what it does and not on the diatribes of ultra-right journalist Marciano Grondona or La Nación.

A kind of “inverse sympathy” (“the right attacks them so I defend them”) once again brought a sector of the progressive movement closer to the government. They put their criticisms on the back burner so as to ponder about a government which created spaces that were “hardly bourgeois” in the absence of “proposals coming from its left” or movements with “more advanced demands”.[10] But in fact there are plenty of these alternatives and demands made to a government which turns its back on them.

Every time a social conflict erupted outside of the government structures, the Kirchners’ response was hostile. This kind of reaction is consistent with a policy -- which it has followed since 2002 -- aimed at rebuilding the dominant classes’ power. The right also rejects them because they don’t belong to the conservative elite, govern by arbitrating between all capitalist factions, limit the worst social inequalities and spout an anti-establishment discourse.

The progressive camp confuses this political enmity with a clash of social interests. It cannot distinguish the former divergence from the latter coincidence. This is why they attribute the current defeat to bad management of the conflict and not to a commitment to the banks, the UIA (Union Industrial Argentina, Argentine Industrial Union) and the sowing pools. This way of looking at things tends to repeat the same message made fashionable by ruralismo.

Some people highlight the [Kirchners’] monarchical attitude of running the country as if it were a province, of avoiding consensus and of locking themselves into sectarian-type logic as if this style were something new in the Peronist tradition.[11] Others object to the election of annoying protagonists[12] or the repetition of a seventies-style discourse which “talks about the oligarchy and does not adapt itself to the fact that times have changed”.[13] This latter objection comes from the dissident wing of Peronism that aims to promote a conservative shift in the government.

These evaluations lead towards the conclusion of building bridges to the opposition, along the same lines as demanded by the establishment. However these are conclusions which contradict the repeated assessment that there is a coup in the making.[14] If there were a threat of destabilisation (that is, actions aimed at organising an attempted economic-institutional coup) it would make more sense to get ready for a more radical battle instead of making agreements with the enemy.

Those who support the government have not taken note of the fact that the people are hardly receptive to its messages. This indifference is because government publicity emphasises certain facts (“employment has risen”, “we have overcome the crisis”) and hides what is most important (the lack of social reforms, of political democratisation and redistribution of income).

During the conflict many from the government ranks repeated constitutionalist banalities (“the government is defending general interests against sectoral interests”) as if the Kirchners had no commitments to the capitalists. They stressed those legal-type arguments (“the government won the elections and should be challenged in elections”) which are often used against social struggles which support the left.[15] If these arguments which stick closely to the letter of the law ruled political life in Argentina De la Rúa would still be in office.

The ruralista left

Contrary to what has happened in the last few years, the left’s participation in the conflict was diluted. Its role was less visible than in any preceding crisis but this time not because of sectarianism, internal squabbles or tactical mistakes but because of the unprecedented alignment between one sector of the left with ruralismo.

The Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores (MST, Socialist Movement of Workers), along with the Partido Comunista Revolucionario (PCR, Revolutionary Communist Party) and Raul Castells[16] took an active position in favour of this bloc. They attended its rallies, guarded the Green Tent, carried red flags to the Palermo meeting, took part in the vigil which surrounded the Senate when it was deliberating and in the end celebrated together with the Rural Society. They have constructed an upside down world so they can present this victory for the right as a popular triumph.

The main justification of this nonsense is the mass nature of the rural demands “which went unnoticed by a large part of the left” because “it bought the government’s tall tales” and “did not take the trouble to go and see the real situation in the small towns”.[17] However, the massive scope of the ruralista demonstration is an irrefutable fact that no one denies; what is in debate is whether it had or not a progressive character. As has been shown by the autonomists in Bolivia, the students in Venezuela and the Zionists in Israel, a reactionary demonstration can attract huge crowds. The history of Argentinean “gorilismo”[18] is a well-known example of such a case.

Those who are ignorant of the existence of conservative rebellions with a strong social underpinnings think that “the left had lost its bearings” by “standing on the opposite side of the road to that that of the mass movement.”[19] But they didn’t realise that the starting point for a socialist policy begins with deciding what is the nature of the demand at stake and in seeing where the principle enemies stand.

In the case in point, the demand to eliminate a tax on agrarian rent led all of the right to align itself with ruralismo. The mere presence of the Sociedad Rural and the Coalición Cívica demanding the repeal of the variable customs duty confirmed that position from the start. When it acted in conjunction with the two latter groups, the ruralista left legitimised a campaign for capitalist profits.

It is true that the self-convened assemblies gave a more bellicose tone to the protest, against leaders who would have preferred to negotiate. However, this behaviour only reinforced the disastrous effects of the lockout on food supply. It is absurd to equate this action with a strike. The farm labourers worked while their bosses blocked roads demanding higher profits and not better wages. This is why the proposal to radicalise the protest coincided with the PRO’s belligerence.

Presenting a demand by the bosses as a demand of “small farmers” was given the lie by the lasting alliance between the Federación Agrario[20] and the other groupings. Eduardo Buzzi[21] and De Angeli did not set forth “a correct criticism of the agricultural model”.[22] They hierarchised the repeal of the taxes and therefore the conflict eased when the resolution was defeated.

To draw an analogy with the uprising seven years ago is completely erroneous. Whereas at that time those who had small deposits and the unemployed defended their savings against the banks, this time around the middle class acted in conjunction with the owners of agribusiness.

Other sectors of the rural left – like the PCR -- have even questioned the validity of the taxes arguing that this kind of fiscal measure was suggested “by the oligarchy to avoid a direct tax on property”.[23] However, they forget to add that in the recent demonstrations no proposals were made to overcome this distortion with progressive tax collection mechanisms. On the contrary, there was a struggle to reduce any tax to the lowest possible amount in order to improve the income of capitalists. Those who are proud to “be part of the FAA’s leadership” have accompanied their regression without noticing that the old agrarian cooperativism that was left leaning has withered away as soy has advanced.

During the first Peronism the left was buried because it chose the wrong side. Seventy years later a sector of the left is making the same mistake again. Some justify this behaviour with the argument that it was the only option left in the face of Kirchnerism. However, there are in fact many ways to fight the reactionaries without supporting the government. Taking this road means recognising that the right “is not a ghost” and was located within the ruralist bloc.

A left policy

For four months the country was polarised and no third path that rejected conservative ruralismo and was critical of the government emerged. We have to reflect on these difficulties since it is possible that the same scenario will reoccur in the future. One problem that could come up again is the program. In order to intervene in a crisis it is absolutely essential to put forward proposals that are relevant to the problems in play so as to build bridges between the population’s concerns and the banners of the left. In the recent crisis this nexus obviously included the variable [customs] duties which caused the confrontation. Suggesting they be applied temporarily as a progressive tax to reduce VAT and increase wages is one example of the kind of connection that could be made. When the whole country is convulsed by the duties, it is essential to deal with the subject and come up with a proposal.

It is true that these duties are an economic policy tool to divorce local and international prices but in recent events they were being used as a tax. This complexity does not justify silence. All Argentineans knew during the conflict that a [customs] duty was being discussed and that their progressive implementation to be used for social priorities was on the agenda.

It is a serious mistake to suppose that the continued existence or repeal of the variable export duties is “a bourgeois problem that has nothing to do with the workers’ interests”. If both situations were identical, we would also have to be indifferent to taxes on huge fortunes or on the goods the population in general consumes. The problem is similar to that of privatisations. The government’s wastefulness or arbitrariness in the way it runs public companies do not mean it does not matter if the oil, telephone or water companies are in state or in private hands.

A false polarisation once again dominated Argentine political life and the left was not able to come up with any other option. Simple denunciations of “struggle between capitalists” in which “all are the same” do not aid in the construction of an alternative, given that this message leads to passivity. In the nascent space, “another path to overcome the crisis” a more useful course of action began to appear which needs to be extended.[24]

Notes

[1] Argentine Rural Society: a private organisation that unites the large landowners tied to agricultural activities in Argentina.

[2] Patricia Bullrich: national deputy for the city of Buenos Aires for the centre right Civic Coalition; Elisa Carrio: leader of the centre right Civic Coalition; Eduardo Duhalde: former president of Argentina (2001-2003) from the Peronist Justicialist Party; Luis Barrionuevo: secretary of the right-wing split from the General Confederation of Workers.

[3] Montoneros: Peronist guerrilla organisation in the seventies.

[4] Sergio Bernstein, “La duras lecciones que deja la crisis”, La Nacion 12/06/08.

[5] Raul Alfonsin: first Argentine president (1983-89) following the fall of the military dictatorship. He was elected on the UCR ticket.

[6] Luis D’Elia: leader of Federación de Tierra y Vivienda (FTV, Federation for Land and Housing), which is aligned with kirchnerismo, including hold posts in the government.

[7] Hebe de Bonafini: leader of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo).

[8] Alberto De Angeli: president of the Federación Agraria Argentina (FAA, Argentina Agrarian Federation) affiliate in Entre Rios, one of the key sites of protest against the government.

[9] This is Edgardo Mocca`s conclusion “¿Tuvo sentido el conflicto?”, Pagina 12, 20/07/08. This idea is also common amongst the intellectuals who make up “Carta Abierta” (Open Letter).

[10] Toer Mario, “De illusiones y realidad” Pagina 12, 06/04/08.

[11] Alcira Argumedo y Pino Solanas, “La noche del Senado” Pagina 12, 18/07/08.

[12] “Si tengo problemas con la clase media no puedo elegir a Luis D’Elia para que las persuada” Mocca.

[13] Ricardo Sidicaro, “Apenas ayer” Pagina 12, 19/07/08.

[14] Giardinelli, Mempo, “Paisajes después de la batalla”, Página 12, 18/07/08; Giardinelli, Mempo, “De golpes, Carmonas y tiros por la culata”, Página 12, 18/07/08.

[15] “The 200.000 people in Rosario have to be weighed up against the eight million votes... The law must rule”, Carlos Vilas, “Es el poder”, Página 12, 12-6-08.

[16] Raul Castells: leader of the Movimiento Independiente de Jubilados y Desocupados (MIJD, Independent Movement of Retired Workers and Unemployed).

[17] “Argentina: It's only a small step from sectarianism to support for Kirchner”, Sergio Garcia, Links, http://links.org.au/node/526.

[18] Used to refer to right-wing anti-Peronist forces, more broadly refers to right wing military coup plotters.

[19] Arturo Vaca, “Perdió la brújula” Alternativa Socialista 477, 19/6/08; Vilma Ripoll, “Con los chacareros”, Página 12, 3/7/08.

[20] Argentine Agrarian Federation: the private institution that serves as a business organisation for small and medium agricultural producers in Argentina. It was founded on August 15, 1912, after the first employers' strike action of agrarian farmers demanding protection from the exploitation of big landowners.

[21] Eduardo Buzzi: head of the FAA.

[22] Sergio Garcia, Links, http://links.org.au/node/526

[23] “During the 2001 Argentinazo we had to support the middle-class sectors of the city who were demanding the return of their savings. Now we have to support the middle-class sectors of the countryside whose demands are against a government that burdens them on the same scale as the large producers.” Sergio Garcia, Links, http://links.org.au/node/526

[24] See “Another path to overcome the crisis”, Links, http://links.org.au/node/453

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