Ideas for the struggle #11 - Popular consultations: spaces that allow for the convergence of different forces

1. I have previously argued the case for the need to create a large social bloc against neoliberalism that can unite all those affected by the system. To achieve this, it is fundamental that we create spaces that allow for the convergence of specific anti-neoliberal struggles where, while safeguarding the specific characteristics of each political or social actor, common tasks can be taken up that help strengthening the struggle

2. In this respect, I think that popular consultations or plebiscites can be very interesting spaces. These can allow us to mobilize behind a single concrete task of convincing—by undertaking door-to-door popular education—a large number of people and youth who are beginning to awaken to politics, who want to contribute to a better world, who very often do not know how to do it, and who are not willing to be active in the traditional way, because many of them reject politics and politicians

3. Moreover, this concrete door-to-door work leads to having to directly relate to impoverished popular sectors and their arduous living conditions. Many can be radicalized by coming into contact with so much poverty. 

4. A recent example of this was the referendum held in Uruguay on December 8, 2003, to decide whether to repeal or ratify a law supporting the partnership of the state oil company ANCAP—that has held a monopoly over oil since its foundation in 1931—with foreign private capital. The new company was to be managed and run by the foreign partner. 

5. The vote to reject the privatization of the state oil company won by a wide margin (62.02% of the vote), and by a bigger percentage than was foreseen in the polls leading up to the vote (50.2%). 

6. The law had been approved in 2002. Having proven that irregularities were committed by the new managers of ANCAP, the left-wing political coalition, Frente Amplio (Broad Front), and allied social and union organizations decided to promote a campaign to collect signatures in support of a referendum against the law. Around 700,000 signatures were required. 

7. In the midst of the petition campaign, the financial crisis of mid-2002 occurred: the value of the dollar doubled within days, some people lost their life savings, many bank accounts were frozen, there were massive company closures and unemployment surpassed the historic high of 13%, rising to 20%, something unbearable for a country like Uruguay. Social discontent increased. The possibility of turning the popular consultation into a symbolic act of rejection of the government’s policies allowed the campaign to grow, gain strength and motivate people. 

8. Even though the mass media was totally hostile and tried to ignore the existence of the initiative, the house-to-house campaign to collect signatures across the country was more powerful than the media blockade. The strong point of the campaign, once again, was the work done in the grassroots, shoulder-to-shoulder, talking with people in their homes and using modest local radio stations that supported the cause

9. The initial weight of the campaign was shouldered more by the social organizations than the political instrument [party], which was somewhat hampered by its initial hesitations. But when the Frente Amplio joined the campaign, it once again demonstrated its clarity in the debates and the great potential of neighborhood, trade unionist and propagandistic activism. 

10. The initiative was supported by all the tendencies in the PIT-CNT union confederation, the FUCVAM (Unitary Federation of Mutual Aid Cooperatives)—which carried out an important mass mobilization across the whole country—and the student movement (FEUU), also joined the campaign, although with little force. 

11. The right wing took the initiative to start with (in relation to the referendum). It was able to cover the walls of Montevideo with slogans attacking Tabaré Vasquez, then FA presidential candidate, and in support of the law. Within weeks, thousands of walls were recovered and the right disappeared off the streets. 

12. From that moment on (August-September 2003) fractures began to appear in the traditional parties: the Partido Nacional (National Party) mayor from Paysandú (a large city and former industrial center on the border with Argentina, today in ruins) declared himself in support of abolishing the law. The same occurred with many local leaders from outside the capital and some mid-level national leaders. 

13. Another example, if we focus on recent ones, is the consultation over the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) held in Argentina in November 2003, where more than two million votes were cast. It was organized by the Autoconvocatoria NO al ALCA (Self-initiated No to FTAA), a diverse and large space that brought together a growing number of movements and trade unions, professionals, women, farmers, environmentalists, religious and human rights groups, political parties, and neighborhood, cooperative and business organizations. 

14. Even when some of these consultations lacked legal backing, they still had an important political effect. Proof of this was the declaration made by Argentina’s then head of cabinet, Alberto Fernández, who stated that the result of the consultation should be taken into consideration by the government at the time of making a decision concerning the FTAA. 

15. On the other hand, this experience allowed thousands of activists from different backgrounds to work together in carrying out the popular consultation. Participation within this large and diverse space is what enabled the proposal to reach different popular sectors that are usually separated from each other, both geographically and socially

This is the eleventh in a series of twelve articles that were first published in 2004 and have been updated and revised for publication in a second edition the pamphlet Ideas for the struggle.