of the Ordinary
By Naomi Klein
by kind permission of No Logo
How do you celebrate the anniversary
of something that is impossible to define? That was the question
faced by tens of thousands of Argentinians on December 20 2002 as
they marched from all corners of Buenos Aires to the historic Plaza
de Mayo. It was a year to the day since the first "Argentinazo",
a word that is completely untranslatable into English or, for that
matter, Spanish. The Argentinazo was not a riot exactly, although
it sure looked like one on the television, with looters ransacking
supermarkets and mounted police charging into crowds; 33 people
were killed across the country. It wasn't an ordinary revolution,
either, although it sort of looked like one on the face of it, with
angry crowds storming the seat of government and forcing the president
to resign in disgrace.
But, unlike a classic revolution, the Argentinazo
was not organised by an alternate political force that wanted to
take power for itself. And, unlike a riot, it pulsed with a unified
and unequivocal demand: the immediate removal of all the corrupt
politicians who had grown rich while Argentina, once the envy of
the developing world, spiralled into poverty.
In reality, the Argentinazo was just what the word
itself sounds like: a chaotic explosion of Argentinian-ness, during
which hundreds of thousands of people suddenly and spontaneously
left their homes, poured on to the streets of the capital, banged
pots and pans, yelled at banks, fought police, revved motorcycles,
sang football anthems and managed to send the president fleeing
his palace in a helicopter. Over the following 12 days, the country
would go through five presidents and would default on its $95bn
debt, the largest default in history. (The fifth, "caretaker"
president Eduardo Duhalde, is still hanging on to power, and elections
are planned for April.)
Now, one year on, as enormous crowds fill the Plaza
de Mayo once again, it is clear that this is a significant day -
but what, exactly, is it marking? Is it a celebration of a national
revolt against corporate globali-sation, a mood that seems to be
spreading across Latin America, with the Workers' Party taking power
in Brazil, and privatisation programmes stopped in their tracks
from Mexico to Peru? Is it the beginning of Argentinazo: The Sequel,
a forward-looking movement that will replace the failed recipes
of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with something better?
In the end, December 20 2002 is not a day of jubilant
celebration or of particularly convincing fist-waving. The mood,
instead, is one of mourning, nowhere more so than at the corner
of Avenida de Mayo and Chacabuco, in front of the headquarters of
HSBC Argentina, a hulking 28 storeys of Darth Vader-tinted glass.
It was on this same piece of asphalt that 23-year-old Gustavo Benedetto
fell to the ground exactly a year earlier, killed by a bullet that
came from inside the bank. The man charged with the murder - who
had been in a group of police officers caught on video shooting
through the bank's tinted glass - is Lieutenant Jorge Varando, chief
of HSBC's building security. He is also a retired elite military
officer who was active during the 1970s, when 30,000 Argentines
were "disappeared", many of them kidnapped from their
homes, brutally tortured and then thrown from planes into the muddy
waters of the Rio de la Plata.
From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, Argentina
was a profoundly undemocratic place, ruled by a succession of juntas
who, even when they did allow for limited elections, barred the
populist Peronist party from putting up candidates. It was in this
context that leftwing students and workers first began organising
themselves into guerrilla armies. Many of these activists thought
that they were starting a socialist revolution, though for Juan
Peron, who prodded them on from his exile in Spain, the militias
were just a means with which to expedite his glorious return as
paternalistic leader. The largest armed faction of this growing
opposition was the Montoneros, a youth movement that borrowed its
populist politics from Evita and its guerrilla warfare theory from
Che Guevara. Though such cells never posed a serious threat to national
security, the Argentinian army used a series of guerrilla attacks
on military and corporate targets as an excuse to declare an all-out
campaign against the left - the generals called the action "a
war on terror", but the name that has stuck ever since has
been "the Dirty War".
Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina was ruled by a
twisted military regime that combined fundamentalist Catholic social
control with fundamentalist free-market economics; it banned rock
music while it raked in billions of dollars-worth of loans and investment
from foreign banks and multinational corporations. The generals
saw it as their mission to cleanse Marxist and other "subversive"
thought from every school, workplace, church and neighbourhood.
At the same time, they also saw it as their right to profit personally
from this crusade, not only skimming from public coffers but also
stealing private houses, possessions and even children from the
people they tortured and killed (the state was eventually forced
to pay compensation to many of the victims' families).
To this day, the generals deny almost everything
and, thanks to an official state pardon, the killers of that time
now walk free - the despised Leopoldo Galtieri, who led Argentina
into the disastrous Falklands war and who died earlier this month,
took many of his secrets with him to his grave. Since the end of
the military dictatorship, however, several exhaustive fact-finding
investigations have gathered evidence about abuses during and after
the Dirty War. It was by combing through these investigations that
Argentinian human rights groups discovered that Varando, the man
whom the HSBC had put in charge of its security operations, was
one of a group of military personnel accused by relatives of the
disappeared of war crimes during an attack on the La Tablada military
barracks in 1989. A report by the Organisation of American States'
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, completed in 1997, states
that two prisoners at the La Tablada base, Ivan Ruiz and Jose Alejandro
Diaz, were "disappeared" under the watch of Major Jorge
Varando. Varando says that he transferred Ruiz and Diaz to another
officer, and when that officer was later killed in the action, he
believed the prisoners had escaped. Because of a subsequent amnesty,
however, there was never a full criminal investigation into the
events at La Tablada. Today, in connection with a separate incident,
Varando is awaiting trial for the murder of Gustavo Benedetto.
At the corner of Avenida de Mayo and Chacabuco,
where the HSBC's plateglass facade is now encased in reinforced
steel as impenetrable as the mirrored sunglasses on the police officers
standing guard outside, Argentina's past and present have come crashing
together. Benedetto's alleged killer worked for a foreign bank,
one of the very same foreign banks that swallowed the savings of
millions of Argentinians when the government declared a freeze on
bank withdrawals in early December 2001. While the accounts were
locked, the peso was "unpegged" from the US dollar and
the currency went into free-fall. When the banking freeze was partially
lifted a year later and customers could once again get at their
money, their savings had lost two-thirds of their value.
Though banks such as HSBC blame the government
for the freeze, the measure was in fact a response to the fact that
private banks had helped their wealthiest customers to whisk roughly
$20bn out of Argentina over the previous year. At the time, there
was no ban on taking capital out of the country. A particularly
dramatic moment came last January, when police raided an HSBC branch,
as well as several other banks, searching for evidence that hundreds
of armoured vehicles had been used to transport billions of undeclared
US dollars to the Ezeiza International Airport in cash. The foreign
banks claimed that the authorities were looking for scapegoats to
blame for the economic crisis, and HSBC Holdings Ltd says that its
locally incorporated subsidiary has always acted in accordance with
Argentinian laws. It is not aware of any evidence that its subsidiary
participated in flight capital.
According to the prosecuting attorney in the capital
flight case, the investigation into allegations of "fraud against
the state, and illegal association" is ongoing, and so far
no charges have been laid.
At the core of the allegations against the foreign
banks is the timing: the exodus of cash took place only days before
the government froze all withdrawals, leading to a widespread belief
that the banks - unlike regular Argentinians who were taken by surprise
- had been tipped off that the freeze was imminent. This is an important
point, because for many of Argentina's richest families and businesses,
the banking fiasco and devaluation has actually made them richer
than they were before: they now pay their employees, their expenses
and their debts in devalued pesos, but - thanks to the banks - their
savings are safely stored outside the country in US dollars. It's
a highly profitable arrangement.
After the $20bn in "disappeared" capital
was discovered, there was so much public outrage that several foreign
bankers faced charges under Argentina's "economic subversion"
law, which prohibits acts that sabotage the country's economy. This
obstacle was neatly dealt with last May, however, when a coalition
of banks, headed by HSBC, successfully lobbied to have the law struck
This incident has been linked to yet another controversy,
this one involving bribery, legislators and foreign banks. In August,
the Financial Times published allegations made by bankers and diplomats
that Argentinian legislators had solicited bribes from foreign banks
in exchange for offers to vote down several pieces of legislation
that would have cost the financial institutions hundreds of millions
of dollars a year. The banks reportedly turned down the offers.
After the article was published, several banks were again raided
by Argentinian police - among them HSBC's headquarters and the private
residence of a senior HSBC spokesperson - this time to search for
evidence of the reported bribe solicitation and to discover the
source of the allegation.
There has been speculation that the raids were
politically motivated, to get back at the banks for going public
with the bribery allegations. When Mike Smith, president of HSBC
Argentina, testified at a legal hearing about the scandal, he said
that he had no specific knowledge of the incidents described in
the Financial Times and denied HSBC paid any bribes. He also said
that soliciting bribes in exchange for favourable laws was common
practice in Argentina. This investigation, too, is ongoing.
Benedetto was only one of the 33 people who died
violently during the Argentinazo of 2001. But his story, haunted
by the ghosts of history, yet so unmistakably modern, has become
a symbol for a country now trying to make sense of its unrelenting
economic crisis. How can 27 children die of hunger every day in
a country that is so naturally abundant that it once fed much of
Europe and North America? How can a nation where factory workers
used to buy homes and cars on the highest wages in Latin America
now have the highest unemployment rate on the continent and an average
wage lower than Mexico's? Benedetto thought that his government
owed him answers to those questions, which was why he went to the
plaza that December day.
"Once upon a time there was a country called
Argentina," writes journalist Sergio Ciancaglini, "where
many people disappeared and where, years later, the money disappeared,
too. One thing is related to the other." Ciancaglini argues
that anyone who wishes to understand what happened to Argentina's
missing wealth must first journey back into its past, to find out
what happened to its missing people. Since the Argentinazo, there
has been a grassroots explosion of groups embarking on precisely
such a journey, a kind of national forensic detective mission that
is linking the economic interests of the generals' dictatorship
with the policies that drove the economy into ruin years later.
The belief - the hope - is that when these pieces are finally put
together, Argentina may finally be able to break the cycle of state
terror and corporate plunder that has enslaved this country, like
so many others, for far too long.
Benedetto loved reading books about history and
economics. According to his older sister, Eliana, "he wanted
to understand how such a great country could have ended up in such
a mess". Gustavo dreamed of being a professor of history, but
that was a goal for a more optimistic time. When his father died
in March 2000, Gustavo had to find a job, any job, with which he
could support his mother and sister. It was a bad time to be looking
for work. In La Tablada, the post-industrial suburb where the Benedettos
live, most of the factories were already boarded up. The best job
he could find was as a supermarket clerk in a nearby mall.
But at least he had work. Though the world's press
discovered Argentina's economic crisis only relatively recently,
it had been a fact of life in neighbourhoods such as La Tablada
for at least six years. In the mid-1990s, when the IMF was still
holding up Argentina as a miracle of economic growth, as a model
of the riches that awaited poor nations who fling open their doors
to foreign investment, unemployment was already reaching crisis
levels. It's a pattern that has been replicated many times across
Latin America, in countries who have followed similar free-market
reforms; today, only Chile survives as a putative "success
story", while more than 50% of Argentina's population has fallen
below the official poverty line.
Oddly, when Argentina had less wealth on paper,
fewer Argentinians went hungry. Many complex economic factors contributed
to this shift, from changes in agricultural export crops to falling
wages in the industrial sector. But there were some simple changes
that played a part, too, such as the fact that small neighbourhood
markets used to sell food on credit during difficult times, a little
bit of grace that disappeared when Argentina became a globalisation
showcase and those small shops were replaced by foreign-owned hypermarkets
the size of Aztec temples, with names such as Carréfour,
Wal-Mart, and Dia, the Spanish-owned chain where Gustavo finally
managed to get a job.
So it probably wasn't a coincidence that, in the
days leading up to the Argentinazo, many of the hypermarkets found
themselves under siege, looted by mobs of unemployed men, their
faces covered by T-shirts turned into makeshift balaclavas. When
Gustavo showed up for work at Dia on December 19, the atmosphere
was unbearably tense: no one knew whether this concrete castle was
about to be the next stormed by hungry, angry mobs. At noon, the
manager decided to end the suspense and close early.
When Gustavo arrived home, he turned on the television.
What he saw was a country in open revolt, with protests erupting
everywhere. All day and all night, he flicked from one station to
the next, but by 10.40pm every station was showing the same image:
President Fernando de la Rua, his face clammy with sweat, stiffly
reading from a prepared text. Argentina, he said, was under attack
from "groups that are enemies of order who are looking to spread
discord and violence". He declared a state of siege.
For many Argentinians, the president's declaration
sounded like a prelude to a military coup - and that was a fatal
mistake for the de la Rua government. Gustavo watched live images
of the Plaza de Mayo filling up with people. They were banging pots
and pans with spoons and forks, a wordless but roaring rebuke to
the president's instructions: Argentinians would not give up basic
freedoms in the name of "order", they declared. They had
tried that before under the junta, and it had ended badly. And then
a single rebellious cry rose up from the crowds of grandmothers
and high-school students, motorcycle couriers and unemployed factory
workers, their words directed at the politicians, the bankers, the
IMF and every other "expert" who claimed to have the perfect
recipe for Argentina's prosperity and stability: "Que se vayan
todos!" - everyone must go! - they said.
Gustavo slept fitfully that night. When he arrived
for work the next morning, the store was completely boarded up,
so he went back home and turned on the television again. It was
then that he felt an impulse he had never had before - he wanted
to join a political demonstration. All of a sudden, Gustavo, an
easy-going guy who had not protested against anything in his life,
leapt up from the couch, flicked off the TV and told his mother
that he was going downtown.
On his way to the bus stop, Gustavo asked several
friends from the La Tablada neighbourhood if they wanted to come
along with him - to be part of this history they were seeing unfolding
on their television screens. But he couldn't find any takers: most
people in La Tablada had had enough of history. During the 1970s
and 1980s, this working-class neighbourhood was literally caught
in the crossfire between the army and the guerrillas: several leftwing
cells were active in the area at the time, and it was also home
to Infantería Mecanizada No 3 de La Tablada, a large military
base that was the site of alleged human rights abuses. In La Tablada,
the Dirty War was even filthier than it was elsewhere, with parents
bumping into their children's killers at the corner shop. And since
any kind of contact with a leftist was enough to get you branded
a collaborator, the safest course of action was to retreat into
your home: doors were closed on former friends looking for sanctuary,
blinds were hastily drawn when there was a commotion outside, the
radio was turned up to drown out screams from neighbouring apartments.
In La Tablada, as elsewhere in Argentina, residents learned to live
faithfully by the philosophy of the terror times: "No se meta"
- don't get involved. It's an attitude that has survived to this
day. Gustavo, however, had decided to break with that tradition.
He had no way of knowing that the tactics of the dictatorship were
about to return to the streets of Buenos Aires. During the two hours
it took him to get from the suburbs to downtown Buenos Aires, the
chief of police had sent down an order to "clear the Plaza
de Mayo". At first, the riot squads used rubber bullets and
tear gas; then they switched to live ammunition.
The police pushed the crowds on to Avenida de Mayo
and the crowds pushed back. At around 4pm, a group of around 20
police officers were looking for a safe place to take refuge and
reload their weapons. They chose the lobby of the HSBC, one of the
most secure buildings in the city, because it also houses the Israeli
embassy. A handful of demonstrators - fewer than five, according
to court documents - broke away from the streams of people heading
for the Plaza de Mayo and began throwing stones at the bank. One
man shattered a pane of glass with a metal bar.
The police and private security guards inside panicked
and opened fire. According to evidence heard later in court, in
just four seconds a hail of at least 59 bullets was fired on to
the packed street outside. Just then, Gustavo Benedetto, walking
on his own and having been downtown for less than an hour, happened
to turn on to Avenida de Mayo. He was many yards from the bank when
a lead bullet, fired from a 9mm weapon, caught him in the back of
the head. He fell to the ground; in an instant, he was dead.
The HSBC may have been a good place for the police
officers to find sanctuary during the chaos of the Argentinazo,
but when it comes to a murder allegedly committed from its lobby,
a bank, with its security cameras monitoring every angle, offers
little by way of cover. The HSBC's own surveillance cameras, since
entered as court evidence, clearly show police and bank security
officers aiming and firing their weapons through the plateglass
window. This evidence has led to a rare event in the annals of Argentinian
justice: the arrest of a former military officer on a charge of
Jorge Varando is a graduate of the School of the
Americas, a "counterinsurgency" training camp based in
the southern US. He has testified that he did not shoot Benedetto
and argues that he acted properly as a security officer defending
the bank. In a recent radio interview, In a recent radio interview,
he is quoted as admitting to firing his gun, saying that he did
so "in total tranquillity" and "to stop those trying
to enter the building".
HSBC has so far refused to comment on the case
because of the ongoing legal proceedings, except to note that its
employee Varando has steadfastly maintained his innocence. It's
not yet clear whether Varando will be represented by an HSBC lawyer
when the case goes to trial, but the bank had its own counsel at
the pre-trial hearings.
HSBC is inevitably involved in some part, because
the shooting took place from its premises and its security cameras
offer crucial evidence. But that evidence has proved problematic.
When the court staged a reconstruction of the murder, matching the
videotape of Varando firing his weapon with the site where Benedetto
was killed, it became clear someone had changed the angle of the
key security camera, making it extremely difficult to match the
re-enactment with the original footage of Varando shooting through
the glass. Bank personnel said the camera angle had been changed
accidentally during routine cleaning.
And the case has attracted even more widespread
interest because every month since the murder, friends and family
have placed a makeshift memorial to Gustavo Benedetto in front of
the bank - and every month the memorial has been mysteriously removed
and Gustavo's name erased. This practice finally stopped last November,
when a television crew that had been staking out the HSBC building
at 3am filmed as two federal police officers pulled up outside the
bank in an unmarked car and destroyed the concrete and ceramic monument
with crowbars. The officers have since been suspended.
Up until quite recently, Argentina pursued a policy
of official amnesia when it came to the crimes of the Dirty War.
Sure, the human rights non-governmental organisations still issued
numerous scathing reports, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still
marched and the children of disappeared parents still showed up,
from time to time, outside the homes of ex-military figures to throw
red paint. But before the Argentinazo, most middle-class Argentinians
regarded such actions as macabre rituals from a bygone era. Hadn't
these people received the memo? The country had "moved on"
- or at least it was supposed to have done, according to former
president Carlos Menem.
Menem, a Ferrari-driving free-marketeer who is
Argentina's very own morphing of Margaret Thatcher and John Gotti,
was first elected in 1989, with the economy in recession and inflation
soaring. Claiming that many of Argentina's economic troubles stemmed
from botched attempts by his predecessor to bring to justice the
generals of the Dirty War, Menem offered an alternative approach:
instead of going backwards into the hell of unmarked graves and
the lies of the past, he said, Argentinians should wipe the slate
clean, join the global economy and then put all of their energy
into the pursuit of economic growth.
After pardoning the generals, Menem launched a
zealous programme of what here in Latin America is called "neo-liberalism":
that is, mass privatisations, public sector layoffs, labour market
"flexibilisation" and corporate incentives. He slashed
federal meals programmes, cut the national unemployment fund by
almost 80%, laid off hundreds of thousands of state employees and
made many strikes illegal. Menem dubbed this rapid free-market makeover
"surgery without anaesthesia", and assured voters that,
once the short-term pain subsided, Argentina would be, in the words
of one of his advertising campaigns, "born again".
The middle-class residents of Buenos Aires, many
of them ashamed of their own complicity or complacency during the
Dirty War, enthusiastically embraced the idea of living in a shiny
new country without a past. "Don't get involved," the
mantra of the terror years, gave way seamlessly to "Look out
for Number One", the mantra of high capitalism, in whose cause
neighbours are competitors and the market is put before all else,
including the quest for justice and the rebuilding of shattered
communities. In the years that followed, 1990s Buenos Aires went
on a career and consumerism jag that would put the most shopaholic,
workaholic New Yorker or Londoner to shame. According to government
data, between 1993 and 1998, total household spending increased
by $42bn, while spending on imported goods doubled over the same
high-rolling five years, from $15bn in 1993 to $30bn in 1998.
In the swanky neighbourhoods of Recoleta and Palermo,
residents bought not only the latest imported electronics and designer
fashions, but also new faces and new bodies - Buenos Aires soon
rivalled Rio de Janeiro as a capital of cosmetic surgery, with one
plastic surgeon alone boasting 30,000 clients. Argentinians clearly
wanted to be remade, just like their country - and like their president,
who himself disappeared periodically, to reappear later with his
face stretched taut and claiming that he had been stung by a bee.
The masks and disguises of the 1990s looked remarkably
lifelike for a while. The national GDP increased by 60% over the
decade and foreign investment poured in. But, just as Enron's stockholders
did not care to look too closely at the books so long as their profits
were going up, Argentina's foreign investors and lenders somehow
failed to see that Menem's lean, mean government was $80bn deeper
in debt in 1999 than the 1989 government had been. Or that, thanks
largely to layoffs at privatised firms, unemployment had soared
from 6.5% in 1989 to 20% in 2000.
In short, "Menem's Miracle", as Time
gushingly called it, was a mirage. The wealth flowing in 1990s Argentina
was a combination of speculative finance and one-off sales: the
phone company, the oil company, the rails, the airline. After the
initial cash infusion and greased palms, what was left was a hollowed-out
country, costly basic services and a working class that wasn't working.
It also left behind it a wild west-style deregulated financial sector
that allowed Argentina's richest families to move $140bn in private
wealth into foreign bank accounts - more than either the national
GDP or the foreign debt.
As Argentina's wealth disappeared, destined for
bank accounts in Miami and stock exchanges in Milan, the collective
amnesia of the Menem years wore off, too. Today, almost 20 years
after the junta's dictatorship ended and with the old military generals
dead or dying, the ghosts of the 30,000 disappeared have suddenly
reappeared. They now haunt every aspect of the country's present
crisis. In the months after the Argentinazo, the past seemed so
present that it was as if time itself had collapsed and the state
terror had been committed only yesterday. In the courts and on the
streets, a national debate erupted not only about how so many had
got away with murder, but also about the reasons why the terror
had occurred in the first place: why did those 30,000 people die?
In whose interest were they killed? And what was the connection
between those deaths and the free-market policies that had failed
the country so spectacularly?
Back when students and union members were being
thrown into green Ford Falcons and driven to clandestine torture
centres, there was little time for such questions about root causes
and economic interests. During the terror years, Argentinian activists
had a single overarching preoccupation - staying alive. When groups
such as Amnesty International began to intervene on their behalf,
they, too, were preoccupied with day-to-day survival. Investigators
would trace the missing people and then petition for their release,
or at least for confirmation of their deaths.
There were, however, a few exceptions, individuals
who were able to see that the generals had an economic plan as aggressive
as their social and political ones. In 1976 and 1977 - the first
two years of junta rule, when the terror was at its bloodiest and
most barbaric - the generals introduced an economic "restructuring"
programme that was to be a foretaste of today's cut-throat corporate
globalisation. The average national wage was slashed in half, social
spending drastically reduced and price controls removed. The generals
were rewarded handsomely for these measures: in those same two years,
Argentina received more than $2bn in foreign loans, more than the
country had received in all of the previous six years combined.
By the time the generals gave back the country in 1983, they had
increased the national foreign debt from $7bn to $43bn.
On March 24 1977, a year after the coup, Argentinian
investigative journalist Rodolfo Walsh published an Open Letter
From A Writer To The Military Junta - it was destined to become
one the most famous pieces of writing in modern Latin American letters.
In it, Walsh, a member of the Montoneros youth movement, broke with
official press censorship by launching a righteous and detailed
account of the generals' terror campaign. But there was a second
half to the Open Letter which, according to Walsh's biographer,
Michael McCaughan, was suppressed by the Montoneros leadership,
many of whom, though militant in their tactics, were not as focused
as Walsh on economics. The missing half, just published in McCaughan's
book, True Crimes, shifted the focus from the military's human rights
abuses to its economic programme, with Walsh declaring - somewhat
heretically - that the terror was not "the greatest suffering
inflicted on the Argentinian people, not the worst violation of
human rights which you have committed. It is in the economic policy
of this government where one discovers not only the explanation
of the crimes, but a greater atrocity which punishes millions of
human beings through planned misery."
Walsh once again offered a catalogue of crimes:
"Freezing wages with rifle butts while prices rise at bayonet
point, abolishing all forms of collective bargaining, prohibiting
assemblies and internal commissions, extending working days, raising
unemployment ... an economic policy dictated by the International
Monetary Fund, following a recipe applied indiscriminately in Zaire
or Chile, in Uruguay or Indonesia." Minutes after posting copies
of his letter, Walsh was ambushed by police and shot dead on the
streets of Buenos Aires.
Harder to kill, however, has been Walsh's description
of an economic logic that outlived the dictatorship, a logic that
guided the scalpel of Menem's surgery without anaesthetic and that
still continues to guide every IMF mission to Argentina, which always
seem to call for more cuts to healthcare and education, higher fees
for basic services, more bank foreclosures on mortgages. But Walsh
didn't call it "good governance" or "fiscal prudence"
or "being globally competitive" - he called it "planned
Walsh understood that the generals were not waging
a war "on terror" but a war on any barrier to the accumulation
of wealth by foreign investors and their local beneficiaries. He
is proved more prescient every day. Civil trials continue to unearth
fresh evidence that foreign corporations collaborated closely with
the junta in its extermination of the union movement in the 1970s.
For example, last December a federal prosecutor filed a criminal
complaint against Ford Argentina (a subsidiary of Ford), alleging
that the company had inside one of its factory compounds a military
detention centre where union organisers were taken. "Ford [Argentina]
and its executives colluded in the kidnapping of its own workers
and I think they should be held accountable for that," says
Pedro Troiani, a former Ford assembly line worker who has testified
that soldiers kidnapped and beat him inside the factory walls. Mercedes-Benz
(now a subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler) is facing a similar investigation
in both Germany and Argentina, which stems from allegations that
it collaborated with the military in the 1970s to purge one of its
plants of union militants, giving names and addresses of 16 workers
who were later "disappeared", 14 of them never to be seen
again. Both Ford and Mercedes-Benz deny that their executives played
any role in any of the deaths.
And then, of course, there is the case of Gustavo
Benedetto. On the face of it, there is nothing to connect Benedetto's
murder to the past and there is no comparison between the repression
during the Argentinazo and the terror of the Dirty War. Yet the
Benedetto case highlights the changing role of the military, the
state and financial interests, and the current role of ex-military
In the 1970s, Jorge Varando, the man accused of
Benedetto's murder, worked for a military regime that opened up
Argentina's banking sector to private banks. In 2001, with the military
downsized along with the rest of the public sector, he worked directly
for one of those very banks. The fear is that the grand achievement
of two decades of democracy is only that the middleman has been
cut out and that repression has been privatised. Now Argentina's
banks and corporations are guarded by units of armed former military
officers, who protect them against public protesters, raising difficult
questions about the compromises that were made in the country's
transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Today, the history of that transition is being
rewritten on the streets. There is no neat "before" and
"after" the dictatorship. The dictatorship's project is
instead emerging as a process: the generals prepped the patient,
then Menem performed "the surgery". The junta did more
than disappear the union organisers who might have fought the mass
layoffs and the socialists who might have refused to implement the
IMF's latest austerity plan. The great success of the Dirty War
was the culture of fear and individualism that it left behind in
neighbourhoods such as La Tablada, where Gustavo Benedetto grew
The generals understood that the true obstacle
to complete social control was not leftist rebels, but the very
presence of tight-knit communities and civil society. Which is why
they set out to "disappear" the public sphere itself.
On the first day of the 1976 coup, the military banned all "public
spectacles", from carnivals to theatre to horse races. Public
squares were strictly reserved for shows of military strength and
the only communal experience permitted was football. At the same
time, the military launched a campaign to turn the entire population
into snitches: state-run newspapers were packed with announcements
reminding citizens that it was their civic duty to report anyone
who seemed to be doing anything "subversive".
And when the population had retreated into their
homes, the economic project of the dictatorship could be continued
and deepened by successive civilian governments without even having
to resort to messy repression - at least until recently.
In the 1970s, when the Mothers of the Plaza de
Mayo began searching for their missing loved ones, it was common
for these brave women to say that their children were innocents,
that they were "doing nothing" when they were taken. Today,
the Mothers lead demonstrations against the IMF, talk about "economic
terrorism" and proudly declare that their children were indeed
doing something when they were kidnapped - they were political activists
trying to save the country from the planned misery that began under
the dictatorship and only deepened under democracy.
In the rubble that was left of Argentina after
December 2001, something extraordinary started to happen: neighbours
poked their heads out of their apartments and houses, and, in the
absence of a political leadership or a party to make sense of the
spontaneous explosion of which they had been a part, they began
to talk to each other. To think together. By late January 2002,
there were already some 250 "asambleas barriales" (neighbourhood
assemblies) in downtown Buenos Aires alone. The streets, parks and
plazas were filled with meetings, as people stayed up late into
the night, planning, arguing, testifying, voting.
Many of those first assemblies were more like group
therapy than political meetings. Participants spoke about their
experience of isolation in a city of 11 million. Academics and shopkeepers
apologised for not watching out for each other, publicity managers
admitted that they used to look down on unemployed factory workers,
assuming that they deserved their plight, never thinking that the
crisis would reach the bank accounts of the cosmopolitan middle
And these apologies for present-day wrongs soon
gave way to tearful confessions about events dating back to the
dictatorship. A housewife would stand up and publicly admit that,
three decades earlier, when she heard yet another story about someone's
brother or husband being disappeared, she had learned to close her
heart to the suffering, telling herself "Por algo será"
- it must have been for something.
Most assemblies began, in the face of so much planned
misery, to plan something else: joy, solidarity, another kind of
economy. Soup kitchens were opened, job banks and trading clubs
formed. In the past year, between 130 and 150 factories, bankrupt
and abandoned by their owners, have been taken over by their workers
and turned into cooperatives or collectives. At tractor plants,
supermarkets, printing houses, aluminium factories and pizza parlours,
decisions about company policy are now made in open assemblies,
and profits are split equally among the workers.
In recent months, the "fabricas tomadas"
(literally, "taken factories") have begun to network among
themselves and are beginning to plan an informal "solidarity
economy": garment workers from an occupied factory, for example,
sew sheets for an occupied health clinic; a supermarket in Rosario,
turned into a workers' cooperative, sells pasta from an occupied
pasta factory; occupied bakeries are building ovens with tiles from
an occupied ceramic plant. "I feel like the dictatorship is
finally ending," one asamblista told me when I first arrived
in Buenos Aires. "It's like I've been locked in my house for
25 years and now I am finally outside."
Rodolfo Walsh estimated that it would take 20 or
30 years before the effects of the terror campaign would wear off
and Argentinians would at last be ready to fight for economic and
social justice again. That was a little more than 25 years ago.
So I couldn't help thinking of Walsh when I met Gabriela Mitidieri,
a self-confident high-school student who, except for her politics,
would fit right in at an audition for Fame Academy 2. Mitidieri
was born in 1984, the first full year of elected government in Argentina
after the dictatorship. "I am the daughter of democracy,"
she says, with a slight edge of 18-year-old sarcasm. "That
means I have a special responsibility."
That responsibility, as she sees it, is vast -
finally to free the country from the economic policies that survived
the transition from military to civilian rule. Yet she seems undaunted
by the task, or at least unafraid. Gaby, as she is called by friends
and family, charges off to demonstrations wearing low-slung cargo
pants and her brother's Blink 182 knapsack; she holds placards with
black-painted fingernails and she stares down police lines with
eyes dusted in blue sparkles. Her parents don't share her fearlessness.
When the streets of Buenos Aires exploded in the 2001 Argentinazo,
the modest Mitidieri home was experiencing an explosion of its own.
The conflict was over whether or not the then 17-year-old Gaby would
be allowed to join the demonstrations. Gaby was determined to go
to the Plaza - "I just couldn't stand to be one of those people
who watches the world through a TV screen," she says today.
Her father, a survivor of the Dirty War, during which he had been
kidnapped and tortured, physically blocked Gaby's way to the door,
while she shouted that he, of all people, should understand why
she needed to be in the streets. Sergio Mitidieri was unmoved -
he had been Gaby's age when he first got involved in student politics
and his youth hadn't saved him or his friends, many of whom were
killed in the concentration camps.
Like many of his generation, Mitidieri did not
return to political activism after the generals retreated. The terror
of those years stayed with him, robbing him of the outspoken confidence
of his student days - for years, he told Gaby that the scars on
his back and shoulders were from sporting injuries. Today, he still
doesn't like to talk about the past; he keeps his head down and
works hard to support his wife and four children. Gaby says that
her father's fear - "He lives with the idea of death hanging
over his head" - means that the dictatorship, whether imposed
by external terror or internal fear, is still gripping the country.
"When I first found out about what happened to my father,"
Gaby says, "I kept asking myself, 'Why did he live? Why did
they let him survive?' Then I read 1984 and I realised that he and
the others survived to keep the fear alive, and to remind the entire
population of the fear. My father is living proof of that."
But sitting in the Mitidieri home on the first
anniversary of the Argentinazo, it struck me that Gaby, the self-proclaimed
daughter of democracy, might just be underestimating democracy's
contagious power. In 2002, when she announced on the morning of
December 19 that she was joining the anniversary demonstrations,
her mother quietly helped her pack her knapsack: water, a cellphone,
a lemon (it helps mitigate the effects of teargas). She even lent
Gaby a headscarf. And Gaby's father watched them pack, looking worried,
but also proud.
That evening, the local neighbourhood assembly
called for everyone to come out of their houses with their pots
and pans to celebrate the day, one year earlier, when something
happened to change Argentina (though still no one can explain exactly
what that was). And a strange thing happened: Gaby's parents showed
up. They hung around on the edges of the gathering, they didn't
talk to anyone - but they were there.
"We still have fear," Sergio Mitidieri
told me, "but we have anger, too. It's better to fight in the
streets than to be quiet at home. Gaby taught me that."
Additional research by
Dawn Makinson and Joseph Huff-Hannon. Naomi Klein is the author
of No Logo
and Fences And Windows. She is working on a documentary in Argentina.