Que se Vayan Todos

The Power of the Piqueteros

Born out of frustration with the corruption and constant political compromises of official unions and the failure of all political parties to represent them, the piqueteros (the term refers to their common tactic of road blockades) grew out of the excluded and impoverished communities in the provinces. They are predominantly unemployed workers who have been organizing autonomously in their suburban barrios, the neighborhood districts which are key to many Argentineans sense of place and identity.

Demanding jobs, food, education, and health care, they began taking direct action in the mid 1990s, blocking highways across the country. The action of blocking the flow of commodities was seen as the key way to disrupt economic activity; as they were unemployed, the option to strike was no longer available to them, but by blocking roads they could still have an enormously disruptive effect on the economic system. One of them explained, "We see that the way capitalism operates is through the circulation of goods. Obstructing the highways is the way to hurt the capitalist the most. Therefore, we who have nothing - our way to make them pay the costs and show that we will not give up and die for their ambitions, is to create difficulties by obstructing the large routes of distribution."

"We block the streets. We make that part of the streets ours. We use wood, tires, and petrol to burn," adds Alejandro enthusiastically. He is a young piquetero who sports the red and black bandanna of the MTD (Unemployed Worker's Movement) around his neck and carries the three foot wooden club that has become one of the symbols of this movement. "We do it like this because it is the only way they acknowledge us. If we stood protesting on the sidewalk, they would trample all over us."

These tactics have proved extraordinarily successful. Whole families take part in the blockades, setting up collective kitchens and tents in the middle of the street. Many of the participants are young, and over 60% are women. Over the years this loosely federated autonomous movement has managed to secure thousands of temporary minimum wage jobs, food allowances, and other concessions from the state. The police are often unable to clear the pickets because of the popular support they receive. The highways often run beside shantytowns on the edges of the cities, and there is always a threat that any repression against the piqueteros would bring thousands of people streaming out of these areas onto the road in support, provoking much more serious confrontations.

In August 2001, a nation-wide mobilization of piqueteros managed to shut down over 300 highways across the country. Over 100,000 unemployed workers participated and the economy was effectively paralyzed. Thousands were arrested and five killed, but the movement continued building momentum and has broken new ground in its use of non-hierarchical grassroots forms of organizing.

The spirit of autonomy and direct democracy that exists in the urban neighborhood assemblies, was practiced by the piqueteros years before, as they share a similar healthy distrust of all executive power. Each municipality has its own organization centered around the neighborhoods, and all decision of policy and strategy are decided at piquetero assemblies. If the government decides to negotiate during an action, the piqueteros do not delegate leaders to go off and meet with government officials, but instead, demand that the officials come to the blockades so the people can all discuss their demands, and collectively decide whether to accept or decline any forthcoming offers. Too often they have seen leaders and delegates contaminated, bought off, corrupted, or otherwise tainted by power, and they have decided that the way around this is to develop radical horizontal structures.

The primary demands are usually the creation of some temporary state-funded jobs, and once these are secured, the piqueteros decide collectively who gets these jobs, based on need and time spent helping with blockades. If there are not enough to go around, they rotate the jobs and share the wages. Other demands normally follow: distribution of food parcels, liberation of some of the hundreds of jailed piqueteros, public investment in local infrastructure such as roads, health, education.

A friend shows us video footage of a passionate woman on last week's piquetero blockade of an oil refinery. She sits behind a barricade of burning tires, teeth missing beneath bright piercing eyes, and declares, "Yes this is dangerous, of course it is dangerous, but we need to fight, we cannot go home because no one is going to bring anything to our doorstep...jobs, food for our children, the schools that are now disappearing, the hospitals...you see, if I get hurt now and I go to hospital, they don't even have the bandages to help me. So if we stop the struggle, all the things will disappear....we have to keep struggling."

In some parts of Argentina, the piqueteros have created quasi-liberated zones, where their ability to mobilize is far more influential than anything the local government is able to do. In General Mosconi, formerly a rich oil town in the far north, which now suffers with a more than 40% unemployment rate, the movement has taken things into its own hands and is running over 300 different projects, including bakeries, organic gardens, clinics, and water purification.

What is extraordinary is that these radical actions, practiced by some of the most excluded and impoverished people in Argentina and using extremely militant tactics and imagery - burning barricades, blocked roads, masked-up demonstrators wielding clubs - have not alienated other sections of society. In fact, support comes from all across the movement.

"When people get angry, they rule with blood, fire, and sweat," explains a young piquetero, wearing a "Punk's Not Dead" t-shirt across his face as a mask. "We lost seven comrades in Plaza de Mayo. They had no political banner or ideology, they were only young Argentineans and wanted freedom. Then the government understood that people wanted to kick them out.... Those that are up there in power are very worried that they can no longer order us around as before. Now people say 'enough.' We got together all social classes, from workers to unemployed, to say 'enough is enough', together with people that have $100,000 and that can't take it out of the bank, people that broke their backs working to save up, together with us that maybe don't even have any food to eat. We are all Argentineans, all under the same banner, and don't want this to happen again.." A young piquetera named Rosa puts it more succinctly: "When women no longer have the resources to feed their children, the government is coming down, no matter what type of government it is."

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