Argentine Revolution

Spontaneous assemblies


Late last year, Argentina plunged into political turmoil as the economy collapsed, the president fled, and angry citizens rioted, at one point storming Congress and looting the legislature's furniture. One can scarcely blame the rioters: The Argentine government, long enmeshed in crony capitalism, had been looting the citizens' wealth for much longer. In 1998 its policies plunged the country into recession, and its economy is showing no signs of a recovery.

Since then, the outside world has been generous with detailed plans for reform. But even as Argentina's rulers contend with competing schemes, of domestic origin as well as foreign, ordinary Argentines are enacting reforms of their own, building parallel institutions to fill the void left by the collapsing state.

The most famous of these are the neighborhood assemblies that have sprouted in the cities, especially Buenos Aires, as an alternative to normal party politics. The function and makeup of these bodies vary from one assembly to another. They have naturally attracted the usual would-be vanguards of the socialist revolution, and many are, in the words of The Economist, mere "talking shops for bearded leftists."

Others, however, have bought food in bulk at reduced prices, set up canteens and community gardens, opened neighborhood banks, negotiated with landlords and utilities, and sent their best tinkers to reconnect members to the power grid when they fall behind on their bills. The groups are organized with as little hierarchy as possible, and their most popular slogan, according to the Inter Press Service, is "All the politicians out."

Grassroots alternatives to the official economy have also emerged. Barter clubs have sprung up across the country, evolving quickly from cumbersome swap meets into a full-fledged alternative currency, with creditos redeemable for goods and services. At its peak, an estimated 6 to 10 million Argentines participated in the barter system, including doctors, manufacturers, and even railways.

As the barter network grew more popular, though, it began to fall prey to the same problems that were eating away at the country's more established institutions. Crooks started printing creditos of their own, inflating the currency and prompting many people to abandon it. In September the clubs responded with a new credito that is supposed to be harder to counterfeit. Even if this manages to revive the movement, however, it faces another problem: With poverty rampant, the goods available for barter simply aren't worth as much as they used to be. "People are just bringing in rubbish now," one organizer complained to USA Today. "It's all they have left."

Even so, the assemblies and the barter clubs have done more to revive Argentina than the central state, whose most notable achievements in the last year have been to devalue the currency, shoot protesters, and fail to deal with the nation's frozen banking system and $14.5 billion debt.