The Seed of a New Form of Citizen Participation

Argentina's New Neighborhood Assemblies

The neighborhood assemblies that have mushroomed throughout the capital of Argentina since the December protests and rioting that toppled two presidents within the space of two weeks have achieved some concrete results. But they have also become the target of violence at the hands of thugs at the service of certain political forces. Marcela Valente reports from Buenos Aires.

The new neighborhood associations have organized community purchases of food at reduced prices, as well as volunteer brigades of skilled workers who reconnect homes to the public service grids when their electricity, household gas or water supplies are cut off for failure to pay their bills.

The assemblies' projects range from a community vegetable garden to a neighborhood bank in which people can put their savings in order to keep them out of the financial system, where strict limits on cash withdrawals were imposed by the government in early December to prevent a run on banks.

Neighborhood associations on the west side of Buenos Aires successfully pressured the Edesur power company to consider the possibility of a 180-day suspension of cut-offs due to delay in paying bills. Assemblies in other neighborhoods are demanding discount electricity rates for the unemployed.

The phenomenon of neighborhood assemblies has boomed since the mass demonstrations that led to the resignation of president Fernando de la Rúa on Dec 20. The violence and brutal police crackdown on DEC 19 and 20 left a death toll of 30.

At the assembly meetings, which are generally held in plazas or other public spaces, political and economic issues of national interest and pressing local problems are discussed.

The main focus is usually on the crisis faced by the public hospitals, unemployment (which has soared to 23 percent), and the widespread hunger and inability of families to buy food - questions that the neighborhood assemblies complain have received less than adequate attention from the country's political leaders.

Local residents who have been organizing in lower-income suburbs to the north, south and west of Buenos Aires have become the targets of violence. Municipal employees and sympathizers of the traditional parties – the Justice (Peronist) Party and the Radical Civic Union - have attempted to intimidate the more active members of the associations, some of whom have even been beaten up.

A nurse at a hospital in the western suburb of Morón said she was beaten to unconsciousness by a stranger who had trailed her for several days.

At a neighborhood assembly, the nurse had complained that the leader of her trade union did not defend the workers, due to his political ties.

When the neighborhood association in Merlo, west of the capital, began to grow in size and strength, around 200 men wearing no shirts broke into one of the meetings and beat local residents with ax handles, a teacher who has become a local activist told IPS. After that incident, one of the rooms in the activist's home mysteriously caught fire.

Telephone threats and different forms of repression - in which the police have generally not been involved - have become routine for members of the neighborhood assemblies. Local merchants even complain that tax inspectors show up to carry out audits as soon as they put up signs in their shop windows calling local residents together for an assembly.

President Eduardo Duhalde, who was designated by Congress on Jan 1 to govern until September 2003, has criticized the neighborhood assembly movement. ''It is impossible to govern with assemblies. The democratic way to organize and participate is through voting,'' he said.

While the leaders of the traditional political parties discredit the phenomenon, the neighborhood assemblies complain of a vacuum of power, which has led them to take their problems into their own hands.

''The question of hunger is an urgent one,'' said a local resident of Morón in an assembly. ''We cannot continue delaying our response to the offer by INTA (the National Institute of Agricultural Technology) of 200 empty hectares to plant a community garden. We have to decide who is going to work there, and what we are going to produce.''

A younger resident called for an acceleration of the discussion of special tariffs for public services.

He also urged the assemblies to press their demand that a delegate be allowed to participate in the negotiations with the utility companies, the government and consumer groups, to keep the companies from ''taking advantage of the circumstances to increase electricity rates during the World Cup in June.''

Although the activity of the assemblies has not slowed down, assistance has waned in recent weeks, several participants told IPS.

''It seems that less people are showing up now,'' Cristina Guerra, a 54-year-old nurse who has been unemployed for five months, told IPS. ''That always happens - after the crisis comes to a head, participation falls off. But the important thing is that the assemblies continue to meet, to change a world that no one is satisfied with anymore.

''We are living in a cruel system, a society for the few, and the way to change that is by participating in these new spaces created by the people,'' said the nurse.

Guerra said that in December, a ''rupture'' occurred between the people and the government. She predicted that local political leaders in the suburbs of Buenos Aires would attempt to obstruct the phenomenon of the assemblies.

''They only like to see people mobilizing in their favor, their political clients,'' who receive favors like food in exchange for participating in rallies and demonstrations, she said.

''If we are able to solve some of our problems, we will create a parallel power. If we obtain, for example, a 50 percent discount in utility rates for the unemployed and for people with low incomes, we will take a leap forward in quality, and will have many more people participating,'' said Guerra.

Residents in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo Viejo have organized a first aid clinic while they continue discussing the problems plaguing the local hospital. In Ramos Mejía, on the outskirts of the capital, even the director of the local medical center has taken part in the neighborhood assembly.

Assemblies are held once a week throughout the entire metropolitan region. They then send delegates to periodic 'inter- neighborhood meetings to share their experiences and discuss their common concerns. The participants want to make sure the organizations maintain a ''horizontal'' power structure, with rotating moderators and the creation of commissions to study the proposals that are formulated.

Many assembly members believe it is possible for their organizations to eventually take on tasks that the government is unable to carry out effectively. According to Juan Mosca, an aeronautics industry worker from the town of Castelar, the assemblies should discuss ''the issues of democracy.''

That view is shared by many residents of the greater Buenos Aires (a city of over 12 million people) who cast blank or spoiled ballots in the October parliamentary elections to signal their rejection of the political class. (Voting is compulsory in Argentina.)

''On December 19 and 20, the pact by which the leaders represented the people was broken, and our constitution no longer prevails. If it did, there wouldn't be 15 million poor (out of a total population of 37 million) or so many abuses,'' said Mosca, 57, mounted on his bicycle after an inter-neighbourhood assembly in Morón.

  ''That's why I brought to this inter-neighbourhood meeting Castelar's proposal to begin discussing who will govern tomorrow, what our political designs and goals will be, and how we are going to replace our leaders and our judges,'' said Mosca, a veteran community activist.

Since Argentina's four-year recession peaked in December's crisis, at least one out of three people surveyed by the local Hugo Haime polling firm say they have taken part in a neighborhood assembly or in a ''caceroleo'' (pot-and-pan-banging protest) at least once.

Of the respondents, 35 percent say the assemblies constitute ''a new form of political organization,'' 16 percent believe that ''new leadership will emerge'' from the movement, and 21 percent say the effervescence will eventually die down.

The assemblies are gaining a growing space in the media, while they have begun to create their own alternative channels. A Morón radio station broadcasts the program ''Assembly Hour'', and the associations produce their own newspaper, ''Argentina is Burning''.

''Some people believe our numbers have shrunk. But those of us who are left are the ones who really want to do things, the ones who want to stop complaining in our homes and do what the politicians are not doing: work out our day-to-day problems, without political-party machines, just us and our organizations,'' said Guerra.

This report first appeared on the website of the A-Info news service at http://www.ainfos.ca/