It is 8pm and in squares, parks and streets across Buenos Aires, people begin to gather in their hundreds, to discuss, to debate and to organise. Neighbourhood assemblies meet in the open air on the warm summer evenings. 'Today a meeting of the local assembly hits the ratings of even the most popular TV programme,' reports journalist Stella Calloni.
New popular assemblies have spread across Argentina sparked by the social upheaval rocking the South American country. Six weeks after a mass uprising toppled the government the battle to shape the future is raging. The government is trying to impose its solutions at the expense of the mass of the population.
A growing movement from below is posing quite different possible outcomes to the crisis. Not a day goes by without new waves of protest. Tens of thousands of people poured into the Plaza de Mayo square in the centre of Buenos Aires on Friday of last week. That demonstration was called by a thousands-strong joint meeting of the capital's neighbourhood assemblies.
Major protests took place in over 100 cities across Argentina on the Friday too, from Mar del Plata to Rosario, from Salta and Bahia Blanca to Cordoba. Two days later a huge march of 'piqueteros', the mass militant unemployed workers' movement, entered the capital. Every day last week saw more reports of social ferment. Just last Wednesday one paper reported, 'Protests continued against the government in every corner of the country. Thousands of people marched in the streets of Salta demanding an end to corruption and the lifting of the freeze on bank accounts. Demonstrators also called for a restoration of the 13 percent cut in public sector workers' wages and pensions. In the same province the previous day the unemployed blocked the main road. Meanwhile in La Plata about 500 unemployed people demonstrated in front of the president's house. In Santa Fe about 2,000 teachers marched in protest at a cut in the provincial education budget and in Chaco more than 1,000 people blocked the roads. There were equally angry protests in the provinces of Santiago del Estero, Catamarca and Neuquen.'
At the core of the movement rocking Argentina is the coming together of different social groups. One is the piqueteros. This arose in response to the mass sackings that swept Argentina through the 1990s as the government pushed wholesale privatisation. The slump that has now hit the country has pushed unemployment to near 25 percent, and has swollen the piqueteros' ranks. Until recently Argentina had European living standards, and an education and health system to match. But it has always had minimal or non-existent unemployment benefits.
That's why today the reality is one of hunger or the fear of hunger for millions in one of the world's biggest food-producing countries. 'Bread and work' has become the piqueteros' slogan. 'We've had enough of a regime that has driven millions to desperation and hunger in a country made of wheat and meat,' said one protester last week. A year ago most professional and middle class people were fearful of the piqueteros.
Now Argentina's large middle class has been utterly impoverished. The government has imposed a 'corralito'-a freeze on bank accounts. This has devastated the middle class. The neighbourhood retailer, the dentist or optician and the music teacher cannot access their savings and the slump means few clients.
Fury among such groups has been another key force driving the 'cacerolazos', the mass demonstrations marked by banging of saucepans which have toppled successive governments. The crisis is pushing together groups who have in the past opposed each other, and radicalising them.
'Hundreds of residents greeted the piqueteros with improvised tables in the street with food and drinks,' said one report of what happened last week when unemployed marchers crossed into the federal capital district of Buenos Aires. This is an area where few workers live. The most exciting development of the mobilisations is the neighbourhood assemblies. People who live in a particular area gather at an open forum to discuss and organise.
In working class areas the bulk of those involved are workers, or unemployed workers. But the assemblies also exist in more socially mixed areas and even in previously well off areas. The size of the assemblies varies too, and they are still confined to a minority in each area. In Buenos Aires reports suggest regular meetings of several hundred in many districts. Last week saw 300 in the Villa del Parque district assembly and 1,000 in the Tartagal district for example.
The united assembly in central Buenos Aires has been attracting several thousand people on Sundays. One report also talks of how 'the assemblies are not confined to the capital. In small towns in the interior, people gather, take direct action.' Calls for an end to the banking freeze, nationalisation of the banks and privatised industries, creation of jobs, food subsidies and so on are almost always on the long lists of demands the assemblies typically adopt. Behind the immediate demands, reports point to wider discontent.
'We must change everything,' said one speaker at a protest in Bahia Blanca. In the industrial city of Cordoba, 'We want a new republic-we don't want any more politicians!' was the cry.
At a popular assembly meeting in the Tartagal district of the capital, 'the most applauded speaker was Dr Negri, a well known local doctor. 'When he said, 'We need to expropriate the oil companies and the banks,' there were rousing shouts and cheers from everyone there.' Some assemblies have placed a different emphasis on the demands common to all of them.
In a previously posh district of Buenos Aires called Belgrano, where few if any workers live, there is a lively assembly, which meets almost every evening. It has voted for the cancellation of the foreign debt, the nationalisation of the banks and privatised industries and so on. But it also has a strong nationalist flavour to its material, with calls for 'patriotism' and a boycott of foreign goods. The assembly in the more popular district of San Cristobal and Boedo has a different feel.
Its bulletin reports, 'We have distributed thousands of our bulletins and posters so everyone in the area knows what is going on.' Its demands include work for all without loss of pay, shared between the unemployed and those forced to work 12-hour shifts to survive. 'In our assembly we also choose delegates to the inter-district assembly,' it reports.
And for the big demonstration in the city centre the previous Friday, 'Residents, students and workers of Boedo and San Cristobal formed a large contingent which marched into the Plaza de Mayo. We were proud, we were making history.' The assemblies and the movement from below show how ordinary people can begin to build democratic organisation from the bottom up. This can then refashion society in the interests of the majority. But to win, this movement must overcome powerful obstacles.
The Argentinian government, the rich, and big business will all be seeking to ensure the movement does not challenge the fundamentals of society. They will be backed up by multinationals and governments from the US to Europe. To overcome those forces the movement in Argentina will need to tap the enormous power of the organised working class in industry and offices.
Despite mass unemployment there is still a huge and powerful working class in Argentina on whose work the whole of society depends. By striking and beginning to take over their workplaces through organisations like the popular assemblies these workers can use their power. They can ensure that the mass of people wrest wealth and power from those at the top of society. There are obstacles to that happening.
While workers have been involved in the protests and assemblies they generally have not done so as organised groups. This is largely down to union leaders, who have real influence over workers and have tried to prevent union and workplace groups joining the assemblies and protests.
One of the main union federations has sometimes supported protests. But the two other key union federations are linked to the Peronist party-which forms the government-and they support the government. There are some signs of organised workers beginning to join the movement despite the stance of the union leaders, however.
In Cordoba a significant contingent from the local council workers' union joined last week's protest and in Santa Fe thousands of teachers marched. A student who was there says that last week's inter-district meeting of assemblies saw visible delegations of rail and telecom workers attend for the first time. There is a battle raging for the future in Argentina. How far the movement from below succeeds in tapping the enormous potential power in the country's working class will shape the outcome of that battle.