A SPONTANEOUS uprising. That was what followed when demonstrators took to the streets of Argentina five days before Christmas. At least 23 people were killed in a vain attempt to break up the demonstrations. But the hated economics minister, Domingo Cavallo, and the president, De la Rua, were forced to resign.
The new president, Rodriguez Saá, lasted just a week before a new wave of protest forced him to resign last Sunday. This is not just about the overthrow of a government. It is also a defeat for the country's biggest capitalists, for the neo-liberal policies governments have followed for ten years, and for the International Monetary Fund which has helped impose them.
As one protester, press photographer Ricardo Carcova, told the media, 'When I saw columns coming from all the neighbourhoods of the city after the president announced the state of siege I thought, 'This is like the fall of the Berlin Wall.' This is the fall of the neo-liberal wall.'
Rodriguez Saá's new government was forced to announce it would suspend repayment of its $130 billion foreign debt-the biggest owed by any 'emerging market'. The uprising is causing a shiver of fear right across the capitalist world. The Financial Times commented that normally economic slumps cause workers to become afraid to fight.
But, it went on, in Argentina there is anger instead of fear, and that is leading to challenges to the whole system.
AFTER TWO days of street battles on the Wednesday and Thursday before Christmas, the sacrifice and heroism of thousands of workers, students, housewives, old men and kids demolished the government. Extreme poverty has become generalised across Argentina. Many people have nothing to lose.
It was just a question of time before people exploded. The rulers speculated that hundreds of police, and some deaths, would continue to ensure that the people would give in to their decisions. But they were wrong.
Some weeks ago people began to concentrate in front of warehouses and supermarkets requesting food. On the Monday before Christmas more than 1,000 people of the Teresa Rodriguez Movement of Unemployed Workers, named after a murdered activist, came to an area of Buenos Aires county.
A strong police presence and helicopters flying overhead did not scare the demonstrators. The shop owners gave in to their demands and distributed bags of food. The following day massive actions by hundreds of people began against supermarkets, warehouses, and any shop whose doors were open. People's desperation and the clear image of the previous day's victory encouraged thousands onto the streets.
On the Wednesday hundreds of shops didn't open to try to avoid expropriation by the people. But that same morning thousands were already prepared to go onto the streets, to tear down metallic blinds, grates, doors, anything, in search of the basic things their children lacked.
The television transmitted images of hundreds of demonstrators, mainly women and children, at a supermarket, screaming loudly, 'We want to eat! We want to eat!' During the day hundreds of supermarkets across the whole country were plundered. The government and media began to speak of 'prevailing anarchy' and of the necessity 'to re-establish order'.
President De la Rua informed the population on TV on that Wednesday that he had established a state of siege. People's rights were suspended, any public meeting of more than two people was considered subversive, the mass media could be censored, and the repressive machine was free to act and arrest people.
As soon as he finished the speech, some people began to bang saucepans in their houses. This form of protest (caceroleadas) was common at the end of the military dictatorship. Then it extended to the streets to become an organised action. In one hour a million people challenged the state of siege.
By midnight the Plaza de Mayo square was full, and thousands had substituted the desperate scream of 'We want to eat!' for one more offensive: 'Go away!' They didn't only refer to the government, but to the group of political leaders. They began to chant slogans dedicated to each of the main figures of the traditional parties (and even to some union leaders linked to these parties).
At 1am the police attacked them with horses, sticks, shields, teargas and rubber bullets. The population's peaceful protest became a true battlefield. Many of those who gathered in Plaza de Mayo had never participated in a street protest. There were many children and old men. Initially it was easy for the police to corner and frighten the demonstrators. Then the resistance began to be organised.
The square was filled with people, and so were the steps outside the parliament building. At the same time thousands had concentrated in front of the residences of the president and finance minister. A few hours after the beginning of the protests people knew the finance minister, Cavallo, had resigned. Then on the Thursday everything began again.
By midday people came to the square that had become the battlefield between the people and the government. There were workers on high and low wages, university students in shorts with their T-shirts covering their faces, old ladies with their handbags, street children, office and bank clerks with their shirts and ties, sanitation workers in their uniforms, many indigenous peoples, women with children-all on the same side of the barricades.
The repression increased. The police began shooting lead bullets, and many people were killed or wounded. The demonstrators answered by attacking McDonald's, the banks, and other symbols of capitalism and the population's poverty. They set fire to several buildings and vehicles. The battle extended to the whole city.
That afternoon there was the regular demonstration by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. These are the mothers of those who were killed in the mass murders and 'disappearances' under the military regime. They held a demonstration and sit-down in the square.
The police threw teargas at them. But the mothers and the many young people with them resisted despite being shot at and run over by police on horses. At noon the president gave up his post. The government collapsed. In the streets little changed, since the confrontations continued without interruption-except for the feeling of victory the demonstrators began to have. The people on the streets have a world to win.
The image of the power they represent, thousands united and fighting in the streets, won't disappear easily.
Javier Carles is a member of Socialist Worker's Uruguayan sister organisation
'People are not going away'
'WE WERE here last night and we return today, as we do every Thursday,' said one of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. They have been protesting for two decades against the mass murders and 'disappearance' of activists under the previous military regime. 'I am living through all this with much sadness because we do not yet have a political organisation which makes sense of this confrontation and the needs of the people.
'The political leaders are all thieves and murderers. But there is still the need to produce a real change.' Mounted police encircle the central square. People resist and chant, 'The people are not going away! The people are not going away!' Their repression begins with charges, gas, shots, beatings-the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo stand face to face against the police. They grab them, they hit them, they push them. One of the mothers, 90 years old, bleeds from the nose. The demonstrators become inflamed, return again and again to occupy the square. The police retreat. People chant, 'The people united will never be defeated'.'
El Pa's, Spanish newspaper
Defying a state of siege
'IT IS 1am and spontaneous protests are growing right now, even in the small barrio where we are currently staying. Protesters bang their pots and pans. Cars drive around the presidential palace, demanding that the government immediately resigns. In the last hour this has grown into a demonstration of hundreds of thousands in the Plaza de Mayo. This would appear to be the people's response to the state of siege declared earlier today!'
Heike and Sandy in Buenos Aires
Taken by surprise
'THE SOCIAL crisis took the North American authorities by surprise. No one took seriously the possibility of political and social chaos. Now they fear the destabilisation can spread to other countries.'
La Nacion, Buenos Aires newspaper