Features » January 31, 2003
Taking Back Argentina
The long journey from the Dirty War to democracy
The Argentinazo was not a riot exactly, although it sure looked like one on television, with looters ransacking supermarkets and mounted police charging into crowds; 33 people were killed across the country. It wasn’t a revolution, either, although it sort of looked like one, with angry crowds storming the seat of government and forcing the president to resign in disgrace.
But unlike a classic revolution, the Argentinazo was not organized by an alternate political force that wanted to take power for itself. And unlike a riot, it pulsed with a unified and unequivocal demand: the immediate removal of all the corrupt politicians who had grown rich while Argentina, once the envy of the developing world, spiraled into poverty.
In reality, the Argentinazo was just what the word itself sounds like: a chaotic explosion of Argentinean-ness, during which hundreds of thousands of people suddenly and spontaneously left their homes, poured into the streets of the capital, banged pots and pans, yelled at banks, fought police, revved motorcycles, sang soccer anthems and managed to send the president fleeing his palace in a helicopter. Over the following two weeks, the country would go through five presidents and would default on its $95 billion debt, the largest default in history.
One year on, as enormous crowds fill the Plaza de Mayo once again, this clearly is a significant day—but what, exactly, is it marking? Is it a celebration of a national revolt against corporate globalization, a mood that seems to be spreading across Latin America? Is it the beginning of Argentinazo: The Sequel, a forward-looking movement that will replace the International Monetary Fund’s failed recipes with something better?
December 20, 2002, is not a day of jubilant celebration or of particularly convincing fist-waving. The mood, instead, is one of mourning, nowhere more so than at the corner of Avenida de Mayo and Chacabuco, in front of the headquarters of HSBC Argentina, a hulking 28 stories of Darth Vader-tinted glass. On this same piece of asphalt, 23-year-old Gustavo Benedetto fell to the ground exactly a year earlier, killed by a bullet that came from inside the bank.
The man charged with Benedetto’s murder—who had been in a group of police officers caught on video shooting through the bank’s tinted glass—is Lt. Jorge Varando, chief of HSBC’s building security. He is also a retired elite military officer, and a graduate of the infamous School of the Americas, who was active during the ’70s when 30,000 Argentineans were “disappeared,” many of them kidnapped from their homes, brutally tortured and then thrown from planes into the muddy waters of the Rio de la Plata. The generals called this campaign a “war on terror,” but the name that has stuck ever since is “the Dirty War.”
At the corner of Avenida de Mayo and Chacabuco, where the HSBC’s plate-glass facade is now encased in reinforced steel, Argentina’s past and present have come crashing together. Benedetto’s alleged killer worked for a foreign bank, one of the very same foreign banks that swallowed the savings of millions of Argentineans when the government declared a freeze on bank withdrawals in early December 2001.
While the accounts were locked, the peso was “unpegged” from the dollar, and the currency went into free-fall. When the banking freeze was partially lifted a year later, and customers could once again get at their money, their savings had lost two-thirds of its value.
Though banks such as HSBC blame the government for the freeze, the measure was in fact a response to the fact that private banks had helped their wealthiest customers whisk roughly $20 billion out of Argentina over the previous year, much of it untaxed. At the time, there was no ban on taking capital out of the country.
At the core of the allegations against the foreign banks is the timing: The exodus of cash took place only days before the government froze all withdrawals, leading to a widespread belief that the banks—unlike regular Argentineans—had been tipped off that the freeze was imminent. Indeed, for many of Argentina’s richest families and businesses, the banking fiasco and devaluation has actually made them richer than they were before. They now pay their employees, their expenses and their debts in devalued pesos, but—thanks to the banks—their savings are safely stored outside the country in U.S. dollars. It’s a highly profitable arrangement.
After the $20 billion in “disappeared” capital was discovered, there was so much public outrage that several foreign bankers faced charges under Argentina’s “economic subversion” law, which prohibits acts that sabotage the country’s economy. This obstacle was neatly dealt with last May, however, when a coalition of banks, headed by HSBC, successfully lobbied to have the law struck down.
Gustavo Benedetto was only one of the 33 people who died violently during the Argentinazo of 2001. But his story has become a symbol for a country now trying to make sense of its unrelenting economic crisis. How can children die of hunger every day in a country which is so naturally abundant that it once fed much of Europe and North America? How can a nation where factory workers used to buy homes and cars on the highest wages in Latin America now have the highest unemployment rate on the continent and an average wage lower than Mexico’s? Benedetto thought that his government owed him answers to those questions, which was why he went to the plaza that December day.
Gustavo loved reading books about history and economics. According to his older sister, Eliana, “He wanted to understand how such a great country could have ended up in such a mess.” Gustavo dreamed of being a professor of history, but that was a goal for a more optimistic time. When his father died in March 2000, Gustavo had to find a job, any job, to support his mother and sister. It was a bad time to be looking for work. In La Tablada, the post-industrial suburb where the Benedettos live, most of the factories were already boarded up. The best job he could find was as a supermarket clerk in a nearby mall.
Oddly, when Argentina had less wealth on paper, fewer Argentineans went hungry. Many complex economic factors contributed to this shift, from changes in agricultural export crops to falling wages in the industrial sector. But there were some simple changes that played a part, too, such as the fact that small neighborhood markets used to sell food on credit during difficult times. This little bit of grace disappeared when Argentina became a globalization showcase, and those small shops were replaced by foreign-owned supermarkets the size of Aztec temples, with names such as Carrefour, Wal-Mart and Dia, the Spanish-owned chain where Gustavo Benedetto finally managed to get a job.
So it probably wasn’t a coincidence that, in the days leading up to the Argentinazo, many of the supermarkets found themselves under siege, looted by mobs of unemployed men, their faces covered by T-shirts turned into makeshift balaclavas. When Gustavo showed up for work at Dia on December 19, the atmosphere was unbearably tense: No one knew whether this concrete castle was about to be the next stormed by hungry, angry mobs. At noon, the manager decided to end the suspense by closing early.
When Gustavo arrived home, he turned on the television. What he saw was a country in open revolt, with protests erupting everywhere. All day and night, he flicked from one station to the next, but by 10:40 p.m. every station was showing the same image: President Fernando de la Rua, his face clammy with sweat, stiffly reading from a prepared text. Argentina, he said, was under attack from “groups that are enemies of order who are looking to spread discord and violence.” He declared a state of siege.
For many Argentineans, the president’s declaration sounded like a prelude to a military coup—and that was a fatal mistake for the de la Rua government. Gustavo watched live images of the Plaza de Mayo filling up with people. They were banging pots and pans with spoons and forks, a wordless but roaring rebuke of the president’s instructions: Argentineans would not give up basic freedoms in the name of “order,” they declared. And then a single rebellious cry rose up from the crowds of grandmothers and high school students, motorcycle couriers and unemployed factory workers, their words directed at the politicians, the bankers, the IMF and every other “expert” who claimed to have the perfect recipe for Argentina’s prosperity and stability: “¡Que se vayan todos!”—everyone must go!
Gustavo slept fitfully that night. When he arrived for work the next morning, the store was completely boarded up, so he went back home and turned on the television again. It was then that he felt an impulse he had never had before—he wanted to join a political demonstration. All of a sudden, Gustavo Benedetto, an easygoing guy who had not protested against anything in his life, leapt up from the couch, flicked off the TV and told his mother that he was going downtown.
On his way to the bus stop, Gustavo asked several friends from the neighborhood if they wanted to come along with him—to be part of this history they were seeing unfold on their television screens. But he couldn’t find any takers: most people in La Tablada had had enough of history. In La Tablada, the Dirty War had been even filthier than it was elsewhere. And since any kind of contact with a leftist was enough to get you branded a collaborator, the safest course of action was to retreat into your home: Doors were closed on former friends looking for sanctuary, blinds were hastily drawn when there was a commotion outside, the radio was turned up to drown out screams from neighboring apartments. In La Tablada, as elsewhere in Argentina, residents learned to live faithfully by the philosophy of the terror times: “No se meta”—don’t get involved.
Gustavo, however, had decided to break with that tradition. He had no way of knowing that the tactics of the dictatorship were about to return to the streets of Buenos Aires. During the two hours it took him to get from the suburbs to downtown Buenos Aires, the chief of police had sent down an order to “clear the Plaza de Mayo.” At first, the riot squads used rubber bullets and tear gas, but they soon ran out of those, and switched to live ammunition.
The police pushed the crowds on to Avenida de Mayo, and the crowds pushed back. At around 4 p.m., a group of around 20 police officers were looking for a safe place to take refuge and reload their weapons. They chose the lobby of the HSBC, one of the most secure buildings in the city because it also houses the Israeli Embassy. A handful of demonstrators—fewer than five, according to court documents—broke away from the streams of people heading for the Plaza de Mayo and began throwing stones at the bank. One man shattered a pane of the glass with a metal bar.
The police and private security guards inside panicked and opened fire. According to evidence heard later in court, in just four seconds a hail of at least 59 bullets was fired onto the packed street outside. Just then, Gustavo Benedetto, walking on his own and having been downtown for less than an hour, happened to turn on to the Avenida de Mayo. A bullet caught him in the back of the head.
The HSBC may have been a good place for the police officers to find sanctuary during the chaos of the Argentinazo, but when it comes to a murder committed from its lobby, a bank, with its security cameras monitoring every angle, offers little cover. The HSBC’s own surveillance cameras, since entered as court evidence, clearly show police and bank security officers aiming and firing their weapons through the plate-glass window. This evidence has led to a rare event in the annals of Argentinean justice: the arrest of a former military officer on a charge of murder.
Jorge Varando has testified that he did not shoot Benedetto and argues that he acted properly as a security officer defending the bank. In a recent radio interview, he is quoted as admitting to firing his gun, saying that he did so “in total tranquillity” and “to stop those trying to enter the building.” HSBC has so far refused to comment on the case because of the ongoing legal proceedings, except to note that its employee Varando has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
A single rebellious cry rose up from the crowds of grandmothers and high school students, motorcycle couriers and unemployed factory workers: “¡Que se vayan todos!”—everyone must go!
At least it was supposed to, according to former President Carlos Menem, a Ferrari driving free-marketeer who is Argentina’s very own morphing of Margaret Thatcher and John Gotti. Menem was first elected in 1989, with the economy in recession and inflation soaring. Claiming that many of Argentina’s economic troubles stemmed from botched attempts by his predecessor to bring the generals of the Dirty War to justice, Menem offered an alternative approach: Instead of going backward into the hell of unmarked graves, Argentineans should wipe the slate clean, join the global economy and then put all of their energy into the pursuit of economic growth.
After pardoning the generals, Menem launched a zealous program of mass privatizations, public-sector layoffs, labor market “flexibilization” and corporate incentives. He slashed federal meals programs, cut the national unemployment fund by almost 80 percent, laid off hundreds of thousands of state employees and made many strikes illegal. Menem dubbed this rapid free-market makeover “surgery without anesthesia,” and assured voters that, once the short-term pain subsided, Argentina would be, in the words of one of his advertising campaigns, “born again.”
The middle-class residents of Buenos Aires, many of them ashamed of their own complicity or complacency during the Dirty War, enthusiastically embraced the idea of living in a shiny new country without a past. The national GDP increased by 60 percent over the next decade, and foreign investment poured in. But just as Enron’s stockholders did not care to look too closely at the books so long as their profits were going up, Argentina’s foreign investors and lenders somehow failed to see that Menem’s lean, mean government was $80 billion deeper in debt in 1999 than the 1989 government had been. Or that, thanks largely to layoffs at privatized firms, unemployment had soared from 6.5 percent in 1989 to 20 percent in 2000.
In short, “Menem’s Miracle”, as Time gushingly called it, was a mirage. The wealth flowing in ’90s Argentina was a combination of speculative finance and one-off sales: the phone company, the oil company, the rails, the airline. After the initial cash infusion and greased palms, what was left was a hollowed-out country, costly basic services and a working class that wasn’t working. It also left behind a Wild West-style deregulated financial sector that allowed Argentina’s richest families to move $140 billion in private wealth out of the country and into foreign bank accounts—more than either the national GDP or the foreign debt.
As Argentina’s wealth disappeared, destined for bank accounts in Miami and stock exchanges in Milan, the collective amnesia of the Menem years wore off, too. Today, almost 20 years after the junta’s dictatorship ended and with the old military generals dead or dying, the ghosts of the 30,000 disappeared have suddenly reappeared. In the courts and on the streets, a national debate erupted not only about how so many had got away with murder, but about the reasons why the terror happened in the first place: Why did those 30,000 people die? In whose interest were they killed? And what was the connection between those deaths and the free-market policies that had failed the country so spectacularly?
On the face of it, there is nothing to connect Benedetto’s murder to the past, and there is no comparison between the repression during the Argentinazo and the terror of the Dirty War. Yet the Benedetto case highlights the changing role of the military, the state and financial interests, and the current role of ex-military officers.
In the ’70s, Jorge Varando worked for a military regime that opened up Argentina’s banking sector to private banks. In 2001, with the military downsized along with the rest of the public sector, he worked directly for one of those banks. The fear is that the grand achievement of two decades of democracy is only that the middleman was cut out and repression privatized. Argentina’s banks and corporations are guarded by units of armed former military officers, who protect them against public protesters, raising difficult questions about the compromises that were made in the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Today, the history of that transition is being rewritten on the streets. There is no neat “before” and “after” the dictatorship. The dictatorship’s project is instead emerging as a process: The generals prepped the patient, then Menem performed “the surgery.” The junta did more than disappear the union organizers who might have fought the mass layoffs and the socialists who might have refused to implement the IMF’s latest austerity plan. The great success of the Dirty War was the culture of fear and individualism that it left behind.
The generals understood that their true obstacle to complete social control was not leftist rebels, but the very presence of tight-knit communities and civil society. That is why they set out to “disappear” the public sphere itself. On the first day of the 1976 coup, the military banned all “public spectacles,” from carnivals to theater to horse races. Public squares were strictly reserved for shows of military strength, and the only communal experience permitted was soccer. At the same time, the military launched a campaign to turn the entire population into snitches: State-run newspapers were packed with announcements reminding citizens that it was their civic duty to report anyone who seemed to be doing anything “subversive.” And when the population had retreated into their homes, the economic project of the dictatorship could be continued and deepened by successive civilian governments without even having to resort to messy repression—at least until recently.
In the rubble that was left of Argentina after December 2001, something extraordinary started to happen: Neighbors poked their heads out of their apartments and houses, and, in the absence of a political leadership or a party to make sense of the spontaneous explosion of which they had been a part, they began to talk each other. To think together. By late January 2002, there were already some 250 “asambleas barriales”—neighborhood assemblies—in downtown Buenos Aires alone. The streets, parks and plazas were filled with meetings, as people stayed up late into the night, planning, arguing, testifying, voting.
Many of those first assemblies were more like group therapy than political meetings. Participants spoke about their experience of isolation in a city of 12 million. Academics and shopkeepers apologized for not watching out for each other, managers admitted that they used to look down on unemployed factory workers, assuming that they deserved their plight, never thinking that the crisis would reach the bank accounts of the cosmopolitan middle class. And these apologies for present-day wrongs soon gave way to tearful confessions about events dating back to the dictatorship. A housewife would stand up and publicly admit that, three decades earlier, when she heard yet another story about someone’s brother or husband being disappeared, she had learned to close her heart to the suffering, telling herself “por algo ser”—it must have been for something.
Most assemblies began, in the face of so much planned misery, to plan something else: joy, solidarity, another kind of economy. Soup kitchens were opened, job banks and trading clubs formed. In the past year, as many as 150 factories, bankrupt and abandoned by their owners, have been taken over by their workers and turned into cooperatives or collectives. At tractor plants, supermarkets, printing houses, aluminum factories and pizza parlors, decisions about company policy are now made in open assemblies, and profits are split equally among the workers.
In recent months, the fábricas tomadas (literally, “taken factories”) have begun to network among themselves and are beginning to plan an informal “solidarity economy”: Garment workers from an occupied factory, for example, sew sheets for an occupied health clinic; a supermarket in Rosario, turned into a workers’ cooperative, sells pasta from an occupied pasta factory; occupied bakeries are building ovens with tiles from an occupied ceramic plant. “I feel like the dictatorship is finally ending,” one asamblista told me when I first arrived in Buenos Aires. “It’s like I’ve been locked in my house for 25 years and now I am finally outside.”
Gabriela Mitidieri was born in 1984, the first full year of elected government in Argentina after the dictatorship. “I am the daughter of democracy,” she says, with a slight edge of 18-year-old sarcasm. “That means I have a special responsibility.”
That responsibility, as she sees it, is vast—to finally free the country from the economic policies that survived the transition from military to civilian rule. Yet she seems undaunted by the task, or at least unafraid. Gaby, as she is called by friends and family, charges off to demonstrations wearing low-slung cargo pants and her brother’s blink-182 knapsack. She holds placards with black-painted fingernails and stares down police lines with eyes dusted in blue sparkles.
Her parents don’t share her fearlessness. When the streets of Buenos Aires exploded in 2001, the modest Mitidieri home experienced an explosion of its own. The conflict was over whether then 17-year-old Gaby would be allowed to join the demonstrations. Gaby was determined to go to the Plaza—“I just couldn’t stand to be one of those people who watches the world through a TV screen,” she says.
Her father, a survivor of the Dirty War, during which he had been kidnapped and tortured, physically blocked Gaby’s way to the door, while she shouted that he, of all people, should understand why she needed to be in the streets. Sergio Mitidieri was unmoved—he had been Gaby’s age when he first got involved in student politics, and his youth hadn’t saved him or his friends, many of whom were killed.
Like many in his generation, Mitidieri did not return to political activism after the generals retreated. The terror of those years stayed with him, robbing him of the outspoken confidence of his student days—for years, he told Gaby that the scars on his back and shoulders were from sports injuries. Today, he still doesn’t like to talk about the past; he keeps his head down and works hard to support his wife and four children. Gaby says that her father’s fear—that “he lives with idea of death hanging over his head”—means that the dictatorship, whether imposed by external terror or internal fear, is still gripping the country.
“When I first found out about what happened to my father,” Gaby says, “ I kept asking myself, ‘Why did he live? Why did they let him survive?’ Then I read 1984, and I realized that he and the others survived to keep the fear alive, and to remind the entire population of the fear. My father is living proof of that.”
But sitting in the Mitidieri home on the first anniversary of the Argentinazo, it struck me that Gaby, the self-proclaimed “daughter of democracy,” might be underestimating democracy’s contagious power. When she announced on the morning of December 19 that she was joining the anniversary demonstrations, her mother quietly helped her pack her knapsack: water, a cellphone, a lemon (it helps mitigate the effects of tear gas)—she even lent Gaby a headscarf. And Gaby’s father watched them pack, looking worried but proud.
That evening, the local neighborhood assembly called for everyone to come out of their houses with their pots and pans to celebrate the day, one year earlier, when something happened to change Argentina (though still no one can explain exactly what that was). And a strange thing happened: Gaby’s parents showed up. They hung around on the edges of the gathering, they didn’t talk to anyone—but they were there.
“We still have fear,” Sergio Mitidieri told me, “but we have anger, too. It’s better to fight in the streets than to be quiet at home. Gaby taught me that.”
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Naomi Klein is a former columnist for In These Times. She is the author of No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies,, Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.