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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 25-06-2022 00:01

Stick it to the pickets?

The standard critique of the picket movement as a public nuisance is wholly valid but it is also incomplete.

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the police slaying of fleeing leftist picket militants Darío Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki at Avellaneda railway station (after whom that Roca line stop has been named since 2013) – a date which could legitimately qualify as the true advent of Kirchnerism since the 2002 caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde, who had already had one corpse laid at his door five years previously in the person of news photographer José Luis Cabezas, quickly decided that two corpses was too much, withdrawing his candidacy for re-election from the following year’s elections while also advancing them by six months. His heir? Then-Santa Cruz governor Néstor Kirchner, despite only second place and 22 percent of the vote.

Twenty years after the pickets continue to make their presence felt as much as ever – so much so that some of the most frustrated commuters from recent weeks might find nothing more to deplore in the 2002 Avellaneda shootings than that only two of them were killed. But this callous slaying of two idealistic kids (aged only 21 and 22) remains a crime and a tragedy deeply distressing their families and friends – thus Kosteki’s mother survived her son’s death by only 15 months.

Yet as from Flag Day last Monday the pickets so long reviled by the centre-right and enraged commuters were the target of criticism from an unexpected quarter – no less than the widow of the man arguably owing his presidency to Kosteki and Santillán, namely Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The power behind (is that the correct preposition?) the Frente de Todos throne blasted the “outsourcing” of social plans in a tone hardly differing from the “slush fund” accusations coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum – her proposal that all control over welfare benefits be transferred from the social organisations to the state echoes the most hawkish of the Juntos por el Cambio presidential hopefuls, PRO chair Patricia Bullrich (although the two women presumably have very different budgets in mind).

So are Cristina and ‘La Piba’ miraculously on the same page? Both urge passing the distribution of social plans from leftist and picket organisations to the state but do they share the same understanding of what the state is? While Bullrich has an increasingly minimalist concept of the state (with a view to the libertarian challenge), the veep all but quotes the “L’état, c’est moi” of Louis XIV – always assuming that her French is better than her English (“bad information”). A state monopoly of social plan distribution is thus tantamount to a Kirchnerite monopoly in her eyes – far from seeking to end a new source of slush funds like Bullrich and other critics, she is merely aiming at augmenting her own slush funds. But in addition, never rule out electioneering from the vice-presidential logic – draining the funds from the Trotskyist picket organisations would weaken the leftist challenge in the prime Kirchnerite constituency of the Greater Buenos Aires masses while also wooing middle-class voters infuriated by the increasingly frequent traffic havoc.

So perhaps this is a case of Cristina being right for the wrong reasons or is she (and other picket critics) even right? The standard critique of the picket movement as a public nuisance is wholly valid but it is also incomplete. In the course of this century their leadership has risen to become yet another vested interest in Argentina’s corporatist society and to give some idea of the money involved, just 60,000 of the over 1.2 million in the Potenciar Trabajo programme adhere to the Trotskyist Partido Obrero, which skims two percent of the welfare benefits, and yet this tiny percentage already adds up to over 270 million pesos annually, rising beyond 340 million with the prospective increases – we are thus talking about hundreds of billions across this universe.

The slush funds exist but are they the whole story? This money can also be seen filling the gaps left by a state not as present as Frente de Todos boasts – notably the soup kitchens whose fixed costs also include renting the premises and transporting the food (which is paid and donated by the Social Development Ministry but dumped in central warehouses).

But over and above a strict audit of the accountability of the social organisations, the criticisms of the pickets fail to understand the new realities of employment in this 21st century ever since that 2001-2002 meltdown which cost Kosteki and Santillán their lives while shattering the social fabric. The picket movement was not created by that meltdown although recent enough then (born in 1996 in Cutral Có, Neuquén) but its current momentum dates back from that period with unemployment peaking at 21.5 percent and 58 percent below the poverty line – figures extreme enough to warrant an extreme response. With formal private-sector employment stuck at around six million in a population of 47.3 million according to last month’s census (since heavy-handed labour laws prevent either shrinkage or expansion) and with public sector growth a fiscal non-starter, the underground economy and working co-operatives do what they can to fill the vacuum with varying degrees of honesty and efficiency.

The pickets will return to this column as surely as they will (much sooner) to city streets.

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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