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Argentines Form Local Assemblies to Deal with Economic Crisis


Argentina's ongoing economic crisis has spurred thousands of middle-class Argentines to get involved politically, most for the first time. Increasingly, they are forming neighborhood assemblies to organize protests and debate solutions to the country's dire situation.

Demonstrations by middle-class Argentines banging pots and pans have become a common form of protest since December. These "cacerolazos", as they are known in Spanish, were key factors in driving two Presidents out of power that month, when massive numbers of middle-class Argentines took to the streets to repudiate their economic policies.

Smaller cacerolazos have continued under President Eduardo Duhalde, as Argentines demand solutions to a financial crisis that has devalued their currency and frozen their bank accounts. They also are angry at a political system they say is corrupt and responsible for their plight.

Now in neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, and other cities across the country, these veterans of the "cacerolazos" are forming local assemblies to come up with new solutions and organize new protests.

In the middle-class Buenos Aires neighborhood of Caballito, a couple of hundred people meet in a park in front of a statue of South American liberator Simon Bolivar. There, on a balmy summer evening, they discuss various proposals on how to organize themselves into a cohesive and effective pressure group.

Resident Marcelo Olivera has said his neighbors realize change will only come if they band together.

"People realize that no one can get out of this situation alone. That is what we are sure about right now, and we are trying to get stronger from this situation, talking and giving ideas and working all together," he says.

The neighborhood assembly movement is loosely structured, with people communicating by word-of-mouth or through the Internet. Many participants have never before been active politically, or taken much interest in politics.

Political pollster and consultant Ricardo Rouvier says these assemblies have appeared because Argentina's political parties are discredited.

President Duhalde, of the traditionally dominant Peronist party, is a former governor who took office on January 1, after being chosen by Congress in the wake of two collapsed Presidencies. Opinion polls show he and his party have minimum support.

Mr. Rouvier says the neighborhood assemblies are a new development in Argentine politics.

He says like the cacerolazo, this is a new phenomenon and it has come about because the middle class has been affected by the economic situation and the crisis in politics. What has happened, he says, is that Argentina's political parties are no longer mediators between the citizenry and the government, as they are in other countries. Here they are no longer representative of the people and are even repudiated, he says, so people are going their own way.

Newspaper columnist James Neilson says the emergence of these neighborhood assemblies may be the start of a grassroots movement. But Mr. Nielson, who writes a column for the newspaper Pagina 12, says these assemblies may be taken over by left-wing groups.

"It is the beginning of a grassroots movement, but it is very likely to be taken over by professionals before very long. In fact this is already happening. Groups that specialize in these sort of things, especially leftwing groups, have been taking them over and steering them away from their original demands, which are simply, you know, 'we want our money back', into a sort of an anti-globalization process and anti-model protests, which are ideas quite alien to the middle class," he says.

But political analyst Rouvier disagrees, saying that in many assemblies people seem to reject those espousing radical political solutions.

"At the gathering in Caballito, few seemed to know where their movement would lead - only that they want change and a solution to their problems. Argentina's currency, pegged one-to-one to the dollar for 10 years, has been devalued and the Duhalde government says dollar-denominated savings will only be returned in devalued pesos. The country cannot pay its foreign debt, unemployment is at 22 percent, and a recession that has lasted almost four years shows no sign of ending soon," he says.

For Carlos Dominguez, who stood with the others meeting at the park in Caballito, his neighborhood assembly is a last hope.

He says we are like a man who is drowning, and throws his arms out hoping that someone is nearby and will save him. These meetings are our last chance, he says, and it is something we should have started doing a long time ago.