16 October 2009

2009.10.16_subterranean fires

I went to an interactive play the other night at IMPA, one of the worker-run factories in Buenos Aires. It was totally the coolest play I've ever been to. There were no balcony seats, or even chairs -- the audience stood around in a large bare room with a leaking ceiling while puddles formed on the concrete floor. It started out dialogue-heavy, so I had little idea what was going on at first, but it quickly became movement-oriented with dialogue projected on a screen, and that I could handle. I could follow enough to know that when a guy hollered "ayuda!" at me, that meant I had to pick up plastic bottles with the performers, and that when a girl commanded "baila!" -- that meant shake it.

No, IMPA is not the stereotypical factory -- upon its takeover in 1998, the workers spawned a cultural city that thrives today. The space provides for not just the production of metallurgic materials and jobs, but the production of ideas through free expression, art, theater, concerts, workshops, and community events.

Just last month, IMPA won a battle that, had they lost, would have meant immediate eviction. This sort of victory is no stranger to worker-occupied factories in Argentina. The Zanon ceramic tile factory (the largest worker-run business in Argentina) recently concluded their nine-year struggle by gaining full legal control of the factory; the Brukman suit factory continues to operate as a cooperative after sustaining insanely brutal police repression; Hotel Bauen lives on after workers tore down official tape intended to block the entrances. Etc.

Throughout Argentina since 2001, companies have exploited economic crises by creating their own bailout. They declare bankruptcy, fire employees, and move their business offshore to a more lucrative location. In 2001, amongst mass protests, and the toppling of five governments, Argentine workers discovered an alternate path of resistance. Today, there are over 250 factories (employing an estimated 16,000 workers) in Argentina that have been rescued by workers, with the help of national organizations, alternative lenders, and huge networks of solidarity.

Many of these saviors have faced and still face tremendous obstacles. In the beginning, they go months without paychecks, scraping up funds to pay off old debts and replace capital that has been sold off by the owners; they must learn management skills and regain clients. Once they get all that wrapped up, THEN they have to fight owners that want their factories back now that they're lucrative again. The quest for legal expropriation is a long and uncertain process, but it is in fighting through these obstacles that people debate and learn; it is through struggle that people become unified and empowered. Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos!

And besides, in these factories, the workers get to give themselves higher salaries and better working conditions. They've done away with the Modern Times image of factory work; they've proved that workers can listen to music and drink mate, and still produce. There are no bosses. Resources recovered from cutting off management costs and executive salaries are used to implement social services, educational centers and health-care clinics. Unlike cooperatives in the U.S., recuperated factories run within a horizontal political and economic frame. All workers have an equal say in factory decisions, and in most cases, receive the same salary. Representatives are voted on, paid the same wage as a janitor, and are instantly recallable. And wouldn't you know it: this democratic control -- this absence of bosses -- actually leads to greater productivity.

Sound a bit communist? It is!! GASP. It's more communist than Stalin or Mao or Castro ever were. These factories succeed on a critical point where "communist" countries have failed -- they are controlled by the workers. THIS is democracy. This isn't a dictatorship looming over a planned economy, and (without mentioning any names) this isn't the shadow of democracy where we have the privilege of casting a vote every two to four years, for one of two candidates that will both ultimately answer to the corporate cash anyway. This is true democracy, and yes, albeit small-scale and internal, Marxism. Yet to these workers, it's not about some abstract ideology. Though many have developed ideological political views in the process of struggle, to most it's simply an obvious choice, a choice of vitality made out of necessity; a choice between a job with better working conditions, better pay, empowerment... or no job and impending poverty.

As for IMPA, they're not done. They've won their first victory, but they've yet to win legal expropriation. Ademas, the workers at IMPA have not failed to recognize that their struggle is emblematic of a larger movement, and they vow to remain committed to the ongoing struggles of other factories.

For an incredible documentary about the takeovers, and the initial inspiration for my current presence in Argentina, see The Take. For a depressing yet oddly hopeful documentary about how foreign interests have undermined Argentina's economy, see Argentina Latente. And standby for chapter two: Recuperated Factories Infect the World. It's time to stop asking, and start taking.
“If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement, then hang us. Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, the flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.” -- August Spies, executed during the fight for the eight-hour day.

10 October 2009

2009.10.10_la nueva ley de medios

Argentina's congress is currently voting on an exciting media reform bill that will split the available media licenses into thirds -- 1/3 will remain in the hands of private business, 1/3 will go to government and public use, and 1/3 will be issued to NGOs and community groups. In addition, restrictions will be placed on media ownership, such as preventing the ownership of broadcast and cable networks in one city. This move would cause huge media conglomerates, like Clarin, to sell off some of its babies.

Let's interject a background check on Clarin here. Clarin owns three TV stations, two radio stations, and eleven print publications. It controls about 50% of cable TV, and according to Clarin's website, ONE of its TV stations accounts for FORTY-FOUR percent of TV advertising. It's also got some shares in telecommunication companies and Internet providers. Being the largest media conglomerate in Argentina, Clarin is naturally a vocal opponent to the current "leftist" administration.

Back to the matter at hand. The new law has not gone without opposition. Who's the primary driving force behind the opposition? Duh! It's Clarin. Clarin has narcissistically asserted that the law's primary intent is to silence its criticisms of the government. Sadly, this narrow-minded idea has caught on. A recent CNN article on the new law chose to focus on Cristina's personal vendetta against Clarin, outright ignoring the fundamental points of media diversity, regulation, and antitrust.

Others are concerned that the reform gives too much power to the government. It's the age-old question -- do we want an oligarchic government to control everything? No. Would we rather have big business control everything? Fuck no. At least with the government, we have a shot at democratic control. With private corporations, our voices will never be heard above the resounding "cha-ching" of profit.

The current battle marks the first attempt at media reform since Videla, yes the murderous dictator, instituted law that guaranteed huge profits for private media companies, banned community associations from obtaining media licenses, and criminalized any reporting on the systematic extermination of leftists, unionists, and students taking place across the country. This was almost thirty years ago. For thirty years, the media has been consolidating because of this dictator, and today in Argentina, a mere five groups own nearly all the media outlets in the country. The enduring media law still gives big corporations the advantage over small independent organizations, and the conglomerates don't have to deal with pesky competition.

This new law paves the path to breaking the monopolization of media by private companies, to giving equal access to non-profits and government organizations, and to giving the media more voices. Government centrists claim that with the new bill, there "will be full freedom of speech." Yeah, I don't know about that. But when considering whether the new law is worth fighting for, one must consider that it has been inflammatorily referred to as "indirect expropriation" by the right-wing forces against it. Well then, I'll take TWO! I like to think of it as the public option -- it's not single-payer, but it's definitely a step toward it.


Today thousands of signs (I'm not even going to try to count heads) appeared in front of Congress and rallied for hours, and as far as I know people are still rallying. I can't believe that a month ago I got excited reading about this thousands of miles away in San Francisco, and now I'm here, standing side by side, yelling and chanting and clapping with the people that are making this happen.

The Evita/Peronista signs were ubiquitous, so I took this sign out of context in defiance:

And http://www.infobae.com/contenidos/476996-101275-0-D%27El%C3%ADa-y-militantes-oficialistas-llegan-al-Congreso-para-seguir-el-debate-de-la-Ley-de-Medios

It's two in the morning now; they've been debating for almost 20 hours. I watched the debate live on the news for a while, and I saw a guy waving a paper and doing the Italian emphasis gestures repeatedly. I'm pretty sure this is a good sign.


02:27 (ART): El senado aprobo en general la ley de medios. 44-24. EAT it, Clarin!

07 October 2009

2009.10.07_back to the p-word (political, not punctual)

For my first three weeks here, I was a punctual citizen -- I think mostly because being on time was a lot less work than dealing with potential additional planning and talking. Now that I've found my comfort zone, tardiness seems to have worked its way back into my attributes. So I arrived at the starting point of the march thirty minutes late. There was definitely a march there, but with the high frequency of demonstrations in Buenos Aires, I started to wonder if it was my march, or if that one had left and another had already started. It was pretty big, and there was no way I was going to track down my friend to validate my whereabouts, but it was pretty big, so I went with it. With signs like "For a just distribution of the riches," "For the fundamental rights of work," and "For health and job security"; and with slogans that declared support for the people of Honduras, it couldn't suck. And it didn't.

The march was instigated by the CGT (Confederación General del Trabajo de la República Argentina) and the CTA (Central de los Trabajadores Argentinos). The CGT is a massive national trade union with a broad base, and the CTA, also a multi-tendency organization, was actually formed from a split in the CGT in the early 90s by workers that refused to yield to Menen's free-market agenda. While the organizations have a history of differences, today they showed their readiness and willingness to come together with tenacity to pressure the rats in power when justice calls. As expected, the energy was high, and while the drums and horns were loud, the signs and speeches hit all the right notes. The confetti, a cloud of hundreds of political fliers, said this was my kind of party. But my favorite part was that I got to do what I do -- photograph people. I haven't had this many people want their picture taken since the days when I shot drunk vacuous college girls at sorority parties for not nearly enough money. Uck. Anyway, these people are the reason I take pictures, and they don't even want their picture -- they just want their picture taken.

Oh yeah, I eventually found my friend, through the lens of my camera, and he informed me that I was at the right march, so that worked out.

04 October 2009

2009.10.04_an apolitical picture story

I dedicate this picture story to my Whore, who was dismayed by my vow to post more politics.

Sundays in Buenos Aires have an apocalyptic feel to them. Before I even leave my building, I can hear the the absence of cars honking. The porter is off duty, and as I exit the lobby and cross the vacant street, a newspaper blows by. Kirchner did something again. The street lights are still working, but the bank, the pharmacy, the markets -- from the verdulerias to the carnecerias -- are all shuttered, and I quietly forfeit my mission to buy tape that day. It's a trade-off, but one I'm totally cool with. Without all the bustle, my senses are more acute, and I notice things that normally escape my attention, like elevated garbage bins.

I'm just walking now, checking out the silence and the breeze and the sun and the shadows. I don't have anywhere to go, and I don't have to watch where I'm going. I can walk up to gated store windows and stare as long as I want, and nobody stares back. Nobody is around to talk to, except for this huge cat, but he's busy watching over this bike. Even my local park is empty, with the exception of The Slide.

Political photo break:

A few blocks later, I'm abruptly surrounded by people and commotion. Plaza Serrano is having its weekend fair, where the bars and restaurants morph into bar and restaurant shops, and the guests dine among racks of clothes. It's like consumerist Robots in Disguise. I quickly tire of the sound of money exchange, and head out in another direction. A guy asks me for directions, and I finally give them to him after making him repeat himself twice. He's going my way, so we walk and talk for a while. He, like everyone who's never been to the U.S., thinks I'm crazy for leaving. We do the cheek kiss as we depart, because we've known each other for three whole minutes.

I've started playing this game with myself, where every time I go out, I retroactively label an event as the primary purpose for the outing. I know it sounds stupid, but it's not like I actually believe that some things are meant to be or that things happen for a reason or some crap. I just like having the freedom to relinquish any preconceived notions about my trip, and waiting until it's complete to decide on a purpose. At this moment, I see what I came out for -- a dog-owner standoff*. A man waits for his dog to poop on the sidewalk; he has nothing in his hands but the leash. Halfway down the block, a woman waits for her dog to poop on the sidewalk; she is holding the leash and some plastic bags. Her gaze is locked on him, as she slowly bends down to pick up the poop. His dog is done too, but he doesn't leave. He stands, and stares back. She straightens, with the poop, and stares more. He points to the plastic bags in her hand and then to his dog's poop. Oh shit. She's staring really hard now. How this ends, I have no idea, because I couldn't walk any slower without becoming part of the standoff, and I did not want to get hit with a bag of shit. (I have no photographic evidence for the same reasons.)

*I'm pretty sure that's what this was.