- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2002

LA MATANZA, Argentina In this sprawling slum near Buenos Aires, where an estimated 40 percent of the work force is unemployed or underemployed, help-wanted signs are as scarce as country clubs.

So when Jose Eduardo Valenzuela lost his job as a taxi driver last year, he didn't bother looking for another one. Instead, he signed up with the Classist and Combative Current (CCC), a militant populist group specializing in highway-blocking protests, called piquetes.

"I used to watch the demonstrations and I thought: Why don't they look for a job?" said Mr. Valenzuela, 40. "But then it happens to you, and you realize why people are protesting."

As this country's economy deteriorated during the past four recession-racked years, thousands of unemployed Argentines like Mr. Valenzuela enlisted in a growing army of full-time protesters led by the CCC and similar groups.

Called piqueteros, the jobless protesters rarely press their demands through official channels. Instead, they rely on a more-direct campaign, illegally blocking traffic on major highways until the government listens to them.

More often than not, the authorities give in. Protests, however, also have ended in clashes with riot police.

With leading political figures warning of an impending "social explosion" less than four months after looting and protests left 26 dead and toppled two presidents in as many weeks, the government was handling the piqueteros with kid gloves. The reappearance of hungry people looting supermarkets in some provinces has raised concerns further.

Caretaker President Eduardo Duhalde has broken with precedent and met with piquetero leaders face to face.

Last week, he proposed a "universal" welfare program the first of its kind in Argentina. He said it would provide 1.2 million heads of household with checks of 150 pesos ($54) a month, and ensure that "no Argentine family is left without an income" after the plan is in place by May 15.

The plan is similar to one extorted by piquetero organizations for their followers, but would reach more of the needy.

"Duhalde wants to finish his term in 2003, and he knows that the success of his administration is tied to two factors the dollar and social unrest," said Eduardo Feinmann, a political commentator in Buenos Aires.

"He has the dollar more or less in check now," Mr. Feinmann said. "What he has to avoid is what happened to [recently ousted President Fernando] de la Rua people in the street calling for his removal."

Not long ago, the piquetero protests here would have been inconceivable.

Unlike other countries in Latin America, Argentina had not experienced high levels of unemployment since the Great Depression. That changed under the administration of Carlos Saul Menem, who was president from 1989 to 1999. The county's once-mighty industry collapsed, buffeted by a broad reduction of tariffs, and workers were laid off in droves after the wholesale privatization of state-owned enterprises.

The unemployment rate has more than tripled, from 6 percent in 1991 to an estimated 22 percent recently.

Mr. Valenzuela, now jobless after driving a taxi, was among the victims of Argentina's economic meltdown. Six years ago, he was earning $1,000 a month as a refrigerator repairman. Now, every centavo he can scrape together goes to feed his family and pay for cigarettes which he says help kill the hunger.

His wife has been selling the family's old clothes and emptying the kitchen cabinets of spare plates, glasses and silverware exchanging them for vegetables at a nearby barter market. Their 17-year-old son dropped out of public school two years ago, unable to afford supplies and the 80-cent bus ride.

"It happened so fast," Mr. Valenzuela said with a resigned smile. "In my Argentina, I never thought I'd be begging for the salary I'm hoping for now."

Mr. Valenzuela is on a waiting list of the CCC piqueteros to receive one of the 160-peso-a-month ($58) "work plans" the organization administers with government approval. The plans are essentially welfare checks that require recipients to participate in 20-hour-a-week community projects, such as sweeping sidewalks or working in soup kitchens.

The welfare program announced by Mr. Duhalde would work in a similar way, although it was not clear whether nongovernmental organizations like the piqueteros would be allowed to operate them.

To be considered for the CCC work plans, Mr. Valenzuela must prove his commitment to the organization by attending weekly meetings and participating in CCC-sponsored social work in his neighborhood. Most important, he would have to help block Route 3 during the piquetes the CCC uses to twist the government's arm for more work plans and other subsidies.

Critics say this arrangement between the piquetero rank and file and their leaders amounts to extortion of both the government and the unemployed who turn to the organizations for help.

"A distinction needs to be made between the piquetero leaders and the needy, humble, poor people who are looking for work plans," said Mr. Feinmann.

"In exchange for blocking the highway, setting tires on fire and causing disturbances, people are given work plans controlled by the piquetero leaders . They are being used for political ends."

Still, many piqueteros are happy to stand in the way of oncoming traffic and brave potential police repression, if only as a respite from the day-to-day hardships they face at home.

Some piquetes seem more like festive social events than protests.

In La Matanza, several thousand men, women and children sit in the shade of makeshift tents along both sides of Route 3, playing cards and sipping mate a tealike drink ubiquitous in Argentina. Communal stews cooked in enormous cauldrons are served daily, and a doctor's tent provides round-the-clock medical attention. At night, music blares over the highway, whose four lanes of asphalt are converted into a dance floor. Families gather around campfires and talk.

"Sometimes, it's better out on the highway than in the house," said Daniel Sandez, a heavyset piquetero leader with the Land and Housing Federation (known by its Spanish acronym, FTV), an ally of the CCC. "At least you can eat, there's medicine, there are doctors, you can keep warm next to the bonfires. People bring their families, their children."

Less than 20 miles southwest of the broad, tree-lined boulevards of downtown Buenos Aires, the dirt roads in La Matanza, ankle-deep in mud from late-summer rains, run past crumbling housing projects and one-room shacks with sheet-metal walls and black-plastic roofs.

In the poorest neighborhoods, where people lack running water and the scent of burning wood wafts from jerry-built outdoor grills, few have steady incomes.

La Matanza "the Massacre" in Spanish was once known as "the bedroom of the working class" for the expansive residential neighborhoods built during state-promoted industrialization under President Juan Peron in the 1940s and 1950s.

In recent years, the district of 1.2 million residents has been notorious as a wasteland of the poor and unemployed and a breeding grounds for crime and drug abuse. The economic devastation in La Matanza, matched and even surpassed in some provinces, has provided fertile soil for the CCC and other piquetero groups.

Since emerging from obscurity five years ago, such groups have recruited more than 10,000 jobless in La Matanza, and tens of thousands more elsewhere in the country.

Some leftists credited the organizations with planting the seeds for the violent nationwide protests that ousted an elected government in December. Some even envision in the piqueteros a heaving proletariat capable of triggering longer-lasting and more fundamental social and political change.

Juan Carlos Alderete, a former union leader and factory worker who leads the CCC in La Matanza, frowns on talk about an imminent revolution.

Mr. Alderete and Luis D'Elia, his counterpart with the FTV, say their primary aims include a political overhaul that would make elected officials more accountable, and a drastic reversal of the free-market policies established during the decade of Mr. Menem.

But they have focused their highway-blocking protests on more mundane demands work plans and handouts to meet the immediate needs of their followers.

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