09 April 2007

Neuquén and the country, for Carlos Fuentealba

Last Tuesday the teachers' union in Neuquén organized a demonstration to demand higher and better salaries. They marched peacefully along a road. The provincial police was sent to disband them so that they couldn't block the road. A policeman shot a tear gas canister into a car that was accompanying the march, hitting a teacher called Carlos Fuentealba in the back of the neck. Fuentealba was taken to hospital and stayed there in a coma; he died on the night of Thursday.

The policeman who shot Fuentealba, Sgt. Daniel Poblete, had been convicted of two crimes. He never spent time in jail, and his last sentence (two years for abuses of prisoners, passed last November) is until waiting for a court decission to become effective.

The governor of Neuquén, Jorge Sobisch, deplored the death of Fuentealba but justified the order to suffocate the protest. Neuquén is a common stage for social protests and violent repression. Sobisch belongs to a local party that opposes the Kirchner administration and was allied to Mauricio Macri's PRO, until Macri withdrew his support. Sobisch is one of the candidates of the right for the presidency; the surveys never gave him the slightest chance to win, but now his national career seems to have been buried for good.

There's a constant, if not very articulate, debate about what to do with protests that resort to road blockades and similar devices to make their point. The left calls them "social demand protests" and claims they should never be repressed, as the basic needs of those who protest (the unemployed, the poor, the badly paid, the abused) are above the more "middle-class rights" of the rest, namely the freedom to use your car to get to work (or back from work, or on vacations) without delays or discomfort. The right calls the protests "road blockades" and contend that, while causing some trouble to motorists here and there is justifiable, it shouldn't be allowed by the authorities, especially since freedom of circulation is a constitutional right.

What the non-moderates of both left and right do, in any case, is equating all types of protest. Being a moderate myself, I find that simplistic and deceitful.

Consider a demonstration here in Rosario protesting the raise of the bus fee. A tiny but well-organized group of leftist activists gathered their ranks, formed by a majority of poor young women and men, and including violent lumpen masked with kerchiefs and toting sticks and rocks, and they stormed the Deliberative Council, breaking windows, setting fire to a door, and keeping the councilors and the employees locked up inside. In the meantime, of course, they also blocked a couple of streets. The police did nothing, thank you.

Consider another protest, this time organized by the taxi drivers demanding a fee raise. They blocked the street before the Municipality, made some noise (they were few) and attacked other taxis, whose drivers or owners didn't support the protest. The police did nothing.

In Santa Fe City and in Rosario, during the terrible deluge in March, pickets were organized in several key avenues. They were poor citizens affected by the flood, demanding aid. In Santa Fe, the road blocks actually slowed the transport of food and clothing to the evacuation centers. The government complained that these pickets were politically motivated, staged to complicate the matter and make the ones in charge look bad... which is entirely plausible... but the police did nothing.

Of course, if you've lived in Buenos Aires, you know that road-blocking demonstrations of all sorts are an everyday treat, and violent, destructive protests are common as well.

The right thinks that the poor do not get organized by themselves; they're always gathered by political operators. Indeed, a common denominator of conservative people everywhere is that the people (especially the poor) mustn't do politics — political action, the shaping of societies, is for intellectuals, technocrats, leaders, not for the unwashed masses. The left thinks that the poor masses have the right and the duty to reclaim the public space from the hands of the elite, whose laws are void because they're made to favour the powerful, and who must be opposed automatically.

To many Argentinians, sending riot police to disperse a demonstration is quite correct, even if the police employ a bit of brutality. Some wounded are to be expected. To quite a few, specifically giving orders to a brutal police force to use force against peaceful demonstrators may be OK as well, if the demonstrators are breaking the law in the strict sense (blocking a road is technically against the constitutional right of free circulation of people and goods). A small subset of those wouldn't have had too much of a problem with the murder of Carlos Fuentealba if it had taken place twenty or even ten years ago.

We seem to have progressed a bit, though. Fuentealba was not an activist, a leader, a "political" man; he was a poor teacher, appreciated for his professional and personal qualities by his pupils and his community. No politician sponsored him, no politician spoke in favour of him, but after a couple of days, the whole country is mobilized. In Rosario, in Buenos Aires, and of course in Neuquén, thousands are striking and demonstrating. Governor Sobisch, who still hasn't demanded the resignation of his police chief or anyone in his cabinet, and who still justifies his orders to repress peaceful teachers by force, is facing impeachment and being asked to resign himself. The two workers' union confederation, CGT and CTA, have set their differences aside to support the cause of justice for Carlos Fuentealba.

As I said, the right would rather not have the masses speaking freely in the streets, and the left would rather co-opt those voices, but so far none of both have gotten their way. The response has been swift and authentic. We're changing.

PS: Ken from Un año sin Primavera is a teacher and went to the protest march in Buenos Aires. Read the inside story there. The BBC also featured a story about the protests, as did Reuters, and articles in English have also appeared in Infoshop, libcom.org, the Buenos Aires Herald, and UK Indymedia (the latter about the destruction of Jorge Sobisch's campaign offices in Buenos Aires by the far-left group Quebracho).


  1. Pablo – can you please keep us updated as to the outcome regarding the police brutality in Neuquén?

    You mentioned that Neuquén is often a common stage for social protests and violent repression. Do you know why they are so prevalent there?

    How much do teachers in Argentina make in salary? And how does that compare to other similarly-qualified professionals?

    I remember a couple of years ago when protesting Aerolineas Argentinas employees blocked the highway to Ezeiza, and passengers had to haul their luggage from makeshift drop-off points.

    I was amazed that the government didn’t immediately resolve the situation (by arresting those involved). It’s one thing to picket and disrupt your (ex)employer, but it’s quite another thing to disrupt travel at Argentina’s only international airport. That’s not the way to get support for one’s cause.


  2. To SFO:

    Argentina is a "Federal Republic".

    There's some (few) remaining educational institutions that operate at the Federal level, but the vast majority of elementary schools depend on the provincial and/or municipal level. That was a result of the "transfer" of education to the provincial level in the '90s -without adequate funding-.

    Some facts:

    1. The province where the teacher was killed is ruled by a right wing governor. The kind which thinks that a "balance budget" is more important that teachers' ability to afford a decent life with their wages.

    2. The national government actually signed a new educational law which gives public education a GUARANTEED budgedt dependent on a given pecentage of the country's GDP.

    The federal government also gave a RAISE to teachers on the federal level.

    3. Again, since it's a Federal republic, it' s up to each PROVINCE to match up the funds if they want.

    4. The NATIONAL GOVERNMENT offered funds to the provinces that couldn't match the pay rises recently offered at the national level. But NEUQUEN, -the province where the killing happened- DIDN' T REQUEST SUCH FEDERAL HELP. In fact, the province doesn't even need it, it' s got a fiscal surplus.

    5. In short: The president gave pay RISES to the teachers. The provincial government of Neuquen didn' t, and a strike by the local teachers union in Neuquen was called. They took it to the streets. The right-wing governor decided that the right to roam the streets by car traffic was more important than teachers' wages, and called for the police to "remove the teachers from the provincial route". The provincial police acted brutally as they often do, and one teacher was killed. End of story.

    6. It was a provincial matter, mishandled by a right wing provincial governor which is a declared public enemy of the current left-leaning president.

  3. Fernando, that's all completely true, but it's very difficult to believe that the raise dictated by law from the national level was not a crude attempt to boost the campaign of Minister Filmus for the governorship of Buenos Aires and, at the same time, buy the support of CTERA (the teachers' union). Unlike so many other government measures, which are publicized months in advance, I didn't hear about the raise until it was formally announced, and I suspect the opinion of the non-K governors didn't even count in the negotiations.

    If the government wants federal control of teachers' salaries, maybe it should also retake federal control of education as a whole. This situation combines the worst of unitarism and federalism.


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