Street Fight

How did blocking traffic become Argentina’s favorite way to protest?

Roadblock. Click image to expand.
Protesters in Buenos Aires 

It’s Tuesday as I write this—that means the entire Buenos Aires subway system is shut down for the third time this month because of a fight between the subway union’s leadership and the workers they supposedly represent. Tomorrow, about 20 groups of piqueteros—groups composed of the poor and unemployed—plan to block the city’s main access roads to demand government subsidies. During recent weeks, piquetero groups camped out on Buenos Aires’ main boulevard for 31 consecutive hours, striking teachers and hospital workers shut down the city center, and Falklands War veterans and construction workers blocked area highways. Not wanting to be ignored, nightclub owners shut off a main city avenue to protest a bill that would force them to close at the unthinkably early hour of 5:30 a.m. Watching sweating drivers inch through an aural soup of their own car horns and the murga beats of drum-banging pickets, it seems more than appropriate that in one of its hits, Argentine rock supergroup Soda Stereo called Buenos Aires “the city of fury.”

The roadblock picket—or corte de ruta—is Argentina’s favorite way to complain. In the last 13 years, there have been 17,417 roadblocks in Argentina, according to a study from Nueva Mayoría, a local think tank, the most famous of which is the town of Gualeguaychú’s bridge with Uruguay, blocked to protest a paper mill built on the Uruguayan side.

That one’s been going on for three years.

After Argentina’s 2002 economic collapse, the roadblocks calmed down, save for a bubble last year when farmers, angry about a planned export tax hike, took to blocking rural roads with farm equipment (an action winningly dubbed the tractorazo). During this year’s financial slide, however, they’re back in a big way. And Buenos Aires is the paralyzed epicenter of the current boom. In the first nine months of 2009 alone, there were 2,050 cortes de ruta, or an average of 228 per month, putting it on pace to surpass 2002. About two-thirds of current roadblocks take place in and around Buenos Aires, which, depending on which side of a protest I find myself, feels like either the Los Angeles traffic hell of the movie Falling Down or the empty London of 28 Days Later.

Cecilia Cross, an academic at a government-funded labor and economics research center, traces the first roadblocks to the late ‘90s, when petroleum workers laid off during the privatization of the state oil company blocked roads to demand government jobs to save their devastated Patagonian towns. As Argentina’s economy declined and unemployment spiked, the movement spread from educated oil workers to Buenos Aires’ urban poor and became downright trendy. There were 2,336 cortes de ruta in 2002, the year of Argentina’s collapse, when two out of three residents fell below the poverty line and un- and underemployment rose to around 45 percent. Blocking streets while banging on a drum or pot and chanting “Que se vayan todos!” (“They’ve all gotta go!”) was a way for people who’d lost all faith in their politicians to make themselves heard. It’s a communal Argentine version of Glenn Close’s cri de coeur in Fatal Attraction: “I will not be ignored!” And it’s been taken up by everyone.

“The roadblock has been adopted by all sectors of society. People block streets to demand everything from tougher police tactics to new bridges, more welfare, and lower agriculture export taxes,” says Cross.

For some of the so-called piquetero groups of the impoverished and unemployed, blocking streets is almost a occupation in itself: They block roads to demand government welfare subsidies, some of which is paid back to the head piqueteros—sort of like union dues—so they can organize more marches in order to demand more subsidies.

In June 2002, the movement got its first martyrs when Darío Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki were killed by police as they blocked a Buenos Aires access bridge. Their deaths extracted a high political toll from then-President Eduardo Duhalde, who soon felt compelled to call elections. Frightened of becoming another Duhalde—and eager for the protesters’ support—President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her predecessor (and husband), Néstor Kirchner, adopted a policy of nonconfrontation. This goes a long way to explaining the impassivity of the federal police who watch the roadblocks like bored teenagers forced to sit through The Nutcracker Suite, as well as the apparent inability of irritated Buenos Aires residents to complete a sentence that does not contain the word impunity.

A few weeks ago, José Luis Rivas stood with his brother outside their empty cash register store and watched the 31-hour piquetero protest outside the nearby ministry of social development. Pickets wearing balaclavas and wielding metal bats like cheerleading batons lent the event a post-apocalyptic Mad Max tension as they patrolled the perimeter. “There’s no limit. People block the streets when they feel like it,” Rivas said. “Really, it’s an excess of liberty. Because their rights end where everyone else’s begin.” Not surprisingly, protest leaders disagree. “There are always complaints,” said Federico Orchani, a spokesman for the Frente Popular Darío Santillán at the ministry of social development protest. “But the right to eat, to have shelter, comes before the right to drive freely.”

In a kind of Kafka-esque impotence, the Buenos Aires city government wants to crack down but can’t do anything because it doesn’t have its own police force. (The federal police force, which answers to the national government, guards the city.) “We’re just observers,” Buenos Aires city security minister Guillermo Montenegro told a local radio host.

People do not block roads for fun, of course. They usually do it to get money. This year’s boom can be attributed to the fact that there are fewer pesos around, says Nueva Mayoría director Rosendo Fraga. “This year, the gross national product of Argentina will fall almost 4 percent, unemployment is rising, poverty is rising, and indigence is rising,” he says. Worse for those trying to get from Point A to Point B in a car or subway (or in anything else with wheels), a midterm election loss weakened the president, so the protesters are less afraid of angering her government. In a bid to win them over, this October President Fernández de Kirchner launched “Argentina Trabaja” (Argentina Works), a 9 billion peso ($2.4 billion) plan to create 100,000 jobs in community work cooperatives. That’s about 9 billion new reasons to block a road.

“This year and next,” says Cross, “will be years of many demonstrations.”