The following interview with Alejandro Vilca was first published in Jacobin
Argentinian politics have long been a case study in contradictions. Its labor movement has been among the strongest in Latin America since its birth at the turn of the twentieth century. On the back of mighty labor, Juan Domingo Peron rose to power in the 1940s, granting historic concessions to the workers and beginning a long populist tradition that wedded working-class leadership to bourgeois politics. Peronism has ever since encompassed a wide spectrum of politics (from right-wing to center-left) who only share among themselves their loyalty to “the General” and the conviction that Peronism is the ultimate vehicle to power.
Former presidents Néstor and Christina Fernandez Kirchner form a conspicuous case within the Peronist tradition. On the cusp of a booming economy after the 2001 crash, they implemented sweeping welfare programs for the poor and, after years of a fruitful alliance, staged a high-profile campaign against conservative media. But they left all mainstays of neoliberalism untouched.
In no small part due to disillusion with the Kirchners, businessman and right-wing politician Mauricio Macri was able to win the presidency in 2015, and reaffirm his authority in the October 2017 midterm elections. This week, despite mass protests, Congress capitalized on that momentum to pass a pension reform affecting millions of retirement and welfare beneficiaries. Macri’s anti-worker crusade is beginning to take hold.
But below the surface, the political scene is less grim than it appears.
This is visible even in the most unexpected of places, like Jujuy, a far northwest province of Argentina that borders Bolivia and Chile. Marked by jagged Andean slopes and strong indigenous ties, Jujuy is among the poorest regions in the country. Yet a working-class left has been unable to gain a foothold in the province thus far, due in large part to a highly repressive state apparatus. Instead, for three decades it was a Peronist stronghold, until Gerardo Morales of the right-wing Radical Civic Union (Unión Civica Radical, UCR) party won the governorship in 2015. With the support of President Mauricio Macri and his Cambiemos coalition, the UCR anchored itself in Jujuy’s provincial assembly. Morales has used his term to oversee the jailing and illegal detention of Milagro Sala, an activist and leader of the Tupac Amaru social-welfare organization.
But in October, Jujuy was also home to a leftist victory. The midterm elections saw Alejandro Vilca, a thirty-eight-year-old indigenous sanitation worker, garner 18 percent of the vote, just one percent behind the second-placed Peronist Justicialist Party (Partido Justicialista, PJ). As a result, Vilca will join three fellow members of the Left and Workers Front (FIT) on the provincial legislature.
An outspoken socialist, he has spent the last several years organizing fellow workers, working to democratize Argentine labor unions, and fighting government persecution. Jacobin sat down with Vilca to talk about the FIT’s newfound growth, the role of the indigenous struggle in Argentina, and the dangers of Macrismo.
Across Argentina, but especially in Buenos Aires, October’s elections strengthened Macri’s Cambiemos coalition while serving significant defeats for Kirchnerism. What is your assessment of the elections?
The October 22 legislative elections — which put half of the Chamber of Deputies, one-third of the Senate, and several provincial legislatures and municipal councils up for re-election — saw the ruling Cambiemos coalition of Mauricio Macri’s Republican Proposal (PRO), the Radical Civic Union (UCR), and the Civic Coalition obtain 42 percent of the votes across the country and win control in the most important provinces. With this result, Macri proclaimed a “programmatic manifesto” of the bourgeoisie against workers and retirees.
That is, a set of counter-reforms that if approved would lead to real setbacks in the historic rights won by the workers’ movement, in particular those dealing with retirement benefits, along with a severe deterioration in working conditions for young people. It is a war plan that sets out to change the relationship of class forces in favor of those who own the country. But this plan has been forcefully rejected by a majority of the population, even among voters of the ruling party.
The Justicialist Party was the big loser, especially among its governors who were most pro-government, such as Juan Manuel Urtubey in Salta and Juan Schiaretti in Córdoba. The sectors of the PJ aligned with the Renewal Front (FR) of former presidential candidate Sergio Massa also had a bad election. And former president Christina Kirchner, despite her more oppositional profile to Macrismo, only just made it to the national senate, but did not manage to win in the Province of Buenos Aires. This puts into question her ability to lead a Peronism that has entered into a deep post-election crisis.
After launching his counter-reform package under the guidance of big business groups such as the Argentine Industrial Union and the Rural Society, and the imperialist organizations of the IMF and the OECD, Macri received important support from the Peronist governors and senators of the Justicialist Party/Victory Front (PJ/FPV). These forces have jointly signed a fiscal agreement that will lead to lower business taxes and a harsh attack on retirees and the Social Security National Administration (ANSES) pension fund.
In the case of Macri’s proposed labor reform, parliamentary debate on it was postponed due to disagreements between the Peronist CGT union federation — which has signed an accord with the government to hand over certain hard-won labor rights without agreeing to Macri’s plans in total — and the senators of the PJ. With my comrades from the Movement of Class Struggle Groups (Movimiento de Agrupaciones Clasistas, MAC) we demand that the union federations and unions put in place a plan of struggle that rejects these reforms in total, because we know that the only way to defeat the government’s plan is through workers’ and popular mobilization.
The FIT received over 1.2 million votes, showing the viability of this electoral coalition. How would you characterize the Left Front as a political phenomenon? Tell us about the campaign proposals and the social base you’re trying to represent.
We had a great election across the country and achieved the best election results for the Left since 1983 in the province of Buenos Aires, where 38 percent of the country’s voters are concentrated. Nicolás Del Caño was elected as a national deputy for the province. We also had a good result in the City of Buenos Aires (CABA), where Myriam Bregman was elected as a legislator.
One of the key themes of our campaign was the proposal to reduce working hours to six hours a day, five days a week, with no loss in salary and with a minimum that covers the cost of the “family basket” (living wage). Additionally, we explained that, as Macri’s ruling party is a minority in both houses of Congress, it is in fact the [predominantly Peronist] opposition that has voted for over eighty of Macri’s conservative laws.
The elections in Jujuy were historic, with the FIT winning 18 percent of the votes across the whole province, while in the capital we rose to second place with 25 percent, which gave us enough votes to win four provincial deputies and five councilors. They are just some of the more than 40 legislators, including three national deputies, which the FIT now has throughout the country.
With these results, the Left Front has consolidated itself as the representation of increasingly broad sectors of workers, women, and young people who have opted for an alternative based on class independence against the employers’ parties; a force whose main candidates and spokespeople are in the forefront of the most important conflicts of the class struggle, such as those who fought eviction from the multinational Pepsico, those in the #NiUnaMenos women’s movement, and those that are part of the human rights movement defending democratic freedoms.
As part of the FIT coalition, my party, the Socialist Workers Party (Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas, PTS), focused on opening up a dialogue as “tribunes of the people” with all those sectors of the working people who have grown tired of the eternal candidates of the bosses’ parties (UCR and PJ). On this basis we made a qualitative leap among thousands of voters who were disenchanted with the PJ, which has played a subservient role to Cambiemos.
We took advantage of Governor Morales’s attacks against the workers of the sugar mills, the teachers and education workers, the student youth and indigenous peoples, standing in solidarity with those sectors and winning their support. An important sector of the indigenous peoples of Jujuy, some of the most exploited and precarious workers, identified with my candidacy in particular: my municipal worker comrades who earn less than $100 a month, those who live on changas (temporary jobs), the twenty-seven thousand young people who cannot work or study or the women, who put up with the worst jobs. They said they wanted a worker like me to enter the legislature because they saw me as “one of our people.”
Apart from the election results, in what other ways did the support for the Left Front express itself?
In Jujuy, the discrediting of the traditional politicians, the crisis of the PJ, and the dismantling of clientelistic organizations that could contain poverty, like the Tupac Amaru, all in the context of a right-wing government, combined to turn our campaign for deputies from the working class into a people’s cause. We knew that getting “one of our people” into the legislature for the first time would arouse the militancy of hundreds. And unlike the activism that is paid for by the machinery of the bosses’ parties, our supporters fought for this objective without receiving any economic return. Without the support of all of them, it would have been impossible to have achieved this result, which has developed enormous enthusiasm among young people and workers who now see that they can finally begin to confront the powerful.
In a country where you don’t often see indigenous people in Congress or in the media, you’re open about your Kolla indigenous identity. Tell us what this means to you and the situation faced by indigenous communities in Argentina.
The fact that I have worked for more than ten years as a waste collector in the populous Alto Comedero neighborhood is a profound contrast to the traditional politicians who are far removed from how the working class lives. In a province where the state and government officials practice systematic discrimination against the descendants of indigenous peoples, and where the bourgeois class is white and xenophobic, my candidacy was a real blow to all those who see in the governments of Macri and Morales a faithful representative of their lineage.
With these right-wing governments, indigenous peoples have been going through a difficult time. With the support of the governors, Macri has unleashed hunting season on the indigenous communities in Patagonia for the benefit of landowners such as Benetton and Lewis. This repression led on August 1 to the forced disappearance of Santiago Maldonado by the Gendarmerie that ended in his death. Also in the south of the country, just a few days ago a young member of the Mapuche community Rafael Nahuel was killed by a bullet in the back.
In the province of Jujuy, the indigenous communities of my Kolla or Guarani brothers have denounced the abuses of the landowners and multinationals that plunder their territories, such as the mining companies that extract lithium thanks to laws that work in their benefit. Moreover, only 13 percent of the indigenous communities have a title deed to their ancestral lands. That motivates their continuous struggle for their territories as well as for respect for their culture.
In the province of Jujuy where you ran, the Left Front got more votes than Peronist forces did. What does this result express?
The PJ only beat us for a national deputy position, while in the capital San Salvador de Jujuy, we got second place, over them, and won two city councilor seats. The results were very tight in the province’s interior, and in the sugar town of Libertador General San Martín we beat the governor’s own slate in the councilors category and came out in first place.
This is an emblematic city, because it is controlled like a fiefdom by the Blaquier family, who are accused of complicity in the military dictatorship’s genocide during the “noche del apagón” (the night the lights went out). [The “noche del apagón” is the week in July 1976 where the military used power blackouts to detain around four hundred people in Ledesma, over fifty of whom were later forcefully “disappeared”].
The PJ already suffered a harsh blow in 2015 when it lost the governorship it had held since 1983. After Cambiemos took office, it has acted as an accomplice, approving much of Macri’s legislation and allowing all the Morales administration’s attacks. Moreover, the main candidates of the PJ represent the most traditional and right-wing sectors of Justicialismo. This crisis in Peronism has filtered through to the unions, whose leaderships are historically represented by PJ leaders. This has contributed to a significant number of workers seeing us as the only real opposition political force, one that stands alongside them in their daily struggles.
What possibilities does this result open up for the Left Front in Jujuy?
It is a great responsibility for us to use the political capital we have achieved in order to take steps to build a mass party of the working class. We face great enemies, such as the political apparatuses that act at the behest of the owners of the province, but there is also a long populist tradition represented by different strands of Peronism, against which we have to battle for a socialist politics. We have the enormous task of winning over the loyalty of thousands of workers, women, and young people who are subjected to poverty and misery, away from clientelist political apparatuses that manipulate their needs, and the union and student bureaucracies that contain their discontent. We have in front of us a hard political and ideological fight in the workplaces and schools to set in motion the only social force that can defeat the capitalists and their governments.
What does the Left Front have in common with other successful left electoral coalitions such as Podemos, Syriza, or even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour? Where does it differ?
The Left Front is an electoral political coalition of Trotskyist forces: the PTS, to which I belong, the Workers Party (Partido Obrero, PO) and the Socialist Left (Izquierda Socialista, IS). It is a front that advances a program of working-class political independence among millions of people, and with the actions of its legislators and its militancy plays a progressive role in the political organization of the working class, youth, women, and all the oppressed. It is worth remembering that in November 2016 we held a rally with more than twenty thousand participants in a football stadium, thus demonstrating a capacity to mobilize that the anticapitalist left in Argentina has not achieved for a long time.
But in addition the FIT, in spite of being an electoral coalition, has among its objectives the fight for a workers’ government that breaks with capital and imperialism. This is a fundamental difference compared with other electoral coalitions that have developed in Europe in the shadow of the crisis of social democracies, such as Podemos or Syriza. These new formations have not broken with the reformist programs of conciliation with big capital or even worse, as in the case of Syriza, it became an agent of the troika and directly applied brutal austerity plans.
My party, the PTS, has been putting up a systematic fight to defend this anticapitalist program and perspective at times in contrast with the practices of other organizations that make up the FIT, with whom we have differences, even deep strategic ones. For us, these fights are part of the general battle to build a large revolutionary party in Argentina and around the world.
What challenges and obstacles are there to the Left Front becoming a political alternative that represents a larger sector of the population? Can it be a vehicle for contesting the power of the state?
One of the main challenges is to ensure that a good part of all the support we have obtained in the elections is translated into a militant force that contests the power of the trade union and student bureaucracies. The legislative positions that have been won will be put to the service of developing this perspective and strengthening the defense of working people in the face of government attacks. In this sense, the FIT is a tool that contributes to this task.
However, we know that challenging the power of the state can only be done by building the social force of the working class, the popular sectors and the oppressed, and with a revolutionary party at the head of this process. The possibility of the emergence of a party of this type is closely linked to a change in the situation and to the development of the class struggle. We have to prepare ourselves seriously for such a moment.
Interviewed by Juan Cruz Ferre