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The Left Alternative to Peronism

Originally published on Jacobin, October 22 , 2015 /Argentines go to the polls Sunday. What’s the state of the country’s left, electorally and in the streets?

Todd Chretien

October 22, 2015
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Christian Castillo is a founding member of the Argentine Socialist Workers Party (Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas — PTS) and the Workers’ Left Front (Frente de la Izquierda y los Trabajadores — FIT). He was elected to the provincial chamber of deputies for the province of Buenos Aires as a FIT candidate in 2013 and is currently running for a seat in the national Chamber of Deputies.

He also serves as the campaign coordinator for the FIT presidential ticket of Nicolás Del Caño and Myriam Bregman. Todd Chretien caught up with Castillo one week before the October 25 national elections. They discussed Argentina’s history of social movements, how revolutionaries should participate electorally, and the Left’s prospects in Sunday’s elections.

You started as an activist with the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) as a young student under the military dictatorship at the beginning of the 1980s. Why did you decide to get involved in the socialist movement during this dangerous era?

For me, it was about my generation. At the start of the eighties, mass discontent with the dictatorship grew a lot and this took a big jump with the Malvinas War in 1982. After Argentina’s military defeat, the dictatorship was severely weakened. In my case, I got involved with a clandestine organization alongside dozens of activists in high school and we began to get interested in politics.

Tens of thousands of young people entered into political life during that time, the majority of whom were funneled into supporting bourgeois political parties, such as the Radical Civic Union (UCR), or into petty bourgeois politics like the Intransigent Party.

I sympathized with socialist politics while at the same time rejecting the Communist Party (CP), which had supported the military dictatorship “critically” during the war, proposing a “civic-military government.” That’s what drew me to Trotskyism. First as a sympathizer of the PST (Socialist Workers Party) and then as a member when it became the MAS.

When the dictatorship collapsed in 1983, and also during the Argentinazo in 2001, many hoped that revolutionary organizations could grow rapidly. As it turned out, this path was longer and more difficult than expected. Can you describe the successes and challenges the PTS has faced in the years since 2001?

By the time the military dictatorship fell, the Peronist trade union bureaucracy was in weak shape, but it rebuilt itself as an opposition to the anti-worker police of UCR president Raúl Alfonsín, who had won the first civilian election in 1983. Alfonsín, after some initial haggling with the International Monetary Fund, guaranteed payment of the illegitimate eternal debt, which had leapt from $7 billion to $43 billion under the dictatorship.

During this period, the MAS grew as a party, alongside the CP, becoming the most important force on the Left in the 1980s. However, in its political practice, the MAS was drifting to a more and more electoralist stance, while its alliance with the CP, focused on democratization, pulled it toward opportunism. The PTS first grew as a faction within the MAS before being expelled in May of 1988.

Shortly thereafter, the Peronist candidate Carlos Menem won the presidential elections and initiated the brutal neoliberal policies. The MAS couldn’t figure out how to resist these attacks and fragmented into various groups. By the time the crisis broke out in 2001, the workers movement and the Left were in a weakened state.

There were hardly any leftist militants in the industrial unions at that time, although there were some in the public sector and in the teachers unions. Between fear of unemployment (which reached 25 percent) and the continuing control of the union bureaucracy, it was impossible to organize an alternative to the government’s policy of devaluing the peso.

In response, militant movements of the unemployed grew, leading the occupation of some two hundred factories (mostly small and medium size), and for some months popular assemblies sprang up in neighborhoods. Despite this, the movement’s social forces were insufficient for confronting Peronist president Eduardo Duhalde’s policies of containing the struggle and rescuing the bourgeois order.

Nonetheless, we played an important role in some reoccupied factories, especially in the case of the Zanon factory in the Neuquén province, which was put under workers’ self-management, as well as in the case of the struggle at the Brukman textile plant.

After 2002, the economy began to grow again based on rising international prices for raw materials produced in Argentina and the competitive advantage of lowered wages, which had lost some 30 percent of their purchasing power. By 2003, this industrial growth gave rise to a new phenomenon of “rank-and-file unionism” which we were able to play a role in: for instance, in the struggles at the Kraft Food company in 2009.

Throughout all of this, we maintained our political independence from both kirchnerismo and the different bourgeois opposition parties and forces, including the center left. This positioning was very important in the crisis that erupted between Christina Fernández de Kirchner’s government and the farming sector in 2008, when some parts of the Left got behind the agricultural bosses simply because they opposed the government.

Our independent standpoint was strengthened during the FIT’s first big fight in 2011. In 2013, the FIT won 1,200,000 votes in the legislative elections and elected three national deputies, as well as taking seats in seven provincial legislatures. One of these elected deputies was our own Nicolás del Caño, who obtained 14 percent of the votes in the province of Mendoza, the fifth largest electoral district in the country.

In 2014, we took on a leading role in the struggle against layoffs at LEAR auto parts, which lasted for nine months, as well as in the occupation of the Donnelley graphics company, which was eventually placed under workers’ self-management and renamed Madygraf by its workers.

At the same time, our party launched an online daily newspaper, La Izquierda Diario (The Left Daily), which is part of a network of similar left-wing sites in Chile, Brazil, Mexico, the Spanish state, and France run by members of the Trotskyist Fraction – Fourth International, to which we belong.

We also publish, alongside intellectuals who support the FIT, a review called Ideas de Izquierda (Ideas of the Left), and we have launched a publishing house for Marxist classics — including the complete works of Trotsky in Spanish, in conjunction with the Leon Trotsky Museum in Mexico.

Most trade union leaders remain loyal to Peronism, but many rank-and-file workers also continue to vote for the Justicialist Party. For instance, in 2011, Christina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) won 54 percent of the popular vote. In your view, is there finally a crisis developing in the heart of Peronism?

Today the majority of trade union leaders remain loyal to oficialismo (a term for Peronism), while others have gone over to the opposition . For example, there is Hugo Moyano, the leader of the powerful truckers union and chief of the opposition to the pro-government leadership inside the General Confederation of Workers (CGT). Moyana was an oficialista until 2011, when CFK’s policies pushed him to break away.

It’s important to keep in mind that during the last few years there have been important general strikes in Argentina. These have been called by the opposition union leaders, but they have also taken place in unions where the Left, including our party in particular, has played a leading role. Meanwhile, all the bourgeois candidates are trying to win support from the union bureaucracy because they’ll need their help pushing through austerity policies. That said, the majority of the union leadership supports Daniel Scioli, CFK’s chosen successor for president.

In 2013, Peronsim suffered a split when Sergio Massa, the ex-chief of the cabinet, broke with CFK’s government and founded the Renovation Front, an anti-Kirchner Peronist electoral alliance. Scioli, for his part, represents the most conservative section of the current government coalition. Overall, there is a general shift to the right within the political superstructure.

The candidate’s economic advisors all propose similar policies: pay the international bond holders (known as vultures in Argentina), start a new round of international borrowing, and devalue the peso and cut subsidies for public services. They all want the workers to pay for the crisis.

Internationally, Argentina is known for Lionel Messi’s soccer skills and its powerful social movements: the Mothers of the Plaza, the piqueteros, factory occupations, the movement for abortion rights, unions, etc. Can you tell us a bit about some of the most important movements today?

Some of the movements you named have been active for decades, such as the movement for human rights, even if a large part of those organizations were coopted by Kirchnerism. The movement of the unemployed played an important role during the crisis of 2001, but weakened when the economy began to improve and employment grew.

The most important development under Kirchner governments was the growth of the workers movement and the emergence of the left-wing unionism. This is very significant because, until some years ago, we had to argue with political currents who said that the working class had disappeared as an object of capitalist exploitation.

During these years, we’ve seen the development of rank-and-file unionism, with the rise of dozens of workplace delegates, internal commissions, and anti-bureaucratic activists who fight with factory managers as well as with the pro-management union leaders. This movement is extensive and combative and the Left has been deeply involved, for example, in the fights against the cuts at Lear auto parts manufacturing, as well as the struggle at Cresta Roja chicken processing plants and the strike by Route 60 bus drivers.

In particular, our party has done important work in this sector, and this is being expressed in the hundreds of worker candidates running on the PTS electoral lists in the FIT. For example, in the province of Buenos Aires, the biggest in the country, the PTS presented 1,500 candidates in the primary elections, of which 40 percent were industrial workers and 300 were teachers.

The movement against sexist violence is also growing. On June 3, a mass mobilization was organized known as #Niunamenos (#Notoneless) against sexist violence and the failure of the government to support women who suffer gender violence.

And on October 10, 11, and 12, some 65,000 women attended the National Women’s Gathering in the Mar del Plata, which shows the depth of the fight to stop violence against women and for legal and free abortion. Our party participated actively in this movement through the Bread and Roses formation with a delegation of 2,300 compañeras in attendance.

Can you explain how the FIT works? There was quite a sharp conflict in the primary elections between one FIT slate headed by Jorge Altamira of the Partido Obrero and that of Nicolás del Caño and Myriam Bregman for the PTS. How are comrades from the competing FIT primary tendencies now working together during the general campaign?

The FIT emerged in 2011 as an electoral pact between the PTS, the Partido Obrero (PO), and Izquierda Socialista to get past the proscriptive threshold of 1.5 percent votes mandated by the PASO primary system (which requires simultaneous and obligatory open primaries).

Those who make up the front define ourselves as Trotskyists and we agree on a clear program of working-class independence against the bosses’ parties and their state. The FIT calls for a workers’ government, although there are important differences between its constituent parties.

The decision to put forward two separate lists in the PASO primaries was made by the PO and IS. We proposed a common list which would have synthesized the traditions of the Left with new sectors and leaders on the rise, such as Nicolás del Caño. However, the PO and IS didn’t see it that way.

We also had an argument regarding opening up the FIT to populist forces that don’t share our strategic objectives, those who have a policy of aligning with bourgeois sectors, or those who often play an adversarial role with respect to FIT. We believe this was the case, for example, with the PO’s decision to incorporate Carlos “el Perro” Santillán, who heads the Jujuy Municipal Employees Union (Sindicato de Empleados y Obreros Municipales de Jujuy), into the FIT.

We argued that in order to strengthen the revolutionary left and to become part of the daily lives of workers and youth it was necessary to renovate the FIT with new figures who could reach out to new sectors, such as young people working precarious jobs, as well as broadening the base of left-wing activists among workers and the youth as a whole. We were not wrong, and this policy led to us winning the primary elections.

But the PASO has ended, and now we are building a strong, unified campaign for the whole FIT, working through a National Coordinating Committee (Mesa Nacional) which includes representatives from the PTS, PO, and Izquierda Socialista. Our common objective is to conduct a vibrant presidential campaign which can achieve a historic result for the working-class and socialist left in Argentina — the left traditionally does better in legislative, as opposed to presidential, elections.

We also aim to increase the FIT’s number of national deputies beyond the three we have currently. We are in a position to contend for national deputies in the Federal District, one or two in the Province of Buenos Aires, one in Mendoza, and one in Córdoba, besides looking to increase our elected officials in various provincial legislatures and winning a seat in the Parlasur, Mercosur’s regional parliament.

Del Caño recently participated in a nationally televised debate last week and, of course, as an elected provincial deputy, you are playing a central role in the campaign. How is the campaign going? How many candidates are running for the FIT? Could you describe some experiences you’ve had while campaigning?

I think the televised debate, watched by an estimated two million people, has been very important for us. Most of the media was talking abut how well Del Caño performed and how he was able to put the other candidates on the hot seat.

I don’t have the exact number of FIT candidates in front of me, but it must be around two thousand nationally, to which we have to add the candidates running in early provincial elections. Argentina is made up of twenty-four provinces, and each of these contains numerous municipalities, which have their own governing councils and mayors.

For instance, the FIT has already won good results and got members elected to legislatures in Neuquén, Mendoza, Salta, Córdoba, and the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, while we narrowly lost in Santa Fé.

Nicolás’s visibility in the national campaign is notable. This week, for example, he visited the Social Science Department at a university in Buenos Aires and received a tremendous amount of support. Our comrades in the youth section of the PTS organized a radio show for Nicolás with a live audience, and more than five hundred people attended. We see the same sort of thing when we visit factories.

Our campaign is seen as opposing the ruling political caste that simply administers the state in the interest of the capitalists. In the FIT, our deputies and legislators only earn what an average teacher receives, donating the remainder of their legislative salary to workers’ struggles and community organizations. The slogan that “all elected politicians should earn as much as a teacher” is one of our defining features.

In my case, I served as a provincial deputy in Buenos Aires for a year and a half. I just gave up my seat because the FIT has a rotating system where our four-year term in office is shared between the forces that make up the front. Despite competing against each other in the PASO, we are maintaining this system and will share time in office in proportion to the votes obtained by each component of the FIT.

During my time in office, I presented 250 pro-worker proposals. For instance, we won initial approval in the Chamber of Deputies for the expropriation of the Donnelley factory on behalf of the workers (although the Senate failed to pass this into law); we approved free passes for public transportation for students, teachers, and non-students (the Senate limited this to students); and we designated occupied, worker-run factories as privileged providers for the provincial government so that they have priority for state purchases. We made all these proposals in conjunction with the workers, students, and activists themselves.

Now I am running for a seat in the national Chamber of Deputies for the province of Buenos Aires and, since the PASO ended, I am acting as the coordinator for Del Caño’s campaign. Very often, people stop me in the street and say, “We’re voting left!” This happens several times a day, and not just to me, but to many of the FIT’s candidates.

We’ve been very successful with our publicly funded television and radio spots, which are mandated by our electoral laws, and our spokespeople are often covered in the mainstream media. We’ve also taken advantage of social media, distributing videos on YouTube and Facebook; some of these have gotten more than one million hits. And, of course, we have a strong presence in the streets, distributing stickers and leaflets and setting up committees in different neighborhoods.

We’ve organized hundreds of “micro campaigns,” where each candidate meets and talks with their own social networks about why they are part of our electoral list, and then we’ve use pictures, videos, and texts from these small meetings to amplify their reach. In other words, we doing everything we can to challenge the capitalist candidates to the best of our ability.

Today there is an important international debate concerning electoral strategy and tactics; for instance, some revolutionaries in Greece and Portugal have raised the slogan “for a government of the Left.” Del Caño has said that the FIT represents a “hard” left and the FIT has been critical of the “government of the Left” slogan. Could you explain how you understand the relation between these elections and the strengthening of extra-parliamentary struggles?

This strategic discussion revolves around the old distinction between reform and revolution. Faced with a Left that has renounced revolution and proposes to manage the capitalist state, as with Podemos in the Spanish state, Chavismo in Venezuela, PSOL in Brazil, and, tragically, Syriza in Greece — which has been transformed into a vehicle for austerity by the troika — we don’t mind calling ourselves a “hard” left.

In order to confront capital’s attacks, we need a Left which is rooted and is willing to fight on all fronts. We intervene in elections, just like we do in factory floor struggles, but we contend that there is no solution within the bounds of capitalism.

Our struggle is not to reform the system, but to put an end to capitalism and to win a workers’ government in order to begin constructing a new society without exploiters. To do this, we need a new state, one based on workers councils, a democracy for workers.

The discussion about what attitude to take toward the rise of Syriza is interesting. Essentially, one important section of the Left proposed an analogy with the tactic of a workers government which was discussed in the Third International with respect to Germany in the early 1920s.

Our political current maintains that participating in the Syriza government, even if it was called a “government of the Left,” had nothing to do with the Third International’s “workers government” policy. Then, as is well known, the question of Communist participation in the state government of Saxony in Germany could only be justified if this government, given the subjective and objective situation, would allow for the organization and arming of the workers for the seizure of power and the development of organs of dual power.

Syriza represented nothing of the sort in 2012, and certainly not in 2015. In fact, we can say just the reverse took place. Basing itself on the relative pacification of the class struggle and on the rise of parliamentary illusions, Syriza disarmed the resistance to the memorandums. We saw that Tsipras only needed five months to completely betray his popular mandate.

In our judgment, the Left inside Syriza showed that it was not up to the task; it didn’t build a social and political force that would have allowed it to organize the resistance. Its exclusively parliamentary character clearly left it incapable of mobilizing in the of Tsipras’s flagrant capitulation before Merkel and the Troika.

Based on this, I want to explain what revolutionary parliamentarianism means to us. We want to use electoral and parliamentary platforms to strengthen extra-parliamentary organization and struggle. This implies gaining a deeper insertion of the revolutionary left inside the working class, in the factories, in the oppressed sectors of the youth, in the women’s movement.

In sum, we must make use of this “preparatory” stage to construct a strong revolutionary workers’ party which is capable of playing a decisive role in the coming rounds of the class struggle. This requires, obviously, having the right politics, which means not caving in to different bourgeois variants. However, at the same time, it is necessary to accumulate real weight in the movement of the masses, and especially inside the working class. All of our efforts are headed in that direction.

We believe that each victory we win on the terrain of the political superstructure must be put at the service of increasing the militancy of the workers and the youth, while building up leadership in parts of the mass movements. Without this, we will be unable to intervene in future crises.

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