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What can we learn from the electoral alliance of Argentina’s revolutionary left?

Where does the success of the FIT come from and what will be debated in the upcoming primary elections?

Matías Maiello

July 18, 2015
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Photo: La Izquierda Diario (6,000 people attended the PTS’ rally on December 6, 2014.)

Spanish version from La Izquierda Diario Argentina, June 24, 2015.

The historic vote in Mendoza and the upcoming primary elections of the Left and Workers’ Front

The recent elections in the province of Mendoza demonstrate the tremendous progress made by the Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores (Left and Workers’ Front, or FIT). The Front’s candidate for governor this past June, Noelia Barbeito of the PTS, earned more than 110,000 votes, making it a historic election for the Left. This August, the FIT will have its first primary elections, with two tickets, one of the Partido Obrero (Workers’ Party) and Izquierda Socialista (Socialist Left) and the other of the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas (Socialist Workers’ Party). Where does the success of the FIT come from and what will be debated in the upcoming primary elections?

The FIT was formed as an electoral-political front in 2011 in response to a restrictive electoral reform implemented by the Kirchner government. According to the law, no party that fails to surpass 1.5% of the vote nationally (approximately 400,000 votes) and in each district in the Primarias Abiertas Simultáneas y Obligatorias (Required Open Simultaneous Primaries, PASO) would be left out of the general election.
Faced with this maneuver by the government aimed at eliminating any independent, working class alternative in the elections, the FIT was created. The Front is composed of the PO and the PTS, which are the largest parties of the Argentine Left, along with Izquierda Socialista. Each of the three organizations identifies as Trotskyist.

In its foundational program, which later was elaborated upon by a series of programmatic declarations, not only did the FIT clearly advance an independent perspective of the working class, but it also criticized and emphatically opposed the populist currents referenced by the so-called post-neoliberal governments (Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez, and, of course, the Kirchners) which held enormous weight in Latin America.

It was a transitional, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist program, which advanced the need for “a government of the workers and the people, supported by the mobilization of the exploited and oppressed.”

The attempt to prevent the Left’s participation in the 2011 general elections was defeated by the FIT, achieving more than half a million votes for the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates and almost 600,000 votes for legislative positions. In 2013, the Front’s votes improved to 1.3 million votes in the general elections, winning three seats in Congress (one for the Province of Buenos Aires, one for Mendoza, and another for Salta), the only seats won by the Left, along with several seats in provincial and municipal legislatures.

In the most recent governor’s race in the province of Mendoza this past Sunday, June 22, the candidate of the PTS and FIT, Noelia Barbeito, earned third place with 10.32% of the votes (over 110,000 total votes) in an election fought between the Kirchner government’s chosen candidate and the bosses’ oppositional candidate. It was a historic election for the Argentine Left in a provincial executive race, adding to the recent success of PTS and FIT candidate Nicolás del Caño, who won 17% in Mendoza city a few months earlier. Del Caño is currently a national legislator representing Mendoza and will be a candidate for president representing the PTS in the open primaries of the FIT.

Why are there two FIT slates in the primary elections?

Due to the PO’s rejection of a unified slate, which was supported by numerous independent and well-respected intellectuals and university professors , and later its rejection of multiple proposals brought forward by the PTS (which can be read about here , here , and here ), the Partido Obrero (along with Izquierda Socialista) will compete with the PTS in the upcoming primary elections. Hundreds of thousands of voters will decide who will be the candidates of the FIT to face off against the candidates of the bosses, such as Scioli, Macri, and Massa , all of whom were political heirs of Carlos Menem, the chief architect of the era of neoliberalism in the 1990s. It is worth highlighting that these are primary elections in which the votes of both slates will be added together in order to surpass the minimum 1.5% as required by law for all parties.

So where does the strength of the FIT among the masses come from? What does this experience tell us vis-à-vis the increasing adaptation of the Left internationally to neo-reformist phenomena like Podemos and Syriza or the post-neoliberal Latin American governments? What exactly is being debated in this internal election of the FIT? What strategic differences are expressed in these primaries? And within these debates, what can be learned by the recent electoral successes of the FIT in Mendoza, one of the bastions of the PTS? We will attempt to respond to all these questions.

Origins of the FIT: the Trotskyist Left in Argentina after 2001

The rebellions of December 19 and 20, 2001 shook the country and clearly demarcated a before and an after period. For the first time, an elected government fell as a result of popular mobilization. But at that moment, the Trotskyist Left, which had a long and storied tradition in Argentina, was generally weak, particularly among the workers movement which was fragmented and divided amidst a situation with 25% unemployment, and did not play a significant role.

By the end of the decade, the majority of Trotskyist currents internationally were retreating to failed projects of “broad parties” or abandoning Trotskyism completely, as in the case of currents like the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in France or else suffered sectarian degeneration. In Argentina, however, the Trotskyist Left, principally the PO, and PTS maintained their programs and made political gains.

What was at the root of this phenomenon? Both parties emerged from the crisis of 2001 with strong ties to the class struggle and the workers movement—the PO to the unemployed workers movement and the PTS to the movement of factories under worker control, most famously the Zanon factory. Among the movements’ principal leaders were Raúl Godoy of the PTS, who was recently re-elected as provincial legislator in Neuquén and who will be at the top of the PTS slate in the upcoming FIT primary elections in the province. From that moment on, the PO and the PTS have taken divergent strategic paths toward building the parties.

The PTS undertook the often difficult and unseen work within the workers movement and the industrial unions, taking advantage of the objective re-strengthening of the working class. The PO, operating under the theory that the subject was now the unemployed workers (the piqueteros) clung to the unemployed movement while the party became weakened as a result of the cooptation of piquetero leaders and the economic stabilization, which allowed the unemployed to go back to work, although often in precarious conditions.

With the international economic crisis that a serious blow to Argentina in 2009, the process of the development of the growing worker’s vanguard in industry, took the front page, fighting back against massive layoffs. The emblem of this struggle was the Kraft factory, which employed around 2,500 workers. The shop floor committee (comisión interna) had a minority representation of the PTS, represented by Javier “Poke” Hermosilla , current candidate for Deputy Governor on the PTS slate in the FIT primaries)

As a result of this conflict, a prolonged strike, which was defeated only by repression and the eviction of the factory by the police, was broadcast live by the major television channels, a workers vanguard, and with it, the PTS made a leap forward on a never before seen scale.

This surge was expressed in the elections of 2009. After the PO refused to take part in an electoral front, the PTS created an alliance with Izquierda Socialista and the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), forming the Frente de Izquierda y los Trabajadores Anticapitalista y Socialista (Anti-capitalist and Socialist Front of the Workers and the Left). In the province of Buenos Aires, the Front’s vote surpassed that of the PO, a current with more than 50 years of history in Argentina.

After the increased parity of forces became evident, and in order to overcome the restrictive vote minimum created by the new electoral law, the PO revised its decision of two years earlier in 2011 and the Frente de Izquierda y los Trabajadores was born, with Jorge Altamira as the presidential candidate, representing the PO and Christian Castillo of the PTS as the vice presidential candidate.

The weakness of the reformist opposition projects

In contrast to Greece with the Syriza experience or in Spain with Podemos, parties of this sort were absent from the political scene in Argentina. Parties like the Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores (Workers’ Socialist Movement) MST, which aim to create these sorts of projects have been seeking alliances with the center-left for years and have failed miserably. In the recent elections in the city of Buenos Aires, they did not surpass 1.5% of the vote. Other coalitions of greater magnitude like Proyecto Sur (Project South) led by filmmaker Pino Solana have dissolved with little fanfare.

These failures are due, on one side, to the reformist discourse of the Kirchner government itself, but also to the existence and consolidation of the FIT as an alternative on the Left. It is a different path than that taken by a large section of the Left internationally, even among Trotskyist groups in Spain and Greece, which have put their energy behind creating reformist variants like Syriza (which is currently bowing down before the Troika) or Podemos, led by Pablo Iglesias who has thanked them for their service by forcing them to dissolve their organization in the case of Izquerida Anticapitalista (Anti-capitalist Left).

This relative absence of a reformist opposition, while not necessarily a permanent phenomenon, has contributed in recent years to the success of the FIT as an independent, working class front, as shown in recent elections. We are now in the third year of elections (2011, 2013, and 2015) where the FIT has demonstrated its strength.

This permanency demonstrates that it is not simply a matter of “occupying” a vacant electoral space but instead expresses the Front taking roots in fundamental social sectors, giving way to a true synergy between the social and the political. This cannot be undone by an increase or a decrease in the votes it receives, a question determined in large part by the political situation and in the future will be determined by the political map after the presidential elections.

Strategic differences inside the FIT (Left and workers’ Front)

Alongside their refusal to come to an agreement on the candidacies for the primaries, the PO has begun to develop a new understanding of “United Front” tactics, originally elaborated by the III International. According to Jorge Altamira, the FIT is a “united front” that seems to evolve from a tactic to an overall strategy. According to his own words: “The defense of the “United Front” is the greatest point of difference between the strategies and principles inside the Left Front”.

In [another article –> http://leftvoice.org/Left-and-Workers-Front-once-again-on-the-United-Front] we have argued against this idea, and pointed out that it represents an absolute confusion of what a united front and a political-electoral front really are. As we pointed out then, this confusion has its consequences: “is to strip away everything that is fundamental to the United Front, whose key is joint action for precise objectives within the class struggle, from a political-electoral bloc that is defined precisely by its program. The consequence is to transform both in the direction of opportunistic politics.”

Changing the concept of the United Front into a discussion about how to organize the candidacies towards an election removes the United Front from its main axis, the class struggle. Meanwhile, wrongly identifying a political-electoral front with a “united front” has the purpose of depreciating the discussion about the political program of that electoral front as a condition to incorporating any new elements or important candidacies in the FIT.

This discussion expressed itself practically around different organizations that have recently defined their electoral support for the FIT, but at the same time they don’t have a clear program of class independence. On the contrary, they reference themselves, with groups like Syriza, Podemos or with the regional movements of Evo Morales or Hugo Chavez.

This policy of trying to incorporate into the FIT other groups that don’t agree with its program, that don’t have a common activist work, and in some cases have even competed against the FIT in regional elections, all without a previous serious discussion about the program of the FIT, does nothing more than jeopardize the very foundations that are behind the success of the FIT: a clear working class, independent, political program and a decided and consequent intervention in the class struggle and the different movements, such as the women’s movement.

We’ve already had these types of discussions with the PO. For example, in 2012 when they critically called to vote for Syriza, who was supposed to call for a conformation of a “left government” which would act as a transition towards a “workers government.” This is an evolutionary perspective of how a workers’ government would form. These strategic discussions are also present in debates around the policy towards the state repressive forces (police). The PO has currently begun to propose the “control of police departments by elected representatives”, a policy that is not part of the FIT program. The idea of “control” is largely unrealistic in general and in particular when discussing the police forces which are the main administrators of organized crime, and the police in Argentina is no exception to this fact

Class struggle and joining “the social” and “the political”

After 2001, the Kirchner government led the reorganization of the bourgeois State driven by the economic recovery (based on a severe devaluation in salaries and the “boom” in raw materials) and by means of a reformist discourse, in which they were able to coopt an important sector of the Human Rights organizations that have a long history in Argentina. Another sector continued the struggle and remained independent of the government, one of the main figures amongst them is Myriam Bregman, the Vice Presidential candidate for PTS in the primary elections.

Until the 2008 world crisis, Kirchnerism represented a relative barrier for emerging leftist political alternatives; so much so that the Kirchnerist intellectuals bragged: “the only thing left of Kirchnerism was a wall.”

But the key is in the adjective “relative.” Why was it relative? In the first place the “representatives” of the “national people’s project” within the workers’ movement were, and still are, the same union bureaucrats who have held those positions of power for decades. They are equipped with their union thugs, are despised by the workers, are friends with the bosses, and in many cases have direct ties to the 1976 military dictatorship, clearly contradicting the government’s discourse about defending human rights.

Hatred towards the bureaucracy fueled the process of organization and struggle within the workers’ movement and created, what was coined as, “rank-and-file unionism,” linked to the show steward committees (part of what Adolfo Gilly called “the Argentinian anomaly”). One of the symbols of the movement was the strategic union method seen in the Buenos Aires subways. Currently a sector of the union is lead by Kirchnersits while there is a strong opposition whose principal referent is Claudio Dellecarbonara (PTS) and who is also running as a candidate for a Mercosur council member.

As this process developed, the PTS continued to gain ground within the workers’ movement. Workers voted for union delegates who were part of PTS and the left, but, in some cases, the workers continued to politically support the Kichnerists. Thus, for the revolutionaries, the struggle to organize within the workplace also meant a constant political struggle.

However, unlike the traditional bureaucracies, the Kichnerists were not able to create their own current within the workers’ movement (particularly within the industrial sector). The contradiction of a “progressive” government and the reality of the union bureaucracy and their fascist methods reached its peak when a young Partido Obrero militant, Mariano Ferreyra, was assassinated by union thugs in 2010. This caused a national political crisis for the Kirchner government from which they were only able to escape after the death of ex-President, Néstor Kirchner.

In 2012, the Cristina Kirchner administration broke with the most respected sector of the union bureaucracy, headed by Hugo Moyano, a powerful leader of the truck drivers’ union. This move weakened the governments’ influence in the workers’ movement even more.

The formation of the FIT was preceded by important struggles, like the struggle against layoffs in Kraft or the railway workers’ struggle to improve working conditions, and presented a political alternative for the working class. The political presence of the FIT along with the advances of the left (including the important work that the PTS is involved in in the highly industrialized area north of Buenos Aires) made way for the emergence of not only anti-bureaucratic and combative sectors of the workers’ movement but also the emergence of “the left.” This contradicts the tradition imposed by the peronist union bureaucrats to fight against the “leftists”, or today’s equivalent, “the Trotskyists.”

The combination of “the social” and “the political,” which includes the parliamentary struggle and utilizing those positions to further develop the class struggle, is the key to strengthening the FIT. This combination of parliamentary work and class struggle is also taking place within the student movement and those sectors that identify with the left to later become important allies in the workers’ struggle.

This combination is also emerging in the long-standing women’s movement in Argentina. Kirchnerism has made many attempts to coopt the movement, as was seen in the recent massive and historic mobilization against violence against women on June 3, but they were never successful. Within the women’s movement there’s also an “important leftist faction.” Pan y Rosas, a women’s organization made up of members of PTS and independents, is one of the principal organizations representing the left within the women’s movement and was founded by Andrea D’Atri, a PTS candidate in the FIT primaries.

The struggle and international campaign for the exoneration of Las Heras oil workers that was put forward by the PTS and organizations within the Fracción Trotskista – Cuarta Internacional is also represented in the list of PTS candidates in the FIT primaries. Ramón Cortés, a PTS candidate, is one of Las Heras oil workers given a life sentence in a trial that lacked evidence and was filled with human rights violations.

Revolutionary parliamentary work and class struggle

These discussions are far from only being a “theoretical” debate; they have practical implications. However, in this non-revolutionary situation Argentina is going through, the FIT has never presented a vote in any of the elections in which they participated, expressing an internal coherence within the FIT.

In the class struggle intervention is where we can see the greatest differences between our practices. It would be enough to see the difference in the intervention of the PO and the PTS in the biggest and longest working class conflict of the Kirchnerist era. We are talking about the conflict with the multinational corporation Lear that began in the middle of 2014. The PTS has a fraction (inside the SMATA union, which is a union known for their “totalitarianism”) that, to this day, is resisting against the bosses and the union bureaucracy allied to the Kirchner government. A conflict that included 240 layoffs, 21 roadblocks of the main highway in the city of Buenos Aires, 16 national days of protests with roadblocks nationwide, 5 police repressions, 22 arrests, 80 injuries, 16 legal rulings in favor of the workers, and 2 weeks of a bosses’ lockout. The conflict resulted in the justice system banning the national Security Secretary, Sergio Berni, and the main repressive forces of social conflicts, the gendarmerie, from intervening in social protests. The main leader of the conflict, the workers delegate Ruben Matu (PTS) is heading the list of congressional candidates in the province of Buenos Aires for PTS in the primaries.

More could also be said about the intervention of the PTS in the take over of the multinational R.R. Donnelley plant, against layoffs and the bosses’ attempts to empty the plant, which is currently under workers control.

These two conflicts, in the industrial heart of Buenos Aires, had large national repercussions and it impacted the minds of thousands of workers. Both Nicolas Del Caño, as a national congressman, and also Christian Castillo, as a congressman of the province of Buenos Aires, struggled shoulder to shoulder with the rank and file. They were even repressed along side the workers and started to be systematically attacked by Sergio Berni in the national media. In addition, union thugs harassed Nicolas Del Caño during a congressional session.

In 2013, after obtaining 15% of the votes in his province of Mendoza, Nicolás del Caño, became a national figure of the left. Not only because of his parliamentary work, but also for fighting shoulder to shoulder along side the workers in the toughest labor conflicts in the recent history of Argentina.

What is being debated in the FIT primaries?

Apart from what was outlined above, the FIT primaries are a debate between two different political approaches. One approach is that of the PO and IS who are focusing the campaign on attacking the main PTS candidates. This negative approach was also expressed in the unwillingness to create a FIT ticket in the region of Salta, which creates an electoral confrontation between the PO and PTS, and wouldn’t allow them to add their votes to pass the 1.5% necessary to continue past the primary elections. This strategy demonstrates the resistance to overcome the old “small circles” within the left whose idea is to create divisions between the groups.

We feel that the PTS’ orientation for the FIT is expressed in our slogan: “renovate and strengthen the FIT with the strength of workers, women, and the youth.” The numerous votes for Noelia Barbeito for the Governor of Mendoza are a demonstration of our approach. Along with Pan y Rosas and PTS, Barbeito pushed for the mobilizations against violence against women in Mendoza in the historic marches that took place last June 3. She has struggled arm and arm as a senator with the Lavalle state workers; was on the front line of the workers conflicts; confronted the politicians who refused to increase teachers’ salaries and who refused to make as much as a teacher; was attacked by the media and politicians for refusing to take part in a secret vote for a judge, arguing that judges should be elected by popular vote; in every debate about austerity, she presented the need to expropriate the main capitalists in the providence.

All of these factors are what has lead over 110 thousand workers, youth, and women to identify with the PTS campaign in the FIT and vote for Barbeito. With the support of these sectors on a national level the FIT program can become a powerful force throughout the country, producing that synergy between “the social” and “the political,” as outlined earlier that the FIT still must put forward until the end.

The validity of these two approaches cannot be decided in the elections. As always the great events that take place in the class struggle will be the deciding factor of which is correct and which is not.

In these elections we’re going to defend the policy of renovating and strengthening the FIT with the force of the workers, women, and youth. Our candidates are young fighters, like Nicolás del Caño, that thousands of young workers and students can identify with; 70% of our candidates are women, which is a first in Argentine elections; hundreds of our candidates our workers who have played leading roles in the workers’ struggles in Argentina.

However, it’s not only because of our representatives but because the PTS candidates in the FIT primaries are working towards this perspective, because they are the only force that can make the FIT powerful and that can give life to a revolutionary party that is capable of taking on the bourgeois and the State. They are the only ones capable of shaking capitalism from its foundation in order to put an end to exploitation and oppression. We struggle for this objective every day, and it’s the same objective we’re going to defend in the left primaries.

Translation: Sara Jayne and Rob Belano

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Matías Maiello

Matías is a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) in Argentina. He is co-author, together with Emilio Albamonte, of the book Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).

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