Argentina: Since economic crisis, unemployed make picketing a way of life

Since Argentina's economic crisis in the late 1990s, the unemployed have made picketing a way of life to demand their jobs back.

Natacha Pisarenko/AP
Protestors demand jobs for fired Kraft Foods workers.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – In Argentina, a street demonstration is more than a political act – it’s a profession.

Ever since the country’s economic crisis of the late 1990s, unemployed workers have taken advantage of their free time to form organizations to demand the return of their jobs – usually in the form of street blockades. The well-organized and often hierarchal groups can act as pseudo-employers, sometimes even tapping the laid-off workers’ welfare payments to fund their protest activities and logistics.

Besides serving as a common excuse for tardiness to work, the piqueteros (picketers) have grown to become a well-known and potent force in Argentine politics, sometimes used or co-opted by parties or other political movements.

But any publicity gained by piquetero roadblocks is often outweighed by public backlash from frustrated motorists. Violence can erupt on either side, as in the case of an enraged trucker arrested two years ago for trying to run over a demonstrator.

Fueled by a labor dispute at a local Kraft Foods factory, more than 100 street blockades occurred in September, the most in a month since 1997. Piquetero tactics reached a new level in early November, as several hundred people set up tents and camped out – in the middle of the largest avenue in the capital. Chaos ensued.

Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri recently announced plans to create a special police unit to combat the piqueteros. The administration of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has criticized the move as a blow to free speech and a waste of manpower in the midst of an alarming increase in crime.

The public, on the other hand, must consider the piqueteros as much a nuisance as the criminals. Support for the mayor’s new police force, according to some polls, is as high as 90 percent.

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