Argentina protests: middle class marchers move in the shadows – and on social media

The hushed masses of Buenos Aires. EPA/David Fernandez

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Buenos Aires to protest the death of Alberto Nisman, a prosecutor who was investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in the capital. He was about to present evidence to parliament of a cover-up involving President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner – and whether his death was suicide or homicide is still under investigation.

The protests have become a mass movement against the Kirchner’s rule, and her approval rating has dropped below 30%. That has predictably led her to claim that the protests are a political attempts to destabilise her government.

This claim should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, Argentina has a healthy tradition of public mobilisation to demand accountability from the state. It was cemented during the transition to democracy in the early 1980s, when the political agenda was topped by truth and justice for the victims of the dictatorship.

But what is clearly true is that today’s uprisings are a very different beast from the uprisings that spurred democratisation in the 1980s or the mass social protests that beset Argentina during the 1990s.

All fired up

In particular, they could scarcely be more different from the resistance that greeted Carlos Menem’s privatisation of national oil company YPF, later renationalised under de Kirchner.

Those protests gave birth to the Piquetero movement. In their protests demanding welfare payments for laid-off workers, the Piqueteros used roadblocks as their central means of protest. Unemployed workers gathered in a variety of different organisations and movements, organising stand-ins for scaled-back public services, while sympathisers gathered in exciting but short-lived neighbourhood assemblies, banging pots and pans from balconies.

Today’s movement, by contrast, is a solidly middle-class and urban one – but that is not to say it doesn’t have widespread support. Thanks to Argentines’ healthy use of social media, the post-Nisman demonstrations have taken on a viral dimension; the mainstream mass media, has shifted from reporting the protests to actively supporting them.

Today’s protests have also taken a far more explicitly patriotic tone than their predecessors in earlier years, marked by the exuberant display of the national flag and the singing of the national anthem.

Taking it to the streets. EPA/Juan Ignacio Roncoroni, CC BY

But perhaps the most striking difference is that today’s protesters are trying to avoid identifying themselves.

The Piquetero identity arose out of a search for dignity in the struggle against injustice, and its adherents wore it on their sleeves. The Central de Trabajadores Argentinos, for instance, did not take part in any protest without its flags and banners on full display.

But with a few exceptions, such as a protest organised by the powerful landowners association, today’s protesters are carefully hiding or not mentioning their identities. Participants are being asked not to carry visible evidence of partisanship. Of course, this has not stopped politicians, like Buenos Aires’ centre-right Presidential candidate and current chief of government, Mauricio Macri, from taking very visible places alongside them.

Defend the republic?

Ultimately, these protests are also voicing very different complaints to any Argentina has heard in recent years – to the extent they can actually be identified.

The main targets of the 1990s protests were clear: unemployment, poor public education, privatisation, pension cuts, and pro-market and austerity policies in general. While today’s protesters are clearly outraged at Nisman’s death and spoiling for some sort of sweeping change, their actual demands are much less clear-cut.

The grievances aired on social media and reported by the mass media run the gamut from judicial and constitutional reform, attempts to allow the president a third consecutive term, the country’s risk of “becoming Venezuela”, and corruption, to name but a few. The most repeated grievances are related to “institutions” and “the defence of the republic”.

Speaking volumes. EPA/David Fernández

For a short but powerful moment, the protests of the 1990s managed to articulate a range of demands from the unemployed and the middle classes alike, uniting their members against the common enemy of right-wing economics and social policy. By doing so, they managed to reconstruct the inclusive anti-establishment political identity known as the “national-popular” – a distinctively Argentine identity which the Kirchners rode into government, and which has permeated their rule.

In contrast, it’s still unclear what kind of political identity will emerge from the post-Nisman protests. Given their emphasis on state institutions over social problems, there is no reason to expect some new and inclusive kind of democratic politics to come out of them – as happened with the mass protests of previous decades.