Lending a Hand to Argentina's Protesters

Tim Stallmann, right, a student from Raleigh, N.C., volunteers at the bakery in La Matanza, outside Buenos Aires.
Tim Stallmann, right, a student from Raleigh, N.C., volunteers at the bakery in La Matanza, outside Buenos Aires. (By Silvina Frydlewsky For The Washington Post)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 25, 2005

LA MATANZA, Argentina -- It's not the usual sort of vacation destination, hidden away among crumbling brick bungalows on a rutted mud road. Accommodation is a bunk in an unheated room. Days are spent working without pay in a neighborhood bakery, or marching in street protests.

But for hundreds of young American and European activists, the new way to spend summer break is living and working among Argentina's piqueteros, or picketers -- the protest marchers who have filled the streets of many cities and towns since the country's massive economic collapse in 2001.

In this ragged neighborhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the college-age visitors say, globalization is more than a vague concept to be criticized from abroad. Here, they say, it has caused real problems and sparked creative solutions.

"In the U.S., you might have a big protest of 200,000 people in Washington, and then everything just goes away," said Tessa Lee, 20, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "But I heard that here in Argentina, they were getting things done. That's why I came."

Since the 2001 crisis, which many activists here blame on Washington-led economic policies, some of the piquetero groups have branched out from protesting and set up networks of small, neighborhood cooperatives that deliver social services to the poor and jobless.

One such organization in La Matanza, the Unemployed Workers' Movement, has launched a "receptive tourism" program that invites foreign visitors to volunteer at its bakery, preschool, sewing workshop and flea market, all located in a crowded, 16-block neighborhood.

The cost of participating is $150, plus $12 per day for room and board. So far, organizers said, they have hosted 50 to 60 overnight visitors, plus many more who stop by during the days to see their programs.

By working with universities and travel companies specializing in "reality tours" -- trips that showcase the grittier aspects or corners of places that guidebooks normally gloss over -- the group hopes to become an international hub for like-minded activists.

Some of the start-up money was donated by foreign embassies and nonprofit groups, and most of the workers are neighborhood volunteers who lost their job during the crisis.

In the bakery, about 30 cents buys a sack of pastries. In the sewing room, volunteers make items such as hangers with padded pockets to hold cosmetics, which will be sold to Avon Products Inc. At the community market, neighbors display and sell items including bluejeans and cold medicine. In each place, there are a few eager younger foreigners at work -- Americans, Canadians or Europeans.

"They come to learn," said Vilma Anzoategui, 20, who works at the preschool and also coordinates the tourism program. "This week, we have three who are sleeping here, and three more are coming to stay with us during the days."

For the visitors, Argentina provides the perfect lens to view what they consider to be the damaging effects of globalization. When the nation's economy imploded four years ago, millions of people were suddenly plunged into joblessness and poverty, and left largely to fend for themselves.

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